Easy Breakfast Foods: Chocolate Banana Muffins

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sooooooo behind on blogging!!!
Well, let's begin with my new obsession: banana muffins. Many people don't realize this, but citrus fruits and tropical fruits are actually at their peek for us in the US and Canada (and Europe and basically north of the equator) during the winter months; most of these tropical fruits, citrus grow closer to the equator and in the southern hemisphere, so when it's our winter it's their summer. Anyways, bananas actually taste their best for us here in the northern half of the world from December to March, with their peek being in January and February. Often you'll find more bananas and citrus being brought into your local grocer as well -- oranges, mandarins, all manner of citrus fruits, kiwis become cheaper, an abundance of mangoes and of course, bananas! Take advantage and pick up two bundles next time you visit the store -- one to snack on and one to make desserts with!
I love muffins, and one of my all-time favorites is a good banana nut muffin. I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to the perfect banana muffin: it must be well balanced -- not too sweet, not too heavily spiced; the nuts need to be present but not clumsy; and above all, the banana flavor needs to shine through. I actually had the displeasure once of talking to someone who swore to me the best banana muffin they ever made was involving banana flavoring -- as in extract. And I wanted to punch this person in the face. The first rule of a good banana muffin or bread is to use fresh effing bananas! You will never be able to replace that good, natural flavor. So if you're going to make this, use the damn real live bananas!
So what sets my version apart? Two things: lots of fresh bananas and chocolate chips. Yes, I said chocolate chips. Why? Because it tastes amazing. Make these for your next breakfast brunch. Bring them to your next church function. Bake off a fresh batch for your house guests visiting over the holidays and serve them warm with a mug of hot coffee. These are so simple to make, taste incredible, and will be just what you were in the mood for in this holiday cold weather. Enjoy them! 
Mishy's Favorite Chocolate Banana Muffins
3 large (4 smaller) ripe bananas*
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white granulated sugar
1 Tbsp good vanilla extract
1 egg
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
good pinch of fine salt (about 1/2 tsp -3/4 tsp)
3/4 cup - 1 cup chocolate chips (milk chocolate is my favorite)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a muffin tin or cupcake tin with paper liners.
Peel the bananas and place in a large mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer fitted with the beater attachments, begin to beat the bananas on med-low speed until broken up and nicely pureed. Add the sugars, vanilla, egg, and butter and mix until just combined. Next add the flour a little at a time, and the baking soda, powder, and salt and mix on low speed until well combined and a nice batter is formed. Add the chocolate chips and using a spatula, fold them in. If you beat them with the mixer you'll break up the chocolate chips too much.
Scoop the batter into the lined tins and fill pretty close up to the top. Bake in oven for about 15-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove and serve warm or at room temperature.
Can be kept at room temperature for up to a week (but they won't last that long!).
*The degree of ripeness is very important. If they're green, they're not ripe. If they're yellow with a slight ting of green, they're great to snack on. If they're all yellow, they're perfect to give to kids. If they're a deep yellow and start to have brown spots like a giraffe -- now you're ready to bake with them. If the skin is all brown, you're ready to make baby food.

T-Minus 3...2...1...Turkey Day!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Got a great suggestion for a fan for a post providing a general outline to go by in the next couple of days to help manage stress and preparations for Thanksgiving. They are designed to help you organize your time and your kitchen, if you've got a super huge chef's dream with stainless steel or a teeny tiny corner burner with one stove like I did in my first apartment back east, reference these rules and suggestions and you'll be sure to cruise right through the next 72 hours without breaking a sweat. Happy Thanksgiving!


  • Survey your pantry -- flour, sugar, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, course sea salt and finer kosher salt, ground pepper, dried herbs (thyme, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, bay leaves, etc.), corn starch, baking powder, baking soad -- give everything you've got in your pantry a good once-over to make sure it hasn't expired yet and to get stock of what you have and need more of to buy.
  • Survey your materials -- plastic wrap, aluminum foil, baking dishes, aluminum baking or roasting trays, racks, pie dishes, tart pans, etc.
  • Buy everything you need for your dinner, including drinks and any prepared desserts!  
  • Wash and iron the table cloth and any cloth napkins and lay out the table cloth on the table.
  • Wash any new or fancy plates and stemware you plan to use, and set it out on the dining table stacked in neat piles in the corner, along with the napkins already folded (cloth or paper).
  • Buy your liquor -- if doing wine then you're done; if planning to serve mixed drinks then place all your liquor on top of the liquor cabinet so you don't forget it's there (if you put it inside I swear to you it will be forgotten).
  • Clean/tidy up your home if needed.
  • Give your equipment a quick run through -- does your handheld mixer still work? do you have enough wooden spoons? is your emersion blender charged? Make sure all of the equipment you plan to use that perhaps you haven't touched in a year is in working order, clean, and otherwise ready to use.
  • If you're planning to brine your turkey, you can prepare the brine during the day and then set the turkey in it in the evening before you go to bed.
  • If you're making your own turkey or chicken stock, make it today; or just use store-bought chicken stock.
  • Clean your vegetables -- peel the carrots, wash and trim the celery, peel the onions, wash and seed the peppers, trim the green beans, etc. Vegetables can keep washed and trimmed and ready to be cut in tupperware in the fridge. If you want to go a step further, organize what you'll use for what dish and label it. For example, if you're planning to make a classic stuffing then take the carrot, onion, and celery you plan to use and place it in its own container labeled "stuffing." This way when you're ready to make it if you're pressed for time you don't even have to think about what is where and used how.
  • Make your pie crust -- most basic butter or lard-based crusts can be made days in advance and kept either in the freezer or fridge. Make the required amount of crust and divide it according to your recipe/s and individually wrap each dough with plastic wrap. You can even write on top what the dough is used for. For example, if you plan to make pumpkin pie and biscuits, make the dough for the pie and form it into a disk, then wrap it well in plastic wrap and label it "pie" then wrap the bisuit dough separately and label it "biscuits." This will help you keep track of what dough is going where.
  • Make your cranberry sauce or relish today, cover and refrigerate until just ready to serve. That's one down already!


  • Set your table completely -- place settings, glasses, everything ready and set out completely. Do your place cards if using and set out your candles or any decorations you plan on putting out. I like to do this part as a sort of mental break during the marathon cooking today. It's also best to do this during day light hours, preferably around the time you're planning for your guests to arrive so if you're concerned about lighting or how something will look, you can see how their point of view will be.
  • Give your house a good vacuuming and spruce up the pillows.
  • Put together any floral arrangements today -- straight in the vases you plan to use.
  • Don't neglect the bathroom! If you plan to host, make sure to offer a nice fall scented candle in the bathroom or some crisp towels for people to use. It doesn't have to be cheesey or an olfactory nightmare, but a little touch like that will make a difference.
  • Make your desserts -- most Thanksgiving desserts are pie, cake, or cookie based desserts that can be made a full day in advance. Go ahead and do the entire thing -- from start to finish -- and keep it wrapped with plastic wrap or even in a decorative cake stand or whatever until ready to serve the next day. Unless you use cheese (like a cheesecake for example), most of the time they can stay out even overnight.
  • If you're roasting any vegetables, you can probably actually make them today. For example, if you're roasting butternut squash, yams, potatoes, brussels sprouts, etc. you can prepare and roast them straight up today, then keep them in an oven-proof dish you can simply reheat the next day about 30 min before serving. If you're roasting whole yams or sweet potatoes and planning to serve them like baked potato style, definitely make them today. Then simply rewarm them tomorrow.
  • If you're doing the requisite green bean casserole -- prep the entire dish this evening and keep it overnight. Bake it tomorrow and add the fried onions on top.
  • If serving a composed salad, chop and portion out everything you plan to put into it and then cover the salad. Add the dressing tomorrow right before you plan to serve it.
  • If you're doing a stuffing from scratch, you can prepare the whole thing today and bake it off tomorrow. However -- the longer the stuffing sits the more it will retain a bread pudding consistency. Which is great if that's what you prefer. Some people prefer a drier stuffing; if that's you you'll have to make the stuffing fresh tomorrow.
  • If you're planning to serve a soup like a pumpkin soup or butternut squash soup then make it today and reheat it tomorrow before serving. If the recipe says to add cream, do everything else today (including any pureeing required) and then add the cream at the end tomorrow after you've heated the soup well through.
  • Refridgerate your white wines and champagne; take your red wines out of the fridge.


  • Lay out your outfit on your bed including shoes so you can change quickly.
  • Put on a large pot of coffee for yourself.
  • Lay out in a nearby area all of the serving platters or plates you plan to use, with a post-it on each one. For example, if you're planning to do a big turkey presenation on a big platter, label it "turkey," label the mashed potatoes bowl "mash pot," etc. This way you can reach quickly for what you need and you won't accidentally use the wrong bowl for the wrong item!
  • Take your turkey out of the brine and set out to warm to room temperature. If not brining, remove your turkey from the packaging, wash it with cold water inside and out, remember to make sure the giblets are removed, and then pat extremely very try with paper towels. If using a brined turkey, drain and discard the brine and pat the turkey very dry with paper towels as well.
  • Season your turkey inside and out with your seasonings and prepare it for roasting according to your recipe. Set aside and mark the time when it needs to go into the oven.
  • If you're blanching or steaming your vegetables, do them now and set them aside. You can rewarm them later.
  • If doing mixed drinks or a traditional bar, lay out all the trimmings you plan to use in the bar area. This lets guests help themselves and people out of your hair in the kitchen.
  • The mashed potatoes are actually the last thing you should be making other than the gravy from the turkey if doing one from scratch from the drippings. The best mashed potatoes are done fresh, right before serving. So it's important you basically have everything else done and ready to be served before you enter the potatoes arena.
  • If making the stuffing today then pop it in the oven before you do the turkey (if you've got one oven) then cover it to keep it warm; put it in a 400 degree oven for less than 5 min to crisp up the top if you like it that way.
  • Take all of the food you've cooked already that needs to be rewarmed about 30 min before serving. This will take the chill off before you rewarm them in the oven and they will cook better.
  • Toss the salad right before serving.
  • Make the gravy from scratch as your turkey rests for 20 minutes. This give you more than enough time.

Some Other Tips....
I keep a jar of turkey gravy as back up just in case the homemade one goes awry. Williams Sonoma makes an outstanding jarred gravy.

Remember: turkey is actually served best at room temperature, NOT piping hot! So if you find you're a little bit behind getting the mashed potatoes to catch up to the turkey, do not fret. Your focus is now on the potatoes, not the cooked bird!

The recommended wine pairing for turkey is pinot noir, but honestly there are no rules. A wise wine expert once told me "look, you're the one drinking the wine! if you hate the noir, then drink what you love!"

I also keep some ice cream in two flavors in the freezer as a back-up. In case the pies or desserts come out horrible (one year I forgot to add sugar and it was HORRIBLE), or maybe there's an accident during the transfering from kitchen to table process. Everyone loves ice cream, so two scoops of vanilla and chocolate is classic and always satisfying. Seriously.

The cranberry thing is always up for debate. Some people adore a new and updated fresh relish while others prefer the nostalga of a childhood canned jelly. Serve them both to please everyone. And admittedly, the jelly is bomb on a sandwich the next day.

Thanksgiving is no time to watch your weight. So here's your Mantra for good tasting food:
  • NO skim milk shall be used in the preparation of Thanksgiving meals; I shall use heavy cream.
  • NO margarine shall be used at any point during the cooking process; instead I shall use real butter, shortening, or lard.
  • NO sugar substitute will be used; instead I shall watch my portion intake.
If you're gluten free or hosting guests who are, a great sub to use is potatoes and corn! Try serving up a casserole or stuffing made with cornbread and gluten-free flour. Or simply serve some killer mashed potatoes.

Appetizers are supposed to be snacks to soak up the alcohol on such days, or if you plan to host people for hours and hours at your place. Keep the snacks light like a cheese spread with apple slices instead of crackers or bread that will fill them up.

And remember, Thanksgiving is about having fun. If something doesn't work out, or gets burned, or gets dropped and walked through although it can be traumatizing (believe me, I know!) it's not the end of the world and chances are people will not look badly on you AT ALL. Shit happens to everyone. And at the very least you can always order a pizza or chinese food and laugh about it later!


Roasted Pumpkin Fondue: Your Thanksgiving Day Show-Stopper

Friday, November 16, 2012

Hosting a larger affair next week for Thanksgiving? Having people stop by throughout the day more so than a traditional sit-down evening? Maybe it's just the two of you and you're looking to celebrate the day cozied up by the fireplace? Or maybe you're just looking for a way to use those damn adorable pumpkin pie pumpkins at the store and don't want to fuss with a pie! The answer to all of these is this amazing recipe. While flipping through the recent holiday edition of Gourmet Magazine, a recipe for fondue served in a pumpkin caught my eye. Yet, I found the recipe to be a little redundant -- swiss cheese and gruyere...classic yes, but also boring. Where was the life? Where was the flavor befitting of such a spectacular presentation? I promptly went to work in my kitchen...

A sugar pumpkin is a perfect vessel to house a fondue!
A beautiful sugar pumpkin is first hallowed out and then lightly seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper then roasted for about an hour until soft. The perfect bowl shape acts like a sourdough bread bowl as a piping hot, bacon and thyme 3 cheese fondue is poured right in. To serve provide some sliced apple, vegetables, sliced french baguette or even potato chips! The balance of flavors is just perfect: the cheese is slightly sharp from the French style gruyere cheese Comte pairing perfectly against the nutty and uber creamy Italian fontina, while freshly grated parmesan provides just enough salty bite to bring the flavors full circle. For brightness I use the smallest amount of fresh thyme leaves to bring the flavors the cheese alive and to give a fantastic aroma to the fondue. A small dusting of spanish paprika gives a nice color and subtle warmth to the palate, while bacon gives both texture and smokiness to really bring this dish home. As you dip, scoop out the tender pumpkin flesh along the sides as you would a bread bowl with soup, the sweetness from the pumpkin pairing just beautifully with the cheeses and spices.

Bacon and thyme add texture and aroma as well as flavor.
This is a perfect, perfect dish. Flavors are extremely well balanced and you cannot beat the presentation. The best part? You can roast the pumpkin in advance then make the fondue very quickly (less than 10 minutes!), and keep it warm in a 275 degree oven all day. Make this for your Thanksgiving celebration -- you will not be disappointed!

 Pumpkin Fondue
1 sugar pumpkin
about 1 Tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 large clove garlic, very finely minced
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth (recommend: Swanson's brand!!!)
1 cup half n half (or combination 1/2 whole milk and 1/2 heavy cream)
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves picked off of stem
1/4 tsp spanish paprika
1 cup shredded comte cheese (french style gruyere; can also use gruyere cheese)
1 cup shredded fonttina cheese (recommend: Italian fontina)
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup bacon

Take the pumpkin and wash the outside, then dry with paper towel. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet or baking vessel large enough to hold the pumpkin with aluminum foil. Cut the top of the pumpkin around the stem a using a spoon, scoop out the inside fibers and seeds just as if you were preparing a halloween jack o'lantern. Remember to also clean the stem part of the fibers and seeds as well! You can save the seeds and roast separately if desired, or discard.

Take the olive oil and brush it on the inside of the pumpkin -- bottom and sides -- very well, as well as the underside of the top with the stem. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper, then place the top back on the pumpkin and place the whole pumpkin on the baking sheet. Place in oven and roast about 1 hour, or until tender. You'll see the sides will begin to darken, maybe even burn on the tops; this is ok -- it adds color and character but if you see it's burning black all over then reduce your heat to 325 and tent the pumpkin with aluminum foil until fully roasted! You'll also notice the top may fall down into the base of the pumpkin; you can continue cooking it that way or better to take it out and just lay it on the side (or remove it from cooking; it won't be eaten anyway, just used for presentation).

Once roasted remove from oven and transfer to a serving plate.

Now prepare your fondue. Heat the butter in a saute pan. Once melted fully add the flour all at once and begin to whisk. You want the heat at low so the flour doesn't burn or turn a dark color. Continue whisking constantly and cooking this roux for 3 minutes; this will cook the raw flour taste out. Add the garlic and cook about a minute. Next, slowly add the broth continuing to whisk as you go. You'll notice the mixture will clump up -- this is normal; it's just because you're adding a colder liquid to a hot roux. Continue whisking to smooth it back out, then add more broth and repeat until all the broth has been added. Next, add the cream at first slowly and still whisking, then adding more until fully incorporated in. Keep the heat on medium-low to low the entire time to prevent burning and scalding the ingredients. Add salt and pepper to your taste, paprika and parmesan cheese. Switch to a wooden spoon at this point to make stirring easier. Now take the mixture off the heat completely and add the remaining two cheeses. Stir until it's nice and creamy. The mixture will be pretty thick; enough to coat the back of a spoon. If you want the mixture to be thinner then add more broth.

The cheese fondue mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Next, add the cooked bacon. If you haven't already, dice the bacon into very small pieces. Add the bacon and the thyme to the cheese sauce and stir to combine. When you're ready to serve, simply pour the cheese fondue sauce directly into the pumpkin.

You can also ladle the sauce in.

Garnish with a small sprig of thyme on the top if you wish, and serve with your favorite sliced apples, vegetables, slices of french baguette, and even potato chips!  Serve piping hot and don't forget to get a bit of that pumpkin with every bite too! Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Week Night Yum Yum: Fish Stew with Alaskan Turbot and Clams

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I love me some fall pumpkins and squash and the such, but sometimes even I need a break. When that happens I raid the pantry for a can of tomatoes and usually the fish monger friends at my local Whole Foods. And thus, this incredibly easy and super tasty fish stew was born. I kept it super simple, using some beautiful Alaskan Turbot fillets and a pound of fresh clams. The fish adds texture while the clams add amazing flavor to the dish. A can of San Marzanos, some fresh garlic, simple herbs and freshly baked crusty bread made for a very easy, super tasty and filling dinner. The kids went insane for this soup and even helped out to make it by washing the clams and adding the ingredients. It's perfect to throw together for the week night and special enough to serve as a course for company. Enjoy it!

Fish Stew with Alaskan Turbot and Clams in Tomato Broth
1 spanish onion, peeled and chopped small
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes with juices-- recommend san marzano tomatoes
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 (1 lb) fillet of alaskan turbot, cut into large bite-sized cubes
1 lb fresh clams, scrubbed clean
3 cups seafood or fish stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried oregano
2 Tbsp capers with juice
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
crusty Italian bread for serving

Heat the olive oil in a large dutch oven or pot. Add the onions and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook over medium-low heat until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes together with juice and mix to combine. Add the bay leaf, oregano, capers, and fish stock and mix to combine. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to medium-low, cover and let simmer for 30 minutes so flavors can infuse.

Remove lid and gently slide in the fish and clams, using your spoon to sort of fit them in. Cover and cook another 10 minutes. The clams will open and the fish will get tender. Taste and adjust with seasonings to taste, then mix in the parsley.

to serve, simply ladle out some stew and serve with thick slices of crusty fresh bread for dipping. Best served hot to warm.

Pirate Party!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Some pictures from Little Boy's 4th birthday party last month, which was a pirate theme. Unfortunately (a) I didn't have a lot of time to take proper pictures and (b) the lighting SUCKED that day as it was a torential downpour of epic proportions. So much so, the rain rendered our rented bounce house completely and totally useless. Anyways, here are the best shots I can share with you online. Enjoy.
Due to the last minute rain storm, we had to convert our dining room into the "captain's quarters"
and serve most of the food here on our dining table.

I had planned to fly various pirate flags about the backyard; we had to hang them on the porch instead!

Our driveway complete with flag which incicentally is still flying LOL.
Trying to bring in the theme throughout the house.

My sign was originally supposed to stand tall on a table; instead it graced the makeshift
adults drink table!

I used skulls and leftover Mardi Gras beads and dubloons for a lot of the decorations.
The skull clock I found at z gallerie.

Using my gold chargers were perfect serving platters for a lot of the food!

Nothing like a booty of golden popcorn!
I took simple brown paper bags, cut them in half and rolled the tops down to create a more "authentic" bag feel;
then filled with kettle corn, the birthday boy's favorite. Festive stickers added a nice touch.

I totally ripped off these jello ships from pinterest. :)
Simple blue jello poured into plastic cups, then topped with an orange slice "sail" and pirate flag of course!
The kids loved these, and I admit I loved eating them too!

I'm really bummed we didn't get a better picture of the candy table...
Instead of the traditional glass apothecary jars for candy I took wooden chests from the craft store and painted them; then fixed them all with adorned jewels and buckle stickers. I filled each chest with a candy, chocolate coins, cookies, etc. and let the kids help themselves. Simple clear plastic bags were easy to use, and my antique silver tea spoons were perfect for kids to help themselves to the booty!

Instead of just Swedish fish, I found a combination of the traditional red gummy fish and a whole sea themed version including tea horses, shells, and small fish. Use your imagination!

of course we needed to have salt water taffy...

For activities since the bounce house was a big bust, we had to rely on Little Boy's father, i.e. The Captain to lead the kids around the house in a quest for the "buried treasure" -- aka, the pinata. We also had a really lame pin-the-tail type game that was a total bust because the bandana was see-through; I guess it worked out because all of the 4 year olds were winners. :)  
Overall, despite the major last minute changes due to weather we pulled off the party all right. The theme was so much fun, I will definitely be doing it again for future parties. Hopefully in the dead of summer!

Pumpkin Pie-tini: Thanksgiving Perfection In A Rimmed Glass

One of my best friends named Lou sent along this recipe to me recently. As he rattled off the ingredients, one by one, my eyes got bigger and bigger, my mouth watered  with every syllable uttered. In the Great Quest For Fall Cocktails, this one hits the bulls eye with deadly accuracy. Pumpkin Pie flavored vodka is the base, further bolstered by pumpkin spice liquor and the smallest splash of triple sec. The cocktail's body comes from freshly pressed apple cider; please use freshly pressed if you can find it -- it will make a massive difference here! Shaken, not stirred, the concoction is poured into a chilled martini glass rimmed with crushed graham cracker, sugar and cinnamon. The spicy cinnamon tickles your nose as you bring the drink up to your mouth, and as you sip you'll be pleasantly surprised at the brightness in flavor.

It's light and super refreshing, not at all heavy and syrupy. Its absolutely stunning orange color glows -- there's no other way to describe it -- making it so festive and fun. This is perfect to serve at the beginning or end of your fall celebrations. Some spiced mixed nuts with cayenne pepper and fresh rosemary would pair outstandingly with the cocktail, or some savory cheese puffs flavored with smoked cheese would go perfectly. Make this in pitchers and keep in the fridge, then pre-chill and rim the glasses so guests to serve as they arrive at your house.

Everything wonderful about late fall is in this drink. I know you'll enjoy as much I do. Happy Thanksgiving!

Pumpkin Pie-tini
2 parts pumpkin pie flavored vodka (recommend: Pinnacle Pumpkin Pie Vodka)
1 part pumpkin liquor (recommend: Hiram Walker Pumpkin Spice Liquor)
1 small splash triple sec or other orange-flavored liquor
freshly pressed apple cider
graham crackers
ground cinnamon
sugar in the raw
chilled martini glasses

First prepare the graham cracker mixture. Take about 4-6 graham crackers and place in a food processor. Pulse until well ground but still slightly course. Turn out into a mixing bowl, and add the cinnamon and sugar to taste. I used about 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 tsp of the sugar, but go ahead and use how much or little you like.

To prepare the cocktail, place ice in a cocktail shaker. Add the vodka, pumpkin liquor, triple sec. Add the apple cider to your taste. Add lid and shake until well chilled and mixed.

To prepare the cocktail, pour out some of the graham cracker mixture onto a plate or shallow bowl. Pour some of the triple sec into a separate bowl. Take a martini glass and dip the top of the glass into the triple sec, around the rim. Pick up and shake off any excess, then quickly dip it into the graham cracker mixture. You'll see the mixture will adhere quite easily wherever you have the triple sec. Turn over and gently pour the cocktail into the glass from the shaker, careful not to touch the rim. Serve immediately.

These are best served quite chilled.

Thanksgiving Side Dishes: Sweet Potato Puree with Thyme and Parmesan Cheese

Sunday, November 11, 2012

If you're looking for a side dish to change it up this Thanksgiving or something to brighten up your fall dinners then this recipe is a must try! Sweet potatoes are peeled, cubed, tossed in olive oil and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper then roasted until very soft and lightly caramelized. They are pureed in the food processor with some fresh thyme, a light hand of garlic, and grated parmesan cheese. The savoriness of the garlic and cheese balance out the natural sweetness of the potatoes just beautifully. The result is a super velvety, rich and thick puree with gorgeous orange color that any fall pumpkin would envy.
I served this with a simple roast of pork loin and a side of brussels sprouts for dinner. Would go perfectly with your Thanksgiving bird as well, grilled or roasted chicken, even an update side of mashed potatoes for a perfectly grilled steak. Enjoy it!
Sweet Potato Puree with Thyme and Parmesan Cheese
1 lb sweet potatoes (or yams)
about 2 Tbsp olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
1 large clove of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (plus more to taste)
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into bite-sized cubes. Toss in the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread out on a baking sheet in one even layer (you may have to use two sheets) and roast in oven until very soft and tender, about 35 minutes (cooking time will vary to your oven's strength and how large or small you cut the potatoes!). Turn over once or twice during cooking to prevent sticking and too much browning.
Once tender, remove from the oven and place into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic, thyme, and parmesan cheese and process until very smooth. This puree will be quite thick; if you want a thinner consistency then add some chicken or vegetable broth or even half n half until you reach the desired consistency.
Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper to your liking, then serve. 

You can make this in advance if you like -- the puree reheats quite well in the microwave but it does taste best served fresh.

Week Night Yum Yum: Herb de Provence Pork Chops

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


A really fast week night supper meal involves pork chops. You see I've been working with them a bit more. Here's another variation using the chop -- this time boneless for an even faster cooking time -- and a simple rub of olive oil and herbs de provence. A quick pan fry and this main course comes together in less than 20 minutes!

Goes very well with my recipe for roasted butternut squash and brussels sprouts found here.

Pork Chops with Herbs de Provence
4 boneless pork chops, at room temperature
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp herbs de provence
2 Tbsp olive oil

Take the chops and season them with salt, pepper, and the herbs to your taste.

Heat a large saute pan to high. Once hot but not smoking, add the oil. The trick to a good moist chop is to sear them properly; you achieve this by having a hot pan at first. Add the chops into the pan and cook about 4 minutes on that side, or until a golden crust is achieved. The chop should come off the bottom of the pan quite easily if you seared them properly. Turn over and sear the other side another 4 minutes. Lower the heat down to medium so the chop can cook all the way through. Remove from heat and transfer to a plate to rest 3 minutes before serving.
Note: this recipe times the chop for medium-well; NOT WELL DONE. this is my personal preference for serving pork. if you like well done pork then cook it a bit longer after you turned it over the first time, and lower the heat to medium (cook it around 5-6 minutes after the turn). I cannot be held resposible for overly-cooked pork! :)

The Enchanted Spoon ebook is now here!!!

Friday, November 2, 2012

I'm proud to announce the ebook version of The Enchanted Spoon cookbook is now available! Go here to check it out with a detailed preview and download your copy today!


Roasted Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

Monday, October 22, 2012

From a culinary standpoint November is a wonderful month. Like September, it's a bridge month in terms of produce as fall fruits and vegetables combine with the nutrient rich dark leafy greens of winter. One wonderful winter staple is brussels sprouts -- their most tasty and cheapest in the winter months, you can put together a spectacular side dish combing them with equally affordable butternut squash. This dish not only tastes absolutely amazing, but it presents just so beautifully on the plate and holiday table. I think I loved taking pictures of this as much as I did making and eating it!

Tender and sweet butternut squash pairs perfectly with savory and bitter brussels sprouts. Both are roasted to bring out each vegetables' truest flavor, the caramelization adding texture to each bite as well. Seasoning is super simple -- good course sea salt and freshly ground black pepper on the course grind, all tossed with some good extra virgin olive oil. Vegetarians stop there. If you want to skyrocket this dish, go ahead and add the rendered crispy bacon and some garlic to the final toss.

This dish can be made in advance and rewarmed in an oven-proof casserole dish. It's perfect if you are charged with bringing over a side dish for the big Thanksgiving meal, or if you're hosting the big show yourself. Keep the bacon separate and toss it in right before serving to keep it nice and crispy. This dish goes beautifully with any roasted meats -- turkey, chicken, and pork most particular -- and is spectacular as leftovers with a fried egg on top.

Make as much or as little as you need. This recipe serves 4 people easily. Enjoy it and happy fall everyone!

Roasted Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
1 small butternut squash
1 lb brussels sprouts
about 3 Tbsp olive oil
course sea salt
freshly ground black pepper set on course grind
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/4 cup crispy bacon (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Take the butternut squash and cut off the ends, then peel the tough outer skin until you expose the dark orange flesh. Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise then scoop out the seeds. (you can roast the seeds to munch on later or discard them) Cut the squash into bite-sized pieces, roughly the same size as the brussels sprouts you're using; the idea is to have everything about the same size so it's easy to eat and looks pretty.

Toss in half of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread out on a baking sheet and roast in oven until tender and sides are caramelized, about 20 minutes (depending on your oven's strength, start checking around 15 minutes). Turn them over once or twice during the cooking process.

While the butternut squash roasts, prepare the sprouts. Take the sprouts and cut off the tough stems at the base of each sprout. Remove any discolored or broken leaves around the outer layers, then wash the sprouts. Cut them all in half lengthwise, then toss in remaining olive oil. Season again with salt and pepper to your taste. Layer out on a baking sheet (you can use the same one the squash is on after they're done; just remember to scrape off any parts that got stuck to the sheet so it doesn't burn!) and roast in oven until tender but still strong, about 25 minutes. You want a nice caramelization on them, so try not to turn them over too much during cooking; once or twice at most will do you just fine.

Combine the butternut squash and sprouts together in a serving bowl while still warm, and add the garlic. Give a good toss. Top with bacon if using and serve.

*To make crispy bacon, simply take about 2-3 pieces of applewood smoked bacon and dice into small pieces. Heat a saute pan on medium heat and add the bacon right into the dry pan; no need to add oil because the bacon will render its own fat to crisp in within a few moments. Stirring occasionally, cook the bacon until golden brown and crispy, turning down the flame if necessary so as not to burn. Should take around 4-5 minutes. Remove cooked bacon from the grease using a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate or bowl lined with a paper towel to help the excess grease drain. Discard or save the bacon grease for vinaigrettes or other cooking. The bacon can be made hours in advance and simply stored at room temperature covered with a napkin or plastic wrap; or made the day before and refrigerated. But it does taste the best if made a couple of hours in advance at most.

Pirate Party: "Bad Eggs"

We're devils and black sheep, really bad eggs,
Drink up, me hearties! Yo ho!
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

For the food for Little Boy's pirate birthday party I really took a huge inspiration from the songs. Fortunately there was a lot to work with, and the famous "Yo Ho" song of course has the line about bad eggs. I knew immediately I needed to include some sort of deviled eggs for the party. But instead of "bad" they'd be really, really tasty!

I continued with the sea inspiration and chose to make a classic filling of very finely chopped salty smoked salmon, capers for added salty bite, and fresh chive for a light onion flavor to balance out flavor and color. I wanted to keep the palate rather muted in terms of spice to compliment the other dishes I was serving as well, and it worked out perfectly. The flow was just what I wanted on the table and the eggs flew off the plate.

Deviled eggs are a classic party appetizer -- they're a great small bite without being overly filling. For the host/ess it's great because you can make them well in advance of the party. The guests loved these and using lollipop sticks with a party circle gave a festive easy way for guests to serve themselves right off the plate. These "bad eggs" will make another appearance for the holidays coming up too, me thinks!

"Bad Eggs" aka Deviled Eggs with Smoked Salmon, Caper and Chive
7 eggs
about 1/4 cup European style smoked salmon (i.e., Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian, etc.)
1 1/2 Tbsp drained capers
1 Tbsp finely chopped chives
3/4 cup good quality mayo
freshly ground black pepper

Place the eggs in a pot large enough to hold them but small enough where they stay a fit snugly. Cover the eggs with cold water and place on stove on high heat. Bring eggs to a boil and once boiling, shut the heat off and let eggs steep in that hot water for 15 minutes. Doing it this way will prevent the eggs from cracking in roaring boiling water where they can move around and crack into each other.

Drain the water and transfer eggs into an ice water bath. Once cold enough to touch, crack each egg and peel off the shell. Slice each egg in half lengthwise and pop out the cooked yolks into a mixing bowl. Set aside the whites.

Take a fork and mash the yolks until they are very small and crumbly. Add the smoked salmon, capers, chives, mayo, salt if you want it (remember, the smoked salmon and capers will be very salty!) and the pepper to taste. Mix well to combine.

You can stuff the cavity of the egg whites using a spoon, or transfer this yolk filling into a sandwich bag. Then using scissors, cut off the end of the corner at the bottom of the bag, creating a piping bag, then pipe the filling into the egg whites. Conversely, use a pastry bag fitted with desired piping tip. Whatever way you like is fine; I used the sandwich bag trick for the eggs above.

Cover eggs with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. You can also make the filling a day in advance and fill the eggs a few hours before your party.

Serve cold or at room temperature.

Skull Cheese Ball with "Hard Tack"

Saturday, October 20, 2012


One of the food items I knew I had to make for the pirate party was a cheese ball formed into a skull. Cheese balls are literally balls of cheese that guests can help themselves to and served traditionally with crackers or vegetables. You can make virtually any combination you like to suit the season and theme of your party. And this low-maintenance appetizer can be made even a couple of days in advance, refridgerated well, then brought out when you're ready for your party.

For this pirate party I knew I needed to keep the cheese on the whiter side of the color spectrum to achieve that skull color I wanted, so I chose a simple good quality fresh cream cheese as the base. I found a wonderful cream cheese at Whole Foods that tastes more like cheese rather than the commercial brand that has more of a gummy texture. I highly recommend you go that route if you can find it. Then for the real cheese flavor of the dish I chose a very aged English white cheddar. Some freshly cracked black pepper to the mix and that's all. The combination of white cream cheese and slightly ivory color of the aged white cheddar made a perfect skull color for the dish.

"Cheese ball" by no means translates to boring. I wanted my skull to have both visual appeal and taste really great and interesting, so I decided to introduce a jelly to contrast the flavors and colors and flavors of the dish. I decided to fill the sockets of the skull with a jalapeno jelly; the puce color was perfectly spooky and the sweet spicy jam paired just perfectly against the savory cream cheese and super sharp aged cheddar. As a whole the dish worked both aesthetically as well as on the palate, and I got a lot of compliments on it at the party.

To go with the cheese skull I chose to serve "hard tack." I took reference from historical pirates in what they'd actually eat and I found they would make this super hard crude cracker from flour they'd take on board and water from the sea. The dough was incredibly tough and hard to work with and retained a very salty flavor from using the salt water, hence the name. I didn't make it from scratch, but instead found some lovely sea salt crackers at the market and used those to great effect. The combination of the historically accurate crackers together with the festive cheese skull made a perfect pirate party appetizer. I will most certainly be doing this again for any future pirate parties as well as Halloween.

To serve such a dish, I chose a simple gold charger plate. I formed the cheese ball in a skull shape onto a piece of parchment paper. I made the skull 2 days before the party, covered and refrigerated it until the morning of the party. Then I took a sharp knife and cut around the edge of the skull, leaving the cheese to sit on the paper. Then using a sturdy spatula, transfered the skull (paper and all underneath) to the gold charger plate. If you plan to use a proper serving dish go ahead and form the skull right onto your serving platter and simply cover with plastic wrap until ready to serve. Fill the sockets with the jam before serving.

Skull Cheese Ball with Hard Tack
3 cups worth of good quality cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups shredded aged sharp white cheddar (recommend: English white aged cheddar)
about 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
jalapeno jelly or your favorite jam (optional)
parchment paper
sea salt crackers for serving

Place the cream cheese in a large bowl, then add the cheddar and pepper. Using your hands or a rubber spatula, mix all ingredients together until combined well. Roll the cheese mixture out onto a piece of parchment paper. Then using your hands, gently form the cheese into a large skull shape. If you find the cheese is sticking to your hands a bit, dampen your hands in some water and shake off the excess then mold the cheese. To make the sockets and mouth, take a teaspoon (like one you'd eat with) and make an indent for eyes. Then gently using the spoon, dig a little deeper into the cheese about 1/3 of the way down to the bottom to make space for the jam to fill in. Do a smaller upside-down heart shape for the nose. Then taking a toothpick or wooden skewer, draw down the lines for the mouth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or up to 3 days.

When ready to serve, fill the sockets with the jelly/jam and serve with the crackers around the skull or in a separate bowl next to it.

Serving suggestion:
Add a small cheese knife to the side to help guests serve themselves.

Shrimp and Spaghetti Mediterranean

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wednesdays are one of my two busiest days of the week now given our new school and activities schedule. As such, it has also been designated the official Pasta Night of the week. A wonderful dish that came together quickly was spaghetti tossed in good olive oil with tender sweet shrimp cooked in garlic and lemon juice, slightly wilted peppery arugula, sweet sun-dried tomatoes and for a salty bite some capers. For texture and an irresistible nutty bite, toasted pine nuts. If you really want to indulge, go ahead and add the red pepper flake-marinated feta cheese I made to go along with it. The dish was amazing -- wonderfully briny from the capers and lemon juice, balanced out with sweet bites of the shrimp and tomatoes, and fresh and hearty from the arugula and garlic. My kids adored this dish so much I'm making it again tonight since it's....Pasta Night!

I love it too because it's definitely fancy enough to entertain with as well. The dish comes together quickly and effortlessly, just perfect for a dinner party where you can actually enjoy the company and not be a slave to the kitchen. Serve some fabulous quadro di bufula cheese with spicy soppressata to start, then make this for the main course. Add a cold glass of white and some freshly baked crusty Italian bread for a perfect dinner the kids and adults will love. Have fun with dessert and serve a selection of gelato and a perfect casual dinner party is served.

This recipe serves 4 good portions, but can easily be doubled or tripled for a larger crowd.

Shrimp and Spaghetti Mediterranean
1 lb spaghetti (recommend No. 10 de cecco brand)
course sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 lb raw large-extra large shrimp -- peeled, deveined and tails removed for easy eating
1 lemon -- zest and juiced
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 good handfuls of arugula (about 1 1/2 cups worth)
2 Tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tsp capers, drained
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts*
1/2 cup good feta cheese (recommend: Valbreso brand)
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar

First make the marinated cheese. Take the feta and cut it into cubes then place in bowl. Add the red pepper flakes, vinegar, and 1 Tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil right on top and toss the cheese in this "vinaigrette." Let stand to marinade. This can be done a few days in advance and kept covered in the fridge until ready to use.

Bring a large pot of cold water to a boil. Once boiling, add a good palmful of salt then stir to combine. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions, about 10 minutes for al dente.

Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large, deep saute pan on medium heat. Add the shrimp in one even layer and season with salt and pepper to taste. As soon as you add the shrimp, add the garlic and lemon juice right on top as well and cook about 30 seconds -- the garlic will become fragrant  and the shrimp will begin to turn bright pink/orange on color. Turn the shrimp over and give the pan a good stir to cook the other side of the shrimp. Lower the heat to low and toss in the arugula, capers, and sun-dried tomatoes and mix to combine. Add a good drizzle of more olive oil -- you're adding it twice because the first time you're using it to cook and now the second time at the end for a stronger flavor. Remove from heat and add the pasta right in from the water. It's ok if some of the pasta water goes into the pan -- this will help thicken the sauce anyway so it's fine. Using tongs, gently toss the spaghetti with the shrimp and arugula mixture and add the pine nuts, then toss again. When everything is well combined, portion out into bowls and serve.

If using the cheese, simply crumble some of the cheese mixture on top in lieu of traditional parmesan; or go ahead with the parmesan if you like.

*To toast pine nuts, take a shallow dry pan and heat over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts directly into the pan (no need for extra oil because as they heat they will release their own essential oils to help brown themselves) and cook on low heat until golden brown on all sides. Make sure to stir often to prevent burning. Once toasted, remove promptly from the pan and into another dish; letting them sit in this pan will make them burn! Can be made a few days in advance and kept in an air-tight container in the fridge.

Week Night Yum Yum: Roasted Beef with Cherry Tomatoes and Watercress Salad

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Am so behind on blogging, but have some exciting stuff to share soon! Our vacation out east plus The Pirate Party coming up will be some great posts; I'm making some fabulous stuff for the party in particular that are seasonal and would work great for any Halloween parties coming up! But for now, some wonderful recipes to get you through the week...

First up we have a super simple roasted beef with cherry tomato and watercress salad. This is really fast to put together and tastes great. The beef gets doen in about 30 minutes or so (for medium rare) and the salad is sweet and savory, cool and crisp, and peppery from the watercress that just compliments the dinner perfectly. Get those leftover cherry tomotoes now while you can and make this dinner soon!

Roasted Beef with Cherry Tomato and Watercress Salad
1 (3-3/12 lb) beef roast -- rump, sirloin tip cut recommended
1/4 cup olive oil + more for salad
course sea salt
1 tsp red peppercorns
1 tsp green pepeprcorns
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 pint cherry tomatoes, washed and cut in half
1 large shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 loosely packed fresh parsley leaves, removed from stems
splash of white balsamic vinegar
1 bunch watercress, trimmed of stems

First prepare the beef. Take out the roast and leave it on the counter to come to room temperature. Take the peppercorns and either pulse them in a spice grinder until coursely ground or place them all in a sandwich bag -- let all the air out and close, then take an empty wine bottle or wooden rolling pin and gently mash the corns until coursely ground. Place the peppercorns with salt to taste and the 1/4 cup of olive oil in a small bowl and mix to combine. Take this mixture and rub it all over the beef on all sides. Let stand about 30 minutes so flavors can infuse.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Take a large roasting pan or Dutch oven and preheat to high heat. Add the beef and sear it on all sides to form a brown crust -- this will help lock in the juices while it roasts. Once it's browned on all sides, pop in oven or transfer to an oven-proof baking dish and roast until a meat thermometer says 135-140 degrees for medium rare; 140 will give you medium-well on the sides and a perfect medium-rare in the middle. Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes to rest. Prepare your salad.

Toss the tomatoes, shallot, and parsley with some salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Add the vinegar and some olive oil -- about a good tablespoon's worth -- and mix to combine. I like to serve the salad with the watercress leaves set out like a bed and the tomato mixture on top so people can take as much or as little of the peppery watercress as they desire; if you plan to eat the whole thing and love watercress, go ahead and toss it right in with the tomatoes into one big mixed salad.

Take the beef and slice it against the grain to desired thickness. Serve with the salad on the top or side.

I served mine with a side of tamale I had in the freezer, but a good fresh roll will do you just fine.

Cedar Plank Salmon with Rosemary and Smoked Salt

Friday, September 14, 2012

Here in the Pacific Northwest you must know how to work with two ingredients in particular: oysters and salmon. I'm spoiled here, as I get a ridiculous array of various kinds of both farm and wild salmon throughout the season, from Coho to King freshly caught in Alaska, to locally raised to even white salmon. At my local farmers markets I see at least one vendor selling his or her brand of smoked salmon. At Pike Market there is an entire store dedicated to smoked fish. In short, there's a shitload of ways to work with this most preferred fish.

Why salmon? Why not! It's low in fat, high in omega 3 oils (think Brain Food), and incredibly tasty. It can have a mild to strong fish taste, depending on if you're getting fresh or wild or what variety you choose, and it's a very easy fish to work with, yielding itself to a variety of cooking techniques from pan fry to grill, even poached and smoked.

But probably my favorite way to prepare salmon is with cedar plank.

Cedar wood (untreated!) is used as a barrier between fish and grill to create a slow-cooking process by which the heat from the coals can "activate" the flavor in the wood, and thus infuse whatever is cooking on top of it. This infusion adds incredible aroma to the food as well as a deep, earthy smoky flavor that is delicate enough to not overpower the food; just enhances it. It's wonderful! I've successfully used cedar to also cook burgers! Check out my recipe for Pacific Northwest Burger in the cookbook, inspired 100% by my new found home's local ingredients and cooking techniques!

But back to salmon.

A great way to make salmon is simply cedar plank and grill. I go simple but earthy with flavors here adding smoked salt as opposed to the usual, grains of paradise instead of black pepper, and some fresh rosemary leaves on top. This combination is amazing, between the sweet smokiness of the salt to the cardamom-flavored grains of paradise, it for sure is unlike any salmon recipe you've had in a long, long time.

Keep the garnish simple too -- a salad lightly dressed with olive oil, maybe some quinoa or wild rice would be outstanding. If you're looking for a new way to cook salmon, new flavors profiles, then this is your recipe! Enjoy!

Cedar Plank Salmon with Rosemary and Smoked Salt
1 large cedar plank, soaked in water overnight (or at least 4 hours)
1 side of salmon, skin on and bones removed
smoked salt
grains of paradise, finely ground  (can substitute with a combination 2:1 of black pepper to cardamom)
sprigs of fresh rosemary

Pat dry the cedar plank and set aside. Preheat your grill to medium low.

Place the salmon skin side down on the cedar plank. If using smaller planks, then cut the salmon up into pieces to fit on each piece of wood. Season with salt and grains of paradise (or pepper) to taste. Have a light hand, however -- the smoked salt can be overpowering as well as the gop. Top with the sprigs of rosemary -- if breaking it up into pieces, then 1 sprig per piece. Place on grill and cook with lid down until cooked through, about 10 minutes for medium-well, depending on the thickness of your fish. If you want the fish cooked through more, keep longer. Remove and serve right on the plank or transfer off and onto plates.

Week Night Yum Yum: Grilled Summer Vegetable Lasagna

Thursday, September 13, 2012

With a kindergartener now (seriously though, where has the time gone?!) and a slew of after school activities, I'm finding myself in the "what the fuck can I pull out of my ass" level of panic for week night dinners. I need something filling but not fatty. Something healthy and still delicious that the kids won't give me trouble eating. The solution?
It's actually way healthier than a casserole, especially if you stick to a tomato based sauce which is like no calories. All of the fat comes from the cheese, which using part skim and low fat ricotta helps to mitigate. Added bonus -- it totally sneaks in all the veggies in the world and they love it, and I love giving it to them. I add a side salad to make it a full meal, or sometimes some baked meatballs on the side (future post). But for a week night meal, this is perfect. And helps you use up any leftover veggies as well!
Here I use the usual suspects of the summer vegetable spectrum: grilled zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, red bell pepper, and asparagus and layer them with no-boil lasagna sheets (hello easy!), a quick mixture of ricotta cheese, egg, roasted garlic and salt and pepper, a basic store-bought marinara sauce and some cheese on top. I'll compose the lasagna the day before my busy day, then simply bake it off when I get home from our chaotic afternoon and it's ready in less than 25 minutes. Add the salad or some fresh fruit and voila! Dinner is served. You can use an vegetable combination you like, but you won't go wrong with this recipe. And no time to grill them? Simply toss them in olive oil and roast them in the oven.

Grilled Summer Vegetable Lasagna
1 small Italian eggplant, ends cut off and sliced 1/4" thick
2 zucchini, ends cut off and sliced lengthwise 1/4" thick
2 large summer squash, ends cut off and sliced slengthwise 1/4" thick
1 large red bell pepper, ends trimmed and seeded then cut into quarters
1/2 bunch asparagus, tough ends trimmed
olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 Tbsp roasted garlic (or 2 cloves fresh), minced
1 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
no boil lasagna pasta sheets
1 jar marinara sauce
1 bag shredded mozzarella cheese

Take the vegetables and drizzle liberally with olive oil, then season them with salt and pepper. Grill until tender, or roast in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until tender. Take the bell pepper and slice it. Set vegetables aside.

Combine the ricotta cheese, garlic, basil, and some salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Set aside.

Take your lasagna dish you plan to use and spoon out some of the sauce so it covers one even layer on the bottom. Layer out your lasagna sheets to fit. Add 1/2 of the ricotta mixture in one even layer, then 1/2 of the vegetables right on top. Spoon some of the marinara sauce over, then add a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese. Add another layer of lasagna sheets, then the rest of the ricotta mixture on top, then the rest of the vegetables, some sauce and cheese, and finish with a top layer of lasagna. Pour the rest of the marinara sauce right over covering the entire top; it's ok if it drips on the sides. Add a generous layer of mozzarella cheese right on top.

Cover and refrigerate or place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25 minutes or until sauce is bubbling and cheese is beginning to turn golden brown. Let stand 3-4 minutes before slicing, then serve.

Kitchen Basics: Walnut Pesto

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

As basil ends its run, it's time to grab all the leaves you can and make piles and piles of fresh pesto.

Pesto is an incredibly easy and quick sauce to make. You only need fresh basil leaves, nuts (pine nuts are traditional but as you see here, walnuts work great too and are cheaper!), fresh garlic, parmesan cheese and good extra virgin olive oil. A food processor literally whips the pesto up in a matter of seconds, and voila! you have a sauce for pastas, grilled meats and fish, and a killer spread for sandwiches or bruschettas for the whole week. You can also make it larger batches and freeze it, but fresh pesto is always the best.

Walnut Pesto
1 cup shelled walnuts
6 cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
2 cups fresh basil leaves
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1/3-1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

Place the walnuts, garlic, basil leaves, and a small pinch of salt with pepper to taste in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until chopped fine. Add the cheese and pulse again to combine.

With the processor on, slowly stream in the olive oil through the "feed tube" at the top until you get the desired consistency. Less oil will give you a thicker pesto perfect for spreading while more oil will be perfect for pasta dishes and dipping sauces.

Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Place in an air tight container and add a layer of olive oil on top to help preserve color. Serve or refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.

For Dip: serve with vegetable crudite.

For Spread: combine some pesto with room temperature cream cheese and mix well to combine, then serve it with crackers or sliced fresh bread.

For Pasta: cook desired pasta according to package directions, then simple toss the pasta with some pesto and more extra virgin olive oil to taste; you can add some leftover cooked chicken or shrimp, cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and steamed asparagus for a delicious plate.

For Sandwich: spread some pesto on one side of sliced artisinal bread, then top with roasted vegetables (combination of squash, eggplant, red pepper, zucchini, etc.) and sliced fresh mozzarella cheese, then grill panini style for a classic bistro lunch.

Navajo Pumpkin Fry Bread Doughnuts with Prickly Pear Dipping Sauce

Monday, September 10, 2012

A couple of years ago we went to Sedona for a week's vacation. It's a beautiful place -- majestic rock formations, perfectly formed cacti dotting the surprisingly forested landscape. There's a sense of magic in the air, a spiritual vortex if you will of something unwordly, something strong and very present. In short: it's a very cool place to go.

As for the food....

I walked away from our trip being obsessed with three things: cacus fries, prickly pear cactus fruit, and navajo bread.

Our entire trip restaurant after restaurant and at our resort I ordered everything I could with this cactus fruit. The color is a beautiful deep, rich magenta. The taste is surprisingly sweet and slightly fragrant. And when simply peeled and cooked down, the resulting syrup can be made into anything from dipping sauces to glazes for meats to bases for delicious cocktails. Yes, the Prickly Pear Mojito was kind of an obsession. More on that later...

Cactus fruit has a rich color ranging from magenta to a deep fuscia.
The seeds are terribly tough so when eaten, need to be spit out or removed before serving.  
This past weekend to usher in the first football game of the season and impending fall, I felt like something fried and fall-ish. Our trip instantly popped into my head and I thought "navajo bread." After some research I found a recipe for pumpkin navajo bread which sounded just perfect. I happened to have some ripe cactus fruit laying around, so decided to make a dipping sauce to go along with my bread. I took the navajo bread and instead of making long disks, I cut them like beignets to make puffy doughnuts -- easier to dip into the sauce. Then rolled them in some cinnamon sugar. The result was perfection.

These are best served straight from the fryer while still hot, so make them to order. You can make the sauce in advance. Enjoy these perfect doughnuts this fall!

Navajo Pumpkin Fry Bread Doughnuts with Prickly Pear Dipping Sauce
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup warm milk
3/4 cup pumpkin puree (unseasoned, plain)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla powder (can use 1 tsp vanilla extract as well)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon + 1 tsp cinnamon, divided
1/4 tsp ground allspice
vegetable or canola oil for frying
1/2 cup granulated sugar
prickly pear dipping sauce (recipe follows)

Combine the 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1 tsp of cinnamon in a bowl. This is your cinnamon sugar mixture to roll the doughnuts in after they fry. Set it aside near your fryer. Add a serving platter or plate next to the bowl to receive the finished doughnuts.

Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg and milk and gently stir to combine. At this point, you can add the vanilla to make basic regular fry bread. For pumpkin version, continue on...

The dough will be extremely soft and very sticky.

Add the pumpkin puree, sugar, vanilla, and spices and fold in to combine. A fork works best actually.

Turn half of the dough out onto a large, well-floured working surface. The dough will be extremely soft and sticky, so use a lot of flour sprikled both on the bottom and then again on the top. Gently smooth out and roll an even rectangular shape that's about 1/2" thick. You'll have basically one large rectangle. Take a pizza cutter and cut 1" thick strips the long way, then again the short way to create little squares.

Place a baking sheet lined with paper towels next to where you plan to fry.

Place oil in a large dutch oven. You want about 2 inches of oil in there for a proper fry. Heat the oil untiil hot but not smoking. You know it's ready when you place a small piece of the dough and it starts to bubble and puff up. If it sinks, the oil's too cold; if it burns it's too hot.

Add the squares 2-3 at a time to the oil and fry, turning them over a few times. You'll see the squares will puff up as they cook. Fry until golden on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and onto the paper towel lined baking sheet for a few seconds, then promptly place in the cinnamon sugar mixture to coat while still hot.

It helps if you have one person doing the frying and another person doing the cinnamon-sugar part.

Keep frying the dough in batches until you've made the amount you desire.

Repeat process with the remaining half of the dough.

Half of this recipe makes around 12 doughnuts; the entire recipe makes around 24.

Serve hot with the cactus fruit dipping sauce.

Prickly Pear Dipping Sauce
4-5 ripe prickly pear/cactus fruits
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup hot water

Take the fruits and make sure all needles are taken off. If you buy them from the store, they probably are. Make a slit along the side of one fruit and then peel back the skin. Remove it completely exposing the fruit. Repeat with rest of fruits. Cut into large chunks and add the fruit into a saucepan. Add the sugar, cinnamon stick and water, then bring to a boil. Let simmer for 20 minutes until fruit is very soft and lets out juices. Let cool 5 minutes, then remove cinnamon stick and transfer fruit mixture to a blender or food processor. Process for a minute to make an even blend. Take a strainer and straing the mixer to catch all of the very tough seeds. This is your cactus fruit syrup.

At this point, you can serve the syrup as is for a dipping sauce or use it as a base to create a bbq sauce, glaze, or even a sweetener for cocktails.