Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Odyssey Update: Kitchen Cabinets

It’s amazing how many difference kinds/brands/styles of kitchen cabinets there are. It’s mind boggling, You can stroll through home improvement stores, visit cabinetmakers, scroll through catalogs, and still not even scratch the surface. I went about it a different way.

I used to write for a real estate blog and consequently had to visit a lot of open houses. This allowed me to see what other people were doing with their kitchens. This helped to narrow down what I did and did not like and what was popular. Since I am not installing a kitchen for me, per se, but for the next owners of the house, I need to be a bit more conservative and traditional than I would be with a kitchen I was designing for myself.

Given the location of our home and the neighborhood it is in, I can’t do IKEA and I cannot just reface. I do have to replace and the cabinetry needs to be a good brand that looks quality. On the other hand, it needs to be affordable, as I do not have an unlimited budget.

There is also the consideration of light in the kitchen. Originally we had an enclosed porch and large tree that made the kitchen very dark. Both have been eliminated (the tree was lost in a particularly bad storm) and therefore the space is a bit brighter. Because we intend to open up part of one wall into the dining room, this will also help, but overall something dark like cherry will not work.

After deciding on a shaker style cabinet front and the color white, we consulted with our realtor who agreed with both choices. At this point we went on down to a local cabinet and tile company to place our order. (We are consciously trying to avoid big box and standard home improvement stores as much as possible.) We chose Grand Tile in San Carlos, as they were the one store nearby that carried KraftMaid cabinetry.

Neil Wu, at Grand Tile, was very helpful in explaining the finishes, which threw the first monkey wrench into our plans. Apparently it is more expensive to buy white painted cabinetry than stained. The reason being that they have to use multiple coats to get a clean finish without the grain showing. An upcharge of 15% for white painted cabinets is not in the budget. We brought home both a muslin and praline finished door in maple to see how it would look. We took votes from the family and even had our realtor stop by with her husband for their two cents. The consensus: Praline. It is a warm wood color, not too dark, but will fit in well with the house (the link does not do it justice). So the final cabinets are Kraftmaid Huntington in Praline with a flat front drawer.

There will be spice drawers, a cabinet with vertical shelves for trays and cookie sheets, pull out drawers for pots and pans, and some other nice amenities. And although we are taking out part of one wall, losing two cabinets, we are moving the kitchen door which will allow us to add 6 feet of cabinets. We have chosen a full height pantry, two lower cabinets, and two upper cabinets which will have glass fronts. There will be four feet of counter for display or serving purposes, as well. Overall, it is a much more efficient use of space.

Delivery Day: January 25, 2010

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why Remodel, You Ask?

You might wonder why I want so desperately (and I am desperate) to remodel my kitchen. There are numerous reasons, all of which are serious enough to merit the inconvenience and expense.

So, what I have is basically the original kitchen that we have dressed up with some new appliances and tile countertops. But the oven, one of the main components in my cooking and baking, is the original dual wall ovens that went in when the house was built. The broiler does not work, temperatures are not true and often fluctuate, and the doors creak when you open them, leading me to believe that a door will fall off any day now.

There are other issues as well, such as a lack of storage, a poor use of space, a top mounted sink (never do this), piss poor cabinets made of plywood that are peeling paint (see below), and a bad flooring choice.
Our suburban ranch-style home was built in the late ‘60s, along with several other homes on our street. We purchased it in 1995 from the original owners, who had done very little (good) to it over the years.

The galley-style kitchen had stained and worn linoleum, dirty wood cabinets, the original electric cooktop and double ovens, and cracked countertops. The color scheme was dirty beige, with a hideous wallpaper accent, and the room was very dark.

Prior to moving in we did a mini-remodel on the kitchen. It was very low budget, as the whole house had to pretty much be gutted. So we gave our ten-year-old a sledgehammer and let him go to town on the old tile countertops, we tore out the fan hood, stovetop, dishwasher, fridge, floor, sink, and fixtures. We pulled off all the cabinet doors and steamed off the wallpaper. Then we started repairing, repainting and replacing.

We added a gas line for the new Dacor 5-burner stovetop, had new black-and-white tile counters installed along with sink and fixtures. The cabinets were prepped and painted a light gray, as were all the doors and drawer fronts with new hardware. All new appliances, except the double ovens, were installed. And finally walls were painted and vinyl flooring installed. This makeover lasted until about two years ago.

In 2006, the dishwasher developed a leak in the front seal and we came home one day to find the floor in front of it raised and swollen from water. Time for action...again. We had to tear out the dishwasher and the vinyl to get to the subfloor. Not such an easy task, however, as there were three layers of vinyl and linoleum. The original linoleum floor, a second vinyl layer probably from the 1980s, and the layer we had installed. The years and traffic had caused the first two layers to practically fuse together, and the first layer was almost impossible to separate from the subfloor. Shoulda hired a pro. But we made the necessary repairs, installed a new dishwasher and chose to replace the linoleum with a FLOR product, as a temporary fix. A rather unconventional choice, as most homeowners don't like carpet in a kitchen. But this is not your ordinary carpet. FLOR comes in large squares, that are easy to put down, and should there be a spill, you can literally pick it up and rinse it off in the sink! It's actually held up well, but I don't like it near as much as I thought. We also decided to repaint the walls and cabinets during this time, which is where we made our mistake.

Apparently when the cabinets had been repainted in 1995, an oil-based paint had been used. In 2006, we used an acrylic paint, which was fine at first, but has since started to peel away…a little at a time, leaving our cabinets looking, well, tacky. Hence our current call to action.

We live in a neighborhood of high-end homes, and our kitchen really does not reflect that. The original cabinets are a cheap, thin wood in addition to their current peeling state. Refacing or replacing the doors is not an option, because it still means low-quality cabinetry on a whole. That and the fact that there just are not enough of them. While I have whittled down my pots and pans considerably, I do own a variety of larger items that don't seem to fit anywhere well, like my professional mixer and canning pots. I also do not have enough room for spices and baking goods, and no pantry whatsoever, necessitating open shelving right outside the kitchen door in the garage. And let's not even go into the limited amount of counter space I have.

Speaking of counter space, the current black-and-white tile countertops are in fair condition. There are some cracks and chips, and the grout is not holding up all that well. And as an avid cook, I have found that the uneven surface is not optimal. I do like the fact that tile holds up to heat and you can use it as a quick cutting surface, but being so white, it is hard to keep clean and shows every speck of dirt, food, and berry stain. I am constantly scrubbing them. I am in need of a smooth and much larger surface. I also need a larger sink. Either a deep farmer's sink, or a deep two-tub sink (depends on how much space I want to give up).

As for the cooking options, I currently have a white glass 5-burner Dacor stovetop with white burners. Bad. Never buy white, not if you cook as much as I do. My husband actually got out a razor blade to try and scrape off some of the burned bits the other day because it was looking so bad.
We also know we intend to sell the house in the next few years, and our realtor has advised us to renovate – and has given us some very specific suggestions, which I most appreciate. With this need in mind, we also need to replace the industrial-looking FLOR carpet tiles. These carpet tiles go from the kitchen into the dining room (which is currently my office). We’ll redo both rooms in hardwood.

We recently had our electrician son install recessed lighting in the kitchen, Two over the sink and three down the center. He wants to install two more over the stove when we put that in place. It's amazing how much more light I now have. So much so that it illuminates every speck of dirt on the counter, every spill on the stove, and every grain of sand on the carpet. Really makes the counters and stove look bad. One small wrinkle here, namely Title 24 (I live in California) which may necessitate us removing these newly installed lights and putting in something compliant (READ: expensive).

Ahhh, so much to do. Kinda scary, don't you think? Of course, that means there is a lot more to write about and share. Tune in next time….

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mrs. B’s Kitchen Odyssey

I was wondering if you might want to make a journey with me. I am anticipating a trip through remodeling hell and thought you might get a kick out of my angst, and ultimate joy. I'm in need of a new kitchen and I‘m determined to do it starting in January 2010.

I fully expect it to be a bumpy ride, full of potholes, missteps and missed opportunities. But I think we can all learn from this process together and maybe you can even provide some wisdom that will help me as we proceed.

I don't undertake this project lightly. My kitchen is tied to my livelihood so to speak, as I do test recipes and write about food here and there, and having it torn up and unusable for any period of time will make everything infinitely more difficult. (I might just need to rotate through all your kitchens to do my recipe testing.)

This is going to be a full demo and will include cutting one wall in half (the wall above the stove, removing the double ovens above) and completely moving the doorway to the kitchen. This means new electrical (and conformity to Title 24), plaster and dust everywhere, some new appliances, and then the big stuff like cabinets and counters.

Over the years I have vented my frustration with my kitchen on this blog. Sometimes more politely than others, but I have reached my limit. I want to put a big ol’ sledgehammer into my hands and go to town. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Expensive fun….

So I will do my best to chronicle my journey, and feel free to chime in at any time with suggestions and opinions, or to drop by my house with sustenance that doesn’t have a fast food wrapper around it. We might just let you play with the sledgehammer.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Autumn Treats: Pumpkin Graham Crackers

Graham crackers are a staple of childhood. I remember kindergarten snack time when we would get a little waxed container of milk with a straw and two graham crackers. Somewhere along the line we outgrow graham crackers, even though everyone seems to love them as a child. In adulthood it seems they are only good for campfire s'mores. I'm not sure why that is, but it's a shame. It's also sad that no one ever makes homemade graham crackers, as they are quick and easy and can be cut into a multitude of shapes, not to mention they are low in sugar, made with a whole grain flour, and tasty.

Graham flour is the base for the cracker dough. What starts out as whole wheat kernels is carefully ground to ensure that the bran, germ and endosperm remain in the flour. Most mills separate the endosperm from the bran and germ, grinding the endosperm finely. The bran and germ are coarsely ground and added back into the endosperm. What you get is a texture somewhere between white and whole wheat flour, but with a slightly sweet, nutty taste.

With all the pumpkin puree I have been making, I tried out this recipe, courtesy of the Cupcake Project. I made them plain, sprinkled with Demerara sugar, and with an icing drizzle. Adding the sugar or the drizzle sweetens these up a bit and makes them more festive for serving, but the plain ones will bring back fond memories.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons pumpkin puree
1 egg
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoons molasses
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon allspice
2 teaspoon water
3/4 t salt
1 1/2 cups graham flour
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the butter, pumpkin, egg, and sugar in a bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. Stir in the honey and molasses.

Dissolve the baking soda in the water and add to the butter mixture. Add the salt, graham flour, all-purpose flour, and spices to the mixture and blend thoroughly. The dough should hold together and be manageable. If it is too tacky, add a little more graham flour.

Liberally dust a surface with graham flour and roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. You can cut into squares or use cookie cutters to make shapes. (If you want to sprinkle with Demerara sugar, now is the time. Pat or roll it in.) Score each cookie with the tines of a fork several times.

Using a spatula, place the pumpkin graham crackers on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool on racks. They won't be hard when you first take them out of the oven, but they will harden as they cool.

If you want to use an icing drizzle, mix 1 cup powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon light corn syrup and 1 1/2-2 tablespoons milk. Mix thoroughly and either put in a piping bag with a small round tip, or put in a small Ziploc bag, cutting of just a bit of the corner to allow icing to flow out in a thin stream.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fresh and Easy: Green Pea Soup

When I think of green pea soup, I think of dried split peas, a ham hock and the comfort of a thick bowl of hearty goodness. It's a dish I make with fair regularity, affordable, tasty and easy to do. Recently, in a food magazine clipping frenzy, I found a recipe for a green pea soup made with frozen peas (although fresh would work just as well) that sounded yummy and took less than a half hour with minimal ingredients. And it is beauty in a bowl.

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 ½ cups chicken broth
¾ teaspoon dired tarragon
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper
10-ounce bag frozen peas
4 teaspoons plain nonfat yogurt

In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring a few times, until very softened (about 6-8 minutes). Add the broth, tarragon, salt and a few turns of black pepper and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the peas and cook for 8 minutes.

Puree the soup until very smooth, using an immersion blender in the pot or in two batches in a regular blender.

To serve, ladle into bowls and top with a teaspoon of yogurt.

Note: This can be served hot or cold.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

What I Am NOT Making for Thanksgiving

I like to mix things up on holidays, try out new things. It's not always a hit with the kids, who like holiday meals to be traditional, but the food bug is buried so deep inside me that I feel the need to experiment. Sometimes those experiments are disasters, in more ways than one.

Recently I tried to make Bourbon Sweet Potato and Apple Casserole with a Pecan Crust. It is from the Oct/Nov issue of Fine Cooking. Sounds like a good alternative to the sweet potato/marshmallow mash that has carried over from generations past, right? Not.

The ingredients seemed simple enough, most of which I had on hand. Two problems occurred: (1) I had to pull out 8 cooking vessels (2 bowls, 1 skillet, 2 saucepans, 2 baking pans, casserole dish), a fork, 2 knives, a masher, strainer, peeler, food processor and spatula, as well as numerous measuring spoons, measuring cups and mixing spoons. So, more than 20 total items to make one dish. Okay, so I should have read through the whole recipe first to figure this out, but who uses 20+ items to make a sweet potato dish? Not me...not ever again.

I am not a happy camper when it comes to doing dishes. It is one of my least favorite things, right behind scrubbing the toilet. But it is a necessary evil when testing recipes, and on most occasions I do not mind if the result is wonderful. Which leads me to item (2). The final dish was dry, starchy and much blander than I could have ever imagined. And given the work put into it (multiple steps over the course of two hours), it was an unqualified disaster. I wouldn't even eat it past the first few bites.

The recipe calls for sweet potatoes but doesn't designate the exact type. Grocery stores in my neck of the woods call the white sweet potatoes by their proper name, sweet potatoes. Yellow or orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are called yams. So I bought sweet potatoes, the white ones. This was the basis for the dish and what ruined it. Sweet potatoes are starchier and drier than either russet-style potatoes or yams, and need a lot to amp up their flavor and take away all the starchiness. This recipe did not come close to doing so. Even with apples and pecans and ginger…and bourbon.

Sorry, Fine Cooking. Hate to slam a recipe, and given the trouble I went to I am not going to retry the recipe with yams. Especially since I cannot get that two hours back and there is no dispensation from doing dishes on the recipes that don't work out!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Vanilla on Tap

Brilliant Daughter and I have been wracking our brains and combing magazines and websites for new ideas for holiday gift giving. Each year we try to find several homemade goodies to give as gifts to friends and family, and as a small token of appreciation to the people who venture out for our annual Christmas Eve tamale party. We've done herbed salts, barbecue rubs, truffles, limoncello, ornaments of various kinds, and homemade soaps, among other things.

We have a big project in the works, which has been two years in the making, so small items were the topic of our constant search. We finally settled on our first project: homemade vanilla. After reading various recipes and write-ups, I settled on one recipe and began the process. The recipe only requires 3 ingredients: good-quality vodka and rum and vanilla beans.

Apparently cheap vodka is distilled through charcoal, which is not such a good thing when making a vanilla extract. So I went with Svedka vodka, although Absolute, Skye, or other mid-priced vodka would do the trick. Bacardi white rum is combined with the vodka in a 5:1 ratio, or thereabouts. I used a handle of vodka, which measured out to 7.5 cups, to which I added 1.5 cups of rum.

Most recipes recommend 2-3 vanilla beans per ½ cup liquid. That would mean 36-54 beans would be required, which could get costly if you are buying them at your local grocery store in 3-5 piece jars. Fortunately, Brilliant Daughter and I have a secret source of vanilla beans, which cost a fraction of what you might find at supermarkets. We were able to get a pound of chef-grade vanilla beans for less than $25 recently, making this a much more cost-efficient project. I used 45 vanilla beans, cut in half crosswise and again lengthwise. I would estimate this to be a little less than 1/3 of a pound.

The traditional way people are making vanilla extract is to put the beans into a small jar and add liquid, sealing and curing for 1 month or more. I have chosen to make a large quantity in my infusion jar and then siphon into individual jars when it is done. I think this will make for a more even-flavored product, plus I get to watch it as it colors from clear to beige to brown to something heavenly. Not to mention I can dip in and taste it from time to time!

The total cost for this little project thus far is $19.99 for the vodka, $2.59 for the rum, and $8 for the vanilla beans, or about $1.64 per ½ cup. We still need to buy the 2 ounce jars, which should come in under $1/per. At less than $3 per bottle of pure vanilla extract, it makes me wonder if I will ever bother to buy commercially prepared vanilla extract again?

Addenda: I was completely remiss in not giving credit for this idea to Ashley Pickering. Ashley was one of my wonderful interns at Travelers' Tales and now works with Brilliant Daughter at Cengage Publishing. She has the best shoe collection of anyone I know and has gladly eaten anything I have ever put in front of her.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Simple Things in Life: Roast Beef Revisited

I remember spending weekdays with my nana, watching her cook dinner every single night for my papa. Some things made me run and hide, like liver and onions and finnan haddie (a stinky smoked fish that she used to cook in milk); others made me stand near the stove with anticipation, namely mince served over mashed potatoes and her roast beef. Those memories came to the forefront this week while I was shopping and saw boneless rib roasts on sale for $1.89/pound.

For a mere $6.24, I got a 3.3 pound roast that would feed 6 (or 4 plus leftovers for sandwiches). Getting ready to cook dinner, I’d almost forgotten how simple it could be to cook a roast beef. Really. It took me absolutely no time to fix dinner. I literally unpackaged the roast, put it on a roasting rack in a pan and stuck it in the oven for about 2 1/4 hours at 325 degrees. (Yes, you can season the outside if you want, but there really is no need.)

About an hour into it, I threw in some scrubbed baking potatoes and when all was done, I tossed some spring mix lettuces with veggies and dressing and we had a meal. All for less than 5 minutes of prep. Who doesn't have 5 minutes?

I served the roast beef with some leftover blue cheese (from the smoky beef stew I had made for Sunday dinner), because the horseradish in my garden isn’t quite ready for harvest yet. Simple, easy, and tasty.

In this day and age when we are trying to do things quickly, we forget about basic roasting (chicken, beef or pork). While there is a longer lead time than making Hamburger Helper, the actual hands-on time is significantly less. About the same amount as boiling some pasta and heating canned spaghetti sauce, and oh so much better.

So next time you see roasts on sale, grab one and give yourself a break from spending time in the kitchen.

NOTE: The above image is a stock image because, once again, I forgot to get the camera out. But this image looks almost identical to the one that I cooked and I did want to give you an idea of what you would be working with.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grazing Through Portland

There is nothing quite so fun as eating your way around a city, even in the middle of a downpour, which is exactly what Brilliant Daughter and I did last weekend. She and I took a three-day girls sojourn up to our northern neighbors to graze and shop, and even though the weather was not very cooperative, we managed to slog through and have a wonderful time. (It always helps to overpack so you can change out of wet clothing frequently.)

Landing on Friday morning, we jumped on the light rail and headed to our accommodations, a great boutique hotel, Hotel Modera, located between downtown and the university district. My first impression was I wanted to move in permanently. The walls of windows, the coolest couches (pic below) and chairs—just how I would want my living room to look. The cool vibe extended to the front desk clerks in their black turtlenecks, as well as the rooms: well appointed but minimal in aesthetic.

We had been expecting the worse, weatherwise, on Friday. All reports had indicated pouring rain, and there was even a severe weather alert on Yahoo. Hah! Nothing. We wore our coats and carried our umbrellas for naught. It was perfect sweater weather. Brilliant Daughter and I explored downtown and stopped into the Red Star Tavern for lunch around 2pm. Great vibe, we were seated right away and had a very attentive waiter. The menu ranged from burgers and pulled pork to cedar plank Alaskan halibut and smoked shrimp salad. Not wanting anything too heavy, we settled on the jerked chicken salad and the beef skewer salad with apples and gorgonzola. blue A pleasant amount of food, well plated, although the beef was slightly undercooked and a bit chewy.

After a bit more shopping, we headed back to the hotel to plot our weekend food adventures. We laid out the basics for each day from the list we had brought, but booked venues, restaurant closings, or some other unforeseen event forced us to alter plans time and again. Not that we did not enjoy ourselves immensely and eat some wonderful food, it's just that nothing much went as planned. Call it serendipity.

One delightful detour was Veritable Quandary. I wanted to eat there based on the name alone. I love it. Not sure what the name has to do with food, but it's intriguing nonetheless. Located across the street from the police station, the place was hopping on Friday night. We sat in a booth in the bar, rather than the dining room or patio, and had one of the best salads ever. A riff on the traditional Salad Lyonaise, this version started with a generous portion of a cornbread base, topped with butter lettuce leaves and a gently, perfectly poached egg. Smoked bacon, pickled onion, and small cubes of a dry aged jack decorated the plate. The dressing, a buttermilk-chive-white cheddar, was not overwhelming and a perfect balance. We made the mistake of ordering only one to share and we both agreed that it would have been preferable to have our own serving. I followed the salad with a creamy cauliflower and root vegetable soup, while BD had the prawn appetizer. Huge, and I do mean huge, prawns wrapped in pancetta, served with grilled chayote and a chilaquiles sauce. We topped off the dinner with their decadent chocolate souffle, which was light, airy, and very chocolately. A great ending to our first day in Portland.

Saturday morning brought sunny skies and a trek to Voodoo Donuts. I normally shy away from donuts, but everything we read about this place meant it needed to be on the must-see list. We trekked 18 blocks only to find a line out the door. This was not nearly as bad as I first thought, as the interior of this shop is tiny. About 10 customers can fit inside at one time. The menu is longer than I had time to read, but the maple bacon bar caught my eye as a necessary evil. I was doomed, however, as they were sold out. I had to quickly settle for the Portland Crème (Portland’s official donut), while BD ordered the Voodoo Donut, a human-shaped donut with chocolate glaze, two eyes and a random pretzel shoved in to resemble a real voodoo doll. I'm sad to report that neither donut was anything to write home about. A standard donut with filling and glaze, it appears that this place is probably lauded for its unusual donuts, with unusual names, and unusual toppings (Captain Crunch or Cocoa Puffs cereal, Tang, and Oreos, among others). Maybe we should have tried more?

The worst part of the trek was that by the time we exited Voodoo Donuts, there was a downpour happening. No coats, we resorted to pulling out our mini umbrellas and walking briskly to the first coffee house we could find, unfortunately a Starbucks. But it gave us cover from the rain in order to eat our donuts, so we were grateful. With no end in site, we had no choice but to return to the hotel, change out of our sopping wet clothes and don boots and coats.

Off to the Pearl District to wander while we waited for the 2:30 showing of District 9 at the Mission Theater. A living-room type theater that houses a McMenamins pub, we had hoped to order lunch and watch a movie as a respite from the rain. After walking all the way over, we found the theater and pub closed and no one in sight. Not wanting to wait 45 minutes in the pouring rain until the showing, we chose to hoof it back to the Pearl District and find sustenance. We landed at the Living Room, another cool theater with couch seating, that has a modern little bar and restaurant. Rather than ordering and watching a movie, we just grazed on tapas and had some liquid fortification (a tasty ginger mojo that I will try to recreate at home). I was wary of BD’s choice of the warm artichoke dip, but it was a homemade version with large chunks of artichoke hearts that was generous and tasty. We also noshed on deviled eggs (one each of shrimp/avocado, caviar and roasted red pepper) and beef skewers. Skipping dessert we decided to check out Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe nearby, another tiny hole in the wall (capacity 5 people). We managed to keep the order to 6 choices, but not for lack of variety. Everything looked delicious, but my girlish figure had to draw the line somewhere. My favorite was the Conquistador Hazelnut Praline. I could use one of those right about now….

Dinner was planned at Higgins, just a short 3 blocks from our hotel, but the Saturday night theater crowd made that impossible. Plan B was 3 Degrees but they wouldn't even answer their phone, so we went with Plan C and called Carafe, a little French bistro next to the Keller Event Center. Tables were available, so we hoofed it over. Barely a quarter of the tables were full, which seemed odd. While the menu had a good selection and the waitstaff was pleasant, the food was less than stellar. My fresh radishes, served with butter and fleur de sel were good, but even a child could fix that dish. The steak and frites, ordered by BD came out with the steak on the raw side, when it had been ordered medium. My special beet salad was good but not spectacular. Even the peach tart tatine was uninspired. Guess that's what you get with Plan C.

Sunday started off with a move to the hip Ace Hotel in the Pearl District. Very retro/industrial, this renovated hotel appeals to the under-35 crowd. Comfortable and affordable, it is within walking distance to Powell's, one of the best indy bookstores in the nation. And to Everett Street Bistro, one of BD's fave restaurants, and after eating there, I can see why. For two years BD has been raving about the steak and pommes frites at ESB. We had wanted to eat dinner there, but again, not in the cards for us, so we settled for brunch. Starting off with mimosas, we went eclectic and ordered the wild mushroom scramble, Belgian waffle with candied bacon, pecans and maple crème fraiche and…of course…an order of frites with lemon aioli. We ate every last bit of every dish. And I could eat those fries every day of the week. Cooked and seasoned perfectly with whole garlic cloves fried alongside, they were divine.

Our last meal of the day was shared with our friend Chris Heidrich of Bootsnall. We met up at Clyde Common, the restaurant adjacent to the Ace Hotel. The concept here is common tables, and the owners liken the space to a European-style tavern. Food runs to "domestic and foreign," which means anything goes, and they do use local farmers, foragers and ranchers, which is always a plus in my book. Because Content 09 (a fashion/music event) was taking place at the Ace and the abandoned laundry next door, the restaurant was full to capacity and the bar was 3-4 deep, making for a rather noisy venue. But we had a good (although not great) meal that consisted of tagliatelle with roasted wild mushrooms, steak and frites, a lamb dish and the caramel fig tart tatine with balsamic. The steak was slightly underdone (again) and the lamb a bit fatty, but overall flavors were nice and the portions good.

Portland appears to be a great food city. I would have loved to try so much more, but time and calorie intake had to be monitored. I look forward to my next visit, during drier times.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Noir Food & Wine, Pasadena

I frequently visit my brother down in the Southland. I enjoy the weather, seeing his kids grow up, and more recently, cooking with him in his newly renovated kitchen. Spacious and light, it is actually a whole addition to the home and is the size of my office and kitchen combined. Great cabinet space, a huge industrial-type gas stove, two ovens, and most of all—room to work without tripping over one another.

While we did get to do some cooking together during this last visit, we also had the pleasure of dining at one of Pasadena’s newish restaurants, Noir Food & Wine, located in Old Town. The small restaurant, located adjacent to the Ice House Comedy Club, currently consists of seating for 30 inside and 10 tables on the outdoor patio. Construction is expected to start in a week to open a wall out to the patio, which will reduce seating by 3 tables total, but will make serving easier, as well as access to the wine storage. (Reservations are encouraged given the size of the space.)

The restaurant’s kitchen is run by chef Claud Beltran with an ever-changing menu of small plates, rotating cheeses, charcuterie, and some yummy desserts. The menu during our visit was well rounded, and upon questioning found that about 80% of his produce is sourced locally, which is something I always like to hear.

The wine list included (no kidding) 600 different bottles, including over 100 pinot noirs, which is virtually unheard of for a restaurant this size. Taking the pressure off having to choose one, sommelier Jared Hopper kindly works out a menu of wine flights that allow you to tiptoe through selections, and has a lengthy wine-by-the-glass menu. Extremely knowledgeable, he also helped us venture out of our comfort zone and try new things, and made a generous substitution when they were out of one of our choices.

Since there were four of us, we were able to try a wide variety of items. We began with a fromage board of Exploratuer, Bucheron, and Servilleta, which came with fig cake, honeycomb, glazed nuts, and jellied fruit triangles. They don’t go overboard on the cheese offerings (11 total), and split them between those cheeses that would pair well with white or red wine. My only complaint was that the portions were a bit skimpy. The charcuterie plate had some tasty Spanish chorizo, as well as prosciutto, salami and hot coppa. Unfortunately the hot coppa, while wonderful by itself, wipes out the tongue for awhile with its heat and flavor, making tasting other items a bit difficult. Probably not the best choice when served with delicate cheese, but that was our bad. We also ordered a side of pomme frites here, which arrived with a homemade garlic aioli, catsup and blue cheese dip.

Round two was a salad of heirloom beets. The delicately cooked and julienned beets were served with chives, roasted garlic vinaigrette and a parmesan mousse. What was nice is that this wasn’t the standard roasted beets with goat cheese, which I love, but becomes a bit repetitious.

On to the seafood course, which brought two large, nicely seared sea scallops served on a bed of fresh corn and shitake ragout. Cooked perfectly with a crisp crust, we were sopping up the sauce with pieces of bread, it was just that good. The shrimp remoulade was well sauced and tasty, with a portion of four Gulf shrimp nestled atop a layer of grilled Treviso lettuce.

The red meat course was well received at our table. We tried both the hanger steak and the Farwell burger. The hanger steak was cooked perfectly and served with (slightly tough) mustard greens, chorizo-flavored gravy and grilled potatoes. Again, a sauce worth mopping. The Farwell burger was served slider-sized with tarragon, caramelized onions, remoulade and melted Pecorino. Hard to share, I only had a small bite at the end, so I did not get a full taste. My fellow diners did enjoy it however.

The last, and my favorite, course was dessert. The French press coffee arrived right before and was the perfect accompaniment to the chocolate terrine, Noir Bananas Foster, and the heirloom apples with ginger caramel sauce. The terrine, rich and dark, melted perfectly on my tongue, coating my mouth with heavenly chocolate. The Bananas Foster was an innovative version, with chunks of bananas deep fried in a delicate batter and served atop a caramel-like sauce with vanilla ice cream on top. Two orders of that went down in a jiffy. The simple presentation of a sliced apple with a dipping sauce washed down all the richness of the evening. Bright Honeycrisp and Granny Smith apples made short work of the well-infused caramel sauce. Some might think there was too much ginger flavor there, but it worked perfectly. (The only thing to make this better would have been a sprinkling of their glazed nuts!)

Overall, delightful space, company, and food. Service was good, staff was friendly and helpful, and for being such a small space there was not an overwhelming din from diners. I wish the Noir the best of luck in staying open in what is a very crowded food scene.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Part 3: BlogHer Food 09 Recap

The last part of my day at BlogHerFood 09 was spent attending the Visual Track, Session #3, which was Advanced Food Photography, led by Matt Armendariz of and Lara Ferroni of Cook & Eat and Still Life With (which chronicles styling food).

Both of these amazing photographers have built businesses around food styling. While Matt is more classically trained, Lara is primarily self-trained but has a tremendous eye, but both are making a living with their camera.

Lara’s Equipment:
  • IMac Intel Core 2 Due 2.4, running Tiger
  • ColorVision Spyder
  • Canon 5D MkII
  • 100mm 2.8 macro, 90 mm 2.8 tilt/shift, 50 mm 1.4, 85 mm
  • Lightroom 2 – for editing (great app)
  • FileChute (file sharing large files with others) – shareware
  • Bridge – part of Photoshop for organizing

Matt’s Equipment:
  • Mac laptop
  • Canon 5D MkII or 1 DS Mark III
  • Profoto 600watt strobe, Pocket Wizards
  • Flex Color
  • Digitial Photo Pro
  • Adobe Photoshop CS4

Both agreed that the best lens to get, if you have to have one single focus lens is the 100mm 2.8 macro. (Which, I might add, means nothing to me!)

As most of us know, it is important to have photos with a recipe. People are more likely to cook something with an image – on a blog or in a cookbook. So it behooves you to attempt to capture either the ingredients, the process or the end product (or all three if you are ambitious).

One way to make the learning curve easier is to shoot tethered to your computer. You can see, on a bigger screen than the camera has, what your shot looks like instantly. You can adjust light, setting, accoutrements. If you do this it is important to try and get true color. Light changes this quickly. It is important to calibrate your monitor and check color balance.

The use of props is important, but you do not have to spend a bundle. Both Matt and Lara have cases of props: Plates, forks, serving utensils, trays, linens, materials, papers, cake plates, serving dishes, glasses, cut yardage/fabric. Things should be on the smaller side. And thrift stores, antique stores, and eBay are good for unique and/or cheap items. Also, look at things that have alternate uses for things. Lara has taken a burner cover and turned it upside down to use as a dish.

Poorly colored food can be difficult to shoot. A bland brown stew or one-color salmon mousse can be perked up with a little creativity. Use a pretty serving dish and a sprinkle or side of herbs for the stew. Rather than shooting the whole pot of mousse, show it on a toasted piece of baguette with a thin slice of avocado or dill on a cutting board with additional pieces of baguette in the back. Use props, think outside the box.

Look for inspiration. Find photographers whose work you like, cut out images from magazines or bookmark/download images you like off the net to refer to. Put them in a file, or on a bulletin board. Look at every image you see – closely. See how the light plays, how the props are used, how the food is displayed.

Some good places to start:

Upping your game:
  • Change your angle
  • Try the shot with different lighting
  • Always take a few shots after you think you’ve gotten the golden shot
  • Recreate a photograph that you love. Try to match the look and feel of the styling and props. Notice highlights and shadows
  • Practice – take a subject and shoot it for 5 minutes. Then change something and shoot it for 5 more minutes, repeat, repeat, repeat
  • Don’t be afraid to fail.

Challenge yourself to understand your camera, focus and framing.
  • Play with your f/.stop
  • Learn to read a histogram
  • Shoot tethered – you can see exactly what happens when you change your f/.stop, etc,

I have to say that this session, while maybe a bit advanced for me, gave great advice. I’m anxious to get home, charge that battery and get shooting.

Thank you,BlogHer for putting on such a great event at a great venue. I immensely enjoyed my time and meeting so many like-minded people

PS: A quick shout out to all the sponsors of the event. Not only did they make this wonderful event possible, as a reasonable price to us bloggers, but they provided great swag! (especially PUR, Cuisinart, and Scharffen Berger Chocolate)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Part 2: BlogHer Food 09 Recap

The second part of my day at BlogHer Food 09 started with lunch in the Gallery. While many attendees chose to spend their free time exploring this great culinary city’s many fine dining establishments, the room was still comfortably packed. Full table settings greeted us, as did wine tastings from St. Supery. The draw for the meal for many of the attendees was not the food, but the food’s presenter, Rocco DiSpirito. A celebrated chef who has his share of face time on TV, written several cookbooks, and was named 2002 People Magazine's Sexiest Chef Alive, was joining us to hawk Bertolli Products, as well as recipes from his recent book.

I truly enjoyed the first course salad, composed of butter lettuce, haricot vert, sliced egg, olives, and an anchovy vinaigrette, as well as the dessert of milk chocolate flan with espresso foam. The wine pairings were also a nice treat. And the camaraderie at the tables, exchanging of ideas, plans, and all the encouragement that was found made my stay for lunch worthwhile. I must say, we are a nice group of bloggers.

The only bad thing to come out of the lunch is the realization, while trying to shoot the delicious salad, that I did not charge my DSLR and I do not have enough battery life to take pictures. I mean really, I’m here for the Visuals track and I forget to do something so simple? ARGH!

After lunch everyone took their full stomachs off to Session 2, which for me was Principles of Photography, led by White on Rice Couple, Todd Porter and Diane Cu.

The underlying themes here, in addition to learning the basic principles, to know your camera and improve your skills through practice. I think the joy of having a DSLR—or even a point and shoot camera—is that I can take 100 pictures of a jar of jam if I want to. It doesn’t cost me anything but time. Unlike the old days, when I used to drag my long lenses to my son’s soccer games and shoot 3 rolls of film in a day, only to have…maybe…8-10 photos worth saving, after having paid a pretty penny to have the film developed. That is no longer the case. And believe me, I have paid my dues in film processing. Kodak has made a mint off of me over the years.

Here is an outline of what I garnered from Todd and Diane in the Principles of Photography:

Photograph is about LIGHT
How to harness it
How it enters your camera
How your camera measures it
How to control it to get the images you want

The main ingredients that help you manage the light that enters your camera:
Shutter speed

What is exposure?
total amount of light used to create the photo
shutter speed + aperture + ISO
these 3 elements help you manage the light you want

Shutter Speed
-how long it lets light thru
-it’s about time
-measured in the speed of a second (1, 1/2,, 115, 1/40, 1/80, 1/100)
-controls motion

The best way to learn shutter speed is to play around with it. When shooting liquids /action like pouring wine or a mixer beating, you need to control shutter speed. Try 1/800. But if you want a muted style, with some blur, slow it down to 1/25 or 1/4.

The amount of light it lets thru
F1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, etc. correlates to amount of light going thru lens

Shutter speed and aperture have an inverse relationship. The lower the shutter speed, the higher the aperture.
1/15 f16
1/30 f11
1/60 f8
1/125 f5.6
1/250 f3.5
1/500 f 2.8

Be aware of your depth of field. Choose where the focus is to be (aperture controls this)
front – foreground
mid - midground
back - background

In a scene where you have 3 objects, and you want to control focus on the foreground, use 1.4F 1/200 sec.
To get the foreground and midground, try 4f 1/60 sec
To get all, try 10f 1/8sec or 16 f 1/3 sec

ISO- Rating for how sensitive film or camera sensor is to light
Higher the ISO (800, 166)
More sensitive
Low light situation
You can pick up noise with a higher ISO – start low and work up to find the best exposure without noise

Lower ISO (200,300)
Less sensitive
Bright light situation

White Balance
How your camera reads light different temperatures of light
Goal: get accurate color – have whites look white
Look at camera manual to see how to white balance using a white sheet of paper.

Lens focal lengths – general rule of thumb
Wide-angle – less than 50mm
Normal – 50 mm
Telephoto – over 50 mm


If it’s too bright, or is throwing shadows – you can diffuse/soften the light. Use blind or thin sheet or tissue paper to soften. Another option is a white plastic garbage bag. If there isn’t enough in the background, you can balance the light by using a white foam core to the side or back – like a bank shot in pool. Manipulating natural light.

Tools to use to shoot in the kitchen – if it is dark
Speed Light – attach it camera (SLR only) better option than pop-up flash. You want light off of angles. You can bounce light off the ceiling, side walls – rather than direct flash.
To diffuse light – particularly in restaurant – put lightweight napkin in front of pop up flash.

Visual Session #2 was great. Much of the above may not make sense to you. There were visuals that went along with each to help us understand, but it may make you curious enough to do some more research and better learn how to use that pricey DSLR….

and maybe, I might get one more recap in, on Session #2. Cross your fingers.

Monday, September 28, 2009

In Case You Missed BlogHer Food 09….

Three years ago, after only 5 months of food blogging, I wrote a whole post on food bloggers. I waxed poetic on the support and rapport I felt as a blogger and writer and my amazement at how food can bring about such connections. Such was the case again at BlogHer Food 09, held Saturday just 40 minutes from my suburban front door in San Francisco.

BlogHer Food, crowded with 300 food bloggers (as well as the occasional husband or offspring), was a wonderful, enlightening, happy event. Kinda sad to think that it was only one day long. Albeit it one very long day. Starting at 8am with a Networking Breakfast in the Gallery Room of the St. Regis and ending at 8pm after a Cocktail Reception on the 4th floor terrace, the day was packed with demonstrations, educational sessions and food.

Let me just start by saying that the St. Regis Hotel is one very nice place, with a helpful staff and good food. Breakfast consisted of various fresh croissants, a berry medley, sliced melon and kiwi, yogurt, hot egg paninis, fruit smoothies, as well as coffee, tea and juices. The beginning of the conference started with a welcome from BlogHer staff members Jory Des Jardins, Elise Page and Lisa Stone, who shared some fascinating facts and figures about women bloggers. Like 78% of the attendees had never been to a BlogHer conference before, 53% of women online are actively using social media every day, and that 52% of active blog readers read about food! You go, girls…

The conference day was split between 3 educational session, two demonstration breaks, and lunch. Attendees had their choice of break-out sessions on either Visuals, Vocation or Values, with some pretty well-known bloggers and writers leading the sessions: Ree Drummond from The Pioneer Woman Cooks, Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes, David Lebovitz, Helene Dujardin of Tartlette (who was kind enough to test recipes for me when my book, The World Is a Kitchen, was in production), Pim Techamuanvivit of Chez Pim, and so many more wonderful, inspiring and successful bloggers.

I spent the day on the Visuals Track (although you were allowed to jump around to different sessions, or even attend multiple sessions within one time frame.) The majority of the Visuals conference room was set up with tables, so those of us that wanted to take notes on laptops or tweet the sessions could do so. The session information ranged from the very basic for the beginner to the more advanced for those who were contemplating food photography as a living. My interest was purely personal, trying to make my blog look more visually appealing. I mean, Photoshop can only get you so far. Kinda like needing good ingredients to make a good dish, you need to start with a good photo to get an appealing end product.

Session 1, Developing Your Visual Voice, was led by Matt Armendariz of and Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. The focus was on 7 Things to Think About Before You Pick Up the Camera. I thought I would share their wisdom:

1. Be inspired by others: keep a scrapbook of photos/shots you love, to use as a reference. Shots with different angles, textures. Things to replicate. Digital or hard copy. Once you have a body of clips, then you can start deconstructing those images to get a sense of where you might want to head with your own photography. Notice:
  • Time of day – early in am or late in date – due to quality of light
  • Indoor vs. outdoor
  • Minimalist vs. dense composition – proportion, positive/negative space
  • B/W vs. color
  • Dark vs. light
  • People – to include or not to include
  • Flash or no flash

2. Think about your photos in context – will you be adding text to the image or will it stand alone? Will the photo always be the same size?

3. Understand where you are shooting – inside, outside, restaurant, farmers markets. Lighting can be nonexistent in a dark restaurant, wonky at a farmers market.

4. Think about the type of shots you are after, what you want to achieve, how best to tell your story.
  • Ingredient shots: single subject or multiple ingredients.
  • In process shots: breaking down of ingredients or preparation. Educational, can communicate textures, how something is cut. Evolution of the recipe.
  • Ready to eat shots
  • The aftermath shot
  • People shots
  • In motion/action shots: dripping sauce onto something, beater missing
  • Eye level: some things should be shot at eye level, rather than top down.
  • Incorporating text into shot

5. Plan your workflow. Think about what you need to do before starting. What kind of food you are shooting, staging. Prep things in advance for food that is sensitive (ice cream, steamy dishes). Be organized. Have ingredients on hand, camera batteries charged, decide where you area going to shoot, set aside plating equipment, prep ingredients. Do in-process shots, cook, plate, shoot.

6. Look thru the viewfinder. Really look and take time to compose the image. Try to look at it as a complete photo. Look at your shadows. Move around to eliminate them unless you want them purposely in the shot. Look for blowouts, background, edges,

7. Read your camera manual cover to cover (this was a recurrent theme at all 3 sessions). Get to know your camera and what it is capable of. Don’t be afraid of the technical aspects of your camera

Other good info coming out of this session:
  • Point and Shoot camera recommendation: Canon G9 (you can shoot raw files)
  • Try to shoot on a tripod and tethered to your computer so you have a bigger visual to work with. You will have an easier time composing a shot.

Next Up: Part 2 of the BlogHerFood 09 Recap

Friday, September 25, 2009

Family Favorite Revisited: Barbecue Brisket

I’ve been digging up recipes out of my archives, which leads to walks down memory lane. Typically the end of summer is not meant for nostalgia, but I just felt the need. I love finding recipes that are tattered, torn, and stained from years and years of use. I can remember where most of them came from, who I shared them with, and little adjustments I have made over the years to simplify or enhance a dish. I think that food—like fashion styles—makes cyclical appearances in our household: to grace the table, please the palate, and allow us to remember fond times built around food.

For last Sunday’s dinner, I queried Mr B and Butcher Son on possible main dishes. Both wanted barbecue. But we have been having some unusual dry thunderstorms, followed by bouts of rain. Not rain so much as spit. Moments of wisps of water showering down fron the clouds above, unexpected and welcome. Enough to make the car dirty, perk up the lawn, perfume the air, and keep the cover on the barbecue. So we settled for an old standard, Rocky Mountain Brisket.

Brisket is an underrated cut of beef. Most often used to make corned beef, it is cut from the breast section of a cow, and is one of the tougher pieces of beef, meaning it requires a long cooking time to make it tender and palatable. It is reasonably low in price, and with a crockpot or slow-cooking oven, you can turn this slab into a tasty marvel. Such is the case with our oven-baked barbecue brisket.

I first came upon this recipe, served with barbecue sauce, in a cookbook given to me by my husband’s family not long after we were married. Called Colorado Cache Cookbook (my husband is from Colorado), it’s one of those spiral-bound Junior League fundraiser cookbooks. Yes, there are some unusual casseroles and a section on game meats, but there are some gems in there, too. And Rocky Mountain Brisket is one of them.

The two things I love about this dish are the ease in making it and how my house smells while it cooks. The brisket, once rubbed down with seasoning, is popped into the oven for 3 hours. You don’t even touch it. Doesn’t get much easier than that, does it? But as it cooks, the aroma fills the air. In fact, Brilliant Daughter came over early for dinner to do some laundry. She wanted to eat right away. Kept checking on the meat to see if it was done, and practically begging me to start dinner NOW. Either she was really, really hungry or the smell really is that good.

This dish is great for Sunday football. You can pop it in the oven when the game starts and eat when it is over, without missing a play. It comes with its own barbecue sauce, which I have modified slightly over the years. In a pinch you could use bottled sauce, but many are too strong or thick to use for this purpose.

I served this dish with a broccoli slaw (recipe courtesy my SoCal brother’s friend, coincidentally called Mrs B) and macaroni salad. The combination felt like a summer barbecue meal, even as we sat and listened to the raindrops fall.

Rocky Mountain Brisket with Barbecue Sauce
4 pound beef brisket
1 1/2 teaspoons seasoning salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons crushed bay leaves
2 tablespoons Liquid Smoke

3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 14-ounce bottle of catsup
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Liquid Smoke
salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons molasses
3 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons celery seed
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine salt, pepper, chili powder, and bay leaves. Rub meat completely with liquid smoke. Place meat, fat side up, in a large roasting pan. Sprinkle dry seasoning mixture over all. Cover tightly. Bake for 3 hours.

Meanwhile, make barbecue sauce by combining all ingredients in saucepan and bringing to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cook on medium for 10 minutes.

Remove from oven and scrape seasoning off meat and cut into very thin slices, across grain. Pour half of sauce over the meat and combine. Serve with extra sauce on large rolls.

YIELD: 6-8 servings

Broccoli Slaw
2 bags prepared broccoli slaw
1/2 cup toasted almonds
1 cup crumbled blue cheese

1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon celery seed
1/4 cup minced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
2/3 cup olive oil

Whisk all ingredients, except oil. Together in a small bowl. Slowly add in the oil, as you whisk. Refrigerate until ready to use.

In large bowl, pour in slaw, almonds and blue cheese. Toss with the dressing and serve.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kitchen Play: Apple Tartlettes

Sometimes my husband must think I am crazy…at least about food. Like today. I had 9 pounds of Gala apples, bought for the ridiculously low price of 33 cents/pound. (There was a limit on how much I could buy, otherwise I would have bought a lot more.) I knew I wanted to make applesauce, but I also wanted apple tartlettes. Something for dinner and to send with Butcher Son to the crew at Robert’s Market.

I started by making a double batch of a shortbread tart dough, just as Mr B went off to the dentist. When he returned, there was a whole row of tartlette pans, filled with raw dough. There was also a large skillet with a caramelized apple mixture; something I found in this month’s Bon Appetit. I thought it would go well in the tart shells, but after getting started, I realized that the mixture would be too runny for the tart shells. It’s good eaten with a spoon and some whipped cream, and probably really good with the rice pudding it was intended to be served with, but not so much for the tarts.

So I started peeling apples and cutting them up in various ways and arranging them in tart shells. I sprinkled them with a sugar/flour/cinnamon mix, dotted them with butter and put 5 into the oven. Not bad. But I still wanted to try some type of caramelized apple.

I put on my thinking cap and decided to dice two apples and saute in butter. Then I added sugar and caramelized the mixture a bit, adding some cream at the end. I partially baked a tart shell and scooped some in, shuttling it back to the oven to cook.

Meanwhile, my eye kept roaming back to the original caramelized apple mixture. I really wanted to use it somehow. So I partially baked another crust and then strained the apples out and piled them on the shell. Then I added some of the caramelly syrup and stuck it in the oven.

I can see that the diced caramel apple tarts are doing well, so I proceed with a second one. Pop it into the oven. Now I only have 5 shells left. Three I do with concentric apple slices and then I get lazy and do two with diced apples. I mean, by now its 3pm and I started this adventure around 11.

Final tally is 4 1/2 hours, 14 tartlettes, 1 pound Gala apples and lots of smiling faces. The favorite at our house was the off-the-cuff caramel apple tart. Sweet and gooey. And I actually had a lot of fun playing in the kitchen. Now, off to make some applesauce….

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lollipop Pies: Simple Concept, Difficult Execution

I was most intrigued by the adorable lollipop pies at Luxirare. Not just the pies, but the blog and step-by-step arty pictures that go along with it. (Not to mention her gorgeous packaging. How does she find the time?) It makes me realize that I really need to improve the visual part of my blogging skills. Even though I have a nice camera, I have never learned how to use it properly and to its full advantage. Maybe the Visuals Track at BlogHer Food ’09 will do the trick. But I digress….

I love little bite-sized morsels of any kind, but particularly those that are sweet. I regularly make my chocolate chip cookes in one-bite pieces, mini-mocha brownies are a holiday standard, and I love these cute little mini cinnamon macaroons for a tea party. And I always use part of my cupcake batter to make mini-cupcakes. (I feel less guilty eating the smaller portions.) So I thought I would give lollipop pies a try. I had gobs of homemade jam and fresh fruit, and it calls for store-bought pie crust rolls, so the ingredients really are not that complex. The construction, however, was another matter.

The original post on Luxirare just showed the simple steps with no real recipe. Fortunately, at some point the author was kind enough to post some guidelines to at least help us along. Although for the life of me, I cannot find that link. Thankfully, I did cut and paste the tips into a document (which are provided for you below).

Getting to work, I rolled out the prepared crust, I carefully cut the circles and went about putting dollops of filling in the center. I inserted the lollipop stick (wrapped in foil to prevent burning), sealed the edges, brushed with egg wash, and popped them in the oven. I did this 5 o 6 times, each time varying my technique. I tried:
  • Jam filling and thickened fresh fruit filling, both seemed to leak
  • Understuffed and overstuffed, leaks
  • Hand sealing the edges, using a fork to seal the edges, and using both techniques to seal the edges, all three seemed to leak
  • Egg wash to help seal the edges, still leaks
It didn’t matter what I did, leaks kept appearing, which caused the edges to burn. Out of probably 30 lollipop pies, I had maybe 8 that did not leak. Working in batches of 5 or 6 with different variations and techniques, I just couldn’t get the rhythm of it. So, while I love the concept and the fun of eating them, the amount of work to get it right took the joy right out of it. Rather than seeing it as a task to master (like feet on macaroons), I saw it a huge frustration that was not worth the trouble. Not like me to give up, but that’s the honest truth.

If you are going to try to make your own lollipop pies, here are the hints to make it a bit easier. And I wish you the best of luck!
  1. Place tin foil over the stick before you stick it in the oven, it will burn if you don't.
  2. Try to get your store bought pie dough as THIN as possible. Roll it out so it doesn't break, but don't use the pie crust as is. Otherwise you will not be eating pie pops. You'll be eating cooked pie dough.
  3. Cornstarch; better known as "cheaters powder" is good for a reason; it helps thicken things when it needs to hold its shape. You shouldn't over do it with the cornstarch, but you do need to balance the watery-ness of the pie filling so that your pops hold their shape. You can use jams, but I would mix it with fresh fruit too. I cooked the filling before I wrapped it with the crust.
  4. Try to fill your pops as much as possible. Its not easy, you might break them but as I said it takes a couple times before you get the hang of it.
  5. Don't be afraid to use other shapes, Bakerella went as far as using Hearts.
  6. I cooked these at 375 for 15 minutes. If you want a toastier crust, go longer. If you like a light crust, stay short. Keep an eye on these.
  7. Let them cool before wrapping them.
  8. You can also freeze them uncooked ahead of time, and bring 'em out when guests are over. As I said, very rarely do dinner guests EVER finish their dessert because they are already full, and most women want to fit into their jeans tomorrow morning so this is a good option for a light finish.
  9. Make sure to flour your surfaces so that nothing sticks.
  10. Make sure to slather egg whites onto pie crust so that it browns nicely.
  11. If you have a small toaster oven, its better to cook your pie pops in these instead of a big oven.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vacation Time Is Over

Yep, I’ve been missing in action while galavanting around the great state of California. Had a great time in SoCal with new baby Reagan and her big sister, Katherine (who loved my Cowboy Burgers). Then over to my brother’s home for a few days. He was more than a bit under the weather due to some very questionable food at an upscale SoCal eatery. In fact, he had been in bed for 5 days. So I whipped up a batch of my Not Your Grandmother’s Chicken Soup for him. It’s good for what ails you, whether cold, flu, tummy or otherwise. Seemed to help aid in his recovery. Either that or it was my mere presence that helped bring the color back into his face….

We stopped back at home to repack and shop and we were off to our favorite annual summer spot, Pinecrest Lake. Given the late date of our visit, it was like having our own private beach. Very few visitors, since school had started everywhere. Kind of nice. Trails were quiet, boat rentals were half-price, and I got the R&R I so desperately needed.

The good news is that while I was gone, my garden flourished. We didn’t get a garden planted in the spring, but I was determined not to wait until next year. I planted an early fall garden with help from Butcher Son. In went lettuce, radishes, carrots, cilantro, sorrel (just for you Tea), beets, cauliflower and horseradish. Mr. B installed a drip system throughout the garden to minimize water use and then we waited.

It’s been wonderful to watch all the little green shoots push up out of the dirt and every time I went out, there were new leaves on everything. So almost two weeks away gave all the little guys time to grow and make mama proud. And that they did. The lettuce is getting close to ready, the pumpkins are finally taking off and the horseradish is going strong, with some wicked sticker leaves shooting up. But best of all, I had my first harvest. I was actually able to pick the first of radishes!

Ah, the glory of picking your own food. Such a joy. I wanted to share the crop with the family, so I made a simple chimol, inspired my friend Tea and Tea & Cookies, and served it with skirt steak tacos, homemade black beans, and a salad. The chimol was the perfect crunchy complement to the juicy skirt steak and there was nary a word at the table as we relished the meal.

Can’t wait for the rest of the garden to grace my table.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lovin’ That Ginger

I do love ginger. I find any excuse to use it, be it powdered, fresh or crystallized. I use it in simple syrup to make ice tea a wee bit tastier and put a few slices in when simmering my homemade chai tea. I have a great recipe for triple ginger cookies that uses grated, powdered and crystallized ginger. I also add it to stir fry dishes, fruit salads, hot oatmeal, cakes, jam,and anything else I can think of. So it was with great pleasure that I found a recipe combining two of my favorite things: ginger and sparkling wine.

Originally featured in Gourmet magazine’s December 2007 issue, this Sparkling Ginger Cocktail is a perfect summer drink. Light, refreshing, full of golden bubbles, it has a clean flavor enhanced by a ginger/sugar coating on the rim of the martini glass. While I enjoyed it sitting on my porch on a hot summer evening, this cocktail would work for a bridal shower, brunch, or as an accompaniment to a formal afternoon tea (champagne and strawberries are so passé!).

Make sure that the prosecco and ginger syrup are ice cold, and it doesn’t hurt to chill the glasses, either. This can be served in either martini or champagne glasses (not flutes).

I neglected to take a picture in my rush to imbibe, but here is a link to the original picture in Gourmet.

Sparkling Ginger Cocktail

3/4 cup water
1/2 cup sliced fresh ginger (2 ounces)
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 lemon wedges
2 (750-ml) bottles chilled Prosecco

Simmer water, fresh ginger, and 1/2 cup sugar in a small saucepan, uncovered, 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep 15 minutes. Strain syrup through a sieve into a bowl, discarding solids. Chill until cold.

Finely grind crystallized ginger with remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a blender or food processor, then spread on a small plate.

Run lemon wedges around rims of glasses, then dip rims into ginger sugar. Put 1 tablespoon syrup into each glass and top off with Prosecco.

TIP: Don't use the softer, gummy crystallized ginger, as it will not grind fine enough for the glass (although that did not deter me). Try and find the harder, smaller crystallized ginger, that will powder more easily.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sunday Dinner: Stuffed Meatloaf

Sometimes food ideas hit me and make me wanna run to the kitchen and set to work. Lately, I have had a number of bright ideas rattling around in my head, but with the garden planting and the canning, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts into actions.

Come to find out, some of my bright ideas aren’t mine at all. First I thought of a stuffed meatloaf. I’m thinking ricotta, spinach, herbs, sundried tomatoes. I’m also thinking it has never been done before. Silly me. Just because it isn’t in one of my 100 cookbooks, or that I haven’t seen it on the Food Network, or read it in a food blog doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. Brilliant Daughter informed me that Guy Fieri does a cornbread-stuffed meatloaf. My bubble deflated rapidly.

Since I still wanted to try my hand at a stuffed meatloaf, I figured I would give Guy’s recipe a go first. Then I could modify it to be more what I had in mind to begin with. So for Sunday dinner I served up the gigantic oversized 20-pound loaf, along with baked potatoes/sour cream/fresh bacon bits, and our own green beans cooked with onion and garlic and some of my newly canned herbed tomato sauce. It was a hit. In fact, it continues to be a hit 3 days later, as we whittle it down by making meatloaf sandwiches every day!

Honestly, the recipe does make one large meatloaf (more line 4 pounds, not 20). Probably enough to feed at least 8-10 people generously. It consists of 2 pounds of ground meat, 1 pound of ground pork, plus the stuffing. Costwise, this probably isn’t the cheapest thing to make once all is said and done. It probably cost me close to $15. And it is rather time consuming, because you have to make the cornbread, then once it is baked you have to break it up and toast the crumbs. So it takes about an hour of prep, plus an hour and a half to cook. But it is not a difficult recipe by any means and the result was very tasty, so I did want to share.
TIP: Place stale bread or the heels of a loaf under your meatloaf to soak up the excess dripping. That way the meatloaf isn’t swimming around in unhealthy fat. Once you serve the meatloaf, the leftover bread (plus any bits stuck to it) are a real treat for the canine members of your family.

Guy Fieri’s Cornbread-Stuffed Meatloaf

* 2 large or 5 small corn muffins (2 to 3 cups), crumbled by hand
* 1/2 pound bacon, chopped
* 1 red bell pepper, diced
* 1 tablespoon seeded and minced jalapeno
* 2 tablespoons minced garlic
* 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
* Salt and pepper
* 1 egg, beaten

For the stuffing: Preheat oven to 275 to 300 degrees F. Spread the cornbread crumbs on a sheet pan and let toast for about 20 minutes, or until lightly toasted and dry. Turn oven up to 350 degrees F. In a skillet brown the bacon until crispy. Drain. To the same skillet add the red pepper, jalapeno, and garlic and cook until soft. In a bowl, combine the cornbread crumbs, bacon, and vegetable mixture. Add parsley and salt and pepper, to taste. Add the egg and mix thoroughly.


* 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons
* 1 cup diced red onion
* 1 tablespoon seeded and minced jalapeno
* 2 tablespoons minced garlic
* 2 pounds ground beef
* 1 pound ground pork
* 2 teaspoons sea salt
* 2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
* 2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
* 1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves
* 1 teaspoon dry mustard
* 1/4 cup ketchup
* 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
* 2 eggs
* 6 ounces sliced Cheddar

In medium skillet over medium heat add oil, red onions, jalapeno and garlic. Cook until caramelized, remove from heat and let cool.

In a bowl combine the meat, salt, pepper, parsley, thyme, mustard, ketchup Worcestershire, and eggs and thoroughly mix. Divide the meat mixture in half. Shape 1 half into a rectangle, creating a canoe, and then loosely fill with stuffing. Do not pack it in. Use the other half of the meat to fully enclose the stuffing. Transfer to the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours, or until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees F. Layer the cheese slices on top and bake for another 5 minutes to melt the cheese. Remove from oven and let rest for about 10 minutes. Cut into thick slices and serve.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Finally, My Own Garden Again

Since my children were small, I have had a vegetable garden. I started small in our first duplex in Palo Alto, with tomatoes and zucchini. When we bought our first house, we had a plot the size of a double-wide driveway, plus room in the back for peppers and melons. We had an herb box and grew lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots, melons. We also had peach trees in the back that graced us with the most heavenly peaches ever. We also had the good fortune of sharing in the bounty of my godparent’s garden. (In fact, much of what I know about growing a garden I learned from my godfather.) They had 1 1/2 acres at the edge of suburbia with 10 kinds of fruit trees, as well as a big plot and a greenhouse. Much of our food came from these two sources.

When we moved to our current home fourteen years ago, it took us awhile to get a garden going. The back yard (as well as the house) was a terrible mess and took two years before we had a good garden started. This continued until a few years ago, when work and serious family stuff got in the way. I’ve had the odd tomato plant or two, some peppers and herbs, but it has been rather pathetic. The lack of a proper garden made me very sad.

Earlier this year Mr. B and I planted a raised bed for some friends in Carlsbad. We filled the bed, set up a whole drip system on timer, and planted half the bed with tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, carrots and herbs. When they started harvesting, I got a bit jealous. I’ve been making do with two unusable planting areas. One is adjacent to the driveway where Mr. B planted string beans on a whim. The second is alongside house where I grow my herbs. Both of these are 8 inches wide. Something had to be done. Soon. Sooner than soon.

Brilliant Daughter had been complaining about some unsightly plantings in the backyard. She thought they were 3 1/2 foot weeds. (Like I’d let that happen!) The plant was pretty in its heyday, but had become overgrown and an eyesore. Consultation with Mr. B and Butcher Son resulted in an agreement to rip it and its companion plants out in favor of a garden. I researched what would be best to put in this time of year, and we agreed on a list. This put a big smile on my face.

I set about to get seeds and start pots, so we would be ready. Lettuce, cilantro and two types of pumpkins started to spring to life. Carrots, radishes, and sorrel seeds would go right into the ground once prepared. We also wanted broccoli, cauliflower and beets. I’m thinking of adding horseradish, too.

Butcher Son spent his first day off removing the offending plants and the second day rototilling his little heart out. Rototil, weed, rototil, add amendment, rototil. I watched gratefully from the sidelines, spread out on a chaise longue, proofreading a manuscript, again with a smile on my face. You can see the end result below. I've located the garden next to Mr. B's Kaffir lime (bought in memory of my godfather), and my two remaining lemon bushes (we sadly lost one this spring).

So the day has come. It’s time to plant and set up the drip system. So you can imagine what we will be doing this weekend.