Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hosting an Appetizer Party: Part 2

So, now we've established some of the basics, but actually picking a menu is another ball game. Here is a sample menu I would pick based on a party of 20 people coming for appetizers.

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms
Crab Cakes with a Remoulade Sauce
Cheese Tray with Crackers, Fruit and Nuts
Caramelized Onion Dip with Crackers and Crudites
Coconut Macaroons

Why? I have 3 hot items and 3 cold items, one of which is a dessert. I have 2 meat dishes that will be filling, one dip and one cheese tray and then one pastry based item. In this case, the most expensive ingredient on this menu is the crab. The rest is pretty cost effective and involves more labor than anything else. I can also prepare most of this ahead to a greater degree and finish them prior to the party. The hot items keep very well in the oven on low so they can be kept hot for a good hour or so, enabling me to enjoy the party along with my guests.

Below are recipes for all these appetizers. I'll include how many of each to make for the party to have enough to feed 20 people and what you can make in advance. I'll also give some advice on assembling a cheese tray. Again, you don't have to spend a lot. In this case, rather than having a high price tag, I'm willing to spend a little extra time in the kitchen, stuffing, filling, and assembling to get a bigger bang for my buck. In future postings I'll focus on the opposite frame, spend a little more for a lot less labor, particularly when you are pressed for time. Enjoy!

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

Yields: Approx 24 Mushrooms (I'd make 2 batches of this. These are really popular and are pretty much one bite)

24 Stuffing Mushrooms (Stems removed and peeled)
¼ cup vermouth or sherry
1 pound Italian Sausage (Casings Removed)
1 Tbl Herbes de Provence
Pinch Freshly Grated Nutmeg
1 8 oz package cream cheese (Room Temperature)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese plus 2-3 tbls for sprinkling over top of mushrooms
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Pinch salt & Pepper
2 tsps garlic powder
1 egg

Begin by browning the sausage with the Herbes de Provence and the Nutmeg in a medium saucepan over medium high heat for approx. 10 minutes or until no pink remains. If the sausage is very fatty, drain before assembling. If the sausage is only a little fatty, keep the juices as they will keep the mushrooms moist. Cool filling completely before assembling mushrooms. Place mushroom caps in a greased casserole and sprinkle with vermouth or sherry. Combine sausage with cream cheese, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, garlic powder and egg. Make sure the filling is well combined. It is easiest to use your hands for this process. Fill each mushroom cap with approx. 1 Tbl filling until all the filling has been utilized. I use a tablespoon to scoop and spread the filling into each mushroom cap. Sprinkle each cap with more grated parmesan. Mushrooms can be assembled in advance up to this point, covered with plastic wrap and placed in the refrigerator overnight. Place mushrooms in a preheated 375 degree oven and bake approx. 20 mins or until the tops begin to turn golden. Serve hot. Place baked mushrooms in an oven on low to keep warm during the party.

Crab Cakes with Remoulade Sauce (For a more cost effective alternative, substitute salmon for the crab)

Yields: Approximately 16 Cakes (Again, a double batch should do for 20 people)

1 lb of canned Crab Meat Drained
1 ½ cups Panko Bread Crumbs
2 eggs
1 Tbl Creamy Dijon Mustard
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbl minced parsley
2 Tbl minced cilantro
3-4 scallions minced
1 tsp old bay seasoning
½ cup real heavy mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman’s)
1 tsp minced garlic
1 Tbl Lemon Juice
3-4 tbl olive oil

For the cakes, combine with eggs, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, parsley, cilantro, scallions, old bay seasoning, mayo and garlic. Using your hands, gently work mixture until all the ingredients are combined well, adding enough bread crumbs just to hold the cakes together. Should be approx. 1/2 cup or less. Don’t over mix. Place remaining bread crumbs into a bowl. Form mixture into approximately 1 inch diameter cakes, coating them lightly with bread crumbs before placing them on a baking sheet. Once all the cakes are formed, place them into a refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before cooking. These can be assembled in advance, covered with plastic wrap and placed in the refrigerator overnight. To cook, drizzle olive oil into a medium sauté pan. Heat over medium high heat until the oil is spatters when sprinkled with water. Place cakes into hot oil and brown evenly on both sides, approximately 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a baking sheet that has been lined with paper towels to drain. Place finished cakes into an oven set on low to keep warm. Serve hot with remoulade sauce.

For sauce:
1 cup real heavy mayonnaise (Hellman’s)
1 Tbl chopped dill pickles or gherkins
2 tsps creamy Dijon mustard
2 Tbl minced parsley
2 Tbl minced cilantro
2 scallions minced
2 Tbl lemon juice
Pinch Salt and Pepper
1 Tbl chopped capers
1 tsp Harissa (North African Chilli

Combine all the ingredients and whisk together. Place in a refrigerator for at least an hour to allow the flavors to marinate. Sauce can be kept in an airtight container for up to one week.

Caramelized Onion and Garlic Dip

Yields: Approx. 12 Servings (Make a double batch of this one)

1 Red Onion, Sliced
2 Leeks, Finely Sliced
2-3 Garlic Cloves, minced
2 Tbl Olive Oil
1 Tbl unsalted butter
Pinch Salt and Pepper
Pinch of Paprika
4 oz cream cheese, room temp
½ cup sour cream
½ cup mayonnaise, preferably Hellman’s

Heat the olive oil and butter in a medium sauté pan over medium high heat until the butter has melted. Add onion and leek and season with salt, pepper and paprika. Reduce heat to low and sauté over low heat for approx. 20 mins or until the onions are brown and caramelized. Add garlic and sauté for an additional minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer to a food processor and add cream cheese, sour cream and mayonnaise. Season to taste. Serve with crackers and crudités. Can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days.


Yields: Approximately 20 pieces (It's hard to divide this one in half so make a double batch. Leftovers reheat really well in a toaster oven and are a yummy snack)

1 pkg phyllo dough (thawed according to manufacturer’s directions)
8 oz feta
8 oz cream cheese
1 package fresh pre-washed baby spinach
1 Can Diced Tomatoes
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 tsps chopped fresh dill or 1-2 tsps dried dill
3-4 scallions, chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
Pinch Freshly Grated Nutmeg
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly Grated Nutmeg
2-3 tbl olive oil
2 sticks unsalted butter

Place olive oil in a medium sauté pan over med-high heat. Allow to heat for a couple of minutes. Add scallions and sauté for 2-3 minutes or until the scallions begin to caramelize. Add garlic and sauté for one minute or until the garlic is fragrant. Add tomatoes, spinach, dill, nutmeg, salt, pepper and oregano. Saute for approximately 10 mins or until all the liquid from the spinach and the tomatoes has evaporated. Add crumbled feta and cream cheese and cook until the cheese has melted, approximately 5 mins. Allow filling to cool. Melt butter. To assemble, brush one half of a sheet of phyllo dough vertically with butter. Fold second half over first half and brush again with butter. Place 1 tbl filling at one end of the folded sheet. Fold into triangles, like you would fold a flag. Place folded pastries on a buttered baking sheet. Continue making pastries until all the filling is gone. Brush all the tops of all the pastries with melted butter. Pastries can be made one day ahead up to this point, covered with plastic wrap and placed in the refrigerator. Place in a preheated 375 degree oven for approximately 25 minutes or until the pastries are golden brown. Can be kept warm in an oven on low.

Coconut Macaroons

Yields: Approx. 14 (Make a double batch)

14 oz shredded coconut
1 can Sweetened Condensed Milk
1 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
1 tsp ground Cinnamon
2 Egg Whites
Pinch Kosher Salt
Pinch Cream of Tartar

Combine coconut with milk, vanilla and cinnamon. Whip egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until stiff peaks are formed. Fold into coconut mixture. Using a medium ice cream scooper, scoop mixture into mounds onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place approx. 2" apart. Bake in a 325 degree oven for approx. 25-30 mins or until golden brown. Allow to cool completely. These can be placed in an airtight container and stored at room temperature for up to a week. They keep better than almost any cookie or other dessert I've ever made.

Cheese Tray

When assembling a cheese tray, I usually estimate about an ounce of each cheese per person. You can always add a couple of ounces to be on the safe side. I like to serve my cheeses whole so that you can wrap up leftovers and store them. Once cheese has been cut, particularly softer cheeses, they don't keep particularly well. I like to pick one softer cheese, like a brie, camembert or goat cheese, one semi soft cheese, like a havarti or baby swiss and one hard cheese, like an aged cheddar, smoked gouda or even a good wedge of parmesan cheese. The point is to look for contrast in texture, flavor and appearance. Place the cheeses on a large platter, surrounded by dried fruit, grapes, nuts and crackers. Make sure to serve cheeses at room temperature. I usually let them sit out for an hour before serving so you can assemble this ahead of time, pull it out before you start baking off the rest of your appetizers and forget about it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hosting an Appetizer Party

So, the holiday season is upon us. We all enjoy celebrating, but sometimes the logistics of getting a whole meal out along with work schedules, shopping, etc. is really daunting. So why not host an appetizer party. Appetizers are fun, informal, can be easy and can be more cost effective.

First consideration is time of day. If you are looking at an afternoon event, you may consider doing brunch items or just desserts. If you are looking at an evening event, then you can go hog wild with creativity. Either you can pick an ethnicity and go from there, i.e. Spanish Tapas or Mediterranean Mezze, or have fun with it and pick a variety of items. I personally like to diversify and offer a bunch of different items, hot and cold, sweet and savory so that everyone has something they will like and I always make sure there is more than enough to eat to make a meal out of. You don't want people to have to eat before or after the event.

Another consideration is beverages. Certainly having some non-alcoholic options is always recommended, but you can have a field day with various specialty beverages, i.e. sangria, egg nog and other "punches" that may or may not be alcoholic in nature. This can be as much a part of the fun as the food.

So, how much to prepare? Well, I always try to shoot for approx. 1 1/2 servings per person of each. This ensures that everyone can have at least one and some can have seconds. Inevitably some people won't try everything and some will want several of one thing so this seems to work out really well. As far as beverages, 2-3 per person is wise. You don't want people to be tempted to drink and drive, but some won't drink so those who have DD's should be free to party.

One thing I like to note is that even though an appetizer party is more informal, spend some time on presentation and on the serving utensils you use. Whether you set up the appetizers as a buffet or pass them around on trays, use real appetizer plates and forks. This extra little touch may result in a little more clean up, but it's so much easier to eat off of real plates, especially if you are eating anything saucy. Your guests will greatly appreciate the hassle it'll save them when they don't dump their appetizers all over their nice party outfits.

So, then the magic question is how do you pick your menu. Realistically, I think keeping it to 6 or 7 items is probably as much work as you want to do for a party. I try to do 3 hot items, 3 cold items and one dessert or so. Within that, I try to do at least one dip, one cheese tray, two meat or seafood items and a couple of pastry based items, i.e. things using puff pastry or phyllo dough. Next, you want to consider how many of the items you pick can be assembled in advance and how many require last minute assembly or cooking/heating. The more you have to do last minute, the less time you'll be able to spend enjoying your guests. Now some last minute work is unavoidable and will be greatly appreciated by your guests, but you don't want it to become too much of a burden or you wont have fun.

A final consideration is cost. Obviously putting on a full meal for 20 people can get quite costly. You could theoretically spend just as much doing appetizers for 20 if you aren't careful. Or, you could save money by strategically planning your "choice" ingredients to really get the most bang for your buck. That comes in with menu planning. As you look at the overall picture of the menu you are planning, identify the costliest ingredients in each appetizer. Are there better choices you could make that would still fit the bill but save you a little money?? How much can you make yourself versus purchasing pre-made?? Keep in mind, the more you do "from scratch" the less you are going to spend on your party. May take a little more time, but again, your guests will appreciate the effort and so will your pocket book.

Over the next few posts, I'll be suggesting a number of different appetizer parties. I'll provide recipes and suggestions for what can be made in advance and where you might save a little money along the way. So stay tuned!!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh Part 6-Vinegar

Perhaps one of my favorite mediterranean condiments is balsamic vinegar. Vinegar in general, whether balsamic, wine, apple cider or other flavored vinegar, is a wonderful flavor additive. It's acidity is particularly great at cutting through fat and at complementing strong spices. The main component of salad dressings, vinegar can also give vegetables flavor and alter their texture. One of the best mediterranean salads in my book is a Mozzarella Caprese. Fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, hand torn basil and a hint of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. So simple, yet so complex. BUT, and here's the rub, not all vinegars are alike. This salad truly is contingent on a high quality balsamic vinegar. But how do you know if a balsamic vinegar is high quality or not?? Well, there are a few things to look for.

First, a note on how balsamic vinegar is made. First grapes are pressed into a juice that is then boiled down and the concentrated juice is subsequently fermented. The strength and grade of the balsamic is determined by how long the vinegar has been aged. Traditional balsamic vinegars from Modena are rare and quite expensive. However, there are many domestic varieties and other commercially manufactured varieties that come from all over the world. Many are actually made by adding colorings and flavorings to wine vinegars to ressemble the complex flavor of a true balsamico from Modena.

OK, so what does that mean when you are shopping at the store, looking for a balsamic vinegar. The main thing I look for with balsamic vinegar regardless of what the label says is not necessarily where it came from and how long it says it has been aged. I check it's color or clarity and it's viscosity or thickness. I like a balsamic that is very dark in color and very viscous, almost the texture of molasses or a thick maple syrup. One of my personal favorites is a 25 year aged organic balsamic vinegar that I found at the Olive Mill, which is a chain that can be found in various boutique stores across the country. They offer flavored vinegars and vinegars of all kinds. The beauty of it is that you can actually taste and see the vinegar before purchasing.

Unlike perhaps wine or olive oil, in the case of balsamic vinegar, price DOES matter. The more you are willing to spend, the higher the quality of vinegar you are going to get. BUT, with that said, don't worry, there are some techniques you can use to maximize the flavor of a mediocre balsamic vinegar and still end up with a delicious salad. How do you do this?? Reduce, reduce, reduce.

Take an ordinary, run of the mill balsamic vinegar. Pour the contents of the entire bottle into a saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil. Stand back because the fumes from the vinegar can knock you off your feet! Reduce the heat to a simmer and let the vinegar reduce until only half or 1/3 of the vinegar is left in the saucepan. What you are looking for is that the vinegar coats the bottom of the pan when you tilt it and slowly slides down. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely before using. Transfer to a squirt bottle and use just like you would use vinegar for dressing or for dipping. This reduction will be thick, sweet and unctuous. Not only is it great as an ingredient, but it is a beautiful garnish, making lovely swirls and drizzles on any plate. The vinegar is a natural preservative so it will keep for a long time at room temperature no need to refrigerate.

And don't shy away from some of the flavored balsamic vinegars you see. I know they aren't traditional, but they are great for salad dressings. Personal favorites are raspberry basamic and fig balsamic. I don't reduce these, but use them in salads because they completely change the dressing simply by changing the flavor of the vinegar with the same basic recipe, 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbl vinegar, 1 Tbl White Wine, 1 Tbl Honey and 1 Tbl Dijon Mustard. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and off you go. This can be multiplied easily and keeps well in a tightly sealed tupperware in the fridge for up to two weeks. Enjoy!!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh Part 5-The Skinny on Fat

Lets be honest, in the US, fat is a bad 3 letter word. Every day grocery stores add new and improved low fat, reduced fat and fat free products designed to improve our overall health and reduce our waistlines. Now, I don't know about you, but it seems to me that there are more over weight people in this country today, with the advent of all these lower fat options then 100 years ago when people cooked with butter, lard and ate bacon like it was going out of style. Fat isn't a bad word, nor is it bad for you. The key is which fats you are using and how much.

I recently read an article in a cooking magazine discussing the nutritional differences between olive oil, butter, margarine, shortening and lard. Bottom line between them wasn't calories, but rather cholesterol and saturated versus unsaturated fats. Those fats containing higher levels of unsaturated to saturated fats, like olive oil, which happens to be higher in calories per serving than butter for example, were considered to be far healthier than those with higher proportions of saturated fats. The second key here is quantity. Looking at serving size is important. People tend to forget the serving sizes when they see something has fewer calories in it for example and just indulge in a lot more of it, assuming that if it is healthier they can eat more of it.

So, how does this relate to the Mediterranean diet. Well, most of the countries surrounding the mediterranean use both butter and olive oil, but overall, olive oil is the predominant fat of choice. But how do you pick a good quality olive oil?? What is the difference between extra virgin, virgin and light?? Does higher price really equal better quality?? These are all questions I get on a regular basis when teaching cooking classes and that I will demystify right here.

First of all, a distinction should be made between virgin and refined oils. Virgin oils are made without the use of chemical treatment and therefore considered to be superior. The second level of classification is based on level of acidity in the oil. Extra-Virgin oils should have the lowest acidity, 0.8% or lower. Next is Virgin, which generally has no more than 2% acidity. Light olive oils are usually refined oils that are less flavorful and pure olive oils are often a combination of both refined and virgin oils. Olive oil in general is filtered after it is pressed to remove any impurities and reduce the cloudiness of the oil.

Because olive oil has a low burn point, it has a tendency to not work particularly well for frying, although it is suggested that refined oils are perhaps a better choice for frying than virgin oils. It is also suggested that light oils are good for salad dressings because of their more neutral flavor. In my humble opinion, I opt to always use extra-virgin olive oil for dressings, sauteeing and every other purpose. I generally opt for an olive oil that is subtle in flavor and tend to look for oils that come from Italy. Having sampled oils from all over the world, many of the oils I have tasted, those from Greece, Morocco and the Middle East were often less filtered and therefore had a much stronger olive flavor. For cooking this is not a problem, but for dressings it can be over powering. To simplify things in my kitchen, which is pretty small, I keep one kind of extra-virgin olive oil on hand and try to keep it in a solid container rather than a clear one. You should use oil within a year of purchase as oils will go rancid just as nuts and spices do.

Something I tend to do frequently to help cut back on fat and still keep some of the flavor is to take a recipe calling for butter, margarine, shortening or another kind of oil that is higher in saturated fat is to use half and half. By substituting even part of the fat for olive oil you are reducing your trans and saturated fat intake, not to mention the fact that olive oil does have a distinct and delicious flavor that can add a remarkable depth to a dish. Just because a recipe isn't necessarily mediterranean in origin, give olive oil a try. And don't be afraid to sample olive oils.

One of the best experiences I ever had with olive oil early on in my cooking career was an olive oil tasting. We took small samples of numerous types of olive oils, flavored, unflavored, virgin, refined, extra-virgin, you name it. Not unlike a wine tasting, the oils all had distinct flavors that were dependent upon where the oils came from and where the olives were grown. Like grapes, the olives embodied many of the flavors of the terroir or soils/region they grew in and gave the oils a unique flavor profile. You can truly learn to appreciate the versatility of olive oil through one of these tastings. If you are ever in a situation to try one, go for it. It may sound strange to slurp a bunch of fat, but it is an eye opening experience and one that will truly change your taste buds and your palatte for the better.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh Part 4-The Protein Factor

Lets face it, for most Americans, a meal wouldn't be a meal without some kind of meat on the plate, whether it's beef, lamb, chicken or pork. We are carnivores and proud of it. I love meat, but what I've learned from my experiences in the Mediterranean is that I don't need that much of it to be satisfied. Most cultures in the Mediterranean eat meat more as a luxury item, not as a pre-requisite to every meal. Some meals may be completely vegetarian, while others rely mostly on freshly caught seafood and fish. A hearty hunk of meat isn't a frequent occurrance mostly because of cost. Most families just cannot afford to feed themselves meat at every meal. What's more, most of them rely on the cuts you or I would never think to consume. Everything from organ meats to brains to hooves to trotters. These cultures have mastered the art of cooking these "off" cuts and making them intensely flavorful without much fanfare. And when meat is available, they don't eat much of it. 4 oz is standard, where we notoriously order 10 to 24 oz steaks at a high end steak restaurant. In the cases where meat isn't available at all, mediterranean cultures have gotten very clever about incorporating beans and other forms of proteins into their diets. I don't think you could survive without chickpeas, fava beans or lentils in the Mediterranean. Not only are these pulses high in protein, but incredibly rich in fiber and flavor when cooked properly.

So, how to incorporate this into our western diets?? I don't suggest you give up meat altogether. I know I love a good steak on occasion. But save it for a special occasion. Learn to cut back on your portions and start using alternative proteins when you are eating your daily meals. When possible, incorporate fish into your diet. Look for fish like salmon, which is high in omega 3 fatty acids shown to help lower bad cholesterol, and don't forget to eat the skin. It is healthy, crispy and delicious. Tuna is also a great source of these nutrients and is cost-effective and versatile. Finally, don't think that the only way you can possibly consume beans is in a bean salad or chili. These guys are versatile little power houses that can really add flavor and texture to almost any dish. I like to make a salad using cooked bulgur wheat (tabbouli), use 1 cup bulgur to 2 cups hot water and let sit to cook for an hour, and an assortment of beans, including kidney, cannelini and garbanzo or chickpeas. I add whatever kind of veggies I have on hand, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and spring onions, season with salt, pepper, cumin and paprika and add some freshly chopped parsley, cilantro and mint. Dress with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice to taste and voila. A delicious, healthy salad that will fill you up for lunch without the meat and it keeps wonderfully. Make a big batch at the beginning of the week and let it sit in the fridge. The longer it sits, the better the flavor. And, since it doesn't use a mayo based dressing, it is great for parties. To spruce it up, just top it with some crumbled feta or goat cheese. Both cheeses are packed with flavor so a little goes a long way. And if you happen to be lactose intolerant, most of these people can handle goat cheese so load up. For a great gluten free option, substitute the bulgur wheat with quinoa, a delicious and super healthy relative to spinach and tumbleweed, which cooks just like rice and tastes wonderful. So what have we learned so far, use spices and herbs to spruce up the flavor of your dishes instead of fat, take advantage of locally available ingredients like farm fresh vegetables and eggs, and cut back on your meat intake, incorporating more fish and other foods high in protein like beans and other pulses. Now you are well on your way to eating the mediterranean way.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh Part 3-Eating Locally

Eating locally is the Make It Fresh part of the title for this series. It cannot be understated. What sets most Mediterranean cultures apart from us is the use of fresh, locally available, seasonal resources. The concept of a mass merchandiser that has everything you are looking for in one stop is unheard of in many cultures. You don't decide on what you are making for dinner and then run to the local Walmart Superstore to get everything you need. Your daily meals are dictated by what you find at the market that morning.

Think about it. Most of what we buy at the store comes from somewhere else. Lets factor in how long it took to get here, how much it cost to get it here and how many pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals were used in the preservation of the items we are purchasing so that they still look palatable. All of a sudden, our instant gratification, fast food lifestyle doesn't seem particularly appealing does it. Substitute that with freshly picked produce that came from a local farm, farm fresh eggs that were collected this morning, fish that has been caught this morning, locally produced wine and cheese, all at an affordable price. Sounds pretty good doesn't it.

In France, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Greece, all over the Mediterranean, a trip to the local market for food is a daily pleasure. That's not to say larger grocery stores don't exist, particularly in bigger cities, but in general, the local market is where most people find what they will be eating on any given day. When I spent 6 months in Paris studying for my Bachelor's Degree in French at the Sorbonne, I would pass by the local market on my way to school every day. I was taken aback by the colors, smells and tastes of the produce, cheeses and other items being sold there. I couldn't believe how fragrant a tomato could be when it was freshly picked or how pungent a fresh goat cheese could be. I had the same unique pleasure in Morocco and in Italy. Market after market, loaded with fresh ingredients of all kinds. It was eye opening and really changed my perspective of what good food really is.

For example, it wasn't unheard of in Morocco for someone to actually buy a live chicken in the market and then bring it home and feed it a specific diet depending upon what kind of dish that chicken would eventually be cooked in. I heard arguments about how one shopkeeper fed his chicken grain to fatten it, while another fed it parsley and cilantro so it would have the flavor of the parsley and cilantro he was using in his stew, even if it gave the meat a slightly greenish hue. The point being they were so passionate about what they were eating that they made sure to take the time not only to get the freshest chickens, but to treat them in such a way as to maximize their flavor. No pre-butchered, pretty plastic wrapped cut pieces in a refrigerator or freezer.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you should never shop at a grocery store again. There is a time and place for everything. What I am suggesting is that we maybe pay a little more attention to what we can find locally. If I can get farm fresh eggs within a 5 mile radius and Walmart is 15 miles away, doesn't it make more sense to go to the farm and get some fresh eggs?? Or if the Farmer's Market and Walmart are both equidistant, which in Princeton they are, doesn't it make sense to go to the market to pick up my produce, knowing that it was all picked fresh and grown locally, then to Walmart where I can't guarantee when it was picked and where it was grown and how long it took to get there. All of this is just good common sense. Your food will taste better and you will be supporting your local economy.

Mediterranean cuisine isn't something unreachable. It is very accessible simply through changing a few basic habits. Begin with stocking your spice cabinet with the basic spices of the region as we discussed in Part 2 of this series and then start looking at what you can find fresh and local. Then you are well on your way to adopting the basic tenets of the Mediterranean Diet.

For locally available resources, contact me and I'll send you a list of all of the farms locally that can offer you practically anything you need from meat, eggs and produce to herbs, spices and bread. Call at 815-454-2419 or email me at or you can log onto to find out what is available in your area.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh Part 2-Spices

One of the truly great pleasures of Mediterranean cuisine is the degree to which you eat with all of your senses. The single biggest aspect of this is the aggressive use of spices in these cultures. While most of the foods in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco and others are not inherently spicy per se, they are loaded with spices of all kinds and they aren't shy about applying them to their dishes. As a dish is brought in front of you, the first thing you notice is the wafting aroma from the dish that dances in your nose, preparing your taste buds for what they are about to experience. The spices are not only complex, but these cultures have mastered the art of combining spices you wouldn't traditionally expect to see together and in conjunction with meat for example. It isn't uncommon to pair traditionally "sweet" spices, like cinnamon and ginger, with chicken or lamb, adding a hint of dried fruit to create an unctuous sauce that is to die for.

Yet the use of spices in these cultures goes far beyond the food itself. One of the most profoud experiences I had in Morocco was in a spice shop in the souks of ancient Fez. The two hours I spent there were eye opening in the degree to which it showed me that every spice has not only a culinary purpose, but a medicinal one as well. People in these cultures truly eat for their taste buds and their health. The following are a few samples of what I learned that day.

Cumin, which is delightful with vegetables, meat and fish, is actually a powerful aid for intestinal discomfort. A teaspoon dissolved in a cup of water will cure any stomach ailment.

Saffron, which is the highly prized stamen of a crocus flower, and very expensive, is a wonderful immunological booster. A cream is often manufactured out of saffron which is used for skin irritations and acne.

Ginseng, also known as the Mandrake, is a common supplement that can aid in promoting circulation, hindering depression and helping against dizziness. Can often be steeped in hot water to make a soothing tea.

Nigella or Sativa, is a wonderful spice for headaches, migraines, colds and asthma. We took some of this and placed it in a tissue. Then we rubbed the tissue along with the seeds in the palm of our hand and inhaled. What resulted was nasal clearing sensation that actually re-energized us. These seeds are often used in baking as a subtle flavoring.

And the list goes on, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, all of these spices have alternate purposes ranging from digestion to circulation and overall health.

Many of these spices can be found at gourmet food markets, such as World Gourmet Foods in Bloomington, IL. You can also find them on various websites such as and Learning to incorporate them into your cooking will not only make your food taste wonderful, but may offer other potential health benefits. And if nothing else, using more spices in your cooking is a wonderful way of cutting out fat and sugar, which as we all know is healthier for us. Note: Spices begin to lose much of their flavor after 6 months. Purchase them in smaller amounts more frequently and keep them in a cool dry place in an airtight container for maximum shelf life.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh

Most of you know that I love mediterranean cuisine and cook it here at the inn frequently. But what is mediterranean cuisine, why is it special and how can you recreate it at home. First of all, the countries surrounding the mediterranean are all countries that have very distinctive food cultures that vary regionally, taking advantage of locally available, seasonal resources. Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, in all of these countries people live to eat. Don't be mistaken, people don't live in wealth, luxury and abundance, but rather they relish every meal they have and enjoy it with ultimate pleasure. Food here isn't eaten simply for survival, consumption is social and represents centuries of tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next. It is all too common for people in these countries to be planning their next meal as they enjoy their current meal, fantasizing about the incredible produce or meat they may have found at the marketplace that very morning. The concept of fast food and supersized foods is foreign. As is the concept of sitting in front of the television eating off of a little tray while shoveling food into your mouth. You take the time to eat, enjoying the experience with others and appreciating the care that was taken in the preparation of what you are eating.

Most of these cultures utilize healthy oils, like olive, grapeseed and argan oils, which are low in cholesterol and high in omega 3 fatty acids. They also tend to eat more vegetables and less meat and have mastered the art of coaxing maximum flavor out of every part of the vegetable as well as every part of an animal, prime cut or offal. Nothing goes to waste and everything is sublime. The use of fresh herbs and spices is also critical in all of these cultures. It isn't merely a method of cooking, but an artform. Perhaps the most incredible moment I spent in Morocco was in a spice shop where I learned not only what spices to use to spice what dishes, but how each and every spice had a medicinal purpose and people here really knew how to eat for their health and enjoyment. It was eye opening to say the least.

In the next few postings I would like to expand on Mediterranean cuisine of all kinds and discuss specific elements of what makes this region unique and uniquely delicious. I'll also focus on how to incorporate some of these ideas into your own cooking, adapting it to your own lifestyles and to the areas you live in. Just because you live in a big city, doesn't mean you cannot enjoy locally produced meats, eggs and vegetables. And for those of you in a rural area where most people are used to a real meat and potatoes lifestyle, I'll show you how you can apply mediterranean concepts to your routine and begin to expand your culinary horizons. Make it Mediterranean, Make it Fresh isn't a gimmick, it is a statement encompassing the essence of how the cultures of the mediterranean eat. Eat fresh, eat local, and by all means enjoy what you consume by sharing it with others. I think we can all stand to learn something from this philosophy and it would certainly improve our quality of living drastically.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Gourmet Night

Join us for our special 6 course gourmet taster menu on September 18 & 20, 2009 at 6:30pm. Menu will include all non-alcoholic beverages and home baked bread. Cost is $50 per person plus tax, dinner only, or $70 per person plus tax with wine pairings.

Menu is as follows:

Amuse Bouche-Moroccan Spiced Seared Sea Scallop with Orange and Olive Salad

First Course-Artisanal French Cheeses

Second Course-Smoked Salmon Blini with Caviar and Creme Fraiche

Third Course-Porcini, Chantrelle & Cremini Mushroom Bisque

Palatte Cleanser-Homemade Peach Sorbet

Entree-Pan Seared Cornish Game Hen with Pork and Orange Reduction and Caramelized Leek & Goat Cheese Twice Baked Potatoes

Dessert-Mexican Spiced Mousse au Chocolate

Reservations Required. Call 815-454-2419 or email us at

Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Make Good Substitutions

Often a recipe will call for an ingredient that you either don't have or cannot find. Then you are faced with a perplexing challenge. Do you still make the recipe or do you jump ship and find something else to make? I say, make the recipe. There is always a way to make a recipe with substitutions and still come out with something great to eat. Certain items are easy to replace. Leeks for instance or shallots can always be replaced with onions. Look for an onion with a high sugar content, like a red onion or a vidalia and you'll still end up with the sweet onion flavor appropriate for a dish. Don't have garlic around, use some garlic powder and you'll be just fine. Something call for Herbes de Provence but you can't find it, use Italian Seasoning. It's always available at any grocery store and it'll still give you a complexity of flavor you are looking for. Fresh herbs can always be replaced by dried in a smaller quantity. Generally the ratio is to use half the dried in relation to the fresh recommended. Don't have heavy cream?? You can use sour cream or you can use milk. Don't have buttermilk?? You can take a cup of milk and add 1 Tbl of distilled vinegar and let it sit for 10 mins. Don't have butter, you can substitute shortening or olive oil and vice versa. Don't have chilli paste or Tabasco, use Cayenne Pepper and vice versa. The key is to determine what purpose the ingredient serves in the dish. Is it a flavor component, like an herb or spice?? Is it an acid component, like vinegar or lemon juice?? Is it a thickener, like flour or cornstarch?? Is it intended to make something creamy, like milk or sour cream?? Asking yourself these questions when you approach a recipe can make all the difference in finding an appropriate substitute. And if all else fails, you can always send me a note and I'd be happy to offer some good suggestions. Bottom line, don't ever be scared. Cooking should be fun and easy. If you are intimidated by a recipe, find ways to make it less intimidating by using ingredients you are familiar with and never be afraid to try something new. The worst that can happen is that you learn something new in the process and have some fun doing it!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Julia Child Tribute

This weekend we are celebrating the life of a very special person, Julia Child. While we have had such a tribute for the last 3 years, this is the first time it was received with such enthusiasm, largely due to the fact that the movie "Julie & Julia" just opened. I have to say, I am ecstatic that so many people are taking notice of this wonderful woman who changed the face of food and television. While I encourage everyone to see the movie, which is brilliant, I also encourage all of you to spend some time watching her old episodes of the French Chef, which can be seen on You Tube. In preparation for this event, I spent weeks watching old episodes, taking notes on recipes and deciding which recipes would not only be challenging for me to make, but would be interesting for people to experience. I decided on a taster menu to die for, which includes Petites Fondue Frites, Gateau D'Omelettes avec Piperades et Champignons, Saucisson de Menage and Mousse au Chocolat. The process of recreating Julia's recipes faithfully has been a lot of fun, but has also involved some ingenuity in obtaining ingredients. What I have found is that a lot of ingredients that were common when her show came on the air are no longer used or difficult to find, for example saltpeter or potassium nitrate, used to cure the sausages. I was also fortunate to get some help from a local butcher who made a special blend of pork to pork fat for my sausages as per the instructions in Julia's book "From Julia Child's Kitchen." Now for those of you who know me, I'm notorious for not following recipes. I like making things my own and being faithful to Julia hasn't exactly been easy. But, what it has been is tremendously fun and it has shown me one very important thing about her recipes and what she did so differently from others. Everything I have made as per her recipes have turned out exactly as expected. Her recipes are precise and fool proof. In this particular case, don't mess with a good thing. Julia knew what she was doing and I would never presume to second guess anything she did. That's not to say you can't get creative with recipes and add things to make them your own, but do know, if you make a Julia Child recipe as is, it will be tremendous. Most of the recipes aren't too difficult to recreate either. So I encourage all of you to take a look at this woman, her life, her recipes and her legacy. You'll gain great appreciation not only for who she was and what she meant to the world of food, but for food in general. Nobody was as passionate about good food as Julia was and nobody respected food as much as she did. We should all be so lucky to find something in life we are that passionate about. So Happy Birthday Julia and Bon Appetit!!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cooking with Chocolate

This weekend we enjoyed hosting our 3rd Annual Chocolate Taster Menu. When most people think about chocolate, they automatically assume dessert. However, in this particular case, we wanted to stretch peoples imaginations and preconceptions about chocolate and use them in totally different ways to enhance the flavors of savory foods as well. As such, we worked out a menu that would take advantage of the beautiful pairing of chocolate with spicy foods and coffee. Two of the recipes we came up with were Chipotle Chocolate Empanadas and a Spicy Tomato Chocolate Soup. Historically speaking, Mayans and Aztecs used chocolate in this type of savory application frequently so I took the inspiration of these cultures and applied them to Mediterranean staples, like empanadas and tomato soup. Empanadas are typically a meat filling with cumin, paprika and raisins and a common dish served in Spanish Tapas. I twisted this by using sweet spices, like allspice and cinnamon, adding chipotles for heat, and chocolate to round out the flavor. I served this with a Roasted Garlic and Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli and Balsamic Reduction and it was delicious. The soup took the concept of an Italian style tomato soup and switched it up by applying North African flavors like Cumin, Paprika and Harissa, which is a North African Chilli Paste. To mellow out the spice, I added the chocolate and it was served with some Queso Fresco, which is a Mexican fresh Sheeps milk cheese. Try these recipes out at home. You are sure to enjoy them and have a whole new love for the complexity of chocolate.

Chipotle Chocolate Empanadas

Yields: 36 Empanadas

2 pkgs Puff Pastry, Thawed According to Package Directions
2-3 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Onions, Diced
2-3 Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 lb Ground Beef
1 lb Ground Pork
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste
½ tsp Dried Oregano
1 tsp Ground Coriander
2 tsps Ground Cinnamon
1 tsp Ground Allspice
2-3 Tbl Tomato Paste
1-14 oz Can Diced Tomatoes
2 Tbl Italian parsley, Chopped
2 Tbl Cilantro, Chopped
¼ cup Dry Vermouth or Dry Sherry
1-2 Chipotles in Adobo Sauce, Chopped or To Taste
4 oz Bittersweet Chocolate
2 Tbl Honey or To Taste
1 Egg
1 Tbl Water
Balsamic Reduction and Roasted Red Pepper Aioli to Garnish

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan over medium high heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and sauté for one minute or until fragrant. Add pork and beef and sauté until browned. Season with salt, pepper, oregano, cinnamon, coriander and allspice. Add parsley, cilantro, tomato paste and chipotles. Add dry vermouth or sherry and diced tomatoes and continue cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add chocolate and melt thoroughly. Add enough honey to create a slightly sweet/savory flavor to taste. Remove from heat and cool. Whisk egg and water together. Dust work surface with flour. Lay one sheet of puff pastry out onto work surface and roll out with a rolling pin until the seams are sealed and the pastry is approx. ¼” thick. Using a knife or pizza wheel, cut sheet into 9 equal squares. Fill each square with approx. 1 1/2 Tbl filling and seal using egg wash. Press edges of pastry together with fingers and fold over to seal into a little pocket. Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Brush with more egg wash and continue with remaining pastry sheets until all the filling is used up or all the pastry is used up. If you have additional filling left over, use leftovers combined with pasta. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for approx. 20 mins or until the empanadas are brown and puffed. Serve hot garnished with Roasted Garlic and Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli and Balsamic Reduction.

Balsamic Reduction

Yields: ½ Cup

1 Cup Balsamic Vinegar

Place in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and simmer uncovered until reduced by half. Cool and transfer to a squirt bottle for easy garnishing.

Roasted Garlic and Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli

Yields: Approx. 1 Cup

1 Head Garlic
Olive Oil
3-4 Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste
3/4 Cup Hellman’s Mayonnaise
¼ Cup Buttermilk

Remove as much of the outer paper of the garlic as possible. Place on a sheet of aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil and seal tightly in foil. Place on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for 45 mins. Remove from oven and cool completely. Squeeze roasted garlic into a food processor. Add tomatoes, mayo and season with salt and pepper. Puree until smooth.

Spicy Tomato & Chocolate Soup

Yields: Approx. 6-8 Servings

2 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbl Unsalted Butter
1 Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Carrots, Peeled and Diced
2 Celery Stalks, Diced
1 Cup Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Sliced
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste
3 Tbl Harissa (North African Chili Paste)
2 tsps Hungarian Paprika
2 tsps ground Cumin
1 tsp ground Coriander
½-3/4 cup Dry Sherry or White Wine
1-28 oz Can Diced Tomatoes
4 Cups Chicken Broth
¼ Cup Cilantro, Chopped
¼ Cup Italian Parsley, Chopped
3-4 oz Bittersweet Chocolate
2 Tbl Honey or to Taste
Queso Fresco, Goat Cheese or Crème Fraiche to Garnish

Heat oil and butter in a stock pot over medium high heat until butter melts. Add onion and sauté until translucent, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic, carrots, celery and sun dried tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, harissa, paprika, cumin and coriander. Saute for a couple of minute to toast spices and soften vegetables. Add wine and continue cooking on high until all of the liquid has evaporated. Add tomatoes and chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 45 mins or until the vegetables are tender. Pass soup through a food mill to puree and remove any large particles. Return soup to pot and place over low heat. Add parsley and cilantro. Add chocolate and enough honey to balance acidity. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve hot, garnished with queso fresco, fresh goat cheese or crème fraiche.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Paula Sands Live! July 20, 2009 Appearance

Take a look at this live appearance on July 20 on Paula Sands Live! Click the link and scroll down. The link to the show is on the left hand side. We talk about our Chocolate Night coming up on August 1 & 2, 2009. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Argan Oil

One of my favorite ingredients to use in Moroccan cuisine, Argan oil, is produced from the pit of the fruit that grows on the Argan tree. Argan trees are indigenous to Morocco and only grow in the foothills of the Atlas mountains. They are an endangered species and extracting the oil from these pits is incredibly labor intensive, ergo Argan oil is pretty expensive. As I often tell guests, one of the most impressive sights is that of a goat standing atop the Argan tree. I haven't quite figured out how they get there, but they climb to the top of the trees to eat the Argan fruit and then spit out the inedible pits. These pits are collected by Berber women and then ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle, a very labor intensive project indeed. As I witnessed at an Argan stand in Casablanca, the paste is kneaded to extract its essential oils and then filtered of any impurities. The oil is used for two purposes, one culinary and one cosmetic. The legendary oil is sought after for its health benefits. Not only is it purported to be higher in "good fats" than olive oil, but it also has restorative and rejuvenating properties that make it a popular ingredient in skin creams and hair products. Most importantly, however, is that it is delicious. Nutty and smooth, the oil can be used interchangeably with olive oil either for cooking or as a dressing for salads. A typical use for the oil in Morocco is to combine it with ground almonds and honey to create a spread similar in use to Peanut Butter called Amlou. You can find Argan oil at almost any international food store or you can order online at Here are a couple of recipes that take advantage of the Argan in both its raw form and its cooked form. Enjoy!

Roasted Pepper and Tomato Salad

6 red, yellow or orange bell peppers
2-28 oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
2 Tbl Argan or Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tbl Red Wine Vinegar
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch Salt and Pepper
1-2 tsps paprika
1-2 tsps cumin
2 Tbl Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 Tbl Cilantro, finely chopped
1 Tbl Harissa (North African Chili Paste)

Place peppers directly over open flame of a gas burner. Char skins until they are completely black. Place into a Ziploc bag and seal. Allow to sit for at least 10 mins so the skins peel off easily. Remove blackened skins and seeds. Chop roasted peppers into a dice. Empty cans of tomato into a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes completely. Place tomatoes in a large sauté pan and cook over medium high heat for approx. 30 mins or until all the liquid has reduced. Add argan or olive oil, vinegar and garlic. Saute for a minute or until garlic is fragrant. Add peppers. Season with salt, pepper, paprika, cumin, parsley, cilantro and harissa. Continue cooking until all the liquid has evaporated and the flavors have developed. Season to taste. Cool completely and refrigerate. Allow to sit in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight to develop the flavors. Serve at room temperature.

Orange and Olive Salad

6 Oranges, Peeled and Cut into Segments
3-4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
½ cup of pitted Moroccan or kalamata olives
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp paprika
Pinch Salt and Pepper
1 Tbl Orange Blossom Water
1 Tbl Argan Oil

Arrange orange segments on a platter. Garnish with garlic and olives. Season with cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Drizzle with orange water and argan oil. Serve at room temperature.

Monday, June 29, 2009

CSA: Community Supported Agriculture

When we first came to Central Illinois, I relied on the grocery store, i.e. Walmart, for most of my groceries because it seemed as though we were miles away from any decent resource for produce. What I ended up with mostly was underripe, underflavored, shiny, beautiful fruits and vegetables that had been transported thousands of miles, sprayed with pesticides and herbicides and rendered practically inedible. As I have spent more time here and have become more interested in locavorism and organic produce, I have found a great wealth of resources for fruits and vegetables at my disposal, literally in my back yard, or close to it. It's called a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The principle is basic. A farm asks for subscriptions for a share of their crop. In return for those subscriptions, the subscriber receives a box of fresh produce, or a share of produce, every week, featuring the freshest and best produce available from that farm that given week. While specific details may vary, one thing is the same across the board. No matter what CSA you use, you are guaranteed to learn about different types of vegetables you won't ever see in grocery stores, you'll get the best tasting produce you will ever find, and you will likely never buy vegetables from a grocery store again, save for those times in the dead of winter when your options are limited, depending upon where you live. Many CSA's pride themselves on their organic growing practices, however, due to the high cost of the certification process, most of these farms are not "Certified Organic." Many of these farms will also offer farm fresh eggs and milk. Cost?? Well, cost can vary, but the one we belong to is roughly $350 a year and generally half is due up front and half at the end of the growing season, which goes from May thru October. In the beginning, you'll get a lot of the same things, asparagus, lettuce, onions. Then, beginning in June, and contingent upon the weather, the diversity becomes astonishing. They fill your box based upon your preferences. You will send in a sheet with your likes and dislikes based upon everything they grow. If there is something you hate, like brussel sprouts, they won't include them. Some of the more unusual things that we have gotten that I have truly enjoyed learning about and have never seen in a grocery store are garlic scapes, herbs like Anise Hyssop, varieties of potatoes like Kennebec and summer squash like Cousa and Pattypan. As summer progresses, you may start getting more vegetables then you ever thought you could eat, but what you will find is that you'll start eating them more and enjoying them in many different preparations. Vegetables don't have to be boring. Don't just steam or boil them, saute them in olive oil and a little butter, roast them or grill them. Add spices and combine them with fresh herbs. Eat them raw, eat them cooked, but just eat them. You'll feel better and you'll feel like you have really been a part of your local community. For more information and a database of CSA's across the country, go to

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spanish Tapas

Tapas literally translated means "little dishes." In Spain, a common practice in the evening rather than partaking in a full multi-course dinner is to travel from Tapas bar to Tapas bar, eating little dishes that are the specialty of the house and having a refreshment or two. Tapas can be made up of just about anything. Only the creativity of the chef and the availability of fresh ingredients limits or determines what can and cannot be served. Pork of course appears in many forms, whether it be in cooked form, such as Paprika Pork Ribs, or in the form of cold cuts such as mortadella or sausage such as chorizo. Marinated olives and cheeses such as Manchego are often served alongside a variety of hot and cold salads, frequently involving peppers and eggplant. And of course, seafood is a very popular offering at a Tapas bar, particulary fresh, locally caught fish and shellfish of all kinds. What makes this style of cuisine desirable is the diversity of flavors one can sample all during the same meal without feeling full or feeling obligated to order an entire entree. Because many of these dishes are highly seasoned, they often pair well with beer and wine. A good quality Spanish Rioja or Tempranillo would be a perfect table wine to serve and many are available at very reasonable prices. Here are a couple of recipes you can serve at your next Tapas party.

Cherry Tomatoes Stuffed with Goat Cheese, Caper and Olive Filling

24 Cherry Tomatoes
12 Pitted Spanish Olives
3 Tbl Capers
6Tbl Aioli
2-3 Tbl Italian Parsley, Chopped
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
4 oz goat cheese
1 large egg yolk
1 Tbl Lemon Juice
3 Garlic Cloves, Minced
Kosher salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
5 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
5 Tbl Canola Oil

Cut a thin slice off bottom of tomatoes to make them flat. Then cut the top of the tomatoes off and scoop out the seeds using a paring knife. For aioli, whisk egg yolk, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and canola oil together until smooth and creamy. Mince olives and capers. Combine with aioli, parsley and season to taste. Place small amount of goat cheese into each tomato. Then add olive/caper mix on top of goat cheese. Serve chilled.

Mortadella Wrapped Roasted Asparagus

Serves 6-8

1/2 lb asparagus
Pinch Salt and Pepper
2 Tbl olive oil
2 oz. Mortadella
1/2 tsp hungarian paprika
1 Tbl water
3 Tbl olive oil
2 Tbl Red Wine Vinegar
Pinch Salt and Pepper
Pinch dried thyme
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 tsp italian parsley, minced
1 bay leaf
1 Tbl red onion, finely sliced

Trim the asparagus, removing and tough ends. Place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 Tbl olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven for approx. 15-20 minutes or until the asparagus are tender and slightly caramelized. Allow to cool. Wrap 1-2 stalks of asparagus in a strip of the mortadella until all the asparagus has been used up. Combine remaining ingredients in a tupperware with a tight fitting lid and shake well. Drizzle dressing over asparagus and allow to marinate at room temperature for about an hour before serving.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What you need to know about eating organic

“Organic.” The term elicits ideals of “All Natural,” “Antibiotic and Pesticide Free,” “Healthier.” It can also mean more expensive. Is organic really that much better? The answer is more perplexing than it may seem. First of all, one needs to be educated about what is “organic” versus what is “certified organic.” Organic foods by definition are not genetically modified, must be grown without pesticides or additives such as growth hormones and often involve the use of energy efficient farming practices such as recyclable and biodegradable materials. Many small farms, including several in the area, utilize organic farming practices. However, many of these farms are not “certified organic.”

Certification is handled through government subsidized organizations and is overseen by the USDA. The process involves extensive inspection and often involves exorbitant sums of money which prohibit many small farms from obtaining the certification. There is also a very real issue with the abuse of organic certification by large, corporate farms who obtain lobbyists to create loopholes in the certification process, enabling non-organic products to be utilized in the manufacturing of the final product distributed to grocery store shelves, such as dead animal products that may have been fed antibiotics.

Therefore, it is imperative that the educated consumer beware when they are purchasing “certified organic” products in corporate supermarkets. One simple way to determine the authenticity of the organic certification is common sense. Certain products, like organic frozen foods, just don’t make sense. While organic practices may have been involved in the general production of the ingredients involved, the processing and packaging of the materials in the final product necessarily involved non-organic substances. Another common sense one is fruits and vegetables that don’t withstand transportation particularly well. Fruits like strawberries are so fragile that if they aren’t genetically modified or protected against pest or mold development, they would never make it to the supermarket shelf. While you may find organic strawberries at a farmer’s market, because they didn’t have far to travel and are being sold within hours of being picked, not days, purchasing organic produce such as strawberries in a supermarket isn’t logical.

Then there is the issue of cost. Most organic products available in the grocery store involve not only the added cost of organic growth practices, but also the cost of transportation to get these items to the grocery store shelf. Purchasing organic produce at the local farmer’s market, however, doesn’t involve anywhere near the cost associated with the grocery store transport. You will pay a slight premium, but in the end, putting a little more into what you are putting in your mouth makes sense in the long run. The long term benefits in terms of what you will save on medical bills in the future are well worth it.

Bottom line is that “organic” is great. Take advantage of locally available organic resources when you can by shopping at the farmer’s market when available. When not, be aware to do your research, read your labels and use your common sense. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. For more information on organic foods and locally available foods, two great books to read are “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. Both delve far deeper into the pros and cons of organic foods and also in how to make educated decisions on how to purchase organically and both are fascinating reads.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

What is a Vegetarian?

With so many different diets and food patterns emerging in society today, definitions can become easily blurred. What distinguishes a vegetarian from a vegan? What is a flexitarian?? Many individuals fall under the category of “vegetarian” that may in fact eat meat on occasion, particularly if it is in the form of fish or chicken. Yet some vegetarians will only eat dairy and eggs, but no meat at all. Let’s shed some light on the true definitions of what a vegetarian truly is.

Vegetarians by definition do not consume the flesh of any animal or anything that is a derivative of an animal, including fish. Lacto-ovo vegetarians will consume dairy products and eggs. Lacto vegetarians will consume dairy products but no eggs. Ovo vegetarians will consume eggs, but no dairy. Vegans by definition do not consume either dairy or eggs. Pescetarianism is the practice of vegetarianism where only fish and seafood are consumed. Pollotarianism is the practice of vegetarianism where only poultry or fowl are consumed.

The most recent form of vegetarianism to become prominent is called Flexitarianism. Flexitarians actually will consume meat, dairy and eggs on occasion in limited quantities. Flexitarianism has evolved as a compromise for those who for whatever reasons wish to maintain a largely vegetarian diet, but need to supplement their diets with the occasional consumption of animal proteins.

Vegetarians practice these food habits for many reasons ranging from religious obligations to cultural ones. Others simply believe it is a healthier way of eating. Whatever the reason an individual decides to practice vegetarianism, the issue always remains that a healthy balance of proteins must be obtained through non-animal sources. Often this comes in the form of beans, which are not only high in proteins, but fiber as well. The following is a recipe for a traditional Moroccan Couscous with Seven Vegetables. It is a fantastic recipe for vegetarians as it is rich in protein, high in nutrients and of course high in flavor.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

Yields approximately 8 Servings

1 box of instant couscous
Olive oil
Boiling Water
3 Tbl Olive Oil
1 Onion, Diced
2-3 Garlic Cloves, Minced
2 Carrots, cut into 1” pieces
2 Parsnips, cut into 1” pieces
4 Red Potatoes, Skins left on and cut into 1” pieces
1 can chickpeas
1 Bunch Asparagus, Trimmed and cut into 1” Pieces (You can substitute green beans when in season)
½ cup Raisins, black or golden
Pinch Salt and Pepper
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsps ground cinnamon
Pinch of Saffron (If you don’t have saffron, you can use a pinch of turmeric, which is much cheaper)
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Tbl Harissa (North African Chili Paste) or a couple dashes of hot sauce

For the couscous, empty box of couscous onto a large baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and a little boiling water. Carefully rub the oil and water all over the granules with your hands, spreading it out in one flat layer onto the baking sheet. Let sit for about 20 minutes. Repeat this process 3 times, each time making sure to rub the couscous between your hands so that the granules are separated and remain light and fluffy.

For the stew, heat the 3 Tbl olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté until tender, about 8 mins. Add garlic and cook for one minute or until fragrant. Add carrots, parsnips and potatoes. Season liberally with the salt, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and saffron. Saute a couple of minutes to render the fragrance of the spices. Add vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour or until the vegetables are tender. Add asparagus or green beans, can of chickpeas and raisins and continue cooking, uncovered for an additional 15 minutes or until the asparagus is tender. Add the chili paste and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce has thickened. Serve hot spooned over the couscous. This dish is almost better the next day reheated as it allows the flavors of the dish to marinate overnight.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What is a Locavore?

Locavore is a catch word that has become popular of late. Literally meaning “local eater,” the term refers to someone who consumes foods that come from resources located within no more than a 100 mile radius from home. The movement, while not recent, has gained momentum lately as consumers have become more aware of becoming “green” or using “sustainable agriculture.” Essentially, eating local makes environmentally, economically and from a health perspective.

Environmentally, locavorism reduces an individuals “carbon footprint,” meaning the amount of petroleum used in the production and transportation of a product is reduced, thereby reducing the amount of fossil fuels used and the amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere. It also encourages biodiversity, which studies have shown is beneficial in maintaining long term viability of soil.

From an economic perspective, eating local ensures that consumers contribute to their local economy, which is a great way of ensuring that businesses can continue to be viable and don’t get crowded out by large corporations. And contrary to popular belief, locally available produce and meats are not necessarily more expensive than produce and meats available in larger grocery stores. Particularly with higher gas prices, many groceries that were previously very affordable are now becoming more expensive because of the cost to produce and transport them.

From a health perspective, many local farms utilize organic farming practices. While they may not be certified organic due to cost of certification and regulations regarding proximity to commercial farms, these farms often refrain from using pesticides and antibiotics and often allow their animals to roam free, hence the term “free-range.” Also, keep in mind that many items labeled “organic” in the grocery store are not necessarily organic. There are many loopholes to certification that commercial farms often find to get certified that consumers are not aware of. This is a subject for a future article.

There are many locally available resources for produce, including Coneflower Farms and Plowcreek Farms outside of Princeton and Indian Trail Farms outside of Kewanee. For meats, Meadow Haven Farms here in Sheffield offers free-range chickens and organic grass fed beef and Red Barn Nursery offers free-range lamb. In Buda, Grubbsteaks offers free-range buffalo. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it is just an example of some of the many farms locally that provide these valuable resources. In the summer you can find many of these as well as a whole host of others at the Farmers Markets in both Princeton and Kewanee. Many farms also offer CSA’s, or Community Supported Agriculture programs, that you can join for an entire growing season, allowing you to take advantage of what is seasonal and fresh on a weekly basis.

Here at the Chestnut Street Inn we make an effort to go out of our way to utilize as many locally available resources as we can, including an annual subscription to Coneflower Farms CSA. We encourage all of you to do the same. It is a great opportunity to give back to the community while doing something good for the environment, your pocket book and your body. For more information on these and other locally available resources, contact us at or 815-454-2419.

Wraps Around the World

Join us for a special cultural food experience on June 6, 2009. We are doing a world tour called Wraps Around the World. It will feature wraps from seven different countries, highlighting cultural similarities through food. The menu will be as follows:

Japanese Shrimp Spring Rolls, Mexican Pork Taquitos, Moroccan Beef Briouats (Cigar Shaped Pastries), Greek Vegetarian Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves), Polish Golumpki (Cabbage Rolls), Spanish Chicken Empanadas, Hungarian Palacinta (Crepes with Ricotta Filling and Apple Compote)

Seating will begin at 6:30pm. Cost is $28 per person plus tax. All non-alcoholic beverages are included. Beer and Wine are available for sale. Space is Limited. Reservations required. Call 815-454-2419 or email us at

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Spice of Life

Herbs and spices are an integral part of most ethnic cuisines. Rather than being an afterthought they are often the central themes of a dish around which various meats and vegetables are paired. The specific combinations of spices and herbs used by a particular culture are often key markers of those cultures, defining both their culinary habits and the particular climates in which they have emerged. There is more to spices than salt and pepper, however. The vast array of herbs and spices ranging from A to Z are almost endless and learning how to use and store these herbs and spices is critical to mastering the art of cooking.

Most spices and dried herbs have a shelf life of approximately six months after which they lose most of their flavor. In general, it is recommended that these be thrown away and replaced with a fresh batch of spices. Fresh herbs can generally last for a week if stored properly. There are two theories to how herbs can be stored. One is that you can place them in a cup of water and keep them on the counter away from direct sunlight which can bruise or damage the delicate leaves of some herbs. Another good method to lengthen the shelf life of fresh herbs is to rinse them gently in water and then wrap them in paper towels. Place the herbs wrapped in the paper towels in a Ziploc baggie and squeeze all the air out of the baggie before sealing. The baggie can then be stored in the refrigerator in the produce drawer.

Another key element to herbs and spices is how to buy them. Certainly most spices are available in most grocery stores in small containers by large national spice distributors who shall remain nameless. However, most of these spices are purchased because they can be bought in bulk and may or may not be of a good quality meaning they may either be old or tainted with other fillers. Spices should be purchased in small quantities from reputable spice purveyors.

A good local source is Austin Parker Natural Foods in Princeton, IL. Another great source for high quality spices is the internet. Many internet sources actually offer spices from particular countries, which is a fantastic way of learning about the specific flavor profiles of various types of cuisine. For example, there is a very noticeable difference between Mexican Cumin and Moroccan or Indian Cumin. The Mexican Cumin is generally smoky and almost spicy in nature. The Moroccan or Indian Cumin is subtle in flavor with an almost toasty flavor profile. Which type of cumin you use will completely changes the taste of a particular dish. Two good internet sources for spices are Penzeys Spices, which can be located at and Zamouri Spices, which is a Moroccan import store and has a fantastic collection of spices from all over the world. They are located at

One final note on herbs, when you can use fresh herbs over dried ones, do so. While the dried ones can certainly lend good flavor to a dish, nothing can substitute the potency and intensity of a fresh sprig of mint or leaf of basil. Most grocery stores do not carry high quality herbs and they are almost prohibitively expensive. Grow your own or go to a farmer’s market where local farmers often have fresh herbs available. Most herbs grow perfectly well in pots as long as they receive enough sunlight and water. No matter where you get your herbs and spices, don’t be shy. Try new flavors. You never know what you might enjoy and you may be surprised at how diverse your palette can become.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Mediterranean Diet

In a time where new diet fads seem to come and go daily, there is one constant that never seems to fade, namely the health benefits of the “Mediterranean” diet. For centuries civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean have survived on a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and olive oil. The rich soil and moderate climate of countries such as Spain, Morocco, Italy and France lends itself to the production of a myriad of fresh produce. People in these regions eat seasonally, taking advantage of whatever happens to be in the marketplace on any given day. But what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy compared with other diets like Atkins, South Beach or the Zone?? The key is diversity.

Typically people within these countries don’t eat meat at every meal as it tends to be costly and most homes do not have refrigeration in which to store perishable items. Fruits and vegetables, however, are always abundant. The key to making the best use of these fruits and vegetables is the use of herbs and spices to enhance the flavors to their fullest potential. In Italy, basil, rosemary and oregano are used to make sauces fragrant and unique, while in Spain and North Africa, cilantro and parsley are added to almost every dish. Most of these cuisines are not spicy in so much as hot and spicy, but rather spicy as in flavorful. Paprika, cumin, ginger, cinnamon and saffron are carefully added to dishes in surprising new ways to make them pop.

So how can we adapt some of our own food habits to incorporate some of these healthy principles? We too live in an area where fresh seasonal produce is abundant. Why not try adding some flavor to basic vegetables by learning to use some of these herbs and spices. Lighten things up by using a high quality extra virgin olive oil to cook your next meal. Eating light and healthy is not difficult, nor does it have to be boring. Take the example of the Mediterranean diet and you’ll see that healthy doesn’t have to equal bland.

Homemade Tomato Sauce

3-4 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 lbs peeled and chopped roma tomatoes or 2-24 cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed
Pinch Salt and Pepper
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
3-4 Tbl chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 Tbl chopped fresh Oregano
1-2 tsps chopped fresh thyme
1-2 tsps chopped fresh rosemary
Handful torn fresh basil
1-2 Tbl Sugar

To peel tomatoes, boil a pot of water. Place tomatoes into the boiling water for approximately 30 seconds and remove. Allow to cool and the skins should slide right off. If you are not able to get fresh tomatoes, use a high quality canned tomato like San Marzano and crush the tomatoes by hand before using. In a large saucepan, heat olive oil. Saute onions until they soften and begin to turn slightly golden, approximately 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for one minute or until fragrant. Add carrot, celery, red pepper, salt and pepper. Continue cooking for about 10 mins or until the carrots and celery begin to soften. Add tomatoes. Bring mixture to a boil. Add fresh parsley, thyme, oregano and rosemary. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, for approximately 45 minutes to an hour or until the sauce has thickened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Add fresh torn basil and sugar to taste. Puree sauce in a blender or use an immersion blender to puree the sauce in the pot. Note: Allow the mixture to cool before using a blender to puree or it will explode and you could burn yourself.

** Immersion blenders are available at almost any retailer and they are a fantastic tool for use with pureeing sauces or soups.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Promotion

Includes: One Room Night in the Blue Room or Federal Room, Dinner for Two using locally available seasonal fresh produce and locally sourced meat, One Dozen Farm Fresh/Free Range Eggs. Make a reservation any time between April 10 and May 31 and qualify for a one-year subscription to Rodale's Organic Gardening Magazine (6 Issues). $174.20 Total Cost Including Tax

Monday, April 20, 2009

The History of Chocolate

Chocolate was first consumed by Central and South American peoples sometime around 2000 years ago. The seeds of the cacao tree which grew in the rainforests of Mesoamerica were ground and used to make a bitter hot beverage which was used for both medicinal purposes as well as a vehicle for various religious and cultural rituals. Chocolate first made its way to Europe sometime around 1521 when the Spanish conquered Mexico and discovered its use amongst the peoples of the area.

When first introduced to European people chocolate was primarily considered a commodity largely used by the wealthiest and most elite of European nobles who could afford to import it. Soon Europeans began adapting the hot bitter beverage by adding sugar, cinnamon and other spices to sweeten the concoction.

Commercial use of chocolate didn’t develop until the mid-1800’s when the first candy bars were developed. The Industrial Revolution brought mass production to the chocolate industry and today chocolate is a multi-billion dollar industry with chocolate being produced all over the world.

Most people will be interested to know that ground chocolate nibs, the final derivative that is removed from the chocolate bean, are separated into two forms, cocoa butter and chocolate liquor. These two forms are subsequently mixed with other ingredients in varying proportions to make the various types of chocolate, i.e. dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate, which isn’t chocolate at all, but rather cocoa butter mixed with milk, sugar and vanilla.

Choosing chocolate for a recipe is a matter of determining what type of chocolate you are looking for. Most recipes call for semi-sweet chocolate while dark chocolate, chocolate which generally has 70% chocolate liquor in the chocolate with limited sugar and no milk products, is usually reserved for consumption as candy. Always look for a high quality chocolate that comes from a reputable chocolatier and has less preservatives, sugar and milk by products. Many gourmet chocolates are now available at grocery stores. While these chocolates are more expensive than basic baking chocolates, the difference in the final products obtained by using them are well worth the price.

The following is a recipe for a dessert that will be served at a special chocolate dinner being hosted at the Chestnut Street Inn on August 25, 2007. These custards are smooth, not too sweet and absolutely delicious!!

Chocolate Espresso Pots de Cremes
Serves 6
Prep Time: Approx. 20 mins.
Cook Time: 35-40 mins.

6 Egg Yolks
2 Tbl Granulated Sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 1/3 cup whole milk
2 tsp instant coffee
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 oz. semi sweet chocolate
Pinch Salt

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Place cream, milk, coffee, vanilla, chocolate and pinch of salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt chocolate and heat until the milk and cream mixture begins to simmer around the edges. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and a pinch of salt. Slowly whisk in the chocolate/cream mixture, being careful not to scramble the egg yolks. Strain the egg/chocolate mix through a fine mesh sieve into a large measuring cup. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the mixture from coagulating. Line a large pyrex baking dish with paper towels. Place 6 ramekins in the baking dish. Pour the mixture into baking dishes, spreading the mix evenly until all the mixture is used up. Fill the baking dish with boiling water approx. 1/3 full. Cover with aluminum foil in which small holes have been punched with either a fork or a skewer. Place in the oven and let bake approximately 35-40 minutes or until the pots de crèmes have just set. Remove from the oven and uncover. Let sit approximately one hour or until cooled. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator at least 3 hours.

These can be made approximately 3-5 days in advance.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Buying and Finding Seasonally Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

As the summer progresses, a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables become more readily available in stores as well as farmer’s markets. When searching for fresh fruits or vegetables, the best guide to picking them is your nose. As a rule of thumb, if it smells like the fruit or vegetable, it is ripe, if it doesn’t, don’t buy it. Another good indicator for ripeness is touch and color. Most fruits and vegetables should be slightly soft to the touch, not hard as a rock, and generally the brighter the color, the riper.

For example, when picking a cantaloupe, choose one that is slightly soft at the point where the stem connected to the fruit. Then smell it. It should smell sweet and like a cantaloupe. For tomatoes, the tomato should be fragrant, darker red and there should be a slight pliability to the skin, unless of course you are looking at a green zebra, orange or yellow tomato, in which case, you’ll have to go by feel to see if they are ripe. Avocadoes are always a perplexing fruit to pick. Again, the avocado should be dark green, almost black, and slightly soft to the touch, but not mushy. For herbs, make sure the leaves are still dark green and not turning black.

Taking the extra time to make sure your fruits and vegetables are ripe when you buy them is worth doing. Ripe fruits and vegetables not only taste better, but are generally higher in vitamins and nutrients. Often unripe fruits and vegetables will never ripen properly once they are brought home, thereby ruining their flavor and nutritional value.

The best way to ensure you are getting the highest quality fruits and vegetables while they are in season is to buy from local farmers. Many of them participate in local farmer’s markets while others also offer CSA’s or community supported agriculture programs. These programs rely on individuals purchasing a share of a farmer’s crop. Generally you pay half the share at the beginning of the season and half at the end. Every week you will receive a box of the freshest produce that is available within that season. And the price is generally as reasonable or more so than purchasing produce at a standard grocery store. It is a great way not only to support your local economy, but to get the best possible product around.

One more note about organics. Organic produce is fantastic and if available you should always try to buy organic despite the increased cost. However, many purveyors of “organic” foods are not entirely clear on what is truly organic. Organic foods must be produced without the use of pesticides, no genetic modification, no fertilizers, no growth hormones and no ionizing radiation. Very few farms can actually qualify completely for organic certification because even those farms that do not use pesticides may be located near other farms that do in which case the pesticides may contaminate the soil in which the produce is grown. Unless a product in a store is labeled “certified organic” it is not organic and should not be purchased.

Buying good quality seasonal produce isn’t brain science. It is simply a matter of committing to careful shopping habits. Shopping isn’t everyone’s favorite hobby and in fact may be more drudgery for most people than entertainment. What we should all remember, however, is that there is no more important activity that we can do to increase our health and life expectancy then to eat healthy. But eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring or tasteless and one of the key ingredients to healthy and tasty eating is buying ripe, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Why not take advantage of locally available produce and enjoy the bounty of what our earth produces. Take pride in the foods you purchase for your family. They will thank you for providing them with foods that are not only delicious but healthy for them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Gluten Intolerance: Living with a Wheat Allergy

Gluten Intolerance, or celiac disease, affects one out of every 133 people in the United States. People afflicted with this disease are unable to consume wheat, rye, barley or oats. Symptoms range from general abdominal discomfort to severe malnutrition. People afflicted with Celiac Disease are often misdiagnosed as having mild to moderate anemia and other gastrointestinal disorders. While diagnosis is difficult, awareness has been growing and more and more doctors are equipped with the appropriate testing supplies to test individuals suffering with these types of ailments. The only solution for an individual suffering from Celiac Disease is to maintain a completely gluten free diet, which can be far more difficult than it sounds.

Many items that would seem to be otherwise safe contain wheat gluten in them as wheat gluten is a common additive in preservatives. Items such as distilled vinegar, sour cream, mayonnaise, yogurt and even hot dogs may contain wheat gluten in them and therefore can cause discomfort. What is gluten?? Wheat gluten is a protein found in most cereals that creates the elasticity necessary to leavening. While many types of flowers can be used for baking, i.e. rice, potato and chickpea, these often produce dense or tough dough that is not suitable for baking bread or cakes.

While Celiac Disease is one of the most common forms of a wheat allergy, there are others. Most wheat allergies are not as common as other food allergies, namely peanut, dairy or seafood. However, they can be just as severe. Again, the most effective way of dealing with a wheat allergy is simply to avoid eating the foods that cause the reactions as anaphylactics do not help to avert the allergic reaction when these foods are consumed.

How to deal with cooking for individuals with Celiac Disease or other wheat allergies? It is simply a matter of reading the ingredients in common household items you use. One of the main culprits of allergic reactions in many foods is modified food starch. Look for products that are labeled “natural” or “certified organic.” Often these products are produced with little or no preservatives. Also, be careful of anything containing alcohol, including vanilla extract. Most alcohols are distilled with grains, most of which contain wheat glutens in them. Finding gluten free ingredients in stores is becoming easier and easier as more and more food manufacturers are becoming aware of the specifics of wheat allergies.

For those individuals following the South Beach Diet or other low carb diets, gluten free products can be a great indicator of foods that are naturally low in carbohydrates and starches. Eating gluten free doesn’t have to be boring or restrictive. It just requires a bit more creativity in the kitchen and the use of more flavor additives such as herbs and spices to liven things up. Below is a recipe for a gluten free chocolate cake. This flourless cake is delicious for both those with wheat allergies and those without. One final note: When eating out at restaurants, be careful to ask about items that specify they are “flourless.” Some restaurants label items, particularly desserts as “flourless,” when in fact they contain trace amounts of flour in them to bind the dessert. Even a trace amount can make the difference between a nice meal and a really bad stomach ache for someone suffering from Celiac Disease or a wheat allergy.

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Yields: Approx. 12 Servings

8 oz Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
¾ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract (Organic)
1 tsp instant coffee
4 eggs, separated
Pinch of cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 inch spring form pan. In a small saucepan filled ¼ full with water, bring to a boil. Place chocolate, butter, vanilla and coffee in a heat resistant mixing bowl and place over boiling water, reducing heat to low. Melt chocolate and butter completely. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks with half the sugar until the eggs become pale yellow and creamy. In another bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar, gradually adding remaining sugar until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the cooled chocolate mixture into the egg yolk/sugar mixture, making sure not to scramble the eggs. Slowly fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk/chocolate mix. Pour cake mixture into the spring form pan and place on a large baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake approx. 40 mins or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and run a knife around the edges of the cake. Allow to cool completely before removing from the spring form pan. Serve with whipping cream or vanilla ice cream.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

About Garlic

Did you know that garlic is actually stronger, the smaller you chop it?? Garlic intensifies in flavor the smaller the pieces because more surface area is exposed to oxygen, which actually brings out the flavor. If you want a really pungent garlicky flavor, put the clove through a garlic press. For the mildest garlic flavor, use it whole or better yet, roast it. Peel as much of the outer paper off as possible and place on a sheet of foil. Drizzle with olive oil, wrap tightly and place on a baking sheet. Roast at 375 degrees for approximately 45 minutes and voila!! Sweet, mellow garlicky flavor. The roasting process brings out the natural sugars of the garlic and caramelizes them creating a subtle, sweet flavor that works perfectly in mashed potatoes, hummus or will make the best garlic bread you have ever had. Spread the roasted garlic onto a half a loaf of crusty italian bread. Add freshly grated Parmesan Cheese and place onto a baking sheet. Put into a 350 degree oven for approximately 10 mins to just melt and brown the cheese a bit. It's to die for. And soooo healthy. Garlic is super high in anti-oxidants and don't worry about the after effects. If everyone eats it, nobody will be offended.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mother's Day Brunch

Join us for a special Mother's Day Tea at 11:30am. $18 Per Person Plus Tax. Included one mimosa. Menu includes: Cherry Scones, Apple Spice Cake, Herbed Goat Cheese and Cucumber Finger Sandwiches, Turkey and Pesto Finger Sandwiches, Hummus and Roasted Pepper Aioli Finger Sandwiches, Strawberries and Cream.

Cinco de Mayo

Join us for a special Cinco de Mayo dinner. Menu Includes: Homemade Guacamole and Corn and Black Bean Salsa, Albondiagas Soup, Mole with Chicken and Spanish Rice, Flan. $27 Per Person Plus Tax.

Easter Lunch

Join us for our Easter Luncheon at 1pm. Menu includes: Tomato Bisque, Mixed Greens with Pear and Gorgonzola, Pot Roasted Lamb with Herb Roasted Potatoes and Roasted Asparagus, Creme Brulee. $27 Per Person Plus tax.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Second date added for special Valentine's Day dinner. Due to popular demand, we are adding a second date for our special Valentine's Day dinner. We will repeat the same menu on February 13, 2009. Dinner will be at 6:30pm and cost is $35 per person plus tax. Dinner will include the full 5-course meal, champagne toast, home baked bread and all non-alcoholic beverages. Menu includes: Artisanal Italian Cheese Tray, Crispy Butternut Squash Ravioli, Shrimp Burratta, Seared Filet Mignon with Shaved Grana Padano and Pesto Risotto, Tiramisu. Reservations Required. Call 815-454-2419 for more information.

Best wishes,

Jeff and Monika
Friends of Strays Cooking Class Postponed. The cooking class, scheduled for this evening, Thursday, January 15, 2009 from 6-8pm, has been postponed due to extreme cold weather. We will hold the class next Wednesday, January 21, 2009 from 6-8pm. Class will be held at Someone's In the Kitchen, 1619 North Main St, Princeton, IL, 61356. Proceeds benefit the local chapter of the Friends of Strays. We apologize for any inconvenience.


Monika and Jeff


Welcome to the first edition of the Chestnut Street Inn blog. We look forward to having a continued dialogue about the inn, food, cooking and the local community. It is our hope that this blog will enable us to better inform our guests about upcoming events and to keep in contact with them.


Jeff and Monika