Saturday, December 4, 2010

Food Discrimination

Food Discrimination. Sounds like something a little overly dramatic but hear me out. There are some food avoidances that make sense to me. One, those that are avoided because of an allergy or intolerance. Two, those that are avoided because of a religious or cultural belief. I get those and am not judging those. There is, however, a third category of food avoidance, which I would label discrimination. People for whatever reason develop an opinion about a food whether it be a bad experience, someone elses bad experience or simply perception that tells them not to eat something. This is the kind of discrimination I wish to abolish.

I don't know how many times I have had someone come to dine with us who tells me they hate something and would never order it off a menu anywhere else, but since they had no choice in the matter they tried it and loved it. The question that always arises in my mind is why would you deprive yourself of a potential wonderful experience because of a preconceived notion that you won't like something? What is the worst that could happen? You still don't like it. Big deal. Then you don't have to eat it. But if you don't try, you'll never know if your palate has changed or if you simply had something cooked improperly the first time around. Do I sound like your worst nightmare of your mother when you were a child?

Food, like life, is an adventure. The most wonderful experiences in life often arise out of change or out of unexpected circumstances. Why not allow ourselves the opportunity to be unexpectedly surprised by food? I challenge all of you, the next time you are offered something, don't simply dismiss it as gross or something you don't like. Give yourself the opportunity to make a discovery, to learn something new. You might just find something wonderful that will change your world forever.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Eating Heart Healthy

I was recently asked to come up with a heart healthy recipe that would be quick and easy to prepare. As I was contemplating the recipe, I pondered the basics of eating heart healthy and how to incorporate them into your daily diet. Something people know from having it beaten into their memories time and time again is to watch your fat intake, watch cholesterol and eat less salt. We knoow certain foods are higher in "good fats" and omega 3 fatty acids, like salmon, but beyond that, what we don't know is how to take that knowledge and actually apply it.

There are a couple of basic rules of thumb to follow that you can apply regularly even with existing recips to alter them and make them heart healthy. Number one, you should always reach for the olive oil instead of the butter. While butter is far better than margarine or shortening as it is absent of any trans fats, it is still high in fat and cholesterol and should be used in moderation. Keep in mind that butter produced from grass fed dairy cows will indeed be lower in cholesterol and higher in omega 3 fatty acids than regular butter, but nonetheless, use olive oil for maximum health benefits.

An alternative to olive oil for those willing to splurge a bit in terms of cost is Argan oil. This Moroccan specialty is pricey but is purported to be even higher in good fats and omega 3's than olive oil. Only disadvantage is that it will cost about 3-4 times as much. But it's intense flavor goes a long way so you don't need as much to get good flavor. You can use it interchangeably in sauteeing and dressings. It has an intense nutty fragrance and flavor that resembles a cross between peanut and sesame oil.

A second rule of thumb is to reduce the amount of salt, but not to eliminate it. Hypertension is a primary culprit of heart disease and salt is known to elevate blood pressure. However, your body requires at least a minimum of salt intake a day to remain healthy. Generally speaking 1500 mg of sodium per day is recommended, which is approx. 2/3 a teaspoon of salt. Keep in mind sodium isn't just found in salt. It can be found in a number of other items such as baking soda and even meat. Be sure to read labels carefully. Salt is a natural preservative so it is often added to cans and pre-packaged foods as a method of keeping those items fresh longer.

Third, losng weight. For men, particularly those love handles and for women, belly fat. Contrary to popular belief, there is no secret to losing weight. No magic pill you can take and poof. The only way to lose unwanted pounds and inches is to decrease calorie intake and increase exercise. What goes in must get put out. Simple math. Women generally should consume 2000 calories per day and men 2500. That is assuming that you are healthy, active and are generally not overweight. Cutting calories below that is the only way to shed pounds. Losing weight equates to better overall cardiovascular health and therefore better heart health.

But how you ask? How do I do all this and still enjoy myself. There are a couple of tricks of the trade. Vegetables are almost free in terms of calories. You can eat large quantities that will fill you up and won't make you gain a pound. Now, I'm not talking about potatoes and other starches, I'm talking about things like green leafy veggies, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, etc. Saute them lightly in some olive oil or eat them in a salad, just hold the ranch dressing.

Lean proteins are a must as they will keep you full and give you energy to do your daily work for a longer period of time. Complex carbs and starches simply give you a quick sugar high, which rapidly disappears. Good choices for protein are salmon, boneless skinless chicken breast or grass fed beef, which is very low in cholesterol and high in omega three fatty acids. You want to eat a portion that is about the size of your palm.

Nuts and legumes are an excellent source of fiber and good fats that actually help your brain stay sharp and keep your digestion on track.

All of these naturally taste good, but the key to flavor with all of these is the use of spices. Not spicy salt blends, pure spices and fresh herbs that flavor naturally without calories or fat. The more you use, the less deprived you will feel. Don't hold back either. Most people fear they will over season their food. This is virtually impossible. Learn how to combine spices in unusual ways, such as cinnamon, ginger and saffron with chicken or cumin, paprika and cilantro with fish.

Quick easy condiments to flavor with that don't add too much by way of calories or fat are vinegars, mustards and chili pastes such as Harissa, which is a North African chili paste.

Use plenty of garlic and onions when cooking to create a base of flavor and cook with a little bit of red wine, which is known for its heart healthy benefits. You can also find plenty of low sodium broths for things like home made soups, which are infinitely lower in sodium then their canned alternatives.

These are all simple, easy ways to improve your heart health through your diet without losing flavor and fun. Eating should always be pleasurable even when you are watching what you eat. And don't be afriad to splurge once in a while. One ice cream cone or bag of salty chips won't kill you. Continuous consumption of ice cream and chips might.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

So What do those dates really mean on your food packages?

Recently there was an article on Yahoo discussing the meaning of dates on food packages. After reading it and having spent some time learning about this stuff at our health safety and certification classes, I thought it needed some more elaborating.

First of all, "Use By" Dates. These are the dates a manufacturer suggests that a product be used by. They don't mean that a product is necessarily spoiled on that date and should be discarded.

"Sell By" dates mean just that. A grocery store is supposed to remove these products for sale by the stated date but again, this doesn't mean the product is no longer useable. In fact, the product may be just fine for quite a long while after the "Sell By" date.

An "Expiration Date" is technically the last date a product should be used, particularly if it is being given to those with compromised immune systems such as babies or the elderly. Again, this does not mean that the food is necessarily spoiled.

The main rule of thumb with any of these is proper handling and storage of the foods. All potentially hazardous foods, i.e. dairy products, meat and eggs, should be stored at a temperature of 40 degrees or less. And frozen foods should remain that way until they are thawed for use. If you suspect a food has been mishandled, i.e. there are ice crystals that have formed in frozen packages which indicate thawing and refreezing, you should immediately discard the product.

Ultimately though, your two best allies in determining the freshness of your food are your eyes and your nose. Your eyes can see potential discoloration, mold, dents in cans, etc. Your nose can certainly smell when milk or dairy products are off. Smell your milk before you pour it on your cereal. Even if the "Sell By" date hasn't passed, it may go bad. And if the "Sell By" date has passed, the milk may still be just fine for another 7-10 days.

Cans theoretically don't have an expiration date if they are properly sealed, however, sometimes cans can get compromised, thus enabling bacteria to form. Be particularly aware of cans that have been dropped or dented and of course if you notice the can buldging in any way. This is an indication that the can is no longer safe for consumption and should be thrown away.

Eggs are of course a big one with the latest salmonella scare. I get my eggs straight from the farm. Farm fresh eggs absolutely do not hard boil straight out of the chicken. They require a little aging to get a good hard boil. I often keep one set of eggs for 2 weeks for hard boiling and then use the fresher ones for my baking or breakfasts. Eggs, particularly fresh ones, can keep for 3 weeks no problem. Just make sure you are cooking them up to temperature, meaning to 160 degrees. If you enjoy your eggs poached or in hollandaise sauce, as I do, use the absolute freshest ones to guarantee safety.

With cheese, you may notice mold form on hard cheeses but this can easily be cut off and the cheese will still be edible. With fresh cheeses, like goat, feta, cream, mascarpone, queso fresco, etc. you have to be a little more cautious. These cheeses will begin to smell off and at that point you'll want to throw them away.

With things like jams and jellies or peanut butter, again, you may notice mold form in the jar. Technically you can remove the mold and the rest of the container is still edible but I prefer to toss the jar. Honey, which should be kept at room temperature for optimal texture may harden with time, but it doesn't go rancid. You can place the jar in the microwave for a few seconds to loosen up. Lemon juice and vinegar are the same thing. They are acids, which are a natural preservatives and do not go rancid.

Spices of course are generally good for 6 months to a year before they have to be replaced, not because they go rancid, but because they lose their flavor. They should be kept in airtight containers away from heat or sunlight. Olive oil and other oils are generally good for a year if kept in an opaque container, away from heat or sunlight. Coffee should be kept at room temperature in an airtight container and ground fresh for maximum flavor, but not necessarily because of spoilage. Nuts can be frozen for longevity, but generally I keep them in an airtight container in a cool dry place away from sunlight for up to 6 months before they will go rancid. Notice a trend, oxygen and sunlight are two big culprits of degeneration in cellular structure of many commonly used ingredients.

Again, ultimately you are your own best advocate for food safety. Use your senses and if something looks, smells and especially tastes off, throw it out. No reason to take chances. But don't jump the gun either. You'll waste money on replacing food that is perfectly safe to eat.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Importance of Eating Local

This last couple of weeks have been a brilliant reminder of the multiple benefits of eating local. With one of the largest egg recalls in history, I felt vindicated that I have been supporting my local farm for several years now and purchasing their wholesome organic, cage free eggs. Not only do I know my eggs are safe to eat, but I know that I'm in some important way contributing to the local economy and the well being of my guests.

An important lesson to be sure. The single most valuable asset to buying your food locally is the familiarity you have with your farmers. You can guarantee that things are being done the right way by going to the source of your food and checking up on the facts. You can see what chemicals may or may not be used and how "free" your "free range" chickens really are. And perhaps most importantly, how clean the facilities are that these animals are kept in. All of these can contribute to your peace of mind that what you are eating is safe, environmentally friendly, economically friendly and of course friendly to the animals and people involved.

A friendly reminder of some terms. CSA means community supported agriculture. There are CSA's all over the country. They all work on the same basic premise. You pay for a share of the crop of a farm and then you get some fresh produce. Prices and exact rules may vary but the concept is the same. Get the freshest seasonally available produce at the best price. "Certified Organic" may be a misnomer. Just because a "farm" is certified doesn't guarantee quality. Certification is expensive and many small farms that are doing it the right way cannot afford to get certified. Larger corporate farms that can afford certification often cut corners and abuse the system. For example, a chicken can be called "cage free" as long as it spends at least 15 minutes a day in sunlight. That's a cop out and not the kind of farm I want to support. "Certified Natural" is similar to "Certified Organic" only it is designed to be taken advantage of by local smaller farms. It is much cheaper but also requires no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and hormones.

One interesting fact to keep in mind about supporting local farms. According to AARP magazine, if you spend $100 at a local business, $45 of that will stay within the community. If you spend that same $100 at a chain store, only about $14 of that will stay within the community. Times are tough for everyone. I don't know about you, but I would rather support those people that I know and care about than the CEO's of a big corporation. Lets keep the $$ local and support our local farms.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Julia and Monika. Kindred Spirits??

OK, sounds far fetched, but let me explain. Not the first time this dawned on me but guests this morning pointed it out to me so I felt compelled to write about it. At breakfast we were chatting about the fact that I had watched Julie & Julia again for the 10th time last night and they said, from reading our bios they weren't surprised because we had so much in common. This is true and let me tell you how.

1) Julia didn't cook until she met her husband and was introduced to food. I didn't begin cooking until about 12 years ago, after we got married and I had been introduced to all kinds of ethnic foods by Jeff.

2) Julia was passionate about France and French culture. I have a bachelor's degree in French and lived in Paris for 6 months for the same reason.

3) Julia and Paul never had children, only a cat. Neither do we and of course we have Couscous.

4) Julia would never have been Julia without the support and assistance of Paul. I would never be who I am without the support and assistance of Jeff.

5) Julia travelled all over the world and lived in many different places as have I.

6) Julia was a liberal and a democrat as am I.

7) More than anything, Julia wanted to teach people how to cook and demystify it. She wanted to make it easy for anyone to do what she does by showing them how and having fun with it. My approach to teaching cooking classes as well. It isn't brain science. It's supposed to be fun.

8)More than anything, Julia loved to eat good food, drink good wine and do it with the best of company. DITTO.

9)Julia desperately wanted to get a book published and to become a household name. I'm at that stage right now and hope to do the same, although it's a little different world now.

10) Julia was stubborn and opinionated about things she was passionate about. As am I.

11) Paul was 10 years older than Julia. Jeff is 10 years older than me.

12) Julia was a work horse. I guess I am too.

Obviously I am about a foot and 2 inches shorter than she is and I started my journey approximately 10 years ahead of her, but I identify with the love, the dedication, the passion, the laughter, the relationships and the hard work that exemplified her. Now, if only I could ever achieve even a smidgen of the notoriety she achieved and affect others in even a 100th the way that she did. She is absolutely a role model for what all of us in the culinary world should strive to achieve. I make it my mission every day to make her proud and to live in her light. I will forever place her on a pedestal that she shall never be replaced from for all that she accomplished and the legacy she left on this world.

Happy birthday Julia. I love you.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Obesity an Epidemic in the U.S.

In a recent article posted by the NY Times NY Times, the topic of the increasing obesity epidemic was at the forefront. Obesity is rising at an alarming rate, particularly amongst children. Much of this is blamed on sedentary lifestyles and diets high in sugar and fats and low in vegetables, fruits and lean proteins. The unfortunate end result that will likely occur is a generation of young individuals who will die prematurely of obesity related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Statistically speaking, this is the first generation of children that will not outlive their parents. First Lady Michelle Obama is doing her part to try to increase awareness of this epidemic with her "Let's Move" program and there is some talk of legislation to help make school lunch programs healthier but it isn't enough.

Education has to begin at home. Yet what I find is that parents are at as much of a loss as to what to eat themselves and are constantly yo yo dieting as the kids are. We have become a society of overly processed, overly convenienced foods that are killing us but are cheaper and more readily available than fresh foods are. People cannot continue to be bombarded with these mixed signals and be expected to make the right choices for themselves and their children without some help.

I have been teaching cooking classes for 5+ years and there are two constants in all of my classes. One, adhering to a Mediterranean cooking style using spices to flavor foods, low fat olive oils and lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. Two, eating local. These two go hand in hand to developing a healthy lifestyle.

Notice I didn't say healthy diet, but healthy lifestyle. I don't believe in diets. They don't work and they leave you wanting for something that cannot be sustained eventually leading to binge eating. You have to develop lifestyle choices that are common sense, easy to follow and don't leave you feeling deprived. Learning to eat a Mediterranean diet rich in locally grown foods will do just that.

The following are just a couple of recipes I will be using tonite for a cooking class I am hosting featuring local farms. They are prime examples of exactly what I'm talking about. Delicious, light, fresh and healthy. Enjoy!

Roasted Pepper and Olive Salad

Yields: Approx. 6 Servings

2 Red Peppers, Roasted, Peeled, Seeded and Chopped
2 Green Peppers, Roasted, Peeled, Seeded and Chopped
1/2 cup Spanish Olives, Pitted and Chopped
2 Tomatoes, Sliced
2-3 Garlic Cloves, Minced
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
2 tsps Hungarian Paprika
2 tsps ground cumin
2-3 Tbl Olive Oil
2 Tbl Red Wine Vinegar

Toss peppers, olives, tomato and garlic with oil and vinegar. Season with salt, pepper, cumin and paprika to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Roasted Potatoes

Yields: 4 Servings

8 Small New Potatoes Cut in Half or 4 Larger ones Quartered
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
2 tsps Smoked Hot Hungarian Paprika (Austin Parker sells great spices or you can order the one I use from
2 tsps Garlic Powder
2 tsps Herbes de Provence (Austin Parker or Make sure you get the one with lavender in it. My favorite spice. I use it on everything, especially steaks or pork)
2-3 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Tzatziki-Cucumber and Yogurt Salad/Dip

Yields: Approx. 6-8 Servings

2 English Cucumber, peeled and seeded
13 oz Greek Yogurt or Whole Milk Plain American Yogurt, Drained
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
3 Tbl Mint, Chopped
2-3 Tbl Fresh Dill, Chopped
Pinch Salt and Pepper

Shred the cucumber and place in a colander lined with paper towels. Salt generously and allow to sit for 30 minutes to an hour to pull out most of the moisture. Combine cucumber with yogurt, garlic, mint and dill. Season with Salt and pepper to taste.

Yogurt Parfaits with Orange Blossom Water, Honey, Cinnamon and Vanilla

Yields: 6-8 Servings

16 oz Natural or Greek Yogurt
2 tsps Pure Vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbl Orange Blossom Water
1/3-1/2 Cup Orange Blossom Honey

Combine and sweeten to taste. Layer yogurt, organic granola and fresh fruit in a wine glass. Chill 30 mins before serving.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What is it About Julia Child??

About this time every year I begin rewatching episodes of the original French Chef series in preparation for our annual tribute to Julia Child dinner. Rewatching them not only amuses me but gives me pause to consider why she became the legend that she did. Now, I'm not just talking about the Julia Child we all have been introduced to through Julie Powell's book "Julie & Julia" or the brilliant performance by Meryl Streep in the movie of the same name. I'm talking about the real deal. The woman who inspired other women to get back into the kitchen and cook, arguably launched the concept of the Food Network, built a cookbook empire of 12 books and was a regular on Good Morning America until very close to her death. People adored her, they made fun of her (Think Saturday Night Live) and they trusted her.

I always knew who Julia Child was, and had even seen a few of her episodes of the French Chef as a child/teenager, but I hadn't yet begun to cook so I wasn't particularly interested in her. When I started cooking about 12 years ago, I began rewatching her shows and reading her books and began what I would call a love affair with the woman. I couldn't watch enough, read enough or learn enough about who she was and what she did. I was inspired by her, mesmerized by her and entertained by her. I have carried this inspiration with me and have continued trying to introduce or reintroduce people to her yearly with my Tribute to Julia dinner. I don't expect everyone to be as enthusiastic about her as I, but I'm certain that everyone will appreciate the uniqueness of her through my eyes.

My theory is that she spoke to so many, including me, because she was the "every" woman. Well, almost. Except perhaps for her large frame and notable height, 6' 3", she was basically a typical female born at a time when most women didn't work per se, but married off into good families and raised children. That is until she fell in love and moved to France, which of course changed her life as we all know the story so well now. Even then, however, she always admitted that she wasn't a natural cook. It took a good teacher and a lot of practice to make the food she loved so much and was so passionate about. And even on her shows, the effort showed, often in the form of notable disasters. That endeared her to us. She wasn't perfect and so we didn't have to feel intimidated.

She also, had something I think we all strive for but many of us don't actually achieve. A certain joie de vivre or carpe diem attitude. She didn't just preach it, she lived it at every moment of her life. She ate with passion, drank with passion, loved with passion and entertained with passion. I'm sure she had her ups and downs, but I attribute her long life to this marvelous committment to living that I think we all envied and secretly tried to recreate in our own lives.

And finally, she was confident. She didn't make apologies for her mistakes, she didn't pretend to be a super model. She was who she was and she was proud. So many of us fall prey to the labels and preconceived notions of what we should look like and how we should behave in todays society that we end up placing immense pressures on ourselves to conform and don't take the time to actually appreciate who we are. That made her a role model for modern women in my opinion and that holds true even to this day.

Much has changed since the French Chef came on the air for the first time in 1962. The world is a different place. But to this day and for eternity, Julia will remain in our hearts and our minds, a beacon of light shining upon our forks and knives, beckoning us to enjoy and wishing us Bon Appetit.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Let's Talk About Avocadoes

My favorite summer fruit, avocadoes, are not only delicious but they are a wonderful source of unsaturated fats that we all know are good for our health and brain functions. BUT, unless you live in California where they are always available ripe and in abundance, most of the time you can't find decent avocadoes anywhere and use them the same day. In fact, most of the time, when I find them they feel like hockey pucks.

How do you know if they are ripe?? What you are looking for is an avocado that is dark skinned and has just a little give when you squeeze it. Not mushy, but tender. Avocadoes should be kept in a cool dry place and never refrigerated unless you have already cut one up and are keeping a portion of it for later in which case you should keep the pit in the portion you are saving and place in a ziploc baggie to avoid too much oxygen exposure which will turn the avocado brown.

To remove the pit when slicing, place a knife into the center of the avocado, lengthwise until it hits the pit and roll the knife around the pit. Twist the avocado halves to separate and then carefully tap the blade of your knife into the pit, twist and then pop the pit out. You can slice the avocado halves right in the peel and scoop the slices out with a tablespoon to serve.

What's the best way to ripen an avocado quickly? My favorite way is to simply place them in a window sill that gets abundant sunlight. The sun will naturally ripen the avocado quickly. I've literally taken a completely green, unripened avocado and done this and it was perfectly ripe by the next day.

Here are a couple of great recipes that feature avocadoes that are my favorites.

Greek Style Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup

Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

3 English Cucumbers, Peeled, Seeded and Chopped
1 Spanish or Vidalia Onion, Diced
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
2 Avocadoes, Chopped
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste
¼ Cup Mint, Chopped
¼ Cup Chives, Snipped
¼ Cup Cilantro, Chopped
¼ Cup Italian Parsley, chopped
2 tsps dried oregano
2 tsps dried Dillweed
1 Cup Feta, Crumbled
1 Tbl Harissa
16 oz Plain Yogurt
½-3/4 cup Sour Cream
1 Cup Lemon Juice
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Blend using an immersion blender until creamy and well combined. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with queso fresco or fresh goat cheese.

Green Eggs and Ham

Inspired by the classic Dr. Seuss book, this recipe is great for a cocktail party. It is a crowd pleaser and a good conversation piece. A reminder that it cannot be made too far in advance as the avocado will oxidize and turn brown.

Yields Approx. 12 Servings

12 Eggs
1 Avocado (Cut Into small dice)
1 cup of Assorted Fresh Herbs (I like using a combo of chives, Italian parsley and tarragon)
2 Garlic cloves
4 Tbl Sour Cream
Pinch Salt & Pepper
1 Tbl Lemon Juice
2 Tbl Mayonnaise
3 slices cooked bacon

Place the eggs in a saucepan. Cover with cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Cook the eggs approx. 10 mins. Remove from heat and run cold water over the eggs to stop the cooking process. Once cooled, peel the eggs and cut them in half, removing the yolks carefully without tearing the egg whites. Combine half of the yolks with the avocado, herbs, garlic, sour cream, salt and pepper, lemon juice and mayonnaise in the bowl of a food processor. Blend until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Place the filling into a Ziploc baggie. Cut a small hole in the bottom corner of the baggie and pipe the mixture into the prepared egg whites. Top each egg with a piece of crumbled bacon. Serve immediately.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Mistakes can be blessings in disguise

So I'm sure all of us can attest to having made boo boos in the kitchen. My latest one involved a traditional Spanish dessert called Creme Catalana. I've made creme brulee a million times and so I wasn't worried about tackling this particular dessert. How hard could it be right?? Wrong. The dessert is basically a recipe for a vanilla custard that, like creme brulee, sets and then the top is bruleed with sugar to create a contrast between creamy and cruncy. Delicious. Well, I did the recipe by the book, tempering the egg yolks properly, straining out any cooked bits of milk and egg and then chilling overnight. Well, next morning I went to look at them to see if they were set and ready to go and what do you know, they were just as liquidy as when I first stuck them in the fridge.

Needless to say, I didn't have time to try it again so I racked my brains to figure out how I could fix them. Only thing I could think of was to stick them in the freezer and see if that would solve the problem. So I transferred them to the freezer and a couple of hours later, sure enough, they were set. I put them back into the fridge and then went on with my day of cooking and cleaning. At about 3pm, 3 hours before dinner, I happened to look in the fridge and noticed that not only had they thawed, but were right back to being liquidy again. Shoot. Now what??

Soooo, I put them right back in the freezer and let them set up again. Now I had to come up with a second alternative plan. My solution was to sell it as a new concept, frozen creme brulee. I wasn't 100% sure this would fly but at this point I had to try. Went forward with the meal. Started off with Goat Cheese and Tapenade Stuffed Tomatoes, Mixed Greens with a Chopped Vegetable and Olive Salad, Paella and the grand finale, the special Cinnamon, Vanilla and Orange Blossom Frozen Creme Brulee. Sounded fancy huh?? I pulled the frozen custards out, which by this point were like ice cream, and let them sit at room temperature for like 10 minutes just to take the chill off a bit. Then I sprinkled the tops with sugar and caramelized the sugar with my blow torch, just like I always do with creme brulee.

Then I thought to myself, "Well, here goes nothing." Off we went, presented the specialty gourmet dessert to our guests and then I went and hid in the kitchen, awaiting the response. The response was a bunch of empty ramekins and a lot of "that was the most unique dessert I have ever eaten." Phew, disaster averted and possibly new menu item added to existing repertoire. Now, question is if I can recreate the disaster cum blessing in disguise. Point is, think quick. Be creative. You never know why things happen the way they do, but I'm a firm believer in karma and also in the concept that sometimes the best things in life come out of what at the time can be perceived of as something awful. I always say to my students, what's the worst thing that can happen in the kitchen? You don't like something and you try again. Big deal. But if you never tried to begin with, you'll never know the pleasure of the experience of both making and eating good food.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Eating Mindfully

I know this is going to sound controversial but hear me out. I was having a conversation with someone the other day and they were telling me they loved to eat and that I could probably tell. Now this person is petite, probably 5'2" and maybe 120 lbs soaking wet. However, I do know they like to eat out and dine on gourmet cuisine. I made a comment to her that I have a theory that people who are foodies, who genuinely appreciate good food and the social aspects of dining, tend to be fit. I'm not saying skinny, but fit. They tend to focus on what they put into their bodies and that seems to extend to their whole well being, not just food.

I think this is directly a result of mindfulness. Being mindful of splurging once in a while but doing so consciously, not just simply for the sake of eating to fill some kind of void or because you are bored. They also tend to be midnful of their bodies in terms of working out and taking time to choose their foods wisely. There also seems to be a correlation between those who appreciate good food eating a more diverse diet, rich in not just some of the things we think are bad for us, like butter and cheese, but lots of fruits and vegetables, assembled and prepared delicately and cleverly at the height of their freshness.

Follow the logic here. We always talk about why French people, for example, aren't generally speaking heavy even though they eat what seems to be a very rich diet, drink lots of wine and eat very late at night, which are all "no-no's" according to most of our westernized diet plans. Yet, the diet doesn't seem to reflect the people. Why?? Well, I believe it is about this mindfulness. They are mindful of what they are eating, paying close attention to the flavors and appreciating them. They are mindful of whom they are eating with, usually spending hours over a meal, slowly enjoying what generally ends up being smaller portions than what we consume on a regular basis of richer, more flavorful foods. And they are mindful of the fact that food is both a necessity and a luxury in life. Yes, we all have to eat, but what we choose to eat isn't always a matter of necessity.

Often we choose things that don't nourish us in any way and really don't taste very good. We choose them because they are cheap, abundant and en vogue. I know that commercials and media inundate us with mixed signals about food. While fast food restaurants are pushing the super sized cheap meals, shows like "Biggest Loser" and "Celebrity Fit Club" have marketed every possible kind of supplement to assist us with offsetting the super sized world we live in. It's a dichotomy that is really kind of tragic and really signals a national eating disorder of a huge magnitude.

So, with that said, I challenge you all for the next month to eat mindfully. Pay attention to the choices you make. Decide if you are eating something simply because you saw an ad for it on tv, are bored or are genuinely going to spend the time to appreciate and enjoy the flavors of it. Take time to eat socially, appreciating the communion you can experience by sharing in food and drink. The whole concept of "breaking bread" isn't a new one, but one that may be getting lost in an increasingly busy world. Let your mind and your belly be full of love, passion and good food.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Who is Responsible To Our Children?

With the finale of Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" tonite, I got to thinking about the question of ultimately who should be responsible for the state of our childrens health right now and what they put into their mouths. There are 4 factors to the equation that can make or break the system. I outline them below and offer just a couple of comments about each to think about.

#1-Food Advertisers-There is more money spent on marketing to children too young to rationally weigh the pros and cons of a particular product, especially food products, than any other demographic. Fast food, snacks, sugary juice beverages, candy, you name it. They are all geared at appealing to a young childs eyes. They are bright, colorful, have cute cartoon characters associated with them and they make kids feel like they are participating in something that everyone else is doing. It's a terrible marketing ploy that undermines good parenting. How can a parent possibly combat the multi-sensory media that is constantly bombarding their children, not just at home, on tv or the computer, but at school? Numerous schools are being approached by companies like Coca-Cola who are placing vending machines in schools and offering them big money to do so. A school facing a budget crisis would be stupid not to take these companies up on the offer, but at the same time, at what expense to their students who are buying these products?

#2-Teachers-Lets be honest, kids spend a good portion of their waking hours with their teachers. Teachers can be extremely powerful influences on childrens lives as kids look up to them. This is an opportunity to affect change that is a huge responsibiltiy and one many teachers are taking seriously. For example, one of my cooking class students and a great friend who is a teacher has made it her goal to teach kids through cooking. This week she had her kids select a bunch of veggies for a stir fry and made them lunch, on her buck. She decided it was so effective and the kids enjoyed it so much, that she is going to try to do this weekly. That is a dedicated and inspirational teacher whose example should be followed by many.

#3-Government-One of the glaring gaps in the food system that "Food Revolution" has shown is in USDA regulations that are being followed by all schools. The logic that a child should have flavored milk options because it is better for them to drink any milk rather than not drink milk at all is ludicrous. Kids are hungry. They are growing. If they are hungry or thirsty enough, they'll drink and eat what's available. Get rid of the sugary, salty crap in schools and feed them healthy options. Too many kids are being diagnosed with ADD and other illnesses and are being fed medications like candy to treat something that is directly attributable to what they are putting into their bodies. Get rid of the sugar and kids will calm down. Stop poisoning them with chemicals they don't actually need. I'm not saying there aren't legitimate diagnoses for ADD, but the increase recently is fishy to me and this sentiment is shared by numerous teachers I am friends with. And of course, as we have already discussed in a previous blog, there are issues of classification of foods by the USDA. Putting french fries in the same category as broccoli or spinach is ludicrous.

#4-Parents-I'm not a parent. I can't imagine in this day and age, with a dual income household and most kids more interested in playing with their computers and texting than going outside to play ball how tough it is to raise kids. I know the challenges are out there. But, with that said, there are a lot of people doing all the right things and I want to applaud them. Our neighbor who has 4 kids works part time and her husband works full time. She also is a volunteer for numerous things from the Library to the high school vegetable garden. Yet, she takes the time to plant her own vegetables and goes out of her way to cook good, nutritious meals for her family because it means something to her. Her kids are all active, healthy, not fussy about what they eat and do well in school. Her attitude never seems stressed or overwhelmed. She does what she does because it makes her feel good and it's right. I don't think she is superwoman, I just think she has made this a priority for herself and her family. I wish more parents could take her lead and emulate her habits. I admire her immensely and would encourage those who think they can't do the same to reevaluate whether they legitimately can't or just don't feel like it.

I know this is harsh, but it's the reality. We have to start looking at this or our future, the future of the world is in jeopardy. Lets not worry about Aztec calendars and Nostradamus predictions for the end of the world. My fear is that it isn't an end per se, but a self-induced poisoning, one that will seriously jeopardize the future generation. Just recently a story came out suggesting that childhood obesity is a national security risk as army generals feel that 25% of kids are too obese to pass basic fitness requirements to serve. And the FDA just imposed stricter regulations on the amount of salt allowed in foods, which has gotten out of control, leading to skyrocketing cases of heart disease, hypertension and more.

Food can nourish, but it can also kill. We have to start paying attention to what we are putting into our bodies. You are what you eat isn't just a catchy bumper sticker. It's reality and it's an oppourtunity to be in control of something. Take control of yourself and of our future.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

And just one more thing, french fries aren't a vegetable!!!

For anyone who has been watching "Food Revolution" you will understand where i'm coming from. During one episode Jamie Oliver was challenged by the management of one of the schools he was at when he produced a seven vegetable stir fry with chicken and was told that it didn't have enough vegetables in it. As an alternative the meal provided by the school that day which fit USDA guidelines was a chicken sandwich on a white bun with french fries. The vegetable quota in this case was met by, you guessed it, french fries. Now theoretically potatoes fall under the vegetable category, but let's be realistic here, starchy, greasy french fries aren't what I would consider a "health food." Sure they are tasty and a special treat now and again, but let's not fool ourselves into believing we are doing something good for ourselves by eating fries instead of other colorful veggies.

There is a critical disjoint between what we perceive to be healthy for us and what actually is. Quantity is sought after far before quality and generally that quantity is achieved through foods that are mostly fried and white or golden brown in color. Perhaps because people haven't been exposed to vegetables or perhaps because they don't know how to cook them, there seems to be a large number of people who have serious issues with eating their vegetables. I have heard numerous times that if it is green I won't touch it from guests or students in my cooking classes. I usually take it as a challenge and then weasle the veggies in on them. Most of the time they are surprised when they actually like them because I very rarely simply steam a vegetable or cover it with Velveeta, another topic I won't cover here.

Learning to cook vegetables is probably the single best thing you can do not only for your health, but your taste buds. Take the opportunity of the coming of spring and the advent of fresh veggies to make yourself a promise. Promise to try something new each week. Whether it's parsnips or turnips or eggplant, just give it a shot. I promise not only will you not be disappointed, your body will thank you. Here are just a couple suggestions of my favorite veggies to eat. Keep in mind the best ways to cook veggies are to roast them or saute them lightly in olive oil. Not only will you maintain texture but the flavor of the vegetables will be naturally highlighted.

Roasted Asparagus with Freshly Grated Parmesan and Balsamic Reduction

Yields: 4-6 Servings

1 lb Asparagus, Trimmed
2 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste
2 Tbl Freshly Grated Parmesan Cheese
2 Tbl Balsamic Reduction

For the balsamic reduction, place the contents of a bottle of balsamic vinegar in a saucepan. Make sure you read your labels. Not all balsamic vinegars are actually balsamic vinegar but rather wine vinegars that are flavored and dyed to be imposters. Use the real deal here. Bring to a boil and continue to simmer over medium heat until the liquid has evaporated by almost 2/3, leaving a thick syrup behind. This can be kept in a squirt bottle at room temperature in a cool, dry place.

To trim the asparagus, hold each end of the asparagus and gently snap where the asparagus naturally breaks. Repeat with all the remaining asparagus.

Place the aspragus on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss gently to coat with your hands and spread out in a single layer on your baking sheet. Using a micro-plane, grate a thin layer of parmesan onto the asparagus. Bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for 15 mins. Place onto a serving dish and immediately drizzle with balsamic reduction. Serve hot.

Eggplant Chips

Yields: 4-6 Servings

3-4 Japanese Eggplants, Sliced 1/4" thick
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3-4 Garlic Cloves, Minced

Place eggplant slices in a single layer onto paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and cover with more paper towels. Allow to sit for approx. 1 hr to pull out the moisture of the eggplant. Pat dry. Fill a saute pan approx. 1/4 full with olive oil and heat over medium high. Fry eggplant in batches until golden brown and crispy, approx. 3-4 mins per side. Remove to paper towels and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Transfer to serving dish and garnish with freshly minced garlic.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Sad State of Food in America

Unless you've been living under a rock the last couple of weeks, you likely have seen a lot of talk about Jamie Oliver's new show Food Revolution. The series takes the super-celeb chef into schools in Huntington West Virginia where he is bound and determined to change the face of the foods that are are being fed to kids in schools which he believes are slowly killing our youth. It was coincidental that this show happened to premiere the weekend after I had been asked to do a cooking demo for a group of kids from a church after school group and had encountered a similarly alarming situation. The class was supposed to be a career day. I would demo something the kids would eat and they could ask me whatever they want about my profession.

Since it was St. Patrick's Day, I opted to present all green foods, in line with my focus on healthy eating. I brought an assortment of veggies including cucumbers, broccoli and snap peas and made them an avocado dip. Needless to say, most of the kids were afraid of the dip and definitely of the veggies. I enticed them to at least try it by offering cookies as a reward. I managed to sneak in health oats and pure maple syrup instead of white flour and sugar, but they didn't need to know that.

The most disturbing part of the whole day was when I was asked where I ate when I went out. I admitted to very rarely eating out and without thinking mentioned I hated fast food, especially McDonald's which in my opinion isn't real food and is really bad for you. If looks could kill I would be dead by now. Those kids were mortified that I would bad mouth their favorite food. I in turn was mortified at the response.

Look, I like an occasional pizza and hamburger too, but not the likes of the processed specimens found at most fast food establishments or in the frozen foods section of the grocery store. That moment and the subject of Jamie's show really got me to thinking about how dire the situation is in the U.S. The fact that many kids don't recognize and will not eat most vegetables and that they subsist off of school breakfasts and lunches that have more ingredients with multi-syllablic chemicals in them than actual food is alarming. Over and over again they pointed out on the show that this is the first generation of kids that have a shorter life expectancy than the previous generation.

I'm not a physician and I'm not a parent, but what I am is a chef who cares about food. I care about he quality of food you and I eat, where it comes from and how it tastes. I know that sometimes our pocket books dictate what we eat, but I think too many of us are settling. We can do more on a budget that not only will help us increase our life expectancy but will help our local economies. I believe that what we eat directly attributes to how much we will spend on health care in our lifetimes. So many of the diseases we suffer from can be eliminated or controlled through diet. And I'm not talking about only eating lettuce. I'm talking about cutting out processed, unnatural foods that don't even taste good. We just have to start cooking again.

If you care, start watching Jamie's Show on ABC. It is eye opening. Then check out some books that may open your eyes even further. One i'm reading currently that may be of interest is Jill Richardson's "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix it." Others on my list of favorites are Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" and Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle."

In conjunction with this I'm planning on focusing my menus more on Mediterranean cuisine highlighting locally produced foods and less on typical mid-western fare. It may be the financially risky approach, but it is the one that agrees with my moral and culinary sensibilities. Check out our monthly menus on our website at

Friday, February 26, 2010

Moroccan Sephardic Passover

Tis the season for Easter and for some Passover. Passover celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and is a holiday every Jewish household looks forward to all year. The focus of the entire evening is the recitation of the Haggadah which weaves symbolic foods and the consumption of wine throughout the ceremony. My husband likes to affectionately call Passover the Jewish Thanksgiving and always has fond memories of the celebration with his family as a child.

Most Jews celebrating Passover in the United States follow a culinary tradition that is largely Ashkenazic, or eastern European. The foods are derivative of the cuisines of the area and tend to focus on lots of root vegetables, meat and in general heavier foods. The Jews who come from the mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East fall into a category of cuisine called Sephardic. Again, this particular tradition stems from the cuisines of these countries, which tend to focus much more highly on seasonal vegetables, lots of spices, seafood and are generally lighter.

While I was working on my Master's Degree in Anthropology, one of the classes I took was Magic, Witchcraft and Religion. My final project for the class was to create a secular Haggadah, invite a bunch of friends and family to our home and host a Passover for them serving only Sephardic Moroccan cuisine. While Morocco is approximately 95% Muslim, the country has had a long legacy of Jewish presence dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, during which Jews fled en masse from Spain and ended up in Morocco. These Jews settled all over and were welcomed by the Moroccans who to this day will tell you that the finest cuisine of their country is that of the Jewish Moroccan population. In fact, while in Fez we actually visited the Jewish Mellah or quarter where many Jews still reside peacefully with their Muslim neighbors.

Another interesting fact about Moroccan Jewish cuisine is that it is the most requested cuisine by soldiers of the Israeli army. What makes it so unique?? Well a couple of factors. First of all, Moroccan cuisine in general is extremely unique in that it represents a fusion of flavors from all over the world. Everyone and their uncle has tried to occupy this country because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, only 60 nautical miles from Spain. As is to be expected whoever came to Morocco brought with them their own foods and traditions some of which ended up becoming a part of the cuisine of Morocco. The French brought pastries, the Spanish rice and most importantly, the British brought with them tea, which is now the national beverage of the country. When Jews arrived from Spain, they brought with them their own culinary traditions which were then adapted not only to the foods that were available in Morocco, but to incorporate Moroccan flavors and cooking techniques such as Tagines.

Perhaps my favorite tale of the fusion of cultures in Morocco with regards to the Sephardic Passover is that of Haroseth. Haroseth is a food symbol that during the Passover Seder or meal is used to symbolize the mortar used by the Jews to construct the pyramids. It is generally a mixture of dried fruit and nuts that can be spread on Matzo or unleavened bread. In Morocco there was a historical traditional confection called Majoun. Majoun are little balls that are made of dried fruit and nuts and was historically used as a vehicle for cannabis. When Jews arrived in Morocco they noted the similarities of the two dishes and adapted the Majoun accordingly by eliminating the cannabis and adding wine, which of course is prohibited in Muslim culture, but perfectly acceptable in Jewish culture. Here is a recipe for these delicious little confections.

1 cup pitted dates
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 teaspoon Freshly Grated Nutmeg
1/2 Tsp Ground Cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2-3 Tbl orange flower water
1/2-1 cup Manischewitz Kosher Grape or Blackberry Flavored Wine
Sesame seeds for garnish

Place all the ingredients in a food processor. Process to combine, adding wine as needed until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Remove from processor and place into the refrigerator for approx. 30 mins to harden. Roll into approx. 1/2 inch confections and garnish with sesame seeds. Keep in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Eating for Love

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, love and romance are in the air and what better way to "get in the mood" than with a wonderful meal. They always say a way to a mans heart is through his stomach. While there may not be any scientific evidence to this effect, I can say with some certainty that it is absolutely true. At least in the case of my husband. Nothing makes us feel more romantic than sharing a marvelous meal together. And as to whether specific ingredients can actually increase sexual drive?? That also is debatable. What I do know is that many of the foods that are considered to be "aphrodisiacs" are also those foods that are known to increase energy (an important element in sexuality) as well as mood. Foods like chocolate and coffee stimulate the production of endorphins, which coincindentally are also released during intercourse. So it isn't necessarily a stretch to say that these foods make us feel frisky.

What always interested me with regards to the topic of aphrodisiacs was how no matter what culture across the globe you visit, every single one of them has various foods, herbs, spices, etc. that they recommend to increase libido, particularly in males. Often they involve the consumption of the male organ of one animal or another, which is an obvious analogy. But perhaps less conspicuous is the use of various spices and herbs, like coriander in Moroccan culture and ginseng in Asian cultures. Chilis are commonly considered to have stimulating powers as are various fruits and vegetables, like the avocado, which in Aztec culture was called the testicle tree, mostly referring to the way in which it grows in pairs on the tree. While no one particular food is universally considered to be an aphrodisiac, what intrigues me is that there is a universal instinct to find foods that may potentially benefit this aspect of life.

Another thing that I find noteworthy, particularly with regards to our "western" ideas of what a romantic meal is, has to do with ambiance and context as much as with the meal itself. We usually associate romance with French or Italian food, or the foods of the "romance languages." Perhaps because they are exotic or perhaps because they are rich and indulgent or simply because they represent cultures that appear to be highly erotic to us in terms of all of our senses. We also tend to do things like light candles, turn on soft music, light a fire, all things that are supposed to relax us and make us forget about the daily grind for a while.

We have a general idea that at least once a year, we should establish a mood, create a romantic ambiance and eat foods that somehow represent "love." My feeling is, why do it just once a year?? Why not try to incorporate these concepts of dining into our daily lives. Perhaps if we spent more time focusing on "eating for love" we'd find ourselves more "in love." A novel concept to be sure. But follow the logic here. The reason Valentine's Day is special is that we "choose" to focus on one another if for a few hours on a specific night. The key here is that we are giving one another our undivided attention, which is something we may not take the time to do on a regular basis.

So then, my challenge to all of you is to pretend it's Valentine's Day more regularly. Make a conscious effort to incorporate these concepts of "eating for love" on a regular basis. Not only will you notice it affect your communication positively, but who knows, you may just better your sex life and that can't be a bad thing.

Aphrodisiac Recipes:

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.

Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup

3 English Cucumbers, Peeled, Seeded and Chopped
1 Spanish or Vidalia Onion, Diced
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 Avocado, Chopped
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste
¼ Cup Mint, Chopped
¼ Cup Chives, Snipped
2 tsps dried Dillweed
½ Cup Feta, Crumbled
1 Tbl Harissa
16 oz Plain Yogurt
½-3/4 cup Sour Cream
¾ Cup Lemon Juice
½ Cup Heavy Cream
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Blend using an immersion blender until creamy and well combined. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with crumbled Feta and Cilantro Oil.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Disrespecting Food-A Great American Tragedy

This weekend we hosted a four course wine dinner that lasted approximately 2 1/2 hours from beginning to end. And over the course of the last couple of months I have been reading anything and everything about Julia Child I could get my hands on. What do those have in common? Well, what I realized is that the very thing that Julia Child loved so much about french cuisine and the one thing we strive to accomplish here at the inn is the one thing that is grossly lacking in general in our American food culture and that is respect for food.

Let me clarify. At the risk of sounding anti-patriotic, I feel that most of us in the U.S. eat because we have to. We gorge ourselves in massive quantities of processed and homogenized foods that are convenient so quickly that we rarely pay any attention not only to what is going in, but what it tastes like and where we ate it. Long gone is the concept of eating socially. We don't go to a restaurant or cook a family meal with the intent of spending a few hours enjoying food, wine and the company of good friends. And heck, most restaurants don't exactly lend themselves to this end. They are noisy and half the time you feel as though they are trying to rush you out the door so that they can turn their table and make a profit.

I understand that, but I also have lived in France and grew up in a Hungarian family where eating was an event. We always had family and friends over on the weekends and prepared huge meals that we enjoyed together, talking, laughing and getting reacquainted with one another. They are some of the most cherished times of my life. So often now, though, we are so wrapped up in our ipods and iphones, texting and searching the web and emailing, we hardly even notice one another, much less sit down to dinner together and spend some time actually enjoying one another and the food we are eating. And this to me is disrespectful to food and disrespectful to the fundamental nature of being social creatures.

So it was refreshing to see 50 people, over the course of the weekend, spend a few hours actually setting their electronic devices aside and choosing to enjoy a meal. One of the first things we decided when we got into the country inn business was that we would only offer one seating per night. We never wanted to rush people out the door. We wanted them to savor their meal and the company they were with, the way we do when we go out or have friends over and the way people in other countries tend to do. And it is always rewarding to see that come to fruition. I just wish more people actually took part in this.

Perhaps if we reevaluated our eating habits and regained our respect for food and the institution of dining we would actually reduce the obesity problem in this country. I guarantee that those who spend time eating and paying attention to the food going into their mouths eat better and generally eat less. It is a known fact that the mind doesn't register fullness for 15 minutes. However, by the time 15 minutes have passed, most of us have already consumed the big mac, the large fries and the milkshake, twice. By slowly consuming your food, chatting and savoring, one actually had a better chance of realizing that in fact they have eaten enough and are satiated.

But most of all, for me it is simply a matter of relationships and tradition. I think we could all benefit from a little interaction and communication and what better way to do so than over a wonderful meal, carefully prepared with love. I say the resolution we should all make for this decade is to be more respectful of food, dining and our sociality. Lets stop eating for the sake of consumption and start dining for the sake of becoming more interconnected, not just with one another, but with what we put into our bodies.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Super Bowl Munchies

OK, I admit it. I'm not a huge sports fan. I don't wait for football season to start and I generally spend most of my time during games searching videos on YouTube. BUT, I do love Super Bowl. I love the commercials, the excitement, the half time show, and most of all, the food. My husband and I have made it a tradition for the last 13 years of being together to always celebrate, just the two of us. We make a bunch of appetizers to have during the game and then we just pig out and enjoy the day. It is definitely one of the best days of the year. For those of you who may be looking for something new to add to your Super Bowl munchies repertoire, here are a few of our favorite recipes.

Blue Cheese-Stuffed Portabellas

Yields: 12 Servings

12 Medium Portabella Mushrooms, Stems removes, Peeled and Gills Scooped Out
2 Tbl Unsalted Butter
1 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Vidalia Onion, Diced
3-4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 Red Bell Pepper, Seeded and Diced
2 Tbl Italian Parsley, Chopped
2 Tbl Cilantro, Chopped
2 tsps Herbes de Provence
Pinch Freshly Grated Nutmeg
Kosher Salt and Freshly Cracked Pepper to Taste
1 Tbl Lemon Juice
2 Tbl Dry Sherry or Vermouth
8 oz Cream Cheese, Softened
4 oz Blue Cheese, Crumbled

Heat oil and butter in a medium saute pan over medium high heat. Saute onion until translucent, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic and saute for one minute or until fragrant. Add pepper, parsley, cilantro, herbes de provence, nutmeg, salt and pepper and saute for a minute to soften. Add lemon juice and dry sherry and continue cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add cream cheese and blue cheese and saute until the cheeses have melted and been incorporated. Adjust seasoning to taste. Cool. Fill mushroom caps evenly with filling and place on a baking sheet into a 375 degree oven for approx. 15 mins or until the cheese is golden and the mushrooms are cooked. Allow to sit at room temp for 5 mins before serving.

Jeff’s Seven-Layer Bean Dip

Yields: Approx. 12 Servings

2 Avocadoes, Seeded and Chopped
1 14 oz can Sliced Olives
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
2 Cups Pepper Jack Cheese
1 Jar Paul Newman's Corn Salsa
1 Can Refried Beans
6 Scallions, Chopped
Cooking Spray

Place beans in a small saucepan along with 1/3 jar of the salsa. Stir to combine and heat through. Grease 9 x 11 Pyrex Baking Dish with Cooking spray. Start with bean layer, Next add scallions, then olives, then sour cream, then avocado, then remaining salsa and top with cheese. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven until bubbly and the cheese is melted and beginning to turn golden. Serve with Chips.

Spicy North African-Style Meatballs

Yields: Approx. 30 meatballs

2 lbs Ground Beef
1 Onion, Diced
2-3 Garlic cloves, Minced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground coriander
2 Tbl Italian Parsley, Chopped
2 Tbl Cilantro, Chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2-3 tbl extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1-6 oz can tomato paste
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp Harissa Paste
2 Tbl Italian Parsley, Chopped
2 Tbl Cilantro, Chopped
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
½ cup Beef Broth

Combine beef, diced onion, garlic cloves, cinnamon, allspice, coriander, salt, pepper, cilantro and parsley in a large bowl. Using your hands, knead meat together with spices until well combined. Roll mixture into 1” diameter meatballs and place on a baking sheet. Heal oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Brown meatballs on all sides.Remove to a baking sheet. Add onions and bell pepper to pan and sauté until translucent, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic and cook for one minute or until fragrant. Season with salt, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, coriander, cilantro and parsley. Add tomato paste and beef broth and bring to a boil. Add meatballs back into the pan. Reduce heat to a simmer and continue cooking uncovered until the sauce has thickened and the meatballs are cooked through, approx. 15-20 mins. Season to taste and serve hot.

Monika’s Hot Wings

Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

2 lbs Wings/Drummettes
2-3 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbl Honey
2 Tbl Harissa
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
2 tsps Garlic Powder
2 tsps Hot Hungarian Paprika

Combine wings/drummettes in a large bowl with all the ingredients. Toss well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hrs. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for approx. 30 mins or until the chicken is cooked through and begins to caramelize on top.

Kielbasa in Puff Pastry with Honey-Dijon Dipping Sauce

Yields: Approximately 32 Pieces

1 package puff pastry (Thaw according to manufacturer’s directions)
1 package polska kielbasa (You can use lite if you are counting calories)
½ cup honey
½ cup creamy Dijon mustard
1 tsp Harissa Paste
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbl water

Roll puff pastry out on a floured cutting board with a floured rolling pin until the pastry is about half as thick and the seams have come together. Cut puff pastry into 16 pieces. A pizza cutter works really well for this task. Repeat with second sheet of puff pastry. Cut kielbasa into 32 slices. Place one piece of kielbasa on one end of a piece of puff pastry. Roll it up and brush with egg wash to seal. Place on a greased baking sheet. Continue until all the kielbasa and puff pastry has been used up. Brush the tops of all the appetizers with the egg wash and place in a preheated 375 degree. Bake for approx. 25 minutes or until the appetizers are golden brown. Serve immediately with honey Dijon dipping sauce.

For sauce, whisk mustard with honey until combined. Serve.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cost Effective Appetizers

Alright, we all know we are in a bit of a recession. Times are tough and we are all trying to save a buck here and there. One of the first things people cut back on is food and entertainment. Lets rationalize for a moment, when times are tough, most of us really could use some diversions and the company of our friends and family. Rather than not hosting a party at all because you are afraid it will cost too much, lets look at ways you can economize and still do something good for your stomach and your soul.

First things first, lets take the basics of our appetizer party structure. 6-7 appetizers. One dessert, one dip, one cheese tray, 2 meat/seafood items and 2 pastry based items. Of course, this can be changed up somewhat in an effort to maximize your spread and minimize the damage to your pocket book. First thing I would do is eliminate one of the pastry items and change it to another dip. Puff pastry and phyllo can be pricy and if you can do just one with a reasonably cost effective ingredient, like cheese, it'll still give you that crispy goodness we all love but you won't be too wiped out. Second, steer away from the seafood and aim at cheaper cuts of meat, like chicken wings/drummettes and ground beef or pork. I like to make my Moroccan inspired chicken wings, which you can prepare in advance and then keep warm in a crockpot for a party and meatballs are always a winner. Here are a couple of recipes:

Spicy Mediterranean Meatballs

2 lbs Ground Beef
1 Onion, Diced
2-3 Garlic cloves, Minced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2-3 tbl extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1-6 oz can tomato paste
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
½ cup Beef Broth

Combine beef, diced onion, garlic cloves, cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Using your hands, knead meat together with spices until well combined. Roll mixture into 1” diameter meatballs and place on a baking sheet. Heal oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Brown meatballs on all sides. Add onions and bell pepper and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and cook for one minute or until fragrant. Season with salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice. Add tomato paste and beef broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and continue cooking uncovered until the sauce has thickened and the meatballs are cooked through. Season to taste and serve hot.

Monika’s Hot Wings

2 lbs Wings/Drummettes
2-3 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbl Honey
2 Tbl Harissa (North African Chilli Paste available at or Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
2 tsps Garlic Powder
2 tsps Hot Hungarian Paprika

Combine wings/drummettes in a large bowl with all the ingredients. Toss well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hrs. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for approx. 30 mins or until the chicken is cooked through and begins to caramelize on top.

As far as dips are concerned, canned beans are a great way to create dips that are cost effective and tasty. Cannelini beans, chickpeas, black beans, all work well. My personal favorite of course is Hummus and it is something that can be doctored up in many ways with things like roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes or marinated artichoke hearts for a kick. My recipe is different from most in that I take the time to peel my chickpeas. This isn't a crucial step with most other beans, but with chickpeas, it creates a much smoother, creamier dip and is a step you absolutely shouldn't skip. Here's the recipe:

2 cans chickpeas
¼ cup tahini paste
2 Tbls lemon juice
Pinch salt & pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
¼ tsp cayenne pepper or 1 tsp Harissa Paste
3-4 crushed garlic cloves
¼ cup olive oil
¼-1/2 cup water

Soak chickpeas in water for approx. 1 hour. Using your fingers peel the outer layer of skin off each chickpea before transferring them to the bowl of a food processor. Do not skip this step. It helps to make the hummus creamy and not grainy. It makes all the difference in the world. Add tahini paste, lemon juice, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, cayenne, garlic and olive oil to chickpeas and process in a food processor until the mix is smooth. Slowly add water to thin the hummus until it becomes creamy and easily spreadable. Serve sprinkled with paprika and drizzled with olive oil, accompanied with some good imported olives and wedges of pita bread.

Lastly, when assembling a cheese tray, focus on domestic, locally produced cheeses as opposed to imported ones. Normally you pay less because you aren't paying for transportation and I'm all for supporting your local economy.

So, that's just a few tips to cut back. Of course, the greatest savings is to make things from scratch and not purchase pre-manufactured and processed foods. Not only will you save, but the end result will be infinitely tastier and healthier. Enjoy!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Lets Talk About Appetizers Again! But Lets Make Them Gluten Free!

OK, I was going to write days ago, but things heading up to New Year's have been pretty hectic. So, Happy New Year to you all. Since we started a discussion on appetizers, I'm going to continue it, but I'd like to tie it into something else I'm working on, which is a gluten free cookbook about gluten free entertaining. Last night for our annual New Year's Eve party, we served a huge appetizer buffet complete with hot apps, cold apps and desserts. We had 30 people coming and one of them had a gluten allergy. Obviously with that many people coming, I didn't want to try to make a totally different menu for him so I planned a menu that everyone could eat that just happened to also be gluten free. It only took a couple of minor adjustments and mostly involved keeping my pantry stocked with items that are gluten free to begin with so it takes the guess work out of it. The menu was as follows:

Bacon Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Smoked Gouda
Bacon Wrapped Scallops with Honey Dijon BBQ Sauce
Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms
Falafels with Tahini Sauce
Monika's Mousse (4 Layer Terrine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Herbed Goat Cheese, Pesto and Chicken Mousse)
Coconut Macaroons
Honey Citrus Cake
Pear Clafouti

For the first couple of items, there aren't any problems with gluten free. The dates, scallops and bacon themselves aren't an issue, but the BBQ Sauce that I make has to be made carefully. Some of the ingredients can be potentially hazardous unless you are careful to use specific brand names. Here's the recipe with the specifications:

½ cup Heinz ketchup
¼ cup water
1/8 cup balsamic vinegar
1/8 cup chopped shallots
1 Tbls Honey
½ Tbl Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
Pinch of Salt
Pinch of Pepper
½ Tbl Dijon Mustard
½ tsp garlic powder
2 tsps Harissa (North African Chilli Paste)

For the sauce, place all the ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer and simmer for approximately 10 mins, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

For the sausage stuffed mushrooms the main issue is that most stuffed mushrooms use bread crumbs in the filling. Mine doesn't so it was safe right off the bat. Again, I made sure the ingredients themselves were gluten free. Here's the recipe:

Yields 6-8 servings (3-4 mushrooms per person)

24 Stuffing Mushrooms (Stems removed and peeled)
¼ cup vermouth or sherry
1 pound Bulk Sausage (You are best off using the sausage from a butcher that seasons it themselves as they don't add some of the fillers that can sometimes be a problem for gluten allergies)
1 Tbl Herbes de Provence
1 8 oz package Philadelphia cream cheese, Room Temperature (Don't use low fat versions of this because they tend to add stabilizers that can be potential allergens)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese plus 2-3 tbls for sprinkling over top of mushrooms
1 tsp Lea & PerrinsWorcestershire sauce
Pinch salt & Pepper
2 tsps garlic powder
Pinch Freshly Grated Nutmeg
1 egg

Begin by browning the sausage with the Herbes de Provence 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, nutmeg 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. Sprinkle each cap with more grated parmesan. Place mushrooms in a preheated 350 degree oven and bake approx. 25 mins or until the tops begin to turn golden. Serve hot.

Falafels aren't normally a problem because they are pretty much just chickpeas, garlic, onions, parsley, cilantro and spices. Same goes with the hummus. As far as the Mousse, while there are a ton of ingredients and it is a complicated recipe that requires 24 hrs to set, it doesn't have anything in it that could pose a problem when you have a properly stocked pantry.

Yields Approx. 12 Servings

Sun-Dried Tomato Layer
½ cup jarred sun dried tomatoes in their liquid
1 Tbl minced garlic
Pinch Salt and pepper
2 Tbl Daisy or Breakstone Sour Cream (Make sure the sour cream doesn't have Modified Food Starch in it)

Combine ingredients in a food processor and puree until a smooth paste is formed. Adjust seasonings and add more olive oil if the puree isn’t creamy enough.

Herb Cream Cheese Layer
1-8 oz block of softened full fat Philadelphia cream cheese (Do not use lowfat. It has too much moisture and will cause the terrine to get too soggy and it may have stabilizers in it that can be a problem for gluten allergies)
1 8 oz block fresh goat cheese
1 Tbl minced garlic
3 Tbl chopped assorted fresh herbs (Italian parsley, tarragon, chives, thyme and rosemary are a great combination, but use any you like)
Pinch of salt and pepper
Zest of a Lemon
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and puree until the herbs are completely chopped and well incorporated into the cheese.

Pesto Layer
1 cup of fresh basil leaves
½ cup of toasted pine nuts
1 Tbl minced garlic
Pinch of salt and pepper
3 Tbl lemon juice (Fresh is best, but you can use bottled if you prefer. Hint: The lemon juice is a necessary so that the pesto stays nice and green, otherwise the basil will turn brown once it has been chopped and pureed.)
¼ cup of grated parmesan cheese (You can use fresh, but the grated works just as well)
¼-1/2 cup olive oil

Combine ingredients in a food processor, except the olive oil. Puree. Begin adding the olive oil slowly so the mix begins to emulsify or becomes thick and creamy. Don’t add too much olive oil or the mixture will be too runny. The pesto should have some thickness to it, enough to coat a spoon well without running off. Adjust the seasonings to taste.

Chicken Mousse
4 bone in skin on chicken thighs (I recommend thighs because they are moister and have a bit more fat, which makes the mousse creamier in the end. Cooking them with the skin on and the bones in adds more flavor to the final mousse, even though the bones and skin will be removed after cooking)
1 Medium Chopped Vidalia or Walla Walla onion (Use a sweeter onion so it caramelizes nicely and adds a nice flavor in the end)
2 cloves of minced garlic
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
1-2 tsp Hungarian paprika
2 tsps Herbes de Provence
1 Bay Leaf
1/4-1/2 cup Brandy
¼-1/2 cup dry sherry
2 tbls olive oil
2 tbls butter
4 tbls Daidy or Breakstone sour cream
1 Tbl Harissa (North African Chilli Paste)

Place oil and butter in a large sauté pan over med high heat. When butter melts, add chicken pieces to the pan. Brown chicken on each side approx. 4 mins per side until golden. Add onions to the pan surrounding chicken. Add salt, pepper, herbes de provence, bay leaf and paprika. Saute onions, stirring occasionally, until they soften and begin to caramelize, approx. 8 mins. Add garlic and cook for approx. a minute or until the garlic becomes fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the brandy. Bring to a boil and reduce by approx. half. Add sherry and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for approximately 45 mins or until the chicken is tender but not falling off the bone, checking the seasoning toward the end to be sure there is enough salt, pepper and paprika. Remove the lid of the pan and return the pan to med-high heat. Reduce liquid until almost all of it is gone. Continue stirring so as not to burn the chicken and the onions. The liquid will thicken and caramelize around the chicken. Remove pan from the heat and allow to cool completely. Take the skin off the chicken and remove the meat from the bone, being careful to throw away any cartilage or chewy bits. Strain the remaining liquid and gravy through a fine mesh strainer to remove any additional fat and add to a food processor along with the chicken pieces, harissa and sour cream. Puree until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Adjust seasoning if needed and add more sour cream if the mix is too thick. The pate should be creamy enough to spread on a piece of bread, like room temperature peanut butter.

To assemble the terrine. Using a loaf pan lined with plastic wrap which has enough overlap to eventually wrap over the terrine, place the sun dried tomato mixture on the bottom spread in a thin layer. Top with the layer of herbed cream cheese followed by the pesto. The last layer is the chicken mousse. Once the layers are placed in the pan, fold the edges of plastic wrap around the terrine, making sure it is well covered. If there are any gaps, use additional plastic wrap to secure the terrine in the pan. Place in the refrigerator weighed down by either a few cans or a box of stock to weigh it down. The mousse should set for at least 8 hours, but is best after 24 hours. To serve, turn the terrine out of the loaf pan and unwrap the plastic. Carefully slice the terrine into ½ inch thick slices and place on a plate laying on its side so that the colors of the mousse show nicely. Serve with crackers and crudités.

As far as the desserts go, coconut macaroons are naturally gluten free because they don't have flour in them. The Honey Citrus Cake uses almond meal and regular flour so I substituted the regular flour with a gluten free all purpose flour called Domata, which is the best all purpose gluten free flour I have found. It is the most like regular flour and already contains xanthum gum in it so that is one less step you have to do. ( Same goes for the Clafouti. It has very little flour in it so I was able to just substitute the flour with the Domata and it worked out great.

The best part of the whole thing was that I didn't have to do too much to alter my menu, nobody knew anything was any different, our gluten intolerant guest was able to enjoy dinner without having to worry about getting sick and without having to deal with questions from people as to what his allergy was and what he can't eat. All around, a great way to do it.

I can tell you from personal experience with my mother in law who has Celiac Disease that the most unpleasant thing for her is to attend social gatherings where food is involved. If she makes it, she feels like she has to make a different menu for herself and she can't handle the foods others can eat for fear of cross contamination. If she goes to someone's house, she either has to explain to them what she can't eat, bring her own food or eat before she comes. Then she gets harassed with a million questions about her allergy and it takes the fun out of the whole experience. There is no reason anyone should have to deal with that. I hope that helps some of you. I know it will be a relief for any of you who do have these allergies or who know someone that does. Happy 2010!