Monday, December 19, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things: Wine

I'm a self proclaimed wine snob and proud of it. It has aided me not only in developing my skills as a chef but was the only reason I landed a job as a server at the Four Seasons in Newport Beach. Only my second job out ever waiting tables and let's just say my hubby who had waited tables for decades had never gotten an opportuntity like it in a fine dining establishment so he was a little miffed. But I digress. Wine isn't meant to be gulped. It isn't meant to be abused. It is meant to be sipped and enjoyed. Savored alone or as a complement with food. For me it rounds out a meal completely and is one of the true joys of life. I didn't start drinking wine until I was in my mid-20's. I began as most do with sweet wines. White zins, roses, rieslings, gewurtztraminers. Then I moved on to drier whites like chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and pinot grigios. It took me a while to make the leap to reds but once I did, let's just say there was no going back. The bolder and drier, the better. I'm particularly fond of Pinot Noirs, especially those from Oregon and Washington, Malbecs, Red Zinfandels, some Cabernet Sauvignons that aren't overly tannic and a variety of Meritages or blends that tend to be multi-faceted and very drinkable. As far as the rules go in terms of pairing wines with food, the general rule of thumb is whites with poultry and fish, reds with beef, lamb or pork. I don't know about you but I don't like rules so as far as I'm concerned, one should drink whatever one feels like drinking, rules be darned. So, with that in mind, I'll highlight some of my favorites and what I like to drink them with. And keep in mind, wine is very subjective. Everyones palatte is different so try the recommendations but don't be upset if they don't work for you. It is kind of an adventure to discover what particular tastes/flavors work for your individuality. That's all part of the fun. And one final note. Most people don't think of wine in terms of where it comes from. They usually approach wine in terms of the grape varietal they are drinking, i.e. Pinot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. I feel that it is almost more important where the wine came from. In French this is termed "terroir" or the earth/soil that the grapes grew in. Grapes, and thus wine, absorb the flavors of the soil directly which can affect the final flavor tremendously. You can see this in other aspects of food as well. Cheese for example will taste like the milk that came from the animal which ate the grass that grew in a particular soil. That's why cheeses from all over taste so different even though the type of cheese is the same, i.e. cheddar, chevre, swiss, etc. Coffee is the same. It's no surprise that a brew from a bean from say Columbia is vastly different from the brew from a bean that came from say Ethiopia. Although with coffee the roasting technique has a lot to do with it too but we won't go into that here. Anyhow, with this idea of "terroir" in mind, I often will seek out a wine to pair with the region of food I'm consuming. In other words, say I'm having a plate of Ragu Bolognese, a dish from Bologna, Italy, which is located in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The Bolognese are fiercly fond of their food and wine and the most well known of the wines heralding from this region is perhaps the slighty effervescent Lambrusco. So with that in mind, I would probably choose a nice Lambrusco to go with my meal, not because it is red and pairs well with beef and pork which are a part of a traditional Bolognese, but because that is the wine that belongs to that region. Now, for the wines. I'm a huge fan of sparkling wines and champagnes. They are the perfect celebratory beverage and the bubbles tend to pair incredibly well with delicate foods like pates, caviar, cheese, etc. Keep in mind that true champagnes must come from the Champagne region of France. Anything else is simply a sparkling wine made in the similar fashion to champagne. My favorite is of course the traditional Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin. Founded in 1772, Veuve Cliquot is one of the earliest producers of wines that are made in the methode champenoise. I had the distinct pleasure of visiting their champagne house in Reims, France while in France studying abroad in 1995. It was my first introduction to the world of champagne and I must say, it was all I needed to get hooked. Other sparklings of interest for me include those from the Schramsberg producer in Napa and those from the Roederer Estate in Northern California. Of the whites, I'm no longer a fan of overly sweet whites. They tend to taste too much like grape juice to me so I veer toward drier whites. I am also definitely not a fan of very oaky wines, i.e. chardonnays like Kendall Jackson. I find them almost intolerable to drink. They mask the flavor of most food for me and I feel like I am chewing on wood while drinking the wine. So, I generally lean toward dry whites that are also somewhat acidic. The acid being the operative characteristic with regards to pairing these wines with food. The acid tends to balance out not only foods that are spicy but also those that have a considerable amount of fat to them. Thus, I choose these when I am having say Indian or Moroccan food which tends to be either spicey heat wise or spicey in terms of a multitude of layers as far as spice is concerned. My personal favorites in this category are still Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Of the Sauvignon Blancs I believe the best to come from New Zealand. Most of the ones I gravitate toward all come from there. They are usually reasonably priced, well balanced and have the perfect level of acidity without being over bearing. Pinot Grigio is a little tougher. Selecting an Italian one is a good start but not a guarantee as I have had several from Italy that I really didn't like too well. Overly acidic or overly sweet. My favorite is still the Santa Margherita. It isn't cheap, but it is great. On to the reds. For my money, when I'm searching for an overall red that will pair well with everything I'm eating, I select a pinot noir. I am particularly fond of those from Oregon and Washington because they are just a little bolder, drier and inkier for lack of a better description. (By inky, I mean it practically stains your lips after drinking). As far as a specific fave, I'm non-discriminatory in this category. Selecting just one would be like asking me to pick my favorite child and that is never a good idea. I pretty much like them all. The other wines that are for me a good bet in terms of all purpose drinking that pair with almost anything are Malbecs from Argentina, Red Zins particularly from Callifornia and many of the Meritages or blends which tend to take the best characteristics from each grape selected and pair them to create a nuanced and interesting combination. The new fad going around lately is the Apothic Red from Solano County, CA. I can understand why it has become kind of a cult favorite and is on practically every restaurant menu. It is easy to like and it is really quite a good buy. And finally, the great big cab. These can be troublesome. A great cab can be life altering but a not so great cab can be so tannic you feel like your jaw is going to pop right out of your face. I'm fiercely loyal to the Jordan Winery and their cabs. Their best to date was the 2003 but they are all fabulous. Not cheap, but also not overly expensive. This is a true special occasion wine that again pairs well with practically anything. Whatever your taste in wine is, remember, everyone is unique. And wine is an acquired taste. While you may still be early on in your journey of discovery, don't be afraid to branch out. Practice makes perfect so to speak and the more you experience different wines, the more refined and sophisticated your palatte will become. Oh and finally, as I once read on a bumper sticker and am fond of repeating, "I like to cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food." Bien Boire.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

These are a Few of My Favorite Things: Spices

The weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday, Yahoo posted a list of health benefits that various spices are purported to have. Everything from soothing an upset stomach to boosting metabolism to helping with arthritis. While this may be new news so to speak to some, particularly in this era of pharmaceuticals and treatment of symptoms rather than focusing on well being through food, it is certainly not news to many ancient cultures who long relied on spices for medicinal purposes. Having spent time in Morocco and in spice shops there, and having done quite a bit of research on the topic during my days in graduate school, I have long been an advocate of spices for both their health benefits as well as their culinary benefits. One of my favorite memories of our first trip to Morocco in 2002 was a trip to a spice shop in Fez where the shop keeper spent almost 3 hours with us discussing what each spice did both medicinally and culinarily. It was fascinating. What it taught me most was to not be scared of using spices and using a LOT of them. In my cooking classes I often use spices that are maybe somewhat foreign to people and I am always impressed by the gasps I get from people when I add them. I don't just throw a pinch in, I through a palmful in. So many people are afraid that they will over spice something when in reality, that is almost impossible to do. My rule of thumb is, if you think you are using too much, that's probably just enough. My favorite go to spices, besides Herbes de Provence which is a spice blend from France that I use in many things (thyme, savory, chervil, tarragon, lavendar and often marjoram and rosemary), are cinnamon, Hungarian Paprika (Sweet, Hot and Smoked), freshly ground nutmeg, saffron, ground ginger and cumin. All of these spices are uniquely beneficial to your health and have very specific uses in cooking that people often don't know about. Cinnamon, besides the obvious uses in desserts, is a fabulous addition to savory meat dishes. It is very common in north African and Middle Eastern cuisines to use cinnamon with meat and dried fruit. It is also purported to help with digestion and perhaps even regulate blood sugar. There are a number of different kinds of cinnamon but my personal favorite is the Vietnamese kind. It is pungent, spicy and has a powerful fragrance that makes my mouth water. Most people think paprika is only good for garnishing deviled eggs. However, I beg to differ. It is one of my favorite spices to use for general flavoring of soups, stews and meats. Hungarian paprika is not just one spice but a myriad of different varieties ranging from sweet/mild to smoky/hot. In my humble opinion Hungary produces the best quality paprika in the world, although Spanish paprika is also well known. Hungary has the following classifications for paprika: Kulonleges or unusual paprika which is often sweet and has a very dark red color Csípősmentes Csemege or slightly spicy but still ordinary paprika which is just a little stronger Csemegepaprika which is the most common varietal Csípős Csemege, Pikáns which is the spicy version of this basic paprika Rosza or rose colored paprika which is slightly milder Édesnemes or Sweet paprika which is probably the most exported varietal Feledes or half sweet which is a medium strong paprika Eros which is a strong paprika All of these can be smoked with varying results. Generally, if I am making a soup, I prefer slightly spicy/smoky types of paprika which give soups a great kick. When cooking vegetables or side dishes I use sweet paprika. When doing meats, you can go both ways, just depending upon how spicy you want your meat to be. Beef/pork often benefits from smoky varietals while chicken or fish generally taste better with sweeter varietals. From a health perspective, paprika is very high in vitamin C and research has shown that naturally occuring capsaicin in peppers is actually good for circulation. Nutmeg is one of my secret weapons when it comes to savory items which often comes as a surprise to those in attendance at my cooking classes. Most people perceive nutmeg to be a sweet spice, something used in desserts like pumpkin pie. AND, most people don't realize that the already ground stuff doesn't taste a whole lot like anything. Freshly grated however nutmeg is a revelation. Not a nut in the true sense as the name suggests, nutmeg is actually the seed of a specific kind of evergreen tree. The coating surrounding the seed is peeled away and ground into a spice called mace which is used a lot in Middle Eastern cooking. My favorite application of freshly grated nutmeg is with mushrooms and any green leafy vegetable such as spinach, chard, collard greens or mustard greens. It gives them a brightness of flavor and smell that is unique and really complement both. Therapeutic uses of nutmeg may include pain relief and gastrointestinal discomfort relief. The most expensive commodity by weight on the planet is saffron. This spice is actually the stamen of a specific kind of crocus flower and because these little strands have to be harvested delicately with tweezers by hand it takes an awful lot of effort to create just a small quanitity of the spice for culinary use. Saffron has a delicate floral flavor and it provides food with an incredible yellow/orange color. Perhaps its most famous use is in the traditional Spanish dish Paella. Saffron has no substitute, especially not turmeric, which has a completely different flavor and can be quite aggressive and overpowering. Also, beware of saffron powders. These are often not pure saffron but an imposter that attempts to lure you into thinking you can get the same bang for a lesser buck. I use saffron in soups and stews of all kinds and a little goes a long way so while it seems like you are spending a fortune for a little bottle of it, it will last you quite a while. The myriad of health benefits that saffron has been purported to posess are numerous, including anti-cancer, increased circulation, reduced inflammation, improved eyesight and anti-depression. Another spice that is often associated with sweet dishes is ginger. However in North Africa, the Middle East and in many Asian cultures, ginger in both its dried and fresh form is an essential spice utilized in savory preparations as well. Many soups, stews and even beverages are infused with ginger giving a gentle heat and spicy finish that is incomparable. At the Djemma el Fna food fair in Marrakech, the last stalls on the outskirts of the square were ginger stands, featuring ginger cakes and a ginger beverage designed to aid in digestion, which is one of the greatest health benefits ginger posesses. It can also help with allergies and colds by clearing your sinuses and soothing an aching throat. Really a jack of all trades in the spice world. Finally, cumin is a spice that most people associate with Mexican food and chili, but in actuality, it is very commonly used in North Africa, India and the Middle East. The varietal you find there is often less spicy or smoky and much milder and almost floral in nature. Cumin is often used in conjunction with paprika in flavoring savory soups and stews and is particularly good with meats such as beef and lamb. It is also one of the main ingredients in most curry powders. Cumin is another spice that is used frequently to treat gastrointestinal discomfort. I was told by the woman in the spice shop in Morocco that if I had a stomach ache I should mix a tablespoon of cumin with a little hot water and drink it and it would soothe my stomach better than pepto bismol. By George if it didn't work. I had a little stomach discomfort after a particularly heavy meal and it did the trick within minutes. So as you can see, spices can be both delicious and healthy. Why not incorporate them into your daily routine? The benefits both from a culinary and a health perspective are a win win situation. Make sure you rotate spices reguarly and don't keep them for longer than 6 months to a year. You can obtain high quality spices at a very reasonable price through which is the purveyor I utlize the most. Eat well and feel well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

These are a Few of My Favorite Things: Cheese

And when I say favorite, I mean it's right up there with hummus and bacon for me. I LOVE CHEESE. I could be very happy living the rest of my days with a good brie, a nice creamy goat cheese and a beautiful salty parmesan. Cheese is the perfect food in so many ways. You can eat it straight up, you can cook with it, you can even use it for dessert. And what pairs better with wine?? Recently Jeff, myself and our friend Cathy took a little respite in Chicago and one of the stops on the trip was Bin 36. Bin 36 is a restaurant that specializes in wine and cheese flights. We were determined to experience as many cheeses as possible so we each picked a flight and then we decided on a 4th flight mutually. All told we sampled 19 different cheeses. It was AMAZING. First we did their No Need To Sing The Blues flight, which, as the name suggests, is a selection of 4 blue cheeses. First was a Cambozola from Germany which was like a cross between a brie and a blue cheese. Next, a domestic blue from Wisconson called Blue Paradise which is a double creme blue. Then, the Blue Di Bufalo from Italy which is a harder more crumbly blue. Finally, the Blue Mediterraneo from Sardinia, Italy, which was a sheeps milk blue. All of them were delightful although I must confess that the first one, the blue brie combo, was to die for and my favorite cheese of the night. I could easily polish off an entire truckful of it myself in one sitting. It is really best for a wine pairing but could certainly be used for cooking. A nice cheese and egg souffle comes to mind with a hint of truffle oil. Generally speaking I would say blues pair well with a crisp, acidic white that isn't too oaky but isn't too sweet either. A sauvignon blanc or a pinot grigio would be ideal. For our second flight we went with So You Think You Know Cheddar, which was Jeff's pick as he is a sucker for a good sharp cheddar. None disappointed but for my money it was the most mainstream of the flights. All the cheeses were great but there wasn't anything particularly exotic about any of them. The flight included: Chevre Noir from Canada, which is a goats milk cheddar, perhaps the most unique of the bunch; Mt. Sterling cheddar from Wisconson which was also a goats milk cheddar but not quite as pronounced in terms of its goat flavor; Keen's from the UK which was a classic British cheddar; and the 10 year Hook's cheddar from Wisconson which again was a traditional sharp cheddar akin to what you expect from Wisconson. Cheddars are also good for an appetizer tray but for my money I like them for cooking as they tend to melt well, particularly in a good beer and cheese soup. As far as wines go, I'd say cheddars can go with almost anything. A good oaky chardonnay would probably be my first choice but really the cheddar is quite forgiving in terms of wine pairings. Our third flight was my first choice and a top favorite of our friend Cathy as well. It was called Fat Cats. Again, as the name suggests, these were some of the richer, more fatty cheeses that are definitely more traditionally used on a cheese tray and not for cooking. The Burratta from Puglia, Italy was both our favorites of this flight although it was a close tie between this and the second cheese, the Pierre Robert triple creme from France. Talk about a decadent cheese that practically oozed it was so gooey and rich. Third was the Kunik from NY which was another triple creme but not quite as delicate a flavor as the Pierre Robert. And finally, the Gorgonzola Dolce from Lombardy, Italy, which, like all good gorgonzolas, was perhaps just a little more delicate than a blue cheese and certainly had a more unctuous rich texture. These cheeses in my estimation pair best with a sparkling wine or champagne. The high fat content almost begs for a little bubbly to chase it down. I happened to do a sparkling wine flight that evening to go along with the cheese flights and this was the perfect compliment to all four of the sparkling wines I had on the flight. The final flight of the evening was the Bin 36 Globetrotters, which they consider to be their top of the class cheeses. This flight included an Abbaye de Belloc from the Pyrenees of France, a cheese that is made of sheeps milk and is still made by Benedictine monks. Delightful and delicate, this one topped the list of the globetrotters for me. Barely Buzzed was the second cheese. It hails from Utah and is crusted with coffee grinds and lavendar. Certainly unique but not quite my favorite. It almost masked the flavors of the other cheeses for me. Although I suspect it would be delightful on a salad with some arugula and a blood orange vinaigrette. Next came the Ardrehan from Ireland which was kind of like a soft cheddar. Nice but nothing spectacular. Finally, the classic British Stilton, a legendary blue that is always a pleasure to have. Very strong in the blue category but really a marvelous cheese. All of these seemed to pair with different wines so I can't really offer a good suggestion that works for them all except to say that a mellow white always works, maybe even a dry riesling. The last three cheeses we had weren't actually on the menu. We asked our waiter what he perceived to be the strongest, most aggressive cheeses they had. He explained to us that in his estimation, the strongest smelling cheeses weren't necessarily the strongest tasting cheeses and vice versa. So he brought us 3 he thought illustrated this fact. I wish I had written them down but by this time we had eaten so many it was all kind of a blur. But suffice it to say that all three were delicious and I didn't think any of them were particularly strong smelling or strong tasting. Then again, I have eaten limburger and have spent some time in the fromageries in Paris where you almost have to plug your nose to even walk into the store. All in all, a great experience and for true cheese afficionados. I highly recommend you pay the place a visit. Or, you can simply create your own tasting by purchasing some of these cheeses and hosting your own wine and cheese night. A great resource for cheeses from all over the world is I have often ordered from them and they ship in dry ice packets overnight so you don't have to worry about spoilage.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things: Prosciutto

I thought it would be fun to start a new topic on my blog and feature a new ingredient each week that are amongst my favorite things in the kitchen both to cook with and to eat. It seems only apropos to begin with one of the most quintessential of all products that seems to find its way into almost every kitchen, the pig. I'm not talking about bacon, which I must confess is one of my guilty pleasures, but I find it to also be a culinary crutch. People add bacon to almost everything because it is guaranteed to make it taste good. I'm talking about its close Italian cousin, prosciutto.

Much more delicate than bacon, Prosciutto is a cured italian ham that comes from the central and northern regions of the country, most famously from Parma, which incidentally is the home to the famous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Its flavor is slightly salty, gamey and oh so porky. I happen to love it both raw and cooked. It is the perfect addition to an antipasto platter and it can be a marvelous wrapping for vegetables or meats. It also has an amazing flavor and texture when it is allowed to bake in the oven, rendering some of its fat and crisping it up like a potato chip. This as a garnish on a salad or just about anything is as close to heaven as you can get.

When purchasing prosciutto, make sure to get it very thinly sliced and if you can, purchase it with layers of tissue paper between the slices to make it easier to separate. The high fat content sometimes makes the slices stick together and tear. I also prefer italian imported prosciutto to domestically produced ones although some small purveyors are popping up daily that do have a comparable product in terms of delicate flavor and fat content. One of the better domestic varietals is La Quercia which happens to be right in Iowa. They source only sustainable pork and use organic spices and cures wherever possible.

Here are just a couple of my favorite recipes:

Prosciutto Wrapped Artichoke Hearts with Pesto and Balsamic Reduction

Yields: Approx. 12 Servings

1 Batch Homemade Pesto (See recipe below)
2 Cans Artichoke Quarters (Not Marinated)
12 slices Prosciutto
12 balls fresh Mozzarella (Bocconcini, which are the smaller ones or you can slice a larger ball of fresh mozzarella and cut it into 24 pieces)
Balsamic Reduction to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice each piece of prosciutto in half vertically and each bocconcini in half. Wrap a half portion of prosciutto around a piece of mozzarella and a quarter piece of artichoke heart. Place on baking sheet. Continue wrapping all of the artichoke heart pieces and mozzarella until none remain. Bake for approx. 10 minutes or until the mozzarella begins to melt.

To serve, place a dollop of pesto over each wrap and drizzle with balsamic reduction.


2 cups of fresh basil leaves
½ cup of toasted pine nuts
1 Tbl minced garlic
Pinch Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbl lemon juice
¼ cup of grated parmesan cheese
¼-1/2 cup extra virgin 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. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Prosciutto Wrapped Roasted Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce and Balsamic Reduction

Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

For the roasted asparagus:

1 lb asparagus, trimmed
2-3 tbl olive oil
Pinch salt and pepper

To trim the asparagus, take on stalk of asparagus and snap the end of it off, allowing it to snap where it naturally wants to separate. Trim remaining asparagus to this same spot. Place asparagus onto a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Gently toss the asparagus to coat evenly with the oil and seasoning. Place in a single layer on baking sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven for approximately 20 mins or until the asparagus is lightly caramelized and tender. Remove and allow to cool.

For the balsamic reduction:

½ cup balsamic vinegar

Place vinegar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer until approximately half the vinegar has evaporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool. This can be stored indefinitely.

For the hollandaise sauce:

3 egg yolks
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into thirds
Pinch salt and pepper
1 Tbl lemon juice
1 Tbl water

Place egg yolks, water, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a food processor and puree until lighter in color and slightly thickened. Melt butter and pour hot butter into egg yolk mixture, while pureeing in food processor until thickened and slightly bubbly.

To Serve:

12 slices of prosciutto, sliced in half vertically
Pinch of Paprika

Wrap 2-3 stalks of asparagus with one half slice of prosciutto until all the asparagus has been used up. Place two asparagus and prosciutto bundles on each plate. Drizzle with the hollandaise sauce. Garnish with a drizzle of the vinegar and a sprinkling of paprika. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Eating During Cancer Treatment

I have known a number of people over the years who have suffered from the horrible disease cancer. It is always heart wrenching to see someone go through treament and all the side effects that come with it. Recently my friend and popular tv host Paula Sands of Paula Sands Live! was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer and I felt compelled in some way to try to offer her some kind of help or support. Since what I do for a living is cook I figured if nothing else, I could do some research and offer her some suggestions on what she should eat during her treatment.

Here are some of the basics I have learned combining both medical and homeopathic advice.

1) Eliminate refined sugars from your diet. Natural sweeteners like honey or agave nectar are much better sources for sweetening and locally sourced honey has the added benefit of building immunity particularly toward respiratory type ailments.

2) Elimate as many processed or pre-packaged foods from your diet. This is always a good rule of thumb. The more you can make from scratch, the less likely you are to consume potential carcinogens.

3) Drink plenty of water. This helps both with keeping you hydrated but also with flushing toxins from your system.

4) Get plenty of protein, fiber and calories. Weight loss is a very big concern with cancer treatment, which can actually result in a weakened immune system so this is not the time to go on a crash diet. Great sources of protein are greek yogurt, organic cage free eggs and whey protein which can be added to almost anything. I am also a firm believer in increasing your omega 3 fatty acids and chia seeds are an amazing source of this essential nutrient. Flax seed is a mega dose of fiber.

5) Eat breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day for cancer patients. It is the time your most likely to not feel nauseated and therefore more likely to be able to get down a substantial nutrient dense meal.

6) Incorporate spices into your diet that are digestive aids. Cumin, ginger and cinnamon are well known for their digestive properties. One teaspoon of cumin mixed with water can be just as effective as Pepto Bismol in soothing an upset stomach. And in countries like Morocco, Ginger tea and ginger cakes are often served at the end of a meal to help the digestion process.

Here are a couple of breakfast recipes to try:

Super Shake
Yields: Approx. 2 Servings

1 Banana
1 Mango, Peeled
½ Avocado
2 tsps Agave Nectar or to taste
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup organic whole milk
2 tsps Chia Seed
1 Tbl Whey Protein

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, puree using an immersion blender or place all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth.

Breakfast Quinoa

1 cup cooked Quinoa
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsps local honey or to taste
2 tsps chia seeds
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbls Pistachios
2 Tbls Raisins
2 Tbls Dried Cranberries

Cook quinoa according to package directions. Add vanilla, honey, chia seed, ginger, cinnamon to quinoa and stir to combine. Adjust sweetness to taste. Top with pistachios, raisins and dried cranberries or whatever fruit you like.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I have a couple of gripes about food that I have to get off my chest. Recently I have been even more OCD about reading labels than I had been and I'm starting to get really annoyed by some things. Here is my short gripe list.

1) Why does heavy cream need to have mono and di glycerides in it??

2) Why does cottage cheese have guar gum and Modified Food Starch in it??

3) Why does chicken, beef, pork and other meat have added sodium in it??

4) Why does yogurt have so much sugar and fat in it??

5) Why does ANYTHING have MSG in it anymore??

6) Why do products that are marked "Gluten Free" on the front also have a warning about potential cross contamination in the facility it was manufactured in on the back?

7) Why DON'T they HAVE to declare that a package of ground beef may have ammoniated beef in it?

8) Why does processed cheese even exist when there are so many great cheeses out there?

9) Why do they put wax on fruit?

10) Why aren't other people asking these same questions?

It seems to me that we have all become complacent about the things we put in our bodies. I got news for you, the FDA and the USDA DON'T necessarily have your health in their best interest. They are more concerned with the bottom line and whenever money is involved, you better think twice. People need to start advocating for themselves when it comes to eating well. The pendulum has swung far too much in a direction toward foods that are more concerned with shelf life and appearances than with health and nutrition. Next time you are in a grocery store, don't just assume that all things being equal sugar is sugar and cream is cream. Turn those containers, bags and cartons around and read the labels. You'll be amazed at the chemicals and crap you are actually consuming. There are options and you can avoid these chemicals, you just have to be aware and be a savvy consumer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are Gluten Free Food Manufacturers Doing a Disservice to those with Gluten Intolerances?

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Gluten and Allergen Free Expo in Chicago. It was an eye opening experience on multiple fronts. When my mother in law was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 1997, knowledge about gluten intolerances was little and gluten free foods or labeling scarce. She and I learned what she could and couldn't eat sometimes the hard way. Much of this has changed particularly over the last 4 or 5 years. Gluten Free labeling has improved quite a bit. It isn't perfect, but it is better than it used to be. AND, perhaps more importantly, gluten free foods have started popping up in even the most mundane of grocery stores like Walmart. No longer do you have to travel to a big city where there is a Whole Paycheck or a Trader Joes to find gluten free products.

BUT, and here is the big but, are all these gluten free foods really helping those with gluten intolerances or actually hurting them? In my humble opinion, they are in fact hurting them. If you read the labels on these mostly processed and packaged foods, you will notice a lot of other ingredients besides wheat and wheat derivatives. The ones that particularly concern me are sugar, fat and salt. I was mortified upon reading many of the labels on these products how many of them were absolutely loaded with refined sugars, unhealthy fats and tons of salt. Sure you won't have an allergic reaction to these foods, but in the long run, will eating them be even worse for you than the wheat reaction would have been to begin with. I maintain in many ways yes.

Just because tons of cakes, cookies, pies, crackers, sauces, gravies, cereals, sweets, etc. are available to you that are gluten free doesn't make them any healthier. I feel like some individuals take a little license to indulge thinking that because they are gluten free they MUST be healthier alternatives to their non-gluten free counterparts. Many of the individuals I saw there were indeed on the plump side and probably needed to be cautious in particular about fat intake as well as glycemic index. What was even more disturbing to me was the almost obsessive nature with which people flocked to demos about these tasty treats using pre-packaged mixes that had things in them that they most certainly should be wary of.

I appreciate the fact that awareness of Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance has increased and I think it is wonderful, but I think that manufacturers see an opportunity to exploit people who are already vulnerable just to make a buck without thinking of the consequences in the long run. Creating a group of individuals who are not only unable to eat certain foods but are now suffering from other medical complications that are directly attributable to what they can and are eating is unacceptable.

We as advocates for those with food allergies in general have to also be advocates for health in general. People need to be made aware of the dangers of these foods and to read labels hyper sensitively. They also need to be made aware of the cash cow that the gluten and allergen free industry is to many manufacturers. Be suspect of all pre-packaged or processed foods. I understand convenience and believe me I am not such a huge food snob as to think that people are going to cook and bake from scratch every day. I get that. But helping people come up with ways to feed themselves quickly yet healthily is imperative if we are to see a decline in diet related illnesses. That's what I was trying more than anything to do in my own gluten free cookbook. Stop obsessing on desserts and those foods that are not necessarily the best choices for you to eat daily and focus on those things that are tasty, healthy and fulfilling. I think this is the direction for the future of gluten and allergen free lifestyles.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Making of a Foodie

Jeff and I were chatting the other day about the concept of being a foodie. It dawned on me that at some point this term became popular and something everyone knew, even though it isn't even in the dictionary. Where did it come from and what does it mean I wondered? Well, the exact origin is hard to pinpoint but I have my suspicions.

Foodie, from my perspective, refers to someone who is obsessed with food, cooking, shopping, restaurants and everything having to do in general with the topic of gastronomy. These are people who subscribe to cooking magazines, read articles and blogs about cooking and food, seek out restaurants before anything else when planning a vacation, enjoy grocery shopping and trying new "gourmet" items, and are always planning their next meal before they even finished the one they are consuming. I am in the purest sense of the word a foodie, and one who has been fortunate enough to make a living at it.

It seems to me that the first time I ever heard this term was about 10 or so years ago on the Food Network. I think it may be a case of the chicken and the egg. Whether the term grew out of the network or the network grew out of the term is irrelevant. The fact remains that the popularity of food shows, food magazines, reality/competition shows revolving about food, food blogs, and food radio shows has skyrocketed.

When deciding upon a new marketing angle for our bed and breakfast it dawned on me that what we have created here is a haven for foodies so I incorporated it into our website, print ads, etc. If you type in the search term "foodie" on Google, you'll see over 13,000,000 search results. This is no small number. People who are foodies seek out other foodies to share their ideas with, meals with and ultimately to learn about the latest trends, flavors and even restaurants.

Several times over the last few months we have been told by various friends that they don't know of any other friends who are foodies like them and would appreciate a meal at a particular restaurant for whatever reason, be it cost, extravagance, unusual cuisine, strange ingredients or even quantity. This is something I am proud of. I like being known as the person who will probably know the answer to some random food question or has the latest scoop on an ingredient or restaurant. It is my passion, my creative outlet and ultimately, it tastes darn good.

One of the greatest joys in life in my opinion is experiencing new foods and flavors. I get practically giddy when I eat something truly great. When at Robuchon's in Las Vegas, the masterpiece of artwork that was the bread cart virtually brought a tear to my eye and the term "foodgasm" came to mind several times during a particularly memorable meal we had at Binkley's in Cave Creek, AZ.

This is even more incredulous considering I came from a background as a ballerina who did everything she could to avoid food and had a less than ideal relationship to it. When I met Jeff, however, that all changed. His courtship revolved around introducing me to new foods and flavors and from that a beautiful marriage was born. One in the literal sense and one in the figurative sense.

Once I began working on my Master's in Cultural Anthropology I found the topic of Food and Culture to be particularly interesting which only furthered my obsession. It always struck me that the words "You are what you eat" are not just a stupid catch phrase. They are the foundation of many of the basic tenets in our lives. We all have to eat to survive and ultimately how we fulfill this need is shaped by where and how we grew up. In this way, we are all interconnected. It is the one constant in life that sees no boundaries between race, gender, religion, economics, politics or anything else.

If there is only one legacy I leave on this planet when I die I hope that it is a greater appreciation for food. I hope that those who I cook for know that what they are consuming comes from a place of passion, love and respect. And I hope that in some way it sparks in them a sense of passion, love and respect for food that they can carry with them.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Customer Service Part 2

So, what sparked my rant on customer service? Our recent vacation. We spent 2 weeks in Arizona and Las Vegas. We drove to and from and spent a couple of nights on the road as well. Our experiences with the vast majority of the places we stayed and ate at were tremendous.

The Tropicana, which happened to be under construction was great. The staff helpful, friendly and wanting to go out of their way to accommodate us even though there was the noise of jack hammers from about 7am till 5pm. None of that mattered. We were comfortable and well cared for. Ergo, an experience where a not totally ideal situation was made up for by good customer service. We will go back and we will refer others to them.

The many great restaurants we dined at all had tremendous customer service. Binkley's in Cave Creek, AZ, Mix at Mandalay Bay, Robuchon at the MGM Grand, Aureole at Mandalay Bay, all were superb and of course the food remarkable. Even the customer service at the Howard Johnson's in Oklahoma City en route to Arizona was great.

Then, the last night of our vacation, we stayed at the Super 8 in North Platte, Nebraska and the whole thing was stained with one lousy experience. We had spent 15 hours on the road, through a snow storm, rain and a long day. I called in advance to notify them that we were arriving later than anticipated. The girl on the phone said no problem. When we arrived at approx. midnight, the girl at the front desk was less than hospitable. At first she demanded we pay for the room, which we had booked online through Travelocity, which is always pre-paid. We hassled with that for about 5 minutes. She then proceeded to put us in a smoking room, when the hotel was half empty. When we requested she move us she said "the room is pre-paid, I can't change it." Well that sent Jeff and I over the moon. Jeff eplained he is allergic and we cannot sleep in a smoky room. She reluctantly agreed to move us 2 doors down to another non-smoking room. Needless to say, about 30 mins of lousy customer service to deal with after an exhausting day. The next morning, we requested that they take a copy of our confirmation letter stating that the room was pre-paid and print out a receipt saying we didn't owe anything or shred the the imprint of the credit card they took. They refused to do both. I have never stayed at a hotel that didn't give us a receipt for services rendered. They were rude, uncaring and made us feel like we were an imposition. The room itself was fine. Comfortable, clean, etc. But, the entire stay was ruined by two crummy attitudes.

It was an unfortunate end to an otherwise great vacation. And an always good reminder that customer service is everyone's job and of the utmost importance.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The ABC's of Customer Service

In my book, customer service is probably the most important job anyone can have. I maintain that a restaurant with just ok food but great service is always preferable than one that has great food but mediocre service. This goes for anything. A spa, a hotel, a retail shop, you name it. Most people will remember an experience where they were treated with respect and their needs catered to even if there were other aspects of the experience that were less than perfect. My basic rules for customer service are simple.

A) Always put a smile on your face. I don't care if you had a bad day, a fight with your spouse, bounced a check, have a stomach ache, whatever you may be feeling. A smile is worth a thousand words. And I guarantee it'll make you feel better. If your job entails answering the phone, this is even more important. Believe it or not, that smile reads through the phone receiver.

B) The customer is always right, even if they aren't. We all know that sometimes dealing with the public can be a challenge. We are all human and everyone has a bad day. BUT, it is easier to win them over with honey than with vinegar so stop, listen and always do anything you can to help or rectify a situation. It isn't worth the headache or negative PR you may get just to prove that the customer was indeed wrong.

C) My automatic answer to all requests is Yes. Even if I am not sure how I can accommodate something, I will assume there is a way, say yes and then figure out how to accommodate the request later. It isn't a customers problem if you haven't thought of everything, because there is no way you ever can. BUT, showing them your enthusiasm for coming up with a solution will mean more to them than the end result.

D) Finally, keep in mind, a happy customer may tell 10 people about their experience. An unhappy one will tell 100. Isn't it worth it to take care of someone the first time around and capture the 10 than to lose the 100 you never met??

Speaking of happy customers. Here are some recent guests of ours at the inn.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why I Care About Bees

I'm sure by this point most of you have heard that we have a serious problem with bees. I'm not talking about killer bees, which seem to have appeared in places they really shouldn't exist. I'm talking about pretty yellow and black striped honey bees. It is called Colony Collapse Disorder and it was recognized to be a problem in 2006. Suddenly large populations of bees simply disappeared and nobody seemed to know why. Over the laste few years, several hypotheses have surfaced, none of which can completely explain the phenomenon, but all of which are plausible.

Some point toward disease as the culprit. Some have suggested that killer bees have squeezed honey bees out of their normal habitats. However, two of the theories that seem most likely to be causing the phenomenon are cell phones and pesticides. It has been suggested that cell phone signals somehow interfere with the signals honey bees use to communicate, in essence causing them to get lost. Unable to find their hives, they simply die. As far as pesticides are concerned, this is again, not a far fetched idea. Pesticides and insecticides are regularly used, particularly on commercial farms. While the flowers the bees feed from may not actually be sprayed, runoff and wind can carry these chemicals quite a ways, contaminating their food sources and killing them.

Why should I care?? Well, we should all care. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a huge number of crops that we all rely on regularly. Without them these crops would disappear. Some of these include: onions, cabbage, peppers, melons, cucumbers, almonds, strawberries, soybeans, apples, avocadoes, eggplant, vanilla, tomatoes and grapes. The list goes on and on.

What can we do about this?? I for one make it a point to support local honey bee farms by purchasing their honey so that they can afford to keep the hives going. Beekeeping is tricky work. It can be expensive and fickle. One of the farms I frequent has 4 hives. They treat them equally and all 4 are located in the same spot on their farm. They tell me that every year for whatever reason one of the hives simply dies off and they have no idea what they did differently to cause that hive to perish when the others do perfectly well. So they buy new bees and repopulate the hive and start from square one.

The second thing you can do is to get involved in beekeeping yourself. Many people are putting up hives on their properties and letting the bees do their work. For those who are allergic to bee stings, this may not be a popular idea, but for those who have the space, the money and the desire, it can be an incredibly rewarding hobby and one they know is actually having an effect upon the environment and our future.

Ironically the company who has done the most to support research on Colony Collapse Disorder has been Haagen Dazs. Many of their flavors rely upon honey and crops pollinated by honey bees so they have created a special research fund to determine the cause and help fix the problem. Hopefully their efforts will help curtail the perpetuation of CCD and develop a course of action to help eliminate it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Diagnosing Celiac Disease: A Work In Progress

I am currently reading yet another book about Julia Child called "As Always, Julia" by Joan Reardon. This is a collection of a series of letters written between Julia Child and her friend Avis Devoto. In one letter, Avis Devoto describes having suffered from anemia for twenty-five years. As I was reading this a red flag flew up in my mind which had celiac disease written all over it. Let me explain. My mother in law, who was finally diagnosed with celiac disease in 1997 suffered from chronic anemia to the point that she was getting recurrent iron shots which didn't seem to really help her. As it turns out, the anemia was a symptom of celiac disease but because doctors were not aware of or not accustomed to testing for this disease, they missed it and so she suffered for years without a real explanation.

Other very common symptoms that went misdiagnosed for years because of lack of knowledge were gastrointestinal problems, such as IBS, skin irritations, migraines, failure to thrive, fibromyalgia, neuralgia and any number of other diseases which involved lack of energy, stomach discomfort and a general sense of feeling ill. Many of these individuals went on to take medications for these ailments, which gave them only minimum relief and mostly just resulted in a sense of despair, a feeling that they would never feel "right" again.

I hear these stories over and over from those who have spent years getting a proper diagnosis. Ironically, most, if not all, feel an immediate sense of relief as soon as they eliminate wheat gluten from their diets. For some, these symptoms may not have appeared in their youth, but later in life. This represents basically two kinds of celiacs, those who are immediately affected and those whose effects are cumulative, meaning the build up of exposure to gluten over a period of time will eventually cause discomfort. My mother in law is the first kind. She knows within minutes and has violent reactions.

So what is celiac disease exactly?? Essentially the proteins in wheat gluten cause inflammation of the villi or hairlike projections in the intestine. These hairlike projectsions are largely responsible for absorbing the nutrients ingested from food. When they become inflamed, they shrivel up and the end result is essentially malnourishment which manifests itself in the above mentioned symptoms. These villi will grow back once gluten is eliminated from the diet and therefore celiac disease is perfectly managed through diet, not requiring any medication for most.

It is important to mention that celiac disease should not be called an allergy in the true sense of the word but rather an intolerance. An allergy by definition creates a histamine response, which causes inflammation in the whole body rapidly and may result in not only rashes, but anaphylactic shock where ones throat will close up causing them the inability to breathe. These kinds of responses can be severe and can result in death. There ARE those who do suffer from wheat allergies. An intolerance like celiac disease may result in death over the long term, mostly from lack of absorption of nutrients, but is not immediately deadly. It also cannot be treated with medication, such as an epipen, to alleviate symptoms.

Diagnosis is simple but not foolproof. Usually it begins with a simple blood test to determine a preponderance toward celiac disease. Once a preponderance has been confirmed an endoscopy is required to confirm the damage to the villi for a true diagnosis to be made. Part of the problem that has been encountered by some is that once they receive a positive blood test they eliminate gluten from their diet and then have an endoscopy. Since the villi will grow back after the removal of gluten, they will show a false negative from the endoscopy.

There is also the issue of self-diagnosis. Celiac disease and wheat intolerances have become somewhat of a fad lately. Many are jumping on the band wagon so to speak, attempting to treat a number of different ailments with the assumption that they must suffer from a gluten intolerance. This is not to say that they won't feel better, as many will actually reap the benefits of eating more whole foods and less processed foods, but the result may not actually dictate the cause. In my mind, how you feel is enough to encourage you to continue on a wheat free diet, but to truly be sure, one should discuss this with a trained medical practitioner and particularly one who is familiar with testing for and diagnosing celiac disease.

For more information on how to eat gluten free, check out my cookbook "Let's Party: Gluten Free Entertaining for Everyone." The book was inspired by and tested on my mother in law. Log onto

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Low Down on Knives

The knife is probably the single most important tool in the kitchen for both beginning chefs and professional chefs. Obviously knowing how to use them is critical, but the knife in and of itself is important as well. There are a few things I have learned about knives over the course of the last say decade that I have been cooking and I am going to share what they are here.

1) Make sure you buy a knife that has a forged blade, meaning the blade goes all the way through the handle. This will ensure a much longer life expectancy then one without.

2) Get a knife that fits your hand. People generally assume that one size fits all. Well, I have found that isn't true. I have really small hands compared with most male chefs. Therefore I require a much smaller knife. You can test knives out at quality knife purveyors and hold them to see how they feel in your hand. Go with one that feels natural and doesn't have a blade too much longer than the length of your hand.

3) Look for a knife that has good weight to it. I want the knife to do the work for me, not vice versa.

4) Get a Santoku style knife. Santoku is a Japanese style knife that has ridges along the blade. These ridges actually create air pockets that allow food to pull away from the blade rather than sticking. This really makes a difference when you are trying to chop something rapidly and don't want it spraying everywhere.

5) Get a good quality hone and learn how to use it. Keeping a knife sharp is paramount to not cutting oneself. You are infinitely more likely to cut yourself using a dull knife, which sticks than a sharp knife. About 3 or 4 times a year, have your knife professionally sharpened. Incorrect knife sharpening can actually damage the blade and destroy it. If you were to magnify a blade you would see what look like little teeth. These teeth are in alignment when a knife is sharp and are frayed outward when a knife is dull. If you incorrectly sharpen a knife, rather than realigning these teeth, you may actually break them off and create gaps in the blade.

6) NEVER put a good quality knife in the dishwasher. Always wash it in hot soapy water. The dishwasher can use harsh abrasive cleaners which can damage the blade of a knife as well as allow the knife to bang around, hitting other dishes, pots and pans again, potentially damaging the blade.

7) Store your knife safely in either a knife rack or a knife protector. Again, simply keeping it in the drawer with other utensils may result in damaging the blade fo the knife.

Nowadays one can purchase a decent quality knife for approximately $50-$75. I don't recommend butcher block sets as they tend to be mediocre quality knives even though they offer a lot of bang for your buck. Of all the equipment to invest in, above and beyond expensive pots and pans, expensive gadgets and gizmos, a knife will always get use and can accomplish almost anything in the kitchen.