How to tell if that fruit or veggie is actually organic!

Reading PLU Labels on Fruits and Veggies

A kitchen hack that makes it easy to tell the difference between organic and GMO produce.

I work very hard on keeping a balanced and healthy diet. The best way for me to do this is by reading labels. It’s a habit! I avoid foods with lots of preservatives and other chemical additives. I stick to things that taste good – but I stay away from things that I’ve decided are not helpful or that there’s even some question that they may not be healthy. That’s why I habitually look for a label. Most labels tell you everything you need to know.

Take GMOs, for example. A GMO is a genetically modified organism (plant, animal or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified).  Lots of people wonder whether GMOs are healthy or not. I don’t want to dive into that debate, it’s just something I avoid.  Even when I’m buying dairy products – I look for the non-GMO Project logo on the packaging.

Here’s a perfect example of that habit of mine. Every now and again, when my friends and I decide that we need to have an evening of cooking together we’ll all go shopping as a group.  It’s as if the party starts from when we get to the store! Here’s a little tip – if you want to know where to go to select the freshest food for your family, follow a foodie. Especially one that’s been in the restaurant business for half her adult life.

The first question was where to shop. I love Gelson’s on Century Park West off Santa Monica Boulevard; been going there for years. It’s a little busy sometimes – especially just before and after lunch but it’s always clean, well organized and well stocked.  We went at 3 pm – perfect for a group of friends to poke around for their groceries.

I had fun using lessons I learned from my trip to Italy to point out the differences and uses of penne and rigatoni pasta. Then we got to the produce section. I was looking at bananas when one of my friends heard me say, “Good, all nines.” From her expression, I knew she needed an explanation.

All fruits and vegetables have a PLU or product look up code assigned to them. Bananas are always 4011, bok choy is 4545 (great with soups), brussel sprouts are 4550 (love them when roasted!) and Large Cripps pink apples are 4130 (favorites for aromatic fruit salads). The codes are there because it makes it easier for everyone to track and inventory product. And, it’s the numbers that the cashier uses to punch in when you check out of the market.

The PLU codes are found on little labels stuck to each fruit or vegetable. Sometimes they’ll be on the box or bag for fruits that are usually purchased in bulk, like a bag of tangerines (4055). They’ll also be on the tag above the bin that contains the items.  Here’s the important point about PLUs. Most of them have 4-digit codes. These are conventionally grown. And most of these codes start with a 3 or 4.

Increasingly, you’ll find 5-digit PLU codes. And these are divided into two classes – ones that start with an “8” and ones that start with a “9.”  Many of the PLU codes at Gelson’s begin with a “9” – which means that the produce is USDA-certified organic!  So, if you come across a 94011 – it’s a banana, but it’s an organically grown banana!

The “8” means that the item is GMO (genetically modified).  Typically these “8”s are found on a known group of High Risk Crops, that include corn, zucchini, or crook neck squash and papaya among others.  I couldn’t find any “8”s at Gelson’s – or for that matter, in any of the stores around Beverly Hills, even on the summer corn.

So, it’s very easy to remember “I hate “8”s but “9” is FINE!

Summer Skin Lifestyle tip: Gently and Regularly Rain or Shine

Fran's Skincare Summer

It’s never too late to start taking care of your skin.

When we were little kids we never thought about skin health. I never wore sunblock (nobody ever thought about that). When we became teens, we were more worried about hanging out with friends on the sand and frying in the sun.  We used to mix baby oil with iodine and I would turn the most beautiful walnut brown color!  We all tried to get as dark as we could be thinking it was the healthy thing to do.

Even in college, we didn’t care. Then one day, I got the message. I was on a friend’s sailboat to Catalina. And, in my typical youthful careless attitude, I wore a swimsuit and little else. I even turned down my friend’s offer for sunblock. “Sunblock??” I thought. “Heck, what a great time for tanning!”  You know, the reflection of all that sun off the water? Fabulous! Or so I thought.

By the time we arrived at Avalon harbor, I was as red as one of those lobsters they serve at The Palm restaurant. Exposed areas – especially my shoulders – were so red that they were purple! It was so painful that I’m wincing right now as I write these words.  I ended up in the emergency room that day with sun poisoning and for two weeks had to stay completely covered up to protect the blisters and what was left of my skin.

Any sunburn is a clear sign that your skin has sustained damage from too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Doctors say that just getting a sunburn once every 2 years can triple your risk of melanoma (skin cancer). And here’s the thing – as you get older, the risk goes way up. Nobody needs that.  Even if you haven’t been in the sun in years, if you’ve ever been under a black light you will immediately see the damage that your skin has suffered – ears, knees, elbows, odd spots – nothing is safe.

I ALWAYS use sunscreen – 365 days a year – it’s part of my daily morning routine before I ever leave the house.  It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or cloudy those sneaky ultraviolet rays are still there– I use sunscreen with some of the highest SPF I can find and I can’t remember the last time I had a sunburn. Nowadays, I’m the one pushing my friends to use sunscreen.

You think that you’re protected by your car windows? Think again. Unless you have UV coatings on all your car windows, the same sunburn causing rays will hit you as though you were standing outside. Worse yet, the windows even magnify your exposure! No matter where you drive, remember to put extra sunscreen on your left cheek and left arm and hand.

I use Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid (SPF 70) or Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch (SPF 85+) on my body and Thibiant Antioxidant Moisturizing Sunscreen (SPF 50+) from Thibiant Beverly Hills for my face. Can you tell I don’t mess around with the possibility of ever burning again?  Even if you use a tinted moisturizer with SPF or your makeup has SPF – it does not mean that you don’t need a separate sunscreen – YOU DO.  So, go ahead, layer it up and protect yourself as much as possible.

Sunscreen is only part of my daily routine; the rest (and equally important) is skin maintenance.  People are always complimenting me on my skin and asking what I do to keep it this way. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I use a very mild, very fine grain exfoliating facial scrub regularly – about 2 to 3 times a week.  Gently exfoliating (GENTLY) scrubs away tired, dead cells and speeds up the skin renewal process allowing fresh new cells to take the place of the old ones you’ve scrubbed away. It can help brighten and smooth your skin.

Find a scrub that has small round particles – like little beads – not jagged particles – the jagged ones can really irritate your skin.  If you’re unsure about the shape – rub a small amount on the back of your hand – you’ll be able to tell the difference right away.  Do not rub your face really hard with a scrub – that will only irritate your skin.  “Gently and regularly” is the rule for exfoliating.   Don’t forget to moisturize after you’ve cleaned your face.  Leaving it dry with no moisture will only encourage your oil glands to produce excess oils – not great for clear skin.  Then, once a quarter (if you can), get a professional spa facial for a really deep clean.

There you have it.  My simple and easy skin lifestyle routine.  It’s never too late to start. And, don’t forget your sunscreen!

 

Entertaining at home with Magnums

magnums as tabletop centerpiece

How to use Magnums as a centerpiece for your dinner table.

Entertaining at home presents a fun challenge for me because I’m always looking for a way to do something a bit more extraordinary than before. I find the small touches that make a big statement, something that adds sophistication and makes the event more memorable.

“Magnums” contain 1.5 liters of wine or champagne, or the equivalent of two regular 750ml bottles. Two bottles in one! When you use magnums of wine on the table you get to enjoy the party more because you don’t have to keep jumping up and opening wine bottles as often.  But, there’s more than just the convenience of having to open fewer bottles for your gathering.

No matter how you look at it, magnums create a great party atmosphere.  Whatever the size of your gathering – large or small – when you have magnums as part of your centerpiece, the extra-large bottles immediately become fabulous additions to the tabletop and great conversation starters.

I went to a party in San Diego where the host served a double magnum of Champagne, equivalent to two magnums or four standard 750ml bottles. Just to get the cork out was a tremendous feat but, it took two guys to tip the bottle carefully to serve all the guests. That was not only a constant topic of conversation, it was also so much fun and the source of a whole lot of laughter all night long!  It really added to the party atmosphere.

There’s also a practical perspective for magnums. Winemakers prefer larger bottle size because wine ages more slowly and gracefully in larger format bottles than in standard bottles. There are several reasons for this.  One reason is that even though there is a greater volume of wine in the bottle, the amount of oxygen or “ullage” between the cork and the wine is the same as in a regular sized bottle. Corks are porous so tiny amounts of oxygen are let in (very, very slowly!) and that oxygen modifies the wine over time – aging the wine.  Too much oxygen will eventually damage the wine but if there is a lot more wine in the bottle and still the same ullage and cork size then there is less risk of damage to the wine over the same amount of time.  And, the bigger the bottle the more your wine is protected from other things that can damage it (larger bottles have thicker glass) – light, heat, changes in temperature and vibration from travel.

This is particularly true for Champagne where experts note that magnums help the wine retain a more youthful taste than when served from standard bottles. Also, due to the increased content volume, magnums tend to have slightly higher pressure which enhances the bubbles a bit – always a good thing in my opinion!

Either way, imagine one or two magnums sitting on your tabletop at your next party. You’ll enjoy the party with fewer interruptions to open more bottles and your guests will have a lot of fun passing the large bottles around the table to refill glasses. And think of all conversations that will start. But, the biggest benefit? You will be serving and enjoying wine that is closer to what the winemaker intended.

4 Great Reasons Why Beverly Hills is a “Local Exotic” Travel Destination

Broiled Jumbo Nova Scotia Lobster - The Palm

Lucky you if you’re a LA Local: “Exotic” Beverly Hills’ is just a drive away!

I love to vacation in exotic places. But who says “exotic” has to be far faraway? I’ve been living in Beverly Hills for more than twenty years. I’ve owned restaurants here, raised a family, made all kinds of friends, and I’ve learned so many things. Like anywhere else though I suppose, it’s easy to take your own backyard for granted.

But I don’t like to take anything for granted. I’m constantly looking for places in my own neighborhood to eat and be entertained. So, I’ve taken it upon myself to do more exploring locally – even to places that are very well known to me and my friends. I’ve mapped out of a few favorite places around Beverly Hills that are so fun, I think they definitely qualify as part of the “local exotic” scene.

Let’s start at The Palm Beverly Hills. A fabulous landmark restaurant located on Canon Drive’s well-known “restaurant row.” This is the ‘rebuilt’ Palm – the old one was in West Hollywood for more than 40 years and had to move after their lease ran out. But what a rebuild – it’s beautiful!  I go with a girlfriend when either one of us gets the “urge” for lobster! Because I like my clams served without a lot of stuff to blur their sweet taste, I always call ahead to ask them to set aside at least a dozen to serve simply steamed with drawn butter to start. If I’m feeling a bit healthy we share a classic wedge salad with lettuce, crisp bacon, ranch dressing and the blue cheese on the side (blue cheese isn’t my favorite).  Then we get down to my favorite part of the meal – the”Broiled Jumbo Nova Scotia Lobster.” Always order a 4-pound female lobster to share. Female lobster tails are larger than the male’s, and really, isn’t the tail the best part? Be sure to order the best creamed spinach you’ve ever tasted to enjoy with your lobster and you have the perfect meal! They’re open for lunch and dinner and I always suggest reservations.

How about brunch on Saturday or Sunday? I highly recommend The Blvd restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills for their unlimited Champagne Bar.  They serve Perrier-Jouët Champagne – which is a really great bottle of bubbles – and also offer orange juice (for Mimosas) or peach (for Bellinis).  But I always say – why mess with a good thing- if the bubbles are that good you should enjoy them all by themselves. And, the great thing is that you really can’t go wrong with anything on the brunch menu. The dining room is a beautiful backdrop for a lazy afternoon – or request a table outside and do some serious people watching while enjoying your champagne.  Definitely make reservations if you want to go.

Want casual dining but with a flair for the refined? South Beverly Grill on South Beverly Drive fits the bill. It’s one of those places where you can really feel at home for lunch or dinner.  The food and service is consistently good!  They have one of the best cheeseburgers around, definitely order it with fries. If you’re over 21 sit at the bar and try to be in George’s section,  I think he’s one of the best bartender in Beverly Hills. No reservations for the bar, but if you want a table, I recommend reservations, especially for dinner.

Hopefully there’s a concert you want to see while on your vacation, and there’s no better venue than the world-famous Hollywood Bowl. My favorite thing to do during the summer is to make a plan with friends, get a box, bring a picnic for “al fresco” dining and listen to my favorite music.  They have something for everyone – special themed nights like “sing-a-longs” (this season one night was The Sound of Music) or the Los Angeles Philharmonic – Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, classical music, jazz and so much more.  It’s absolutely magical – food, music, a warm summer night and the stars.  Not sure it gets any better.

And now you know some of my personal favorites!

Give your flowers a reason to SING!

Your Table Top: turn ordinary into extraordinary with unusual flower containers.

Don’t you love to wander in a flower garden during full bloom? It’s such a peaceful experience, but it also draws you closer to nature. That’s why we cut flowers and bring them into our homes, to bring some of that beauty inside.

But, if you’re taking the time and effort to cut the perfect blooms why settle for simple vases? I mean, if you’re going to accent your home with flower arrangements, why not try something different for containers like watering cans, milk bottles, pitchers, or small bowls?  In my world, if it can hold water then it can be used as a flower holder.

Blame it on a streak of creativity that I’ve taken with me over the more than twenty years of owning restaurants – I always ask myself, how can I turn ordinary into extraordinary?

What do you get from putting flowers into something other than a vase – even a very beautiful crystal vase? I think you get something memorable. You get questions and conversation! You make it fun for you and your guests.

There is no limit to the types of containers you can use for cut flowers to add interest to a centerpiece or arrangement on any table in your home. I look for textures, color, and different materials to compliment room décor or to spice up a theme.  The sky is the limit.  Pay attention to the size and shape of the container when you cut the stems.  You can even use very large blooms in a low container by just keeping the stems short.  Sometimes you might want to bunch flowers very tightly to fill a container to the max or sometimes a single flower makes just the right statement.

Depending upon the theme of the evening dropping just daisy heads into a large shallow container filled with water and adding floating lit tea lights could be just the perfect centerpiece to add some drama to your dining table.  You can even use this technique in several smaller shallow containers for a centerpiece.  Any flat bloom will work!

Speaking of mood, what you do depends on what you’re trying to achieve. And it doesn’t require that you get very elaborate. For instance, you can use votive candle holders and glass hurricane candle holders as bud vases. You can get very nice ones from Crate and Barrel.

I’ve used Ball Mason jars too. You know, the jars with screw-on lids that people use when making jams. They work well as impromptu containers for an informal setting, like a dinner al fresco. Put a bunch of wild flowers in them or a bunch of small daisies or even just a large bunch of leaves.  Ball Mason jars are available all over but I got mine from World Market.

I have several different water pitchers that I always use as flower “vases” – glass, white ceramic ones, but my favorite is this one of a kind pewter one from Arte Italica. They have so many to choose from in all types of materials.

I’ve even used a very tall glass cream pitcher that I purchased for $2 at an estate sale. It makes a gentle statement with a single rose or daffodil.

Don’t get me wrong. I think nice vases can be an elegant touch, but the point is don’t limit yourself. Get creative.  When it comes to flowers to accent your home, anything can be used to hold them.

Let your imagination go, and have fun!

Level up your Summer Snacks Strategy!

Summer Fruits

Kitchen Tips: Chill out and stock up on fruits and frozen blueberry “Bites”

Here comes the sun. Summer is one of my favorite times of the year. I’m a sunshine kind of person, so I welcome all of it. Especially the fun part: the joy of cooling off!

There are a lot of different ways to cool off. The first thing you’ll want to do is have plenty of water around. Just plain, every day H2O. The doctors say that we all need to drink at least eight, 8-ounce glasses of water every day (think of it as the “8×8” rule). Following this rule is especially important when it’s sweltering.  But, if you’re like me and think that plain water is so very boring then be sure to keep a pitcher of water with sliced citrus or mint and cucumber in the refrigerator – it tricks me into thinking I’m drinking something special and I get my 8 glasses in!

Another trick? Keep lots of cold fruits around. I stash fresh fruit of all kinds, cleaned and cut in bowls in the refrigerator. Things like melon (canary, cantaloupe), pineapple, strawberries, kiwi, and oranges. Make sure that you buy whole fruit at the market and cut them at home yourself. Cutting your own fruit reduces the possibility of bringing a food-borne illness into your home. And besides, you KNOW how clean your cutting board is! Right?

A note on apples. Precut apples start to brown almost immediately. But, you can stop the browning by dabbing them in fresh orange or lemon juice. I prefer orange juice because it enhances the apple taste. I think lemon juice clashes a little. Once I’ve cut my apples (one-eighth slices) and dabbed them with orange juice, I’ll place them on a covered plate in the fridge ready to serve.

Frozen grapes are another great way to cool off.  Buy organic seedless grapes, clean and thoroughly dry them and then place them on a sheet tray in the freezer.  When they’re frozen, transfer them to a Ziploc bag.  Everyone can just reach in and grab a few anytime.

How about frozen blueberry bites – doesn’t that sound delicious? With yogurt! This one is for those of us with insatiable appetites for sweets with just a bit of tart. And the heat of the summer just brings it on even stronger. I saw this video on PureWow. It’s so easy to make. And they are so very delicious.

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces of vanilla yogurt
  • 2 teaspoons of lemon juice
  • 1 pint of fresh organic blueberries

Directions

  1. Get a bowl large enough to accommodate 8 ounces of yogurt plus 1 pint of blueberries.
  2. Slowly, with a rice paddle or very large spoon, mix it up and add the lemon juice. Be very gentle – you don’t want to crush the blueberries.
  3. Use your paddle (or large spoon) to scoop out yogurt covered blueberries, one at a time, and set them out onto a sheet tray lined with parchment paper. You can also use wax paper or plastic wrap.
  4. Place the sheet tray with coated blueberries into your freezer for about 2 hours.
  5. Serve!

And now you know the best way to keep those summer snacks coming!

Fresh Eggs!

Egg test

An easy test to make sure that your eggs are fresh and safe to eat.

Eggs are a staple – fried or poached for breakfast, boiled for salads, brilliant as an omelet for a late supper or as an important ingredient in all sorts of recipes. You really don’t want to run out of them.

As we all know, eggs won’t last forever, even in a good refrigerator. Pay attention to those “sell by” dates and rotate eggs (as you would milk) making sure that you use the oldest stock first. But, does that mean you have to be a “date hound” for those expiration or “use by” dates? Short answer is “no.” A friend of mine complained a few days ago that his wife literally pounces on any eggs that remain in a carton after the expiration date – bam, into the trash. Completely unnecessary and overly cautious.

The fact is, assuming they are in constant refrigeration, raw eggs are usually safe for about three weeks after the “sell by” date has passed.

Look it up on Google, and you’ll see that this is a pretty common factoid.

But you still need to be careful – a bad egg is a terrible thing to crack open in your kitchen (it’s a smell that you never forget).

The first test is a visual inspection of the egg. Look for cracks or discoloration of the shell. The egg may even start to give off a certain odor – stronger than normal egg-smell. These are all nature’s signs that you really need to part with that egg.

Still not sure? Here’s a method I learned from my mom. Get a tall pitcher or other container and fill it half-way with cold water. Carefully place each egg into the water. If the egg drops to the bottom of the container – it’s good to eat.  If it lays on its side it’s even more fresh than if it stands on one end on the bottom but either way – they’re both good to eat.

If it floats – the egg is well past its prime. This is the clearest sign that you have a problem. Why does it float? Newly laid eggs have either no air cell or a very small one.  As they begin to cool (just laid eggs are about 105 degrees F!) the contents of the egg contract more than the shell so the inner membrane separates from the hard shell and forms the air cell.  As the egg ages moisture escapes through the shell and air replaces it so the air cell becomes larger.  The bigger the air cell, the more it floats.  So, if your egg is floating on the surface the air cell is big enough to make it buoyant.  Throw the egg away, you definitely don’t want to eat it.

Cool little trick, isn’t it?

A simple way to save “leftover” wine

Coravin Wine Preserver

Wine Ice Cubes: The best thing for “leftover” wine.

Good wine is a terrible thing to waste.

Being a lover of wine, I’m always offering a glass or two to friends when they stop by.  I take great care in the wine I select. It’s important only to drink the wines you like (that doesn’t mean they aren’t new ones to you – just don’t waste those calories on bad wine!).  I always like to discover new wines and learn as much about them (the grape, the blend, the winemaker) as I can.  Every label has a story.

It’s very little surprise then that I try never to waste wine once the bottle is opened. If I think that only one or two glasses will be poured, I will reach for my Coravin – a device that allows you to pour a glass or two without pulling the cork!  It inserts a long needle through the cork, displaces the wine poured with Argon gas, and when the needle is removed, the cork seals over itself, and no air touches the wine in the bottle thereby there’s no chance of unplanned oxidization of the wine.  It’s a truly genius system.  So, when I open a bottle, I want to make sure that every drop is enjoyed!  But sometimes, I might not realize we only have time for one glass, and I’ve opened the bottle only to have half of the bottle left.

Leftovers are great, some foods like soups, stews, and sauces are even better the second day, but that is not the case with wine.  When air meets wine – oxidization of the wine begins.  This is a great thing for a few hours as it allows the wine to “open” and change the taste and bouquet of the wine for the better.  The wine becomes what the winemaker intended for you to be drinking.  But, when too much air comes in contact with the wine – like by the next day – then the change isn’t so great.  I can taste the changes, so I don’t drink leftover wine – and the problem remains.  What to do with that leftover wine before it changes into something no one wants to drink?

This is what I do with that “leftover” wine – I make ice cubes!  Whenever a recipe calls for wine, you should always be using something that you’d actually drink. You wouldn’t believe how this improves the dish.  If you’ve ever just reached for that jug of red when the recipe calls for dry red wine and then another time (with the same recipe) you’ve used wine that you would be happy to drink you know exactly what I’m talking about.  Your dish will always taste better when it’s made with wine you enjoy.

I have very clever OXO Good Grip “no spill ice-trays” made by OXO that I buy at Bed, Bath and Beyond.  They have a flexible top that seals over the liquid so that there are no spills in your freezer.  Simply fill the tray with your leftover wine, lay the top on the tray and freeze.  Frozen cubes slide easily out of the tray.  Keep the frozen wine cubes in a Ziploc bag that you’ve written what the wine is and the date it went into your freezer.  Whenever you’re cooking and the recipe calls for wine – simply pull out your frozen wine cubes and you never have to open a new bottle again.  Of course, if you need a couple of cups of wine for the recipe then, by all means, open the fresh bottle and enjoy a glass of the “leftover” wine while your recipe is cooking away!

What is “sophisticated living”?

Sophisticated Living: it’s not what you spend, but what you share.

I’m a big advocate for enjoying life.  We only get one ticket to the big dance so we should participate in life to the fullest extent that we can. No matter where I am, I find that there’s always a way to draw out enjoyment from even the smallest thing. It’s the start for living a sophisticated life.

Why? Because how you enjoy something only increases the chance that you’ll find a way to refine it and add some degree of elegance to it. When you’re having fun, you find it’s so easy.  It takes such surprisingly little effort to add just the right thing to transform the ordinary into extraordinary. It makes everyone smile, including you!

But where does the inspiration come from? How do you learn about that “little thing” that makes such a big difference?

With over twenty years owning restaurants, I’ve seen – up close and personal – individual interpretations of what it means to celebrate your adult life. I’ve made some great friendships with people who have been very successful in finding just the right balance between being happy with their life and leading others to be happy as well. I have seen for myself that an inspired approach to living is infectious – once you experience it, you can’t leave it alone.

We’ve all heard that who you love is as important as how you love. I’d like to take that one step further: how you enjoy life is as important as how much you are willing to share. You’ll quickly learn that sophisticated living has very little to do with how much money you spend living your lifestyle. It has everything to do with what you learn about yourself and the world around you and how you share that knowledge.

I think that a big secret to living a sophisticated lifestyle is being honest with yourself and the people around you. It also takes a bit of bravery because you may feel like you’re risking embarrassment. But, how can you expect to be “sophisticated” when you hide behind pretext telling someone else’s story and not yours? Shout it out! What are your true interests? What types of things are you into? Fashion? Travel? Food? Entertaining? Fearlessly put it all on display! Have fun with it. Be bold. Invite others to have fun with it too.

Living a sophisticated life encourages us to express our deepest dreams and ideas through everything that we do. We enjoy moments and scenes. We embrace our experiences and knowledge – unabashedly and with the greatest joy. And all the while we have our friends and family at our side enjoying every moment with us.

My goal has always been to express the lessons I’ve learned from my years owning my restaurants through parties and gatherings and how I view life; sharing my likes and loves, tips and observations. It’s how I’m living my sophisticated life – sharing my knowledge and enjoying the time I spend doing it.

Want to come along?

The Right Way to Enjoy Al Fresco Dining

al fresco dinner ware

Dining outdoors – perfect for longer, warmer nights.

Days are getting longer and the nights are warming up – a perfect combination to dine al fresco with friends or a significant other.  It’s more than simply eating outside or just two Italian words that mean “in the cool air” – it’s a whole experience when done properly.  It’s creating the perfect table setting, candle-lit ambiance, just the right amount of casual and, of course, the perfect menu.

Many people think of white paper plates and red solo cups when they think of having a picnic, but for me, it’s always more than that.  Whether it’s dinner in the backyard by the pool or in the park with a big group of friends or perhaps a concert at The Hollywood Bowl, it’s important to make every dining occasion special but also worry-free!

There are so many fantastic unbreakable options now.  Crate and Barrel has an entire selection of beautiful rustic melamine (plastic!) in several colors that all coordinate well with bowls, plates and service pieces in different patterns (also melamine).  Add their “glassware” made from different polymer materials unbreakable glasses in all shapes including stemmed wine glasses and margarita glasses. You’ll have the basics for a colorful, fun and worry-free table setting. Yesterday, on my video, I showcased other options from Williams Sonoma. Use woven placemats in a coordinating color with a white linen napkin and colorful napkin ring to complete the look.  All you need now is simple flatware (really only a fork and knife), and you’re set.

Candlelight is important to set the mood.  Hurricane lamps with candles (include some citronella candles – to keep away the flying insects) to set around.  Make sure that the top of the candle is lower than the top of the hurricane lamp otherwise even a small breeze will blow out the flame.

Create simple centerpieces for height and color. Keep it casual.  You can use flowers, but then you need to worry about vases with water that can tip over.  Some of my favorite centerpieces are just twigs with small flowers (cherry blossom branches, birch branches, manzanita branches, etc.).  And sometimes it’s even simpler than that – just a large bunch of green – even Magnolia leaves in a big enough bunch are casual and beautiful.  You don’t need water – just a fun container.

Plan the menu appropriately for wherever you will be dining and how far you will be traveling to get there.  If you’re in the backyard, your menu can include hot food straight from the kitchen or BBQ. If you’re traveling (even around the corner to the park with friends) plan a menu that only includes food that can be served room temperature – salads, grilled in season vegetables (asparagus, artichokes, broccolini, et cetera – look at the farmer’s market for ideas). Veggies can easily be added to a plate of cold pasta salad to add color and flavor, along with cold sliced roast and cold fried chicken – you get the idea.  Don’t forget an easy batch cocktail – margaritas, negronis or keep it simple and bring wine.  And don’t forget the wine-opener.

One last safety note – warm evenings and nights also bring bugs. I hate bugs, but I especially hate mosquitos that can be a real pain (literally). Some of your guests may be uncomfortable about dining outside without some protection. Remind your guests to wear their preferred insect repellent lotions (et cetera) or ask them what they prefer and bring some just in case they forget. I also burn Tiki torch fuel that’s spiked with citronella – it seems to do the trick. Start them up about an hour before your guests arrive and you’ll be bug-free for hours.

You may enjoy this so much, you’ll make it a regular event all summer!

Don’t take your Cutting Board for granted!

Thinking about cutting boards today

Cutting board safety tips – there’s a reason that chefs do the things they do.

 

When I owned my restaurants we followed some pretty strict guidelines when it came to food preparation.  Many of the guidelines are written by state regulators. Most of them though are common sense things, like cutting boards.

The fact is – anything that your food touches can be somewhere that it can pick up contamination of some kind. For instance, if you cut up raw chicken, would you use the same cutting board to slice a tomato? Well, if you do and you don’t rigorously clean the board before you start slicing the tomatoes the danger from cross-contamination – the bacteria that naturally occurs in chicken meat – to anything else is extremely high.

But, it might surprise some people that raw, unwashed fruits and vegetables can also carry bacteria. I’ve seen people take raw, unwashed carrots, cut the tops off of them on the cutting board, then place those same carrots that are now washed and peeled back on the same cutting board to slice. Not a good idea.

Cutting boards need to be washed thoroughly and constantly.  Let’s start with our choice of boards.

Wood, Plastic, Glass?

The choice of material can help control the risk of cross contamination.

For a long time, nearly all cutting boards were made of wood. Traditionally they are made out of hardwoods like maple that have a very tight grain and won’t score (scratch) easily. Some people like softer woods like cypress which are less likely to dull knives. Good wood cutting boards tend to be more expensive, are heavy and require quite a bit of care to keep them like new.  You need to carefully wash your wooden board after each use with soap and water and thoroughly dry – regularly oil it with food grade mineral oil, and never put it in the dishwasher.

Plastic or silicone boards also have their advantages and disadvantages. Some people don’t like plastic because it can score from your knife cuts and perhaps trap bacteria but I like that I can put mine in the dishwasher to sanitize.  I replace my plastic boards before knife damage chips away at the surface.

Glass cutting boards are beautiful, won’t scratch or crack and are easy to clean.  BUT, food tends to slip on a glass surface and are also more likely to move around under the pressure of your chopping so the possibility of cutting yourself is a problem. But the worst part about glass boards is that they will dull your sharp knives faster than you can say this sentence!

The Verdict

Some food safety researchers recommend a mix of wood and plastic. I use my wood cutting boards for bread only – that way I don’t ever worry that bacteria is lurking on the surface.  It really depends on personal preference and how careful you are with proper cleaning and care, but obviously, the safest method is to use different boards for different foods.

When I’m cooking I use plastic only. For several reasons. You can buy different colors of plastic boards for different types of food – which all but guarantees that you’ll prevent cross contamination between raw proteins and other foods.  For instance, I use green for vegetables, red for meat (beef, veal, et cetera), blue for fish and white for chicken and other poultry.  This is the rule that’s always followed in restaurants.

Places like Crate and Barrel carry plastic boards that come in all sorts of colors. These boards are kind to your knives, fairly light weight, can be washed with soap and water easily, and if needed they can be soaked in bleach or a vinegar sanitizing solution to keep clean. Another important plus – especially for restaurants – plastic boards are cheaper than wood and can be dumped in the recycle bin when you’re done with them.

Be safe!

The Art of ordering from a menu

Charcoal_venice_Oysters-Josper

Don’t covet your neighbor’s dinner – order for flavor and experience!

Reading a menu at your favorite restaurant can be a lot of fun (especially if they’ve added new items that you haven’t tried) unless you’ve waited too long to eat and you’re starving! Then your eyes start darting around and you’re completely distracted by all those beautiful dishes passing you by – and at nose level! I suggest buying time with some bread so that you can actually pay attention to the dishes that the chef spent so much time creating.  Go ahead, order the drinks to start and with a few bites of bread to calm those hunger pangs you’re ready to go.

Over the more than 20 years that I owned restaurants we approached menu creation logically.  When my chefs came to me with menu ideas, our goal was to create menus that offered guests a chance to experience a particular flavor combination using what was in season, especially if one of us had just returned from travel with new ideas. I wanted our guests to enjoy the food, the friendship that brought them to the table, but definitely not to envy each other’s dinner because they thought they’d ordered wrong.

That’s where the art of ordering from a menu comes into play.

Your response might be “Ordering from a menu is art?” Depending on the restaurant, yes; just as much as it is an art in preparing the food for you to enjoy.

When I was a child, my parents had friends from China who frequented our dinner table. It was at that time that I learned how many Asian families prepare and eat food: small dishes of all kinds of different preparations, shared around the table so that everyone got a taste of something different. It was one big social experience that happened to involve food.  I didn’t realize it then but it’s the perfect way to eat a meal – tasting multiple dishes.

Mexican and Spanish “tapas” (snacks or small plates) cuisine has evolved in the same way. Everyone orders their favorite dish to share with everyone else at the table – what we used to call “family style dining.” This style of restaurant (shared plates) and type of ordering has become extremely popular.  Everyone gets to order something that has caught their eye on the menu and the whole table gets to taste different dishes that they might not have tried before.

The traditional way of ordering from a menu, what you might call the “mainstream” approach, is to order by course – appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert (if you can manage it) – none of which is shared, except for maybe a bite or two that someone else at the table might ask to taste from what you had ordered. The problem is that many people look at the entrées first to decide what they want for their main course and then they decide if they want an appetizer or salad.  That is exactly the opposite of  what I do even if I’m at a traditional restaurant and not a tapas style place.

It doesn’t matter if I’m at Sfixio, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, Charcoal Venice, in Los Angeles where everything is wood-fired and delicious, or the incredible restaurant at The NoMad Hotel in New York City that I make sure I visit every time I’m there so I can indulge in as many appetizers as I can handle and still have room for “Chicken”.  I always order the same way.

Look at the menu carefully and you will see that the chef is his most creative in the appetizer section and perhaps even in side dishes.  I’ve found that these dishes tell more of the story of the chef and the type of food he wants to share than anywhere else on the menu.

If I am with at least one other person, we find at least two-three appetizers that we both are happy with, find a side dish or two that look good and then maybe share one entrée if we’re hungry.  Of course, if those appetizers look absolutely amazing then we might just add a couple more and skip the entrée all together.  If it’s a party of four, then I add at least one or two more appetizers, another side and a second entrée.

You will get to taste more items on the menu than if you just ordered by “course” and you’ll also understand better how the chef views food.  Perfect!

Then, of course, you might still have room for dessert.

Enjoy!


PHOTO: Oysters Josper, from Charcoal Venice