Tag Archives: home cooking

Setting up a home bar? Keep it simple!

Home bar elegance

10 Simple Tips for setting up your home bar for a holiday party.

Home bars do not have to be and, quite frankly, should not be complicated affairs. I mean, unless you’re a professional bartender, why go out and get all of those gadgets? Why stock bottles of alcohol and mixes that you don’t want or won’t use?

Twenty years in the restaurant business has taught me a thing or two about tending bar, but I keep all of my “tools” low and out of sight for parties. Okay – shot glasses and my wine opener are the exception, but do you know what happens if you put out those bartending gadgets on an “open” bar? They become an open invitation for one your guests to play bartender and start making complicated mixes (from memory). Likely as not, the drinks will be undrinkable and all you’ll have is a huge mess.

Years of experience has taught me that it pays to plan to make any party that much more enjoyable. Here are 10 simple rules for the bar to help you do just that:

  1. You simply do not want to ever run out of ice. There’s nothing that will kill the party mood faster than needing someone to make an “ice run”.   The general rule is one 10-pound bag of ice per every 4 guests. You’re probably thinking, wow – that’s a lot of ice. But, remember ice melts.
  2. Assume 2 drinks per guest per hour for the first 2 hours and 1 drink every hour after that. This rule works exceptionally well for prepared drinks like punch, cider, or mulled wine. Then add bottled wine, beer and sparkling water on top of that. Don’t get too crazy with the variety – remember, keep it simple.
  3. Got wine? Great. Uncork only a few bottles at a time. Put chillable wine (like Longmeadow Ranch Sauvignon-Blanc which lives in my refrigerator), champagne (Gruet Brut Rosé is always welcome at my home), and beer in a tub with ice. Got vodka? At my house there’s always a bottle of Ciroc or Chopin vodka in my freezer – where they belong!
  4. Have a “house cocktail” ready at the door to greet your guests on arrival. It sets the mood for the evening and tells everyone it’s going to be a real party.
  5. A few days before the party, plan what silver pieces you will want to use at the bar, get them out and polish them to a perfect shine. Nobody wants to see tarnished silver – it just looks dirty! And, while you’re at it, make sure all the glasses you have out are sparkling clean too.
  6. Think about different ways to raise some bottles or glasses off the bar top. The different heights create visual interest.  You can even use cake stands to display liquor bottles!  Put out saucers or small bowls to place loose caps and corks. It keeps the “work area” clean and gives you a place for those caps and corks so they don’t get lost.
  7. Consider your friends’ favorite adult beverages. You don’t need each one but there will always a few who’ll love Maker’s Mark whisky, Don Julio tequila, or Bombay Sapphire I always have those favorites on hand – your friends will be so happy you remembered.
  8. Make sure you have plenty of cocktail napkins. I love the cotton ones that I found here on Amazon. Not only do they come in a ton of colors but they’re real 100% cotton and can be washed and reused up to 6 times!
  9. Have some sprigs of fresh herbs in glasses of water – they add quiet elegance to any party. Add the sprigs to your mixed drinks (like the house cocktail). Think mint, thyme, basil – it depends on the mood and flavor you want to set.  It may sound like this isn’t keeping it “simple” but this one small touch will make all the difference.
  10. And, don’t forget non-alcoholic drinks for those who are driving or just don’t want alcohol – like hot cider, cocoa, or coffee. Try my favorites, the classic taste of Williams Sonoma’s Hot Chocolate (made from Guittard Chocolate) or any of the coffees from la Colombe. Have liquors around like Schnapps or Kahlua (et cetera) so that guests can add them to taste. Remember to have plenty of bottles of plain water on hand – at least one 16-oz. bottle per guest. Stay hydrated – one glass of water to one alcoholic beverage.

If you want to get very creative you can infuse a plain vodka with fruits in different clear bottles so that your guests can see the colors. They’re a fun way to add flavor.  Place the bottles in buckets of ice and they become part of your décor!

Never be concerned if you don’t have enough glasses that match or are the “right” size or shape for what you are pouring.  Unless your guests are serious wine snobs and will only drink certain grapes out of certain shaped glasses –all anyone wants at a party is to enjoy themselves and if that means drinking their favorite drink out of a juice glass they’ll be perfectly happy with what you have!

And, seriously, why have a party if having fun with your guests isn’t your goal. Right?

 

Kitchen Hack: Easier way to peel potatoes and stop them from Discoloring

potato and peeling

Nobody likes black potatoes! Here’s how to stop it.

As if you need a reminder – we’re coming up on the holidays and in my house that means a whole lot of potatoes! I’m not too fond of the yucky colors my potatoes have been known to turn before they’re even cooked so I’ve found a great hack to avoid just that.  You know, hacks are those little kitchen “tricks” that you learned from your parents. Nowadays, we call them “hacks” because everything that makes life easier is a hack? Right?

In my case, I learned most of my best kitchen hacks from chefs, friends, and twenty-plus years owning restaurants. After a while, they start accumulating.

Some hacks are like the one I’m going to share with you in a bit – someone gets inspired after doing a task over and over. Other hacks are like the ones I’ve shared before, the practical idea of turning leftover wine into ice cubes. That’s a favorite. Then again, there’s the one my friend discovered. He never peels his garlic by hand. No, he breaks the cloves apart and tosses them into a plastic covered container and shakes it hard for about 10 – 15 seconds. Apparently, all that banging around in the plastic container does the job for him. I’m trying that one the next time I need peeled fresh garlic.  Sounds a whole lot easier than how I’ve been doing it.

The hack that I’m about to share with you now is on that same level. As we all know, potatoes can be hard to peel – and once peeled can change to an unappetizing color. Your everyday Russets will turn brown or gray; sweet potatoes will turn black. Oxygen in open air triggers the acids in potatoes; as the acid oxidizes, the meat of the potato begins to discolor. The more sugar in the potato, the darker it’ll become.  The trick is to get that potato peeled as quickly as possible and stop the oxidization process before it starts.

If you’re going to mash them, and you have enough time, I suggest you lightly score the skin (be careful not to cut into the flesh of the potato) and boil them whole.  Once they’re cooled the skin will simply slide right off and you’re ready to mash.

But, if you’re going to use them to shred for a potato pancake or slice them and use them in other dishes you will need to work quickly to avoid having your beautiful potatoes turn those horrible colors.

Get two bowls – large enough to hold all your potatoes. Fill the bowls with cold water.

  1. Place washed whole potatoes in one bowl and let the potatoes stand for 10 to 15 minutes. The soaking will help with the actual peeling of the potato.
  2. Peel as usual and immediately put the peeled potato into the second bowl of cold water. Make sure that the bowl is large enough (and there’s enough water) to completely cover the potatoes.

The hard-earned secret to the hack? The water stops the oxygen from coming in contact with the potatoes. This hack will give you extra valuable minutes to finish peeling everything. Now your Russets will be white as snow and your cooked sweet yams will look as pretty as they are delicious.

Have fun!

My Favorite Secret Italian Sauce

italian tomato sauce

You’ll flip when you see how easy it is.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love all types of cuisine. But Italian cooking – that’s my absolute go-to favorite. Many of my favorite restaurants are Italian – in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Sfixo in Beverly Hills is still – hands down – my favorite local Italian. It’s really fabulous if you’re a fan of dishes that come from northern Italy.

Many people think that all Italian food is basically the same – pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.  But, there are real variations all along the entire country – traditional Italian cooking is strongly region-based. In northern Italy, you’ll find an emphasis on rich cream sauces, polenta and stuffed meats, Southern Italians embrace the Mediterranean diet with tomato sauces and lots of sea food with everything in between.

I travel to Italy as often as possible – at least once a year – and during each visit I make sure that I take at least one cooking class to learn “secrets” from great Italian cooks.  I follow several of them on social media – two have even become friends – Judy Witts Francini (@divinacucina) and Helena Kyriakides (@yummyyummyitaly).  It’s the only real way to understand a cuisine – take a class, tour an area of the country and eat the food!

The truth is, you don’t have to be a great cook to make a great dish – just understand some basic rules of the cuisine. All you really need is a sense of adventure. My recommendation, start small, and work your way up!

For instance, I was watching a post by Judy on how to prepare a simple Tuscan tomato dish (they’re in season right now) that you can use as a sauce, a side dish, or even as part of the main course.  And, in that post I learned a secret about olive oil and fresh garlic (by the way – true Italian cooks uses very little garlic – they prefer to let the fresh ingredients shine).

Ingredients

  • 1 Clove Garlic, sliced (add more if you’re cooking a lot of tomatoes).
  • Whole Cherry Tomatoes (I recommend organic). Use multi colored ones for fun or slightly larger ones that you can cut into fourths.
  • Enough EVOO – that’s “extra-virgin olive oil” to lightly cover the bottom of your frying pan or saucepan. I recommend Long Meadow Ranch Winery Prato Lungo Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It has just the right flavor for Italy.
  • Sea Salt (to flavor).
  • Fresh Basil (to flavor).

Preparation

  • Add sliced garlic to the COLD oil. Here’s the “secret” I learned from my friend: never put fresh garlic in hot oil – it will burn almost immediately and become very bitter. You’ll just have to throw the whole thing away and start over. By adding garlic to the cold oil, the garlic has more cook time in the olive oil adding flavor to the oil and will turn golden very slowly so you can remove any bits that start to get too dark.
  • Medium heat.
  • Sauté garlic till golden.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pan.
  • Add sea salt (to flavor).
  • Slowly cook down the tomatoes until tender and they begin to burst.
  • Add the fresh basil (cut into thin ribbons – chiffonade) at the end if you’re using the tomatoes on pasta.

As I mentioned before, this preparation is very flexible. You can use this as aside for a grilled steak or on top of pounded and sautéed (Paillard) chicken breast with some baby arugula. You can use it to dress up grilled fish, or as a simple sauce for pasta or over small noodles for a simple pasta salad. And personally speaking, the basil leaves are a must – for the aroma and the flavor.

See? It’s so simple. Doesn’t this make you want to jump up and cook?

My best recipe for Beer Steamed Clams

Fran Berger - beer steamed clams

Want to try cooking Clams? Try my “beer steamers” – so easy to do.

A bowl of bear steamed clamsI know a lot of my friends are intimidated by the thought of cooking clams. It’s true that you have to be a little careful with them, but in all honesty, they’re actually one of the easiest things to cook and the reward is high. Clams are really fabulous as appetizers or as part of the main course.

Clams are harvested from all sorts of locales – each type has its own distinctive characteristic and flavor. They grow in both fresh and salt water, and range in all types of shapes and sizes.  Clams are a terrific source of lean protein with just a 3-ounce serving providing 22 grams of protein and only 126 calories with less than 2 grams of total fat. Served fresh, clams are also nutritious – tons of Vitamin A, B and C not to mention iron and magnesium.

Nothing surpasses (for simplicity and ease) steaming clams with a good bottle of beer. I love to serve up a whole pot of “beer steamers” for my guests- serve it with grilled corn on the cob and of course a great salad.

Buy your clams fresh at your local market. In California, we usually get a type called Manila clams – they’re smaller and very sweet. They are also the ones that won’t have any sand in them so you don’t have to worry about the grit.  If you buy a different type of clam ask your fish monger how to clean out the sand before cooking.  Buy clams the day you need them if at all possible.  But, you can also buy clams online. Keep live clams on ice in your refrigerator for one but never more than two days. When you’re ready to cook your clams, sort them for freshness and wash the shells thoroughly in cool water. You don’t have to scrub hard, you just want to get rid of the bits of sand and sea life that you don’t want in the cooking pot!

Now, how about that recipe?

  • Sort the clams for freshness. Throw away any that are even partially open or are cracked or missing pieces of shell.
  • Pour enough beer (a full-flavored beer like a stout) to cover the bottom of a large fry pan or kettle that has a tight-fitting lid. Preferably a glass lid.
  • Turn on the heat and bring beer to a boil.
  • Add the cleaned clams to the pan/kettle. Remember that you’re steaming clams, so make sure that none of them are fully submerged in the beer.
  • Close the lid and bring back up to a boil. If you have Manila clams, cook for 3 minutes or just until they begin to open; 5 minutes if your clams are a larger variety. Be careful not to overcook as they will become very chewy.
  • Watch your pan/kettle closely during the cooking – a glass lid helps with this part – because you want to take them off the heat as soon as they start to open. Also, note that during the steaming process, clams will release their own water as they cook so be sure that your pan is large enough to accommodate any extra liquid. You don’t want that water to overflow and create a big mess.
  • Remove the pan/kettle and place the steamed (and opened) clams in a bowl. They’re ready to serve!

While it is true that clams are easy enough to cook, there are some very important rules that that you need to know:

Rule 1: Cook only clams that have shells that are tightly closed. Don’t cook clams that have broken or cracked shells – and never, never, ever cook ones that look or smell dead. You want your clams as fresh as the market can deliver.

Rule 2: Watch your clams closely during the steaming. The smaller Manila clams will cook within about 3 minutes of cooking: they open up and that’s when they’re done! Larger clams may need more time, up to 5 minutes of steaming.  Once they start to open be sure to remove the pan from the heat.

Rule 3: Discard any clams that do not open up with the rest of them. Cooking longer will not “make” them open – you don’t want to eat them if they don’t open with the group….Trust me.

Once you get over your hesitation and steam your own clams, here’s Rule 4: Have plenty of lemons and melted butter on hand for eating!  Enjoy!!!

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?

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!

Salt and Pepper for Refined Palates

raw salt and peppercorns

Time to refresh two cooking ingredients that we often take for granted.

“Salt is what makes things taste bad when it isn’t in them” – Anon.

Salt and pepper are two of the most important ingredients in cooking – and oh how we take them for granted! Some people lump them together as if they were one ingredient although they have nothing in common. Salt is categorized as seasoning and pepper is a spice.

In ancient times, salt was highly valued and its production legally restricted so that people used it as a method of currency and trade. In fact, the word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium” which literally translated means “salt money.” And, the word “salad” also comes from “salt” and began with the early Romans salting leafy greens and vegetables!

Most people think of salt as just plain table salt – highly refined, heavily ground with most of the impurities and trace minerals removed. Table salt is about 97% pure sodium chloride with a dash of iodine added (that was started in 1924).

But restaurant chefs and experienced home cooks know that not all salt is the same. There are many types – and the little differences affect taste, flavor, color, and texture.  Salt comes in many forms: large grain, small grain, flake, and more.

For example, simple sea salt comes from evaporating seawater and is the second most common found and produced. Usually, it’s presented as a larger crystal – less ground – and often has a slightly darker color due to “impurities” and trace nutrients that are left in the salt.  Depending on where it is harvested, the taste will vary.

Himalayan pink salt – which is mined in Pakistan – used to be so rare. It stood out because of its pink color which is due to trace amounts of naturally occurring iron oxide. Nowadays, you can find Himalayan pink on most grocery store shelves.

There’s also Kosher Salt – a larger coarser grain than regular commercial table salt and has a less salty flavor than regular table salt. It’s used in restaurant kitchens everywhere as it’s the easiest to control for flavor – you rarely over salt if you use it in your cooking.  It’s easy to over salt when using table salt.

Salts come from all over the world – France, Italy, Hawaii (there’s a black Hawaiian salt that contains activated charcoal), India, and the Pacific Northwest where a favorite of mine comes from Jacobsen Salt Co in Oregon.

Salt can be infused with different spices like black garlic, ghost chili, rosemary, lemon, truffle, etc.  On one of my trips I discovered smoked salt – it was naturally smoked to give an added flavor to whatever was cooking. But if you find a smoked salt that you want to buy make sure that it is naturally smoked and not infused with liquid smoke (that’s a whole other flavor and not one I prefer).

Pepper has been accompanying humanity for a very long time. Long enough for the ancient Greeks to use it as a form of currency to pay taxes. Naturally, the Romans used it and so did the ancient Egyptians.

Pepper comes from peppercorn – one of the most highly traded spices around the world from ancient times to present day. And there are many different types, all with different flavor profiles that will add a distinct effect wherever it is used.

The best tasting pepper comes from freshly ground peppercorn. But pepper starts to lose flavor almost as soon as it is ground. My tip: grind pepper as you need it, at the very end of cooking or just before serving.

What kind of peppercorn you want depends on the flavor you are trying to achieve. The most popular ones are: black, green, white, red, and pink.
Black peppercorns are the most common variety and are peppercorns that have been left on the vine to ripen and then dried. These produce the strongest flavor and aroma.  There are many varieties of black peppercorns. Tellicherry is from South India and has a sweet, well- rounded taste, Brazilian has a stronger flavor, and Lampong, from Indonesia comes with a citrusy slow burn.

There are green peppercorns, which are under-ripe (picked before the black variety) peppercorn berries that have a fresh and tart taste.  You see them dried, but they’re more common in brine or vinegar. They are slightly aromatic and are great for adding flavor to sauces and meats.
White peppercorns are black peppercorns that have been soaked and the skins removed. These pack a little more punch flavor-wise, but they’re a tad less aromatic. Use them for light-colored sauces and foods when you DON’T want to see black specks!

Red peppercorns have been left to ripen on the vine, so they turn red.  Reds are not usually found because they’re usually dried and turn black, or the skins are stripped, and then they are white.

Pink peppercorns are not really peppercorns!  They’re berries from a South American shrub that still have a peppery bite with some fruity and floral notes.  Use these as a garnish by crushing them with a knife and not in a pepper mill. They’re delicate.

Now that you know a little about salt and pepper – have fun – experiment!

 

A new way to prepare and serve onions?

better way to serve onions?

Tried everything to stop the weeping and smell from onions? Try this!

I happen to love onions: red, white, yellow, green – it doesn’t matter which one, I love them all – when they’re in my food as part of a dish. But not so much when the smell just hangs around the kitchen (sometimes for days) like a guest who hasn’t gotten the hint that it’s time to go home.

And the tears. I don’t like the tears.

If you’re like me, you’ve tried all kinds of “tricks” on how to stop all the stinging and crying that comes with preparing onions. I tried freezing onions, but they’re harder to cut. I also tried cutting onions under water, but the onions get slippery and that’s very dangerous. I even tried holding a piece of bread in my mouth. Less dangerous but you end up looking weird, your eyes still tear and the kitchen still smells.

I even heard about putting a burning match in your mouth – but that’s not one I’m going to try! A friend uses swimming goggles in his kitchen – for cutting onions and crushing garlic. Cute, but another idea I’m NOT going to try.

So, imagine my surprise when I was let in on a professional kitchen secret… twenty years in the restaurant business, and it’s not easy to surprise me anymore!

This is a trick from a friend of mine, Christine Moore who is the founder and chef of Little Flower Candy Co. and Lincoln – two great places to visit for breakfast and lunch or early dinner if you happen to be in Pasadena, CA.

So, okay. We all know that onions are a great way to help build flavor in a recipe in so many different ways but they come with a price.  Look at what we all suffer though: runny nose, stinging eyes, and a really strong smell that fills the kitchen and refrigerator during and after you’ve been cutting, slicing, and dicing.  Not only does it permeate whatever container you’ve put them in but that smell can linger in the kitchen for days. Just when you think that awful smell has finally cleared, you pull out those chopped onions from the refrigerator, you open the container – and you are hit with it all over again!

As it turns out, onions aren’t just a wonderful addition to a recipe they are healthy for you too. They’re full of vitamins, proteins and things that nutritionist call “essential elements” like amino acids which your body really needs to stay healthy.

But all of this goodness comes at a price. Onions are typically grown in sulfur rich soil and that sulfur becomes part of a plant protein (sulfur-based precursors).  When you cut open an onion these precursors meet with enzymes called allinases that produce sulfenic acid which rises as a gas and reacts with moisture – like your eyes and nose – to form a mild form of sulfuric acid! And we all start to cry…

But wait, there’s more. During the chemical reaction, you get thiosulfinates – that’s what produces the raw onion smell. Guess what? That stuff just stinks. It’s not acidic. Which means we can now dispense with that old rumor that the smell is what causes the weepy eyes. Thus, the more you cut, the more of both of these things will fly through the air in your kitchen and your whole house!

Which brings me back to Chef Moore’s little surprise tip, which has been thoroughly tested by me and my friends.

Step one: Fill a bowl with ice water and place a sieve or colander in the bowl so that it is submerged in the ice water.

Step two: Use a sharp knife – you’ll work faster and it damages fewer of those pesky cells that release the allinases – and cut your onion in half.

Step three: Place in the halves in the ice water for a minute. Remove the halves.

Step four: Finish your slicing and dicing of the onion and place those pieces back in the sieve (or colander) and ice water for another minute.

Step five: Remove the sieve. Dispose of the water.

One friend told me that he was preparing a recipe that called for minced onions. He sliced the onion thin, dipped the slices in the ice water, then minced without dipping. The trick worked. He also claims that the onion taste in his dish seemed richer (he was making a soup).

Your cut onions will no longer have a strong smell and will not burn your eyes. Added plus: using this method means that you can store prepared onions to your heart’s desire – and not stink up your refrigerator or your kitchen! One more plus: because the production of acids is limited, cooked or raw cut onions won’t burn your stomach as much.

Isn’t this BRILLIANT? Thanks Chef Moore! Now we can enjoy our onions in peace!

A Different Friendsgiving

How about a Friendsgiving?

Take your Thanksgiving Dinner to a New Level – In 5 Easy Steps!

When I was growing up Thanksgiving was always at our house.  We had a very small family, just 5 of us and no cousins anywhere close by, but my parents did have several close friends and their families would come.

My Dad always made the turkey (he was the good cook in our house!) and I loved the smell of it cooking for hours in the oven.  One of my very favorite food memories is my Dad making what he lovingly referred to as Turkey Carcass Soup the next day with, you guessed it, the carcass of the turkey.  It was always delicious!

Today my siblings live far away, my parents have passed and my close friends are my family.  I know I’m not alone in this situation as my friends and I talk about the looming holidays every year.  Some of them travel to their families to celebrate and some are lucky enough to have family close by but there’s always a group of us that are adrift this time of year.

Now we have what has been dubbed a “Friendsgiving” and I have to tell you it’s the BEST.  It only takes a few friends, 3-4, to pull this off so you don’t need a crowd at all just a little pre-planning and being firm that it’s a POT LUCK – everyone contributes!

Here are the 5 easy steps to pull off your own Friendsgiving!

  1. Plan the menu a few weeks ahead (3 to be safe) and put it up on a Google Doc so that everyone can sign up. Make sure that the menu includes how many servings are needed.  The host ALWAYS makes the turkey (or if you don’t cook- you can buy it already cooked at your local market).
  2. If you don’t have enough chairs and tables, rent them or your friends might have a few extra. You can get very inexpensive table cloths and napkins at Target or IKEA or a local thrift store.  The same thing goes for plates, flatware and glasses.  Target, IKEA or your local thrift store.  They do NOT have to match.  Part of the fun is the eclectic setting!
  3. Set the table the night before. I actually do this every time I have a party.  It saves not only time but also me from going crazy on the day of the party.
  4. Instead of a formal bar – you can use a cooler filled with ice and put bottles in it to keep cold. These are your friends, after all.
  5. Serve dinner buffet style with little cards with the description of the dish and who made it.

Remember, the whole point of this is to gather your friends and share a wonderful meal that everyone has helped create.  Then sit back and watch football!

Crispy Tortellini with Peas and Prosciutto

PIC_crispy-tortellini-with-peas-and-prosciutto

A Brilliant Crispy Tortellini with Peas and Prosciutto

Peas are a wonderful spring vegetable – absolutely delicious freshly shelled – but equally as delicious even when they’re frozen!  The great thing about frozen peas is that you never have to thaw them to use them in a recipe – just toss them still frozen into whatever hot dish you are preparing and they come out perfectly every time.  This recipe is so simple because it uses not only frozen peas but also frozen tortellini – BRILLIANT!  It’s from one of my favorite sites – smittenkitchen.com – created by Deb Perelman and posted on May 9, 2016. Great for a gathering of friends, family, a date night, or colleagues. This recipe serves two; just multiply and it will serve a crowd.

In the Skillet

  • 3 thin slices prosciutto (optional)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 13-14 ounce package frozen cheese tortellini (about 3 cups)
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas, no need to defrost
  • 1/3 cup water

To Finish

  • 3 tablespoons crème fraîche or mascarpone
  • Juice of half a lemon, more or less to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • A few fresh mint leaves, cut into thin slivers
  • Grated parmesan (optional)

Heat a large, deep skillet with a lid** over medium-high heat. If using, add prosciutto in a single layer and cook until curling and browned underneath, about 2 minutes. Flip over and let cook until browned on the other side. Transfer a paper towel to blot oil and cool.

Add oil to same skillet and heat it for a minute. Add frozen tortellini in a single layer and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, until they’re browned underneath. Sprinkle with frozen peas and add water to pan. Be careful; it’s going to ROARHISS wildly. Put the lid on, and let them steam for about 5 minutes but don’t go too far because if the water cooks off too quickly, you’ll want to add a splash more. At 5 minutes, all water should have cooked off. Scoop pasta and peas into bowl. If you find any pasta has stuck, just add a splash more water over high heat to “deglaze” them off — loosen them with a thin spatula and toss them around until they’re crisp again.

Immediately dollop on crème fraîche so it melts over the pasta. Squeeze lemon juice over, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, crumble prosciutto over (if using), then slivers of mint and Parmesan, if desired. Dig in. Give your freezer a pat on its back.

Easy Recipe for Gnocchi Skillet with Sausage and Tomatoes

Gnocchi on your Favorite Skillet

Food Memory in the Making with Gnocchi, Chicken Sausage, Tomatoes and your Favorite Skillet

This recipe is so quick and easy to make and looks beautiful on the plate – color in the dish is always important as we eat with our eyes.  It reminds me of a favorite food memory – the first time I ever tasted Gnocchi – they were so soft and delicate.  I found it on a great website, thekitchn.com, in their 23 Romantic Recipes post this week.  One of the best things about this recipe is that you can use store-bought gnocchi and any type of Italian sausage you like. Spicy, anyone? They also suggest that if you want to finish the skillet with Parmesan that you can but that it’s not necessary if you’d rather not have cheese. Serves 4.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound gnocchi
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 9 ounces (about 3 links) cooked chicken sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick coins
  • 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 1 to 2 ounces fresh basil, julienned (1/2 to 1 cup loosely packed)

Preparation

  1. Heat a large pot of salted water to boiling; cook the gnocchi for 2 minutes or according to package directions. Drain and toss with a drizzle of olive oil.
  2. Heat a 10-inch or larger cast iron skillet over medium heat with a light drizzle of olive oil. Add the sausage and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it begins to brown. Push the sausage into a pile at the edge of the skillet and turn the heat up to high.
  3. When the skillet is quite hot, add the tomatoes, skin down, crowding them in if necessary. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes or until they are blistered, then stir in with the sausage. Cook for 2 more minutes, until both tomatoes and sausage are slightly browned. Stir in gnocchi and cook just until all is combined, but the tomatoes have not broken down into sauce.
  4. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the basil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Cooking tip: a cast iron skillet is preferred only because it will give you the best color and sear to the sausage and tomatoes but any skillet will work as long as it does NOT have a non-stick coating.  That will interfere with the browning.