How will you pick the perfect wine glasses for your home?

Wine glasses with Fran

With so many options, designs, and ideas sometimes it’s hard to settle on a choice – unless you have some professional help.

They say that if you really know what you want in life, making decisions is easy.  But, that theory doesn’t always apply evenly to all things.

Picture this: you move to a new home, and you want everything fresh. So, you start with wine glasses. Seems simple enough, right? You go to a store where you know the selection will be excellent, and suddenly you realize – oh my gosh, there are so many! How do I choose?

The problem for all of us is that we can’t always picture in our mind what kind of dishes we want for daily use, what style of silverware, table service, or even shape of wine glasses! How about those wine glasses? Go to your favorite store and you will find dozens of different styles and designs – all for the same purpose – drinking wine. Some are based on different types of wines you can serve, but most are focused on functionality and the style you want to add to your home entertaining experiences. That’s where it gets even more complicated.

I know, it may seem sometimes like I have all the time in the world, traveling, going to really great restaurants, writing blogs and producing videos. The fact is I’m a home entertaining consultant. What that means is that I work with my clients to help them make those difficult choices so that they can entertain with ease and grace. I interview them about their tastes, habits, preferences, and dreams. I bring together every detail about what they envision for their home and how they want to feel when they sit down with friends and family around a table. I use my years of experience in the restaurant business and home entertaining to guide them through all of the dozens and dozens of options.

Which is exactly what I did for a client recently.

She was a little overwhelmed, but she easily articulated to me her goals. For instance, she told me how she and her family like to eat at home and how she likes to entertain casually. We talked some more, and she shared that they also love to drink wine with their dinner every night. So wine glasses were essential, however, she wasn’t so picky about separate glasses for red and white wines. I narrowed it down for her – simplified her choices to a ‘universal’ wine glass in a style that she loved that could work for both types of wine for everyday use.

Based on what I learned from my client, I had a sense of what she wanted for everything else – from the kitchen to the dining room. Then I discovered that she and her family also like to dine al fresco, weather permitting, but didn’t like the idea of “ugly plastic stuff” in her home. Who says outdoor plastic glasses and plates have to be ugly? I found a selection of beautiful plates, serving pieces and fabulous durable glasses that will hold up well, look great on her patio and that she could love.

Yes, life is all about making choices. Some are worth spending hours to make.  But some choices are a lot easier than you think and should be more fun. Maybe all you need is a little help.

5 Minute Recipe for Parmesan Crisps – for salad or snacking

parmesan crisps

A quick recipe for Parmesan Crisps that will also introduce you to the Silpat non-stick baking mat.

Here’s a recipe that you can literally use for anything – add to a salad, as a topping for a dish, or just for snacking. One very nice benefit of this recipe, if you haven’t been already introduced to the “Silpat,” here’s your opportunity because they will make your cooking/baking life so much easier.

Silpats are made from fiberglass and food-grade silicone. Use them with a high-quality baking sheet, and NOTHING will stick to them. They can be washed and reused thousands of times. They’re approved by every international agency that watches out for food safety, and they’re Kosher certified. Every professional kitchen has been using these products for years. In fact, they’re so commonplace among chefs and bakers that saying the name ‘Silpat’ is like saying “Kleenex” or “Xerox”. There’s nothing else like it.

One more thing about Silpats – they do save lots of time, but they can also make a whole world of difference on the final taste of your dish. Just think: no more after-taste from whatever greasy non-stick oil or spray you usually use on your baking sheet. You can learn more about them from the Silpat company website. And, the best thing is you can buy them just about anywhere. I got mine from Sur La Table – you can see it in my recent video.

Aside from the Silpat, you’ll need finely grated Parmesan cheese. For the best flavor, I highly recommend cheese from Parmigiano-Reggiano. This cheese comes directly from the Parma region of Emilia Romagna in Tuscany, Italy. It’s the original, it’s the best, and you’ll love the nutty taste.  Unfortunately, if you try this with a standard parmesan cheese you may end up with a ‘bitter’ tasting crisp!

  1. Before you do anything, preheat your oven to 400F degrees. I can’t stress this enough.  You want to put your baking sheet into a hot oven or the cheese won’t melt well.
  2. Place a Silpat baking pan liner directly on your cookie sheet.
  3. Spoon out piles of the grated cheese directly on the Silpat. Your piles can be as big or small as you like. Then gently press the cheese piles into a round shape – they don’t have to be perfectly flat. When the grated cheese melts, the rounds will end up whatever size you flatten them to. They won’t spread, but don’t crowd them on the Silpat – leave a bit of space in between.
  4. Bake for about 4-5 minutes until they are golden and crisp.  Be sure to watch them because they can turn too crispy quickly.
  5. Allow the rounds to cool for a couple of minutes and then gently transfer to parchment paper to hold for your party.  Serve them at room temperature.

They can be stored in an airtight container for no more than 3 days.  Be sure to place parchment paper between the layers of the crisps, so they don’t stick to each other.

You could ‘float’ small crisps in tomato soup or sprinkle them on top of a Caesar salad or even break up larger ones as a quick appetizer with wine.  Serve them with just about any light crisp white wine or even a light red like a Syrah.

Have fun and enjoy!

Party Etiquette: Which bread plate is mine?

Don't be confused by etiquette

This tip will save you from the embarrassment of grabbing the wrong bread plate (or wine glass) at a formal party.

A friend of mine told me this story about one of the first formal parties he attended. It was one of those kinds of affairs where someone pulled out all the stops. And despite all the preparation and reading, he had no idea what to do.

“Suddenly, I had performance anxiety,” he laughs.

“There was every imaginable utensil, plate, glass and other things I’ve never seen set on the table,” he said. “I was confused, but then I discovered that my neighbor was confused – in fact, I think the whole table was completely at a loss.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“We shared. We made it work,” he laughed. “Even the host thought it was amusing.”

The funny part is, my friend is the maître d’ of a five-star restaurant in Laguna Beach, CA where table rules are the standard for every meal. Beyond plates and utensils, there are practical rules like no elbows on the table, no reaching in front of the person next to you, always say “please” and “thank you,” and so on.

My historian friend tells me that table manners evolved over time since the early Renaissance as a part of the cultural revolution. But how about this as a surprise – table rules probably began in Italy (yay!) and not France. Cultural anthropologists (there’s a title for you) attribute the move toward universal social manners with a book written in 1558 by the poet Giovanni della Casa titled “Galateo.” In it, he describes all kinds of manners, including washing hands before sitting down, the use of hands while eating, and the way of putting food into your mouth.

Today, rules cover a myriad of things, right up to how and when one sits at a formal dinner table if royalty is present. But for your table, it’s the bread plate.

The first tip, from my friend the career Maître d’, is that at a party where nobody is sure whose bread plate is whose (much less, which plate is the bread plate), don’t feel bad. Nobody else is sure either. The person on the other side is just as confused and bewildered as you are.

The second tip, from me – keep your cool and ask questions. Dinner is to be an enjoyable, friendly experience. Nothing good happens if you feel like you’re taking a test.

The third tip is a little trick I picked up a long time ago. Touch your thumb and forefinger together to form a small “d” with your right hand and a little “b” with your left. Now, think of the little “d” on your right hand. It stands for “drink.” Those glasses on your right are yours. The little “b” on left-hand stands for “bread.” That’s YOUR bread plate!

Now you’ll never be confused again.

8 Must-Have Items for your Home Bar

8 must-have home bar

Spare yourself the last-minute run-around – get these 8 handy home bar tools now.   

Next to food, drinks are a main hospitality ‘go-to’ especially if you plan to get serious with home entertaining. Of course, I’m talking specifically about adult mixed drinks. Whether you plan to mix something as complex as a Commonwealth (with 71 different ingredients!) or as simple as a Negroni (equal parts, 3 ingredients), you need some essential bar tools.

Before you wave me off and say, “Fran – I’ll improvise,” think about all the tools you have for preparing and serving food. As my dad always said, “You’ve got to have the right tools for the right job.” You wouldn’t forget spoons or forks, would you? Serving plates and bowls? How about cookware and a set of wooden cooking spoons?  We all have our ‘must haves’ in our kitchens.

So, why is it any different for the home bar? If all you have today is a bottle opener, one rusty cork puller, and a single shot glass, it’s time. Intimidated? Don’t be. Just about every mix recipe you find online and in books comes with careful step-by-step instructions on what to use, how, and when. You’ll be mixing like a pro in absolutely no time at all. The best part, your mixed drinks will actually taste better, they’ll look more appetizing, and you’ll have more fun mixing them!

Here’s your list of the 8 ‘must-have’ bartending tools for your home bar:

  1. A high-quality stainless steel jigger is basically two measuring cups stuck together to form a kind of hour-glass shape. Typically, the bigger end measures 1½ ounce (or “one jigger”), and the other measures ¾ ounces (or a “half jigger”) – the most common measurements for drink ingredients. Pay attention to the jigger that you buy as some of them are 1 ounce and ½ ounce. The OXO has measurements inside each cup so you can use it for ANY drink recipe.  This is an indispensable tool for mixing up perfect drinks every time. No conversion with cups or measuring spoons, and no clumsy messing around with shot glasses.
  2. Good ice cube molds are much better than the regular ice trays you have for daily use. First, you want larger cubes for your drink as they melt slower than normal or smaller cubes and keep drinks colder longer without diluting it. Secondly, there are all sorts of fun shapes and sizes – ones that will fill a standard highball glass with a big cube or a single sphere. You can find very nice “ice molds” from Tovolo, Rabbit Wine, and W&P Design.
  3. Muddlers are extremely handy for extracting the oils and flavor from mint leaves or other herbs – even fruit. With fruit, you can ‘muddle’ with gusto, but with herbs and citrus peels, I suggest a gentler touch because over-muddling can produce a bitter taste. Use muddlers for mixing mojitos, mint juleps, and caipiroska (a tasty vodka drink with lime wedges and sugar muddled together).
  4. There’s nothing more indispensable than a two-piece cocktail shaker. When you shake a drink, it not only chills it properly but also creates the proper dilution and aeration (adding air) for the beverage. Get a separate strainer if yours doesn’t come with one – you don’t want the errant bits of ice poured into your glass.
  5. You’ll need a bar spoon – for stirred cocktails – Manhattan or Martini (if you’re not James Bond) or mixes with floating layers. They’re long handled and narrow (teaspoons are too short and too wide). This one from OXO can spin while you stir, which is kinda fun!
  6. A fresh fruit juicer is important for many, many cocktails – lemons, limes, oranges or even pomegranates. Buy one large enough that can handle most citrus.
  7. Good garnishes are important for great mixed drinks, so don’t skimp. Use fresh fruit, herbs, and high-quality cherries and onions. Absolutely avoid neon colored cherries – they look bad and taste terrible. I recommend Luxardo maraschino cherries and Reese sour cocktail onions.
  8. Cocktail books are also important to have around, even if you have some experience. Don’t go crazy and get a “masters” level ‘mixology’ book unless you have master-level skills. Start easy and simple, like “The Bartender’s Black Book” – 150 easy-to-read, simple to mix recipes, along with useful mixing tips.

There are lots of places to go for bar tools. I like the selection and quality of OXO. You can also find some great tools from Crate&Barrel and Sur la Table. Happy mixing!

How to deseed and chop a jalapeño

Fran Berger chopping jalapenos

If you love cooking, then technique matters: the right way to prepare jalapeños for your recipe.

One of the things I’ve learned about home cooking: you don’t have to actually be a chef to cook excellent meals. But, I have so many chef friends that I have cooked with that I’ve been able pick up a trick or two. One of the most important culinary techniques I have learned from them is that the little things really count.  “Details detail details!” as a chef-friend often says in her kitchen. And some details are easy to miss, but once you see it, you’ll never forget.

For instance, deseeding and chopping jalapeño peppers. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe you just thought that if a recipe calls for jalapeño peppers that it was going to be spicy. So, you washed them and cut them like anyone else. Perhaps that’s okay for a Super Bowl party dip, but let’s say you found a recipe that calls for jalapeños and you want to include the dish in a nice dinner for a special friend, or a special occasion?

Here’s the deal. Most of the time, when a recipe calls for jalapeño, the taste you want is from the pepper itself, not the heat that you often think of. The flavor of a jalapeño is surprisingly subtle, maybe a bit tart, not at all hot. The famed spiciness or heat actually comes from the ‘capsaicin’ that’s contained in jalapeño seeds and the white material that surrounds them.

For that reason, deseeding and chopping a jalapeño pepper the right way can be very important. All we want to do is keep those little seeds and the white stuff around them from joining our mix and changing the flavor of our meal.

My video gives you a very detailed demonstration of how this works:

  1. First things first, pick your peppers the way you choose fruit (freshness, firmness, aroma). Then select for size and color depending on your recipe.
  2. Bring your peppers home and then wash them (common sense step), and damp dry.
  3. Use a sharp knife (essential). In my video, I use my santoku. Cut and turn just the sides off. Cut each side, one at a time.
  4. You’ll have the stem core, with the seeds intact. They’re okay to eat, but they’re spicy. Some recipes may call for adding them.
  5. Remove the ‘ribs’ or any white parts left over from the core. Just lay your knife sideways on top of the pepper and slide across to trim off.
  6. It’s easier to cut into strips if the skin side is facing the cutting board instead of facing up.
  7. Then cut each section into ‘julienne’ or thin strips (skin side down).
  8. Gather the julienne strips together and then cut across to create cubes if you want.

As I said, it’s so easy. Now even your jalapeño game day dip will taste that much better. Happy cooking!

7 “Must-Have” items for a well-stocked pantry

The Well-stocked Pantry

You’ll be ready for just about anything if you keep these items in stock at home at all times.

I keep my pantry well-stocked at all times. I owe that habit to years in the restaurant business. One of the chef’s assistants always ran a thorough checklist of the pantry at the opening and closing of the restaurant. It would be unthinkable to open the doors with a ‘short’ pantry.

The reasons for keeping a well-stocked pantry at home are not so different than for a restaurant. At a restaurant, it’s a matter of efficiency. If you run out of ingredients, you’ll have disappointed customers. At home, let’s say you have guests coming over for lunch or dinner. Do you want to run out of groceries just as you start cooking?

If you keep these 7 items in your pantry you’ll be able to create all kinds of meals at the drop of a hat. Think about the times when the phone rings and – boom – a friend is on the way. You’ll be ready!

The first thing to remember is it should always be quality over quantity.  What I mean by that is, with these basics, you want the best you can find to ensure that your effort to be prepared is never in vain. I’m of the mind that if you’re going to go through the effort of cooking, why not start with the best possible ingredients.

So, here’s my inventory for your well-stocked pantry. Watch my video as I run through the items:

  1. I set this out separately from ‘seasonings’ because salt is used for so many things in the kitchen. But don’t rely on just any salt – it really should be sea salt. Sea salt is not as salty as production table salt and is a lot easier to control while cooking.
  2. Whole peppercorns are far better than regular ground pepper. Freshly crushed peppercorns bring complexity to any dish: texture, aroma, taste. Jars of whole peppercorns can be found in any grocery or kitchen store. You may be tempted to keep fresh herbs around. They’re always a great add to a recipe but it’s not always practical to keep them ‘just in case’.  That’s why I keep small jars of high quality dried herbs in my pantry. To be honest, in many cases, they’re just as good for adding a concentrated flavor to any dish. My go-to dried spices: rosemary, thyme, and basil from either Spice Islands or Spice Hunter (both are very good).
  3. It’s important to always buy produce in season to get the max flavor and that’s especially important with tomatoes whose growing season is really only from June 1 through mid-September. So, when it’s January and the fresh ones are not great I use the next best thing, a great can of tomatoes. Good canned tomatoes can make a huge flavor difference. I recommend Tuttorosso Tomatoes, Muir Glen, or Simpson Brands – you can make just about anything with these canned tomatoes, and they taste great even when a recipe calls for fresh tomatoes.
  4. Good wine. Resist the bottom shelves at the grocery store. It is definitely tempting to use a cheap wine to cook with. My rule is that you only cook with wine that you would drink. That doesn’t mean it’s the most expensive bottle you have – but an affordable one that pleases anyone’s palate. It will make all the difference in the world for your finished dish.
  5. Fresh Citrus. Among the citrus, you especially want to keep lemons. They add a brightness to any dish. But you can’t go wrong with keeping some limes and oranges as well.
  6. Dried beans are a great addition to so many dishes. Dried beans are also much better texture than their canned counterparts. Just remember to soak them overnight!
  7. Great olive oil (Extra Virgin if it’s in my pantry). If you want the full-bodied flavor that can make or break a dish, make sure your oil comes in a dark glass or metal container. You can’t go wrong with extra virgin olive oil from Mandranova, Long Meadow Ranch, or Davis Estates. Use “the good stuff” for cooking and to finish a dish – your taste buds will thank you.

That’s my 7. You may think of others to keep in your pantry that work with your favorite recipes. The goal is to keep yourself well-stocked with enough basics that you can cook up just about any dish at any time and you’ll always be ready for that last-minute party!

4th of July Party? How about a tasty recipe for marinated olives and feta?

Marinated Olives and Feta

Sophisticated but incredibly easy: smash some olives, crush a bit of garlic, shred some bread, and you’re good to go!

Want to bring something different to your 4th of July party that DOESN’T need refrigeration or special care? A while back, I found something genuinely fabulous in my favorite place to find fabulous things – Bon Appétit Magazine. It’s a perfect recipe for things like 4th of July parties where light, savory snacks with friends really hit the spot.

There’s only one part of this recipe that needs a bit more explanation – smashing olives and crushing the garlic. I know that there are all sorts of ways to do this, but my video gives you some easy ways that work for me. The rest is that simple.

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 ounces of drained green (I prefer Castelvetranos for their flavor) unpitted olives
  • 3 medium-sized cloves of garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil – essential to get the “good stuff” for this recipe.
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 ounces of crumbly feta cheese. I use President Cheese.
  • 1 loaf of crusty bread

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400-degrees F
  2. Rip up your bread into bite-sized pieces and place them on a baking sheet. When the oven is ready, bake the pieces of bread for 5-8 minutes, or just long enough to make the them a bit crispy and golden.
  3. Lightly smash (by pressing the side of the knife blade directly on top) the olives to just break apart the skin and flatten slightly.
  4. Smash (using the same technique as for the olives – you don’t want them completely flat!) and peel 3 cloves of garlic.
  5. Use a vegetable peeler (this will give you nice wide strips) to peel the zest from the lemon. Remember – only the yellow, not the white which will be bitter.
  6. Place lemon peel, smashed olives, crushed garlic, ½ cup of good Extra Virgin olive oil, and ½ tsp of red pepper flakes into a small saucepan over med-low heat. Swirl every so often and cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until the garlic is golden around the edges.
  7. Crumble feta cheese into a shallow serving bowl.
  8. Pour the olive oil mixture over the feta and let it sit at least 10 minutes. Longer if possible, perhaps an hour or more, before serving.
  9. Serve together with your crisped bread pieces.

You can always double or treble this recipe for a larger crowd.

Some last DO’s and DON’Ts – DO remind your guests that the olives are unpitted, but DON’T worry about letting this sit out for as long as your guests are nibbling. It will go fast!  A Negroni is the perfect adult beverage to accompany this appetizer.

Happy 4th of July, America!

Enjoy frozen grapes marinated in wine

Frozen grapes marinated in wine

If you love frozen grapes, you’re going to absolutely swoon when you try this idea.

One of my favorite summer treats is frozen grapes. I love them, don’t you? They’re so easy to do – clean them, dry them, place them on a dish or pan, stick them into a freezer and then once frozen just store in a Ziploc! They’re really a great snack on hot days like the ones we’ve been having lately here in Beverly Hills.

Moms all over the world freeze grapes for their families. You can take them on camping trips, to the beach, to a game, or just have them around the house for whenever. My mom experimented with other fruits you can freeze, like watermelons, bananas, and applesauce. Freezing fruits is a fabulous snack for the kids, but how about a frozen treat just for the adults?

I found an answer on JulieBlanner.com, which is a great site to go for fun recipes and gift ideas.

I tried it out on my latest video. It’s very easy, and you can have fun sipping wine and snacking on grapes while you’re preparing them.

  1. Pick your grapes and wash them (common sense, right?).
  2. Damp dry and de-stem the grapes; place the destemmed grapes into a bowl.
  3. Pick a wine that you love and pour it over the grapes. In my video, I used red seedless grapes with Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from the Hess Collection. But you can try this with white grapes and your favorite champagne or Prosecco, which is Italian white sparkling wine (spumante, frizzante, or tranquillo).
  4. Allow the grapes to marinate in the refrigerator for about 12 hours, or longer if you like.
  5. Drain the grapes and roll them in sugar while still damp with wine
  6. Set the sugared grapes out in a single layer on a tray or pan.
  7. Place the prepped grapes into your freezer for at least 2 hours.
  8. Serve them in a beautiful serving bowl for your guests as a snack.

One more cool little tip! You can add your grapes to a glass of wine to keep it cool. I’d serve them with the same wine that you used for the marinade. This idea is lots of fun with white frozen grapes and a glass of champagne!

Have fun!

Summer Cocktail idea for you and your friends

Negroni is a great summer drink

La Dolce Vita with a Negroni cocktail recipe: gin, Campari, Vermouth and a twist of Orange peel.

Even if you’ve only been following me for a little while, you know that I love anything Italian and I’ve been very fortunate to travel to many different parts of that magical country.  Although, I must admit that I favor Tuscany for its food and wine. During my visits, I have met some wonderful friends and made the most incredible food memories.

Once, I spent several days with some friends in the tiny town of Savigno, Italy where I learned how to make pasta. To be a true pasta master takes enormous dedication and ‘time on task’ or practice – practice – practice.  There is no shortcut for experience. Maybe it should come as no surprise that I’ve also collected some great recipes and cooking ideas during my travels there. I love all kinds of Italian food, and I absolutely crave Italian wine, cheeses, sauces, and lately – an incredible cocktail drink called a “Negroni.”

I have had several experiences with this mixed drink – all of them in summer – all of them fabulous. The drink itself goes all the way back to the mid-1800s – reportedly a favorite of merchants and naval officers in unusual little places like the island of Menorca, once a significant naval base of the British Royal Navy.

My first memory of it was at a restaurant in Little Italy (New York City) several years ago when a friend asked me what I’d like to drink, and I said, “Surprise me.” I can’t recall the occasion, but I’ve never forgotten the drink. A year or so later, I was at the rooftop restaurant of The Hotel Danieli overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice at sunset and asked for it by the only name I knew. “Negroni, per favore,” I asked. The bartender knew exactly what I wanted!

Most recently, I ran into the recipe on Esquire.com. The Esquire writer added some cute suggestions about the “right way” to drink a Negroni: lounging in a “sun-dappled veranda” while wearing a linen suit (love that scene). I was thinking of one particular summer afternoon on the Piazza Navona in Rome. But, that’s another story for another time…

La dolce vita, indeed!

Making this gem is easier (and by far quicker) to make than it takes to explain (see my video):

1 oz dry gin (I recommend Bombay Sapphire)

1 oz Campari (there’s only one)

1 oz Vermouth (Cinzano Rosso, of course)

It’s so easy when all the ingredients are the identical amount of liquid – you only have to remember 1 oz! Pour all into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice and shake well, like a pro. Use a cocktail strainer (please – you don’t want to pour any of the crushed ice into your drink) as you pour the mix into a stylish high-ball glass with ice (the larger the cube the better). The Italian bartender in Florence used an ice cube that almost filled the glass! Garnish with a twist of orange peel.

Now all that’s left do to is for you to don your white linen suit, lounge in the sun, and sip. Saluti!!

Flowers for Home Décor – How to keep Hydrangeas fresher longer

Hydrangea and Fran Berger

A popular ornamental plant is our favorite home flower decoration – hydrangea!

The name “hydrangea” may or may not ring any bells. But if ornamental horticulture happens to be your “thing” or if you have ever seen the plant and its distinctive bloom, you might ask, “What’s that flower?”

You may see hydrangeas at florists, but it’s also just as likely this favorite ornamental plant already lives somewhere in your garden. It’s a favorite of landscapers and garden hobbyists because they are hardy plants, the blooms are huge and last a long time, and it has a long flowering season (from early spring to late autumn). The best part is that the cut flowers look fantastic in a vase in just about any home.

My mother had hydrangeas in the front and backyard. I’d cut the blooms and stick them into vases. We were surprised by how long they lasted.  Plus, the color (white, blue, purple, lavender, violet, red or even green!) and size of the flower can really help add a fabulous spring/summer touch to your indoor décor. Interestingly it’s the acidity of the soil that is responsible for the color.  Here’s a link to my video, you’ll see what I mean.

A bit of history, the Japanese are thought to be first to domesticate a wild variation of the plant found in Asia. Archeologists have found hydrangea fossils dating back 40 million years – pretty much all over the world. One story I read says that sometime in the mid-18th century, a European botanist brought back a North American variation of the plant to Europe and it instantly became a landscaping favorite.

A small warning – even the most common varieties of the plant have low levels of cyanide in the leaves – so don’t eat them. Only one varietal grown in Japan, called hydrangea serrata, is used in brewing a sweet tea for an annual cleansing ritual practiced by some Buddhists. They claim that the tea can help alleviate autoimmune disorders, malaria, and kidney stones. Native Americans have been documented using the root of the plant as a diuretic. In some cultures, the bark of mature hydrangea bushes is used in a concoction that dulls muscle pain.

But, in our culture, we love them because they are so beautiful. And after years of experimenting, I have some cool tips to pass along for keeping this gorgeous flower alive in your home for a long time.

If you happen to have a Hydrangea bush, it’s best when you cut the blooms in the morning by 7 am – or right after sunrise. Pick the ones that are fully open. Also – this is important – place the stems directly into a bucket of water while picking. Don’t let them sit long without water. They’ll dry out very quickly, and they won’t last long in a vase.

When you’re ready to put the stems into a vase, re-cut the ends at a sharp angle with a very sharp knife (very important). If you can manage it, cut both sides of the stems – like a “V” shape – to increase water intake.

After a few days, they may start to wilt. Don’t toss them! Just re-cut the stems and submerge them (blossoms and all – I know this sounds crazy) in a large container of cold water! Let them sit fully immersed in the water for several hours until they rehydrate entirely. Depending on how long they have been drying out, you may need to leave them overnight.  Hydrangea are the only flowers that absorb moisture from their blooms as well as their stems.  This is why it’s important to have them fully submerged in water – they will float to the surface and that’s OK.

When the blooms are perfectly restored, cut the stems again and arrange them in your vase as though they were fresh cut!

I’ve extended the life of my hydrangeas for weeks using this method. Just keep dunking them and bringing them back to life.

Enjoy.

Food Tip – Keep your herbs fresh for up to a week!

fresh herbs

A quick and easy way to save your refrigerated herbs – they’ll keep for a week!

We depend on the excellent flavor of our herbs to enhance our cooking.  I have many friends who wait until the day before they need them to purchase fresh leafy herbs like cilantro and parsley. The reason is sensible – you want them as fresh as possible.

The problem with leafy herbs is that they tend to dry out in the refrigerator. After about three days – not so good. But even if you’re a flavor nut – as I am – going out shopping every time you need a bit of parsley is not at all practical. We’re all so busy these days – right? I mean, if you have the time, great! But if you don’t, what are your options?

A friend once remarked that you should take care of your leafy herbs as you would a bunch of flowers. That makes sense. Bon Appetit goes a bit further with a few very sensible tips about the care and preparation for your herbs.

The first big tip: rinse your herbs as soon as you get them home from the market. Resist the temptation of tossing them into the crisper and then forgetting about them until you need them for dinner! To be honest, you should never do that with any of your greens. It’s always best to wash your veggies before they go into the fridge. That way, everything is ready to eat! Washing also helps rehydrate veggies so that they stay fresher longer.

Next, trim the stem ends of your herbs with a sharp knife.  Like with flowers, freshly cut stem helps the bunch absorb water better. Think also about the fact that while your herbs are still green, they’re still living. Trimming helps them stay moist, crisp, alive and green longer.  Be sure to pick out any that are brown, very wilted, or look like they’re already too far gone.

Place your trimmed leafy herbs in a salad spinner; rinse, drain the dirty water and repeat enough times until the water is clear.  Then spin them dry to remove as much excess moisture as possible.  Or you can do it the old-fashioned way – in a bowl with a colander. But I find that the salad spinner is the far gentler method, especially with delicate herbs. You end up with fewer broken stems and bruising.

Gently gather the herbs back into a bunch then wrap the stem ends a damp paper towel. Take the whole thing and ease it into a plastic bag large enough so that the bunch isn’t crammed in there. I recommend Ziploc bags because they’re handy for this kind of work.  Seal it and you’re done!

When using this method, you’ll find that you can refrigerate your herbs and keep them green and fresh for up to a week. All you have to do is pull off leaves whenever you need them!

Food Tip – The best croutons for your summer salads!

home-made croutons

Add a kick to your salads with home-made croutons – and it’s so easy.

I love crunchy carbs, don’t you? The specific carb that’s on my mind right now are croutons. Okay – so not exactly health food. I think of home-made croutons as a sort of “love food” – for the love of cooking and entertaining friends. They can be used so many different ways – perfect for topping salads and crumbled over grilled asparagus just to name a few.

Diving back to my restaurant days, croutons originate from France, early 19th Century, when an unknown chef had an idea to put small pieces of toasted bread crust into food. It was such a great idea that fragments of croûte (crust) found its way into all sorts of recipes, and eventually salads.

Now, of course, we can buy croutons in all shapes and sizes; ready and prepared for soups, salads, or whatever. Some are okay, but the best is home-made. I picked up a recipe from my favorite magazine and website, Bon Appetit. I loved it so much that I recreated the recipe in this video.

A friend of mine uses this recipe for her fried chicken breadcrumb spice mix. Not exactly health food either, but that’s a recipe that defines “love food.” I showed this recipe to another friend who loves to snack on them with a glass of red wine on “down time” nights when she binges on her favorite streaming video programs. To each her own, right?

The recipe indeed starts off simple enough, with a loaf of day old bread from your favorite baker. I love the Röckenwagner Farmer’s Market brand. It’s where I can find my favorite loaf of bread – rosemary olive oil. But your bread can be anything – a pure sourdough, a French loaf – it doesn’t matter.

Next step, preheat your oven to 375°F.

Take your loaf of day-old bread and trim off the crust all the way around. You don’t have to be careful with the trimming, because after you’re done, you’re going to take the whole loaf and tear it into irregular, jagged pieces. The pieces should be about the size of your thumb leaving behind plenty of nooks and crannies.

In a single layer on a baking sheet, pour a few glugs of good extra virgin olive oil over your pieces of bread. I’m a little particular about my olive oil – I wrote a whole explanation you may want to read. In this case, I use Terra di Brisighella that I brought back from Italy. It’s real Italian, extra virgin and has an excellent taste.  But, as long as it’s good olive oil and you like the taste it’s the perfect one for your recipe.

Sprinkle salt generously. I use sea salt because it’s not as salty tasting as table salt. It’s perfect for this kind of preparation.

Next, squeeze all of the pieces of bread with your hands to help them absorb the olive oil and salt. Then spread the pieces out again.

Slip the baking sheet into the oven for about 10 minutes.  Watch the oven (not all ovens heat the same) and make sure you take them out before they burn!

Then enjoy some tasty croutons, made by your own hands!