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!

Home Entertaining Tip – How to speed-chill a bottle of white wine

Fran Berger speed-chill wine

Guests on the way? Forgot to chill the wine? Here’s an old restaurant trick that will get you chilled wine in 15 minutes FLAT.

A restaurant – an excellent restaurant – will never have a shortage of good wine chilled to the correct temperature dictated by decades of tradition and agreement among experts. The sommelier (someone educated in all things “wine” and the person in charge of the wine ‘vault’) will know that red wine should be chilled to 55°F (12°C) and white chilled to 45°F (7°C). Unofficially, the sommelier knows a bottle must be chilled to the customer’s taste. On rare occasions, a customer may say, “I’d like this bottle chilled more.” As we say in the restaurant business, the customer is always right.

But, let’s pause here.

There are several calculations we keep in the back of our minds when we open a restaurant for business. One of them is that it takes about 2 hours for a bottle of wine to reach its ideal temperature in a standard restaurant refrigerator. You can shave off about an hour in the freezer. That’s it – no way to change the laws of thermodynamics when chilling a bottle in ambient air temperature. Given that the average customer is usually done with their meal in about 1.5 hours, sticking a bottle into a refrigerator or freezer won’t work. Worse yet, bottles that have already been chilled will get cooler, but at a significantly slower rate. I’m told that also has something to do with thermodynamics.

So, what do you do?

This is such a simple trick, it’s amazing. On those rare moments when a bottle has to be chilled more – or let’s say that you have guests coming and you forgot to put that bottle in the fridge! What do you do?

Just add salt to your bucket of ice water!

You think I’m joking, right? I’m not! You probably already know that putting wine in a bucket of ice and cold water, rather than just ice, will chill the bottle faster. But did you know that adding salt to the mix further speeds up the cooling time? Salt reduces the freezing point of water and allows the water to get to a lower temperature or colder without turning into ice, which in turn chills your wine more quickly.

Next, be sure to spin the bottle!

Maybe you didn’t expect that one either, but spinning the bottle occasionally will help the water/ice/salt method work more efficiently. Place your precious Sauv Blanc into the water so that you cover most of the ‘shoulder’ (where the bottle narrows to the ‘neck’) of the bottle. Keep the bucket nearby and gently spin the bottle in the ice water mixture every couple of minutes.

Why does this work? First, the cold water/ice is far more efficient than cold air. Direct contact with the entire surface of the glass bottle helps the wine chill. Also, by turning the bottle, you move around the contents inside, allowing more wine to come into contact with the cold glass, chilling it faster. From room temp to a good “chill” – this method takes about 15 minutes to work. See? I told you this was simple.

Keep in mind that this method works best for non-sparkling wines. If you try this method with a bottle of Champagne, don’t spin the bottle (you can GENTLY turn it) or you and your guests will be in for a little shock when you pop open the bottle!

Enjoy!

Kitchen Safety Tip – avoid food borne bacteria and clean that sponge!

Clean your kitchen sponge

Kitchen sponges can be as dirty as your toilet! So clean or replace them regularly.

I like smart people, but intelligent kids make me smile. Even when the smile is a tad uncomfortable.

My friend and I were sitting in her living room chatting over coffee and cheesecake when her teenage daughter, Isabella, literally bounced into the room with good news: she got an A+ on her biology project.

“What was your project about?” I asked.

“Bacteria in the home,” Isabella answered.

Mom didn’t look too happy.

Without skipping a beat, Isabella explained how she and her lab partner set out Petri dishes all around her home and the homes of four other families (with permission, I assume). After exposing the dishes to the open air for a few hours, the young researchers sealed them and waited to see what kinds of bacteria grew.

“We found 22 forms of mold and bacteria,” Isabella reported flatly. “And you know which room had the most?”

Mom squirmed.

“It was the kitchen!”

Hand to heart, I resisted glancing down at my slice of homemade cheesecake, expertly drizzled with chocolate syrup and dotted with a slice of strawberry. I kept my attention on Isabella, who went on to explain not only did they find more variety of bacteria and molds in the kitchen, there were three times as much of it than in any other room.

Before mom could intervene, Isabella said it: “Even more than the bathroom.”

Breakpoint reached, mom smoothly reminded Isabella about a task that would take her far into the house for an extended period. I suppressed a big grin (for me, that’s hard, I can tell you).

“She’s such a brilliant girl,” I said, taking a big bite of that lovely slice of cheesecake, adding, “Oh, this is so delicious!”

From the scientific perspective, researchers agree with Isabella’s findings. The kitchen is “dirty” like this because it has the most human traffic. It’s not that the kitchen itself is so dirty, it’s that WE’RE dirty. The human body is a veritable magnet for bacteria, molds, and other stuff. And the kitchen is a place where it collects, grows, and prospers.

Luckily Isabella didn’t use the kitchen sponge as part of her study. Mom would have been catatonic.

A couple of years ago, a group of microbiologists released a study about the health dangers of the ordinary kitchen sponge. According to the study, the researchers found more than 300 different kinds of bacteria with literally trillions of those little bugs in ONE sponge. The only other place in your whole house where you’ll find such a concentration of bacteria is – you guessed it, the toilet.

EWWW! I’m not sure it gets any grosser than that. And imagine what you’re doing when you use the kitchen sponge to wipe up a spill on your dining room table!

I have tips for kitchen safety. A few of them are my own that I’ve collected over time. Some you’ll find on the internet that seem to work very well.

First – get cellulose sponges. Williams-Sonoma sells some nice ones that are a handy size that I use in my kitchen all the time. You can also find cellulose sponges on Amazon as well. Cellulose sponges are organic so you can toss them into your compost. They’ll hold up better to when you need to clean them than the artificial ones (e.g., Scotch Bright urethane foam).

Second – this one is passed down from the ages: never use your regular kitchen sponge to clean up after handling raw meat – especially chicken. If a kitchen sponge comes in contact with raw meat, toss it out. Don’t even try to clean it.

Third – speaking of cleaning – bleach doesn’t work on the harmful bacteria. It will wipe out the bacteria that causes the smell, but not the stuff that can make you and your family really sick. For effective cleaning, you must keep up with cleaning sponges every day with any one of these recommended methods:

  1. Microwave your sponge for 1-3 minutes. There’s some disagreement among the researchers about the time length, but they do agree that microwaving for 1 minute will kill most harmful bacteria. In two minutes, you’ll kill the rest. Three minutes and you’ll end up with a very hot and very clean sponge. Important note: make sure your sponge is wet (not dry) when you put it in the microwave and also note that artificial sponges won’t last as long as cellulose (they tend to flatten out after each cleaning). And, don’t put sponges that have metal (hint: sponges with abrasive pads) in the microwave oven.
  2. Put your sponge in the dishwasher when you run the heated dry cycle or boil it for about five minutes (but I’m not sure I want that sponge boiling in my good stockpot!). Heat is critical for cleaning sponges and wiping out colonies of harmful food bacteria
  3. Regularly replace your sponge – at least every month. But some researchers say (and I also agree) that active kitchens should replace all sponges every two weeks at a minimum.

I love those really smart girls who can dig up important facts. But it doesn’t take rocket science to know how important it is to keep your kitchen as clean as possible. Stay safe!

Kitchen hack: Save your leafy herbs, chop them the right way

Fran preps leafy vegetables

How to chop leafy herbs AND keep all that wonderful flavor for your recipe.

Open a recipe and you’ll find a call for a leafy herb – chopped. To be honest, unless you’re just using the herb as garnish (or really know what you’re doing), you always want to chop herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro. That’s the way to release the oils and flavoring into your recipe.

But here’s the problem. Most people tend to over chop their leafy herbs – to the point of mashing all that extra goodness right into the cutting board. You’ve seen it, right? Chop away and, boom, green liquid stains all over the board! Here’s the thing – that green liquid is telling you that a lot of the vital flavor from the herb is NOT going into your recipe but has stayed behind. What do you do?

I’m going to help you rescue your herbs – get more out of what you put in – and I’m going to help you cut back on the amount of prep work. Part of the great reward (other than more flavor for your recipe) is that you’re going to be so happy when you see how easy this is to do the right way.

Basil is one of my favorite herbs – so aromatic and flavorful. But it’s very soft and bruises easily which makes it the one herb so easy to over-chop. This classic French style of preparation is called chiffonade and it’s the right way to not lose all that Basil goodness by leaving it on your cutting board:

  1. Rinse the Basil and remove each leaf from the stem.
  2. Roll the leaves tightly together with largest leaf on the bottom – smallest on top – like a small cigar.
  3. Start at one end and gently slice the “cigar” into thin strips with a very sharp knife. Remember: a sharp knife means “no bruising.” But it also means be very careful. Curl your fingertips in away from the knife blade and keep the knife tip on the board.
  4. Depending on the recipe, make your cuts no smaller than 1/8th of an inch; 1/4th an inch or slightly larger is fine for most recipes.
  5. Strips too big? No problem. Cross cut once or twice and now you have smaller pieces. Enjoy that wonderful smell in the process.

Apply the same chiffonade process with any leafy herb like Italian parsley or cilantro. Hold the bunch with one hand and lightly shave off the leaves from the stems. Then roll the little leaves together like the basil and gently cut through them only once. Watch my video and see how it all comes together.

Don’t try this method of preparation with thyme or rosemary – that’ll be for another day. But, if you follow these few easy steps, you will get to enjoy more of your herbs in your recipe.

How to pick olive oil – read the labels!

olive oil fran berger

Want a great olive oil? Here are 6 tips for reading labels and looking for signs.

I went to dinner at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills with a group of friends. My history buff friend was there. I told you that he’s never without some interesting anecdote or interesting factoid. He calls it an occupational hazard of being a university professor.

Well, this time we were commenting on the olive oil that the chef used; a stand-out flavor that made my Braciole di Manzo (beef rolls with prosciutto and tomato sauce) scream out amo l’italiano! (I love Italian!) In a break in the conversation, our history buff told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes several years to grow an olive tree mature enough to produce olives. During war, ancient armies went straight to the olive tree groves and burned them down.

It takes years to produce a good crop and decades to form a legacy of taste. That’s why good chefs do not fiddle with cheap olive oil. It just doesn’t happen.

I love olive oil. It’s great to cook with – sautés, sauces, salads, even just for dipping great bread – not just for Italian food, but for almost any dish you can imagine where you want to add that wonderful and timeless flavor. And like many of my friends who are chefs, I am a little picky when it comes to selecting my bottle of olive oil.

There are big differences in brands, and it’s actually easy to tell which ones are better – if you know what to look for! And just like wine, you just need to know how to read the label:

  1. ‘Extra Virgin’ is the highest quality given to olive oil – it means it’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other ‘defects’ like rancidity and never treated with heat. There’s still quality variations within ‘extra virgin’ but it’s the best way for an overall guarantee of purity.
  2. My recommendation, if true flavor is what you want, then stay away from any bottles of olive oil that say “light.” Oil is always 100% fat – it can NEVER be “light.” What the label really means is that the oil has been distilled and treated in such a way that strips away the true odor and color of olive oil. If all you need for your recipe is a common cooking oil, then buy an inexpensive neutral oil like peanut or grapeseed.
  3. If the bottle is inexpensive and still labeled ‘Product of Italy’ then there’s a pretty good chance that the olives weren’t grown or pressed in Italy. The label may mean that’s where the product was placed in the bottle – which is a whole other thing, right? They can still claim it’s a ‘product of Italy’ if it was only bottled there.  So, the oil could come from just about anywhere. Look carefully on the back of the label for “IT” (Italy) or “GR” (Greece) or “SP” (Spain) as the source of the olives.  If you can, buy one that comes from one farm or collective but at the very least from one country.
  4. Not all great olive oil comes from Italy. Some of it comes from California. One hint: if the oil comes from somewhere that also produces good wine, then there’s a good possibility they have great olive oil too!
  5. Let’s end an old fable right now: just because the olive oil is darker and greener doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality oil. Some very high quality olive oil is light yellow. So, color doesn’t really matter. Like wine, good olive oil has a great aroma and taste. It all depends on what you like personally.
  6. One thing that is not a fable: good olive oil never come in a clear plastic or clear glass bottle. Ever. The ‘good stuff’ usually comes in an opaque or dark glass, or metal. The reason is that good olive oil goes bad fairly quickly. Exposure to light and heat speeds up that process.

One last point, good olive oil doesn’t HAVE to be used with Italian food. Find a flavor you like for the dish you want to prepare – could be continental, Americano, or even Asian – and love it!

 

How to dice an onion – the easy way.

Fran Berger dicing onions

This trick will make dicing onions quick and so very simple.

Onions get all the grief. They stink up our kitchens and they sting our eyes and make us cry. Yet, onions are in so many recipes, all kinds of dishes: soups, sauces, salads, fried, broiled, and baked bringing their own special flavor to your recipe. It’s hard to cook without this veggie!

I even know someone who eats onions raw! With salt! Seriously. He told me the other day that when he was a small kid, his mother told him that onions were brain food. He’s been eating them raw ever since. He IS smart, but I don’t think onions are the reason!

There are so many different varieties of onion, each with their own unique color, aroma, and flavor. I’m going to focus on the full round varieties. The most common type of these is the “yellow” onion. This is the full-flavor variety that you’ll find many recipe authors call out in all kinds of preparations. You’ll find “white” onions in Mexican dishes. They give off a sweeter flavor when sautéed with proteins like chicken, beef, and pork. Red onions are generally milder in flavor and are awesome raw, so you find them in lots of salads and some soups.

With these three most common varieties, you’ll often be asked to dice. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to dice “full round” onions. Have you ever sliced an onion then restacked the cuts to slice again? You know how clumsy that is, right? Well, there’s only one way that really beats all of them. I’ve been using this method for years – it’s one of the best lessons I learned from a chef friend. It’s the method I’m going to show you now. Check out my video so that you also see how it’s done in seven easy steps:

  1. Cut ½” from the stem end – this is the top of the onion where the stalk grows.
  2. Turn the onion around and cut into the root about half way. Don’t cut the root off completely. You’ll see why in a minute.
  3. Lay the onion on the stem end and cut the onion in half, vertically through the top to the root end. Then peel the onion. Remove the outer most ‘paper’ layer and one more ‘onion’ layer.
  4. Lay one half of the onion on the flat side and make vertical cuts. Keep your fingers curled under to protect them and be careful to NOT cut all the way through the root end.
  5. With your hand flat on top of the onion (keeping your fingers far from the knife) make two (or more) horizontal cuts. Again, be careful to not cut through the root end because we need the root to hold the onion layers together for us.
  6. Slice across your previous cuts, all the way through, till you reach the root end. Now you have a diced onion!
  7. The closer together your horizontal cuts and vertical cuts are the smaller your dice will be. This method can also be used if you need larger pieces for skewers – just make your cuts about ½” apart and the onion pieces will separate into perfect larger pieces.

One last little tip: use your knife to chop your diced onion on the board if you want a finer dice.

Enjoy!

How to zest citrus for your recipe

fran-berger_zesting

My Three Tips to get the best of your ‘zest’.

A friend of mine and I were looking over a drink recipe. When we got to the part about adding “zest” to the drink, she wondered, “what kind of zesting do they want?” That’s actually an excellent question because the author of the recipe didn’t say.

Take a look at what the dictionary says for the word “zest,” and you’ll probably find words like “interest” or “excitement.” That about sums it up when it comes to home cooking and mixing drinks – you want interest and excitement?  Add citrus or acid and you add a whole new layer of flavor to what you are creating.

You’ll run into “citrus zest” as an ingredient for both cooking and drink mixing from time to time. It’s the easiest way to capture an interesting aroma and add excitement for the taste buds. It’s not a trick – it’s a long-standing culinary technique. But even if you’re familiar with it, there are different ways to zest, depending on your goals.

The basics of “zesting” are straightforward. But I have collected some handy tips that I’ve picked up over the years that could make your zesting just a bit easier.

Zesting adds some of that fresh citrus flavor (orange, lemon, lime, even grapefruit) to whatever you are preparing. The best flavor and aroma comes from the outermost color layer of the rind (not the pith or bitter white layer). There are three different ways to zest citrus fruits that I show in my video. Each one is easy, but they work best when you have a specific goal in mind:

  • Microplane is the finest sized grate and it’ll give you lot of flavor. I typically see fine zest as an essential flavoring ingredient for batters, deserts, and sauces. Remember – a little goes a long way!
  • Five-hole zesters will give you a much more significant and rougher zest that’ll produce lots of aroma, but a little less flavoring than a microplane. You probably won’t see this type of zesting as a cooking ingredient, but you may see it in drinks or as a colorful curly aromatic garnish in a finished dish like a salad or for fish and poultry.
  • Veggie peelers are really useful zesting tools. You can use them to create wide strips of zest that can be sliced into narrower strips that look and smell great in drinks. You can also dice the slices as an aromatic garnish. I’ve seen a few cooked dishes that call for sliced zest – mainly in middle eastern and Asian dishes. Or, you can leave the wide strip just as it is as a great ‘twist’ for your martini!

One more comment about zesting ‘types.’ When you run into a recipe that calls for zesting, the author will probably tell you which one is needed. If the recipe doesn’t specify the zesting type (which happens on occasion), my recommendation is to use the microplane only when the zest is needed as a cooking ingredient. Use the five-hole zester and veggie peeler when zesting as a garnish.

On to my Three Zest Tips that will make the best of whatever zesting you need:

FIRST, Wash the fruit rind (peel) thoroughly. You’re using the rind in the final preparation of whatever you’re drinking or eating. Sometimes there is a thin wax coating on the fruit so I use soap and water and give it a good scrub without damaging the skin.

SECOND, pick the zesting you want (see list above). Remember that the finer the zesting, the more powerful the flavoring you’ll get.

THIRD, use only the colorful outer layer of the fruit – that’s where you’ll find most of the aroma and flavoring. Try to avoid the bitter pith of the fruit, the white part that makes up most of the rind.

For the Zest of your life. Have fun!

We love our Guacamole FRESH

keep your guacamole green

Use this method to keep your guacamole fresh looking – even after you prepare it the night before!

You have guests coming at noon tomorrow, and you want to make a guacamole dip. But NOBODY wants to eat brown guacamole, right? So, you do what any expert home entertainer would do – you prep the guacamole just before guests arrive – right?

Wrong.

There is a way to make your guacamole the night before! Let’s face it. We love fresh and green guacamole that much. But it really is an incredible hassle trying to get your home ready for guests and be literally preparing food as they walk through the door.

Believe me when I say, chefs have been testing all sorts of different ideas for years. Over the years as a restaurant owner, I tested all sorts of tricks. There are a few that are “iffy” – they work, but only for a few hours.

The problem is an enzyme called “polyphenol oxidase” that occurs naturally in avocado. The first thing it wants to do is turn our favorite avocado dip into a bowl of unappetizing brownish muck as soon as it is exposed to air.  So, what do you do?

simple way to keep guacamole green

VIDEO: a simple trick to keep guacamole green – even overnight!

Well, you can try adding citrus juice to the dip. It works, but only for a few hours. And what if you don’t want the lemon/lime taste? Adding the avocado pit in the dip does absolutely nothing once the pit has been separated from the fruit. You can add a fresh onion to the dip, and that seems to control the browning, but you’re back to the same taste problem as with the citrus juice.

The solution I learned is so easy that you’re going to laugh. This one goes back when I owned my restaurants – so you know this is a good one, right?

Place the guacamole in the bowl – could be the mixing bowl or the one you use for serving. Polyphenol oxidase is chemically “reactive” – and apparently metal makes it react faster. That’s why I always use glass, ceramic, or plastic where possible.

Smooth the top so that the surface of the guacamole is nice and flat. Then, very very gently (I recommend using a small measuring cup), pour enough water over the guacamole to cover the entire surface. Add enough water to give it a depth of about ½ inch. Then lay plastic wrap over the top of the water, press it gently across the surface of the water and around the edges to push out as much air as possible. Then place the bowl into the refrigerator.

Check out my video to watch me remove the plastic, and gently pour out the water. All you should do is “fluff up” the guacamole for serving. Amazingly, the dip does not absorb the water, and it’ll taste as great as when you made it.

Enjoy your fresh and green guacamole!