Tag Archives: cooking for friends

A Quick and Easy Weeknight Dinner Recipe for Tomato Feta Galette

Recipe for Tomato Feta Galette

Nothing fancy and so very easy; you can even serve this recipe at room temperature!

A long time ago I learned that the tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable. So, for years now I have been enjoying the expressions I get when someone asks me to name my favorite fruit and I say “tomato.”

Okay, so I’m siding with the botanists here because nutritionists still categorize it as a vegetable. Maybe it’s both! Uh oh, now I’ve just triggered a new conversation that’ll take at least an hour or so for people to Google on their phones. You know me and how much I love triggering conversations! It’s an art!

Seriously, though – fruit or veggie – the tomato is lovely to behold and sweet to eat no matter the variety – especially when it’s in season like it is now. I love them on anything – pasta, salads, and savory dishes. I’ll even eat one like an apple with a pinch of sea salt!

No surprise, I will try just about any recipe where tomatoes are the attore principale or ‘main actor’ in a dish like this quick and easy Tomato Feta Galette I found on one of my favorite recipe sources: The Kitchn (www.thekitchn.com).

The recipe involves just a bit of quick and easy preparation.  Check out my video where I show you how it’s done. Don’t be intimidated – everything you need is found at the store. The pie crust is even found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store (you can make it from scratch but it’s definitely NOT necessary).

The wonderful thing about this recipe is that it comes during the last weeks of summer where tomatoes are still in season (through September) and the patio beckons us to dine al fresco. Make this, add a simple salad and a glass of pinot grigio (if you like) and I guarantee a lovely informal evening with friends and a few more wonderful food memories.

You’ll need:

  • 1 pie crust; make one yourself if you really feel adventurous, but I used a store-bought pie crust and it tasted great.
  • 6 ounces of feta cheese.
  • 1 medium-sized shallot, sliced and separated into ‘rings’
  • 1 TBS fresh thyme leaves (just slide your fingers down the stalk – and pull the leaves off) plus a couple of sprigs of thyme for decoration
  • 1 TBS basil leaves, chopped
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 3 medium-sized tomatoes (about 1 pound), sliced about ¼” thick.
  • A large baking sheet (at least 12” wide).
  • Parchment paper, or a Silpat nonstick baking mat if you have one for the baking sheet

Preparation:

  1. Be sure to preheat your oven to 400°F and position the rack in about the middle of the oven.
  2. Lightly flour a flat surface and use a floured rolling pin to roll out the pie crust dough to about 12” diameter. It doesn’t have to be perfectly round. The pie crust will end up about 1/8” thick.
  3. When you’re done, gently roll up the pie crust dough around the rolling pin and lay it out onto the prepared baking sheet. You’ll want that parchment paper or silpat to make sure the galette won’t stick to the pan.
  4. Sprinkle the feta evenly onto the dough. Leave about a 2” margin from the edge, then add the shallots, thyme leaves, basil, salt, and pepper. Lay the tomatoes over the cheese and herbs.
  5. Fold the edges of the dough over the top of the tomatoes. Pleat the dough every so often by pinching it. My video will show you how that’s done. Don’t sweat perfection – the more ‘lumpy’ it looks, the better.
  6. Top it off with the sprigs of thyme.
  7. Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden-brown and the tomatoes are soft. Remove from the oven and let it sit for about 5 minutes, then transfer it to a wire baker’s rack to chill out for another 10-15 minutes.
  8. Serve warm or at room temperature for a party of six with good-sized portions.

A tip about the tomatoes in this recipe: tomatoes are super juicy and full of water. Avoid ending up with a soggy crust bottom by making sure that you use enough feta to cover the pie crust dough entirely. This will keep tomato juices from soaking into the crust while baking.

That’s about it. Enjoy the last days of summer!

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!

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!

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 Avocados GREEN

You love green avocados

An easy to remember trick to keep your cut avocados from turning that unappetizing brown.

If you have been following me for a while, you know that I collect little stories about this and that. I think that’s one of the skills that a home entertaining expert should have: being able to dole out a quick story for any moment or situation. It’s better than trying to crack the ice at a party with talk about the weather. Right?

Here are a few tidbits about avocados.

If you haven’t heard, the avocado is actually a fruit. Botanically, they belong to the same plant group as do laurels. So, basically, we eat what amounts to an enormous berry that has a single large seed.

Originally, avocados were thought to have come from Mexico. A while back, a friend of mine who is an anthropologist (yeah, I have one of those too), told me that there was some new evidence that suggests that avocados started off as several distinct varieties that came from Peru, the Guatemalan highlands, and along the Central American isthmus. They’ve even found the remains of an avocado plant that they think is 15,000 years old!  It’s crazy that avocados have been around for that long.

Now for the practical part.

I love avocados. They’ve always been one of the staples in my home – ready to slice and eat at a moment’s notice. They’re a great “go-to” easy snack for friends who drop by and perfect for salads, sliced with veggies, or as guacamole (more on that later).  Don’t forget the ever popular avocado toast that you find in almost every restaurant and that is so incredibly easy to duplicate at home!

The downside for avocados – they have an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase that causes our tasty fruit to start browning almost immediately after cutting. This is really inconvenient when you want to save half in the fridge for tomorrow’s snack. I mean, who wants to spread brown avocado on toast? Seriously.

Everyone has their own little trick to keep their avocados from turning brown. Twenty years in the restaurant business – I’ve heard them all, seen them all and tried them all!

One of the most popular tricks is my least favorite: drip lime or lemon juice on the cut parts, which is the same trick we use on cut apples. It works but, in my honest opinion, not very well. They still turn brown after about 4 hours and then the avocado has an extra flavor that you might not want.

Then there’s the one about keeping the pit attached. I don’t know why, but it seems to work for about 4 hours or so, and then the oxidization starts. The big downside is that the pit has to be attached to the uncut half. You can’t add the pit back to an avocado that’s been sliced.

The fact is, many of us will eat an avocado that’s been stored in the fridge and has browned a bit, but not for company consumption.  So, a near miss just doesn’t cut it for me. If it’s going to work, it has to work really well.

The best method – tested in my own kitchen – place the cut half of an onion into an airtight container with your cut avocado. The onion releases sulfur dioxide which is a natural preservative – which puts a full stop on the browning. The great plus for this method is that it’ll keep cut avocados nice and fresh (cubed, sliced, peeled) for about 24 hours! And now you have a little onion to add to that toast.

See my video on this method. And enjoy your avocado!

Kitchen Hacks: Must Have Spices for any Home Cook

What's in your spice cabinet?

“Sniff test” your cabinet – it may be full of spices but are they still usable?

Even if you cook every day, there’s always a chance you’re going to run into a situation where you just don’t have all of the spices that you need to finish a dish. It’s why I always tell everyone that the most important first step in any recipe is to read it through at least once before you start cooking and double check your cupboards for the ingredients and spices you’ll need.

The other problem – and this happens once in a while in my kitchen – is that you see a spice that you have, but it’s too old. Unfortunately, the shelf life of dried spices is – at the most – only about 12 months. Some finicky “spicers” say that dried spices only last 6 – 8 months.

The best way to know if your spices are ‘still good’ is to bring them out every so often – and sniff them!  I know that might sound weird, but it’s the best way to check if they still have potency. Or… you can wait to check them until it’s time to assemble your ingredients. Either way, remember that just because the can or bottle looks good doesn’t mean that the spices they contain ARE good. If they lose their fragrance, then it’s time to replace. Even dried spices should have a robust aroma as you open the container. If they don’t, they won’t impart enough of their flavor into your dish.

If you don’t cook very often, or a particular spice is a bit unusual, buy the smallest size container you can find. A friend of mine takes the time to write the date of purchase on all of her spices. That’s a great idea, but I’m not sure it’s necessary when you just need to ‘sniff’ them. Instead, I’m more concerned about what’s actually in my spice cabinet – so that I’m ready for just about anything.

In my video, I give you a short list of what I consider seven genuinely essential spices. I’ve expanded that list to 15 for my blog readers:

  1. Kosher Salt – always used by professional cooks and good home cooks. Ideal for cooking because it’s less salty than iodized salt by volume, so you have better control.
  2. Salt Crystals and Whole Peppercorns – you’ll need salt and pepper grinders. Once you get in the habit of using grinders, you’ll never go back to granular salt and pepper. The difference in flavor is very noticeable.
  3. Rosemary – one of my top three herbs. Rosemary is used in a lot of Mediterranean and French style cooking.
  4. Oregano – number two in my herb list. This one is widely used in both Mexican and Italian cuisines.
  5. Thyme – and number three in my herb list – a very aromatic way to ‘spice up’ proteins, especially poultry.
  6. Garlic Powder – fresh is better for more garlic flavor, but sometimes you’re caught without any fresh garlic in the kitchen. Or, perhaps you don’t like the smell in the kitchen and on your fingers. Or sometimes all you need is a dash of flavor. Go for the “roasted garlic” variety – it imparts a deeper flavor.
  7. Crushed Red Pepper – an essential spice for African and Mexican dishes, but this is my most favorite way to season meats and veggies. Just add a dash at a time to flavor.
  8. Chili Powder – a spice mix in itself. Depending on the brand, it’s built around Cayenne pepper, but many other spices are added – read the label.
  9. Cayenne Pepper – for that recipe where you need a pinch of extra heat.
  10. Ground Cinnamon – used in both sweet and savory recipes.
  11. Cumin – an aromatic spice used in many different cuisines, either whole or ground.  If you’re using whole for your recipe, take a few minutes and toast it before adding it to your dish. The difference in flavor is immediately noticeable.
  12. Curry Powder – which is also a blend of other spices, typically coriander, turmeric, mustard, cumin, and fenugreek. You can use it to spice up curry (of course), but I use it quite a lot on my roasted or fried veggies and even on French fries!
  13. Ground Ginger – used in a lot of Asian and other international cuisines.
  14. Smoked Paprika – the subtle smoky flavor adds a bit of complexity to just about any dish.
  15. Vanilla Extract – because, who doesn’t have at least a small bottle of this pure joy? And to be perfectly honest, I love the purity of Simply Organic, Madagascar pure Vanilla extract. Be careful to look for pure vanilla extract – you don’t want the artificial flavor.

Now, the question that often gets tossed at me is where to get the best spices? Personally, I like the consistency of the spices I get from Spice Hunter, McCormick, Morton&Bassett, and Simply Organic. And of course, salt – who else but Morton?

Enjoy!

Recipe for a Warm-up: Bloody Mary Soup

Bloody Mary Soup

A new food memory: try my friend’s recipe for this delicious Bloody Mary Soup.

A few years ago, on what in Southern California is considered a “cold” winter day, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted a Bloody Mary.

We were actually standing on her balcony watching the sunset with friends. Despite my thick coat, gloves, and my beanie, I was still freezing! Okay, the wind was also making it pretty cold, and we had just got the fire going, so give me a break.

“In this weather?” I was a little astonished.

“Soup,” she finished.

That was when I noticed she was handing me a stoneware mug with the most delicious-tasting savory soup I’ve had in years. And now that I have the recipe, whenever I cook up a batch of this marvelous soup, I think of my friend and the great time we had with our friends that cold afternoon on her patio.

I believe food is a fabulous way to bring people together. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you also know that I have a real love for delicious recipes. Put them together, and you have what I call “food memories” – it’s one of the more emotional aspects of sophisticated living.

Now, with my friend’s permission, I’d like to share this wonderful soup with you, with the hopes that you’ll make some great food memories of your own. And before we go any further – yes, it is a “Bloody Mary” in the truest sense.

Ingredients

  • 2 TBS chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • ½ cup of your favorite vodka (Chopin Vodka).
  • 2 cups V-8 juice – your choice, regular or spicy (I use spicy)
  • 2 cups chicken or beef stock (broth) (I use beef for a richer taste)
  • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce (make sure you shake it up)
  • 1 28oz or 32oz can of Fire Roasted Tomatoes or diced tomatoes (I use Fire Roasted tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup horseradish (prepare to taste – I use way less because I use the Spicy V-8), add a dash of your favorite hot sauce if you like.

Instructions

Bloody Mary Soup recipe Fran Berger

You probably already have what you need to make this recipe.

In advance of cooking, I recommend that you prepare the “liquids” in one large bowl. Combine the V-8 juice, chicken or beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, and your tomatoes (canned or freshly cut). Don’t strain the tomatoes. Mix everything up and set aside.

Coat the bottom of a stock pot with olive oil and heat (medium). Add thyme leaves, garlic, celery ribs, onion (all chopped) and sauté on medium (cook until tender and onions are golden). By the way, make sure that your stock pot is large enough to hold everything – including all of the liquid!

Add the vodka to deglaze the veggies – scrape up all those beautiful browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the alcohol has “cooked off” – shy of a minute at medium heat.

Get your bowl of liquids and pour it in!  This is where a large stock pot is really useful. I recommend Staub’s 4-quart “Cocotte” for this task, because you’re going to heat this up until it boils, then reduce heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. I’ve let this go for up to 50 minutes and it seems to cook up the tomatoes very nicely. But as I always say, watch your pots!

Stir occasionally while simmering. Add the horseradish and hot sauce GRADUALLY. Taste often to make sure that you don’t overpower the other flavors. You can always set aside the horseradish and hot sauce for guests to flavor up for themselves.

When time’s up, turn off the heat.  Use an immersion blender to carefully puree the tomatoes, and serve warm in a big mug.  This recipe will make 6-8 servings (depending on the size of your mug) and can be doubled or tripled (or more!) for your party – just be sure your pot is big enough!

Add a pickled bean stalk or pickled artichoke as a garnish to add even more flavor. See my blog post on pickling. And see my video using this recipe.

The last touch: a shot of Chopin Vodka, if you like. Either way, it’ll taste so amazing served hot. Absolutely the best “bloody mary” you’ll ever make for yourself. Watch this video to see how easy it is!

Enjoy!

Is it time to update your cookware?

Fran Berger and her cookware.

Celebrate the New Year or a New Home with new non-stick cookware from All-Clad and Staub.

Maybe you’ve moved. Maybe you’ve remodeled. Maybe it’s the New Year and it’s just time. Whatever the occasion, it’s time to take a look at your pots and pans for a refresh.

These days, there are so many options. Not like in the old days when our parents were limited to the department store offering of brightly colored enameled cookware.  Remember early Teflon? Seriously.

There’s already so much psychology at play when you’re entertaining at home. We want everything to be – just so. We spend time to make sure that the home environment is uncluttered. We want the plates and utensils to be clean and bright. Glasses crystal clear.

Not only do I believe that a good set of pots and pans can really help you achieve better results in the kitchen, I think good cookware helps you feel more confident while you’re trying that new recipe for the first time. But I also think about the appeal of food as I prepare it.

Often, my guests will show up as I’m finishing, so they see me at work over my cookware. You know that means: I’m fussy about my kitchen. I don’t mind that they see the mess I create as I’m cooking, but I don’t want them to see their food prepared in pots and pans that are stained or blackened!

That’s why I’ve always been partial to All-Clad with their down-to-Earth quality. Aside from the fact that the sturdy metal handles are designed to stay cool as you cook, they just look great on the range. The clean stainless-steel pots and pans give you what a friend of mine calls “the real cook look.”

All-Clad also has the dark anodized conductive aluminums which work great on electric ranges. They even have some very nice looking copper-bottom pans and pots.

Whatever “look” you want, I recommend All-Clad’s durable non-stick cookware. First off – non-stick is just a good idea. But in this case, it’s not just any non-stick – this is pro-level hard-anodized non-stick. It resists abrasions and corrosion; it’s chemically stable and totally non-toxic. Not at all like your mom’s Teflon pans!

All-Clad cookware is not only the most durable pan you can buy, the non-stick surface has an extremely long-life span. I’ve had mine for 10 years and they have not chipped or peeled – ever.

As for sizes, let’s say that you want to replace one pan at a time. The first, most important size is the 8-inch skillet followed by either the 10 or 12-inch skillet. This gives you flexibility for a little sautéing or cooking up a healthy-sized omelet.

You’ll need a stock pot – get the 4 quart. You’ll use it do your soups, chili, and for tasks as simple as boiling pasta. Speaking of pasta, you’ll want some sauce pans for making your ‘Sunday Sauce’. Maybe a 1-quart, but if that’s too tiny for you, definitely the 2-quart covered sauce pan, then add a 3-quart later if you need something between the 2-quart and the stock pot.

If you decide to go for a set, you don’t need to go crazy with gratins, grille pans, and roasters. Certainly not to start. Look at smaller 8 pan collection like the one on my video.

One more pan – that’s not in the All-Clad line up – but one that should definitely be on your list is a great cast iron skillet. There’s no school like the “old school” – right? I like the ones from Staub.  Iron skillets are perfect for braising – and the ones from Staub are built to go from stovetop and straight into the oven.

My last tip – especially if you go for the durable non-stick – remember that you should only use wood or silicone spoons and spatulas. I like the ones from OXO – they’re perfect! Modern non-stick surfaces are abrasion and scratch resistant – but they’re not invulnerable. The pans will last longer if you protect the surfaces.

This is the way to really look good if your guests arrive a bit early and you’re working away in your kitchen!

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!