Tag Archives: home cooking

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 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 Tip: How to slice a mango

Fran Berger - cutting mangoes

Love the mango – tips on picking, prepping, and enjoying.

A few weeks ago, I was with a friend, walking around a local farmer’s market (one of my favorite pastimes). We stopped at one booth where we found mangoes – which is a bit unusual for California, but there they were.

I love mangoes. I pointed to them and said, “These look so pretty!”

My friend looked, and shook her head, “Nope. Hate cutting them.  I never seem to get it right and eventually just end up with a mess!”

I had to step back. With twenty plus years in the restaurant business, naturally I’m fearless about food. But I can see how mangoes could be intimidating. They’re big, odd shaped, and look nothing like apples and oranges. In fact, did you know that although they are considered a “stone fruit” (single large seed in the center of the fruit) they actually belong to the cashew family?

Mangoes are the most commonly eaten fruit in tropical countries in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific archipelagoes. It’s the national fruit of India (almost half the cultivated mangoes in the world are grown in India) and widely grown in Pakistan and the Philippines. But lately, growers in South America and California have had good luck growing them, thus the unusual appearance at my local farmer’s market.

Ripe mangos are great to eat raw – chilled or not. Sour or unripe mangoes are used in chutneys, pickles, etc.  Many drinks, juices, and smoothies are made using mangoes, and they can be dried and or added to cereals. Mango pulp is used to make jams and jellies. They can be eaten almost any way you can imagine when you want to add a little natural sweetness to a dish.

How can you tell if a mango is good? Don’t focus on the color of the skin. Mangos ripen from green to yellow, with some varieties showing red. Use the same rules you’d use for avocados and peaches: firmly soft to a gentle squeeze. A ripe mango (ready to eat) will also have a fruity aroma at their stem ends.  Don’t be afraid to sniff your fruit at the market – it’s a perfect clue as to ripeness – this includes citrus!

How do you cut a mango? First big tip – DO NOT try to peel the mango while still on the pit. It’ll only turn into a soft and mushy mess! Best results come when you cut the fruit from the pit – which is pretty straight-forward.

  1. Mangoes look very unusual. The pit itself is flat which gives the mango an odd oblong shape that tells you the direction that the pit is going. After you wash the skin thoroughly, place the fruit on a cutting board with the stem end away from you and the narrow edge of the mango facing up. Take a look at my video for a better view of what this looks like.
  2. Use a very sharp knife and cut down one side of the pit. Turn it around and cut down the other side of the pit. This will leave some fruit still attached to the pit, you’ll cut that later.
  3. Gently take the mango halves into your hand and VERY CAREFULLY score the fruit, but don’t cut through the skin. This will give you long mango slices. To dice, score the fruit again crosswise.
  4. Take the scored halves and turn them inside out. Then cut along the skin to release the mango slices or cubes. Important tip: keep your hand flat!

As for the rest of the mango, the part that’s still on the pit, you can quickly cut around it for a few more slices and cubes.

Enjoy!

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!

Another Year with Sophisticating Living

Fran Berger 2018 Welcome

What I’ve learned about sophisticated living – and how I’m taking it to the next level in 2018.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “We only get one ticket to the big dance.  Make it count!”  I get that. I’m all for enjoying life. There are a lot of ways that you can live, why not do it while leading an exciting and flavorful life?

The big question is, “how?”

If you’ve been following my blog or my videos on YouTube, you know that this question is the very heart of what I call sophisticated living. There’s a very fine line between just living and living fabulously. – and I choose fabulously.  It’s certainly more than spending a ton of money – you definitely do not have to and just the spending does NOT make the difference. It’s an attitude – yes – but it’s also a state of mind. Why not live to the fullest? Why not draw out as much joy as you can wherever you can? And, what makes that life even more incredible is how you share it with family and friends.

This is where I come in.  I love to share tips – be they in the kitchen, recipes for easy and delicious dishes, tips on décor, travel, on being a fabulous host, tips for easy entertaining at home, and fun ways that can enhance your lifestyle. Not only am I in search of whatever makes life enjoyable, but I’m also looking for things that bring us together – all under one roof, happy, and thoroughly entertained.

When I share, I hope that people take these ideas and do more with them – put their own ‘spin’ on them.  Incorporate them into their own lives in their own way. Even things that seem insignificant to one person can be a huge deal to another. They’re conversation starters and idea makers. And, bravely incorporating them into your world is all part of what it means to live a sophisticated life.

Back to the question – how? How do we find those “small things” that can really make a difference? Come with me and I’ll share what I know works –  you just need to be open to the suggestion. And here’s another thing that decades of experience in the restaurant business has taught me: you don’t find “secrets of success” by being overly careful.  If you don’t ask or don’t try – the answer will always be ‘no’.

Part of the experience is trying many things in all sorts of situations. You’ll have some flops – things that don’t work no matter how hard you try.  But, part of the success is in the trying and it’s a great feeling when you find the one something that makes a room full of people happy. Go ahead, smile. It feels great, doesn’t it?

Here’s to 2018 and another year of sharing!

Setting up a home bar? Keep it simple!

Home bar elegance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

potato and peeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun!

My Favorite Secret Italian Sauce

italian tomato sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients

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

Preparation

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

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

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