Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye 2011…Welcome 2012!

Pop open the's New Year's Eve!
Another year has gone by and I have that feeling I always have on December 31st: that surreal, mind-boggling, how-in-the-world-is-this-year-already-over??? feeling.

In some ways, 2011 crawled by. The first half of the year was angst-filled while Andy was dealing with an orbital pseudo-tumor. There was pain and surgery and radiation and so much waiting and then in mid-May, just like that, we were back to our normal lives. There were some really bad, agonizingly slow days in there, but somehow it all seems like it was eons ago. I suppose it’s always easier to forget the times that you don’t really want to remember.

The second half of the year went by in a blur. So much good has happened in the last several months that I feel like I should pinch myself to make sure it’s all really happening. I’ve been so fortunate with great opportunities coming my way and my blog has grown to a place I never expected. If I could have gone back and told my new-blogger self where I would be today, I could have avoided a lot of nail biting and stomach aches over the future of my little space on the web. 2012 will be bringing the particularly amazing opportunity to be writing and creating recipes as a job, which I ecstatically mentioned in my last post. I still can’t believe it, but am so thankful to be starting this new endeavor.

I suddenly feel like I’m writing one of those Christmas newsletters that I make fun of, so with that, I bring you my 2011 round-up as part a virtual New Year's Eve food blogger party…  

Once again, this food-blogging community that I’ve become a part of has amazed and impressed me. Some fellow bloggers put together a virtual New Year’s Eve party and of course I accepted the invitation to be a part of this event. Check out the other 2011 round-ups linked below. And thanks to Sanjeeta and Lora for hosting (and Heather for the logo).

To ring in 2012, I’ve put together 12 of my favorite recipes from the past year. And since it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s only fitting that we start with cocktails, right?






So, with the year coming to a close behind us, I'd like to propose a toast: To my family and my friends, both old, new and those I’ve yet to meet: Here’s to a wonderful new year filled with more happiness than you can imagine, good health, good fortune, and so much love.

For auld lang syne, my friends…


Here are a couple more champagne cocktails to wet your whistle:
Raspberry Sparklers (pictured at top right)
Strawberry-Amaretto Champagne Cocktails

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Being Happy and Matzo Ball Soup

Lately, my mood can best be described as reflective. I’ve been doing a lot of sitting quietly and contently, cup of coffee in hand, staring out the window past our Christmas tree in the corner, just thinking. Those moments of complete silence and comfort combined with the utter brilliance of the first sip of coffee that passes my lips makes me oh-so-very happy.

As I mentioned earlier this month, I’ve been having some trouble finding motivation to blog. But then I realized that I wasn’t even looking for motivation…I just flat out didn’t feel like doing it. Kids get a break from school during the holidays, and I wanted a break from this. So I took one. And also, soon I will not have the luxury of being lazy, so I’m trying to cram it all in now.

You see, I’ve got a new gig that’s going to keep me very busy and I’m absolutely thrilled about it. Like shout-from-the-rooftops kind of thrilled. I’m going to be writing and creating recipes for the food section of SheKnows, an online women’s magazine. Let me repeat that: I’m going to be writing. Me. Writing. Like, as a job. Cue the happy dance.

It just so happens that my first articles went live today, and I couldn't wait to share them...

Just in time for Hanukkah, I made matzo ball soup. It was my first time making it and I think it turned out pretty good. My goal was light and fluffy matzo balls and they came out perfectly, like little pillowy dumplings. Check out my recipe here: Matzo Ball Soup.

My other article is a fun look at the Mayan prediction for the end of the world, which happens to be one year from today, with some Mayan-inspired recipe suggestions for a tasty last meal. See it here.

So for this, and so many other things, I am happy. I have been given an opportunity to do what I love doing. I have family and friends who support what I do and are happy for my success. I have a husband with whom I couldn’t be more in love, who fills my life with love and laughter. And although it has been a difficult and sad week, one full of heartbreak with the loss of our precious little kitty, Rose, I have to remind myself how very lucky I am.

I’m going to attempt to post one more time before Christmas, but in case I don’t (there’s that laziness again), I’d like to wish everyone the happiest of holidays. And thanks to all of you for the kind and caring words on my last post. Andy and I appreciate it so very much.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sometimes, life is hard…

We lost one of our best little furry friends and a huge part of our family late last week. And I’ll say this: right now, life sucks.

It’s amazing how a tiny five-pound cat can make such a mark on your life. I only got to love her for the last four years and the void is incredible. Andy got to love her for 18 years, which still seems too short. They had a special bond and were so, so close. Her name was Rose, but to him she was Little Baby Cat, Rosie, Rose-a-lino, Rosebud, Ro-bo, Tiny Tim, Jo Jones, Bo Jones, Bo-Bo, Roosevelt, Sears and Rosebuck, and so many more. She was his baby. His heart is broken and mine aches not only for Rose, but for Andy too.

Sometimes, life is hard. Sometimes, life doesn’t seem fair. Sometimes, you just want to cry and cry and cry. I know things will get better, but it’s going to take some time…

Monday, December 12, 2011

The December Slump and Cranberry-Apple Crisps

It’s happening again. I could feel it starting during the Thanksgiving break; that laziness brought on by a holiday vacation and then driven home by a bad flu. Blogging took a back seat and has remained there, safely strapped in.

Thanksgiving seems to do me in. I remember feeling the same way last year, not wanting to get back into the kitchen for weeks afterwards, doing just the bare minimum to get a decent dinner on the table. I don’t know what it is about December that makes me want to do nothing but cook with Campbell’s condensed soups. In fact, that’s not far off from what has been happening. We’ve now made pork chops in cream of mushroom, chicken breasts in cream of asparagus, and a kind of pork parmesan in condensed tomato. And I have to tell you, although these dishes may not be particularly blog-worthy, I wouldn’t have traded them for all the fancy, gourmet food in the world. Throw in A Charlie Brown Christmas, the old stop-motion Rudolph, some mulled wine and a twinkling tree and I will happily ignore my blog…until that little nagging voice gets louder and louder and louder.

Okay, okay…time for a post.

Before Thanksgiving, I bought a huge bag of cranberries with big plans for experimenting beyond the typical cranberry sauce. Up to now, they sat forgotten in the refrigerator. Thankfully they seem to have quite a long shelf life. This weekend, I finally took the bag out and transferred it to the counter. I thought that seeing them sitting there might prompt me to do something with them. After many hours, a nap and lots of procrastinating, I decided on a crisp. Now I know that I’m not exactly pushing the limits with a cranberry crisp, but I’m still working on other more extraordinary dishes. At this point, I’m happy to have done anything at all.

Cranberry-Apple Crisp with Oat and Walnut Topping

Makes 4-6

2 cups fresh cranberries
1 large apple, peeled and diced (about 1 ½ cups)
2 ounces fresh orange juice
¾ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup roughly chopped walnuts
½ cup oats 
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup flour
¼ cup unsalted butter, diced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine cranberries, apple, orange juice, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl.

In another bowl, combine walnuts, oats, sugar and flour. Add butter. Using a pastry cutter (or your hands), combine until mixture is crumbly and no large chunks of butter remain.

Divide cranberry mixture among ramekins (4 6-ounce or 6 4-ounce). Top liberally with walnut-oat topping, pressing slightly into fruit. (There may be a small amount of topping left over.)

Place ramekins on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes (depending on size of ramekins), until tops are browned and fruit is bubbly.

Let cool before serving and serve slightly warm. (Can be made ahead and heated in the microwave for about 30 seconds to warm through.)

I love desserts that can be described as rustic because it means I don’t have to spend lots of time trying to make it look pretty. But these crisps manage to be both rustic and pretty. And they taste like the holidays. Not too sweet, a little bit tart, spiced with cinnamon; my mom thought they tasted like cherry pie. Gooey cranberry and apple filling is balanced with crunchy brown sugar-baked oats and walnuts. They’re a little messy, but they were a big hit.

Now that I’ve gotten back into the kitchen again, hopefully I can keep the motivation going. Although more pork chops smothered in cream of mushroom and taking the rest of December off sounds pretty good too…

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Julia Child Moment with Whole Grilled Bass

When I first started this blog, I naively thought that I would post both my successes and failures…it is real life, after all, and there are bound to be plenty of experiments gone awry. What I quickly realized though is that it is WAY too much work to take and edit photos, write up a recipe and think of something (hopefully) entertaining to say about a dish when I’m not even happy with the end result.

Trust me when I say there have been plenty of dishes gone wrong. Most recently it was a bland turnip soup with weird unidentified woody pieces that didn’t puree and had to be fished out of our mouths. There was a fava bean puree that tasted like it looked (which was not good) and oddly chewy shrimp puffs that either needed more egg or less egg. Baking disasters are even more common; the worst being a miserable version of an upside-down apple dessert labeled in my notebook as “Awful Cake.” That one went directly into the garbage. I could go on. But I don’t want daily reminders of these things and I certainly don’t need them enshrined on my blog.

That brings me to this dish: a whole striped bass, stuffed with aromatics, bursting with flavor, grilled and ensconced in its crispy skin. Well, that’s what was supposed to happen. I’ve made this dish several times before and it worked perfectly each time. But this time I wanted to take photos and you know the saying about the best-laid plans…

Normally I wouldn’t post something that I don't deem cosmetically perfect. However, I’m making an exception because this fish was so tender, so juicy and so flavorful. The problem, as you can see, is that when I flipped it over on the grill, all the skin pulled off. The grill was oiled, the fish was oiled…it’s the same technique I’ve always used. Sigh. As I started to throw my temper tantrum on the patio for all the neighbors to hear, I thought about one of my favorite episodes of The French Chef.

Julia Child was making apple tarte tatin in this particular episode, but the apples didn’t caramelize the way they were supposed to and the whole thing was way too loose. She knew it wasn’t going to work, but carried on anyway saying, “If everything doesn’t happen quite the way you like, it doesn’t make too much difference because you can fix it” with emphasis on the YOU CAN. She was chuckling to herself as she moved forward, and as she turned the tarte tatin onto a plate in a messy heap proclaimed, “That unmolded VERY badly, but…it’s not going to make too much difference because it’s all going to fix up…” She was absolutely unperturbed by it all and it made me love her even more.

Somehow I channeled a little bit of that energy when all the skin disappeared between the grates of the barbecue, much to Andy’s surprise. He was preparing for an all-out fit. Truthfully, I surprised myself a bit too, but I picked a little piece of fish off the barbecue and knew that it was still going to be perfect. So what if it didn’t look just right. Julia Child flubbed a dish on TELEVISION, for goodness sake, and she didn’t seem to care one bit! In fact, she was laughing. What did it matter that I had skinless fish?

Whole Grilled Striped Bass with Lemon, Garlic and Thai Chili Peppers

Serves 2

1 whole striped bass, cleaned and dressed, about 1 pound 
3-4 slices lemon
4 cloves garlic, crushed
6 Thai chili peppers, crushed
6-8 sprigs of thyme
olive oil

Remove fins from fish. Liberally oil, salt and pepper the entire fish, including inside the cavity. Stuff the cavity with lemon slices, garlic cloves, chili peppers and thyme sprigs. Close the cavity by threading a skewer (or toothpicks) though the skin.

Prepare a grill to medium heat (about 375 degrees). Grill fish over indirect heat for 10-11 minutes per side, flipping once very carefully.

(Alternatively, I’m sure you could roast this in the oven and probably have a better chance of not losing all the skin.)

So there it is, in all its glory. I know it’s not the most beautiful dish I’ve ever made, but I will stand by its greatness. The fish is so tender it’s almost buttery, with hints of lemon, garlic, thyme and the slightest pinch of spice that lingers on your tongue. We devoured it, pretty or not.

At the end of the day, Julia Child said it best: “This looks perfectly alright.”

(Watch the apple tarte tatin mishap here at about 17:30.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Spiked Gingerbread Coffee for the Thanksgiving Aftermath

Another Thanksgiving dinner is in the books. And although two days of cooking boils down to what seems like minutes of eating, it’s always worth it in the end when you hear the happy sounds coming from the dining table, isn’t it?

This year was a little bit different than usual. Instead of the standard Thanksgiving fare, I used the gathering to test out a five-course wine pairing dinner that I’ll be making for the highest bidder at a benefit auction. (More on that later.)

My goal for the actual event is to have as much as possible done ahead of time, to minimize both stress and preparation needed in a foreign kitchen. So for our test-run, my dad and I prepped almost every component of every dish the day before Thanksgiving. We were feeling great after about six hours of cooking and toasted our success with a celebratory glass of wine. All that was left to do were some last minute touches, reheating and assembling. We went into Thanksgiving more relaxed than we’ve ever been. Everything was under control.

This is usually where my story takes a turn for the worse and I tell you that I caught the kitchen on fire, or almost cut my finger off or that Andy accidentally kicked me in the head. But not this time…dinner went off without a hitch. Fingers crossed that it goes as smoothly next time.

Fast forward through the next several days of me being about as lazy as humanly possible. We’ve lounged and read and watched football and napped. Not much cooking has happened, save for heating up some leftovers and frozen pizza. Late into the weekend, I realized I was feeling a bit off, but did my best to ignore what I was feeling. By Sunday morning, my throat felt swollen and my voice raspy. It never fails…one of us is always sick during the holidays, but at least I made it past Thanksgiving this year. And I’m getting it out of the way early so we don’t have to worry about Christmas. Now Andy just needs to keep away from me for a few days.

Since this was our last day of a fantastic long weekend, I was determined to enjoy it. I thought a spiked coffee might be just what the doctor ordered.

Spiked Gingerbread Coffee with Crème de Cacao Whipped Cream

1 ounce gingerbread liqueur
1/2 ounce Amaretto
1/2 ounce coffee liqueur (I used Starbucks)
1/2 ounce heavy cream
freshly brewed hot coffee, to taste

Whipped cream (optional):
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 ounce crème de cacao
1 tablespoon superfine sugar

Combine gingerbread liqueur, Amaretto, coffee liqueur and cream in a mug. Fill with coffee to taste. Top with whipped cream, if desired.

To make whipped cream: pour cream, crème de cacao and sugar into electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment. Whip on high until peaks form.

This is Christmas in a mug. It made me wish for Bing Crosby and our tree adorned with sparkling lights and ornaments. Coffee, gingerbread, chocolate-tinged whipped cream…it’s rich and flavorful and hard to drink slowly. It will warm your hands and your spirit. I was feeling much better after one of these…

Onto the Christmas season…are you ready? (Have a coffee if you're will help, I promise.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fast as Lightning and Apple Butter That Isn’t

Are you ready? No, not for Thanksgiving dinner…I’m talking about the much-anticipated Black Friday sales that get those very determined people out of bed at three o’clock in the morning to stand in ridiculously long lines and wrestle over Elmo. Me? No…I am decidedly not one of those people. I will however, spend oodles of money happily from the comfort of my couch, snuggled cozily under a blanket. No crowds, no lines, no waiting; just a hemorrhaging wallet.

Last year we were both sick at Thanksgiving and had to forego our usual Black Friday tradition of wandering around our sleepy downtown, eating and drinking ourselves silly. Instead, stuck in the house, we stumbled upon the lightning deals happening on Amazon, which turned out to be a very dangerous discovery.

Have you seen these lightning deals? They’re fantastic. You get a little clue as to what’s coming up for the next deals, and then you’ve got to move fast when that time hits. (Hence the lightning aspect.) They had us riveted in front of the computer all day, merrily clicking away, sometimes seemingly for no other reason than that is was “such a great deal!” Hundreds and hundreds of dollars were spent that day, and more in the following days of this lightning extravaganza.

So our previous tradition is now out the window. Lightning deals are the new tradition. And we’ve been waiting all year to do it again. I think I can hear my wallet whimpering already…

Here’s something that’s not anywhere near as fast as lightning: my apple butter recipe. But is it worth it? Mmmm, yes!

Apple butter is new to me. I’d never made it before, but knew I wanted to use it in a dish that I was planning. My first attempt was basically applesauce. It was very loose and while it tasted great, wasn’t exactly what I was going for. After some research, I decided to take the advice of many people who said cooking it for a long time is a good way to achieve that butter-like thickness. Good thing, because we fell asleep with it on the stove.

Every hour I would peer into the pot and determine that I wanted it to go just one more hour. My final plan was to go six hours. So when we woke up at the eight-hour mark, I thought I might have one big piece of apple jerky. But no…it was perfect. Slow cooking is definitely the way to go.

Ancho Chili Spiced Apple Butter

Makes approximately 2 cups

4 cups cored apple, cut into large chunks
2 cups apple juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon ancho chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat apples and apple juice to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 30 minutes, until apples are very soft. Stir occasionally.

When apples are soft, run through a food mill. Return back to pot with juice. Add remaining ingredients and stir well. Heat on the lowest flame possible for about 8 hours, stirring occasionally. Mixture will get very thick.

Remove from heat and use a blender or immersion blender to puree. (If using a regular blender, you’ll need to move the apple butter around to get it all pureed since it's so thick.)

Oh how I adore sweet and spicy combinations, and this apple butter is just that. I love ancho chili powder for the rich flavor that it adds to dishes, however, it doesn’t add a lot of heat. I wanted just a little kick in this apple butter and a dash of cayenne adds the perfect hint of spice at the finish. Apple butter has endless uses…whatever you think it might be good on, it probably will be.

Hopefully I’ll be back later in the week after the cooking marathon has ended and I’ve recovered from my buyer’s remorse…

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Update: I just checked Amazon and saw they’re already doing lightning deals. I screamed. I may have a problem.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

News and a Cocktail

Lots of exciting news to share today!

Have you heard of the food site Gojee? Gojee is full of hand-picked recipes with fantastic photographs that will make your mouth water. The site is unique in that you can specify exactly which ingredients you have on hand, which ingredients you dislike, or what you’re craving and the magical computer wizards spit out suggestions for exactly what you’re in the mood for with recipes within those parameters. I was recently asked to become a contributor to the new drinks section of their site and I happily accepted. You can view my profile here

Some of my recipes that you’ll find there include: 

There are some others too, along with tons more drool-worthy recipes, both food and drink, from some very talented bloggers with whom I’m just thrilled to be included with. Go check it out…just be warned that if you go in hungry, you’ll leave even hungrier. 

In other news, I was recently featured on Yupeat, a new San Francisco-based company that makes grocery shopping and meal planning a dream, as in, they do it for you…doesn’t get much easier that that, huh? Check it out here to see my interview and recommended dish. 

Now I couldn’t announce all this good news without a celebratory cocktail, could I? A few weeks ago I made Grown Up Chocolate Milk, which had banana rum in it. After I posted it, Andy and I decided that because of the bananas, I should have named it more appropriately: The Sexy Monkey Cocktail. I liked that name so much that I decided to come up with another beverage with bananas in it that I could legitimately name something “Sexy Monkey.” Also, I clearly just like to say “Sexy Monkey.” This should get me some interesting spam, huh? 

Sexy Monkey Cocktail (Blended Tropical Banana Cocktail)

Makes 2 cocktails 

2 cups crushed ice 
1 ripe banana 
2 tablespoons cream of coconut 
2 ounces pineapple juice 
3 ounces banana rum 
1 teaspoon chopped pineapple sage (optional) 

Put all ingredients into a blender and blend until no ice chunks remain. Garnish with pineapple sage, if desired. 

Note: Pineapple sage is an herb that has a very distinct pineapple essence. If you don’t have pineapple sage, just leave it out. (DO NOT substitute regular sage.) The omission won’t affect the drink much. 

I’ve got to tell you…cocktail testing does not hurt my feelings, especially when I get a result like this. Normally, I’m more of a beer and wine kind of girl. If I am going to have a mixed drink, it’s usually not blended. I leave those for Andy who prefers drinks with umbrellas and fruit garnish (read: girly drinks). So I knew this would be a hit for him, but I was surprised at how much I liked it as well. 

I know the weather is just turning cold, but a Sexy Monkey will definitely warm you up (get your minds out of the gutter!), especially if you have a few. One sip and I felt like I should be sitting poolside in Hawaii. The Sexy Monkey is a creamy cocktail, full of coconut, banana, pineapple and aloha vibes. There definitely would have been an umbrella in this if I’d had one…it just makes sense.