Friday, August 26, 2011

One year old today

Warning: It’s a long one…make a drink, get comfy, stay awhile.

It started with this. And now it's my one-year blogiversay. I had to say that “word” once, mostly to annoy Andy. He loves it when I talk blog-speak. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of it either, so from here on out we'll just say that Tasty Trials is one year old today. Woohoo!

I can’t believe a year has already gone by. I can’t believe some of the things that have happened this year. But mostly, I can’t believe how AWFUL my food photos were in the beginning. I mean, just really, really bad. You’ll see (and I apologize in advance for their awfulness).

My first year of blogging – a recap and some observations:

My first comment: I’m not going to lie…when I first started blogging, I was a wreck. Oh, how I wanted readers and comments. I hoped and pleaded with the universe for someone other than a family member to read my blog. I probably definitely cried once or twice over the “failure” of my space on the internet. I checked my email over and over and over again, obsessively, until one day it came. Chef Dennis, who I’m sure many of you are familiar with, was my first real commenter, and I will never forget how excited I was…a real chef commenting on my pork chop horror story! I was literally jumping up and down. Phone calls were placed to Andy and my mom. This was a BIG moment for me. (Truth be told, I still get pretty darn excited about comments.)

Food photography: It’s hard. And it’s not always fun. Food can be a real pain to photograph, and it’s something that I constantly struggle with. But when I started looking around at other food blogs, I knew I had to up my game. And now, a year later, I still have to take 100 shots for the few decent ones that show up here. Thankfully, I have a tech-loving husband who reads and researches and fiddles with the camera and its settings and then shows me what to do, because without him, you’d still be seeing photos like this, this and this. Yikes. I think I speak for all of us when I say: Thank you Andy.

Content: Much to my chagrin as a non-baker, desserts get all the love. People just adore posts about dessert, and the traffic is proof. Four of my ten most popular posts are desserts, like this one and this one. Thankfully, people also love cocktails and bacon, so at least I have something to fall back on when I’m out of dessert ideas. And I guarantee I’ll never be out of cocktail ideas.

Motivation: When I first started blogging, I was a machine. In my first month, I wrote over twenty posts. That has clearly not continued, as these days I’m lucky to get five posts up in a month. But I’ve talked about it enough now (here and here) and have received such tremendous support from fellow bloggers, that I’m starting to accept that it’s okay to blog less. I’ll blog when I want to. If I don’t feel like blogging for a week or two, I won’t. I will see traffic go down, but is it the end of the world? No. The readers I care about will still come back. And I’m thankful for that.

Opportunities: I never imagined that this blog would afford me such fun opportunities. Meeting Tyler Florence was probably the best. (Probably? Who am I kidding? It was the best.) And also having a press pass. I still freaking love that press pass.

Search terms: People get to my blog by searching some really weird stuff. For instance, can anyone tell me what in the world “St. Herbert Dog Tartana” means? When I google it, this post comes up, but I highly doubt that the dog they were looking for was our miniature dachshund in his Christmas t-shirt. Most often I get stuff like, “my pork stinks,” “will cooking bad smelling pork make it okay?,” “pork smells bad,” “is pork supposed to smell?,” “stinky pork tenderloin”…do you see a trend here? That’s all thanks to this gag-inducing gem of a post. And by the way, NO!!!, cooking rotten pork will not make it okay.

Andy’s ordeal: Going back and rereading what was going on during the time of Andy’s eye ordeal is crazy to me. In a way, now that everything is okay, it seems like it wasn’t that big of a deal. But then I read how I felt when I waited for him to come out of surgery, or how desperately we both wanted his recovery to be over, and I remember just how truly horrible it all was. All told, it was six months of uncertainty, pain, and A LOT of emotion. I was hesitant to write some of those posts…you know, the vulnerability factor. But now I’m glad to have it written down and even more glad that it’s behind us.

Cooking and blogging: After looking back at a year of posts, I have to admit that I’m proud of myself; both for this blog and the dishes I’ve created. Of course, you only see the good stuff, but trust me when I say that there have been plenty of really bad things too. But it’s all been a learning experience, and I feel more confident all the time, not only with cooking, but with photography and writing, too.

It’s been a whirlwind of a year with ups and downs, changes, wonderful memories, and good food. And I can go back and revisit it all right here, any time I want. After all, it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. Or have a cocktail…

Speaking of, who’s ready to toast the guest of honor? Happy One Year, Tasty Trials!

Raspberry Limoncello Cocktail

For 1 cocktail

1 lemon
4 basil leaves, roughly torn
6-8 raspberries
1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar, optional*
1/2 ounce limoncello
1 ounce Citron vodka
champagne, to top off

Cut the lemon in half, then cut each half into quarters. Use 2 pieces per cocktail.

Muddle lemon, basil, raspberries in a glass, until raspberries and lemon are well mashed. Fill glass with ice. Add limoncello, vodka and sugar (if using). Stir. Top with champagne.

(*Note: Andy, who likes his drinks on the sweeter side, liked this better with the sugar. I preferred no sugar. I’d try it without and add it afterwards if you think it’s too tart. The superfine sugar will dissolve fairly easily with some stirring.)

I could profess my love for this cocktail ‘til the cows come home. This is one of those dangerous, “oops, I just drank my fourth one inside an hour” kind of cocktails. It goes down like punch. Really, really, really good punch. Don’t wait for a special occasion…just go make one.


(And don't forget to enter to win a quart of Virgin Organic Coconut Oil here...giveaway open through Sunday.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Island Paradise (and a giveaway!)

Who doesn’t love the Hawaiian Islands? I mean, what’s not to love? Gorgeous beaches? Check. Beautiful sunsets? Check. Long, lazy days with nothing more to do than lay in the sun and order fruity cocktails with umbrellas in them? Check.

Photo by Tad Craig Photography

It also happens to be a pretty fantastic place to get married, especially if you’re marrying him. (Oh, I know…sappy, but so true.)

Photo by Tad Craig Photography

If there is one thing that always reminds me of Hawaii, it’s the smell of suntan lotion. One sniff and I’m instantly transported. Suddenly, I’m being mesmerized by the waves crashing on the shore. I’m feeling the sun on my face and under my feet on the sand. I’m watching Andy body surf with a look of such pure bliss on his face that I’m able to see in him the little boy that I’ve seen in pictures. I’m sitting in a lounge with a view of the ocean and a breeze in my hair, listening to the relaxed melodies of the ukulele. Not a bad place for the mind to go…

And that’s exactly where it went when I opened the jar of coconut oil that I recently received from Tropical Traditions. I felt like running to the computer and buying two one-way tickets on the next flight to Maui. But reality reared its ugly head, and my plans were dashed by thoughts of mortgages and other responsibilities. If only…

So, I did the next best thing…if we can’t go to Hawaii, I can bring the taste of Hawaii to us. I started brainstorming dishes to make using coconut oil, which would be inspired by all the lovely, tropical flavors of the islands.

When I think Hawaiian food, I think of all the local delights like shave ice, scoops of macaroni salad, spam, and loco mocos. But I also think of macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi, fresh ahi poke, tender kalua pork and Kahuku shrimp dripping in garlic butter from Giovanni’s shrimp truck. I could live on this food…

With these dishes and the smell of coconut oil in mind, I went into the kitchen to create a new version of shrimp cakes for Andy. I haven’t made them for a long time, and he requests them frequently…they are one of his favorite appetizers. I wanted this version to have an unmistakable Hawaiian spin with mango, papaya, coconut, and of course, if I’m making anything for Andy, it has to have spice.

Shrimp & Crab Cakes with Mango-Papaya Salsa and Spicy Coconut Milk Sauce

Makes 10

Shrimp Cakes:
1 pound of shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 ounces crab meat
1 egg
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/4 cup panko bread crumbs, divided use
juice of half a lime
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes
coconut oil, for frying

1 cup diced mango
1 cup diced papaya
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped jalapeno pepper
1 teaspoon chopped serrano pepper (optional for more spice)
pinch of salt, to taste

Coconut Milk Sauce:
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 1/2 cups light coconut milk
1 ounce light rum
1/2 - 1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce (chili sauce)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

To make the shrimp cakes, roughly chop the shrimp, then transfer to a food processor. Add the crab, egg, cilantro, 1/4 cup panko, lime juice, garlic, ginger, salt and pepper. Pulse until the mixture is completely combined, but still has texture. (Do not puree.)

In a shallow dish, combine remaining 1 cup of panko with coconut flakes. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Scoop out scant 1/4 cups of the mixture and form into patties, about 2 1/2 inches across, then dredge in panko-coconut mixture, pressing firmly so it adheres. Place breaded crab cakes on baking sheet and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour (or up to 4 hours).

Meanwhile, combine all the salsa ingredients and chill until needed.

Just prior to frying the shrimp cakes, make the coconut milk sauce. In a large pan, heat 1 tablespoon coconut oil. Sauté onions and bell peppers until soft. Add coconut milk, rum, Sriracha, ginger and garlic. Whisk to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer and reduce until thickened, about 10 minutes. Reserve on stove.

When ready to serve, heat 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil in a large pan over high heat. When the pan is very hot, add the shrimp cakes (do this in several batches, adding more oil as needed). Fry the shrimp cakes about 2 minutes per side, until browned and cooked through. Drain on paper towels.

Serve shrimp cakes with sauce and salsa.

If the speed in which Andy consumed these is any indication, these shrimp cakes are a winner. The fruit salsa mellows out the spicy coconut sauce perfectly, and the cakes are crisp outside but moist inside. You taste coconut throughout, but it doesn’t smack you in the face…it provides the perfect background flavors for this Hawaiian-inspired treat.

Does all this talk of Hawaii and coconut oil have you itching to try some island dishes yourself? You’re in luck…the kind folks at Tropical Traditions want to give you a 32 ounce jar of Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil! (Must have a US or Canada shipping address.) Giveaway will be open until Sunday, August 28 at 10:00pm PST.

To enter (leave a separate comment for each; up to four entries per person):
1. Leave a comment below
4. Tweet this giveaway


Disclaimer: Tropical Traditions provided me with a free sample of this product to review, and I was under no obligation to review it if I so chose. Nor was I under any obligation to write a positive review or sponsor a product giveaway in return for the free product.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Snow Days

June was a rough month for me when it came to writing for my blog. July wasn’t much better. I’d sit down day after day to write, and day after day, nothing would come of it. So I started taking “snow days’ in the middle of summer. A lot of snow days. Maybe it was the sun, beckoning me to come out to play and shirk my responsibilities. Maybe it was that other commitments took priority. Maybe I just got burnt out. Most likely, it was the last one.

For me, blogging definitely comes in spurts. I’ve read many posts from others who say the same. One month you feel like posting daily, the next month you can’t even seem to get one post up a week. Aside from my apparent writer’s block, another huge factor in this is that I haven’t felt like cooking and photographing blog-worthy food. I haven’t bothered to write down many recipes, instead preferring to throw things in a dish without having to measure or remember exactly what I did. Call it lazy, uninspired or unmotivated; it all ends with the same result: blogging comes to a screeching halt.

On the one hand, it’s nice to take a break, not be chained to the computer and or concerned with web traffic and stats. But I get this nagging little voice in the back of my head telling me it’s been three days, four days, TEN!!! days since I last posted. Clearly, I have been in a blogging funk that didn’t want to go away. This always leads to the “Why am I even doing this? What’s the point of this blog?” kind of questions, which of course leads to more funk. It’s a vicious cycle. But then, when at my funkiest, and like the universe knew just what I needed, I’d get a comment that would bolster my spirits.

Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me so much after almost a year of doing this, but I find it incredible that a complete stranger can make such a difference in my day. For example, almost two months after I posted my Angel Hair Pasta with White Wine Cream Sauce, Shrimp, Bacon and Blue Cheese recipe, I got this comment:

“I was cleaning out my kitchen today. Found an abundance of shrimp in the freezer and blue cheese in the fridge. Basil has taken over my garden, so I was delighted to find your recipe this afternoon. Made this for dinner tonight, and it was OH SO GOOD! Thanks for sharing! I will definitely make this again!”

Perhaps it sounds trite, but comments like this make me want to keep blogging. To know that someone out there has made and, more importantly, liked a recipe I created makes it all worthwhile. This person didn’t have to take the time to come back and let me know their thoughts, but they did, and for that I’m thankful.

Spirit booster number two came in the form of another comment, but this time not from a stranger…well, not a complete stranger, anyway…it came from Carolyn of Care’s Kitchen. See, I’ve never met her, I’ve never talked to her, and until very recently, I didn’t even know her name. But she was one the first people I met out in the blogosphere (forgive me for using that “word”), and from the first time I read her blog, I knew I liked her. Blog friends are an interesting thing…you read about each other’s lives, you chat on Twitter, you make comments on each other’s sites…all via the internet. But somehow, you come away feeling like you know each other. So it truly made my day when Carolyn commented on a post awhile back, and ended with “PS - we HAVE to meet some day!” because I would love it if we could, and think that we’d get along famously, if for no other reason than our shared love of wine and cocktails. Blog friends…another reason to be thankful.

Comments like these remind me why I do spend an inordinate amount of time finding just the right word, the perfect mix of ingredients, the best photograph. Comments like these make me happy. And when you’re happy, it’s hard to be in a funk.

Now, let’s get on to the recipe…

Asparagus Salad with Tarragon Vinaigrette and Garlic Chips

1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound), trimmed
1 Persian (mini) cucumber, sliced into rounds
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
squeeze of lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper, to taste

shaved parmesan cheese and lemon zest, for garnish (optional)

Blanch the asparagus in a pot of salted boiling water for 4-5 minutes, until al dente (tender crisp). Transfer to an ice water bath to chill. Drain and reserve.

To make the garlic chips, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a small saucepan on high heat. When oil is very hot, add the sliced garlic. Let cook for about 2 minutes, until crisp and browned. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels. Lightly salt if desired.

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, tarragon, sugar, salt and pepper.

To assemble, lay cucumber slices on a plate and top with asparagus. Drizzle with vinaigrette, then sprinkle with garlic chips, shaved parmesan and lemon zest. (Alternatively, cut the asparagus spears into shorter lengths and toss all the components together in a bowl. This is an easier way to serve it and was how I originally made it, but it wasn’t as photogenic.)

Note: Salad can be prepped ahead by chilling the cooked asparagus, cucumber and vinaigrette separately until ready to toss. Garlic chips can be made several hours ahead and left uncovered at room temperature.

This dish was created solely around the use of garlic chips, which I have blatantly stolen borrowed from Care’s Kitchen. When I saw them in a shrimp dish she made, I knew I had to try them. What could be better than garlic chips?? As I’ve mentioned, one of my firm beliefs is that garlic makes everything better, and this salad is no exception. Without them, it would be lacking something. The pungency of the chips adds a necessary punch to the dish, elevating the fresh, green flavors to something special. (I would be just as happy just eating the chips by the handful, but Andy may not be as thrilled with that idea…)

Okay…now that I’ve gotten one post up, let’s hope I can keep the momentum going. Here's to a productive August...