Thursday, March 31, 2011

It’s that time

It seems that spring has finally sprung, as evidenced by the fact that I’m sitting on the patio typing this at eight in the morning, and it is actually warmer out here than in our icebox of a house. After a few weeks of stormy weather, gray days and some very chilly temperatures, we’re hitting high seventies this week. (I know I’m not getting a whole lot of sympathy from anyone outside of California.)

To me, spring means flip-flops and dresses, fruit, sunshine, barbecue smoke, picnics, frozen drinks, open windows, long days, colorful blooms, sunscreen, mid-day naps, and peaceful morning walks. All good things…

When we hit this time of year, you rarely find us inside. Weekends are spent sitting outside, soaking up the sun, avoiding chores and errands, and most likely barbecuing. We’ve even hauled the ridiculously huge air mattress out on the patio and slept out here once or twice. I’m sure the neighbors, who could easily witness this scene by looking down from their second story windows, would much rather it be storming and thereby not allowing the obnoxiously giggly neighbors to do crap like this. (What they don’t know is that we’re just as obnoxious inside, and during the winter months we’ve been known to clear out our dining room and set up our tent in front of the fireplace for an indoor campout.)

So on one of the first days when it was warm enough to barbecue without putting on our snowsuits, we fired up the grill for these springtime inspired shrimp skewers and sat outside to enjoy a glass of wine and the perfect evening.

Skewers of Shrimp, Grapefruit and Avocado

2 servings

12 large shrimp, peeled, tail-on
1 grapefruit, cut into supremes, tossed in canola oil
1 avocado, cut into large chunks
bamboo skewers, soaked in water

For the marinade:
1/2 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 jalapeno, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1 teaspoon white miso
2 teaspoons honey

Whisk all marinade ingredients together and add shrimp. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

When ready to grill, thread shrimp, avocado and grapefruit onto the skewers. (Make sure the grapefruit segments are skewered lengthwise.) Grill over medium heat for several minutes per side, until shrimp are cooked through.

Note: The grapefruit will stick to the grill if it isn’t oiled sufficiently. Even then, very carefully turn the skewers so as not to lose the grapefruit. (We did have a few causalities fall through the grill.)

Going in, I was a little skeptical about this dish. I wasn’t sure about the flavor combinations, and I wasn’t sure how the grilling would change the texture of the avocado and grapefruit. Turns out the flavors mesh really well together and the grilled avocado was one of my favorite parts of this meal (Andy’s was the grapefruit). The grapefruit is definitely a bit of a hassle to grill, but all in all, this light and fresh dish surpassed my expectations. The tart citrus flavor and the creamy, smoky avocado screamed spring to me, which is exactly what I wanted for our first dinner alfresco of the year.

In other exciting news, I had my first article published as part of the Yahoo! Contributor Network.  Check it out here: Be an Iron Chef at Home: Host a Cook-off!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Anniversary fun

We recently celebrated our wedding anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, we took a trip up north to Marin County and stayed in an adorable little place right on Tomales Bay. If you’ve ever visited the area, you know that there’s not a whole lot to do in Inverness, which is precisely what we wanted. Sure, there is hiking and lots of trails, but that wasn’t our goal. Sitting on our deck, reading, staring at a gorgeous view - those were our goals. The only thing we had on our agenda was Cheese 101: a cheese class and tasting at Cowgirl Creamery.

Why then did we decide to drive out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse a little more than an hour before we needed to be at the creamery? We’re still not sure what came over us…it was a 25-minute drive each way. At best, we would just barely make it on time for the class. But drive out we did, and then for some reason decided to get out of the car and walk down to the lighthouse. According to their website, it’s a half-mile walk from the parking lot to the visitor center, then 308 steps down to the lighthouse. Going down wasn’t bad. We flew down there, checked out the lighthouse, took some pictures, marveled at how perfect the weather was and how clear the day, and then realized that we had better book it back to the car. Here’s where the trouble begins. 308 steps going up is a whole lot of steps. And yes, I admit it…I may be a bit out of shape.

(308 = way too many steps) 

Andy has this mode he goes into when he’s physically over-exerted. I call it his “Hulk state.” I sometimes expect him to turn green and don ragged purple pants. By going into this state, he has been able to do amazing things like finish a 200-mile bike ride. Try as I might, I can’t tap into my Hulk state. Mine is more of a “quit, lay down and cry state.” So about halfway up the steps (we were practically running, mind you), I started feeling the pain. My chest hurt, I couldn’t breathe, and I truly thought I was going to keel over. Andy kept assuring me that I wasn’t going to die, but I wasn’t convinced. I was busy liberally cursing our decision to “take a quick trip to the lighthouse.” When we finally made it up the steps, I thought I would recover quickly. Hardly. I couldn’t take a breath without coughing. It was like I had suddenly become asthmatic. Between the coughing and wheezing, I continued to berate our choice. Andy promised me we’d make it. Since we weren’t even to the car yet, I had my doubts.

Turns out that what Andy meant was that he would drive like an absolute maniac to ensure that we got to the creamery on time. And we did. But I was still coughing and wheezing so much that at this point Andy had dubbed me Wheezy (the penguin from Toy Story), and I wasn’t sure I could get through the class. I drank some water, took as deep a breath as I could manage and hoped I wouldn’t cough all over the cheese.

Cheese 101 was fun and I got through it without embarrassing myself. We learned some new things and tasted lots of cheese. Afterwards, we had lunch at a tiny place with the best fish and chips. I’ve been craving fish and chips ever since.

(Back where I wanted to be) 

So when I recently found a loaf of Nature’s Pride Hearty Wheat with Flax bread on my doorstep, it seemed like a great opportunity to try out a new version of fish and chips.

Breaded Cod with Mustard Cream Sauce

2 tablespoons chopped shallots
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup white wine (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 teaspoons spicy brown mustard
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper, to taste

2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (I used Nature’s Pride Hearty Wheat with Flax)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated parmesan
salt and pepper, to taste

6 pieces cod (about 2 inch sections)
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard

cooking spray

Sauce: Heat olive oil in a small saucepan and sauté shallots until soft. Add wine, reduce by half; add broth, reduce by half; add cream and reduce by half. Whisk in mustard and butter. Season with salt and pepper. (Reduce a little more if needed.) Reserve.

Breading: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add bread crumbs and garlic. Toss until bread crumbs are evenly coated with oil. (If mixture looks dry, add a little more oil.) Cook until browned and crisp, tossing frequently. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in grated parmesan.

Mix mayonnaise and mustard together in a small bowl. Coat both sides of cod with mustard mixture, then press fish into bread crumb mixture to cover.

Place breaded cod on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray and cook in a 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes. (Adjust time depending on the thickness of the fish.)

Serve with mustard cream sauce.

I was very pleased with the outcome of this dish. Because I’m used to beer batter or white bread crumbs, the breading was an unexpected flavor. The wheat bread has a nutty, slightly sweet taste, and was light and crisp. The rich mustard cream sauce was the perfect complement to the breaded cod. And no, this isn’t the battered and fried version that I had on our trip, but it was just as good.

Gratuitous action shot. (Ignore the messy stove.)

(As part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program, I get to try out new products from time to time and received this complimentary loaf of Nature’s Pride bread.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Frozen (plus a giveaway!)

Did you know March is National Frozen Food Month?

I know that most of us, given the choice, would choose fresh over frozen.  I know I do, but there are exceptions.  More often than not I buy already frozen poultry and seafood (gasp!) because it’s convenient to have on hand, I can buy in bulk, and it’s cheaper.  And unless I know there’s going to be a huge quality difference, no harm done, right?

So when Smart & Final asked for recipes using food from their freezer section, I was happy to participate. I’d never really shopped at Smart & Final for food before, and was quite pleased with the selection and prices.  I got some steals on frozen chicken, tilapia, and salmon, plus some veggie mixes and brown rice.  My goal was to create a recipe for when using frozen food was all you had time for - a quick weeknight dish; but at the same time hopefully disproving the myth that frozen food is all just pre-made convenience items and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.

Here’s what I came up with:

Quick Chicken Stir-Fry with Spicy Sauce

Serves 2

1 package frozen vegetable mix (broccoli, carrots, sugar snap peas and water chestnuts)
1 package frozen whole grain brown rice
3 boneless, skinless chicken breast tenderloins, thawed and sliced
canola oil

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon sambal oelek
1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar (or more to taste)

For the sauce, heat sesame oil in a small saucepan and quickly sauté the garlic, ginger and sambal oelek.  Add the soy sauce, chicken broth, brown sugar and lemon juice and bring to a simmer.  Let simmer for about 10 minutes for the flavors to combine. In a separate bowl, mix cornstarch into the white wine, then stir mixture into sauce.  Let simmer until the sauce thickens a bit, then add rice wine vinegar.  (Depending on the saltiness of the soy sauce and chicken broth and how much the sauce has reduced, you may need to add more vinegar to offset the saltiness.)  Remove from heat and reserve.

Microwave rice as directed and reserve.

Meanwhile, heat canola oil in a wok and add chicken. Cook until chicken is almost done, then add vegetable mix and season with pepper.  Stir-fry until vegetables and chicken are cooked through. Add desired amount of sauce to taste, heat through, and serve over rice.

This recipe was perfect for what we needed: a quick dinner after a busy day.  The sauce takes only a few extra minutes to turn a standard (dare I say boring?) stir-fry into something really special.  Spicy and flavorful, the sauce gives the vegetables and chicken that extra boost they need.  And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the frozen brown rice. It was nutty and chewy and just right for this dish, and best of all, fast and easy.

I was glad to have experimented with a (mostly) all frozen food meal, and was very happy with the result. Andy has already requested that this dish be on the menu again soon, so it must have been good, right?

(Collective Bias compensated me for my time, but all opinions are my own.)

But wait…there’s more!  The giveaway!

This weekend, March 26-27, is the HSN Cooks Spring Weekend Event presented by Bon Appétit.  Check it out here. They will be featuring celebrity chefs, food, kitchenware, and much more.

HSN has kindly provided me with a $10 gift card (good for anything on their site, expires 4/30/11) to pass on to one of my readers.  To enter the giveaway, leave me a comment. Follow me if you like what you see around here…I won’t force you. I’ll pick a winner randomly on Saturday, 4/2/11, so enter by midnight PST, Friday 4/1/11. Happy shopping!    

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mini Tea Party

Mini tarts, mini sandwiches, a mini guest list…you would think that would mean mini work, right? WRONG!

It started off so innocently. When I saw that Foodbuzz, partnered with Electrolux and Kelly Confidential, wanted Featured Publishers to host tea parties to support the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, I was thrilled. I definitely wanted to be a part of this! Such a fantastic way to raise money for this important research, with Foodbuzz donating $50 to the fund for every recipe created. Additionally, Foodbuzz will be doing a Top 9 Takeover on Friday, March 25, in honor of the cause, and every Top 9 post will be tea party related.

So I planned my menu, got out my china, and starting tinkering around with some recipe ideas. Since my tea was for two, I didn’t need lots of food or huge portions. Mini would be the theme. Thankfully, the food came out wonderfully, and even more importantly, I learned that these recipes still taste pretty good at room temperature.

Turns out, taking photographs of food on china is a whole different ball game than our usual picture-taking. All the settings we normally use weren’t working. The white china was yellow in the photos. The focus was off; the lighting was horrible; the food looked awful. This tea party had taken a turn. I was teetering on the edge of sanity. At that point, I was glad I hadn’t invited other guests since this was quickly becoming a Mad Tea Party. Andy had to talk me down several times when I was ready to throw in the towel. But after several hours (I am not exaggerating here) we finally got some decent photos. And then finally got to eat!

Apple Gorgonzola Tarts

Makes 2 mini tarts

1 sheet refrigerated pie crust
1 apple, peeled and very thinly sliced (I used Pink Lady; you won’t use the whole apple)
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 chopped pistachio nuts
4 teaspoons honey

Roll the pie dough out slightly to about a 12 inch circle. Lay the pie dough into the tart pans. Press buttered foil into the shells and fill with beans. Blind bake the shells for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Carefully remove the foil, prick the bottom of the shells lightly with a fork, and bake for about 5 more minutes. Remove from oven and reserve.

In a bowl, mix together the gorgonzola, cream, egg and pepper. Pour the mixture into the tart shells. Layer the top of the filling with apple slices, covering the entire tart. Drizzle a teaspoon of honey on each tart on top of the apples, then sprinkle with pistachios. Drizzle another teaspoon of honey over the pistachios.

Bake at 350 degrees for 28-30 minutes, until the middle is set and the edges are starting to brown.

These can be served warm or at room temperature.

Next time I might try a layer of apples on the bottom of each tart as well. If using another layer of apples, you may have extra filling.

Red Pepper Tarts

Makes 2 mini tarts

1 sheet refrigerated pie crust
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped shallot
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup dry jack cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

For the crust, use the same directions as shown above in the Apple Gorgonzola Tart recipe.

Meanwhile, in a heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the bell pepper, shallots, garlic and olive oil. Start on medium heat to soften the mixture, then turn all the way down to low. Cook for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, stirring only occasionally. When the bell pepper is caramelized slightly, remove from heat and reserve.

In a bowl, mix together the dry jack cheese, cream, egg, salt and pepper. Stir in the cooled bell pepper mixture. Pour filling into tart shells. (You may have a little extra filing.)

Bake at 350 degrees for 23-25 minutes until the middle is set and the edges are starting to brown.

These can be served warm or at room temperature.

I got the dry jack cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, and if you have access, I highly recommend getting it. If you can’t find dry jack, you could substitute with another hard cheese such as parmesan or romano. If using a salty cheese, omit the salt from the recipe.

These mini tarts are adorable and quite tasty. The caramelized red peppers combined with dry jack cheese offers a rich and savory bite, while the apple and gorgonzola tart is pungent, but with a slightly sweet taste. Both are good for different reasons.

After all was said and done, with the camera out of sight and our tummies full and happy, I was so glad to have participated in this event. For food bloggers to just be able to do what they normally do to help raise money for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund is phenomenal.

If you would like to help the cause, visit the Kelly Confidential website and pick a tea party outfit. Electrolux is donating $1 for every outfit selected.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cookware love

(First, I would like to thank everyone who said such nice things on my last post. We are thrilled to report that Andy’s biopsy was negative. What a relief!)

I am addicted to cookware. Actually, I am addicted to any and all types of kitchenware. I don’t discriminate. If my kitchen were ten times bigger, I would have no problem filling up all the cabinets and shelves with knives, pots, pans, dishes and serving pieces.

Going to Sur La Table just to browse makes me happy. I always find myself lingering in front of the Le Creuset display, imagining a kitchen full of these colorful pieces. I already have many pieces from their enameled cast iron line, and they are among my favorites to cook with.

So when CSN Stores asked me to do a review of any product from any of their sites, I jumped at the chance. When I saw that they offer Le Creuset, I knew immediately that I wanted to try a piece from the stoneware collection. After browsing a bit, I selected the 10 1/2 x 7 inch rectangular stoneware baking dish, which happened to come with a bonus 7 x 5 inch baking dish. Score!

For my first test, I wanted to make something that would be really baked on, hard to take out of the dish, hard to clean up after. A cheesy baked gratin seemed like a good choice.

Tomato-Goat Cheese Gratin

24 slices campari tomato (about 1/4” thick)
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 leek, chopped (about 1/2” cup)
3 ounces goat cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 1/2 tablespoon panko bread crumbs
1 1/2 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons grated parmesan cheese, divided use
olive oil

Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a pan and add the fennel and leeks. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté until soft. Remove from heat and reserve.

In a small bowl, mix together goat cheese, cream and egg until smooth.

In another small bowl, combine panko and 1 1/2 tablespoons parmesan cheese.

Using a 7 x 5 inch baking dish, spread 1/3 of the fennel and leek mixture on the bottom of the dish. Lay 8 tomato slices on top, then sprinkle with 1 teaspoon parmesan cheese. Pour 1/3 of the goat cheese mixture on top. Repeat twice more. Sprinkle the panko mixture over the top and drizzle with olive oil.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes, until puffed and brown on top. Let cool slightly before cutting. (It will deflate while cooling.)

This gratin is pretty darn good, if I do say so myself. I’m generally my harshest critic, but I had to do a little happy dance with this one. It’s light and fluffy, but not eggy…there is still a creaminess to it. The tang of the goat cheese is well balanced by the sweetness of the cooked tomatoes, fennel and leeks. And best of all, the top and sides get browned and slightly crunchy.

What I like most about my new Le Creuset dishes is their size. I often find that my other standard size baking dishes are just too big when cooking for two. I don’t always want a huge pan of lasagna or enchiladas that will last three weeks. By using the 10 1/2 x 7 dish, we have one meal’s worth with leftovers for the next night, which is plenty for us. Even the smaller 7 x 5 dish is the perfect size for one meal.

My next favorite feature: Ease of use and cleanup. The stoneware is almost non-stick. If something does stick, it wipes clean easily. No scrubbing is required with these. And even that first piece of gratin came out of the dish with no problem.

What can I say? I love these dishes. I love using them; I love the size; I love the color. I foresee many more pieces from the stoneware collection joining my kitchen soon.

Disclaimer: Although CSN Stores provided the product reviewed here, the opinions expressed are my own and not influenced by CSN Stores or Le Creuset.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Waiting has got to be the worst part. Unless you're the person that’s being waited for…then you definitely have the worst part. I really don’t like the waiting, as evidenced by the small puddles under my hands on my laptop.

I’m the type of person that gets shaky and clammy and short of breath and feels like I could burst into tears at any moment. Drinking my second ridiculously huge coffee probably isn’t doing much to calm the nerves. Andy is in surgery right now. Me? I’m sitting helplessly…waiting.

To recap: Andy’s eye issue that I’ve mentioned before hasn’t gotten better and while they still think it’s a pseudo-tumor (just inflammation), the doctors wanted to do a biopsy to be sure. It’s a quick procedure, but a procedure none-the-less. By looking at me, you’d think he was having open-heart surgery. He will be out under general anesthesia though, and to me, the whole thing is just scary.

Nothing will go wrong and soon I’ll be back up in is room, where we just left. You’d never know that he was about to go into surgery the way we were laughing and carrying on in there…being as silly as always, sitting like we were glued together on his tiny little hospital bed, chatting about nothing and having a grand time doing it. And when this is all over, and he’s feeling better, we’ll do it all over again.

I just wish I could do something; help somehow. According to Andy, I will be in there with him, in the form of his wedding ring. When I asked him if he wanted me to hold it during surgery, he looked at me like I was insane and informed me that it was going in with him. Awwwww…

But the waiting always makes your mind go places that you don’t want it to go, and you try quickly to push those thoughts out of your head. You try to think about what you’re going to do after the surgery, and how you’re going to dote on him (even more than you already do), and what you’ll make him to eat when he’s hungry. You think about how soon he will be back to being silly, and all the things that he does that make you giggle, and all your inside jokes. You think about how fantastic your weekend was, even though he wasn’t feeling great and all you did was sit around, reading, listening to music, and just being together. We say it all the time…being together is all we want…no matter where. We could be at a luxury resort on the beach or holed up in the house all weekend…same amount of goodness.

So many memories of so many times have flown through my mind this morning. I love each and every one of them, and I love him, more than I ever truly thought possible. We’ll start making new memories very soon, but the memory I’m most looking forward to making at this moment is the one when I give him a kiss in the recovery room.


(Post-op update: Andy is doing well, although he’s a bit goofy from the pain meds and has a patch over one eye. I’ll save the pirate jokes for when he’s feeling a bit better. For now, it’s just such a relief to be able to hold his hand…)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Where you WILL NOT find me

I wouldn’t say that I’m opposed to exercising. I don’t love it, but I don’t go out of my way to avoid it either. If I have time, I walk to the store rather than drive. I go for the occasional bike ride with Andy. We have been known to play a game or two of tennis, go for a morning walk, or maybe a hike every now and then. But one thing I can promise you is this: you will never, EVER, find me working out to a cardio DVD at home. And this time I mean it.

I want to do cardio in the comfort of my own living room, I really do. There’s a stack of workout DVDs (collecting dust) to prove that. My problem is finding one that I can actually follow. Not able to resist a good Gold Box Deal on Amazon, I recently bought the Boot Camp Fitness Bundle for $13.49. Three DVDs for $13.49! This was going to be the perfect workout. The reviews looked great and it seemed to be exactly what I was searching for. I could pick and choose segments to customize my workout…fantastic! Fast-forward to a few days ago when I (finally) changed into my workout clothes, popped the DVD in, and got ready to sweat. I went through the menu, selecting which parts of the workout I wanted to do, and hit start. And start she did. Immediately. I hadn’t even put the remote down before she was already one-two-threeing around happy as could be. My legs, on the other hand, were flailing around frantically trying to keep up. This went on for about 45 seconds before I just stopped and stared at the television, getting more and more irritated. Faster and faster she went, with no warning of what was coming next or how to do it. I’m fairly sure the counter on the DVD was somewhere around 2 minutes when I flipped off the instructor and hit stop. Mature? Maybe not, but it made me feel better.

When I called Andy to tell him what had happened, I could tell he thought I was exaggerating. So when he got home, the DVD went back in and I started it up again, sitting back ready to hear my apology. Just as before, Ms. Cardio starting jumping around like a woman possessed. Andy’s eyes were getting wider by the second, and after seeing it, he admitted that I was not exaggerating in the slightest.

So since I obviously can’t handle regular workouts, eating a bit healthier won’t hurt, right? This is what I made that night, since salad says healthy to me (never mind the heavy cream in the dressing).

Walnut and Beet Salad with Walnut Oil Vinaigrette

butter lettuce
cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
sliced beets, halved
walnuts, toasted (see below)

Dressing (for 2 salads):
3 tablespoons walnut oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Toast the walnuts in a dry sauté pan. Once toasted, remove from pan and toss with a drizzle of olive oil and pinch of salt. Reserve.

Whisk all ingredients together for the dressing.

Combine all salad ingredients and toss with dressing.

I could eat this salad every night. (We’ve already had it several times since.) It just has that pizzazz that makes a salad really tasty…not the least bit boring. The toasty, nutty walnut oil, earthy beets and peppery arugula are just perfect mates. Adding the crunchy walnuts drives the whole nuttiness point home.

So where you WILL find me is in the kitchen, where I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m way better at making yummy salads than following along to cardio DVDs. I’m happier that way, anyway. And I swear I will never buy another workout DVD, no matter how good the price.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Chomping at the bit

(I’m excited to be doing a CSN product review soon…see below for more about Le Creuset cookware and CSN Stores.)

I am one of those spoiled Californians who, come February, is already wishing for warmer weather and longer days. In some ways, I suppose I’m not a typical Californian in that I love winter and the rain, but by the time Christmas is over, and the dreary January days give way to the unseasonably bright and warm pre-spring days, I am getting happy feet thinking of long afternoons spent on the patio, soaking up the sun, planning what to barbecue for dinner and which rosé would hit the spot. This yen for spring is also what drives me to buy fruit that may not be quite ready for its debut so early in the season.

Last week at the produce stand, I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out of my head when I spied my favorite variety of pluot, the Dapple Dandy. They were calling my name. I knew better. Pluots don’t show up at the farmer’s markets for another several months. But what did I do? I bought two. Even though they were ripe, they lacked the flavor and sweetness that makes me swoon. Lesson learned, right? Nope…a couple days later, I bought strawberries and blueberries. The blueberries were so tart they made me pucker when I ate them. The strawberries, while definitely not spectacular, had a fighting chance with a little help from some other ingredients.

I had an idea of what I wanted to make with the fruit, inspired by a dish that our friend made at one of her monthly dinner parties. The concept of these dinners is that she will make brand new recipes that she has never tested or tried before. (Personally, I think she is oh-so-brave and extremely confident, because just the thought of making dinner for the masses prior to testing it puts me in a mental state somewhere between anxiety and full-blown panic attack.) The rule is that you give your honest opinion about the dishes, even if it’s to say that you think it’s awful. I’ve yet to come across a single thing she’s made that was anything remotely close to awful; in fact, all her meals are quite tasty. Many dinners ago, she made grilled halibut with strawberry-jalapeno salsa. I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first. A mixture of strawberries, jalapeno, avocado, and all the other typical salsa ingredients; strawberries just didn’t seem to fit in there. But when I tasted it, I knew immediately that they absolutely belonged there. The dish was fantastic, and has been in my head ever since.

With that fruit salsa/fish combination in mind, I pulled out all my not-quite-sweet-enough fruit and went to work to try to get the most out of the flavors, macerating them in an 18-year-old balsamic vinegar mixed with honey and fresh orange juice. Sounds odd, right? Although I was also more than a little skeptical about this combination, the result was actually surprisingly good. (That 18-year balsamic certainly had something to do with it. I could drink it by itself and not be even a little bit ashamed of it. It also almost caused a small kitchen fire, but more on that later.)

Mahi-Mahi with Balsamic Fruit Salsa

4 mahi-mahi fillets
olive oil

Fruit Salsa:
1 tablespoon honey
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup diced strawberries
1/2 cup blueberries
3 Clementine oranges, cut into supremes
1/2 cup arugula, rough chopped

Whisk together honey, vinegar, orange juice and pepper in a small bowl. In another bowl, combine strawberries, blueberries, and Clementines. Add vinegar mixture to fruit and let sit while you prepare the fish, giving the fruit time to macerate. Stir in arugula just prior to serving.

fresh orange juice (from 1 orange)
olive oil, about 1/4 cup
honey, several tablespoons
balsamic vinegar, 1-2 tablespoons
orange zest (from 1/2 an orange)
pepper, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon

Mix all ingredients together. (Unfortunately, I didn’t measure the marinade ingredients, so quantities are extremely guesstimated. Make it to taste. You should taste the sweetness of the orange juice, honey and balsamic, but one shouldn’t overpower the other.) Add mahi-mahi and marinate the fish for at least 30 minutes (or up to an hour).

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. When ready to cook, heat olive oil in a stainless steel pan. When hot, sear the fillets on each side for a minute or two, then transfer the pan into the oven for about 8-10 minutes, depending on thickness. The fish should flake apart when done. Spoon salsa over fish and serve.

A word of caution: You may want to be ready for some large flames when you sear the fish. I’m assuming it was the aged balsamic vinegar that caused this, but I was not in any way expecting the explosion that occurred when I put the fish in the pan. I believe there was screaming, and while watching the flames hitting the microwave over the stove, I did what someone does when they aren’t thinking: I grabbed the pan. You know that when you’re flambéing something, shaking the pan makes the flames spike, right? I quickly put the pan back down. Andy and I kept looking from the stove to each other, silently willing the flames to die down. Febby took the opportunity to lick the floor clean of the splattered oil and sauce in front of the stove, completely nonplussed by the fiery event. Eventually it went out, before Andy could do any harm to our dinner. He told me afterwards that if he could have more easily gotten to the fire extinguisher that is in the very back of the cabinet under the sink, he may have used it. I’m glad he didn’t, since alls well that ends well, but it made us think that perhaps the back of a cabinet behind endless bottles of cleaning supplies may not be the best place for a fire extinguisher.

So after the excitement, we got to enjoy our dinner, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. It all worked. The fruit tasted infinitely better with the help of the balsamic mixture, their natural sweetness being enhanced, and the fish had little hints of the citrus marinade. Together, the fruit salsa and the fish was a nice match. Andy LOVED this dish. My opinion is a little less glowing…it was good, but could probably use some tweaking. At least next time I’ll be ready for the blaze…

In other news, CSN Stores has contacted me about doing a review. If you haven’t checked out the CSN sites, you should. There are tons of great products, with everything from luggage to colorful Le Creuset cookware - all at great prices. Le Creuset is a favorite of mine…their cookware is so easy to use and I look forward to trying something new. Keep an eye out of the review coming soon.