Monday, April 30, 2012

A guest post and a Strawberry-Thyme Cocktail

Things seem to be very cocktail-oriented around here lately…

Last week I posted a Pineapple-Jalapeno Margatini, today I’m sharing a Strawberry-Thyme Cocktail, and next up is Sangria. That can only mean one thing…it’s my birthday week!

What better way to celebrate a birthday than with fun cocktails? Maybe fun cocktails on a tropical beach? Yes, that would probably be better…

Today I’m sending you over to All Day I Dream About Food, a fantastic food blog that I’m sure many of you are already familiar with. Carolyn was kind enough to share her site with me today, so head over and check out this summery cocktail there.

Cheers to birthday weeks!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Crazy days and a Pineapple-Jalapeno Margatini

I need a vacation…

The last several weeks have been a mixture of stress, sadness and just about every other emotion you can think of. On top of that, we are preparing (thankfully) for a trip and I feel like I’ve lost complete control of my to-do list that only seems to be getting longer. I am definitely feeling the effects of this roller coaster ride I’ve been on and cannot wait to kick my feet up and relax. 

I will be the first to admit that I don’t handle excess stress well. Eventually I hit my breaking point and it’s not pretty. I mean, I’m not a total basket case or anything, I just like to feel more in control of things, and I have felt anything but lately. Andy, on the other hand, is the type of person who listens to the original Muppet movie soundtrack at times like this.

Yes, you read that correctly. Yesterday morning, as I was getting out of the shower, I heard a familiar tune coming up the stairs. It was none other than Kermit the Frog, strumming away on his guitar, singing about rainbows. Andy, who has himself had a full plate, some big meetings, and a crazy wife to deal with, was going about his morning routine, feeding the dog and presumably humming along with Kermit and Fozzie, while I was going over my mental to-do list for the hundredth time that morning. It actually made me stop and laugh. My kingdom for that kind of ability to put it all aside, if only for a few moments, and enjoy a normal morning before the days gets away from you. But with the Muppets?? I’ve haven’t yet told him how adorable I thought his choice of music was, but adorable it is. It sort of makes my heart melt a little…

Okay, okay…enough with the mushy stuff. Let’s move on to cocktails!

I’ve mentioned before how much we both hate the made up words that your encounter online, like blogosphere, blogiversary, blogvertising, etc. What? You don’t have time to say “blog advertising?” That’s just waaaay too long. Well, I know people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but with the name of this cocktail we’re chucking those stones as hard as we can. Andy (somewhat) jokingly called this a “margatini,” obviously a combination of martini and margarita, and I have to admit, although begrudgingly, that I kind of liked it. So here it is, the margatini. (I promise you will never hear me say blaudience or blogerati. NEVER EVER. I draw the line at cocktails.)

Pineapple-Jalapeno Margatini

Makes 1

1 ounce jalapeno-cilantro simple syrup (recipe follows)
2 ounces pineapple juice
1 1/2 ounces tequila blanco
1/2 ounce triple sec
squeeze of lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until cold. Strain into a glass. (Rim glass with salt first if desired.)

Jalapeno-Cilantro Simple Syrup

Makes 5 ounces

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 jalapeno, sliced
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over high heat. Let boil for a few minutes until sugar is dissolved and mixture is clear and slightly thickened. Strain and let cool.

Please, please, please make this. It’s addictively spicy, but not overtly, and the flavors are so right together. This would make for the perfect Cinco de Mayo cocktail, or might be just the right choice for when the Muppets aren’t cutting it.

**If you haven’t entered my giveaway for the OXO 5-lb digital scale yet, there’s still time. Click here to enter through 4/26.**

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wine and Creamy Roasted Mushroom Soup

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I like wine. And I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I like Santa Barbara County wine. So….

Remember awhile back when I did a guest recipe post for Andrew Murray Vineyards and almost passed out with excitement? Well, today I am again very excited to share another Santa Barbara wine with you. Allow me to introduce you to Cimarone and 3CV Estate Wines, where Andrew Murray now happens to be the winemaker. Let me just put this out there: If you see a wine that’s made by Andrew Murray, do yourself a favor and buy it…that concludes my public service announcement for the day.

Cimarone is located in the Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara and currently has two labels: Cimarone and 3CV. Since the tasting room is not yet open, I was thrilled to get my hands on some of these wines and have been guzzling sampling them while experimenting with some recipes.

One wine in particular shocked me, and in the best way possible. I was in the middle of making roasted mushroom soup and thought it could use a splash of red wine, because really, what dish couldn’t benefit from a splash of wine? So I headed to the wine fridge and pulled out a bottle of Cimarone without doing any research as to what I was actually opening. Into the soup it went, and then into a glass for me. Turns out I had opened a 2009 Cilla’s Blend (made by winemaker Doug Margerum, another winemaker you should get to know). Let me tell you…this wine, a blend of Cabernet and Syrah, knocked my socks off. I would have guessed it to be one of their more expensive wines, so imagine my surprise when I saw the price tag was under $20!

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for Cimarone to open their tasting room doors, but I will happily belly up to that tasting bar when they do. For now, there is limited distribution of these wines (although they do ship anywhere in California), but if you happen to live in the Santa Barbara or Southern California area, you might be lucky enough to find them. And if you find Cilla’s Blend, feel free to send me a bottle or two.

And that mushroom soup recipe? You’ll have to head over to the Cimarone website and check it out there. Click here to see my Creamy Roasted Mushroom Soup recipe.

This soup does not come together in minutes, but the active cooking time is small. The time spent roasting mushrooms, caramelizing shallots, and cooking leeks in butter is well worth it. Each ingredient’s flavors are maximized and the resulting soup is full of deep, rich components. Pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy a bowl.

Disclosure: While Cimarone and 3CV Estate Wines provided me with complimentary wine, I was not compensated monetarily in any way. All opinions are my own.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Farmers market finds and Quinoa Soup, plus a giveaway

It’s getting to be prime farmers market season again. And I could just squeal with delight.

I know I spend a lot of time talking about how much I love farmers markets, but I can’t help it. The moment I walk down that first aisle of stalls, I’m in my own little world. It’s a wonderful world full of endless possibilities that causes my brain to go into recipe overdrive and I have to stop myself from buying more than I can use in a week. If we had a daily farmers market, I’d be in heaven.

But what I love even more than the market itself is our routine of going to the market. We get up and wander to our sleepy downtown, maybe stopping in somewhere for coffee before perusing all the fresh, local produce. It’s a perfectly lazy morning, full of hand-holding and laughter that brings us closer and has us walking on air the rest of the day. It’s no wonder I love these mornings so much.

We’re lucky to have markets year-round here in California, but to me, it isn’t until April or May that I really get excited. So when we made our first walk of the year a couple weeks ago, I was ecstatic. And when I saw this spectacular bunch of greens streaked with bright pink, even though I had no idea what it was, I wanted it. After a not-so-informative conversation with the vendor, I at least walked away knowing it was Chinese spinach. And after a little internet research, I now know it is also called amaranth.

Now I have to admit that I didn’t care for these greens raw. The leaves are tougher than regular spinach and to me, didn’t have a lot of flavor. But in this soup? Yes, please!

Quinoa and Chinese Spinach Soup

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter

1/2 cup quinoa
5 cups chicken broth, divided use
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/2 cup chopped leeks
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 a carrot, shaved into strips
2 tablespoons chopped jalapenos
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 large bunch Chinese spinach, leaves removed from stems (about 2 big handfuls of leaves)
lime wedges

Rinse quinoa in cold water and drain. Put quinoa in a saucepan with 1 cup chicken broth. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for about 15 minutes until broth is completely absorbed and quinoa is tender. Fluff with a fork and reserve.

In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté shallots, leeks, celery, carrots and jalapenos until softened. When bottom of pot starts to brown, add white wine and scrape bottom to deglaze. Let wine reduce and finish cooking vegetables. Add garlic and ginger and cook about 30 more seconds. Add 4 cups chicken broth and cooked quinoa. Season with salt and pepper. Bring soup to a boil, then stir in spinach. Let simmer for about 1 minute to wilt spinach, then turn off heat and cover. Let sit for about 5 minutes to finish cooking spinach.

Serve with a squeeze of lime juice over the top of the soup.

Note: Soup thickens when refrigerated. When reheating, add more chicken broth as needed to thin.

This soup surprised me. It’s spicy and aromatic, but I was worried it might be too thin. I was wrong. For such a small grain, the quinoa is quite hearty and the spinach saved the day by really beefing things up. I wouldn’t make this without some sort of leafy green, and I’m not even a huge fan of leafy greens.

Don’t go away yet…I’ve got an OXO 5-pound digital food scale to give away! This product is part of the OXO Healthy Eating campaign, so you can weigh out portions or ingredients and know exactly what you’re eating…I think this soup qualifies as healthy eating, right?

The kind folks at OXO provided me with a scale to try out, and one to give away to a lucky commenter. I’ve been using my scale for weeks, and I keep thinking that I should include it in a baking post where I’m using it to precisely measure flour and sugar, but truthfully, I use my scale more for cooking than I do for baking, for everything from meat to veggies. So even if you’re not a baker, I think you’ll find it to be a very useful tool. And I love the pull-out display that makes it easy to weigh even large items…definitely my favorite feature with this product.

So, here’s the nitty gritty on how you can win this scale for yourself…

Giveaway will run through midnight PST on Thursday, April 26 and then I’ll pick a winner at random. US mailing addresses only, please.

To enter, do any or all of the following (be sure to come back and leave a separate comment for each entry):
  • Tell me how you would use your food scale
  • Check out this scale on the OXO product page and tell me which feature you’re most excited about
  • Tweet the following: Enter to win an @OXO digital 5-lb food scale #giveaway from @tastytrials
  • Follow @tastytrials on Twitter
  • Follow @OXO on Twitter
  • Pin this post 

Disclosure: While I received this product from OXO for free, all opinions are my own. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Picture perfect, or is it? Halibut with Cara Cara Orange Sauce

Aren't these photos pretty? Well, photos can be deceiving. Don’t get me wrong…this halibut was scrumptious and I would make it again and again. But what you don’t see is the behind-the-scenes photo set-up.

I’ve tried not to let photography equipment take over the house. Normally, the dining room is home to two huge photo lights, a tripod, a reflector, white foam boards, props, and piles of linens. Although I used to pretend that this faux studio was temporary, I’ve given up the dining room to it. It is way too much trouble to take it down and put it back up every few days. But this weekend, we were trying something different: shooting in natural light. What a concept, huh? We don’t have a lot of options for good light, so we ended up with a very precarious set-up near the sliding glass door involving the tripod perched on cardboard boxes, way too much furniture crammed into a small corner, reflectors teetering dangerously and only four hands to try to wrangle all of this.

So…you see how some of these photos are on a nice, clean, white tablecloth? That was before one of the foam boards came crashing down, knocking the nearby measuring cup of sauce over, making it rain Cara Cara orange miso cream sauce, and prompting me to scream at the top of my lungs as I ran in what felt like slow motion to try to stop the disaster from happening. This was all perfectly fine with our dog, who dutifully came to provide his services and was very pleased to find out that even his bed was splattered with sauce.

Now, I will admit to being a slight over-reactor in times of crisis. Some people (Andy) might even say I am MORE than a slight over-reactor. And apparently I shot him a very dirty look when this all happened (which I have apologized for). But what I think is funny is that when the sauce spilled, my choice of exclamation was, “GOSH DANG IT!!!” This is funny because normally I curse like a sailor, and fine, I might be a big over-reactor. And that was all I could muster?

Anyway, no real harm done and all’s well that ends well, I suppose, even if the dog might lick a hole in his bed and the hardwood floor is now dangerously slick in that area. Does that mean the other parts of the floor are just really dirty? Nah…

Halibut with Cara Cara Orange Miso Cream Sauce and Roasted Beets

Serves 4

Roasted beets:
olive oil

Sauce: 1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup Cara Cara orange juice
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 tablespoon white miso
1/4 teaspoon Cara Cara orange zest
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
canola oil

4 halibut filets
canola oil


For beets:
Trim greens off beets. Place in a glass baking dish and toss generously with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Cover tightly with foil. Roast at 425 degrees F for 45 minutes, until beets are tender. Let cool, then peel and slice. Reserve.

For sauce:
In a small saucepan, heat a very small drizzle of oil. Sauté garlic quickly, then add orange juice and wine. Bring to a boil, then simmer until reduced by about half. Add cream, and whisk in miso and orange zest. Let mixture reduce for a few minutes. Whisk in butter, a few cubes at a time and heat until mixture is thickened. Reserve.

For halibut:
Lightly oil halibut filets, then sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large stainless pan. When oil is very hot, place halibut in pan and cook for a 3-5 minutes per side, depending on thickness.

To serve, place arugula on plate and top with halibut filet. Spoon sauce on halibut, then place roasted beets on top of fish. Top with more sauce, as desired.

My advice: don’t knock your sauce over. It’s really good and has hints of orange that pair very nicely with the roasted beets.  For the sake of the photos, I used it very sparingly, but with the sauce I had left, I drenched my plate.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The blues and grilled cheese sandwiches

I’m still sad.

My heart still feels heavy and my emotions are still raw. Less than a week has passed since the loss of our sweet Scooter…I know it’s understandable to feel this way, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

There has been a serious lack of motivation happening around here. I’ve basically been doing only what I have to do, which means anything with a deadline. Otherwise, I find myself staring at the computer.

I’ve tried to cook but end up not finishing the task. Beets were roasted and then transferred to the fridge instead of into the dish I had planned…frozen pizza made an appearance instead. Fish was defrosted and then not used…take out was ordered that night. There was a dinner of microwaved baked potatoes, and even that seemed like a whole lot of work. And last night? Top Ramen. Yes, that Top Ramen. (I will admit that Top Ramen drenched in butter and Sriracha is one of my guilty pleasures. Mmmm.) 

Anyway, you get the picture. Not a whole lot of blog-worthy meals going on. So bear with me while I basically mail it in with a link to my grilled cheese sandwich recipes. Because it’s April, and April is Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month. The food world really does make up a lot of holidays, huh?

Grilled cheese sandwiches actually do kind of deserve their own month…there is a whole lot of goodness happening there. And they have always held a special place in my heart because I am instantly reminded of my grandma and my after-school trips to her house. It was always the same: a simple grilled cheese and The Flying Nun on TV…happiness on a plate.

These versions are a bit different from the slice of American on white from my elementary school days, but any grilled cheese is fine by me. Check out my recipes for Spicy Southwestern Bacon, Philly Cheese Steak, and Apple-Fig Grilled Cheese Sandwiches here.

And if you’ve got any extra motivation, send it my way…

Monday, April 9, 2012

Remembering our kitty and Spicy Soy Salmon

I didn’t want to have to be back here, just four short months after losing one of our other furry family members, but unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to our precious Scooter on Saturday.

The loss is enormous; our hearts ache for her and our eyes burn from the tears we've cried. She had a personality like no other, and our house is left feeling empty and too quiet. Everywhere you look, you expect her to be there. For just a moment in the morning when you wake up, you forget what has happened and feel around on the bed. The reality that comes crashing down when you don’t find her there is even harder to deal with in that groggy, hopeful state. 

Like her sister Rose, we were lucky enough to have her in our lives for a long time…Andy got these two littermates as kittens and spent 18 years loving them to pieces. You wish that your animal friends could stay with you forever…they are the ultimate companions who ask very little in return for unconditional love. Food and water, a clean litter box…that’s quite a bargain in exchange for a friendship like that. But too soon, they have to leave us, and you’re left with just the memories to fill a void that feels like it will never be filled.

Scooter had a spirit that stayed with her to the end. She was curious, so friendly, could be counted on to meet you at the door when you got home, would lick your nose raw if you let her, sought out the sun anywhere in the house, and loved to smell my lips after applying Carmex. She woke you up in the morning by climbing on top of you in bed and draping her little white paws over your shoulder. She was mischievous to a fault, sometimes downright bad, and got onto the counter to eat anything and everything out of pans and dishes. What I wouldn’t give to shoo her off the counter now. 

In memory of Scooter, I made salmon. She definitely would have tried to eat this off our plates, even though it’s spicy and probably not so good for her. And if I had known how soon we would be saying goodbye, I would have given her a whole helping of anything she wanted. 

Spicy Soy Salmon

2 salmon filets
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
1/2 - 1 tablespoon sambal oelek*
1/4 cup brown sugar, plus extra for topping

Combine lemon juice, soy sauce, sambal and 1/4 cup brown sugar. Pour into a zip-top bag with salmon and marinate for 1-2 hours. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. 

In a small ovenproof dish*, place salmon filets side by side and pour marinate over. Top salmon with a spoonful of brown sugar.

Cook for 15-20 minutes, depending on thickness. Serve with sauce spooned over the top of the salmon.

1 tablespoon of sambal makes for quite a spicy sauce. Start with 1/2 tablespoon if you don’t like too much heat.
Use as small a dish as possible for cooking the salmon, so the sauce comes up the sides of the filets but doesn’t cover them.

This is such a simple dish but it has so much flavor that you’d never guess the active time spent in the kitchen is less than five minutes. It’s sweet, a bit fiery and really, really good.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

For the Easter sweet tooth: Cadbury Egg Chocolate Lava Cakes

I’m sure you already know this, but it’s April.

The first three months of this year have been a blur, with tons happening and tons to be grateful for. But the other day, after a couple particularly exciting new assignments came up, it hit me how much fun I’m having and that time apparently does fly when you’re having fun. Who knew work could actually be fun? Not me…I’ve been working for 15 years and it has never been particularly enjoyable. Sure, there were fun moments here and there, and thanks to those jobs I met some great friends (and a husband!), but I could not describe the jobs themselves as fun. Boring? Check. Mind-numbing? Check, check. I could go on…

So when this exciting assignment was presented to me (which I will tell you about in a few weeks), I got a little teary. Now, this isn’t all that uncommon…I tear up at the drop of a hat, but these tears weren’t due to sadness. These were more like “holy crap, holy crap, holy crap…I am so lucky and I cannot believe all that has happened and all these opportunities that have come my way and, bonus, I get paid for it,” kind of tears. Because when I started this blog, I had vague notions of where I wanted to go with it and I realized that for the first time in my life, I really, really wanted something to happen, and it wasn’t going to happen easily. I am the first to admit that I was very lucky in the past with jobs that have basically fallen in my lap. But this time, things weren’t just going to fall into my lap. I would have to work hard and try hard and maybe fall on my face or get rejected or both. And then I got to realize how much sweeter something is if you have to work for it and how much more you appreciate having it. Cue the tears.

Okay, cry-fest is over (and so is that never-ending run-on sentence). I just wanted to put it out there in the universe that I am extraordinarily happy. Now that I have, I bring you this ridiculously indulgent dessert for Easter:

I have to admit that when I pitched the idea of a Cadbury Egg dessert, I didn’t really have anything in mind. So when it got accepted, I panicked a little because I don’t even like Cadbury Eggs. However, the result turned out to be this dessert that even a Cadbury Egg-hater will love. The Cadbury Eggs and the chocolate cake kind of meld into one and instead of the cloyingly sweet Cadbury Egg filling, you get gooey, rich, chocolaty decadence in every bite. I know because I had many, many bites. I had to test it, right? Get my recipe here.

If you haven't gotten your fill of Easter candy yet, how about an Easter candy martini?

Happy Easter!

Monday, April 2, 2012

“Art” and Chili-Garlic Quinoa with Shrimp

My mom recently handed me this little treasure that she found in her kitchen junk drawer:

Hard to believe such a masterpiece was relegated to the junk drawer, right? But I suppose the fact that she kept it for almost twenty-five years says something. And clearly it was used as a real live calendar, based on the fact that it is riddled with pushpin holes. (That must have been the year the free insurance company calendar didn’t come.)

But here’s the best part, the part that makes me laugh every time I look at it, and also the part that should have my sister questioning her own artistic abilities: when my mom gave it to me she asked, “Is this yours or your sister’s?” If this had been my sister’s handiwork, she would have been twelve years old at the time. Now I’m not saying that my sister is insanely talented when it comes to drawing (I’ve played too many games of Hoopla with her to know otherwise), but I sure hope she could have done a little better than this, the work of her seven-year old sibling.

After I got home with my newly acquired memorabilia, Andy and I sat and really took a good look at its contents (and had a good laugh). Here are some of the highlights:

June and August – Now here are some swimmers…fully clothed, up to their necks, but happy as can be. And in August, they even got to swim with the trees, because that’s how trees grow.

November and December – The classic elementary school pilgrim hat makes an appearance, along with the world’s largest turkey, proportionately. Also, Santa does the robot.

May and July – Here’s where Andy took exception and questioned my originality. He said these two months were too similar and asked why couldn’t I have come up with more than just two people on a hill? Um, clearly the May flowers are in full swing and the fireworks scream Fourth of July. And also, I WAS SEVEN!

That concludes my walk down memory lane, which has nothing to do with this recipe…

Chili-Garlic Quinoa with Shrimp

Serves 2 as main dish or 4 as side dish

1 cup quinoa
2 1/2 cups chicken broth, divided use
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce
12-24 medium shrimp, peeled, tail-on*
2 green onions, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

*Quantity of shrimp depends on appetite and serving size…for two of us as a main dish, I used 12 shrimp.

Rinse quinoa in cold water and drain. Put quinoa in a saucepan with 2 cups chicken broth. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for about 15 minutes until broth is completely absorbed and quinoa is tender. Fluff with a fork and reserve.

In a large Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft and just starting to brown.  Stir in garlic, ginger and chili garlic sauce. Cook for about a minute, then add remaining 1/2 cup chicken broth. Simmer until broth is mostly reduced, then add shrimp. Cook shrimp through, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in quinoa. Lightly stir in green onions and cilantro, fluffing with a fork.

I was craving something hearty but light when I made this. That may sound like a bit of a contradiction, but it’s exactly what I got. Quinoa offers a bit of bulk, but doesn’t overfill you. It was the perfect base for this dish that has tons of flavor and spice. (And don’t be creeped out by the quinoa “looking like little worms,” as Andy may or may not have been.)