Sunday, November 8, 2015


Here's my November column from the Petaluma Post:

What fruit grows on an evergreen shrub, floats and bounces?  Yes it is our holiday staple turned main stream, the cranberry.  Considered by most as an essential on the thanksgiving table, this simple berry is now common year round; from turkey sandwiches, to vinaigrette, to cocktails, and even cookies. From craisins to juice, cranberries’ health benefits are numerous, being high in antioxidants, fiber and vitamin C, it is considered a super food.

Native to North America they were first commercially cultivated in 1816 in New England, but are now grown across the northern United States and southern Canada.  Now over 40,000 acres are grown each year, lucky for growers they are a hearty plant and some in Massachusetts are over 150 years old!  Harvest season runs through September and October so they are ready for the store shelves in November and December. Cranberries are one of only three fruits that can trace their roots to North America (the others are concord grapes and blue berries).

I have always been a cranberry fan, personally I like jellied cranberry sauce, it is a favorite snack; I’ll just grab a small can for a snack or even breakfast on the road.  It’s a great addition to trail mix, and our cranberry golden raisin oatmeal cookie is a signature for the catering company (it’s our most popular cookie, surprisingly even more than chocolate chip).  The tang of Craisins with the sweet of the golden raisins is a perfect match.

Cranberry Golden Raisin Oatmeal Cookie
1 cup Butter, salted
1 cup Sugar, brown
½ cup  Sugar, white
1 tsp Vanilla
2 Eggs
2 cups Flour, all purpose
2 cups Oatmeal, Quaker
2 tsp    Baking Powder
1 cup   Craisins
1 cup   Raisins, golden

Cream the butter and sugars together.  Then combine with the eggs and vanilla with the cream.  Next blend the flour, oat and powder with the mixture.  Finally combine th craisins and raisins.  Next you can either (the regular method) table spoon dollops on to a sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for 11 to 12 minutes, OR you can use the super-secret professional method: scoop 2 to 3 oz balls of dough onto a pan (they can be closely packed to save room) and refrigerate them for a least a day (this allows some cooking chemistry to take place which will yield a better cookie), then space them appropriately on a cookie sheet and bake.  Another secret: once the baking is done (as soon as you take them out of the oven) give the sheet pan a good rap on the counter to make the cookies fall; they will stay chewy that way.

As a seasonal touch for lunches I love to add Craisins to salads.  Local greens tossed with Craisins and candied pecans is a great start.  Whole grains are very healthy and popular.  We recently did a barley salad with baby kale and Craisins

Barley Kale Craisin Salad
1 cup barley
3 cup Water
1 tsp salt

Combine ingredients in a sauce pot with a little extra room, bring up to a boil, then simmer 25 to 30 minutes, until tender.  Drain any excess water, and cool.  Then combine all with:
4-6 oz baby Kale or shredded Kale
½ cup Craisins
½ cup shredded carrot

And add dressing to taste:
¼ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
2 Tbl honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk together

This salad holds up very well and can be made a day in advance.

Those that know me, know that I do enjoy a cocktail!  For many years cranberry juice and vodka was my go to, cosmos are another favorite.  Several years ago my husband Jim and I hosted a nontraditional thanksgiving block dinner; you had to use a thanksgiving ingredient but non-traditional way.  We created a personal cocktail we call a Happy Pilgrim.  Yes it will make you a happy pilgrim.

Happy Pilgrim
1 shot wild turkey bourbon - must have turkey!
1 shot ginger beer
2 shots cranberry juice
1/3 shot orange bitters

Shake and serve over crushed ice, garnish with a fresh cranberry.

Now that we talked about thanksgiving what about Christmas?  Cranberries’ bright red color is a festive touch, Native Americans used crushed cranberries as a dye for clothing, use them for a pop of color in center pieces, and, of course, in food.  I think fresh cranberries are a great addition to scones for Christmas breakfast.

Cranberry Scones
4 oz butter (cold)
3 cups flour
2 Tbl baking powder
¾ cup sugar
6 oz buttermilk
6 oz cream
½ cup craisins

Mix all the dry ingredients, then add the dairy and mix until just combined.  Mix in the craisins.  Next press into a disk about ¾ of an inch thick, and cut into pie wedges.  Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown.

Remember to enjoy cranberries through the holiday season, and don’t forget to throw an extra bag in the freezer for later use.

Pop Goes the Popcorn

Here's my October column from the Petaluma Post:

After school for the kids, a snack at your favorite game or snuggled down on the couch for a movie it’s time to have popcorn.  A funny story, hubby and I while trying to eat healthy, avoiding simple carbs and adding lots of whole grains to our diet, where debating if popcorn was really a good choice since is all carbs; were they good carbs or bad carbs; then the ‘duh’ moment passed as we both looked at each other realizing that popcorn is literally whole grain!

It is a healthy snack, although if you go over the top with toppings it could go the other way!  But 1 cup of air popped only has 31 calories, and only 54 in oil popped.  Toppings can run a huge range, but you really only need a light coating to add a lot of flavor.

What makes popcorn “pop”?  A dense starchy center expands to release moisture when heated until the outer hull breaks and the starch puffs.  Did you know you can also “pop” amaranth, quinoa and millet?  I would not suggest trying it, like corn there are many varieties and finding the one with the right combination would be difficult, but it would be an interesting experiment.

Popcorn came in to popular demand during the great depression, being inexpensive it replaced candy that was in short supply due to sugar rations. To this day the United States is the number one popcorn producer.  We even have a National Popcorn day on January 19th!

But what can you do with popcorn?  It is one of my favorite canvases, you can take almost any flavor in the world and create a custom popcorn.  I love it at home, and the catering company has seen it as trend over the past few years of people wanting special popcorn at events.  However we need to start at the kernel.  I will be upfront I prefer Orville Redenbacher.  I have popped many different brands and find theirs is the lightest and pops up the best, leaving the fewest old maids.  Those last kernels at the bottom of the pot that have not popper are called “old maids”. 

I’m always surprised that so few people pop their popcorn in a pot.  I see lots of microwaved popcorn and special popping devices, but just a little and kernels in a pot is so simple and I think a better product.  But I suppose the biggest question everyone has is how much unpopped to use?  You don’t want it overflowing everywhere!  The rule of thumb is a quarter cup of kernels will yield 2 quarts of popped, a good serving for 2 people.

Stovetop Popcorn
3 Tbl vegetable oil
¼ cup popcorn kernels
2 quart pot with lid

Place pot over medium high heat and add the oil.  Allow the oil to heat about 1 minute, then add 2 or 3 kernels of corn to test it.  Once they hit the oil they should begin to put off a string of little bubbles (steam escaping the kernel) this is when you add the rest of you popcorn and put the cover on.  Popping should begin in 2 to 4 minutes; be patient and leave the lid on.  Turn the heat down to medium and shake the pot gently until you hear fewer and fewer pops; I usually count 10 to 15 seconds between pops at the end.  Remove from heat, and crack the lid open to allow the steam to escape, then wait 3 to 4 more minutes for any last kernels to pop.

Now for the toppings!  I am a butter girl and honestly the more the better, per 2 quarts of popcorn I use 4 tablespoons of butter.  The surface of the popcorn is dry and you will need some fat to help your flavors to adhere.  I have also been known to spray the popcorn with cooking spray to help. Drizzle the oil or butter component over the popcorn, then toss the dry ingredients well.

Some of my favorite flavor combinations:

Truffle Oil with Grated Parmesan Cheese
3 Tbl Butter, melted
1 tsp to 1 Tbl Truffle oil (per your taste)
4 Tbl Parmesan cheese, grated
This produces a rich full flavored popcorn goes great with red wine.

Curry Parmesan Popcorn
4 Tbl melted butter
4 Tbl Parmesan cheese, grated
1 to 2 Tbl Curry powder
This is a spicy fun combination with a lot of zip.

Mexican Popcorn
3 Tbl Olive oil
4 Tbl Cotija Cheese, grated
1 lime zested
1 tsp to 1 Tbl Chili powder (per your taste)
Try a little cayenne if you like it spicy.

I won’t go into the sugary varieties, there are plenty of recipes out there on the internet for that, and they usually take a bit more time and prep.  Have fun, experiment with herbs and spices, the key is just to make sure they are finely ground.  Enjoy.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Heirloom Produce

From my Petaluma Post column, August 2015:

Rhubarb, figs, quince.  If you are like me these fruits make me think of my grandmother.  She had
Rhubarb, black berry and apple mini pies for dessert at a wedding.
rows of canned fruit and preserves lining the back of her garage.  As I grew up I saw less and less of them in the market, but local farmers are bringing more and more of these back to farmers market and restaurants.  Back yard gleaning has become a popular group activity splitting up backyard crops to make jams and jellies.

I remember my mother-in-law not being able to give away rhubarb, and like zucchini it was left on neighbors porches in the dead of night.  But the bright red stalks now call me, there is so much you can do with them if you simply look to the past from some ideas.  We have been making lots of mini pies for weddings and events, and I can say that warm strawberry rhubarb pie is my current favorite (until Gravenstein apples are available).
The recipe is a little bit tricky; you have to judge the freshness of the fruit.  If the rhubarb is under ripe add a bit more sugar and a bit less flour and vice versa to balance the sugar and starch content.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
9” deep pie crust (homemade or store bought)
3 cups chopped strawberries
3 cups chopped rhubarb
¾ to 1 cup sugar
2 Tbl flour
Zest of 1 lemon
Toss together and place in the pie shell.

Streusel Topping
4 oz butter
1 cup flour
½ cup sugar
Blend all in a food processor or with a pastry blender until crumbly, then top the pie.  Bake at 325 degrees for 1 to 1½ hours.  I recommend placing foil or a cookie sheet to catch the drips.

Figs figs figs!  We all know when figs come in it is a windfall, so what can you do with them?  We don’t do a lot of canning at the catering company but luckily we have a huge freezer.  Our fig honey is a great pairing with cheeses and we make loads of it then freeze it.

Fig Honey
3 lbs figs, stemmed and quartered
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
1 lemon zest and juice
½ cup water
Place all in a heavy bottom pot on the stove, bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes.  If you choose you can puree for a smoother style.  Allow to cool.  It will hold in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks or it freezes well.

We know figs and we know rhubarb, but what exactly is a quince you ask.  It is a member of the apple/pear family. When ripe it is shaped similar to a pear and bright yellow in color.  The texture is quite hard and the flavor is sour; definitely not one to pick and eat!

It is valued for its high level of pectin and is often used as an addition in jelly and jam instead of traditional pectin.  Membrillo is a quince paste that is often served with cheeses in Italy.  With its pectin level it is harder than actual paste, but I love it.  The sweet tart combination is a star with a very rich cheese like gorgonzola.

Quince Paste
4 lbs quince, washed, peeled cored and chopped
1 vanilla bean, split
1 lemon zested
3 Tbl lemon juice
4 cups sugar

Place the quince, vanilla bean and lemon zest in a heavy bottom pot, and cover with 4 to 6 quarts of water.  Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until fork tender, about 30 to 45 minutes.  Strain the water and remove vanilla bean.  Next puree the quince pulp, and measure it; you will need a cup of sugar for each cup or puree (3 cups pulp, 3 cups sugar).  Return to stove and add lemon juice and simmer approximately 1 to 1½ hours until very thick.

You can use it as a jam at this time, or you can nine an 8x8 baking pan with parchment paper, grease lightly, pour in the puree, and place in a low oven (125 degrees) for half an hours until firm; remove from pan and cut in to bars, slice when ready to serve.  A thin slice on a good cheese just can’t be beat, and the firm texture can make it a lot neater to serve than jam.

It is great to see heirloom produce taking the front seat in modern cuisine. Enjoy!

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Sweetest Taste of Summer

From my Petaluma Post column, July 2015:

On a hot summer day there is nothing sweeter or more refreshing than watermelon.  You can’t have a
Compressed Tomato and Basil with Watermelon
with Sherry & Wild Baby Arugula
picnic or a barbecue without thick slices of red watermelon.  To me it just screams summer and hot days.  It is a healthy snack; low calorie, and like tomatoes the red color gives you lycopene, which is good for bone health, and most recently they have found
citrulline is an amino acid that is commonly converted by our kidneys.   But forget that, it tastes good!

Obviously the most traditional way is just to serve it as wedges.  When cutting wedges I like to cut the corners off the peel side, just to make it easier to eat; that way don’t really have to stick your face in it.  But I prefer to cut it into sticks, with the peel just on one end; it’s easy to handle and eat that way. 

But that is not all you can do with it.  A simple “watermelon salad” is easy by cutting it into chunks and finishing with lime juice, and maybe a little salt.   But for a more gourmet alterative try

Watermelon Salad with Feta and Mint
Serves 8 to 10
3 lbs Peeled Seedless Red or Yellow Watermelon
2 stems Mint
8 oz Crumbled Feta
¼ cup Sherry Vinegar

Cut the water melon into 1 inch cubes.  Chiffonade (very thinly slice) the mint and add to the watermelon.  Add the rest of the ingredients and toss gently.  It is best prepared the same day.  Serve well chilled.

There are plenty of watermelon themed hors d’oeuvres, but one of my favorites is Watermelon with Chèvre and Basil.

Watermelon with Chèvre and Basil
Yield approx. 40 pieces
1 Small watermelon, seedless
8 oz Chèvre
1 bunch Basil, cut chiffonade
Balsamic Syrup

Peel the watermelon and cut into 1” cubes, then using a melon baller, remove a small scoop from the top of each cube to hold the Chèvre.  Place approximately half of a teaspoon of Chèvre in each divot, then drizzle with balsamic syrup and finish with the basil. 

As refreshing as watermelon is to eat it is great in beverages.  A perfect addition to a pitcher of water, just add cubed watermelon plus a few basil leaves.  Allow it to rest for 1 to 2 hours, and you have a great infusion.  You might also want to try

Watermelon Lemonade
6 cups cubed seedless watermelon, chilled (2 lbs after peeling)
4 cups cold water
3/4 cup fresh strained lemon juice, chilled
2/3 cup granulated sugar (more or less to taste)

For an added fresh touch try cutting extra watermelon in to cubes and freeze as ice cubes, which would also be a great idea for your watermelon infused water or cocktails.

Watermelon’s delicate flavor can pair well with so many things.  Add a little bit of citrus and cilantro and you have a great salsa, serve with chips or grilled pork or chicken.  Feel free to add you own ideas.

Watermelon Salsa
3 cups finely diced seedless watermelon, (about 2¼ pounds with the rind)
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1/3 cup chopped cilantro, (about 1/2 bunch)
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup minced red onion
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix gently and allow to rest 30 minutes.
Did you know that the rind of the watermelon is also edible?  Have you had pickled watermelon rind?  Pickling is making a comeback, with the interest in heirloom foods, their processing is returning as well.

Pickled Watermelon Rind
4 lbs watermelon rinds, cut in 1” pieces
¼ cup salt
4 cup water
2 cup white vinegar
2 cup water
4 cup sugar
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp allspice
1 lemon, sliced

Soak the watermelon with salt and water over night, drain and rinse well.  Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil, simmer 5 minutes.  Add rind and simmer 15 to 30 minutes until tender.  At this point you can use as refrigerator pickles and keep in your fridge for 45 to 60 days.  Or place in sterilized jars, top with boiling syrup and process in boiling water.  Use them to round out a summer themed hors d’oeuvres station with other pickled veg and meats.  Or as the beginning of a watermelon relish.

You can also look for yellow watermelon to add some color.  And remember to be creative!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Chili, Chile, or Chilli?

From my Petaluma Post column:

Yes I mean Chili, summer time BBQs are a great time for Chili.  But there is so much controversy
over this simple dish.  Do you make Chili con carne (chili with meat)?  Do you put beans in it (heavens no)?  Is yours red or is yours green?  However you might make it, American’s love chili hot dogs to chili cook-offs.  It’s time to try your hand at a batch and create your own recipe

Chili comes from the root of Chile meaning chile peppers a key ingredient in the dish.  Originally chili con carne was made up of a combination of red meat, salt and chile peppers.   Introduced to the crowds at the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago by the San Antonio Chili Stand it spread through the south and west.  Every restaurant and “Chili Bar” has their own recipe and of course a secret ingredient, one of the most interesting is Cincinnati style chili, also known as 5 way chili.  Start with Spaghetti Noodles, then chili, kidney beans or corn, cheddar cheese and grated cheddar cheese.

I find chili to be a crowd pleaser and a great dish to do in large quantities.  I am not a traditionalist and will often be creative with my ingredients.  We recently paired a Lamb Chili with wine from Dutcher Crossing Winery during the annual Passport Weekend.  Dutcher Crossing is well known for big red wines often with a touch of Syrah grapes.  We paired their Cabernet Sauvignon with a Lamb Chili con Carne.
Lamb Chili (yield 1 gallon)
4 lbs Ground Lamb
9 oz Onions, diced
28oz Tomatoes, canned, diced
1 oz Chili Powder
½ oz Garlic Powder
¼ oz Cumin
¼ oz Paprika
3 grams Pepper Flakes
2 cups Roasted Vegetable Stock

Brown the lamb in oil with the onions, then add the spices and stock and cook for about 5 minutes.  Finally add the tomatoes and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.

A few weeks later, to contrast with the lamb chili I went in the opposite direction for Cinnabar Theatre’s annual Chili Cook Off.  Let’s go green with “its good to be green”; we are a green certified company and proud of it, so when we entered the cook off here in Petaluma I decided to do a green vegetarian chili. Yes, I know a purist will say chili can’t even have beans in it, let alone be vegetarian, but chili is what you make it.  What do I mean by green?  First no tomatoes, instead we used tomatillos which add a great tang to the chili.  I used fresh chili both Anaheim chiles and Pasilla chiles to add texture and then also dried green New Mexico chiles.  Using green chiles also keeps the heat down.  Then we went with white beans versus the traditional red beans, and it came out a winner.  Winning both the People’s Choice and Judges Choice for best vegetarian chili.  – Thanks to everyone who voted for us.

Vegetarian Chili (yield 1 gallon)
1 lbs White Beans, dried
1 lbs Tomatillos, crushed, canned
8 oz Pasilla Chiles
8 oz Anaheim Chiles
5 oz Green Chili, diced, canned
12 oz Yellow Onion
1/8 cup Vegetable oil
2 gm Cumin
7 gram Chili Powder
2 cups Roasted Vegetable Stock
2 tsp lime juice
½ cup Green Enchilada Sauce
Salt & Pepper to taste

Start by soaking the beans for 12 to 24 hours, and drain them thoroughly just before use.  Sauté the onions, garlic and diced chiles in vegetable oil, and then add the cumin and chili powder.  Cook it for 5 to 8 minutes, until it becomes fragrant.  Next add the drained beans and cover with the roasted vegetable stock and add the tomatillos (smashed with juice) and lime juice.  Cook over medium heat for 1½ to 2 hours (until beans are tender). Finish with some of the diced chiles and enchilada sauce.  And to really make it pop, serve it with a dollop of Cilantro Cumin Crema and some more diced green chilies for color.

Cilantro Cumin Crema
1 cup Sour Cream
½ bunch Cilantro Tops
1 Tbs Fresh Lime Juice
1 tsp Cumin
½ tsp Vegetable Oil
Salt & Pepper to taste

So red chiles or green chiles, beans or meat, tomatoes or tomatillos, spicy or mild, it’s time to grab a pot and create your recipe.  Enjoy

And in case you’re curious, because I was when my spell checker didn’t like “chiles”;  while chili refers to the above recipes, when it comes to the peppers chile, chili, or chilli, with or without an extra e when making it plural are all acceptable.  And an argument could be made that any of those spellings could be used for the above recipes as well.  Digging deeper, some of it seems regional and it has changed over time.  My advice is to go with what you like.  I like chile pepper because the spelling speaks to the word’s Spanish origin.