Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Happy Holidays! (Party Planning)

So you have made the decision to throw a holiday party this year, but where do you begin?

First – call your caterer, ha ha.  But, seriously, it is okay to ask for help for all or just part of your party.  But whether doing it all yourself or not, here are some planning tips from our 20 plus years of experience to ease your stress.

What you serve at your party will be determined by what time your guests arrive.  An open house can start at 2pm and just be light hors d’oeuvres, a snack between lunch and dinner.  If inviting guests at 5 to 6pm you should plan enough food to cover dinner; it might not be an actual sit down dinner, but plan on them eating that much.  Inviting guests after 7pm you can just do cheeses and desserts.

An open house is a great way to go for family and friends, especially if kids are involved.  Plan 3 or 4 hors d’oeuvres plus 1 stationed item.  By a station I mean a large focal point, such as an abundant fruit and cheese display.  For a dinner hour party (but not dinner) plan 2 stations plus 4 to 5 hors d’oeuvres, this way if the guests are hungry they can help themselves.  The late evening is a lot of fun, just do a nice cheese display, and make a couple of other items, and ask friends to bring their best dessert.

Don’t feel you need to be traditional just for the sake of it.  Of course, whatever traditions are important to your family you want to keep, but otherwise be creative.  For instance we always host Christmas Eve at our house, and for years we started with hors d’oeuvres, stuffing ourselves because we all love them!  Then waiting until we can barely fit any more to start dinner, and finally forcing dessert, which was a shame because we love dessert too.  But now we just put out a grand buffet of hors d’oeuvres and desserts and nibble all night long!  It allows a huge variety, plenty of food, and everyone can eat at their own pace between presents, conversation and cocktails.

Whatever type of party you are having, when planning your menu you should keep in mind three balances.  First is pre-prepped items versus things that must be done at the last minute (ala-minute). Second, hot versus cold items.  Third is purchased versus homemade.

Purchased versus homemade – what do you have time to make?  Can a part of something be bought and you finish it; semi-home-made?  Save making things to those items that are your personal or family favorites, where that homemade touch really comes across.

Now that you have decided what to make versus purchase, what is your prep schedule like?  Doing everything the day of party can get very hectic and leave you too tired and stressed to be a good hostess, and don’t forget you want to enjoy your party too.  What can be done a day or two before?  In part or in whole?  For instance most sauces and salsas can be made 2 days in advance.  Vegetable prep for sautés or crudités can be cut and bagged the day before.  Some great items to think about are puff pastry rollups filled with ham and cheese or pesto that you can just pull out of the freezer and bake.  Homemade meat balls can be made a week in advance and just reheated.

Hot versus cold versus room temperature items make can make a big difference.  How long can a hot item be hot and still be good and how will you keep it hot?  How long can a cold item be out of the refrigerator and how much refrigeration do you have?   Many items can be cooked in advance and just reheated, only tying up the oven for 5 to 10 minutes.  Spanakopita and empanadas can be easy hot items.  Buy smaller baking sheets that can fit side by side in the oven for a greater variety.

Keep room temperature items in mind if refrigeration will be an issue.  Baked goods, sweet or savory, are usually a good choice.  Some wet items can be safe at room temperature for hours; their key trait is usually be very salty or acidic; think dried salted meats, pickled items, or others in a high salt or vinegar environment.  For instance, although it’s odd to think about leaving fish out, cured salmon (lox), ceviche, and smoked oysters are safe at room temp for periods of time.  But, even these should be covered and out of the sun or particularly warm locations.

And lastly, do you have enough plates and glassware?  Or will some of your guests be enjoying that award will Pinot Noir out of a Flintstones glass?  Rentals are easy and can ease your clean up too.  I plan 2 glasses per person for a cocktail party.  For 30 guests with wine and cocktails I would order 25 wine glasses, 20 cocktail and 15 water to use for back up.  I use JRB Event Services and Encore Events (aka Cal-West) for rentals.  Just call them a week or two in advance to arrange what you need; for small amounts you can usually arrange to pick them up the day before and return the day after the party.  Larger quantities can be delivered.

Always remember your ice.  I have found that extra ice makes everyone happy.  When that guests asks what to bring - ask for ice; they can pick it up on the way and no one needs to find freezer space to store it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Caramel, ‘tis the Season

Here's my Petaluma Post article from September/October:

Is there any sweeter time of year than fall? My absolutely favorite time of year.  The chill in the air, the smell of falling leaves, the first rains.  It is time to be cozy and warm.  The perfect time to cook!

Whether dipping apples or drizzling on cobbler caramel is the essence of fall.  That deep caramelized sugar with notes of vanilla bring back child hood memories.  I am not talking those small plastic wrapped candies that you had to sit and unwrap, my memories are the wonderful smell of caramelizing sugar with butter and vanilla. There are so many ways to use caramel.

To caramelize - the browning of sugars.  This is one of the most used terms in cooking.  Don’t think just sugar.  It is usually the first step in most recipes, from searing beef to caramelized onions.  In meats it is the Maillard reaction, causing carbohydrates in meat to brown at 310 degrees.  In baking it is carbohydrates - sugars begins to brown at 260 degrees.  It is what makes toast brown and French fries golden.  And what makes sugar into caramel.

Today I want to talk about desserts. There are two ways I usually caramelize sugar, dry and wet.  Each one has its own uses.  Dry method is quicker and results in a hard crack caramelized sugar good for candies and flan.  Where your wet method stays soft and is great for sauces and soft candies.  There are some key elements that are essential to both; time, attention and a heavy bottom pan.  Remember you are boiling something to 260 degrees, that is hotter than boiling water and it is sticky, if you burn yourself it will stick to you and blister very quickly, please use caution.

For the dry method you will need a heavy sauce pan, wooden spoon, and an immediate place to put the hot caramel.  A heavy bottomed sauce pan is important to distribute the heat evenly, otherwise you will get burnt spots.  And remember the heat from the pot will continue to cook your caramel once off the stove, so you should transfer as soon as possible.

Dry Caramelized Sugar
Place your heavy bottom pan on the stove and add sugar.  The sugar has a small quantity of moisture and it will begin to melt and puddle.  Stir gently, it will go from clear to an amber color, once the color begins to turn reduce the heat to low, continue to stir and watch closely as the color increases. Remove at dark golden and finish your recipe.  What you do next depends on your recipe, but get it out of the hot pan.  If the sugar begins to smoke you have gone too far and it will be bitter, so just throw it out and try again.  Some of the recipes this can be used in is brittles, flan, spun sugar and croquembouches.

¾ cup Sugar
4 eggs
1 can Sweet and Condensed Milk
1 can Evaporated Milk

Caramelize the sugar as we did in the Dry Caramelized Sugar method, and pour it into a 9” round cake pan.  Allow to cool until hard.  Next, combine the eggs and milks, and whisk well, but to not whip, you don’t want too many bubbles.  Place the cake pan in a roasting pan, and pour the egg and milk mixture into the cake pan.  Add water to the roasting pan to about half way up the cake pan to create a water bath.  Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes.  Remove the cake pan from the roasting pan and chill for 2 to 3 hours.  To release run a knife tip around the edge and invert on to your serving dish.

I love caramel sauce, not butterscotch, true caramel sauce.  And what could be better than adding just a bit of sea salt.  The intense sweetness cut with just that pop of salt - oh yeah!  This next recipe uses the wet method of caramelization.  This means that you will be starting your caramel with water to boil.

Wet Caramelized Sugar
1 cup Sugar
¼ cup Water
¾ cup Cream
3 Tbl butter
1 tsp Sea Salt

Combine water and sugar in a thick bottom pan, stir or swirl gently. Try to avoid splashes in the pot; sugar is a crystal and wants to go back to crystal form, not stay a liquid, so if you splash crystals up onto the sides of your pot they can fall back down into your liquid and cause it to recrystallize (in French is called masse), making your caramel look opaque and grainy.

Bring to a gentle boil, stirring gently.  As the sugar begins to color watch closely and turn down the heat to a medium low.  You are looking for a mid to dark amber color, since you are adding cream you need to get enough color out of the sugar for good color in the sauce.  One of my techniques is to drizzle caramel from the spoon into the pot, look at the thin stream for color, the pot will look darker than the drizzle.  Look to the drizzle for your color.

Remove from the heat.  This next step is tricky.  You are going to add the cream and the butter into the pan.  Remember you have boiling hot sugar at this time and you are adding liquid back in, it is going to boil hot and fast.  Using a long handle spoon, gently pour cream into the sugar stirring as you can, then add the butter.  If it begins to harden, continue to stir and return to the stove if necessary.  Finish with sea salt.

This is a great sauce for many desserts, like baked apples, pumpkin pie and is especially great with chocolate


Friday, August 15, 2014

Barbeque Challenge

Here's my August column from the Petaluma Post...

Can you believe that it is already August?  The summer goes by so fast!  But there is still time to get out and enjoy those beautiful evenings. There is nothing better than barbequing to do that.  Here is the challenge that I threw at a group of friends for dinner one night.  Everything on the menu must come off of the BBQ.  We had cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, salad, entrée and even dessert; all off the grill.

Of course, we started with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.  The cocktail was a grilled peach and bourbon splash with a charred oak swizzle stick.  Cocktails are no longer made with just your simple fresh fruit juices and sodas; there is a new area of flavors coming from shrubs and tinctures.  A shrub is a fruit and vinegar combination that is sweetened and can also be used to make sodas by adding seltzer.  A tincture is an alcohol extract from an herb.  I choose to make something like a shrub, although I omitted the vinegar for this particular recipe. First grilling my peaches on the BBQ, and then combining with lemon juice, sugar and water.  Simmer to release the flavors then stain to get just the liquid.

Grilled Peach “Shrub”
Grilled Peach and Bourbon Splash
5 peaches, split in half and pitted
1 cup sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
2 cup water

Turn your barbeque up to high heat and allow to heat thoroughly; the grates need to be hot for the peaches not to stick.  Place the peaches on the grill, and cook until all sides are well marked (some burn is ok) and the peach is soft.  Then transfer them to a cooking vessel add the other ingredients, bring to a simmer.  Mash the fruit when tender; I used a potato masher.  Continue to simmer for about 30 to 45 minutes, until the desired flavor.  Then strain and chill.

Grilled Peach & Bourbon Splash
1 shot Bourbon
2 shots peach shrub
Club Soda to finish
Served over ice

Shake it well and serve over ice, with a slice of grilled peach on the charred oak swizzle stick for garnish.  It was quite good, but I think I’ll need to try it with a real shrub; I think a little acidity from the vinegar would pair well.

The hors d’oeuvre of the night was a lot of fun too.  Perfect match for the bourbon cocktail! Grilled bacon wrapped onion rings!  You’ve got to live Pinterest.

Bacon Onion Rings
2 lbs bacon - thinner strips 16-20 pieces per pound
2 or 3 large onions
2 Tbl or more Sriracha

Carefully clean the onions, careful not to cut through the rings.  Then cut the onions into half to three quart inch slices.  Break apart to create the rings, leaving 2 ti 3 layers together.  Brush well with Sriracha.  Wrap each ring with 2 to 3 slices of bacon, varying by the size of ring as appropriate.  Use a bamboo skewer to hold the bacon in place and the rings together.  Then BBQ on low, being careful since the bacon can splatter and give you flame ups.  Grill for approximately 30 to 45 minutes.  Keep a close eye on them, you want the bacon to be very crisp, but not burnt. Serve with a Sriracha mayonnaise. So, is wrapping something in bacon healthier than battering and deep frying it?  Not really the point of this, but interesting.  By the way, most people will only eat one or two of these; they are 2 to 3 pieces of bacon each.

Our salad course was a grilled romaine with lemon and parmesan. Yes, you can put lettuce on the BBQ.  Romaine heads work well, the structure allows you to cut the head in half lengthwise and have all of the leave stay attached.  Brush lightly with olive oil, place cut side down on the grill and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.  This will just lightly grill the edges and begin to wilt the center.  Drizzle with fresh lemon juice and sprinkle with fresh grated parmesan cheese, yum.

Our entree of the night was grilled sausages (thank you Thistle Meats).  We tried their mild Italian and a fresh lamb sausage, which were both excellent.  Thistle Meats is a premium specialty butcher featuring locally sourced meats (and you can also get a very good sandwich there too).  They are located at 160 Petaluma Boulevard North, right in the first block of downtown.

How to finish off the evening with a grilled dessert?  No not s’mores, but angel food cake.  Cut the angel food cake into individual serving sizes, turning the grill down to low and toasting each slice.  The flavor was like fresh toasted marshmallow and pound cake.  Then top with strawberries and whipped cream.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Grill, Grill, Grill

Here's my July column from the Petaluma Post...

Summer time is here and the grill is heating up.  Steaks, chicken, and hot dogs, but there is so much more…

Have you ever thought of a grilled salad?  Both savory and sweet items can be a great addition.  Try adding some grilled fruit to a spinach salad, the sugars in the fruit will caramelize and add a great flavor.  Peaches are a favorite; figs, plums, apples and pears are excellent finished with a drizzle of Honey and Balsamic.  Dress your salad with a light fruity dressing, pair with Chèvre or crumbled blue for an added zing.

Spinach Salad with Grilled Fruit
2 peaches
1 apple
6 figs
Olive Oil, salt and pepper

8 oz baby spinach
2 oz crumbled blue or Chèvre
1/3 cup fruit vinegar
½ cup olive oil
Honey to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

2 tsp Honey
1 tsp balsamic

Cut the peaches in quarters, core and slice the apple into ½ inch rounds, halve the figs, then toss lightly in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Next thread the figs on bamboo skewers to keep intact. Grill everything for 3 to 5 minutes until golden brown and tender.  Allow them to cool, then slice the peaches, apples and figs into bite size pieces. Display on a platter.

Combine balsamic with honey, and drizzle over the  grilled fruit to finish

Combine the olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and honey to create a vinaigrette, then toss with the spinach and cheese.

Grilled vegetables are a staple at our house; zucchini, yellow squash, and asparagus are some of our all-time favorites. In the last couple of years I have been adding some other great items.  Have you tried baby carrots?  Slices of butternut squash?  Tomatillos- have a great tang!  When doing vegetables for large events we often bring in a piece of diamond grate (expanded metal mesh) to make sure the vegetables don’t fall through the grill; you can pick this up at any hardware store.  When prepping our vegetables we sort into two categories, hard and soft.  The hard vegetable will take longer to grill, such as carrots, squash, cauliflower, ½ cut onions.  Soft vegetables are zucchini, peppers, asparagus, mushrooms, and tomatillos.

Toss very lightly in olive oil, salt and pepper and your favorite herbs.  Do note, toss very lightly in olive oil, extra oil with cause flare ups which will cause smoke and you will get black soot on your vegetables.  We like to grill our vegetables first, just under done.  Then grill your meats and while they are resting, you can place the covered vegetable back on the grill to reheat and finish cooking.

Have you ever heard of a grilled cocktail?  Adding smoke is a great addition to your summer drinks.  Mescal is a typically smoky variant of tequila (technically tequila is a type of mescal).  Try using it in your next margarita to add a great smoky flavor.  To take that up a notch think about doing grilled limes for an added touch.  They are very easy to do, just split the limes and place on the hottest area of your grill for 5 to 6 minutes.  Juice as normal and add to you cocktail.  FYI: Mario & Johns has a good selection of Mescals (and everything else) and are happy to talk about them.

Mescal Margarita
1½  oz mescal
½  oz triple sec (or Cointreau)
1 oz fresh lime juice (fresh never bottled!)
Lime wedge for garnish
Salt the rim if the glass (optional)

I love the grilled peaches so much that I did it for our open house 5 years ago and I still get requests.

Grilled Peaches with Mascarpone
2 lbs peaches cut in half
8 oz mascarpone
2 Tbl honey
1 Tbl balsamic
2 Tbl olive oil
salt and pepper
Crostini or crackers

Follow the instructions for grilling peaches, expect this time you will cut the peaches in thin slices.  For a display, mound the mascarpone in the center of the platter, surround with the grilled peaches.  Combine the honey and balsamic, and drizzle over the peaches then finish with the olive oil, salt and pepper.

For some more grilling inspirations see my blog ( and search for grilled.  You find grilled artichokes, pork steak (a great cut), and grilled delicata squash salad.  Enjoy!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

It’s hard to be humble... when you are the perfect chocolate chip cookie

Here's my June column from the Petaluma Post...

Is there any truer American dessert than the chocolate chip cookie?  You might say apple pie, but no we brought that with us from France and Germany.  You might say ice cream, but again that is French.  But the humble chocolate chip cookie was invented by Ruth Graves Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn, in Whiteman, Massachusetts. It was a very popular restaurant that featured home cooking in the 1930s. 

Traditionally it is a drop cookie studded with chocolate chips in a vanilla laced butter cookie dough.  It sounds easy, what could go wrong?  Oh so much!  There is an art to it.

When making the simplest things your ingredients are essential.  You will hear chefs say that you should never cook with wine that you wouldn’t drink.  This is true with your cookies; with only 7 ingredients go with the best.

Here at PSC we have cookies on our counter for takeout, our Chocolate Chip cookies rock; that is just not me talking.  We sell close to 3000 cookies just from the counter, not counting all the lunches and parties that have them as well.  I have been asked many times for the recipe, this time I will share.

PSC’s Chocolate Chip Cookie

1 cup butter
¾ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
2¼ cup flour, all purpose
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 cup chocolate chips

Mix flour salt and baking soda, set a side.  Then cream the butter with both sugars, add the egg and vanilla, mixing until smooth and creamy.  Next add the dry ingredient mix until combined, and finish with chocolate chips.  Chill the dough overnight (skipping this step will yield a very different cookie, 12 to 24 hours is preferable).  Now make the dough into 2” balls, and bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.  Yields about 3 dozen cookies.

Butter - One thing I will say is yes butter, only butter.  I love butter.  Butter is made up of 3 components, fats, solids and water.  Each one of these is an important element, fat is for texture, the solids add great flavor, and the water works as a leavening ingredient.  If substituting shortening you will need to add approximately 2 tablespoons of water to the dough.  If using margarine, then use the stick variety not the soft serve.  But again only use butter!

Sugar - I am a believer in cane sugar, good old C&H.  Many people believe that brown sugar is less processed than white sugar, but in this day and age sorry to say no.  They take white sugar and add molasses back in.  You can use dark brown sugar if you have it but I would use less and add a bit more white sugar to keep the balance.  Sugar is one of the keys to a crisp or chewy cookie.  More white sugar a crisp cookie, more brown sugar a chewy cookie.

Vanilla - Pure and simple, keep it that way. 

Egg - Like most standard recipes this is one large egg.  The volume of 1 large egg is 2 ounces, with about 1.15 ounces of white, and .85 ounce of yolk.  Eggs are very important as they serve two purposes.  They are a binder, holding the cookie together and they also work as a leavener.  Too much egg and the cookies will spread and be thin.

Flour - I stick with all-purpose flour; here at the catering company we don’t carry cake and bread.  Flour will change the tooth of the cookie; cake flour won’t have enough tooth and bread flour with make your cookie too dense.  Your flour will also change throughout the year.  We may edit our cookies once or twice per year for both moisture in the air and the changes in flour. If your cookies are too thin, then add another 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour, and if too thick just the opposite.

Salt - To me it is very important as it accentuates flavors.  I use salted butter so I cut my salt in half.  So often when you have a dessert that just does not hit the point it is missing salt.  If you want to add a decadent touch, before baking sprinkle the cookies with just a few flakes of sea salt.  It will bring the vanilla notes out and sweeten the chocolate chips.

Baking soda - Sodium bicarbonate, this is your key leavening agent.  Baking soda needs an acid to react (this will come from the sugar).  If you use baking powder the cookies will come out with a more cake like texture.

Chocolate chips - I really am a fan of semi-sweet. I think the bitter notes show well against the sweet cookie.  Milk chocolate to me is just too sweet and dark chocolate gets lost.

You’ll see in my recipe that I say to chill your dough; that is one of our secrets.  We make cookie doughs 2 or 3 times per week and store them in a refrigerator, pulling out to bake just what we need at that time.  This changes the texture of the cookie.  By allowing the flour to sit with the moisture from the egg and the butter, gluten protein starts to develop.  That gives us a heavier and chewier cookie.

Now to baking.  We bake everything at 350 degree.  I would rather bake cookies a minute more at a lower temp than brown too much.  Our final secret (don’t tell anyone) happens when you remove you cookies from the oven.  The cookies have risen to a nice dome, and this is where the secret to a chewy moist cookie lies.  The dome is created by steam from the baking soda, butter and egg.  You want to capture that in your cookie, by thumping the cookie sheet, just a little rap on the counter will do.  This will cause the cookie to fall, the condensation will be held inside and add moisture to the cookie keeping it chewy.

Now all you need is a big glass of milk! Enjoy.