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 (blog.sonomacaterers.com) 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.

Are You Crafty? (Craft Cocktails)

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

I’m not talking arts and crafts, I’m talking craft cocktails.  Bourbon and gin are not just for your grandpa anymore.  Don’t say yuck!  It wasn't that many years ago that I didn't care for either of these, but I was introduced to them in well crafted cocktails, then grew to appreciate the complexities of finely made spirits from small craft distillers.

Food and beverage have always gone hand in hand. What is an elegant dinner without a selection of wines?  However times are changing, and spirits are becoming a very popular choice.  Whether serving straight spirits to pair with the menu or mixing custom cocktails to complement each course or the theme of the meal, this is an increasingly popular trend.

What is a spirit?  This is distilled liquor aka hard liquor.  Most popular is Vodka, an American original is Bourbon.  There are local makers of Gin, Vodka, Bourbon and more.

I have had a great time the last couple of years playing with both Bourbon and Scotch.  I have paired with local non-profits to host specialty dinners.  We have worked with the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum on an annual Scotch tasting dinner for the past two years, and with the Petaluma Arts Center on a Bourbon tasting dinner last year.  This year was a sellout crowd of over 100 scotch enthusiasts.  I enjoyed working with a whisky master to choose the scotches by style and region.  Much like wine they can vary greatly by the region they come from, from clean and fruity to dark peaty and smoky.

At the last Scotch dinner we paired a Gorgonzola Mousse with a Lagavulin 16 year old scotch.  This is one of the smokiest of the scotches, and I’m not a fan of this one, as it is just too much smoke and peat.  But pairing with the Gorgonzola transformed it; the mousse was strong enough to both stand up to it and smooth it out.  The Cragganmore, a medium bodied scotch, was paired with Roasted Quail on an Apricot Almond Cous Cous Pilaf; the apricot just made this scotch pop.

Along with tasting and learning more about particular liquors, I enjoy the flavor profiles of creating cocktails.  From using locally grown ingredients and spirits to matching a menu that I am planning, I make it a part of my event menu.

One of my favorites is a Blood Orange Margarita
2 oz blood orange juice
½ oz fresh lime juice (always fresh, not the bottled stuff)
1½ oz tequila (I like an anejo for the caramel flavors)
1 oz orange curacao

Shake vigorously with ice and pour over fresh ice.  This margarita is great made in large quantities and served in a tall jar; just pour over ice at serving time.

I am often found looking for culinary inspiration in local watering holes.  Inspiration… really!  That’s why I’m there.  One of my favorite combinations is at Seared, their Latin Lover, a gin and cilantro based cocktail, served with their salmon carpaccio is a perfect combination!

The Farmers Daughters cocktail at the Social Club was made with fresh peaches and paired just perfectly with their fried chicken.

Located next to us on East D Street is Mario and John’s Tavern, just recently remodeled and reopened.  Nick and Micah have revived a great local location with a craft cocktail style.  Not a pretentious bar from the city, it is warm with Petaluma style, with one of the best collections of spirits I’ve seen.  They are bringing their experience to Petaluma and with a great cocktail menu.  If you get a chance, stop by for a Midtown Mule, an update on the classic Moscow Mule.

After you have enjoyed a drink at a local watering hole and tried a new spirit don’t hesitate to stop by Willabee’s Wine and Spirits to look for locally produced spirits.  I just purchased a bottle of Sonoma Spirit Works Gin- it is incredible.  Sonoma Spirit Works is a craft distiller located in Sebastopol in their new Barlow Center.

Don’t be afraid to add a cocktail to your dinner menu, be creative.  It is a great way to set the stage for the evening.  Recently we did a southern dinner with friends and started out with a Sazerac (a rye based cocktail with Absinthe) paired with fried chicken and waffles as the hor d’oeuvres.  Dinner was Shrimp Etouffee and dessert was peach cobbler

2 oz Rye Whiskey
½ oz Simple Syrup
2 dashes of Peychaud Bitters
A wash of Absinthe

Shake the Rye, simple syrup, and bitters well with ice.  For simple syrup you can substitute about half that much sugar (but make sure to mix it more thoroughly) or one third the amount of agave syrup. Next coat the inside of your serving glass with absinthe and drain most or all of back out.  Absinthe has a very powerful flavor so you only need a little.  Fill the glass with crushed ice and strain the rest into the glass.  Garnish with a lemon twist.

Spirits can be very easy to pair with and will start the evening well.

The Hills Are Alive with Fields of Mustard

Here's my column from the Petaluma Post for April...

As April rolls into Sonoma County our hillsides glow with beautiful yellow mustard blossoms.  But did you
Dandelion Greens
know that you can actually eat them?  The wild mustard plant that we love so much can be found around the world from the Himalayas to Denmark, California to India. 

Growing wild around our area you would not think of eating what so many think of as a weed.  Being a member of the brassica family, like radish/ turnip/broccoli, all aspects of the plant are edible.  The yellow flowers can be picked, yellow, white or purple and tossed in salads to add a light peppery touch.  There are numerous varieties with greens that are eaten, and the seed has been ground for 1000s of years for condiments.  Many consider it a super food being high in vitamins A, C, and D, plus calcium, potassium and iron.

I am not suggesting that you run out to the field and pick your dinner, although many do.  However I would like to recommend taking a different look at your produce basket. Tender mustard greens are the first peek of fresh produce to hit the farmers markets. 

Baby red frill mustard is one of my absolute favorites. In the spring it is tender and lacy and a great addition for spicy salads.

Red Frill Salad
Serves 4
4 oz red frill mustard
1 head escarole (a very hearty leaf green, close in flavor to iceberg)
1 small head fennel, shaved
2 blood oranges, juiced
1 Tbl white wine vinegar
2 Tbl olive oil
1 tsp honey
Salt and pepper to taste
2 oz Chèvre

Trim off the end of the mustard and gently break in to smaller size if necessary.  Cut escarole to bite size pieces, toss with fennel and mustard, and set aside.  Combine, honey, blood orange juice and vinegar, whisk to combine, then whisk in olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.  Toss as needed to coat the greens.  Top with Chevre

Another great use is as an uncooked green.  What do I mean by that?  When making a vegetable sauté I love to throw a hand full of greens in after I have taken the vegetables off the stove, just before serving.  The color just pops, but the integrity of the greens holds up well.  I also often toss my greens with just a bit of salt, pepper and olive oil, and then at plate up put them on the bottom of the plate and top with your hot items.  Grilled
 Salmon or other fish are my favorites, the heat of the meat is just enough to wilt the greens.

Another great spring green is dandelions.  Yes that weed that you pull out of your lawn is also very healthy and edible, but I suggest getting it from your grocer.  The long slender leaves are bright green in color and have a slightly bitter taste.  You want to look for young tender leaves without a thick back vein.  The have a lightly spicy flavor and can be added into many dishes or sautéed on their own.

When cooking greens I like to choose younger greens, usually from the bulk area not bunches. I have found that 6 ounces will be a pretty full bag and about what I need for dinner for 2 people.  It seems that I never have a large enough pot to hold that much; it will wilt down to less than 2 cups at the end, but keeping it all in a small pot is like heard cats.  I have found that if I take a large microwave bowl and place the greens in it and heat for 1 to 2 minutes, they will just begin to wilt and be much easy to handle.

Wilted Greens
1 small onion, sliced
4 strips bacon, chopped
2 Tbl olive oil
6 oz spring mustard, red frill, red rain or dandelion greens
1-2 Tbl balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Wilt greens in a large bowl in the microwave.  Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet, then add the bacon and onions, and sauté until onions are tender and bacon is cooked through.  Add greens to the bacon and onions, toss through until warm.  Finish with balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper

From flowers to dinner, don’t forget to stop and smell the mustard.