Friday, March 29, 2013

Early Spring Farmers Market Tour

I went to the farmers market in Santa Rosa last weekend. I had not been since the end of tomato season (around Thanksgiving) and I was curious to see what was there in early spring. Here is what I found:

Lots of colorful winter vegetables

More colorful vegetables

Some interesting flowering brocolli rabe

Pretty spring flowers


Plenty of citrus fruit

Marmalades that looked like sparkling jewels when the sun hit them

Eggs so pretty they need no Easter egg dye

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Baking Tips Part Two: Ingredients

Here is part two in my baking tips trilogy. In case you missed it, you can find part one here.  Stay tuned for part three.
A big part of success in baking is choosing the right ingredients and using them correctly. Here are some tips to help you choose the best ingredients:

Butter. No one uses margarine anymore. At least I hope not. If a recipe calls for butter, use butter, not margarine and not shortening.  You should also note whether the recipe calls for salted or unsalted butter.  Older recipes tend to just call for “butter” and in those cases I use salted butter. Newer recipes typically specify, so go with what the recipe says. Be careful when bringing butter to room temperature. The best way to do that is by leaving it out on the counter. You want it to be pliable enough to use but not melted, which is what usually happens when the microwave is involved.
Really good vanilla, usually.  I’m partial to Penzey’s double strength vanilla, you get double the flavor in the same volume of vanilla. I use it in shortbread, chocolate chip cookies or anytime that I want the vanilla flavor to shine through. For times when I don’t care as much, chocolate cake maybe, I just use Costco vanilla.  I have also been experimenting a bit with vanilla paste but don’t yet have an opinion on it.
Fine sea salt. I like good quality salt and I use kosher salt as my go-to everyday salt. However, kosher salt is a bit too coarse for baking so for that I use a finely ground sea salt such as La Baleine.
When you have a choice, go with the higher quality ingredient. If you have a choice between two versions of an ingredient, and one is a higher quality, go for the higher quality one. I notice this with cocoa powder especially.
Eggs.  Recipes are written for various sizes of eggs, some call for large eggs, others for extra large eggs. Pay attention and use the right size egg.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Food Epiphany: Trader Joe's Mushroom Turnovers

Part of being a good cook is knowing where to buy great substitutes for homemade things and not being afraid to serve them.  Today I want to introduce you to Trader Joe’s Mushroom Turnovers. They are, first of all, delicious.  The turnovers are a combination of sautéed mushrooms and onions enveloped in a cute little two-bite cream cheese pastry crust.  Second of all, they are easy. They lurk in the freezer until you need them. Then it’s just a matter of putting them on a baking sheet (hopefully a silpat-covered one) and baking for about nine minutes. Let rest one minute, serve with a glass of pinot noir and collect compliments. If you don’t want to own up to the fact that they are store bought, I won’t tell.

A word about food epiphanies … they are an ingredient, tool, technique, or in this case, a food find.  It’s those moments when you make a discovery and think "why didn't I know this earlier!" And there you have it. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Finch Feeding Frenzy!

I have two finch feeders in my backyard. I love how the birds stack up to feed. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Baking Tips Part One - Tools

I have been baking since I was five. My mom would buy Jiffy cake mixes for a dime and I would bake them in my Suzy Homemaker oven.  I then progressed to the real oven in the kitchen.  From there, on to  “real” cake mixes, cookies, bread baked in a coffee can, a cake decorating class in junior high and my current 700+ Christmas cookie extravaganza (post on that closer to Christmas I promise).

I've learned that successful baking is a combination of good tools, good ingredients and a few other good tips.  I’ll tackle the tools in this post and the other two topics in subsequent posts.

Here are my tips for good baking tools:

·        Silpats. I love silpats.  When you use them, you don’t need to grease your baking sheets and things don’t stick. I pull cookies out of the oven and let them sit on the silpat covered baking sheet for a minute or two before I move them to the cooling rack. You will break fewer cookies this way. Bonus – if you need to transport a dish of something and it seems like it might slip around a bit, just plop it onto a silpat covered baking sheet and you are good to go.

·        Heavy, rimmed baking sheets. If you have not gotten new baking sheets lately, you may want to think about upgrading. I like the heavy ones from Sur la Table with the sides on them (often called a jelly roll pan). Having sides on your baking sheets means they are more useful and your cookies won’t slide off the pan. And make sure you have enough baking sheets. If you bake often, four is the minimum number you will need. Six or eight is even better. And while you are at it, buy a Silpat for every baking sheet.

·        Big cooling racks. I am not sure what the point is of those little cooling racks that are about the size of a dinner plate. Buy the biggest cooling rack that your counter will accommodate and make sure you have several so that you make several batches of cookies back-to-back.

·        Kitchen Aid mixer.  I know, I know, a Kitchen Aid mixer takes up a lot of counter space. That was my argument against it for a lot of years.  But, then I got one … and, wow. I could not believe how much better it worked than my old hand-held mixer.  The first time I used it with my old faithful chocolate mousse recipe I could not believe how light and fluffy the mousse was.  And beating up egg whites was so much quicker and better. It allowed me to make things like marshmallows which require at least 10 minutes of mixing time. Plus, many of the baking cook books that are on the market today assume you have one and are written for it. It’s a must-have if you bake a lot.

·        Extra measuring cups and spoons. Measuring cups and spoons are not expensive and it’s great to have extras on hand so you don’t have to continually wash them if you are baking several things at once. And while we are on the topic, there are measuring cups for liquid ingredients and those for dry ingredients. They are different things, and they are not interchangeable so you need both.



Monday, March 18, 2013

Salsa Verde Braised Pork

This recipe is a great alternative to tacos. It’s really flavorful and easy to make. It’s a good recipe to make on a Sunday and have for dinner during the week.  The recipe is from Sunset Magazine with some tweaks by me.

Yield:   6 servings


·        3 1/2  pounds  boneless pork shoulder (aka pork butt)

·        1 bottle (15 oz.) salsa verde (you can add an additional ½ bottle of salsa if desired), I use the Herdez brand

·        ½ to 1  medium onion, finely chopped

·        3-4  cups chicken broth

·        2-3  teaspoons  cumin seeds

·        2-3  teaspoons  coriander seeds

·        1.5  teaspoon  dried oregano

·        4 cloves of minced garlic

·        Salt

Serve with: fresh cilantro, lime slices, jack cheese, tortillas, additional salsa and sour cream

1. Trim excess pork fat (or not, it really does not matter). Put meat in a large pot with salsa, onion, broth, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, oregano and garlic. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat, cover, and simmer until meat is very tender when pierced, about 3 hours.

2. Preheat oven to 375°. With 2 wide spatulas, transfer meat to a rimmed baking pan or a baking dish. Bake until richly browned, 30 minutes.

3. Boil juices, stirring, until reduced to 2 3/4 cups, 8 to 10 minutes (may take longer, it’s really important to get it reduced).

4. With 2 forks, tear meat into large shreds. Season with salt if desired (I typically don’t do this). Combine meat and juices. 

5. Serve with tortillas, more salsa verde (or any other salsa), tortillas, cilantro, lime slices, grated jack cheese and sour cream.

Make ahead tip: I like to make this a day before serving it. If you do that, go through step #2.  Keep the meat and the juices separate and refrigerate. The next day, skim the fat off the sauce and do steps #3 and 4. I added the shredded meat to the reduced sauce and let it heat on the stove for a few minutes before serving.

You may be tempted to make this in a slow cooker. My advice is don’t. I tried it a few times and I can’t get it to taste right.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

More Signs of Spring in Sonoma County

I do most of my grocery shopping at a small local chain of stores – Oliver’s Markets.  They hire someone to paint the front windows of their stores seasonally. It’s fun, funky and kind of old school. I love it. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dinner Party Tip - Keep a Hostess Diary

Planning a dinner party is tough enough without worrying about whether you have served your guests a certain dish before.  If you are like me, you have certain go-to dishes for dinner parties.  And that’s fine, but you probably want to avoid serving the same thing to the same people over and over, or accidentally serving someone with a nut allergy something with nuts in it. I solved this by using a hostess diary.  What is a hostess diary? It’s a record of what you served and who was there. You can also add other notes such as was the quantity of food right? What wine did you serve? Did something go over particularly well or not so well? Would you do something differently next time? What décor did you use?

 I use an actual thing called a hostess diary, but in the past I have used a regular old notebook.  It does not have to be fancy as it’s really for your reference.  It takes me all of about five minutes to fill in once the party is over and I have a record that I can refer to later. It makes entertaining and having dinner parties a little bit easier for me, and maybe for you too.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Baking Tip - Try Slice and Bake Cookies

When you hear the term “slice and bake cookies”, you probably think of the hermetically sealed rolls of dough that you find in the refrigerator section of the grocery store.  Not the most appetizing image. But, actually, slice and bake is a great thing when it comes to cookies.  Slice and bake cookies are easy to make, can be dolled up to be quite fancy, can be made in any batch size, and the dough can be made ahead and baked as needed. All good things in my book. These sorts of cookies are my go-to if I want to make cookies for book club mid-week. I just make the dough on the weekend and bake the cookies the night before. I get beautiful cookies, practically on-demand with very little work.

So what do you need to make them? First, start off with a good recipe. I am partial to Dorie Greenspan’s sables. They are a little shortbread cookie that takes really well to customizing for various seasons or holidays. Once you make your dough you can store it in the fridge for up to a week. Any longer than that and you should freeze it.

You will want to roll your cookie log in colored sugar prior to baking.  Which brings me to the second thing, you need sugar in fun colors. I buy my sugar at Nancy’s Fancy’s in Santa Rosa.  You can go online too – check out Fancy Flours, they sell 22 colors of decorating sugar! At Christmas I use red and green sugar. I used neon yellow, orange and pink for cookies for a BBQ last summer. The possibilities are endless and you will find that you can easily make very pretty, impressive looking cookies.

Have you ever made slice and bake cookies?

Spring has sprung in Sonoma County!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Green Soup

I was making Dorie Greenspan’s Cheating on Winter Pea Soup the other day and I realized that it’s the soup equivalent of a green smoothie or “green drink.” To make a green drink, you put together a bunch of vegetables and maybe a little fruit along with some liquid, blend it up and voila! green drink.  Same thing with this soup. You sauté an onion and then add some broth along with a bunch of romaine lettuce and frozen peas. It cooks for a bit, then you blend it up and voila! green soup.

These sorts of soups are great for winter/early spring – they are loaded with vegetables, relatively easy to make, can be made with very little fat, freeze well and taste great.  You should also try this asparagus soup from Williams-Sonoma (it’s written for a soup maker of some sort but you can make it on the stove). If you are looking for a soup that uses fruit and vegetables, give Dorie Greenspan’s Double Celery and Apple Soup recipe a try.