Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Quick and Easy Herb Rice

Looking for a quick, easy, yummy way to perk up regular old rice?  I found this herb and scallion rice recipe in Martha Stewart Living awhile ago.  My husband and I eat rice often during the week and I am always looking for new ways to fix it. The good news is, we both loved this dish. The bad news is, we felt that it had a few too many steps for a mid-week rice dish.  Also, it calls for a few different herbs and I hate buying several herbs for just one use. What to do?

I hit upon the idea of making several batches of what I call “rice water” at a time and freezing it. I mix the herbs and water together in the blender and then put into a container or freezer bag and freeze. It freezes beautifully. When I am ready to make a batch of rice I just defrost the water and I am ready to cook.

I also found that if I skip the part in the recipe where it says to toast the rice in oil and instead soak the rice prior to cooking it, the cooking time is dramatically reduced. You will have to figure out how it works with your pans and on your stove, but I usually need to cook my rice for less than 10 minutes.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Five Tips for Hosting a Great Dinner Party

I have given probably hundreds of dinner parties in my life. I want to share a few tips that have helped me over the years.

Tip 1: Bite off what you can chew
When you are planning your menu try not to overreach your cooking skills or what you are comfortable with in your entertaining space. Serving simple food is OK! Look for recipes that don't need a lot of last minute work and attention. Risotto for a crowd = not good. Try to test recipes in advance. If you have to try out a new recipe try a side dish recipe. If it fails, you have the entree to fall back on.

 It’s also OK to buy things instead of make them. Dessert is a good candidate for this.

Tip 2: Do things in advance
Try to prepare as much of the dinner as possible in advance without compromising the quality of the food. Here’s what I usually do:

Start with dessert. It’s better if dessert is not something that you have to fuss with during a party. Make dessert the day before, store it and forget about it.

Next I consider side dishes. If we are having a salad, I make it in advance and store in the fridge (without dressing of course!). Vegetables such as carrots and asparagus can be parboiled in advance and stored in the fridge. I just warm them briefly in a pan with butter or olive oil and serve. If I am doing a potato dish I choose one that can be made in advance and either cooked or reheated prior to serving. If you do need to cook a side dish just prior to serving, all of the prep work should be done in advance.

The main dish is the only thing we are likely to cook while we have guests. Try and select dishes that need minimal time and attention - grilled meat or something that goes in the oven and can stand a bit before serving.

Tip 3: Have a timeline/action plan
I typically have a general idea of the timeline for my dinner party.  It should be a bit flexible in case someone is running late, but it’s a good idea to have a sense of how long you want the cocktail period to be (about an hour is best), what time you want to serve dinner and a list of what needs to be done prior to serving dinner along with the sequence/timing in which they should be done.

Tip 4: Think beyond food

Dinner parties are not just about the food. Take some time before your party to pull out all of the serving dishes you will be using. Set the table and figure out what dishes and glasses you need to accommodate your menu. Make sure you have water on the table.

Your house should look somewhat presentable. I have a quick checklist that I go through prior to a dinner party to make sure that some basics are covered - the table is set, the porch light is on, the guest bathroom is clean and the garbage is out, etc. I actually have this list written out because I found that when I did not have it I forgot things. The list also keeps me on track so I can get that critical extra 10 minutes before a party to change clothes.

Tip 5: Have fun!
Presumably you like the people you have invited to dinner so relax and have fun. Something may go wrong, but things happen. If all else fails you can call out for pizza and open another bottle of wine.

What are some of your tips for successful dinner parties?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Food Epiphany: Penzey's Florida Seasoned Pepper

If I had to pick five favorite seasonings in my kitchen Penzey’s Florida Seasoned Pepper would definitely be on the list. Why is that?

First, it’s delicious. It adds a nice pepper flavor that is not overly peppery or hot. It has a citrus thing going on too which adds to the flavor and is a great choice over regular old pepper for foods that could benefit from an extra pop.
Second, it’s salt-free.  You would not expect to find salt in a seasoned pepper but sometimes you do (read labels!).  If you know someone who is trying to reduce their sodium intake, this makes a great gift.  Even if you are not particularly worried about salt, it’s nice to be able to control how much of it you are eating and cutting out secret salt that lurks in a seasoned pepper is an easy thing to do.

Third, it’s very versatile. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use it.

Vegetables: very good on asparagus and broccoli.
Beef: sprinkle your skirt steak, tri-tip or meatloaf with Florida Pepper and it will add to the flavor.

As part of a quick, easy chicken marinade: I use either boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken tenders. Poke the chicken with a fork a few times (this helps the marinade absorb better). Sprinkle the chicken on both sides with Kosher salt and Florida pepper. Put the chicken into a Ziploc bag or some sort of dish (I usually use a glass Pyrex pan), pour on some good olive oil and squeeze in some lemon.  Maybe add some minced garlic.  Smoosh it around a bit. Put in the fridge for up to about two hours. Remove from marinade and cook on either the barbeque or stove.

So how do you get Penzey’s Florida Seasoned Pepper? I ordered it online for a long time. Now there is a Penzey’s store in Santa Rosa so it’s easy for me to stop in. Their stores are a lot of fun – all of the spices are out and available for sniffing – so if you have a store nearby or encounter one in your travels, check it out and try the Florida Seasoned Pepper.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Spa Water

As the weather gets warmer I start thinking about making what I call spa water - you know, the sort of water with cool things in it like you would see at a fancy spa. This one is cucumber and fresh mint from my yard.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Party Favors

Restaurant favor boxes
I love the idea of party favors. There is something so fun about getting to take home a little memento after a party.  It seems I am not alone. Many nice restaurants have a custom of sending guests home with little treats for the next day. I have tried to adapt this to my own entertaining  Here are my criteria for successful party favors:
Must be made ahead. Party favors can’t add stress to your party.  Look for something fairly easy to produce in some quantity that you can make and forget about until it’s time to distribute it.  For me, that usually means a sweet treat. I have done homemade marshmallows and shortbread cookies. One time I gave out teacup shaped cookies after a tea party.  It could also be something savory. I made a lot of preserved lemons earlier this year – perhaps I will decant them into smaller containers and use them as my next party favor.  Homemade vinegar is another good choice. Have an abundance of home-grown tomatoes? There’s your party favor.
Heart-shaped marshmallows displayed in a copper heart

Beautiful packing. Take a tip from fancy restaurants - their take-home treats are always beautifully packaged, often in a box with the restaurant’s name on it.  You don’t have to get personalized boxes, just use a cellophane bag (the ones made for corsages or boutineres work really well or there are many others online - here and here  for example), add some pretty ribbon and you’re done.
Neon shortbread towers for a summer BBQ

Adds to the party décor.  If your favor is seasonal or is related to the theme of the party, so much the better. Think about how to make it part of the décor. Perhaps make the favor a part of the centerpiece or let it act as a placecard.  I sometimes display my favors on a sideboard in the hallway by the front door. Guests see them on the way in and can take one on the way out. It gives some flair to the sideboard and is functional.
The Christmas version of the shortbread towers

Have you ever given out a party favor? If so, what was it?


Monday, April 15, 2013

Cracking the Code on Gougeres

Up until about a year ago, my success rate with gougeres was not good.  My past efforts at gougeres included the recipe in The New Basics. Fail.  A recipe I was trying to help a friend troubleshoot. Fail. I resigned myself to the fact that gougeres were just a restaurant food.

Then I got a copy of Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. And there, on the first page of recipes, was a gougere recipe. I tried it  and the gougeres didn’t puff equally. Well, I was used to gougeres not puffing. BUT, some of the gougeres did puff and that was encouraging.  I froze the rest of the batch and baked them later.  And something interesting happened.  The ones that I froze all rose EQUALLY.

At the end of the recipe Dorie mentions that freezing the gougeres is an option. It’s a gem of a tip and makes all of the difference in the world.  Just drop your unbaked gougeres on a cookie sheet and freeze them.  Once they are frozen put them into a freezer bag and keep in the freezer right up until you bake them (yes, you bake them frozen). You get all the convenience of frozen food and all the deliciousness of using your own high quality ingredients.  Also, it moves the recipe into the realm of the possible for cocktail and dinner parties and book club meetings and just because.  All you have to do is plop the gougeres on a cookie sheet, bake, and serve … preferably with Champagne.


P.S. One more tip – I have found it’s best to bake the gougeres one baking sheet at a time in the oven.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Spring grapevines

The grapevines here in Sonoma County are awake and ready to start producing!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How to Organize Recipes

I'm now using several recipe binders
I recently re-organized my recipes. My goals were to declutter, create a more usable system, address the to-try recipe issue and create a better holiday recipe system. Here is how I addressed each issue:
Declutter: I started with a serious declutter of recipes. Yep, I got brave and actually threw recipes away. Once I had decided which recipes to keep I put them into sheet protectors.
Create a more usable system: I was filing all of my recipes in one really big notebook.  It was really bulky and it was very hard to flip the pages.  I had tried to get around it by having a smaller notebook for frequently used recipes but I never could remember what recipe was in what notebook.  I ended up splitting the recipes among several smaller notebooks, organized by category.  I re-used some old binders and added scrapbook paper covers to make the books pretty. My theme was greens and assorted polka dots. I used the same green stripe paper on the spines so there is continuity on the shelf. I used my label maker to do the category labels.
Using the same paper on all spines makes the notebooks look neat on the shelf
Address to-try recipe issue:  I was keeping my to-try recipes in a separate place from my other recipes. Problem was, I was rarely motivated to go through them and I am sure there are some gems lurking there.  I ended up filing my to-try recipes with each category – example: to-try soup recipes are filed in the soup section of the recipe binder – so I can easily see all of my recipes choices at once for a category. I wanted to keep the to-try recipes separate from the tried & true so I filed them at the beginning of the section in special folders. They are filed in pocket folders – Avery binder pockets #75312
Create a better holiday recipe system: I used to have a section for holidays but I felt they deserved their own binder. I also rounded up holiday stuff that was lurking in other places – example: I had a whole bunch of notes on Christmas cookies that I was shifting from each year’s Christmas folder to the next – and added that to the holiday binder.

I have been using the new system for a bit over a month now and it’s definitely easier to find recipes and try new ones.

How do you organize your recipes?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Wine Storage Tips

I don’t have a wine cellar. I am betting you don’t either. But that has not stopped me from buying and collecting wine and it should not stop you either.

The first thing to know is that the enemies of wine are heat, cold, light, and dramatic temperature changes.  So, if you are storing your wine in a cabinet above your stove, STOP READING right now and go move it.

The easiest, cheapest way to store wine is in a box in a closet. But not in any old box in any old closet.  Ideally, your box will be a Styrofoam wine shipping box (http://www.uline.com/BL_5450/Styrofoam-Wine-Shippers). These boxes are great. The Styrofoam acts as an insulator and helps regulate the temperature of the wine. Gives it some cushion too. You can get these boxes at wine and liquor stores. If you have ever had wine shipped to you, it will likely have shown up in one of those boxes – so save them! Your closet should be located in a place that does not have too many temperature fluctuations. That is probably a closet that does not have contact with the outside walls of your house.

A bit less easy and a bit less cheap would be to look into off—site storage. You can get a relatively small cabinet (maybe holding 12 cases worth) for not a lot of money. Check around to see what pricing is in your area. Pros are – your wine is at a good temperature. Cons are – you need to plan to get your wine out before a dinner party.

You may want to use a combination of the above two methods -- wine in boxes for drink-now and less special wines and off-site storage for wines that you want to age or are more special.

Way less easy (at least to begin with) and definitely less cheap are wine refrigerators. You can get them in many sizes and at many price points. We actually have three: a small one that we got at Costco that is in our pantry and mainly holds drink-now white wines, and two Vinotheque  (http://www.klwines.com/vinotheque.asp) wine fridges that hold quite a bit of wine. The Vinotheque refrigerators are available in many different configurations and finishes.

 How do you store your wine?



Friday, April 5, 2013

Views from a 10 mile run in Sonoma County

Last Saturday was an overcast day in Sonoma County. That made it a great day for a 10 mile training run (Tastefully Sonoma is training for the Windsor Green Half Marathon in May). The run started in a small shopping center in Healdsburg and continued out into the Dry Creek area. Here are a few photos from along the route.  Enjoy!

Farms with chickens

Another view of the farm

A vineyard in Dry Creek showing its sping colors

The turn around at mile 5 :)

Cows and a horse co-existing peacefully

Spring calla lillies

Pretty pink tulips

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Baking Tips Part Three: A Few More Things to Know

Here is part three in my baking tips trilogy. In case you missed it, you can find part one which discusses equipment here and part two which covers ingredients here.

Tips for Mixing Ingredients

·        Baking is science. Unlike cooking, baking is very precise.  Measure carefully and use the right measuring tools. Remember: there is a difference between a measuring cup for dry ingredients and one for liquids.

·        Don’t substitute/don’t leave out. Someone once asked me if she could substitute olive oil for butter in my gingersnap cookie recipe as she wanted the recipe to be healthier.  Since baking is a science, substituting is really tricky (and, no, you can’t substitute olive oil for butter in cookies).  My rule is, you really can’t substitute or leave out ingredients unless the ingredient is of the mix-in sort – butterscotch chips instead of chocolate chips for example – and not really critical to the outcome of the recipe.  

·        Get all of your ingredients out before you start.  As you mix your ingredients, go through your recipe and mentally check off if you have added everything.

·        Have extra ingredients on-hand. A few weeks ago I was making 7 minute frosting and I forgot to add the water. I was too far down the path with it to just add the water so I had to start again. It was late and I just wanted to be finished. I was so glad that I had enough ingredients on-hand to just start over and I did not have to run to the grocery store.

·        Use the tools for which the recipe was written. Baking tools have changed a lot over the years and it can be important to know when a recipe was written. For example, I was making a cake from a Betty Crocker cookbook from the 1960s. I used my Kitchen Aid mixer to mix it and it got way too much air into it. I had to trash the cake and start over.  I used a hand held mixer and it turned out just fine.  I’m thinking that since this recipe was from the 60s, the assumption was that the baker would use a tool that was widely available in 60s – the hand held mixer.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, lots of cookie recipes today call for mixing with a stand mixer using a paddle attachment. If you don’t have it, your alternative is to mix by hand. If you mix using a handheld mixer I think you will get too much air in your dough.

Tips for Baking (mostly applies to cookies)

·        Bake things of the same size together. When you are baking cookies or anything where the size can vary, it’s important to bake like sized things together so everything bakes evenly. When I am making drop cookies or cookies that are rolled into a ball, I try and keep them of a similar size.  When I am making roll out cookies and using various sizes of cookie cutters, I will have about four baking sheets out so that I can group like size cookies together on their respective baking sheets.

·        Let your baking sheets cool between batches. You should always put dough of any sort (cookie, scone, etc.) onto a cool baking sheet. If you put dough on a warm sheet, it will spread and you won’t get the results you want.  This is the argument for having at least four or more baking sheets.

·        Rotate baking sheets halfway through baking. When you are baking cookies, it’s a good idea to rotate the baking sheets at the halfway mark: Baking sheet on top rack goes to bottom rack, baking sheet on the bottom rack goes to the top rack. I keep an eye on the baking process on the back half of the time and will sometimes rotate baking sheets back to front or even do the top to bottom rotation again for a final minute or two.

·        Set a timer. I always set a timer when I am baking. Even if I am just giving something an extra minute, I set a timer. I do this because things happen, I get distracted, the phone rings, I get a text … whatever. A timer keeps me focused.

·        You have to watch things and add/subtract time.  You can’t bake according to time. This is especially important with cookies. You can’t just put things you are baking in the oven, set the timer and hope for the best. Depending on your oven and other factors, you may need to add or subtract time.


And one more tip …

·        Do one thing at a time. If am making several batches of cookies on the same day (Christmas time for example). I do one piece of the process at a time for all of the cookies: make all of the dough, then stop clean up. Then do all of the baking. I am more efficient and more focused when I do it this way.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Easy Way to Cook Asparagus

For the longest time, I struggled with cooking asparagus. I tried steaming, baking, grilling and microwaving. It never turned out right.  Then I read a recipe (I wish I could remember where) that used this easy method. I tried it and … drumroll … it worked!  Maybe you already know how to cook asparagus but you’d like another method to have in your repertoire. Maybe, like me, you never quite mastered it. Either way, you will love this easy, foolproof, three-step way to cook asparagus.

Start by gathering your equipment:
·        A fry pan. Yes, a fry pan. You use a fry pan for two reasons: 1) No need to cut the asparagus spears (it’s prettier to serve when the spears are not cut), and 2) You use the same pan for steps 1 and 3.

·        A bowl filled with half ice and half water (optional),  a dinner plate with a few paper towels on it

Step one
Wash the asparagus and either cut or snap off the ends. Bring a few inches of salted water to boil in your fry pan. Once the water is boiling add the asparagus and simmer until it’s crisp-tender. The time will vary according to how thick your asparagus is. I test it with a fork. It takes less time than you think, so don’t wander away or get sidetracked (this never happens to me … ).

Step two
You have two choices here:

1)    Plunge your asparagus into the ice water bath, remove and pat dry with the paper towels on the dinner plate.  I do this if I am serving the asparagus to dinner guests and there will be a gap between steps two and three. Note: this is a great dish for dinner parties because you can make it a few hours ahead and just do step three prior to serving.

2)    If you are making dinner for yourself and there is no gap between steps two and three, you can just remove the asparagus from the fry pan, pat it dry and continue.

Step three
Dry the fry pan and heat some olive oil in it. Add the asparagus and turn it to coat (use a fork or tongs).  Let the asparagus heat through and then add salt, pepper and perhaps some balsamic vinegar.  Remove from the heat and serve.