Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All Hail the Cheese

April happens to be National Grilled Cheese Month. Since today is the penultimate day of the month, I figured I'd better get on with the honoring or I'd have to wait an entire year. It also coincided with the President's 100 Day mark so I thought it was actually quite an appropriate day to pay my respects to (the Big) Cheese. [OK, that was lame but I couldn't resist.] So without further ado, I bid you my celebratory grilled cheese sandwich! 

I've been daydreaming lately about frittering away the day in a charming little hamlet in Spain, feasting on Jamón Iberico and Manchengo cheese and, of course, washing it all down with a nice glass of Tempranillo. Since I couldn't actually get this direct from the source, I figured I would do my best to recreate it here in the form of a grilled cheese. 

The fact that I had none of the needed ingredients in the house was no deterrent because I'm always looking for things to prolong my procrastination of work tasks. [I hope none of my clients are reading this!] I ran down to one of my favorite stores to pick up the necessary provisions. Since this is Santa Barbara and not Spain, I had to settle on Jamón Serrano, which I think you'd agree does not qualify as a crisis. Speaking of a crisis, I did double check that Spanish cured meats are not a source of swine flu, which I was grateful for. I could have gone with Manchengo but opted instead for the more complex Campo de Montalban for my cheese representative. And to add a little decadence to my grilled cheese — it was a celebration after all, I chopped up some fig almond cake. I recognize that cake is not your typical sandwich ingredient, but I was reminded of a quote by Marie Antoinette: "If the people have no bread, let them eat cake." I figured if you had both, you could eat them together, right? And this is more of a Fig Newton-like cake, which makes it almost healthy. 

Well, it was delicious! All that was missing was my glass of wine, which even I had a hard time justifying at noon. But come 5 o'clock, you know what I'll be pouring to complete this observance. 

Spanish Grilled Cheese

1 ciabatta roll or other country bread
3 oz thinly sliced Jamón Serrano or prosciutto
3 oz Manchego cheese, thinly sliced 
2 oz Pan de Higo Almendrado (fig almond cake) or 5 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped

Slice roll in half and lay cheese on both sides of bread. Add thinly sliced Jamón and fig almond cake and place on a hot panini press. Cook for 5 minutes or until cheese melts. (Alternatively, heat heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Place sandwich in skillet. Place another large skillet atop sandwich; place weights such as canned goods inside skillet on top. Cook sandwich until golden brown and cheese melts, about 4 minutes per side.) Yields: 1 sandwich.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Compassionate Cook

A dear friend of mine received some very sad news over the weekend. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I cooked a bunch of food for her. I'm not pushing emotional eating, but I am an advocate for gestures of kindness. 

I think it's one of the best attributes of the South — an open expression of compassion that appears at the first indication of something difficult going on. This often takes the shape of an army of people invading your house with food, cleaning supplies and childcare. Let's face it, when you're going through something terrible, a trip to the grocery store is the last thing on your mind. I've been brought to tears myself standing in front of of the meat case telling whomever will listen, "My granddad just died and I don't know what I should make for dinner tonight." I think the only thing worse is the sound of chirping crickets that followed. Had that happened in the South, I know a complete stranger next to me would have said, "Bless your heart. You don't need to be worryin' about supper at a time like this. Just go pick up a bucket of chicken." I know that sounds silly but it would've make all the difference. Those moments save you from despair and disorientation. It's really a gesture of reassurance. 

When people we care about are going through something scary or hard, I think we all feel a strong emotional response but often just don't know what to do. My mom taught me that it's always important to acknowledge it — even if you don't know what to say. Just a simple "I'm so sorry" can speak volumes. But at times, I want to do more. That usually translates to some type of food being cooked up and delivered. I think everyone needs a few great dishes in their back pocket that can be pulled out when you want to cook up a little compassion. 

I know even the thought of the casserole can conjure up fear or disgust. I think, like many things in life, a few bad apples have spoiled the bunch. I won't lie: The words "tuna" and "helper" create a gag reflex for me. But as my cooking experience expanded, I learned there are plenty of delicious dishes that can be prepared in advanced and enjoyed later. Soups are also wonderful options. They should be all be things that will last for several days or can be frozen. 

While food can nourish the body, kindness nourishes the soul. I believe that anything made with love can do both. 

Tex-Mex Shepherd's Pie

1.25 lbs lean ground turkey
1 package low sodium taco seasoning
1 onion, chopped
1 can corn
1 can black beans
1 container fresh salsa
4 russet potatoes
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2-3 cups Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
1 Tbsp horseradish 
Salt and pepper

Brown the meat in a large skillet. Drain off any fat and add taco seasoning and 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from skillet and reserve meat. Add onion and a Tbsp of olive oil to same skillet and cook over moderate heat for 7-10 minutes. Add drained corn and beans along with the salsa to the skillet. Combine and add back in turkey and heat through. 
Meanwhile, prepare potatoes. Peel and cube potatoes and place in large pot of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes (or until potatoes are fork tender). Drain and return potatoes to pot. Add butter, 1/2 cup of chicken stock, 1 cup shredded cheese and 1/2 Tbsp horseradish and mash. Add more butter, chicken stock and cheese as needed to create creamy consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place the turkey and vegetable mixture in a casserole dish and spread the mashed potatoes on top. When ready to bake, put in a 375 degree oven and cook covered for 30-45 minutes or until bubbling. Remove lid/cover and add a few handfuls of the shredded cheese on top of the warm potatoes. Broil for just a few minutes to brown the top. Yields: 6-8 servings. 

Note: This is very versatile. You can certainly use beef instead of turkey, and pinto and kidney beans would be great instead of black beans. I often add in other vegetables that I have on hand (i.e. zucchini or bell pepper), and have even thrown in some chopped chorizo or chipotle chili to add some smokiness. Pork with roasted pasillas would be delicious too. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day: How Sweet it Is

I was frantic today trying to (start and) finish a project I was assigned three weeks ago for a client and is due tomorrow. I know many people don't feel sorry for procrastinators like me but I really do perform better under pressure. I was trying to print out a 42-page presentation when the ink cartridges ran dry on page nine. Ugh! I have the worst technology karma of all time. [Don't even get me started on how I inadvertently erased my iPod last night and lost all the source files for my iTunes library.] So I jumped in my car and took off for OfficeMax to buy replacement ink cartridges. Which is why it's hard to explain how I found myself browsing through racks of enviable clothes at Anthropologie. I'm like an alcoholic who can't drive past a bar without stopping in for a drink — except that this "bar" is not even on the same road as OfficeMax. It's shameful, I tell you.  

But in my defense, I think the seed had been planted the day before when I read an encouraging article about a new $14.5 million research grant to investigate what is causing the serious decline in honeybee due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a mysterious phenomenon where bees abruptly leave their hives and die. Pesticides, poor nutrition and viruses are possible culprits. What is certain though is we're facing a crisis: 
  • We rely on the honeybee for one-third of our food supply. 
  • One out of three bites of food an average American eats is directly attributed to honeybee pollination. I eat a lot so for me the circumstances are probably more grave. 
  • An average honeybee produces only 1/12 (yes, one-twelfth) of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • Honeybee population has declined more than 30 percent in the U.S. and Europe in the last two years.
A few hours later I received an email blast from Anthropologie about a new cause launched in honor of Earth Day to raise awareness of the disappearing honey bee. With a great educational e-vignette, you're introduced to the problem but, more importantly, also some solutions. Frankly, if honeybees are in danger, we're all in danger. 

While I was driving towards OfficeMax, I heard the radio DJ wish everyone a Happy Earth Day and honestly the next thing I knew I was in front of the store admiring the incredible window installations. Always unique and show-stopping but these particular works of art really connected with me and told a very important story of the honeybee plight. Inside I found their "Bee Tees," cute, organic t-shirts by Edun to further support this cause. 

I did eventually accomplish my original task and finished the presentation. But the outing inspired me. Earth Day is a wonderful reason to celebrate our planet and support efforts to ensure a sweet future for all of us, especially the honeybees. Since supper time was nearing, I wanted to create a meal to honor Earth Day's new Green Generation Campaign and the honeybee. 

A salad my friend Karen,who loves to cook gourmet three-course dinners — which I'm lucky enough to be invited to, made for me last week would be perfect. 

When I think of the phrase "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first," I think of this salad. With caramelized fennel and pancetta served over romaine lettuce, it's a perfect combination of salty and sweet. 

The flavors and textures are incredible. It's like eating a three-course meal simultaneously. And if this salad doesn't satisfy your sweet tooth, by all means go out and get a pint of a Haagen-Dazs "bee-dependent" flavor. They'll make a donation to their "help the honeybees" campaign, so you can eat your dessert guilt-free. 

Who knew "going green" could be so sweet?! 

Caramelized Pancetta and Fennel Salad
by Giada De Laurentiis

To make this more Earth-friendly, use organic ingredients. 

1 bulb fennel, halved and but into 1/2-inch wedges
5 slices pancetta, torn
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
5 oz romaine lettuce (about 6 cups)
Red Wine Vinaigrette, recipe follows

Preheat over to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In medium bowl, toss together fennel, pancetta, garlic, brown sugar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Place ingredients on the baking sheet in a single layer and cook until the pancetta is crisp and the fennel is caramelized, about 20 minutes. Remove from the over and let cool 5 minutes.
In a large bowl filled with chopped romaine, add fennel-pancetta mixture. Toss salad with vinaigrette and serve. Yields: 4 servings. 

Red Wine Vinaigrette
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp organic honey
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Place vinegar, lemon juice and honey in a blender. With the machine running gradually add the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Favas: Not Just for Liver Anymore

My friend Sam (who might be the best California guitarist you never heard of and an extremely talented cook to boot) invited a group of people over last night for an impromptu gathering at his tiny abode with the only instructions being "Bring something Mediterranean to nibble on. It's too hot to cook anything." It'd been a scorching weekend, and we were all a bit sunburned and wilted. Having picked up some favas at the Farmers Market on Saturday along with some blood oranges, I decided to bastardize a recipe for a fava bean bruschetta I’d seen and put together a little crostini. I like to do that—find something to reinvent or experiment with ingredients. It’s like the foundation of a joke:  One day this piece of manchengo walks into a bar and sits down next to some grilled artichokes and roasted tomatoes . . . . You're waiting for the punchline and hoping it's a gut-buster. But sometimes my little “culinary dalliances” don’t end well and I have to call out for pizza (which is not a total loss because I love pizza).

With some leftover rosemary and lemon bread as the base of the crostini, I spread on some lovely bucheron goat cheese. Next I added a dollop of fava bean puree, a blood orange segment and sprinkle of microgreens on top. And with Russ helping with the assembly, it took just minutes to come together with very little slaving over a hot stove. And I’m very pleased to report that it was tasty. And it was beautiful. And it was healthy. And it was gobbled up. 

I think part of the success of the dish was that it was satisfying--you tasted the different layers as you bit into it--but it was refreshing. And even with the doors and windows open at Sam's, it felt like a sauna inside. It was too oppressive to possibly consider expending the energy to pick up a cracker, spread on some gorgonzola and drizzle it with honey. That was just way too much work. You wanted something that could be fed to you as you reclined on the sofa while someone fanned you. Unfortunately, the party did not come with any such service, but the crostini made a good food substitute. 

Tamara was in attendance and wearing this beautiful teal green maxi dress that was perfect attire for being fed grapes to. She is a total movie buff and is amazing to talk to as she exposes you to movies you'd never know to watch and offers such interesting perspectives. Well, it's difficult for me to think of movies and fava beans without hearing Hannibal Lecter's creepy voice saying, "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." According to the AFI, this is the 21st most popular movie quote in America cinema.

Thanks to Silence of the Lambs, I think fava beans have kind of gotten a bad rap (or at minimum a very unappetizing association). It's the opposite of the "Sideways Effect" on Pinot Noir, where the obscure wine varietal in the US was catapulted to an almost overnight success in the wake of the movie. While it's likely you've developed a soft spot for the fickle grape that put the Santa Barbara wine region on the map, you may still be holding the fava at bay. But I would encourage you to give it a go this Spring. I don't like liver much myself and I assure you there are lots of other fabulous ways to delight in one of spring's most under-appreciated legume. 


The ancient fava is one of the oldest cultivated plants, believed to date back to 6000 BC. They were the only beans Europeans ate before they discovered America's plethora of legumes. However, they took our beans home and left us the fava, which never really caught on here. It's surprising because they're easy to grow, make excellent ground cover and help prevent erosion, and are delicious to eat with a buttery texture, slight bitterness and lovely, nutty flavor. Granted they do look a bit cartoonish at first sight--think bumpy string beans on steroids. [These are clearly the beans Jack used to grow his beanstalk.] 

And you do have to do some work to prepare them. Maybe we've become too lazy as a society to warm up to the fava. First they must be shelled, which isn't too bad because of their size. But then if they're not young, you must parboil them to remove the outer waxy shell around the bean. They really just slide off but it is an extra step. Since I can have lazy tendencies (which I call my "quest for efficiency") at times, I try to buy the young ones so I can avoid that whole boiling scene. But trust me; they're worth the extra effort. [I just recalled a childhood memory: I had to help my grandmother shell a bunch of peas and I would search out the largest ones which made for the easiest shelling, leaving her all the dregs. What an embarrassingly horrible thing to do to your granny! I bet she'd be a bit surprised to find me promoting any kind of bean shelling.]  If you're lucky, maybe you can find them already shelled fresh at a farmers market. If that is the case, snap some up immediately. And then head to your nearest convenience store and buy a lottery ticket. 


Fava Bean Puree


1 3/4 cup fava beans (double shelled, if necessary)

1 cup water

1 garlic clove, minched

2-3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil



Place the fava beans, water and garlic in a large skillet. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Simmer uncovered until beans are tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Drain favas, reserving cooking liquid. Transfer to food processor. Add olive oil and lemon juice and puree until smooth, adding a little reserved cooking liquid as needed. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a small bowl. 


Lazy Man's Directions

Since fava beans aren't always available or we don't always have the time/desire to go through the whole shelling drill, you can also "cheat" on this recipe and use a bag of fresh english peas. They don't have exactly the same flavor but it's still delicious. Just put the frozen peas in a microwave safe bowl with 1/4 cup of water and zap them in the microwave for 3 minutes. Then follow the recipe as noted above. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

Get Yer Grits On

I don't consider myself the jealous type. When I do feel pangs of envy, it usually revolves around photographs of food I would consider giving my right arm for in order to eat (which would really not set me back all that much considering I'm a lefty). That seems like a reasonable reaction though for any food lover. But then there are all the clothes in the J.Crew and Anthroplogie catalogs that I lust after. And the fantastic boots I saw this boho chic walking down State Street in. Who am I kidding? I've just incriminated myself. I knew I should've been a lawyer. . . . 

I guess it should come as no big surprise then that I was steeped in jealousy upon hearing the news my friend E.G. was on his way to Saint George, SC for the World Grit Festival — for work. Yes, that's right. He is getting paid to attend a whole weekend dedicated to grits. I thought his job with Quaker Oats was pretty cool anyway, but it's officially been elevated to a whole new stratosphere.

Although I try to be a good Southerner, I must admit that I was not familiar with this prestigious affair. I mean it's not just a regional event but a world event!  [Well done, Saint George!] So I immediately went about investigating. Apparently, in 1985, Bill Hunter, store manager of the town's Piggly Wiggly Supermarket, discovered some pleasantly shocking news. The quaint town of Saint George (population 2000) ate more grits per capita than anywhere else in the United States--and even the whole world! The following year, the World Grits Festival was born, and today it draws crowds of 45,000 people. Sadly I am not one of them this year. 

If, like me, you enjoy having some good trivia handy for cocktail parties, you may be interested in knowing that Americans eat a whopping 100 million pounds of grits each year. I'd wager a bet it's not all consumed south of the Mason-Dixon line. I'm sure the many Southerners sprinkled around the nation are happily buying up all the Quaker instant grits they can get their hands on. I recall the first time I tried to buy grits at my local grocery store in Santa Barbara. I had to repeat my request twice to the poor cashier who looked at me like I was asking for plutonium, but the manager, upon overhearing my plight, smiled and told me my beloved could be found on aisle 5 amongst the hot cereal. I must have stood in front of the ocean of oatmeal (seriously, how many flavors of oatmeal do we need?) for 10 minutes before the sky parted, the angels started singing and the rays of light beamed down upon the single box of instant grits. Grateful, grateful, that's what I was (even though the box was past its expiration date). And for the record: Cream of Wheat is not a substitute for grits.

I believe anything as popular as grits deserves its own festival. So each April the good folks of Saint George (about an hour west of Charleston) host the annual World Grits Festival, probably drawing both hardcore grits lovers and the curious. Aside from the obligatory grits-eating contest, attractions include grits grinding, the corn shelling competition and the crowning of "Miss Grits." There is also lots and lots of food involving grits to be had. But I was not prepared for the Great Grits Roll. 

In a nut shell, an inflatable swimming pool is filled with cooked grits and contestants have 10 seconds to dive in and coat themselves with as much grits as possible. Contestants wear big hats and loose pants with lots of pockets because the person with the most pounds of grits on their body wins the first prize (they weigh you before and after to determine this). Shut your eyes and picture solo mud wrestling but in grits--and with more clothes on. Seriously, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried! 

(photos copyright of World Grit Festival)

I was very upfront with E. G. about my job envy. But then he dropped the hammer: As the Quaker Oats representative, he gets to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the Roll and also . . . drum roll please . . . must take the inaugural roll! Now I covet his job no more, but do want to see the photos. And while I will forever remain a staunch grits lover, I now know I want to be wrapped in cashmere not dipped in grits when I die. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Off the Wagon

I know that your body is a temple. I also know that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who eat to live and those who live to eat. I definitely fall in the latter camp. I'd honestly rather starve than eat a bad meal. It's not my fault that so many of the glorious things that make for a good meal involve pork fat, which is not very temple-friendly. But I still try to be a healthy eater on an aggregate basis. [OK, I'm just going to come right out and acknowledge that I've had a long and tormented love affair with Dr. Pepper. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right?] Living in California actually helps. Firstly, you have access to amazing produce all year round. Secondly, the mild climate means more beach time and if seeing yourself in a bathing suit isn't motivation enough to make better food choices and/or exercise I don't know what is. Thirdly, there are no Chick-fil-A's out here. 

But I'm not the most disciplined person in the world. I have a terrible/brilliant (you decide) skill of rationalizing something I want. Like why I should continue lounging on the sofa watching Food Network instead of going to my yoga class. Or even though I've given up Dr. Pepper for Lent, if I drink the can while waiting for my lunch order to come up then it doesn't count. And to make matters worse, I can be quite stubborn. So if you tell me that something is off limits to eat, you can bet I'll take great pleasure in making that the primary food in my diet. The only solution viable for me is to leave room for a little sinning every now and then.  

While this philosophy works for the most part, there are times when the forces are against you and this whole approach goes completely out the window. Like last night. It was really windy and bizarrely cold for this time of year (a frigid 50 degrees! What are we paying for here?!). For me that is like kryptonite and Superman: there is no defense. The only reasonable thing I could do was pig out on fattening comfort foods.  

Since I'm an overachiever, I can't help but give 110% in all I do. So I had to start with this 

and then drudge onward to this 

Spurred on by the beautiful fire roaring nearby, there was no denying that several glasses of wine would be needed to wash down all that hard work. And when I thought it couldn't get any better/worse, I realized there was a box of Thin Mints in my freezer waiting for a "rainy day." 

Thankfully the winds have died down, the warm weather is back and I'm happy to report I'm eating a banana (although I'm really kicking myself for not saving any pizza to eat as leftovers). 

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Few of My Favorite Things

On the night before Easter, Russ and I found ourselves watching The Sound of Music, which has always been one of my all-time favorite movies. I dreamt of an acting career after seeing this for the first time at age 4 or 5, hoping to be cast as the next member of the Von Trapp family. The fact that I cannot sing did not seem to be an issue for me at that time. I can recite almost every line and have to hold myself back from singing each song, especially "My Favorite Things." While I'm not sure why they always show this classic at Easter, it got me thinking about some of my other springtime favorites. It may seem like a strange combination but asparagus, raspberries and peeps are at the top of the list. It seemed fitting that these very things had woven their way into my Easter plans.  

After some rainy, cool weather, I was so happy the Sun decided to grace us with her presence for the weekend. She generated a baseline buzz that was palpable Saturday at the Farmers Market and around town as people busied themselves with purchases and plans for Easter. I was out getting *provisions* for an Easter brunch for 15 friends and made a beeline for the asparagus stand at the market. It's a delight to see pencil-thin asparagus stacked a foot high and 15 feet across. Asparagus, glorious asparagus.

As I child, I never imagined such a thought would cross my mind, considering most of the asparagus I recall pretending to eat had a mush-like consistency and a pukey green color. But, on the other hand, back then I could put away a whole can of Vienna sausages in minutes. [Have you ever wondered how poor Vienna got associated with questionable canned meat? I did and apparently in many European countries any pre-cooked and sometimes smoked wieners bought fresh from butcher shops are called Vienna sausage. I feel pretty strongly that Armour/Pinnacle Food Corp has taken some pretty extreme poetic license.]  

I'm glad to say that my tastes have changed dramatically since then. Asparagus is now one of my most loved vegetables. And with some bright raspberries in my sight, I picked up a few pints to make an oldie but a goodie: raspberry-asparagus medley. 

It rounded out the rest of the brunch menu: thyme-honey glazed ham, hash brown "quiche," Russ' applesauce, and my grandmother's buttermilk biscuits, which try as I might are never as good as hers. That's why I've asked her to will me her pans and skillets. I'm hoping they're the secret ingredient. 

And to properly celebrate Easter (even as adults), you've got to have the right candy, so I made sure to pick up some of the mandatories: chocolate covered marshmallow eggs, jelly beans and peeps! I got a Martha Stewart-esque wild hair when I saw the peeps and made these really cute utensil rolls. 

They were the perfect compliment to the sunny daisies and wheat grass (which the cat would not stop eating) I arranged as the centerpiece. 

But the real highlight of the brunch was not the food or decorations. It was the First Annual Peep Regatta. 

What, might you ask, is a Peep Regatta? It's the synthesis of a bunch of guys sitting out by the pool eating peeps and drinking Bloody Marys when one of them tosses out the question, "Hey, what do you think happens if you put a peep in the pool?" I'm sure you get the picture. 

It may not be be a well-known sport (or one with a long history) but it's full of drama:

Peeps getting sucked into the pool drain; some rebel peeps DQ-ed for sailing off course; 

and a photo finish to determine second place.

Unfortunately, our friend Ryan's idea of creating a sail made from toothpicks and Splenda packets back fired. 

I have to admit I was worried the bright yellow fellows would melt once they hit the water. I'm happy to report that they're resilient little creatures. And people are already buzzing about how to pimp their peep to walk away with the winner's cup next year. 

Raspberry-Asparagus Medley
by Linder Hunt (published by Southern Living)

This can be whipped up in minutes, serves a crowd and there is never any left over, which I take as the ultimate compliment. And for brunch, I was looking for something that was more interesting than your typical fruit bowl. 

1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp raspberry preserves
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1 lb asparagus, tender parts only
1 1/2 cup fresh raspberries
2 Tbsp chopped pecans toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Combine first four ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest. 
Cook asparagus in boiling water 2 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain and plunge into ice water bath. Remove and drain. [The asparagus can also be steamed in the microwave. Just make sure you don't overcook them. I usually zap them for 2 to 3 minutes first to see how done they get and then add time accordingly. It's still a good idea to follow with the ice bath to keep the green color.]
Toss the asparagus in the raspberry mixture and place on a serving platter. For a more impressive presentation, make sure your asparagus are all pointing in the same direction. Sprinkle the fresh raspberries over the asparagus and drizzle the fresh lemon juice on top. For the final touch, sprinkle the pecans all around. Yields: Six servings. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Faking It

I was thrilled to receive an unexpected box in the mail today. It wasn't my birthday though. And I'd already received an adult version of an Easter basket, which includes things like eggs brimming with fine dark chocolate and a beautiful scarf, from my parents a week earlier. I hadn't ordered anything that I could recall so my curiosity was definitely piqued. 

I am not a wrapping paper ripper though. I'm quite methodical when it comes to opening gifts (like many other things in my life), but I admit this one got me opening at an elevated pace due to its mysteriousness. Although it could also have been the fact that I was very hungry and there was a possibility that the box was filled with more dark chocolate since I'd already cleaned out my Easter basket.  

But low and behold inside was a pair of sparkly flip-flops from my mom!  

The card said she hoped I was already enjoying "barefoot weather." For a period of three years when I was in elementary school, my father was stationed at the US Military Academy in West Point, NY. We embraced the four seasons there, but I have to point out that in the Northeast Spring gets the short end of the stick. You often go from snow to rain, rain, and more rain and then all of a sudden it's June and Summer shows up. I used to call my granddad and ask him if he was having barefoot weather. That was how I defined Spring growing up, and I had come to really miss it when April showers overstayed their welcome. 

The problem with rain in Southern California is that it's not supposed to rain here. So when it does it's like a snow storm in Atlanta. People forget how to drive, the stores are empty because people hole up indoors, and I get depressed. As much as I enjoy visiting (and more importantly eating in) Seattle and Portland, I know I could never live there. I'd be one of those orange people walking around, clearly having spent way too much time at a tanning parlor. And I'd be crabby. I think I might suffer from seasonal affective disorder, which is why I live in Santa Barbara. But today was not cooperating. It was decidedly gray with rain showers to add salt to the wound. 

Using my surprise package as inspiration, I decided that I would fake some barefoot weather. I painted my toenails and walked around the house in my dazzling new thongs as people out here say. It makes me laugh every time because I associate that with "unmentionables," not something I'd put on my feet. But I'll call them anything you want if it means they can run in high rotation in my wardrobe. And I gazed admiringly at this photo of a flower that Russ bought for me at the Farmers Market last month. I thought it would serve as a good stand-in for the Sun until it gets its act together. 

And in case you're interested in a little cultural anthropology, Southerners like things that sparkle and shine. I have no doubt that the vast majority of BeDazzler owners live in the Southeast. Even Tana from the TV commercial said she searched all over New York and couldn't find one anywhere. She was clearly searching at too high of a latitude. Rhinestones, sequins, grommets, studs and metallics are all highly celebrated down South. No item is too sacred for some embellishment.  And something else near and dear to a Southerner's heart is painted toenails with open-toed shoes. Unpainted toe nails = tacky. And, perhaps surprisingly, sequined covered flip-flops = not tacky. Look, I don't know who makes up these rules, but they're alive and well in the South (and in Southerners afar). 

And shall we ever have the chance to meet, I'll be the one with the sparkly flip-flops and painted toenails in the midst of unadorned flip-flop wearing California girls with lovely manicured yet natural toenails. But I'll be sure to wait until after Easter to sport any of my white flip-flops or sandals because every good Southerner knows no white until after Easter! 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Guest of Honor

Growing up it seems my parents and their friends were quite the entertainers. I have such great memories of hanging out with lots of people, playing games, eating past a comfortable level and staying up late. Whether it was our home or a neighbor's, the motto "the more the merrier" really did seem to be the backbone philosophy and food was always at the center. It didn't have to be fancy — who doesn't love a grilled hotdog?! — but everything was always served with love and you went to bed wrapped in a blanket of community and comfort. 

Honestly, that's why I love to host parties. But I also really appreciate receiving an invitation to come to someone else's home to break bread, catch up, and foster that sense of a smaller world. There is a lot of work that goes into opening your home to others and feeding them (not to mention all the work required once everyone leaves). In return, I think it's nice to try to be a good dinner guest. Here are some thoughts on how to do that--and hopefully get invited back: 

1. Don't come early. Don't even come on time. Even the most organized hostess is probably not 100% done with all the preparations when the designated start time rolls around. Giving them a 10-15 minute grace period can do wonders to reduce their stress, allowing for the completion of last minute details. If it's a surprise party or you've made arrangements with the host to help set up, then of course punctuality is key.  But be wary of arriving too fashionably late for a dinner party. No one wants to be sitting around crunching on carrot sticks for 45 minutes waiting for the laggards to show up so the main course can commence.  

2. Don't come empty handed. Keep an eye out for hostess gifts throughout the year and pick up a few items so you always have them on hand. Possibilities are kitchen towels, candles, or fine food items like olive oil. Wine is almost always welcomed. [Note: the hostess doesn't have to serve your wine that evening.] I like to dress up a bottle with a pack of clever cocktail napkins or a beautiful wine stopper. It just adds a titch more to the whole presentation. There are some interesting (in a good way) spirits available that might make for a nice change. [Anyone for sweet tea vodka? It makes a wonderful base for a spiked Arnold Palmer.] You might find some beautiful fruit or vegetables to present. Just make sure they're hearty and not high maintanence. For instance, citrus has a longer shelf life than say a flat of ripe strawberries. However for the right person the strawberries may be the more thoughtful and appreciated gesture if you know they'd find great joy in making a pie with this unexpected windfall. Don't bring flowers unless they're in a container. It's a pain for the hostess to find a vase, trim the flowers, and make an arrangement.

3. Offer to help. It's nice to offer your assistance with the food prep, but most likely your host will appreciate you taking care of some of the often overlooked details of "making it all come together" like taking/filling drink orders, setting dishes on the table, getting serving utencils, etc.  One area I personally appreciate help on is clearing away the hors d'oeuvres.  While you're not expected to wash dishes, it's a nice gesture to help clear plates. You can stack plates on the kitchen counter (not in the sink) to make the clean up process more manageable and quicker. 

4. Volunteer to bring dessert. Unless your host is a baker at heart, dessert is often an afterthought or a nuisance. Elevating the dessert course is often a welcome and delicious contribution. If you don't have the time or desire to bake something, there are usually wonderful bakeries or gelaterias in most towns where you could pick up a dozen or so cookies or a few pints of various gelato flavors that are often seasonal — like blood orange or Thin Mint. Divine. But don't be daunted by the prospect of making a dessert. It doesn't have to be an all day commitment or a complicated, scary endeavor. There are some delicious comfort food desserts that take no skill and very little time to create. One of my all time dessert saviors (and favorites) is a fruit crumble. It's impossible to mess up, you can use any combination of available fresh (or even frozen) fruit, and you can bring it with you to bake at the host's home. Paired with vanilla ice cream it's really hard to beat. I have an upside-down cake recipe that might be one of the easiest desserts I've ever made. Not even a mixer is required! And no icing, which if you recall is one of my dessert deterrents. 

5. Don't become campers. Leave before you wear out your welcome. It's a sign of a good party when you lose track of time and realize you've been at your host's home longer than most people sleep in a night, but the hosts shouldn't be the ones who suffer. Remember they still have to clean up after you leave. 

6. And of course, don't forget to write a thank you note

Upside-Down Berry Cornmeal Cake
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

The cornmeal adds a nice texture and depth in flavor making this both luscious and homey. It's not overly sweet or filling and would compliment almost any meal.  

2 1/2 cups fresh berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and/or strawberries)
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 Tbsp each finely chopped fresh basil and mint
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup plus 2 tsp milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
Fresh mint to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 8 x 1 1/2 inch round cake pan and line with greased parchment paper. Arrange 2 cups berries in bottom of pan; set aside. In large bowl stir together flour, cornmeal, chopped basil and mint, baking powder and salt. Set aside. 

In medium bowl whisk eggs and then add 2/3 cup milk, sugar and oil. Add egg mixture all at once to the flour mixture. Stir by hand until combined. Pour batter over into prepared pan over berries and spread evenly. 
Bake for 40-45 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. [Note: I usually start checking at 35 minutes because all ovens are slightly different and you don't want to overcook it.] Cool in pan on wire rack for 5 minutes. Run small knife around edge of pan to loosen sides of cake. Invert onto serving plate and remove parchment paper. 
Combine powdered sugar, remaining 2 tsp milk, lemon juice and lemon zest in small bowl to form a glaze. Lightly brush over warm cake. Top with remaining fresh berries and mint for garnish; drizzle with honey. Yields 10 servings.