Saturday, December 31, 2011

So Long

So long, 2011! It's been swell but I'm pretty much counting down the minutes until 2012. I'm really looking forward to the New Year. I have a feeling 2012 is going to rock.

I hope everyone has a fabulous time watching the ball drop or whatever your pleasure may be. I am excitedly awaiting the start of a cook fest with two of my best girl friends. We're having an "around the clock" party, where we each cook two dishes from different times of the day and serve it with an appropriate beverage. I got an early lunch (11 am) so am making paninis with a Sangiovese to sip, and then got midnight so am going with my favorite late night food—pizza!!!—and champagne of course. You can't ring in the New Year without some bubbly!

Wishing y'all a safe and special night, and thanks for reading!

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things

I'm back in Santa Barbara after spending Christmas with my family in the Low Country. I haven't heard a Christmas carol in a few days since my return. It's kind of sad. My mom always starts playing them the day after Thanksgiving and has amassed quite a collection of holiday ditties over the years. She's got all the classics like Bing Crosby, some new ones (i.e. the little girl who placed second on America's Got Talent), and my personal favorite, 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol soundtrack. I love listening to them all. The one exception is Julie Andrew's My Favorite Things. Not to sound like a scrooge but I don't know how that slipped into the category of Christmas carols. Have you listened to the lyrics? There is not one iota of Christmas in it. It's got bees stinging and dogs biting for goodness sakes. There's a reference to Winter but even that's a stretch. But I do like the song because I love The Sound of Music. In fact, I had big plans to perform in the musical when I was young. Too bad I can't sing. I even wanted to change my name to Gretel for awhile. So as the year comes to a close, I wanted to share with you a few of my favorite things from the holidays.

Favorite meal: We've started a tradition of gorging ourselves on Apalachicola oysters, which my brother generously hauls to us each year.

Favorite gift: the glasses my nephew received that double as a straw.

Favorite beverage: Real Coke made with real sugar served out of a real bottle. Perfection.

Favorite laugh: The wine my brother picked up for me — at the gas station! I asked him to get a bottle to go with the short ribs I was serving for dinner. This is a plastic "goblet" of (questionable) Merlot packaged with an aluminum seal and a plastic lid, which was stolen from a Pringle's can, I'm sure. Talk about red neck!

Favorite serendipitous moment: Sunrise on the creek.

Happy New Year's Eve Eve, y'all.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


I know the final days of shopping are upon us. Christmas is literally just around the corner. Yikes. Each year there's someone in my life I'm frantically running around town for, desperately trying to find the *perfect gift* and coming up empty handed store after store. On the other hand, there's always my dad who, when asked what he'd like for Christmas, simply replies year after year, "CCCs!!!" In fact, he usually starts campaigning for CCCs around his birthday in October. "Where are my CCCs?" . . . . "You're making CCCs for me for Christmas, right?" . . . . "You know what would taste good right about now? A CCC . . . "

What on Earth might you ask is that?! It's a Chocolate Chip Cookie. Well, specifically my homemade chocolate chip cookies. While some people claim to have the greatest CCC recipe with all sorts of fancy twists and unique spins, sometimes just a plain ole chocolate chip is hard to beat. I always go with the Tollhouse recipe on the back of the chocolate chip bag. And therein lies the humor around "my special CCCs." They're not special at all. They're the most ordinary chocolate chip cookie in the world and yet my father claims mine are the best! How that's possible remains a mystery to me. In fact, my sister-in-law and I crack up every Christmas when my dad opens his box of CCCs and exclaims, "These are the best in the world!" Because truly anyone can make these cookies. In fact, they do. In fact my sister-in-law did make these for my dad once in an act of kindness. And he had the nerve (and short-sightedness) to tell her that mine were better! I mean really. It's the same damn cookie! It's certainly not better.

But this morning I woke up to the sunrise on the creek at my parent's house to make my grandmother's famous buttermilk biscuits for everyone for breakfast. My grandmother, whom we call Monk, makes the best biscuits in the world. And I have legions of people who have tasted them and would agree vehemently. She gave me her recipe a few years ago. Well, she's 92 so doesn't actually use recipes. She cooks and bakes from memory and years and years of practice. Anyway, she taught me how to make her biscuits and even watches me execute them. She says I do it the same way she does, using the same recipe and technique, and yet I refuse to agree that they taste the same. Her's are the best. Mine are not. But people still gobble them up and tell me how good they are. But to me, they're still not Monk's.

And I realized that's why when someone else serves my dad a Tollhouse CCC, he will say they're not as good as mine. It's because sometimes the gift is the person who gave it to you, not the gift.

Happy {Early} Christmas to all.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Red and Green

Fight as I may, I might as well just accept the fact that the holidays are upon us. It just seems like yesterday it was Easter though. And while I might still stomp my feet and pitch a small fit in protest of yet another year hurtling by, Christmas is here. And because my defiance was no match for Father Time, I made this soup instead . . . as a partial concession and because I like soup.

The last part of that statement may seem the equivalent to someone saying, "Puppies are cute." Duh. Everyone knows that. Everyone loves soup, especially when the weather starts to dip and you're looking for something to warm you up. I hear my friends wax poetic about "I loved when it rained and my mom would make me a grilled cheese and tomato soup. . . ." I'm with them on the grilled cheese. But tomato soup? Yuck. To this day, you won't see me put a spoonful of that to my mouth, but I finally did smarten up when it came to soup. For whatever reason, I was a late bloomer. I guess I was too busy eating butter sandwiches. I'm embarrassed to admit that actually involved Squeeze Parkay, which is perhaps one of the more questionable butter substitutes on the market. But soup is something I've just kind of discovered and embraced in the last 5 or so years. Now I probably eat it several times a week (even if it's just take-out from the local grocery store). It's an easy and healthful option for lunch when I am tempted to eat pizza (which is nearly a daily battle). And it's so nice to make a big vat of it on a weekend and freeze in individual containers to access when I come home from another business trip to an empty refrigerator.

I have some standby soup recipes, but I stumbled upon this recipe a few months ago and thought I'd try it out. It was called Christmas soup, which I thought was random. I wasn't aware of a traditional Christmas soup. I kept reading through the online comments for some tale of tradition but ended up none the wiser. Then I made it and realized how blonde I really am. Seriously, there are stereotypes for a reason, people! Anyway, the ingredients for the soup are all red and green, the ubiquitous colors of the holidays, hence the name Christmas soup. It makes for a very festive soup this time of year. It also makes for a very delicious one, which is more important. Red and green can only take you so far if it tastes like crap.

The soup includes red and green bell peppers, red bliss potatoes, red kidney beans, I added some sausage with peppers in it to keep the red and green theme going, and of course green kale because seriously wasn't it some sort of law that you had to eat kale this year? You couldn't escape kale if you tried. I really do love it but I think its 15 minutes of fame are up. Let another vegetable have the spotlight, you know?

This would make for the perfect dish to whip up over the holidays when time is short and stomachs are growling. It's also a one-pot wonder, which is great because you can spend more time enjoying another glass of eggnog, er. . . I mean enjoying the magic of the season with your family instead of scrubbing dishes in the kitchen.

Christmas Soup
Adapted from Alton Brown

1 lb pre-cooked sausage, sliced 1/4-inch thick on the bias (the original recipe called for keilbasa but I used a roasted pepper turkey sausage)
Vegetable oil, as needed
8 cloves or garlic, minced
2 15 oz cans kidney beans, rinsed
1 15 oz can garbanzo beans, rinsed
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
2 cups onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 1/2 qt chicken broth
1 lb red bliss potatoes, cubed
6 oz fresh kale (approximately 4 large handfuls)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

Place the sausage into a Dutch over and set over medium-low heat. Cook meat until it's has browned well, approximately 15 minutes. Add a little vegetable oil if needed. Remove meat from the pan and set aside.
Add 2 tsp of oil unless there is already that left in the pan after browning the meat and cook onions, bell peppers and garlic and cook for approximately 7-10 minutes, stirring often over medium heat. Add the beans, diced tomatoes and chicken broth. Cover and cook for 45 minutes. Add the potatoes, cover and cook an additional 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Wash, rinse and trim the stem from the kale and tear into bite size pieces. Add the kale to the pot, cover and cook for another 10 minutes until just tender but not mushy.
Add the red wine vinegar, black pepper and sausage to the pot. Stir to combine and serve.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Man Cave Cuisine

The Man Cave. That boys only room or haven used to escape the wife/girlfriend and any feminine decorating (and commentary). I always envision men drinking beer while sitting in their black leather Lazy-boy and watching the Laker Girls on a 100-inch flatscreen TV or reading the "interviews" in a certain men's magazine (because, of course, I haven't been invited to one to verify this). I have several start-up medical device companies as clients, which are almost always comprised of a small team of male engineers stuffed into a tiny office where they spend incredibly long hours together working on the next great innovation. In many ways, I suppose that is a Man Cave too. . . just not the good kind.

As I was putting together my holiday gift list, I was wracking my brain for something manly I could make for these male clients. I know guys love homemade baked goods, but I wanted something a bit more unique and something overtly masculine. Something fitting for a Man Cave (both the personal and the professional kind). Well, I believe this recipe hits it out of the ball park. Oh yes, this is real Man Cave Cuisine. This is a baked good drenched in testosterone — with a steroid chaser!

It's probably the most quintessentially manly food on the planet: Bacon-Bourbon Brownies! That's right. Throw in a cigar and the men may never again emerge from the cave — unless they're looking for more of these decadent treats.

It started out so innocent, if you can call chocolate and butter melting into a luscious liquid that. But things started getting crazy when I poured bacon grease into the melted chocolate. I know. Totally ridiculous. Actually, I admit I was a bit scared at first. Like the first time I tasted bacon-infused vodka. It sounds like a bad idea but when you taste the finished product you realize the genius in it. But the 3 Tbsp the recipe called for seemed like so much. But really, has anyone ever tasted a fried egg cooked in bacon grease? It's heaven on Earth. And you know why? The bacon grease. So, I went for it. I actually added nearly 4 Tbsp! Living dangerously, I know.

Then I mixed in some sugar, salt, baking powder (which wasn't called for but I didn't think adding a leavening agent would be a bad idea — after all this was supposed to be a brownie not fudge) . . . .

Oh yes, and a healthy dose of bourbon. I think we've already established that everything tastes better with bacon, but I'm going to go ahead and add bourbon to that list.

People love rum cakes, so why not bourbon brownies? People love salted caramels so why not salted brownies (via crumbled bacon)? I can assure you this recipe is a winner. Unless you ask a doctor. He may not be so thrilled, but it is that time of year for indulgences. So make these for your favorite man, who may be that jolly man all dressed in red. You'll surely make the Nice list with these.

Bacon-Bourbon Brownies with Pecans
From Food and Wine

1/2 cup pecans
1/2 lb sliced bacon
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 stick plus 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
3 Tbsp bourbon
4 large eggs
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-in square baking pan with parchment paper, allowing 2 inches of overhang on 2 opposite sides. Spray the paper with vegetable spray. Spread pecans in a pie plate and toast for about 8 minutes, until fragrant. Let cool, then coarsely chop the nuts.
2. In a skillet or microwave, cook the bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels and let cool. Reserve 3 Tbsp of the bacon fat. Finely chop the bacon.
3. In a saucepan, combine both chocolates with the butter and stir over very low heat, until melted; scrape into a large bowl. Using a handheld electric mixer, beat in both sugars with the reserved 3 Tbsp of bacon grease. Beat in the bourbon. Add the eggs, salt and baking powder and beat until smooth. Sift the cocoa and flour into the bowl and beat until blended.
4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the bacon and pecans on top. Bake for about 45 - 50 minutes, until the brownies are set around the edges but slightly wobbly in the center; a toothpick inserted into the center should have some batter clinging to it. I would suggest checking as early as 40 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and let the brownies cool completely. Lift the brownies out of the pan using the overhanging parchment paper. Cut into squares or rectangles and serve.

Friday, December 9, 2011

All I Want For Christmas

What do I want for Christmas this year? Well, it's a toss up between J. Crew's Cashmere of the Month Club and this:

Selections from High Road Craft Ice Cream out of Atlanta include bourbon burnt sugar ice cream and an Old Fashioned sorbet with Maker's Mark bourbon, Angostura bitters, brandied cherries and a fizzy citrus twist. Seriously?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hard Liquor

I usually prefer my bourbon neat, but if that isn't your cup of tea, you should try it cascading over brie.

I know you're thinking, "Did I just read that correctly?" Trust me. It's not gross. It's downright addictive. I made this bourbon-infused caramel topped brie for my bourbon tasting party and it was devoured.

Don't believe me? Please refer to Exhibit A:

Exhibit A

It was once a stunning appetizer. A real show-stopper. Please refer to Exhibit B to see it in its former glory:

Exhibit B

People gawked and asked, "What on Earth is this lovely and glistening gem you've put in front of me?" (I'm paraphrasing but it was pretty darn close to that.) People turned starry-eyed like a kid in a candy store, all mesmerized and gleeful as their hand reached involuntarily towards the platter and some elbowing of other guests was involved as they jockeyed to grab the knife. It's that kind of appetizer.

While I wish I could claim credit for this genius idea, it must go to Martha Stewart. I found this recipe in an old cookbook of hers, circa 1984, but, unlike many of Martha's recipes, this really was easy and effortless. There was no barn raising involved. In fact, when I think about it, it's probably one of the fastest and most delicious hors d'oeuvres I think I've made. It's great for a party because you can present it and forget about it. Meanwhile, it's pseudo interactive with your guests as they enjoy chipping away at the hard caramel topping to reach the luscious, creamy brie below. It's the perfect combination of sweet and savory. And it strikes an odd yet wonderful balance between being sophisticated yet somehow very playful.

Usually I pour the caramel over a wheel of brie, but for whatever reason the whole of Santa Barbara County was devoid of wheels. So I just used two large wedges, which seemed to still do the trick.

So if you're in need of a fabulous appetizer to bring to a holiday party or are just desperate for something effortless to put out for family and friends on Christmas Eve or for Christmas dinner, this is it. You could spend hours creating something much more intricate and complex, but I promise you this would beat it hands down. OK, maybe a rice crispy treat would give this a run for the money for its equal ease of effort to pull together and its universally loved nature, but that's technically a dessert. As such, I think my claim stands.

Bourbon Caramel Brie
Adapted from Martha Stewart

1 wheel of brie (about 2 1/2 lbs)
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp bourbon (optional)
12 - 16 pecan or walnut halves

Place the brie on a serving platter. I prefer wood but you can use something else. If you're concerned about easy clean up, you may want to put a sheet of parchment paper under the brie to cover the surface of the platter.
Combine the sugar, water and bourbon in heavy saucepan and melt the sugar, swirling the pan from time to time. Do not stir as it will cause the sugar to crystalize.
When the mixture begins to boil, cover the pan to allow condensation to drip back down and melt any crystalized sugar on the side of the pan. Uncover after 3-5 minutes and continue cooking over high heat until the sugar becomes a deep golden color, probably another 5 - 10 minutes. The temperature of the caramel should be hard crack, 300 degrees. [Note, I didn't use a candy thermometer. I just cooked it until it reached a truly amber color and it was clearly thickened. It can burn, though, so watch it like a hawk.]
Immediately pour the carmel over the brie to cover the top evenly, allowing the excess to drip down the sides of the cheese. You may have to tilt the cheese slightly to get the caramel to spread evenly. Be very careful not to touch the caramel because it is super hot and also work quickly because it starts to harden upon contact. Press nuts around the perimeter of the cheese. Serve within an hour with cheese and grapes.
To free the platter of any residual caramel, you can either run it under really hot water or stick it in the freezer for a few minutes and the caramel will simply pop off.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Independent Study

To say I was inspired to continue my "studies" after my trip down the Bourbon Trail is a gross understatement. Basically, I got home, went to the liquor store, bought 5 different bottles of bourbon and decided to invite some friends over to do our own tasting (so I wouldn't feel self-conscious about drinking alone, of course).

I made my own Santa Barbara passport so people could check off each one they tried. Many were not avid or even pretend bourbon drinkers but they were all very good sports and everyone did sample. I'm happy to report some even came back for refills. It was fun to read people's comments.

Angel's Envy was one of the favorites of the night, especially for the non-bourbon drinkers. It was just released this year and has been getting rave reviews. I was in Louisville again a few weeks ago and every bar was sold out of it. Now, that's hard to do in Kentucky! What makes it so unique? It's aged in port barrels for six months after it's been aged in new white oak barrels for four to six years. The result: a very, very smooth bourbon with a fruity, jammy note. It's a bit lighter on the palette but I think that's why some "beginners" really took to it. If you can find it, do try it. It's a treat. Plus it has a cool bottle with angel wings on the back.

In case you're interested in doing some "independent studying" of your own, here's the drill:
1. Look it over — Pour yourself a drink and take some time to study the color. A darker color tends to mean longer storage time, higher proof or some combination of the two.
2. Give it a twirl — Get a firm grip on the glass and swish the bourbon around, a move called aerating. This allows the drink to breathe a bit, which makes for a better tasting experience.
3. Take a deep breath — Part your lips, place your nose deep into the glass, and give the brew a sniff. By opening your mouth slightly while inhaling, you can avoid being overpowered by the alcohol. The smell gives a preview to the taste.
4. Have a drink — To get a complete flavor profile, take a large sip from the glass and work it around to coat the inside of your mouth. This allows the mix to hit different parts of the tongue, from the sweet-sensing tip to the sour-sensing sides.
5. OK, now swallow — Pay careful attention to the flavors as the brew slides down your throat. Test how long those flavors linger. For quality bourbon, the taste should hang around for 15 - 20 seconds.
6. Water it down — Imagine the flavor of undiluted bourbon as a closed fist. Adding in a dose of water to your mix will help you customize the flavor, creating a more intense flavor than drinking the mix uncut.
7. On the rocks — Try pouring the bourbon over ice. As you slowly sip the beverage, the ice begins to melt, allowing you to slowly experience a full range of the bourbon's flavor.

We start them early in Santa Barbara! ;-)

And because I am a sucker for themes, I had to design a menu which included foods with bourbon in them. That way people could eat their bourbon too! The menu included: pulled pork sliders with bourbon BBQ sauce, butternut squash and bourbon bisque, and bourbon caramel topped brie. Recipes to come. For dessert, my friend, Meredith, made these ridiculous bourbon pecan pies. I know, I have nice friends!

I think a good time was had by all considering it didn't wind down until the wee hours of the morning.

After surveying the scene the morning after, I'd say a good bit of damage was done.

I guess it could've been worse: "How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon — and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter." — W.C. Fields, actor

Although I usually try to clean up somewhat before I go to bed after a party, there is always that elusive glass you find the next morning that just wreaks and reminds you of a fraternity house.