Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Herbs and Spice Make Everything Nice

'Kick it up a notch!' Emeril demands. 'Turn up the volume,' Ina counters. The music lover in me will take a sampling from the pot and declare "We need to crank this up louder." More salt. More thyme. More sage. More chili powder. We tweak, we taste, we tweak some more; until we find just the right balance of flavor that we're envisioning for our culinary masterpiece. Most typically, the tweaking comes from salt, pepper, and two groups of flavor boosters: the herbs and the spices (sounds like gang warfare, doesn't it?). Wait a minute, you say! I thought herbs and spices were one group ... they're both on my "spice" rack!

Herbs and spices are not the same thing. Repeat after me: herbs are herbs, spices are spices, herbs are not spices, spices are not herbs. Repeat again. Got it? Got it but don't get it? Okay, start by staring at those jars on your spice rack. Those whose contents are green in color are herbs. Herbs, by definition, are the leaves only from plants. Herbs include, but are not exclusive to, basil, oregano, parsley, sage, thyme, rosemary, mint, chives, tarragon, bay leaves and marjoram. Herbs are used in flavoring food as well as beverages. Herbs are also used in holistic medical treatments. Certain herbs are also appreciated by many for their mental uplifting capabilities ... think catnip in your kitty's mice and of the human's variation of such, you get the idea.

Another visual inspection of your spice rack will reveal jars containing substances in all sorts of autumnal hues. Those are your spices. Spices are not leaves, we have just established that herbs are leaves. Spices are obtained from just about any other part of the plant: bark, seeds, roots, stems, fruits, etc. There is a whole world of spices out there, some of the more commonly used ones include cinnamon, paprika, nutmeg, cloves, chili powder, cayenne pepper, coriander, ginger and saffron. Spices have also been used for centuries in perfumes, medicinal treatments, religious and funeral ceremonies. Spices were long ago considered rich commodities that were extremely sought after, to the point where expeditions which lead to the discovery of the new world were prompted by the need to expand the spice trade routes.

Now I want you to look at your spice rack some more. Ponder the idea of why such a storage unit is called a "spice" rack, and then ponder just how long yours has held some of those jars of herbs. The point I am trying to convey should come to you: fresher is better! It's time to clean house, consider this part of your fall cleanup this year: remove and discard those dried herbs. Their shelf life is so short, their color fades and with it the flavor, they are not worth the money spent or the space taken on your rack. When herbs have just been dried, their flavor is more concentrated that their fresh origins, and so one teaspoon of dried herbs is equivalent to one tablespoon of fresh. However, the potency is very short-lived. You have no inkling how long that jar of parsley was sitting on the supermarket shelf before it came home with you. Your best and most rewarding option is to grow your own herbs. Herbs aren't fussy, they are nearly foolproof to grow. All you need is a sunny windowsill, preferably in the kitchen but beggars can't be choosy, and a set of pots. If you commence this project in the spring, garden centers have seedlings (tiny baby plants sold in cell packs) which you can transplant into your pots. Once the herb plants are established, you'll always have access to fresh herbs right at your fingertips. Supermarkets also sell fresh herbs in their produce department. I would recommend planting those three to five which you use most often and buy the rest as you need them for recipes. You will see and taste such a difference once you abandon the dried herbs and go fresh.

Spices are a little more difficult to come by when it comes to growing and harvesting, given that it takes a little more effort to harvest some of them as opposed to simply plucking leaves. For instance, next time you feel like making a saffron cream sauce do you really feel up to removing the stamens from a backyard-full of crocus flowers? Hey, if you plant a few nutmeg trees, you'll get two-for-one on the spices: both the nutmeg seed itself comes from the center of the nutmeg tree's fruit, and the membrane surrounding that seed is dried and ground into another spice called mace. A more realistic option might be to purchase the spices rather than try to produce your own. Most spices sold commercially are in the ground form, facilitating the ease of grabbing off the shelf, measuring and thereby quickly executing your cooking project. One can, however, find some spices in their whole form. Obviously those need to be processed by you, traditionally with the use of a mortar and pestle if you feel that your forearm needs a good workout or, the modern-preferred method, through use of an extra coffee bean grinder which you would purchase and use only for pulverizing whole spices.

There are many available jars of 'blends' available. One is the Herbs de Provence, which is a blend of basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, summer savory and lavender. I don't use this often enough to justify planting lavender in my kitchen and it is not something you will find in the produce section at the market. This is the one exception of purchased jarred herbs I will buy. Italian seasoning is another mostly-herbal blend. Some spice blends include garam masala, a delicious and aromatic addition to Indian cooking, which blends up to twelve different spices. Jerk seasoning is a Caribbean blend used to season some heat into grilled meats. Curry powder is another Indian blend of up to twenty different spices.

Oh, so now your spice rack looks a little meager, does it? Full of gaps now that you've eradicated the dried herbs? It will look much better when you go ahead and fill in the gaps with some more spices. There are so many ethnicities of cuisine out there, each one reaping the enhancement benefits of its own combination of herbs and spices. Think about which ones you enjoy cooking and feasting upon the most. If you crave Mexican food, there are several different chili powders you should keep on hand, including chipotle and ancho. You will also want cumin as part of the southwestern repertoire. If Indian food is your specialty, be sure that you have coriander, garam masala, cardamom, curry powder and turmeric. As far as herbs go, you will want cilantro for both. If you love the Mediterranean flavors of Italy, France, Spain and Morocco, you should grow some basil, oregano and parsley and pick up jars of saffron and crushed red pepper flakes (and a vast supply of garlic cloves is a must as well!). Bakers should be sure to keep cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ground ginger.

Both herbs and spices are used together to enhance meats, seafood, poultry, vegetables, starches, desserts and beverages. Roasting some red and yellow onions which have been cut into wedges and seasoned simply with salt and pepper and drizzled with olive oil are a pretty good side to a chicken entree or a steak. Now add some fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley, along with a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar to the original dish and you have something much nicer. A serving bowl of pasta in a delicate cream sauce looks delicious. Sprinkle some freshly chopped parsley over it and the visual appeal is heightened. Baked chicken drums with salt and pepper? Boring!! Make it more appetizing by mixing up a few spices with a little olive oil and some orange juice and you have something more exciting happening in your oven. You can even make an omelet have more dimension by beating some chopped fresh herbs into the eggs.

It's all about making the food sing and making at least one dish of every meal be the star at the table. If you pick the meat entree to liven up, have fun with it, tweak to your palate's content and plate a knock-your-socks-off platter that you'll be so proud of. Then you can take things a little simpler with the rest of the meal if time or motivation is limited. By keeping the right variety of spices and herbs on hand to get your creative juices flowing, you'll season up a great meal every time that will keep diners coming back for more.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Last Calls to the Grill!

July on Long Island proved to be a scorcher, second hottest on record they say. So far August has mellowed just a bit as summer prepares to make a graceful exit. Soon the kids are back in school, then before we know it the holiday mayhem presents. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, you cry, we still have a month of those lazy days of summer to go! So how are you going to spend those days of summer bliss? What are YOU going to be eating?

The farm stands are now at their peak for fresh produce, and the colorful fruits of summer beckon us to devour our fill now while we still can, before the oh-too-short lived season of peaches, cherries and berries gives way to apples, oranges and pears for eight months! Now that the days are less stifling, it's a perfect time to bake some summer fruit pies, tarts and crumbles. This week I'm making a luscious summer berry pie which includes blueberries, blackberries and raspberries in the filling. I recently saw a recipe in a cooking magazine for a peach ice cream pie in an amaretti crust, only need to fire up the oven long enough for the crust on that one. Tarts are simple and can be topped with a combination of fruits, such as sliced plums and nectarines. The least amount of prep time in your kitchen is the fruit crumble, another dessert that can be made with any combination of fruits that you like. Personally, when I'm spending a day at the beach or on a picnic, there's nothing like a big, ripe, juicy farm fresh peach. Simple, summer, sweet. Fruit salads are also refreshing ends to a meal, whether you mix as many varieties of berries as you can in one bowl, or combine various bright colors of peaches, strawberries, green grapes or kiwi, golden pineapple, plums and oranges it's all delicious. Make it special by whipping up some heavy cream with mascarpone cheese and a little sugar and vanilla to serve as a topping. Then there is always that favorite classic summer basic: the cool crispness of a moist and juicy watermelon. Try picking up melons of varying colors, such as red watermelon, green honeydew and orange cantaloupe. Attack all three with the melon baller and the finished product will be a trio of sorbet colored melon. Spike it up with a light drizzle of good vodka and allow to sit in the fridge until dessert.

Many of us are spending the final summer month huddled around the grill. Although barbecues can certainly be enjoyed into October, with drinks around the patio fireplace to keep warm, summer fare on the grill is one of those special pleasures unique to the season, like that of days spent on the beach. There are countless recipes for grilling these days. The beginning of the barbecue season has everybody craving those original classics like burgers. Spruce up your burgers, be creative with toppings. Anything goes. I love burgers topped with things like bacon, mushrooms, melted blue cheese - yes, all on one! While ribs are always a winner, few meats are shunned from the grill. Chicken, pork chops, pork tenderloin, steaks, fish and seafood, lamb, sausages, etc. In one week I made a cumin-rubbed pork tenderloin topped with peach salsa, tequila-lime chicken, and shrimp and scallop kebabs. There are enough recipes in books, magazines and online for homemade barbecue sauces, rubs and marinades for every day of the year never mind just the summer months. There is no excuse to buy bottled products that are over salted and over processed. There's a reason these products have long shelf lives, and you do not want to know those reasons. Let them live out their lives on the store shelf and instead whip up your own. You'll notice a difference right away when you taste it, believe me.

By now everybody is getting sick of the basic classic barbecue sides. How much cole slaw can you eat? A fair amount, actually, if you break out of the mayonnaise-based dressing mold. You can make a southwestern slaw by adding some cumin, scallions, jalapenos and a very basic southwestern vinaigrette. There are bags of precut vegetables for making an Asian slaw, I usually add to that peanuts, red peppers, scallions, bean sprouts and an Asian dressing and it's spectacular with any Asian grilled meats like pork chops with hoisin. The possibilities of what to add to a mound of shredded cabbage to make it exciting are endless. Likewise, potato salad doesn't have to always mean potatoes-eggs-onions-celery-mayo dressing. Change things up. Make an aioli for the dressing (a very garlicky mayonnaise to which I like to add a little saffron to as well) and toss some red potatoes with that and add some peas and chives. Easy, elegant and different. Make a vinaigrette to use instead of a mayonnaise-based dressing, then stir in some crumbled blue cheese and bacon with the potatoes. Or some green beans, red onion, yellow peppers and chopped tomatoes. Pasta salads can have more wow factor by using pesto instead of mayonnaise-based dressing and adding other Italian ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes and cubes of fresh mozzarella. Other nice salads for summer barbecues include layering some sliced heirloom tomatoes of different sizes and colors, drizzle with a vinaigrette and then sprinkling with blue cheese, chopped red onion and sliced celery. Thinly sliced fennel would be a fine change of pace from the blue cheese, onion and celery. Or instead of the vinaigrette for the heirloom tomatoes, make a homemade blue cheese dressing. I made a nice salad last weekend out of steamed-then-cooled green beans and yellow beans, halved grape tomatoes and a vinaigrette. You can roast a combination of summer produce, such as eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, onion, peppers and garlic, then toss with a balsamic vinaigrette and chill.

You can also get your veggies in by grilling them. Just about any vegetable can be grilled, and the farm stands are exploding in gorgeous specimens of summer vegetables. Sliced eggplants, zucchini, yellow squash, and halved patty pan squash. Corn on the cob needs little prep work, just whip up a seasoned butter and you're all set. Skewered large cherry tomatoes simply brushed with olive oil, salt and pepper are a quick and easy side to throw together. Steak-fry- cut wedges of sweet potatoes are great accompaniment for steaks or pork chops. Best thing to do: visit your local farm stand or farmers' market and browse. When you see something that calls out to you, take advantage and then plan the meal with that.

Getting tired of the same old baked beans? Toss together a salad with beans as an alternative. Black bean salad with chopped tomatoes, jicama, corn and scallions with a chili vinaigrette is perfect for any Mexican fare. Southern cooking screams for a salad of black-eye pea and corn salad with chopped bell peppers. Go Mediterranean with a salad of couscous, chick peas, scallions, kalamata olives and a balsamic vinaigrette. Two American classics include succotash salad which consists of corn, lima beans and bell peppers and can be made with either a creamy dressing or a vinaigrette, and the three bean salad which contains green beans, chick peas and red kidney beans in the mix.

Remember, ladies, the grill isn't just man's territory anymore, girls can grill! Next time your man is due to arrive home later than you, show him up one by having him walk into the backyard where you pull a perfectly seared steak, brushed with your own barbecue sauce, right off the grill and into his awaiting plate. Then set the plate down on the table which is complete with an heirloom tomato salad platter and a three bean salad. He won't know what hit him. Then again, once you demonstrate your skill with the grill, this welcome home may be an expected regular occurrence! Maybe you'd better just stick to teamwork on grill nights. Either way, ladies and gentlemen, choose your spatulas (or tongs, or forks), grab your cold drinks and get fired up. You've got some time left to grill it up hot.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Let's All Scream for Ice Cream!

Fourth of July is upon us, kids are out of school, it's still daylight at 7:30, meaning more outdoor fun time after dinner. Summer is officially here at last. Summer evokes visions of backyard barbecues, lounging in a pool, days spent at the beach, gardening, and yes, ice cream. As the heat and humidity rises, the last thing we feel like doing is cranking up the oven to bake a dessert. We'll welcome that moment come fall when apples are picked and we yearn for those first warming cinnamon and apple pie scents to waft through the house. For now, we'll just settle for that summer dessert favorite loved by all worldwide: ice cream. The cooling smoothness that permeates the palate is refreshing and comforting on a blistering hot day.

We all remember those summer nights of our youth playing outdoors after dinner with our neighborhood friends. As soon as we heard the distant jingling of the ice cream truck, we would all flock home at warp speed to transform into instant little beggars, insisting to our parents that we just had to have ice cream, PLEASE can we have some money, oh hurry, hurry, quick, he's coming! And then we would all go tearing back down the street after the truck like a pack of starved dogs. It is amazing what immature palates are willing to devour. I tried one of these ice cream truck treats once as an adult and found it to be just a notch above inedible. While chasing down the ice cream truck is probably still a childhood delight, perhaps the only source of physical activity they get all summer these days apart from the thumb-flexing drills of the video game marathons, there are much more rewarding frosty desserts for grownups, and for the kids too.

Next Friday or Saturday night after dinner, before the taunting ice cream truck makes its rounds, announce to the family that you're going out for ice cream. No kid will turn that down, and if you find a high quality ice cream parlour in your area, the ice cream will be infinitely better. I'm not talking about the big corporate chains, I'm talking about the little individual shops which sell premium ice cream and usually offer a wider array of flavors, toppings, cones, etc. I have been to two excellent ice cream shops locally, one is called McNutty's in Miller Place and the other is Hollywood Sweets in Ridge. For anyone visiting the Mystic area of Connecticut, there is a wonderful shop called Drawbridge Ice Cream. Make these family ice-cream night outings on a once-weekly basis throughout the summer vacation. Invite one or two of your child's friends to tag along on some of these pilgrimages. Eating ice cream is one of the summertime highlights that everyone young and old looks forward to.

Another fun way to enjoy your ice cream fix is to invest in an ice cream machine. Most machines are electric and create ice cream in your home simply by agitating the ingredients in a frozen canister. Make a couple of batches each week and you'll have ice cream all summer. The most basic vanilla ice cream contains very few ingredients with which we are all familiar: milk, cream, sugar and vanilla extract. Moving up one notch would be the addition of a stir-in, such as nuts, chocolate chips, peanut butter, chopped candy bars, finely chopped berries or peaches, etc. A few tweaks and you can easily create any flavor you fancy. You can change from vanilla extract to mint extract and add some chocolate chips, for example. More elaborate flavors will involve steps such as slow cooking eggs, melting chocolate, making caramel, etc. You can even add flavorful liqueurs, such as Chambord or Creme de Menthe or Frangelico. I would recommend purchasing an ice cream recipe book at the time you acquire your ice cream machine, then you'll have plenty of ideas to keep you and even the kids busy all summer long. Mixing the ingredients usually does not take up much time, less than half an hour, and then the ingredients are typically poured into the ice cream machine and then processed while you walk away and catch up on folding some laundry or whatever task you've been putting off. In less than an hour, you have ice cream all ready to put into the freezer for future indulgence. You'll be able to revel in seasonal delights, such as pumpkin pie ice cream in the fall and peppermint stick and eggnog ice creams at Christmastime.

When having a barbecue or any social gathering where you don't feel like putting a lot of effort into dessert after creating a colossal meal, let your guests of all ages do the work. Set up an ice cream sundae bar. Have two or three flavors of ice cream to pick from, a chilled bowl of freshly whipped cream, a couple of sauces and a few bowls of various toppings. Everyone will feel right at home, each person creating their own idea of the perfect sundae. Adults will feel like kids again, kids will feel all grown-up as they put their creative culinary ideas in motion. This does get messy, so it's a great idea for outdoor fun and after-party clean-up will be a lot easier.

Ice cream sauces can really make the dessert. A simple bowl of premium quality vanilla ice cream or gelato can be very elegant when drizzled with fresh-brewed espresso. Another way to enjoy vanilla ice cream is to pour melted Nutella, a chocolate and hazelnut spread, over the top. I also prefer to make my own sauces rather than buy commercial jars filled with a lot of artificial ingredients. Chocolate, or hot fudge, sauce is so simple to make, and you'll feel better about it knowing that you can actually obtain, and pronounce, all of the necessary ingredients. I recently made a basic vanilla ice cream, with a stir-in of chopped Lindor white chocolate truffles. Then I made a triple raspberry sauce to pour over. It was divine, the flavors of white chocolate and raspberry are always a perfect marriage. The sauce took only four ingredients: sugar, raspberry preserves from the local farm stand, a pint of fresh raspberries, and Chambord (a raspberry liqueur).

In making something that most kids love, ice cream is a great way to get them involved in the kitchen. The reward will be them seeing how good food is really made, eating better quality treats and thus graduating them away from the lower quality artificial wares peddled by the ice cream truck. The reward for us grownups is pure indulgence after a barbecue or at the close of a day at the beach. While we need to savor healthful summer fruits like peaches, plums, melons, cherries, apricots and berries on a regular basis, a once a week treat of supreme quality is something we all deserve and should take the time to enjoy. In these hazy hot days we're having, ice cream definitely fits the bill. Make mine vanilla ... with chopped Bacci chocolates ... and chocolate-hazelnut sauce ... or raspberry sauce ... or, no, wait ... oh, better just make mine chocolate instead!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fluid Therapy

As your temperature rises, you need to put yourself on fluid therapy in order to avoid dehydration. No, this is not a medical website, I am not promoting a do-it-yourself home clinic and, best of all, you do not need intravenous catheters poked into your veins for what we're talking about today. You can all relax now and instead of visions of IV fluid bags dancing in your heads, think drink. As summer comes into full swing with daytime temperatures rising into the nineties, it becomes crucial to hydrate yourself by drinking more liquids. As we sweat, our bodies can dehydrate and we lose electrolytes. Then we start to feel sluggish and succumb to those lazy, hot days.

Most importantly, we need to drink more water. Try to always keep a full pitcher of filtered water on hand in the refrigerator, as well as ice cubes on hand in the freezer. Another good thing to do at the beginning of the season is to stock up on full cases of small bottles of water. Whether you like the artisan spa waters such as Fiji or Evian, a fizzier version such as Perrier or San Pellegrino, or perhaps you are less finicky and are easily satiated with basic local bottles, buy a large quantity in bulk to take you through a whole season of on-the-go outdoor activities. When an afternoon hike, a trip to the beach, or a simple picnic in the park is on your social calendar, grab a couple of those water bottles for each person to take along. If room allows, store a case in the refrigerator; if not, then take out the bottles you will need the night before and place them in the refrigerator to chill overnight. While it may seem so easy to store the cases in the trunk of your car, thereby allowing you handy access wherever you go, this is not recommended since studies are being pursued to prove a link between high temperatures breaking down the plastic of the bottles and thus increasing chances for cancer.

Many of us associate summer warmth with classic beverages such as lemonade and iced tea. We all remember the advertisements that infiltrated the commercial breaks during our cartoon watching when we were kids: the one with the kids playing outdoors (do kids still do that??) and whining "I'm hot and thirsty, hey, Kool Aid!" and the lumbering smiley pitcher would burst on the scene like gang busters through the backyard fence to their rescue. It came in grape, it came in cherry, it even came in mountain berry punch. We all loved it, the unnaturally bright lip-staining colors and sickening sweetness were what every kid craved. Did your parents ever actually read the ingredient list on one of those packets? Mine did and my mother was so put off that I was only allowed the lemonade flavor because it didn't contain quite as many artificial ingredients - unless of course I spent the day at Grandma's, she would always buy me anything, because that's just what grandmothers do. Well, as a kid I thanked Grandma, and I still do for always trying to make my visits with her so enjoyable. As an adult, well, Mom was right. Darn it, aren't they always?!

Well for those of you who still desire a tall cold glass of lemonade on a hot day, you can do so without any of the guilt of filling your body with that chemical-laden mystery powder. All you need is an electric citrus juicer and making your own is so, so simple that you'll wonder why there were ever packets of powdered artificial ingredients to make such a simple summertime pleasure. Lemonade contains only three ingredients: lemons, sugar and water. Juice about one cup of lemon juice with the juicer, you'll probably need five to six lemons to yield a cup of juice. Add that to a pitcher and vigorously stir in about three-quarters of a cup of sugar until the sugar dissolves (if you buy superfine sugar, that works even better). Then stir in about three to four cups of water, taste it after three and add more if you need to. Finally, add some ice cubes and thin lemon slices to the pitcher and chill. For limeade, perform the same procedure, substituting limes for the lemons.

Making iced tea at home is also as easy as boiling water. Boil four cups of water. Then steep two tea bags of a good English tea, such as English breakfast. Make a simple syrup by stirring a cup of sugar into a cup of water over low heat, until the sugar dissolves. Remove the tea bags from the tea and discard, then stir in the simple syrup. Chill overnight and you'll have iced tea waiting for you the next day. Want to make something really special? Add equal parts of the iced tea recipe to the lemonade and combine, then stir in a few mint leaves.

For an even healthier alternative, try making an herbal iced tea by remembering the rule of 'four'. Boil four cups of water. Steep four bags each (that's eight bags total) of any two fruity herbal teas you like that would work well together. Once the tea has steeped for a half hour, remove the bags and discard. Then stir in four cups of a fruit juice that would work well with the selected tea flavors. The juice is what sweetens the tea. I have used lemon zinger and red zinger from Celestial Seasonings, with apple juice. I have also used the peach and cherry berry teas with cranberry juice. There are plenty of combinations you can come up with.

Now of course we all like our weekend cocktails as well. Keep in mind that these beverages are merely enhancements to your dining and social pleasure, alcohol does nothing to aid in dehydration. One of my favorite hot weather drinks hails from Mexico: the margarita. The classic margarita is actually not frozen, and it's easy to make. Simply combine equal parts lime juice, tequila, and orange liquor (I like Cointreau, but you can use triple sec as well). Rub a cut lime wedge along the rim of a glass, dip the rim into a plate of salt and allow to dry. Then add in your margarita and enjoy. These days there are a lot of margaritas out there with added fruit flavors. If you want to mix things up a bit, simply add another equal part of the juice you are looking for, such as pineapple for instance. Another refreshing hot weather cocktail is the Cuban mojito. This takes a bit of work, but it is so cooling and refreshing that the effort is well worth the enjoyment. First, in a pitcher muddle two cups of fresh mint leaves with about a third cup of sugar. Once the oils are released from the mint leaves, stir in a cup of light rum and a quarter cup of lime juice. Top it off with four cups of seltzer and stir. Pour into glasses with ice, garnish with a lime wedge and a sprig of mint. One last summer beverage hailing from New Orleans is the Hurricane. This would be a beginner's drink in the study of mixology: one quarter cup each of rum, orange juice and pineapple juice, plus one eighth cup of grenadine syrup. Stir to combine and serve over ice in a tall glass.

While my husband Brian could write pages and pages on the subject, I will spare you all the long version and give you the accelerated course. Guys, as the heat rises, so too does your craved consumption of brew. Then come the end of the season you complain about your proportionate increase in gut size. 'But I buy light beer!' you protest. You are drinking the wrong beer. Next time you buy beer for your weekend barbecue, go to a beverage store. For those on Long Island, there is Shore Line Beverage in Huntington, Selden Beverage in Selden, and Bellport Beer and Soda in Bellport. Veer away from the displays of Coors, Bud, Corona and Miller. Instead, peruse the aisles with the funky labels. You see, those are the real deal. A beer should have color, depth of flavor and substance. It should feel substantial when you drink it. When you drink a stout, it's a heavy beer. It's satisfying, it will fill you up and slow you down. When you drink a mass produced Miller Light, which is so light that it sports the same color going into your body as it does coming out, it really is like drinking water. You will not fill up on it. So you'll grab another one, and another, and before you know it you have consumed six beers in three hours. Lower calorie or not, it adds up and it will add up to more calories than one or two craft beers. We inadvertently did a little experiment one evening. We had a prospective guinea pig over one evening, a guy who is famous for imbibing an entire six pack of Bud or Miller over three hours. Brian served him a couple of craft beers. The guy is open-minded to food and drink and enjoys trying new things, so he was very curious and interested in trying something new. He clearly enjoyed the first as he did finish it and accepted an offer of a second. Brian expected to have to introduce him to a third beer, but the opportunity did not arise that night. Even this guy was slowed down. Again, alcohol is not going to rehydrate you, it is not going to quench your thirst. We drink it to enhance our social and dining experiences. Therefore, one or two should suffice and when you aim for quality and not quantity, you'll be satisfied and your waist size won't suffer. If you feel intimidated by all of the choices in the beverage store and your lack of experience is not helping to guide you into a selection, try visiting either a local brewery or a brewery restaurant where you can sample different brews that are produced on the premises. There are a number of such places on Long Island and it can be a good excuse for a fun night out. Once you start on your journey of craft beer exploration, you'll enjoy them more and more; and then those light beers will be almost undrinkable because when you go to sample one again for old times' sake, you'll notice right away that something is missing from them. I have to say, when a Corona Light came out, I had to ask myself 'How could Corona get any lighter?? Original Corona has almost no flavor, might as well drink water!' By the way, ladies, craft beer isn't exclusively a men's club you know. I love my wine, but I do also enjoy trying a new craft beer with Brian. And it's such a smug feeling to be in a brew pub, order a stout, watch the waiter try to hide his shock and watch the guy at the next table looks on in admiration. I can hold my own with dark beers better than a lot of guys I know!

Simpler summer drinking pleasures can be a glass of a chilled fine white or rose, or a refreshing limoncello straight up on ice. Whatever your pleasure, I raise my glass and toast with my readers, to the summer sun we say: bring it on, we're all hooked up with our fluids - bottoms up!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pesto Presto!

Now that the herbs are planted in the kitchen garden, I can eagerly look forward to making batches upon batches of one of the most versatile classic condiments of Italian cooking: pesto. The vivacious bright green hue, the salty nuttiness of Parmesan and pignolis, the mildly sweet basil and fruity olive oil, and the fresh bite of garlic all come together in an ecstatic explosion of flavor that keeps my taste buds always craving more. Pesto is an uncooked sauce that originated in the Genoa region of Italy. Traditionally, it was made with fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, pignoli nuts and grated Parmesan cheese, all crushed and blended together with a mortar and pestle. The advent of the food processor has been a wonderful thing indeed, allowing one to bang out batch after batch and get virtually no work-out. Hmm. Oh well, exercise didn't used to my thing anyway, ask any of my old high school friends who shared physical education classes with me. Anyhow, in addition to this facilitation of the ease of producing pesto at home, as home cooks explore more and more ethnicities of epicurean delights, the traditional ingredients have been tweaked accordingly as well. I have seen pesto recipes calling for parsley and walnuts in place of the basil and pignoli nuts. I have even seen recipes calling for the use of cilantro or mint. Another traditional European rendition is called pistou, the French version, which is a very close cousin to the Italian pesto, using basil, olive oil and garlic.

Pesto can be savored in countless ways. The most popular presentation is when used as a pasta sauce. For a nice side dish simply toss the pesto with cooked pasta, preferably one with a lot of little nooks or twists to really hold the sauce, such as fusilli or gemelli. For a main dish, add some cooked shrimp and some halved cherry tomatoes and you have an elegant and summery entree. Pesto on its own has a thick paste-like consistency. To thin it out for tossing with more delicate ingredients, such as gnocchi, or for drizzling over ravioli, heat some heavy cream in a small saucepan on medium-low heat and stir in the pesto to combine. Want a super-quick weekend lunch in minutes? Toss this creamy pesto sauce with pasta, tuna, green peas and pearl onions. Prefer a meatless lunch? Omit the tuna and use cheese-filled tortellini for the pasta.

Pesto is also a good condiment to toss with vegetables. One evening in your attempt to cook healthier, you steam some cauliflower, broccoli flowerettes and cut up carrots. You turn the cooked vegetables out into a serving bowl. You stare at it in hungry disappointment, its dullness staring right back at you. Seems pretty boring, doesn't it? You can hardly blame the kids for not wanting to eat their vegetables. Toss the hot vegetables with a couple of spoonfuls of pesto and now you have added flavor and another visual dimension to the dish and still kept within the rules of healthy Mediterranean dining. If one evening you decide to grill some Italian-seasoned chicken, boil some halved baby potatoes, drain and then toss with the pesto. Add a few peas or some cut up green beans and allow to chill. A simple and healthy potato salad which will compliment your Italian grilled chicken perfectly.

Pesto is also a perfect topper for meats and fish on those late nights when you need dinner ready in a hurry. Preheat the oven to 450, slather some pesto over the top of a Chilean sea bass fillet and roast in the oven for 20 minutes. That's a rapturous favorite of mine, there is something about the marriage of Chilean sea bass and pesto that is simple, savored, pure enjoyment. The same can be done with salmon fillets as well as boneless chicken breasts and lamb chops.

Pizza also makes a perfect palette for pesto - go on, say it, say that five times fast! It can either be spread on its own over the crust before adding toppings, or stir some into ricotta cheese for a rich and flavorful delight. Top that with some roasted slices of eggplant, or some raw slices of peppers and plum tomatoes, then finish with some fresh mozzarella, and your taste buds will soon deprogram the local pizzeria's telephone number from your memory bank.

Lastly, on that first chilly evening in the fall when soup seems like a comforting dinner idea, stir a spoonful or two of pesto into the soup and let it dissolve into the broth. This brings a final hint of summer into the first of many winter dishes. Prepare a pot of chicken or vegetable stock, with some cut up fresh vegetables and some tortellini, add the pesto and then serve with a sprinkling of additional Parmesan cheese.

After reading this post, I hope that many of you who baulk at the idea of cooking for no other reason than your own lack of confidence in your culinary skills will realize that by using pesto in your dishes, you can create some very nice meals with very little effort. As for the pesto itself, the recipe for that does not get any easier. If you see bottled pesto in the supermarket, run! No, no, the other way! Now is the time for that workout, just run away from it and don't look back! The concept of bottled pesto completely defeats the notion of that fresh herb sensation. Make your own and use only the best ingredients. Bottled products do not use the best ingredients, they use the cheapest ingredients for economically efficient mass production, as well as other less-than-savory additions in order to preserve the product for months on the supermarket shelf. I don't care how culinarily deficient you think you might be, the only skills required are filling measuring cups and pressing a button; so simple you could bribe your ten-year old child to do this: take 2 cups of packed fresh basil leaves, 1 cup of packed fresh parsley leaves, 1 cup imported grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, 2/3 cup high quality extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup pignoli nuts, 2 very large cloves of garlic and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and dump it all into a large food processor bowl. Place the lid on the processor and press the little button that says 'on'. Process the ingredients until everything is finely chopped and well mixed. That's all folks, that really wasn't so hard now, was it? This will make enough pesto for four main-dish servings, such as when covering meat or tossing with a main-dish pasta entree. If you only need to use only a few spoonfuls at a time, such as when making a pesto cream sauce or stirring into a soup, then it will carry you through a few meals. Whatever you don't plan to use within a week, put the remainder into a tightly sealed half-cup plastic food containers right away, top with a thin film of olive oil and then freeze for another time, thereby making a late weekday dinner even more of a snap. I always make extra batches of both pesto and of marinara sauce. They freeze well, and make the next few Italian dinner options easy to accomplish quickly when all I have to do is thaw the sauce that morning.

If you have not done so already, pick up the last of the basil and parsley plants from your local garden center and get them into the ground. Nothing says summer dining like flavors fresh from your garden, and herbs can really make that impact. Pesto is a healthy alternative to the rich, cheesy, cream sauces. It can be savored in so many dishes. The herbs are easy to grow, and the condiment easy to make. The color of the moment all over the media is, after all, green! So go green with your summer meals and discover even more ways to enjoy pesto.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How Does Your Herb Garden Grow?

Now that spring is well underway and the nighttime temperatures no longer plummet into frosty digits, gardeners start to get the itch, that urgent need to relegate themselves outdoors, to plunge that spade into the earth and dig in the dirt. Here in the northeast, planting season begins later than it does for our southern counterparts, as we must religiously watch the weather forecasts until no further threat of frost remains, which is typically not until mid-May. The garden centers, however, begin tantalizing us with brightly colored displays of flora in early April. It's tempting, very tempting. If you have managed to resist the pull so far, congratulations on your display of will power. By buying plants too early, you not only run the risk of frost zapping the life out of those young seedlings, but those heavy April showers that were once chanted to bring May flowers can in fact drown these developing plants, leading to root rot and turning your garden bed into a horticultural cemetery.

While many of the popular annual flowers and even most vegetables are best planted after mid-May, early May is a safe time to start on the kitchen garden, herbs in particular. Although I enjoy gardening on a small scale, I do tend to focus the hobby more on flowers to make our patio more enjoyable for outdoor dining and to make various locations around the property look inviting and colorful. When it comes to the vegetable garden, since I can in fact purchase fresh vegetables from the local farm stands, I plant limited produce. I usually will plant a variety of different tomatoes, eggplants and bell peppers. What I do plant in abundance are herbs, due to the extensive use of these flavor enhancers. Herbs are very easy to grow, require little care and can be enjoyed fresh from garden to plate from early may well into November. A variety of herbs go into the making of our Thanksgiving feast, and this is usually when the final trek into the herb garden yield the final herb harvest.

Begin planting most of your herbs now, starting with parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme and chives. Then plant your dill, mint, and hold off planting basil until mid-late May, as basil is more sensitive to cooler temperatures. If your property layout allows, I recommend planting at least those herbs which you use most often as close to your kitchen as possible if your kitchen has outside entry. I actually plant many of my herbs in those very long narrow pots that sit atop of the deck railing. All I have to do is step outside the kitchen door and snip what I need right there. Since I do plant large amounts basil, I typically plant this in the vegetable garden where there is more space, creating a border of it around the tomatoes. I like to buy two or three large rosemary bushes, which I'll plant strategically in the vegetable garden as well since they do add a decorative touch.

Herbs are so versatile in cooking. Most recipes call for at least one herb, and even when I see a dried herb listed in the ingredients, I usually substitute fresh herbs instead. In most cases, fresh herbs taste so much better, whatever measurement the recipe calls for in dried herbs, simply double the amount and use fresh. The addition of fresh herbs turns up the flavor factor in any dish. Be creative, even when not working off of a recipe. Next time you make polenta or mashed potatoes, stir in some chopped fresh rosemary. Add some chopped fresh oregano when sauteeing summer vegetables. Every good Italian out there knows that the best red pasta sauce has to have fresh basil. Herbs make wonderful seasonings for roasting meats. Nothing says spring more than lamb with rosemary and garlic, or salmon with lemon and dill. Sage is an flavorful and aromatic seasoning for poultry. Next time you serve cannellini beans, add some extra-virgin olive oil, sauteed minced garlic and finely minced sage. Herbs also create a nice visual finishing touch when serving up a dish. When presenting a serving bowl of potato salad or pasta, sprinkle the top with some freshly chopped parsley before you bring it to the table of eager diners. It wakes up the dish, the addition of fresh, bright green against the light background makes the dish pop. Add a sprig of fresh mint to a glass of lemonade or iced tea and you add a touch of freshness and flavor that enhances the refreshing factor of the beverage. It's also a wonderful thing to be able to make a batch of pesto or a pitcher of mojitos on a whim, knowing that the parsley and basil or the mint are all right there at your fingertips, allowing you to bypass a trek to the supermarket first.
For those of you who are fortunate enough to have a kitchen window with a nice big sill, or plenty of counter space near a sunny kitchen window, I highly recommend planting some herbs in decorative pots indoors. You'll be able to enjoy those benefits that herbs provide even throughout the winter months. When it comes to cooking ingredients, fresh is always best and there is nothing better than being able to harvest your own produce minutes before you need it. You also know what went into your gardening; if you like to use organic produce, easy enough to accomplish when you grow it yourself. So go ahead, it's safe, go visit your local garden centers and start planning and planting your kitchen garden, your family will enjoy the fresh flavors all summer long.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring's Coming: Finishing Touch

In what began as a four-part blog about freshening up the decor in your home to welcome spring as well as guests and family members alike, the series has now unfolded and blossomed into tips on transforming our homes into comfort havens. We began by utilizing bold and beautiful spring blooms to brighten our home visually. Then we gravitated to refreshening the air by bringing in some ideas for infusing comforting scents into our homes to try and squash out the staleness of winter. By now, many of you may have begun your spring-cleaning ritual: diving head-first into closets and desk drawers, attics and other hidden crevices to sort and toss with reckless abandon. Likewise, in our attempts to be productive, little distractions abound everywhere. You may be sorting through your attic and continually stumble across some long ago tucked away and since forgotten object which brings pause in your cleaning spree as you take a virtual stroll down memory lane. You may not realize it, but you could potentially have a whole treasure trove of items which could be brought back to life in your home. In this segment, we'll talk about using different things on display throughout the home to make every room invite a sense of comfort.

Generally, when displaying objets, the key is to keep it under control. I have been in homes where the person's knick-knack collection had multiplied beyond all reason and the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with pictures. The home felt suffocating and the visual experience was way too busy to be comforting. If you are going to collect something, stick to one theme per room. When you see something in a shop, think about it. Will it not only fit into the collection itself, but tie into the color of the room as well? Does it look like a well-crafted item, or does it look cheap and tacky? Be selective, quality over quantity.

To make our home inviting to us, it is the comfort of something familiar and of things we love that makes it so. Such things are varying for each one of us as unique individuals according to personal taste. Let's start with my favorite room in the house: the kitchen. By displaying some cooking or food related items you've collected, your kitchen beckons you, as these personal touches make the space your own. Do you have a favorite cookbook author whose books you have collected? Then you might consider buying any of his or her books which you may not yet own and a single wall shelf to install on a kitchen wall on which to display your cooking idol; his or her books will then inspire you to whip up something rewarding at any given time. If you have space between the tops of the upper kitchen cabinets and the ceiling, this is a perfect space for displaying collections, whether you fancy elegant teapots, whimsical cookie jars, soup tureens, baskets or decorative serving bowls. Moving on into the dining area, if you have the space for some shelves, this is also an appropriate palette for some culinary display. I have a whole wall of my dining room filled with bookcases where I keep all of my cookbooks. In spaces in between these books I have various serving bowls and platters. The display not only lets people know that they are in the dining room, it's all about the food in here; but it also welcomes me to sit at the table and peruse a cookbook for next weekend's dinner recipe ideas.

In other rooms, such as the bedroom, guest room and family room, take the opportunity to display things you love. Being a Long Islander, I love the ocean and everything associated with it. In response to that love, I decorated my guest room accordingly, with a seashell print bedding set, a framed lighthouse poster, and I even framed a poem I once wrote describing the beach in winter. Then I filled in around the room with some conch shells and starfish that I'd collected on our Carribean trips, as well as a few shells I picked up along the shores close to home. The room is now not only comforting to me whenever I need to go in there, but it gives a Long Island welcome to out-of-town guests. In our bedroom, I decorated in a French theme, because I am half French and I also just happen to love all things French. Blue toile linens on the bed and window, a single pillow boasting "I'd Rather Be In Paris", because, frankly, I would. Across the wall right over the bed I placed three black and white prints of Paris landmarks in black frames. Whenever displaying multiple pieces together, keep in mind that odd amounts tend to work best visually. In our library and computer room, I have a show-and-tell of something else I love: Brian's and my weekends together. I am currently working on putting together a collage frame for each season, with photos of us having fun together: some beach pictures from summer, hikes and pumpkin picking expeditions in autumn, etc. Whether your spouse, your children or your pets, by framing a few of the best photos you have of them and displaying in a personal room such as a family room or library, you will not be able to fight back the smile for long when you come across that picture as you enter the room. Again, moderation is key. Three to five large prints is enough to set the mood and make the statement. An entire wall completely covered is turning what should be a comforting space into a chaotic art gallery.

Thinking back as far as your memory will serve, what were some of the first things which brought you comfort as an infant? A blanket? A bath? Guess what? That hasn't necessarily changed! Fluffy new towels in a seasonal or pleasing color and a basket on display filled with bath salts and lotions are the way to make a bathroom feel welcoming. New towels and a soothing lavender scented bath oil will set an inviting and comforting mood when you enter the room after a long tough day; all you have to do is fill the tub, step in, lie back and the day's trials and tribulations melt away. The living room can also be a welcome haven to comfort by simply draping a favorite, attractive blanket over the arm of a cozy chair or sofa. The blanket invites you to get comfortable and lose yourself in your favorite movie or a new book, or even browsing through a memory-filled photo album that you keep on the coffee table.

One last tip for displaying collections to personalize your home: I am a big believer of mixing up old and new. If you just discovered an old pitcher in your attic that once belonged to a beloved grandmother, for example, bring it down. You have probably collected a couple of pitchers yourself over the years. Choose your two favorite ones, and display them right along with Grandma's. It's a tribute to a relative who once gave you comfort, thereby evoking comfort here and now, and links together your shared attraction to collecting pitchers. Using old things that once belonged to now departed family gives an even more personal touch to your decor, it pays homage to someone who was once an important part of your life and it likely has a few stories to tell, stories which may have been told to you over the years by that person and are now stories being opened up for you to tell. I'm willing to bet that there are a lot of things in your attic or closets that you are getting reacquainted with, whether things that have been passed on to you by family members or just things you once purchased, maybe even used for awhile, got tired of and relegated into storage for another day. That day could be today, so while sorting through things and going down the virtual memory lane, also pause and ask yourself if and how this object could be a welcome addition to your home, thereby making your home a welcoming and comforting haven to all who enter. First, better bake up a batch of those cookies Grandma used to make and bring them along, you're going to be up there in that attic for awhile!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spring's Coming: The Nose Knows

Last time we began a four part series about transitioning the setting of your home from one season to the next, to keep your homecoming interesting as all of your senses perked up when you walk through the door. I reviewed some of the spring treasures to be found in the produce section of your market, and delved into adding some spring flourish of flowers into your kitchen, eating and living areas of your home. Flowers not only enhance our living space visually, if you decorate with fresh cut flowers, they can enhance the room aromatically as well. When you are home, when your spouse comes home at the end of his or her day, or when your invited friends enter your home, you want all of the senses to say "Welcome home! Get comfortable! Feel the love!" Bright seasonal flowers are pleasing to the eye, and the way your home smells can be pleasing to the nose.

We see constant advertisements throughout the media for products to make our homes smell "nice." I actually don't use any of these in my home, they really do pose more hazards than benefits. Aerosol sprays are not only detrimental to the environment, but they are also allergy irritants and can be damaging for pets and for people who suffer from inhalant allergies or asthma. The scents are usually overkill and artificial, way too perfumey for my taste. The plug-in's have been known to cause house fires. Finally, just the thought of infusing more chemicals into our lives doesn't sound so comforting, does it? I prefer to utilize more natural means to produce more comforting and less harsh sensory enjoyment for the nose.

The most welcoming and seasonal aromas in your home from autumn through spring emanate from your kitchen. When you expect company, arrange to feed your oven about thirty minutes prior to your guests' arrival. Whether you are baking a pie or a chocolate cake for a an afternoon coffee visit, or the dessert for the evenings get-together meal, nothing sends such a welcome greeting to your guests as something baking in the oven. They will walk in from the cold, there may be traces of snow still on the ground outside, but inside the sight of spring tulips on the end table and the aromas of a blueberry crumb cake wafting in from the kitchen will immediately wrap their senses in warmth and contentment. Ideal springtime delicacies that your oven will present include blueberry crumb cake, lemon meringue pie, coconut cake, a pound cake to serve with a sprinkling of those fresh spring strawberries or a raspberry cheesecake. You can achieve the same ambiance in the fall and winter months when baking up pumpkin bread, apple pies, pear tarts and cranberry bundt cake. Even when preparing dinner for your family, your spouse who arrives home later than you will really feel the comfort of being home when he or she walks into a house that tantalizes both the nose and the appetite with the aromas of a roasting rack of lamb or orange-glazed ham beckoning from the kitchen.

As the daytime temperatures start to creep up, open as many windows as you are able throughout the house, even if only for three hours a day in the early afternoon. Your home has been sealed off from the outside elements for four months. The springtime ritual of allowing fresh air to circulate through your house every day will air everything out, and crisp fresh air with notes of early spring blooms and new grassy growth, is a comforting aromatic treat in itself; the effect magnified if you are fortunate enough to live by the beach and can add tints of salty sea air to the experience. Why else are there aerosol cans of room freshener sporting labels such as "Fresh Air" and "Ocean Breeze"? No corporation has really been able to successfully duplicate such scents, there is nothing like the real thing.

While I may shun many of the room-freshener products on the market, I do have one vice: scented candles. I do enjoy the calming and welcoming ambiance that a seasonally scented candle can create. The soft glow of the burning flame is soothing and creates a nice lighting effect for visual appeal, and I switch out the scents with the seasons for aromatic appeal. Throughout the winter I like the vanilla cookie varieties, in the summer I go for the citrusy and melon scents. Nothing says fall like a candle of cinnamon spice. Now to welcome spring, I like to seek out lemony scents. Candles can put a subtle layer of aromatic essence into the air, evoking feelings of warmth and comfort. However you should choose unscented candles when using candles for lighting effect at the dining table, as you don't want your nose to be caught in a battle of the scents as the food and the candle compete with one another.

As an avid home cook, a homeowner and a happy homebody, I do declare that the most effective and pleasing way to permeate the aromatic environment of your home with ease is from your kitchen. Through the ages, scents of various products from lip glosses to candles, and even to dolls, are those of edible delights: strawberry, vanilla, lemon, coffee, the list goes on and on, and on. Eating is something we all do, something many of us enjoy. We are comforted by the smell of cinnamon apple pie on a crisp fall day, or by a simmering pot of soup on a blustery day. Even on the smallest scale, for example, most of us would agree that the most welcoming and comforting scent when we first get up in the morning is that of freshly brewing coffee. It says "Good morning! Welcome to your day!" and we all enjoy savoring that aromatic cup of java as the warmth envelopes us in a virtual embrace before we head out the door to fight the day's demons. Next time we'll talk about how visual accents strategically arranged around your home can illustrate a scene of seasonal comfort. Many of the items which can be used are already in the treasure troves of your closets or attic; prepare to make your spring cleaning and sorting work for you to give your home that welcoming look the whole year through.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Spring's Coming: Flower Power

With last week's snowstorm and possibly another one on the way still, March is certainly coming in like a lion. Spring is, however, imminent as the sun is setting later and the temperatures aren't quite as bitingly frigid. After being holed up in the cozy warmth of our homes, everyone is eager to witness the first signs of spring as the crocuses and daffodils emerge from their winter naps, the sounds of birds coming home for the summer and the smell of fresh new grass after a spring shower. In preparation, many of us begin what has been referred over the ages as spring cleaning. The winter ski jackets are relegated to the back of the closet in exchange for lighter layers, the new season's fashions begin to fill our closets. The home gets a freshening up as marathon cleaning and sorting sessions get underway and windows are opened for the first time in months. The first of the season's produce adorns our dinner tables. This begins a four part series of tips to make the transition into spring enjoyable and help to make your home a more welcoming haven to come home to in any season, without breaking the bank on expensive home improvement projects.

When you have been away at work all day and trying to de-escalate the stress level during your commute home, it's important to walk into a home that really feels like a home should. It should feel welcoming. It should lift your spirits and evoke a sense of calm simultaneously. Your home should reflect your personality as well, the sights and smells and sounds should say who you are, so that you are comfortable in your own skin, or rather in this case, home. If your home feels relaxing to you, that will likely transcend to your guests as well when you have friends over for dinner or coffee.

This installment is going to focus on plants, and that includes produce; this is, after all, a blog on kitchen and home. While you have undoubtedly noticed that most vegetables and fruits can be procured from a supermarket all year round, those specimens which are not in season will not have the same impact of flavor on our palates. Produce should be enjoyed primarily during its peak season. With the arrival of spring, start by bringing home some asparagus. Spring is the best time to enjoy this versatile vegetable, and with the numerous ways that it can be prepared, you will not grow tired of it anytime soon. It can be roasted, simply lay the spears out in a single layer on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in a 450-degree oven for about 15 minutes. It can be steamed. After steaming you can bring it right to the table for immediate consumption as a healthy side dish, or you can cut the spears into one inch pieces and toss them into a salad, a soup or a pasta dish. Also at peak season in the spring are peas, which can also add some bright green to a pasta dish or made into a delicious soup. Berries also enjoy the spring spotlight, and can be enjoyed au natural with no additions, or as a garnish on ice cream, or as an ingredient in baked goods. If you are fortunate enough to live near a farming community, take advantage of spring harvests which include lettuces, new potatoes and baby vegetables. Once again, you will taste the difference between these and the ones purchased in the supermarket during the off season.

Since the temperatures have not yet begun to heat up, one can still benefit from the use of the oven. Sending a whole chicken to the oven to roast for dinner will allow some time to putter around the home as you engage in your spring cleaning projects. In addition to bringing home spring produce from the store, consider bringing home some flowers to help set the spring tone. Think about which flowers are typically associated with spring: first daffodils and then tulips, for instance. You can create an eye-catching and warmly welcoming display on your kitchen counter, on your dining table and in your living room and/or family room. You can either choose colors which compliment the room's overall color scheme, make a statement with a bright color that pops the room to life, or go with the neutral classic of all white blooms which will create elegance in any backdrop. For a kitchen display, place the flowers in a whimsical container, such as a ceramic pitcher, a small galvanized watering can or an old-fashioned milk jug. Coming home to a display of bright yellow daffodils in a white pitcher evokes an uplifting feeling, knowing that your home looks welcoming as you revel in the season.

If you have curious pets or toddlers, I would urge you to consider using silk flowers rather than live cut blooms. Many plants and flowers are toxic when ingested, why take chances? If visions of your grandmother's obviously fake plastic flower displays are haunting you, put those images out of your mind. Today's artificial flowers are make from silks and look so real, it's near impossible to discern them from the live varieties unless you physically touch them. After an incident with one of my cats, which fortunately did not end tragically in this case, I have only used silk flower arrangements in my home. Other benefits to using silks include the fact that they will never look spent or die, they require no care whatsoever, and you'll be able to use them for several springs seasons.

The first image conjured in people's minds at the thought of spring is that of flowers. By gracing your home with flowers, this is the first step taken toward making simple and inexpensive changes to your decor to make your home feel welcoming and comforting. Flowers are uplifting in their brilliant visual appeal, and that will make your guests feel welcome and vibrant yet relaxed in your home as well. As spring moves into summer, tulips should be switched out for sunflowers, daisies, hydrangea blooms and peonies. When fall approaches, choose mums and choose flowers in colors that display a fall palette. For December, poinsettias set the holiday mood, as well as blooms of white and red. For winter I usually stick with white roses and hydrangeas in white or blue.

Another way to add floral decor to make a home seem welcoming is to display seasonal wreaths on each door that enters into your home. Wreaths aren't just for Christmas anymore, they now come in arrangements to suit any season and holiday. Some are strictly made of silk flowers indigenous to the season at hand, others are embellished with whimsical additions such as little stuffed snowmen, garden gnomes or teddy bears, ornaments of birds, seashells or miniature garden tools, or "Welcome" plaques. Every season I change my wreaths on the front and back doors, as well as the garden flag in front of the house, whose design changes to suit the season. If I actually had neighbors close enough in proximity to see it, I think they would be threatening me to take away the "Let It Snow" snowman flag right about now!

Flowers are not the only example of flora for use in kitchen decor. Edible displays are not only at home in the kitchen, but can strike that seasonal note effectively. In addition to a display of flowers on a counter, I often use a display of seasonal fruit. In the summer I'll fill a bright blue bowl with lemons, evoking the cooling idea of fresh lemonade. Not only do they look appealing, but when it comes time to juice a lemon for a recipe, room temperature lemons yield considerably more juice than refrigerated ones. In the fall I'll fill a wicker basket with a variety of fall-colored apples. In the winter I'll fill a white ceramic basket with green Granny Smiths, or a bowl with red pears and bosc pears. For spring, lemons and oranges look nice, as do the yellow and red tints of gala apples. These displays perform double duty: they not only enhance the decor, but encourage healthy snacking too.

Next time, we'll focus on how aromatics can play a role in making your home envelope you in welcoming comfort. I'll give you one hint: I think the oven and some of those spring berries might be involved! As we count down the days until that first official day of spring, next time you make a stop at the market, pick up two bouquets: one of asparagus for the evening's meal, and one of the season's first picked daffodils for your kitchen counter. Nothing welcomes spring like the lively picture of yellow daffodil blooms and a dinner of roasted salmon and asparagus with a light lemon sauce and fresh raspberries for dessert. It may be too cool yet to enjoy that meal al fresco among those springtime blooms, but you can certainly bring the flower power indoors all year long.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Big Flavors In Little Packages

As the outdoor temperatures continue to send us into the confinement of our cozy and comfortable homes, many of us take the post-holiday, pre-spring months to plan and organize. This can include making home improvement project plans, designing the upcoming garden, going through closets and drawers to sort and organize accumulated clutter, and just sweeping through the whole house throwing away old junk to replace with new, refreshing things to brighten those winter gray days. As I was going through my own pantry recently, several little bottles and jars that I keep on hand beckoned me to write about them and sing their praises as to why you too should stock them in your kitchen ingredient repertoire.

Cooking and baking does not need to be complicated; a dish does not need to have an ingredient list as long as a child's wish list to Santa Claus. While there are some ethnicities which use a lengthy variety of spices and other ingredients to season their entrees, most dishes that you make regularly need only one or two extra-special epicurean delicacies to give the offering that big finish and to enhance the flavor to it's fullest potential. When preparing vegetables, for instance, so many people make the mistake of adding some of this and some of that and oh-let's throw that in too. What they are left with is a side dish heavy on the additional ingredients with a little vegetable. That vegetable doesn't really get to shine in its best light, it's masked with too many other flavors. While making the occasional complex veggie side dish is fine and even fun, sometimes, less really is more. The best way to prepare vegetables simply is using three ingredients that no kitchen should ever be without: a high quality extra-virgin olive oil, freshly ground pepper - buy a pepper mill and fill it with whole black peppercorns - and salt, preferably sea salt. Prepare the vegetable of choice for cooking; that is, peel those which need to be peeled, such as butternut squash, and cut into chunks those which are large specimens, such as eggplants. Place the vegetables into a roasting pan, and toss with the three abovementioned ingredients. Roast in a 450-degree oven for 20-30 minutes, depending on the vegetable, or until the cut edges caramelize. This can be done with any vegetable: eggplant, summer squashes, winter squashes, fennel, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, parsnips, turnips, rutebegas, baby carrots, etc. On the occasion when I want to add just one more flavor to the pan, that's when I'll toss in a handful of garlic cloves, either whole or sliced, before roasting.

When serving baby potatoes or fingerling potatoes, I will occasionally add one more ingredient to the olive oil, salt and pepper combination: a fresh herb. Potatoes can be a little bland, but when combined with some fresh rosemary, parsley, thyme, dill or sage - the choice is yours - the herb enhances the earthiness of the potato. Try to always keep some fresh herbs on hand, whichever ones you like. If you are fortunate enough to have a kitchen window with a wide, sunny windowsill, planting a few herbs in pots along the windowsill will be rewarding to your palate all year and be economical on your wallet as well. Something else I like to roast with the olive oil-salt-pepper-herb lineup is onion. I cut two yellow or white onions and two red onions into eight wedges each and toss with these ingredients. After they have roasted to the point of being almost completely caramelized, I'll drizzle them with a little balsamic vinegar before serving, another little bottled ingredient that gives big payback in flavor boosting. A light drizzle of a good high quality balsamic vinegar can be a nice finishing touch to many dishes, including soups, roasted vegetables and meaty stews. An ideal combination choice for drizzling on roasted sweet potatoes is maple syrup and melted butter; this also marries well with butternut squash.

Another oil to keep on hand for the occasional change of pace is white truffle oil. Last week I made some homemade mashed potatoes and used some truffle oil in place of butter when whipping them. It imparted an earthy yet elegant flavor, without the price tag of purchasing whole truffles. To purchase truffles for one meal can set you back a paycheck. However you can serve up a taste of luxe for less than twenty dollars by keeping a bottle of that truffle oil in your pantry, just that one ingredient can make a huge impact on the flavor of your dish. It is also nice drizzled on a salad. Plate some mesclun greens or baby spinach, top with thin slices of Brie or Camembert cheese, and finish that salad with a drizzle of truffle oil and a sprinkle of black pepper. For an occasional treat, pick up a little tub of white truffle butter next time you want to prepare a simple pasta side dish to accompany your meat entree. Simply stir the truffle butter and a little cream into your cooked pasta, sprinkle the finished pasta with freshly cracked black pepper and a little chopped parsley and you're done: a luxurious pasta side dish using a total of five ingredients.

Saffron is another jewel that should grace your spice rack. When preparing a rice dish, such as a paella, or any Mediterranean entree, using just this one spice will impart the sunny flavor of the region. Saffron is what gives those dishes that golden hue. Saffron is sold in jars, usually in thread form. Some recipes call for soaking the threads in either hot water or lemon juice before adding to the pot; others simply call for crushing the threads into the pot. Either way, it is a must-have in my kitchen.

One ingredient that I believe no kitchen lacks is vanilla extract. The type you use is important and makes a difference. Avoid buying a product whose label says "imitation vanilla extract". Imitations of anything in life are rarely as good as the real thing. My vanilla of choice reads "Madagascar Burbon Pure Vanilla Extract", and you can tell the difference. It has more of that pure, smooth vanilla taste and less of that harsh alcoholic flavor. Another way to impart some intense vanilla flavor into your custard or ice cream recipe is to add vanilla beans. The pods are sold in jars. All it takes is one pod. Slit the pod lengthwise with a sharp knive and then scrape out the "beans" - more like seeds in appearance - and stir them into your ingredients.

One exciting aspect in the culinary world is the introduction to what I'll call "fad" ingredients, for lack of a better term. Some ingredient, whether it be a particular vegetable or a spice or even a whole ethnicity of cuisine, receives a lot of attention in the latest cooking shows and magazines and those of us who love to cook are all over it, embracing all of the charms that this showcased star has to offer. Recently, Pernod has been one of those ingredients. When I came across six recipes in a span of two months calling for Pernod in the ingredient list, I visited my local liquor store. Sure enough, this one liquor adds and enhances flavors nicely. It is an anise-flavored liquour from the Provence region of France. When a dish calls for using fennel (also called anise), a vegetable with a similar flavor, adding a small amount of Pernod enhances that flavor to the next level. Between Brian and I, I think we've used it in about five dishes already and I only bought the bottle last month!

There are other flavor-boosters from the bar, particularly useful in baking. Everyone loves the combination of chocolate and raspberries. Chambord, a raspberry-flavored liquour, tastes divine when mixed into the batter of a chocolate cake which I make every Valentine's Day. Khalua, a coffee-flavored liquour, is also nice in any chocolate dessert recipe, because coffee takes the flavor of chocolate to the next level. The two flavors are the perfect marriage as they compliment and bring out the best of each other.

When life gives you lemons ... well, grate them over a dish before serving. A light sprinkling of grated lemon zest over the asparagus or brussels sprouts brightens the dish, makes a brighter presentation and adds another dimension of flavor. When combined with minced garlic, chopped rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil, you have a perfect topping to roast on pork, chicken, lamb or duck.

Every good Italian knows that the ultimate finishing ingredient is some freshly grated cheese. Whether using Pecorino Romano or Parmagiano, be sure to only buy imported. A more economical approach, and better tasting as well, is to purchase a whole block of the cheese and grate it yourself at home as you need it, rather than buying the tub of already grated cheese which costs more and will not be as fresh. The cheese is not just for topping pasta anymore, it can be used to finish plating soups, it can be lightly sprinkled over asparagus for the last five minutes of roasting, and it can be tossed with roasted potatoes for a nice breakfast companion to your scrambled eggs.

When sauteeing vegetables, such as spinach or broccoli rabe, lightly toss some pignoli nuts separately in a dry frying pan over medium heat until they turn golden brown, then sprinkle the toasted pignolis over the sauteed veggie before serving. They add a nice little extra to both the flavor and texture of the dish.

I leave you with one of my finishing tricks for pies, the last two ingredients to stock up your shelf with. Whenever I bake a pie, I brush the top crust with an egg wash before baking. The egg wash is simply a beaten egg with a little water, used by bakers primarily for giving pies that glossy golden glow. I use it for one additional purpose, however: so that my topping sticks to the crust without rolling off. The toppings? When making savory pies, such as a pot pie, I like to lightly sprinkle the top with sea salt crystals before baking. Sea salt crystals are also useful when added to a pot of boiling water for pasta, and in soups. When finishing a sweet dessert pie, I christen the top with turbinado (raw sugar) crystals before presenting it to the oven. Both variations give the pies an attractive sparkle, plus an added facet of flavor and a delicate crunch in every bite. The turbinado sugar achieves the same nice effect when sprinkled over muffins or breads before baking as well.

So as you go through your kitchen to sort and organize, or when you draw up your next grocery shopping list, pick up some of these ingredients. They allow for simple and quick solutions to bring out more flavor from your food, basic cooking with a kick. Big flavors come in little packages, and can boost the flavor of your next meal to the next level with little cost or effort on your part, leaving you more time to clean out your next closet.

Monday, January 11, 2010

No More Broken Promises

Happy New Year! And happy new decade. With the start of a new year, many of us view this time as a new beginning for a fresh start, a time to reflect on ourselves and to make some big positive change in our lives. Some popular resolutions include finding a better job, to quit smoking, to make more time for family and friends. The number one new year's resolution is to achieve weight loss. It all sounds good, doesn't it? What could be so bad about wanting to improve oneself? Well, wanting and doing are two different things. The truth is, when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve and the flashing ball in Times Square makes its mark, everyone who has imbibed alcohol to excess makes these lofty goals for themselves; goals which turn out to be empty promises. Part of the problem is people make such proclamations without any thought or plan as to how they intend to achieve such goals. Since this is a blog space that delves into food and cooking, I'm going to address that ever-popular new year's resolution of "I'm going to lose weight." How many of you have uttered those words, followed by a few days or even weeks of embarking on some faddish deprivation diet which typically shuns a whole food group, only to crash and burn when you could no longer endure this self-torture which you imposed on yourself as you ultimately binge on a whole quart of Ben & Jerry's in one sitting? Perhaps a more successful resolution would be "I'm going to eat healthier and enjoy doing so." This alone will steer you away from those broken promises you've made to yourself time and time again, and excess weight will come off naturally. However, you first need to acknowledge that the task lies in your hands alone, you need to take responsibility for reaching your own goals. Everyone wants a quick and easy fix to simply fall into their laps, an unrealistic expectation. The goal itself needs to be realistic as well. A woman in her 40s is wasting effort in desperately trying to achieve the weight she was at on her wedding day 15-20 years earlier. Metabolism changes, our bodies change, our activity levels change, our caloric needs change. Instead of fighting a losing battle with some new fad diet to achieve an unattainable goal, by making a few simple changes with the goal of eating healthier, the truly excess pounds will dissolve in a process which will be better for you and sustainable in the long run.

In order for anyone to lose weight, one has to make some alterations in their eating habits and in their attitudes toward their perception of food. Traditionally, Americans are the top candidates for the fat-farm. No niceties here, Americans are F-A-T. - fat! Asians are not overweight. Europeans generally are not either. Even at the innocent age of eight, on a trip to Paris I was observant enough to inform my mother "Mom, there are no fat people here!" This is because Americans have absolutely no clue what the act of consuming food should be about. Americans view dining as simply fueling up as quickly as possible for the unreasonably overburdened day which they have inflicted upon themselves, pumping their bodies with quickie salt and sugar-laden processed foods as they run from one errand to the next. Fast food eateries are the ultimate 'truck stops' in eating to fuel up. Even on the occasion that they do actually assume the position of sitting down to a table, they shovel their meal in the way one would feed coal into a furnace, often mentally engrossed solely on whatever is on their television set whose switch seems to be perpetually in the on position. They have little idea what they have just consumed, nor do they really care. Conversely, Europeans observe the act of dining as a ritual to be savored, appreciated and enjoyed with family and friends. It is a culture and a social rite that is embraced and looked forward to every meal of every day.

The first step in eating healthier is to change your viewpoint toward food and dining. Focus on what you are eating, think about the flavors as you chew and take the time to actually communicate with your dining companion(s). Turn the television off, let the answering machine do its job, and make dining a daily ritual in which you concentrate your senses on food and drink, and your mental faculties on stimulating conversation. This will slow down the eating process, allowing your system to find the opportunity to signal to your brain that you are now full. It will also make your mealtime a time to relax and socialize with your family.

The second step to eating healthier is to change your overall eating plan. What diets have you tried and ultimately failed at in the past? Low carb? Your body needs carbs, particularly whole grains. No sugar? Guess what, your body needs sugar too. No, not that whole pie you picked up this morning! Perhaps you tried some sort of purge diet, such as consuming exclusively cabbage soup for three months. The reason that all of these diets fail is simple: your body is a complex machine in need of a large number of balanced dietary components in order to function properly. Depriving that system of any one nutrient leads to uncontrollable cravings, possible illnesses resulting from nutritional deficiencies, and a body which is not functioning at maximum efficiency; in other words, one which in the long run remains overweight. No more fad diets which boast promises of excessive weight loss - if it sounds too good or too easy to be true, that means that it is. Now think about how you ate when you were not on one of these unreasonable dietary quests. Take out fast food for dinner four to six nights a week? A can of Coke whenever you felt thirsty? A whole tub of ice cream late at night because you felt stressed about something? Declared a dislike for an entire food group, such as fruit or vegetable? Here lies the problem. There is only one diet that everyone should be following, and it should not be perceived as a diet at all. It is an eating plan, based upon the government food pyramid. This guide is actually not unlike the daily eating habits in which people in Europe normally partake. It is high in daily intake of fruits and vegetables, low in meats, higher in carbs made from whole grains; high fat dishes and sugary treats should be treated exactly as such: occasional treats.

The third step is to use that food pyramid as a guide to reallocate where your caloric intake comes from and reduce your portions. The best way to achieve this is to dine at home. It is time to reacquaint yourself with your kitchen, where the power is in your hands to control portions. Many restaurants in this country have gone completely out of control with portion sizes; an individual diner is being fed double and even triple the amounts of what they need. The food pyramid states that one serving of meat should fit on the palm of your hand, or be similar in size to a deck of cards. Go to a restaurant in France and see what size of steak your waiter presents you with. You will be handed a plate with a single filet mignon of exceptional quality. Here in the states, you are often presented with a cut of beef that nearly exceeds the size of the entire dinner plate- in fact it is often presented in a platter, not a plate - piled with at least two servings of fries, and vegetables, if offered, are meagerly served in a little side bowl no bigger than the bowl your child feeds his hamster in. Some steakhouses in this country now have their staff circulate the dining room showing off a 76-ounce steak, offering a free dinner to anyone who can consume the entire piece of meat which, by the way, is about 70 ounces more than a single serving size. Just think about how disgusting and unreasonable that whole concept really is. Americans love excess and gluttony, and that includes in their diets. Instead of filling up on meat, the food pyramid suggests filling up on vegetables. Considering that we should consume a minimum of four servings of vegetables per day, that means at least two servings of vegetables with dinner and two with lunch. Restaurants often overcook the vegetables and do not put much effort in making them very flavorful or appealing, simply because it is not accepted practice in our culture to embrace pure fresh foods or seasonings other than salt. Canned vegetables are even worse. For those who claim not to like vegetables, I would be willing to bet that if they just tried purchasing something fresh from the farm stand or supermarket, bringing it home, looking up a simple recipe for preparing it, and cooking it themselves, it would prove to be a revelation. Make two different vegetables, not merely a double-helping of one, as it will make your meal more visually appealing and more satisfying as you take in two different tastes and textures each prepared with different seasonings. We should consume an equal number of fruit servings per day, whether for desserts or for breakfast and snacks. During the summer when fruits are abundant and at their peak for flavor, there are plenty of varieties to choose from. When it comes to carbs, despite what the no-carb cultists are trying to tell us, your body does need them. However there are 'good' carbs which offer nutritional benefits, such as whole grain breads, cereals and pastas; and there are empty carbs, such as white bread and white rice, which offer little to no benefit. For those who make such proclamations as 'I don't like whole grain pasta,' I have one thing to say to you: pasta has little flavor, the flavor of a pasta dish comes from what you put on the pasta. Pasta soaks up the flavor of the sauce used, the cheese sprinkled on, etc. It is almost forgivable when a four-year-old complains and gets picky about foods; it gets pathetic when an adult whines in the exact same closed-minded manner. A four-year-old doesn't know any better, a parent has to take the responsibility of coaxing their child to eat properly. An adult should possess the mental capacity to buck up and take responsibility for himself or herself if he or she really does care about health.

The fourth step to eating healthier is to feel content with your new meal plan, do not deprive yourself entirely of the things you love. To tell yourself that you are going to abandon all cake and ice cream for six months so that you look like a toothpick in your bathing suit come summer is not a reasonable goal. Allow yourself that piece of cake, but keep it limited. Have one single serving - not half of the cake - not more than once a week, and let that be the only sugary treat you enjoy that week. Enjoy it as the treat that it should be, such as on a Friday night to kick off your weekend, or for dessert for a special weekend family meal that you create. Go ahead and cook that pasta dinner one night with the creamy carbonara sauce, but keep the serving size reasonable and instead of reaching for seconds, round out the meal with a cooked vegetable and a salad. Try and keep the sugary sweet to once a week and also a higher-fat entree to once a week as well. Plan ahead for holidays. If you know that Christmas is next week, know that you can eat whatever is on the menu that day, no holds barred; but that is your free ticket for the week. The rest of that week you do need to avoid the little extra treats altogether. Finally, one dinner a week should be composed of anything you like, the only rule still to be applied is portion control. By allowing yourself these limited and controlled indulgences, your new eating plan will be something you can sustain for life. Once you have reached a comfortable and reasonable weight on your bathroom scale, you can then gradually tailor how many of those treats you can typically allow yourself in a regular week of dining without resulting in the weight creeping back up again. Everybody is different, everybody has different caloric requirements to maintain weight. This is how people in Italy and France manage to revel in such decadent delicacies as fettuccine alfredo, fine cheeses, rich desserts and high-fat meats. They keep portions reasonable, and they are not eating these particular foods constantly at every meal of every day.

The last step to eating healthy is to embrace quality, variety and flavor in your foods. Turn your back on the low-quality corporate mass-produced food products, just walk away. Make better choices, especially when you do allow yourself a treat. Pass the Hostess or Entennmans cakes in the supermarket and make a detour instead to a bakery or, better yet, bake a cake or a batch of decadent cookies yourself using only the finest ingredients. These higher quality foods usually have more flavor, and are therefore more satisfying. When food is more satisfying and offers more flavors and textures to appreciate, you'll need to eat smaller portions to feel satiated. Leave the processed "convenience" foods in the store, get into the habit of cooking your own meals using the best ingredients. Foods that are less processed and not mass-produced tend to be made with more attention to quality, therefore yielding an eating experience that rewards your palate with more flavors, more textures, more substance, all in all more 'oomph' to every mouthful. With cooking becoming en vogue again, thanks to the media-provided cooking magazines, celebrity chefs and Food Network, it is now easier than ever to embark on cooking up some original dishes to satisfy every taste. It is also more exciting than ever to embrace new cuisines as more and more ethnic ingredients from around the globe make their appearance in our gourmet shops and specialty food markets.

By making these changes in how you approach food and dining, and adding a sensible exercise routine that is convenient enough to stick to long term, you will be able to keep your resolution to eat and be healthier and the excess pounds will melt away. No, it will not be so easy for one who has been conditioned lifelong to subsist on quick fixes for meals and to consume exorbitant volumes of anything one craves with reckless abandon. There will be a lesson to embark on first; but once you perfect the art of eating healthier, you'll find yourself eating very well indeed, appreciating better foods, and knowing that you are now living to eat, not eating just to live. Mentally as well as physically, that's a pretty rewarding promise that you're not likely to break any time soon.