Sunday, December 26, 2010

Grow your own heirloom tomatoes

Many of my recipes call for heirloom tomatoes because of their superior flavor, texture and lovely appearance. Purchasing them at a grocery store can cost upwards of $5 per pound. However in my research for the book about different varieties of heirlooms, I came across this fantastic web supplier of heirloom seeds: Tomato Bob  They sell dozens of varieties of tomato seeds and until the end of December offer their heirloom seed sampler for half price. Check it out!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Gluhwein Poached Pears

Serves 4
While in Germany over Christmas, Rich and I visited Rothenburg, the oldest walled city in the country. We entered the city and climbed its famous watch tower. After a few hours of walking, our hands were frigid and our spirits sagging. We walked out of the watch tower onto a brick square where a brass band played. I ordered a bratwurst in a Kaiser roll and a cup of gluhwein and sat on the ice-cold steps of the courthouse. Some meals in your life are just the best meals you’ve ever had, not because they were elaborate or fancy, but because it was just good, honest food at a time when you needed. Food has an amazing power like that, to just be magical. Snow melted into my gluhwein and I felt my icy disposition melting too. We listened to the band play, just a little out of tune due to the weather, but somehow that was all part of the magic. These poached pears bring back that day for me.

4 ripe but firm Bosc pears, peeled
1 bottle dry red wine, such as Cabernet
3 tablespoons sugar
1 orange, sliced in thin circles
2 cinnamon sticks
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup egg nog
Whole nutmeg, about ½ teaspoon finely grated
4 store bought shortbread cookies
2 ounces dark chocolate
Peel the pears and cut off a small cylinder from each bottom so they will stand upright.
Heat the wine and sugar in a small sauce pan until the sugar dissolves. Stand the pears up so that the liquid comes up just to each of their tops. They should be somewhat close in the pan to prevent any from floating and bobbing away. Add the cinnamon sticks and orange slices and simmer for 20 minutes uncovered.
While the pears are cooking, melt the chocolate and drizzle over each of the shortbread cookies. Allow to cool and harden slightly.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the heavy cream until thick but not stiff, then fold in the eggnog and nutmeg.
Remove the pears from the heat and place each one on individual serving dishes.
Garnish each pear with the nutmeg cream and a chocolate shortbread cookie.

Side note: Although some of the alcohol burns off during the cooking process this dessert is best saved for adult diners.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Entertaining Tips

Don't Do It All
Especially during the holidays when time is tight. This may surprise those who know how much I love to cook, but I rarely cook everything from scratch when entertaining. If I'm making a labor-intensive lasagna and frozen chocolate mousse, I'll likely purchase fresh bread and a tapenade from the store instead of making my own. Choose the foods you love to cook and the ones that show off your skill in the kitchen. For the life of me, I am not a cake baker or decorator. They always turn out looking like a second grade art project. So I often leave those to the professionals.

Craft a Menu
When planning a menu, I try to create a seasonal balance of flavors, colors and textures. If I'm serving a rich, creamy main course, for example, I'll serve a lighter dessert. I'm a sucker for beautiful food, so I skip the parsley garnish and serve something green instead. Also ask your guests about any dietary restrictions they may have to ensure you cook food they can eat. It can be a hassle to cook a vegan, gluten-free meal, but in forcing you out of your comfort zone, it can also open your palate to new ingredients and amazing new recipes.  

Prepare Ahead
Plan a meal around the nature of the event and the amount of time you wish to spend interacting with your guests so that you can prepare some of the foods ahead of time. For example, if you wish to serve a formal sit-down dinner for eight, you may wish to avoid foods that require last-minute preparation, such as seared fish or meat. A more casual event may lend itself to mingling with guests in the kitchen helping your finish such last-minute dishes. Shop a day or two in advance and prepare anything you can the day before, such as chopping vegetables, cooking soup bases or whisking together salad dressings.

Set the Table
Set the dining table a day in advance of your guests' arrival. Even if you're still bustling around your kitchen at the last minute, a beautiful table communicates to your guests you're anticipating their visit and eager to make the occasion memorable. Add special touches with personal name cards. I attended a brunch in honor of my mother-in-law where the hostess framed each guest's name and a special quote in a small silver frame. A less-expensive but equally charming place card is to make ginger bread cookies in different shapes and write each guest's name on it in white icing.

Decorate Simply
Avoid all of the lovely holiday-scented candles at the dining table as the aromas will compete with the food you've spent time artfully preparing and instead opt for unscented. Decorate with natural materials, such as a bowl of fresh citrus fruit and leaves. Often you can find the fruit with the stems and leaves still attached during the holiday season at specialty markets, or in your yard if you live in a southern state. Depending on the height of your chandelier, also consider hanging attractive glass ornaments from it with ribbon cut at varying lengths.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Marcella's Vegan Chickpea and Rice Pilaf

This recipe comes from my best friend Marcella who serves this savory pilaf to her three kiddos to sneak some leafy greens onto their plates.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chiffonade
2 large leaves Swiss chard, chopped
4-6 pitted kalamata olives, diced
1 1/2 cups cooked brown basmati rice
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Sweat onion, garlic and bell pepper in olive oil with salt over medium heat until onions are golden. Add herbs and chard and cook for 2 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients and cook until heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with lemon wedges.

For a satisfying main course, add marinated tofu, grilled shrimp or thinly sliced steak, cooked separately.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chilled Green Bean Salad

I enjoyed this salad on a hot Phoenix summer evening during my friends' and my weekly "family dinners." Really it was just an excuse to eat, drink and spend time together while our children, all of them under 3, entertained one another. Anna, a professional baker by trade, made this salad that evening and it was love at first bite. It's the perfect side dish when you're bored with everyday mixed greens. Enjoy!
Serves 4-6

1-2 pounds fresh green beans, ends trimmed
juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons prepared hummus
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 roma tomato, diced
1/4 of a small red onion, sliced thinly
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Blanch the green beans in a large pot of salted boiling water for 3 minutes or until they reach the desired tenderness. You still want a lot of crunch and snap. Drain and then plunge into an ice water bath immediately. Allow to cool completely and then drain once again.

Place the beans in a serving dish and douse with half of the lemon juice. Garnish with tomatoes and red onions.

Whisk together the hummus, olive oil and the remaining half of the lemon juice in a liquid measuring cup. Drizzle over the top of the salad and season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Baby Cheesecakes with Fresh Figs

Baby Cheesecakes with Fresh Figs
Serves 4
What better pair than fresh figs and cheese after dinner? I can’t think of anything, so I bought a pound of Mission figs at my local market with the intent of bruleeing  them over individual cheesecakes. I baked the cheesecakes in adorable little green ramekins. Dessert perfection. They were rich, creamy, and delicious. However, the normally wonderful caramelization of the sugar in a brulee preparation didn’t complement the figs as well as I had hoped. So serve with the fruit sliced raw, or another fruit or just enjoy these precocious little cakes naked.
1 8-ounce package cream cheese (not light)
½ cup granulated white cane sugar
2 eggs
1 cup of sour cream (not light)
Zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup of graham crackers, pulsed to a fine crumb
¼ cup butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and set a kettle of water on the stove to boil.
Pulse the graham crackers and melted butter in a food processor until it resembles coarse bread crumbs. Spoon this mixture into each of the ramekins and press down lightly. Don’t pack it too tightly or you’ll end up with a rock solid crust after baking. Not delicious.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl whip the cream cheese with a hand mixer until it’s smooth and creamy. Blend in the sugar thoroughly then add the eggs, one at a time, blending after each addition. Mix in the sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest. Divide the mixture evenly between each of the ramekins.
Pour the boiling water from your kettle into a 9x13” glass pan until it’s about 1-2” deep. You want it to be about three quarters of the depth of the ramekins but not so high they’re in danger of drowning. Settle each of the ramekins into the water bath and put the whole pan into the oven. Bake for about 25 minutes until the sides are set but the centers still look wobbly. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the stovetop for about half an hour, then remove each of the ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill completely. If you wish to speed up this process, and I can’t blame you, pour out the hot water bath after the pan has cooled on the stovetop, and create an ice water bath, cover and refrigerate.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tour de Coops

Among buzzwords of the present age, "permaculture" is one of my favorites. Coined in the 70's by a professor and his student, permaculture denotes sustainable living in cooperation with the environment.
Keeping urban livestock is an element of permaculture growing in popularity around the country. To increase awareness of the practice and methods of urban chicken farming, the Phoenix Permaculture Guild is sponsoring its annual Tour de Coops, a self-guided tour of the Phoenix valley's coolest coops December 4, 2010. For more information, visit the Phoenix Permaculture Website.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta

If conventional tomatoes are the supermodels of supermarket shelves, then heirloom tomatoes are the natural beauties, untainted by the genetic modifications designed to make their picture perfect counterparts stand up to long transportation times and brusque handling. Heirlooms are the pure breeds. But with that comes some ungainly appearances, mottled coloring, and what some might call imperfections. Nevertheless, heirloom tomatoes elevate this dish from the everyday Italian standby. So skip the picture-perfect red orbs and go for the sometimes peculiar heirloom tomatoes. Sample a new variety each time you make this appetizer.

serves four

4 slices boule
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup mini heirloom tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. When it is good and hot, cook the bread on each side until it is golden and toasty.

While the bread is cooking, slice each tomato in half or in quarters and make a chiffonade of the basil leaves. Toss these together with the balsamic and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Remove the toasted bread slices to a plate and top with tomato mixture. Serve immediately.