Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Watermelon for the Weekend

Watermelon is one of summer’s most delicious treats. But that wasn’t always the case for me. When I was growing up, it was served salted, and I never liked it. I thought watermelon was best used for seed spitting contests and not for eating. Then, on a hot weather camping trip a few years ago, our friends brought out a bowl of cubed watermelon they had stashed in their cooler for snacking. It was such a refreshing treat on that hot, dusty day, that I became a watermelon convert. They always keep it cut up in the refrigerator at home as a snack for the kids and now, even though our kids are grown and gone, we keep it cubed in the refrigerator all summer too.

Another great way to use watermelon on a hot day is a watermelon cooler. It’s a light, healthy and refreshing summer drink that is so easy to make:

Watermelon Cooler

1 cup seedless watermelon, cubed
½ cup fresh mint leaves

Put melon and mint in a large pitcher. Fill pitcher with ice and water. Mash mint leaves with wooden spoon to release the flavor. Let stand in the refrigerator for an hour before serving. You can continue to replace the water in the pitcher all day for a continuous supply of beverage.

Usually I like to eat watermelon just sliced and unembellished, but if you need a change or want something a little fancier for guests, here are my two favorite recipes. I have adapted both over the years from Bon Apetit magazine.

Watermelon Mint Salad (you can see a photo of this one at What's for Dinner?)
Serves 4

4 cups seedless watermelon, cubed
1/2 cup chopped scallions, green part
3 Tbsp chopped fresh mint
1 Tbsp chili garlic paste
1/8 cup high quality extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp champagne vinegar
Salt and pepper

Combine watermelon, scallions, and mint in a large bowl. Whisk oil, vinegar and chili garlic paste in small bowl. Pour dressing mixture over watermelon and toss to coat. Salt and pepper to taste.

Melon Salad
Serves 4-6
¼ cup fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp golden brown sugar
3 cups cubed seedless watermelon
2 cups cubed cantaloupe
2 medium cucumbers, peeled and cubed
½ cup chopped red onion
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp chili garlic paste
Salt and pepper

Combine fruit, onion and mint in a large bowl. Whisk lime juice, brown sugar and chili garlic paste in small bowl until sugar dissolves. Pour dressing over fruit mixture and toss gently. Salt and pepper to taste.

Enjoy these salads with your summer barbecues, especially with the Fourth of July holiday weekend coming up. I’m planning to serve the melon salad. Both salads keep well in the refrigerator for at least a day if you have leftovers. They also make a great healthy side with a sandwich for lunch.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Lotta Gelato

I discovered the pleasures of gelato on a trip to Italy. I've always loved ice cream, but had never really explored gelato. We savored gelato at least once, sometimes as often as three times a day during our 10 days in Tuscany. We visited the shop around the corner from our hotel at least once a day. I counted over thirty flavors I at least tasted, and learned the names of most flavors in Italian. My favorite was mango from a tiny shop near a flea market in Florence.

When we went to Brazil, I read that they specialize in fruit drinks, similar to smoothies, in the beach towns, so I learned all the fruits in Portuguese. In the area where we stayed, almost no one speaks English. On our first day settled into the house, we learned there was a mall nearby with a gelato shop. A group of us decided to check it out. We had no trouble finding it, but deciphering the flavors and their ordering system was another matter. After learning all the Portuguese fruit names, still nothing was recognizable. Suddenly I realized it was all in Italian! Now I could make my selection, but the actual ordering and payment was quite comical. We kept those young ladies behind the counter entertained for quite a while.

My friend Nancy, who goes to Italy often, says there is a place that has better gelato than Italy. And it’s here in California. Hermosa Beach, to be exact, where I was headed over the weekend to help my son move. So we had to check out her recommendation of Paciugo Gelato and Caffe. We were not disappointed –except that we’ve been visiting my son for seven years and didn’t know about this place before. We could have been eating their fabulous gelato all this time.

Paciugo makes all their gelato by hand and the flavor variety is amazing. They offer 32 of their approximately 300 flavors each day. I think we tried over half of them. There weren’t as many standard fruit flavors as I generally expect for a gelato shop, but they more than compensated with unique flavors, such as Mediterranean Sea Salt Caramel, Rose Chocolate Chip, Black Sesame, Chocolate Coconut Curry, Chocolate Green Tea and Black Pepper Olive Oil, just to name a few. There was also plenty of nuts and chocolates and other more routine flavors with exotic names.

The gelato is rich, creamy and smooth and the fruit flavors don’t have the grainy consistency found in some fruit gelato. The Rose Chocolate Chip tasted just as I imagined. Smell a rose, then what would that taste like on chocolate? You got it. The Black Pepper Olive Oil was also quite unique. It was a delicate flavor with a long pepper finish.

We’re not likely to return to Hermosa soon, since my son has moved to the Thousand Oaks area. I'm really going to miss visiting him at the beach. But I was cheered immensely to discover on Sunday, that TO also has a Paciugo. And it’s on the same street as the hotel where we stayed! Needless to say, we had more gelato. This shop has a different feel, being located in a mall, rather than at the beach, but the gelato was every bit as delicious. And there were new flavors to try – blueberry cobbler, vanilla lavender, orange tangerine, and cinnamon. Maybe I won’t mind his move inland after all.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tasty Tea Cookies

I just love food venues where you can sample the food and talk to the people who make the product. They are so passionate about what they do. Another discovery from our first trip to the Sunset Celebration Weekend is Botanical Bakery. They served samples of all six flavors of their crisp, handmade, buttery tea cookies. These are delicious tiny bites, packed with flavor. On their packaging, they suggest pairings for tea, coffee and wine. They also suggested some food pairings while I was nibbling on the samples. Since we came home with two bags of the Cinnamon Basil cookies, I tried their idea of a parfait of the Cinnamon Basil cookies with mashed sweet potatoes and pesto. I made a pesto of basil, pine nuts, almonds, mustard, olive oil, parmesan cheese and champagne vinegar. You could use your favorite recipe or purchase ready-made pesto. They suggested serving this as an appetizer. I made it as a vegetable side dish served with a pork loin.

We also purchased the Fennel Pollen and Ginger Squared cookies. The ginger cookies are bursting with ginger flavor that is totally addicting. Rather than just eating the whole bag at once, I made a blackberry parfait dessert inspired by a recipe in Bon Appetit magazine.

Ginger Squared and Blackberry Parfait
Serves 2

Blackberry Sauce
1 basket fresh blackberries
1/4 c orange juice
1Tbsp golden brown sugar (could use less depending on sweetness of berries)
Dash of cinnamon

Put most (approx ¾) of the berries and other ingredients in small saucepan. Cook on medium heat stirring frequently until berries are soft. Puree berry mixture in blender. Reserve a few berries for garnish. Add the rest of the berries and stir into mixture.

Put Ginger Squared cookies in bottom of parfait or wine glass. Add a scoop of vanilla or peach ice cream.  Top with warm blackberry sauce. Add more layers of cookies, ice cream and berries if you like. Top with a cookie and reserved berries.

We haven't opened the package of Fennel Pollen tea cookies yet, but I'm looking forward to their delicate flavor with a cup of tea sometime soon.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Finally - Fresh Corn

Fresh local corn from Brentwood has finally arrived at the farmer’s market this week. When I saw that pile of bright green husks on Sunday, I immediately began to mentally rearrange the week’s menus to accommodate the corn. Five ears for a $1. Summer is here at last.

Corn on the cob is great, but so is variety. I discovered a salad recipe that is perfect for the season – arugula, basil, cherry tomatoes and corn with Parmesan cheese and a vinaigrette dressing. Last summer while preparing it for dinner, I asked Larry to slice the corn kernels off the cob for me since he likes wielding his large chef’s knife at any opportunity. When he was finished, he asked where he should put the tender juicy kernels now in a pile on the cutting board. “Just throw them in the salad,” I replied. He was horrified. “Aren’t you going to cook it? I don’t eat raw corn!” he almost shrieked. “Surprise!” I said. “ You’ve been eating it raw all summer and loving it.”

I also have several corn soups that I make, but this is my all time favorite. I got it from Chef Charles Vollmar in a food and wine pairing class I took at the Professional Culinary Institute. I’ve changed it slightly based on what is convenient for me and adapted it for a smaller quantity (3 main course servings), but he really deserves the credit. Enjoy it with a crisp Fume Blanc. 2007 Dry Creek was his suggestion and I am in agreement. We had the 2008 tonight and it was also just fine. This soup and salad make a perfect patio dinner for a summer evening.

White Corn and Sun-Dried Tomato Chowder with Goat Cheese Crostini
3 ears corn, kernels removed, cobs reserved
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion diced
1 clove garlic diced
1/2 Tbsp fresh thyme
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground tumeric
1/2 Tbsp lemon zest, divided
2 cups low salt chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, rehydrated in warm water and coarsely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
3 oz fresh goat cheese
1 Tbsp minced chives
baguette, cut into diagonal slices

In a heavy-bottomed stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, thyme, cumin, tumeric and half the lemon zest. Saute for 5-6 minutes. Add corn kernels and reserved cobs, chicken stock and wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook covered, for 20 minutes. Remove and discard cobs.

Add lemon juice and creme fraiche.  Using a blender or handblender, puree the soup. Add the chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Reheat if necessary. Salt and pepper to taste.

For crostini:
Combine the goat cheese, chives and remaining lemon zest and liberally top the baguette slices with the cheese mixture. Place under the broiler until cheese is slightly browned.

To serve, place the crostini into the bowl with the soup.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Cauliflower Question

How do you make cauliflower taste really good? Not that it’s bad, it just doesn’t have much flavor on its own. I get tired of eating the same vegetables all the time, so I’m always on the lookout for new ones to add to my routine. Cauliflower is low in fat, high in fiber and Vitamin C, so it seems like a good choice to add to my shopping list. It always looks beautiful at the farmer's market, so recently I’ve been on a quest to find an easy, tasty way to prepare it. Several of my attempts have not been very successful, but I have finally found a great way to cook it, thanks to my friend Bina. This one is going to be a standard at my house.

I wrote about Bina’s curried peas and potatoes previously in the post Anticipation. Last night we made her basic vegetable recipe using cauliflower and peas, with outstanding results. To go with the Indian spices in the vegetables, I made a mango lassi and served naan. This would make a great meal for your Meatless Monday. This week, we just made it a meatless Wednesday instead. Here is Bina’s recipe with a few adjustments to make 2 large main dish servings:

Curried Cauliflower and Peas

1 small head cauliflower chopped into florets
1/8 c oil
¼ c red onion chopped
½ Tbsp each salt, pepper, cumin, curry, coriander
1/8 c grated fresh ginger
¾ c peas (fresh or frozen)
¼ c cilantro

Heat oil. Cook onions until brown. Push onions to the side and add spices. Roast spices for one minute. Add cauliflower and ginger. Cook covered for about 15 minutes. Add peas and cook another 10 minutes uncovered (only about 3-5 minutes if using frozen peas). Stir in cilantro at the last minute.

Mango Lassi

For each serving:
1 c plain yogurt
1 fresh mango (or the equivalent of frozen or canned mango)
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Put all ingredients in blender and puree until smooth.

Thanks again to Bina for sharing her recipe. I plan to try it with other vegetable combinations as well.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Birthday Zone

Do you celebrate it? Do you even know what it is? My friend Mary Ellen introduced us to the concept of the Birthday Zone. She comes from a large family where it is often difficult to celebrate a birthday on the exact day. So they came up with the idea that you could celebrate plus or minus the number of days of your age from your actual birth date. At my age that means you can celebrate for a significant portion of the year!

We didn’t have big birthday celebrations in our family until our friend Paul got married. For his wife, a birthday was a big event. So we have adopted her custom and for many years now, we prepare birthday dinner celebrations for each other. Tonight was the dinner for Paul and their daughter Sarah, who is now fifteen. We missed Sarah’s zone by a few weeks, but are well within Paul's. Sarah will forgive us as long as there are cake and presents.

In addition to food and presents, each dinner comes with a theme conjured up by the host. My inspiration is usually either seasonal or a new recipe I want to try. Over the years I’ve cooked and decorated for autumn, the beach, Hawaiian, Caribbean, Moroccan, Thai, Mexican and many others. Tonight's dinner was inspired by a cheese we tried at the Sunset Celebration Weekend. Redwood Hill Farm raw milk feta is a delicious, mild goat’s milk feta. After tasting it, I knew I wanted a Mediterranean menu.
The appetizer for this evening’s dinner was a platter of artichoke pesto, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts and the feta made into a spread.

Feta Spread
5oz. Redwood Hill Farm raw milk feta cheese
4 tsp high quality mild extra virgin olive oil (I used St. Helena Olive Oil Co. Tuscan Varietal)
Zest of one lemon finely chopped
Mix all ingredients together to form a spread. Serve with crackers and slices of toasted baguette

The main course consisted of grilled chicken and figs with balsamic fig glaze, grilled asparagus and couscous.

And then there’s cake. The cake rarely varies. For Sarah it needs to be “brown” cake as we call it – yellow cake with chocolate icing. Brown cake is one of the many cake stories from Sarah over the years. One Saturday morning when she was four, she was playing outside in the driveway. Larry had made a fresh lemon cake and invited her to come in and have some with us. A cake lover from an early age, Sarah didn’t hesitate. She sat down, chin resting on the kitchen table, waiting for her cake to be served. When Larry placed a slice in front of her, she immediately burst into tears. We couldn’t imagine what was wrong. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I wanted brrrooowwnn cake,” she sobbed inconsolably. This year her brown cake was in the form of a cupcake tree. She was quite satisfied and ate two and some to go.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Say Cheese!

I love cheese. And I eat a lot of it. Apparently so do a lot of other people. I’ve read that Americans eat an average of a half pound of cheese a week. I'm guessing I eat more than that, but I really don't want to know.

At the Sunset Celebration event last weekend, there were a variety of artisan cheese makers. I had the opportunity to nibble on some old favorites and sample some new favorites as well. We’re already familiar with several of the Cypress Grove Chevre cheeses due to their popularity at wine and cheese pairings we’ve attended. Humboldt Fog and Midnight Moon, both aged goat cheeses, often show up on the menu at our favorite place for wine tasting, GC’s Tasting CafĂ©. A young Humboldt Fog pairs well with Sauvignon Blanc and we’ve enjoyed Midnight Moon paired with both chardonnay and with Cabernet Sauvignon.

We came home from the Sunset event with two new favorites from Cypress Grove Chevre. The first one is Purple Haze. It is a fresh goat cheese with a mixture of lavender and fennel pollen. It is light and sweet and quite unique. I haven’t played around with serving suggestions for it yet, but I like their idea of figs and a sweet wine.

The other cheese we purchased was Truffle Tremor, an award winning ripened goat’s milk cheese. It is a rich, earthy cheese with truffle added. Our purchase appeared to be on the young side, but still had a nice earthy flavor. It didn’t last long enough to get any older! We enjoyed some of it unadorned, before I began to experiment. Then after some trial and error, I came up with a trio of crostini possibilities to pair it with some other flavors. I wouldn’t necessarily serve all these crostini together. The mushroom version would make a good appetizer, while the other two would be good desserts. Or maybe for an afternoon tea.

Trio of Crostini
Slice a baguette thinly on the diagonal. Brush both sides lightly with olive oil and toast.

Mushroom Crostini
Spread Truffle Tremor cheese on toasted baguette and top with with Mushroom Ragout. See recipe from previous post Mushroom Mania. Sprinkle with fresh thyme.

Cinnamon Pear Crostini
Mix Truffle Tremor cheese with small amount of orange honey to taste. Spread on toast. Top with a slice of your favorite variety of pear and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Mango Basil Crostini
Mix Truffle Tremor cheese with small amount of Meyer lemon syrup to taste. Spread on toast. Sprinkle with black pepper and fresh basil chiffonade. Top with a slice of dried mango. Spread a small amount of sweet jalapeno sauce on mango. (You could also use red pepper jelly, but I couldn’t find any in the frig last night)

I hope you enjoy!

Monday, June 7, 2010

What's for Dinner?

Is this a question that someone asks you almost every day? Your children or your spouse, or maybe you even ask yourself. Like laundry, cooking dinner is one of those never-ending tasks. There’s always tomorrow. Somebody has to make dinner, day after day after day.

We usually go to the farmer’s market on Sunday morning and I start planning the week’s menus based on what we purchase. I pour over recipes trying to come up with healthy, appetizing meals for the week. The goal is to entice us to eat at home and use what we have bought. I usually plan four menus, but I must admit we rarely even stick to those. Something always comes up. Working late, too tired to cook, one of us doesn’t want any of this, or desperately craving something else specific – those are the common excuses for not eating what I’ve planned. But since there are seven days in the week, the chances are reasonably good we’ll at least use most of the ingredients in the frig. So I prepare the grocery list, and Larry goes off to do the rest of the grocery shopping. With any luck, he’ll come home with everything needed for the plan.

This week’s menu plan consists of:

BBQ grilled chicken breasts
Watermelon, mint and green onion salad
Corn on the cob

Tilapia with balsamic butter sauce
Thyme mashed potatoes
Sugar snap peas

Fajitas made with Trader Joe’s carne asada
Rice with squash, red peppers and roasted pepitas

Grilled pork loin with chutney
Green beans with mushrooms
Layered pesto, sweet potatoes and cinnamon basil tea biscuits (more on this recipe later if it works!)

Who knows what take out or dining out or improvisations will find their way into the week’s plan? But I find that if I start with a reasonable outline, we’re much more likely to eat healthy and eat at home than if we leave the whole week to chance.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Sunset Celebration Weekend

Sunset Magazine’s annual Celebration Weekend is thirteen years old. In all that time, we have never attended, even though it is only a few miles away. It always sounded interesting, but it just never worked out. Since we had no plans this weekend, we decided to finally check it out. The event includes home and garden exhibits, demonstrations and vendors, cooking demonstrations, a “glam” camping exhibit, test kitchen tours, garden tours and everything imaginable related to Western Living.

We didn’t see any of that. Larry recently joined the Sunset wine club, using the excuse that we need to add more “lifestyle” wines to our collection. Not that we need another wine club membership, but we do have a large collection of more expensive wines. We were latecomers to the club, and hadn't joined in time to get all the regular benefits of membership. But it did allow us to enjoy the members only lounge, where we tasted quite a few wines at no charge. We also took a seminar/tasting program on Washington state wines. So I thought I’d be writing about wine today. Not so.

It was all about the food for us. There was food sampling everywhere. From the Safeway deli handing out samples of salad, cookies and dip, to vendors with ice cream, candy, cheese, cereal and lemonade hoping to convince you to try their brands. But I thought the best part was a new addition to the event, the Artisanal Food Pavilion. There was a long line to get inside, so it was obviously a big hit. Sunset invited a variety of  food vendors to exhibit, offer samples and sell their products. We tasted chocolates, cheeses, breads, candies and cookies, tea and coffee, jams, olive oil, honey and sauces. This seems like a great way for these small food companies to show off their products and get exposure to thousands of new customers. We had a great time trying out all the different offerings.

There were definitely thousands of people in attendance on such a beautiful, warm day, but Sunset has their system well organized and under control. The shuttle system was efficient for parking and the venue is spaced so that it never seemed overcrowded like often happens at craft shows or art and wine festivals. I am thrilled that warm weather has finally arrived and this is a great way to spend the weekend if you love food and wine, like we do. I’ll share some of our favorite finds in subsequent posts.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mushroom Mania

I read recently that many people’s palates are determined genetically and that some strongly flavored foods, such as mushrooms and cilantro, genuinely taste terrible to some individuals. I’m glad I’m not one of them. I love mushrooms (and cilantro). All kinds of mushrooms. There’s nothing tastier than a grilled portobello on toast with arugula and red pepper mayonnaise.

Last spring, we dined at the Martini House in St. Helena, where chef Todd Humphries is known for his passion for mushrooms. So of course, I had to try the mushroom and spring vegetable tasting menu. Each course featured a different mushroom in a unique preparation. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten mushrooms for dessert before! They usually post their current mushroom tasting menu on their website at

I have a favorite mushroom ragout recipe that is extremely versatile and features LOTS of mushrooms. I got the recipe from the wife of a coworker many years ago. I am still grateful that she was willing to share. Thank you, Shari. It looks really complicated, but I’ll abbreviate it here. I’m not providing any quantities or amounts because we have learned over the years that it turns out well with whatever you have on hand, in whatever quantity suits your taste:

Mushroom Ragout
Use a lot of mushrooms – Portobello, brown, shitake and oyster (or any others you like), cut into ½” pieces
Butter, olive oil, soy sauce, sherry, mustard, champagne mustard, half-and-half
Sage, thyme, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper

Brown the mushrooms, herbs, shallots, and garlic in a mixture of olive oil and butter, then cook until tender. Add sherry, soy sauce, mustards and a little half-and-half. Cook six or seven minutes more until creamy and aromatic. Add salt and pepper to taste.

This recipe makes a great side dish with beef if you chop the mushrooms more coarsely. Chop them a little finer and make a topping for crostini. My favorite use is an interpretation of a dish I had in a long-gone restaurant many years ago. Creamy mashed potatoes on a thin slice of toasted sourdough bread topped with the mushroom mixture. Add a little more half-and-half for this version. And if you’re a meatloaf fan, chop the mushrooms finely and blend the ragout into your favorite family meatloaf recipe for meatloaf with a new twist.

What's your favorite way to use mushrooms?