Thursday, November 30, 2006


As I drag out all of our holiday decorations, there are surprises in every box. Things I'd forgotten about. Gifts that people gave me over the course of the last year. (They know my collecting bent!) It's like Christmas a month early!

One group of decorations I especially love getting out are the holiday runners and tablecloths that I've found over the years. Rich red and green poinsettias on a silky background. A more rustic woven one with green and blue stars. And the elegant one with metallic thread snowflakes on a rich blue background.

As I unfurled them all, I was reminded of what textiles and fabrics can do to make your surroundings more beautiful and how much I rely on them to add interest and contrasting textures to our home. For example, a dining room table can sometimes look bare and almost cold with its wooden or glass surface. But it becomes an integrated part of the room when you put a runner on it that ties in with the other colors of the room--whether they be from art on the walls or the plates in your china cabinet.

And I actually prefer runners to tablecloths. They provide a nice accent of color and texture without completely obscuring the wood surface of our dinig room table. And they're the right size for a buffet or side table too. Sometimes I'll even put one on the kitchen counter to dress things up for a party.

In his travels abroad, my brother always keeps an eye out for hand-woven cloths and runners he thinks I would like. They're always uniquely beautiful, and the fact that a story comes with them makes them mean even more to me.

So, as you're working on your own beautiful space, don't forget to add the texture and beauty of textiles. Be on the look out for handmade work. Pieces with interesting weave patterns or surfaces. Things that can add an accent of color to a corner that needs it. Whether it's a runner for a sideboard, a cloth for your holiday table, or a throw draped on the corner of a couch, you'll love the added interest it brings to your home.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pot-Luck Wine Dinner

The holidays are upon us. For so many of us, our calendars get filled with parties, covered dish lunches at work, gift exchanges and the like. It's a great time to get together with people you see all the time and to reconnect with others where usually busy schedules can get in the way.

My other half and I use the holidays as an excuse for an annual gathering of three of my grad school colleagues and their spouses. We all live in the area and see each other separately or at each other's larger group parties, but this is the one time during the year that just the eight of us usually get together. So, we all work to make it really special.

This year, we're going back to a formula we used a couple of years ago. A pot-luck wine dinner. A multi-course meal where everyone shares the cooking duties and brings their favorite wines. It's especially successful if you have a group of friends into wine and food like ours are. You get to exchange recipes and pairing ideas and to taste some vinos that you might not be familiar with. It's a great way to have fun and learn a little something at the same time.

Here's how we do it. Each couple signs up for a course and a wine to go with it. The kitchen is available for folks to cook and we all have a good time helping and observing our fellow chefs at work. As hosts, we'll provide glasses, china and silverware. Of course, if you don't have enough on hand, you could certainly ask your guests to bring things to serve their food as well.

We broke the courses down this way this year:
Appetizers: Each couple is making an hors d'oeuvre or canape to go with a sparkling wine I'll provide. So, we'll have four little nibbles to start.
First Course: The first volunteer couple will prepare a soup or salad. Since this is first course, it's likely to be paired with a white wine.
Second Course: This one is wide open. Could be fish, chicken or even a pasta dish. Since it's a bridge between first course and main dish, wine could be a heavier white or even a light-style red.
Third Course: Here comes the entree. Red wine for sure.
Fourth Course: Since the dinner is about wine and good food, we won't pass up the chance to have a selection of cheeses at this point. With an even bigger red.
Fifth Course: The dessert finale. Could be chocolate something with a powerful red like Cabernet. Or a dessert wine with just about anything. Or even back to a sparkling wine. This couple gets to be really creative.

There's four couples so each does an appetizer and one other course. I'm picking up the extra course and will be matching several cheeses with a red for the fourth course.

The party's this Saturday night, so I'll report back and let you know what everyone comes up with. Hopefully, it will provide inspiration for you to host your own with a couple of your food and wine-loving pals.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


If you're like me, it's the time of year when you struggle with gift ideas. Not necessarily for family members or close friends (They've given me their lists!), but the myriad other people that I want to give a little token to celebrate the season. Neighbors, co-workers, even folks like the hairdresser or lawn guy. I've got a great solution this year you might try also. Seasoned spiced nut mixes. They're easy to make in big batches and to pack in decorative tins, jars or bags for gift-giving time. And you'll want to save some for yourself. They're great evening snacks and perfect to put out at cocktail parties or casual get-togethers. Any of them would be wonderful with your cheese board.

There are MANY recipes out there. Here are a few of my favorites.

Spiced Pecans
This are great by themselves, but can also be coarsely chopped and thrown on a salad. Maybe greens with blue cheese, dried cranberries and balsamic vinaigrette. Yum. (You can also easily substitute almonds for the pecans with equally delicious results.)

Note: This recipe makes two cups of pecans. If you want to use a entire one pound bag of pecan halves from the grocery store, just double the amount of butter and seasonings.

2 cups pecan halves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place pecans in large bowl and add melted butter and remaining ingredients. Stir to coat. Transfer to a baking pan and bake about 20 minutes. stirring occasionally.

Cumin Roasted Almonds
These are exotically delicious and a nice twist on plain old almonds. The sugar adds a nice touch of sweetness, but you could probably omit if you'd like savory only.

Makes six cups.

2 tablespoons whole cumin seed (You can buy in bulk sections of gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods or Central Market so you're not stuck with a whole jar that you might not use that often.)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided use
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
6 cups almonds

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Add the cumin to a skillet and heat over medium heat until fragrant. (Be careful not to burn! It doesn't take long.) Crush with mortar and pestle or grind in spice mill.

Add cumin, sugar, cayenne, 1 teaspoon of salt, butter, Worcestershire, and soy sauce to saucepan and heat over medium heat until butter is melted and mixture is hot.

Place almonds in large bowl and pour butter mixture over. Stir well to coat. Transfer to large baking dish or sheet. (Try and bake in shallow layers.) Bake until crispy, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Ranch Oyster Crackers
Here's a wildcard recipe. Not nuts, but a delicious snack perfect for parties and gift-giving.

1 packet Ranch dressing mix
1/4 cup oil
1 12 ounce bag oyster crackers

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Mix oil and dressing mix together and pour over oyster crackers. Stir to coat.

Bake at 250 degrees for 15-20 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Homemade Chinese Take-Out

I've told you before that I try and keep it simple and buy most ethnic foods from the people who do them best. But what to do though when your favorite Chinese food items aren't available here in North Texas? When I go to New York, I gorge myself on shrimp toast and sesame noodles. (I'm practically on a first name basis with my waitress by the time the trip is over; I've been known to go to the same restaurant and have practically the same meal for three nights running.) These two personal favorites are standard fare across the island of Manhattan, but somehow not made here in Dallas. So, I decided I'd make them myself. Last night, I whipped up batches of both. And paired them with a couple of great wines. The recipes are really pretty easy, and I think you'll love them.

Cold Sesame Noodles
Recipe courtesy Andrea Immer.
WARNING: This recipe makes A LOT! Think about halving it, or be ready for lots of wonderful leftovers.

1 lb. spaghetti (or vermicelli)
3 T soy sauce
2 T rice wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 T packed packed brown sugar
1/2 cup smooth unsweetened peanut butter (or crunchy if you want the texture)
2 T toasted sesame oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth

Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Set aside.

In a saucepan, combine remaining ingredients and simmer over low heat until smooth. Cool slightly and toss sauce with cooled cooked pasta. Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve.

I garnish with chopped green onions and a little grated carrot. If you'd like, add some slices of simply poached chicken breast or a couple of cooked shrimp on top.

Shrimp Toast
Adapted from The Ultimate Shrimp Book.

1/2 cup Japanese panko bread crumbs (or plain dry bread crumbs)
8 cups plus 1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 pound small uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 egg white
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
4 slices dense white bread (a la Pepperidge Farm), crusts removed

Heat 8 cups of oil in large saucepan or electric deep fryer. (I love my deep fryer. Get one if you don't have one.)

Combine remaining 1 tablespoon oil, shrimp, egg white, ginger, soy sauce, and garlic in food processor. Process until a smooth paste is formed.

Divide paste among four slices of bread and spread evenly to edges. Cut each slice diagonally into four triangles.

Dip each triangle, shrimp side down, into bread crumbs. Press bread crumbs in gently so they adhere to toasts.

Fry in hot oil until golden brown, about two minutes each side, turning once or twice.

Remove toasts and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

These are great with duck sauce or a little hot Chinese mustard.

Wine Pairing
I poured an Andrea Immer A-List wine to go with the sesame noodles. It was wonderful with the shrimp toasts also. Villa Sparina Montej Bianco. An Italian wine from Piedmont. It runs about $14 a bottle and has great complex acidity to go with the sweet spicy nutty flavors of the sesame noodles. (And the toasty sweetness of the shrimp toasts.) There's pineapple and cream soda in it ; it's a real lip smacker. Since that one may be hard to find, I can also suggest Chateau Souverain Sauvignon Blanc. It is less subtle with more grapefruit character, but still complements the spicy and toasty Chinese food appetizers.

Hope you'll try the foods and wines and let me know what you think!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Turkey Pot Pie

So, you've got leftover turkey. Here's a great way to use it up. And if you're exhausted from all the cooking you've done the last couple of days, just hang on to this recipe and substitute chicken later. The puff pastry is a special toasty touch. It's delicious comfort food for a cold winter night. It's best made in individual servings, but you can try in a pie plate or baking dish if needs be.

Turkey Pot Pie
Puff pastry (You can buy in freezer section at grocery.)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup chopped yellow onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
(If you want to get exotic, add 1 1/2 cups of diced fennel bulb.)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1 cup half-and-half or milk
1 cup peeled and diced potatoes, cooked in boiling salted water until tender, 4 to 5 minutes
1 cup diced carrots, cooked in boiling salted water until tender, 4 to 5 minutes
1 cup frozen green peas, defrosted
2 cups shredded cooked turkey (or chicken), white and dark meat
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Spray individual ramekins or baking dishes with cooking spray. Cut puff pastry to fit dishes with 1 inch overhang.

Heat the butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and celery (and fennel if desired), season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.

Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes to make a blond roux. Stir in the chicken stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken, 4 to 6 minutes.

Stir in the half-and-half and continue to cook for another 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Stir in the potatoes, carrots, peas, turkey (or chicken), parsley and sage, season with salt and pepper, and mix well.

Pour the filling into the prepared ramekins. Place the puff pastry on top of the filling. Carefully tuck the overlapping crusts into the pan, forming a thick edge. Place on a baking sheet and bake until the crust is golden brown and crusty, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Note: I experimented with this one as I developed the recipe. In one small pie, I added fennel seed. Nope...way to much licorice taste. (Although I DO like the addition of the diced fennel in the initial step. It adds a nice complexity of flavor.) I also cut back the amount of sage to the 1/2 teaspoon I give here. A little goes a long way. And you can actually leave it out if you want to.

Wine Pairing: We opened a bottle of Sebastiani Chardonnay. It has an extra kick of buttery oak that stands up to this hearty recipe.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Forcing Bulbs

Strangely enough, at this time of year, as things turn more and more drab outside, we seem to have more blooms inside our house than any other season. (I'll talk in a week or so about one of my favorite (and easiest) houseplants, Christmas cactus.) One of the ways we accomplish it is by "forcing" bulbs. Both amaryllis and narcissus. They add great color (and a wonderful aroma) to our kitchen window.

Amaryllis are absolutely stunning flowers. Huge, trumpet-shaped blooms unfurl atop green columns of stems almost a foot high. They bloom on all sides so are pretty all the way around. For years, I forced amaryllis in small pots with the idea that I could follow the instructions and get them to bloom again the next year. Now, I have a thumb as green as anyone, but have given up on the complicated process. It's much easier to spend $3-5 on a bulb, enjoy its beauty for several weeks and then discard. (I do usually move mine into large pots on the back deck after they've bloomed--just for their great strap-leafed foilage.)

So, I take a glass container (have had great luck with simple globe or square glass vases you can buy cheaply at craft stores) and put some river rock in the bottom. (If your container is clear, it's nice to see the rocks or pebbles you use.) Nestle the bulb in the rocks and add an inch or so of water. That's all it takes. The roots will take in the water and the bulb will send up a flower stalk. In six weeks or so, it will be in full glorious bloom and will stay that way for several weeks.

If you start now, you should have amaryllis blooming just in time for Christmas. I like to stagger things and start a bulb every three weeks or so; will keep blooms going continuously for a month or two.

Another good bulb to force is narcissus, commonly known as paperwhites. Also easy to find, they can be put in small bud vases or several in a shallow bowl lined with gravel or rocks. Again, add a little water and sit back and enjoy. With narcissus, you'll be treated to a wonderfully sweet fragrance as well. It's a bit of early spring indoors. And you can plant these outside when they've finished blooming...they'll come back year after year.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks

On this day, as we all gather with family and friends, I am thankful for many of the things that so many of you are probably thankful for. Family. Friends. Health. But I take a little time on this truly American holiday to be appreciative for a lot of little things too. The individual things that make life beautiful. Here are a few that I've already added to this year's list.

The noises and smells coming from the kitchen as my mother-in-law starts preparing the Thanksgiving feast while the rest of us sleep in.

The look on my six month old niece's face as we sit and play on the couch. And my four-year-old nephew's as we watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. (I've been watching for over thirty years now!

The crunch of leaves underfoot as some of us take a post-lunch walk to burn a calorie or two.

Not just the deliciousness of turkey and all the trimmings the first time around, but also the spoonful of dressing stolen from the refrigerator late in the afternoon. It's deja vu for the tastebuds.

A look at the stars on a crisply cool cloudless evening. And a talk with my teenage nephew about what's out there. Away from the city lights, it can remind us how tiny we are in the scheme of things.

If you can, take time to think about the things that make your life beautiful. And give thanks for them. And keep doing it--every day. It's those little things that add up.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Pumpkin Muffins

Well, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and most of us will be gathering with family and friends for food and fun. But what to have for breakfast before we sate ourselves on turkey, stuffing, potatoes and pies? How about an easy muffin recipe that incorporates that most Thanksgiving of ingredients--pumpkin? Even better, how about two? Me and my official taster were a split jury on which we preferred. So, here are both options. Pick for yourself!

Pumpkin Muffins
From Gourmet
These were my favorite. Light and fluffy and full of flavor.

Makes 1 dozen

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-oz can)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (Make your own by mixing together 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg to make one teaspoon pumpkin pie spice.)
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray twelve cup muffin tin with cooking spray.

Whisk together flour and baking powder in a small bowl.

Stir together pumpkin, oil, eggs, pumpkin-pie spice, 1 1/4 cups sugar, and baking soda in a large bowl until smooth, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined.

Stir together cinnamon and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar in another bowl.

Divide batter among muffin cups (each should be about 3/4 full), then sprinkle tops with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake until puffed and golden brown and a wooden pick or skewer inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.

Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then transfer muffins from pan to rack and cool to warm or room temperature.

Pumpkin Muffins
From Cooking Light
This one was also delicious. Raisins and molasses make it darker and a little denser.

Makes 18 muffins.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (about 10 ounces)
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
Cooking spray
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 400°.

Combine flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda, ginger, and salt in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Stir in raisins; make a well in center of mixture. Combine brown sugar, canned pumpkin, buttermilk, canola oil, molasses, vanilla extract, and eggs, stirring well with a whisk. Add sugar mixture to flour mixture; stir just until moist.

Spoon batter into 18 muffin cups coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove muffins from pans immediately; cool on a wire rack.

Whichever recipe you choose, you can make these a couple of days ahead so they're ready to serve on Turkey Day morning.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Turkey Day Wines

The Thanksgiving feast is a challenge for us winos. There are soooo many flavors on the table that it's hard to find a wine that complements all the things going on. There's the turkey of course. And the herbs and toastiness of stuffing. Sweetness and spice in sweet potatoes. Earthy green beans and Brussels sprouts. Sometimes there's even the saltiness of ham thrown into the mix. There's not a wine in the world that matches perfectly with everything. So, which cork should you pop?

You will want a warhorse wine. An adaptable well-made quaff that won't overpower or fight with all the other tastes hitting your palate. And there are good choices in both the red and white families. (I think that American wines are most appropriate for the day. Thanksgiving is, after all, a truly American holiday.)

You'll see a lot of wine folks recommending Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling for Turkey Day. They say that the herbal characteristics and slight sweetness in the wines complement the turkey and dressing perfectly. I disagree. I think they get overpowered by the strong herbal flavors going on. After all, we're not talking all white meat turkey with a kiss of sage. We're talking white and dark meat with gravy. Heavily flavored cornbread dressing. So, I go with Chardonnay. Try the Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay. It's one of our house wines. Nice and fruity, but with enough oaky core to stand up to the feast. And only about $10 a bottle.

A slightly more expensive wild-card selection is the Caymus Conundrum. Apropos for the multitude of tastes on the table, it's a blend of several grapes, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It's complex and worth a splurge at $22 a bottle.

This is where I go on Thanksgiving. I think an easy-to-drink red is a perfect match with the range of tastes I'll end up with on my plate. So, I'll be taking Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel to the in-laws. It's got enough fruit and spice to go well with everything. And you can't beat the $10 price tag. You can also splurge on one of their vineyard-designated wines like Ravenswood Teldeschi Zinfandel for between $20 and $30.

Thanksgiving is a time for celebration. So let the corks fly and try one of Domaine Chandon's California sparklers. For less than $20, you could try the expected Brut or go crazy with a sparkling rosé. Its slightly fuller style is even better with the food you'll be stuffing yourself with.
Whatever you choose, enjoy your favorite wine with family and friends this Turkey Day. Even if you don't follow my specific advice, you really can't go wrong. Just pick a middle-of-the-road, not too wimpy, not too overpowering bottle and you won't regret it. Would love to hear what you opened to go with turkey and the trimmings. Add a comment to this post and let me know.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Walk in the Woods

I love this time of year. Like spring, it's a season when things change. Here in Dallas, summer is unbearably hot and winter is unbearably boring. But at this time of year, things are in constant flux. So, I decided to take a walk over the weekend and check it out.

There is a wooded park with a nice paved path not too far from our house. Yesterday, I set out in mid-afternoon with senses attuned. I wanted to see, hear, feel and smell what was happening out in nature (or as close to it as we get in the big city). So, I tried to turn off my brain and just take it all in.

It's not been a "fiery" fall here as far as trees are concerned. There is a complicated scientific explanation for why our trees here in Texas turn beautiful colors or simply drop their dead leaves. Has to do with moisture, temperature, and the like. I'm jealous of people in other parts of the country and world who don't have to cross their fingers for the right voodoo and karma to be in place for a brilliant display. (Our recent trip to North Carolina opened my eyes--literally--to the stunning beauty that is what they call "foliage season.")

However, there is still much to see here. Crepe myrtles turned a brilliant red. Oak trees starting their transition from green to gold to maroon--in mosaic fashion depending on where the sun hits their leaves. Other trees and plants beginning, continuing, and even ending their colorful metamorphosis. The wildflowers (and weedflowers) making their final stand before a freeze shrivels them to brown. If you look carefully, you can find brilliant pinpoints of berries on vines and bushes.

And if you watch attentively, things change before your eyes. A gust of wind grabs leaves already on their way to obsolescence and send them fluttering to the ground. (It's great to hear the wind hit the leaves, then to hear the falling ones bounce through the branches and hit the ground. If you listen, you really can hear all that.)

You can also hear the crunching leaves underfoot where previously there was only grass. Every now and then, there's a rustle in the trees or on the ground. I always stop and try and see who's causing the ruckus. Usually it's a bird or a squirrel. They're sometimes hard to track but it's fun to spot them.

Try and make a minute to stop and sit down. Drill down to an even smaller level. Ants. Other bugs. Rocks. Individual leaves and plants. It's like taking in a large masterpiece and then leaning in to focus on the particular brushstrokes. The light is even different these days. The sun is lower on the horizon so the light is "flatter" and less intense. And there are fewer leaves for it to fight through, so there's more of it to enjoy.

I ended my jaunt refreshed and amazed at what is out there for us to see. Hope you'll get out on your own adventure. In a park. In your neighborhood. Or even in your back yard. Turn "off" other distractions (including that never-ending "I should be" to do list in your mind) and take in what Mother Nature has to offer. She's working hard to make our lives beautiful. We just have to take the time and effort to appreciate it.

Wine Spectator's Top 100

The list is out today. Wine Spectator's ranking of the top 100 wines of 2006. It's anxiously awaited by winos. There were, I am sure, runs on wine stores and wine merchants today of people eager to snatch up the highest rankers. Frankly, I parse the list for value wines. And look for ones that I already drink--it's reassuring to know you're "in the know."

Here are a few wines we already drink or that I will buy in the next couple of weeks. Since they're on the value-priced end, they should be readily available.

#40 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2006 $17

#62 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay Columbia Valley Canoe Ridge Estate 2004 $20

#64 Jacob's Creek Shiraz South Australia Reserve 2003 $13

#65 Greg Norman Estates Cabernet-Merlot Limestone Coast 2003 $15

#67 Bodegas Borsao Garnacha Campo de Borja Tres Picos 2004 $12

#80 Benton-Lane Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2004 $22

I'll let you know what I think of the new ones. Hope you'll do the same.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Holiday Cocktails: Cranberry Sparkler and Cranberry Caipirinha

If your family is like my family, you'll need a drink or two to get you through the holiday coming up this week. (OK...just kidding. Please drink responsibly, and, of course, never drive after drinking.)

Here are a couple of tasty drinks that are made "Thanksgivingy" with the addition of cranberries. (Who says they're just for sauce?) If you want to try these recipes, head to the liquor store. You'll need a couple of specialty liquors.

Cranberry Sparkler

1/4 cup Stolichinaya Cranberi Vodka

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons Rose's lime juice

Splash of club soda

Serve over ice with cranberries and lime.

Cranberry Caipirinha

Caipirinhas are classic Brazilian cocktails, and this one is particularly tangy with the addition of muddled cranberries.

10 fresh cranberries, halved

1 1/2 tablespoons simple syrup (or 1 tablespoon water and 1 tablespoon sugar)

2 lime wedges

1/3 cup cachaca (a Brazilian liquor made from sugarcane juice)


Fill a rocks glass with ice. In a cocktail shaker muddle/mash cranberries with simple syrup (or water and sugar) and one of the lime wedges.

Add cachaca and handful of ice and shake well. Strain into rocks glass and garnish with remaining lime wedge.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Feed the Birds

Here in north Texas, winter is coming on fast, and it's time to take better care of our feathered friends. Their natural food sources are drying up, so fill your bird feeders and watch them descend for a meal. You'll be entertained all season long.

I grew up loving birds. It was exciting to have a brilliant red cardinal come to the feeder outside the kitchen window for a meal of sunflower seeds. (My enthusiasm was probably reinforced by the fact that my grandmother in Tulsa, Oklahoma always had one of those fabric calendars with pictures of crdinals on it hanging in her kitchen.) So, like Mary Poppins, I have always enthusiastically fed the birds.

Today, we have bird feeders in both the front and back yards. Cylinder or tube feeders. And platform feeders. Filled with a variety of seeds: sunflower, safflower, and millet. Even shelled and unshelled peanuts. It's a veritable bird buffet.

And we're rewarded with a varied clientele. Male and female cardinals--always cautiously chirping and looking around for intruders. Mourning doves and white-winged doves...sometimes as many as twelve at a time. Sparrows and wrens. Blue jays loudly competting for the peanuts. And woodpeckers who alight on the feeders and jealously keep all intruders away. It's always a show.

Sometimes, my favorites the mockingbirds even come by. For them we put out fruit (apples, pears, oranges) or even mealworms. One year, one of them became so accustomed to his morning feeeding that he would sit in a tree outside the back door and "fuss" if I didn't feed him early enough.

If you're particularly adventurous, you can put out a feeder with thistle seed to attract the goldfinches. It can be hit or miss (one year we had five or six regulars, other years, only one or two every now and then), but is worth the gamble.

Store your seed in large plastic tubs. (You don't want other uninvited critters partaking.) And make sure you buy good-quality seed from a place like Wild Birds Unlimited. (They have sales periodically that make stocking up worth it.)

It's a great way to bring nature into your backyard. Hang your own feeder(s). Fill them up. And watch the fun. It's far more entertaining than television!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sweet Potatoes as Appetizer

Most of us have sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving. Marshmallow-topped. Drowning in brown sugar and butter. (My mom's are like dessert.) Here's a new-fangled suggestion that adds sweet potatoes to your Thanksgiving appetizer options. And they certainly work well past Turkey Day.

Sweet Potato Bruschetta
From Food and Wine magazine.

2 medium sweet potatoes (18 ounces)
1 cup cottage cheese
3 tablespoons finely chopped chives
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 425°. Put the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and roast for 50 minutes, or until tender when pierced. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Reduce the oven temperature to 375°.

Halve the sweet potatoes lengthwise and scrape the flesh into a medium bowl; discard the skins.

Mash the sweet potatoes until smooth. Stir in the cottage cheese, chives, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. (You could also probably make it easy and whip it all up in a food processor.)

Toast the bread on a baking sheet for 10 minutes, or until crisp. Top each slice with the sweet potato mixture and serve.

MAKE AHEAD: The sweet potato topping can be made up to 3 days ahead without the chives. Bring to room temperature and stir in the chives before serving.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Grown-Up Green Bean Casserole

My grandmother always made the traditional green bean casserole for Thanksgiving. Cream of mushroom soup. Canned green beans. Those little fried onion thingies.

I don't think my mom ever really cared for it it, so she didn't make it when she took over the Turkey Day responsibilities. When I got accomplished enough in the kitchen, I would make it and bring it myself. I have to admit though, it's gotten a little tired. Lots of sodium in the soup. And canned green beans? Really.

Now, I will still probably fix that one periodically. (The comfort food and easiness factor make it worth it.) But I decided this year to see if I could "gourmetize" the tried and true recipe.

The casserole has to have green beans, mushrooms, something soup-like, and fried oniony things. Here are my proposed substitutes. Should serve six to eight people.

Green Beans
Instead of canned, buy some nice fresh green beans. Two pounds should do it.

Trim the ends and cut or snap into bite-size pieces.

Blanch in salted boiling water for 15-20 minutes. (I like the beans on the softer side for this recipe.)

Drain immediately and set aside.

Button mushrooms are fine, but you can use an assortment of your favorites. You'll need 1 pound, sliced. (I used 8 ounces button mushrooms, 4 ounces of creminis and 4 ounces of shitakes.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil over mushrooms in baking dish. (If you have it, sprinkle mushrooms with 1 tablespoon fresh thyme.) Bake mushrooms, stirring once or twice at 450 for thirty minutes.

Remove from oven and set aside.

(Hint: To save on cleaning, line a baking dish and use for mushrooms. After mushrooms have roasted, remove foil and reuse baking dish for casserole.)

Here's a substitute for the high-sodium cream soup you would usually use.

1 1/2 cups chicken broth
4 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon cream (I substituted low-fat milk with no problem.)
1 egg yolk

In a small saucepan, heat broth for ten minutes. In separate pan (or in microwave), melt butter and stir in flour to make a roux. Whisk roux into broth. In a small bowl, blend together cream and egg yolk. Gradually add 1/4 cup of broth mixture to egg yolk to temper. Pour into saucepan. Cook and stir for 10 minutes, without allowing to boil.

Crispy-Fried Shallots
2 cups canola oil

10 large shallots, thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a large wok or saucepan and deep-fry the shallots until light golden brown and crisp. (I've read recipes that say this should happen in 3-5 minutes, but on my stovetop the oil only got up to 225 degrees. So, the shallots took about fifteen minutes.) Drain the shallots on paper towels and let them cool completely.

To assemble casserole:
In a large bowl, gently mix green beans, mushrooms, soup base and one-third of fried shallots. Season with salt and black pepper. Pour into baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining fried shallots. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes until heated through. (Cover with foil if you need to to keep shallots from getting too brown.)

I tried it last night and loved it. It even got a "thumbs-up" from my resident taster. It's definitely worth the effort to prepare this great fresh twist on the old-fashioned favorite. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Pumpkin Desserts

I always want pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. (The rest of family is not so keen on it; they just want my world-famous pecan pie--stolen from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.) To feed my craving, I make one (or horrors, buy one) and cut a slice to go along with the rest of the dessert buffet. And I'm usually disappointed. Somehow, most of the time the idea of pumpkin pie is better than its reality.

But, you have to have some kind of pumpkin dessert at Thanksgiving, right? The Pilgrims did. So here are two pumpkin dessert options for you to try. The first is fancy and a bit more complicated, the second easy, but just as rich and delicious. I've had both of them and they're great.

Pumpkin Cheesecake
This one comes from Martha Stewart.

Serves 10 to 12

For the crust:
8 ounces gingersnap cookies (about 32 cookies), broken into pieces
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the filling: 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 eight-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 fifteen-ounce can unsweetened pumpkin purée
3 tablespoons bourbon (don't skip this ingredient!)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs

Preheat oven to 325°.

Make the crust:
Place gingersnaps in the bowl of a food processor, and process until finely ground. Add pecans, melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Process just until combined and the mixture holds together. Transfer the cookie mixture to a 9-inch nonstick springform pan, and pat out evenly to make the crust, lining the sides of the pan about 1 1/2 inches of the way up. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Make the filling:
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add pumpkin, bourbon, vanilla, and flour mixture. Beat to combine. Add eggs, one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition.

Pour batter into prepared crust. Wrap the outside of the springform pan with a double layer of aluminum foil. Place in a roasting pan. Add enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake until cake is set in the center, about 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Remove from water, and cool on a wire rack. Remove foil, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight. To unmold, release the sides of the pan, and slide onto a serving plate.

Serve with whipped cream.

Pumpkin Pie Cake
This recipe comes from our in-her-seventies next door neighbor. She brought us a piece the other night and I had to have the recipe.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray a 9 x 13 baking dish with cooking spray.

1 can pumpkin
1 large can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 box yellow cake mix
2 sticks butter, melted
1 cup chopped pecans

Beat together pumpkin and evaporated milk. Beat eggs slightly and add to pumpkin mixture. Mix in sugar and spices. Pour mixture into baking dish.

Sprinkle cake mix over pumpkin filling and pour melted butter over cake mix. Sprinkle pecans over top.

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 hour.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Meeting Martha

Last Saturday, I met HER. Martha Stewart. The maven of all things of the home, hearth and garden. Mother Superior. Pope Martha.

OK...I exaggerate slightly, but I know people who feel that way. Martha Stewart has built a following (and a fortune) on the legions of people who look to her as paragon of taste. Her empire--which started as a humble catering company--now includes magazines, books, TV shows, and even a satellite radio network.

So, when she was here in Dallas on Saturday to sign copies of her Homekeeping Handbook, I decided to go by and join in the frenzy. I'll admit I was curious to see Martha in person, but was also interested to see (and hopefully talk to) the other folks who came to see her.

Martha? She was "floppier" and less rigid than I thought she would be. For years, Martha embodied the image of perfection. You couldn't roast a wonderfully moist turkey. It had to be organic--or even better raised by hand on your own farm. Spices had to be alphabetized, and there was a certain way to fold towels. So, I expected rigid posture and piercing eyes. She was warm and friendly, slightly slumped in a simple brown dress and impeccably colored hair. It was not intimidating at all.

Of course, this is Martha post-scandal and post-prison. If you've watched her TV shows over the years, you know that we're dealing with a different woman (or at least a different carefully cultivated image). She seems more willing to "fail" and easier to talk to. Heck, just this past week, she swigged tequila out of a bottle when making strawberry margaritas with comedienne Mo'Nique. And she's become great at the well-timed probation joke. I like this one better quite frankly. She'd be fun to talk to over cocktails.

But Martha the concept is still too intimidating for many of us. Even those of us who are pretty good around the house. Yes, her recipes can work brilliantly. (I once, to the amusement of my in-laws, did the whole Martha turkey thing--complete with cheesecloth and twice-hourly basting. It was wonderful. But, wow, the work involved!) And I admire the simple elegant beauty that she seems to surround herself with. Her homes are amazing. Her love for nature has always inspired me; her life is filled with animals, plants, gardens and birds. But, who are we kidding? This woman has millions of dollars (and hundreds of worker bees) to make it look easy. What about us common folk?

I still throw up my hands when I see the complicated pumpkin carving templates she encourages us to download from the website. And more than one celebrity guest has failed to accomplish the craft project she gives them on her latest TV show. So my experience with Martha is taking (and sometimes simplifying) some of her ideas, using others as vague inspiration for my own concepts, and chucking the rest. (Although she still has her devoted following; one of the women I stood in line with at the book signing said she had always admired Martha for her "high standards"--even when she herself couldn't keep up.)

And that's a valuable lesson for all of us to learn. Our lives have to be our own. The best ideas from the best experts mean nothing if they can't be accomplished or appreciated by us mere mortals. Rachael Ray? Yes, she can make quick meals, but if she coins one more term like "spoonula" or "stewp," I (or more accurately, she) might need a restraining order. EVOO anyone? Even my idol sommelier Andrea Immer. I respect her wine expertise and chalk much of what I have learned to her TV teaching, but can't join in her enthusiasm for Riesling. It's one of her favorite wines, and I just think it's too dad gum sweet.

Pick and choose. Read and watch all you can. Agree and disagree. Adapt and simplify. Take what others say or preach and make it yours. Even the stuff you find on this blog. I don't expect people to agree with or adopt everything I say in here. This is my life, and yours has to be yours. (If someone DID decide to follow my advice lock-step, I again might need a restraining order. Stalker anyone?)

In the meantime, I'll keep reading and watching Martha and Rachael and Andrea and Food Network and Southern Living and all the other stuff out there. I'll distill some of it and bring it to you here. Then you'll distill it and make it your own. Kind of a cool process, huh?

Monday, November 13, 2006

It's All About the Leftovers

Last night, I just didn't feel like cooking. (Yes, it happens.) However, before I reached for the pizza delivery number, I checked the fridge to see what was there. Eureka! Leftovers.

So, I pulled out the little bit of pot roast left over from several nights ago. Also found a Tupperware container of black-eyed peas I had made with bacon and onion. (I'll give you that recipe later-just in time for New Year's.) Roast went in the Crock Pot and peas into a pan on the stove to reheat slowly. Got some frozen spinach ready to pop in the microwave so we'd have something green.

But, what wine to drink? I decided that it was a night to splurge. Yes, the food was "just
leftovers," but it was two of our absolute favorite comfort foods. And I knew that both were wine-friendly. So, I went to the wine refrigerator and pulled out a beauty.

Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Hyde 2003. This was a bottle I tasted and then bought at one of the many wine tastings that Sigel's has here in Dallas. It had garnered a 93 rating from The Wine Spectator magazine. It was well worth the $45 I plopped down for it. (Somehow, I only buy the expensive wines when I've had a taste or two. Wonder how that happens?) It was perfect with the roast and peas. Brambly and earthy, it had clove spice and plum fruit. Silky texture and long finish. It even had a pleasant bacony note (I'm not can taste that often in quality Pinot Noirs.) that paired perfectly with the peas. And the pot roast's wine-friendly flavors had only intensified in their couple of days in the refrigerator.

Value substitutions for a similar meal would be your favorite spicy Syrah (Rosemount maybe?) or smooth Merlot. Or Pinot Noir--I like Sebastiani and La Crema. (Herre's a great opportunity to try one of your newly-discovered house wines.)

But splurge if you want to. Every night-gourmet or leftovers or grilled cheese-is worthy of good-quality wine. Even the best in your "cellar." Salud!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

House Wines

We have lots of wine in our house. Sometimes, the decision as to what to open for dinner is overwhelming. Red or white? From which region of the world? Which grape variety? Heavy-bodied or light? Under $10 or more expensive? Sometimes, it's just too much.

That's why I always keep some "house wines" on hand. They're easy to find, value-priced, and drinkable with just about everything. So, make your life more simple. Discover and create your own house wine list and make sure you always have a bottle or two of each stashed away.

As I've said before, wine is a subjective thing. Everyone has different tastes, and there's simply no reason to drink a glass of wine you don't enjoy--no matter what the critics (or anyone else) have said about it. So, I'm going to give you several examples of what is on our house wine list and why. Hopefully, it will inspire to do your own exploration to find the wines you like most and will drink most often.

I think it's important to have variety, so you'll see our house wines include several different varietals and flavor profiles. That way we don't fall into the rut of the same old glass of white (or red) night after night.

For most Americans, Chardonnay is a natural pick for their house wine list. It's approachable and easy to pair with foods. We have a couple that we keep in inventory at all times.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay
This wine runs about $11 a bottle. It's creamy with lots of tropical fruit, including pineapple and even banana. Buttery and slightly oaky, it's good with most chicken and fish dishes. And pastas with cream sauces.

Sebastiani Chardonnay
This also has some oak, but has great pear and green apple flavors. It's also an easy match with lighter foods. It's around $13.

(Shopping hint: The difference between $8 and $12 or $13 wines is vast. Trade up if your budget can handle it. Your palate will appreciate it. Plus, if you shop carefully, you can often undercut the prices listed on most sites. The prices I cite here come most often from Wine Spectator magazine. However, you can easily find these wines for 20 or 30 percent less at your local wine and grocery stores. And you can always watch for your house wines to be on sale.)

Two other Chardonnays to consider that we buy quite often are Chateau Souverain ($14) and Blackstone ($11).

I also like to keep a Sauvignon Blanc or two on hand. They're even lighter that Chardonnay, and their acidity and slight sweetness can help offset the heat of a spicy dish. Here are two we buy often to keep on inventory.

Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc
From New Zealand, this racy wine has lime and tropical fruit flavors, but is also pretty grassy. A good wine for those of us who don't like our wines too sweet. At $18 a bottle, it's a little more expensive, but the quality makes it well-worth it.

Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc
At $16 a bottle, this wine is also a bit out of our house wine price range. (However, it is a consistent favorite of critics and sommeliers.) It's complex with citrus, pear and herbal notes. Also not too sweet. (Like the Spy Valley, you pay a little more for the quality and higher dryness factor.)

Another option is Chateau Souverain Sauvignon Blanc at $14 a bottle.

I think it's great to always have a bottle of fizzy wine on hand also. It's not just for celebrations, but also for those times you want something different. It pairs surprisingly well with foods too (strangely enough, it's great with lighter fried foods), so pop the cork and enjoy. Our value-priced favorite is Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut. At 10 bucks a bottle, this Spanish sparkler is both crisp and creamy.

Now, on to reds. We keep three or four red house wines on hand. Different body styles that can be called on depending on whether we're having tuna (great with Pinot Noir) or something heavier like beef (which calls for a Syrah or heavier red).

Sebastiani Pinot Noir
This is a great value Pinot at $15 a bottle. (From personal experience, I can tell you that most Pinot Noirs in the $10 and under range simply aren't very drinkable.) It's got cherry, vanilla and mushroomy earthiness that make it great with pork or pastas with red sauce (especially if there's mushrooms or rosemary involved in the dish itself). (By the way, notice that Sebastiani, as well as Columbia Crest, shows up a couple of times on our house wine list. It's a lesson you might apply. If you like one of a particular winery's wines, try some of its other varietals. Usually, the quality is consistent.)

Rosenblum Vintner's Cuvee Zinfandel
I was once told that to buy a quality red Zinfandel, you simply needed to remember the "three r's." Ravenswood, Ridge and Rosenblum. Uniformly, they're all pretty good, but this one is a steal at $10. Zinfandel is always a wine that I associate with black pepper, and while this one doens't have as much as higher-priced ones, it's well-balanced with bright cherry and plum fruit flavors. Yummy with pizza, barbecue or a good burger.

To round out the list, we include two from outside the United States. Crios de Susana Balbo Syrah/Bonarda. At $15 a bottle from Argentina, its pepper and smoky blackberry flavors are perfect with something like pot roast or braised short ribs. Also on hand is Las Rocas Garnacha from Spain. It's one of the best values out there at $8 (!), and one that noted wine critic Robert Parker has heaped praise on in the last couple of years. Blackberry and almost pruny plum flavors make it quite drinkable and great with all sorts of full-flavored meals. (I am proud enough of it that I use it quite often as birthday and other-occasion gifts.) A confession: I'm sipping a glass of it right now.

But perhaps the best value red wine on our house list is Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot. It's available everywhere, including your grocery stores, and costs around 10 buckaroos. But it's plush and spicy and would probably stand up to a grilled steak if you wanted it to. Best food/wine pairing I EVER had was a glass of this wine with a bacon and tomato sandwich. I'm not kidding.

So, get out there, pop a cork or two (or more) and do the research on your own house wine list. Pick what YOU like and choose some reds, whites and sparklers that you can keep on hand for any occasion and any food. Most Europeans wouldn't consider having a meal without a glass or bottle of (usually value-priced) wine. It's a tradition I think Americans should embrace much more fully.

Just as every restaurant's wine list is different, every household's is too. I hope you'll let me know your best finds. (Especially if they are value-priced steals!) I just might adopt them for my own house list.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Salad Dressings

As we all look for healthier eating options, many of us have turned to salads. Main-course salads for lunch or dinner. Or even just a side salad to add some veggies and crunch to our evening meals. They can grow tiresome rather quickly though. Bland iceberg lettuce and the same old cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices. Slathered with some bottled dressing that's not too healthy. Or, even worse, some exotic gourmet concoction that costs too much and goes bad too quickly on the refrigerator shelf.

If you keep a few pantry ingredients on hand though, and learn the basics of vinaigrettes, you can create an interesting salad that you can pair with whatever kind of meal you're preparing. All you need is some spices, several varieties of vinegars, and some oil, and you'll be ready to go. All these recipes make enough for a well-dressed salad for two or four and leftovers for the next salad. They keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Let's start with the basics. A simple vinaigrette that includes the tang of Dijon mustard.

Dijon Vinaigrette
All quantities can be approximated and altered to your personal taste. There's no reason to turn easy salad dressing into a complicated science experiment!

2 teaspoons minced garlic
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar (I find that white wine or sherry vinegar is a great neutral vinegar that won't overwhelm the other ingredients in the dressing.)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons herbs, as desired (Use whatever you like. Dried thyme, oregano, or tarragon. An herb blend like herbs de Provence. Even some finely minced rosemary. Think about herbs you're using in your main course and integrate them here.)
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Pinch salt
3/4 cup olive oil

In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, vinegar, mustard, herbs, pepper and salt. Slowly whisk in olive oil to emulsify. (You can always take the easy route and dump all into a jar, put the lid on and shake away.) For a creamy version, whisk about four tablespoons of mayonnaise into finished dressing.

A twist on the basic vinaigrette uses the stronger flavors of Balsamic vinegar. This one's a favorite at our house.

Balsamic Vinaigrette
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
(No need to spend the family farm on this particular ingredient. There are some gourmet vinegars on the market that can twenty dollars and more. They should be used only for finishing, a tiny drizzle to cap a recipe right before serving. Our pantry standard is available in most grocery stores for about six bucks. Just make sure it says "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena." That way you know you're getting a quality product and not some cheap artificially sweetened stuff.)

Liberal pinch of garlic pepper blend.
(You can use minced garlic and black pepper, but I keep McCormick's garlic pepper at the front of my spice cupboard and use it all the time.)

Pinch of kosher salt.

3/4 cup olive oil

Mix first three ingredients in bowl or jar. Add olive oil and whisk or shake.

A couple of weeks ago, I was helping my brother fix dinner for our family and his soon-to-be bride and in-laws. He panicked when he realized he had forgotten to buy salad dressing. No worries. He had several ingredients on hand for an Asian marinade for the grilled salmon. I came up with this recipe. (You might already have most of these ingredients on hand for your Asian-inspired dinners.)

Asian Vinaigrette
4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce (With this in dressing, be careful before you add any additional salt.)
1 teaspoon minced or dried ginger
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2/3 cup olive oil

Whisk or shake all ingredients together.

Get creative with this one and add salad ingredients that are typical of Asian cooking. Red bell pepper, green onions, celery and/or sliced water chestnuts. Maybe even use Chinese cabbage instead of lettuce greens. Add a sliced chicken breast and some almonds for crunch and you have a meal!

Based on my recent successful Asian improvisation, my brother called the other night for more advice. He and his wife were fixing a yummy meal of sweet potato cakes and black bean soup. They wanted to add a salad to the mix, but couldn't figure out how to make it work. Here was my suggestion.

Southwestern-Style Vinaigrette
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons ground cumin (That's the secret ingredient in this one.)
Garlic Pepper
3/4 cup olive oil

Mix or shake together.

Again, get creative with the salad you're dressing with this. Slices of jicama. Avocado. Even corn kernels or black beans. Whatever says Mexico, Cuba or South America to you.

So don't just settle for iceberg and Ranch dressing. Put your creativity to work and make a knock-them-dead salad that integrates perfectly with the rest of your meal.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Pot Roast

Everyone needs to know how to make a pot roast. Yes, this means you. No worries, it's not hard. Especially if you rely on that most American of inventions--the Crock Pot--to do the heavy lifting for you.

I was thrilled when, a couple of years ago, I figured out how to make a pot roast. It's the kind of comfort food I grew up with, but could somehow never recreate. I kept trying though, and now you can take advantage of all of my experimentation (and failed attempts). Here's the recipe I used just yesterday to make melt-in-your-mouth, fall-apart roast. And it's got an "upscale" twist or two that make it a perfect match for a bottle of fantastic red wine.

Perfect Crock Pot Pot Roast

1 beef chuck roast
(For two people, I fix about a two pound roast. That leaves plenty for good-size servings at dinner, and then leftovers. If you're preparing the recipe for more people, just increase the size of the roast and the amount of vegetables. All other quantities can remain the same.)
3 T olive oil
2 T minced garlic
3 T fennel seeds (This is the "secret" ingredient (thanks to Andrea Immer) that makes this recipe even more wine-friendly.)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 cups good red wine, divided use (Always use a wine that you would actually drink when you cook. Lesser quality wines will ruin the recipe. Leftover red wine from the night before is perfect for this.)
1 cup water
2 T flour
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
1 lb. bag baby carrots
1 large onion, cut into thick slices or wedges

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Meanwhile, season the roast on both sides with the garlic, fennel seed, salt and pepper. With your hands, press gently to embed the seasonings into the roast. Brown the roast on all sides in the olive oil, approximately ten minutes total.

In the Crock Pot, place half the potatoes, carrots and onion. Remove the roast from the skillet and place on top of the vegetables. Pour one cup of the red wine into the skillet to deglaze. With a spoon, scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the skillet. Simmer the liquid, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and water. (This will help thicken the "gravy" as it cooks.) Add to the Crock Pot along with the remaining two cups of wine. Place the rest of the vegetables on top of the roast. Pour the reduced liquid in the skillet over all and place the lid on the Crock Pot.

Cook on High for 8-9 hours or on Low for 10-12 hours. The resulting roast will be fork tender and the vegetables will be infused with the richly flavorful cooking liquid.

Wine Pairing: This is a foolproof recipe that easily goes well with any quality red wine. Last night, we opened a bottle of Fleming-Jenkins Syrah. It has great fruit, but also an earthiness that pairs with the heartiness of the beef (and the fennel seed and garlic). It runs about $32, but is a great wine to splurge on if you're in the mood.

Of course, you can also drink quality wines at a much lower cost as well. Try Forest Glen or Columbia Crest Merlot at less than $10. Or Australia's Rosemount Estate Shiraz for a spicy, earthy glass that stands up to this great meal.

Regardless of the wine you choose, try this simple pot roast recipe. It's the perfect thing for a cool autumn (or cold winter) night. And don't forget to save the leftovers for a great sandwich a couple of days later. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hot Appetizers

I've shown you some of the things we served at our recent party. Easy party trays. Southwestern dips. And easy hors d'oeuvres. I also like to provide variety by offering a couple of hot appetizers. They take a little more work since you have to prepare them right before the party and replenish regularly so they stay warm. They're usually a big hit though. Well worth the effort.

(Hint: If you entertain enough, you might want to invest in a warming tray or chafing dish. Then, you don't have to replenish things as often to keep them warm.)

Here are some easy recipes to try. The first two rely on premade phyllo cups that you can buy in the freezer section of your grocery store.

Crab Puffs
Makes 15 puffs. I doubled the recipe for our party, but ended up with leftover filling. You might just make one batch of filling and use for two boxes of phyllo cups.

1 (7 ounce) package Cajun crab dip (in grocery store seafood department)
2 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 package frozen phyllo cups (15 per package)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine crab dip, mayo and cheese and mix well.

Fill each cup with crab mix and bake for 8-10 minutes. Serve hot.

Artichoke Puffs
Makes thirty puffs.

2 boxes phyllo cups
1 1/2 cups drained, chopped, marinated artichoke hearts
1/4 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons minced chives
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Stir filling ingredients together in medium bowl, reserving 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese. Fill shells with mixture and sprinkle with reserved cheese.

Bake for 8 minutes. Serve warm.

Roasted Mushrooms Stuffed with Bacon and Blue Cheese
I got this recipe from a great appetizer book. The Big Book of Appetizers.
It made too much filling for the mushrooms, so I've been trying to come up with a good idea for the leftover filling. Maybe crusted on top of a cooked steak and broiled until browned. Or in a baked potato. I haven't quite figured it out yet. If you try the recipe and have an idea, let me know.

48 button mushrooms, up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter
8 ounces bacon
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 ounces (about 3/4 cup) blue cheese, crumbled
4 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
2 cups white breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and chop stems finely. Set aside.

Cook the bacon in skillet (or microwave) until crisp. Drain on paper towels. Coarsely crumble when cool.

Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat. Add chopped onion and mushroom stems and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl and let cool. Mix in the crumbled bacon, blue cheese, cream cheese, breadcrumbs and thyme. Season the filling to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss mushroom caps and 1/4 cup olive oil in a large bowl to coat. (You can also use 1/4 cup of reserved bacon grease to coat mushrooms if you choose.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place, rounded side down in a single layer on foil-lined baking sheets. Bake 25 minutes-caps will fill with liquid. Turn caps over and bake until brown and the liquid has evaporated, about 20 minutes longer. Turn caps back over and fill with filling mixture.

Bake stuffed mushrooms until heated through, about 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

God Save the Queen....

...and all bow (and/or curtsy) before Helen Mirren. In The Queen, now in theatres, she wears the royal mantle with aplomb. Her recent turn as Elizabeth I on HBO (If you haven't seen it, rent it!) earned her an Emmy; no doubt, the awards will come calling again for her turn as Great Britain's currently reigning monarch. I saw it yesterday and was amazed.

The film begins on the day of Tony Blair's election as Prime Minister in the summer of 1997. Soon after, "people's princess" Diana is killed in a Paris car accident and Her Majesty Elizabeth II and her Prime Minister are thrust together and their relationship formed in the unexpected aftermath of Diana's death. As history (though obviously painted in broad brushes), the film is interesting. Where it becomes truly masterful is the way it examines the relationships and lives of the individuals involved.

The Queen is a fascinating look at the day-to-day lives of the members of the longest-reigning monarchy in Europe. Certainly, it is interesting to observe their actions and reactions at this historic time, but even more compelling is the detail brought to the royals and their bizarrely mundane existence. Yes, Queen Elizabeth wears her double-strand pearl necklace and dynastic diamond brooches, but she also sports a pink robe that can only be described as "fuzzy." Prince Philip affectionately calls her "cabbage." Her Majesty drives her own battered LandRover (Prince Charles asks her at one point when she is going to get rid of the tired old thing) and brings Tupperware containers of lamb stew to a picnic lunch on the grounds of Balmoral Estate.

It is through these details that we learn more about the royal family and their relationships. In a profound way, the movie is about family. The royals are compared to the younger and populist Blair clan. The Queen, as matriarch of the empire, struggles with how to comfort her larger national family while simultaneously working to help her grandsons through the loss of their mother. Prince Charles pointedly contrasts Diana's warm physical relationship to the one he has with his own parents--a point underscored in one scene when Charles stands next to his father. Philip grumpily acknowledges his existence and promptly crosses his arms. (This is, after all, the man who works to help his grandsons grieve by organizing hunting outings for them every day in the week after Diana's death.) And the Queen Mother is an old-fashioned (almost doddering) character that the Queen still turns to when she needs advice on her royal duties from "Mummy."

The Blair family stands in contrast to the Windsors. Tony and Cheri Blair trade differing opinions and bicker affectionately while the royals unifiedly tow the party line. The palace interiors with their meticulously maintained antiques and priceless art are set against the family chaos and kids' drawings hung on refrigerators at 10 Downing Street. Ultimately, it is the intersection of these different generations and family styles in the person of the Queen and the Prime Minister that makes the film what it is. In this collision, interesting alliances are formed. A surprisingly sympathetic Prince Charles, devastated at the loss of Diana, stresses his "modernity" to the Prime Minister, and with the Queen's Private Secretary, they work subtly (and not so subtly) to convince the Queen to abandon her stoicism and connect with her people. While Blair favors the modernization of England, he also betrays his traditionalism in lashing out at staff members who fail to recognize the sacrifices Her Majesty has made for the nation.

And, it is, despite Princess Diana's very real presence in news footage, a movie about these two people. Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair. A monarch who has reigned almost as long as the politician has been alive. Diana's death becomes the prism through which they observe and learn about each other. And both are portrayed brilliantly. Michael Sheen captures Blair's youth and optimism (at one point, he wears a rugby shirt as he speaks to Her Majesty by phone), but also his admiration for and loyalty to the Queen. He is both worthy foil and honorable opponent to the Queen's reliance on traditions which ultimately undercut her effectiveness. Remarkably, it is the damaging poll numbers he delivers that finally help to sway Elizabeth--she who maintains that she best knows the temperament of her subjects.

Helen Mirren is simply spectacular. By the time the last twenty minutes of the movie arrive and Queen Elizabeth delivers her tardy tribute to Diana on live national television, she has so assumed the character that it almost appears to be actual footage of the actual speech. Mirren captures all sides of an iconic figure and at the same time makes her flesh-and-blood. Her seemingly genuine concern for her grandsons. Her stiff upper lip in public and her private soul searching. This Queen is hardy enough to drive herself around the estate, but fragile enough to weep softly in solitude. Although the Queen serves as the ultimate symbol of the royal family, Mirren's portrayal of the woman (and her evolution into something somehow more "modern") sets her apart from the rest of the caricatures with crowns. It's a performance which dramatically shows the limits (traditional and self-imposed) that surround Elizabeth, but it is also ultimately a sympathetic portrayal that fascinates throughout the length of the movie.

It's a film not to be missed. This look at a particular week in history becomes a rich examination of the monarchy and modernity, and how families--and ultimately the individuals within them --deal with the inevitable "progress" that confronts them.

...And Her Gin.

I like gin. It's one of those liquors with character. It's not sneaky like vodka. With it's strong (sometimes almost abrasive) flavor and aroma, it makes you think as you take a sip.

We know the Queen Mother was a fan. (There is an apocryphal story that quotes her as calling out to her rather fey footmen: "I don't know what you old queens are doing, but this old queen is dying for a gin and tonic.") And reports are that Queen Elizabeth herself tips one back every now and then.

So, in honor of Her Majesty Elizabeth (and Her Majesty Helen), I had a gin and tonic upon my return from The Queen. Now, not all gins are created equal. Gin can be an acquired taste, but they don't always taste of aftershave and medicine. (A friend recently remarked to me, "Doesn't gin taste like perfume?") So, here are some suggestions for gins to try at home or next time you are out.

Gordon's Gin
Dry with hints of juniper and lemon. It has held Royal Warrants with both Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. It has a clean, sharp aftertaste which makes it perfect for a gin and tonic. Verrrrry British.

Bombay Sapphire
The multitude of botanicals in Bombay gives it a smoother, less "alcoholic" taste. It has plenty of pepper and juniper notes, but is subtle enough to be the perfect base for a martini. It is my house gin and I use it with tonic, in Tom Collins, or any other gin recipes I might use. (Maybe a Sidecar--gin, triple sec and lemon juice.)

This is another gin I usually keep on hand. It is a "boutique" gin, and it's claim to fame is the presence of cucumber in its recipe. That gives it a floral quality that makes it wonderful with tonic. It also is delicious in a gimlet. (Gin and Rose's lime juice.)

This is another warhorse gin. It's fairly astringent and finishes dry. It screams juniper in aroma, sip and finish. This is the gin drinker's gin.

So, try the most British of spirits and find one that best suits your tastebuds. Raise your glass to Her Majesty!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cocktail of the Week: Pear Martini with Lemon and Rosemary

Here's a great drink to ring in autumn. The sweetness of fall pears, the bite of rosemary, and the smoothness of vodka make this a sipper to remember.

Pear Martini with Lemon and Rosemary
Makes two cocktails
5 oz. good-quality vodka
1 oz. Poire William pear liqueur (If you like pears, this is a great bar staple to have on hand. This drink alone will have you through the bottle in no time.)
2 oz. rosemary simple syrup (Recipe below.)
1 oz. lemon juice

Shake in cocktail shaker with crushed ice and strain into two chilled martini glasses.


Rosemary Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
4 4-inch rosemary sprigs

Bring sugar and water to boil in small saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add rosemary sprigs. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes. Cool mixture completely. Discard rosemary. Pour into covered container. Will keep in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Monday, November 06, 2006

In the Pantry: Breadcrumbs

When chefs or caterers or food folks get the standard Q and A treatment in the newspaper or magazines, they're always asked what they always keep on hand in their pantry or refrigerator. Now, nobody has ever bothered to ask me the same question, but I am going to give you the answer nonetheless. Over the course of this blog, I will periodically let you know about a staple ingredient that I can always go to because I always have it in stock. They're simple things to purchase (or make) and great to have when you think you don't have anything to eat. I'll also give you a couple of ideas of how you might use these pantry basics in your own kitchen.

The first is breadcrumbs. I always have a canister of store-bought breadcrumbs in the cabinet. They keep well and are a fairly neutral flavor palette that you can use to add texture and crunch to a variety of dishes. You've already seen them on the blog as ingredients in vegetable and meat dishes. I also use breadcrumbs a lot with fish. I'll sear tilapia or another flaky fish in a little olive oil in a saute pan for about two minutes on each side. In the meantime, I mix a cup of breadcrumbs with a little olive oil to bind together. I also add herbs (dried or fresh--whatever's on hand) and sometimes a little grated Parmesan. Once I remove the fish from the heat (I just leave it in the ovenproof skillet), I sprinkle a generous portion of the breadcrumb mixture on each fillet and put the whole thing in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Until the fish is cooked through and the breadcrumbs are toasty brown. Yum.

Of course, you can make your own breadcrumbs too. Take leftover baguette, rolls or even white bread and give a whir in your food processor. (It's best to use slightly stale dry bread for this.) Dump into a Ziploc bag and put in your freezer for use whenever you need them.

Last night, I used breadcrumbs to crust some great lamb rib chops. Here's the recipe. Adapted from Andrea Immer.

Mustard-Crusted Lamb Chops
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
3 T olive oil, plus more for browning chops
3 T chopped fresh rosemary
Ground black pepper
Kosher salt
2 or 3 (2 each was plenty for us, and lamb chops ain't cheap) baby lamb chops per person (If they are not already, ask the person at your meat counter to "French" them--remove the fat and meat from the tips of the rib bones.)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix together the bread crumbs, mustard, olive oil, rosemary, a pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper. Mix together until combined and moistened.

Heat a skillet on medium high and add several tablespoons olive oil. Salt and pepper the lamb chops on all sides and sear in olive oil until brown, 2-3 minutes per side.

Remove the chops to a baking dish (or replace in skillet if it's ovenproof) and spoon a tablespoonful of the breadcrumb mixture on each chop. Press in gently to adhere. Place into oven and bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes for medium-rare. Run under the broiler for two minutes at end to brown bread crumbslittle more .

Wine Pairing:
I am lucky enough to be a member of Andrea Immer's A-List Wine Club. Once a month, she ships 3 or 4 bottles of wine from all over the world. Included are extensive tasting notes and recipes to pair with the wines. To go with the lamb chop recipe, she sent a bottle of French red. Chateau Puy Arnaud Maureze Cotes de Castillon Bordeaux, 2001. It was great. Brambly blackberry, fig, chocolate and smoke. All perfect for the meaty earthy toastiness of the lamb. It's a steal at $19 or less, but might be difficult to find. A good inexpensive substitute is Rosemount Shiraz. Widely available, it too stands up to the lamb with plenty of red fruit, spice and a little bit of oak. Try it with boldly-flavored pork or even a grilled steak. It's a good value wine to have on your house list.