Sunday, December 31, 2006

Eggs Benedict: A Great Way to Ring in the New Year

Holiday mornings are great days for brunch. You want to sleep late, but want also to have something special to get the day started. So, tomorrow morning, to greet 2007, we'll have Eggs Benedict to start the year right. Here are some ideas to make this favorite of brunch dishes even more delicious.

Of course, the traditional Eggs Benedict calls for a toasted English muffin topped with a slice of Canadian bacon and a perfectly poached egg and then covered with Hollandaise sauce. (I confess...I buy my Hollandaise sauce in a jar or make it from a mix. Maybe someday I'll learn how to make it from scratch and share it with you here!)

But there are countless variations you can try. The one constant is that poached egg...
  • Instead of Canadian bacon, try prosciutto. Or for a Southern twist, a nice slice of ham.
  • Use crab meat or shrimp (or even lobster!) on top of the muffin before you add the egg. Or even replace the meat AND the English muffin with a crab cake.
  • Stay away from meat and use steamed spinach (make sure you've drained the liquid away so the muffin stays crisp) as a base for the egg and sauce. (Also known as Eggs Florentine.) Or for those watching their carbs, do away with the muffin and meat altogether and serve a poached egg on a bed of the spinach.
  • I even went so far as to build a delicious Eggs Benedict this way: muffin, egg, fried oyster, Hollandaise. I felt like I HAD to be in New Orleans!
  • And I've always wanted to try combining two of my breakfast favorites by having Eggs Benedict on smoked salmon. Hmmm....maybe a bagel instead of English muffin!

Try your favorites in creative variations. Whether you go the traditional route or make it your own, you'll love treating yourself to this brunch classic.

Kitchen 101 Plus: Poaching Eggs

To make delicious Eggs Benedict, you of course have to poach eggs. Now I've been known to take the easy way out and poach an egg in the microwave in the morning for a quick breakfast, but a luxurious brunch requires doing it the right way. And, unfortunately, the right way is not all that obvious. Here are some hints I've discovered over the years for perfectly poached eggs.
  • Use the freshest eggs possible. It really makes a difference in the way they hold together. The whites stay "bunched up" better the fresher they are. (And let them come to room temperature for about ten minutes before you poach if you can.)
  • Don't forget the vinegar. To four cups of water, add 1/2 cup white vinegar and a half teaspoon salt.
  • And use a deeper sauce pan rather than a short-sided saute pan. The deeper water keeps the eggs nice and round rather than flattening them out into diner-style discs.

The whole process goes as follows:

To a saucepan, add four cups water, 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Heat to a boil and then lower the heat to maintain a bare simmer. (You shouldn't see ANY bubbles breaking the surface of the water.) Crack a fresh egg into a saucer or small measuring cup and slowly lower the egg into the water. (you don't want it spreading out any more than you can avoid. Some people even try to create a little "whirlpool" for each egg as they drop them in.

Repeat with up to four eggs. Turn off the heat and cover the pan. Allow to poach for three minutes exactly for medium-firm yolks. Adjust the time up or down according to your taste.

Remove from the poaching liquid with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain. Cover to keep warm while you poach the remaining eggs needed.

If you use these techniques, you'll have perfect eggs for your Eggs Benedict. But don't save them for that. There's no better breakfast than a poached egg and a piece of toast to mop up those deliciously warm and runny yolks.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

New Year's Eve Elegant Dinner-Simpler than You Think!

What would you say to this as a New Year's Eve menu?

Phyllo appetizers : two kinds-- spinach and cheese and roasted vegetables.

Shrimp cocktail and lobster bisque.

Individual beef Wellingtons and spinach souffle.

Creme brulee.

Sophisticated, huh? Elegant. Delicious.

But I know what you're thinking...good grief, will I spend the rest of my life cooking?!?

Well, yes, if you fixed it all from scratch. But what would you say if I told you you could buy all these things pre-prepared from your grocery store and that all you have to do is open packages and heat up?

Hey...ok....stop kissing me!

I decided that this was the year for an elegant, but EASY, New Year's Eve dinner for me and my other half. We've done so much cooking and entertaining over the last couple of weeks that we need a break. But we also deserve a December 31st to remember. So, I hit two major grocery stores and found all I needed. (Hint: The more "gourmet" a store you hit (ala Central Market or Whole Foods here in Dallas), the more choices you'll have. But even the larger Tom Thumb and Kroger stores can serve you well.) Here's my shopping list and a few more hints.

Start in the frozen food section and buy a box of the many pre-made phyllo appetizers available. We tried a variety assortment that included spinach and cheese, potato and garlic, and roasted vegetable. After about fifteen minutes, we were enjoying gourmet nibbles.

First Course
I bought a dozen giant pre-cooked shrimp at Central Market's seafood counter. I let them thaw for a couple of hours in the refrigerator and dunked them in bottled cocktail sauce that I doctored up with a little more horseradish.

Also tried Safeway brand lobster bisque, available here in Dallas at Tom Thumb in their deli section. I enjoyed it, but my other half found it a bit artificial tasting. (I think they went heavy on the cheap sherry in the recipe, but I think it could have been redeemed with a squeeze of lemon and a couple additional chunks of lobster (or even crawfish or shrimp).) Found a great soup at Whole Foods Market though that made him happy. An artichoke crab bisque that was delicious and creamy. So scour your groceries and gourmet markets for a sophisticated soup that you'll enjoy. Check the seafood and deli sections for any gourmet versions they might carry.

Main Course
Hit the frozen food section for this one. Cuisine Solutions makes wonderful individual Beef Wellingtons. Two to the package, they're not cheap at $24 a box, but they were quite good. Filet mignon topped with a mushroom duxelle sauce and beautifully wrapped in puff pastry. Ignore the directions though. After the suggested 20 minutes of cooking the beef was still frozen solid. So get out your instant read thermometer and start checking after about 40 minutes. 135 degrees will give you a great medium rare. And make sure and tent your baking sheet with foil so the puff pastry doesn't get too brown.

I served the beef Wellingtons on a pool of bottled Bearnaise sauce (Reese brand-they make a decent Hollandaise too) that I heated in the microwave. With Stouffer spinach souffle on the side, we had a wonderfully decadent dinner.

Then polished everything off with creme brulee. We are big fans of the version that Central Market sells in their bakery, but this time we tried a frozen version from Tom Thumb. Just has to be thawed and then the sugar broiled on top. Quite easy and delicious.

We had Champagne with all courses and it was wonderful. Check my entry from a day or so ago about great sparkling wines you can buy.

I love to cook and could have fixed much of this menu from scratch. I'm also a fan of the simple solution though, so finding these gourmet convenience products was lots of fun. This menu is elegant enough for you to fix not only for New Year's Eve, but also Valentine's Day, an anniversary, or anytime you want to treat yourself without all the work.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

New Year's Toasts: Champagnes and Sparkling Wines

Yes, black-eyed peas are a Southern tradition for New Year's, but an international tradition is ringing in the New Year with a glass of bubbly. For years, I would spring for Moet and Chandon White Star as my sparkler of choice. It's still a good one, but I've learned there's soooooo much more out there. Here's a short list of sparkling wines that I think you'd be proud to serve to guests. Or just to you and your main squeeze!

A California vintage that got good press in The New York Times last week is the Schramsberg 2002 blanc de blancs. Made entirely from Chardonnay, Eric Asimov says that it's dry and crisp and compares favorably to the real stuff from France. It goes for around $25 a bottle. I didn't have a chance to shop for it here in Dallas, so not sure how readily available it is.

I know you can find Domaine Chandon, another California cuvee, in your local wine store or even grocery. It's non-vintage brut goes for around $25 and scored 88 points in Wine Spectator. It's rich with nice pear and apple scents and taste. All-around yummy.

Also look for American labels Gloria Ferrer (California) and Domaine Ste. Michelle (Washington). They score well with critics and are good values at less than $20.

(And, by the way, this is a GREAT time to stock up on sparkling wine. Most of it is on sale and some stores may have an up to 20% discount for mix-and-match case purchases.)

Spain also provides great values. I've talked before about Segura Viudas Heredad Reserva cava. It's a good one. And for a big party, you can't beat Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava in the black bottle for less than $10.

I sprang this year for a REAL Champagne. (That just means one actually made in the Champagne--I am not a snob when it comes to sparkling wines. LOVE ones from other regions of the you can see from testimony above.) Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne L-P. It scored well with Wine Spectator. It's floral and has nice green apple kick. Hopefully will stand up to the elegant New Year's Eve menu I'll blog about tomorrow. Runs for $37 normally, but I was lucky enough to find on sale for less than thirty dollars.

Whatever your choice, lift a glass to a happy and healthy 2007! (And start things off by drinking responsibly please.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A New Year's Tradition: Black-Eyed Peas we're barely through Christmas, but it IS already time to think about New Year's Eve and Day. For the next week, I'll be blogging ideas for an elegant and EASY New Year's Eve dinner. Sparkling wines you'll want to toast with. And maybe a resolution or two.

But, first let's start with the most important part. Here in the South it's a tradition to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day to bring good luck and good fortune in the year to come. Supposedly, you should eat at least 365 peas--one for each day of the year. I'll take any excuse to fix up a "mess of peas", so here's my recipe.

New Year's (or Anytime) Black-Eyed Peas
6-8 slices bacon
1 onion, coarsely chopped
4 cups black-eyed peas (If you've planned ahead, you will have some that you bought from the farmers' market this fall and stuck in the freezer. I actually prefer purple hull peas to black-eyes, so that's what I buy. I'm out of stock right now though, so will buy a couple of bags of frozen "field peas" from the grocery. By the time, I've "doctored" them up, they'll taste just like fresh. Just don't try and use canned. Please.)
Salt and pepper

Cut bacon in one-inch pieces. In a large sauce pan over medium-low heat, cook the bacon for three or four minutes to render out some of the fat. (You can also substitute turkey bacon, but you'll need to add a tablespoon of oil as you cook. DON'T skip the bacon though; it adds a great flavor.) Add the onion and saute until onion is translucent. Pour in peas and stir to coat with bacon fat and incorporate onion.

Pour in enough water to cover. Simmer peas on low heat until tender, three or four hours. Stir gently periodically, being careful not to break up the peas. Add water as needed to keep peas covered. Season during last hour with salt and pepper.

Of course, you can bake up some corn bread and do the real Southern thing with some greens or cabbage on the side and you're SURE to ring in the New Year the old-fashioned way.

Monday, December 25, 2006


Hope you have a wonderful day with family and friends. And hope you take the time to look around at all the beauty you have in your life.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Feliz Navidad on Christmas Eve

So here we are. Christmas Eve. Whether or not you're ready! And I pretty much am. Regardless, this is a day to enjoy. Final preparations. Gift wrapping. Christmas music on the stereo. And the anticipation of friends and family tonight and tomorrow.

Tomorrow, we make the Christmas trek. My partner's sister's for brunch and presents. Then, my parents' house early evening for cocktails, stockings and beef tenderloin for dinner. It's great to see everyone, but exhausting by the time the day is over. They couldn't live further apart. So, a couple of years ago, we put our foot down and said we'd be at our own house for Christmas Eve. Of course, we invited people to join us and it's become a tradition. We have a casual dinner with family and friends and sit around and relax. It's a perfect way to spend the evening.

And we follow the example of so many in this part of Texas and have tamales for dinner. Again, there's no reason to try and make when others can do it better. So, I bought pork and chicken tamales from Luna's here in Dallas. (Everyone swears they're the best.) And we'll supplement with salsas: homemade pico de gallo and roasted tomatillo. Corn dip. Queso. And this great easy-to-make chicken enchilada casserole. With a cerveza and a margarita, it will be a feliz navidad to remember.

Chicken Tortilla Casserole

12 corn tortillas
1 small onion, chopped
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 cup sour cream
2 small (4.5 oz.) cans chopped green chiles (plus half their juice)
1/2 tablespoon garlic salt
4 cups chopped cooked chicken (I use all white meat, but you could easily get 4 cups of chicken from one store-bought rotisserie chicken)
3/4 lb shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 lb shredded Monterrey Jack cheese (Don't worry too much about cheese ratio. I usually just buy the Mexican blend pre-shredded cheese you can get at the grocery store.)
3-4 tablespoons butter

Fry corn tortillas in oil until just soft. Set aside to drain on paper towels. When cool enough to handle, tear into pieces just bigger than bite sized.

Combine onion, soups, sour cream, chilies and garlic salt. Blend well.

To assemble casserole, arrange half tortillas pieces in bottom of greased 9 by 13 inch baking dish. Cover with half of chicken. Layer in half of soup mixture and sprinkle with half of cheese. Repeat layers, ending with cheese. Dot with butter.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Holiday Centerpieces

So, it's only a couple of days before Christmas. If you're like me, your house is filled with the debris of Christmas Future. Stacks of things to go in stockings. Gifts to be wrapped. The wrapping paper, bows and tags to wrap said gifts. And probably a recipe card or cookbook or two as you finalize the holiday menu.

Don't panic. You'll be ready. Sit back and pour yourself a holiday cocktail and let's talk about how to make your table festive for your Christmas buffet or dinner party. I've got several ideas. Check the post below for pictures of all three.
The first is a little "non-traditional." Certainly red and green are the colors of Christmas, but, for me, blue and white and silver conjure up images of winter in general. This is a look that can carry over to your New Year's Eve party as well as be a beautiful tablescape for Christmas. Silver candlesticks or candleholders. (I have several silver reindeer that I love.) Blue runners and napkins and tablecloths. Crystal candleholders and serving trays. That silver tray you never use. A clear glass or white bowl filled with silver and white Christmas balls. All complemented by candlelight. To top it off, I like to use white spider mums as the floral accent. They remind me of snowflakes.
But there's nothing wrong with tradition either. The second photo shows a wonderful green pottery container that I have filled with evergreens and holly. You can get assorted evergreen branches in the floral section of large groceries. Or you can sometimes get trimmings for free from home centers or Christmas tree lots. The holly can be clipped from your or a neighbor's (get permission) yard. Set on a red platter, this is wonderfully old-fashioned and provides a great natural touch.
Of course, Christmas is a time for the kid in all of us, and the third idea fits that philosophy perfectly. Glass vases or jars filled with peppermints and gumdrops. And if you're lucky enough to find one, a gum drop tree just like the one my grandmother always had. Your guests can both look at and taste your centerpieces. Put a couple of toys or children's ornaments alongside and you have a table just begging to be played with.
Another idea I've seen in magazine this year is using cut amaryllis. A couple stems of amaryllis in a glass vase filled with cranberries or glass beads is easy and quite beautiful. (I did three white amaryllis in a rectangular glass vase filled with clear glass beads for our pot-luck wine dinner at the beginning of December.) You can buy amaryllis stems at flower shops. Make sure and fill the stem with water and put your thumb over it as you sink it in the vase.
Enjoy. Post a comment below and let me know what you do to bring the Christmas spirit to your table.

Photos of Holiday Centerpieces

Thursday, December 21, 2006

More Homemade Gifts: Marshmallows and Hot Chocolate Mix

So, I've spent the afternoon baking mini loaves of pumpkin bread and making spiced pecans. Will put the pecans into jars and wrap the pumpkin bread in colored cellophane. Top all with a bow and get ready to distribute to friends and neighbors. As I've said before, I think homemade gifts are the best kind. So how excited was I to get a Christmas tin filled with delicious peppermint marshmallows and hot chocolate mix from a couple we know. Didn't even have to test this recipe! Tried them last night before bed and immediately asked for the how-to's on both. here you go. They both seem simple enough that they still could be accomplished in time to make people on your gift list quite happy. (Don't forget to make enough for yourself to keep!)

Hot Chocolate Mix
1 (25.6 oz.) pkg. instant nonfat dry milk
1 (6 oz.) jar powdered non-dairy creamer
2 cups powdered sugar
1 (16 oz.) can nestle chocolate mocha

Mix all together and put in jar. To make a great cup of hot chocolate, add 1/4 cup mix to a mug full of hot water and stir. Mini marshmallows on top are at your discretion.

Peppermint Marshmallows
1 cup powdered sugar
3.5 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup hot water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
Red food coloring

Oil bottom and sides of a 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Dust sides and bottom with some powdered sugar.

In a bowl for standing mixer, sprinkle gelatin over the cold water and let stand to soften.

In a 3-quart heavy saucepan cook granulated sugar, corn syrup, hot water and salt over low heat (stir constantly with wooden spoon) until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to medium and bring to a boil without stirring, until a candy thermometer reads 240 degrees F (about 12-13 minutes).

Remove pan from heat and immediately pour mixture over gelatin mixture stirring until gelatin is dissolved. Beat this mixture on high speed for about 6 minutes. The mixture should be white, thick and about triple in volume.

In a large bowl with cleaned beaters, beat whites until they just hold stiff peaks. Stir egg whites, sugar mixture, peppermint extract and a couple drops of food coloring together until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan.

Sift 1/4 cup powdered sugar evenly over top of the mixture. Chill uncovered for 3 hours to 1 day.

After cooled, gently remove and place on a cutting board and cut into 1 inch cubes.

Makes about 96 marshmallows.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas Cocktails

So, THE week is upon us. Christmas is right around the corner. Hopefully, you're well on your way to completing your shopping. And have your holiday menus under control. I'll give you some ideas on wrapping and centerpieces in a couple of days, but wanted to hit the important stuff first. Cocktails. Here are some drinks that incorporate "traditional" holiday flavors that you might want to try.

The first two are martinis. Just the thing to offer guests as they walk in the door. Both are powerful, but the first is cut slightly with club soda so they don't knock people out of their stockings. Each requires a couple of specialty ingredients, so do your shopping now.

Candy Cane Martini
This is especially festive with a mini candy cane hanging off the glass's rim.
Makes one cocktail. Multiply as needed.

In a cocktail shaker filled with crushed ice, combine:
1 1/2 ounces vodka
2 teaspoons peppermint schnapps
1 ounce club soda
1 tablespoon simple syrup

Shake and strain into cocktail glass.

Gingerbread Martini
I even made a little icing to rim the glasses when serving these. Mix 1 cup powdered sugar with two tablespoons water. Dip the glasses in and let dry a bit. Don't worry if it drips some...just makes it look like the eaves of a gingerbread house. You could also rim your cocktail glasses with cinnamon sugar when serving these.

1 ounce gingerbread syrup (Like that used at coffee shops. Look for Monin brand in your grocery store. Or just buy from your local Starbucks.)
1 1/2 ounces vanilla vodka
3/4 ounce Bailey's Irish Cream
Splash of dark creme de cacao

Combine in ice-filled cocktail shaker and strain into glasses.

And two traditional recipes that your guests will be quite impressed you tried. (And the egg nog ain't easy. But it's well worth the effort. Yummy and creamy...nothing like the chemical tasting stuff you buy in cartons.)

Classic Egg Nog
From Southern Living magazine
Makes about 3 quarts.

1 1/2 cups sugar
12 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups half and half
4 cups milk
1/2 cup bourbon
1/2 cup brandy
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Gradually add sugar to eggs in a large glass mixing bowl, whisking until blended. Set aside.

Stir together half and half and milk in a large sauce pan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, 12 to 15 minutes or just until mixture begins to bubble around edges of pan. (Be careful NOT to let mixture boil.)

Gradually stir half of hot milk mixture into egg mixture. Stir egg mixture into remaining hot milk mixture in sauce pan.

Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture slightly thickens and a thermometer registers 160 degrees (will take about 25 to thirty minutes). Remove from heat and stir one minute. Pour through fine wire mesh strainer into a serving bowl. Stir in bourbon, brandy and vanilla. Let cool one hour. Cover and chill at least four hours.

Beat whipping cream at high speed with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Fold whipped cream into chilled eggnog and sprinkle with nutmeg.

(This keeps for a week or two in the refrigerator. The alcohol actually keeps it healthy!)

Hot Buttered Rum
The rum base below makes about 16 servings when added to good aged rum. It keeps in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Beat 3/4 pound softened butter and 1 cup dark brown sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves and a pinch of slat and beat again to combine. Chill the buttered rum base until ready to use.

To make 1 hot buttered rum, put two heaping teaspoons of the buttered rum base and 1/12 ounces aged rum into an eight ounce mug and fill with boiling water. Stir to melt and mix. Serve immediately.

Monday, December 18, 2006

More on Martha's Homekeeping Handbook

As promised, here's a further take on Martha Stewart's latest tome. Her almost five pound Homekeeping Handbook. As I said before, I was initially underwhelmed. Seemed like a combination of the painfully obvious and the not-so-necessary. After a closer look though, I've decided it's worth putting on your holiday wish list.

Stewart points out that her book is really a continuation of a tradition of books first compiled by the eponymous woman who published Mrs. Beetin's Book of Household Management in 1861. Martha says she received her first copy a hundred years later when she married. Since then, she has kept notes on her own homekeeping and says this is the result of the over forty year effort.

First off, I'm gratified to see an emphasis on taking care of the environment. Many of her cleaning ideas and product selections emphasize choosing the least-toxic options first. Like baking soda instead of oven cleaner. White vinegar and water solution instead of Windex. It's something we all should keep in mind.

It's also interesting to see the tasks she feels should be done daily, monthly, etc. While some seem obvious ("Wipe up spills while they're fresh."), the reminders are nice to have.

A group who will REALLY benefit from the book is a soon-to-be-married couple or someone thinking of moving into a new home. I found the most interesting and useful sections of the book to be the lists of essential equipment and tools. Like pots and pans and kitchen utensils. Small appliances and what belongs in a pantry (and how long you can keep it).

Other things that seemed valuable include: Organizational ideas. An illustrated section on every piece of flatware you could ever imagine. (You can finally figure out whether grandmother's silver including fish forks or not.) A stain-removal guide (again with an environmental emphasis). The best way to care for cut flowers. (I figured out why my amaryllis I purchased recently didn't do so well. You have to fill the hollow stems with water. Who knew!) Even pest control tips.

The last sections reach a bit afield, however. Not sure why there's a photo outlining the "anatomy of an incandescent bulb." Or why there's a chapter on heating and cooling systems. But when Martha sticks to the "homekeeping," there's lots to be learned.

There were a few surprises too. I was thrilled to learn that I actually CAN run my good silverplate through the dishwasher. (Just make sure you don't have stainless steel in the same load. They somehow react to damage both finishes.) If Martha says it's ok, I'll believe her.

If there's a new bride (or groom) on your Christmas list...or if you're looking to restock your home, this is a book to buy. While I think it tries ultimately to be too much for too many, there's still enough good info in it to make it worth a purchase. (Do yourself a favor though. Don't pay the full retail price of $45. Head to

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Beets and Goat Cheese

It's winter almost everywhere here in the U.S. (Although the almost 80 degrees we're experiencing here in Dallas makes one wonder.) That means it's prime season for beets. Although I've always associated beets with the summer and their cool pickled version, I've lately added them to my winter culinary repertoire. Here's a couple of twists on a basic recipe that I think you'll enjoy.

Wine pairings: Because the beets have a sweet earthiness, these salads both pair well with lighter reds like Beaujolais Nouveau or even rosé. They also work with Chardonnay. (Toastiness of nuts in second version especially works with an oak-fermented white.) The spicy version might benefit from a Sauvignon Blanc to cut the heat a bit.

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
Serves 4

8-10 baby beets
Olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Salad greens
Juice of half a lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
2 ounces fresh goat cheese

Trim stem and root ends of beets and place on large square of aluminum foil. Drizzle beets with olive oil and season with thyme, sale and pepper, tossing to coat.

Close aluminum foil packet and roast beets at 350 degrees for one hour. Remove and set aside to cool.

In a bowl, combine salad greens, lemon juice and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Toss together. Season with salt and pepper and arrange salad on four serving plates.

Rub the roasted beets to remove their skins. (Use gloves or paper towels to protect your hands from the staining juice. And DON'T get it on your clothes!) Slice the beets and arrange on top of greens. Crumble goat cheese over top and drizzle with additional olive oil if desired.

This is a spicier version of a beet salad that I found in the New York Times Magazine last year. It's a little more complicated to prepare, but has great layers of flavors that make it worth the effort.

New Orleans-Style Beets with Goat Cheese and Walnuts
Creole spice:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Mix together and set aside.

2 pounds medium-size beets
1/4 cup olive oil
Creole spice
1/2 stick of butter
1 cup walnuts (You can also substitute pine nuts--as I discovered when I burned the walnuts first time I made this!)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
8 ounces goat cheese
1/2 cup chives, sliced into 1-inch-long pieces

In a large pot, boil beets until fork tender, approximately 20 minutes to an hour depending on beet size. (You can also roast the beets, using techniques described above.) Peel beets.

Slice beets into 1/4 inch thick rounds, drizzle with half the olive oil and generously dust with Creole spice. Marinate for about twenty minutes.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and toast walnuts (or pine nuts) for about five minutes. (Be careful NOT to burn the walnuts OR the butter!) Strain melted butted into medium bowl and reserve walnuts.

Add rest of olive oil and the vinegar to the butter. Whisk together and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place beets on cookie sheet and broil for about five minutes. (You can also grill the beets for a more charred flavor.)

Remove beets and toss with the walnut butter vinaigrette.

Divide beets onto four plates. Crumble 2 ounces of goat cheese over each plate and top with walnuts and chives.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Carnitas: Slow Cooker Pork Mexican Style

My mom showed up at my doorstep the other day with an extra pork roast she couldn't use. (True story.) Not one to look a gift pig in the mouth, I decided to get creative. Usually I just dump a pork butt or pork shoulder into the Crock Pot, pour a bottle of barbecue sauce in, and then eight hours later pretend I'm in North Carolina eating pulled pork. This time I decided to go south of the border and try to add a little Mexican flair. The final product was moist and juicy with just enough spicy heat. Shredded into flour tortillas, and topped with taco fixings like avocado, lettuce, sour cream and chopped onions, it was the best carnitas this guy's ever tasted.

Here's the recipe:

Crock Pot Carnitas

3-4 pound pork butt or pork shoulder roast
2 tablespoons fajita seasoning
1 1/2 cups green chile sauce (can use bottled)
1 jar salsa (use your favorite or whatever is floating around in your pantry)
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Place pork roast in slow cooker and dump rest of ingredients in. Cook on low for 8-10 hours or high for 6-8 hours. Meat will be incredibly juicy and tender and shred easily with a fork.

Serve with soft tortillas and your favorite toppings.


Friday, December 15, 2006


Beaujolais is a simple bistro-style wine. Made from gamay grapes, it comes from France, in the southernmost section of Burgundy. Beaujolais Nouveau, a young wine that sometimes only takes six weeks in its journey from vine to retail, has a cult following. First of all because it is seen as an indication of how good a particular Burgundy vintage will be. It's also a popular American Thanksgiving wine since it's, by law, released only a minute after midnight on the third Thursday of November.

In the past, the closest I've come to a young wine like this is a couple of glasses of heurigen wine that I experienced on a trip to Austria in the 1980's. Since then, I've been offered a couple glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau and wasn't really a fan. It was a bit too sweet and simple for my tastes. As I've mentioned before though, I am a recent convert. We had a bottle at our recent pot-luck wine dinner and it was more complex and less treacly than I remembered. That may be a function of the vintage...or of my evolving palate. Anyway...

In France's bistros, Beaujolais is a wine you'd probably be served in a glass tumbler with simple fare like grilled sausages and potatoes. At home, you might serve it with meat loaf or even spaghetti. Traditionally, it's slightly chilled before serving.

Of course, Beaujolais Nouveau is not the only wine that comes from the region. Beaujolais Villages is made from grapes from one of the villages in the region where the grapes are considered top-notch. (Opened a nice bottle of Beaujolais Villages from Reserve de Valfleury the other night. It had a good berry fruitness, but also a touch of spice that made it perfect for the simply baked chicken breasts we had it with.) Even one step higher are the cru Beaujolais from 10 specific villages where the soil helps to create superior grapes.

So, try Beaujolais. If you go for the nouveau, make sure you drink it up by early spring. It's not a wine that ages well. And even the Villages and cru aren't real candidates for the cellar. These are value wines (less than $15 for the highest priced!) and should be drunk at will.

Kitchen 101 Plus: Phyllo Dough

Another technique you'll need when making the Green Chile-Cheese Pillows I talked about a couple of entries ago is handling Phyllo dough. Frankly, I was always afraid of it. I thought it was simply too delicate to deal with. I mean, come on, it's a paper-thin sheet of dough made with nothing but flour and water. I took the plunge with this latest recipe though and discovered it's really not that unforgiving. Just takes little practice and a little advice.

So, here are some tips for using phyllo dough.
  • Allow phyllo to thaw overnight at room temperature or in the refrigerator. You want it completely defrosted before you work with it.
  • Carefully unroll sheets onto a smooth, dry surface. Make sure surface is good and clean. Your counter is fine.
  • Make sure you always keep the dough covered with a damp (not wet) towel or paper towel. You'll lift the towel each time you need to get a new sheet off the stack, but replace it immediately. If the dough gets dry (and it doesn't take much), it will crack and be unworkable.
  • Brush each layer of phyllo with melted butter as you work. To prevent edges from cracking, brush them first and work toward the center.
  • If the dough tears, don't worry. Just readjust, pull it back together and keep going. Your recipe is likely to call for layers of phyllo, so a snag here and there will be minor in the overall scheme of things.

Here's an easy way to use phyllo dough for a main course, courtesy of Athena, the company that most likely made the phyllo dough you'll buy at the grocery.

An easy use is to take five sheets of the dough, butter and layer the sheets and then cut it in half. Place a boneless, skinless chicken breast at one edge. Top the chicken with a favorite cheese, sundried tomatoes or vegetables, and roll it up in the dough. Bake for 20 minutes at 350°F and you have taken everyday chicken and turned it into an elegant entree.

You can also find premade phyllo cups in the frozen section of your grocery. They are great for easy appetizers and even easy desserts. Fill each with a dollop of lemon curd from a jar and a fresh raspberry and you have an elegant addition to a dessert buffet.

So, don't be afraid of phyllo. It's your phyriend.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Real Men DO Eat Quiche

...or at least fritattas! Sometimes you need to make something quick, light and a little more healthy. When I find myself with a few leftover vegetables and nothing else to cook, I'll throw together a crustless almost souffle-like quiche. It's a one-dish meal that only needs a glass of a crisp white wine to make an elegant evening.

Here's my basic approach.

Saute whatever vegetables you have on hand in a little olive oil until tender. I've used leeks, onions, peppers, asparagus, squash, mushrooms, tomatoes and even leftover steamed spinach in mine. (One of the standard times I fix a frittata is a day or two after a party to use up the leftovers from the vegetable tray.)

Once the vegetables are cooked and tender, dump them in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, beat 4-8 eggs (depending on how many folks you are feeding) with a little milk or cream, salt and pepper. (The more you beat, the lighter the final product will be. You can even use a blender if you want.)

Blend eggs into vegetable mixture and then pour into baking dishes you've prepared with a little cooking spray. (If you'd like, you can also add a little grated cheese, or even something like crab or chopped turkey. I usually just keep it on the simple side if I have a nice enough variety of vegetables.)

Note: I've discovered I like these best in individual ramekins or smaller baking dishes that serve two people. It cooks faster and is fun to serve that way. But you can also bake in a pie plate or small baking dish.

Bake at 350 degrees for about thirty minutes or until puffed, slightly golden and eggs are set in center.

Easy and GREAT food.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Orange Slice Bars

If you're like me, you have an unnatural addiction to those lumps of artificial flavors known in the candy world as "orange slices." (Cherry sours too, but that's for another day.) A couple of years ago, I was excited to run across this old-fashioned recipe for Orange Slice Bars, a blondie kind of dessert bar studded with bits of candy orange slices and nuts. They've become a holiday tradition around our house, and make a great retro surprise if you're ever asked to bring cookies or dessert to a Christmas gathering.
( one said the beautiful life had to ALWAYS be gourmet!)

Here's the recipe:

Orange Slice Bars

2 cups brown sugar
4 eggs
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 pound candy orange slices
1 or 2 cups chopped nuts
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
Powdered sugar for dusting

Beat brown sugar, eggs and orange juice until light and fluffy. Cut up orange slices (I use kitchen shears sprayed with a little cooking spray. It's a sticky mess otherwise.) and combine with nuts. Dust candy and nuts with 1/4 cup flour.

Sift remainder of flour together with baking powder and cinnamon and add to egg mixture.

Stir in vanilla and lemon extracts. Add orange slices and nuts.

Spread into 9 by 13 baking pan that has been oiled and lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 250 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. (To keep cookies moist, put baking pan filled with water into oven on rack under baking cookies.)

When partially cooled, cut into bars and roll in powdered sugar.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Green Chile-Cheese Pillows

Here's the canape I fixed for our pot-luck wine dinner last week. I got the recipe from culinary instructor Anne Legg at a great class she taught at Central Market a couple of weeks ago on make-ahead hors d'ouerves. We had them with California sparkling wine, but they would also be great with a light white wine like Sauvignon Blanc or even a margarita.

Green Chile-Cheese Pillows
Makes 30-36 pieces.

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 Poblano chiles or 4 New Mexico green chiles, roasted, peeled and seeded (You can buy frozen chopped Hatch chiles at Central Market.)
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon chipotle Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons seasoned salt
2 tablespoons plain dry breadcrumbs
1 package phyllo dough, thawed in refrigerator overnight
1 1/2 stick butter, melted

Beat cream cheese in large bowl until smooth. Finely chop chiles and beat into cream cheese. Beat in Tabasco, chili powder and seasoned salt. Add grated cheese by handfuls and beat well. Add breadcrumbs. Mixture will be fairly stiff.

Scoop 1/2 of mixture into pastry bag (or substitute Ziploc bag) and set aside.

Unroll one of two bags of phyllo in package onto a clean counter. Cover with plastic wrap and damp kitchen towel

Lay one sheet of phyllo on a clean work surface and brush quickly with melted butter. lay second sheet of phyllo over first and brush again with melter butter. Repeat to make four layers total, but do not butter top sheet.

Use kitchen shears to cut stack of phyllo into quarters. Lay with short ends facing you, unbuttered side up. Pipe a fat row of filling 1/2 inch above bottom of each square, leaving a one inch border on either side.

Fold long edges into center and fold up the dough from the bottom, pressing lightly to make a burrito-shaped package. Butter the top two inches of dough before the final fold so the loose end will adhere. Brush the outside lightly with butter on all sides. Repeat with three remaining pieces of dough. Place pillows, seam-side down, on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Repeat with remaining filling and rest of dough in package. (Open second bag when you need to.) Refrigerate pillows until ready to use. (Note: Pillows can be made ahead and frozen at this point. Once they are frozen on baking sheet, place them in heavy quart size Ziploc bags. They can be stored for up to three months and do not need to be thawed before baking.)

To bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake refrigerated pillows 12 minutes or frozen pillows 15-18 minutes, until pastry is a rich golden brown.

Allow pillows to cool 10 minutes before serving. Filling will be very hot.

Kitchen 101 Plus: Roasting Peppers

I've realized with the latest recipe for Green Chile Cheese Pillows that there are some kitchen "skills" that some of you may not be familiar with. So, I'm starting a new section on the blog that I'll call Kitchen 101 Plus. It's not Kitchen 101 because it's not going to be the absolute basics like how to boil an egg, but the intermediate kind of skills you can add to your repertoire to make your meals even more beautiful. But don't worry...none of them are too difficult.

Let's first tackle how to roast peppers. You can use these techniques on any kind of peppers from chiles to red or green bell pepper. And you can do it in the oven, on the grill, or if you're feeling adventurous, over an open flame. (I usually go with the grill method.)

Here's the how-to.

Coat each pepper with a tablespoon or so of oil.

Grill: Put onto a hot grill and turn as you see black scorch marks appear on the peppers. To get them well-roasted should take a total of ten minutes or so. (NOTE: It is important that the peppers get good and black to make them easier to peel. No worries. When the skin is removed, all the black parts will disappear.)

Broiler: Place peppers on a baking sheet and put under broiler. Watch for dark splotches, remove baking sheet from oven and turn with tongs. Continue until all sides of the peppers are blackened.

Open flame: Working carefully over a gas burner, hold pepper with tongs and turn over flame until thoroughly blackened. (Not only is this probably the most dangerous method, it's also, quite frankly, not the most effective method either. I'd suggest you just save this technique for marshmallows when you're camping.)

Place hot peppers into a heavy-duty zip top bag and seal. As the peppers cool, the skins will steam themselves loose.

Once the peppers are cool enough to handle (probably about 15 to 20 minutes), pull the stems out of each pepper. Place the pepper on a flat surface and gently peel the skin of off each pepper.
Slit the peppers open and, with the dull side of a kitchen knife, scrape out the pulp, ribs and seeds and discard.

Slice or chop as needed. While you're at it, make extras and freeze to pop out at a moment's notice. Chiles can enliven lots of dishes and roasted red peppers make an elegant addition to sandwiches, salads, or antipasto platters.

Get adventurous and try it!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bring Nature Indoors

It's finally winter here in Dallas. The grass is drab. The trees are bare...or crispy brown. And no flower in its right mind would even try to bloom right now. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to look at. That's because, like many times of the year, I've brought nature into our home.

Now, it's not nature in its full-blown colorful glory. But it's nature nonetheless. Here are a few examples of things I do throughout the fall and winter seasons to make our home a more beautiful space.

Here in Texas parks are full of people with plastic grocery bags grubbing along the ground for pecans. I cheat a bit and hit the grocery store. I'll buy a couple pounds of mixed nuts--pecans, walnuts, almonds in the shell--and put them in pottery and wooden bowls throughout our house. Of course, sometimes I'm practical and put a nutcracker next to them so we can help ourselves to a quick snack. Sometimes I just leave them for us to look at. (And if there are leftovers and we're tired of looking at nuts, I'll throw them out into the front yard for very grateful squirrels.)

Pine Cones
I recently took a trip to Houston to visit friends and their new baby. They have a huge pine tree in their front yard, so I scavenged a great big bag of pine cones to bring back home. They're now in several bowls and baskets throughout our house. Just in time for the holidays. If you don't have a pine tree nearby to harvest, hit the craft store. There are plenty out there to be had.

Just because it's cold outside doesn't mean you can't bring a touch of summer inside. How about a bowl of limes? A tall clear glass vase overflowing with lemons. Or even just a beautiful specimen of a pineapple. Of course, more seasonal choices are pomegranates or the many types of apples hitting your grocery produce sections. Even those little clementines that you can buy right now. Once you start to treat things from nature like the works of art they are, the possibilities are endless.

Yeah, I said rocks. One of the things that my partner and I have made a tradition is bringing back rocks as souvenirs from trips. Whether it's a piece of quartz from an Oklahoma lakeshore or a piece of coral fro a Florida beach, they're not only beautiful but great reminders of wonderful times together. Of course, you can buy rocks too. Beautiful colorful examples of geodes and minerals. While you certainly can have a rock garden outside, consider bringing a few choice specimens inside.

Now, to stick with the Life Should Be Beautiful vibe, it's important that you take the time to appreciate the things you're bringing into your home. Look at them. Feel them. Even smell them. You'll quickly conclude, as I have, that Mother Nature is one of the best design consultants you can have on your team.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Vegetarian Recipe: Creamed Cauliflower with Herbed Crumb Topping

We had a friend over for dinner the other night...a vegetarian friend. Yeah, one of those. Luckily, she's not one of those ovo lacto psycho whatevers that doesn't eat anything but grass and organic nuts. But, rightfully, she expects a hearty tasty meal. I have known her long enough and heard enough complaints of the plates of grilled squash that she's been subjected to at catered events ("Why can't they get more creative? They know some of have to be vegetarians!") to realize that I needed to put a little effort in. No problem.

I made a big batch of roasted vegetables. And then tried this great recipe from Cooking Light. Check it out. It's hearty enough to be a main course without feeling that you're missing anything. And was given the thumbs up from my veggie friend.

Creamed Cauliflower with Herbed Crumb Topping
From Cooking Light
Makes 10 servings

6 (1-ounce) slices sourdough bread
10 cups coarsely chopped cauliflower florets (about 2 heads)
4 teaspoons butter, divided
3 cups chopped leek (about 4 large)
6 garlic cloves, minced and divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups 2% reduced-fat milk
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cooking spray
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 400°.

Place bread slices in a food processor, and process until fine crumbs. Measure 3 cups. Set aside.

Cook cauliflower in boiling water 15 minutes or until tender; drain.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add leek and 3 garlic cloves; cook 7 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently.

Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour and milk, stirring with a whisk; add to pan. Bring to a simmer; cook 2 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly. Stir in 3/4 teaspoon salt, cheese, and pepper. Remove from heat; stir in cauliflower.

Spoon cauliflower mixture into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Melt remaining 1 teaspoon butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add remaining 3 garlic cloves; cook 30 seconds or until lightly browned, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.

Combine breadcrumbs, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, parsley, and thyme. Drizzle with garlic-butter mixture; toss to combine.

Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture evenly over cauliflower mixture.

Bake at 400° for 30 minutes or until bubbly and browned.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Cocktails of the Week: Pomegranate-Inspired

I mentioned last week several ways to use the new food fad pomegranates in your evening meal. Here are a few more alcoholic ways to incorporate them into your life. Put those antioxidants to the test!

Pomegranate Cocktail
This a variation on the many pomegranate cocktails out there. I tinkered with it a bit to balance the tartness of the pomegranate with a little sweetness. Adjust to suit your tastes as you see fit. The club soda is a nice touch--keeps it from being as "powerful" as a lot of vodka cocktails served martini-style.

1 ounce citrus vodka (You could also use a good quality plain vodka if you wanted.)
1 ounce pomegranate juice
1 ounce triple sec (or other orange liqueur)
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce lemon juice
2 ounces club soda
Pomegranate seeds for garnish.

Place first four ingredients in ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake to chill and strain into martini glass. Garnish with several pomegranate seeds.

Of course, you can make a cosmopolitan with pomegranate juice instead of cranberry juice also. Just shake vodka (citrus or plain), pomegranate juice, triple sec, lime juice, and ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a cocktail glass and enjoy.

Finally, just make it easy on yourself and pour a splash of pomegranate juice into a flute of sparkling wine. Nice holiday twist on the old-fashioned mimosa.

Would love to hear how you put pomegranate juice to use in your favorite cocktails.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Parmesan Puffs

Here's one of the tasty appetizers that we had at the Pot-Luck Wine Dinner. They were deliciously light in texture with a great flavor. They were yummy with sparkling wine, but also have enough heft to stand up to cocktails or other apertifs. (I can imagine they would blow the lid off a spicy Bloody Mary!) Try them this weekend.

Parmesan Puffs
Makes about 32 hors d'oeuvres.

About 6 cups vegetable oil
1/4 lb finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (2 cups)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large egg whites at room temperature

Heat 2 inches oil in a deep 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until it registers 360°F on an instant thermometer.

While oil heats, mix together cheese, flour, pepper, and salt in a bowl until combined well.

Beat whites in another bowl with an electric mixer until they just hold stiff peaks. Fold in 1/2 cup cheese mixture to lighten,then fold in remaining cheese mixture gently but thoroughly.

Drop about 8 teaspoons of batter, 1 teaspoon at a time, into oil and fry, turning occasionally, until balls of batter are puffed, crisp, and golden, about 2 minutes.

Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain briefly. Make 3 more batches in same manner, returning oil to 360°F between batches. Serve immediately.

  • Do not use pre-grated cheese, or parmesan puffs will not have a delicate texture.
  • While these are best served immediately, they hold up well and can be served at room temperature.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pumpkin Bread

I talked earlier about the spiced nut mixes I was going to be making and giving as gifts this year. Here's another recipe that is a winner as a homemade gift. I saw some great individual ceramic load pans with holiday decorations at the craft store the other day. I'll probably get some to make small loaves of pumpkin bread that I can wrap in colored plastic wrap and give away. If you decide to bake some, make sure and save a loaf for yourself. It's great for breakfast (especially heated with a little butter!)...or as a bedtime snack with a big glass of cold milk.

Pumpkin Bread
This makes two large loaves. If you're making smaller versions, fill each pan about two-thirds up and make as many as the batter allows.

3 cups sugar
1 cup oil
4 eggs, beaten
1 (16 ounce) can pumpkin
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
2/3 cup water

Combine sugar, oil and beaten eggs. Add pumpkin and mix well with hand or stand mixer. Whisk dry ingredients together and add to pumpkin mixture. Add water, beat thoroughly and pour batter into 2 greased 9 inch by 5 inch by 3 inch loaf pans.

Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Test center by inserting toothpick; bread is done when you can pull it out and it's clean with no batter sticking to it.

Giving is Receiving

Only 18 shopping days left. Yuck. Isn't this a crazy time of year? Full of fun certainly, but also loaded with the pressure of finding the perfect gifts for loved ones and friends. That kind of generosity is certainly fulfilling, but I think this season is an especially appropriate time to think about those outside our traditional circles. Maybe those less fortunate than most of us. Or people who don't have the same great support systems of family and friends that most of us do. Who else can we add to our holiday gift list?

For the last couple of years, we've made it a tradition to adopt one of the Salvation Army's Angel Tree angels. We'll pick a tag off the tree at our local mall and go shopping. This year, we adopted a ten-year-old boy who wanted educational games and needed a coat. So we bought a couple of cool electronic spelling and math games and a family board game. Then, we couldn't agree on the coat. I was going for a lighter jacket for Texas' mild winter while my other half wanted to make sure the little boy stayed truly warm. So, we got him both. As usual, we went well over the spending amount that the Salvation Army suggests. It's well worth it though. And, quite frankly, not nearly as much as we could or should have done.

I often talk on here about ways to make our own lives more beautiful, but it's just as important to work to make others'-those we know and even those we don't-lives more beautiful as well. And there are countless opportunities to do that over the holiday season. Toy drives. Canned food drives. You can even volunteer at senior citizen homes and children's hospitals. And. of course, you can always take the simple and perfectly acceptable) way out and write a check to your favorite charitable organization. They're wonderful ways to put smiles on another face and to feel truly thankful for what you have.

So, I challenge you to do something in the next couple of weeks to make the life of someone you don't know a little more beautiful. And to continue that giving attitude all year round. It's easy to feel generous at this time of the year, but hopefully, we all will work a little harder to give a little throughout the year. It's true. It really is more blessed to give than to receive.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Roasted Winter Vegetables with Fresh Herbs

While winter is not such a great time for things like tomatoes or corn, you can still get your vegetable fix. A mix of winter root vegetables simply roasted with herbs and olive oil can be a great hearty side dish for pork or poultry.

Roasted Winter Vegetables with Fresh Herbs
This is one of those easy recipes that you can adapt to your own tastes. You can make as big or as small a batch as you want.

First, pick your vegetables. You want at least three, and can go with as many as you think you can handle. Just try and pick a variety of vegetables for their color and texture. Here's a sample list you might choose from:

Butternut squash
Celery Root
Fennel bulb
Red onion
Red potatoes
Sweet potatoes

Cut whichever vegetables you choose into 1 1/2 inch pieces.

Toss with olive oil, minced garlic, herbs (thyme, rosemary and/or sage), salt and pepper. Just eyeball it. You want the vegetables to glisten slightly and have a good scattering of herbs throughout.

Bake at 425 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes, until vegetables are tender and beginning to brown. Stir a couple of times during cooking to keep vegetables browning evenly.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Christmas Cactus

For the last several days, I've been watching anxiously for my Christmas cacti to bloom. In the next week or so, buds will appear at the end of the leaves, looking a lot like old-fashioned Christmas light bulbs. Then, they will unfurl to long multi-layered blooms that will present a colorful show for several weeks. They're great signs of the holiday season. And an easy houseplant to add to your own home's interior landscape.

Christmas cacti come in a rainbow of colors. Red, white, pink and even orange. Since they're a tropical cactus, they require a little more water than other cacti or succulents. They should be watered when the top couple of inches of soil gets dry to the touch. To water mine, I put the pots in the bathroom sink and turn the water on. I plug up the sink and let the plants sit in a couple of inches of water for thirty minutes or so. Then I unplug the sink and let the water drain completely before I replace the cactus in its spot on a table, shelf or windowsill.

They do best in bright light, so I put mine in the sunniest spots in the house. They can even go outdoors during warm weather. Be careful though; direct sun will burn their leaves, so make sure you put yours in bright, but filtered sunlight.

Supposedly, there is a complicated method for getting your Christmas cactus to rebloom. Much like poinsettias, they supposedly take cool temperatures and periods of uninterrupted darkness. I've discovered it's just not that difficult. As long as they are happy in their sunny spots and get the watering I've described above, mine bloom faithfully every holiday season.

You can find Christmas cactus in full bloom in garden centers and even grocery stores right now. They're great gifts for the green (and not so green) thumbs in your circle of family and friends and are a simple way to make your own life more beautiful. From their year-round cascades of dark green leaves to their holiday finery, I think you'll love having them around.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Braised Short Ribs

Here's the recipe that I fixed as the main course for our pot-luck wine dinner last Saturday night. Lately, I've become a big fan of slow-cooking, whether it's in the Crock Pot or a more fancified braise in the oven. This is a great dish that sticks to the ribs (pun intended) and is perfect for a cold winter's evening. It's great with a spicy Syrah or peppery Zinfandel. I usually open a bottle of Crios de Susanna Balbo Syrah/Bonarda mix (one of our house wines) to go with it.

Short Rib Ragu
(from Andrea Immer)
Serves 6

3 tablespoons olive oil
4 1/2 pounds beef short ribs
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 large shallots, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup tomato paste
3 cups red wine (Use the one you're going to drink if you can.)
1 1/2 cups beef broth
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 ounces Maytag blue cheese or other high quality blue cheese (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven medium-high heat. Sprinkle ribs on all sides with salt and pepper. Brown them on all sides, turning often. Remove ribs to a plate and set aside.

Turn heat down to medium and add garlic, shallots, carrots and celery to Dutch oven. Saute about 5 to 6 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and add the tomato paste. Stir to combine. Slowly pour in red wine and beef stock, stirring to break up tomato paste lumps. Add rosemary, bay leaf, thyme, and a generous grinding of black pepper.

Return the short ribs to the Dutch oven and stir them into the sauce. Cover the pot and place into the oven. Bake about 2 1/2 hours. Meat should be tender and nearly falling off the bones.

Remove and discard rosemary sprigs and bay leaf. Remove the meat from the bones and discard bones. Stir to break meat up a little. Serve over pasta, couscous, polenta or potatoes, topping each serving with cheese if desired.

Here's another variation on the recipe above. Despite it's "Asian-Style" name, it's not as exotic as it sounds. (It does call upon our Asian pantry ingredients.) The Asian spices and flavors just add a nice bright depth to the fatty meat and rich sauce. It's worth a try too.

Asian-Style Braised Short Ribs
(from Emeril Lagasse and the Food Network Cookbook)
Serves 6

5 pounds beef short ribs, cut into 4-ounce portions
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 (5-inch) stalk lemongrass, halved and smashed
1 tablespoon peeled and minced ginger
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 quart water
1/2 cup sliced green onion bottoms, white part only
3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Jasmine Rice, for serving
2 teaspoons finely grated orange rind, for serving
Sliced green onion tops, optional for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a wide stockpot or Dutch oven, combine the short ribs, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, brown sugar, water, green onion bottoms, crushed red pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the orange juice. Make sure that the stockpot is deep enough so that the short ribs are submerged in the liquid. (Note: I like to brown short ribs briefly in olive oil on all sides before putting into the braising liquid so they get a great color.)

Bake the short ribs, covered, for about 3 hours, or until the meat is tender and falling off the bones. Remove the short ribs from the braising liquid and cover to keep warm. Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

Drain the fat off of the cooking liquid and discard. Place the remaining braising juices in a medium saucepan with 1/4 cup of the hoisin sauce and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the liquid until only about 1 1/4 cups remain. Strain through a fine-meshed strainer, discarding the solids. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of orange juice and the lemon juice.

Return the short ribs and the reduced sauce to the stockpot or Dutch oven, coating the short ribs well with the sauce. Bake for 10 minutes, until the short ribs are heated through and slightly glazed. Serve hot over jasmine rice. Season each portion with the orange zest and garnish with the green onions if desired.

Both recipes are even better as leftovers after a day in the refrigerator!

Report on Pot-Luck Wine Dinner

Our pot-luck wine dinner Saturday night was a smashing success. Everyone brought great food and wonderful wines and we had a fantastic time!

Here's a brief report on what we gorged ourselves on. Everyone's agreed to share their recipes with me and I will post over the next couple of weeks.

I opened a bottle of Segura Viudas Heredad Reserva Cava, a great Spanish sparkler, to go along with the yummy nibbles everyone fixed. It's a great easy-to-drink wine that stands up to food nicely. (And the pewter accents on the bottle makes it look even more elegant. It's a great gift idea. It's only $18, but LOOKS much more expensive.) I made a recipe I got in a cooking class with Ann Greer at Central Market this week. Green Chile Phyllo Puffs. The toastiness of the phyllo was perfect with the sparkling wine and the spice of the chiles was a nice contrast. (I'll share the recipe with you in the next couple of days.) Others brought Parmesan puffs, rosemary marinated mushrooms and Gorgonzola and pear on baguette slices. Each brought something different out in the wine. Earthiness. Sweetness. Citrus. Delicious all the way around.

First Course
We were treated to not soup or salad, but both! A winter salad with spinach, red onion and a tangy vinaigrette with curry as its secret ingredient. And an onion soup, but not the traditional one you're thinking of. This one has chicken stock as its base and is perfectly delicate enough to let the clean flavor of the onions shine through. Both paired beautifully with Masi Masianco, a white blend of Pinot Grigio and Verduzzo from Italy. Brought out the herbal spiciness of the salad and the natural sweetness of the onions--now THAT's a versatile wine!

Second Course
The chefs on this course said they were bringing pasta. What they didn't say was that they were making the most decadent wonderful macaroni and cheese any of had ever put in our mouths! Creamy with Gruyere and Cheddar, it was topped with a perfectly crisp panko bread crumb crust. The wine pairing was ingenious-Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolias Nouveau, a fruity red. It had enough acidity to cut through the fat of the cheese, but was soft enough not to overpower. I'm usually not a fan of Beaujolais, but this year's vintage is not as cloyingly sweet as ones I've tasted before. It's a great buy at around ten bucks. (I cheated too and went back and had a taste of my Masianco with this course. Also a great pairing.)

Third Course
I was in charge of this one and made Braised Short Ribs. It's a great slow-cooked dish that pairs perfectly with a nice spicy red, especially if you use the wine you're serving as a part of the braising liquid. The recipe is here. I served them over either mashed potatoes or polenta, diner's choice. With it, we uncorked a bottle of Crios de Susana Balbo Syrah/Bonarda from Argentina. It's got good brambly blackberry fruit and a spicy heft that stands up to the fattiness of the beef.
Fourth Course
We went with cheese on this. I got great advice the other night from a cheese specialist at Central Market. Rather than opening a bigger red wine like I always do, she suggested we just keep drinking our main course wine. It was a good call. So we kept drinking the Argentinian red with a selection of cheeses. A soft white-crusted French cow's milk cheese called Brillat-Savarin. Murcia al vino, a firmer goat's cheese from Spain with a wine-washed rind. My cheese find of the year-Walserstolz, a nutty Austrian cheese. (It's only made this time of the year so scour your Central Market and Whole Foods to see if you can find it.) English Stilton to please the blue cheese fans. And a wild card. Tangy Humboldt Fog, an American artisinal goat cheese with a thin line of vegetable ash running through it. All were great with the wine. With a couple of crackers, baguette slices and Marcona almonds, it was a great after-beef kind of snack.

Fifth Course
And then all the stops were pulled out. Not one but TWO desserts. A chocolate cranberry cake with brandy-infused whipping cream. And then a handmade tart with pastry cookies, lime curd and fresh berries. (I've never seen raspberries so huge!) And another creative and wonderful wine pairing too. Il Moscato from Mionetto in Italy. A sweet sparkling dessert wine topped with a crown cap. So we opened it like a bottle of beer and enjoyed it's citrusy honeyed tones. Stood up to the chocolate (Just like the Syrah did. I cheated again and drank from my leftovers.) and also complemented the fruit dessert perfectly. The lime curd was a savvy unexpected choice...and it actually brought out some herbaceousness in an otherwise very sweet wine.

Here are a couple of hints I learned over the course of the evening.

First, please be responsible. There is a lot of drinking at an occasion like this so be prepared for long conversations over coffee after dinner. Or cab rides. Or even overnight guests. Don't make a festive occasion turn tragic from unintended consequences.

Second, take time to think and talk about what your tasting. Everyone's palate is different and you can learn a lot from discussing with your dinner partners about what they think works and what doesn't. And if you're not taking time to really enjoy things, it's really all been a wasted effort asn't it?

Finally, experiment. Leave a sip or two in your glass with each course and then go back and see what other wines work with what foods. You'll sometimes be surprised and it will encourage to try new and unexpected pairings. Whether it's red with mac and cheese or white with beef.

So, hope this inspires you and your friends to have your own pot-luck wine dinner. And no need to get fancy. Wine's good with burgers, simple salads, and seafood. So have everyone pick their favorites and then program from lightest to heavier dishes (and wines). It's a lot of fun!

Bon appetit... and cheers!