Friday, September 30, 2011

Chicken with fruit sauce

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Fruit jam is a wonderful and very versatile pantry item. We all know how lovely jam is on toast or spread on a nice warm corn muffin. My husband puts jam in his oatmeal. I hear some people even eat jam straight out of the jar with a spoon (oh no, I would never do that).

My favorite use for fruit jam - particularly homemade fruit jam - is in this simple chicken with fruit sauce recipe. Use any kind of jam you like. I've paired this chicken recipe with apricot jam, cherry jam, lingonberry jam from Ikea, orange marmalade, kumquat marmalade, and rhubarb jam (pictured above). They're all delicious.

And don't worry that the final dish will be too sweet. You're cutting the sweetness of the jam with acid (white wine, mustard) and salt. The final result is a beautiful sweet-savory sauce that coats the chicken and tastes wonderful all on its own over leftover rice.

I always serve chicken with fruit sauce for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, when sweet foods grace the table in hopes of a sweet year to come. It's a great do-ahead holiday dish: You can brown the chicken, mix up the sauce and pour it over the half-cooked chicken the night before, then refrigerate the whole thing overnight and stick it into the oven to finish cooking right before dinner. Or bake it through the night before and reheat it on the night of your celebration.

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Chicken with fruit jam
Fruit jam mixes with wine and mustard as the sauce for boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs. A great do-ahead main dish for the holidays.
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs and/or breasts
  • 3 Tbsp grapeseed or canola oil
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups white wine
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups fruit jam, any kind
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a large roasting pan (or two smaller ones) with cooking spray and set aside.Pour the flour, salt and pepper into a zip-top bag. Close the bag and shake to combine. Add the chicken pieces, close the bag, and shake until all the chicken pieces are coated with the flour mixture.Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet. Shake the excess flour from the chicken pieces and brown them on both sides in the hot oil. You'll have to do this in batches. Carefully remove the browned chicken pieces from the skillet with tongs and lay them in the roasting pan(s) in a single layer.In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, white wine, garlic and jam until well combined. Pour the sauce over the browned chicken pieces. Bake uncovered about 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is thickened and bubbling. Serve hot with rice.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8 servings

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Grandma Rose's split pea soup with flanken (beef short ribs)

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My Grandma Rose was a good Jewish cook. We had dinner with my grandparents most Friday nights, not because it was Shabbat - we weren't observant - but because my brother and I had piano lessons on Friday afternoons close to their house.

Grandma Rose's repertoire wasn't huge, but what she made was very good. Chicken fricassee with little meatballs, my dad's favorite. Matzoh ball soup, which I later found out was Lipton's instant chicken noodle soup with matzoh balls from a mix. Stuffed cabbage, done sweet-and-sour Russian-style with golden raisins. Her famous rugelach once or twice a year. And, when we were really lucky, thick split pea soup with flanken beef ribs.

When Grandma Rose made split pea soup, she made a lot - enough to send us home with a few zip-top bags for our freezer. This soup warmed my belly on many a cold New York day.

If Grandma Rose had a recipe for this soup, I never saw it. I'm sharing with you my best guess. I know she used flanken (beef short ribs) and dried dill. I think I remember carrots and celery. My mother says Grandma used tiny pasta, but I like the chew of pearl barley.

A note about ingredients: If you can't find flanken (pronounced FLAHN-ken), regular short ribs or boneless English short ribs will do. I used dried dill weed from Spice Islands, which I find particularly flavorful (the Spice Islands people sent me a sample specifically to use in this recipe). They harvest the dill as it's flowering and include the tiny yellow flowers with the leaves when they dry the dill, which they say accounts for its potency.

By the way, the bowl in the photos is from a set of china that was handed down to me by my grandmother via my mother. No one else in the family wanted it because it can't go in the dishwasher. Lucky me!

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Split pea soup with flanken (beef short ribs)
My grandmother's stick-to-your-ribs split pea soup - the perfect dish for a chilly day. It's much better after it sits for a day or two in the refrigerator, so plan ahead.
  • 2 large yellow onions
  • 6 ribs of celery
  • 6 carrots
  • 2 Tbsp grapeseed or canola oil
  • 2 pounds flanken (or regular short ribs)
  • 1 pound green split peas
  • 1/2 pound pearl barley
  • 3 Tbsp dried dill
  • salt and pepper to taste
Chop the onions, celery and carrots. Aim for 1/2-inch pieces, but don't get all OCD about it. You want them all roughly the same size, but a little bigger or smaller won't make a difference at all.Heat the oil in a large pot and brown the ribs on all sides. Remove the ribs to a plate, then add the chopped vegetables to the fat in the pot. Stir a minute or two until everything is coated in fat and starting to soften.Put the meat back in the pot, then add the split peas, pearl barley and dried dill. Add enough water to cover it all and bring the pot to a boil. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and simmer the soup at least 2 hours, until it is thickened and the meat is tender.Shred the meat with two forks (or your fingers if you've let the soup cool for a while). The bones will have slipped out of the meat, so fish them out from the bottom of the pot with a spoon. Season with salt and pepper - you will need much more salt than seems reasonable, but keep salting until it tastes right to you.Serve hot for a hearty one-pot lunch or dinner.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 12-14 servings

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rosh Hashanah with The Shiksa

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Tori Avey, the Shiksa in the Kitchen
I've been on back-to-back business trips for the past few weeks, which means I've had zero time to get started on (or even think about) cooking for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the upcoming Jewish high holidays. To get me in the mood, I asked Tori Avey, who writes the wonderful blog The Shiksa in the Kitchen, about her high holiday habits. Tori, who converted to Judaism in 2010, describes herself as a culinary historian, and her blog explores both the past and present of Jewish cooking.

For those of you who know no Yiddish, shiksa means "non-Jewish woman" in Yiddish, and often it's a term slung around with claws - as in, "Why are the most eligible Jewish men always attracted to the shiksas?" (Which they are.)

Erika: Tori, who hosts your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holiday meals? What's your routine through the two holidays? 

Tori: My family and I host the Rosh Hashanah meal, unless we’re in Israel or out of town. That’s actually how I got my nickname “The Shiksa in the Kitchen” — I started cooking our Rosh Hashanah and Passover meals close to 10 years ago, long before I converted to Judaism. My annual Passover meal has close to 50 guests! Rosh Hashanah is a bit smaller, usually around 30. Cooking for that many guests is tough, but I’ve found a few ways to make things easier. A week before the meal, I create a “holiday game plan.” The game plan includes my menu, the recipes I’ll be using, grocery list, cooking times, what time I should start cooking each item, and how much of everything I’ll need. I also have a list of the items we need for the blessings. I try to cook certain food items ahead of time, things that do better after a night in the fridge (brisket, certain marinated salads). I start two days before the holiday so I have a jump start on everything. The more I can prepare in advance, the more I’ll enjoy the actual holiday and spend time with my family and friends! 

Yom Kippur is a very quiet day in our home. We usually don’t have guests and we keep the break fast meal very simple. This year we’ll be breaking fast with our friends from Israel, who will be in town with us, so that will be fun. 

E: Do you cook the same things each year for the high holidays, or do you try to change things up from year to year? 

T: I try to change things up every year, but there are certain dishes that are expected. I always make matzo ball soup — that’s a given for both Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Brisket is also on the menu, but I tend to change the type of brisket that I’m serving from year to year. This year, I’ll be serving brisket with a pomegranate molasses marinade because I’m currently obsessed with homemade pomegranate molasses. I’ll be posting the recipe for that next week.

Tori's Honey Apple Cake, a traditional Rosh Hashanah sweet
E: What's your signature Rosh Hashanah dish? 

T: My Honey Apple Cake. Everybody loves it! It’s full of moisture and flavor from the shredded apples, and it’s dairy free! It also happens to be very pretty. I make it as a Bundt cake, dust it with powdered sugar, and decorate it with drizzled white frosting. 

E: Challah: Do you bake your own? Raisins or no raisins? 

T: I love baking my own! It wouldn’t feel like a holiday without the smell of freshly baked challah in the air. The round challah is my favorite. I usually make a few with raisins and a few without. I like to make the round shape using the Linked Loops method on my challah braiding blog. So pretty! 

E: Do your non-Jewish relatives join you for the high holidays? What do they think of the whole thing? 

T: Yes! They love it. My mom often helps me in the kitchen. She’s my partner in crime. I think I was destined to become Jewish, even though I wasn’t born that way… when my mom married my dad, she walked down the aisle to “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. A hint of things to come, perhaps? 

E: What traditions did you inherit from your husband's family, and which did you develop on your own after you married? 

T: My husband was born in Israel; he’s half Ashkenazi (Russian Jewish) and half Sephardic (Israeli Jewish). His mom’s Jewish family goes back at least six generations in Haifa, Israel. Because of the two different Jewish backgrounds in our family, we cook what I like to call “Ashkephardic” style, blending Ashkenazi and Sephardic cooking traditions to inspire new flavors. Ashkenazi food is rich, comforting, stick-to-your ribs…brisket, cholent, gefilte fish. Sephardic food is Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/Spanish inspired. It’s all kosher, but the flavors are so diverse. It’s really fun to merge the two cuisines. For example, our family cholent recipe has an Ashkenazic base (meat, potatoes, barley, beans), but we spice it with Sephardic spices (cumin, paprika, turmeric, cayenne) and we add eggs, which is a North African tradition that we picked up in Israel. 

I’ve been cooking since I was a child; my mom taught me our family recipe for egg noodles when I was 8 years old. In college, we used to have a “Tori Cooks Night” where all my USC friends would gather and I’d cook dinner for everybody. But I never went to culinary school, and I’m certainly not a “trained” chef in the traditional sense. After I met my husband, I wanted to learn to cook the foods he grew up with. Jewish food fascinated and inspired me. I enlisted the help of family members and friends to teach me their favorite family recipes and cooking methods. As I became more confident in the kitchen, I started experimenting on my own and combining flavors to create new recipes. I also studied vintage and antique cookbooks to find out how things were done “way back then.” I’m a food history nerd. 

Nowadays, a lot of what I do in the kitchen is improvised — if something makes sense in my imagination, I throw it together to see if it works. It doesn’t always. I’ve had a few notorious flops (like a terrible pumpkin soup for Thanksgiving a few years ago…yikes!). But if it turns out yummy, more than likely it ends up on my blog. I only share recipes that I really, really love.

E: Which Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur food do you most look forward to? 

T: Okay, I know this might sound so boring, but the Rosh Hashanah food I most look forward to is matzo ball soup. I guess technically that’s a Passover food, but we eat it every Rosh Hashanah, too. I bind the matzo balls with schmaltz and mix in some fresh dill. I slow cook the chicken all day long with vegetables, seasonings, and nutmeg to make a really flavorful stock. The chicken falls off the bone when you take it out of the broth, it’s so tender. Then at the end of cooking, I mix some fresh dill into the broth for an extra burst of flavor. Holy moly. It’s the best! 

For Yom Kippur, we usually break the fast with a dairy meal, so it’s all about a fresh toasted sesame bagel with thinly sliced lox and whipped cream cheese. Doesn’t get any better than that!!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dark chocolate brownies with dried sour cherries

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I know there are many brownie purists in the world. I'm not one of them. I like stuff in my brownies. Chocolate makes friends easily. Nuts are fine. Chocolate chips, great. Farther afield, I've tried brownies with shredded zucchini (like), brownies with grated pears and diced crystallized ginger (love), and brownies with shaved Italian black truffles (ADORE, of course).

But my favorite combination is dark chocolate brownies with dried sour cherries. The tangy cherries provide just the right teeter-totter balance to the sweet, soft chocolate. They add texture without crunch. And antioxidants! If chocolate is good for you, then dark chocolate brownies with dried sour cherries count as pure health food.

Please, I'm begging you: Use good chocolate when you make brownies. Don't use the supermarket "baking chocolate" that comes in dry one-ounce squares and tastes like dirt bound with tar. Live a little and buy good chocolate. I've tried all kinds of chocolate for my brownies and strongly prefer Trader Joe's unsweetened baking chocolate*. It's smooth and delicious, and it comes in neat little disks, six to an ounce. No weighing! No scale! I love good ingredients that make my life easier at the same time.

* No one is paying me to say this - I'm happy to recommend the products I use and love.

print recipe

Dark chocolate brownies with sour cherries
Dense, chewy brownies get an extra dose of antioxidants from dried sour cherries.
  • 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/8 cup dark cocoa powder (I like Valrhona)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 cup dried sour cherries
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.Melt together the chocolate and butter over low heat. Let cool a few minutes. Stir in the sugar, then the eggs, beating well. Add the salt, flour, cocoa powder and extracts. Stir in the dried cherries. (If you want them to show, save out a few and scatter them on top of the batter instead of mixing them in.)Pour the brownie batter into the prepared baking pan and bake 35 minutes, or until the brownies are set and the middle has cracked a little. Let cool at least 1 hour or you will be eating chocolate mush - not necessarily a bad thing, but if you're expecting something more solid you'll want to let the brownies set up a little, which happens as they cool. Eat with joy.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 9 big brownies

Sunday, September 18, 2011

2011 Emmy Awards: Photos from the red carpet

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Erika on the red carpet!

I'm no celebrity, but spending the day on the red carpet with the wonderful team from Duncan Hines sure made me feel like a star. I'll tell you all about it when I'm rested. Right now it's late, I've spent the last few hours sorting and labeling and editing and uploading photos, and I'm beat. It's time for bed.

Meantime, I got some fabulous photos thanks to my 55-250 zoom lens, with which I am completely in love today. I put together a slideshow over on my LA Cooking Examiner page. Gwyneth Paltrow, Steve Carell, Hugh Laurie, Conan O'Brien, Lea Michele...I got 'em! Oh, and I even got Tom Colicchio (in case you were wondering how all this TV star stuff relates to cooking and food and recipes).

Click here: Photos from the 2011 Emmy Awards at LA Cooking Examiner

Friday, September 16, 2011

I'm spending Sunday on the red carpet!

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Enough hints. Enough guessing. You guys got really close! But here's what I'm actually doing this Sunday:

I'm going to be on the red carpet at the 63rd Primetime EMMY® AWARDS!

Duncan Hines, the official dessert sponsor of the 63rd Primetime Emmy® Awards Governors Ball, is bringing a group of bloggers to Hollywood to sit in the stands, take pictures, tweet and Facebook and blog, and generally act like star-struck groupies (at least that's what I plan to do). I've lived in Los Angeles long enough that I don't freak out when I see Reese Witherspoon jogging or Harrison Ford getting coffee, but I'm pretty sure that once I'm on the red carpet and all those familiar faces are streaming by in their fancy duds I'll be as ga-ga as the next girl.

After six hours on the red carpet (yes, I checked, there are portable toilets nearby) we'll get to watch the awards ceremony at a special viewing party with Duncan Hines. They've got some fabulous desserts planned, including the amazing-looking cake pops above. You can make them for your own Emmy® Awards party, because Duncan Hines has posted the recipes. Try the Raspberry Red Velvet Truffle Pops, Triple Chocolate Orange Liqueur Truffle Pops, or Chocolate Almond Truffle Pops - don't they look delicious? Personally, I plan to have a go at all three.

Don't worry, I'm bringing my camera. Don't worry, I'll be your eyes and ears. Follow me @erikakerekes on Twitter, watch my Facebook page, and look for some on-the-go blog posts. And if you're watching TV, look for a group of waving, screaming bloggers in Duncan Hines t-shirts. That's where I'll be!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sunday's secret event - here's your last clue

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Still haven't figured out where I'll be on Sunday? Okay, I realize that some of you may not actually care. Humor me. This is a pretty big deal in my life.

Tomorrow's the big reveal. For now, this list is your third clue:
  • Harold Dieterle
  • Ilan Hall
  • Hung Huynh
  • Stephanie Izard
  • Hosea Rosenberg
  • Michael Voltaggio
  • Kevin Sbraga
  • Richard Blais
These people all have something in common, and that something has something to do with the something I'll be doing on Sunday! Got it yet? Leave a comment....

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What's my big Sunday secret? Here's clue number two

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I'm doing something fantabulously exciting this weekend. It would be way too easy if I just told you, right? I'm making you work for it a little. Maintaining the mystery.

Looks like yesterday's clue didn't help anyone figure it out. So here's your second clue:
"I'm just having desserts and liquor."
Did you figure it out yet? Leave a comment with your best guess.... 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Where will I be on Sunday? Guess.

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This Sunday I'll be spending the day doing something really, truly, mind-blowingly fantastic. What is it, you ask? Where? With whom? I'm not telling yet. But here's your first clue:
For the holidays, my mother bakes every kind of cookie and pie and cake she can. She has 18 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and even they can’t eat all of the treats she puts out.

Everyone in my family knows that I try to eat healthy and I’m trying to cut back on sugar. So I look at the dessert table at my mother’s house and quietly grumble. But then, sure enough, there’s always the one thing that is the kryptonite of my dessert life. So I shove the spoon in and eat the chocolate-pudding cake. Mom wins, and the whole crowd has a good laugh.
Have you figured it out yet? Leave a comment with your best guess....

Monday, September 12, 2011

Teaching truffles: My Trufflepalooza cooking class

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Making fresh ricotta cheese for my Trufflepalooza cooking class
[Thanks to Bel-Air Mommy for taking these fantastic photos!]

I really hope there's no truth to the saying that "those who can't do, teach." I like to think of myself as a person who can cook - and I'm pretty confident that after the three Trufflepalooza events I've thrown, few would argue. But I also really like to teach. I get excited about creating delicious food for my friends and family, and teaching is the best way to share that excitement.

Last week I taught a "Trufflepalooza" class at The Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories in Santa Monica. We picked six recipes from this year's Trufflepalooza menu, all finger foods, all easy to put together. In fact, the dishes were so simple that we did the whole class without written recipes at hand - not my intention, but the printer was acting up and the printouts weren't ready until the end of class.

Everyone pitched in as we cooked and talked
So what did we make? Let's see:
The roasted figs weren't on the original menu for the class, but the figs on my secret trees were just perfect, so I stopped and picked a few pounds before heading over to the cooking school that evening. 

As we worked we also snacked on some beautiful truffled chicken liver mousse from Fabrique Delices and "Tartufo" salami with truffles from Creminelli.

We didn't make quite enough fresh ricotta, so we mixed it with store-bought - these things happen, right?
We used fresh black summer truffles (the last of the season) and fresh Burgundy truffles (the first of the season) from Sabatino Tartufi, as well as Sabatino's white truffle oil, truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle honey.  

The nine students in the class seemed to enjoy themselves. Of course, the wines, which the experts at Venokado expertly matched to the menu, must have helped. But I think the class really was fun - relaxed, casual, and very hands-on. I'm not a fussy cook, and this kind of menu lends itself to seat-of-the-pants cooking. We talked about flavors, combinations and proportions, but not too much about measurements.

I'm looking forward to my next opportunity to teach at Gourmandise. I'd love to do another Trufflepalooza class, but I'm open to other ideas too. Any requests?

I couldn't have done the class without Chef Adrian, my oh-so-competent teaching assistant

Finishing up the Pacific rockfish brandade in cucumber cups

Roasted figs with goat cheese and truffle honey

Filling puff pastry with truffles, truffle oil, truffle salt and grated cheese

We prepped, cooked and ate all at the same time!

Burgundy truffles (left) and black summer truffles from Sabatino Tartufi

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What does Giada De Laurentiis pack in her daughter's lunchbox?

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Food Network chef Giada De Laurentiis signing books after her talk

Last weekend Food and Wine magazine and the Los Angeles Times put on The Taste LA, a four-day food festival packed with stylish small plates, festive wines and star-studded celebrity chefs. Of course, the very smart producers saved the most popular chef for last: Food Network chef Giada De Laurentiis, whose Q&A with LA Times associate food editor Rene Lynch closed the place down.

I'm seeing a pattern with these celebrity chefs: strong personality, sparkling smile, supreme patience. Rene only got in a few questions because the adoring fans packed into the sweaty tent had plenty of their own. Twice Giada was asked how she stays so thin when she's always around food ("Portion control. Exercise. Genetics"). She got questions about her favorite recipe ("Lemon spaghetti"), her future travels (Bora Bora for the next season of Giada in Paradise), her future as an Iron Chef ("They keep asking, but no - once was enough"). She mentioned her preschool daughter Jade at least a half-dozen times. At the end of the hour, with security detail standing by, she signed books and posed for photos, all with that same huge smile.

Someone in the audience had asked whether Giada follows food blogs. "I don't," she said remorsefully. "But I should. I want to." I don't need more of a hint than that. As she came off the stage I introduced myself, handed her my card and said "That's for your blog reading list." She thanked me and bent down to take a picture with my son Emery.

My 12-year-old gourmand son Emery with Giada De Laurentiis - have you ever seen a happier kid?

As Giada stood up, I threw out a question: "So what do you pack in Jade's lunchbox?" I thought she'd give an off-the-cuff response and keep moving, which her security guys clearly would have preferred. But she stopped and looked at me. Feeding her family: This is a topic she cares about, thinks about. "Lamb chops," she said. Lamb chops? I was trying to picture a three-year-old pulling that out of her lunchbox at school and must have looked puzzled.

Giada elaborated. "What I do," she said, "is cook up a few proteins, a few vegetables, a few grains, and I keep those in the refrigerator. Then, when I'm making Jade's lunch, I cut up some meat and vegetables, heat them up in a pan with some of the grain or pasta, and top it with some grated cheese. Then I put it in one of those insulated thermos things. That's how I eat, so that's how she eats." And then, with her dazzling smile and security guards, she said goodbye and moved on.

The morals of this story:
  1. For bloggers: Never be afraid to ask your question. You might get blown off. Or you might have a real conversation. You'll have better luck if you ask about something you know they care about, rather than just something you care about.
  2. Carpe diem, baby.
  3. Spend the money on professional teeth-whitening. Sorry, Crest Whitestrips, but you can only take a girl so far.
  4. I might need to get slightly more ambitious when packing my kids' lunches.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

VIDEO: Food Network chef Claire Robinson on her mom's cooking

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Food Network host Claire Robinson making scones and butter at The Taste LA

Celebrity chefs have lots of stories to tell, so when I get a minute with a food personality, I always have a few questions ready. I met Food Network host Claire Robinson this weekend after her cooking demo at The Taste LA, an extravagant three-day food festival. She talked about her grandmother's creamed corn recipe (two ingredients: bacon and corn), which got me thinking about food and family. So when I got to the front of the line I switched on my video camera and asked:

"What's the first food you remember your mom making for you?"

Watch the video below for her response - she's adorable and funny (which is probably why she's on TV and I'm not) (yet).

Monday, September 5, 2011

Video: Celebrity chef Scott Conant

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Celebrity chef Scott Conant cooking pasta at The Taste LA
If you had one minute with a celebrity chef, what would you talk about? I'm always looking for backstory. This weekend I caught up with restauranteur and Chopped judge Scott Conant after his cooking demo at The Taste LA, an extravagant three-day food festival. Earlier, a woman in the audience had asked if he was married, and he said yes (to the disappointment of many). So when it was my turn I switched on my video camera and asked:

"What's the first thing you ever cooked for your wife?"

Watch the video below for his response - and you'll see why more than a few of the ladies in the audience were charmed.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

How to become a celebrity chef

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Emery and me at The Taste LA - yes, we are now officially the same height
Yesterday I took my 12-year-old son Emery to The Taste LA, a fantastic three-day food and wine festival presented by the Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine magazine. For a food- and chef-obsessed tween, this was pretty much the equivalent of a year of birthdays. But events like this are just as much fun for me.

The food was great, of course. Every restaurant turned out excellent small plates, one thing more impressive than the next. My favorite bite: pressed watermelon cubes with basil oil and edible flowers from Chaya. The pork sausage sandwich with melon and chiles on ciabatta from Public Kitchen came in a close second. But picking favorites is hard, because, truly, everyone was on (or above) their game. (For snapshots of the event, see The Taste of LA slideshow on my LA Cooking Examiner column.)

Watermelon with basil oil from Chaya - my favorite taste of the day

Given my someday-aspiration of making my way into food television, I paid close attention to the chefs doing the cooking demos. Scott Conant, the restauranteur who often sits at the judges' panel on Chopped, has a huge personality and made the ladies swoon. Claire Robinson, host of Food Network's 5 Ingredient Fix, felt like your next-door neighbor. And Aarti Sequeira, winner of Food Network Star and host of Aarti Party, bubbled and giggled and glowed. They all had that certain something that made you want to keep watching.

TV food host Claire Robinson talking about making butter

So what do these TV chefs have that I don't (yet)? Based on what I saw, here's the to-do list for becoming a celebrity chef:

1. Learn to love talking about yourself. If you can't love it, at least get comfortable with it. When you're a TV food personality, it's only partly about the food. It's mostly about you and your perspective on the food. Scott Conant reminded the audience several time that he loves talking about himself and his life. It didn't come across as egotistical - instead, it confirmed in our minds that he was worth watching. Confidence is attractive.

Scott Conant made two simple pastas and told stories about his youth

2. Define your food philosophy. Scott Conant does Italian. Claire Robinson's about short ingredient lists. Aarti is all Indian, all the time. Each of these TV chefs has a point of view, sticks with it, and sells it.

3. Develop a stable of stories that support your POV. That wasn't the first time Claire Robinson talked about riding her bike down the road to the chicken farm while living in southwest France. Aarti, I'm sure, has talked in public before about her mother's famous prawn biryani. Write down the anecdotes that will entertain your audience, rehearse them, and trot them out.

Aarti Sequeira spent more time telling stories than cooking, which was fine

4. Get your teeth whitened. Sorry - it's a requirement. We're talking about television, after all. But being stick-thin doesn't seem to be necessary for food TV personalities, which gives me hope.

5. Accept help in the kitchen. You'll need assistants to prep and even do the actual cooking while you tell your stories and entertain the audience. Aarti, who made paneer (Indian cheese) and then saag paneer (spinach with cheese), hardly touched the food at all during her demo. It was her recipe, but everything had been chopped and measured ahead of time, and her assistant did much of the stove work too. It didn't detract from the experience at all, and Aarti thanked her helper effusively. Most of you have probably dreamed of having a permanent sous chef. Not me, actually - I like the process. But I guess I'd get used to it.

6. Be gracious about photos. Everyone made time for snapshots with fans. Including the adoring one I brought with me, as you can see:

Emery with Scott Conant
Emery with Claire Robinson
Emery and me with Aarti Sequeira

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Truffled chocolate truffles

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Chocolate truffles infused with - what else? - truffles (Photo: Lauren Cohen)

A few years ago, very briefly, I toyed with the idea of starting a gourmet chocolate truffle company. That December I turned out dozens and dozens of truffles, which went into lavish gift baskets that ended up in the hands of movie stars' personal assistants' second cousins. Friends ordered boxes of truffles to give to their kids' teachers, mail carriers, office managers, neighbors. Chinese five-spice truffles, vintage port-infused truffles, truffles infused with wild fennel seeds, truffles with dried Bing cherries.

I put my soul into those chocolates. I infused cream and scooped ganache and dusted with cocoa powder late into the night. I learned as I went about packaging, labels, pricing. I truly loved my truffles. They were irregular and rustic, even a little ugly, but with every bite birds sang and mountains moved. I used intense 72 percent chocolate, rolled them in the darkest cocoa powder. Those fennel seeds? I foraged them myself from a secret stand of wild fennel in the Santa Monica mountains. Every truffle had a piece of my heart.

In the end, I couldn't figure out how to keep it personal and scale up to a profitable business. Now I make truffles for friends and for fun, not for money. Which is why I knew I had to find a way to work chocolate truffles into Trufflepalooza. These truffle-infused chocolate truffles started out as a joke, a play on words, but in the end the devastatingly good combination of chocolate and fungus was no laughing matter.

Use a milder dark chocolate (around 60 percent) - any darker and the intensity of the chocolate will overpower the truffle scent and flavor. The million-dollar secret: Add a pinch of truffle salt to the cocoa powder that coats the truffles.

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Truffled chocolate truffles
Think the combination of chocolate and truffles (the fungus kind) sounds weird? Give it a try. It's exotic, dusky and ultra-sophisticated.
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pound dark chocolate, chopped (around 60 percent cocoa solids)
  • 1 ounce fresh truffle (black summer truffles are cheapest and perfectly fine for this use)
  • 2 tsp white or black truffle oil
  • 1/2 cup dark cocoa powder (I like Valrhona)
  • 1/2 tsp truffle salt
Combine the cream and chocolate in a large, microwave-safe glass bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute, let sit for 1 minute, and microwave for 1 minute more. Remove the bowl and stir with a spatula to melt and combine. If there are still lumps of chocolate, continue to microwave 20 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until the mixture is smooth.Grate the fresh truffle into the chocolate mixture. I like the Microplane zester, which creates tiny fine ribbons, but any grater with very small holes should work. Add the truffle oil and stir to combine. Set the chocolate mixture aside at room temperature for two hours to firm up. If the room is really hot you can refrigerate the bowl for a while, but the texture will be better and they will be easier to scoop if you let the mixture set at room temperature. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.When the chocolate mixture is the consistency of cold peanut butter, use a small spring-loaded ice cream disher to scoop ragged, roundish balls of chocolate onto the baking sheets. They absolutely do not have to be perfect; in fact, the more uneven they are, the more they will look like actual truffles when they're done. When you've used all the chocolate mixture, put the baking sheets in the refrigerator for an hour to let the balls of chocolate firm completely.Put the cocoa powder and truffle salt into a large plastic container with a lid. Shake to mix. When the chocolate balls are firm, add a few at a time to the cocoa powder, put on the lid, and shake it a few times to coat the chocolate balls with the cocoa. Put the cocoa-dusted truffles into a strainer and shake briefly to remove the excess cocoa powder. Place the finished truffles on a serving tray. Truffles should be eaten cool but not straight from the refrigerator for maximum sensual pleasure.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 2 dozen 2-inch truffles