Friday, August 31, 2012

Amanda's lettuce wrap hummus "tacos"

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You learn a lot about a person when you live together.

While my wonderful friend Amanda was staying with us earlier this year, I learned that she always drinks her coffee cold. That she sometimes wears glasses without lenses just for fun. That she hardly ever sleeps. That she owns a pair of white platform ankle-strap "stripper shoes." And that even on my darkest day, or maybe especially on my darkest day, she can always make me smile just by being in the room.

(I love Amanda.)

When you live together you also start to eat the same way, just by virtue of the fact that you're eating out of the same refrigerator and pantry. When Amanda started making these healthy lettuce wraps filled with hummus, olives and cut-up veggies, we both got addicted. Now that she's back home in the land of the cheeseheads, I can't bring myself to make these "hummus tacos" - they make me cry. You, however, probably won't have the same reaction.

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Amanda's lettuce wrap hummus "tacos"
A healthy vegetarian snack or lunch. Crunchy leaves of romaine make great wrappers; a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of feta brings it all together.
  • 4 leaves of romaine (use the inner leaves from the heart)
  • 1/2 cup hummus (homemade or store-bought)
  • 1 4-inch piece English cucumber, unpeeled, cut lengthwise into narrow spears
  • 1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, seeded, cut lengthwise into narrow strips
  • 1/3 cup Kalamata olives, pitted
  • 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/8 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 fresh lime
Lay the romaine leaves out on a plate or cutting board. Divide the hummus evenly among the four lettuce leaves, spreading it lengthwise. Divide the cucumber spears, bell pepper strips and olives evenly among the romaine leaves. Sprinkle each "taco" with feta and chili powder, then squeeze fresh lime juice over each one. Serve immediately, allowing two per person.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 2 servings

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Postcard from Northampton: A vegetarian lunch with Sarah

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My longtime friend Sarah served me a most delicious lunch when I stopped to visit her in Northampton, Massachusetts on my way to Vermont. The star of the meal: her mother's "gazborschto," a cold soup featuring the best of both borscht and gazpacho. We topped the soup with chopped cucumbers and scallions. Sarah made a simple cabbage salad and also put out a loaf of rosemary bread and a few hunks of cheese. It was a perfect meal to share with an old friend on a hot summer day.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Postcard from Simonsville: Vermont country breakfast

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One of the joys of staying at a traditional Vermont bed and breakfast is, well, the breakfast. I will definitely be making my own version of this Italian Garden Omelette, served to me at the historic Rowells Inn in Simonsville, Vermont. Crispy sopressata, zucchini, portabello mushrooms, onions, and peppers, with mozzarella, provolone and parmesan cheeses.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Postcard from Downers: Vermont corn chowder

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Well, actually, the sign says "chowda" - fresh Vermont corn and potatoes in a thin cream broth. At the Country Creemee, a roadside snack bar just north of Springfield, Vermont. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Postcard from Newfane: Vermont cheddar mac and cheese

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This is the real, real thing: Vermont cheddar macaroni and cheese at the Newfane Creamery in Newfane, near Brattleboro in southern Vermont. One of my regular stops when I'm in this part of New England.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Tiny truffled Hasselback potatoes

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When you decide to do something completely crazy like serve Hasselback potatoes at a party for 150 people, you find out who your true friends are.

Making Hasselback potatoes requires precise, tedious knife work. You make vertical cuts all along the length of the potatoes, but you can't cut all the way down - you want the potato to stay together on the bottom and kind of fan out on top as it bakes. It's hard, very hard, to keep the knife from cutting all the way through. And once you've cut too far, that potato goes in the reject pile.

When you're Hasselbacking big potatoes you can use a pair of chopsticks as a guide. Works great. But when you're Hasselbacking 200+ baby potatoes, as we needed to do for Trufflepalooza 2012, chopsticks don't help (they're too big compared with the height of the potato). You just have to concentrate and hope the gods are smiling down on you.

Photo: Lynne Hemer, Cook and Be Merry

Two days before Trufflepalooza, my mother and my friend Amanda sat at the dining room table and cut all those baby potatoes by hand. They didn't complain. They didn't chastise me for putting such a prep-intensive dish on the menu. And they did a great job. I am one lucky girl.

I bathed the potatoes in olive oil, roasted them crisp and golden in a hot oven, then slathered them with homemade truffle butter, showered them with freshly grated truffles, and sprinkled them with truffle salt. We passed them as finger food and watched a lot of eyes roll back in people's heads. Even if you can't get fresh truffles, try making these - the truffle butter and truffle salt will impart enough truffle-ness to wow your guests.

Note: Melissa's kindly gave me their Baby Dutch Yellow Potatoes for Trufflepalooza, and I loved the texture - the potatoes got crispy on the outside but stayed creamy and soft within. If you can't find the exact same potato in your area, any fingerling or baby potato will work, although the texture may not be identical.

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Tiny truffled Hasselback potatoes
Cutting potatoes Hasselback-style requires patience, but the results are well worth the effort. The ratio of crisp to creamy is just perfect when these are done. If you're not crazy enough to make your own truffle butter like me, look for prepared truffle butter in gourmet stores (I prefer Sabatino Tartufi brand).
  • 1 pound Melissa's Baby Dutch Yellow Potatoes (or any small or fingerling potato)
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp truffle butter
  • 1/2 tsp truffle salt
  • freshly grated black truffle (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.Lay one potato on a cutting board. With a sharp paring knife, starting at one end, make vertical cuts into the potato, top to bottom, stopping before you cut all the way through. Continue making vertical cuts about 1/4-inch apart down the length of the potato, keeping the bottom of the potato intact. Go slowly and concentrate; it's very easy to cut too far. Continue with the remaining potatoes.Put the cut potatoes into a mixing bowl and pour over the olive oil. Toss the potatoes, rubbing the oil as best you can into the cuts you've made without breaking the potatoes apart. Pour the potatoes with the oil onto a baking sheet. (Don't wash the bowl; you'll need it again later.)Bake the potatoes cut-side up in the oven for about 40 minutes. Carefully turn the potatoes over so they're cut-side down and bake another 10-15 minutes. You want the potatoes golden brown and crispy on the outside. Don't take them out too soon.When the potatoes are done, take them out of the oven and put them back in the mixing bowl. Add the truffle butter and toss gently until the butter melts and coats the potatoes. Put the potatoes on a serving tray cut-side up, sprinkle on the truffle salt, and grate the fresh truffle over the top. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 20-30 pieces

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Zucchini potato frittata

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Still drowning in zucchini? Me too. Here's a way to use up two normal-sized zucchini. If you've let things go in the garden and have baseball bats to deal with, I can't help you.

This is a variation on the classic Spanish frittata, an omelette with potatoes and onions often served at room temperature. In the summer, everything's better with a little zucchini thrown in.

Although I normally hate multi-step recipes, in this case you do need to cook the zucchini down first to get rid of some of its water. And you need to fry the potatoes before adding in the eggs. If you happen to have leftover oven-roasted potatoes, this is an excellent way to recycle them.

Serve this frittata with a salad for a light lunch or dinner.

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Zucchini potato frittata
A summertime variation on the traditional Spanish frittata. This egg and potato omelette with shredded zucchini is a great way to use up the ever-present pile of summer squash.
  • 6 Tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 pound potatoes, scrubbed, unpeeled, cut into small chunks
  • about 1/2 tsp sea salt, divided
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 2 medium zucchini, washed and grated
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
  • 6 eggs
Preheat the broiler. Set the oven rack about 4 inches below the broiler.In an ovenproof nonstick skillet, heat 2 Tbsp of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the potatoes, a healthy pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Fry the potatoes, shaking the pan often, until they are cooked through and golden brown around the edges. Remove the potatoes to a plate and set aside.Add another 2 Tbsp olive oil to the skillet, then put in the zucchini and onion, adding another pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook the vegetables about 8 minutes, until the zucchini is wilted and the onion is softened and starting to brown around the edges. Remove the zucchini mixture to the plate holding the potatoes. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel.Put the skillet back on the stove and add the last 2 Tbsp olive oil. Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Stir the potatoes and zucchini mixture into the eggs, then add the whole mess to the skillet. As the eggs start to set, lift up the edges with a spatula and let the uncooked egg run underneath. Cook the frittata another 2-3 minutes, until it is golden brown and set on the bottom (lift up an edge with a spatula to check). Put the skillet into the oven under the broiler to cook the top. Start checking after about 4 minutes; you need the top to cook through and brown, but it can go from "browning" to "burning" very quickly. Be alert.When the frittata is done, slide it out of the pan onto a cutting board. Let cool to room temperature before slicing into wedges and serving.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 6-8 servings

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Guy Fieri mixes cocktails for a crowd

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Celebrity chef Guy Fieri at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival

Is Food Network star Guy Fieri a chef or a rock star? It's hard to tell. The stage for his cooking demo at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival held both a stove and a DJ. There was cooking, but the hour was as much about the music as the food. Not exactly what I expected - but I've watched enough of him on TV not to be completely surprised.

When a big personality like Guy Fieri is on stage, the food takes a back seat to the showmanship. What did he cook? Avocado egg rolls, which he rolled up into a six-foot-long burrito. Shazam!

More importantly, Fieri mixed four different cocktails during that one-hour demo and made sure the audience got all four. No wonder they hooted and hollered, right? And there were no delicate cocktail shakers. He mixed his mojitos in an industrial-sized bucket and muddled the limes, sugar and mint with a baseball bat. Kapow!

Here, see for yourself - I snapped some video during the mixing of the first cocktail. Cooking demo or rock concert? You be the judge.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cooking tips from Food Network chef Ming Tsai

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Me with TV chef Ming Tsai at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival

Those of you who have perused my celebrity chef posts might have concluded that I am a celebrity chef groupie.

Okay. It might be a little bit true. I rarely pass up an opportunity to go one-on-one with a famous chef. I'm still trying to figure out the formula: What makes some chefs so much fun to watch on TV? What does "star quality" mean for a chef?

This weekend at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival I sat through chef Ming Tsai's cooking demo. I've been watching him on PBS and Food Network for years. Guess what? Tsai is just as borderline geeky in person as he is on television. Which, frankly, makes me like him more. He's not a rock star wannabe like Guy Fieri. He's not pretentious. He's not super polished, either, even after all these years in front of the camera. You get the sense, watching him, that he's actually kind of nervous to be cooking in front of a live audience. Sweet.

Of course, he's learned to mug for the audience a little bit. I guess I wasn't as inconspicuous as I thought when I crouched down in the center aisle to take photos, because chef Tsai stopped what he was doing and struck a pose:

A good cooking demo always includes kitchen tips. Here are the tips I picked up from chef Tsai:

  • Taste everything. "I've made this a million times," he said as he sipped the passionfruit mai tai he'd just mixed, "but I haven't made it today."
  • If the pan gets too hot, pull it off the stove and wait a minute before adding oil. Smoking oil gives food a bitter taste.
  • Rub crushed lemongrass stalks on your skin to keep bugs away.
  • That fancy one-handed technique for tossing food without a spatula? It looks slick and it's easy. Practice in the backyard with a frying pan full of dry beans or uncooked rice.
  • If your meat sticks to the pan, it's not done yet. Wait until it's fully seared and it will release itself.
  • Eating spicy food? Pair it with wine that's got a hint of sweetness, like a Riseling, Viognier or Gewurtztraminer.
  • Use kitchen tongs to squeeze the juice out of lemon or lime halves.
  • Look for "naturally brewed" soy sauce, where the only ingredients are water, soybeans and the bacteria that ferments the mixture.
  • Chef Tsai prefers cooking with canola oil because it's flavorless, has a high smoke point and is cheap.
  • Want to get your kids to eat vegetables? Skip the steamed broccoli and saute it in garlic oil instead. "Kids love flavor," he said. "They'll eat vegetables if you make them taste good."
Chef Tsai's kids are about the same ages as my boys, so when I caught up with him after the demo I asked him what he likes to cook with his kids. Watch the video below for his answers!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ultimate green smoothie with honeydew melon

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Eureka! I have found the magical combination of green fruits and vegetables that makes a light, refreshing, ultra-drinkable green smoothie.

This is a summer smoothie, as honeydew melon is hard to find at other times of year. Take advantage of melon season and whip this one up when you need to cool down.

My husband is fond of all my green smoothies (as long as I skip both avocado and banana - he doesn't like creamy smoothies), but he agrees that this combination is something special.

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Summer green smoothie with honeydew melon
A light, refreshing green smoothie to start a summer's day off right.
  • 1/2 honeydew melon, seeded, rind removed, cut into chunks
  • 1 Bartlett pear, cored, skin on, cut into chunks
  • 1 cucumber, skin on, cut into chunks
  • 1 lime, skin cut off (use whole fruit minus skin)
  • 1 cup baby spinach
  • 1 cup ice cubes
  • 1 Tbsp honey (optional - if the melon and pear are very ripe, you won't need this)
Put all ingredients in blender. Process on high until smooth. If texture is too thick, add a bit of water and blend again. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 4-6 servings

Monday, August 6, 2012

Brie with truffles and truffle honey

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When it comes to recipes with truffles, less is definitely more.

The backdrop needs to be simple. Uncluttered. Bland background flavors support the truffle aroma and flavor without overwhelming or interfering. That's why traditional French and Italian truffle recipes are often based on eggs, potatoes, pasta, rice, cream, fresh cheeses.

I am, by nature, a "less is more" kind of cook. Maybe I like truffles so much because what you do underneath them needs to be simple. It's a built-in excuse to be lazy.

One of the simplest and most popular of the 20 dishes served at Trufflepalooza 2012 was this truffle-infused Brie cheese. A few days before Trufflepalooza, I split the cheese horizontally, inserted a layer of grated fresh truffle (along with a few drops of truffle oil and a light sprinkle of truffle salt), and wrapped the cheese tightly in plastic wrap. By the day of the feast, the musky truffle aroma had permeated the cheese completely.

To serve, we sliced the cheese and laid it on toasted slivers of ciabatta with a thin piece of Flavor Queen pluot, then drizzled truffle honey on top. Crisp toast, creamy Brie, tangy fruit, dusky truffles, sweet honey - the combination was simple but perfectly balanced. These truffled Brie bites were a perfect transition between the savory dishes and the three truffle-laced desserts at Trufflepalooza and can play a starring role at any party.

Note: If you can't get fresh truffles, canned ones should work just as well here. My favorite truffle products are made by Sabatino Tartufi; look for them at specialty food stores or order them online from Sabatino's website.

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Brie infused with truffles and truffle honey
Crisp toast, creamy cheese, dusky truffles, tangy pluot, sweet honey - these truffled Brie toasts offer the perfect balance of flavors. Allow at least 1 day of refrigeration time for the truffle to penetrate the cheese. Feel free to substitute nectarine or peach for the pluot, but make sure the fruit isn't too soft.
  • 1/2 pound Brie cheese, ripe but still somewhat firm (choose 1 intact triangle or small round)
  • 1 small black summer truffle, fresh or canned
  • 1/4 tsp truffle oil
  • pinch of truffle salt
  • 20 thin slices ciabatta or baguette
  • 2 firm pluots, nectarines or peaches, sweet but not too soft
  • approximately 2 tsp truffle honey
Put the Brie on a cutting board. With a large sharp knife, split the cheese horizontally and lay the two pieces on the board cut-side up. Finely grate the truffle over one half of the cheese, covering the surface (you will have truffle left over for another dish, you lucky duck). Sprinkle on the truffle oil and a pinch of truffle salt. Now put the other half of the cheese back on top so the truffle stuff is sandwiched between the two layers of cheese. Wrap the whole thing tightly in several layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 24 hours and up to 3 days to let the truffle aroma and flavor permeate the cheese.To serve, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast in the oven about 10 minutes, until the bread is dry, crisp and starting to brown around the edges. Let cool.Slice the pluots into very thin half-moons, mimicking the shape of the bread as closely as you can. Lay a slice of pluot (or a few slices if you prefer) on each piece of toast. Cut 20 slices of cheese about the same size as the toast and lay them on top of the pluot. Drizzle truffle honey lightly over the top of each Brie toast and serve.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: about 20 pieces

Disclosure: Sabatino kindly provided all the fresh truffles and truffle products for this year's Trufflepalooza, but I don't get any commissions or kickbacks on sales of their products through the links above - I'm just recommending what I like to use myself.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Chocolate cashew butter

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In the frenzy leading up to Trufflepalooza, my annual truffle-laced foodgasm party, I get so caught up in the preparations that I forget something very important.

I forget to feed my family. And myself.

When the refrigerator is full of ingredients for 20 dishes for 150 people, there's very little room left for actual food that hungry husbands and kids might want to eat for breakfast.

This is a problem.

The solution: pizza. Or pulled pork from the freezer, tossed into quesadillas. Or scrambled eggs.

Or, on the day when I was craving chocolate peanut butter cups but a) couldn't leave the house because I had 300 homemade corn tortillas to press and griddle and b) had a huge but mostly empty jar of roasted salted cashews from Costco that was taking up way too much room in the pantry, this simple chocolate cashew butter.

Got a food processor, mini-chopper or blender? This is what it's for. Pour in the nuts and chocolate, hit the button, wait a minute, and you've got chocolate cashew butter, something really delicious and decadent to spread on your morning toast. I was going for a healthier version of Nutella but opted for grainy rather than silky-smooth. Felt more like health food that way. If you want it smoother, pour in a little milk or cream and be patient with your appliance.

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Chocolate cashew butter
Two or three ingredients + a powerful electric appliance = a delicious chocolate nut butter to spread on your morning toast.
  • 1 cup cashews, roasted and salted
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 Tbsp heavy cream or whole milk (optional)
Pour the nuts and chocolate chips into the bowl of a food processor, mini-chopper or blender. Press the button and wait while the machine pulverizes the nuts, melts the chocolate and turns the whole mess into a smooth, spreadable butter. If the texture is still too grainy for your liking after 2 minutes of processing, add the cream or milk and continue for another minute. It will never get as smooth as Nutella, but then again, it's a lot less like a candy bar and a lot more like nuts plus chocolate.Spread on toast. No one will argue if you scatter banana slices on top.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 1 1/4 cups