Saturday, December 29, 2012

Beet salad with burrata and kale pesto

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Roasted beet salad with burrata and kale pesto

People think of southern California as the land of sunshine and beaches. Well, I have news for you: Winter is still winter, even here in Los Angeles. It may not snow, but when it's raining and gloomy and the wind blows, you feel it in your bones.

Of course, that may be partly a construction issue. When we bought our house 15+ years ago, it had zero insulation. The windows were so old that the rain blew in around them. We've fixed those things, but somehow southern California houses always feel drafty in the winter.

We never did get around to having our chimney cleaned, so sometimes I treat myself by heading over to one of Santa Monica's grand hotels and huddling up by a roaring fireplace with a drink, a snack, and a good book. My current favorite is Hotel Casa del Mar - seriously the best place to watch the sunset in Santa Monica. And it doesn't hurt that USA Today just named their fireplace one of the coziest hotel fireplaces in the country.

Casa del Mar just switched up its lobby lounge menu and invited me to taste some of the new items a few weeks ago. Hotel food doesn't often impress, but some of the new items at Casa del Mar made me tingle. There's a smoky drink made with beet juice, mezcal and the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout that sounds weird but is surprisingly good. And the yellowtail and salmon crudos are outstanding.

The menu also includes a few more predictable items: olives, sliders, charcuterie, and the ubiquitous roasted beet salad. According to Simon Sorpresi, Casa del Mar's director of food and beverage, the new chef felt the beet salad had run its course and wanted to take it off the menu during the latest revamp. Nope, said Simon. It always sells, so it stays. Tired or not in concept, Casa del Mar's beet salad is delicious. It's easy to see why it sells.

Here's my version of Casa del Mar's beet salad. They pair their beets with creamy burrata, grapefruit and pistachios; I used lemon and a nutty kale pesto. However you adorn it, you'll want to keep a roasted beet salad on your menu too.



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Roasted beet salad with burrata and kale pesto
Pair roasted beets with creamy burrata cheese and a tangy, nutty kale pesto for a healthy and beautiful starter salad.
Ingredients
  • 1 pound fresh beets, unpeeled, scrubbed well
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • pinch of sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 8 ounces burrata cheese
  • 1/4 cup kale pesto (click here for recipe)
Instructions
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub the beets with 1 Tablespoon olive oil, then wrap the beets well in foil. Place the foil package on a baking sheet and roast the beets in the foil until tender, about 1 hour (large beets will take longer than small beets). While the beets are roasting, whisk together the remaining 1 Tablespoon olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.Remove the beets from the oven, open the foil, and let the beets cool just until you can handle them. Using your fingers, slip the skins from the beets. Dice the beets into 1-inch cubes. Immediately toss the warm beets with the lemon juice mixture. It's important that this step be done while the beets are warm - it helps them absorb the flavors of the dressing.To serve the beet salad, divide the beets onto four plates. Pull the burrata into rough chunks with your fingers and divide it evenly among the plates. Drizzle the plates generously with the kale pesto. Serve immediately.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 4 servings

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Creamy roast turkey wild rice soup

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If you end up with leftover roast turkey this week (and I know many of us will), try this hearty, creamy turkey wild rice soup. The wild rice gives the broth a uniquely nutty flavor, and the root vegetables make the whole thing aromatic and sweet. I used a combination of carrots, kohlrabi and potato, but turnips or rutabaga would be nice here too. This is one of those situations where the soup made of leftovers is almost better than the roast turkey you started with.

This is the first time I've cooked with wild rice, by the way. A friend from out of town brought me two big bags collected in the midwest, up near the Canadian border I think (Wisconsin? Minnesota? Not sure). It had been sitting in my pantry for too long. Fortunately, it aged well.

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Creamy turkey wild rice soup
Leftover turkey stars in this hearty soup. Wild rice gives the broth a uniquely nutty flavor. If you have homemade turkey stock made from your turkey carcass, use it; if not, prepared chicken stock will do.
Ingredients
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 3 ribs celery, diced
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and diced
  • 3 medium kohlrabi (substitute 1 turnip or 1 rutabaga), peeled and diced
  • 1 large or 2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 quarts homemade turkey stock or chicken stock
  • 1 1/2 cups wild rice
  • 4 cups leftover roast turkey, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Instructions
In a large pot, heat the butter over medium-high heat until it melts and the foam subsides. Add the celery, carrots, kohlrabi, potatoes, and onions, and saute until the vegetables start to soften, about 7 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring, about 3 minutes - this will get rid of the raw flour taste.Add the turkey or chicken stock and the wild rice. Bring the soup to a boil, turn down the heat, cover the pot, and simmer the soup until the wild rice is tender and the grains are starting to burst, about 1 1/2 hours. (The exact time will depend on how fresh your wild rice is - the older it is, the longer it takes to cook.)When the wild rice is cooked, add the roast turkey to the soup and let it simmer until the turkey is warmed through. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary. The saltier your stock was, the less salt you'll need (but you'll definitely need some). Serve very hot.Note: This soup gets better with a few days in the refrigerator, so feel free to make it a day or two ahead.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 10 servings

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Artichoke dip with feta cheese

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A few weeks ago I lamented the fact that Costco doesn't sell frozen artichoke hearts.

I would make this simple, healthy artichoke dip twice a week if I had a reliable, cost-effective source of frozen artichoke hearts.

Marinated artichoke hearts are oily and bring extraneous flavors to the party. Canned artichoke hearts are gross. And fresh artichoke hearts take way too much work (and money).

So, Costco, I'm begging you: frozen artichoke hearts, please.

Serve this tangy artichoke dip with pita chips or crackers. Did you know that artichokes can improve liver function, lower cholesterol and act as a diuretic? Health food to counteract all those holiday treats.



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Artichoke dip
Serve this simple artichoke dip with pita chips or crackers.
Ingredients
  • 2 9-ounce packages frozen artichoke hearts
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • 1 lemon (juice and zest)
  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic
  • 2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Instructions
Put the frozen artichoke hearts in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain.Put the artichoke hearts, olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, and garlic into the bowl of a food processor. Process until all ingredients are well blended, about 20 seconds of pulsing. Pour into a bowl and sprinkle the feta cheese over the top of the artichoke dip. Serve warm or cold with pita chips or crackers.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: about 2 cups

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Happy birthday to In Erika's Kitchen, and pate brisee

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Celebrating the 4th "blogiversary" of In Erika's Kitchen with quiche, muffins and my good friend Sarah

I've been writing this blog for four years now.

A lot has happened in four years. My kids have gone from little to bigger. I went back to work after eight years of full-time parenting. There have been conference calls, meetings, business trips, school plays, youth orchestra concerts, playdates, family vacations, projects, dinner parties, birthday parties.

There have been good days and bad days. Good months, bad months.

Through it all, I have written my blog. It's been the one constant through four years of personal and familial shifting sands.

Two or three or four times a week, I've sat at this computer and put together pictures, words and recipes into stories to share with you. Two or three or four times a week, I've created something that had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then I've pushed a button and sent it off into the universe. Done.

I think my blog has kept me sane.

An early-morning blog birthday breakfast with Sarah

My friend Sarah came over today for an early breakfast. The sun was up, but barely. Early morning is one of the few times two working moms can take an hour to catch up and celebrate.

Sarah brought pumpkin chocolate chip muffins. She found the recipe on my blog and has been making them for her family for years. She adjusts the recipe to suit her family's tastes: less sugar, not quite as much nutmeg, only a pinch of cloves. They taste like the ones I make, but not quite. I love that she's made my recipe her own. Her version might be even better than mine.

Sarah often makes my pumpkin chocolate chip muffins for her family

I made quiche. I am still trying to get over my fear of pie crust; if anyone can help with that, it's Clemence Gossett, owner of The Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories in Santa Monica, whom I met early on in my blogging career. Clemence tutored me in cake decorating when I was chosen to decorate cakes with Kelly Ripa, Buddy "The Cake Boss" Valastro, and a dozen other bloggers in 2010. She is the best baking teacher I know because she demands imprecision - unusual for a baker. She wants you to understand the concepts, work by feel, get over your fears.

A few weeks ago Clemence was the featured chef at a dinner put on by Your Local Hive, a slow food group here in Los Angeles. She fed us tarts and quiche and puff pastry, and she showed us how to make a traditional pate brisee, or flaky crust. Three cups of flour, three sticks of butter. She uses California-grown and -milled flour, and only Straus Family Creamery butter. A dribble of ice water and it's done. The pastry should have visible lumps of butter - that's what makes it flaky. "Disorganized chaos," she calls it (as opposed to puff pastry, "organized chaos").

Four years of blogging - who knew I had so much to say? :)

Clemence rubbed the butter into the flour by hand at the demo, but my hands are hot - this, it turns out, is why I always have trouble with pastry. My choice is either to soak my hands in ice water before making pie crust, or to use the food processor. I chose the machine. A few quick pulses to break up the butter in the flour, a few dollops of ice water, and done. I gathered the dough into a disk, wrapped it in plastic, put it in the refrigerator to rest.

Then the quiche. Rolled the dough out, put it in a pie plate, filled it with roasted cherry tomatoes, goat cheese and a drizzle of kale pesto. Mixed eggs, egg yolks, cream and milk for the custard, poured it over, baked at 375. A truly French quiche emerged. I got the crust just right: flaky, tender, with color. Clemence hates undercooked pastry and would be proud.

Four years. I've learned a lot in four years. I've met wonderful people in four years - including all of you, who enrich my days and motivate me to keep writing. I'm grateful for that, so grateful.

What will the next four years bring? I can't wait to find out.

Monday, December 17, 2012

National Blogging Day of Remembrance

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Smoky Scotch whiskey chocolate truffles

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Chocolate truffles are one of the most impressive sweet treats you can make for your friends and family.

Fortunately, they are also one of the easiest.

When you stick to just chocolate and cream, they're rich, dense and dark. But when you throw in a little unexpected flavoring, they're rich, dense, dark and intriguing

My husband is in an all-guys book group, several of whose members like Scotch. I found a bit of Smokehead left over from one of their meetings and, as an experiment, dumped a few tablespoons into my last batch of truffles. (Smokehead, a single malt Scotch from Islay, is described on its website as "peaty, smoky and vigorous." Indeed.)

So did the experiment succeed? It did. I can highly recommend the combination of 66 percent Valrhona chocolate and super-smoky Scotch. 

I brought some of these smoky Scotch truffles to a friend's holiday party and was rewarded with serious groans of pleasure. I made a big batch for our Food Bloggers Los Angeles annual holiday cookie and cookbook swap, too, and got compliments. I think you'll like them.

Note: The better the chocolate, the better the truffles, period. I rolled my truffles in festive silver sprinkles because it's December, but normally I just dust them with dark cocoa powder. I love the rustic look of misshapen truffles dusted in cocoa - it makes them look like the fungal truffles for which they were named.





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Super smoky Scotch whiskey chocolate truffles
Chocolate truffles are one of the easiest and most impressive chocolate candies you can make. These rise to a new level with the addition of an extremely smoky Scotch whiskey. A perfect homemade gift for the holidays.
Ingredients
  • 1 pound bittersweet chocolate, at least 60% cocoa solids
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tablespoon Scotch whiskey
  • dark cocoa powder or festive sprinkles, for coating
Instructions
Chop the chocolate into relatively small pieces and put it in a glass or ceramic bowl. (Yes, the kind of bowl is important: You may need to put the bowl in the microwave, so metal is out, and plastic will make the truffles taste funny.)Heat the cream until steaming but not boiling - I do this in the microwave. Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and let it sit about 2 minutes. Whisk the chocolate and cream together until all the chocolate is melted. If the mixture is tepid and you still see lumps of chocolate, put the bowl in the microwave for 15 seconds and stir again. Continue until the mixture is smooth. Add the Scotch and whisk again until smooth.Put the bowl somewhere relatively cool (i.e. not in the sun) and let the mixture sit at room temperature, uncovered, for about 2 hours. It will harden some but will not be fully solid. Some people prefer to put their truffle mixture in the refrigerator and then scoop it like frozen ice cream, but I like to have my truffle mixture more the texture of soft-serve - I think it makes for prettier truffles in the end. It's up to you.Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Take a small spring-loaded scoop, or two spoons, and dish out about 1 Tablespoon of the mixture onto the parchment-lined sheet for each truffle. They will look rustic and misshapen, and that's fine. When you've used all the mixture, put the tray in the refrigerator, uncovered, and let harden at least 2 hours.To finish the truffles remove them from the refrigerator. If you're dusting them in cocoa powder, put about half a cup of cocoa powder in a plastic container with a lid, put a handful of the truffles in, put on the cover, roll them around, and then lift them out into a strainer and shake off the excess cocoa powder. If you're using sprinkles, you'll want to roll each truffle in your palms a little to melt the outside layer before rolling them in the sprinkles - this will help the sprinkles stick. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks. Amaze your friends, family and coworkers.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 3 dozen truffles

Monday, December 10, 2012

Meyer lemon muffins from the Los Angeles Times

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Meyer lemons are just coming into season in southern California.

I have two Meyer lemon trees in my backyard, but they are completely out of sync with the rest of the Meyer lemon world.

Everyone else's lemons start to ripen around Christmas.

Mine start to ripen after Easter.


Fortunately, I've discovered that I can let the Meyer lemons hang on the tree for months without ill effect. In fact, they get bigger and juicier. Some of my Meyer lemons are more like big oranges.

I've still got some ripe ones hanging from last season. Which means that, effectively, I have Meyer lemons all year long.

And that's nothing to complain about.

These Meyer lemon muffins are tart and wildly aromatic because the recipe, which was created by the Los Angeles Times, uses the whole lemon - peel, flesh and all.

One note: The slice of lemon on top looks pretty but I was the only one willing to eat it. My kids picked it off. The muffins taste just as good without the decoration, so go your own way.

A bunch of other bloggers have reprinted this recipe on their blogs, but I'm not going to do that. It's not right. The LA Times paid someone to develop the recipe and the paper owns that content. I hate it when people reprint my recipes without asking - do unto others, etc. So click here to get the LA Times's Meyer lemon muffin recipe.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Idaho mashed potato pops

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Okay, friends. This recipe is about to change your life. Sit down.

It's called the Idaho Mashed Potato Pop.


Give the Hanukkah latkes a rest one night and try these fried potato balls of deliciousness.

So how's it done? You make mashed potatoes. You add your choice of mix-ins. You roll the mashed potatoes into little balls and coat them with panko bread crumbs or, for a gluten-free option, dehydrated potato flakes.

And then you fry them and put them on sticks.

It's like a lollipop. Made out of creamy, cheesy, crispy mashed potatoes.


I made three varieties (above, from left): Bacon Mashed Potato Pops, with Gruyere cheese, caramelized onions and bacon; Greek Mashed Potato Pops, with chopped spinach, feta cheese and dill; and Southwestern Mashed Potato Pops, with red bell peppers, green onions and pepperjack cheese.

Of course, these are just my ideas - you can take these mashed potato pops in any flavor direction you want.


You can serve them on toothpicks or actual lollipop sticks. Can you imagine these at your next cocktail party? Yes, you can.


This is one of the Hanukkah recipes I created for the Idaho Potato Commission. But it's not just for Hanukkah. Idaho Mashed Potato Pops are an everyday food. (At least, my family wishes they were an everyday food. You have never seen such happy boys as on the days I was testing this recipe.)

Are you thinking about flavor combinations for your own Idaho Mashed Potato Pops? What would you put in yours? Leave a comment and let's brainstorm!





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Idaho mashed potato pops
Mashed potatoes combined with your favorite mix-ins, lightly breaded and fried, and served on a stick. The Idaho Mashed Potato Pop may just change your life forever.
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • For Greek Mashed Potato Pops:
  • 1/2 cup defrosted frozen chopped spinach, squeezed dry
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried dill weed
  • For Southwestern Mashed Potato Pops:
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 green onion, chopped (white and green parts)
  • 1/2 cup pepperjack cheese, grated
  • a few drops Tabasco or other hot sauce
  • For Bacon Mashed Potato Pops:
  • 1/2 cup sauteed onions
  • 1/2 cup Gruyere cheese, grated
  • 1/4 cup bacon, cooked and chopped (about 2 slices)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs or dehydrated potato flakes
  • grapeseed or canola oil, for frying
  • toothpicks or lollipop sticks
Instructions
Put the potatoes in a large sauce pan and cover with cold water. Bring the pot to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork, about 15-20 minutes.Drain the potatoes and return them to the hot, empty pot. Add the butter, salt and pepper, and mash the potatoes with a potato masher until mostly smooth. Add desired mix-ins. Let sit until potato mixture is cool enough to handle.In a deep, heavy pot or a deep fryer, heat the oil for deep-frying to 350° F.Scooping out about 1 Tablespoon of the potato mixture at a time, roll the potato mixture into 2-inch balls.Set up a breading station with two shallow bowls and a plate: Beat the egg with 2 teaspoons of water in the first bowl, then put the panko breadcrumbs or dehydrated potato flakes in the second. Roll each ball first in the egg, then in the breadcrumbs or potato flakes; put the coated mashed potato balls on the plate. Repeat until all the mashed potato balls are coated.Drop several of the mashed potato balls at once into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, about 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and place the mashed potato balls on a rack set over a baking sheet. Repeat until all the mashed potato balls are fried.Stick a lollipop stick or toothpick into each ball. Serve hot, with dipping sauce if desired (see below).Dipping sauce suggestions: for Greek Mashed Potato Pops, Greek yogurt mixed with lemon juice and dried dill; for Southwestern Mashed Potato Pops, ranch dressing; for Bacon Mashed Potato Pops, mayonnaise mixed with Dijon mustard.Time Saving Tip: *4 cups of dehydrated Idaho® potato flakes mixed with 2 cups boiling water can be substituted for the fresh mashed potatoes. Prepare according to package directions, then proceed with recipe as written.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 3 dozen 2-inch pops

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Rainbow latkes with Idaho potatoes and pear-applesauce

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"Rainbow" latkes combine potatoes with carrots, parsnips and beets

I know this will be a shock to some of you, but I did not grow up eating potato latkes on Hanukkah.

Why? Because my mother was not, and is not, the world's greatest cook.

Maybe my Grandma Rose made latkes (fried potato pancakes) on Hanukkah. I don't think so, though - I remember most of her food very clearly. No latkes come to mind.

Fortunately, I have more than made up for the lack of latkes in my youth now that I'm a grownup with my own family and my own kitchen. I make latkes every chance I get. And I am quite sure that my children will remember my latkes - which, after all, is the point of holiday food traditions.

This year the Idaho Potato Commission asked me to create four Hanukkah recipes using delicious Idaho potatoes. I decided to mix it up a bit and introduce the potatoes to some other vegetable friends. Potatoes, carrots, golden beets, parsnips, green onions - the combination looks gorgeous and tastes even better.

It's traditional to serve latkes with applesauce and sour cream. I like to add pears to my applesauce, both for the taste and because the pears give the finished sauce a smoother texture. Another attempt to one-up tradition.

Note: If you can't find golden or yellow beets, you can use a red one, but the only color you'll see in your latkes is pink. No rainbow.



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Rainbow latkes with Idaho potatoes
Potatoes play nicely with carrots, golden beets, parsnips and green onions in this twist on the traditional latke recipe for Hanukkah.
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds Idaho potatoes, scrubbed (do not peel)
  • 1 large carrot, peeled
  • 1 large parsnip, peeled
  • 1 medium golden beet, peeled
  • 3 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • grapeseed or canola oil, for frying
  • pear-applesauce and sour cream, for serving
Instructions
Grate the potatoes, carrot, parsnip and golden beet into a large mixing bowl. Add the chopped green onions and stir to combine. Add the egg and stir again. Sprinkle the flour and salt over the grated vegetables and mix well.Preheat the oven to 300° F.In a large, heavy skillet (non-stick or cast iron), heat about 2 Tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Spoon in about 2 Tablespoons of the potato mixture per pancake, using the back of your spoon to flatten the pancakes out. Cook about 3 minutes or until the pancakes are golden brown on the bottom. Flip them and cook another 3 or 4 minutes, until both sides are golden brown, the edges are crisp, and the pancakes are cooked through.Put the cooked pancakes on a rack set over a baking sheet. Slide the baking sheet into the warm oven to keep the pancakes warm as you cook the rest in batches. Add more oil to the skillet as needed - you don't want to skimp on the oil or the pancakes will not crisp properly.Serve the potato pancakes with pear-applesauce (or plain applesauce) and sour cream.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 24 5-inch pancakes

Monday, December 3, 2012

HuffPost Live discussion: Food safety

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Today HuffPost Live asked me to join an on-air panel discussion about food safety and food-borne illness. They wanted me to talk about my son Weston's 2004 bout with salmonella, an experience that forever changed the way I look at the food my family eats.

The discussion covered the FDA's role in keeping our food supply safe; how to encourage food companies to adhere to best practices in food safety; and what we as consumers can do to protect ourselves and our families.

I encourage you all to watch the segment. Food-borne illness causes about 3,000 deaths a year in the U.S., and that number is not going down. Salmonella infections are actually on the rise. Something must be done.

My first e-book: Soups and Stews

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I am very pleased to announce that my first e-book is available for download for Kindle users at Amazon.com, and for iPad, Nook and other online formats in the Booktango.com bookstore.

Soups and Stews: Delicious Recipes for Chilly Days ($3.99) is a compilation of my favorite soup and stew recipes. The cover features my Grandma Rose's split pea soup for two reasons: First, I know Grandma Rose would be exceedingly proud to see her recipe "in print." And second, it was the only photo where I'd left enough blank space on top and bottom to fit the words.

If you have friends of family members who like to cook and own a Kindle or iPad, they'd probably like this e-book - especially right now, when the weather is damp and cold, and everyone needs a hot bowl of soup now and then. Why not order it for them and slip a copy of this blog post into their Christmas stocking?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

How pomegranates grow: POM Wonderful harvest tour

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Giant pomegranates

Attention food lovers: Pomegranates bigger than babies' heads are growing in California's San Joaquin valley.

POM Wonderful, the division of Los Angeles-based Roll Global that is credited with making the pomegranate an object of culinary desire in America, has figured out a way to grow its Wonderful variety pomegranates as big as grapefruits.

These mega-pomegranates are so big that POM has to send them to its juicing line. Why can't they ship the huge ones to stores? Because they haven't yet fabricated packing inserts to hold the giant pomegranates. Next year, perhaps.

How do I know this? I saw POM Wonderful's pomegranate orchards and processing facilities for myself, up close and personal, with a team from POM Wonderful and a handful of fellow food writers. First we got on this:

Our ride to the San Joaquin valley

Yes, it was my first time on a private plane. No, it was not ultra-luxurious. Yes, it was a little scary for those of us accustomed to flying on big jets. And heck yes, it was cool to see my house from 1,000 feet up.

Cozy quarters inside the POM Wonderful plane

Roll Global, which also grows almonds, pistachios and citrus, actually has more than one plane, with pilots on call during the work week. It sounds extravagant, but think about it: Their orchards are in the middle of nowhere. Their executive offices are in Los Angeles. People need to go back and forth pretty often. Commercial flights don't get close enough to the Roll operations. A few small propeller planes, combined with private landing strips at their processing facilities, actually make sense.

A fresh Wonderful pomegranate right off a tree - er, bush

Our first stop: the pomegranate orchards, up in the flat, dusty west San Joaquin valley between Bakersfield and Fresno. Pomegranates grow on bushes, really, not so much trees. And POM Wonderful has a lot of them - they're the biggest grower of fresh pomegranates in the U.S. The harvest season starts in mid-fall and finishes before Christmas. All pomegranates are hand-picked; the picking crews go through each section of the orchard multiple times, leaving the smaller fruit for the next pass.

One of the POM Wonderful ranch managers pulled off a few beauties, broke them open, and handed around sections of fresh pomegranate. The arils (edible seeds) were still cool from the desert night. They were huge, ruby-red and so juicy we were all covered with red splotches in no time.

The fresh pomegranate tasted as good as it looks

There's no denying it: Pomegranates are very, very visually appealing. Even POM Wonderful brand manager Jason Osborn, who lives, sleeps and breathes pomegranates year-round, spent a good long time taking photos of his babies.

POM Wonderful brand manager Jason Osborn snapped photos of his babies like a proud papa

As we walked through the orchards we saw bushes that were supported by long trellises. The POM Wonderful growers, like all commercial farmers, are always looking for ways to do more with less - and in the Central Valley, that means growing more fruit with less water. Water is the single most valuable resource in the west, and growers like POM Wonderful depend on it. Training the bushes on trellises may help POM's growers plant more densely without needing more water - or it may not. It's an experiment.

The interesting this is that when you're a farmer, your "test and learn" cycle is pretty long. You don't know the true effects of your experiments for a whole season, sometimes more. The POM team says they probably won't know whether the trellises really help for five years.

[A note on Roll Global and water: The owners of the company, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, have come under fire for their water management tactics, which some say have given them an unfair advantage when it comes to crop irrigation in the western San Joaquin valley. See this 2010 article from Bloomberg Businessweek for more information on this topic. I haven't done the investigative reporting required to take sides on this issue, and I'm not planning to. Water management and allocation of water rights among big growers, small growers and residents of the Central Valley are hugely complex topics.]

A pomegranate bush loaded with fruit

We hopped back on the little plane and landed in Del Rey, where POM Wonderful processes all its pomegranates to be sold as whole fruit and juice. We were only allowed to take one picture inside the processing facility, where the company has invested in high-tech equipment and proprietary processes that let them clean, sort and package their pomegranates.

In-store display boxes waiting to be filled with ripe pomegranates

I'm fascinated with Big Ag. I must have asked plant manager Tracy Fornwalt a hundred questions as she took us around the facility, all of which she answered patiently. The fresh pomegranate processing was interesting, the POM Wonderful juice plant even more so.

One thing many people don't realize is that Roll Global was really the first company to "brand" produce. How many of your kids call those little orange fruits "Cuties" instead of "tangerines" or "clementines" or "mandarins"? It was Lynda Resnick who decided to put the name "Cuties" on their mandarins and market them directly to consumers to drive demand. And it was Lynda Resnick who pretty much singlehandedly decided that Americans needed to learn to love pomegranates and created the brand name, packaging and marketing campaigns that made it happen. If you've eaten a fresh pomegranate or drunk pomegranate juice in the U.S. within the past 10 years, chances are you've had a POM Wonderful product.

Roll is a company where marketing and branding prevail. Lynda Resnick conceived and then insisted on the signature shape of the POM Wonderful juice bottle (it looks like two stacked pomegranates, even down to the crown markings on the bottle's neck) despite the fact that this shape was significantly more difficult - and thus expensive - to fabricate, fill and pack. It was more important to her that consumers instantly recognize the bottle on the shelf. In the end, POM Wonderful opted to make its own bottles right there in the juice plant so they could control the quality and get exactly the end result they wanted. Expensive, perhaps, but POM Wonderful points out that they save money on shipping, since the bottles are made in the room next door to the bottling operation and don't have to be trucked in from another location.

The signature shape of the POM Wonderful juice bottle

We also got a peek inside the new "PomPom" facility, where POM Wonderful is extracting pomegranate arils and packaging them in ready-to-eat containers. The single-serving cups are meant for lunchboxes and come with their own spoon clipped inside the lid. And it's not just any spoon - it's a Lynda Resnick spoon, where the end is shaped like the crown of a pomegranate. Again, branding.

Extracting the pomegranate arils is fraught with peril, as the juicy little seeds burst easily under pressure. The PomPom process isn't perfected yet. They've had some spoilage challenges, and when you open a container you can see some of the seeds are smashed. Still, opening a container is a lot easier than opening a fresh pomegranate. POM Wonderful's margin is highest on the whole fruit, so the decision to sell arils is another "grow the market" strategy: Show people how delicious fresh pomegranate arils are and maybe they'll be motivated enough to do the work themselves next time.

Yeah, I'm kind of a geek when it comes to stuff like this.

Growing the market for pomegranates has also included funding a lot of scientific research, which has led POM Wonderful to make some big claims about how good pomegranates and their abundant polyphenol antioxidants are for us. These big claims, in turn, have gotten the company in hot water with the government, specifically the Federal Trade Commission, which accused the company of making false health claims about POM Wonderful in 2010. The litigation continues and POM Wonderful's ad campaigns have been adjusted, but it's clear that the company still firmly believes pomegranates offer significant health benefits.

After the tour we stopped in the on-site employee restaurant for a delicious pomegranate-laced lunch. Some of the recipes they served us, as well as many others, are available in the Recipes section of POM Wonderful's website.

Turkey sliders with pomegranate relish and cole slaw

Quinoa salad with goat cheese, mint and pomegranate

Grilled fruit with pomegranate glaze

Korean barbecue tacos with pomegranate cucumber kimchee

Do you have more pomegranate questions? How do you like to use pomegranate arils and pomegranate juice in your cooking? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.