Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Caprese salad skewers

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Caprese salad skewers - who doesn't love salad on a stick?

When it's party time, I look for easy appetizer recipes I can throw together quickly. I make the easy snacks ahead of time and set them out on a platter so they're ready when guests arrive. Then, while they nibble and sip in the dining room, I can stand in the kitchen and throw myself into the more complicated stuff.

Inspired by On a Stick! 80 Party-Perfect Recipes by the legendary Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites, I broke out some bamboo skewers for a recent Sunday dinner and pierced my way to hand-held Caprese salad. Firm grape tomatoes, fragrant basil and creamy fresh mozzarella - that's all it takes, along with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. But don't feel like you have to stop there. Olives, marinated artichoke hearts, a strip of roasted red pepper, grilled zucchini...every vegetable gets better when it's threaded onto a stick.

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Caprese salad skewers
Use firm, ripe cherry tomatoes and good-quality fresh mozzarella for these Caprese salad skewers. Perfect for a summer cocktail party.
  • 24 grape or cherry tomatoes
  • 24 medium-sized basil leaves
  • approximately 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, drained, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 24 short bamboo skewers or long toothpicks
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • sea salt (for a variation, try smoked salt)
  • freshly ground pepper
Thread 1 tomato, 1 basil leaf and 1 cube of mozzarella onto each skewer. Lay the skewers on a serving platter. Drizzle over the olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 24 skewers

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wisconsin beer cheese dip with bacon

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Amanda's beer cheese dip

I think I've mentioned that I'm territorial in my kitchen. Most of our houseguests know (or learn quickly) to do their cooking when I'm not home.

Amanda, a dear friend who's staying with us for a while, has taken advantage of my days at the office and my occasional evening meetings to whip up fabulous quick pickles, "wet" burritos, and this beer cheese dip. Amanda's from Wisconsin, where they have a lot of cheese and a lot of beer.

We ended up taking the dip to a party where it was well received. I don't like beer, so I thought this dip wasn't for me. Wrong. It was very much for me (too bad for the other party guests).

I don't often post recipes that include convenience foods like prepared ranch seasoning. What can I tell you? I make exceptions. This beer cheese dip was just that good.

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Amanda's Wisconsin beer cheese dip with bacon
My friend Amanda's favorite party dip combines two kinds of cheese, bacon and beer. What's not to like?
  • 2 bricks cream cheese, softened
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (divided)
  • 1 packet ranch seasoning
  • 6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
  • 1/4 cup beer, or more to get the right texture (use a lighter beer - you want a milder flavor)
  • pretzels or chips, for serving
In a large bowl, mix together the cream cheese, 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar cheese, ranch seasoning and bacon. Mix until well combined. Add the beer and stir together. You want the mixture to be loose but not runny - it will thicken in the refrigerator.Dump the mixture into a serving bowl, sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup cheese on top, and cover with plastic wrap. Put the bowl in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving to let the dip settle and thicken.Serve with pretzels or chips.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 12+ servings

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fresh herb butter

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Give toast, boiled potatoes, pasta or a weeknight steak a quick pick-me-up with this simple herb butter, made with any mixture of fresh herbs your palate prefers.

It's as simple as this: Let some good butter soften on the counter. Chop a heaping pile of mixed fresh herbs and add them to the butter with a little sea salt. Mix. Store the herb butter in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer for the longer haul.

If you have an herb garden, tidy it up with your pruning shears, then use the clippings to make this herb butter. If not, grab bunches of basil, parsley, dill, cilantro, chives, mint, etc. at the market and go to work. If you like things garlicky, add a clove of fresh garlic to the mix. A food processor makes chopping the herbs painless, but if you prefer your knife and a board, that works too.

I used Kerrygold's Naturally Softer Irish Butter for this batch because I'm impatient and didn't want to wait for a stick of butter to soften. I don't know how they do it - the ingredients are just cream and salt, same as regular butter - but something in the churning process for this product keeps it soft and spreadable, even straight from the refrigerator.

I met the Kerrygold USA team at Camp Blogaway a few weeks ago, where they showed us a beautiful slideshow of the Irish cows, Irish grass, and Irish dairy farmers who turn out Kerrygold butter and cheese. They say you can taste the grass in the butter and cheese - I'm not sure I get grass exactly, but the butter is tasty indeed. It makes a terrific base for this elegant herb butter.

No, Kerrygold is not paying me to say any of this. I bought the Kerrygold butter for this recipe at Costco with my own hard-earned money.

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Herb butter
Mix chopped fresh herbs into softened butter and you end up with a compound butter that's way more than the sum of its parts. Use it on toast, boiled potatoes, pasta or steak.
  • 1/2 cup good butter
  • approximately 1/2 cup mixed fresh herbs, chopped finely (basil, parsley, mint, chives, cilantro, dill, etc.)
  • 1 garlic clove, minced (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
Let the butter sit at room temperature until softened. Using a large spoon, mix in the fresh herbs, garlic (if using), and salt. Mix until well combined. Store the herb butter in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to three months.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 1/2 cup

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hummus with artichokes and olives, aka Costco hummus

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This really is the world's best hummus

I made the world's best hummus yesterday. By accident.

I wasn't going for a gold medal. It just happened. In less than 10 minutes. No one was more surprised than I was.

What makes this hummus the world's best? It's light and fluffy. Not too oily. And the marinated artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives throw the whole thing a little off-kilter.

Are you thinking that hummus without tahini is heretical? Yes, I'm a rebel. I prefer adding whole raw sesame seeds - tahini makes things a little gummy for my tastes. This way you get to control the amount of oil you put in.

By the way, every ingredient for this hummus is available at Costco, at least in my area. I should have named it "Costco hummus." If I were a true geek, I would have done some SEO research to figure out whether "hummus with artichokes and olives" or "world's best hummus" or "Costco hummus" would have been a more search-friendly title for this post.

Guess what? Not a geek. But you probably knew that already.

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World's best hummus with artichokes and olives
In 10 minutes you can have light, fluffy, exotic hummus. Open a few cans and make your food processor your best friend.
  • 3 15-ounce cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, drained
  • 1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 2 Tbsp raw sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup cold water, or as needed to achieve light, fluffy hummus
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • freshly ground pepper
Put the chickpeas, olives, artichoke hearts, lemon zest, lemon juice and sesame seeds in the bowl of a food processor with the regular chopping blade. Turn on the processor. With the motor running, add the olive oil through the feed tube. Process about 20 seconds, then start adding the water. Add enough water to give the hummus a light, fluffy texture (you can open the machine and taste it to find out). Add the salt and pepper, process briefly to mix, and turn the hummus out into a bowl. Serve immediately with cut-up vegetables or pita chips.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8 servings

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fruit salsa with loquats

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Fresh loquat salsa pairs beautifully with grilled chicken or pork

I spent this week peeling and seeding loquats. Pounds and pounds of loquats. My friends with loquat trees always call in May. I'm a New York girl who still can't believe food grows on trees. They know I won't say no to ripe loquats, and they know I'll put them to good use.

Loquats grow prolifically in southern California on large trees with dark-green glossy leaves. They look like orange testicles (well, they do!) and taste like plums crossed with roses. They don't travel well, so if they don't grow in your area you may never see one. Come visit me in May. I'll hook you up.

Ripe loquats don't last long once they're picked

This week I made quarts of loquat jam, which I stir into coconut rice pudding. I topped loquats with buttery oats and brown sugar and baked a loquat crumble fit for royalty. And one night I grilled chicken and made a divine loquat salsa.

I use the same formula for all my fresh salsas: fruit, onions, cilantro, lime, salt. The fruit determines the character of the salsa. Loquats are sweet and tangy, making this salsa the perfect match for grilled meat.

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Fruit salsa with loquats
Ripe loquats make a refreshing and exotic salsa, but you can use this same formula with any fruit (or tomatoes). Serve with grilled chicken or pork tenderloin.
  • 20 large or 30 small ripe loquats
  • 1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 4 stalks green onion, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lime juice (1 large lime)
  • 1/8 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Wash the loquats well. Break one loquat in half by sticking your thumbs down into the middle from the stem end and pulling apart. Use your thumb to scoop out the seeds and pinch off the flower end. Peel the skin from the flesh - it should come away easily. Place the flesh on a cutting board and repeat with the rest of the loquats. Chop the loquat flesh with a large knife and put it in a bowl. Be forewarned: Preparing loquats is a labor of love. It's not quick.Add the red and green onions, lime juice, salt and cilantro, and mix well. Let sit 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to meld.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 2 cups

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Salad smoothie with avocado and wasabi

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Don't eat salad for lunch - drink it instead!

Disclosure: The California Avocado Commission invited me as a guest for the trip described in this post. No other money changed hands. All opinions and any factual errors are my own. 

When I work at home, I try to eat salad for lunch. I have no excuse: access to the sink, a choice of dressings and toppings, pick of the vegetable drawer.

I just didn't feel like a salad yesterday, but my guilt got the better of me. I took all the salad fixings I could find (not much, as I hadn't been shopping in a few days) and threw them in the blender. I don't like sweet smoothies much, so I've been working on savory smoothies. Lettuce, endive, avocado, lime - a good start. It needed a little something, so I put in a dab of prepared wasabi left over from our last sushi-at-home party. The result: a creamy, savory, guilt-free smoothie with a kick.

Avocados are a way of life here in southern California. I went with the California Avocado Commission and a group of food bloggers down to Temecula a few weeks ago to visit West Pak, one of the largest avocado handling, packing and distribution facilities in southern California. Lots of humans are involved in the picking, sorting and packing of avocados. (Scroll down past the smoothie recipe for photos from West Pak and lunch at Fairfield Farms, an avocado ranch in the hills of Pauma Valley.)

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Salad smoothie with avocado and wasabi
If you don't feel like eating your salad, try drinking it instead. Avocado makes this savory smoothie creamy and rich; wasabi gives it a little sinus-clearing kick.
  • 4 cups romaine lettuce, washed and torn into pieces
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1 head endive (optional, or add equivalent amount of another green)
  • 1 lime (cut away skin and use flesh, not just juice)
  • 2 cups ice cubes
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp prepared wasabi (Japanese horseradish)
Put the lettuce, avocado flesh, endive (or other green), lime, ice, water, salt and wasabi in a blender and process until very smooth. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 2 servings

West Pak avocados ready for the truck
Watchful eyes pull damaged and blemished avocados off the packing line
These avocados don't look quite as good, but they're fine on the inside - they get sold to restaurants
Rachael Hutchings of La Fuji Mama, angelic in hairnet and safety vest
Gaby Dalkin of What's Gaby Cooking rocks the hairnet too!

Greg Henry of Sippity Sup at Fairfield Farms, the home and ranch of growers Carol and Bill Steed
Lunch at Fairfield Farms, clockwise from left: Salmon with corn-avocado relish, quinoa salad with avocado, watermelon avocado salad, green salad with oranges and avocado
Avocado vanilla bean frozen yogurt with berries
Gaby tries her hand at harvesting avocados - it's harder than it looks

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How to build a community: Food Bloggers Los Angeles

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Food Bloggers Los Angeles, May 2012 (photo: James Abke)

When I started this blog in 2008, it was just me and my keyboard. I enjoyed writing, got into the rhythm of blogging, but I was lonely. I only had a few readers and wasn't sure how to get more. I ran into technical roadblocks daily. I had lots of questions and no one to ask.

Then I went to my first food blogging conference and discovered that I was by no means alone. Though it had been invisible to me, the food blogging community already existed. The conference drew hundreds (!) of food bloggers, including a decent-sized group from greater Los Angeles - most of whom had never met each other in person before. Twitter friends are great, but I longed for food blogging friends in real life.

When Patti Londre (the voice behind Worth the Whisk and owner of Camp Blogaway) and I decided to start Food Bloggers Los Angeles - FBLA for short - neither of us was sure where it would go. But we both sensed that the food blogging journey we were on would be more interesting with friends along.

Patti and I networked like crazy, spread the word and arranged monthly meetings. The group grew from a handful to a dozen to a small army. We invaded each other's dining rooms for potlucks. We drew on each other's expertise for discussions on SEO, Google Analytics, how to work with PR people, traffic-building strategies. We threw in community service projects and the occasional food crawl. And some months we skipped meetings and had plain old parties instead. Because, as it turns out, we really enjoy each other's company.

Patti Londre of Worth the Whisk and Gisele Perez of Pain Perdu at Trufflepalooza 2011 (photo: James Gierman)

FBLA continues to grow. New members show up at each meeting. We are an open-door group; anyone is welcome, including PR people, local chefs and restaurant owners, and food companies. Blogger-friendly brands send samples and treats to our meetings, and we're grateful for those relationships. Best of all, we've made friends, good friends, who understand and appreciate the obsession we all share.

But here's the kicker: The amount of concrete progress each of us has made as bloggers because of FBLA is equally staggering. Collectively, the members of FBLA have:
  • Gained inbound links and drastically increased our organic search rankings as a result of photographing and writing about each other's potluck contributions.
  • Grown our traffic and audiences significantly because of the help and advice we've gotten at meetings.
  • Improved our photography, writing, editing and technical skills.
  • Appeared in newspapers, in magazines, on the radio and on TV. 
  • Gotten paying work as food writers, recipe developers, chefs, caterers, cooking instructors, video hosts, web developers and social media professionals.  
I know I'd be in a very different place were it not for the support, wisdom and generosity of FBLA. Thank you, friends. I look forward to sharing many more years of obsession with you.

Just do it

Bloggers: Are you thinking you might want to start a group like this in your area? You should, whether you blog about food, kids, cars, stocks or hamsters. Here are a few pieces of advice.

1. Don't wait for someone else to do it. Guess what - they probably won't. If having a community is important to you, take the reins. It's neither difficult nor extremely time-consuming. It just takes a little organization and the willingness to be bossy.

2. Make a schedule and stick to it. We do something every month. It took us a while to figure out what worked best for everyone given work schedules, family commitments and L.A. traffic. We mostly meet on Saturday or Sunday mornings, when the majority of members seem to be able to come.

3. Change up your location. This is particularly important for us given the sprawl of Los Angeles. We alternate neighborhoods because no one is truly centrally located.

4. Yes, your house/apartment is big enough. The point is being together. No one is expecting the Martha Stewart treatment. Get over it. If you don't own enough dishes or flatware and don't want to use disposable, have everyone bring his or her own. Think how interesting the photos will be!

5. Take advantage of each other's strengths. Create opportunities for those with particular skills or knowledge to share with the group. You won't believe how much you'll learn.

6. Write about each other. Post summaries of interesting discussions. Interview or profile fellow members. Guest post for each other. Do round-ups around a theme or holiday. You'll get interesting content, and you'll each reach the others' audiences. 

7. Make friends with the media. Invite a local newspaper reporter or radio producer to your meetings. Your local paper might find a taco crawl with a bunch of food bloggers extremely interesting. Start with the reporter who covers your topic and invite him or her to come as a guest (or a guest speaker). Once you've got a relationship, coverage may follow. Remember, most newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations have blogs too. They're always looking for interesting community items.

8. Support each other. It's not a contest. The better you all do, the better each of you does.

9. Throw the doors open. I've had bloggers roll their eyes when I tell them we welcome PR people and brands to our meetings. I don't see the point of exclusivity. We're all in this together, trying to figure out how food bloggers fit into the world of professional media. We've all got a lot to gain from building strong relationships. Also, FBLA's food brand friends have been integral to the success mentioned above.

10. See number 1.

Are you ready to build your community? Just do it. You'll be glad you invested the time and effort.

Got questions? Need more advice on building your own community? Leave a comment below....