Monday, March 23, 2009

Cookie Art in Los Angeles

The smell of vanilla, butter and cinnamon floated out through the office door. The fragrance was warm and inviting and smelled of course like cookies! Our tour of Monaco Baking Company’s newly opened factory and showroom started with a tour of the new offices and bakery, and ended with a box full of gorgeous cookie to take home. Monaco has been baking up cookie art since 1994, starting out with a huge order and the front cover of the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Indeed, this is cookie art, with each cookie handcrafted by a team of cookie artists. Watching them work was fascinating. Several decorators quickly iced Easter egg cookies with a deft dunk, quick swirl and swipe with one finger to eliminate extra icing. Other decorators piped stars on flags, outlined star fish and sea horses, or added petals to pastel flowers.

Monaco Baking specializes in highly decorated cookies, cut from unique molds and then iced and decorated to perfection. Royal icing provides a rich flat surface in dazzling icing colors where cookie artists use their craft to embellish details, coloring in sections, placing dots, stars, eyes, buttons, and leaf outlines. The cookies are then allowed to dry, and finally tightly wrapped to retain freshness and protect the colorful creations for shipping. Over the past decade, the company has grown the cookie collection to include more than 5,000 artistic designs.

I had the privilege of getting to know and working with Monaco Baking when I was served as the senior buyer of gourmet foods for a specialty retail company. I worked closely with Stephanie Cigana, V.P. Product Development at Monaco, to develop seasonal cookies that matched our product themes and images. Stephanie is a talented designer with a great eye for detail and color. Philip Moreau, Monaco's President and Founder, handles the business side of things and has developed efficient systems for controlling the company’s inventory, operations and packaging functions. Philip also served as our tour guide on this trip!

Monaco’s cookies are available in several different flavors, including cinnamon sugar, vanilla, lemon zest, chocolate and classic gingerbread (other flavors are also available). The cookies range in size from about 6” tall to mini cookies, each about 1 ½”. The company also makes giant, oversized cookies for special occasions including a 3’ tall nutcracker.

And although during the peak of their season, the bakery produces more than 150,000 cookies a day, probably the products they are best known for are their unique holiday gingerbread creations, which includes everything from mini-gingerbread house Christmas tree ornaments to giant gingerbread mansions, as well as gingerbread trains, lighthouses, cottages of all shapes and sizes, and a scrumptious gingerbread bird's house.

Monaco has been baking cookies for major specialty retailers from their inception, including Martha Stewart, Harry and David, William-Sonoma, Starbucks and many more. The cookies are baked fresh daily, contain 0 grams of trans fat and are certified kosher. Not only are these cookies beautiful, they are also quite tasty. The dough is sweet, but not too sweet, and has a great crumbly, buttery texture. The biggest challenge for most folks is that they are almost too pretty to eat – but in the car on our drive home, we managed to overcome those challenges!

Monaco's products are available at many retail locations, including those listed above. Many of these specialty retailers also offer Monaco's incredible cookies on their websites as well. Cookies not only make a great gifts for every celebration, they also make great party favors and decorations for special events too! For a delicious selection of Monaco cookies, be sure and take a look at the retailers listed above. One of my favorite websites for cookies and other sweet treats is The site offers dozens of cookie assortments, to fit every price range and color preference, including this Baby Boy Blue collection. Prices for cookie assortments start as low as $19.99 with free shipping on select orders.

For more information regarding Monaco Baking and custom cookie collections, you can also check out their website,

Thursday, March 12, 2009

B’stillas - Moroccan Chicken and Almond Pies

This unusual first course features Morocco's signature spice blend - ras el hanout. Keep it on hand and use as a delicious spice rub for pork loin, chops, fish, shrimp and vegetables.

The traditional b'stilla is a very large savory pie, usually made with either pigeon or chicken. The pie includes numerous layers of golden paper-thin pastry leaves and features the signature spice blend for Moroccan cuisine – ras el hanout.

For home chefs wanting to make an easier to serve version, we’ve changed the traditional large pie into individual eggroll shaped pies. The origins of the B’stilla are rooted in Arabian cuisine, which often mixes meat with spices and then encases the savory filling in pastry. The delicate pastry sheets or phyllo dough, are believed to have originated in Persia. Spices play a big part in Moroccan cooking. This legendary spice mixture, ras el hanout, translates to "top of the shop." Each chef has his or her own version of this savory condiment.

For the almond sugar:
½ Cup Slivered Almonds, toasted lightly and cooled
3 Tbs. Sugar
1 tsp. Fresh Ground Cinnamon

For the filling:
¼ tsp. Saffron Threads, crumbled
2 Tbs. Hot Water
1 Medium Onion, chopped (about 1 ¼ cups)
2 Garlic Cloves, cut into thin slices
¾ Cup Unsalted Butter (1 ½ sticks)
¾ tsp. Ground Ginger
2 tsp. ras el hanout
½ tsp. Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 Whole Chicken (2 to 3 lbs.), cut into 8 pieces
1½ Cups Chicken Broth, preferable homemade, or at least low sodium
3 Large Eggs, beaten lightly
1/3 Cup Chopped Fresh Italian Parsley (leaves only)
3 Tbs. Chopped Fresh Cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
1 ½ Tbs. Fresh Lemon Juice, or to taste
18 Sheets (about 1 ½ packages) Phyllo

Garnish: Confectioners' Sugar and Cinnamon for sprinkling, additional ras el hanout

To make the almond sugar: In a food processor grind fine almonds, granulated sugar, and cinnamon. Almond sugar may be made 1 day ahead and kept covered in a cool dark place.

To make the filling: In small bowl combine saffron with hot water and let stand 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, sauté onion in 3 tablespoons butter over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden, about 4 minutes. Add in garlic slivers and cook for about one minute more.

Reduce heat to moderate and add ginger, ras el hanout and pepper. Cook mixture, stirring, 3 minutes.

Add chicken parts, chicken broth and saffron mixture. Bring mixture just up to a simmer, reduce heat to medium low and cover pan. Continue cooking, turning the chicken once, until chicken is very tender and cooked through, about 25 to 35 minutes. Let chicken stand in cooking liquid off heat 30 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate, reserving cooking liquid and solids.

When chicken is cool enough to handle, shred meat, discarding skin and bones. Measure reserved cooking liquid and solids and if necessary boil, stirring occasionally, until reduced to about 1 3/4 cups. Reduce heat to moderate and add eggs in a stream, whisking. Cook mixture, stirring, until eggs are set, about 3 minutes. Remove kettle from heat and pour egg mixture into a coarse sieve set over a bowl. Let mixture drain undisturbed 10 minutes before discarding liquid.

Transfer egg mixture to a bowl. Stir in chicken, parsley, cilantro, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and chill. Filling may be made 1 day ahead and kept chilled, covered.

Preheat oven to 425°F. and butter 2 large shallow baking pans.

In a small saucepan melt remaining unsalted butter (9 tablespoons) and keep warm but not hot. Cut phyllo sheets in half lengthwise and stack between 2 sheets wax paper. Cover wax paper sheets with a slightly damp kitchen towel. On a work surface arrange a half sheet of phyllo with short side facing you and brush with melted butter. Use a silicone basting brush if possible. Repeat process, layering 3 more half sheets of phyllo on top of the first layer, buttering each sheet.

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon almond sugar on short side of phyllo nearest you to cover about 2 ½” by 4” area, leaving a 1-inch border on 3 edges. Put 1/3 cup chicken mixture over almond sugar and spread out slightly. Top chicken mixture with 1 more tablespoon almond sugar and roll up filling in phyllo, folding in sides after first roll (similar to making a burrito or egg roll). Transfer b'stilla immediately to prepared buttered baking dishes, cover with wax paper and slightly damp kitchen towel. Place pan(s) in fridge while making additional rolls.

Form additional b'stillas with remaining phyllo, butter, almond sugar, and chicken mixture, chilling each b'stilla as it is made. B'stillas may be prepared up to this point 4 hours ahead and kept chilled, covered lightly with plastic wrap once cold.

Bake chilled b'stillas in oven until tops and ends are puffed and browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool b'stillas slightly on a rack. Sprinkle b'stillas with confectioners' sugar, additional ras el hanout and freshly grated cinnamon; serve warm.

Ras el hanout (Moroccan spice blend):
½ tsp. Aniseed
1 tsp. Fennel Seeds
8 Whole Allspice Berries
Seeds from 8 Cardamom Pods
8 Whole Cloves
15 Whole Black Peppercorns
1 Stick Cinnamon, broken in pieces
1 Tbs. Sesame Seeds
1 tsp. Coriander Seeds
½ tsp. Cumin Seeds
Pinch Dried Red Pepper Flakes
Pinch Ground Mace
1 Tbs. Ground Ginger
1 tsp. Freshly Ground Nutmeg

To make the ras el hanout:
In a spice grinder or cleaned coffee grinder grind fine aniseed, fennel seeds, allspice berries, cardamom seeds, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, sesame seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seed, and red pepper flakes, In a small bowl stir together ground spice mixture, mace, ginger, and nutmeg until combine well. Ras el hanout may be stored in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place up to 6 months. Makes about ¼ cup.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lesson 1 Equipment List

White Stock:
stock pot
Chef’s knife
cutting board
liquid measuring cups
fat skimmer
fine strainer or colander
cheesecloth and twine or Bouquet Garni Bags

Brown Stock:
roasting pan
liquid measuring cups
stock pot
fine strainer or colander
Chef’s knife
liquid measuring cups
Bouquet Garni Bags or cheesecloth and twine
cutting board
fat skimmer

Vegetable Stock:
roasting pan
liquid measuring cups
stock pot fine strainer or colander
cheesecloth and twine or Bouquet Garni Bags
Chef’s knife cutting board

Crème Olga: heavy large saucepan
food processor/blender/immersion blender
Chef’s knife
cutting board
liquid measuring cups
measuring spoons
wooden spoon
sauce or roux whisk
white pepper mill

French Onion
Soup: large saucepan or sauté pan
chopping board
Chef’s knife
Bread knife
wooden spoons
liquid measuring cups
measuring spoons
pepper mill
oven-proof serving bowls
baking sheet
cheese grater

Lesson 1 Ingredient List

White Stock
Onion Bay Leaf
Celery Peppercorns
Carrots Fresh Parsley Sprigs
Fresh Thyme Whole Chicken
Garlic Cloves Whole Cloves

Brown Stock
Onion Bay Leaf
Carrots Fresh Parsley
Celery Fresh Thyme
Leek Peppercorns
Beef Bones Garlic
Stew Meat Canola Oil

Vegetable Stock
Mushrooms Bay Leaf
Onions Fresh Parsley
Celery Fresh Thyme
Carrots Red Pepper Flakes
Garlic Tomatoes
Leek Red Potatoes

Crème Olga
Butter Salt & Ground White Pepper Crème Fraiche or Sour Cream Chicken or Vegetable Stock
Flour Cayenne Pepper
Green Onions Chives
Firm White Mushrooms

French Onion Soup
Yellow Onions Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper
Dried or Fresh Thyme Baguette Slices
Beef Stock Swiss and/or Gruyere Cheese
Unsalted Butter Dry Sherry or Cognac
Olive Oil

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cooking with Confidence Culinary Series

Confident Cooking with Allyson

In developing our confident cooking series almost nine years ago, we began with the simple premise – when you are confident in your cooking skills, you simply enjoy time spent in the kitchen more and achieve better results. Teaching folks the fundamentals of the culinary arts, gives them the ability to tackle just about any recipe and have fun doing it. I have long believed that great chefs need to have artistic skills, understanding of science, chemistry and math, and at the same time be curious, intuitive and always willing to innovate. In the nine years of teaching this program, sometimes as often as 4 times per week, I have had the privilege of working with more than 3,000 students, with all levels of culinary skills, helping them gain more confidence in their cooking.

To do this, we have broken down this technique based series into 10 segments. Each segment includes an overview of the specific technique, and several recipes that demonstrate the specific topic. Each segment was designed as a weekly demonstration class, with students completing homework based on the recipes presented. Starting with Stocks and Broths, each lesson is designed to introduce new, more challenging culinary techniques, building on the previous lessons and expanding the student’s knowledge of key culinary terms, cooking techniques, kitchen tools and ingredients. By understanding the technique, as well as the science behind the technique, students are then able to adapt recipes to their own personal tastes, or to cook from scratch without a recipe. The overriding premise is “there isn’t just one way to cook!”

Over the course of teaching this program, I have continued to refine the lesson plans, include new recipes, introduce new flavor profiles, and adapt the recipes to make them even easier to understand for students. I am excited to present this weekly series to fellow foodies, looking to gain more confidence in the kitchen. Each week, for the next ten weeks, I will publish a new lesson plan for you to read, enjoy, practice and share your results with your friends and family. I encourage you to try at least one recipe per week and then report on your efforts through posting a comment. At the end of the series, you will receive the Confident Cooking quiz to help you analyze which lesson plans you may need to review again.

I welcome your participation, discussions and additional recipes as part of an interactive culinary exchange. Let’s get cooking!

Confident Cooking with Allyson ©2000

Lesson 1: Soups, Stocks and Broths

White Stock - Brown Stock - Roasted Vegetable Stock - Crème Olga - French Onion Soup

When a recipe calls for broth or stock, many home chefs pull out a bouillon cube or canned. The end results are usually too salty and lack depth of flavor. Not many of us think we have time to make stock from scratch on a regular basis, yet making stock is one of the most cost-effective and most flavorful ways to enhance our favorite dishes. These days, it just makes sense to maximize all of our grocery purchases. The best part about stock, you can use many ingredients that would simply be thrown away – carrot tops, peels and bottoms, celery tops, onion skins, potato skins, poultry, pork and beef bones, parsley stems, mushroom stems, and vegetables or meats that simply would not look good on your plate. And it’s easy to keep a supply of these throw away ingredients on hand whenever you have time to simmer up a batch. Simply wash and pat dry any produce leftovers and place in a freezer bag. Be sure to date and list the ingredients on the outside of the bag and place in your freezer (freeze up to three months). You can use these ingredients in addition to other vegetables, fresh proteins, dried and fresh herbs and spices.

The stock recipes that follow include mostly whole vegetables and fresh protein; however you can use approximate measurements for any of your leftovers. A good rule of thumb is for every ¾ pound of protein, use 1 carrot, 1 stalk celery, 1 onion, 2 garlic cloves, 2 sprigs thyme and parsley, 4 black peppercorns, and about 6 cups cold water. Stocks freeze well, so you can always keep some on hand.

You can also make quick versions, using more concentrated quantities of ingredients and less water. Probably the most familiar quick broths used in home kitchens today are from simmering necks and innards from turkey, chicken or other poultry which is then used to make homemade gravy. Many home chefs will also cook poultry carcasses after roasting to make a batch of stock for homemade soups.

Making great stock is not difficult, yet takes time, patience and low heat. A good quality stock makes all recipes that much better by providing a delicious base on which to build additional flavor layers. As a base, it’s important not to include ingredients that have strong flavor profiles or you risk overwhelming the other ingredients. Stay away from vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cabbage, radishes, bitter greens and beets as a general rule.

A few other points to remember when making stock:

Never let it boil for more than a minute – bring it up to a boil and quickly reduce heat to allow it to simmer gently

Never cover the pot as this causes the steam to condense on the lid and then flow back into the stock, making it cloudy. Covering the pot also means less evaporation which is essential to making concentrated flavors.

Don’t stir the pot – this will only make the stock cloudy.

Don’t add salt to your stock – remember this is a base – season your finish dish, not the base or you risk over salting.

When making stock from a chicken or turkey carcass, a couple of other thoughts to consider:
1. Use the carcass quickly, without allowing it to get stale;
2. Don’t cook a carcass too long, or it can become strong and bitter;
3. Whenever possible, add a small amount of raw meat, such as veal, chicken or beef, and some uncooked marrow-filled bones to your stocks to provide more body and flavor.

One quick note on the differences between stocks and broths – most recipes call for one or the other, yet they can be used interchangeably. Older recipes generally call for stock, while newer recipes generally call for broth. The biggest difference noted in recipes are that broths generally call for meat and vegetables, while stock usually includes bones, as well as meat (sometimes) and vegetables.

Recipes for Lesson 1 include a white stock (can be poultry or red meat, but is made using un-roasted meats and vegetables, a brown stock (usually made with red meat, marrow bones and vegetables, roasted in the oven first), a roasted vegetable stock – technically a brown broth since it is roasted and does not include bones.

For occasions when a small quantity of stock is called for in a soup recipe, use the following oven roasted brown stock recipe.

Simple Oven Brown Stock:

¾ lb. stew meat or chicken (breasts, thighs, tenders), cut in 1” pieces
1 carrots, cut in 2” pieces
1 stalks celery, cut in 2” pieces
1 medium onion, cut in half, not peeled
1 tomato, cut into quarters
1 cloves garlic, smashed with back of a knife
1 Tbs. Canola Oil
2 sprigs each parsley, thyme
1 bay leaf
4 black peppercorns
6 cups cold water

Preheat oven to 375° F. Place all meat, vegetables and garlic in bottom of Dutch oven or roasting pan. Drizzle canola oil over top and toss with a spoon to distribute well. Place pan in oven and roast for approximately 20 minutes. Remove pan from oven, add in water, herbs and spices. Return pan to oven and bring mixture up to a simmer. Use a spoon to skim off impurities and fat that rise to the top. Reduce heat to 250° F, and continue to cook for about an hour. Remove stock from oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve. Yield is approximately 5 cups of clear stock.

Lesson 1 Recipes - White Chicken Stock

Makes approximately 3 quarts.

One whole chicken (about 3 to 4 lbs.), cut into quarters with poultry shears and/or cleaver
2 medium onions, cut into quarters, skin left in tact
2 stalks celery, washed, cut into 1” pieces
2 carrots, washed but not peeled, cut into 1” pieces
3 ½ quarts cold water
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme,
4 sprigs parsley, stems included
2 whole cloves
8 black peppercorns

Place chicken in bottom of tall-sided, heavy-bottomed stockpot. Add mirepoix (onion, celery, and carrots) of vegetables to pan. Add in garlic. Place bay leaf, fresh herbs, cloves and peppercorns on a small piece of cheesecloth and tie into a neat bundle using kitchen twine. Alternatively, you can use a bouquet garni bag, reusable tea bag, or large tea infuser to hold the herbs as well. Place herb bundle on top of vegetable and add in cold water.

This specific combination of herbs and spices, tied into a little bundle is called bouquet garni in France. Securing the herbs and spices makes it easy to retrieve after cooking and helps keep your stock clear. It’s not necessary to keep your herbs in a little bundle as you will be straining your finished stock, but many chefs feel that it does create a clearer stock.

Place pan over medium heat and bring mixture just up to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Skim off any foam or impurities that rise to the surface. Allow to simmer for 2 to 3 hours, skimming surface as often as necessary. Be sure to keep water level above bones.


Turn off heat and let pan sit for a couple of minutes to allow stock to settle. Using a chinois (China cap strainer), double fine mesh strainer, or colander lined with cheese cloth, carefully strain the liquid into a clean container. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight. The next day the fat will have solidified and be easy to remove. Store in refrigerator for up to one week, or in freezer for up to six months.

Lesson 1 Recipes - Brown Beef Stock

Makes approximately 3 ½ quarts.

2 onions, cut into quarters, skin left on
2 carrots, washed but not peeled, cut into 2” pieces
2 stalks celery, washed, cut into 2” pieces
1 leek, sliced lengthwise, washed thoroughly
2 medium tomatoes, quartered
5 lbs. beef marrow bones (ask your butcher)
2 Tbs. canola oil
3 lbs. beef stew meat, cut into 2” pieces
4 quarts cold water
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme,
4 sprigs parsley, stems included
2 whole cloves
8 black peppercorns

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place bones in large roasting pan. Drizzle canola oil over bones and toss to coat. Roast bones for about 20 minutes, or until browned. Add stew meat, mirepoix (carrots, onion and celery), leek, tomatoes, and garlic. Continue to roast for another 20 minutes, or until vegetables have browned. Remove pan from oven. With slotted spoon, remove bones, meat, and vegetables from roasting pan and transfer to large, heavy-bottomed stockpot.

Deglaze roasting pan by adding one cup of water and stirring over low heat until all brown bits (fond) loosen and dissolve. Pour water and juices from roasting pan into stockpot. Add in bouquet garni or loose herbs and spices. Pour remaining cold water into stockpot and place pan over medium heat. Bring mixture just up to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for at least of 4 hours, and as long as 8 hours, skimming off impurities as necessary.

Strain stock into clean container and discard solids. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate up to one week, or in freeze for up to six months.

Lesson 1 Recipes - Roasted Vegetable Stock

Makes approximately 2 quarts.

½ lb. crimini mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed
2 large yellow onions, cut into quarters, skins left on
1 leek, sliced lengthwise and washed thoroughly, cut into 2” pieces
2 carrots, washed but not peeled, cut into 2” pieces
2 stalks celery, washed, cut into 2” pieces
2 medium red potatoes, scrubbed, cut in half, skin left on
3 medium tomatoes cut in half
2 Tbs. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
10 cups cold water
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs parsley, stems included
2 whole cloves
6 black peppercorns
Pinch of red pepper flakes

Place vegetables into large roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, mix to coat well. Roast for approximately 50 minutes, or until vegetables have browned (caramelized) and softened. Add garlic and roast for 15 additional minutes.

Remove roasting pan from oven. Transfer vegetables to stockpot. Deglaze roasting pan with one cup of water, and pour liquid over vegetables in stockpot. Add remaining water, pepper flakes and
bouquet garni or loose herbs and spices. Bring mixture to a boil over medium heat, reduce heat to low and allow mixture to simmer for 30 minutes.

Cool slightly before straining, then continue to cool until room temperature. Use immediately, refrigerate or freeze.

Five cups of vegetables to six cups of water, generally yields four to five cups of stock.

Other Vegetables: You can also add corn, squash, parsnips, other types of mushrooms. Vegetables to avoid include those in the cabbage family, eggplant and most strong greens.

Lesson 1 Recipes - Crème Olga Mushroom Soup

A delicate white soup with fresh mushrooms. Serves approximately 4.

5 Tbs. butter
¾ cup chopped green onions, white and light green parts only
4 Tbs. flour
5 cups stock (chicken or vegetable), kept warm
½ cup crème fraiche (or sour cream), + more for garnish
1½ cups white button mushrooms, brushed clean and trimmed
salt and fresh ground white pepper, to taste
pinch of cayenne pepper
Fresh chives, for garnish

Melt butter in heavy saucepan or saucier over medium-low heat. Add green onions to pan, stir until well coated with butter. Allow onions to cook for about 5 minutes, or until softened and slightly translucent.

Stir in flour, making a roux (equal parts fat and flour cooked together to create a thickening agent for sauces, soups and stews). Cook butter and flour over medium heat until mixture gives off a nutty aroma, approximately 2 to 3 minutes. This is called cooking out the flour and eliminates the unpleasant raw flour taste.

Begin adding stock to saucepan, whisking constantly as stock is added, adding a little at a time until all has been added. Bring mixture just up to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer for 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne.

Meanwhile, slice about ¾ of the mushrooms and add these to the simmering stock. Using an immersion blender, lightly puree the mushroom mixture until the desired consistency is reached. Some like to leave it fairly chunky, while others prefer a smoother puree.

If you don’t have an immersion blender, add the sliced mushrooms to the bowl of a food processor or to a blender. Using a ladle, add about 2 cups of the hot stock mixture to the food processor or blender. Be careful to secure the lid firmly and to not overload the amount of hot liquid in either the blender or food processor. Pulse until desire consistency is reached. Return pureed mushrooms to saucepan with remaining stock mixture.

Lesson 1 Recipes - Classic French Onion Soup

Serves approximately 6.

2 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 Tbs. olive oil
4 large yellow onions (not sweet onions), skins removed, cut in half, root to tip, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. dried thyme or 2 Tbs. fresh thyme
8 cups homemade beef stock (kept warm)
¼ cup dry sherry or red wine (optional)
1½ tsp. kosher salt
¾ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
12 slices of baguette, approximately 1/3” thick
1 cup grated gruyere cheese

Melt butter in large soup pot set over medium heat. Add olive oil and allow to heat through. Add onions and cook slowly over medium heat until onions soften and begin to turn golden, about 35 minutes, stirring frequently.

Reduce heat and add thyme. Continue cooking, stirring often, until onions have turned a rich golden brown, about 10 minutes more. When onions have caramelized, deglaze pan with sherry or wine. Increase heat and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until alcohol has cooked off, about 3 minutes.

Next, ladle in beef stock and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and allow soup to simmer for approximately 15 to 20 minutes more. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Top soup with toasted baguette slices and Gruyere cheese. If serving in ovenproof bowls, place soup under broiler to melt cheese, about 5 minutes. Or, you can place baguette slices on a silpat or parchment paper lined cookie sheet. Preheat oven to 450°F. Sprinkle baguette slices with grated gruyere and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until cheese begins to brown.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Brunch is Beautiful

Spring is just around the corner, which means its the perfect time to invite friends and family over for a weekend brunch. Somehow brunch seems lazily indulgent and conjures up thoughts of romantic B&B's and spring holiday celebrations. Here's the most indulgent recipe in my brunch repetoire - hope you enjoy!!

Baked French Toast with Bananas Foster
Serves 8 to 10.

½ Cup (1 stick) Unsalted Butter + more for baking dish
1 Cup Packed Brown Sugar
2 Tbs. Corn Syrup
One 12” Loaf Sour Dough Bread, preferably day old
8 Large Eggs
1 ¼ Cups Half and Half
¾ Cup Heavy Cream
3 Tbs. Sugar
¼ tsp. Fresh Grated Nutmeg
½ tsp. Ground Cinnamon
1 tsp. Vanilla Paste or Vanilla Extract
1 tsp. Banana Liqueur
¼ tsp. Kosher Salt

In a small heavy saucepan melt butter with butter with brown sugar and corn syrup over moderate heat, stirring, until smooth. Pour into buttered baking dish.

Cut bread in ¾” thick slices from center portion of bread, reserving ends for another use. Trim crusts from slices. Arrange bread slices in one layer in baking dish, squeezing them slightly to fit.

In a bowl whisk together eggs, half and half, cream, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla paste, liqueur and salt until combined well. Pour evenly over bread. Chill bread mixture, covered, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cover with pan with foil. Bake bread mixture, in middle of oven until puffed and just set, about 35 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook for about ten minutes more, or until edges are light golden brown.

Remove pan from oven, let cool slightly. Run a knife around the edges of the pan. Cut into squares, and remove to platter. Turn squares upside down, so caramel sauce is on top. Spoon Bananas Foster (recipe follows) over top and serve.

Bananas Foster

4 Firm Bananas, peeled
2 Tbs. Unsalted Butter
3 Tbs. Brown Sugar
¼ tsp. Ground Cinnamon
1/8 tsp. Ground Nutmeg
½ Cup Dark Rum
1 Tbs. Banana Liqueur

Cut bananas into diagonal slices, about ¾” thick and about 2” long. In a small bowl, mix together brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside.

Heat a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add in butter and swirl until melted and just begins to bubble along the edges. Place bananas in skillet and cook over medium heat for about five minutes. Turn bananas carefully, using a spatula and cook for an additional 5 minutes, or just until fork tender (do not overcook). Sprinkle brown sugar mixture over the top of the bananas. Transfer bananas to a warmed dish.

Remove pan from heat and pour in rum and banana liqueur. Return pan to heat and scrape caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan with the spatula. Using a long match or lighter, carefully ignite liqueur, swirl pan, then pour over bananas. Pour bananas over French toast squares and serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Perfect Roast Chicken

The perfume lingers, even after all the dishes have been washed and put away. That emotionally loaded scent of rosemary, lemon, garlic and blistering chicken skin is enough to tear children away from video games and husbands away from the Golf Channel. There is truly no more comforting aroma on a cold, wet Sunday. Perfect roast chicken is as revered today as it was for our ancestors, where roasting was accomplished with a spit and open fire. Although the preparation is incredibly simple, the results are truly rewarding. And, with a little advance planning and shopping, you can cook one day and have enough leftovers to make additional dishes later in the week, saving you time and money!

The ingredient list can be modified to whatever you have on hand. Start with a young roasting or frying chicken. About 3 lbs. is a great size for a family of four for one meal with some leftovers. Look for weekly specials in your newspaper or online to determine which store has the best buy. Look for non-processed birds whenever possible (those that aren’t processed with a saline solution). Always check the sell by date to determine which is freshest. Also, think about picking up two birds and roasting them together. That way, you’ll have more leftovers to make chicken salad, burritos, pasta dishes, soups, stocks and more. You can freeze the extra meat and carcass if you can’t use it within about three days.

The remaining ingredients are more of a guideline, use what herbs, spices and aromatic stuffing items you have on hand. Plan on about 2 Tbs. of salt, pepper, dried herbs and spices per bird. Use a combination of Kosher, coarse sea salt (a good smoked salt is also a nice twist), black pepper, white pepper, red pepper, green pepper, smoky paprika, dried herbs (rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, sage), granulated garlic or garlic powder, and other spices such as coriander, cumin, fennel or Chinese 5, 10 or 12 spice. You’ll need 4 Tbs. of melted unsalted butter, olive oil, or combination (not necessary, but always makes the skin nice and golden brown and crispy!!). You can also add aromatics for stuffing inside the cavity if you wish, including onions, garlic, lemons, oranges, fresh herbs (same as the dried herbs), and ingredients such as cinnamon sticks, peppers, tea, kaffir lime leaves, ginger and star anise.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees, place rack on lower third of oven. Rinse the chicken inside and out, pat dry with paper towels. Place a rack into a roasting pan. Sprinkle chicken liberally with salt mixture top and bottom, inside and out, pat lightly to make sure it sticks. Place chicken on rack, stuff with aromatics, drizzle with butter and place pan in the oven. After 20 minutes, add water, beer, white wine, or combination to the bottom of the pan (keeps drippings from burning). Don’t add liquid if the bird is not on a rack or elevated. Roast for total of 75 minutes for one 3 lb. bird, and up to 1 hour and 35 minutes for two. Check using a thermometer, placed in the thickest part of the thigh (temperature should be approximately 180 degrees, allowing for carry over cooking to ensure that it reaches 185 degrees). Remove pan from oven, and let rest for at least ten minutes before carving.

Simply delicious and incredibly satisfying for all. The best part is that the aroma lasts long after dinner, inspiring happy dreams of family, food and friends.

Sun-dried Tomato and Black Olive Tapenade

Perfect for impromptu parties, this tangy tapenade is beautifully simple and yummy. Even better the next day, after flavors have had a chance to marry.

Sun Dried Tomato and Black Olive Tapenade

½ Cup Sun-dried Tomatoes (not oil packed), roughly chopped,
½ Cup Black Olives (preferably Kalamata), pitted, roughly chopped
¼ Cup Good Balsamic Vinegar
¼ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tbs. Garlic, minced
1 ½ Tbs. Fresh Oregano Leaves, chopped

½ tsp. Kosher Salt
½ tsp. Freshly Ground Black Pepper

1 Baguette, sliced at a slight angle to create oval shaped piece, about ½” thick
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Feta and Additional Fresh Oregano for garnish

Combine all ingredients except fresh oregano in bowl of food processor. Pulse quickly, two or three times to mix ingredients. It’s best to leave mixture rough and chunky. Remove from food processor, add in oregano and season with salt and pepper. Let sit and marinate for at least an hour at room temperature.

Place baguette slices on cookie sheet, and brush both sides with olive oil. Bake baguette slices in 400 degree oven until lightly golden and crisped. Remove pan from oven and place baguette slices on serving platter. Place a heaping teaspoon of the tapenade in center of baguette slices. Sprinkle with feta and additional oregano sprigs and serve.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Big Red Envelopes

In the early 1990’s, I was looking for a job in my chosen field of advertising and marketing. It was a different process then than it is today. Instead of job searching on the internet and emailing resumes both near and far, we had to search the old fashioned way – pouring over newspaper classifieds, reviewing the ads in the back of our trade magazines, talking to friends, former clients, colleagues, and pounding the pavement.

My background had given me unique skills and experiences that matched a number of different jobs. In looking through Ad Week, one of the industry’s leading trade publications, I found two jobs that were a perfect match for my qualifications. One position listed was for the Director of Account Service for a full-service ad agency, and the other that intrigued me was for a Public Relations Director position. Neither listed the name or location for the company, and each had a P.O. Box for the response address.

At the time, I knew I wanted my resume and cover letter to stand out from the others. This was after all, advertising, and presentation is as important as substance.

I did not have much money. I owned a home computer, a printer, and that was about it. For the next couple of hours, I cleaned up my resume and created two different versions – each highlighting the experiences that were suited to the specific position.

And, I wrote two completely different cover letters. For the account service position, I highlighted my 5+ years of advertising account management. For the public relations position, I wrote of how in third grade, I began my career by writing and illustrating children’s books, and creating the scripts for our class plays. I printed each resume and cover letter on nice, professional looking paper and then tucked them into two bright red catalog envelopes.

I knew that these giant red envelopes would definitely stand out from the rest of the mail when delivered by the postman. My hope was that these bright envelopes would intrigue someone to at least open them. So I crossed my fingers, handwrote the addresses, stuck on the stamps, and placed them in the post office box.

About a week later, I received a phone call. Turns out both positions were with the same company. The agency’s president called to talk to me about my qualifications and to set up an interview. In the phone call, he asked why I selected the big red envelopes. He also told me that my plan had almost backfired. The envelopes were so unconventional that he almost threw them away without opening them. I told him that the envelopes represented my desire to stand out from the crowd and inspire a little intrigue and mystery.

He was impressed. And I was hired for both positions.

Turns out those red envelopes truly changed my life. I went to work for the agency in Southern California and the man who opened those red envelopes so long ago, is today my husband, Steve.

The red envelope principle continues to guide me in the kitchen as I prepare recipes for friends and family. It has long been said that we enjoy food with our eyes first, our nose second, and our taste buds last. Food that is memorable is not only delicious, but also beautiful and artistic, satisfying and mysterious, exotic and comforting. Standout dishes do not have to be complicated, and often require little more than using the best ingredients to create a symphonic marriage of flavors to entice and enchant. Recipes and foods that provide a little mystery, hint at what’s inside, and then deliver surprising flavor are always on my list of favorites.

Dishes that are bright on color and flavor also seem to have more of an emotional punch, especially during the winter and early spring. After seeing so many grey skies, the colors on our plates help remind us that warmer days are just around the corner. One of my favorite meals this time of year is a hearty bowl of flavorful minestrone with its rich red kidney beans, bright orange carrots, green skinned zucchini, and chunks of stewed tomatoes. The flavors are rich, yet comforting, and by throwing in the rinds of parmesan, or sautéing a little pancetta in the beginning, I can provide a little mystery with a unique earthiness and texture.

Another soup I love to make during this time of year is my Smoky Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup, served with a little crème fraiche and chives on top and cheese toast on the side. It’s simple yet complex, and the addition of a smoky paprika is exotic, providing mystery and intrigue. And its bright red color reminds me of a couple of red envelopes that changed my life more than 15 years ago.

To make the soup even more delicious, be sure and use great ingredients. In the winter, canned San Marzano Tomatoes make this dish a knockout. You can also try smoking the tomatoes and peppers in a stove top smoker or on the grill. Smoking and roasting vegetables is a great way to preserve your summer bounty of extra tomatoes, simply smoke or roast them as indicated in the recipe and freeze them in freezer containers until you’re ready to whip up a batch of soup or pasta sauce.

For the cheese toast, I like to use parmesan, gruyere or a combination. You can also use cheddar, jack, or any cheese that you may like, including crumbled blue cheese.

Hope you enjoy!

Smoky Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup
Makes 4 to 6 servings.

4 Red Bell Peppers, quartered and seeded (or 1 can roasted red peppers, drained)
2 lbs. Roma Tomatoes, cut in half
(or two 28 oz. cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained, juice reserved)
2 Medium Yellow Onions, cut in half root to tip, peeled, cut into ½” thick slices
4 Large Cloves Garlic, smashed
3 Tbs. Olive Oil
½ tsp. Ground Coriander
1 tsp. Dried Thyme
1 Cup Chicken or Vegetable Stock (or tomato reserved tomato juice)
1 Whole Carrot, peeled, ends removed, cut into 2” lengths
¾ tsp. Smoky Paprika
¼ Cup Heavy Cream (optional)
2 tsp. Fresh Lemon Juice (to taste)
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste

Minced Chives and Crème Fraîche, for garnish

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place peppers, tomatoes and onions in large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat lightly. Turn vegetables into large roasting pan or rimmed cookie sheet and roast for about 20 minutes, or until edges of tomatoes and peppers begin to char. Stir vegetables, turn pan and roast for 15 minutes more. Add in garlic, sprinkle with coriander and thyme and continue to roast for about 15 minutes more. Remove pan from oven and let cool until vegetables are cool enough to handle. Remove as much of the charred skins from bell pepper and tomatoes if possible and discard skins.

Turn vegetables and any of the accumulated juices into a medium sauce pan or stockpot. Add in carrot pieces and stock or tomato juice. Bring mixture up to a simmer and add in smoky paprika. Simmer vegetables until very tender and when the carrot is soft enough to be pierced by a fork.

Remove pan from heat and use a fork to remove the carrot pieces from the soup. Using an immersion blender, food processor, or traditional blender, purée mixture until desired chunkiness (sometime I leave this fairly chunky and other times, I will puree longer for a smoother texture). Taste for acidity. If the tomatoes and carrot were very sweet, you can add as much of the lemon juice as you would like to balance out the flavors. You can also add additional smoky paprika, or cayenne pepper to adjust the flavors and heat to your liking. Just remember to add only a little as the flavors will concentrate over time.

I also like to punch up the flavor with a special salt, such as a Smoked Sea Salt, or Truffle Salt.

Return pan to the stove and bring mixture just up to a simmer. Add in cream if desired and stir until combined. Taste for seasoning again. Remove from heat, ladle into serving bowls and top with a dollop of crème faîche and some minced chives. Soup is even better the next day.

To smoke tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic:
Smoking tomatoes and peppers can be done using a stovetop smoker and smoking chips on your stove. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions and soak wood chips in water at least 20 minutes before smoking. Follow directions above and coat vegetables with olive oil. Place tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic on stovetop smoker food rack and cover with lid. Smoke over medium heat until smoke is released from pan, reduce heat slightly and smoke for about 10 to 14 minutes, or until tomato and bell pepper skins begin to split. Remove pan from heat and let vegetables remain in covered pan for at least 10 more minutes or until vegetables are cool enough to handle. Remove and discard skins from tomatoes and bell peppers. Place in sauce pan or stock pot as directed above and continue with remaining recipe instructions.

You can also smoke vegetables using your outdoor grill. You will need a vegetable grate, aluminum foil and smoking chips. Soak chips again in water for at least 20 minutes before turning on your grill. Prepare grill and let preheat until medium hot. Follow directions above and coat vegetables with olive oil. Place tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic on vegetable rack placed over grill, but not over direct flame. Place soaked wood chips in foil creating a small pouch with the foil and leaving the top open to release smoke. Place foil packet in bottom of grill, away from direct heat as well. Close grill lid and smoke vegetables for about 10 to 14 minutes, or until tomato and bell pepper skins begin to split. Turn off gas grill or remove vegetables to upper or side rack on wood burning grill. Keep lid closed for 10 more minutes. Remove vegetables and allow to rest until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard skins from tomatoes and bell peppers. Place in sauce pan or stock pot as directed above and continue with remaining recipe instructions.