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.