Blog - Playing with Food

Valentines - guys like it too, especially if it's a cookie

For years I struggled with what to give a guy for Valentine's Day. I don't think only women should get a card or gift - love isn't a one way street and giving Valentine's gifts shouldn't be either. But finding the right thing to give a guy is a real challenge. Everything Valentine seems to be geared toward women, and the few items you'll find for a man seem to be more of a joke gift.

So after years of serious research into what people really want I've come up with a perfect solution: cookies. Yes, cookies. Everyone loves cookies. When they're rich, delicious and beautifully decorated they are simply perfect bits of joy. Men, women, and kids love them. And unlike a stale box of grocery store chocolates, there is never a lone cookie left on a plate. 

Now about that research.... basically it comes down to watching thousands of people make selections from an appetizer buffet. Virtually every time a guy will go for a cookie over any other sweet. Why? They're incredibly snackable, portable and not messy. They might bring up happy childhood memories of fresh baked cookies. They look good, taste good and go with everything from coffee to champagne. Got milk?

Cookies do double duty - they're yummy and they can be iced with a name to customize them or even a short message. In fact I think nothing says "I love you" like a great dark chocolate cookie, especially if it's personalized in icing. 

My favorite cookies are shaped cookies. They're just fun. A round cookie is, well, just round. Shaped cookies are symbols of the season, they are whimsical and can be decorated in a thousand ways. Cookies are perfect for Valentines. I've been making heart-shaped cookies for weeks now, they're Edmund's favorites. And I'll be making plenty for Valentine orders... I just have to make extras to keep Edmund stocked in cookies. 

Equinox Picnic

Veggie Hero Sandwiches

There is something magical about the approach of the Equinox. Day and night are evening out and I'm scrambling to capture as much of the last of the summer produce as I can. The huge harvest of tomatoes this year has been captured in dried tomatoes and chutneys we'll use throughout the year to bring a bit of summer back into our recipes. I am restraining myself from picking the beautiful gourds and pumpkins just yet, but these harbingers of fall will be used in soups and side dishes for fall dinners.

For a few days everything in the farms and gardens is in a perfect balance and harmony. The scorching heat of June, July and August is past, and the rains have yet to come. It's a perfect time for a picnic. Today I'll gather up some of the produce from my own garden and make Veggie Hero Sandwiches, pack a bottle of wine, and go to Sauvie Island for such a picnic. We'll stop at my favorite farm and select from the enormous bins of crisp apples and pears and the picnic will be complete.

Enjoy the summer while it lasts, and embrace autumn when it comes. There is something wonderful in the foods of each season - and we'll bring it to you in our menus throughout the year.

Just peachy

peach daquiri on the porch - pure summer!

I use local farms for fruits and veggies for Exuberance whenever possible. When things are in high season it's incomparable to get produce that was picked THAT MORNING. A tomato off the vine tastes like candy. Peaches off the tree taste like... well, not like the peaches lots of us (including me) grew up with those scary yellow crescents in a can. From a tree they taste like August, all sweet and fresh and warm and luscious.

We've been doing peach daquiris, peach cobbler, peach pie, peach salsa and just about anything else you can think of for the past month. Haven't gotten tired of them yet! I have managed to set aside in the freezer a few pounds of peaches that I'll whip out when it is cold and dreary. It will be like instant August.

At my house I have a small peach tree, it produces just enough for Edmund and I to gorge ourselves on whatever peach-related food I can come up with. Edmund's a great tester - being a vegetarian he's tried nearly every fruit-veggie combination out there and relishes fresh foods.

Relish... yes! Perhaps I should go into the kitchen now and make a peach relish for a nice pork roast. (And for Edmund I'll top a Field Roast with it). Everything's just peachy.

Spring Fling

Spring produce is my favorite. It's not the most plentiful, colorful or unusual, but it is the FIRST produce of the year and that makes it special.

Asparagus. Strawberries. Rhubarb. 

At the markets I'm always horrified to see people actually buying under ripe tomatoes. Grown somewhere far away and picked green they actually don't resemble a real tomato very much at all. A real tomato won't arrive until summer. But people do it and I wonder: "Why bother?"

Produce that's local, fresh and organic tastes like produce SHOULD taste. Ever had a strawberry right off the vine? You know what I'm talking about. I still can conjure up the scent and the sight of the huge strawberry fields I picked as a kid (before child labor laws...) all summer. We'd pick in the hot sun and when a berry would feel too soft, I'd eat it. I didn't make a lot of money picking berries but I learned the enormous difference between a local berry and something trucked in from California.

Right now we're having a freakishly warm spring and yes, the strawberries are coming on. The rhubarb is sending out enormous leaves and bright red stalks. Soon i will introduce the berries tot he stalks and we'll have one of the finest creations there is: good old fashioned strawberry-rhubarb pie. It's my spring fling. I can still remember cutting stalks of fresh rhubarb and dipping the end into sugar then eating it. I can smell the strawberries. Yep. It's time for spring. 

Do yourself a favor: plant strawberries, even if you only have a small pot on a shelf in a crowded apartment. When they are ripe and the sun hits them, look at the glistening shiny red and breathe in the sweet, perfect scent. Then eat it and create a memory of your own.

Vegetarians and Vegans, Oh My!

I'm married to a vegetarian. While he was raised on a farm in rural England and ate the traditional (and appallingly boring) English foods, most of which were animal-based, Edmund opted to become a vegetarian many years ago because he so loves animals and can't bear to harm them. He puts up with me being an omnivore.  

From him, I've learned two important things about vegetarianism and veganism: 1) Vegetarians and vegans are very passionate about their beliefs 2) most vegetarian and vegan food isn't creative or tasty. Seriously, how many veggie lasagnas can you tolerate? 

I take pride in making all my food beautiful, delicious and, yes, exuberant. The Vs included. It's now annoying to me to go to the finest restaurants in Portland, a super foodie town, and find only "wedge of iceberg with bleu cheese" for a vegetarian option and "field greens with vinaigrette" for a vegan option. Really? 

When I try new recipes I experiment on Edmund. He is subjected to four to seven versions of a vegetarian dish before I deem it Exuberant and it find its way onto a menu. When he wanders throughout the house in the evenings I have a flock of spoons (do spoons actually flock or just nestle?) at the ready and shove spoonfuls of sauce, side dish and entree at him. "Taste this". "What is it?" "Dinner and maybe a menu item". "What am I tasting for?" "Texture, seasoning and the sauce". And so it goes for a half dozen passes through the house - there's a reason my kitchen is smack dab in the middle of everything, I can snag a taster quite easily.

A couple of years ago I did several large vegan functions. When I asked what they wanted for dessert I got a bunch of blank stares. "Fruit I guess. Maybe sorbet". I couldn't stop myself. My response was something like "You're kidding, right? You don't want something your guests will remember and talk about for months to come?" More stares. Apparently vegan desserts in quantity are quite boring. I came up with a stunning dark chocolate "basket" carefully shaped in an intricate weave and filled with tofu chocolate mousse, then topped with fresh berries. Since I hate tofu, it means a lot when I say that was a really great mousse. It took seven tries and about 22 spoons shoved at my (very happily willing) spouse to make ti Exuberant. The next year I made a vegan lemon coconut mini bundt cakes. They were so pretty, tasty and moist that I made a bunch to keep back for my own parties and each time my guests were shocked that they were vegan pastries.

This week's creation is a Jasmine Rice Salad with fresh ginger dressing. Give it a try, it's a wonderful cold salad that is perfect for the warmer weather.. Here's the secret ingredient: jasmine tea. Recipe below is for eight side servings or four dinner servings.

Boil four cups water for tea, add jasmine blossom tea, steep until strong. 

Cook two cups jasmine rice (no other rice will do here) in the tea, add 2 tsp of salt. Let cool.

Add your favorite chopped veggies. I use very thinly sliced carrots and peas because they're bright, beautiful and tasty. I use about two cups each for lots of veggie power but you can do just one cup each.

The ginger dressing took five spoon tests but it's GOOD. 

2.3 cup vegetable oil, 1/3 cup sesame oil, 1/4 to 1/3 cup rice wine vinegar. Add three tablespoons very finely diced fresh ginger, salt and pepper to taste. Let the flavors marinade before dressing the salad. Toss to coat the rice, chill or serve at room temperature.

One of the great things about this salad is that it has very little salt compared to most dressings. It's gluten free and vegan. Did you know soy sauce had gluten in it? Yeah. With this dressing you won't miss the salty brine of soy sauce. With this salad you won't feel deprived if  you're a carnivore. 

 

The good stuff

Funny month, March. Usually it's windy, wet and cold but this year it was unexpectedly warm. It's frustrating to look out at the lovely weather and know I still have to put away St. Patrick's Day decorations that have been languishing in their storage boxes in the attic when I'd much rather be outside prodding the nascent radishes.

The first blush of locally-produced spring produce is still far away. I plant lots of peas, radishes, carrots, garlic and herbs partly because I do my test recipes at home and need only small amounts and partly because I want to know when the good stuff - locally produced - is ready to eat. I buy most of my produce from Sauvie Island farmers where the lovely river silt soil makes things grow incredibly well. But it's a much shorter trek to go out to the backyard than drive over the bridge.

What difference does organic make? I'll be honest, I don't think most of us can tell organic from chemically-treated produce in a taste test. And to look at them organic foods tend to be smaller and lumpy; organic heirloom produce is even quirkier. Where the difference comes in is in knowing that you're being kind to the earth when you raise, buy or eat organic produce. Compost vs. chemicals went into the plants which then goes into you. 

I am vaguely obsessed with compost. I have master compost-makers living with me, three house rabbits. Their hay-filled litter boxes are added to the verge and weeds of the compost pile and make a fantastic soil. I actually look forward to turning the compost and revealing the perfect, dark brown, moisture laden, worm-filled and chemical free soil and adding it to my garden. I have flowers that are insanely large and colorful, veggies that are bright and crisp (if somewhat lumpy) and fruits that are abundant and beautiful (although the birds get 99% of the cherries).

For some, spring is a time to clean or to get a fake tan or to go on vacation. Me, it's time to prod the little radish starts, look for one more cranny into which I can fit a plant, and most joyously of all, turn the compost.

Family feuds and foods

Holidays bring out the best and worst in families. Mine is no exception. My family comes straight out of Central Casting, each of us having created our own caricature of ourselves... or something Dickens would have cast.

In my family I'm usually the black sheep until my brother remarries (again). The current sister-in-law is so far the worst of my brother's collective of four marriages. So the holidays are going to be either extremely frosty or firey, depending upon if She shows up. 

Thanksgiving is the one holiday I don't do at my house... a hazard of being a caterer. However, I happily show up and enjoy my younger sister's fabulous cuisine. She married an excellent cook and their children (now grown) are all wonderful cooks. It's a wildly eclectic dinner featuring usually only one familiar dish - roast turkey. I really enjoy going to dinner at their house.

However, my sister's Central Casting role is the Perennial Optimist. She is the epitome of kindness, so much so we usually add the moniker "saint" before her first name. And my sister the saint has invited our brother and the current sister-in-law (the harpie) to dinner. Oh, joy.

So knowing this could be a fractious family feast I've started to look for foods that will require a lot of chewing - so I can keep my mouth occupied instead of biting my tongue constantly in the presence of the Harpie.  Quinoa comes to mind. It's chewy, especially with some dried apricots in a Turkish style dish. Okay, so not overly "American" but very nice.

And I am going to try to be nice on Thanksgiving. I'll chew slowly and sit near the turkey so I can throw the drumstick at the sister-in-law if necessary. I mean... should the drumstick slip from my hand in an unfortunate accident while reaching for the cranberry sauce.

Ahh, the joys of family gatherings. And if you would like your Thanksgiving feast catered give me a call. I wouldn't mind making a slightly late appearance at my sister's house.

Being a kid

One of the fun things about catering is that it is, actually, fun. One of the benefits of hiring a good caterer is that the host can enjoy their own party. And sometimes the caterer is also the host.

Every Hallowe'en I throw a lavish party. It's my favorite holiday and because there are no real expectations beyond trick-or-treaters you can have a great deal of fun. Personally, I love super hero things. It goes beyond the cape and boots (although that's a great start) it's about saving the  world with style.

This Hallowe'en the theme was - you guessed it - super heroes. From my vast collections of decorations I brought out my super hero stuff. Check out the fun!

Secret Weapons - Super Condiments

To me the real difference between a basic, boring sandwich or salad and a really great one are the condiments - the secret weapons of creating great cuisine.

One of my favorites is Shallot Jam It works on sandwiches, salads, eggs, and just about anything else that needs a boost. Shallots are the sweeter little cousin to the onion. Finely diced and slowly cooked in butter they take on a lovely amber color and their natural sweetness deepens. Just caramelized they're lovely but when you introduce a broader spectrum of flavors - sweet, salty, savory, umami - you've got something really special.

Caramelized shallot jam is also one of the easiest Super Condiments you can make. It requires only five ingredients - and patience.

 


Caramelized Shallot Jam

  • 4 large Shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 tbls. Butter or olive oil
  • 3/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
  • Fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup Light brown sugar
  • salt

Yield about one cup.

Finely chop the shallots, sautee in olive oil or butter until soft. Add sugar and vinegar and salt. Caramelize on medium-low heat until dark amber and very soft and jam-like. Add in finely chopped herbs at the very end, add salt to taste.

You can also make a sugar-free version that I think is even tastier. Omit the brown sugar and let the natural sugars in the shallots carmelize on low for anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours. For a vegan version, use olive oil instead of butter.

Experiment with the jam - it makes instant appetizers when atop a cracker and a bit of brie, or on a slice of apple. The sweet-savory flavor plays well with pork, chicken and beef. 

Enjoy!

 

Watermelon Martinis on the Porch

It's been a long hot week and after dropping off catering for a great little summer party I decided to take the evening off and enjoy the summer breeze on the porch. One of the great joys of being a caterer is the leftovers. Some things just come in such large quantities I don't use all of them for a particular event - like the really big, delicious Hermiston watermelon I used some of for a fruit bouquet for the party.  In this case, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of the melon... Watermelon Martinis.

Watermelon martinis - the quintessential summer cocktail!

Watermelon martinis - the quintessential summer cocktail!

For me this is the quintessential summer cocktail. It's beautiful, it's fresh and cooling, and it's delicious. Whether it's for a wedding reception of 100 people or just my husband and myself on the porch by the fish pond this is my hands down favorite summer drink. They'll make you grateful that a watermelon is so big compared to other fruits you're using in your bouquets.

 

 

Playing with Fire

There's something primal about barbecuing. Perhaps it strikes an ancient chord harking back to times when we lived in caves and fire was our only way of cooking food - and staying warm, lighting the dark, keeping wild animals at bay... But it sure smells good!

On our evening walk my husband Edmund and I meander through the neighborhood on the way to the park. Along the route I catch whiffs of chicken grilling to perfection and hamburgers incinerating beyond recognition. "Salmon" I'll mutter en route. "Tandoori. Trout with lemon. Bratwurst. Chicken with way too much sugary barbecue sauce, it'll be charcoal in a minute". Edmund shakes his head. I have what I like to refer to as an exceptionally refined sense of smell or as my spouse calls it, "a nose like a blood hound". I can suss out virtually every ingredient in any dish at a restaurant, identify every item grilling outdoors and even scent out what someone's had for dinner the next day (that particular super power isn't necessarily a good one if you're on a crowded bus, however...)

But neighborhood barbecues can be inspiring. Me, I'll grill almost anything. Since Edmund is a vegetarian we grill lots of veggies and they're at their peak this time of the year. Sauvie Island corn roasted in its husk, portobello mushrooms marinated in balsamic vinaigrette, zucchini and peppers just plucked from the garden and fresh fruit from James, The Giant Peach Tree who grows about 20 feet from where our barbecue is stationed. Oooh.

Even the most neolithic carnivore will like marinated portobellos on a barbecue. They have a meaty texture and absorb flavors without losing their lush earthy taste. If you're in a hurry they're your best friend - they take just a couple minutes on each side, done so fast that not even a super powered nose like mine can get a whiff of them before they're on the table.

Here's a recipe for one of the most popular items on my catering menu: marinated portobellos.

INGREDIENTS

Portobello mushrooms (1 per person unless you're my husband then it's two per person)

Sweet peppers, any combination. Red and yellow look particularly nice in this recipe.

Small zucchini (find it in your garden before it grows to the size of a baseball bat!) cut into rounds or if it's already a baseball bat size, cut into 2" pieces and do not use the tough seeds...

garlic, minced (I like about two cloves per cap. Use more or less to taste)

Olive Oil

Balsamic vinegar

Sicilian Herb Mix (recipe below)

Sea salt

PREP

Select plump firm mushrooms and wipe the cap with a damp towel. I leave the black gills in when grilling, they have great flavor. Snap the stems, cut into 2-3 rounds, and put in a packet of foil along with some peppers and zukes tossed in olive oil and sea salt. 

Mix balsamic vinegar, olive oil, minced garlic and a couple generous teaspoons of Sicilian Herb Mix (recipe below). You can keep this marinade on hand like a salad dressing - you'll find lots of uses for it! Put the caps in the herbed marinade in a large zip lock bag or bowl and toss them until the mushrooms are well coated. The longer they rest in the marinade the more they'll pick up the flavor so if you like a more mushroom-y taste, retrieve them after about five or ten minutes or you can marinate up to an hour.

PLAY WITH FIRE (a.k.a. cook)

Put the foil packet with the peppers, zucchini and mushroom stems on the side or on an area of the grill with a lower flame and cook for 8-10 minutes - about as long as it will take to do the mushroom caps

Grill the portobellos on the hottest part of the grill, cap down, for 3-4 minutes. The juices will start to release and moisten the cap.  Turn them, grilling for another 3-4 minutes. 

ASSEMBLE

Take the mushrooms and veggie packet off the grill. Fill the mushroom cap with the vegetables, draining off excess liquid. Enjoy!

Sicilian Herb Mix

This recipe is for dry herbs and it stores well for months. If using fresh herbs which are abundant this time of year, use within a few days and keep in an airtight container in the fridge.

2 Tablespoons dried basil
2 Tablespoons dried marjoram
2 Tablespoons dried oregano
2 Tablespoons dried thyme
2 Tablespoons dried savory
1 Teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 Tablespoon dried rosemary

 

Easy as pie

The height of summer always makes me slightly crazy - all the berries are on, the heat brings down early apples and I yearn to bake pies and make jams. But sometimes it's a toss up if it's hotter outside than in an oven... not the ideal time to be baking or cooking over a stove for days at a time.

This week I'm going to be making red onion jam, pesto and at least a half dozen apple pies. The onion jam simply is too good on roasts and sandwiches not to have gallons on hand for the winter when it will release its summery flavors and memories when we need them most. Pesto is one of the most addictive foods I know and yes, I use real pine nuts, cost be damned. The apple pies won't survive more than a day or so due to the sweet tooth of people who shall remain nameless but keep asking when I'm going to "do something" with the big pile of windfalls that are reddening in the sun.

I love to make creative foods, experience new cuisines and whip up things that are impossibly, insanely good together, taking vast amounts of care to make them as beautiful as they are delicious. But in the heat of the summer, the allure of a pie trumps all the dark chocolate truffles I could make. Pies are earthy, basic, and simply yummy. A rich buttery crust decorated with pastry leaves and glistening with crunchy crystals of sugar competes with the warm spices and tangy fruit. 

People have been baking pies for thousands of years in one form or another and there's lots of good reasons. It's summer. It's hot. The fruit won't wait. They taste like the Earth herself has given you a gift (She has, by the way). And if you put them on your window cill to cool, as my grandmother did, they are sure to lure neighbor children from play and sweet-toothed spouses from behind computer screens. It's a tradition as old as the oven itself and it's as easy as pie.