The Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Feed

Here is the story of how a school community event was named after me.

“Are you the Virginia Taylor from The Carey School’s Virginia Taylor’s Spaghetti Dinner??” Curtis Chen, one of my colleagues from the Financial Network, asked me as we were standing around during a break at one of our quarterly conferences.  I am sure he thought it was a long shot, asking this woman who looks like she has children in college with a pretty common name in a business meeting for financial advisors if she was involve in the this Carey School event.  What would the chances be that I was The Virginia from the Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Dinner?

“I started that tradition at my kid’s school in the early ninety’s and they ended up naming the event after me, a true honor”, I told my new friend Curtis as I grew a few inches taller.

I knew of The Carey School from my good friend, Sandi Nichols.  She calls my boy Geoff, her blonde headed son.  I brought three month old Geoff to the hospital when Sandi gave birth to her second son, Brian.  They have been best friends ever since.  Taylor, her older son was in preschool at Carey when I suggested that our twelve year old niece Monica live with David, me and our two toddlers to give her mom a break.  She was twelve going on twenty one and her Taylor-made smarts caused friction in all areas of her life especially in the parental relationship arena.  She was in a school for challenged children and was running circles around everyone so thought a good, normal private school would give her a better chance of success.  “Mr. Simpson, what do you think about having Monica join the seventh grade class at the Carey School”, I asked the new Carey headmaster at our first meeting.  Instead of easily taking on another tuition for the school (which was sorely needed), he spent an hour and a half guiding me how to navigate the unfamiliar private school landscape by giving me recommendations of which school would be appropriate for Monica along with the best way to present my case for her .  One month later Monica was successfully transitioned into seventh grade at an excellent private school and was on her way to making top grades, with of course, a few hiccups in between as with most tweens.  I will never forget the kindness and wisdom Bob gave me that day and knew that The Carey School was the place for our children.

“I’ll take on doing the carnival food for the Halloween Carey Fest”, I sheepishly told the president of the parent’s association when no other volunteers came forward.  It was my first parent’s association meeting in my long life as a school volunteer and here I was taking on the least favorite of all positions; developing, organizing and running the food booth for three hundred plus kids and their parents over a three day carnival and haunted house on the school grounds.  I stayed up late for numerous nights in the school’s kitchen popping popcorn for hundreds of popcorn balls and making batch after batch of cookie dough for oversized cookies.  We sold those treats along with hot dogs and pizza (complete with rented oven).  I learned how to work a soda fountain, organized all the help, shopped for all of the food and manned the booth throughout the weekend and I was crazy enough to do this for three years.  The last year we did this, it rained the entire weekend and the three days of hard work netted us only $5,000.

In the early 90’s this fundraising business was a new thing for the Carey School.  The Carey sisters, Mary T. Carey and Clare Carey Willard had just retired and a group of determined parents hired Bob Simpson as headmaster and did the work to made a go at creating a traditional, nonprofit private school.  Tuition needed to be increased, the discount for multiple children was discarded, annual giving was established and the Parent’s Association was started to mainly raise funds to keep the doors open.

When Sandi and I became President and Vice President of the Parents Association, we knew there had to be a better way to raise money.  Beth, my food partner in crime, had run a number of their children’s walk-a-thons for her children’s school in the Sunnyvale school district.  Their event makes over $100,000 and while it was a much larger student body, Sandi and I estimated that our community could raise at least $20,000 with this new one day formula.

Beth gave me all of their walk-a-thon materials and Sandi and I patterned our walk-a-thon as much to West Valley Elementary as feasible, given our school was only one quarter the size.  It was a stretch to ask every child to raise money through sponsoring them for each lap walked and creating a competitive atmosphere around their accomplishments.   We stopped doing the haunted house, made a much smaller one day carnival and served one lunch for everyone to partake in.  It was not an easy tradition to break, everyone loved the old version with its neighborhood feel but after our event netted $60,000 in one day, everyone in The Carey community was thrilled with the new format.

Sandi ran the walk-a-thon portion of the event until her youngest son graduated from The Carey School and when she left, they wanted to honor Sandi’s hard work and re-name the fundraiser The Sandi Nichol’s Walk-a-Thon but she kindly declined. “It takes a community to create that event, not just me”, Sandi explained.  I was not so humble with The Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Feed.


I became known for my food at the Carey School.  I weaseled my way into becoming a cook for the Carey School Board’s Italian dinner that was a popular item at their new auction fundraiser then added a Mexican dinner and cooking class.  The year that I offered just one French dinner, it went for $10,000 for 10 people.  Still thinking of ways to make money for the school, I recommended doing an annual spaghetti feed for the entire community charging for the adults and children.  I figured we could add another $6,000 to $7,000 to the coffers and we would all have fun doing it.  The parent association liked my idea but wanted to do it as a community thank you.  The Spaghetti Feed was born and it was my baby to run.

 

Our menu consisted of an antipasto plate placed in the middle of the serving line to keep the crowds happy as they waited for their spaghetti.  Along with the spaghetti, we served a mixed salad with kidney and garbanzo beans, cucumbers and tomatoes with Hidden Valley Ranch dressing that we made with the little packets of powder, mayonnaise and buttermilk.  To keep the kids happy, we also made plain spaghetti with butter and cream and homemade garlic bread mixed with grated Parmesan Reggiano.    All of this was prepped at my house with two batches of four helpers, the morning shift and afternoon shift, the day before the event.  I had people prepping salad, frying Italian sausage, chopping basil and oregano, slicing mushrooms, pitting olives, dicing onions, mincing garlic, chopping sundried tomatoes and opening cans.

Opening cans was one of the most important but least loved job.  “Virginia, I have a present for you, actually two”, one of my helper said as she walked into my house ready to put on her apron.  “Two brand new, sharp can openers to make our job a bit easier”, she beamed as dived into the first restaurant sized can of whole tomatoes.  By 4 pm we had three five gallon pots of sauce ready for a few hour simmer on the Carey kitchen stove.  The day of our event, I got up early and boiled and oiled twenty plus pounds of pasta and place it in extra large zip loc bags.  No need for a facial after that.  I would have a group at school working on the bread, the antipasto plates and making the quarts and quarts of dressing.  Getting the sauce on the stove early was important.  It took close to two hours to bring the sauce to a simmer, then another few hours of cooking to meld the flavors.  I always added fresh basil at the end for a refreshing blast of zing.  Betty, our receptionist and excellent server came in at 5 pm to take her place of honor on a stool on the left hand side of the serving window and served everyone their pasta.

After Betty arrived always with that twinkle in her eye and smile on her face, I brought the water to a boil, dumped a pound or so of pasta in a make shift strainer basket and boiled the pasta for a minute or so to heat the noodle.  After straining the pasta, leaving a bit of the starchy water clinging to add body to the finish dish, I would add the sauce, toss and dump it into the “red sauce” chafing dish.  I did the same with the butter noodles.  Periodically, Betty would yell out,” More red sauce”, and I would jump into action, dumping in another pound or so of pasta in that starchy water.  It was hot, hectic and a heck of a lot of fun.

I am not sure how they pull it off now but I know the numbers of guests have doubled.  I do not think they make the sauce or boil the pasta or make the bread but something tells me, Betty still serves the pasta.

A few weeks ago The Carey School called me up and asked if I would make four quarts of the Virginia Taylor Spaghetti sauce to give as a parting gift to the accreditation auditors that were visiting the school.  I was honored they thought of me and immediately agreed to make the sauce and bring it over on Wednesday morning.  Tuesday evening, as I was getting ready to jar the sauce, I discovered I was out of quart sized jars so made a mental note to buy more jars in the morning after my 8 am meeting.  As I was shopping for dinner that night, I remembered about the spaghetti sauce in my outside refrigerator still waiting to get jarred while I am sure, the auditors were happily done with their audit and on their prospective planes back home, with no sauce.

“We couldn’t take the sauce home anyway since we have carry-on bags”, the auditors kindly told the headmaster, trying to make light of not having the sauce he promised.  Luckily Lisa, the head of development had a great suggestion when I called her at home to apologize for my forgetfulness, “Jar the sauce up, put it in the freezer and I will overnight it to them tomorrow with an ice bag.”  I was thrilled that I could still be a part of reviving the old history by bringing back the original sauce.

I remember telling Bob that I must have done something right in a past life to be blessed with such unbelievable children.  To my observation, he said, “The apple does not fall far from the tree”.   I now know the Carey school has to be one of the main branches of that tree.

My Favorite Spaghetti Dinner Menu

Italian Sausage Spaghetti with Capers and Sundried Tomatoes

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Green Beans with Toasted Almond

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Caesar Salad with Homemade Croutons

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Garlic Bread

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Blueberry Bars

No matter what, I always serve this pasta with Green Beans with Almonds and Caesar Salad.

I love the combination together and have been known to mix the green beans and salad directly into my spaghetti. I love the crunch of the toasted almonds in the pasta. I usually make extra toasted almonds and top my spaghetti with the nuts versus Parmesan cheese. I also love this pasta with bread smeared with lots of butter that was cooked with a few minced garlic cloves, combined with freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano then toasted, like I did for The Carey spaghetti dinner. Actually, I love that toasty crunchy bread with the sauce. To satisfy this craving, I serve extra sauce on the side for those who like a little more sauce on their pasta or for those like me, who use the bread as a vehicle to eat the sauce. I do not have a recipe on the blog for this bread but you really do not need one. Just melt a half cube of butter in a small saucepan and cook two mince garlic cloves until soft but not too brown. Take the saucepan off the heat and add the rest of the butter to just barely melt and add about a half cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, stirring to combine. Season with salt and pepper (especially if you use unsalted butter). Cut the loaf in half and spread with half the butter mixture evenly on the cut side and do the same with the remaining piece. Cut the bread into serving pieces but not going all the way through. Broil until just brown, watching carefully.

Many desserts go with this meal; just keep it simple and not too heavy. This recipe deserves a top billing on my blog because if its ease, versitility and crumbly goodness. Trixie Putnam, a parent of a Woodside Priory child and excellent cook, sent me this recipe (along with numerous others) as a candiate for our school’s community cookbook. After reading the recipe, I knew I would love it. The crust and crumb is the same dough and it is easy to switch out the fruit filling to whatever fruit you have in your refrigerator or your garden. I have made these bars with apricots, peaches, plums, blackberries, apples and rhubarb all with wonderful success. It makes enough for a crowd and also freezes well for a future treat. All great reasons to get into the kitchen and cook up a batch.

Click on the links to find my recipes for these dishes and for tips on how to make them picture perfect. Also, if you want to know more about the pictures in the post, hover over them for the explanation.

 

 

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The First Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series

Quinty and I create our own version of Charlie and Tim’s Livingston International Dinner Series in Hamilton, Montana.

After Quinty and I redeemed our golden tickets to Charles Perry’s Livingston International Dinner Series in Montana last August, we made a pact to start our own version of those sought-after dinners.  After our stint experiencing Tim and Charlie’s note worthy dinner in Livingston, we took the long road home to Hamilton and, along with working on all the relationship issues we had in our lives; we coordinated our plan of attack to offer a series of multiple-course menus in her home with the eclectic Hamilton crowd.  We dreamed about inviting her friends, which included restaurant chefs, a movie producer, folks transplanted from San Francisco, Hamilton scientists, holistic health practitioners and a cast of characters that with a little wine and good food would naturally create a wonderful party.  We imagined the hubbub of gossip about who would be attending each dinner.  We laughed about how surprised the guests would be about the unusual flavor components of each dish. In general, on that ride home, we envisioned in our minds a tradition that would be the talk of the town, like the Charles Perry International dinner series in Livingston, Montana.

Quinty was introduced to me by one of my dearest friends, Karen Varnhagen in the mid 1980’s and I immediatly knew we would become best buds.  Not only did we become fast friends, she was my husband’s first employee and ended up running his Amsterdam operation in the late 90’s-early 2000’s.  She is an avid snow skier (flew off a cornice my husband and friend were negotiating), passionate hiker, best idea woman I know, yoga nut, always is up for a fun adventure, devoted animal lover and is one of the people I would choose to live in a commune with (along with her darling husband Gordon!). 

Charlie started visiting his old friend, Tim Cahill, in Livingston in the early 90s as a means to give his dog Sadie, a huge greyhound-Labrador mix, a chance to run around in the woods and escape her urban LA life.  They met in the early 70s as rock-and-roll journalists at the fledgling Rolling Stone Magazine.  When Rolling Stone birthed Outside Magazine, Tim was one of the two employees on staff that actually liked the outdoors.  He began traveling for Outside Magazine almost full time and thought it was more fun than watching the wild and crazy band members trash their hotel rooms.   Seven adventure books later and with the reputation of being the best known adventure and travel writer around, Tim has settled into an idyllic life in Livingston, Montana with a cohort of artists and writers to pal around with in one of the most pristine parts of the country that I know.  Charlie took a different path.

Charles Perry’s decade at Rolling Stone Magazine was just a detour from his passion for Middle Eastern languages and food.  He studied the former at Princeton and Berkeley and found his love of food during a stint in Lebanon.  Throughout the 60s and 70s, he was roommates with Augustus Owsley Stanley (the king of acid for you younger folks), was a permanent fixture in the Haight and had weekly potlucks with the likes of Alice Waters and Jerry Towers, Jeremiah to you and me.  Before his eighteen-year career as a staff writer for the LA Times’ award winning Food Section, he was a hand-to-mouth freelance writer spending months at a time researching medieval cookery at libraries in Egypt, Syria, Paris, London and Dublin.  His colorful background set the pace for becoming known as the best renowned food historian in the United States.  Since his retirement from the Los Angeles Times in 2008, no moss has grown on his feet; he still travels extensively in the Middle East, is an annual presenter at the Oxford Symposium on food and cooking, started and still participates in the Culinary Historians of Southern California, continues to work on his new book, Partying Like it’s 1399, and cooks authentic international cuisine for his annual Livingston dinner series.

Maybe it was in the stars that Quinty and I lucked into two highly prized seats at the 2010 dinner series.  “Virginia, Quinty and Darla here, I have a great proposition for you”, Quinty interrupted over the speaker phone at one of my girlfriend’s dinner parties.  She explained, “Darla has been trying to get an invite into one of these Charles Perry dinner parties for years and she got her wish along with a few other spots.  You just HAVE to come,” they pleaded. They knew it was short notice but fifty thousand United miles later, history was made in our minds, planting the idea of our own Charles Perry style Hamilton dinner series for August 2011.  

In July, the pre-dinner series prep began as I put on my thinking cap to come up with four five-course menus and Quinty whittled down the guest list as best as she could to ten guests per evening.  Forgetting to count ourselves and Gordon, Quinty’s husband, we quickly changed our game plan to an outdoor evening on her back porch since her dining room table only held ten and then began the prayer vigils for no rain.  “The Wallace’s now want to go to the same dinner as the Watkins’s but if I take them from the Saturday night dinner, the O’Brien’s will not know anyone,” Quinty wailed as she agonized over her guest list, thoughtfully making sure each guest would find other new and interesting individuals to meet along with friends for comfort.  I began wondering if Quinty would be sporting a new wig when she picked me up at the airport due to the hair pulling caused by her well intentioned efforts.  Quinty included Charlie and Tim on our second night and not only did they RSVP yes, but Charlie graciously offered to cook the two following dinners.  I put aside my Spanish and Italian Menu for Charlie’s Azerbaijani and Indian dinners and was thrilled to have the extra help and to learn from him again.  Charlie knows his stuff as far as authenticity goes, whereas I ad lib.  My dinners would be around the theme of Pan Asian and Southwestern, gaining inspiration from my Tahoe cooking class mentors, Marge Poore, Donna Nordin and Joyce Jue, along with my personal biases.  Charlie’s inspiration comes from the ancient cookery manuscripts from the libraries of the Middle East.  I knew we were going to make a great pair and excitement began to stir in my being.

I arrived a few days before my first dinner to do the shopping for all the courses, organize myself and start prepping.  Quinty was busy preparing the linens, planting the last bits of flowers for that added color, setting up the outdoor entertainment area for our cocktail hour and finally, setting the table.  Millie, Quinty’s mother’s good friend, brought the flowers for the table and came back each day to replenish the wilting ones with those fresh from her garden.  Gordon raked, swept and hauled furniture.  Cars were slowing down as they drove by to catch a glimpse of the activity.   I could just imagine what they were saying, “Bob, what’s going on over there?  Look at the gorgeously set table, that inviting sitting area and wow, that well stocked bar.  What lucky guests!”  I was the lucky one though; I was happily in the kitchen creating the taste ambiance for the coming evenings.

The actual day of each dinner event was hectic with guests coming over to help prep while I gave out instructions and worked to keep myself on track. “No, slice the cucumber a bit thinner and more evenly.”, “Get the pan hot-hot before you sear the tuna.”, “Don’t forget the won ton cups in the oven!” I carefully nudged my help. ”And Gordon, do not forget to stir the risotto!”, I reminded him.

Slowly, my to-dos were crossed off, the setting sun came through the porch doors and the guests started to arrive.  Each evening started with a short cocktail hour including a themed libation to match the international menu and appetizer to minimize the drinks’ potent effects.  Then Quinty and Gordon invited us to our assigned seats to indulge in the plated four-course dinner.

The first night was Pan Asian and I started with a traditional Asian appetizer that I learned from Joyce Jue, a cookbook writer who worked as a food journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle.  She hand made then fried her pastry for this tasty vegetable treat but to make it easier without compromising the taste, I use won ton wrappers brushed with oil then placed in mini muffin tins.  This version is perfect for a cocktail buffet since the shells hold up well for the vegetable filling.  Joyce’s recipe calls for dried shrimp but I keep mine vegetarian, using a chiffonade of carrot, Jicama and bamboo shoots topped with a dollop of sweet and spicy chili sauce.

After we finished our top hat appetizer served with sake, Quinty stood and rang her dinner bell, “Please everyone, place your cocktail glasses on the table and make your way to your assigned seat.  Our first course is being served.” 

Just click on the hyperlink to go to the recipe page, which gives a bit more history of the dish along with step-by-step instructions:

A Special Pan Asian Menu for the
First Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series

July 30, 2011

With Sake

Top Hats
(Jicama, Bamboo Shoots and Carrots in Won Ton Cups
with Sweet Chili Sauce)

First Course

Green Curry Risotto with Shrimp
and Chinese Long Beans  

Second Course

Ahi Tuna Salad with Pickled Cucumbers
in Ginger Vinaigrette

Entrée

Mandarin Steak on Bed of Pan Fried Noodles

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Stir Fried Vegetables

Dessert

Cherry Soup with Coconut Sorbet and Fresh Berries

 

Our first course is one of my favorite risottos—my true version of Italian-Asian fusion, or should I correctly say my friend Ivo’s version.  He is the best chef I know that does not cook in a professional kitchen.  Calling him a home cook does not do Ivo justice.  He used to live in my neighborhood and we would eat at each others dinner tables at least once a week, if not more.  We met Ivo and his wife Mira when I was pregnant with Geoff twenty four years ago, so the meals we have eaten together are uncountable.  Mira and Ivo now live in Croatia and I look forward to the opportunity to blog a few menus from their farm home on an island off Split.  Needless to say, this is Ivo’s risotto that I copied.  He does not do recipes but I ask enough questions to be a competent copier.  It is a traditional risotto with a spicy-coconut side sauce consisting of a Thai shrimp curry.  You combine the two with a few handfuls of blanched long beans and some heady Thai basil to make heaven in a bowl.  Make the risotto a bit loose, it is best that way.

Our second course was a salad consisting of a quickly seared piece of pristine sashimi grade Ahi tuna, thinly sliced on a bed of greens with avocado, radishes and toasted almonds in a ginger-soy vinaigrette.  That presentation is perfect, but to add a sweet, sour, and hot twist, I included my mother’s version of pickled cucumbers but made it Asian style by using rice wine vinegar for the pickle, serranos for that heat and cilantro for the finishing touch on this condiment.  I serve this dish as a weeknight entree just the way it is or with a piece of pan-seared salmon in place of the tuna.  It is one of my family’s favorites.

I like doing Wolfgang Puck’s Mandarin steak recipe as my entree with my Pan-Asian menus because it is easy and delicious and can be done ahead of time.  I use Thomas Keller’s version of a quickly pan seared steak that he then pops into the oven to finish cooking.  For my version, I quickly grilled the steaks instead of a pan sear on a hotter-than-hot grill to make the marks, then let the steaks come to room temperature as we served our guests their first courses.  To finish the cooking, I brushed on a homemade Mandarin style barbeque sauce then placed the meat into a 350-degree oven for around fifteen minutes for an evenly pink medium rare.  It is key to let the steaks rest for a few minutes before you serve or slice them.  I sliced mine and placed the perfectly pink strips on a pan-seared noodle cake with mixed stir-fried vegetables.

Pan-fried noodles are an underrated side dish.  They hold their crunch even with a hot sauce, offer a nice starch to any meal, and are perfect in any type of Pan-Asian themed menu.  Since the noodles were one of the many items that missed our master shopping list, we sent Gordon out on a last minute grocery run.  We carefully instructed him to buy Japanese style fresh, thinly sliced noodles from the deli section.  He came back with dried vermicelli style Japanese noodles that were tied in small round bunches.  Quinty and I tried to hide our disappointment but he said that it was all he could find.  We were in Hamilton, Montana.  As any good cook knows, you have to work with what you have so I went for it and boiled up a few bunches, drained them and quickly twirled them into individual cakes before the starch set.  As I was frying one up as a test, I began running a few alternative rice dishes in my head, just in case.  Once the noodle patty finished cooking, I picked up the piping hot cake in my hand and broke it open to see the crunchy outsides displaying the moister noodle in between.  It was a perfect combination of crunch and softness and after a smattering of crunchy salt; it was the best pan fried noodle I have ever made, hands down.  I walked over to Gordon, gave him a big hug for his genius mistake and now only recommend the dried, bundled up Japanese noodles that you can find on any grocery shelf.

                                                                             

The mixed stir-fried vegetable added the needed color on the plate and a bit of sauce to compliment the noodle cake.  You can use a variety of mixed vegetables or just choose one like green beans, asparagus or broccoli.  I liked the variety for this meal because of the color and since we were in the height of summer, why not?  Quickly stir fry these vegetables, adding in the harder ones first then steaming them periodically by pouring in a side sauce of chicken stock, rice wine, soy sauce and various Chinese condiments like black bean-garlic and oyster sauce.  I think a few teaspoons of minced fresh ginger sautéed along with the harder vegetables is always a must.  At the end, pour a bit more of the sauce into the vegetables and finish it off with a few drops of a cornstarch slurry (an equal mixture of cornstarch and water) to create a sauce-like consistency.

“Mom, you have to make the Coconut Sorbet with Cherry Soup for one of the dinners,” Katie thoughtfully suggested as I was struggling to create my menus for each night.  “That rummy coconut ice accents the spiced Bing cherry soup so perfectly,” Katie reminded me.  She was right, and I knew Quinty’s friend’s raspberry bushes would be bursting with ripe fruit which would top this dish with that needed tart/sweet addition.  Coconut is Asian, isn’t it??  Katie won and her favorite dessert became the Asian finish to our first dinner of our first Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series.

Four dinners later, even I admitted I was a bit pooped.  It was the late nights—so hard to not pour ourselves another glass of wine as we enjoyed reminiscing about the evening into the wee hours of the morning in Quinty’s hammocks off the bedroom deck. Then we had to get up early to start all over again, three more times.  It almost felt like Bill Murray’s version of Ground Hog’s Day with the alarm clock waking us to the same music each morning.  Thank God for Charlie and his help on two of the four dinners.  We barely had time for a walk, a yoga class or cup of coffee at their local hangout; most of my time was spent in the kitchen and Quinty’s in the laundry room and next to the sink washing more wine glasses for that night’s sixteen guests.

 

We are doing it differently next year.  Instead of having four consecutive dinners, we will have a day of rest in between to give us a chance to do a bike ride or swim in the lake. We can do a bit of prep each day and have extra time to relax.  That small adjustment will make the Bitterroot International Dinner Series a complete joy for us.

So now Quinty, it is time to start dreaming about our guests taking a bite of that perfect dish as they smile and say, “Girls—you have outdone yourselves.”

 

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A Special Bridal Shower Menu for Ryan

This menu is perfect for a buffet. No need to do all the appetizers but if you have the time, why not. Grab a few of your girlfriends and have a cooking party like Beth and I do!

                     

Beth is more than a good friend; she is my cooking partner.  When she is helping me cook, she creates a perfect mise en place of ingredients for me so all I have to do is make the dish, like a real chef.  You see, she went to culinary school and knows this stuff.  This is a big gift, since most times it is harder to delegate jobs in the kitchen than to just do them yourself.  Beth naturally knows what needs to be done and if she does not, she knows exactly what to ask to complete the task at hand.  “What’s the menu?”, “where can I be of most help?” and “how big should the dice be?” are our favorite kitchen conversations.  We both know the kitchen edicate; if I am in her kitchen, she is boss and if Beth is in mine, I am.                     

It is impossible to count how many meals we have cooked together.  We have raised our children together during summers in Tahoe when our husbands were at home holding court.  We would cook together for our seven children, our girlfriends, and their children before our nightly bear walk.  We’ve hosted our family members’ birthdays, holiday celebrations, graduations,  horse shoe tournaments, and housewarmings.  We are now faced with a gaggle of wedding related celebrations for  family members and close friends, starting with my nephew Nick and now Beth’s oldest daughter, Ryan.                     

                     

Ryan is marrying Tim, and of course, we are all estastic.  As soon as Beth called me to announce Ryan and Tim’s engagement, I emailed Ryan to say I wanted to do the engagement party.                     

                     

The party was a huge success and the menu was wonderful.  Ryan’s grandmother, Barbara, said it was one of the best parties she has ever been to.  Now THAT is a compliment!  I had hoped to blog the four-course menu including a lobster risotto with marscapone and peppered filet with horseradish cream but the party occured in my lost spring when I missed out on writing any posts.                     

My husband  has known Eric, Beth’s husband, since they were in second grade.  David actually came over to Beth and Eric’s home with his friend John when Beth was in labor with Ryan.  They were looking for a fun time in Reno while Beth was hoping to get the whole labor thing over with.  The next day they all celebrated the new arrival, David and John with less money in their pocket.  I met Ryan soon after my husband and I met in college and am  lucky enough to become part of their village, or a posse as Beth’s husband calls it.  You know it takes a village/posse to raise a family and I am lucky to be part of theirs.                     

When Beth said she would be doing the food for the bridal showers the sisters were giving Ryan, I made sure to be her sous.  “Okay,” Beth said, “we better get going on deciding the menu then.”  Here is what we came up with:                      

                      

A Special Middle Eastern Menu for Ryan’s
Bourbon and Boudoir
Shower
July 9, 2011                     

With Mint Julips and Conversation                     

Red Pepper Feta, Baba Ganoush and Olive-Tuna Tapenade
with Toasted Lavash Chips                     

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Spring Vegetables with a Moroccan Rouille                     

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Charmoula Ahi Tartar on Homemade Potato Chips                     

Amuse Bouche                     

Tomato Gazpacho Shooters                     

Dinner Buffet                     

Grilled Cornish Game Hens in a Sumac and Lemon Marinade
with a Date Salsa                     

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Paprika Spiked Beef Tenderloin with Eggplant in a Star Anise-Cumin Coconut Broth                     

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Turmeric Scented Couscous with Garbanzo Beans and Grilled Zucchini                     

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Moroccan Carrots with Raisins                     

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Balkan Crab Salad with Walnut and Lemon Mayonnaise                     

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Fennel and Orange Salad with Kalamata Olives                     

Dessert                     

Chocolate Mousse Torte with Raspberry Sauce and Fresh Raspberries     

(Click on the hyperlink to view the recipe)                  

                     

Beth knew she wanted to make her sumac and lemon marinated game hens with date relish and I applauded her for the choice.  That recipe has  become one of my favorites and even Beth approves of the changes I made to the original recipe (see recipe for details).  With the Middle Eastern theme developing it was easy to choose the appetizers.                     

                     

One of our go-to appetizers for any cuisine are the trio of dips here: Roased Red Pepper Feta, Baba Ganoush and Hummus.  For a Middle Eastern buffet, these dips are completely in theme.                     

                     

While the Olive-Tuna Tapenade is more Italian than Middle Eastern, I doubt anyone is noticing.                     

                     

My traditional Ahi Tuna Tartar is definitely Asian so I added Joyce Goldstien’s version of a Charmoula Vinaigrette to the tuna and topped the tartar on a waffle cut potato chip instead of a wonton chip for a more Middle Eastern flair.  They were a huge hit.                     

                     

Beth believes she has single handedly brought the vegetable platter back into fashion and I tend to agree, at least within our group of friends.  What sets off our platter is seasoning each blanched vegetable with salt and a touch of olive oil to make them shine and enhance their flavor.  She normally serves the vegetables with a taragon aoili but to make it a bit more Mediterranean, we made a Rouille instead.  Who needs vegetables for this dish; all Beth’s sister Angie needed to enjoy the rouille was a spoon.                     

                     

To add a little festive touch we passed around our amuse bouche: Gazpacho Shooters with Mini Croutons.  Beth and I took my traditional Spanish tomato gazpacho, placed the soup in a tall shot glass, added mini croutons and served them with a little spoon.  The spoon is really not necessary but most of us wanted to get every last drop and be lady-like about it.                     

                     

While I loved Beth’s idea of the cornish game hens with the date relish, I was a bit hesitant about grilling fifteen birds last minute for a buffet.  “Eric will do it early in the day and we will just reheat them,” Beth said confidently.  The idea of reheating already perfectly barbequed birds did not sound right to me, but I was wrong.  Eric cooked those birds until they were “just a bit” underdone.  He handed me his perfectly underdone hens and said, “Pop them in the oven at 450 degrees for 5 minutes, no longer,” and was then off to play golf to avoid his soon-to-be estrogen infused home.  The hens came out of the oven with the skin crisp and the meat succulent.  Eric’s barbeque skills rose a few knotches for me that day while I learned a new make-ahead technique that is truly perfect for a large group.                     

                     

The reason why I love this dish so much is the date relish.  Like Angie, I do not need the chicken to enjoy this condiment–just give me a spoon.  This original recipe calls for parsley and pine nuts but I substituted cilantro and walnuts.  Not only did that addition make it more Middle Eastern, it gave the relish more flavor.  Try it either way, just try it.                     

                     

Next we needed to find some sort of tagine that would go with our sides and compliment the chicken entree.  What about the Paprika Spiked Beef Tenderloin with Eggplant from my “Out of my Comfort Zone” post ??  This dish is full of exotic flavors including ginger, lime, toasted cumin, star anise, paprika and coconut milk.  This traditional Puerto Rican recipe gets a nuevo twist from Eric Rupert: he uses lightly seared filet mignon instead of stewed meat which gives this dish a sophisticated feel while still being homey.  “But the dish is not Middle Eastern,” Beth said.  “No one will notice!” I retaliated.  And I was right–all we got were compliments.                     

                     

The game hen recipe came with a dish of quinoa with garbanzo beans and grilled zucchini which both Beth and I love and make often, yet Ryan is not a big quinoa lover.  It occurred to me that we could make that dish and replace the grain with my wonderful steamed couscous that Charles Perry taught me.  I thought we could bring in the flavor of the tumeric-scented broth by adding onions sauteed with olive oil and the spices but Beth had a better idea.  Why not make a spiced infused broth and use that in place of the water for steaming the couscous?  Brilliant!!  We threw in some grilled onions for good measure and had a wonderful side to soak up the sauce for the meat and marry with the chicken and date salsa.                     

                     

With the farmer’s market brimming with all types of carrots, Charles Perry’s Moroccan Carrots with Raisin and Parsley would be an easy yet scrumptious vegetable side.  Charles cooked his carrots whole then sliced them to the appropriate size but steaming them already sliced is definitely easier.  Make sure to save the raisin-plumping liquid since reducing the raisin water to a glaze and adding it to the vinegar creates the perfect sweet and sour combination.   You can click here to read my Charles Perry Post and learn more about him.              

                     

All we need now is a salad and fish dish to round out the assortment of dishes we already have for the buffett.  I started searching through Joyce Goldstein’s Mediterranean cookbooks for ideas.  This crab salad recipe struck my fancy since it not only included salad and fish but asparagus and steamed potatoes, which added another starch and vegetable to our table.  This crab salad with lemon and walnut aoili intreged me further because I love a mayonnaise made with walnut oil and extra lemon.  I also knew I would love the crunch of the toasted walnuts.  I made this dish as a trial for my husband’s birthday and both Beth and I gave it a big thumbs up.  I changed the recipe around a bit, dressing the individual vegetables with a bit of the aoili thinned with a few tablespoons of lemon juice.  The finished salad with potatoes on one side, the asparagus on the other, the watercress in the middle topped with the cucumber studded crab salad and toasted walnuts was truly a thing of beauty, worthy of any buffet table.                     

                     

I would have been happy to stop there but Beth knew the menu needed a bit of fresh fruit as a palate cleaner.  This salad was originally sliced oranges with olives simply dressed with reduced orange juice and olive oil but Beth added the fennel to give the dish a bit of an anise crunch.  It was a great compliment to the overall menu, beautiful color contrast to the other dishes, easy to make and delicious.  You are right again, Beth.                     

                     

What could be better than ending the meal with a bit of light and fluffy chocolate with a crunchy chocolate cookie crust topped with cool whipped cream?  This chocolate mousse torte is always good for a crowd because it can easily feed sixteen.  This dessert can even be made a few days ahead and I have been known to made the cake a few weeks ahead and freeze it well wrapped without the whipped cream.   

                  

Beth is not only a good friend and cooking partner but knows how to treat a friend right.  When we are in Tahoe we meet at our pond at 5 pm for a little rest and relaxation and she always comes with a cocktail for me.  We play cribbage and this summer I let her win to make sure she keeps those cocktails coming.  Carrying two cocktails, her beach bag and chair have been a bit difficult so she has taken to leaving her chair at the pond, hidden in the bushes.  This year, we got an email from our Tahoe neighborhood association the day we got home asking the homeowners to take their paraphenaila home from our community pond at the end of the day.  I immediately emailed her, letting her know we were busted. ”No worries,” she said, “now that you are gone I can easily carry all of my goodies to the pond, since I am only bringing one cocktail,” and sent me a pictures to prove it.  But what are we going to do next year?  Maybe we should find a better hiding place.         

                  

 

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A Special “Easy” Menu to Celebrate the Bounty of Summer

Enjoy this simple summer-inspired menu for your family.

How can it be that I missed spring and it’s already getting deep into summer??  I cooked a season full of wonderful spring menus, took many pictures to document the bounty of this season, and then the months slipped away while I didn’t have the luxury of posting a few blogs.  No need to cry over spilled milk–summer might offer me a few moments of extra time to record my adventures in the kitchen.

I started this blog post in April highlighting another one of my family’s favorite meals and still think it is appropriate at this time of year. It includes many of the farmers market’s darlings of the season: tomatoes, blueberries, basil, green beans and carrots.  The menu includes chicken picatta, a quick sauté that fits into my summer schedule, and a basil pesto pasta that is a cinch to put together.  I always include a caprese salad with this meal because the balsamic vinegar and olive oil marries perfectly with the pesto.  Green beans and carrots are delicious in the summer, add color to the overall plate and offer nutritional balance to this meal.   A blueberry buckle is an excellent dessert option with local blueberries available at all of our farmers markets and supermarkets.  I just made this recipe for my dear friends, Jim and Julia, and Julia hoped I would post this recipe soon.  For you Julia, of course!

A Special Easy Menu to Celebrate the Bounty of Summer

Chicken Picatta

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Basil Pesto Pasta

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Green Beans and Carrots and Caprese Salad

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Blueberry Buckle

Chicken Picatta is a classic example of a quick sauté with a simple pan sauce and now with many butchers slicing scaloppini of chicken, it is quick to make.  My kids love a sauce and actually think meat on its own is not a complete dish.  I tend to agree.  Many new cooks find making a sauce difficult, requiring hours of time and complicated techniques to conquer.  For this dish, I use purchased chicken broth and a bit of flour to create a sauce that is good enough to lick off your plate over (at least my children think so), AND it is easy.  You can also substitute scaloppini of veal or turkey instead of the chicken.

The trick to a quick sauté with a pan sauce is to quickly sear the floured meat in a combination of olive oil and butter (but I normally use just olive oil) until almost done.  After you take the meat out of the pan, add a few chopped shallots and sauté, stirring up any fond that was left from the meat.  Then douse the shallots with some white wine or vermouth and reduce until almost gone.  Add the broth and reduce until it tastes good.  Remember to taste your food; if the sauce still tastes like raw wine and chicken soup, you need to reduce the sauce more.  Once the sauce has flavor, add the chicken back in the pan to finish cooking.  The flour on the meat will help thicken the sauce, but this is a sauce, not a gravy, so it should be thinner.  All you need to do is add the finishing touches to make it a picatta sauce: the capers and a squirt of lemon.  This is the basic technique for all pan sauces and once you perfect this dish, you will feel confident to make other pan sauces with other meats such as a duck breast, pork chop or filet mignon.

My trick to making a good pesto is blanching the basil before making it.  Basil oxidizes quickly once it is cut and I have become shocked when my basil pesto pasta turned black before I even had a chance to bring it to the table.  If you blanch the basil and refresh the leaves in ice water before you process them with the garlic, cheese, nuts and olive oil, your pesto will stay brilliant green even when you don’t cover the leftovers with oil to seal in the cut basil.  Beside that tip, making pesto is a breeze; just remember to save a bit of the pasta cooking water to finish the sauce.  The starchy pasta water is the perfect thinning agent but I have used cream for a richer sauce if you are in the mood for that.

Many of my menus include more vegetables and side dishes than meat and that is the way I like it.  If you have a meat with a nice pan sauce, I recommend to keep your vegetables simple.  Here I offer a classic vegetable technique preferred by Thomas Keller in his French Laundry Cookbook: Big-Pot Blanching.  You perfectly cook your vegetables in a copious amount of water in an attempt to keep the water still boiling when you add the vegetables to the water.  After the green beans and carrots are cooked, I simply dress to perfection with olive oil and a touch of salt.

I ALWAYS make tomato-mozzarella salad for chicken picatta and basil pesto pasta, even in winter.  When tomatoes are not in my garden or in my local farmers market, I get the clamshell campari style tomato.  They are grown hydroponically but with my trick, you can make these watery tomatoes taste fine for this salad.  I bring out the flavor by letting the sliced, salted tomatoes drain on paper towels for at least a half an hour.  I even give them a sprinkling of sugar along with the salt to imitate the sweet summer tomato.  My recommendation though is to make this dish in summer when there is no need to doctor up Mother Nature.

The only thing I need to say about the blueberry buckle is to make it; it will become one of your staple recipes.  Julia, enjoy the buckle and let me know how it came out.

Spring held many dinner parties, cooking events and family meals that were worth documenting.  The events included Ryan’s engagement party, the Woodside Priory cooking class, HIP Housing appetizer cooking demo with Stephanie Lucas, Anna’s graduation party in Walla Walla (truly an experience cooking for 50 people in the small kitchen of the unofficial Delta Gamma house, “The Zoo,”–see above picture), Katie’s high school graduation party and  for Jeannie’s 50th birthday, a cooking class for her friends and their daughters at the beach.  The summer season has already included my husband’s birthday, Cynthia’s 85th birthday at the beach and 4th of July at Lake Tahoe.  I just might have to do another year-end style post telling you about all the missing posts throughout the first half of the year.  Keep “posted.”

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Artic Char

Give Artic Char a try. It is a great substitute for salmon when it is out of season. It is also known for being one of the most ecologically friendly farmed fish.

A Special Dinner to Celebrate Artic Char!

Date Salad with Manchego and Toasted Hazelnuts in a Sherry-Honey Vinaigrette

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Herb Crusted Artic Char with Herbed Vinaigrette on Wilted Greens

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Farro Risotto with Fennel and Radicchio

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Mixed Berries with Sabayon

Move over octopus, Artic char is now my husband’s favorite fish.  I applauded his new love; it is easy to cook, readily available and truly delicious.  I have heard that char is the new farmed darling.  It is rated ”best choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch because it is farmed in a ecologically responsible manner.  It is related to the trout but is ocean going like a salmon.  This slender gray fish with small head usually weights around 3 pounds, perfect for four servings.  My son is also a big fan so we have been eating a lot of Artic char recently in the Taylor household. 

Since my son found the herb crusted recipe on his I Phone on the way home from my brother’s birthday celebration, I have made it at least four times, twice for guests.  On a six hour drive home we began to banter back and forth about what we should have for Sunday supper.  We had spent the weekend eating meat; blackened steaks to accompany some leftover gumbo (the soup above) I brought from home, then short ribs to celebrate my brother and his son’s birthday.  My brother, like my dad, LOVES fish but somehow I created menus full of cow.  On the way home, my husband questioned my menu choices and wondered why I did not make what my brother preferred.  Cooking fish for fourteen is too difficult, was all I could come up with besides the fact that short ribs with port wine sauce on top of mashed potatoes is a pretty spectacular dish that most everyone loves.  I started with carrot soup with cumin and maple syrup then offered everyone a shrimp scampi salad with arugula in a lemon vinaigrette.  “You see, I served fish in the second course”, I said in an attempt to defend my choices.  “Shrimp is not fish”, replied my husband.

Needless to say, both my son and husband recommended fish for that night’s meal and Geoff began searching the internet for some interesting new recipes for Artic Char, their fish of preference.  After rejecting about six or seven of Geoff’s ideas for one reason or another (maybe my ego was a bit bruised after the weekend menu talk) he found an herb crusted salmon recipe with a slathering of mustard that was hard to resist.  Emeril Lagasse chops a mixture of fresh herbs such as tarragon, chervil, dill, basil and parsley and brushes the fillet with a bit of mustard to secure the herbs.  He makes a vinaigrette with the same chopped herbs we crusted the char with and adds tarragon vinegar, shallots, a bit more mustard and olive oil.  He dresses wilted greens with a bit of vinaigrette and tops the greens with the char along and another drizzling of the vinaigrette. 

For dinner last night, I served Farro Risotto with Radicchio and Fennel as a side and started with a Date Salad with Manchego Cheese and Toasted Hazelnuts in a Sherry-Honey Vinaigrette.  For dessert I served Mixed Berries with Sabayon.  My husband was happy.

I love this new version of cooking farro that I found in the 2011 Cooks Illustrated Annual.  You first saute onion and fennel in good tasting olive oil then add the farro to toast, just like a risotto.  Instead of adding the broth bit by bit, you add the stock all at once and cook at a good simmer, stirring periodically until the broth is absorbed.  At the end, turn up the heat a touch and stir constantly to create a bit of creaminess.  It will not be truly creamy like risotto but will have a wonderful flavor with perfectly cooked grains.  Add in the radicchio at the end just to wilt and finish with a bit of best quality balsamic vinegar for a perfect side dish to accompany the Char and Wilted Greens.

I developed the Date Salad with Manchego Cheese in a Sherry-Honey Vinaigrette while living in Barcelona.  I served it for our guests visiting from the states that were beginning their sail around the Balearic Islands off Spain.  We had dinner out on our deck and after many bottles of Spanish wine, ended up getting a ladder and hiking each other up onto our roof  for an even better view of the city.  This salad is a perfect winter salad with my favorite sweet-crunchy combination.

I sometimes forget how perfect Sabayon is at the end of a meal.  It is easy to make, versatile, and well, completely addictive.  I once ate the rest of the leftovers at 7 am in the morning after going for just one bite.  I went back to bed after that splurg, the marsala coaxing me back to sleep.

This meal is not only delicious but healthy.  I recommend trying farmed or fresh Artic Char for its flavor and health benefits but salmon can be substituted for this recipe.  I think it will become one of your favorite fishes, like it has with my family.

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An Easy Chicken Tagine for Susan

Susan friends stepped up to the plate and created plates of food for her family after she broke one leg and sprained the other. Here is the chicken tagine menu I created for her family

In the middle of the night Susan missed a step, twisted her ankle and fell hard enough on her other foot to break two of the bones in her leg.  Susan, WHAT were you doing crawling around your stairs in the pitch dark at 1:30 in the morning??  Needless to say, she is now out of commission leaving her two daughters and husband to figure out meals on their own.  Well, kind of.

Susan is lucky.  She has a wonderful set of friends that stepped up to the plate to help with the everyday taking care of her family from walking the dog to filling hungry bellies.  Her girlfriend set up a calendar of days she needed help with dinners and we all filled in our names on the days that it was convenient for us to make a little extra of our normal family dinner for hers.  I love doing that.  It is no skin off my back to cook a little extra of my normal dinner and I know Susan and her family appreciates it.  Who would not mind getting a home cooked meal delivered in time for that night’s supper?? 

A Special Weeknight Dinner for Susan and Her Family

Chicken Tagine with Honey and Almonds

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Steamed Couscous

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Wilted Spinach

 

I made a few dinners for Susan’s family and one of my favorites was chicken tagine with tomatoes and honey.  Not only is it easy to make, it is better reheated, like any good braise.  I found this recipe during my Moroccan cooking jag last summer and needed a recipe to use up home grown tomatoes.  This recipe fits the bill, using up two pounds of my precious treasures.  All you need to do to create this braise is to place the chicken, onions, tomatoes and spices in a pot and cook until tender. 

To enrich the sauce, you open boil it without the chicken to reduce and caramelize the flavors.  Serve this over couscous and top with crunchy toasted almonds for a wonderful meal.  For Susan’s family, I paired it with wilted spinach but during the summer I prepared it with the Carrots and Raisins dish I learned from Charles Perry and spinach that I wilted with a bit more raisin, pine nuts and a bit of curry. 

I am not sure if Susan’s family noticed how wonderful my couscous was. 

 I made it using the steamed method rather than reconstituting it with water or broth that most packaged couscous recommends.  I soak my couscous in salted water then steam it in a strainer over salted water a few times, aerating the couscous in between cooking times with oiled hands.  It makes the lightest couscous I have ever tasted.  I used to think I did not like couscous but no longer.

While it is not worth breaking a leg to get a series of dinners delivered to your home, this expression of community reminds me of how pleasurable it is to help a friend in need.   Take care of yourself my dear Susan and let me know how you liked last weeks Chicken Picatta!

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Easy Appetizers-The FAB 4 Open House

Here is doable menu for your next appetizer party. It was perfect for the FAB 4 Open House.

What do Fashion, Art and Blogging have in common?  Francesca, Amy, Roberta, and Virginia: the fabulous fashionista, budding oil painter, whimsical children’s book illustrator, and determined food blogger.

A Special Appetizer Menu
to Celebrate
The FAB 4
February 7, 2011

A Few Ways to Use Smoked Salmon

Smoked Salmon Pinwheels and Smoked Salmon Tartar on Pickled Cucumbers

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Smoked Salmon with Cream Cheese with Capers on Toasted Pumpernickle

A Few Dips with Toasted Lavash

Roasted Red Pepper with Feta

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Italian Tuna Tapenade

A Smattering of Crostini

Sundried Tomato and Goat Cheese Crostini

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Blue Cheese with Sherry Soaked Raisins and Apples

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Olivade on Toast

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Triple Creme Cheese on Mini Toast with Fig Jam and Macarona Almonds

One Final Bite to Round out the Appetizer Buffet

Italian Mini Aram Sandwiches

In an effort to publicize her third book, Francesca organized an open house which I quickly tagged onto.

“I will make your appetizers and then also publicize my blog!” I told Francesca.  She was not only publicizing the rewrite of her Leather Fashion Design but was also promoting her new online fashion design instructional video business.

Amy, the budding oil painter, already claimed a spot saying, “You will definitely need art on the walls and it might as well be mine!”

Roberta got wind of our event and knew this venue would be a wonderful way to kick start her children’s book illustrations that she put on hold while raising  her family.

We reserved a spot in the lobby of the Priory’s Performing Art Center, invited our friends and then spent  some time creating the appetizer menu.  I wanted to highlight easy-to-make recipes that did not need to be heated and started with a smattering of appetizers using smoked salmon.

I love a bagel with cream cheese, capers, red onion and lemon and created two within this theme with a bit less bread.  The first uses a crepe as the vehicle to hold the flavors.  I make a cream cheese mixture with all of my favorite ingredients including lemon zest for that brilliant lemon flavor.  I spread the crepe with the cream cheese then layer a bit of salmon onto it and roll up the crepe to make a log.  At the time of serving, you just need to slice the crepe into 3/4 inch slices and serve.  A perfect make-ahead appetizer.


I then used the same smoked salmon and cream cheese and place them onto a toasted piece of pumpernickle cocktail bread.  The same flavor combination with a crunch.

My final medley of smoked salmon was a tartar with lemon zest, juice and diced pickled cucumber on a pickled cucumber round.  A perfect gulten free appetizer.

I always get rave reviews when I serve my Red Pepper Feta Dip, so of course needed to include this appetizer in our buffet.  I usually serve the dip with toasted lavash chips.

I also included my favorite olive tapenade  found in Reed Heron’s Rose Pistola Cookbook. He adds good quality jarred Italian tuna in olive oil to the tapenade along with a splash of cognac and lemon zest.  It is also wonderful on a toasted bagel for lunch the next day–if you have any left over.

Toasting bread and topping it with various spreads is also an easy appetizer.  I made three different types of crostini toppings all of which can be placed on a simple water cracker if you do not have time to make your own toasted bread.  These spreads are a wonderful way to start any dinner party.  The Goat Cheese with Sundried Tomatoes, Basil and Lemon Zest is an inspiration from one of my cooking mentors, Donna Nordin.  She chops her ingredients and combines them with the cheese; I use a food processor and blend the tomatoes into the cheese to create a red spread.  I like the color and the flavor.

Next is a Spanish Tapa from Penelope Casas’ cookbook, Deliciosos! The Regional Cooking of Spain. She takes Spanish blue cheese, Cabrales, and mixes it with Sherry soaked raisins, crunchy apples and toasted walnuts.  It is a mixture made in heaven–good enough to eat with a spoon.

My final spread is from Thomas Keller’s, Bouchon Cookbook, one of my favorites.  He takes farmer’s cheese which to me tastes like a sour, dry ricotta and mixes in chopped olives, red onion, chives and olive oil.  In the book Chef Keller serves it with fried zucchini blossoms but I think it is perfectly delicious on store bought mini toasts.

Since I had the mini toasts, I also included a simple appetizer that needs no pre-prep, just a knife to spread the triple creme cheese and spoon to dollop the fig jam.

I top this appetizer with a salty Spanish macarona almond for that perfect creamy, sweet, salty, crunch.

To add a bit of bulk to our table, in case our guests have no dinner plans, I made Italian aram sandwiches.  Whole Foods now sells pefectly retangular lavash bread that is great to bake for chips and top with various filling for an aram sandwich.  I made an Asian version for my beach luncheon and you can vary the filling to suit your mood and menu.  For the FAB 4 Open House I made an Italian version that I learned from my favorite cooking partner, Beth.  She takes goat cheese and mixes it with homemade basil pesto but good-quality store bought is a fine subsitute.  She usually has a few jars in her freezer along with tons of stock.  I love her freezer.  Beth then tops the lavash with good quality salami, sun dried tomatoes or roasted peppers, toasted pine nuts, marinated artichoke hearts and maybe a smattering of olives.

The key to making a perfect aram sandwich is to leave a boarder of only cream cheese at the top to allow you to seal the wrap with the goat cheese acting like glue.  Wrap tight then let it sit at least 4 hours to let the wrap meld together so they do not unwrap when you cut them.  You can even do this the night before.

The evening was a hit, I even signed up twenty five new people onto my blog so they can receive my newest entry when I post them.  I hope they are all wondering, “when will I get that appetizer post fromVirginia??”  Here I am!  I think all the appetizer recipes will be worth the wait!  Thank you for your patience!

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Pork Chops and Apple Sauce

This is my children’s favorite weeknight menu and brings them happily to the dinner table for a meal together.

With all the talk about the Tiger Mother’s approach to child rearing, have we forgotten the easiest way to teach our children manners, respect and responsibility??  Eat supper without distractions around your family dinner table!  My kids are who they are because we sat down most every night to a home-cooked meal, usually with extended family, guests or business associates. My husband and I always included our children in our evening meals, no matter who was invited.  We expected our children to entertain our guests as we put the finishing touches on our meal.  At our family dinner table, they learned manners as we endlessly reminded them to put their napkin on their laps, chew with their mouth closed and asked to be excused.  Respect was naturally taught as we served our guests first, waited until grandma sat down and let the person of honor at the table take the last piece of pie.  My husband one day bought a step stool and announced that we were no longer doing the dishes, the children were.  At a young age our children took on the responsibility of clearing the table, putting the leftovers away and properly washing the dishes.  To this day, they still fight over whose turn it is to do which job.  By having them join our guests at the table, they learned the art of conversation with adults.  The excuse of everyone being busy and not able to eat together did not fly in our home and we ate dinner many times after  baseball games that lasted until 8:30 pm.  “Eat a hardy snack,” I would remind the kids on those nights.  The dinner table was always our place to catch up on the day’s happenings.  To this day, our children love sitting around a dining table and are easily beckoned home because of it.

A Special Weeknight Menu

Pork Chop Milanesa with Applesauce

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Mashed Potatoes

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Peas

One of the weeknight meals our children are always ready to dig into is pork chops and apple sauce.  This recipe is from my mother who called the breaded fried pork chop Milanesa after the Italian version.    She was raised in Argentina, a melting pot of  European emigrants, many of them Italian.  While Milanesa is traditionally veal, I think pork is better, easier and less expensive.  It was a dish of her mother’s and one I cook only during the fall and winter months.  My children would eat it anytime of  year, but to me it is a cold weather menu.

The key to pork milanesa is coating the thinly cut or pounded fillet with fresh, good-quality French or Italian bread crumbs.  I save unused bread from an appetizer tray in the freezer to use for my bread crumbs.

I process the cubes until I get a large crumb.  The crumb coating is crunchy and crisp, so it’s different from using the fine-milled store bought version.  In a pinch I have used panko, but again, the fresh bread crumbs truly gives the chop a crunch factor important in Milanesa.

My second tip to a good fried pork chop is to fry them in a layer of well-heated oil.  You can test the oil by throwing a piece of bread crumb in the pan to see if it instantly sizzles.  I cook the chop just until the crumb browns.  Since the meat is so thin, it will always cook properly.

I always serve milanesa with homemade applesauce.  The best apples for applesauce are Gravenstein since they break down when cooked.  The other good option is Macintosh. Although they do not have the tartness of a Gravenstein, they do break down easily.  Golden delicious is my third option and they have a good flavor but need a bit of coaxing to soften.  The key to a good mush is to peel, quarter and core the apples and cook them in those quarters.  If you chop them in smaller pieces they somehow stay in small pieces and do not disintegrate.  I add a bit of triple sec or Gran Marnier, as my mother taught me, to help the apples cook.  Water or apple juice would work as well.  I also add sugar to taste but no cinnamon.  Cinnamon makes the sauce taste too much like apple pie filling for my liking.  If you prefer, you can have a shaker of cinnamon at the table for those who like that.  I also would never process or put my applesauce through a food mill since I like my sauce chunky.

Along with homemade applesauce, this meal is always served with mashed potatoes and peas.  No need for a sauce, the bite should include a bit of meat with the applesauce, mashed potatoes and peas, all together.  Maybe a few bites in between with just pork chops and applesauce- the applesauce is the gravy.

My mashed potatoes are some of the best I have tasted because I use cream or half and half and butter.   I also use Yukon gold potatoes for a richer consistency.  If you like a smooth puree use a potato ricer for a nice consistency without lumps.  Since I make this dinner in the fall and winter, I use frozen organic peas but please, if you make this in the spring, use fresh.  I have included a recipe for fresh peas just in case.

Since you have three last minute items with this menu, timing is important.  First, I make my applesauce and put it in the refrigerator and sometimes even the freezer since I like it cold.  I prep my meat and place the meat in the egg.  I peel my potatoes and put them to boil as I finish breading the chops.  While I let the egg dry on my breaded chops I make the mashed potatoes.  Mashed potatoes hold well if you do not fully cover them with your lid- you do not want your potatoes to steam.  If your potatoes cool while you are frying the chops, reheat them in the pan by stirring the potatoes constantly.  I put water in a small pot to boil my frozen peas and place the pot on a burner, take the peas out of the freezer and open the bag.  I then fry the pork chops.  Before I take out my second to the last batch of chops, I turn on the water for the peas.  I boil my peas as the last batch of chops are frying and then place the remaining chops into the oven to hold, reheat the potatoes if needed and place my peas in a serving bowl.  Once you place your potatoes and chops in serving dishes, you are ready to call the family.  Do not forget the applesauce!

No need to use the Tiger Mother’s tough love parenting techniques to raise your children properly. Just make them pork chops and applesauce and sit around your family table to enjoy the meal together.

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A Year in Review

Here are all my menus I was hoping to blog about this year. I think I was just too busy cooking to find the time to write. My goal for 2011 is a better balance between cooking and writing. Let’s see what my husband thinks!

If you could judge the goodness of a year by the quality of food served to family and friends, it has been a unbelievable year.  It was my hope to place all of these menus on my blog but I was too busy cooking!  It will be my goal this new year to place as many of these recipes as I can on the Taylor Made Menu recipe index so you too can have a great year of wonderful food!

I am fortunate to have wonderful people in my life to cook for.  It is Ivo’s birthday in January and he is luckily drawn back to the Bay Area from his home in his birthplace of Croatia to visit family AND a new grandson for the holidays.  I usually have no problem twising his arm to come to my kitchen to break bread with our family.  To prove to Ivo that we can still make good chow in the country he left only a few years ago, I pulled out some of my all time favorite recipes.  I started with Blinis and Smoked Trout and ended with Chocolate Mousse Torte.  In between we had Tomas Keller’s Peppered Filet with Horseradish Cream.  To see the entire menu and more pictures look here.

Since I was unable to attend the Mad Men party that Theo threw for her husband Michael, I invited them over for a dinner at our home in the city.  We started with Carrot Soup Shots, an amuse bouche of maple syrup, warm carrot soup and lightly whipped cream.  To raise the level of taste and texture, I place a few grains of coarse salt at the bottom.  You down the soup like a shot and the flavor combo of sweet sryup, savory soup and the crunch of salt is surprisingly good.

After our soup shot, I served homemade pasta with fresh black truffles from the mushroom stall at the Ferry Building Plaza.  Michael loves my sweet potato French fries so I served those with the peppered steak I made for Ivo (yes, this recipe became a 2010 cooking jag and may continue on to 2011) since it is so delicious and easy.  Michael is a chocolate nut, so I finished the dinner with Chocolate Pots de Creme, another easy but delicious recipe.

I was lucky enough to meet up with Ellen, an old friend from our children’s grammar school, and updated her on my food blog that I was still birthing at the time.  She used to take the cooking classes I offered at the Carey School auction and Ellen thought it might be fun to surprise Andrea, another former Carey parent, with a cooking class for her 50th birthday.  After planning the menu, gathering her close friends who also like to cook and creating a lie as to what the evening was about, we surprised her.  As Andrea walked in the door, I said a silent prayer that she would like the cooking class better than the lie they created.  Nevertheless, who would not like the menu we devised to celebrate her half way mark.

My goal was to teach them a few techniques that they could practice in their friend’s beautiful kitchen and started with Smoked Salmon Pinwheels that uses a crepe to contain all the flavors of bagels and lox in one without all the dough.  Women love that.  I have made thousands of crepes for my children’s breakfasts over the years and have that technique down.  I am also a good pasta maker and thought it would be fun for them to make Butternut Squash Ravioli with Sage Cream.

For the first course, I showed off how to braid a piece of filet of sole to create an interesting presentation for a delicious and simple appetizer, Braided Fish on Root Vegetable Escabeche.  I cook the vegetables in flavorful olive oil, white wine, champagne vinegar and a touch of sugar to create a base for this handsome fish.  We ended the evening with a Lemon-Almond Torte that is pictured on the menu and I promise to place the recipe in my index soon.

Next up was Easter and the rites of passage into spring.   My menu was filled with aspargus and artichokes, the queens of Spring.  I started with an Asparagus and Gruyere Tart with an Arugula Salad, kind of like a flat quiche in the best pastry dough you can imagine.

For dinner I made double cut lamb chops with a mustard sauce and eggplant risotto.  My sides were braised baby artichokes with red onions and glazed baby carrots.  The salad was oranges with fennel and nicoise olives.

For dessert, I made a lemon merinque tart.  I blind bake my Sweet Tart Dough, add in a layer of the Lemon Curd, top it with the Merinque Frosting and bake it at 400 degrees until brown, about 7 minutes.

For years it has been our tradition to host the end of the season sports parties for our children.  Starting with AYSO soccer, little league and then school sports, I would always invite the families to celebrate the games well played at our home instead of at a pizza parlour.  I would have the families bring drinks, appetizers and desserts while I supplied the dinner.  While I always make kid-friendly food, it was not your typical hamburgers and hotdogs.  This year for Katie’s year-end volleyball party I made barbequed pork ribs with expresso barbeque sauce, roasted chickens with mustard sauce, baked beans with salt pork, baked potatoes, Ceasar salad and mini corn muffins.  The parents of our volleyball team supplemented with more side dishes including a beautiful gazpacho salad that is shown in the bottom right hand corner of the picture.

A talented member of our school community and my good friend Francesca puts on an annual school fashion show with the kids not only as models but as fashion designers.  Francesca moved from Manhattan to a sleepy Bay Area community, leaving behind her coveted position at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She has kept her hands in the fashion world by writing books, designing uniforms for the United States Army, developing an online practical design and sewing school and teaching our children how to design and sew lines of clothes.  She literally turned down playing the roll Tim Gunn now has on Project Runway to mentor our students.  Last year the theme was International and she asked if I could do the pre-party food.  For Francesca, absolutely.

I decided to do stations which included Asian, American, Mexican, French and Indian.  The highlights were Chinese Chicken Salad served in to-go boxes:

Barbequed ribs, coleslaw and cornbread to channel American cuisine:

And Chicken Tinga Tacos (a recipe form my cooking mentor Marge) which combines stewed chicken thighs with chorizo, onions and tomatoes and topped with tomatillo salsa (I used the leftovers from this party to make Pozole), queso fresco and cilantro.  Trixie, a wonderful parent who is also a fantastic cook, made mini French quiches and naan to go along with the purchased petite fours and samosas to complete the French and Indian themes.  We fed three hundred guests in a little over an hour and had a few children who came back for fourths at the taco station.  Now that is what I call a successful recipe.

Each year I offer a cooking class for twenty for my children’s high school.  I have been doing this for over twelve years and LOVE teaching.  I dreamed of being a teacher as a child and had the smartest animals and dolls on the planet after my parents bought me a chockboard for Christmas.  I am now living my dream through teaching my friends to cook through these benefit affairs.  This year’s menu was focused on the bounties of the spring since I was doing the cooking class in April.  I used fresh peas in the suppli al telefono, grilled artichokes for an appetizer, asparagus in the soup and rhubarb in the dessert.  My guests walked away with some of my favorite recipes and when I get around to it, I will place ALL of them in my index!  I must remember I have only been blogging for five months so I need to save some of my favorite recipes for future posts.

My dear friend Lisa turned 50 and I just had to help her celebrate.  It was a great excuse to create a good party and to go to France since Lisa now lives in Provence in two wonderful homes; one hip apartment in the city

and one old farm house in the country.

I told my husband it would be a great excuse to give me some time to blog since time keeps slipping through my fingers.  To my surprise, here it is January and the post was never written up since we were too busy grocery shopping, cooking, eating and drinking.  Here is an example of one of our typical lunches:

While Beth and I made our way to Europe, we worked organizing ourselves to prepare Lisa’s  birthday party menu for 35.  The party was to get going in the afternoon so we started with dips and lavash chips:

Once most of the guests had arrived we offered the hot appetizers: Ham Croquettes and Suppli al Telefono, rice balls with a hunk of mozarella in the center rolled in fresh bread crumbs and fried.  Lisa wanted to do hot dogs for the kids but I said do not worry, they will love this food.  I had one child eat the rice balls uncooked.  I just was not cooking them fast enough for him.

We then set up a buffet of salad and two entrees: Pintade on top of Panzanella salad with a  Mustard Sauce and Grilled Steak with Shoe String Potato Salad with Arugula, Tomatoes and Roquefort.  Everyone went wild over the shoe string potatoes.  I had a women tell me she never eats like this and she LIVES in France.  I think that was the best compliment I have ever received.  To see all of the pictures of the food from the trip look at my rolling pictures on the menu.  You can click fast through them by hovering over the right side of the photo and clicking on the arrow.

The Woodside Priory Staff Appreciation Luncheon is a blast to organize and put on.  I handle the food and coordinate about 20 women to homemake and serve a luncheon for one hundred.  We have the event during finals when no lunch is served so we can treat the teachers and administrators to a special lunch in their own cafeteria.  The decoration team transforms the lunch room

while I work with my team to create a three course lunch including a buffet.  To see the complete menu, click here.

I literally left the teacher’s luncheon with my shopping list for Geoff’s Gradution Party that was held the following Saturday.  I ordered two hundred oysters from Hog Island Oyster Farm and picked up my goat from Pape’s Meat in Milbrae.  I made a green salt by processing all the herbs from my garden with sea salt, Thomas Keller style, and rubbed Mr. Goat inside and out with this fragrant mixture.

I was smart enough to order extra mini desserts for this party when planning the Teacher’s Luncheon so I only made four Apricot-Cherry desserts for the entire crowd of 50.  This is the same recipe as my Italian Prune-Almond Tart except I subsitute apricot halves for the plums and cherries for the raisins in the summer.  To round out the menu I had a tempura bar along with a few other appetizers, a smattering of salads, chicken marbella and grilled salmon.  Just follow the hyperlink to the complete menu and the pictures to go with it.

My next special dinner was Father’s Day.  We celebrated with the family and I started with a grilled shrimp salad including orange supremes and toasted almond slivers:

For the main course, I made mushroom raviolis that included a mixture of wild mushrooms folded in a chicken mousseline with a mushroom Madeira sauce.  To me, that is dinner in itself but I also served a barbecued veal chop and wilted spinach.

After Father’s Day comes David’s birthday and this year I talked him into my favorite way to celebrate: a dinner party!  I thought it would be fun to do Indian and made quail masala which is yogurt-marinated quail stuffed with Indian spiced rice with pine nuts and peas on a bed of Punjabi Cabbage and green beans stewed in tomatoes and various Indian spices. 

I started with Aloo Ki Tikki, a potato patty sold in street food stalls, Prawns Pakoras which is minced shrimp with besan flour and pomegranate seeds and Vegetable Bhaji,  a vegetable fritter.  I served the appetizers with mango and mint chutney.

For the first course I served a take on a Brasilian Vatapa recipe, Shrimp Vatapa Soup.  The soup consists of  coconut milk, serrano chilis, ground peanuts, cilantro and shrimp pieces in a shrimp broth.  Not Indian but I knew the flavors would be complimentary to the rest of the meal.  I ended the meal with Cherry Soup with Coconut Sorbet.  The menu and pictures are worth taking a look at.

My good friend Karen turned fifty this year and needed to celebrate a few times to get used to the idea.  The first event was a desination party in Hamilton, Montana, Karen’s childhood home and home of our good friends Quinty and Gordon.  Karen was interested in the recipes so I made a point to post the party and all the recipes.  It is a great summertime menu.

I came home from Montana and instead of heading up to the mountains for my normal summertime ritual, I began prepping for my nephew’s Nick and his girlfriend Amber’s engagement party.  My sister-in-law and I just had to have the opportunity to meet all of Amber’s family before the Memorial Day wedding so I cooked up a Mexican Feast to celebrate.  It is one of my classic party menus that everyone loves.

Over Labor Day weekend we have our annual progressive party for the homeowners of our mountain home community.  It is a true pot luck, with all of the guests (around eighty of them) bringing appetizers, sides, salads and dessert.  Our family always hosts the dinner portion of the party and I do the entrees and a hot side.  At our community 4th of July party that year, a few homeowners decided to cook a pig for everyone.  We usually have hamburgers and hot dogs but that was not enough for them.  Of course I applauded their culinary adventurism and became a pig busybody and talked them into giving me the bones of the pig for stock.  I used the stock to make an apple and pork belly risotto with our home grown gravenstien apples for the progressive party so the entire community could continue to enjoy the pig who gave his life for our enjoyment.  It was marvelous.

The joy of a big birthday is having numerous parties so all your friends can celebrate with you.  I was lucky enough to be included in two of Karen’s parties, the second one in San Francisco at the home of our good friend Jeannie.  The theme was Mad Men and the menu completely 60′s.  When Jeannie and I were discussing menu options, she was thinking TV trays and chicken pot pie while I was dreaming about John and Jacqueline Kennedy’s chef, Rene Verdon.  I have his cook book, Le Trianon and pulled together an elegant menu that even Jeannie liked to channel the Mad Men era.  We started with martinis and a few appetizers including steak tartar and potted salmon.  The first course was pan seared halibut, scallops and shrimp with julienne vegetables in a buerre blanc sauce with a pastry puff tile.

For the entree I cooked the pepper filet with a bernaise sauce on a bed of creamed spinach and potato crouquettes.  We finished with a flourless chocolate cake with creme anglaise.  Click here to see the entire menu plus more pictures.

Here is Karen’s darling thank you card: 

I am lucky enough to have my good friend as my business partner.  We both love to celebrate our birthdays and besides our usual luncheon that we do, I asked if I could cook a dinner for her.  I started with an appetizer we learned to make in Barcelona, Swiss Chard Raviolis with Bacon and Tomato Coulis.  This recipe uses a blanched swiss chard leaf as its pasta and marscapone cheese with raisins and pine nuts along with crips bacon as its filling.  After a quick trip to the oven to warm the cheese without melting it, I top the raviolis with a bit of fresh chopped tomatoes.  A very creative and absolutely delicious starter or pass around appetizer.

The first course was Seared Halibut and Scallops in a Fish Broth with a Fresh Corn Flan.  I was planning on doing the fish on a bed of pureed corn but I made it too loose so I added an egg or two and made the puree into a flan.  A mistake that created a wonderful dish.

Since I never took a picture of Karen’s entree, I made her entree with the steak, creamed spinach and potato croquettes.  Dessert was one of my staples, German Apple Cake, the recepie coming from my sister-in-law, Kathy.  For the total menu and all pictures, click here.

My next event was The Day at the Beach Luncheon, an annual luncheon I offer as an auction item for my kid’s high school.  I actually have a post with all the recipes for this luncheon, just follow the link.

Taffy turned double nickels this year and her friends organized a girls trip to New York, right in the middle of the Day at the Beach Luncheon.  I was disappointed that I could not celebrate with her and all of her fun friends so asked if I could do a dinner party for her.  Her fall birthday menu and the evening itself was one of my favorites of the year.  I did a four course menu with two appetizers to start: fig crostini with goat cheese prosiutto and balsamic vinegar and smoked salmon pinwheels.  It was a surprisingly easy meal to pull off for fourteen and I truly think everyone loved it.  The highlight was a caramelized plum salad with grilled Greek Manouri cheese in a vinaigrette that uses the caramalized juices from the plums.  This salad makes me dream of summer when plums are back in season!  Please see the entire menu for all the dishes and again, more pictures.

After the fun I had giving Taffy’s birthday party, I thought I would thow myself a birthday party, make what I love and invite a few of my loyal eaters.  I decided to try to confit a goose, looked at various websites and even emailed one wild game expert about his technique.  I cured the goose legs in the traditional salt rub but added orange zest as suggested by my wild game expert.  I was planning on doing the goose two ways, pan searing the breast and confiting the leg and serving that with the traditional goose fat fried potatoes.  I made goose stock for an orange jus and then got cold feet.  I ended up using the legs in a salad with oranges and pomegranates and made Short Ribs with Port Wine Sauce with Mashed Potatoes and Roasted Vegetables instead.  A safe bet.

I made the duck breast that I originally had for my birthday party menu, for dinner a few nights before the party and they were outrageous. The goose cooked up perfectly medium rare and  I loved the orange jus.  I had nothing to worry about my original menu and could have easily pulled off that menu but the one I ended up with was almost as good.  I started with butternut squash ravioli, then the goose confit salad, the short rib entree and finished with a light version of persimmon pudding.  This menu screams of late fall.

November is my favorite month: my birthday then Thanksgiving.  I had a few moments to write a post about one of my favorite holidays and look forward to writing up my recipes when time allows.

My son was born on my Dad’s 65th birthday, on December 24th.  As Europeans, we always opened our presents on Christmas Eve and my dad always received one gift for both his birthday and Christmas.  He never complained but I vowed to never do that to him and now Geoff again.  On Geoff’s first birthday, I started a tradition to have a big birthday party for my dad and Geoff and beside the year we were in Barcelona and one year my dad was sick, we have all celebrated Christmas Eve in true birthday party style.  I never cook traditional Christmas fare but let Geoff pick the menu.  While I was hoping for Moroccan this year, Geoff was pleading for Carribean so we settled on Cajun.  I made a tangerine sorbet for vodka cocktails to start and chicken gumbo with herbs that Michael said were the best two items he has ever tasted.  Michael is one of my friends who loves my food and lets me know it: he is always invited back.  He is a smart man.

In the rush of serving 30 people, I did not have a moment to take pictures of my food but still have a menu for you to review along with a few pictures of all of us.  This will definitely be a menu I will cook again so will take pictures then and add them to this menu.

Somehow it seems hard to be able to beat last year food wise but I will do my best to try in 2011.  I have a few events already underway that I hope to blog about including a benefit dinner with Michael Bauer as one of the special guests.  I wonder if he will critique my food!

If any of you would like one of the recipes from the menus above that are not on my website yet, let me know and I will write up that one first.  Please do not be shy to ask, I need that gentle nudge.

May 2011 be filled with many wonderful memories around your dinner table.

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The Christmas Cookie Tradition

Here are my 2010 favorites cookies that made the cut and the recipes to go along with them. Now you can start your own Christmas cookie tradition!

In our home, Christmas is all about tradition.  Trying something different throws my family off kilter.  The year we lived in Barcelona created some challenges around Christmas time.   Decorating for Christmas with no Christmas decorations was interesting.  I ended up using our beautifully wrapped presents as decoration, placing them is groups around our living room.   Normally our Christmas presents miraculously appear on Christmas morning so having the kids see their presents displayed around the house did not work for them.  “Put blinders on when you go into the living room,” I would say. The present decoration technique was festive enough to break tradition, at least for one year.

Getting a Christmas tree that year was an adventure.  I went to my local nursery and in my best Spanish told them the type and size of tree I was looking for.  They took me to the Christmas tree room, a small warehouse with hundreds of trees completely wrapped up to look like green logs.  He maneuvered around in this grove of vertical sticks and came out with one that looked to be the right height.  He took the time to properly untie the twine and voila–it was my perfect tree.  I did my best to ask for a delivery the next day in a proper Christmas tree stand.   The next day, two delivery men arrived with my tree stuck in a pot with what looked like cement.  I thought it must be some special absorbent type of material that you could water on a daily basis to keep the tree fresh but no, the tree was stuck in a pot full of cement.  I made the decision to tell my husband about this after Christmas.  It would ruin the enjoyment of the tree for him if he had to think about taking a ten foot tree that was stuck in a thirty-pound bucket of cement down eight sets of stairs.

I never considered making cookies in Barcelona.  I had no mixer or proper cookie sheets and all of my recipes were back at home, not to mention the sugar in Spain was like coarse sand.  I never made an announcement about the cookies, I just assumed everyone understood it was quite impossible.  When it was the middle of December and I had no cookies in the freezer my family became suspicious and announced: Christmas will not be Christmas without Christmas cookies.  Forget the present thing, or no decorations or a  funky tree in a pot of cement, it was the cookies that created that special Christmas feel for my family.  I borrowed a mixer and cookie sheets from my girlfriend Elizabeth, had my business partner back home break into our home and grab a few of my recipes, and I made about 400 cookies.  As I handed out our treats to our neighbors, I told them that all American women make cookies and give them out as Christmas gifts.  You see, I was an ambassador for the American housewife.

I have been making Christmas cookies, lots of them, for over 30 years.  I give them as gifts to my family, friends, neighbors, mailman, gardeners, butchers, produce guys and whomever I  happen to see during December.  I have had to console friends who were worried I was mad at them since they missed out on their annual batch.  I do this cookie making only in December–you will never find a homemade cookie in my home at any other time of the year since I’m too burnt out from making the few thousand during Christmas.  I make around ten different types and make two double batches of each and freeze the dough.  I try to start in November but do my best to have the dough complete by the first week in December.  Then I bake the cookies and eat way to much raw cookie dough in the process.  My family actually rates my cookies in the cooked state and in its raw state.  I always make at least one new type of cookie each year and am on the hunt for that new recipe throughout the year.  This year Diana, who gave me the cupcake recipe, stated she had a recipe for the best cookie ever, a brown butter, Brown Sugar Cookie and I knew that would be in this year’s lineup.  It is an absolute keeper, and it has risen to my number one raw favorite.

I bake half of the cookies and put them in my freezer, give those out and then bake the second half.  As of Sunday the 19th, I am done with cookies until December 2011.  I now eat them like daily medicine.  In January I will go on a diet.

I made ten different types of cookies this year. Eight of them are my standards:

Date nuggets, David’s favorites.

Kentucky Spice, a jam-filled spice cookie that is my dear friend Terry’s favorite.  Poor Terry has missed out on my cookies for the past few years.  Stop on by Terry, I have a bag in the freezer for you!  By the way Terry, I am not mad at you.

Almond-Apricot Biscotti, a recipe I stole from my assistant Ninette in the 90′s and has been in my cookie line up every year since.  My Uncle Ed thinks I should go into the cookie business with these biscotti.

Everyone loves my Mexican Wedding Cake cookies.  I place them in the powdered sugar when they are piping hot so the powdered sugar melts onto the cookie.

My Peanut Butter and Chocolate Jewels are my favorite.  This new cookie from last year has that perfect sandy texture plus a good bite of chocolate, like a cookie and candy in one.


I have been making the Orange Poppy Seed cookies since the early 80′s.  They are quick to cook and remind me of a vanilla wafer on orange steroids.

If I ever got rid of my Coconut Dreams, I think my family and friends would have a mini riot.  Even people who are not fond of coconut love this cookie.  It is a runner up in its raw state.

My mother’s favorite was the Almond Crisps.  She was not interested in having any of my other cookies; all she wanted were the crisps!  Every year I would make an extra batch of these cookies for her.


This year I made two new cookies and both of them will be in my permanent cookie lineup.  The first I already mentioned, the Brown Sugar Cookies. The other is Chocolate Clouds, a chocolate chip cookie.  I make the traditional Toll House chocolate chip every year but received a new baking book for my birthday and the book had this cookie recipe in it.  I love the flat and crinklely look of this cookie.  Another runner up in the raw dough category.

I am in the process of writing up all of the recipes for my cookies and you can find the recipe by clicking on the name of each cookie.  I should be completely done with the recipes after Christmas.  I will give you my tips on how to make the perfect cookie for your friends and family.  Each one of these recipes are delicious and worth trying.  Just ask my friends.

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