Friday, July 22, 2011

The Elixir of Life

A true silver lining!
Don’t you love road trips? 

Getting away from home gives a bright new perspective on where our lives are headed.  And they open us to surprising new sensory adventures.

If you read my blogs regularly you know I’m a sucker for silver linings.  Luckily my camera was close by as we drove into Sedona, Arizona, only seven hours driving time from home, where I captured a silver lining for real. 

The cathedral-like buttes shimmer like fire in the setting sun.
The surrounding red rock country seems familiar to visitors because the scenery has starred in so many Westerns from the 40s and 50s, and in current SUV commercials.  The cathedral like formations truly seem to catch fire in the late afternoon sun.
Cactus near our room at Poco Diablo
Ted and I checked into a patio room on the golf course at Poco Diablo Resort, where we had some unusual visitors.  [See video]

Our reason for travel was to spend time with Rama Vernon (who I will write about in another blog).  Rama surprised us by suggesting we visit a great Sedona restaurant Cucina Rustica, where she might be able to arrange for us to meet the chef.   Little did we know we would be in for one of the great restaurant experiences of our lives. 

I had just finished reading about Lisa Dahl’s cookbook in a magazine in our room.  The title, The Elixir of Life, captured my imagination—it just sounded like a celebration.  I loved this woman’s passion and imagination!  I’d even tried to order the book online, her own website said it would be not be available until august. 

Lisa Dahl
That evening, every taste in our dinner was a grand surprise.  Some people just have more taste buds than others and when they cook their food is over the top delicious.  We began with a bowl of Korean peppers that are mild and tangy and unique.  I’d never heard of Shishito peppers before. She served them lightly blistered and salted.  Divine!

For our second first course we shared Radicchio rolled with Croatian fig marmalade and mozzarella cheese wrapped in proscuitto and "grilled to perfection" then drizzled with a balsamic glaze.  Out of this world!

The restaurant had copies of the cookbook and it has become one of my top five favorites, sparking a whole new passion for cooking at home.  I’ve made no less than 12 recipes and have learned a technique or a flavor tip in every one of them.  

Ribollita (vegetable soup)
The soups are spectacular and since each recipe makes about three quarts, my freezer is stocked for easy suppers.   I made the Spicy Guadalajara Soup with Avocado and the Cream of Celery and Leek, and almost all of her salad dressings.

Ted is quite addicted to the spicy pecans pictured here with a great Exotica Salad with Shallot-Dijon Elixir.


For 2 cups

Lisa says “Try making these with your favorite flavor combinations:  Bourbon and walnuts?  Kahlua and pecans? . . ."

2 cups pecans, or other nut halves
3 tablespoons Amaretto or Grand Marnier liqueur
½ teaspoon (I used ¼) cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup sugar
Bake the nuts at 350 degrees for 5 minutes for extra crunch.  Allow to cool and place them near the stove.

Combine the liqueur, cayenne and salt in a small bowl and stir to dissolve.  Place the bowl near the stove.

Melt the sugar in a large non-stick skillet, shaking it to distribute the sugar evenly.  Careful not to burn around the edges.  The sugar will liquefy quickly—be ready!  When the sugar has just liquefied, pour in the liqueur mixture and stir.  The liquid will cause the melted sugar to sizzle, foam, and seize up a bit.  

Let it calm down for a moment and become almost liquefied again, then toss in the nuts.

Quickly turn the turns to coat them all over, then slide them out of the skillet onto a piece of parchment paper [separating quickly with 2 forks].  When they are cool enough to handle, separate the clumps into individual nuts.

TO PREPARE IN ADVANCE:  Glazed nuts keep well for a few days in a sealed jar at room temperature, "unless you munch them all up while bustling around the kitchen."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thai Smile!

fMemories of a Thai smile last a long, long time. . .

Smiles, heads bowing, hands in prayer--staff members greeted us with the traditional Thai welcome Sawat-dii kha (for women), Sawat-dii khrap (for men).  We were entering the lobby of the hotel reputed to be the best in the world, the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok, for a four day stay.  
The grace and welcome of the Thai people have remained in our hearts.

Performance by Thai dancers at dinner time
Breakfast buffets so colorful and generous.

Food displays throughout the Peninsula Hotel

My romance with Thai cooking was born there.  In a hotel cooking class I learned the flavors in Thai cuisine are balanced to maintain harmony in a dish.  Thus the mildly hot sharpness of chiles and spices in a curry dish is toned down with the sweetness of coconut cream, which also enhances the tastes of other delicate ingredients and herbs such as lemon grass and fresh mint.  I was hooked!
One of the first things I did on our return was to head to the nursery to buy a kaffir lime tree for a pot on our patio, as the leaves add a delicious flavor to so many Thai dishes.  (Leaves can be purchased, of course, in Asian markets, and you may substitute the grated skin of one lime, or more to taste, in today's recipe.)

Some class ingredients found in Bangkok were not available here though, and I was truly delighted when my friend, author/speaker Peter McGugan introduced me to the Thai Smile Restaurant in Palm Springs, where my favorite soup was the best I ever tasted.  They were followed by Angel Wings, crispy stuffed turkey wings with a vinegar/chile/cucumber sauce.
Tom Kha Gai (chicken soup with coconut)
served in a firepot
"Angel wings" stuffed with cellophane noodles

A photo on the wall carries a message of praise from Martha Stewart--she orders the beef salad.
 Thai Smile restaurant was created in 1993 by Yim Priddy (yim means "smile" in Thai).  In 1996, Yim's son Mai and his wife Noi, who ran a Thai restaurant in Boston, moved to Palm Springs to help Yim run things.  They love to accommodate customers by preparing dishes to special tastes and diets.  Noi generously welcomed us and shared their family "secret" recipe, revealing even the brand names, so it is a cinch to make this recipe at home in only minutes.  

Is the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok the best in the world?  It gets my vote.  And Thai Smile gets my vote for my favorite Thai food in California.  Join me in making their quick and easy soup a favorite in your home, or meet me in Palm Springs.  
Let's meet there one day soon!

Thai Chicken Soup with Coconut 

“Tom Gha Gai”

For 4 first course servings

16 ounces chicken broth, homemade or canned

4 to 5 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (or zest of one fresh lime, grated)

4 to 5, 2-inch pieces fresh lemongrass, bruised to release flavor

1-inch cube (or a bit more) fresh galangal (from an Asian market), or 1 teaspoon dried galangal.  (See Note)

¼ cup fish sauce 

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

4 ounces raw chicken breast sliced into bite-size pieces, or shredded roast chicken

5 fluid ounces coconut milk

½ tablespoon prik pao (Thai chili paste in oil—the brand they use, and that I ordered on Amazon, is Pantainorasingh)

Coriander (cilantro) leaves to garnish

Sliced fresh mushrooms, optional

NoteI was able to find dried galangal at the Savory Spice Shop.  It may be easily ordered online. 

Heat the chicken stock in a medium saucepan.  Stir in the sliced kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, lemongrass, galangal, Fish sauce and lime juice.  Stir thoroughly, bring to a simmer, then add the chicken, coconut milk and chile paste.  Return to a simmer.  Add some sliced mushrooms and simmer 2 minutes longer, just until chicken is cooked through.  Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve hot.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Living requires such courage at times.

I am loving two very honest and courageous books right now, both dealing with today's financial challenges:

Sarah Ban Breathnach's new book Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity focuses on her own personal path. She relates never-before revealed details about how she fell from the financial top to the bottom and proves she understands the plight of those trying to maintain a happy and comfortable home, while at the same time not even knowing if they will be able to make the mortgage to keep that home.

Roth's Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money is an absolutely riveting tale of how she lost her life savings to Bernie Madoff and the deep transformation that brought to her life.

In my own life, I remember that it was the hard times that taught me the most, and that brought out the best in me. So, I find it comforting that these talented authors are willing to share their struggles and lessons.

And, let's face it, we are all experiencing the effects of today’s economy.

So, here is my favorite solution--making at least seven (yes 7!) gourmet meals out of a single Costco rotisserie chicken.

Do you know how delicious these are? Even Julia Child had high praise for them! They are "brined" (soaked in salt water for plumpness and juiciness) and then roasted to a goodness it is almost impossible to duplicate at home. AND, they are only $4.95. So, yes, that is 7 servings for less than $.75 apiece.

Be sure to slice the chicken as soon as you get home while it is still warm. Use a serrated knife and hold it steady with a fork while you slice 4 even slices from each breast, reserving skin and bones.

See how the slices look along with all the dark meat I have pulled off by hand, and then drizzled with the drippings in the pan. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Sometime in the next 5 days you can use these slices to make 4 delicious sandwiches. (I like using a honey raspberry mustard, mayo, sliced cheese, sliced fresh tomato and lettuce. (You can freeze these sandwiches without the lettuce and tomato if you substitute butter for mayo. They thaw very quickly and are handy for “What’s to eat around here?” moments.)

Place the skin in a soup pot along with all the bones when you are done. You will then add cold water to cover by an inch or two, an onion, a squashed clove of garlic if you like, some parsley stems and a little salt. Simmer for two hours, then let cool slightly and pour through a colander into a bowl to cool completely. Chill overnight. The fat will have congealed on the surface, so you can just spoon that off and throw it away (unless you have low cholesterol and like browning things like hash browns in chicken fat).

You will love how rich, flavorful and gelatinous this broth is from being simmered with bones.Freeze it, or use as a base for soup or sauces.

In this photo I mixed some of the thigh and leg meat pieces with a jar of Salsa Chile Verde from Trader Joe's that I stirred into a bit of butter, flour and chicken broth, seasoning to taste. This was inspired by Ted's favorite meal at the Pearl Restaurant in Napawhere we love to sit at the counter and watch the two chefs prepare all the orders. It is served with polenta. (The real one is pictured below.)

Or, sometimes I make a Chicken Salad by shredding the chicken and tossing it into a salad of torn lettuce, crumbled bleu cheese, dried cranberries and toasted almonds with a light dressing.


For 4 servings

This is so good, and ready to serve in minutes!

A drizzle of olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1-2 cups vegetables from the fridge like 2 stalks of chopped celery, sliced baby carrots, sliced sugar snap peas, frozen peas or corn.

1 clove garlic, minced

3/4 cup white wine or dry vermouth

8 cups rich chicken broth (from method above, or use canned)

3/4 cup macaroni or other small pasta

shredded dark meat of 1 rotisserie chicken

Fresh minced herbs and salt to taste

Heat oil in a large saucepan. Stir in onion and minced vegies. Cook covered for about 5 minutes over medium heat. Stir in garlic briefly, then add wine. Cook until almost evaporated then add broth. Bring to a boil and add pasta, cooking until just tender. Stir in shredded chicken and fresh herbs and salt to taste.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Light your own candle!

There is a secret to having the best birthday ever.

The secret? No one can create it but you!

So, invite fascinating people to join you in celebrating.

Why leave your birthday up to others? When we do so we create expectations in ourselves and sheer dread in those around us.

Really? Ask people to celebrate you?

Yes! Do you remember being an outsider in your youth? The times in the school yard when you felt excluded? Didn’t you wish to be included?

It has taken me all these years to learn a tough lesson—I now know that the path to feeling included is to simply INCLUDE! Invite people to join you. Not all will accept your invitation (their loss, NEXT!), but most people you most want to know will surprise you by saying yes. Most will feel honored you asked.

Last week, on my birthday, (March forth--the only command in the year!), I realized I wanted to do something truly memorable. Ted and I were planning to be in the Bay Area, and I began to think of who I knew there. The first who came to mind was one of my writer heroes Kim Rosen, author of Saved by a Poem.

Wouldn’t it be great if she would join us for lunch? I wondered. So, I sent her an email and she said “Yes, what fun!”

That success spurred me to remember what a great fan I am of Roger Housden, author of many of my favorite books (click on his name for a list) who lives in Sausalito. Kim had mentioned once that she knows him, so I asked for his email and invited him to join us as well. He said, (Guess what!) "YES!"

For the next week I had the best birthday lunch imaginable to look forward to!

Kim suggested a restaurant new to us, Piatti in Mill Valley, with a view of the bay.

Here are dishes from their lunch menu:

My main course was this Salmone: blackened Loch Duart Salmon with Yukon gold potatoes, roasted asparagus and Meyer lemon beurre fondue.

The company, conversation and cuisine were beyond my imaginings!

Now, what if I hadn’t had the courage to ask?

Can we afford any half-heartedness in the time remaining to us?

~Roger Housden

For 1 cup

This divine dipping sauce served as the beginning of our breaking crusty bread together. It remains my favorite taste of the meal!

6 ounces EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil)
1 ounce Balsamic vinegar (See note)
1 clove garlic, minced
a sprinkling of fresh minced parsley
Salt, freshly ground pepper, and red chile flakes, to taste

Note: Some of the best chefs I know swear by the Trader Joe brand.

Whisk together all ingredients and pour into dish for dipping. Serve with slices of crusty bread.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Give back your heart to itself . . .

How did your five-year-old love to play? Did you make up games? What were they? What did you truly love?

Yesterday, speaking on the subject of Life as a Work of Heart, I asked this question of my audience. Gradual smiles softened their faces as they remembered.

In mid-life, this very self-inquiry changed my life. I realized it wasn’t food preparation that had led me into my long career in cooking and entertaining; it was the result—the gathering of people around the table in celebration, in sharing ideas, in connection! And so I then reinvented what I was doing and my career turned into something infinitely more satisfying.

Will you take a moment to recapture what gave you joy? Where did your inborn love lead you?

(Above is a Sprinkles Red Velvet Cupcake for your five-year-old. You can keep them in the freezer--they thaw in only a few minutes for an afternoon treat for yourself or when a friend drops in.)

It is so important to pay attention to what our hearts tell us. These words from the poem Love After Love by Derek Wolcott (click on the title for the whole poem), remind us of the deep meaning of our lives.

. . .love again the stranger who was your self. 

. . . Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 

for another, who knows you by heart. 

Here is a great Valentine gift for yourself. Marci Shimoff's new book, Love For No Reason is an astonishing teaching of the experience of pure love for its own sake. What I call Divine Love. Truly, every page is filling my heart with joy!

And, what better time of year, when hearts as a symbol of love are everywhere, to use something we take very much for granted, fresh strawberries, as a sign of celebration? This is so easy. I hope you will love it!

Goat Cheese with Roasted Sunflower Seeds,

Strawberry Hearts and Honey

Small log of goat cheese

Roasted sunflower seeds (can use honey-roasted)

Strawberry slices

Honey to drizzle over all

Serve at room temperature with thinly sliced bread or crisp crackers

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Groundhog Day!

It sure doesn't feel like it, but the groundhog says we are in for an early Spring!

With two-thirds of the US snowed in, it would seem a risky call.

This photo by Melissa Farlow is from an article in National Geographic that informs me he is also known as a woodchuck or marmot. Did you know that? Did you know he has been right 24 out of his last 30 predictions?

A fun weather blog I found this morning shows how outrageous this forecast is.

The poet Lynn Ungar in her poem, Groundhog Day, asks:

Celebrate this unlikely oracle,

this ball of fat and fur,

whom we so mysteriously endow

with the power to predict spring.

Let's hear it for the improbable heroes who,

frightened at their own shadows,

nonetheless unwittingly work miracles.

Why shouldn't we believe

this peculiar rodent holds power

over sun and seasons in his stubby paw?

Who says that God is all grandeur and glory?

Early Spring or not, I'm ready!

Nothing says "Spring is here" more than bright bundles of fresh asparagus just hitting the markets. For the best recipe I know, I head for Sarah Leah Chase's COLD-WEATHER COOKING, an appropriately named and favorite cookbook I've cherished for years.



Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard,

1 small clove garlic, finely minced

½ cup fruity olive oil

6 cherry or grape tomatoes, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 pounds medium asparagus trimmed and bottom portions of stalks peeled (See Note)

1/3 cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese

Note: Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus spears where they naturally break. Use a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to peel the bottom 3 inches of the stalk.

1. For the vinaigrette, whisk the vinegar, lemon juice and mustard together in a small bowl. Add the garlic. Gradually whisk in the olive oil, then stir in the diced tomato. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let mellow at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

2. Blanch, steam, or microwave the asparagus just until crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain. Arrange the hot asparagus on a serving platter and our the vinaigrette over all. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Let sit at least 10 minutes before serving. The asparagus may be served warm or at room temperature. I often make it about 30 minutes ahead of serving and let it sit while I attend to the rest of my meal.