Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spring Is In the Air

Here in California, spring has arrived. Despite the muggy weather we've experienced this past week, temperatures have been unusually high and summer feels like it's on its way. Flowers are blooming...

...birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and the grass is little greener – but, the grass isn’t the only thing that’s greener.

Dark, leafy greens and other green veggies, complimented by refreshing bursts of citrus and sweet fruits now fill our markets.  

The arrival of spring brings with it a variety of new seasonal and delicious produce including:

artichokes, asparagus, beets, lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, strawberries, and tangerines.

Fruits and vegetables eaten at their peak of season are truly satisfying and can help you feel your best. With the sun’s rays getting a little more intense and with days at the beach just around the corner, keeping your skin and hair hydrated, and your energy level high are especially important this time of year.  

Many of spring’s seasonal selections provide these hidden benefits.

Spinach, and other dark, leafy greens contain carotenoids, antioxidants that reduce skin’s inflammation from the sun and help to prevent wrinkles. The vitamins A and C in greens keep your hair shiny and healthy by helping your hair follicles produce sebum, the body’s natural hair conditioner. Greens are also rich in magnesium and folate, both of which help boost energy and reduce depression. Spinach is the perfect healthful addition to pastas, frittatas, or refreshing spring salads.

Strawberries, tangerines, and other foods rich in Vitamin-C are not only thirst-quenching and cooling, they promote absorption of iron, an energy-promoting mineral available in your dark, leafy greens. Vitamin-C, which is an essential building block of collagen helps to reduce wrinkles and skin dryness caused by the sun and also helps to reduce feelings of stress. One cup of strawberries or approximately two tangerines gives you 100% of your daily dose of vitamin C.

Mushrooms are often recognized for their contribution to flavor and texture in recipes, but are rarely given credit for their nutritive benefits. In fact, mushrooms are high in vitamin B, which is essential for energy metabolism, helping to keep you bright-eyed from dawn till dusk. Mushrooms also boast high levels of selenium, a vitamin that aids in the formation of antioxidants which help to fight off cancer. Enjoy the variety and versatility of mushrooms grown in California – button, portabella, chanterelle, porcini, shitake, and truffle – just to name a few.

And now, for a recipe.

This recipe makes for the perfect weekend brunch. The combination of herbs with the lavender gives this frittata a lot of flavor, and the Greek yogurt with a lemon zest provides a delicious & refreshing topping.

2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 pound assorted wild mushrooms, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
4 tablespoons fresh chives, finely chopped, divided
½ teaspoon culinary lavender, ground
12 large eggs
2 cups fresh baby spinach
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon lemon zest

Preheat broiler.

Heat a 10-inch non-stick and oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in skillet. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally until mushrooms are browned. Add salt, thyme, parsley, 2 tablespoons chives and lavender. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, mushroom mixture, spinach and black pepper.

Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in skillet over medium heat. Add egg mixture and cook until beginning to set, lifting the edges to let uncooked egg run underneath.

When the bottom has set, place the skillet under the broiler and cook about 1 minute, until top is golden and puffed. Be careful not to overcook, or the frittata will be tough.

Remove from oven and let cool.

Stir together the Greek yogurt and lemon zest.

To serve, cut the frittata into wedges, top with a dollop of lemon yogurt and a sprinkling of reserved chives.

These seasonal tips & recipe were featured in last month’s Health & Wellness Guide for
The Santa Clarita Valley Signal. For more “In Season” tips & recipes us, pick up the next issue of The Health & Wellness Guide on June 8th. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Our Favorite Kitchen Tools

In last week’s post, we tried to take away some of your fear of experimenting in the kitchen.  We’ve both had our share of kitchen disasters.  But really, that’s part of learning anything new.  To be good at anything—ice skating, speaking French, singing Hey, Soul Sister at the top of your lungs—takes practice.  We know.

While we firmly believe you don’t have to have a lot of fancy, expensive gadgets in your kitchen, there are a few tools that make cooking a lot quicker and easier—and even more healthy and delicious.

Here are our favorites.  We hope you try them, and let us know about your kitchen successes (or failures!).  We can all learn from each other.

First, start with a good knife.  Have you ever tried to cut through an onion with a dull, flimsy knife?  Disaster.  And dangerous!  Buy the best you can afford.  Take care of it, (don’t put it in the dishwasher!) and it will last a lifetime. 

A 7" Santoku knife happens to be a favorite, but choose one that fits your hand well.  Hint:  check out Costco for good deals on knives.

Next to a good knife, a microplane is the other top kitchen essential.  Use the microplane to zest lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits or other citrus to add a ‘pop’ to your salad dressings, sauces, marinades, dry rubs…the list goes on. We add zest to almost everything—savory or sweet—because it ups the flavor without added salt or extra fat.  Not that we’re against fat. 

A salad spinner (especially in a fun color!) makes washing greens and herbs a cinch.  Wash your greens when you get home from the grocery, and then wrap them in a paper towel and store them in a plastic container or bag in the refrigerator.  You’re more likely to eat them if they are washed and ready for you!

Good quality, heavy cookware makes cooking easier.  You’re less likely to burn your dinner if you have a thick-bottom pan.  And cast iron cookware—like Le Creuset—heats evenly, holds heat well and can easily go from the stovetop to the oven.  It’s not cheap, but it will last a lifetime.  Buy one piece at a time, as you can. 

Not to mention, it’s pretty.  You’ll look impressive in the kitchen, even if you don’t have a clue about what you’re doing. 

A KitchenAid stand mixer is not essential, but definitely put it on your lifetime wish list.  And it’s not just for making cookies (although creaming butter and sugar has never been easier).  With attachments like the pasta roller and meat grinder, it will greatly increase what you can do in the kitchen.  Just wait until you make your first burger with meat you grind yourself! 

A digital food scale has so many uses. For perfect baking results, measure your dry ingredients by weight.  And using the scale to measure things like nuts or pasta can also help you become familiar with what one serving size looks like.

Liquid measuring cups are obviously essential for measuring, but they’re also great for making salad dressings, dips or sauces.

Glass bowls in a variety of sizes keep you neat and organized in the kitchen. We especially love ones with lids to help you take leftovers straight into the fridge, or transport food without spilling.

If you haven’t noticed, we love to be organized! These glass jars from the Container Store are chic and affordable.  They are perfect for dry food storage, and the mouth of the jar is wide enough to scoop flour inside the jars, eliminating spills.

Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Burning Marshmallows Does Not Mean Your Life is Over

I’m planning my next trip to Bellingham and I couldn’t be more excited to spend time with my partner-in-crime. There are a countless number of reasons why I love my friendship with Lisa – including, and not limited to the fact that she tells me when I have spinach in my teeth. That, is a true friend!

When I’m in her company, we also spend a lot of time together in the kitchen and I get to enjoy some of her amazing creations – because Lisa is a truly wonderful cook.

My love of being in the kitchen started early. And I’m still perfecting my kitchen skills...

I remember being seven years old and when my friend, Brittany came over for the day and asked what I wanted to do, I replied, “Make brownies?”

So we did.

The result was a batch of brownies as hard as hockey pucks.

Later that day, after we climbed on the roof of my shed and I wiped away my tears, I remember her saying, “They weren’t so bad.”

They were.

I’ve been blessed with really good friends.

Fast forward to 7th grade and my fist Home Economics class. For the first class, we were instructed to make Rice Crispy Treats because they’re “impossible to mess up.”


I burned the marshmallows and the entire class filled with smoke.

There are a few moments I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that everything was going to be okay. This is one of those moments.

I would tell myself this:
burning marshmallows does not mean your life is over.

Today, I still love being in the kitchen. I continue to make mistakes, but I’ve also hit some home runs. Nothing is a greater compliment than when my grandma calls to request a recipe of something I’ve made, when my brother asks if I can help him with dinner when I visit home, or when my mom refers to me as “The World’s Greatest Cook.”

While they are all very biased, I have a few lessons I’d like to share so you can have more good experiences in the kitchen than not-so-good ones.

Here they are:

#1. Master a few really good recipes. If you’re like me, you may be overly ambitious. Rather than trying to become Julia Childs or Martha Stewart overnight, try your hand at a few simple and delicious recipes – and master them. When the pressure’s on, I know I can turn to Ina’s Lemon Chicken, Rachel’s Pasta Carbonara, and Cynthia’s Luscious Beet Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds. Since mastering a few favorite recipes, I’ve made my own variations, which leads me to tip #2.

#2. Be bold, be fearless, and don’t be afraid to fail. Once you’ve mastered a few favorite dishes, then the fun really begins. Experiment with spices, seasonings, and herbs. Not only will you discover what flavors you really love, you’re kitchen confidence will go through the roof.

#3. Have a back-up plan. If your fool-proof recipes lead you astray, take a deep breath and repeat after me:
Roast some veggies: Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, combine your favorite chopped veggies. In a small bowl, combine about 3 tablespoons really good olive oil, 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt, ½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes if you like. Toss the veggies with the olive oil mixture until they are coated. Spread them on a large baking sheet and roast in the oven for about 35 minutes (or until browned), stirring every 10 minutes. 
Embrace good quality carbohydrates: Whether it’s preparing quinoa or brown rice, adding roasted potatoes to your veggies, or toasting some really delicious hearty bread (serve with olive oil and balsamic), a good quality carbohydrate helps to round out the meal.
Sear some salmon: Heat a cast iron or heavy-bottom skillet over medium high heat. Coat the skin of the salmon with olive or canola oil. Place the salmon, skin side down, in the cast iron skillet. Cook for 4 minutes. Turn the fish over. Cook another 4 minutes for medium salmon and 5 minutes for salmon that is completely cooked through. Remove from heat.

#4. When baking, unless the recipe calls for it, do.not.melt.the.butter. I love to bake – so that means that I’ve made more mistakes baking than cooking. If there is one lesson I could pass along to aspiring bakers out there, it’s this. No matter how impatient you are, wait for your butter to reach room temperature on its own. Unless you want to deal with trying to counteract soupy icing or cookies that look like pancakes, be patient. Like most good things in life, it’s worth waiting for.

#5. Be patient and turn up the music. Practice makes perfect and practice takes patience. Patience is not one of my strongest attributes. If there is one thing that helps put my easily excitable and energetic self at ease when cooking, it’s turning on a good playlist. As soon as there’s music around me, I suddenly don’t mind how long the process takes.

#6. Smile. I’m a firm believer that the happiest people don’t necessarily have the best of everything, they make the best of everything. When you’re in the kitchen, put a smile on your face and make the best of it.

#7. Share, with those you love. My experiences in the kitchen often reflect my experiences in life. Whether it’s a set-back or a triumph, when I can share the experience with people I love, it always turns out wonderfully.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Helping Kids Learn to Love Real Food

Have you had the pleasure of plucking a crimson red, slightly-sticky tomato off the vine, slicing and eating it right there in the garden, the juices still hot from the sun running down your arm? 

It’s heaven. 

Or, have you experienced the delight of watching a chick pierce through its shell, chirping in high-pitched wonder as it kicks to shed its home for the first time and gaze at the world with round eyes?

Luckily, McKenzie and I both had the privilege of spending a lot of time on farms while we were growing, up.  As kids, we knew first-hand where our food came from.  It came from the garden or the barnyard or the lake out back.

But so many children do not have first-hand experience of what real food looks like—much less how it gets to our dinner tables.  More importantly, they don’t know what real food tastes like.  They can’t comprehend the sweet deliciousness of a spring pea or a just-picked carrot—and how much better those fresh vegetables can taste than sweet tart candy.

Last month, I turned 37.  It seemed a good enough reason to throw a party.  Why not embrace my age?  And you know how much I love to entertain

Even better, I decided my make the birthday party a fundraiser for Common Threads Farm, an amazing non-profit organization based in Bellingham that teaches kids to grow, love and appreciate real food.

I happen to be on the Board of Common Threads Farm.  But even if I wasn’t a Board member, I would be a passionate advocate for this organization.

For one thing, they offer summer Pizza Camp for kids.  Pizza Camp!  Kids learn about gardening, real food and cooking by making pizza from seed to table—growing their own vegetables, milling grain for homemade dough, making cheese from fresh milk.  The week ends with homemade pizza.

Need I say more?  You know how much we love pizza. 

If that’s not enough, Common Threads Farm also offers summer Farm Camp and after-school programs for kids, and they lead the School Garden Collective in Whatcom County, allowing teachers and students to integrate the garden into their curriculum for math, science, art—any subject, really.  A garden makes a great classroom.

It’s an organization with a noble mission. 

To begin the party planning, I recruited my ├╝ber-talented mother and my sweetheart to pitch in and help.  I’ve learned in my life—it is okay to ask for help.  It’s been a hard lesson, but the rewards are amazing.  Less stress, happy faces all around. 

In honor of Common Threads Farm—and in a desperate attempt to bring Spring to the Pacific Northwest—I decided on a color scheme of raspberry pink and lime green, centered around my old green chrysanthemum plates from CB2.

I purchased yards of material from the fabric store to make table runners, easily hemming them with stitch witchery.  And Mom created beautiful flower arrangements to place around the house.

Setting out (and labeling) all of the platters and serving pieces ahead of time, makes sure each dish has a home.

I designed the menu based on a Middle Eastern mezze, developing dishes that could all be made ahead and wouldn’t need attention during the party.  We actually had everything cooked and stored hours before the party started.

All we had to do was re-heat or plate before the guests arrived.

The menu included homemade whole wheat focaccia and flatbread, with crispy-spiced roasted chickpeas and Elie's famous hummus...

...a platter of roasted vegetables with yogurt-dill dipping sauce, and an Israeli eggplant spread...

...ful (fava bean stew) topped with a cucumber & tomato salad (a crowd favorite), and a farro salad with caramelized onions and slow-roasted tomatoes and lemon zest, based on a recipe by Joy the Baker, one of my favorite bloggers...

...a roasted beet salad with Calabrese olives, pistachios and parsley in a lemon-fig vinaigrette....

...tender lamb meatballs with spicy tomato sauce, served with yogurt-dill sauce....

...and lovely and delicious cupcakes (made by a young entrepreneurial baking friend).

Just as the party was starting, our friend Becky showed up with gifts—one of which was this adorable apron.  I didn’t want to take it off.

About 50 people attended the party.  We had a great time, but most importantly we raised money to help teach kids to love real food—a cause close to my heart. 

Me with my beautiful Mom, Carolyn
As the evening wound down, we gathered around for a little music.  Not a bad way to end a fun night enjoying delicious food with special friends for a good cause.

Elie, with his brother, Oren
If this is the first you've heart about Common Threads Farm, and the cause struck a chord in your heart, please visit their website to donate and help kids learn to love and appreciate real food.

The only sad part of the evening was my partner-in-crime, Miss McKenzie, couldn’t be here, because she was seeing clients that weekend.  I guess that’s what’s called ‘work.’ 

It sure gets in the way of girl time.

And now, for a recipe...

One of the most popular dishes of the evening was the Roasted Beet, Orange, Olive & Pistachio Salad.  I thought I’d share the recipe with you here.  You may see some of the other recipes coming up in future posts, so stay tuned.

Roasted Beet, Orange, Olive & Pistachio Salad

Serves about 30, for a party

3 pounds yellow and red beets
6 - 8 oranges, peeled and sliced
Zest of one lemon
Zest of one orange
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 - 2 teaspoons fig jam (or you could substitute another jam, or honey)
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/3 – ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup pistachios, roasted and roughly chopped
1 cup olives (I like Calabrese olives), pitted and halved
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place washed beets on a baking sheet and wrap with aluminum foil.  Bake about 1 hour, or until beets are just tender.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool.  When cool enough to handle, loosen skins from beets with a paper towel or a thin knife.  Slice beets .         

Whisk together the zest, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, fig jam, sea salt and black pepper.  Stream in the extra virgin olive oil to desired consistency.  Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary.

Place the beats and orange slices in a large bowl and toss them to coat them with vinaigrette.  Stir in the roasted pistachios, olives and chopped parsley.  Enjoy, preferably with those you love.