Category Archives: Tools

The Best (and Easiest) Guacamole

Hi there dear readers. My 15 minutes of fame are fading, but I wanted to post my recipe which won me first place at the 23rd Annual California Avocado Festival this weekend.

It’s really absurd how easy this is. Thank goodness the judges aren’t reading this, because they might be tempted to revoke their votes. Yeah, good luck with that you mean, mean judges. Back off.

I think the biggest tips I can give you for making great guacamole are these:

Avocados waiting to become guacamole.

Avocados waiting to become guacamole.

1. Use the best avocados you can find. Make sure they are ripe, but not overly so. A properly ripe avocado will yield slightly under your touch, but not so easily that you can put your finger through it. Fresh lime and cilantro are a must as well. Fresh garlic though? I say no. Gasp! Raw, chopped garlic in this venue doesn’t bode well with me. I think it’s too overpowering. You taste garlic, and then. More garlic. I like a small amount of garlic powder. Not garlic salt. If you don’t have it, don’t bother buying it specifically for this dish. It won’t really matter. I do find however, that a bit of garlic powder can lend itself well to many dishes, so I always have a bit on hand.

2. Once the avocados are chopped and in a bowl with the remaining ingredients, just stir it all enough to blend it together. You want some great chunks in there. Texture is key with a good guacamole. This should not resemble a puree.

It is written, so it must be true.

It is written, so it must be true.

3. Dirk wanted me to add this tip… Do not add chopped tomatoes to your guacamole.

I concur. Tomatoes and avocados make great partners. BLT’s with avocado anyone?? Cobb Salad? Definitely! But something is weird and unappealing about raw tomatoes trying to ‘blend’ into an avocado mash. The result? The water in the tomatoes waters down the guacamole, and the tomatoes just get mushy with the weight of the avocados. Both distinct flavors end up getting drowned out by each other. We vote no.

Here I offer you the winning recipe:

Locals Only Guacamole

Makes about 3 cups – this recipe can be halved if you don’t want a shwack.

Ingredients:

  • 6 medium to large avocados, preferably local and organic, peeled and chopped
  • 3 jalapenos, seeded and finely chopped
  • the juice of 2 limes
  • 1 bunch of cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Directions:

Combine all ingredients together just to blend in a medium bowl. Taste and season accordingly. The flavor get a bit richer and refined if left alone for an hour or so.

Note: Guacamole is extremely perishable, so it should be made to order and consumed within the meal. If you have any leftovers to refrigerate overnight, a small schmear of non-fat yogurt or mayonnaise on the top will insure the air cannot penetrate and discolor the guacamole. Before serving, simply stir the yogurt or mayo into the left guac and resume the celebrations! Ay Ay Ay!

Party on. Party on.

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Presto, Pesto!

The days of summer are winding down and it makes me a little sad. The glorious produce we enjoy locally alone makes it one of my favorite seasons. Now that we are into the second week of September (when did that happen?) I know it’s only a matter of time before summer is a fond memory.

Minimum ingredients, maximum flavor!

Minimum ingredients, maximum flavor!

I live on the Central Coast of California and while it’s still plenty warm here, there are subtle changes and hints of things to come. The light is becoming more intense in the sky and earth, the summer haze cleared by the fall breezes. Summer berries are not as sweet, on their way out until next June. Soon they will be replaced by apples and fall pears, perfect for a cinnamon crumble or crisp.

Even my humble garden is ready for a rest. A few tomatoes remain on their withered vines; some basil, thyme and rosemary have stuck around to keep them company. Tomorrow my tomatoes and basil will leave their soil beds and be enjoyed over the next few days.

My basil, one last triumphal bunch, will make a perfect batch of pesto. Pesto is not an epiphany in the culinary world, I know this. But its vibrant flavor and versatile ways make me a big fan.

Pulsing Pesto

Pulsing Pesto

I don’t recommend buying ready made pesto in stores. I find their ratio of oil and cheese overbearing, they are usually heavy handed with the garlic too, and the basil is almost an after thought. And honestly? I’m not a huge fan of pine nuts, the traditional nut used in ready made pestos.

I prefer walnuts but you could use pecans, almonds or even macadamia nuts. Olive oil is fine, walnut oil is lovely too. Even the basil itself can be replaced with a different herb, cilantro or parsley for example. A food processor will make quick time of the following recipe and will make enough for several meals.

The last batch of pesto I made was enjoyed in a ‘farewell to summer’ salad; a few splashes of balsamic and the pesto gave tremendous body and flavor to last of the summer tomatoes. I stirred a couple of tablespoons into some ready made mayonnaise and had first rate turkey pesto sandwiches for lunch. And a box of store bought cheese ravioli was a quick and delightful supper when I tossed them together with the last of the pesto, 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water and some grated parmesan cheese.

I’m already thinking about the next batch of pesto I will make and the dishes I can create with them.

Whatever I come up with, I know it will allow me less time in the kitchen and more time to enjoy the last few days of summer. Perhaps with a glass of wine, I will watch the sky soften, a gentle autumn hue on the horizon.

Basil Walnut Pesto

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

Makes 1/2 cup – This recipe can be doubled if desired.

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch of basil leaves, about 3 cups
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted and cooled
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, about 1 ounce
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Directions:

Combine basil, walnuts, lemon zest, salt and pepper in food processor and process to a coarse mixture. Add olive oil and cheese. Pulse to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Transfer mixture to a ramekin or bowl. To store, top with olive oil to cover (this will prevent the pesto from blackening). Store wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator, up to 1 week.

Pumpkin Toes

During my cooking career in commercial kitchens and restaurants I rarely had a lot of time off, let alone a day of pampering. The hours were long and arduous, the kitchen temps spiking 130 degrees or more during service was not uncommon and it was pretty much a ‘man’s world. Still is for the most part. My first 5 years in the ‘back of the house’ usually meant I was the lone girl cooking on the line amid a sea of sweating, cursing boys.

For those of you who know me understand that I for one, can curse and spit like a sailor. I fit right in. Keeping up with the guys proved difficult but I learned to hold my own; I could hoist 75 pound stock pots onto stovetops solo and empty 50 pound bags of dry goods into their respective food bins on my own. I even managed to retrieve the hard to reach ingredients perched high above the line despite my vertical challenge, by traversing the narrow countertops and scaling the kitchen shelves.

There is nothing glamorous about cooking in restaurants. Rachael Ray and  Giada De Laurentiis of Food Network TV with their perfectly styled coifs and designer clothes would last about 5 minutes behind a real line before they were toast. Unless your idea of fun is enduring physical injury, emotional battering and fits of fury, I recommend another job altogether.

Donning the required chef’s uniform of heavy oversized pants and jackets, some sort of hat wear and a floor length apron only added to the exhausting heat and physical assail to the body. Injuries were common. Screaming hot pans often make contact with hands and arms, cuts from knives and electric slicers were daily events and exploding oil burns have left me with scars that remain today. I even sport a rather unusual permanent reminder on my left ear, a result of 50 pounds of stainless steel hotel pans colliding with the left side of my skull as they fell from a compromised shelf.

We used to joke our skin was soft and supple from all the ‘duck fat facials’ we received daily. My beauty routine consisted of a late night shower and a quick brush of the teeth before collapsing into bed for a few blessed hours of slumber before rising and doing it all over again.

Fast forward to the present day. While I am still in my kitchen daily, I am no longer a slave to the heat and torture of days past. I even receive routine facials and pedicures from a beautiful local organic spa. I skip the manicures though. Years of shortly clipped nails, void of jewelry and polish are the only way my hands make sense to me.

This morning’s spa treatment was lovely and it reminded me how the culinary world can be a healing environment, an oasis of soothing scents, oils and creams derived from food items that not only feed the body, but the soul as well.

For starters, my face inhaled an almond and oatmeal mask, then calmed by lavender oil and soothed with a rose water and calendula creme. Onto the second course, my hands and feet got some soaking time in a warm bath of milk and oats then slathered with a blueberry scrub. For dessert, I was massaged with a coconut body salt, my skin glowing as I was whisked off (excuse the pun) for my pedicure.

Another glorious hour later of soaking, rubbing, filing and painting, my feet were soft as butter, my toes an autumn pumpkin hue. I was revived, relaxed and ready to tackle my day.

Which thankfully won’t include 12 hours anywhere near a kitchen line. Or an arsenal of hotel pans.

You Say Tomahto…

Summer Tomatoes = Love

Summer Tomatoes = Love

I am finally able to post the Summer Gazpacho Soup recipe here for you.

After yesterday’s debacle, I found myself unable to sleep last night. I think I finally nodded off around 2 am, only to awaken again at 5. It was not the best way to start the day. However, I am pleased to report my caffeine induced nightmare is behind me and although somewhat sleep deprived, I am no worse for wear. I did refrain from coffee today though, and I am heeding my father in-law’s advice and having some red wine tonight!

Tomorrow’s post will take me down memory lane, and I’ll be writing about my early thoughts of food and how the comfort of familiar dishes can get us all through some bleak moments. For now, let us continue to enjoy the present and all its great summer flavors.

Mise en place for Gazpacho

Mise en place for Gazpacho

The key to this recipe is using the most gorgeous summer vegetables and herbs. Since this soup is cold and never cooked over heat where flavors can meld and intensify, I recommend you store this soup in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before serving. This batch improved greatly after a couple days of chill time.

Also, feel free to substitute cilantro for either parsley, basil or dill if you prefer. The vinegars can be traded out as well, balsamic or red wine, sherry or apple cider. I do find the acid of a Spanish Sherry Wine Vinegar is just perfect for this dish but honestly, use what’s in your pantry! As for the chile; if you like it, use it. If your palate is sensitive to heat, the soup will be lovely without it.

This is a peasant and rustic soup which is why I didn’t strain the finished product. I actually quite like the bits and flecks of color and textures swimming in my bowl. Also I figured the fiber alone from all the vegetables warrant leaving it as is.

Thanks to my brother and sister in-law’s lovely birthday gift this year, I whipped up this soup in 10 minutes flat. Cuisinarts and food loving family rule!

Chillin’ Summer Gazpacho Makes about 8 cups

Let your food processor do the work for you – a large rough chop of all vegetables are fine.

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped
  • 1 english cucumber, peeled and chopped
  • 1 red, yellow or orange bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 small or 1/2 large spanish onion chopped
  • 1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar, or vinegar of your choice
  • 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley
  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
  • 1-2 teaspoons kosher salt, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce (optional)
Sixty Seconds to Soup

Sixty Seconds to Soup

Directions:

Combine all ingredients in food processor and mix until smooth and blended. Taste for seasoning. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 24 hours, up to 5 days. Adjust seasoning as needed before serving.

If desired, finish each bowl with a spoon of plain yogurt, some sliced avocado and chopped chives or your favorite herbs.

It’s Like Africa Hot

My brain is not working at full capacity. Summer finally came to Santa Barbara in late August, and currently the temperatures are hovering around 90 degrees. My guess is our 1950’s beach shack is even hotter. I am hoping during the next hour as the sun travels further west, it will leave our humble home in a shady um, shade and I’ll be able to cool down and think about dinner.

I told you my brain wasn’t fully functioning.

I think about food. A lot. I think about food when I’m eating. Not only about what I’m eating at the moment, but what I’ll be preparing and enjoying later. When I’m on my morning run, I’m planning lunch. I plan entire meals in my head when I should be engrossed in work. I can’t help it, the random thoughts invade my head, and although I try to focus, food trumps all. Over the years I have learned to embrace it (and thank the Angels my darling husband can also get lost in anything food related). I was even able to make a living with my obsession, so I guess it’s not a serious problem.

Right?

What currently fills my mind is how to make dinner without an additional rise in the mercury of our thermometer. Because I have raw chicken or beef for dinner choices, tonight I must create fire. A crisp garden salad will round things out. Thank goodness I can escape the heat of my kitchen and fire up our outdoor grill. A fabulous invention and one of my favorite kitchen gadgets.

Fire + meat = yum

Fire + meat = yum

Several years ago, my dear father in-law who lives in Holland suggested buying us a barbecue for our house warming gift when we moved to Santa Barbara. We didn’t have a barbecue and the thought of owning a fine gas or propane grill to cook large amounts of food for our friends and family was a great adventure I eagerly awaited. We began our research immediately, visiting many hardware stores, the small independent shops and the ginormous home club venues. I looked online as well.

The one thing we kept coming across were the enormous grills, which wasn’t a bad thing. However, the quality or lack thereof did not impress. Flimsy hardware, rust just waiting to invade every surface, and those weird ‘volcanic briquettes’? What’s up with those things? You can’t even throw some mesquite or hard wood chips in there? Odd. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the cost of these things! My father in-law is a very generous man, but I didn’t think any of these grills deserved consideration.

Grill with goodies

Grill with goodies

I remember as a child we had an old Weber Grill in the back yard. It always fired right up, offering the chef the choice of hard wood, mesquite or coals, and you could cook with direct or indirect heat. You could prepare a shwack of food or just a couple of burgers. Clean up was a breeze, it never rusted, and it was a fraction of the price of most grills. It didn’t rely on gas, propane or phony rocks, just some crumbled up newspaper, briquettes of your choice and a match. Sold!

After several years of abuse, this grill has never let me down. It cooks evenly, it’s dependable, rust-free and a joy to use. The best thing about it right now? It’s outside. In the shade. Next to a picnic table where I will enjoy a glass of wine (or two) and let the grill do the work.

Cool.