Awesome caprese salad

I promised that I would share one of the best caprese salads I’ve ever had while were on vacation in Scottsdale.  I love caprese salads in the summer:  ripe seasonal tomatoes, luscious mozzarella cheese, fresh basil – what is not to love?  And a salad that is so easy to assemble and such a simple dish relies on the best ingredients to be spectacular.  Too many times I’ve a caprese with tomatoes that were either overripe, not ripe enough, or mealy.  We had this version at a new restaurant, Living Room Wine Bar and Lounge in DC Ranch.  Very casual, but very hip decor.  The menu was also very casual and the caprese caught our eye.  (When you are on vacation and eating out every meal, sometimes a light dinner is a good thing.)  It was a pretty presentation and the taste was even better.

Caprese Living Room

I said it was pretty, right? The red, white, and green that is characteristic of a caprese.  What made it taste so good were the ingredients.  First, instead of mozzarella, this caprese featured burrata, which has become my favorite cheese.

burrata

 

I you aren’t familiar with burrata, it’s a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream.  It’s like a ball of mozzarella that is filled with pieces of mozzarella and cream.  It has a soft texture that melts in your mouth.  Its recent popularity means that you can buy it at most grocery stores.

Second, the grape tomatoes were really sweet. Third, the grilled ciabatta – also known as “slipper” bread and my favorite bread – was perfectly grilled.  Fourth, a balsamic vinegar-reduction lent a slightly sweet flavor and a pretty look drizzled back-and-forth across the dish.

But, lastly what really set this caprese apart was the addition of pesto on top of the burrata.  Usually, caprese is garnished with whole or torn basil leaves, but the pesto added so much garlicky basil flavor that it just made the whole dish pop.  If you have never made pesto at home, you are missing out on an easy, but oh so delicious sauce. (Yes, technically, pesto is a sauce.) When we got home, I tried to recreate the dish, and I’m happy to say, I came pretty close.  See my version and a great recipe for pesto here on the Recipe page.

Come back soon for more cooking and more decorating projects.  I hope you’ll follow my fun adventures.

 

Fun, fun bridal shower cooking class

Hello and welcome to the second half of June.  Where did the first half go?  One week of vacation and two weeks of meetings, doctors appointments, a little painting (last Friday’s post),  two birthdays (my son’s and mine), and here we are.  I know I said that I would share with you the best caprese salad that we had on vacation in Scottsdale and I will.  But today I wanted to share a really fun event that I participated in last weekend.  I was asked by a friend of a friend to provide the food and teach a cooking class for a bridal shower.  I’ve done this type of party several times before and I love being a part of the bridal festivities.  Several friends of the bride’s mother planned the entire party and acted as hostesses.  They were all wonderful to work with and really did a great job with the flowers, tablescape, invitations and favors. tabelscape 3

The hostesses made the beautiful flower arrangements.  The tea cups at the base of the tall vases belong to the mother of the bride.  Isn’t that a sweet idea?

tablescape 2

The turquoise tablecloths set the tone and theme of the party.  Obviously, this picture was taken before any food was laid out.

tablesscape

We used the tall glasses for the signature drink, the Pretty Pink Punch.  We filled the glasses with ice added the punch, which was pretty and pink, and added the cute straws.  I brought my silver punch bowl and the hostesses filled it with Topo Chico mineral water.  They also had iced tea with fresh mint.

I prepared the food on Thursday and Friday and brought the dishes and equipment early before the guests arrived. Here is the menu:

Pretty Pink Punch
Roasted Baby Potatoes with Tapenade
Grilled Bread with Eggplant and Basil
Shrimp Tartlets
Polenta Bites with Caramelized Porcini Mushrooms Cicchetti
Brownie Bites with Ganache

I’ve made all these dishes many times – never try a new recipe for a party without testing it first!  So I knew that they would be perfect for the event.  And, since I would be teaching a cooking class, each one had to have “teachable” moments.  In the next few weeks, I’ll share some of the recipes and how-to’s with you.   All these dishes are about presentation as well as taste.  Let’s start today with the Brownie Bites with Ganache, one of my favorites.  This approach takes an ordinary square brownie to the next level.  I love small foods, especially for parties, just one or two bites, no silverware required.  What’s fun is to take a regular recipe, such as a brownie and make it extra special.  Although you can use  another brownie recipe, this one is really good, a perfect combination of fudgy and cakey. You can find the complete recipe on the Recipe Page.

Here’s some tips for making the brownies:

Making Ganache

These brownies are made by melting semisweet chocolate with butter in a stainless bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Then Dutch-processed cocoa powder and sugar are added and combined, and vanilla extract and eggs, one at a time.

making Brownies 3

Next, comes the flour and salt.

Brownies 3

Finally, miniature semisweet chocolate chips are stirred in.  I used Ghirardelli chocolate.  Whatever size baking dish you use, line it with foil and allow plenty of overhang.  I ALWAYS line my baking pans with foil and allow for plenty of overhang.  This way you can lift the brownies out of the pan and you don’t lose any corner pieces.  This applies for making lemon bars or any recipe that you will cut into squares or rectangles.

Baked Brownies

Here are the baked brownies.  Because I doubled the recipe, I used a half sheet.   Now here is the fun part.

Making brownie rounds

Use a 1 1/4-inch cooking cutter and cut out rounds.  I like the 1 1/4-inch size because it is just a bite. Cut as close together as possible.  Push the cutter straight down, give it a little twist and  lift up.  Then it’s easy to push the brownie bite out.  If you preparing the bites for a sit-down meal, you can use a larger cooking cutter; you will just have fewer servings. DO NOT throw this away!  You can eat what’s left out of hand (They are addictive.) or crumble over ice cream.

As you take the rounds out of the cookie cutter, place them on a half sheet pan.

Brownies Rounds

The original recipe called for placing the brownie bites on a rack and pouring the Ganache over them.  That’s what I’ve always done, but it’s messy, you have to scape up the Ganache that falls through,and you lose some.  So I tried a different approach, which worked so much better.

Brownies 1

I used a long skewer to pick up the brownie bite from the bottom, dipped it in the warm Ganache almost to the bottom, and then I carefully returned it back to the rack.  You will get a little chocolate on your fingers so have a paper towel handy.

Icing browniesHere, I’m demonstrating the technique at the party.  This method was so much better in every way.  When I finished icing all the brownies, I placed them in the refrigerator overnight to set.  The next morning it was easy to place the brownies in plastic cake ball holders to transport to the event.

At the party, I garnished the tops of the Brownie Bites with a combination of finely crushed Graham crackers and toasted pecans.  You could also use pistachios or hazelnuts.  Always, always garnish your dishes.  That’s what makes them pretty.

Finished brownies

Finished brownies 2

You can always add a little dollop of whipped cream or a raspberry on top.  Be creative and make it your own! I hope enjoy them.

Quickie table transformation

My son just graduated from nursing school (yea, so proud),and he has a job at a great hospital (double yea), but it means he is moving about 1 1/2 hours away (boo, he is my go-to guy when we need a truck or a dog watcher, and I love him to pieces).  For the first time, he will have a two-bedroom townhouse; that means a guest bedroom (for mom?) which means more furniture.  I just happened on these night stands at a  garage sale and I thought they would be great for his guest room. Sturdy, straight lines and in excellent condition, but ugly stained finish.  Of course, I immediately knew I would paint them and change out the hardware.  This was an easy project as there would be no distressing, sanding, or layering of paint colors.  Son came over and picked out the color that he liked (the same as end table I had painted two years ago): Annie Sloan’s Chateau Grey, a medium sage green. It’s one of my favorites. Since he wanted it darker, I would finish it with a coat of Annie Sloan Dark Wax.  See the transformation on the Painting Projects page.

image

 

Recreate the recipe

Sweet Shark and I were in Scottsdale, Arizona week before last.  It’s one of our favorite place to relax by the pool, read books (I read two books and seven magazines!), go to lunch (which we never do at home), and of course, dine out. We’ve been gong to Scottsdale for fifteen years (DO NOT go in July, August or early September – it’s too hot.), especially in the spring and fall, when the weather is amazing (no humidity).  Scottsdale has fabulous restaurants, and we have our favorites that we return to on every trip, but we always try to find new places. One of my favorite things to do everywhere we go is to recreate a few of the dishes that we really loved; this are my “inspiration recipes”. I wanted to share with you a few of our favorite dishes from the trip that I recreated last week.

The first dish is from North Italia, a spot that we haven’t been to in a few years.  It’s in Kierland Commons, an outdoor shopping area with fabulous shops and restaurants.  For lunch, we shared this Roasted Cauliflower with Lemon Vinaigrette and Fried Egg dish which was wonderful. The flavors of the vinaigrette were lemony and fresh and the roasted vegetables were crunchy; the pancetta added a smokey element and the fried egg melded it all together.  We love cauliflower and any roasted vegetable so I knew I would make it when we got home.  See my version and how I made it on the Recipe page.  Next recipe inspiration?  One of the best Caprese salads we’ve ever had.

North cauliflower

Sorry, we took a few bites before I took the picture.

 

Finally, a bookcase

Ever since we moved in our house two years ago, I wanted a bookcase in our living room.  Since we only have one built-in in the living room and that one houses the TV and media, we needed shelves to display books and decorative items. Since moving in two years ago, Sweet Shark’s antique Irish pine armoire, which had been converted into a wet bar with brass sink, faucet, mirror and glass shelves had filled the space, but definitely wasn’t functional. It’s now for sale at Lucas Street Antiques.  imageI love books for reading, for pictures, for souvenirs bought on travels and since I rarely ever get rid of a book, we have hundreds. Although I did have a dozen large coffee table books and collections on various tables, most were housed upstairs in a guest room, which ironically, has a huge built-in bookcase. After finding and painting our “new” dining room table (see post from March 5), now was time to put the search for a bookcase in motion. After researching various catalogues (Ballard, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware to name a few) and websites (eBay, Wayfair), frustration set in. Nothing met my criteria:

1.  The ceiling in our living room is two stories tall, about 20 feet.  The bookcase needed to be at least 7 1/2 – 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

2.  The bookcase needed to have at least 4 or 5 adjustable shelves.

3. I wanted a vintage, old world style, nothing sleek or modern. Dark stained wood was also out.

Lets face it: I didn’t want to spend several thousand dollars for a brand new bookcase.

I turned my attention to the antique malls and flea markets, looking for a vintage piece that I could paint. Nothing was tall enough. Then my sweet friend Susie(who found my dining room table) turned me on to a thrift shop not far from the place where I bought the dining room table. Jackpot!  What a treasure trove. Bookcases everywhere. Around a corner pushed up against a back wall were two very tall bookcases which measured 8 feet x 4 feet x 12 inches deep. Perfect. Seemed sturdy. Had five adjustable shelves. Can you say more perfect? And the price? I’m happy to say I could have  bought a few dozen.  Did I have room for two?  That would be eight feet wide.  After begging the owner not to sell before I could get back, a quick trip home confirmed that one would suffice. A day later it was mine.

It’s pretty plain, right?  Not very decorative?  To see the finished piece and how I transformed it, go to Painting Projects.

image

How to make the perfect hard-boiled egg

hard boiled eggs with knife

It occurred to me after sharing Sweet Shark’s Potato Salad recipe that I didn’t spend much time talking about how to properly make hard-boiled eggs: pretty yellow yolks centered in the middle of the white and shells that did not break into a thousand pieces when you peel them – one of my reasons for not   There is a saying, “A real Southern girl should own an iced-tea pitcher and a deviled-egg plate”, but I hate to admit that I was not confident in my hard-boil egg skills. As a bona fide Southern girl, I had to master this basic Southern cooking skill.  After a little research (thanks to Shirley Corriher‘s description in CookWise, an article in Fine Cooking Magazine (Issue No. 134) and some practice, I no longer fear the hard-boiled egg.  So what is the secret?  Follow the tips on the Cooking page and you will be a pro.

 

Sweet Shark shines and shares

I hope you had a nice long weekend. Here in the Dallas area we are still experiencing endless days of rain, which definitely put a damper on holiday cookouts. In our neck of the woods, three holidays demand barbecue – Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.   Sweet Shark is in his element here and he is totally in charge. I act as his sous chef.) In spite of the rain, he was determined that he would still smoke ribs and sausage and his signature salmon. All are delicious and he doesn’t skimp on amounts.  He makes his own rub for the ribs, his own barbecue sauce and his own sauce for the salmon. imageSalmon

So on Saturday in between downpours, he got the smoker going, made his own rub and prepped the ribs. After the ribs were on the smoker, he started making my two favorites: his  baked beans and potato salad. I couldn’t convince him to share the recipes for the ribs, salmon and sauces, but he consented to share what I consider the best supporting players. He doesn’t follow any recipes, but every time both dishes just turn out great.  After picking his brain, I put these recipes together.  The amounts are approximations, but he says they are pretty accurate.   I know that hundreds of recipes for potato salad and baked beans exist, but if you don’t have a favorite, try these.  You have until Fourth of July to practice. Check out the recipes on the Recipe Page.

 

 

 

 

 

Soft shell crabs: a love affair

I love soft shell crabs.  Let me repeat that: I love soft shell crabs.  I don’t know when I first bit into their crispy, crunchy little bodies and tasted their fresh-from-the-ocean (yes, I know many are available frozen) sweetness.  I suspect it was in 2002.  Sweet Shark and I attended the Preakness in May and spent three nights in Baltimore at the Renaissance Harbor Place Hotel at the Inner Harbor, eating a bunch of really good seafood in between races on Friday and Saturday.  Sunday morning, we drove around Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore and spent two glorious days in the village of St. Michaels where I had booked us into the cutest little bed and breakfast, the Five Gables Inn. The weather was amazing: crystal clear skies, perfect spring fresh air, and more seafood  to eat.  Our first stop was the St.  Michaels Crab House, right on the water.  We sat outside, breathing in the smell of briny creatures and and digging into alot of crabs.  Sweet Shark bought a t-shirt that he still wears.

Soft shell crab t-shirt

 

It might have been that night at dinner at Bistro St. Michaels that I had my first soft shell crab.  Maybe it’s like your first taste of a sweet, briny oyster or your memory of your first bite of lobster.  That’s what it was like for me and soft shell crabs. It was love at first bite.  Our love affair has never abated and it’s fueled by the fact that we only meet for a short time each year, in April to June, when those little crustaceans (specifically, blue crabs from the East Coast) lose their shells and submit to my appetite .  But wherever our first meeting was, I love them simply prepared – lightly coated in a flour/cornmeal mixture with some kosher or sea salt, freshly ground pepper, maybe a little cayenne – just enough to promote crispiness and sautéed in a little canola oil until done, and, here’s that word again – crispy.   The whole process takes about 6 minutes, 3 minutes on each side, and you are ready to eat.  Last Saturday, while we were waiting for the grill to heat (Sweet Shark was grilling lamb chops.), I made one each for Sweet Shark and me.  We devoured them standing at the kitchen counter.  We bought our soft shell crabs fresh at Central Market. Rex’s, T.J.’s, and Whole Foods also have them.  They will clean them for you, but I always give them another rinse until cold running water.  Like any seafood, they are perishable, so be sure to ask for them to be bagged with ice, keep refrigerated until ready to cook, and cook the day you buy them.

Here’s what I did:

1.  In a pie plate, combine about 1/4 cup all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup yellow or white cornmeal.  Add a little salt and pepper, and cayenne if you like.  I actually used Tajín, a spice mixture of salt, cayenne, and grated lime, which you can find at any Mexican grocery store.

2.  Heat a large skillet – I like to use my cast iron – over medium-high heat.  I like to use a big skillet so there is plenty of room for the crabs since you do not want to crowd them.  While the skillet is heating, pat the crabs dry on both sides with paper towels.  They are going to pop anyway, but the less moisture, the better to promote a crispy crust.

3.  Add 2 – 3 tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil to the skillet until hot.  The oil should shimmer when it hits the pan.

4.  Dredge the crabs in the flour/cornmeal mixture and shake off any excess.  Add the crabs (I’m talking about 2) to the skillet, top side down, shaking the pan a few times, until browned, about 3 minutes. Using tongs, turn over and cook until brown on the second side, about three minutes.

Soft shell crabs 1

4.  Remove from the skillet and place on some paper towels a minute to drain.

5.  Plate and serve with a sauce of your choice and a squeeze of lemon juice.  For my sauce, I combined some chipotle ranch dressing that I had from MacAlister’s Deli (sometimes I cheat, too), about 2 tablespoons, about 2 tablespoons of Maille coarse ground mustard (my favorite brand), a good squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt.  You could mix anything with mayo and it would be good, too.

Soft shell crab sauce

 

6.  Sprinkle with some chopped parsley or cilantro.  Go to heaven, but take it slow.  You want the love affair to last.  By the way, this will not be the last time soft shell crabs and I have a rendezvous this year.  I’m planning on another date tonight.

Soft shell crab plated 2

For more information on soft shell crabs and other ideas for serving them, check out the June/July issue of Fine Cooking Magazine.

Soft shell crab article

Old armoire becomes diva of the dining room

The past month has been filled with cooking classes – one featuring French cuisine, one on vegetables, and one on appetizers, a luncheon I hosted for some girlfriends (see the Recipe page for the recipes), painting, Bible study, and working in our front and back yards, trying to finish spring planting.  Before that I spent a week in Atlanta visiting family and grandkids. While there I helped daughter # 1 paint an armoire she has had since she was two years old. It was in her bedroom for years. Then while she was in college and first married, Sweet Shark and I used it in our game room.  When she and S-I-L moved into their first house, the armoire made the trip to Atlanta along with her bedroom furniture. It should the focal point in their dining room, holding china, silverware and crystal, but the brown-stained finish melted into the walls. Although a really pretty piece, it really didn’t put its best foot forward ~ it was a plain Jane who needed a make-over.  Daughter #1 had been thinking abut using Annie Sloan Chalk Paint to give it a new look, but she had not tackled such a big project before.  But mom was coming to town, so it was time to take the Chalk Paint leap.  I packed my brushes, sand paper, waxes, and buffing pads.  See how we transformed this wallflower into the diva of the dining room.

Jenn's armoire before 1

 

Two new recipes for lunch or brunch

I promised that I would share the other two recipes from my ladies’ lunch and they are now on the Recipe Page.  Check out the Chilled Roasted Tomato and Red Bell Pepper Soup and the Avocado and Crab Stack.  Both would be wonderful for any lunch and especially if you are cooking for Mother’s Day since both can and should be made ahead.  Happy Cooking!