Sunday, January 31, 2010

Completely Baffled...

I asked a friend what his favorite cake was...for a birthday celebration this weekend. His response: HOMEMADE TWINKIES. I doubt the veracity of that answer, but I asked, he answered, so I'm going to give it a whirl. Never having had a Twinkie in my entire life and refusing to go buy one, I'm plagued with unanswered questions.

Help! None of the recipes I found online agree - on any point!

1. Is a Twinkie made with white cake, sponge cake, yellow cake, or something all together different?

2. Is a Twinkie filled with whipped cream, vanilla cream, buttercream, pudding, or - the recipe I personally liked, but know it cannot possibly be the true filling - a marscarpone-vanilla cream?

3. Would you think that the most important characteristic of a Twinkie is the taste or its shape...or both?

Back to Rome...

This beer never fails to remind me of sultry summer days in Rome, at Bruschette degli Angeli, overlooking the Tevere, drinking pints of this stuff. Crisp, floral, refreshing.

But maybe it's more the association than the beer itself that I love. I don't really know. All I know is that I rarely see it in the stores, so when I do, I always pick up a six-pack...and sipping it transports me back to Rome. I bought this one at CostPlus and paired it with grilled pork chops skewered with a rosemary twig and wrapped with bacon.

If you have the chance to try it, tell me what you think.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Stirring, Stirring, and Even More Stirring

The secret to risotto, as Maria told me, is stirring: usa il cucchiao...sempre. Use your spoon...always; keep stirring.

Maria was the cook for the Nuzzo family who was ordered to teach me all her recipes. Then she was fired and I was tasked with cooking for the family six days a week. Thankfully she didn't blame me for the impossible situation and we stayed close throughout the year that I was there. And sometimes when I cook, I head her instructions in my head.

Make risotto with whatever you have on hand. Tonight I used sliced onions, fennel and kale with some langostino tails. Stir in the arborio rice - one handful per person you're serving and un'altro per la pentola (an extra for the pot). Maria's voice again. Add one ladel of simmering broth at a time, stirring, stirring, and stirring some more till the liquid is absorbed. Repeat until the rice is soft. Let stand for 5 minutes. Season with sea salt to taste. Stir in marscarpone cheese. Serve with shreds or shavings of parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Beetless Beet

Chard, a member of the beet family, is sometimes called "the beetless beet." That sounds too tragic for such a lively green whose stems come in a rainbow of colors, everything from the snowy white of the Fordhook to the crimson rhubarb chard.

I've typically done a quick sauté - in olive oil with some minced garlic - and topped them with oven-roasted tomatoes. But I've been reading more about chard and am excited to venture towards the more exotic.

Apparently Egyptians sauté chard with garlic and coriander, mash it, and add it like pesto to stews at the last minute to brighten the flavors or they add the garlicky chard to a medley of fava beans and rice flavored with fresh dill and cilantro. I even read about chard in dessert tarts in Provence where tarts are made with chard, grated cheese, rum-soaked raisins, pine nuts, bananas and apples.

I'm more of a savory-kinda-gal. But I'm game for any recipe that uses greens. I think one of the best compliments I ever received: more people would like vegetables if they could all eat at your house.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


And just in case all this talk of greenery leaves (pun, fully intended) you wondering if we're vegetarians, we're not.

Last year, Brian went hunting for wild boar and landed a beast. Thankfully we were on his short list and received a care package full of hams, sausages, chops, and lots of ground boar. I turned the ground meat and sausages into pans of wild boar and wild mushroom lasagna.

Gleefully, Dylan declared: "Uncle Brian is the best killer in the family! I love pig meat! Hooray for Uncle Brian!"

I make three different lasagne: rosso (meat, tomato-based sauce, rough-chopped herbs), bianco (chicken, spinach, wild mushrooms, thinly sliced basil in a beciamela sauce), and a carrot (shredded carrots, beciamela, nutmeg, and fresh mint). Easy peasy - just layer all of the ingredients around the pasta sheets with fresh ricotta, shredded mozzarella, and shards of parmesan. Bake covered till the sauce begins to bubble around the edges, usually about an hour at 350 degrees. Then uncover and let the cheese on top brown.

Green Lies: It's Spinach!

"I only like spinach." Now that's not a statement you hear often from a child. But for several months, that assertion escaped the lips of both my children more times than I care to recount.

It was always a response to "What kind of leaf is that, Mommy?" If I answered chard, kale, or any green other than spinach, their little noses wrinkled, eyes scrunched, and they would say in annoying unison, "I only like spinach."

Fine! So, I told little green lies. It was all spinach! When I had rough-chopped kale mixed into creamy risotto, when I served oven-roasted tomatoes over a bed of chard, when I chopped beet greens into was all spinach.

We have mercifully moved past that madness and I can finally tell the truth about all of the fabulous greens they are eating. Still, spinach does grace our dinner table at least once a week. And one of my favorites was how I served it tonight: in a salad. Baby spinach leaves, thinly sliced fennel bulbs and d'anjou pears, chopped pecans, dried cherries, flecks of chevre with a dousing of olive oil and a syrupy balsamic.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Q&A - Leek Seeking Inspiration

To Laura's request for a leek soup recipe...

Cam Says: Not too complicated, but definitely tasty. Slice leeks thinly, sauté in butter and a splash of olive oil. When the leeks start to caramelize, add vegetable boullion and whatever other vegetables you have on hand. I just used carrots and zucchini tonight. Bring to a boil then simmer till everything is cooked. Season with whatever fresh herbs you have on hand. Instead of oyster crackers, we usually float Trader Joe's Gorgonzola crackers in this soup.

Connecting to the Dirt

One of the things Barbara Kingsolver discusses in the the book I'm reading, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is how people's view of food is antiseptic and completely disconnected to the dirt in which it was grown. So while Riley played at his friend's house, Jacob, Dylan, and I connected to the dirt. We pulled weeds and planted seeds - carrots, onions, fennel, peas, beans, and two different kinds of basil.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Parenthood: It's a Jungle!

When one of my best friends asked me to make a cake for a baby shower she was hosting, I readily agreed. She showed me the plates - a jungle theme - and we discussed flavors - chocolate versus fruit. Finally, we settled on a carrot cake. Of course, my version of carrot cake isn't the same as everyone else's, but it was a hit!

Camilla's Spiced Carrot Cake with Ginger-Scented Cream Cheese Frosting (this makes 2 large rectangular layers, halve the recipe for a smaller cake)

4C white whole wheat flour
4t baking soda
4t cinnamon
1t all-spice
a splash of vanilla
8 eggs
2C packed brown sugar
1C raw sugar
1C canola oil
2C whole milk yogurt
4C shredded carrots
1/2C pumpkin puree
1C dried cranberries
1C white chocolate chips

Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Add wet ingredients (oil, yogurt, pumpkin) and moisten. Stir in carrots, cranberries, and chocolate chips. Split between two baking pans. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Frosting -
8oz cream cheese
8oz marscarpone
16T softened butter
splash of vanilla
1/2C ginger syrup
2C powdered sugar

Friday, January 22, 2010

Luscious Lemon Curd

A perfect complement to an almond butter sandwich. A tart topping for a gingerbread cake. Added zing to a chocolate layer cake. I just love lemon curd. I whipped some up on Christmas morning to accompany my Ontbijtkoek, a spicy ginger cake that is a staple on the Dutch breakfast table.

Luscious - and Super Simple - Lemon Curd

3 large lemons
3/4 C raw sugar
8 T butter
8 large egg yolks

Zest the lemons, squeeze and strain the juice. Combine the zest and juice with sugar and butter and bring to a boil. Meanwhile beat the yolks. Add 1/3 of the boiling liquid to the beaten yolks then add the mixture back into the boiling liquid. Continue beating over medium heat until it thickens. Be careful not to let the curd boil or it will scramble. Pour the curd into a bowl and press plastic wrap against the surface to prevent a film from forming. Chill completely.

Cakes on the Brain

I agreed to make a cake for a friend, a jungle themed cake for a baby shower she's hosting this weekend. I still have to mull that one over. And I am certainly no cake-master like Jen Erickson, but I've made my share of fun creations.

Here's a parade of cakes that Jacob and I have made for our boys and our friends' kids...from a zucchini cake bat-ray with a dark chocolate ganache to an angelfood cake ripcurl and a gingerbread-lemon curd batman logo to fluffy whipped cream clouds in a jetstream... . I usually make a somewhat traditional bûche de noël for my Christmas babe.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stave off a Chilly Morning

On winter mornings when I wake up and can see my exhalation ('outhale,' as Dylan calls it!), there are only three things to do:
  • kick on the heater
  • wrap myself in a cozy sweater
  • make a cup of fresh tea
Pretty simple: hot water and some fresh herbs.

A tea made from bay leaves is a great way remedy for a stomachache. But for that concoction I always add a splash of honey since the bay leaves can be slightly bitter.

Dress it up with Chocolate Sauce

Drizzling with chocolate sauce is an easy way to get out of frosting a cake! Here's a silky chocolate sauce recipe that I've used on many occasions. In this photo, it was the perfect complement to my chocolate eggnog cake.

Cam's Chocolate Sauce
1 pint heavy whipping cream
16 oz bittersweet chocolate
4 T sugar
2 T butter
Chop the chocolate into small pieces. Combine the cream and sugar and heat it over medium heat. Just before it boils, remove the pan from the heat, add the chocolate and butter, stirring till it's completely melted. Cool slightly, then whisk. This sauce is best served warm.

Recommended Reading?

Always looking for a good read, especially books that deal with food and include recipes!

Last night I cracked the cover on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. So far, so good. I laughed aloud when she recounted someone not knowing that a potato "had a plant." I know that I am not going to pick up and move to a farm in Appalachia, but I can certainly make sure that my boys know that fruits and vegetables grow in dirt and do not spontaneously generate on the shelves at Trader Joe's!

Please share your reading recommendations as a comment.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What's in a Name?

Rambutan's common name would be something like a "Hair Fruit," based on the Malay word "rambut" which means "hair." Not appetizing.

But this rosy-fleshed, translucent fruit is appealingly sweet and refreshingly juicy. Indigenous to the Malay Archipelago and widely cultivated throughout the region in Thailand, South Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka; I think it would make a perfect addition to my Palauan dinner table in a few weeks.

Blushing Crab Cocktail

I served this as part of my Christmas Eve Dinner, but with its rosy hue, it'd be a worthy addition to a Valentine's table as well.

Camilla's Blushing Crab Cocktail - lump crab, mayo, ketchup, a dash of hot sauce, and a squeeze of lemon. Serve over arugula. Top with pomegranate seeds.

Foodie Fight

I received this game as a birthday present from two really good friends. Thanks, guys.

Words cannot express how much fun it is. And, shockingly, it hasn't been a blood-letting whenever I've played with Jacob or other friends.

So, either I'm not as much of a foodie as I think I am or there is enough breadth in the topics that everyone can play well.

I think it's the latter. Whatever the case may be, it's a really entertaining way to spend an evening.

Homemade Marshmallows?

My turn to ask a question.

After seeing these fluffy delights at Bittersweet Chocolate Café and after seeing marshmallows made on the Food Network while staying at a hotel, I'm thinking about giving homemade marshmallows a a special treat to go with my spiced hot chocolate.

If anyone has a great recipe, please post it as a comment.

Q&A - Meyer Lemon Emergency

A friend emailed: "Meyer lemon tree in the front yard is drooping with fruit. Need recipe. Emergency. I can always can some more marmalade, but could use some fresh inspiration. Can I candy Meyer lemons?"

Cam says: someone gave us a jar of preserved lemons for Christmas and told me that they make a jazzy addition to lamb dishes or a tasty companion to couscous. Here's the recipe she gave me...

How to Make Preserved Lemons
  • 8-10 Meyer lemons*, scrubbed very clean

  • 1/2 cup kosher salt, more if neededExtra fresh squeezed lemon juice, if needed
    Sterilized quart canning jar

* You don't need to use Meyer lemons, regular lemons will do, it's just that the milder Meyer lemons work very well for preserving in this way.

1. Place 2 Tbsp of salt in the bottom of a sterilized jar.
2. One by one, prepare the lemons in the following way. Cut off any protruding stems from the lemons, and cut 1/4 inch off the tip of each lemon. Cut the lemons as if you were going to cut them in half lengthwize, starting from the tip, but do not cut all the way. Keep the lemon attached at the base. Make another cut in a similar manner, so now the lemon is quartered, but again, attached at the base.
3. Pry the lemons open and generously sprinkle salt all over the insides and outsides of the lemons.
4. Pack the lemons in the jar, squishing them down so that juice is extracted and the lemon juice rises to the top of the jar. Fill up the jar with lemons, make sure the top is covered with lemon juice. Add more fresh squeezed lemon juice if necessary. Top with a couple tablespoons of salt.
5. Seal the jar and let sit at room temperature for a couple days. Turn the jar upside down ocassionally. Put in refrigerator and let sit, again turning upside down ocassionally, for at least 3 weeks, until lemon rinds soften.
6. To use, remove a lemon from the jar and rinse thoroughly in water to remove salt. Discard seeds before using. Discard the pulp before using, if desired.
7. Store in refrigerator for up to 6 months.

Note:You can add spices to the lemons for preserving - cloves, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, bay leaf.

Pika Melon?

Ever heard of a ‘pika’ melon? I haven’t, but that didn’t stop us from ordering it during Pia’s birthday dinner at À Côté in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland.

The only ‘pika’ I could think of was the short-limbed, short-tailed, rounded-ear cousin of rabbits that quite aptly could be called a fur-ball. But maybe it just means melon in another language…

The mixture of fresh melon, gin, lime, and cayenne was wild and potent. Next time I go there, I will have to order their ‘Grappa Strega’. Any cocktail that combines grappa and Strega has to be a winner. Liquore Strega or what I, with infinite affection, call ‘witch’s brew,’ is an herbal liqueur whose ingredients include saffron and fennel. It’s the color of daffodils, semi-viscous, and oddly coniferous. A good friend said it reminded her of mouthwash, but I love it. Cin Cin.

Q&A - The Whole Wheat Debate

I received a question about whole wheat versus “regular” pasta. Not being a dietitian, my quick answer is that you should incorporate whole grains into your diet as much as possible.

But I think that it’s also a matter of preference; if you incorporate whole grains into every other aspect of your diet, a bowl of regular pasta isn’t a bad thing. But if you eat white bread, white rice, instant oatmeal, and white pasta, maybe you should consider mixing it up a little.
When I wanted to move our pasta purchases to the whole grain variety, and because I have friends who are gluten-intolerant, I tried every pasta variety from whole wheat to brown rice and spelt to kamut. For my family, it came down to texture. Brown rice pasta seemed more paste-like while the spelt pasta was too gritty. So, we’ve settled on whole wheat or a whole wheat blend.

My other advice would be to look at the portion sizes. If your pasta package reads ‘6 servings’ and you devour the entire box yourself, if doesn’t really matter if it’s whole wheat or not!

A Taste of the Himalayas

After a jaunt through the Berkeley Rose Garden, we headed back to the Gourmet Ghetto for lunch; it was Pia and Dylan’s first time having Nepalese and they both loved it. The flavors of Nepalese food seem more understated than Indian. Subtle and less saucy.

We started with momos (steamed dumplings) and tasted different curries and pickled vegetables, but I think that the hit of the feast was the Dal Bhat (lentils and rice). Dal Bhat is a Nepalese staple, typically eaten twice a day. So, of course, that’s what I’ve replicated in my own kitchen. I came across this recipe online and have made it a couple of times. I love that this dish provides a complete protein for an easy, nutritious meal. And we think the combinations of tastes – the tamarind and ginger – are dynamite together.

3 cups of water
1 cup red lentils
1 Tbs. peeled minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. seeded, chopped fresh green chili
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tamarind concentrate
1 tsp. vegetable oil
1/4 black mustard seed
1/2 five-spice

Bring water to boil in pan over medium heat. Add lentils. Reduce heat and simmer covered until lentils are tender, about 15 minutes. They should break easily when pressed between thumbs and index fingers. Remove from heat.

Puree this mixture with ginger and green chili in blender until smooth. Return to pan and bring to simmer. Add salt, sugar, and tamarind and stir to dissolve the tamarind. Remove from heat.
Heat oil in a 6-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Fry black mustard seeds for a few seconds. As soon as the seeds start popping remove from heat and pour contents of pan over the lentil mixtures. Simmer 2 to 3 more minutes. Stir in five spice. Cover and let stand for a few minutes to help develop the flavors. Garnish with lemon wedges and cilantro and serve with boiled rice.

Q&A - Fig Spread?

I'm always up for fielding foodie questions. So, if you have an ingredient whose use escapes you, shoot me an email: I'll post an answer.

Here's one I got from my cousin Jodree just now. "Speaking of figs...some work colleagues came through our offices last week and gave us each some fig spread. I have no idea what to pair it with or what to spread it on. Suggestions?"

Cam says: You bet, I do. Someone gave me a jar of fig spread during the holidays, too. I - should I be embarrassed to admit this? - used it in the boys' almond butter sandwiches like jam. But I typically use fig spread the same way I would use quince paste: with cheese.

A hearty bread (I like the cranberry-hazelnut bread from Trader Joe's) + a slice of manchego + a thin smear of fig spread = a great open-face sandwich.

If anyone else has a use for fig spread, please share it by posting a comment. Thanks in advance.

Calling All Caseophiles!

If you love cheese, a pilgrimage to North Berkeley's Cheeseboard Collective is a must.

So, naturally, that was our first stop for Pia's Birthday Tasting Tour of Berkeley. Our objective: pick up a snack to take with us to the Rose Garden. Sounds simple enough.

Still, even the blackboard, with its meticulously maintained list, is daunting in its length. Then there are the cases and cases of cheese where the only thing stopping me from whispering, "I'll take a little of everything," was my wallet.

It's a cheese-lover's dream realized. Gorgeous rounds and wedges. Pungent to floral. Draped in cabbage or wrapped in straw. Bliss!

We finally elected to purchase a round of Camilla - had to! - and some Wolverine rolls.
Camilla, a young goat's-milk disk cheese by Italian cheesemaker Caseificio Reale, has just a little cow's cream added to give it lushness.

Best Present for a Foodie?

What's the best present for a friend who loves good food? A Tasting Tour.

So, when one of my best friends turned thirty-seven last year, we ditched the husbands and most of the kids (Dylan joined us for the weekend), booked a hotel, and I treated her to a whirlwind around Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto and other favorite spots. From North Berkeley's Cheeseboard Collective to Rockridge's Bittersweet Chocolate Café, we tasted our way through the East Bay.

More on our delectable destinations to come.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gallo Pinto

After eating Gallo Pinto (beans and rice, Costa Rican-style) at a welcome brunch, I muddled through a stilted conversation with Marta - the cook, maid, and general go-to gal for the hotel in which we stayed - and figured out what I need to buy at the market to make it. And, like most traditional recipes, I'm certain that everyone has their own version.

This is what she told me to buy: black beans, white rice, boullion, chili powder, and garlic. Getting the 'garlic' portion of that recipe was comical.

I was standing in the doorway of her kitchen and she smiled at me, "ajo," she said. "Ajo," I repeated and shrugged my shoulders. She made the shape with her hands, "ajo." That was not helping. Finally, the doorman interjected, " an onion, but not." Ah, garlic! We were all relieved. And Gallo Pinto became a staple on our vacation table. Gallo Pinto and eggs for breakfast, before our adventures. Gallo Pinto and a protein, usually fish, for dinner.

Riley liked it so much, he even requested that I make that for his International Thanksgiving Feast at school in November.

How I do it...I cook the beans ahead of time in a mixture of water and boullion. Then while the rice steams in boullion, I sautée the garlic in a splash of oil, add the chili powder and some salt. I add the beans. And when the rice is cooked, I stir that into the mixture. Easy and a complete protein!

Eat Local!

In 2007, the term "locavore" made a splash, being Oxford University Press's 'Word of the Year' and earning an entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary. It's a fairly simple concept and a rallying cry for greenies everywhere. It means: one who eats from his/her local foodshed, or foods that come from within 100 miles.

Eating local is something that I, with my tree-hugging sensibilities, embrace. And when we travel, it means that we frequent the local markets and, as much as we can, eat the way the locals eat.

Our trip to Costa Rica for Fall Break last October was no exception. Once our travel-weary eyes had focused enough to read the map and locate the bus stop, we headed downtown to the central market.

Our senses were assailed with new sights (whole animals suspended over butchers' tables and turtle eggs) and new smells (there was an entire apothecary stand that made me really wish I could read Spanish). It was fabulous!

We didn't go home with any cow tongues or chicken feet, but we scored some freshly roasted coffee and bunches and bunches of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Tasty Trip to the Western Pyrenees

An NPR article featuring a newly-published cookbook about Basque sheepherders inspired a dinner late last Spring. Before dinner the boys and I talked about the geography of the region, the sheepherders, and why they cooked they way they did. Then we feasted on a Basque torta, lamb stew, and flan.

The recipe read: "Makes one very large loaf." You can say that again. It continued: "You will need a helper." Thankfully, I have three helpers. Here's the monstrous sheepherder's bread I baked.

Source: From the Sheep Camp to the Kitchen, Volume II

3 cups very hot tap water
1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. salt
2 packages active dry yeast
9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Salad oil

In a large bowl, combine hot water, butter, sugar and salt. Stir until butter is melted; let cool to about 110 degrees. Stir in yeast; cover and set in a warm place until bubbly, about 15 minutes. Beat in about 5 cups flour to make a thick batter. Stir in about 3 1/2 cups more flour to make a stiff dough. Scrape dough onto a floured board. Knead until smooth and satiny, 10 to 20 minutes — adding as little flour as possible to prevent sticking. Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled — about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch dough down and knead briefly on a floured board to release air. Shape into a smooth ball. With a circle of foil, cover the inside bottom of a 5-quart cast iron or cast aluminum Dutch oven. Grease foil, inside of Dutch oven, and lid with oil. Place dough in Dutch oven and cover with lid. Let rise in a warm place until dough pushes up lid by about 1/2 inch, about 1 hour. (Watch closely.) Bake, covered, with a lid in a 375-degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Remove bread from oven and turn onto a rack to cool. You will need a helper. Peel off foil and turn loaf upright. Makes one very large loaf.

All Because of the Mojito

Time warp with me back to January 2008. I decided to recount some of the culinary adventures from last year.

I am not ashamed to admit that I planned an entire dinner party around a cocktail: the mojito. I wanted to serve mojitos, so I cooked a Cuban feast of Brian's birthday party last year.

The main dish was a Fricase de Pollo, dessert was a coconut milk flan, all else is hazy due to too many mojitos. But here's the recipe I used for the was tasty, I do remember that.

Fricase de Pollo

2 cup sour orange juice or mix orange and grapefruit juices half and half
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
4 pounds chicken pieces skinned
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large onions peeled, chopped
1 large green bell pepper chopped
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup capers
1/2 cup stuffed green olives
1/2 cup raisins
1 pound potatoes peeled and cubed

Combine the sour orange juice, garlic, salt and pepper in a container suitable for marinating the chicken. Add the chicken pieces to the marinade, cover and refrigerate a minimum of 4 hours or overnight. Remove the chicken and blot in on paper towels. Reserve the marinade. Warm the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat and brown the chicken pieces. Do this in batches rather than overcrowd the pan. Then return all the chicken to the pan. Add onions and green pepper, sautéeing with the chicken until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Add reserved marinade, tomato sauce, wine, capers, olives, raisins, and potatoes. Reduce heat to low, cover pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Transfer chicken to a large serving dish and spoon the sauce over it.

A South African Soirée

Despite my feelings about new year's resolutions in general, here's one that I really enjoy: to expand my culinary repertoire, I will plan and cook a dinner whose foods are new to me. Last year I managed a Cuban dinner, a Basque dinner, and a few others. This year, I'm aiming for twelve.

I kicked off 2010 with a South African Soirée to celebrate Brian's 37th birthday. I made: boontjiesop, bobotie, geelrys, three different sambals and melktert and cordials of Amarula liqueur for dessert.

I was a little surprised that everyone said this was - by far - the best meal they've ever had at my house. But I can see why. The layers of flavors exploded in your mouth and were sensational.

And because, as stated, I cannot follow a recipe to save my life, here's my version of the bobotie...

I browned minced shallots with ground beef and ground pork, then I seasoned the cooked meat with a mild curry and turmeric. I stirred in some apricot jam, homemade tomato chutney, slivered almonds, and a mixture of golden and regular raisins. Then I spread that along the bottom of a baking dish and topped it with beaten eggs mixed with chopped fresh herbs; I used mint, Italian parsley, and chives. I placed half a dozen bay leaves onto the top of the dish and baked till the egg custard was firm.

I served the bobotie with a carrot sambal, an apple sambal, and a cucumber sambal. My sambals were fast and loose, really just fresh relishes. My sauce was a mixture of apple cider vinegar and sugar, simmered till it begins to thicken to a syrup, then stirred with a dash of hot chili peppers. Then I poured that syrup into three dishes to dress the shredded carrots with chives, shredded apples with Italian parsley, and chopped fresh cucumbers with mint.

Up next month, a Palauan Feast.

The Secret to Superb Salads

Whenever there's a potluck, friends usually request that I bring a salad. Dare I share my salad secrets? I think so.

It's a simple formula: greens + at least two other colors + a nut + a burst of flavor (usually a cheese). Toss all of that with a splash of olive oil and a vinegar (usually an aged balsamic, but I've been using an orange-champagne one recently). Think textures and flavors, both sweet and savory, that just pop in your mouth!

Some of my favorites...

Greens: mixed baby greens, spinach, arugula, or mixed fresh herbs PLUS

Other colors: Red - tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, dried cranberries; Orange - carrots, peppers, persimmon, dried apricots; Yellow - peppers, tomatoes; Green - cucumbers, apples, artichoke hearts, kiwi; Blue - blueberries; Purple - boysenberries, roasted purple potatoes, belgian endives PLUS

Nuts: pinenuts, cashews, slivered almonds PLUS

Bursts of Flavor: pomegranate seeds, chevre, crumbled bleu or feta cheeses, shavings of asiago or parmigiano cheeses EQUAL...ONE SUPERB SALAD!

Mini Chefs

Cooking is a great way to reinforce their math skills and, for me, it's been imperative that my kids' palates become discerning early on.

Granted we've had to work on tact, I remember - in complete horror - when, at an Asian-themed birthday party, my child announced loudly, "We don't eat white rice. Do you have any brown rice?" But I am proud of my mini-chefs.

Tonight Riley decided that he wanted to make dinner. On his menu: Macaroni and Cheese, which was really whole wheat penne with a parmesan cream sauce, served with sauteed zucchini.

Here's Chef Riley after he decided on his menu, making a roux for his cream sauce, and very satisfied with the result.

All Purpose Crust

I originally used this crust for the base of lemon squares, but it's always such a hit that I use it as the base of any and every pie or tart that I bake!

Cam's All-Purpose Crust:
2 C flour (I always use King Arthur's White Whole Wheat Flour)
1/2 C powdered sugar
pinch of salt
3/4 C butter

Mix the flour, sugar and salt; rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in 1 teaspoon of water with a fork until the mixture forms a ball. Press the mixture evenly into an ungreased baking dish. Bake for 20 minutes at 350, or until a light golden brown.

Torta di Cioccolata: last night this crust was the base of my torta di cioccolata. The filling of the torta is easy to make...

2 egg yolks
2 cups heavy cream
12 oz bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate

While you bring the cream to a simmer, light beat the egg yolks. Once the cream is hot, add a ladel-full of the cream to the yolk in a slow stream. Then, whisking constantly, pour the yolk mixture into the remaining cream. Cook the custard over moderately low heat until thickened. Remove from heat, add the chocolate. Whisk till smooth. Then pour into the baked tart crust and cool completely.

Candied Minneola Peel

I must admit that the first time I attempted to candy citrus peels, it could be classified as a disaster, at best.

I had tried to follow a recipe and even measured the ingredients which is a rarity for me. The result: glossy, gorgeous, deep amber shards, harder than toffee, that were guaranteed to crack a filling or two.

But as I tell my boys, if at first you don't succeed, give it another whirl. So, I read several different recipes and used the portions of the recipes that made sense...and didn't measure at all.

The result: success...and the perfect topping for my torta di cioccolata.

Basic procedure, or rather, what worked for me: take the peel of your citrus and slice into thin pieces. Place them in a pot, covered with cold water, bring them to a boil. As soon as they boil, remove from heat and drain. Repeat two more times.

Place sugar and water in a pot to make a syrup, using more water than you think you'd need, because you are going to simmer it down. As it starts to thicken, place the blanched peels in the syrup and simmer till the peels become translucent. For me, that took almost 90 minutes.

Let the peel cool, completed in the syrup. Remove the peels from the syrup and place them on a piece of parchment paper, letting the excess syrup run off. Then roll the candied skins in granulated sugar. With the first roll, the sugar will absorb the syrup and your peels will still be fairly vibrant. Roll them in sugar again to get that frosted look. Use as a garnish or chopped into recipes that require candied citrus.

Added bonus - Reserve the syrup for cocktails. Or add a splash to some sparkling wine for a mimosa-esque treat.