Limoncello and A Few Other Homemade Gift Ideas

limoncello and cream

When my grandmother was alive, I learned to be careful with my words, especially when paying any compliments.

If I told her I liked her raincoat, five minutes later she would have snuck it into the trunk of my car. If I admired her olive bowl, I would later find it wrapped in paper tucked in my suitcase. If I spent too long thumbing through one of her cookbooks, it soon would be mine.

I was reminded of this feeling earlier this month when Ben and I spent the morning at our friend Jim’s mother’s house learning how to make prosciutto. Before we began, Antonietta showed us the cold room of her basement, where prosciutto, capicola and week-old sausages hung from the ceiling, homemade wine aging in carboys lined the perimeter, and mason jars of homemade tomato sauce, roasted peppers and pickled vegetables filled a closet floor to ceiling.

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Roasted Poblano, Onion, and Jack Quesadilla & A Favorite Drink

roasted poblano, onion & Jack quesadilla

I had one goal in mind when setting out to the farmers’ market this weekend: return with shishito peppers. I keep reading about them, and every time I do, I am reminded of a lovely dinner years ago at Casa Mono, where I sat at the bar with two friends, popping blistered, salty padrón peppers one after another, watching as the cooks worked with intense focus. Of all the delicious bites we sampled that evening, those charred peppers were the unanimous favorite. We ordered two plates.

I have been on the search ever since for padrón peppers and, more recently, shishito and fushimi peppers, which I understand are all similar — small, green and thin walled — and take well to high heat, fast cooking and showers of salt.

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Rhubarb Schnapps | Rhubarb Cake

rhubarb schnapps

Every spring this happens: I blink, and rhubarb season passes. And in one second, my to-make list of rhubarb recipes dissolves, my thoughts shifting to stone fruits and no-cook dinners and popsicles. Before we know it, it will be the Fourth of July, and I, my mother’s daughter, will be declaring summer over. Ugh, depressing.

I think I might, however, have a solution to these time-passing-too-quickly woes: rhubarb schnapps, a mixture of chopped rhubarb, sugar and vodka, the cheapest you can find, Nigella insists. Sounds like a win, right?

Let’s hope. Unfortunately, this is another one of those recipes whose success I cannot guarantee. In six weeks, I will report back, but as with the lemons, won’t it be more fun come mid-July to open our Mason jars together?

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Ina Garten’s Balsamic Brussels Sprouts // Philadelphia Fish House Punch

Ina Garten's roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta and balsamic

I woke up Sunday morning with one mission in mind: buy a punch bowl.

We had had friends over on Saturday night, and the Fish House Punch had been a wild success, adored by the men and women alike, the unfrozen ice ring inconsequential, the plastic lemonade pitcher excusable but less than ideal.

The punch had been a last-minute addition to the menu, inspired I suppose by the Bon Appetit Thanksgiving Issue I had been reading earlier that day, whose second bit of holiday-survival advice was to “Serve a House Drink.” With only four drinkers on deck Saturday night, there was no pressing need to make a punch, but after its reception, I don’t think I’ll be able to host another party this season — any season? — without serving it. It’s just too good, and so simple, too, calling for juicing lemons, dissolving sugar in water, and twisting open bottles: cognac, dark rum, and peach brandy.

Like most punches, this one is high-octane, the kind of stuff that warms the body upon first sip. And it did its job well, starting the evening with a bang, ultimately making the party a smashing success, but not before delivering a successful smashing: we were all drinking water exclusively by the time dinner hit the table. What can I say, it’s only November 5th. We’re out of practice. I’ve never been more excited for the holidays. And I’ve got my punch bowl now to prove it.

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Duxbury, Boston, Negroni

negroni

I often read about how well children do in routine, how structure makes them feel secure, how a schedule offers comfort. But the older I get — just celebrated a birthday — the more I realize how well I do in routine, how happy I am when my life feels like Groundhog Day, how I thrive when my schedule looks like this: breakfast, park, lunch, naps, park, dinner, bed.

But every time I find the gumption — I know, pathetic — to get away, I realize how important it is to get away. Last week, while Ben finished up work in Virginia, I trekked across Massachusetts with the kids to meet up with a college roommate home from Abu Dhabi for the summer, living with her two boys in the seaside hamlet of Duxbury, a well-kept secret so I’m told by the locals.

It felt like such an ordeal — packing the car, timing the traffic — but had I never braved that drive, my summer would have passed without squeezing lemon over a Snug Harbor lobster roll, without commencing the cocktail hour with a Mount Gay and tonic, without satisfying the post-dinner sweet tooth with a scoop of Farfar’s Danish sweet cream.

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Lifefactory Glass Bottle Giveaway // Watermelon Agua Fresca

waterbottles1

Remember last week when I brattily exclaimed, “I want one!” after seeing my auntie Marcy’s Lifefactory glass bottle? Well, guess what? I got one. And guess what else? I have one for one of you, too, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Upon returning from Albany, I started researching Lifefactory, and it came as no surprise that one of the company’s co-founders, Daren Joy, is an award-winning designer and architect. In a video on the site, Daren briefly discusses his design process and observes that “there is a connection that gets formed almost immediately,” noting that people “know they love [the bottle] right when they first touch it.” Perhaps my reaction wasn’t so bratty after all: the instant desire to have one was simply the sign of successful design.

As I suspected, I am loving my Lifefactory glass bottle. After a week of heavy use, I have yet to open my shoulder bag to find my phone lying in a pool of water — success! — and I have yet to find myself at the sink trying to scrub away a fungal smell from the opening — success! The glass delivers such a clean, pure taste. Moreover, thanks to the silicone sleeve, the bottle has survived several crash tests — the kids are as drawn to the bottle as I am — down our asphalt driveway.

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Fourth of July Sparkling Cocktail

July 4th cocktail

I have never considered myself a mixologist but for a gathering last Sunday, I found myself filling champagne flutes red Solo cups with peach-flavored liqueur, opening bottles of Cava, garnishing cocktails with diced peaches.

If I’m going the mixed-drink route, I tend not to stray from my gin and tonic, always with a lemon just as my British granny, affectionally known as Granny “Puff Puff” for allowing my sister and me puffs of her cigarettes as we wished, taught me. But after the warm reception of both the traditional sangria and the sangria Penedès I brought to last Sunday’s gathering, I think I could get into mixing it up in the drink’s department. I’ve never felt as equally proud as disappointed to see revelers return to the fridge searching for more of the “peach stuff,” which had long been polished off. Next time I’ll make a double batch.

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Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA, Light Brioche Burger Buns, and Preparing for Memorial Day

Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA

A couple of friends of ours take beer drinking very seriously. Never is their freezer not stocked with frosted pint glasses, nor their fridge with craft beers. If you drink beer at their house, they insist it be in a glass, not a bottle, and if they drink beer at your house, you best have chilled glasses on hand. Beer needs to breathe, they insist, and they pour hard, ensuring a nice foam head develops.

They’ve converted us. Pint glasses now dominate our freezer door, and various six-packs, almost an entire level of our refrigerator. One variety in particular, Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA, we can’t seem to live without. It is so good. Seriously, at every first sip, “perfection” is the only thought that comes to mind.

There are a few certainties for the upcoming holiday. We will be drinking Dogfish Head. We will be eating grilled burgers with roasted green peppers on light brioche buns (recipe below). There will be a kale caesar salad, and some sort of bubbling-fruit crumb-topped concoction, a cobbler or crostata or maybe something new.

Final note: With salad season upon us, I’ve compiled all of my favorite dressings and vinaigrettes onto one page.
kale caesar salad with brioche croutons

We’re keeping things simple this Memorial Day: burgers, salad, beer. I love the above-pictured kale caesar, but a Greek salad or a simple romaine salad with blue cheese dressing would accompany the burgers just as well.

And while I’d love to try out something new for dessert, I might just have to turn to some old favorites. Memorial Day has to be celebrated with pie or crisp or cobbler, right?

peach-blueberry cobblernectarine-blackberry crostatas

A few months ago, a NYTimes recipe that has been circulating the blogosphere for some time now usurped my favorite burger bun recipe. Try it! You’re burgers will never taste so good.

light brioche buns, baked

Before reading this article, I had tried countless recipes for brioche, none of which produced the texture I had hoped for, all of which made me cringe at every step of the process — the amount of eggs and butter I wasted on unimpressive loaves is sinful. This recipe is it. Search no further. Yum.

Light Brioche
Source: The New York Times
Yield: 8 to 10 buns

3 tablespoons warm milk
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
3 cups bread flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened.

1. In a glass measuring cup, combine 1 cup warm water, the milk, yeast and sugar. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, beat 1 egg.

2. In a large bowl, whisk flours with salt. Add butter and rub into flour between your fingers, making crumbs. Using a dough scraper, stir in yeast mixture and beaten egg until a dough forms. Scrape dough onto clean, unfloured counter and knead, scooping dough up, slapping it on counter and turning it, until smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes.

3. Shape dough into a ball and return it to bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 to 2 hours.

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using dough scraper, divide dough into 8 equal parts. (Note: I think dividing the dough into 10 pieces rather than 8 yields better sized buns — when divided into 8 pieces, the buns are rather large.) Gently roll each into a ball and arrange 2 to 3 inches apart on baking sheet. Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and let buns rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours.

5. Set a large shallow pan of water on oven floor. Preheat oven to 400 degrees with rack in center. Beat remaining egg with 1 tablespoon water and brush some on top of buns. Bake, turning sheet halfway through baking, until tops are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.

light brioche, unbaked

light brioche, baked

Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA

Glogg + Parmesan-Rosemary Crackers = New Year’s Eve in the Making

rosemary and parmigiano crackers, stacked

My stepfather has a few tricks up his sleeve, two of which he breaks out every Christmas: cornbread stuffing and glogg. His stuffing deserves a separate post — it steals the show every year — but I imagine many of you are a little stuffinged out at the moment. Am I right?

Good, let’s focus on the glogg then. The word “glogg,” Scandinavian in origin, derives from a verb meaning “to glow” or “to warm,” which is just what this hot beverage is meant to do — warm you up, get you glowing. Coming from a land where the sun shines seldom in a long winter season, glogg is meant to work immediately, which is exactly what it does. In a sort of two-pronged attack, glogg enters the system: as vapors swirl off the hot liquid up into the nose making their way to the brain, the liquid itself — a mixture of red wine, port and brandy — pours through the blood stream. This is potent stuff. This is bone-warming, rosy-cheek inducing, party-starting stuff. It’s a beautiful thing.

In my family, it’s not Christmas without glogg. And this year, it won’t be New Year’s without glogg either. I need one more round before I start drafting my resolutions. Moreover, I need something to accompany these rosemary-parmesan crackers, my latest pre-dinner fix. I discovered these a few weeks ago when I needed to make something for a potluck hors d’oeuvres party. Never knowing what to bring to these sorts of events, I opened an old classic and soon found myself in a particularly enticing chapter: crackers.

Crackers. Why make homemade, you ask? Well, this isn’t the sort of cracker meant to be topped with cheese or pâté or any sort of party spread. This is both a cheese and a cracker in one entity meant to be enjoyed on its own. Topped with a teensy sprig of rosemary, these crackers, I worried, would be too pretty to eat. But that they were not. With both beer and wine drinkers alike, they were a hit. These salty discs beg to be washed down with a heartwarming libation, and in that sense become their own little party starters themselves. Hmmm, homemade crackers + glogg? This could be dangerous. Happy New Year everyone!

glogg and parmesan rosemary crackers

cracker dough and rosemary

rosemary and parmigiano crackers

glogg ingredients

House and Garden's Drink Guide

“Aunt Betsy’s Favorite” (Glogg)
Source: House and Garden’s Drink Guide
Serves: 6 to 8

Note: My stepfather has adjusted the original recipe over the years so feel free to adjust to your liking as well.

1 bottle dry red wine (use a bottle you like, one you would drink on its own)
2 cups Tawny or Ruby Port (Chip uses Ruby)
1 cup brandy
8 to 16 tsp. sugar*
peel of 2 oranges
13 cloves
4 cinnamon sticks

*Chip adds 16 teaspoons (which is 5 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) but start with 8 (which is 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) and add more to taste.

Combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and heat slowly without allowing the mixture to reach simmering point. Pour into punch glasses.

Parmesan-Rosemary Crackers
Source: Martha Stewart’s Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook, also available online here
Yield = 20 crackers

**Notes: Plan Ahead! The cracker dough should chill in the fridge ideally for 24 hours — my dough basically just chilled overnight, but the recipe suggests 24 hours. If you forget to make this ahead of time, try popping the dough in the freezer for two to three hours.
Also: Bake these the day you serve them. They don’t keep well.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Pinch of white pepper (didn’t have, so didn’t use)
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary, plus extra sprigs for garnish
3 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup finely grated (2 1/2 ounces) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
5 tablespoons sour cream
1 large egg white, lightly beaten (optional — this is if you want to do the pretty rosemary garnish)

1. Combine flour, salt, pepper, and rosemary in the bowl of a food processor; pulse to combine. Add butter; pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add cheese; pulse until combined. Add 1 tablespoon of the sour cream at a time, pulsing each time to combine. (Note: I added the sour cream in 2 batches…not patient enough to do 1 T. at a time.) Process until dough comes together and is well combined.

2. Transfer dough to a work surface. Shape dough into a 2-inch-wide log. Wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. (Note: I chilled mine for about 18 hours. If you are pinched for time, try chilling the dough in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours.)

3. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Slice chilled log into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Transfer slices to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Dip a sprig of rosemary into egg white, and place in center of a cracker slice; repeat with remaining rosemary and crackers. (Note: The rosemary garnish is optional – it’s purely for decorative purposes.) Bake immediately, rotating sheet once, until crackers are golden brown and firm in the center, 25 to 35 minutes. (My crackers took 25 minutes.) Transfer to a rack to cool.

punch glasses

The Best Bloody Mary, Breakfast at Ramos House

bloody mary with pickled green beans and a scotch quail egg

I’m not even the Bloody Mary type. And had my friend not encouraged me so, I wouldn’t have thought to order one. But I do as I’m told, generally, and I began my breakfast at The Ramos House Cafe with a Bloody Mary. A Bloody Mary teeming with pickled green beans, sprinkled with shredded basil and chives, and topped — completed — with a scotch quail egg that is.

What, might you ask, is a scotch quail egg? A scotch quail egg is a soft-boiled quail egg, wrapped in ham, breaded and deep fried. And it is insanely delicious. Had I ordered nothing else that morning, I would have been completely content.

Well, in theory, I would have been completely content. Had I never tasted the apple cinnamon beignets, had I never spread the buttermilk biscuits with homemade apple jam, and had I never run my fork through the wild mushroom scramble into crispy sweet potato shavings, I would have been completely content.

I’ve been to Ramos House now several times and can’t say enough about it. For one, it’s hands down one of the most charming restaurants I’ve ever stepped foot in. I could spend hours in the bathroom alone. Truly. Go. You’ll understand.

But even if Ramos House wasn’t rooted in an idyllic garden, flanked by lemon trees and gurgling fountains, stationed next to a railway leading to, perhaps, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the food would make up for any lack of ambience.

This place is worth a trip across the country. Seriously. All of you East Coasters who have yet to come visit me in sunny California, here’s some more fodder. It has been a little over a year now since I moved, and I am finally feeling settled. Meaning, I have finally found some food outlets that rival, in their own way, Ding Ho noodles, Fisher’s soft pretzles, and Melograno’s mushroom pappardelle.

My most recent visitors, pictured here standing outside Pannikin on PCH, another favorite spot, shared my enthusiasm for Ramos House. And, before leaving the OC last week, they managed to so kindly buy me a copy of the Ramos House Cafe cookbook. Words cannot describe my excitement. While I haven’t tested the recipe below, I have a feeling it’s a winner.

Happy Easter!

Ramos House Cafe

Bloody Mary Recipe

Ramos House Bloody Mary

Source: The Ramos House Cafe cookbook
Yield = 4-6 servings

1 liter Clamato
Vodka or Soju
1 T. prepared horseradish
2 T. wild hot sauce (not sure what “wild” means)
1 T. black pepper
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon, blanched (not sure why it must be blanched)
1 clove garlic
¼ cup pitted green olives, chopped
salt to taste

1. Place all ingredients except for the vodka in a blender or food processor and puree. Fill a glass with ice and add desired amount of vodka. Fill remainder of glass with Bloody Mary mix.

2. Garnish with Pickled Green Beans (recipe below), crab claw, herb salad and diced bell peppers.

Pickled Green Beans

2 lbs. green beans
5½ cups rice wine vinegar, unseasoned
½ small onion, sliced
¼ cup crushed, dried red chiles
1/8 cup coriander seeds
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
¾ cup water
4 T. salt
1 oz. whole black peppercorns
6 T. sugar

1. Bring all ingredients except for the green beans to a boil. Skim. Allow mixture to steep for at least 30 minutes, then strain.

2. Bring to a boil, blanch beans in brine (add to water for about 15 seconds, then remove), then cool on sheet trays in the refrigerator.

3. Strain pickling brine again. Cool. Return vegetables to cool in pickling liquid. Refrigerate for up to one month.

Scotch Quail Eggs

10 quail eggs
½ pound bulk sausage, raw
2 eggs, beaten
flour for dredging
bread crumbs for dredging

1. Place quail eggs in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil for 1 minute. Drain off hot water and cover with ice to stop the cooking process.

2. When cool, peel the shells off the eggs. Flatten sausage into 10 pieces. The pieces should be big enough to encase the egg, but not too thick.

3. Roll the eggs in flour then wrap the eggs with the flattened sausage. Bread the wrapped eggs by rolling them in flour, dipping them in raw beaten eggs and rolling in the bread crumbs.

4. Deep fry in 350ºF oil for approximately 4 minutes.

Serve with:

Murdock’s Magic Mustard

1 cup Coleman’s dry mustard
1 cup sugar
1 cup tarragon vinegar
3 large eggs

1. Whisk together all ingredients in a stainless steel mixing bowl. Set bowl on top of a pot of simmering water. Stirring constantly, cook mustard sauce until it thickens. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and chill immediately. Murdock’s magic mustard will keep in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Ramos House Cookbook