Saturday, September 18, 2010

Expecting the Unexpected

This week, I experienced a series of firsts. My first foray into West Virginia, my first visit to The glorious Greenbrier, and my first attendance at The Symposium for Professional Food Writers, a combination writing workshop, meet and greet among other food writers and awards/scholarship ceremony.

I had high expectations for all three, beginning with West Virginia. I was literally humming John Denver's Country Roads and thinking about "almost heaven" during the eight hour drive to Sulphur Springs from Charleston, SC. And, it was glorious. Life does feel older than the seas there. The softened curves of the ancient mountains cushion the valleys from the impatience and noise of modern day life and the air smells sweet, of sun and pine.

My father and many friends had warned me that I would be blown away by The Greenbrier. They were right. A hulking mass of white columns and startling high ceilings, it took my breath away upon first sight. It was like The Shining, minus the snow and the ghosts. The interior glows with an eclectic mish-mash of powder blues, pine greens, fuchsia, blood red and busy wallpaper designs that somehow work visual magic in a way that could only work here. The endless halls echo with palpable American history and the surroundings sweep you away with their beauty. My first morning there, a heavy cloud-bank swaddled the rooftop of the old building, just as the sun rose. It felt as if I'd accidentally caught the old girl stealing a nap and startled her into the new day.

And what a day it was, in fact what an amazing three days it was. I've been to award ceremonies before and I've been to writing workshops before. While pleasant, they're usually thinly veiled excuses for excessive partying and ugly ego battles. Though there was some partying, very little ego and so much more.

A star cast of pure talent from the publishing world, including "fonts" from newspaper, magazines and books, was on hand to generously share crystal clear and pertinent advice for food writers in today's ever-changing publishing world. Humor and unselfish giving of practical advice was as omnipresent as the delicious food and gorgeous flower arrangements. There was a genuine sense of appreciation for the unique challenges and opportunity our respective careers demand and afford; a kind of kinship that quickly forged its way into friendships with participants from around the world.

Much of the credit for this feeling of genuine camaraderie has to go to Symposium Director Antonia Allegra. Besides having arguably the best name on the planet, she also has a sincere love of the industry and exudes an almost maternal warmth, deep wisdom, and kindness. Like the cloud-bank clinging to The Greenbrier that early Monday morning, the "Allegra effect" touched everything and everyone in a way that made this symposium more than an opportunity to learn and to network, but a heart-touching memory of a lifetime.

Thank you, Antonia, and everyone involved in making The 2010 Symposium for Professional Food Writers at The Greenbrier everything that it was. It was, indeed, almost heaven.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tart Tips from the Queen of Tarts

I'm currently writing my next cookbook, tentatively titled "A Tart for All Seasons" (Gibbs Smith, Fall, 2011). I'm having a blast with it, especially the recipe testing, and am planning on making occasional blog posts and sharing recipes with you as I continue on this sweet and savory journey. One of my biggest lessons so far, in writing this book and in life, is that cooking presents constant opportunities for learning and improvement. I think that's one of the things that makes cooking so wonderful.

My lesson yesterday, as I was testing recipes for what turned out to be a slew of tasty tarts (a Rhubarb/Dried Apricot Free Form Tart and a Creamy Fresh Crab and Salmon Quiche), was that pastry can be too cold to roll. It is contrary to the technique that's been pounded into my head since forever, including when I used to shiver my way through Parisian winter pre-dawn mornings in a frigid work room making croissants with a talented pastry chef named Celeste. My fingers were so blue that one day, when I accidentally slammed one of them in a stainless steel cabinet, I didn't feel the pressure that nearly cut off my frozen fingertip. It was a cold, hard reminder why fat in pastry needs to be cold. This is because cold butter or lard makes it easier to handle the pastry and keeps the fat in tact, distributed in chunks throughout the flour, that will ensure extra flaky pastry.

The long holiday weekend provided me with an opportunity to refrigerate/rest pastry I'd prepped on Friday for three full days. Impatient to get started yesterday, I removed the pastry from the refrigerator and slowly started preparing it to be rolled out by giving long, pressing taps to the pastry with my rolling pin. The butter balls within the pastry were so hard that they cracked in spots, making for a rocky rolling road. Next time around, I'll let the pastry sit for 10 - 15 minutes before giving it a whack.

The good news is that, despite the slightly uneven edges of the quiche crust, everything tasted delicious. I particularly enjoyed the Rhubarb and Apricot Tart/Tartlets, which present a delicious taste and visual ode to the late summer pink rhubarb stalks and the fall-like, deep orange hues and chewy texture of the dried apricots. I use pre-made puff pastry here, which is so much more exceptional than it used to be and makes really beautiful little tartlets with a lot less pain and time. Oh, and the box reminds you to thaw the dough ahead of time so it's not too crisp to unfold and flatten. Here's the recipe:

Rhubarb and Apricot Tartlets
(Makes 8 Tartlets)

1 package (two squares) Pepperidge Farm frozen puff pastry sheets

For the filling:

5 cups coarsely chopped rhubarb (about 5 stalks, trimmed)
1 cup water
1 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried Valencia orange peel
pinch salt

Egg wash - 1 yolk, pinch salt, splash water, combined

Optional garnish: 1/2 cup slivered almonds or 1/2 cup whole, dried apricots

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Remove the puff pastry from the freezer and allow to thaw at room temperature for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Combine all of the filling ingredients in a medium pot. Bring up to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb has broken down and is tender, about 30 minutes. It should have the consistency of a thick stew. Turn the warm mixture out into a bowl and refrigerate until cold. (Note: The filling can be made a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator).

To compile the tarts, line a baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper. Lightly flour your working surface with flour. Arrange the thawed pastry sheets on the surface, and using a 6" wide round pastry cutter, cut them into rounds. Place the pastry, spacing evenly, on the prepped pastry sheet. Fill the center with 2 heaping tablespoons of the filling, being sure to leave a 1/2" thick border of "naked" pastry. This will rise up around the filling as it bakes! Brush the bare pastry lightly with the egg wash. If desired place a dried apricot in the center or drizzle the filling with some slivered almonds. Bake until the pastry is brown and beautiful and puffy, about 15 minutes.

These tarts are delicious fresh out of the oven and are also delicious served cold or at room temperature. They pair famously with best quality vanilla ice cream.

Happy tarting! Please contact me at if you have any questions or leave a comment here.

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.