Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Best Grilled Beef Burger, Ever

I am kind of a burger snob. Blame it on a couple of amazing burgers I’ve had in Connecticut and Rhode Island, simply made with freshly-ground grass-fed meat, topped with tender baby greens and a fresh slice of tomato. Oh, and can’t forget the brioche bun or Portuguese roll. 

Once specific burger sticks out in particular, a moist concoction served by owner Bruce Tillinghast and executive chef Beau Vestal at New Rivers in Providence, Rhode Island. 

While the duo has never divulged their secrets to me after years of pleading, I’ve taken to repeatedly ordering their burger and trying to dissect the ingredients, in an effort to create my own version. While I don’t think mine will ever be as delicious as theirs, I think I’ve come pretty close.

Herbed Beef Burgers
1 pound ground beef, preferably local and grass-fed
¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
¼ cup fresh basil pesto, plus more for garnish, if desired (optional)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, plus more to taste if necessary
Salt, preferably Maldon, for seasoning, if desired
Freshly ground black pepper, for seasoning, if desired
4 brioche buns or Portuguese rolls, for serving (optional)
Fresh baby greens or spinach, for serving (optional)
4 slices fresh tomato, for serving (optional)

Preheat grill or broiler to high.

In a bowl, combine the meat, mint, pesto, and first 2 tablespoons or Worcestershire sauce. To taste for seasoning, pick off a small bit and sear it off in a hot skillet to see if you need more Worcestershire (I find that it’s enough, when each burger gets a sprinkle of sea salt before grilling).

Divide the meat into four 4-ounce patties and season both sides lightly. Grill or broil until done as you wish (I find 2 minutes per side is good for medium-rare). Meanwhile, toast the buns, if desired. Serve each burger on a bun topped with greens, slice of tomato, and a dollop of pesto, if desired.

Makes four 4-ounce burgers
Total Time: 20 minutes

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Childhood Favorite (and a Chocolate-Lover's Dream)

When I was cleaning out my freezer on Friday, looking for the tomato soup I had so wisely packed away for a week like this when I needed some liquid meals, I came across a massive stash of quart containers. I was trying to rack my brain as to what each was. One was that delicious Sweets 'n Beans chili (um, dinner Wednesday perhaps?), another was a corn chowder, and then my tomato soup -- but what was the fourth container, eerily light? I gave it a shake and it all came back to me: My first attempt at a beloved family recipe for Nut Crunch (and no, I did not break the cleanse for this - or anything, for that matter!).

I don't know the exact origins of these Christmastime favorite (and warning, if you're going to make it now, be sure the AC is on as sugar is very sensitive to humidity levels. You wouldn't want chewy Nut Crunch, now, would you?), but its delicious nonetheless. The key is to cook the sugar far enough so it reaches a hard crack stage but also doesn't crystalize, so the resulting candy is ideally clear (this is a challenge. I got close, but next time will get a bit closer). Spread with lots of dark chocolate and chopped almonds, this is a chocolate and caramel-lovers DREAM!

Nut Crunch

Growing up, this candy WAS Christmas for me. Based on my grandmother's recipe, this delicious alternative to Christmas cookies may appear intimidating, but as long as you prep your ingredients in advance, it is really quite easy.

When cooking the sugar, be sure to stir it as it gets to hard crack stage, and be sure to brush down the sides of the pan with a wet brush so that crystals don't form.

1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup water
1 cup chopped pecans
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted

Combine sugar, salt, butter, vanilla and water in a 4-quart saucepan. Cook over high heat until it reaches hard crack stage, stirring frequently and brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush so crystals don't form.

While the sugar cooks, divide the nuts into two equal portions. Once the sugar gets to hard crack stage, add 1/2 of the nuts. Stir well and pour onto a greased silpat-lined cookie sheet. Spread it to about 1/4-inch thickness and let it cool until hardened.

While the crunch cools, temper the chocolate.

Once the crunch is cool, peel the silpat away from the crunch and spread the flat side with a thin layer of chocolate and spread 1/2 of the remaining nuts on top. Let the chocolate harden.
Once the chocolate is hardened, flip the crunch over and spread the chocolate and nuts on the other side. Let cool completely. 

Break into bite sized pieces and enjoy. 

Store in an airtight container for 1 week, or in an airtight container in the freezer for up to one month.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Cooling time: 2 hours

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hitting the Reset Button (on Life)

Oh, big news. I think my work lifestyle has caught up with me and I need to stop and hit the reset button.

Too many weeks of traveling, indulging in wonderful meals and magical wines has taken its toll on me. Which is odd -- I used to "abuse" my body like this before. Maybe its age (ha, it can't be...) or being back in the city, but in more ways than one my body has been screaming to me "Stop the drinking! Stop the eating! Stop the running! Escape to the ocean! Sleep all day!" Sorry body. I love you, but I've got a job to do here.

Now I already eat awfully clean already. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains (and the occasional burger and fries), low-fat dairy, and my favorite -- grass-fed meat. Over the years I've noticed how sugar leaves me with a horrible sore throat and congested sinuses... and then there is wine. Initially, it'd leave me groggy sounding and congested, but two weeks ago, it caused me to break out in hives. My one favorite thing. Hives. REALLY??? And I'm not a teetotaller, mind you. I just enjoy my nightly glass of vin rouge to settle down...

I could spend days detoxing with vegetables, but knowing me, I need something, like a class, to really make me focus. And a juice cleanse was just the thing. I'm not looking to lose weight, but heal my body now (granted, there is some stuff that I could lose, but it's so stubborn I figure it'll go when I've hit the dietary-jackpot). Example A: The "allergies" that have morphed into congestion with a tickle in the lungs. Time to undo all that abuse. Enter: The Blueprint Cleanse.

Tomorrow is day one of my juices. A green juice, then a pineapple-apple-mint juice, two more greens with a spicy lemonade in there, and the day is capped off with a creamy cashew milk before bed. I'm so excited to begin, and am hoping my caffeine withdrawal won't be bad (thus why I started on a weekend... caffeine is essential prior to heading to the office). I've been preparing since Wednesday, cutting first the meat, then cutting back on dairy, amping up the veggies and fruit, and transitioning to only plant-based foods today and a final liquid meal of homemade tomato soup and a kombucha. So far, so good (though I've got green tea and celery on hand, just in case).

Now, when I report back tomorrow, I may have something else to say. I'm sure I'll be grumpy and crabby and irritable (definitely emotional), but it's all that nastiness flushing it's way out of my life. Considering where the light at the end of the tunnel will lead me, I think I can deal with that.

A Sweet Cold Soup for a Hot Summer's Day

When the weather gets hot, nothing beats a cold soup. Now, I've shared a recipe for gazpacho with you, but this time I'm going for something sweet that even kids will love: Chilled melon soup. Inspired by a two-soups-in-one-bowl appetizer at Rebeccas in Greenwich, Conn., I decided to play with color and use two different melons when making the soup.

This is a really easy recipe that is perfect for a healthy mid-afternoon pick me up, or with some prosciutto and mint (if I had it) and a couple of crostini topped with honey and ricotta, a light mid-summer dinner. While I added a splash of sweet Vin Santo to the soups, I find that not using any wine yields a just-as-lovely result.

Two Soups in One Bowl: Chilled Melon Soup

1 cantaloupe, Crenshaw, or Cavaillon melon
1 honeydew melon
Salt, to taste
Vin Santo, to taste (optional)
Prosciutto or another cured ham, for garnish
Mint, for garnish (optional)

Cut both melons in half and scoop out the seeds. Starting with the cantaloupe, scoop out the flesh and add it to a blender. Purée until smooth. Season to taste with the salt and add a splash of Vin Santo, if you wish. Blend again and set the orange soup aside.

Repeat the same process with the honeydew melon. To serve, use a large spoon to carefully fill a half of the bow with orange soup (tilting the soup bowl to one side helps). Then fill the remaining half with the green soup. Add more spoonfuls as needed to fill the bowl. Garnish with a couple slices of prosciutto and mint, if you have it, and serve.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How to Host the Perfect Cocktail Party

My trick? A properly stocked pantry, of course!

When it comes to entertaining, sometimes less is more. Yes, we all love to set a fancy table every once in a while, with name cards, favors, fun activities, and more (oh, and festive cocktails and amazing food.... But you knew that). But as many a savvy host and hostess know, some of the best parties might be impromptu ones – at least, certainly simple. That’s why I always have a couple of party staples on hand so I’m party ready: Crackers, cheese, salted roasted nuts, chocolates, truffle honey, and lots of bubbly.

I leaned on my party pantry this past weekend when I had some friends over for cocktails and had little time (and energy) to cook. True, I've learned over the years that it's not the food or drink that makes the party, it's the company. But being a trained chef, the food matters for me, too! So I picked up some yummy small bites (menu below), fresh peonies, and put on my iPod – all in my newly cleaned apartment – and voila! I’m all ready for a night of girl talk and laughter.

Have a hankering to host a gathering of your own? You don't need to spend all day slaving in the kitchen if you know a couple key things.

It’s okay to cheat when planning the menu. I'm a huge fan of cheese and crackers, dressed up with some jam, honey, or fruit. Membrillo and manchego is a favorite, as is pepper jelly and cream cheese on Triscuits or corncakes. Goat cheese and truffle honey on Effie's Oatcakes will surely convert you – but a smear or Brie and fig jam on wheatmeal crackers ain’t bad either. You can even spread this on slices of french bread and sprinkle with Parmigiano and broil – instant crostini!

Don't like cheese? Appetizers like spanakopita and risotto balls found in the freezer section of your market work, too.

Love chips and salsa? Go for it! But never, ever let the containers see the light of day. Pack the chips in a napkin-lined basket, and place the salsa in a pretty, shallow bowl. Serving carrots and hummus? Same thing. Place the veggies and hummus in separate bowls for a chic look. And if you add a drizzle of olive oil and paprika to your hummus, no one will ever know you cheated.

Don't over estimate the power of a couple of bowls of treats stashed around the room. A bowl of peanut M&Ms here, the salted mixed nuts from Whole Foods there (omg amazing), maybe even a bowl of Lindor Truffles by the door (addictive).

And if you DO want to work in the kitchen, I'll share some favorites with you. This goat cheese tart is light yet satisfying (and the green chard adds a virtuous element). Craving something sweet? I'm still dreaming of this onion tart. And if margaritas are on the menu, this is one of my go-to faves to serve all summer long.

Even if you’re serving cocktails, don’t forget something sweet! My go-to? Sweetened ricotta and these super-fudgy brownies made with coconut oil (as mentioned in the NYTimes!).

Cream cheese and Hot Pepper Jelly on Effie’s Corncakes
Humboldt Fog and Truffle Honey on Effie’s Oatcakes
Castelvetrano olives
Bing cherries
Prosciutto di Parma
Bubbly and Cabernet

Don't overlook bubbly when making festive drinks! I love serving it plain, with a couple of berries, or a spritz of Aperol, St-Germain, even juice. My favorite to date? This ingenious concoction of sorbet and Prosecco. Amazing.

Candles do wonders and truly help set the scene. Not sure what it is, but I love walking into a space with a lightly floral-scented candle burning – especially in winter. This time of year? Throw open the windows or doors and let the intoxicating smell of peonies or honeysuckle (ok, or fresh cut grass) do the work for you.

Don't forget music! The playlist doesn't matter, as long as it’s appropriate for the setting (heavy metal for a girls night? Not so much) and is set to a volume level that allows conversations to flow freely. I'm a huge fan of Norah Jones, Jack Johnson, and She and Him.

Most important of all is conversation. With smart planning, you can make the party memorable by simply being there as hostess /host and actively engaged in the evening. Isn’t that why we entertain?

Are you Party Ready? Kelly Ripa and Electrolux want to know! You too can share your go-to easy entertaining tips or examples of how you handle stressful situations when entertaining here at the Are You Party Ready site – plus, you'll be entered to win a French-door-style fridge. How stylish and cool is that?!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Favorite No-Bake Dessert

Hosting a dinner party? You don't have to be an experienced baker or slave all day in the kitchen in order to be able to wow your dinner guests. How? Pull out two pantry staples -- sugar and chocolate. Then and stop by the market for a container of fresh ricotta and some crisp Italian biscotti from the specialty market. Come back here and I'll show you how this is done!

You don't only have to use chocolate when dressing up your ricotta. Try lemon zest, finely chopped mint, even sliced and macerated strawberries or rhubarb.

Sweet Ricotta with Biscotti
1 cup ricotta
2 tablespoons sugar, plus more to taste
About 1-2 ounces dark chocolate, shaved
Crisp biscotti for serving