Party treat: Champagne Jello Shots

recipe-champagne-jello-shots

This is the little party treat that will make a big splash at your next gathering.

There are so many different ways to entertain guests: with mixed drinks, fun appetizers, and tasty finger snacks. This idea is an instant party all by itself: champagne jello shots.

When I first tasted these at a friend’s party a few years back, I was genuinely surprised. The taste is just like a little shot of champagne, with a touch of sweetness that will make just about anyone at your party smile. They’re so light and pretty. And, they’re incredibly easy to make.

Ingredients

  • 2½ cups of champagne separated. In my video where I go through the recipe, I used Gruet Brut Rose. I recommend a sweeter variety. Dry champagne may be my preferred beverage but not for jello shots – it will be just too dry.
  • 3 envelopes, Knox Gelatin
  • 3 tablespoons, granulated sugar
  • Silicone chocolate or candy molds or you can pour it into a loaf pan and cut it into squares
  • Decorative sugar or edible glitter.

Instructions:

  1. Carefully whisk 3 envelopes of Knox Gelatin into 1½ cups of champagne. Follow the instructions on the carton—sprinkle in the powdered gelatin very slowly, mix thoroughly and don’t let the mix clump up.
  2. After you’ve mixed the gelatin in the champagne, let it sit to bloom. This is the process of softening the gelatin before melting it so that the end result is a smooth texture in your finished product.
  3. Pour 1 cup of champagne into pot and heat, then gently whisk in the champagne-gelatin mixture.
  4. Bring the mix to a boil then remove from heat. Completely move the pot off the burner.
  5. Add 3 tablespoons of regular granulated sugar and whisk in. Continue to whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved.
  6. In my video, I pour the mix into silicone molds. You can use a baking pan or any other shape you want. Make sure that you have lightly sprayed the inside of the mold with cooking spray to help release the jello.
  7. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours, or until the jello becomes firm. Refrigerating longer is OK.
  8. Carefully run a sharp knife along the edge of the molds and then invert to unmold.
  9. Just before your guests arrive sprinkle the ‘shots’ with colored edible glitter or colored sugar to decorate and add a little more sweetness.

Now you have an instant hit for your party!  Enjoy.

Get ready for a spring time treat—Roasted Asparagus

It’s a quick home recipe for roasted asparagus that’s perfect for any meal.

I love the taste of fresh asparagus. And, the best way I know how to prepare them is roasting them with this very simple recipe.

The first tip: read my earlier post and video on selecting, prepping and storing asparagus. Yes, there’s a little trick to it, but only very little. The big reveal is that we peel the skin of the lower stalk of the asparagus spears. This way you get to enjoy more of the asparagus instead of snapping the ends off and tossing them away. Less waste, and more roasted veggie to enjoy.

Roasted vegetables are the simplest and tastiest way to make a perfect side dish for any meal. The best vegetables to roast are the ones that are in season and for me, when it’s Spring, that means asparagus.

Second tip for prepping any roasted veggie: keep your aromatics and spices simple. Do this, and you’ll see the flavor of the vegetable become the star of the dish.

In the previous blog post I mentioned the thickness of asparagus stalks. For some dishes, the thinner asparagus is preferred (like stir-fry and salads). But when we’re roasting, we want the larger or thicker spears.  They hold up better to roasting and we get more actual vegetable to enjoy.

Now for the recipe:

  • Prep the asparagus per my earlier post and video.
  • Preheat your oven to 450°F.
  • Lay your asparagus out in a single layer in a shallow baking dish.
  • Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over your asparagus. I love the oil from Corzano e Paterno that I brought home from my last trip to Italy. Turn them over to coat on all sides. A kitchen secret—use the best set of cooking tools you have in your kitchen: your hands!
  • Sprinkle coarse sea salt and fresh ground black pepper over the asparagus. You can use flavored sea salt if you want the added flavor profile in your finished dish. In my video, I used smoked sea salt from Jacobsen Salt and fresh ground pepper from Cole and Mason.
  • Place the baking dish uncovered into the oven and let it cook. Start checking at about 12 minutes, occasionally turning until lightly browned and just tender. Actual cooking time depends on the thickness of the stalks.
  • Finish roasting and transfer to a serving platter. Lightly drizzle good aged balsamic vinegar (I use Acetaia Villa Bianca from another trip to Italy) over the hot asparagus and top with some shaved Parmesan Reggiano cheese to finish.

Watch my latest video to watch me make this dish. And here’s to enjoying the fruits of spring!

Don’t snap your asparagus—peel them!

dont snap your asparagus-really

You’ll enjoy more of your asparagus stems by peeling them.

I’ve always loved asparagus and artichokes. They remind me that spring is coming. But they also bring back so many great food memories because there are so many ways to enjoy them. And, they also tell beautiful stories about our culinary past – which is great for kicking off dinner party conversations.

We’ve been cultivating and eating asparagus since before the ancient Egyptians. A recipe for cooking asparagus was found in a book called the Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes written in the first century AD, which makes it one of the oldest surviving cookbooks in history. Leave it to the Romans to write a cookbook that lasted more than 2,000 years. Now there’s a great bit of trivia for my next dinner.

Oddly, when the Roman Empire fell, our appetite for the veggie also fell and it disappeared from the table. That vanishing act lasted until a 15th century cookbook called The Perfumed Garden helped put it back on dinner tables—as an aphrodisiac!

Now we have a nearly limitless available supply of knowledge about asparagus thanks to the internet – not just how to grow but also how to buy, store and prep the spears for cooking. The problem with all that available information is that some of it contains bad tips which I will help you sort out.

Tip 1: asparagus can taste great no matter how thick or thin. So, the size only matters when you are deciding what you are going to use them for.  Thicker stalks for cooking or shaving and the thin ‘pencil’ ones for salads, etc.  The appearance is more critical.  Choose firm, bright colored stalks with tight tips and moist ends. Don’t worry about the color: purple or white or all green – your preference. Just make sure that whichever color you choose it is vibrant with no brown spots on the stalks.

Tip 2: asparagus is best when eaten fresh. So, try to buy them the day you will use them.  But, if you need to store your asparagus, put them in a container where they can stand upright (like cut flowers) with a little water, cover the tips loosely with a plastic bag and place in your refrigerator.

Tip 3: Because asparagus is grown in sandy soil, make sure to rinse the spears thoroughly so that you remove any grit before you cook them.

Tip 4: Everyone who learned to cook during the age of Julia Child was taught to snap the ends of the spears at whatever natural break point they had. But, snapping asparagus often makes for some very short or some very long spears, and a lot of waste.  From my years owning restaurants, I will share what chefs in commercial kitchens do: they trim off the ends of the spears to make them an even length and then peel the lower 2/3 of the stalk with a veggie peeler.  It’s the outer layer of the stalk that can be tough and chewy.  This method produces much less waste and because the spears are the same length and it is a much better presentation on the plate.

The same approach holds true with artichoke stems. We all used to cut the stems off very tightly at the end of the globe and throw them away before cooking the artichoke. After I spent some time around cooks in Italy, I discovered that the artichoke stem’s tough outer layer can be peeled or cut off as well. The inside of the stem is as tender and delicious as the heart of an artichoke. It can be cooked in any number of ways – sautéed, stir fry, etc.  So, next time you reach for artichokes at the store take the ones with the stems – you’ll enjoy more them too!

See my video on how to prep asparagus and start enjoying more of your asparagus (and artichokes) this spring!

Everything you need to know about your cast iron skillet.

Lodge Iron Skillet

The iron skillet is one of the most valuable tools in your kitchen and probably the one you take most for granted.

After a lovely dinner at the home of a friend, a few of us walked into his kitchen to freshen our wine and talk a little shop. One of the dishes that stuck in everyone’s mind was the fabulous gnocchi that he prepared in his favorite cast iron skillet.

Read: An easy recipe for gnocchi sausage, tomatoes in a skillet

I’ve cooked with skillets before, but this dish – so simple and tasty – was really something else. I was also impressed by the way he so matter-of-factly talked about how skillets were great for cooking anything where an oven and proper distribution of heat was needed.  But, of course, some are better suited than others to go from stove top to oven.

I’m talking about the good old cast iron skillet. While the shiny copper-bottomed stainless-steel pans are very pretty to look at – your most valuable pan in the kitchen sits there, blackened and heavy. You can cook a whole chicken, a batch of cinnamon rolls, caramelize onions, even your favorite pan pizza in one!  My favorite dish to prepare in my iron skillet is crispy skinned salmon filets.  You can serve them with any favorite side dish as they basically cook themselves.

Unless your recipe calls for a ‘cold’ skillet (like my salmon does), cooking goes better if the cast iron skillet is preheated before adding ingredients.

The most crucial aspect to cooking with an iron skillet is cleaning and proper storage. It only takes a bit of care, and you’ll be able to hold on to it forever. One of my chef friends favorite skillets (yes, he has several) was passed down from his grandfather. I have another friend who has a photo from the 1930s where his hand-me-down skillet was used over a potbelly stove.

Don’t have an iron skillet? I recommend that you consider the same 12-inch cast iron skillet I have. See it in my latest video.

Start it off right by seasoning the pan even if it says it’s pre-seasoned.  When you heat oil in a cast iron pan over high heat the oil molecules bond with the surface of the pan. The end result is that your skillet will become basically non-stick. Use a neutral (no strong flavor) oil with a high smoke point (the oil won’t smoke and burn). Recommended oils: vegetable, corn, canola or grapeseed.

Use a paper towel or kitchen towel and rub your pan all over with a very light coat of oil.  Place it upside down in a preheated 500-deg F oven. You may want to lay some aluminum foil under the pan to catch anything that might drip.

After about an hour, the pan should emerge with a matte dark finish.  Let it cool on the stove top and coat with another light coating of oil before storing. Each time you cook, the resulting fat and oils that accumulate in the pan adds another layer of seasoning. You can re-season your skillet when it starts to look dry or dull or if you can’t remember the last time you used it.

Being blackened doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean it. By all means: keep it clean!  If you don’t remove those burnt crispy bits from the pan, they will create an irregular surface, and your pan won’t be non-stick anymore.

While the skillet is still warm wipe the cooking surface with paper towels to remove the leftover bits of food and oil. Rinse under hot running water and if necessary scrub the pan with a drop of dish soap and a nonmetal brush or nonabrasive scrub pad.  Thoroughly dry your cleaned skillet and set it over a low flame on your stove for only a minute or so to help it dry it off completely. Pour about ½ teaspoon of neutral oil into the center of the pan.  Using a paper towel lightly coat the interior surface with the oil.  Wipe the surface with the oiled paper towel until it looks dark and smooth and no oil residue is left.  Your workhorse is ready to be put away awaiting your next cooking project!

One bit of caution: never ever let your skillet soak in water, and absolutely do not place it in dishwater or a dishwasher. If you ever spot rust, do not fear. Use a bit of coarse Kosher Salt to form a paste and a green scrubby to remove all the rust and then season it thoroughly before storing.

Most of all, find some recipes to cook in your skillet and make some wonderful food memories.

How to get the best zest from your citrus.

My three most favorite types of citrus zest: curly, sliced, and fine grated.

I’m sure most of you have already run into “citrus zest” as an ingredient in a recipe. I can think of several mixed drinks that call for it as a garnish. You will find it in everything from appetizers to desserts.

The zest of citrus fruit (mostly oranges, limes, and lemons) is the outermost colored part of the rind. This is what contains the oils that give the flavor. When preparing zest, you want to stay away from the bitter pith or white inner layer.

What does zesting do for dishes? The best way I can describe it is that it adds a wonderful flavor dimension to just about any recipe. Citrus is one of the acid flavors in the four fundamental elements of good cooking- Salt/Fat/Acid/Heat – by Samin Nosrat chef and James Beard Award winning author.  Some people try to increase the flavor by adding more juice but, if you do that, you’ll end up with too much liquid and not the consistency needed for the recipe.

A friend of mine makes lemon bars that are incredibly tasty. Without fine zesting from lemons, she’d never get the great lemon flavor and still keep them crispy. Another friend discovered a new dimension of character when he added orange zest to his grandmother’s crunchy orange chicken recipe. I’ve added curly lemon zest to salads and dips without the ‘lemon juice’ taste – which is very different flavors.

Mixed drinks are the same way. More citrus juice just adds more liquid to the mix. Most of the time you don’t want that, especially with an active ingredient like citrus juice. Zesting eliminates that problem completely.

But, keep in mind that not all zest is equal:

Curly zest is perfect as a garnish for cocktails, main courses (like lemon pasta), or just to add a bit of color to your candied citrus decorations.

Sliced zest is a bit trickier but you can easily manage it with a “Y” peeler or very carefully with a sharp paring knife. This wide strip is fabulous for rimming cocktail glasses or for infusing oils and syrups.

Finely grated zest is the stuff you’ll add as an ingredient for sauces, batters, and anything else where you want the added citrus flavor to melt into the dish. For this you need to use a microplane.  Be very careful – they are VERY sharp!

Zesting isn’t all about the taste either. It’s the easiest way to include the aroma of the fruit without actually adding the fruit.  It’s a bit of a trick you learn as part of your training in culinary technique.

There are some practical tips for zesting. Always scrub the outside of the fruit with warm soapy water, rinse thoroughly and dry completely before using. This removes all of the “stuff” that growers may spray on the fruit. Don’t scrub so hard that you actually break the skin, but enough to make the peel shiny and clean.

If you’re not juicing the citrus right away, then wrap the zested fruit in plastic wrap and refrigerate. And, if you don’t need everything you’ve zested, freeze it in a freezer bag.  When need just let it defrost for a minute or two on the counter.  A little secret – zest from a lime is about 1 teaspoon and the zest from a medium lemon is about 1 tablespoon!

Watch my video to see the best tools for zesting in action.

The Making of a Beautiful Morning Coffee Service

coffee service

How to make your morning more beautiful with the perfect way to serve coffee.

I’d love to share a food memory with you. It was several years ago on one of my many trips to Italy and I was staying in a really lovely hotel in Palermo. Early in the morning, my room steward would appear at my door with a beautiful pewter coffee service. I would open the window and let the morning breeze mix with the smell of fresh coffee.  The morning view from my window, the amazing cup of Italian coffee, and the special feeling of enjoying my first cup from the beautiful coffee service was nothing short of heavenly.  The feeling was so warm and happy that I decided I’d take that feeling home.

Today, one of my favorite morning rituals is that first cup of coffee in the morning. Sometimes with the windows open overlooking Beverly Hills. Maybe not as exotic a morning view as some other places I’ve seen, but the feeling of Palermo is still with me.  I make it that way with a special coffee service and setting just for that purpose. Since then, I’ve collected several coffee services to match different moods: pewter, antique silver (I have several of those), white porcelain, and glass.

It’s the start that makes my whole day more beautiful and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I’ve told this story to several of my clients who want a unique way to make their mornings stand-out as a perfect beginning for the rest of their day. What makes the act special is using an elegant tray with a hot pot of coffee or tea, service bowls of cream and sugar and lovely cups and saucers. You can add toast or biscuits, but the way you serve yourself that steaming hot service of your favorite coffee or tea is what makes it special—at least for me, it does.

Some of my clients and friends who have taken on the habit now take their Espresso or English Breakfast in bed, sometimes at a morning table. They’ve made it a special event with a style they love. And there are so many styles to choose from, with mixed materials, patterns, and colors.

One of my clients loves the retro look and found a 1960s deco style silver coffee service at her local flea market that completely matches her style. Another friend who is a true antique collector found a vintage service from the 1920s that’s truly lovely. But there are so many other ways to make that simple act in the morning more beautiful.

Alessi makes an absolutely perfect espresso maker, but you may be partial to a lovely pewter pot from Match 1955. If you love modern design, see Muriel Grateau, or Bernardaud for a more painterly or romantic style. Don’t forget the cups and saucers.  Everything doesn’t have to be in the same pattern – the mixing of patterns can make it more interesting.

Pull it all together with exquisite trays, bowls, and flatware from Christofle, Hermes Tableware, Lifetime Brands, or Ercuis, perhaps with cloths and napkins from Bodrum Linens. And if you happen to live in the Los Angeles area want to take in an even broader view of possibilities for the pieces you love, take a trip to Gearys. You can see many of these items on my video.

I’ve heard that the act of serving yourself—as though you are a guest at a favorite hotel—evokes high energy satisfaction that can trickle into everything you do. So, start it off right and begin your day beautifully every day.

Kitchen Hints: The Three Most Common Onions you need daily.

three common most onion

White, Red, and Yellow Onions are the three that you need in your kitchen, indeed!

A friend of mine told me about this 7-onion soup that she had the other day. She said it was so good and so tasty that she wanted to figure out how she might make it at home. Then she paused and admitted, “I had no idea there were seven onions!”

There are a lot more than that and here are my top 11:

Ramps – also known as “wild onions” are really great for roasting and in soups. They add a sweet garlic flavor.

Cipollini onions are the little fat disc-shaped onions that are fabulous to caramelize or sauté with other veggies. They’re incredibly versatile and mild and will go with just about any dish.

Shallots are a member of the allium family (like garlic) and not really onions but are used like them in so many Asian noodle dishes.  They’re great raw or cooked.

Scallions, also known as green onions, are especially popular in Asian dishes, but are also used as garnish and toppers for soup.

Leeks, the Japanese call them “Negi,” look like oversized scallions, but they’re not. You’ll find them in Asian soups and stir fry.

Vidalias, like white onions, are very sweet and ideal for making onion rings.

Maui, similar to white and Vidalias, are also sweet, but tend to be a bit more watery. And, yes, they originate from Hawaii.

Pearls – the tiny white onions – are very mild and sweet. We love pickled pearls in certain mixed drinks (like a perfect Gibson martini) but they’re also fabulous for stews, soups, and for roasting.

Read: How to dice an onion – the easy way.

Some of these might be a tad obscure. If you love fine restaurant dining, likely as not, you’ve had most of them in or on your dish at one point or another. But, before these unusual varieties are the three most common onions that EVERYONE knows and uses:

White onions are the mildest of the common three varieties. As I mentioned, they’re similar to Vidalia and Maui, but they have a much higher sugar content than the other two and, in my opinion, wins the distinction as the true “Sweet Onion.” My friend, the historian, eats these raw with a dab of salt. If you’re going to eat a raw onion – this is the one to reach for.  You can make it even sweeter by slicing them thin and soaking the slices in cold water for about an hour.

Red onions are relatively sweet as well, but they have a bit of that “oniony” sharpness in their flavor and a slightly more potent smell than the others. They also have a higher sugar content which makes them perfect for pickling or grilled and on your hamburger!

Yellow (or Spanish) onions are also known as “brown” onions. Like the red, they have a stronger flavor than the others, so we don’t usually eat these raw. In my opinion, yellows ought to be cooked 100% of the time for that beautiful onion flavor.  When they’re cooked, the intense sharpness evolves into a delicious sweetness which makes them the perfect choice of onion to caramelize. A little tip: you’ll get much more flavor from yellows caramelized than you will from the white onion which won’t hold up as well.

So, the three most common onions may soon be your go-to ingredients: white onions are raw, red onions are grilled, and yellows are caramelized. See my video for more descriptions and cooking ideas.

Pre-party Check: Favorite soap in the powder room?

Often overlooked by you, but not by your guests.

As my mom used to say, “A little soap goes a long way.” I’m not sure this was what she was thinking of but the sentiment is good.  Checking for that little bar in the powder room isn’t usually the first thing you think of when you’re hosting a group but it definitely needs to be on the last-minute checklist.

I prefer small bar soaps for the powder room because they can be changed frequently and will always look fresh. They don’t drip like liquid soap dispensers often do – making a complete mess, and they’re not as clumsy as large soap bars. That’s why I don’t like to use them no matter how pretty they are. I’ve even seen a clever dispenser that dropped little flakes of soap on your hand.  The soap flake idea is novel, but the flakes get everywhere.

The big secret to those little bars of soap, and the one thing that makes them so ideal for home entertaining, is that they can add a lovely scent to the ‘room of necessity.’ They’re compact and can be intensely saturated with whatever types of perfume, oils, or minerals that you like. For that reason, they’re the one exception to my “no scented _______” rule.

The exception, of course, is the powder room.

This is the one room that I break the rule for when it comes to scented candles as well.  A candle casts some beautiful light.  But stay away from the scented sprays – they can be very ‘heavy handed’.  Wetting a small favorite soap bar releases just enough scent.

“Guest” soap bars can be found almost anywhere and everything from unscented to herbal to floral of all types, in every imaginable shape. You can even look up novelty companies that will make ones monogrammed with your name or a personal message. A friend of mine, who was a writer for the Star Trek television franchise, had ones that featured the shape of a ‘communicator’ with the message, “Clean me up, Scotty!” It was perfect for his home.

Here’s a tip for having just the right little dish for those small bars of soaps. On your travels, look for small ornamental dishes or shallow bowls to hold the soap. Sometimes the same place that sells the soap will have soap dishes. But you never know what clever little dish you will find in the most unusual places.  So, keep an eye out!

One more tip, make sure that you check it after a party or after your guests leave.  If the bar has lost its shape, become very small, or become nicked or broken be sure to replace it with a fresh one.

And don’t forget to check out my video where you can see more guest soap ideas!

How to buy the best tasting eggs!

best tasting eggs

Let’s decode the myths and labels around this favorite dairy product.

Eggs are the most complete food – nutritious, affordable and can be served in more ways than you can imagine. Personally, I could eat them for any meal – they’re one of my favorite foods. And, they’re really a staple in almost every household – used in everything from meal entrées, to salads, to baking and of course all by themselves as a perfect snack.

As easy as they are to use and as important as they are for daily meal planning, there are so many myths and labels to decode. Figuring it all out can make finding the best tasting eggs a bit confusing.

First, let’s dispel one bit of egg mythology. The color of the shell means nothing. The color of the shell, although pretty, is just an indication of different breeds. They merely produce different color eggs. The difference in taste is from the care and diet of the chicken and the freshness of the egg. More on that in a moment.

Next, the ‘size’ of the egg marked on the carton has nothing to do with a visual scale. The most common size you will find at the market is classified as “large” and it’s the most common size called for in recipes. But here’s the thing. The size is actually a measurement of the WEIGHT of a dozen eggs in a carton. So, one “large” egg weighs about 2 ounces, and a dozen will weigh about 24 ounces.

Now we have grading. Eggs are also graded based on the appearance of the shell and what they can see of the egg’s interior. In this case, you’ll usually see eggs in most stores that have a USDA “Grade” of “A” and “AA.” Graded eggs will have thick and firm whites, yolks that are high, round and free of defects, and clean unbroken shells. There’s practically no big difference between “A” and “AA” except that with “Grade A” eggs, USDA only requires that the whites need to be “reasonably” firm. After that, they’re all just eggs.

Finally, shopping for eggs. Remember that the freshest egg is the tastiest. For the best tasting eggs, I see my “egg guy” at my local farmer’s market. His eggs are usually laid about 2 days before selling which is about as fresh as you can get unless you live next to a chicken ranch or raise chickens yourself. The fresher the egg the better tasting it will be.

When I buy eggs at the store, I pay close attention to the “sell by” date (sometimes they’re marked “use by” or “best by,”). Of course, you want the date that is the farthest out. By law the “sell by” date is no more than one month from when the eggs were packed and the “use by” or “best by” is actually no more than 45 days from the pack date.  I also look for ‘Certified Organic’ on the carton. That’s a legal trademark regulated by the USDA. It means hens are uncaged with access to the outdoors and are fed an organic diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. But “cage-free” only means the hens aren’t kept in cages. They could still live in VERY cramped conditions. “Free-range” means they have access to the outdoors and can pretty much wander around the yard where they’re kept. If you find the carton stamped “Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved,” (also perhaps marked as Pastured) then you’ve found the gold standard for probably the next best tasting eggs you can buy in a regular market.  These eggs come from chickens that basically live outdoors roaming with a varied diet.

One last bit of egg mythology: pasteurization. It has no effect on taste, and if you’re planning to cook the egg well, then don’t worry about. Pasteurized eggs are lightly heated in their shells. They add just enough heat for a certain amount of time to kill off bacteria but not enough to actually start the cooking process. You want these eggs if you have a recipe that calls for uncooked or only partially cooked eggs. Some sauces are like that, toppings whipped with cream etc. As far as taste, I can’t tell the difference between the best organic, range-free eggs and pasteurized.

Check out my video where you’ll see the eggs and labels for yourself. See this earlier video on how to tell if those eggs you’ve kept in your fridge are still fresh enough to eat or should be tossed.

How to make a perfect “starter” with a great Shrimp Cocktail!

An easy recipe for shrimp cocktail that’s tasty and lovely to look at.

I have never met a “starter” I didn’t love. There are so many great ways kick-off an evening of fun with your friends or family but, for me, there’s just something about a great shrimp cocktail before dinner that sounds perfect. It’s one of the reasons that you’ll find it on every appetizer menu for the big steak houses around the neighborhood. Some restaurants serve them simply prepared and some serve them fancier (like when they serve the shrimp on top of dry ice so that it comes to the table ‘smoking’) but in the end it’s all about the perfectly poached shrimp and the flavors of the sauces the shrimp are served with.

It’s actually much easier than you think to create the absolutely perfect shrimp cocktail every time.  One of the significant advantages of poached shrimp is that a typical serving isn’t over-filling. That makes them fabulous to have solo as a light lunch or snack on a late weekend afternoon just before you go out for dinner and a show.

Read: Two drink recipes that go well with shrimp!

After trying so many recipes in search of the perfect shrimp cocktail, I found this recipe on Bon Appetit last year and tried it out immediately. It’s so easy. It requires NO special equipment other than measuring cups and spoons. The most challenging part is preparing the shrimp for poaching. And, the cocktail sauce is a quick mix-up of six easy ingredients.

Ask at the fish counter or your fish market if the shrimp is fresh.  Very often what you will find at the fish counter is shrimp that was once frozen but that the market has already thawed.  But, if you can find fresh it’s the best option.  Some fish mongers will de-vein them for you but, even if your fish monger will de-vein your shrimp – check them again to make sure that all of the intestine (that dark line along the back of the shrimp) is gone before you cook them.  If you can’t find them fresh then IQF (individually quick frozen) can work.  Just be sure that you thaw them only ONCE and cook them immediately.  Do not refreeze thawed shrimp.

Ingredients for Shrimp

  • 8 cups of ice (keep it ready just before you start)
  • 1⁄4 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 2 Tbsp plus 2 tsp Morton’s kosher salt (Morton’s Kosher Salt is much ‘saltier’ than Diamond Crystal)
  • 1⁄4 cup sugar (I know it sounds strange – trust me)
  • 2 large lemons
  • 1 lb. jumbo shell-on shrimp, deveined

Ingredients for Cocktail Sauce

  • 1 cup chili sauce (preferably Heinz – saves you from having to add a whole bunch of additional spices)
  • 3⁄4 tsp finely grated lemon zest (just the yellow part, avoid the white as it will be bitter)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (this is about the juice of one medium lemon)
  • 2 Tbsp prepared horseradish
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3⁄4 tsp hot sauce (preferably Tabasco)

Prepare Shrimp

  1. Place the 8 cups of ice into a large bowl and set aside.
  2. Combine salt, sugar, and 6 cups water in a large saucepan. Make sure the pan is large enough to hold the water, shrimp, plus the ice.
  3. Cut two lemons in half, squeeze the juice into the saucepan, then toss the lemon halves into the saucepan.
  4. Bring liquid to a boil – stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar fully. When everything is completely dissolved, remove saucepan from heat.
  5. Add shrimp and poach, uncovered, for 3-1/2 minutes. Set your timer so you don’t overcook!
  6. Immediately add the ice into the saucepan to rapidly chill the poaching liquid and stop the cooking. Let shrimp sit in the ice bath for about 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry, and peel, but leave the tails on. The tails are pretty and are perfect to pick up the shrimp with.  Pat them lightly dry again.  Place the shrimp in a dry bowl, cover, then let them chill in your refrigerator until you’re ready to serve.
  7. You can poach and peel the shrimp a day ahead but be sure them keep it chilled.

Prepare Cocktail Sauce

  1. Mix the chili sauce, lemon zest, lemon juice, horseradish, pepper, and hot sauce in a small bowl.
  2. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Serving Tips

You can also make the cocktail sauce a day ahead. Personally, I think it tastes better to let all the ingredients settle together in the refrigerator overnight. If you do it all a day ahead you will have the benefit of leaving yourself more time for your main course prep (if you’re having one) or time to just relax before your guests arrive.

Another tip: serve your poached shrimp ON ice. Don’t submerge cooked shrimp in ice water—that just makes them soggy, and soggy shrimp are definitely not appetizing. But, you absolutely want to keep the shrimp cool – therefore serve them on ice. And as a finishing service touch, cut a jumbo lemon into 1/8th wedges or 1/4” half rings and serve with your shrimp.

Watch my video to see the whole process in action.

Enjoy.

Valentine’s Day with Frozen Sweet Wine Strawberries

It’s the small things that count: frozen strawberries that will make your guests gush!

A friend of mine admitted the other day that she’s sometimes uncomfortable visiting a mutual friend. And you know the one thing that makes her so nervous? Our mutual friend is like a clock, calendar, and seasonal directory—all rolled into one. Her home is always decorated with just the right colors and the perfect seasonal and holiday tone. I have to admit, she is a bit intimidating.

“How does she do that?” says my friend.

So many of us find that the holidays are upon us before we’ve had time to plan anything much less decorate and figure out special meals or even gifts.  Not everyone is as well organized and ‘ready’ like my “mutual friend”.  She’s planning year-round to get it all done.  I don’t plan year-round but I do collect ideas that can help anyone look just as good as my friend.

Read Frozen Grapes Marinated in Wine

Frozen sweet wine strawberries are one of those ideas. It takes very little planning and can work into just about any busy schedule. And, it’s a great treat whether you’re staying in with your SO or going out with a group of friends. Start your Valentine’s Day evening at home with a glass of wine and these strawberries. Everyone will love you for it.

To prepare this treat, you only need three things: large, lovely strawberries (washed and hulled), a bottle of dry rosé wine (not too sweet – the strawberries will bring the sweetness), and white sugar.

Place the berries into a bowl, cover the strawberries with the rosé and refrigerate for up to 1 hour. After the hour is up, drain the wine off and gently pat dry the strawberries. Roll the berries in sugar and place them on a sheet tray. Put the sheet tray into the freezer and remove them when your guests arrive.

Read The Perfect Valentine’s Day Adult Beverage

One last tip: you can try this idea out on just about any variety of fruit—practically any berry, but some stone fruits as well (do pit them first). Some freeze better than others and they might get a bit mushy as they thaw, so remember to keep the fruit in the freezer until the last minute. They’re easy to prepare, easy to eat and so stunning to look at.

Check out my video so you can watch how it’s done.

Kitchen Tool Upgrades to Take You to The Next Level

My list of handy ‘next level’ kitchen tools so you’re not caught without “the right tool for the right job.”

There’s an old saying about using “the right tool for the right job.” It isn’t just about odd jobs around the house – it’s about EVERY job – the right tool makes whatever the job is so much easier and that includes the tools in your kitchen.  When it comes to making sure you have the right tools, there’s no difference between fixing a leaky faucet and cooking up a lovely dinner for guests.

This is my list of handy ‘next level’ kitchen tools. None of these ideas are expensive – almost all are under $35. But having these tools around the kitchen could make all the difference between a fun cooking adventure or enduring what could become an unnecessarily difficult kitchen experience.

Read: The 10 Essential Tools for Beginner Cooks

My goal is to help you avoid the situation where you’ve already started a recipe and suddenly you realize that the simple task of grating Parmesan cheese is not going as planned. Or, you need the wine opened for your pot roast and that old handy wine opener (the one you’ve had since college) suddenly jams. Some of these items you know you’ve talked about replacing the last time you reached for them. A few of them you don’t think about until the day you need them.

This is why I urge all cooks, whether you’re a new or inexperienced cook or are very comfortable in the kitchen, to be proactive about all your tools. You don’t know the pain until the simple tool you need is either missing or broken!

Here’s the easy part about all of this—it doesn’t take much to upgrade the standard tools in your kitchen—you just have to remember to do it. And, I’m here to help:

A good citrus squeezer. Seriously, this is the one everyone forgets. Remember, you just can’t get as much juice out of the lemon or lime using only your hands.

A two-step Waiter’s Corkscrew. This is a pro tool, used by waiters everywhere and will make getting the bottle of wine open that much easier.

A good quality microplane. You’ll never have to mince garlic or ginger with a knife ever again.  And, this tool is perfect for Parmesan cheese!

A sturdy dough or bench scraper. Bakers use it to scrape the dough off the counter, but here’s the thing—it’s actually perfect for transferring chopped anything (meat or veggie) into pots and pans without picking up the cutting board.

An insert rack for your pan. If you ever plan to fry anything and want to keep it crispy, get a cooling rack that fits your sheet pan.  Air can flow underneath your fried items and keep them crispy – they don’t sit in the oil from the fryer.

A set of nesting mixing bowls. Stainless or glass, because everyone needs mixing bowls, right?

A cast iron skillet – 10-12”.  This will become your favorite skillet in the kitchen.  Nothing sears meats better and it can go from stovetop into the oven with no worries.

REAL kitchen shears. Not scissors you also use for cutting paper. You want shears that can cut through chicken bones AND that sheet pan pizza you just made. Important feature—make sure you get the ones you can easily take apart for thorough cleaning.

A serrated bread knife. The thing is, this is not just for bread but also any hard-skinned vegetables like Squash – AND tomatoes (perfect for any thin-skinned soft fruit because it won’t tear the skin!)

A paring knife. Small and sharp, for the little cutting jobs that require precision.

Read: The Essential 5 Must Have Knives for your Kitchen

A fish spatula. Characterized by the extra-long part that does the scraping or picking up. Usually made of thin stainless steel.  This one is not only for fish but for just about anything that needs a little extra flexibility to pick up the food in one piece.

A stainless ladle. This is for that pot of chili you’re going to make on Sunday or the favorite soup for dinner.

Watch my video to see these tools and get the feel of the way they work. And remember—maybe you already have some of these tools. But, check them out and make sure they’re ready for your next cooking adventure.