Recipe for Summer Punch: Champagne, Fruit, and Fun Ice

summer punch feature

An adult drink with champagne that only looks fruity sweet (it isn’t).

It’s summer and that means outdoor or indoor fun with friends and family and usually in a group.  I always recommend greeting your guests with an adult beverage when they arrive.  A summer punch sets the tone for the party and lets everyone know that you want them to have a great time.

The easiest way to serve an adult summer punch to a group (with very little effort from you-the host) is with a batch cocktail or fun punch.  Punch can be colorful and is definitely made ahead of your guests’ arrival which takes a lot of the stress out of making sure that first glass of ‘welcome’ is ready when they walk through the door.

Set up a beverage area with the punch bowl, cups or small multi-colored glasses and, of course, napkins.  Add flowers and you’ve created a focal point for the party and a place where everyone can simply serve themselves and you can focus on food or other aspects of the party and not on making cocktails.

summer punch prepOne of the downfalls of most punches is that they are very sweet.  This recipe for Champagne Punch with Brandy from epicurious is not. The addition of plenty of citrus – lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit juice and fresh mint combats any sweetness in the mix.

Even though you use cold juice and cold champagne the big bowl of punch will never stay as cold as you want it to be for the whole party.  The rule is (even if you are having only a single drink) that the larger the ice cube the slower it will melt.  It will keep your beverage, and in this case the punch, cold longer without diluting it.

Instead of just adding the cut citrus to the entire bowl of punch, I used some of the cut fruit in the mini-bundt cake molds that I was using for the large ice shapes.  The more interesting the shape of the ice the more fun your punch will look.  I found my mini bundt mold from Nordic Ware at Williams-Sonoma.  I wanted the cubes large enough to melt as slowly as possible and still not worry that they would fit into my punch bowl.  After the molds are frozen solid simply run warm water on the OUTSIDE of the mold and the ice will release easily.

The great thing about this punch is that you can make a second pitcher of the juice mixture (no bubbles yet) to make the ice molds.  This absolutely insures that when the ice eventually melts (and it will) that your summer punch will not be diluted.  Alcohol will not freeze completely so do not add champagne to anything that you want to freeze solid.

Pour the fruit punch mixture into your punch bowl, add some of the cut fruit, add the beautiful ice and at the last minute before your guests arrive add the champagne.  Now you’re ready for a party!

Kitchen tip: How to use raw asparagus.

raw asparagus

It’s Summer and that means Asparagus in all its glory! Who knew?

Some of my most favorite fruits and vegetables are in season right now – beans of all types, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, stone fruit, berries, grapes, pears – the list is long.  And right now, one of my favorites is everywhere – Asparagus!

There are many ways to serve asparagus that involve cooking or, at the minimum, blanching.  They can be added to pastas, salads, grilled or roasted and used as a simple side dish for your favorite entrée, almost any way you can think.  But, one of my favorite ways is to not cook them at all!

Raw asparagus can be very chewy and unappetizing.  The stalks can be very fibrous and almost impossible to chew.  But, ribbons that you make from raw asparagus are the best way to eat those raw spears because they are always tender.  Asparagus ribbons bring beautiful color and character to anything they are added to with just the right amount of crunch.  And the best part is they are so simple to make.

Buy medium to larger spears – save the pencil thin ones for other dishes where you want the asparagus to stay whole.  Rinse the asparagus and pat dry.  Then either snap or cut off the woody ends and simply peel the spears with a Y-peeler using a firm touch.  Y-peelers are the best for this job because you can shave the entire spear without hitting your hand on the counter or your cutting board.

If the stalk rotates or is slipping and you can’t get it to stay steady on the cutting board simply shave one side into a flat surface, place that side down on your board and shave the rounded side into ribbons.  If some of the tips fall off just add them to your ribbon pile.

The ribbons can become the salad alone tossed with a great vinaigrette and topped with some shaved parmesan. Or, add pine nuts or chopped walnuts to the salad for more texture.  Top a bowl of your favorite grains with the ribbons and then perhaps add a perfectly poached egg for an entire meal.

But, my favorite way to use raw asparagus ribbons is to add them to toast.  Here I’ve simply smashed ripe avocado onto multi-grain toast, topped it with some fresh ricotta, added a sprinkle of kosher salt, a few cracks of freshly ground pepper, the raw asparagus ribbons and then some chili flakes for a bit of heat.  Delicious!

Recipe Cooking Times Can Be Deceiving!

cooking times

Often, they’re just a suggestion.

Recipe writers can’t always be quite as precise as they’d prefer when they list cooking times in a recipe.  So many variables enter into the equation.

This Spring, a friend’s daughter was making her first brisket for a dinner party.  She had preheated her oven, browned the meat on both sides, added all the ingredients to the roasting pan and then carefully put it in her oven for the listed 2 hours of cooking time.

She called me in a panic at the 2-hour mark – she had placed the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the brisket and the temp on the thermometer was correct.  But to her horror, the meat still appeared a bit pink (brisket is cooked all the way through) and it wasn’t tender at all!  She had eaten brisket many times at other friends’ homes and it was ALWAYS fork tender.  Hers was tough.  She was almost in tears and she couldn’t understand what she’d done wrong.

I calmed her down, told her that she’d done nothing wrong and then, because I’ve cooked more brisket than I’d care to think about, gave her this advice: ignore the cooking time and meat temp and put it back in the oven until a long-tined fork goes into the thickest part of the brisket with the greatest of ease.  Then, and only then, it would be cooked perfectly.  She needed to cook to the indicator – tenderness – not the time in the recipe.  Needless to say, her brisket was a success.

Here’s a good rule to follow:  Always cook to the indicator and not the time on the recipe.  The listed time is basically a suggestion unless you’re talking about how long to boil eggs and then it’s quite specific!

Recipes will always tell you what something is supposed to look or feel like.  It might be ‘cook until the skin is crispy and brown’ or, ‘when the spices start to stick to the bottom of the pan’ or, as in my favorite salmon recipe, ‘until the color has changed half to two-thirds the way up side of the filet and the skin releases completely from the pan’.

The reason you can’t go by an exact time on most recipes is because kitchens vary.  The oven temperature could be ‘off’ (even though you set your oven temp to what is in the recipe that doesn’t mean that your oven and the recipe writer’s oven are calibrated the same), the moisture in the air can be different from your kitchen to theirs, the material of your pan can be different from the writer’s, or any other number of small differences that can all add up to the listed cooking time in a recipe being not quite right to get the hoped for result.  Medium on an electric range is completely different than medium on a gas range.

So, remember, the cook times to achieve a ‘doneness’ are suggestions (we all taste pasta while it’s cooking, don’t we?).  If after the suggested cook time has expired and it still doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to – keep cooking.  Remember my brisket story.

If you remember this tip, pay attention to the process and don’t blindly follow the cook time on a recipe, you will have a much better result.  Patience!

8 Fruits and Vegetables that Don’t belong in your Refrigerator

How to keep your fruits and vegetables tasting as they should.

In a perfect world we’d shop daily and prepare what we purchased for that evening’s meal.  But, we all know it’s just not that easy to get to the market every day.  So, you go to the market and buy everything on your list making sure that you pick the freshest fruits and vegetables possible.

But, then you get home and the indecision sets in.  You begin to ask yourself – does this belong in the refrigerator or should it stay on the counter?  Will this spoil quicker if I leave it out?  Will it taste the same if I refrigerate it as it would if I just left it on the counter?

The answer is:  some produce needs to be stored in the refrigerator but some do significantly better if left out on the counter!  Here are the 8 fruits and vegetables that you should just leave out.

  1. Tomatoes – in season or out they will ripen perfectly if left on the counter. When you put them in the refrigerator their texture becomes mealy and really not very appealing.  If you’ve waited until tomato season (May through October with some differences depending on where you live) to enjoy their amazing flavor – do NOT refrigerate them!
  2. Garlic, Onions, and Shallots – these alliums do best in a cool, dry, dark place where they can breathe. Do not leave them in the plastic bag you used to bring them home from the market.  The only alliums that actually should be stored in the refrigerator are spring onions and scallions.
  3. Thick skinned squash – like Acorn, Butternut and Kabocha should stay at room temperature. Thin skinned summer squash like zucchini are the exception and should go into the refrigerator.
  4. Potatoes – of all types (including sweet potatoes) – like alliums like cool, dark, dry places. Sunlight and moisture facilitate ‘sprouting’ which is something you want to avoid.  The sprouts won’t kill you but they taste terrible and will need to be trimmed off before you use the potatoes.
  5. Fresh Corn – this one is a bit tricky. If you’re going to use the corn within a day or two then leave it on the counter and save some space in the fridge.  But, if you need to keep it longer than 2 days then it needs to be in the refrigerator to keep its freshness.
  6. Stone Fruit – like peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, etc. are in season now. Just like tomatoes their flesh will go mealy if stored in the fridge so keep them on the counter.
  7. Pineapples – a little secret – once picked they will not continue to ripen so buy one that is ripe and ready to eat the day you’re purchasing it and then just leave it on the counter until you cut it. The refrigerator will have absolutely no effect on its ripeness.
  8. Melon – this one is strictly a preference. If you keep your uncut melon on the counter at room temperature the flesh remains as soft as possible.  When you refrigerate it, the flesh become more firm or crisp, so it really depends on how you like it.

And now you know the ‘rules’ on which fruits and vegetables to refrigerate and which to just leave on the counter!

How to set up a hot beverage station for your morning ‘brew’.

A place for coffee in your kitchen

It’s so easy to create a place for coffee or tea in your kitchen.

We all have our routines that we follow in the morning.  It might be that you jump up and head straight to the gym with just a bottle of water to get you going with the knowledge that you’ll enjoy your breakfast and whatever hot beverage you like after your work out – as sort of a reward.

Or, you might be like my friend who has a small 2-cup coffee maker on the night stand next to her bed that she sets up before she goes to sleep at night.  That way when she wakes up (not really even opening her eyes) she just leans over, flips the start switch and within a few minutes she has her first cup of coffee ready.

That would be great for some, but for someone like me who takes milk or cream in their coffee or a tea drinker that would need hot water it wouldn’t work so well.  We still have to get out of bed to prepare our morning ‘brew’.

If your cups and mugs are in one spot in your kitchen, the coffee, tea, sweeteners in multiple other spots, the coffee, espresso maker or tea kettle in another you are taking multiple steps in your kitchen that are absolutely not necessary.  And, especially if you are half-awake and this is your first cup of the morning, you definitely want to keep the whole process as quick and uncomplicated as possible.

My tip: Set up an area in your kitchen that is organized for this one specific task – a coffee or tea station with everything you need within reach.

Place your espresso maker, French Press, or Chemex coffee maker in the most convenient spot on your counter (don’t forget the Chemex filters and your espresso pods).  In the cabinet directly above place all of your coffee mugs, espresso cups and saucers and tea cups and saucers.  If you are a tea drinker have your favorite tea sachets or loose tea canisters with a tea infuser in the same spot.  Keep a small bowl with whatever favorite sweeteners you use (if you use any!) there as well.  Everything is within easy reach.

Remember you might be half asleep when you stumble into the kitchen to make your coffee in the morning.  If everything is within reach, in a defined area, you have just made the time it takes to make your first cup that much quicker and easier.  And, saving those extra steps gives you a bit more time to savor your first cup and slowly start to wake up to the new day.  You’ll wonder why you didn’t do this all before!

Napa is my favorite place to disappear.

Fran Berger and friends in Napa.

Thinking about Napa. It’s so much more than just a place to drink wine.

One of the best things I learned over 20 years ago when I opened my first restaurant was that Napa is not just a place to drink wine.  It’s much, much, more.

With my first restaurant I had to learn about wine lists and how to build them with my customer in mind – not just what I liked to drink.  I’ve been drinking wine since college (not always the best wines – trust me!!). In the beginning there was a budget to pay attention to.  Building the wine list had me looking at wines in a whole new way and I realized that I didn’t know much about them other than what I liked: a dry white, a dry ‘big’ red, and I hated jam.  I still always say that you should never chew your wine!

The need to create a successful wine list started me on an educational journey that I absolutely love to this day.  I was semi-familiar with the Napa area. I went to high school in the South Bay near San Francisco and my first year of college was at UC Davis where they have a world-renowned Viticulture and Enology Department (grape growing and wine making) – all within an hour or two of the Napa Valley.  My focus turned to Napa – and I’ve been going there to taste new wines ever since.  I was one of the first group of visitors when the wineries reopened after the devastating fires last year.

Fran and friend in Napa

I’m there, at a minimum, twice a year and more often it’s four times each year.  I never miss Spring – at ‘bud’ – or when the vines start to have buds on them.  Everything is just starting to grow and the anticipation for the new crop is palpable.  There are festivals all year long – most centered around food and wine – and wonderful concerts in the summer.  Harvest in the Fall is really fun to see – a literal bee hive of activity all over the valley to get all of the grapes in at just the moment the winemakers are looking for to create their wines.

For me visits to Napa have become fabulous learning opportunities, much needed times to ‘zone out’ and just breathe and relax, times to reconnect with friends, eat great food, taste new wines and of course – to let loose.  Over the years I have tasted some of the most amazing wines and joined the wine clubs of a few of my favorite wineries – one of which I’m a member of their Founder’s Club (capped at 150 members) which gives me access to wines that are not sold outside the club.  Many of the better wineries clubs either only sell to their club members or have specific wines that are only sold to members because the production of those wines is so small.

So, if you already enjoy wine or are just beginning to discover all the beauty and nuances of flavor to be found in your favorite glass of red (or white or bubbles!) and you want to learn the why and how then a visit to Napa should be in your future.

Mike Davis, owner of Davis Estates, Fran, with bottles of "Phase V" Cabernet Sauvignon.Glasses for Silver Oak, Napa. Crates of wine.


Above left: Mike Davis, owner of Davis Estates, Fran, and bottles of “Phase V” Cabernet Sauvignon.

Use Your Move to Declutter your Entertaining Spaces

How to replace ‘pack and move’ with ‘purge and love’.

How to replace ‘pack and move’ with a little ‘edit and love’.

I love my clients and I love my friends even more. So, when a great friend, who is also a client, calls me and says she’s sold her big house faster than she thought would happen and is moving into a townhome but she has only 30 days to do it – I shift into overdrive and fly across the country to do what I do best – help her delete (not pack and move) what she doesn’t want or use for entertaining.  Then we pack up what IS getting moved and I’ll fill in the ‘holes’ left from the ‘purge’ with things she will actually use and love.

Almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to has shared that they’ve packed and moved much, much more than they needed to.  They realize this only after they are in their new home and face the often-daunting task of unpacking and putting away stuff they didn’t really want to keep.  Sometimes they find that they don’t have room for everything they’ve moved and now wished they’d left behind.  For some, this is where I come in… BEFORE they move. For others it’s when they realize they’ve moved too much and don’t like what they have.

I start with learning about the client and how they want to entertain and what they love. It’s always a surprise when I explain that, to me, entertaining isn’t only about having friends or colleagues over for a party, but it includes that first cup of coffee or tea in the morning, breakfast (or any meal) with the family or simply a quiet glass of wine at the end of the day.   Everything (sharing, connecting, relaxing, catching your breath) happens ‘around the table’ so using items that give you joy only enhances those experiences.

Sometimes these conversations include the client’s interior designer or decorator for their new home who has already put time and effort into a style and color scheme that they know the client wants.  Having everyone in the same room can often provide shortcuts to the discovery process.

Only after hearing what the client loves, how they entertain, and how they want to represent themselves do I search out what ‘holes’ need to be filled.  We talk it over and the edit begins.  There is absolutely no reason to pack and move anything that won’t be used in their new home.  It’s at this point, after the edit and conversations about what they really want and how it will be used, that I get to do what I really love – shop!

Then, after insuring that the client really loves what I’ve picked, everything is purchased, organized and I put it all away in the new home where it will be easily found and lovingly used.  I focus on all of the entertaining spaces – the kitchen/breakfast area, dining room, bar/bar cart, outdoor deck/patio and anywhere else that the client wants.

Each client is different in that some want everything addressed at once, for others they want to start in one room and then move on to other areas at a later time.  Sometimes a client isn’t moving at all – they’re just tired of what they’ve accumulated over the years and their tastes have changed, or too much has gotten broken and needs to be replaced.  Perhaps their situation has changed, and the kids have grown up and left the house and now they want something that reflects a more adult environment, or they find themselves single and need/want everything new.  Or, the client is buying a 2nd home and needs it all!  I have a client that is building a new home and I’m working with their architect and kitchen designer to make sure their kitchen is functional for how they want to use it.

This is what I call curating for home entertaining.  I address everything behind the cabinet doors making sure that my clients have everything they need to entertain in the way they want.  Whatever the situation is I always start at the beginning – what does the client love, how do they want to entertain, what will they actually use?

For my client-friend this week it’s all about me getting there quickly and helping make the transition for her as seamless as possible.

Almost landed and I can’t wait to start!

We all need a little help with moving.Facing the often-daunting task of unpacking and putting away stuff they didn’t really want to keep.I start with learning about the client and how they want to entertain and what they love.

Dress up your table with just the right placemats!

Fran shows us things we didn't know about placemats.

For every meal you host, there’s a place setting that’s perfect to celebrate the event and mood.

When I think about all the best dinners I’ve attended or planned, I found that the tiniest details made a huge difference. That’s why we invest so much time and energy no matter if it’s a formal event or a casual gathering. After we pay so much attention to the menu and preparing the food, it only makes sense to pay as close attention to how your home and table setting looks.

So, when we look at that table setting, what do we see? Dinnerware, silverware, napkins, glasses, centerpiece, and… how about placemats? That’s one detail that I think is often overlooked and that can add just a touch of sophistication and creativity to your gathering. I can’t tell you how many settings I’ve seen where I saw placemats that were a complete mismatch; either the wrong mood or the wrong style.

There’s no secret to getting it right if you include that detail in your planning. Keep in mind that placemats create a specific space on the table for a place setting. It defines the area where your guests will dine.

One reason we overlook placemats is that we often default to tablecloths. Tablecloths can be useful if you are using folding tables or the surface of the table isn’t as pretty as it could be. But because they cover your entire table they visually take over as the theme for the meal and often give a more formal look to the table, but not necessarily – depending on the tablecloth. Some people like to put placemats on top of a tablecloth. It’s not a look I prefer but I’ve seen it done successfully.

My preference is to use placemats instead of a tablecloth, especially if you have a lovely table surface to show off. Placemats allow the beauty of your table to show through. They are also flexible for just about any style statement you want to make for any occasion.

Sometimes everything doesn’t fit directly ON the placemat (e.g., wine glasses, additional plates, bowls, et cetera) because the mat is either small or an odd shape. It’s perfectly acceptable to place items above or to the side of the edges of the mat.

I recommend focusing on different materials and designs so that you have a wide range of placemats on-hand. With different materials you can change the look of the table – even with the same china and silverware. Reeds and bamboo placemats make a completely different setting than high-quality linens and other fabrics. Try Chiliwich online stores for some truly original ideas or Williams-Sonoma for a larger selection that can complement almost any home.

Look for interesting shapes and colors that offset the table and your room décor. Think about modern designs, but also consider the lovely flavor that antique items bring to your table. Estate sales and flea markets are my favorite way to pick up genuinely unusual linen pieces.

Some of my placemats are from manufacturers that are out of business which makes them just a bit more special than ones you can pick up anywhere. Then again, I have my ‘go-to’ favorites for informal settings and daily use. Watch my video to see some examples.

Just remember to make it fun!

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.