"True wine enthusiasts don’t collect wines.
They collect memories of wines shared with friends and family."

-Dario Zucconi

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Make-Ahead Weeknight Dinners for Busy Moms (and Dads!)

This week was a roller coaster for me.  But, ultimately, I am grateful for being alive and able to enjoy what was a beautiful Sunday in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Today, I decided to make a few meals for next week -- hoping to ease some of the stress and anxiety that inevitably come with working full-time, commuting to and from work, and taking care of 3 school-aged children (while juggling homework, soccer, volleyball, ballet, etc.). Yep, school is fully in session!  I was excited to pick up the new issue of Food & Wine Magazine this week, which has some great "make-ahead" recipes for busy moms like me.  I decided to make three of them tonight.  I will describe two of them in this post  (the salmon and the chicken). For the other (a baked pasta dish), I will reserve for another day because I want to post it after I finish baking it (so I can get a nice picture of the finished product).  For the two that I finished tonight, here are the recipes!

Wild Salmon, Orzo and Arugula Pesto en Papillote(Courtesy of F&W Magazine. http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/wild-salmon-orzo-and-arugula-pesto-en-papillote)

10 ounces baby arugula
1 pound orzo pasta
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1/2 medium shallot, chopped
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Six 6-ounce, skinless, center-cut wild salmon fillets
6 tablespoons dry white wine
Freshly ground pepper
2 lemons, very thinly sliced 
Preheat the oven to 375. Fill a bowl with ice water and bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the arugula to the boiling water and stir until just wilted, 20 seconds. Transfer to the ice water to cool; drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Transfer the arugula to a food processor.

Boil the orzo, stirring, until almost al dente, 9 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water and transfer to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, add the cheese, garlic, lemon zest, vinegar, shallot, Tabasco and sugar to the arugula and pulse to chop. With the machine on, drizzle in the olive oil and process until smooth. Season with salt. Add the pesto to the orzo and toss.

Arrange six 16-by-12 1/2-inch sheets of parchment paper on a work surface. In the center of each sheet, mound 1 heaping cup of the orzo and top with a salmon fillet. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of wine over each fillet. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange the lemon in a single layer on the fish. Bring up 2 opposite sides of the parchment over the fish and orzo and fold to seal.

Arrange the papillotes on a baking sheet, leaving space between them. Bake for 18 minutes, until the packets are slightly puffed. Transfer to plates, open the packets carefully to release steam and serve. 

Chardonnay-Braised Chicken Thighs with Parsnips

(Courtesy of F&W Magazine. http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/chardonnay-braised-chicken-thighs-with-parsnips)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 medium chicken thighs (about 2 3/4 pounds)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 small shallots, peeled and quartered
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 3-by- 1/2-inch batons
1 rosemary sprig (about 6 inches)
1 cup California Chardonnay or other dry white wine
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish  

Preheat the oven to 425°. In a large, deep ovenproof skillet, melt the butter in the oil. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dust with the flour, tapping off the excess. Add the chicken to the skillet skin side down and cook over high heat, turning once, until browned, 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add the shallots, parsnips and rosemary to the skillet and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine and boil until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Nestle the chicken skin side up in the skillet, tucking it between the parsnips. Transfer the skillet to the middle rack of the oven and braise the chicken uncovered for about 25 minutes, until cooked through.

Turn the broiler on. Broil the chicken for 3 minutes, until the skin is crisp. Return the skillet to high heat and boil until the sauce is thickened, 3 minutes. Discard the rosemary sprig. Transfer the chicken and vegetables to bowls, garnish with parsley; serve.

NOTE: I will serve this with steamed rice during the week.

I hope you had a great weekend, and have a super week (with minimal stress) ahead!

Until next time . . . Cheers!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Say Cheese! Homemade Fresh Crab and Shrimp Mac and Cheese

Today's post is about conquering a culinary fear, and making a homemade fresh crab and shrimp Mac and Cheese, courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa (aka Ina Garten) of the Food Network (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/lobster-mac-cheese-recipe/index.html).  This dish really does not need many words to describe it, other than "this mac and cheese is very very very good," as my 6-year-old told me after he took his first bite.

My children have this ritual, which I absolutely love. Every time they walk into the kitchen, and they see me standing there stirring, chopping, or mixing something, they ask: "What's for dinner?"  I usually give them a short answer, like "chicken", or "fish", or "pork," or "beef," or "pasta".  When it's pasta, they usually ask "pasta with what?" If I say: "pasta with meat sauce", they usually ask: "Can we have the sauce on the side", which usually means, "I'll eat the pasta first, and then, we'll negotiate about the meat sauce." If we're making meat or fish dishes, they (especially my 6-year-old son) usually ask: "Can we have that in a tortilla as a taco?"  This usually means: "can you please bury the meat [or fish] inside some shredded cheese, sour cream, and avocados?"

This evening, my 6-year-old son walked into the kitchen as I was stirring the cheese sauce (roux), and asked: "What's for dinner, Mommy?" I said: "Mac and Cheese."  He asked: "Trader Joe's Mac and Cheese?" [TJ's Mac and Cheese is his favorite!]  I said: "No. It's Mommy's Mac and Cheese." His eyes widened. He peeked into the pot. He looked at the cooked shrimp in the pan. Then, he said: "Hmmm. Okay."  He walked over to the kitchen table to draw some pictures.

So, I finished preparing the Mac and Cheese (up to the point before mixing the bread crumb and putting it in the oven to bake). I put it in the refrigerator, with a note for my husband to bake it when he got home from work, while I took my daughter to Ballet class.  When I returned from Ballet, I was happy to see an amazing looking "homemade" Mac and Cheese.  When we sat down to eat dinner, my 6-year-old son continued to interrogate me about what was in the Mac and Cheese - the "non-Trader Joe's Mac and Cheese."  I told him: "cheese, crab, and shrimp." He asked: "What kind of cheese?" I said: "Gruyere and Cheddar." He knew what Cheddar was. But, he didn't know what Gruyere was. So, of course, he asked me what it was. I said: "yummy cheese, just try the Mac and Cheese."  He took his first bite.  He turned to me and said: "Mom. This mac and cheese is very very very good. Really." I smiled from ear to ear, and gave him a big kiss on his forehead.

Actually, everyone really enjoyed the Mac and Cheese. I told them that the actual recipe called for Lobster. However, I chose to use 1/2 wild shrimp and 1/2 crab meat (Wild Alaskan Crab meat from Berkeley Bowl) since Lobster is a lot more expensive.  My son said: "I don't like Lobster anyway." The thing is, I don't think he's ever had Lobster. My 9-year-old daughter was quick to point that out to him. Kids!

So, today, I took a risk and decided to make homemade Mac and Cheese. It's a risk because I am actually terrified of making roux because of how quickly you can burn the flour and butter, or have the milk accidentally boil over. Roux, like baking, requires precision in the kitchen. If you know me, you know that I like to "experiment" in the kitchen; I don't usually like to stick to exact measurements. But, it really was not that bad. You just have to pay attention and keep an eye and hands on everything for a few minutes.  Now, I don't think I will be buying the Trader Joe's Mac and Cheese anymore. Thank you, Ina!

Here is the recipe from Food Network Magazine (October 2012 issue).  I modified this recipe in two ways: (1) I used fresh crab meat and shrimp instead of lobster (more budget friendly) and (2) I cooked it in a large baking dish instead of individual gratin dishes (less work, more "busy mom" friendly").  For the shrimp, I bought peeled and deveined shrimp (makes life easier for me!). I rinsed the shrimp under cool water, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and sauteed the shrimp with about 1 Tablespoon of butter until the shrimp has no more pink (about 3 minutes per side). I added the crab meat and the cooked shrimp in the place of the lobster. The dish came out better than I expected.  Simply delicious! We ate the Mac and Cheese with a side green salad.  It was a perfect meal for the whole family - kids and adults alike!

NOTE: If you don't care for crab or shrimp, I would suggest using crispy bacon or even roasted chicken. I think you would still get a delicious mac and cheese.  Also, make sure to use good quality cheese; it will make a difference in the flavor. I used a Gruyere that was aged for 11 months. I would suggest using a Gruyere that's aged for at least 6 months.

Lobster Mac & Cheese 
(Ina Garten - aka the Barefoot Contessa, as modified by me!)

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 pound cavatappi or elbow macaroni
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups grated Gruyere cheese (12 ounces)
  • 2 cups grated extra-sharp Cheddar (8 ounces)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 pounds cooked lobster meat, 1/2-inch-diced
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Add the oil to a large pot of boiling salted water, add the pasta and cook al dente according to the directions on the package. Drain well.

Heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don't allow it to boil. In a large pot, melt 6 tablespoons of the butter and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk. Still whisking, add the hot milk and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, the pepper and nutmeg and stir until the cheese melts. Stir in the cooked pasta and lobster. Pile the mixture into 6 to 8 (2-cup) gratin dishes.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine with the bread crumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly and the pasta is browned on top.

Until next time . . . Cheers!


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday Memories: Roasted Red Snapper; Apple and Cherry Crisp

This weekend went by so fast and, as most weekends are for our family, it was fully loaded with lots of activities. It feels like one minute it was Friday morning and we're confirming play dates and wishing the kids good luck with their tests, and the next minute it's Sunday night and we're getting ready for the week ahead making sure school uniforms are clean, and lunch boxes are ready. Despite the lightening speed of the weekend, I love Sundays! Ever since I was a little girl, I have always loved Sundays. My memories of Sundays usually revolve around going to mass in the morning and enjoying delicious Sunday dinners with my family. For some reason, those Sunday dinners usually gave me a boost of energy to tackle the week.  I try to give my children the same experiences and help create the same memories that I had growing up by making (as often as I can) something delicious for dinner on Sundays. With busy weekends, I try to make dishes that are easy to make and that lend themselves to "make-ahead" preparations.

Tonight, I roasted a whole Red Snapper, which I marinated in a fragrant and savory mixture of fresh ginger, garlic, cilantro, lime, soy sauce, dijon mustard, and extra virgin olive oil. I served that with a side of steamed Jasmine rice and roasted carrots and tri-colored beets. 

Roasted Whole Red Snapper, With A Ginger, Garlic, Cilantro, Soy Sauce, and Lime Marinade

Red Snapper from Berkeley Bowl, cleaned by Butcher
This fish dish would work well on the grill as well. Roasting or grilling a whole fish may sound daunting. But, it's fairly easy. I bought the fish at Berkeley Bowl (my favorite local grocery store). I love red snapper because it has this beautiful pink color, it's delicious, and it's very versatile for cooking.  This particular fish that I got today was just gorgeous and fresh. I asked the butcher to clean and scale the fish for me - leaving the head and tail intact.  When I got home, all I did was just rinse the fish under cool water and marinate it. I marinated the fish a few hours ahead of time -- before I went on a hike with my daughter and her Girl Scouts Troop around Lake Temescal near our house. When I returned from the hike, I just put the fish in the oven to cook. 

Here is the rough recipe, if you'd like to try it.

Roasted Red Snapper right out of the oven
1 whole red snapper (about 3 to 4 pounds)
1 Tablespoon of freshly grated ginger
1 Tablespoon of cilantro (finely chopped)
1 scallion or green onion (finely chopped)
2 cloves of garlic (finely chopped)
1 Tablespoon of soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon of dijon mustard
1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
Juice from 1 whole lime
1 Tablespoon of salt (approximately)
1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper (approximately)
A few sprigs of cilantro
Some lemon wedges (about 1 small lemon or 1/2 a large lemon)
3 whole cloves of garlic

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Rinse the fish (whole) under cool water. Pat it dry with a paper towel to remove the excess water. Season the fish (generously) with salt and pepper to make sure that it has enough flavor.

In a small bowl, combine the ginger, cilantro, scallion, garlic, soy sauce, dijon mustard, and olive oil.  Add some salt and pepper to taste.  Spread the mixture all over the fish, including inside the fish cavities.  Place the cilantro sprigs, lemon wedges, and garlic cloves inside the fish. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the whole fish on the baking sheet. Roast the fish for about 20-30 minutes (or until the flesh is white).

[Substitution Note: You can use any white fish, if you can't find red snapper.]

Roasted Round Carrots and Tri-Colored Beets
For the roasted vegetables, I just took some round carrots, red, yellow, and orange beets, peeled them, cut them into quarters, sprinkled them with some salt and pepper and extra virgin olive oil, and roasted them in the oven with the fish for about 20-30 minutes (or until soft).  They were simple, but so delicious! I love that you can still maintain the beautiful color of the vegetables after roasting.

Yummy Apple and Dried Cherry Crisp
(The beautifully golden crisp after it came out of the oven.)
For dessert, I made this incredibly delicious apple and dried tart cherry crisp -- a recipe that I found on Food and Wine Magazine's website. [http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/warm-apple-and-dried-cherry-crisp/print]  I was so thrilled when my 9-year-old daughter said she wanted to try it after it came out of the oven. I gave her one spoonful.  When she was done with that, she said: "This is yummy Mom . . . can I please have another serving?" Whenever I hear these words from my kids, I get so happy, even if it's dessert.  The good thing about this dessert is that it has fresh apples, dried cherries, and oats.  My husband also loved it. After he had his first serving, he said: "Now I know why our daughter asked for a second serving . . . this is really good." He said he liked it better than the peach and mixed berry crisp that I usually make, courtesy of Bon Appetit Magazine (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/printerfriendly/Peach-and-Mixed-Berry-Crisp-103931). 

I decided to make this apple and cherry crisp because one of the moms at my kids' school had all these Granny Smith apples that she had received from her father, who picked them from his apple trees.  She gave me a bag full of them. My husband loves apple pie as well as cherry pies. I am not a big fan of apple pie.  I don't mind cherry pies, but I often find them either too sweet or too tart.  But, I love crisps because you can get the sweetness and tartness.  Plus, the crust often reminds me of granolas - if you bake them right.  So, I thought that it would be nice to make a crisp using the apples and dried cherries.  I came across this recipe from Food & Wine Magazine (see below), and I am so glad that I did. It is very easy to make and super delicious.  I definitely will make another batch this week, with the rest of the apples.

Warm Apple and Dried Cherry Crisp (Courtesy of Food & Wine Magazine)

1 1/2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
4 Granny Smith apples—peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup dried tart cherries (2 ounces)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Unsweetened whipped cream
[I didn't use the whipped cream, as I think the crisp is delicious without any whipped or ice cream.]


Preheat the oven to 400°. Set a baking sheet on the bottom of the oven to catch any spills. In a medium bowl, combine the rolled oats with the brown sugar, flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the cinnamon and the salt. Add the melted butter and toss until evenly moistened, then pinch the topping into large crumbs.

In a bowl, toss the apples with the cherries, granulated sugar, honey, lemon juice, nutmeg and remaining 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Spread the apples in a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. Scatter the crumbs over the apples all the way to the edge. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the apples are tender, the filling is bubbling and the topping is golden. Let rest for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream. 
Make Ahead The baked crisp can be refrigerated overnight and rewarmed. 
The Vino!

Tonight, I want to highlight a dessert drink that Patrick and I enjoyed with the apple and cherry crisp. It's Franciscan Vineyards' 2007 Port (Napa Valley, CA). [http://www.franciscan.com/]  I picked up a bottle of this port recently when I attended Franciscan's release party for their 2009 Magnificat (red Bordeaux blend wine) with my friends Evelyn and Rene. We tasted the port, and loved it. So, I decided to get a bottle to share with Patrick since he was out of town and was not able to go to the party with me.  This port is delicious and it pairs so perfectly with the crisp, which is sweet and tart at the same time.

I hope you had a relaxing and enjoyable weekend.

Until next time . . . Cheers!


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Herb-Cheese Stuffed Chicken - "Iron Chef Mario Batali" Style

Stuffed chicken, whole grain orzo pasta, roasted brussels sprouts w/dried Rainier cherries and walnuts
Today's post is short and sweet because. . . well . . . I am a little tired.  But, I wanted to share this amazing dish I made today, which my husband simply described as "delicious . . . there is no better way to describe it."

Today was a very busy Saturday in the Warner household - not unusually! I woke up at 7:30 this morning. My 4-year-old son came in our room to tell me that he just saw a spider in the bathtub when he went potty and that I needed to come kill it.  Patrick and I went to a retreat at our church about "The Grace of Parenthood" at 9:00 a.m.  Then, at 11:00 a.m., I drove my daughter to her ballet class, which ended at 1:00 p.m.  She and I spent an hour in traffic trying to get to my 6-year-old son's first ever soccer game, which was scheduled to begin at 1:15 p.m.  I didn't make it there until 2:00 p.m., but I got to watch him play the second half of the game. I was very proud of him!

But, by 3:00 p.m., I was beat!  Despite a crazy busy Saturday, I wanted to cook something delicious for dinner.  You probably think I am crazy.  Nope! Cooking actually relaxes me. The process of thinking about what I want to make (the recipe), picking out my ingredients, and being in my kitchen alone (with some help from my husband who always offers to help) and actually cooking the meal actually gives me a shot of energy and joy that very few other things do.  It's kind of like an artist or a musician. An artist locks himself or herself up in his or her studio to create something magnificent. A musician would go in his or her studio to think and compose great music.  There is a sense of serenity and joy that they probably get by being in their studios.

Herb-and-Cheese-Filled Chicken Thighs by Mario Batali (Iron Chef)
Anyway, I discovered this recipe for Herb-and-Cheese-Filled Chicken Thighs by Food Network Iron Chef Mario Batali [http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/herb-and-cheese-filled-chicken-thighs].  I love to watch the Iron Chef show.  The recipe looked fairly simple and sounded delicious. So, I decided to make it.  And, as my husband said, it was delicious - definitely one of my top 10 recipes. Here is a the recipe [NOTE: I made my own bread crumbs using toasted fresh Italian bread - fresher and cheaper.]  Check out the "progression" pictures and you'll see what I mean about cooking being like an artist creating a masterpiece or a musician composing a beautiful song. I love it!

Mario Batali's Herb-and-Cheese-Filled Chicken Thighs
Boneless/Skin-on Chicken Thighs - cleaned and seasoned.
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (4 1/2 ounces)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Provolone cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped basil
1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
16 boneless chicken thighs with skin (about 5 ounces each)
Salt and freshly ground pepper 


Preheat the oven to 450°. In a medium bowl, combine the fresh bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, eggs, Provolone, chopped basil, chopped parsley, lemon zest and rosemary. Set the chicken thighs, skin side down, on a work surface and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Mound 1/4 cup of the herb-and-cheese filling on each thigh. Fold the sides of the thighs over the filling to enclose it and tie each chicken thigh in 2 or 3 places with kitchen string. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
Herb-Cheese Bread Crumb Stuffing
Chicken with herb-cheese filling.

Stuffed and tied chicken
Arrange the stuffed chicken thighs on a large, rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes, then discard the strings and serve. 

Make Ahead: The uncooked, stuffed chicken thighs can be refrigerated overnight. Let them return to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe. 
Notes: For easy clean-up, line the baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Cooking Club Tip: Making your own breadcrumbs is easy. Simply place torn stale bread or toasted bread in the food processor and grind well.

Baked chicken - bubbling out of the oven

As side dishes, I made a simple whole grain orzo pasta. (I actually find whole grain orzo pasta from Berkeley Bowl.  It's great because my kids love orzo.  At least whole grain is a little healthier.)

Roasted brussels sprouts mixed with dried Rainier cherries and toasted walnuts.

I also made some roasted brussels sprouts mixed with dried rainier cherries and toasted walnuts.  For the brussels sprouts, I just steam them (about 1 pound) in a steamer for about 5 minutes. Then, I transfer them to a baking dish.  I then sprinkle them with some extra virgin olive oil, salt, and fresh ground pepper, (and some Herbs de Provence or Italian Seasonings, whatever you have). Then, I stir them to make sure they all get coated. I bake them in a 375-degree oven for about 10-15 minutes (until you get a little bit of dark color in them). Then, I mix in the dried Rainier cherries and the toasted walnuts (about 1/2 cup each).

Right after steaming.
Right after roasting.

Of course, no relaxing evening would be perfect without a glass of wine.  For tonight, we just had a glass of Duckhorn's 2010 Red Wine. It's a meritage blend, which you can get at Safeway or most local wine shop. It's delicious, versatile, and easy to drink.  It paired well with this chicken dish.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

Until next time . . . Cheers!


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Baby Red Potato Salad with Crispy Bacon and Honey Lemon Vinaigrette

NOTE: These measurements are just estimates, and not exact. I created this side dish yesterday as I was thinking about a yummy side dish to have for Labor Day.  It turned out really delicious.  Even the kids ate some.  If you are vegetarian, or don't like bacon (can't imagine that!), you can always exclude it.  Also, if you like your potato salad a little more moist, feel free to double the ingredients for the vinaigrette. You can always save the rest for a salad later on.  Just make sure to store it in an air tight container in the refrigerator.  I use old (clean) jelly/jam jars to save extra dressings in the fridge. So, I hope you enjoy!

1 pound of small red potatoes (rinsed and cleaned – remove any dark spots)
2 large eggs (hard boiled and diced)
¼ cup of finely diced red onions (or yellow, if you don't have red)
1 Tablespoon of finely diced green onions
1 Celery Stalk (finely diced)
1 Tablespoon of fresh cilantro (finely chopped)
1 Tablespoon of fresh basil (finely chopped)
4 slices of crispy bacon (finely chopped) [I usually cook my bacon in the oven by (1) putting some aluminum foil on a baking sheet, (2) then placing a baking rack on the baking sheet, (3) arranging the bacon on the rack, and (4) then baking the bacon in a 375-degree oven for about 20-30 minutes (or until crispy to your satisfaction.  This gives you crispier and less greasy bacon.]
½ teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of honey (if you like your dressing a little sweeter, use more)
1 Tablespoon of fresh squeezed lemon juice (or bottled if you don’t have a fresh lemon)
¼ teaspoon of Italian Seasonings
1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper (to taste)

Boil the potatoes with skin on until soft (but not mushy).  Remove from heat, drain, and set aside to cool completely.  Once cooled, cut in ½ or ¼ (depending on how large the potatoes are) and place in a large bowl.  Add the eggs.  Then, add the red onions, green onions, celery, cilantro, and basil to the bowl.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir to mix (don’t add too much salt up front, taste a potato to make sure it’s not too salty as the dressing and bacon will add a little more salt).  Then, add the chopped bacon.  

In a small bowl, add the Dijon mustard, the honey, lemon juice, Italian Seasonings, and a pinch of salt and fresh ground black pepper.  Whisk as you add the olive oil until you have a nice emulsified (slightly thicker) vinaigrette.  Taste to make sure that you don’t need more salt and pepper, or more honey/lemon (the vinaigrette should be mildly sweet and acidic at the same time).  Once you are satisfied with the vinaigrette, add to the potatoes.  Mix well.  Cover with Saran wrap and refrigerate (up to 8 hours) or until you are ready to serve it.  Store any remaining potatoes in an air tight container with lid.  Enjoy!

Until next time . . . Cheers!


Monday, September 3, 2012

Romantic Bordeaux Style Dinner Without a "French" Budget

Last weekend, Patrick and I had a "date night".  We wanted to enjoy a romantic dinner and listen to some jazz music after.  We did not have any particular type of food in mind.  But, we wanted to go to a restaurant that (1) had great food; (2) had an inviting and welcoming decor and ambiance (preferably with outdoor seating); (3) had impeccable service; and (4) one where we could have a wonderfully satisfying meal without breaking the bank.  One restaurant that came to mind was Chevalier in downtown Lafayette (http://www.chevalierrestaurant.com/home.html).  Chevalier is a little gem in the East Bay.  It is one of my top 5 favorite restaurants.

Chevalier has excellent French food.  The Chef and Owner, Philippe Chevalier, takes great pride in using the freshest local natural ingredients.  Chevalier also has an extensive wine list, comprising of French as well as California wines.  Chevalier has won several awards, including Michelin Bib Gourmand Award, Open Table Diner's Choice Award, and Zagat ratings.  http://www.chevalierrestaurant.com/awards-reviews.html
At our dinner table in the Restaurant garden.
The ambiance is exceptional.  In addition to a warm and inviting indoor seating arrangement, they have a large outdoor/garden seating area.  The outdoor setting is very romantic and feels like you are eating in the French wine country.  The tables are surrounded by beautiful flowers (like roses) and herbs (like rosemary).  The lamp posts have grape vines around them.  The atmosphere is elegant, but not stuffy. 

The service is impeccable.  From the moment you walk in through the courtyard and enter the restaurant, the staff makes you feel like you are walking into your family's country home for a Sunday evening supper.

Although this highly rated restaurant is incredible, I think you can still have an affordable, enjoyable, and satisfying meal at Chevalier.  Our dinner last night was amazing, but budget friendly.  How did we do it you may ask?

First, we took advantage of the Prix Fixe menu (http://0801.nccdn.net/1_5/206/262/151/2012-Summer-Dinner-Menu-Legal-7-5-12.pdf). One of the things I love about Chevalier is that they have a 3-course Prix Fixe menu for $39.00 - you can't beat that!  Last night's menu included a starter (choice of cream of cauliflower soup; mixed green salad with warm crispy goat cheese, herbs de Provence, and lemon thyme vinaigrette; or Escargots).  For the entree, you had the choice of roasted chicken St. Tropez style; skirt steak pan seared, with a burgundy wine and shallot sauce; or house-made gnocchi with pesto.  [St. Tropez style chicken is chicken marinated with dried herbs, lemon, garlic, and honey and then roasted to perfection.  Check out this recipe (http://www.food.com/recipe/saint-tropez-chicken-105766).]  For dessert, you had the choice of a Crème Anglaise (Meringue) topped with roasted almonds and caramel sauce; Crème Brulée made with fresh vanilla bean from Bourbon; or a selection of sorbet.

Skirt steak pan seared,  with burgundy wine & shallot sauce
Patrick ordered the Prix Fixe menu and chose the salad, skirt steak, and Crème Brulée.  Each of the courses was spectacular.  The crispy goat cheese in the salad is truly addictive. The skirt steak was cooked perfectly (medium-rare) and the sauce was amazing.

Crème brulée, with fresh vanilla bean from Bourbon

We shared the Crème Brulée, which was unbelievable.  We could see and taste the vanilla bean, which differentiates "great" Crème Brulée from "mediocre" Crème Brulée.

Ahi tuna tartar, goat cheese, fresh quail egg, & mâche salad
I ordered the Ahi Tuna Tartar, which has goat cheese mixed in with the tuna and a beautifully prepared fresh quail egg on top, and served with crispy croutons.  This was one of my favorite tuna tartars.  The tuna was fresh. The goat cheese gave it a little more creaminess. And, the quail egg just elevated the appetizer to a whole new level of elegance and sophistication.  

Herb roasted rack of lamb with tarragon sauce, ratatouille
For my entree, I had the rack of lamb special, which was a fresh herb roasted rack of lamb served with an herb-tarragon sauce, ratatouille, and potato au gratin.  That dish was superb!  The fresh herbs were wonderfully fragrant. The lamb was cook perfectly (medium).  The sauce - wow! And, the au gratin potatoes were delicious.

Another way we were able to keep the meal within our budget was that we brought our own bottle of wine and paid a $20 corkage fee.  We had recently received a bottle of the 2007 Clos du Bois Marlstone (Alexander Valley, Sonoma, CA) from our wine club (http://www.closduboiswinestore.com/2007_Marlstone_Alexander_Valley).  This wine is a Meritage (Bordeaux style blend), which has 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.  It is a full-bodied red wine, with a deep ruby red color.  On the nose, the Marlstone gives a wonderful scent of complex aromas of ripe blackberries, plums, licorice, and a hint of baking spices.  On the palate, the Marlstone delivers concentrated blackberry and plum flavors.  The tannins are rich, but well balanced, leading to a strong lingering finish with notes of mocha and spice.  This wine retails for about $50.  If we were to buy it in a restaurant, we would have to pay at least $100.  But, by bringing our own, we only paid the corkage fee and were able to enjoy a Bordeaux blend with spectacular French cuisine.

With Philippe Chevalier, Chef - Owner, Chevalier Restaurant
Although the food and reasonably priced menu options make Chevalier one of my favorite restaurants, what makes the dining experience memorable for us is the service.  Our waitress was Renee, who was wonderful.  Renee was friendly, attentive, and did a great job explaining the menu and making recommendations.  But, by far, my most memorable moment was when Chef Chevalier visited our table to see how we were enjoying the food.  He is very friendly, personable, passionate about food, and makes sure that his guests enjoy their dining experiences at his restaurant.  [http://www.chevalierrestaurant.com/about.html]. Chef Chevalier was sweet to take a picture with us to remember the evening.  He gave me a true "French" kiss - left cheek/right cheek - (I am blushing now!) and said "bon appetit." Of course, that made the evening extra special!

The next time you are in the mood for some excellent French food and a romantic dinner out with your special someone, do some research and see if there is a restaurant that has a Prix Fixe menu; call ahead to find out how much the corkage fee is; if it's reasonable (generally $15-$20), bring your own wine; and enjoy!

Until next time . . . À votre santé! (Cheers!)