Thursday, June 30, 2011

Israeli Couscous From The Midwest

This is the second article I did for Honest Cooking Magazine. The first being about my rouille and my night in a French bistro.

This dish came about after a trip to the farmers market where I found English peas. They are scarce in the Midwest so when I find them I am gleeful.

Cooking dinner last night for father’s day I had steak on the grill, potatoes roasting, farm fresh tomatoes sliced and peas from the market. Not quite sure what to do with those peas? The first thing that came to mind was risotto. No that would not quite go with the menu and too hot a dish for a summer meal. After scouring the cupboards I found a box of Israeli couscous. This became my inspiration for the recipe that follows.
Israeli couscous is sometimes called pearl or maftoul. It is larger than Moroccan couscous and it’s pearly round shape reminds me of tapioca although the taste is nothing like it.

Israeli Couscous with Fresh Peas 
1 box Israeli couscous, prepared as package directs
2 Tbsps (14.78 ml) extra virgin olive oil
½ large shallot, diced
1 cup (227 g) fresh English peas, blanched
salt and pepper to taste
mint and Italian parsley, chopped

Saute shallot in olive oil until translucent. Add cooked couscous and blanched peas. Season to taste with coarse salt and pepper and chopped herbs.

I loved this dish. It is a perfect side for summer meals. Would travel well so great for picnics too.

One Night In A French Bistro

Cyrano's Bistrot-Chicago, IL

Many years ago I was just starting out in food styling, assisting top stylists and learning the craft. I also was working for a French chef helping him translate his recipes into English and getting them readable for the average cook. He was thinking about doing a cookbook.

I had never done this before and it was a lot of fun. I loved to listen to Chef Didier speak. I never tired of his accent. 

He was Chef at a restaurant in the Gold Coast in Chicago called Le Perroquet, which means the parrot in English.

I would meet him there occasionally and he would hand me recipes to go home and edit. On occasion, Chef would give me little packets of food to take home. He knew I was mainly vegetarian and I will never forget this one meal he packaged for me. It was a roll made of a thin noodle stuffed with thin spaghetti and vegetables all rolled up like a piece of sushi. It was a piece of art. I felt special and loved. Always good to have Chefs for friends!

Our project was put on hold while Chef got busy opening his own restaurant called Cyranos. It is still in Chicago today and a great place to visit if you love French bistro style food.

Best pomme frites ever!

I have always had a secret desire to work in a restaurant kitchen. I asked Chef Didier if I could work on the line sometime. He said to come in on a not so busy night and I could help out. Not that I wanted to get into the restaurant biz but I always love new experiences anything new I can learn from.

So I showed up with the crew in my whites and got to work. I was working along side a young chef who I believe was the sous chef. The restaurant had a main kitchen with a window to the dining room and a lower level kitchen that was used for prep. It had a low ceiling and was very small. Typical of most French kitchens. They are very efficient that way. I love that. While in the prep kitchen the chef asked me to make a rouille. I said what is a rouille? He said it was a French mayonnaise. I said ok what do I do?

He handed me some lemons, olive oil, eggs and a robot coupe and provided brief instruction. I froze. I said what should it taste like? He told me …… and left. 

Ok so that is how it works you sink or swim. I tend to be a recipe follower but a real cook is not looking at recipes it is improv baby and you better get it right. I was with the big boys now. If you are a real cook you get it right. Maybe not the first time but you keep going until you do get it.

So I added this to that and asked him to taste. Finger goes in I wait for his response. He would say almost, add this or that and after a while voila it was a rouille.

That my friend was cooking.

Now the service hour was upon us and I headed to the main kitchen. I was on the line and got to see how orders came in and were handled. Everyone stuck to his or her station. There was a lot of sweat and yelling. Not bad yelling just I need this or that rat a tat tat. The chef who was handling the line, I guess he was the sous chef, was sweating so hard I prayed he wouldn’t be adding it to the sauce he was making.

He was very calm though and young. Most of the people were young or Mexican. All very hard working and very nice to me. I was the only girl in the kitchen.

So while on the line I felt like a third wheel but did my best to help. I would take a bar mop or napkin and wipe plates as they were going out. The salad guy would yell he needed something and I would gopher for him.

At one point the sous chef told me we were low on risotto to make some. Again I was in the firing line. But I learned as in the rouille you just do it. He showed me the broth simmering on the stove and the Arborio and whatever else was going in it and I made the risotto.

Writing this piece does bring back those memories and I realize how every experience in the kitchen teaches us something. This night in a French bistro taught me so much about myself and about food.

If you ever have the chance to do this I encourage you to. The best way to learn is to be thrown into the fire and as Nike says “Just Do It”!

Thank you Chef Didier for making a food/cooking memory that will last my lifetime.

Bon Appetite mon ami.

Note: Rouille is a French mayonnaise usually associated with fish dishes. It is very difficult to make the first time. It is an emulsion which is a mixture of two or more immiscible liquids. The basic rouille involves egg yolk, lemon juice for the acid, and olive oil. Seasonings are also added. In my photo I have a sprinkling of saffron.

The hard part when making a rouille is the adding of the oil. I used one recipe that called for a slow steady stream. I did what I considered a slow steady stream and the emulsion broke. I got out my Julia Child Way To Cook book and she describes it as adding the oil by droplets. That is exactly what you need to do. You need to have all the oil emulsified before adding any more or it will break. 

Basic Rouille

1 extra large egg yolk, room temperature
1 ½ Tbsps (22.18 ml) lemon juice
1 cup (236.59 ml) extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
other seasonings or herbs of your choice
garlic also can be added made into a paste

Use a robot coupe or food processor fitted with metal blade. Add egg yolk and lemon juice process with motor running. By droplet  add the oil. This is a slow process that cannot be hurried. Add the oil by droplet through the feeding tube with the motor running. The rouille will start to form and get thick and light yellow in color. You will know immediately if the emulsion breaks. It will get thin and the color will darken.

A Dogs Birthday

In our house of three dogs and two kids we have birthdays. The dogs are part of the family and as family members they get a birthday celebration when it is their time. 

Harry is born in April he is our belgian malinois mix and deemed himself leader of the pack. Then there are the girls Jasmine our puggle and Baby our black lab mix born in May and June respectively. Jasmine is 6 and she is our oldest. Our love for dogs grew after having her and we started fostering puppies for The Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society. Well let me tell you when those sick pups are in your home you get very attached. Hence Harry and Baby never left and we ended up adopting them. We still foster on occasion but it is only for short stays.

This year has been a little crazy with me working more and kids getting older and going in different directions so the dogs birthdays this year were not exactly celebrated on time. I hope they are not keeping track. Bad mommy.

So Harry’s was celebrated a week later than his actual birthday and Jasmine's was not celebrated at all. So I decide to celebrate hers and Baby's this Saturday on Baby’s actual birthday. They are always together so it was fitting. Also then I would just make one cake. Oh yes the dogs get a birthday cake. And presents too. 

Not a birthday cake made for humans but a cake made with stuff dogs love. I have a dog recipe book that has lots of cool recipe ideas but usually I just make one up. They have never refused one of my cakes yet. We even put a candle in it the whole nine yards. I usually take some kibble or low calorie liver treats and make a flour with it in the food processor. I will mix it with some whole grain flours, wheat germ, baking powder and add some egg, maybe yogurt and add blueberries or something similar and bake it in a cake pan. The frosting is what they like best. I mix a liver sausage or braunschwager with cream cheese and top the cake with it.

When I am frosting the cake they know it is for them. They hover around me more than usual and the excitement is intense.

Here is Harry, leader of the pack waiting for his piece. The other dogs stand back. This is how dog packs work there is a pecking order and they all know who is the boss.

Harry Focusing On What He Wants-CAKE

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story

I know this is a line from a song even though I can’t remember who did it at the moment. This thought came at me the other day when I was culling through some photos and thinking about what makes a good photograph? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?  Usually I try not to ask opinions because if you ask 10 people you'll get 10 answers. I shoot what I like and what I think is appealing. I have a good eye but photographically speaking I am a work in progress. Frankly, do we ever stop learning at all in anything we do? I think not. For me learning whatever it is I'm doing is a progression that never ends. My philosophy is to look at those I admire and take notes. Never copy anyone but find your own  style.

The most important aspect of good photography is light. I think if you were to ask any photographer this question light would be top on the list. The way it hits the subject be it a person or a plate of food makes or breaks the image. A soft light that makes whatever you are looking at improved. I guess you would say it flatters the subject. It makes skin tones look creamier and food look like you want to eat it.

My husband and I were talking about different photos he liked or didn’t and we were chatting about the blog in general. He mentioned liking the storytelling aspect. I agreed. The first part of this equation is taking good photos. A good photo makes you linger and read on.

Last night he helped me with some photo editing. Having an art director for a husband is very handy indeed and his expertise is much appreciated.

So every picture does tell a story and that is the aspect I love most about what I am doing here on my blog. A post without pictures is boring. A post with bad pictures disaster.  I would love to be considered a food photo journalist. I love the realness behind the visual. Some of my favorite photos are things just laying around the kitchen that I love that tell a story.

The plate in this picture is an example. We had just finished our morning breakfast of  raspberry pancakes. I was clearing the breakfast bar and loved the way the berry and syrup smeared the plate. That to me is art. So I grabbed the plate and put it in my favorite window and voila.

You can stage a photo and try to get a look but the real moments have a magic to them that can’t be re-created. They just are.

Summer Is Here

Ciao Bella Key Lime Gelato Ice Cream Sandwiches

Yikes where has the time gone. As you can see my posting has been interrupted by a little thing called summer vacation. The last week of school is insane and every year I say I am not going to let it be crazy with the end of the year this and that. Actually, this year was calmer than most because we did not attend every single event that was happening. With my son leaving elementary and moving on to middle school and my daughter leaving middle school and entering high school this year is a big transition.

The first week of summer vacation goes so fast. When I was a kid I remember summers lasting forever. Now as I am experiencing summer with my kids I feel like I blink and before I know it Target has the Back To School banners hanging from the ceiling. Melancholy sets in.

We are into our second week of summer vacation and I feel like I can breath again. The last week of school the kids were graduating from their respective schools, I had a very hectic food styling job, received an email to contribute to an online food magazine for which I now have deadlines, and my camera went on the fritz. Hit the panic button.

So now all things have been resolved and I am back in the blogosphere.

Today is the actual first day of summer, the summer solstice. I have a nice little summer treat to share. My husband found these in the freezer one night and told me to please keep buying them. We love these sinfully creamy icy cold squares of delight. They are Key Lime Gelato Ice Cream Sandwiches from Ciao Bella. The tangy lime gelato combined with the graham cracker cookie is a match made in heaven. They can be hard to find but if your store sells any Ciao Bella product buy it. I have not met a product from them that I have not adored.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Secret Garden Society



In our suburban area there is a walking trail called the Green Bay trail. It is a very peaceful place to walk especially in the early morning or later evenings. The trees hang over the trail in spots giving a feeling of seclusion. Ocasionally you’ll find deer walking the trail.

The path is bordered by a rail road track on the west side which is a commuter train taking people to and from the city. Starting in Wisconsin.

On either side of the trail there are gardens. Intermittantly dispersed along the trail on both sides. For years, I had lived in the town and walked the trail never really thinking much about the gardens or who owned them. 

One day a few years ago, I saw a person tending to one of the gardens and they became more real to me. Then I started inquiring about who owns the gardens and how does one go about getting one. Turns out it is actually a community garden. The citizens took over the plots or made their own plots and eventually made fences with gates to keep out the critters and pilfurers. The gardens range from elaborate to basic and one even looks like a garden junkyard. I was told by one of the gardeners that they have owned their plot for 40 years. I was intrigued. Sounded mysterious. I checked with our city hall to double check and they said if a garden is empty and it looks like no one is tending to it you can take it over but you cannot create new plots. Ok fair enough. I was on a mission to find some land.

There was a plot the kids and I had started to clear and I was attempting to plant in it. After doing some work clearing I realized with no fence I would be doomed. Between the rabbits, deer and bugs I would be wasting my time. 

Later I noticed an overgrown garden with a large fence. Bingo I'm in. It was definitely abandoned. The weeds were as tall as myself.  I went inside the gate to check it out. While inside I wondered who was here before me? Who put the stones in a semi circle and planted the irises that were gasping for air? Who planted the beautiful berry bushes I was about to uncover?   Who started the garden and where did they go. There were rusted tools in the corner under a wooden bench filled with cob webs. I wanted to know the story. 

Someone said the person that owned it moved to Germany.   Underneath the weeds I could see raspberry bushes with berries. There were so many weeds they were being strangled. The rescuer in me had to do something. My first project was to cut the weeds down to see what was underneath. I cut them down as far as a I could and then over the next week after taking the kids to school I would go to the garden and dig. Blisters for sure, but there was something about doing this work that felt good. I had a purpose. To save these berries. Oh and selfishly eat them. After I got down to where it could be tilled, my husband rented a rototiller from home depot and did the nasty job of aerating the soil. The roots from the weeds were so thick it kept getting stuck and we had to untie them from the rotors. I was freaking thinking he was going to lose a finger.

It was hard work. Like farming, you were tired at the end of the day. The job was done and now we had to plant. The berries were loving that they could see the light of day and were going crazy. I planted some vegetables in rows and was very excited about the big garden I was going to have.

We planted pumpkins, tomatoes of various sizes, peppers and cucumbers.

The one problem with the gardens was water. There was none to speak of. Well some people had elaborate water systems and one guy George offered to share his. I took him up on it. There was a path next to his garden down the hill by the tracks. Follow the cinder block steps down and on the right there was a hose, green rubber sawed off at the end and hanging from a tree limb. He said you can take it down but be sure to hang it up right or else the water will all be lost. I was a little creeped out when going down there. My husband always told me to beware of the pitch fork killer. Seriously.

It was a capillary system that came from rain barrels where he collected the rain to water his gardens.

I used his water on occasion but not too often because I respected all the work he put into his elaborate system. Didn’t want to take advantage.

I carried water from home in milk gallon jugs.

The summer I had the garden we had the driest hottest summer in years. Needless to say the plants did not survive, except the berries which thrived. I did get one tomato and a cucumber but gardener extraordinaire I am not. I did learn quite a bit about gardening and have great respect for farmers. It is not easy. We enjoyed the berries all summer. I made berry smoothies, scones, and just plain in a fruit salad. There is nothing like picking a fruit or vegetable from a vine and eating it. My kids got to enjoy them too and learn that food does not come from a plastic clam shell it grows in the dirt and takes a lot of work.

Friday, June 3, 2011


So often for work as a food stylist we are looking for the perfect piece of produce. The ones with not a wrinkle not a blemish. The supermodels, if you will, of the food world.

When I'm doing my own creative thing in the home studio I do what is real. That is why I love this photo so much. I got these limes from Trader Joe's in a green mesh bag. They were buried at the bottom of the fruit drawer in the frig. My husband nicknamed the drawer "the rotter" because often times things on the bottom die a slow and hopefully painless death. We'll when looking for a lime for my sparkling water this is what I found. I was not sad that they weren't perfect. I rejoiced in their age and imperfections.

I immediately thought of this bowl bowl given to me by my cousin and her new husband at their wedding. They are potters, no relation to Harry,  and for their wedding they put a handmade piece of pottery at everyone's place setting. What a great idea.

Thanks Andrea and Michael for your great handmade bowl made with love and imperfections. A perfect vessel for my aging limes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Where's The Dirt On My Vegetables?

Last summer I photographed some onions from the farmers market. They were covered in dirt. I was so excited. They were not trimmed or cut or cleaned up. They were real onions with dirt.

When you go to a store and get a package of onions all sealed hermetically in plastic. Emotionless.

When you go to a farmers stand and pick up a bunch of onions that have dirt hanging from the roots that is real. Yes they grow in dirt and you are reminded they come from the earth.

We have lost our connection to food as a whole. I have been as guilty as the next person so I will get off my high horse right now. We moms are out shopping and grab this and that and yes it can be robotic. "Must make din ner for the fam i ly."  We go through the motions and get what we need...

Anything that you do day in and day out can get monotonous. It is hard to get excited. Try to take time to really be conscious about what you're doing.

I challenge you to take one day, especially this summer when the food is local and plentiful. Go to a farmers market. Get food in season. Really think about what it is your doing and preparing. Tell me how it feels to you. Make a food connection.

I was recently in my local whole foods market and the whole foods employee was stacking the green beans with surgical gloves on and placing them in plastic bags. I asked her why she would do that? She said "the customers wanted their beans in plastic bags because they did not want people touching them."

Yikes this was a doozy. News flash. People are touching your vegetables every step of the way to get to the market. They grow in dirt and people pick them, pack them, store them, ship them. Let’s get real people.

I told the whole foods employee how the beans when placed in plastic go bad. It is like a greenhouse in there. The plastic traps the moisture. They can’t breath and they rot. You can see the moisture and all the brown spotted beans in their stages of decay. I want to touch what I am buying and see that it is blemish free. I want it to look and feel like it came from the earth.

So give me some dirt on my vegetables please. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Apricot-Cream Cheese Scones

For breakfast or afternoon tea the scone is my choice. Sweet but not too.

I told my daughter she would have these for breakfast her eyes lit up. We'll let's get real, I needed to get up at 5:30 to make them or at least measure them out the night before. So instead, I baked while she was in school and a nice fresh scone will await her upon her arrival.

This recipe is in my recipe files and it comes from the King Arthur Flour company.
It is a tender scone due to the addition of cream cheese.

Scone Recipe

4 1/4 cups flour, all purpose
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1-8 oz package cream cheese, very cold
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into chunks, very cold
1 cup diced dried apricots
1 lg egg
3/4 cups milk
2 tsps vanilla extract
coarse sugar or powdered sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

In a medium bowl mix together the dry ingredients. Flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and cream cheese.

Blend with pastry blender until coarse and crumbly. This means mixed but not smooth. Like when your making pie crust. 

Now add the apricots. I use a kitchen shears to dice them. You can use a chefs knife too. Oil the blade to prevent sticking.

Whenever baking I always add the dry with dry the wet with wet. So now take the milk and combine it with the vanilla and egg. Usually I will give it a mix at this point , but for photo purposes I left the egg whole for a visual appeal. Next add the wet ingredients to the dry.

Now with a wooden spoon mix together just until the dough is together enough that you can turn it out onto a board. This point is important. You need to move fast and not use your hands to much. The heat from your hands will melt the butter and cream cheese which means your scones won't be flaky. The cold butter is what melts in the hot oven giving way to delicious layers of goodness.
Sometimes I use a dough scraper for this purpose.
Next pat or roll gently with a rolling pin to a thickness of about 3/4 inch.

Then cut using a round biscuit cutter or kitchen glass.

Place on cookie sheet about 2 inches apart and brush with whole milk or heavy cream if you have it. I prefer cream. You can sprinkle with coarse sugar if you like or wait as I do and when done sprinkle with powdered sugar. Bake at 425 degrees F for 8 minutes.

Next turn the oven down to 300 degrees F for about 8 minutes. They should be a very light golden brown and the tops should look dry not wet at all.