Sunday, January 29, 2012

10 Valentine's Gifts...for Foodies!

I have a love/hate relationship with Valentine's Day. I love the idea of a holiday that celebrates love and romance. But giant red bears and drugstore chocolate are liable to send me into a fit of fury. The idea of commemorating something special with something so generic rubs me the wrong way. Especially when it's so easy to find something unique for a person that loves food. Although I give examples in each category, these are definitely things you can run with and personalize. So put down the Whitman's Sampler and get them something they really want.

1. Chocolate

This could be anything from good baking chocolate to truffles. My favorite truffles to date hail from Asheville, NC from a little shop called The Chocolate Fetish. Specifically, I like their dark chocolate European style Ecstasy truffles. I'm obsessed with one called 'Ancient Pleasures', which is dusted with cayenne pepper. They also have truffles infused with things like champagne, lavender, wine and rose water. You can customize an assortment of 12 online and have them delivered for about $35 including shipping. You can also add a complimentary gift message.

I've also heard fantastic things about Amedei Chocolate. Food and Wine said they make some of the world's best chocolate. I've been dying to try some of their single origin bars including the Chuao and Porcelana bars. They run about $12 to $16 plus shipping for a 1.75 oz bar through Chocosphere.

Up the romance factor by making chocolate part of a "sensual flavor pairing" by wrapping it up with a good bottle of wine that complements the chocolates.

2.  Culinary Tours & Supper Clubs

This is essentially a nice date that you can wrap up the tickets to. And it's more fun than a stuffy wine or cooking class. Lots of cities offer culinary tours that are walking tours that stop and sample the fare at several different restaurants. Often, the chef prepares and presents one of the restaurant's signature dishes. Atlanta Culinary Tours runs 5 different tours in the Atlanta area (I'm personally dying to try their Inman Park & Old Fourth Ward tour).

A supper club can mean a variety of things, but I'm thinking of the underground type that are popping up all over big cities.  They're run by home cooks and feature a set menu. You can often find clubs by googling, but seating is often very limited. You'll want to get on their e-mail list early and realize that smaller or more popular clubs can sell out an event fast. Here's an article from a couple years back about the supper club phenomenon and that lists some of the clubs in Atlanta. 

3. Homemade Delicacies

If my husband brought me some dried out cookies, brownies, or some such from the grocery store for Valentine's Day, I'd probably chuck them at his head. But if he made them himself and attached a cute note, I would love it. Bonus points for poems, a pretty write-up of the recipe, cute packaging, a handmade card, and elaborate frosting jobs. Browse recipe sites like or for inspiration. This White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake is from

4. Craft Beer, Wine, & Booze

Unless you're giving something very rare to a connoisseur, here's how to give alcohol the classy way. Instead of giving just a bottle of booze or champagne, give a signature Valentine's cocktail by attaching a recipe and a cocktail shaker or other gear they need to make it. As a person with a pretty extensive liquor cabinet, I'd love to get a more unusual liqueur like St. Germain with a recipe such as this Cherub's Cup

5. Cookbooks

Pick a good one and write a great inscription. Better yet, offer to make a dinner based on any recipe of their choosing. If you have a great collection of favorite recipes, you could also take this to the next level by creating and printing your own cookbook through an online service such as

6. Appliance & Tool Splurges

If you have more money to spend on your gift and you know the recipient really well, this could be an option. For example, if you're giving to an avid baker, how cool would it be to give a Kitchenaid stand mixer in their favorite color. If you think your sweetheart would be okay with it, you could also try to score a bargain by getting something used through an auction site like ebay or a classified site like Craig's List.

7. Coffee & Tea

You could go a lot of different ways with this one. You could pick up a hard-to-find coffee like Jamaican Blue Mountain (If you're in Atlanta, Your Dekalb Farmer's Market sells it for about $33 per pound) or give a coffee subscription like this awesome single origin subscription from Counter Culture Coffee.

For tea drinkers, there are tons of good online purveyors like Mighty Leaf that sell cool samplers of tea. Personally, I'd do a back flip if someone sent me this Chocolate Truffle Tea Collection.

8. Gadgets Galore 
I am not generally a fan of single use gadgets. Seriously, I have an apple slicer someone gave me five plus years ago that I've never used. However, if you know your recipient well, there are lots of cool and useful things for the kitchen. The top gadgets in my kitchen are my immersion blender, mandoline slicer, garlic peeler, and food scale. For bakers there are silicone baking mats, rolling pins that measure dough thickness, and cookie scoops. For carnivores there are meat mallets, flavor injectors, and meat thermometers with alarms. And the list goes on and on.    

9. Fancy Pantry Staples

Olive oil, vinegar, sugar, flour, and salt are all in the pantry of anyone who likes to cook. But what about ginger infused sugar, smoked sea salt, or blueberry balsamic vinegar? There are lots of fun and unique items that can be found in gourmet shops and at online retailers. The last time I was in St. Louis, I was delighted to find this shop, which sells a huge line of olive oil, vinegar, exotic salts, and infused sugars.  

10. Plants & Grow-Your-Own Kits

For gardeners, consider giving edibles. You could give simple herbs that could be grown in a kitchen window or even potted fruit trees. Meyer lemon trees, blueberry bushes, certain fig trees, and much more can be grown in pots on a patio or deck (no backyard required). Another cool trend I've recently become aware of is that you can grow your own gourmet mushrooms at home, often in something as simple as a bucket of used coffee grinds. This company sells a selection of mushroom starter kits.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Meyer Lemon Curd

I loved lemon curd to start with. After making it with Meyer lemons, my love has turned into full blown creepy stalker obsession. Three jars have disappeared in as many days. What can I say? It's. That. Good.

Here's the thing. I know some of you might be looking for practical recipes with chicken and vegetables or that end with a satisfying hunk of baked goodness. You may look askance and say "You want me to spend time making a condiment I can buy in any decent grocery store?" But hear me out.

For those of you not familiar with curd, it's a mixture of sugar, butter, eggs, and some type of fruit juice, often citrus. The stuff you get in stores is often thickened with pectin or weird artificial thickeners so it's very thick and gummy. It also lacks in the flavor department. My version uses whole eggs (rather than yolks) and sets up to a pudding consistency. It's sweet, tangy, buttery, and bursting with flavor. Heaped on a cream scone, it's heavenly. 
Look for organic Meyer lemons, which are smaller, sweeter, and juicier than regular lemons. You can still make it with regular lemons, but if you want the same sweet-tart punch, you can try subbing the juice of one or two lemons with orange juice. Key lime curd would also be insanely good and give you that great sweet-tart balance.

This recipe is also designed so you can make a large batch (roughly 5-8 ounce jars) and freeze most for later use. Lemon curd freezes and defrosts like a champ, so you only do the work of zesting and juicing lemons once, and enjoy multiple times. If you don't want to commit to that large an amount, this recipe easily halves.

I've also made this recipe as easy as possible. Many recipes for lemon curd tell you to strain your lemon juice or the curd after it's cooked, making for crazy amounts of clean up. I hate washing dishes and scrubbing out strainers, so you'll find none of that here. I'm not gonna lie, you may end up with a few tiny specks of cooked egg in your curd with this method, but real lemon curd isn't perfectly smooth because of the zest anyway. And you definitely won't be able to taste the specks.

First you melt a stick of butter and set it aside to cool.
Then you prep the lemons by zesting and juicing into two separate containers. I love this microplane grater for zesting citrus and grating hard cheeses. You can discard the lemon hulls.
Then you cream the sugar together with the melted butter.
Then you stir in the lemon juice. At this point, check the pan to make sure it's completely cooled, otherwise you'll end up with chunks of cooked egg in your curd. Then beat in the eggs with a whisk and make sure the mixture is as smooth and uniform as possible:
Then you put the pan on a cold burner and turn the heat to a little shy of medium and stir making sure to scrape the bottom CONSTANTLY for about 10 minutes until the curd thickens. It will have the consistency of a thick Hollandaise sauce and stick to the back of a spoon. It will set up a bit more as it cools.
Then you whisk in the zest:
And while its still warm pour it into freezer safe containers. Let them come to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate or freeze.

I like half pint (8 oz.) jars because it's a reasonable amount for two people to eat over a few days. Once thawed, the curd stays good for about a week in the fridge.
If you'd like a good scone recipe to go with the curd. This is the one I made and that's pictured. The only changes I made were to skip the raisins and I used Greek yogurt in place of the sour cream.

Meyer Lemon Curd
Yields approximately 4 1/2 cups curd

6-7 organic Meyer lemons (I recommend organic here because you're using the skin of the fruit)
1 1/2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter

  1. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and set aside to cool.
  2. Zest the lemons using a microplane grater or the fine side of a box grater and set the zest aside. Only remove the outer, yellow layer, not the white (and bitter) pith.
  3. Juice the lemons with a citrus juicer or press. Pulp in the juice is not a big deal, but fish out any seeds that might have fallen into the juice. You should have in the neighborhood of 2/3 to 1 cup of juice. Discard the hulls.
  4. Cream the sugar together with the melted butter and stir in the juice. 
  5. Beat the eggs into the mixture until it is as smooth and uniform as possible. 
  6. Set the saucepan on a cold burner and turn the heat up to just shy of medium. Stir CONSTANTLY making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan for about 10 minutes until the curd thickens. Remove from heat.
  7. Whisk in the zest and pour into jars. Allow to cool and refrigerate or freeze. Curd will last approximately 1 week in the fridge.

Friday, January 20, 2012

An Announcement

Dear Blogosphere,

I am sorry. I did not mean to disappear for two weeks at the very beginning of the year, but sometimes life conspires against you.

On Tuesday January 10th, I got braces! And although I occasionally feel like a big ball of adult awkward, I'm glad I did it. I could have taken the short and easy route and had oral surgery, but I wanted the best function possible (I plan on chewing crusty pieces of bread till death do us part), so I sucked it up and chose braces. It's funny, but after plunking down a huge check and choosing the healthier and more uncomfortable option, this thing that you typically go through as a teenager has made me feel even more like an adult. All this grown-up-ness didn't stop me from composing a hard rock theme song for myself called "Metal Mouth" however. Adulthood, it comes in fits and starts.

To my horror, right after I got the braces I was presented with a huge list of foods I'm not allowed to have for the next year and change. I expected that I wasn't going to be allowed to gnaw on jaw breakers and taffy, but the list contained some of my favorites. NO granola. Frown. NO nuts. Whimper. NO hard, crusty bread. Sob! Luckily, I am already devising ways around these prohibitions so they won't be handicapping my recipes.

After exactly 4 days of braces, the initial discomfort had gone and after a few public outings I was reassured that people weren't going to point at me like I was some sort of mutant. (I'm a little paranoid considering the visible brackets are tooth colored and barely noticeable.) Anyhow, I was feeling more normal and then I got horribly and violently ill.  For a few days, I pretty much lived on crackers. I did not want to see the kitchen. My sense of smell went into hyperdrive and I couldn't tolerate my husband chopping onions across the apartment. My dogs got worried and moped around the bed. I didn't drink coffee for a week. I lost 5 pounds in 5 days. That is not a brag. It just shows how sad the state of affairs are if I am not eating. I will always choose treadmill punishment over not eating.

After the fog of illness cleared, I emerged with an epic craving for citrus. Maybe it was for the vitamins. Maybe it's my Florida blood. Maybe I just have a crazy sick person brain. In any case, I drank a ton of orange juice and cast my eyes upon the Meyer lemons that had been sitting in my kitchen for a week. They were like a ray of sweet tart sunshine. Have you ever had a Meyer lemon? They only grow well in hardiness zones 8 and lower (read California and Florida). They're smaller, juicier, more aromatic, and sweeter than regular lemons. They have the same magical sweet tart properties as key limes. They are pure bliss when made into lemon curd. And that is what I have been living on for the past few days: cream scones with disproportionate amounts of Meyer lemon curd.

Recipe coming soon.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ham & Split Pea Soup

When I was little, my dad had two solutions to dinner. One was a highly questionable dish he called "Steve's Surprise", which usually consisted of boxed Mac N' Cheese, cut up hot dogs, and some kind of canned green thing, usually peas (probably so he could tell my mom we ate a vegetable). The other solution was to take us kids to Denny's, which when I was little seemed like fun because we were allowed to drink hand mixed vanilla cokes with dinner.

Unfortunately, Denny's makes a very poor introduction to split pea soup. I mean let's be real here, the color of split pea soup alone can put some people off. And serving it lukewarm doesn't help matters either. Anyhow, I was convinced I detested the stuff. But a few months ago, my husband started wheedling me for it. Apparently he has fond memories of soup made with leftover ham bones. And that is exactly how this version is made.

To me what is especially magical about this soup is the slightly smoky flavor it takes on after the flavors have melded for a day, probably from the cumin. The peas make this soup thick and starchy like potato soup and it's studded with pieces of ham. After one bite, it rocketed into my top 5 soups. This is a great recipe to make after the holidays too because you can just freeze the bone from your holiday ham to make this later. Just leave at least a couple of ounces of the meat clinging to the bone. It can even be the tougher pieces of meat since the extended cooking time will soften them up.

You start by sauteing some onions and bell pepper in a stockpot.
Then you add some garlic and flour and saute a minute or two more. Honestly, I don't think the flour is necessary since the pureed peas thicken the soup a lot. So feel free to skip it. Then you add your ham bone, which should look something like this:
Then you add 1 pound of peas and the liquid ingredients. I highly recommend using low sodium chicken broth for this recipe since the ham is going to add a lot of salt.
You bring the soup to a boil and then reduce the heat to a low simmer and let it go for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. It's really important not to rush the simmering time since the peas take a long time to completely soften. Then you take the ham bone out and cut off the meat, which should be falling apart at this point. You can see all the marrow and goodness have cooked out of the bone too:
You leave the ham off to the side, and add some calabaza squash to the soup. If you're not familiar with calabaza, it has a more tropical flavor than most squash and smells a bit like cantaloupe. There seems to be some confusion about the word 'calabaza' since it is also used as the translation of pumpkin and depending on the country can refer to several types of squash. But I'm pretty sure the cookbook authors meant this variety, which is a pale orangey tan or tan and green stripes with pale orange flesh. Butternut would also be fine, but here's what calabaza looks like:
After the squash goes in, you simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes and puree the soup. Then you add the ham back in along with the cumin and some butter and simmer another 20 to 30 minutes.
And you're done!

Ham & Split Pea Soup
Serves 6-8
Adapted slightly from Three Guys From Miami Cook Cuban


2 cups onion, chopped
2 cups green pepper, chopped
5 large cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons flour
1 pound split peas
1 ham bone with some meat still attached
5 cups water
4 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups calabaza or butternut squash, peeled and cubed
2 teaspoons cumin
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
salt and pepper, to taste
olive oil or butter, for sauteing


1. In a large stockpot, saute the onion and bell pepper in some olive oil. Add the garlic and flour and saute another minute or until garlic is fragrant.

2. Add ham bone (can be frozen or thawed), peas, broth, water, and wine. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a low simmer. Simmer for 2 hours, scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally.

3. Remove the ham bone and separate the meat into bite size pieces. Discard the bone and any gristle and set aside the meat.

4. Add the calabaza to the pot and simmer 20 to 30 minutes more or until the calabaza is soft. Puree the soup with an immersion blender (or in batches with a blender).

5. Return the ham to the pot and add the cumin and butter. Taste the soup and add salt and black pepper to taste. (Ham is so salty, I don't usually add any extra salt.) Simmer 20 to 30 more minutes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chocolate Peanut Butter "Crackles"

Ok, so this isn't so much a recipe as a really awesome idea for party food or a homemade gift. It involves chocolate and peanut butter and the only "cooking" you have to do involves melting stuff in the microwave. 

My husband and I dubbed these confections "crackles" because they're made with crackers and because of the crack-like addiction you will acquire after eating one. You start with two butter crackers and a big dollop of peanut butter:

Then you smoosh the two crackers together and run your finger around the sandwich to trim the excess peanut butter:

After you've got your peanut butter sandwiches made up, you microwave your chocolate in a tall narrow-ish container and dip the sandwiches. I used a fork to remove the sandwiches and gently set them on some parchment paper.

While the chocolate is still melty, I sprinkled some roughly chopped peanuts over the top.
I let them set up for a few hours and then packaged them in tea tins with cupcake liners to keep them separated.

I'm already envisioning other crackle flavors. Let me blow your mind a little:

S'more Crackle: Marshmallow creme on graham cracker, dipped in chocolate.
Nutella Crackle: Same as above but with an extra layer of Nutella.
Caramel Cookie Crackle: Caramel on vanilla wafers, dipped in chocolate.
Double Cookie Crackle: Biscoff spread on vanilla wafers, dipped in chocolate.
Maple Almond Crackle: Maple almond butter on crackers, dipped in chocolate.

Toppings to consider: coconut, orange zest, different nuts, crushed candy canes...

Yeah, so it's a little easy for me to get carried away with these. They're easier than making truffles or bark, but a lot of the same flavors are possible. The only drawback is depending how much moisture is in your filling ingredients, the outside of the crackle starts to weep after a couple of days. The texture actually gets better, but the outside doesn't look as pretty. So if you're big on presentation, I wouldn't make these more than a day in advance.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Crackles
Yields about 15


30 butter flavored crackers (like Ritz)
1 cup peanut butter (There's probably less than a tablespoon on each one but err on the side of more peanut butter so when you stick the sides together you get a nice even layer that you can trim.)
8 ounces dark or milk chocolate
2 ounces salted peanuts, roughly chopped  


1. Put about a tablespoon of peanut butter on a cracker. Smoosh another cracker on top and run your finger around the outside of the sandwich to trim the excess peanut butter. Repeat.

2. In a tall, narrow-ish bowl or container, melt the chocolate by microwaving in 30 second increments and stirring each time.

3. Dip each sandwich in the chocolate, using a fork to roll them and remove them to a piece of parchment or wax paper. I found that after 3 or 4 dips I had to reheat the chocolate slightly or the coating started to get too thick.

4. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts and allow to cool at room temperature for several hours before packaging.