Recipes

Simple Autumn Spins on Classic Cocktails


I recently realized that I drink far more cocktails during the autumn and winter months and tend to stick to sparkling wine, beer, and red wine during hotter months. Haven't quite figured out why, but I promise I'll look into it. Perhaps one too many family gatherings could make a person sprint to the local bar for a stiff drink - who knows? The point is, in light of this recent discovery, I've been playing around with some ways to autumn-ize some of the most classic cocktails. 

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Short note: Making cocktails is no different than cooking, really. Choose high-quality, natural-ish ingredients to elevate something simple into something extraordinary! 

Gin & Tonic

Up first, the mighty Gin & Tonic. I've had a troubled relationship with this drink, but we've worked out our differences and I'm now Team G&T. Honestly, the first time I ever had one that I loved was at Jose Andres' Jaleo in Washington, D.C. It had a depth and brightness that was so lacking in every other one I'd ever tried. It converted me. 

About the gin: I prefer the London Dry gin style since it tends to be sort of mellow and not so abrasive. My #1 choice is Plymouth, but I'll use Beefeater if I can't find it. Plymouth also makes an excellent sloe gin. I also LOVE Leopold's gin from Colorado, which is becoming a bit easier to find these days, so see if you can.

About the tonic: I truly believe the secret to a good Gin & Tonic is the tonic. I can't deal with the syrupy, unnatural taste of Schweppes tonic water. Opt for something with less sugar - or, at least, real sugar. Try Q or Fever-Tree. 

To add a holiday kick to a traditional Gin & Tonic, I simply add a splash of sloe gin and a cinnamon stick as a stirrer - that's it! Here's the recipe:

Old-Fashioned

The Old-Fashioned is a deceptively simple concoction: sugar, bitters, whiskey, twist. Like so many simple things, it's disastrous when not done well and extraordinarily satisfying when a mustachioed mixologist takes care to make it properly. I have to be honest, I made my own apple bitters (I call them Yuletide bitters, appropriately enough) for use in this cocktail, but there are plenty of fancy bitters out there these days. Find anything in the way of apple, cinnamon, maple, or warmly spiced (think baking spices and gingerbread) bitters and you'll be all set.

Manhattan

Instead of using bourbon entirely, I introduce Calvados (apple brandy) to add a bit of autumn warmth to a traditional Manhattan. I was surprised that it didn't take a whole lot of fuss to turn this into a great winter drink - it may already be one on its own!

Sangria

I was recently asked to test some recipes for mulled wine for the holidays. I made a number of versions, both red and white, and discovered that my favorite holiday mulled wine was very similar to my favorite sangria recipe, except that it's a bit sweeter and is served piping hot. I did also enjoy it the next day, on ice, so it can go both ways.

The Smell of Cinnamon Banana Bread & Autumn Air

I don't know about you, but I have a serious problem when I buy bananas. I seem to always end up with too many. I walk by my fruit bowl every morning and see them sadly waiting to be eaten. Then I decide I've waited too long and they get tossed in the freezer with that one I forgot to eat last week and the five I forgot to eat last month. As they say, "everything happens for a reason". My subconscious is obviously trying to force me to hoard bananas so I can make a delicious loaf of banana bread on some future lazy Sunday! 

Honestly, the only way I will make banana bread now is with my weird overripe frozen bananas. If I've planned in advance, I'll take the bananas out of the freezer and let them come to room temperature. If I haven't planned in advance, I'll throw the bananas in the oven (let's say, 300-350 degrees) for a couple of minutes until they're soft (or in the microwave for just a few seconds). Tip: if all you have are bright yellow bananas, simply separate them and place them (whole) on a lined sheet pan in a 300 degree oven for about 30-45 min., until they are completely blackened and soft. Let them cool before using them.

This recipe is super easy and only contains ingredients that I absolutely always have in my kitchen. Even better, it's seriously delicious - a dark, crisp top and moist on the inside - and fills the house with that fantastic cinnamon-baked goodness. 

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Cinnamon Banana Bread

Ingredients

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup thick vanilla yogurt (I use Siggi's 0% Vanilla or Greek yogurt)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup (approx.) overripe bananas, mashed

Cinnamon Sugar:
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tbsp. light brown sugar
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars together for about a minute, until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs, one at a time, until well-combined. In a medium bowl, stir the flour, baking soda, and salt together until well mixed. Add to the bowl with butter and egg mixture. Stir until just combined. Add all remaining ingredients and stir just until combined. Take care not to over-mix. 

For the cinnamon sugar, simply combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. 

Pour about half of the batter into a buttered 9-inch loaf pan. Add all of the cinnamon sugar on top, taking care to leave a small border of batter around the edges (otherwise the sugar may leak out and burn), and then pour the remaining batter on top.

Bake in a preheated oven for about 50 min. or until a toothpick placed in the center comes out clean. 

Meat-Free Grilling Series #3: Shaved Asparagus Salad with Pecorino

When I first made this, I was convinced that these dainty little pieces of shaved asparagus would fall straight through the grates of my grill and turn into a huge mess. I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case, but you can always use a piece of foil underneath the asparagus to stay mess-free. Using a mandoline, I sliced the asparagus spears about 1/4" thick and simply tossed them with olive oil and salt before grilling them. You can also do this in a grill pan on your stovetop and be just fine. It is simply dressed, topped with shaved Pecorino cheese and some toasted nuts...simple, satisfying, and easy to make ahead!

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Ingredients

1 bunch green asparagus, trimmed and sliced 1/4" thick
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp. olive oil, separated
1 tsp. good quality Dijon mustard (I use Edmond Fallot)
1/2 tsp. freshly-grated lemon zest
1/4 tsp. capers, rinsed and finely chopped
1-2 oz. Pecorino cheese, shaved
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. almonds or hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

Method

A mandoline really makes slicing the asparagus a breeze...but if you must use a knife, you may want to just slice each asparagus spear in half lengthwise. In a medium bowl, toss the asparagus in 1 tbsp. of the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Place the asparagus spears on the grill and cook for about 2 minutes per side, until they are soft but not falling apart. Remove from grill and let cool slightly. 

In the meantime, prepare the dressing: in a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, Dijon mustard, lemon zest, capers, and some salt and pepper, until thick and well-combined. 

To serve, lightly drizzle dressing over asparagus, then simply top with shaved Pecorino cheese (I use a vegetable peeler to shave hard cheeses), toasted nuts, and a pinch of freshly-ground black pepper. 

Meat-Free Grilling Series #2: Grilled Carrots, Pickled Fennel, Carrot Top Crème Fraîche

Grilled carrots are rich, flavorful, and smoky, so they don't need much more than a generous sprinkling of salt and a squeeze of (preferably grilled) fresh lemon once they come off the grill! But if you want something a little more suited to salad/appetizer status, this recipe does the trick. Grilling carrots is a great way to add depth and flavor to a vegetable that can sometimes be a little too common and boring. I always have carrots in my fridge for snacking (specifically, dipping carrot sticks into Edmond Fallot mustard), but I desperately needed to get out of this snack rut. 

I love the presentation of this dish because it allows people to create their own little plate. It can be put together in a myriad of ways and I always love that option...

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GRILLED CARROTS

1 bunch (approx. 6) carrots, with tops attached
2 tbsp. olive oil or neutral cooking oil
Sea salt, to taste
1-2 cups arugula
2 tbsp. hazelnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped

Heat up an outdoor grill or a grill pan on your stove on high heat. 

Wash carrots and greens, then cut off all but about 2 inches of the green tops. Set the tops aside. I don't peel my carrots because they're organic and I think it's a waste, since there's nothing wrong with the skins! (but if you're not using organic carrots, go ahead and peel them)

Cut the carrots in half lengthwise (smaller, skinnier carrots can be left whole) and toss in a large bowl with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. 

Grill on both sides until you see nice grill marks and the carrots are tender, but not mushy. 

Assemble:

On a large plate, create a bed with the arugula and place the grilled carrots on top. Garnish with chopped hazelnuts. Serve carrot top dressing (below) and pickled fennel (below) on the side, which allows people to make their own salad! 

Note: If you don't have pickled fennel, substitute: thinly sliced/shaved fennel tossed in a bowl with a sprinkle of salt and freshly-squeezed lemon juice. Let this sit for at least 30 min. until fennel is soft. 

CARROT TOP CRÈME FRAÎCHE

1/2 cup crème fraîche (homemade! see below)
1 tbsp. carrot tops, finely chopped
1 tbsp. arugula, finely chopped
1 tsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tsp. freshly-grated lemon zest
Pinch of cayenne pepper 
Salt, to taste

In a small bowl, whisk all ingredients together until well-combined. Taste for seasoning. 

When testing this recipe, all of my guinea pigs preferred to spoon a dollop of the crème fraîche onto their plates because thinning it out into a dressing and tossing everything together just lost some of that indulgence factor. Play around with it until you reach a consistency that you love!

HOMEMADE CRÈME FRAÎCHE

Heavy cream + buttermilk + 12 hours = homemade crème fraîche!

If you're not familiar with how ridiculously easy it is to make crème fraîche at home, I hope you'll give this a try! All you need to do is combine 1 cup heavy cream or whipping cream and 2 tbsp. buttermilk in a bowl or container and let it sit overnight at room temperature (for 12-14 hours) until thickened. Keep in mind that, at room temperature, it will still be a pourable consistency, so cover the container and place in the refrigerator for a few hours until cold. It should be thick, rich, and creamy, just like any expensive crème fraîche that you'll find at the market! (But you'll get the satisfaction of casually saying, "oh yes, I made this myself")

PICKLED FENNEL

I have this thing about pickling and fermenting things. I love the process... and pickled fennel is one of my favorites because I usually just pull together all of my fennel scraps to turn it into something that adds great freshness and acidity to a dish! I use pickled fennel in salad dressings, on veggie burgers, to garnish a piece of seared fish, or even mixed in with other pickles (cucumbers, radishes, cauliflower, etc.) as a snack.

1 medium-large fennel bulb,  very thinly sliced
3/4 cup Champagne vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1/4 tsp. fennel seeds
1 whole star anise
1 garlic clove
pinch of red pepper flakes
2-inch strip of fresh lemon rind

Bring vinegar, water, sugar, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add peppercorns, fennel seeds, star anise, garlic and red pepper flakes to the pot and allow to cool slightly. 

Meanwhile, place the strip of lemon rind on the bottom of a glass pint jar and top with shaved fennel. I packed the fennel pretty tightly into the jar and was left with a small gap between the fennel and the rim of the jar, which is good - it allows the fennel to swim more freely in the brine. 

When the picking brine is still warm, but cool enough to touch, pour over the fennel to the top of the jar. You might have some liquid left over, but be sure all of the spices end up in the jar. 

Allow to sit overnight or up to one week. 

Meat-Free Grilling Series #1: Veggie Burgers & Brioche Buns

Have you noticed it's a little warmer outside these days? Things are looking a little greener and I keep hearing more and more little birdies chatting it up outside my kitchen window. It's really starting to feel like spring! In honor of this lovely weather, I'm launching a "Meat-Free Grilling Series", which will include my favorite vegetarian and/or vegan recipes suitable for the grill. Over the next four weeks, I'll share tips, drink pairings, and more - so stay tuned!

Veggie Burger: Brown Rice, Mushrooms, & Almonds

First up, of course, has to be the veggie burger. This is one of my favorite recipes and is modeled after the best veggie burger in the entire universe, which I originally found at Hillstone in Denver, CO but can also be found at R+D Kitchen in Santa Monica, CA. The patty is made from brown rice, almonds, mushrooms, fennel, and other veggies - the toppings and the brioche buns certainly add to the decadence, too! Side note: this veggie patty is gluten-free. 

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Ingredients

1 cup uncooked brown rice, cooked according to package instructions and cooled
2 tbsp. olive or avocado oil
3/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup carrot, finely chopped
1/2 cup fennel, finely chopped
1/2 shiitake mushrooms, finely chopped
1 jalapeño (or 2-3 tbsp. bell pepper), finely chopped
1/4 cup almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins
~2 tbsp. rice flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. + 1 tbsp. vegan Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
1/3 cup fresh chives, thinly sliced

Toppings (optional): Mayonnaise, arugula, lemon juice, avocado, tomato, Monterey Jack cheese (or your favorite mild white cheese)

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Method

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (I do this in my toaster oven, but if you don't have one then your wall oven is fine). On a sheet pan, spread rice into one layer and bake for about 10 minutes, being sure to turn it about every 2-3 minutes. The point of this is to toast/dry out the rice so the patty isn't a soggy mess. You should notice the rice becoming a little bit drier every time you toss it around. If it still feels extremely moist, bake it an additional few minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.

2. Heat oil in a large skillet over med-high heat. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, mushrooms, and jalapeño or bell pepper. Sauté until golden brown. Drain veggies on a kitchen towel or paper towel (to drain the excess moisture and grease). Set aside and allow to cool. 

3. In a small heat-proof bowl, add the raisins and 1/2 cup boiling water. Allow to soak for at least 5 minutes, or until raisins are softened and slightly plumped. Drain. 

4. In a large bowl, mix the rice, vegetable mixture, egg, rice flour, almonds, raisins, chives, 1 tsp. vegan Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly, preferably with clean hands. Form the mixture into a small ball - if it holds together well, it's done. If it's too soggy and falling apart, add a little bit more rice flour. 

5. Form into 4 large patties or 8-10 slider patties. If grilling, it is best done on a sheet of aluminum foil sprayed or brushed with oil. Or simply cook in a cast-iron skillet on med-high heat. Ensure that a nice golden brown crust has formed before flipping - otherwise you may lose some of the patty in the flip. Don't forget to top with your favorite mild white cheese once you flip it over!

I love to top the burger with a light drizzle of the Worcestershire sauce - it adds a great depth of flavor, fresh arugula that has been lightly dressed with freshly-squeezed lemon juice and some black pepper, sliced avocado, and sliced red onion. On a homemade brioche bun, YUM!

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Sesame Brioche Buns

I love baking bread, but serious bread baking also includes serious recipe testing, which is best left to the yeasty experts...like Tartine Bakery's recipe for my favorite crusty country loaf (still the best bread I've ever baked at home!) or this recipe, found in the New York Times, for heavenly brioche burger buns. Sorry, vegans. 

Ingredients

1 cup warm water
3 tbsp. warm milk
2 tsp. active dry yeast
2 1/2 tbsp. sugar
2 large eggs
3 cups bread flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 tbsp, sesame seeds, optional

Method

1. In a glass or ceramic measuring cup, combine the water, milk, yeast and sugar. Let it stand for about five minutes, or just until you see it becoming foamy. 

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the bread flour, all-purpose flour, and salt. Add the butter and, with your fingers, break the butter into small pieces, forming crumbs. Add the yeast mixture and one beaten egg. Mix together until a dough forms. 

3. Using a dough scraper, scrape dough onto an unfloured surface and knead for about ten minutes, or until it's smooth and elastic. 

4. Form the dough into a ball and place it a medium-large bowl that you have lightly sprayed with cooking spray. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow it to rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size - about 1-2 hours. Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or a silicone baking sheet like a Silpat, 

5. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and form each piece into a ball. Arrange these balls on the baking sheets 2-3 inches apart and then let them rise, covered loosely with a kitchen towel, again for 1-2 hours. 

6. Fill a large and shallow baking dish or pan with water and set it on the bottom oven rack. Place another rack in the center of the oven. 

7. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly beat the remaining egg with 1 tbsp. of water and brush this egg wash on the buns. If using, sprinkle sesame seeds evenly over buns. Bake the buns for about 15 minutes, or until nicely golden brown. Rotate baking sheet halfway through the baking time. 

The Perfect Sangria + Simplicity in Spanish Crab Toast

Sangria is just one of those things that everyone does differently. I have my way, everyone in Spain has their own way, and everyone in Portugal has their own way. The secret to a good sangria is knowing what you need: a bottle of fruity red wine (less than $15, please), brandy (some people like to add vodka or Port, too), fruit, and a little sweetness. If you want a perfect Spanish bite to go along with it, scroll down for my Spanish Crab Toast recipe...

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Instead of adding sugar syrup (because I prefer dry sangria), I like to take fresh ripe berries (ripe = more sugar), like strawberries and blackberries, and muddle them a bit to release their juices, then I add a bit of orange juice to the mix. I always always always add sliced citrus (limes + lemons + oranges) to my sangria. It looks gorgeous and adds an irreplaceable brightness. If you have an apple, chop that up and throw that in there - why not? Make it a project and find your perfect sangria recipe! Taste as you go along and I guarantee you'll come up with something amazing.

Here's my perfect sangria:

Ingredients

1 bottle fruity red wine (I use an affordable Spanish Garnacha)
4 oz. brandy
3 oz. freshly-squeezed orange juice
3 oz. Ruby Port
1/2 cup fresh, ripe strawberries, quartered
1/2 cup fresh, ripe blackberries
1 lime, sliced
1/2 orange, sliced
2 lemon slices
5-10 fresh mint leaves

Method

In a large jar or pitcher, add the berries and muddle or crush to release their juices, but not turn into complete mush. Add the red wine, brandy, Port, orange juice, sliced citrus, and mint leaves. Stir to combine. Allow to sit, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or, preferably, prepare in the morning to enjoy in the evening.  

To serve: Stir before serving. Ladle fruit and liquid over ice and garnish with an orange slice and/or fresh mint leaves. 

Note: I keep my sangria in an airtight glass jar and vigorously shake it a few times per day as it sits. Always do a taste test. Not sweet enough? Add some sugar syrup or a splash of fruity dessert wine, if you have it open. Not boozy enough? Add some more brandy. 

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Spanish Crab Toast

The first time I had this crab toast, it made me very, very, very, very happy. It was SO hot outside. A big pitcher of sangria was in the process of cooling me down. And then this crab toast shows up at the table. It was garlicky, bright, fresh and satisfying. Every few months, I have an irresistible urge to make it at home along with a pitcher of sangria. It's simple and easily made ahead for entertaining later. 

Ingredients

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1 lb. lump crabmeat
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. paprika
Zest + juice of one lemon
1/4 cup fresh chives, chopped + more for garnish
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 12-oz. jar of roasted piquillo peppers or about 12 peppers
3-5 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp. sea salt
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 baguette

Method

1. Drain the crabmeat and sift through it to pick out any pieces of shell. In a medium bowl, add the crabmeat, olive oil, 1 tsp. sea salt, paprika, black pepper, lemon zest, lemon juice, chives, and thyme. Stir to combine. 

2. Drain, rinse, and dry the piquillo peppers. Stuff each pepper with enough crabmeat to fill each pepper loosely. If you're making ahead, you can set the stuffed peppers upright in a bowl and cover with plastic overnight. 

3. In a mortar and pestle, crush 3-5 garlic cloves (depending on your garlic tolerance and the size of the garlic cloves - I usually use 3 large cloves) with salt until it forms a paste. Add the mayonnaise and stir to combine. If making ahead, you can also keep this in a bowl, covered overnight. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, grate the garlic into a bowl and just stir in the salt and mayonnaise. 

4. Slice the baguette into twelve 1/2-inch slices, or slice an equal number of bread slices for the number of stuffed peppers you have prepared. Toast the slices in a toaster oven until golden brown or, if using your regular oven, place sliced bread on a sheet pan and bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. 

To assemble: Spread about one tablespoon of garlic spread onto each piece of toasted bread. Place one stuffed pepper on top and garnish with a bit of chopped chive. Enjoy!
 

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Vegan Lemon-Chamomile Shortbread + Montenegro Spritz Cocktail

An Aperol Spritz (Aperol + Prosecco + a slice of orange) is probably the most popular summer drink in Italy. It's certainly refreshing on a hot summer day, but it is normally much too sweet for my personal taste. So, in comes my favorite Italian bitter liqueur: Amaro Montenegro. It is citrusy and bittersweet, perfectly paired with a dry California sparkling wine. Literally, the exact thing I want to drink while sitting on a porch in South Carolina...with some cookies...

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Montenegro Spritz

1 oz. Amaro Montenegro
3-5 oz. cold sparkling wine
Lemon or orange peel (or slice), for garnish

Simply pour one ounce of Amaro Montenegro into a Champagne flute or coupe and fill, to your desire, with sparkling wine. Garnish with some fancy lemon or orange peel or just a thin slice. 

Yay!

Vegan Lemon-Chamomile Shortbread Cookies

Vegan baking can be a little temperamental, but these butter-free shortbread cookies came out better than I expected! Be sure to use refined coconut oil since it has a neutral taste - if you don't mind having a coconut flavor in your cookies, go ahead and use unrefined or virgin coconut oil. 

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Ingredients

3/4 cup refined coconut oil 
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. lemon oil
Zest of one lemon
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 generous tsp. ground chamomile
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. sea salt
1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the coconut oil until completely smooth. Add the sugar and mix on medium speed for about one minute. 

2. Add the lemon oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, chamomile, vanilla extract, and salt. Mix just until combined.

3. With the mixer on low, slowly add the flour 1/3 cup at a time. As with pastry and pie doughs, the amount of flour needed can vary. You don't want the dough to be soft and wet, but you also don't want it to be dry, crumbly, and falling apart. If it's too wet, just add a bit more flour. Too dry, add a little bit of water or even some more lemon juice. 

4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and bring the dough together in a 2-inch thick log. Wrap the log tightly in either parchment paper or plastic wrap, making sure to twist the ends.

5. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. The dough is ready to bake when it feels firm to the touch. You should be able to squeeze the dough log without making much of a dent and it should be easy to slice. Slice into 1/3" cookies and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, about an inch apart.

Bake for about 15-18 minutes or until the edges are lightly golden brown. You should get 14-16 cookies total. 

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Grab Your Cast Iron: "Skillet, a Love Story"

A lot of people have this love/hate thing with their cast-iron cookware. Maybe you thought they were kidding when they said "don't put it in the dishwasher" and you ended up with a rusty problem on your hands. If this is the case, please forgive and forget. Pull out your cast-iron pans and create some happy memories. 

Or maybe you're like me and you love your cast-iron skillet so much that you use it almost exclusively! Deep down, you know it's the pan for you...it goes on the stovetop, into the oven, and onto the table! It fries your chicken, sears your steaks, and bakes your cakes! Did you know: a cast-iron dutch oven is the secret to baking breads at home with an amazing crust. It retains heat, cooks evenly, and, if well-maintained, will last longer than you. Suddenly, I imagine the moment when my future child goes off to college and I pass an old cast-iron skillet onto the next generation...a special moment, right?

Cast iron can be purchased from most hardware stores, quite affordably. I love the trusty old Lodge brand (for both cast iron and seasoned carbon steel), but if you want to be fancy, head over to Williams-Sonoma and blow a few thousand dollars on the entire line of Staub cookware (coincidentally, also making you my new best friend).

Here are some of my favorites ways to use cast iron:

Breakfast 

It's hard to say which dish I cook more often for breakfast: frittata or baked eggs. Both are one-pan, easily assembled and prepared dishes. I already shared this recipe for Baked Eggs here, which I use adorable little single-serving Lodge skillets for. This recipe is the same idea, but the eggs are baked on a bed of breakfast potatoes in a large cast-iron skillet. 

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Ingredients

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 med-large Yukon Gold potatoes, diced small
1 small or 1/2 med-large red onion, diced small
1 clove of garlic, minced
3 tbsp. chives, finely sliced
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp. paprika
2-4 whole large eggs, cracked and separated
salt and pepper, to taste

Method

Heat the olive oil and butter in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, then sauté the potatoes and onion - with about one teaspoon of salt - until golden brown and crisp. Add the garlic and cook for less than one minute, just until cooked through. Remove from heat. Add the thyme leaves, paprika, some freshly-ground black pepper, and 1 tbsp. of chives. Stir to combine.

Turn your oven's broiler on or heat your oven as high as it will go - usually 450 or 500 degrees. 

Make 2-4 little indentations in the potatoes - this is where each egg will be placed and will allow it to stay whole instead of spreading all over the pan. 

Place an egg in each little bed you've created. Put the skillet under the broiler for about 5 minutes, but check the eggs after 3 minutes. The yolks should be soft and the whites cooked through. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the rest of the chives over the top. Serve in the skillet and enjoy!

Vegetable Stew | Pot Pie

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Serves 3-4

I hesitate to use the term "pot pie" because it's usually associated with lots of cream and butter. Other than the puff pastry on top, this vegetable stew doesn't rely on an excess of fat to make it tasty - it's heavy on the vegetables and on the flavor.

Ingredients

3 tbsp. olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 small fennel bulb, diced
1 large portobello mushroom, diced
1 cup Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half
1/2 cup fresh peas
1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup broccoli, stems removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup cauliflower, stems removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup water
16 oz. can of whole San Marzano tomatoes
2 tsp. ground paprika
2 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
a dash of cayenne pepper
Frozen puff pastry, thawed (I use Dufour)
1 egg, beaten

 Vegetable Stew pre-pastry

Vegetable Stew pre-pastry

Method

Heat 2 tbsp. of the olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet on med-high heat. Sauté the onion, carrot, fennel, mushroom, and Brussels sprouts until soft and golden brown. Sprinkle a bit of salt over the vegetables while cooking.

Add the peas, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and 1/2 cup water. Place a lid on the pan, lower the heat, and allow to steam until the water has evaporated and the vegetables are cooked, but still firm - about 2 minutes.

Return the heat to med-high, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the pan along with the paprika, salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Sauté the vegetables with the spices for about a minute, until everything is well combined. 

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Blend the can of whole tomatoes until slightly pureed - you still want some chunks of tomato in there. Pour about half of this into the pan and mix with vegetables to combine. Add as much tomato as you need to reach the consistency of a thick stew - you want to have more vegetables than sauce - and this will vary. Allow this to simmer for 10-15 minutes until the tomato has thickened and slightly reduced.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the puff pastry by placing it on a lightly-floured surface and rolling out any holes or broken seams. Cut the pastry into a round that is 1 inch bigger than your pan. Place the pastry round over the pan (if the pan is way too hot and you don't have time to cool it down, transfer your vegetable stew to another cool cast-iron pan), make one or more slits on the top to allow air to escape, and brush lightly with egg.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the crust is richly golden brown and cooked all the way through.

Don't Be Afraid of That Fish...

The only way I will ever cook a piece of fish is with a cast-iron skillet. If you want to know why the fish you've ordered in restaurants is so good, let me give you a foolproof and simple way to cook a simple thing: seared salmon.

1. Set your oven to a high temperature: 450-500 degrees.

2. Prepare fish. Make sure the bones are picked out. Leave the skin on. If you see scales on the skin, scrape them off or give it a quick rinse. Cut into 6-8 oz. portions. (You can ask the fish monger to do most of this for you at your local market). DRY the fish with paper towels - thoroughly. Salt both sides. 

3. Heat a cast-iron skillet over med-high heat until it's nearly smoking. Add a couple tablespoons of olive/grape seed/canola oil. Place your fish into the pan, skin-side down and leave it alone. Don't touch it. Leave it! I'm serious. 

4. Now you can touch it. Check to make sure it has formed a nice crust and that you can see it cooking/turning opaque from the bottom up. Once the skin is crisp and golden brown, grab the pan (yes, it will be hot) and pop it into the oven for just a few minutes - until it feels firm and springs back when touched on the top and sides. Some people wait until they see "white spots" on the salmon...this is now the point of overcooking, so please pull it out before that happens. 

You now have a beautifully cooked piece of fish with crisp skin - fish skin is so good for you, but so few people take the time to cook it well. Savor the moment and enjoy.

Recipe: Baked Eggs with Mushrooms & Herbs

Baked eggs are one of my absolute favorite breakfast dishes and I have been making many versions for many years. This version here is the one I make most often. It is savory and satisfying, but it's also nice to know that I can make this quickly and at the last minute since I always have these ingredients in my kitchen. The combinations are endless and you can make baked eggs as healthy or unhealthy as you like. You can use chopped fresh spinach or kale instead of herbs, or add sausage or bacon or anything else you'd like! Either way, this dish is simple and classic...

I'm not a big egg yolk person, and apparently this is considered blasphemy in my profession, but my guests almost always want theirs. If you're making several ramekins, just remember that they should all contain about the same amount of egg in order to cook evenly. This means that if you are removing an egg yolk from one ramekin, you'll need to add an extra white to make up the difference in volume. My recipe calls for two whole eggs per person, but egg servings are very personal, so tailor this recipe to you. 

Ingredients

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8 large eggs
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
4 tbsp. unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, finely diced
2 cups mushrooms, finely diced (I use shiitake and cremini)
1/4 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped, plus extra for garnish
2 tbsp. fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1/4-1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or fresh goat cheese
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Method

1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp. olive oil and mushrooms. Sauté until richly golden brown. Add garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes until golden and fragrant. Remove from heat. 

2. Add the dill, basil, thyme, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the pan. Stir to combine and taste for seasoning. This mushroom mixture can be made ahead and will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

3. Preheat your oven's broiler and place an oven rack about 6 inches from the heat.

4. Crack each serving of eggs into small bowls (if you are using 4 ramekins, each with 2 eggs, crack 2 eggs each into 4 small bowls) - this makes it easier to pour the eggs into hot ramekins and also avoids broken yolks, egg shell pieces, etc. 

5. Place four small cast-iron pans, gratin dishes, or ramekins on a sheet tray and place 1 tbsp. of butter or olive oil into each ramekin. Put the ramekins in the oven for at least one minute or until the butter has melted completely. 

6. Remove the hot ramekins from the oven and pour each serving of eggs into each ramekin. Place a spoonful of the mushroom mixture over the top  and add a few big shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano or some crumbles of fresh goat cheese. 

7. Put the ramekins back under the broiler. Cooking time will depend on the size/depth of your dish and how many eggs you've used. If your dish is wide and shallow, it could take just 3 minutes. A deeper dish may take 5-7 minutes. Keep your eye on it because it's super quick!

8. Garnish with additional fresh dill and serve hot. 

6 Sparkling Wines to Drink on New Year's Eve + Sparkling-Poached Pears

Champagne has been in the spotlight long enough, don't you think? There are so many other sparkling wines around the world that use the same grapes, the same method, and are worthy of toasting the new year! Your wallet will thank you later.

Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

1. Domaine Carneros 2010 Estate Brut Cuvée, Napa, California

This sparkling wine is made entirely from organic grapes and is very affordable at around $30 per bottle, making it one of my top picks. Domaine Carneros, located in the Napa Valley, is the American outpost of Taittinger Champagne, so it's no surprise that they produce some of the best sparkling wines in California. 

2. Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler NV Riesling Brut Sekt, Mosel, Germany

Don't let "Riesling" fool you. This wine is dry, delicate, and packed with flavor. At around $20, this is the most affordable sparkling wine on the list. Perfect if you're in the mood to venture out of your comfort zone! If you haven't already, check out one of my past posts on this wine region: Mosel & Rheingau: Riesling Royalty and a Tiny Volkswagen.

3. Gramona 2006 Gran Reserva Brut Nature III Lustros, Cava, Spain

This wine is known as one of the best examples of Spanish Cava on the market today, but is still remarkably affordable, and would be the perfect introduction to the country's version of Champagne. It's dry, complex, and elegant; best paired with pan con tomate, aged cheeses, and salmon tartare. 

4. étoile Brut & étoile Rosé, Napa, California

Just like Taittinger, Moët & Chandon has a California outpost: Domaine Chandon. They produce excellent and affordable sparkling wines under the Chandon label, but they also produce a few exceptional (and a bit more expensive) sparkling wines under their étoile label. You absolutely cannot go wrong with either the Brut or Rosé and, as an added bonus, these beautiful bottles make a great host or hostess gift!

5. Ca' del Bosco NV Cuvee Prestige Brut, Franciacorta, Italy

Italy is known for Prosecco, which can lack complexity and be too sweet for many. Franciacorta, however, is Italy's best kept secret in sparkling wine. Winemakers in this region are deeply passionate about their product and this particular bottle is fresh, crisp, and balanced. 

6. Tissot NV Cremant du Jura Brut, Jura, France

This is one of my favorites. Since Champagne is a very protected term, it can only be used on wines produced in the region of Champagne in France. However, if you exit Champagne and take a few turns, you can find comparable French sparkling wines, using the traditional method, for 1/2 or 1/3 of the price! A French sparkling wine made outside of Champagne will be called "crémant" and list the region where it is produced. There are many wonderful crémants from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Alsace, but this one here is a little off the beaten path. It is from Jura, which is sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland. This bio-dynamic wine is unique, expressive, and aromatic. At less than $25, it's a steal!

Sparkling-Poached Pears

It seems like every New Year's Eve gathering produces a handful of half-empty (or half-full, if you're trying to look on the bright side of the new year) bottles of sparkling wine left around the house. Just because a wine has lost its bubbles is no reason to toss it out the door... 

Poached pears are such an elegant dessert that can be made in advance and couldn't be simpler. It just requires peeling the pears, throwing everything into one pot, and letting it simmer. I love red pears, but you can choose your favorite firm pears. 

Ingredients

5 or 6 small pears, peeled
2 cups water
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/3
 cup honey
pinch of sea salt

1 bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise 

Method

1. Using a knife, cut a tiny bit off the bottom of each pear. This allows you to serve it standing up without it rolling over.

2. In a large saucepan or pot (just large enough to hold all the pears), combine the water, sugar, honey, and salt. Over medium heat, stirring occasionally, allow the sugar and honey to melt completely. The liquid should be clear.

3. Add the sparkling wine, cinnamon, and vanilla bean to the pot. Return to low-medium heat and bring to a simmer.

4. Place the pears in the liquid and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the pears are soft and tender, making sure to rotate the pears and stir the liquid occasionally. Remove the pears and transfer to a plate to cool.

5. Adjust the heat to medium-high and boil the poaching liquid for another 15 to 20 minutes, until it has reduced and thickened to the consistency of syrup. It should coat the back of a spoon.

Discard the cinnamon stick and vanilla bean. Serve each pear in a shallow bowl and spoon some of the syrup over each pear. Serve with vanilla ice cream (or, better yet, cinnamon gelato) and a glass of sparkling wine!

Note: If you can't find any small pears, use whatever you can. Just keep in mind that bigger pears will require a longer cooking time. To test for doneness, insert a butter knife or fork into the bottom of a pear. If it goes in easily and feels soft and tender, they're done! 

Cheers and Happy New Year!