Posted by: dinaguillen | October 12, 2009

Goodbye Gourmet Magazine. I’ll Miss You.

IMG_0004I’m in mourning.  I’m sure by now, foodies everywhere have heard the abysmal news:  Conde Nasty has decided to shut down 68-year-old Gourmet Magazine.  It is especially a sad loss for gourmet cooking clubs everywhere who learned new techniques, and got much of their inspiration, recipes and theme ideas from the brilliant pages of this great magazine. 

It feels like everyone is talking about it.  Many friends, family, and co-workers have asked me if “I heard the shocking news?”  Even my all time favorite chef and author, Anthony Bourdain, who said that Gourmet gave him his first writing job, had something to say about it: “It’s the center of gravity, a major planet that’s just disappearing. There’s been a lot of speculation about this happening, but I’m still stunned.” 

There’s even someone out there trying to save Gourmet Magazine – to follow the efforts of this great (albeit, I think futile) endeavor, go to

Somehow, I ridiculously feel like the demise of Gourmet magazine is all my fault.  At the very least, I’m partly to blame.  I was an avid subscriber until two years ago when I cancelled my subscription while in the midst of writing Cooking Club.  I couldn’t catch up with all the cooking magazines arriving in my mailbox, so reluctantly I chose to cancel a few of them, Gourmet being one of the casualties.  But I would find myself flipping through the magazine while visiting the bookstore, and more often than not, purchasing the copy I was perusing because there was some idea or some recipe I could use for my next cooking club gathering.  As someone who reviews five recipes before coming up with my own version, at the very least Gourmet was a great resource to help me create some great meals.

I have never been able to toss out my piles of Gourmet, and I have spent the last week since hearing the news flipping through many of them again, especially the holiday issues (November’s issue is the last one coming out – at least we have one more to enjoy).  It is because of magazines like Gourmet that cooking clubs like mine and others formed and flourished, giving us the knowledge and confidence to try new ingredients from around the world, as well as new techniques and cooking gadgets that we would not have otherwise been introduced to. 

Gourmet’s death is a sad reminder that print publications are closing down all around us. It is so easy to download a recipe from the internet, but there was something so exciting about opening my mailbox and finding my new copy of Gourmet, going through the pages, enjoying the beautiful photography, the great travel stories, the gourmet recipes that inspired me to spend many joyful afternoons cooking away.

I’m the first to admit I love the ease and accessibility of recipes on the internet, but the closing of Gourmet makes me wonder whose next.  Is the writing on the wall? Is traditional print media going extinct?  I mean, when we first heard from Gourmet Editor Ruth Reichl after the sad news, it was via a Twitter: “Thank you all SO much for this outpouring of support. It means a lot. Sorry not to be posting now, but I’m packing. We’re all stunned, sad.” Reichl wasn’t even given advanced notice – she found out the same day we did.

At least we’ll be seeing more of Reichl’s work soon.  Her new television show, Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth, airs on October 17 on public television stations around the country.  It’s a great premise, especially for those cooking clubs who love to plan their themes based on regional cuisines.  She takes some of her actor foodie friends and visits the best cooking schools on five continents.  Episodes include traveling to Blackberry Farm in Tenessee with actress Frances McDormand and showcasing Southern recipes, Marrakech, Morocco with Lorraine Bracco while exploring couscous and tagines,  Bath, England with Dianne Wiest for tips on making homemade bread, fishing in Seattle with Tom Skerritt, and delving into New York City’s Indian community with Jeffrey Wright.

Best of all, I hear Reichl is planning on writing about her days at Gourmet, something she said she couldn’t do until she left the magazine – and that is something I’m really looking forward to.

Posted by: dinaguillen | September 28, 2009

Go Homemade

There is something so satisfying about cooking from scratch.  When I was little, my mom taught me how to make homemade yogurt, and to this day, I make it at least once a month, sometimes more often since I’m a yogurt addict.  My mom even sewed me a yogurt cheese bag over 25 years ago so that I could make my own yogurt cheese, and I still use it today. 

And one year for a breakfast-themed cooking club, I was assigned homemade bacon by the host.  I was astonished at the fact that I could make my own bacon – it never even occurred to me to try.  But there was this incredible sense of accomplishment and exhilaration after making it.  

So for cooking club this month, I went with an entire theme of homemade ingredients.  The idea actually came up almost six months ago, when my good friend and fellow cooking club member Cindy LaCasse asked me if I wanted to join her for a cooking class at East Bay Restaurant Cooking Supply.  If you live in the Sacramento area, this is a great place to shop for cooking supplies, and in the back of the store, there is a cooking school offering all kinds of fabulous cooking classes.  Cindy had taken a previous cooking class there and walked away learning how to make the best scones.  This time, several personal chefs from around Sacramento came in to teach a series of classes for over a four-hour period.  We had the best afternoon, while one chef after another taught us something new and exciting, from mouth-watering grilled fish with spring garlic, to heavenly Malaysian curry puffs, to the most delicious Vietnamese spring rolls.

One thing all the chefs’ classes had in common that afternoon was the use of the freshest ingredients available.  One after another, they walked into the kitchen when it was their turn to demonstrate, and stressed the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Cindy and I walked away completely inspired, and decided to take it one step further – we decided to host a two-month cooking series with a “homemade” theme.  Not only were we going to use fresh, seasonal ingredients, we were going to cook using homemade ingredients …specifically, homemade cheeses and meats. 

One of my favorite parts of hosting cooking club is planning the menu, and this time was especially fun because I had a co-hort.  Cindy and I perused every cooking magazine that came out the last six months (which was easy since she subscribes to ALL of them), the Internet, and our cookbooks, and found some great cheese and sausage recipes.

Since I was hosting first, I had to quickly make a final decision on how to incorporate these homemade ingredients into a meal, and decided on pizza.  Which was not hard since everywhere I turn lately in Sacramento, there is a new pizza place opening with some great pizzas being served.  After visiting two of these places, Hot Italian and One Speed Pizza, I left wanting to recreate many of those pizzas with my cooking club.  I sent out the invitations with recipes, giving each person an ingredient in pizza to make, whether it was a cheese, sausage, or pizza dough.  

Cooking Club Invitation

Cooking Club Invitation

Michelle and Lisa made the most delicious oozing, fresh mozzarella cheese (see previous post on Michelle’s experience making mozzarella), Carolyn made the perfect feta cheese that tasted so authentic, Bonnie made the best goat cheese I think I have ever tasted, Cindy made a pork sausage to die for, and Nicole came through big time on the most important ingredient for pizza – the dough.  I made a homemade tasso (Cajun ham), a homemade ricotta, and a homemade pizza sauce.  I also provided the makings for the following amazing pizzas:

 Fig, caramelized onion, feta cheese, arugula, and prosciutto pizza

 Tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage and ricotta cheese pizza

Potato, caramelized onion, pancetta, goat cheese, olives and arugula pizza

Proscuitto, mozzarella, goat cheese, mushroom medley and fried egg pizza

Tasso, green onion, tomato, mozzarella and garlic oil pizza.

Once everyone arrived for cooking club, we started assembling them, baking them on a pizza stone in my oven (which is a far cry from a pizza oven – but you gotta work with what you got) and one by one, we began tasting. 


Most of the cooking club loved the fig, feta, prosciutto, arugula and caramelized onion pizza the best, which I agree was very good, but my hands down favorite was the prosciutto, goat cheese, mushroom, arugula and egg pizza.  My mouth is watering just typing those words.  As I sliced through the pizza, and the yolk started running over the proscuitto and the mushrooms, and the crunchy sound of the crispy yet chewy crust – omg.  That just took me over the edge. 


Making homemade cheeses and meats was a wonderful new experience for us, and everyone had some really great feedback during our cooking club gathering on their homemade experiences:

Cindy (pork sausage recipe from Real Cajun cookbook): The recipe says to use pork fat back, but I decided to use the fat from the pork shoulder and that was a mistake.  It was too difficult and dense to grind, leaving chunks in the sausage.  Definitely go with the pork fat back instead.

Nicole (pizza dough; recipe from www.epicurious.comClick here for recipe): The recipe called for making a starter and for the dough to rest overnight, but I’m not sure I would go through all that trouble next time I make pizza dough.  I’ve gotten similar results from pizza dough recipes that don’t require so much resting time.

Lisa (mozzarella; recipe from www.cheesemaking.comClick here for the recipe): I made the mozzarella a couple of times, and I came out with much better results using regular whole milk instead of organic milk. 

Carolyn (feta cheese; recipe from www.finecooking.comClick here for recipe):  Give yourself plenty of time.  Making feta is a minimum 2-week process.  The first week you need to salt and drain the whey, and the second to fourth week you need time to let the cheese sit in a brine to get that great salty flavor.  And don’t forget to sanitize every utensil before making this cheese.  If bacteria gets in the cheese, it gets spongy.

Bonnie (goat cheese): I tried many variations of goat cheese recipes, and the one that came out the best was from a book I ordered from  The book is called Home Cheesemaking: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses, and it comes with a starter kit. The texture and flavor of that goat cheese was the best.

I made the Cajun tasso recipe from Real Cajun, a new cookbook from one of my favorite chefs, Chef Donald Link.  This recipe is pretty near perfect.  The only thing I did differently was not add as much cayenne and red pepper as the recipe called for.  I can’t handle a lot of heat, and I cut the pepper quantity almost in half.  The recipe also suggests that for a more authentic Cajun tasso, to let the seasoned pork sit in the refrigerator for 3 days before smoking.  I followed that recommendation, and the tasso came out fantastic.  And since I don’t have a smoker, but I do know how to plank grill really well, I grilled the pork slices on oak planks for 1 hour. 


The tasso was amazing on pizza, and now I can’t wait to use it in gumbos and jambalayas.  If you want to try the plank grilled tasso version, here is the recipe: 

Plank Grilled Cajun Tasso (Adapted from Real Cajun)


1 ½ gallons water

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup kosher salt

5 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons juniper berries

2 tablespoons allspice berries

5 star anise

4 tablespoons black peppercorns

½ teaspoon curing salt (I did not use this – mostly cause I couldn’t find it)

1 bunch fresh thyme

1 bunch fresh sage leaves

7-8 pounds boneless pork butt, cut into 5 by 2-inch slices

Tasso spice:

1 ½ cups paprika

½ cup chili powder

3 tablespoons cayenne powder (I used 1 ½ tablespoons)

2 tablespoons ground white pepper (I used 1 tablespoon)

2 tablespoons red pepper flakes without seeds (I used 1 tablespoon – you can get red pepper flakes without seeds from Asian markets)

¼ plus 2 tablespoons table salt (I used kosher salt)

¼ cup dried oregano

2 tablespoons garlic powder

Bring the brine ingredients to a boil in a large pot, then cool to room temperature.  Transfer to a large bowl, add pork making sure pork is submerged, cover and refrigerate for 2 days.

Soak two oak grilling planks for at least one hour. Drain.

Combine the tasso spice rub in a bowl.  Remove pork slices from refrigerator, pat dry, and toss in spices until each slice is evenly coated.   Put the pork slices on a rack over a baking sheet, and let air dry in the refrigerator for 3 days.  Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before ready to smoke.  Place soaked planks on grill rack and grill for 3 minutes until lightly charred.  Carefully turn planks over and place pork slices on charred slide of planks.  Cover and grill for 1 hour or until internal temperature of pork reaches 160 degrees.

Posted by: michellelowrey | September 21, 2009

Mozzarella Cheese-making

So the invitation for cooking club is sitting in the mailbox.  I take hold of it, and flip it over anxiously a few times in my hand.  I hold it up to the light to see if I can tell what is inside, before actually opening up the beautiful envelope.  I walk ever so slowly from the mailbox to the counter, savoring this little bit of anticipation as long as I can, before actually breaking the seal of the envelope…  Just what am I going to be preparing this month?  This is the ritual I go through every month when the invite comes in the mail.  Every single month of cooking club, a beautiful handcrafted invitation arrives in the mail, and every month, I’m not going to lie,  I get a giant thrill out of it.  It may seem a little silly, but wow, I’m pretty easy that way…..  I’m always so excited to see what the host has in store for me, and this months invitation did not disappoint, let me tell you!!  This month my task was to make homemade mozzarella cheese……like, from scratch…..I was actually expected to gather some dairy products, and at the end, I was supposed to have some kind of something, that resembled cheese…..gulp!

It was Dina’s turn to host, and I won’t say too much about what her theme was, just in case she want’s to talk more about it when it’s her turn to post.  I will say, that she hosted cooking club last night, and it was absolutely fabulous, and man did I learn a lot!

Making homemade cheese was not one of those things that was ever on my to-do list.  Not sure why exactly, but I’d never really been interested in making my own cheese.  Boy, have I been missing out!  Cheese-making is not only very fun to try, it also made for a very rewarding afternoon. I started with a gallon of milk, and ended up with ………cheese.  Very cool!  I was really nervous to try my hand at making cheese, and thought for sure that “nothing good was going to come of this.”  But low and behold, I was able to follow the directions, and at the end, something that resembled cheese was at the finish line.

I officially have even MORE respect for the artists that make cheese.  I have more respect for anyone that makes ANY kind of handcrafted food product for that matter.  There really is an art to making fine cheese, and I know why cheese can be so expensive, as well as so darn fattening.  For my recipe, an entire gallon of whole fat milk, yielded this teenytiny little ball of cheese.  That’s a lot of fat and calories in a very small package…..but worth every bite, don’t you think?!!  Was my cheese as good as something from an artisan cheese maker?  Of course not!  The amount of skill it takes to do anything well, should be respected.  I could never even come close to that.  But, I will say, that my cheese tasted pretty darn good, and tasted all the better because I had made it myself!

The following recipe comes from Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll.  Ricki has taught thousands of people how to make cheese, and her devotees refer to Carroll as “The Cheese Queen.” You can order the special ingredients for mozzarella from her company, New England Cheesemaking Supply, or you may be able to find them in your local natural foods store.  All you need to begin making cheese at home is a stainless steel pot, a candy thermometer, measuring spoons and some cheesecloth. You can find these supplies practically anywhere that sells kitchen equipment, but you can also order them — and other equipment for more ambitious cheese making adventures — from New England Cheesemaking Supply.  About the Milk.  Historically, mozzarella has been made from whole sheep’s milk, water buffalo milk and cow’s milk (pretty much in that order). It’s great if you can find fresh cow’s milk from a nearby farm, but store-bought milk will work, too. Skim milk also works, but you’ll get less cheese as a result. Just be sure to avoid any packages that say “ultra-pasteurized” or “UHP.” Ultra-high-temperature pasteurization exists solely to allow milk to be shipped over long distances without spoiling. The protein in milk, the compound responsible for curdling ability, is destroyed by excessive heat. Ultra-pasteurized milk can sit around for many weeks without spoiling, but it can’t make cheese.

Ricki’s 30 Minute Mozzarella


  • 1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid, dissolved in 1/4 cup cool water
  • 1 gallon raw whole milk or pasteurized whole milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet, unchlorinated water or 1/4  rennet tablet, diluted in 1/4 cup cool unchlorinated water
  • 1 teaspoon cheese salt (coarse, noniodized flake salt similar to pickling salt, do not use iodized salt)


  1. Slowly heat the milk in a stainless steel pot to 55 degrees. While stirring, add the citric acid solution to the milk and mix thoroughly.
  2. Heat the milk to 88 degrees over medium-low heat. The milk will begin to curdle. (A NOTE that I found — The bit about milk not curdling at 88F is wrong, since it curdles just fine at 68-72F for chevre, and 88F is a standard setting temp for cheddar cheese. When I make cheese from my raw farm milk this is where I set it to coagulate. I may raise the temp a bit due to high buttterfat or other seasonal changes to get the whey out but not by much. However, if you are using store-bought milk, we do find that it needs to be heated a bit higher for coagulation (93-97F) after setting, and then a bit more after that to release the whey.).
  3. Gently stir in the diluted rennet with an up-and-down motion for 30 seconds. Then let the milk sit still while heating it to between 100 and 105 degrees. In about 5 to 8 minutes, the curds should be pulling away from the sides of the pot. Turn off the heat.
  4. The curds will look like thick yogurt and have a bit of shine to them, and the whey will be clear. If the whey is still milky white, wait a few more minutes before turning off the heat. Scoop out the curds with a slotted spoon and put into a 2-quart microwavable bowl. Press the curds gently with your hands, pouring off as much whey as possible.
  5. Microwave the curds on high for 1 minute. (Without a Microwave follows below.).
  6. Drain off all excess whey. Gently fold the cheese over and over (as in kneading bread) with your hand or a spoon. This distributes the heat evenly throughout the cheese, which will not stretch until it is too hot to touch (145 degrees inside the curd). You may want to don rubber gloves at this point, as the cheese will be extremely hot to the touch.
  7. Microwave two more times for 35 seconds each; add salt to taste after the second time. After each heating, knead again to distribute the heat.
  8. Knead quickly until it is smooth and elastic. When the cheese stretches like taffy, it’s done. If the curds break instead of stretch, they are too cool and need to be reheated.
  9. When the cheese is smooth and shiny, roll it into small balls and eat while warm. Or place them in a bowl of ice water for half an hour to bring the inside temperature down rapidly; this will produce a consistent smooth texture throughout the cheese. Although best eaten fresh, it can be stored in the refrigerator at this point.
  10. Note: If you are using store-bought milk, and your curds turn into the consistency of ricotta cheese and will not come together, switch brands of milk. It may have been heated at the factory at too high a temperature.
  11. Shape the curd into one or more balls, put them in a ladle or strainer, and dip them into the hot whey for several seconds.
  12. Roll the cheese into small balls, and serve warm. Or place them in a bowl of ice water for half an hour to bring the inside temperature down rapidly. This will produce a consistent, smooth texture throughout.
  13. If you have any cheese leftover (highly unlikely!), cover and store in the refrigerator.

Just so you know, mozzarella cheese is not hard to make, takes less than an hour to do, and is super fun to try.  So what are you waiting for??

Here are some photos of my first attempt at making cheese.  Enjoy!

The milk only 2 minutes after the citric acid and rennet is added

The milk only 2 minutes after the citric acid and rennet is added


The milk after being heated for almost 8 minutes.  It's almost to the correct temperature and is starting to pull away from the sides of the pot

The milk after being heated for almost 8 minutes. It's almost to the correct temperature and is starting to pull away from the sides of the pot

THe milk is now at the correct temperature and the curds are ready to be scooped from the whey

THe milk is now at the correct temperature and the curds are ready to be scooped from the whey


Draining the curds into the colander to remove the whey

Draining the curds into the colander to remove the whey

Pulling the cheese

Pulling the cheese

My little ball of cheese cooling off in some water

My little ball of cheese cooling off in some water


Posted by: dinaguillen | September 14, 2009

Ribs Glorious Ribs!


If you want to mix things up a little in your cooking club, I suggest a field trip.  We’ve done a couple now, and I think they are some of the most fun times we have had together as a group.  It gives us a chance to travel together, get outside of the confines of our typical gathering, and enjoy food related events with people who have the most appreciation for them.

I just got back from a food event that I’ve been to twice before, but never considered it as a cooking club field trip opportunity until now.  I’m not sure why not – it would have been up my cooking club’s alley, or any cooking club for that matter.  It’s a ribfest.  More specifically, “The Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off.”  When I first heard about it three years ago from my good friend and fellow foodie Amber Heischlinger (who was shocked, stunned actually, that I did not know about it), I immediately called Michelle and told her that I just heard about an event we absolutely had to attend.  She packed up her family, and I packed up mine, and we have been going each year since.




This year, as I was making my way through the throngs of people enjoying the most delicious ribs (about 500,000 people attend each year), I started thinking about how great it would be to organize a trip for my cooking club to attend as a group.  Ever since we began coming together to cook and eat, our palates have slowly become more attuned to a dishes’ flavor profile (some of us are better at this then others, and I admit right here, right now, that I have a long way to go), and what better way to put our palates to the test then judging a cook-off together? Even better, a rib cook-off?  Food is so subjective anyway, so there are no right or wrong results, and it is a new, fun, delicious way for a cooking club to converse food.

This rib cook-off took place in Sparks, Nevada, just outside Reno.  Great music, a lot of alcohol, and some amazing food – all in a never-ending supply for 5 days straight.  As I was walking around, sampling ribs from one place after another, I started imagining my cooking club’s reaction to this event.  We would have closed this place down while passing our own judgment on who deserved to win the best ribs.


Certainly, there was no lack of opinion on that topic amongst the crowd.  Everywhere I went, there was somebody in front or behind me in line, ready and willing to tell me what ribs I should try next.  Perhaps that was the best part of the whole festival.  Talking to all these people who LOVE talking food.  I mean, isn’t that why I joined a cooking club…so that I can talk food all the time with other people who want to do the same?

While in line at one of the rib booths, I met a guy from Carson City, who is originally from Texas, and he went on for a good half hour (some of the lines are verrry long) on what makes good ribs, good brisket, good steak, and good chili.  I actually started taking copious notes on the back of a receipt I found in the bottom of my purse.  He then told me that I MUST go to Desperado’s BBQ & Rib Co.’s booth (at the far end of the festival from where I was at) and try their beef ribs.  Beef?  I scrunch up my nose and tell him if I’m going to consume calories that’s going to take me a month to burn off, it has to come from pork ribs.  Mr. Carson City looked me straight in the face and said “I’m from Texas, and I won’t stray you wrong – I know what I’m talking about.”  You can’t make this stuff up.  Plus, I walked away totally respecting this man who is very serious about food and wants to share it

So, I get to the Desperado booth, and see another long line.  I look at my husband and announce loudly that I am not waiting in another long line for beef ribs.  I swear, as soon as I’ve uttered those words, a voice behind me says “Oh, but you must.  They’re worth it.” I turn around, and there’s a woman and her mother, munching away on their beef ribs, with this look of euphoria on their face.   And that’s why this festival is so great.  One after another, people blissfully happy talking about food to complete strangers, often while consuming it.  She tells me this is one of the first booths she comes to when she arrives at the rib cook-off every year, and she always comes back right before she leaves to take some home.

So now we’re in line at Desperado’s, waiting to try the beef ribs (by the way – they are worth every minute of the wait and they won this year for best ribs) and someone behind us starts asking my husband and I where we’ve been so far.  I turn around, and before we can even answer, a complete stranger starts counting off the rib booths he’s been to so far, and tells us the ones we have to hit before we go home.  Rasta Joe’s BBQ (which by the way has come up as a favorite from other people who approached us with their opinions) is his favorite, followed by Porky ‘N Beans BBQ.  He tells us he’s from Truckee, and says he comes every year and tries to attend all five days of the festival.  But then, he gives us the tip that excites my husband.  He says that if we come late on Mondays, the final day of the festival, they start giving the ribs away at half price since they need to close down shop quickly. 

Half way between one end of the festival and the other, there is a booth for the “People’s Choice” where attendees of the festival get to vote for their favorite ribs.  In the three years I’ve been attending, I had never voted for my favorite.  But after getting so much good advice, and “testing” so many different ribs on this trip, I felt qualified to vote.  And while I appreciated all the feedback and thoroughly enjoyed all the conversations while getting the feedback, my favorite is the one I’ve been returning to consistently each year…Famous Dave’s BBQ.  The ribs have the perfect amount of smokiness, they’re incredibly tender and juicy, and the sauce…oh the sauce…it has the perfect amount of spiciness and sweetness.  Famous Dave’s ribs are just perfect…in my opinion.

So if you’d like to plan a cooking club field trip to a rib cook-off, here’s what you need:

A rib cook-off.  There are hundreds of them around the country in every state.  Go to to get a complete listing and find one near you.

A scoring card and pencil for each cooking club member.  The card should have four criteria on it: appearance, aroma, tenderness and taste. Using your own personal criteria for judging, each rib sample can be scored from one to ten, with one being the low score. 

A supply of drinks (beer, tea, soda or water are fine), a plate of cheese, crackers and grapes for clearing the taste buds.

That’s all you need.  A trip to a rib cook-off with your cooking club –  seriously friends, does life get more delicious than this?


Posted by: michellelowrey | September 7, 2009

Bouf Bourguignon, Beef Cheeks and Other Mishaps

When hosting cooking club, coming up with an appropriate main dish to serve is of the utmost importance. The rest of the meal…hell, the evening, is determined by how great that main dish is. Serve a boring, bland, or otherwise uninspired main dish, and the whole shebang falls apart like a house of cards. If your main dish is bad, everyone hates you, and you have to wait another eight months for the next chance to prove yourself. …. Okay, okay, none of that is true, nobody hates you, but it sure feels like that to me when I’m coming up with my menu. I put that burden on myself for no other reason, other than I want to do the best meal I can. All that aside, coming up with the menu is my absolute favorite part of the entire process of hosting a cooking club event, and where this little tale shall start…..

So it’s my turn to host, and the just released movie, Julie and Julia has inspired me to select the theme of French cuisine. Sounds appropriate enough, and I start to work on planning my menu. In honor of the movie, I decide to do an entire menu based on recipes from Julia child’s cookbooks. I decide to “go old school” and do all the recipes from her The French Chef Cookbook. First published in 1961, and based on the recipes from her television show, I plow through the book trying to come up with the main dish, and decide on Boef Bourguignon. First, I decide to make the dish prior to serving it at cooking club, so as not to be embarrassed if it doesn’t work out…..and it doesn’t work out. …It’s dry, and kind of leathery. Leathery like I would imagine an old shoe would taste, if I ever decided to eat an old shoe. So after some tinkering around, I come upon Ina Garten’s recipe for Boef Bouruignon in her cookbook Barefoot in Paris, where she states that the traditional French stew is almost always overcooked and dry because of the long cooking time. Well honestly, by this time, the fancy name has really revealed to me, that Boef Bourguignon is nothing more than stew with a fancy sounding name, but stew nonetheless, so I decide to scratch the Boef Bourguignon altogether. So now what? And I come up with to me, the perfect main dish. Beef Cheeks! Yep, beef cheeks.

I’d eaten them a few times, and had even had them in Paris, and couldn’t wait to serve them for my French inspired cooking club theme. Julia Child’s recipes had now given way, to just a really good French meal, that I liked to say that Julia Child would certainly approve of….sorry Julia, you know I love you…. Anyway, I had never cooked beef cheeks before, but from the sounds of it, and from the recipes that I had been pondering, it didn’t look too difficult. Beef cheeks are from the actual cheeks of the cow, and not the butt cheeks, in case you were wondering, and since it’s from such a large muscle in the face, can be pretty tough if not cooked properly. I read that as long as you cook them “low and slow”, they are absolutely delicious. Oh, my gosh, I was so excited to try them!

Okay, here is where the story gets good. I couldn’t find them. Anywhere! I looked high, I looked low, and everywhere in between. I had read that they were becoming easier and easier to find, and that more and more places were starting to carry them. Well not here in the Sacramento area darn it! So now is where I start to panic. I panic, because the invites are out, and we are only a week from cooking club. Yes, I know, I probably should have ordered my cheeks earlier, but as I said, they were supposed to be pretty easy to find these days! I look everywhere and really thought that my favorite meat market, Orangevale Meat Shoppe would be able to get them for me lickety split. Well no such dice. When Manny, the butcher said that not only did he NOT have beef cheeks, he said I was the first person to ever even ask for them!! The first person! Say what?? Right then, the flop sweat starts forming, and I know that I’m done. My turn at hosting cooking club is going down in flames.. ….

It’s then that Manny sees the flop sweat, and gives me a suggestion. He tells me about a little carniciera (Mexican grocery store) in Citrus Heights called Valencia’s Carniciera and Taqueria that will probably have some beef cheeks. I drive my car over there going 101 miles an hour, and the minute I walk in, I start to feel better. The place has a gorgeous meat counter filled with all kinds of glorious meats. Goats head, beef tongue, sheep testicles, and BINGO, they have beef cheeks!! Yes!! Crisis averted. Turns out, the Latin community loves their beef cheeks…..and I love the Latin community!!

With my package in hand, I place them in the fridge and can’t wait to get started on preparing them the next day. I had read from another recipe that the flavor was greatly enhanced by making them a few days ahead and letting the flavors develop. My plan was to make a test run a few days ahead of schedule, and if those worked out, I still had another three days before cooking club to make another new batch. Well I woke up the next morning, and I felt a little off, and by that night, I couldn’t move. Every bone in my body ached, and my eyes stung with fever. I was really feeling like crap. I felt so much like crap, that my beautiful glorious beef cheeks languished in the fridge.

Okay, long story short. I got the swine flu. THAT swine flu. I felt better, the day before cooking club, but would YOU want someone that was recovering from the swine flu making a meal for you? So cooking club was canceled for the first time ever. In all the years of cooking club, this had never happened before. Oh well, there’s always a first time for everything right?

So after all that, my beef cheeks were never eaten by anyone in cooking club, and the theme of French cooking will be continued on another night. Stay tuned for when the new date is set, but in the meantime here is the recipe for Beef Cheeks, so that you can make them for yourselves…..and don’t bother trying to get them from a “traditional” grocery store. The “good stuff” is at your local carniciera…..

This recipe is from the September, 2008 issue of Gourmet Magazine.

Joues de Boef aux Agrumes

Beef Cheeks Braised in Red Wine with Orange Zest

Serves 4
  • Active time:45 min
  • Start to finish:3 1/4 hr
The flavor of the wine looms large in this meaty braise, lending an extraordinary savoriness to the melt-in-your-mouth carrots.
  • 2 lb beef cheeks or boneless beef chuck roast
  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil
  • 1 lb onions, coarsely chopped
  • 1 lb baby carrots, peeled
  • 1 (750-ml) bottle dry red wine
  • 6 to 8 (3- by 1-inch) strips of orange zest
  • Preheat oven to 350° with rack in middle.
  • If using chuck, cut across grain into 4 pieces.
  • Pat beef dry and season with 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. Heat oil in a 4- to 6-qt heavy pot over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Brown beef on all sides, 6 to 10 minutes total. Transfer to a plate with tongs.
  • Add onions, carrots, 3/4 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Add wine and zest and bring to a boil. Add beef and return to a boil. Cover pot and braise in oven until meat is very tender, 2 to 4 hours (beef cheeks take longer than chuck). Season with salt and pepper. Serve beef with carrots and sauce.

I’m a sucker for group activities, but I’ve got nothing on Paul Somerhausen, who is in not just one, or even two, but he is, in fact, in three cooking clubs. Okay, technically he’s in two cooking clubs and one supper club (where they dine in a different restaurant every month). I think Somerhausen may be one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever talked to, and not just because I had a near out of body experience within five minutes of meeting him (more on that later).

I met Paul through Ann Martin Rolke, a Sacramento food blogger who reviewed our cookbook for her blog, (an excellent site for food and eating in Sacramento). Ann is in one of Paul’s cooking clubs, and when I asked her if I could write a profile of her cooking club, she directed me to Paul, the founder and foodie extraordinaire.

I sat down to talk to Paul at a local restaurant of my choosing, and immediately discovered I should have left it up to Paul to decide where we should have dined for this interview. He started his supper club, Sacramento-Epicureans, over six years ago and has nearly 400 members to date. Between 25 and 35 members attend each month, depending on people’s schedules. He could name the best local restaurant of any cuisine, from Afghani (Bamiyan in Citrus Heights) to Mexican (Lalo’s in Sacramento), as well as each restaurant’s specialties. Paul said he gets phone calls and emails from people daily asking him where to go for the best fill in the blank food. And after doing this every month for six years, he almost always has an answer for them.

But I wanted to know about his cooking clubs, and for the purpose of simplicity, we chose to focus on one of them. As we sat down and began talking, I noted an accent in Paul’s voice and asked him where he was from. He replied Spain, but that he’s been living in the United States for quite a while now. I told him that I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, and he looked up from his drink with a shocked look on his face. He said that one of his cooking club members also was raised in Saudi Arabia. It kind of shocked me too, since I don’t often run into people from Arabia, but I figured the chances of his friend coming from the same town were slim to none. My Dad worked for an oil company and we lived in a small (I’m talking itsy bitsy, here) compound that housed the employees and their families. But then he said her father worked for an oil company too, and as my excitement started to rise, he picked up the phone and called her. Her name is Catherine, and sure enough, same oil company, same town, and we’re the same age. We didn’t recognize each other unfortunately, although we knew some of the same people, a few of whom were getting together for a first ever Northern California reunion. People I haven’t seen in almost 30 years were getting together in one place, at one time and they all lived near me now. Very cool. As I was giving her my contact information so she could send me the reunion details, Catherine mentioned she is a Sacramento food blogger as well. Check out Catherine’s food blog at Munchie-Musings. Another really great site and she reviews many of the restaurants visited by the Sacramento-Epicureans.

And as Paul is sitting back, patiently waiting for me to realize this interview is not about me, I reflect on how cooking clubs have impacted me in the most profound way. “So, tell me about your cooking club,” I finally ask, to his great relief. After meeting so many major foodies through Sacramento-Epicureans, Paul decided to form a cooking club with some of the people he had gotten to know pretty well. They consist of six couples, mostly food bloggers, and they have been going strong for three years now.

“Our whole premise is to cook a good meal. No pressure, right?” says Paul with a huge smile on his face. They meet every six to eight weeks, and the first year they met, he really didn’t want anyone to feel any pressure. So the themes were whatever the host was comfortable cooking for a group. The host prepares the whole meal from beginning to end, and the rest of the year, they get to sit back and enjoy a fabulous meal from the other hosts. One of his favorite cooking club gatherings that year was an Indian meal that an Indian couple prepared. “We all put our heart into those meals, and it shows,” says Paul.

The second year, everyone decided to step it up and challenge themselves, and Paul was thrilled to see some amazing dishes that pushed the boundaries. Paul mentions preparing an octopus ceviche that year that sounds absolutely incredible. The third year, they chose to take an “Iron Chef” approach to their theme. Everyone had to bring two ingredients to a gathering. They put all the ingredients in a box, and then each couple blindly picked two ingredients out of the bunch and had to use those two ingredients in every dish prepared when it was their turn to host. “Catherine decided to be funny, and she brought Spam to our gathering as one of her ingredients. Problem was, it backfired and she ended up picking it,” Paul laughs.

Paul picked pistachios and lemongrass, and described the meal he prepared. He started with a drunken shrimp stir fry with lemongrass and pistachios, followed with a grilled pear and arugula salad with goat cheese rolled in pistachios and a lemongrass dressing. The entrée was salmon topped with a pistachio and lemongrass butter, and finally a homemade ginger ale float with lemongrass ice cream and topped with pistachio pralines. Talk about coming through!

“We love to challenge each other. We put ourselves in that position, but you also know you have an appreciative audience,” Paul says. “We want to see each other succeed, but you also don’t want to be the one with the lame dinner. There is definitely a playful competition and there is also a lot of smack going on.”

When asked what his favorite thing about cooking club is, Paul thoughtfully replied: “When food is a passion, it tends to bring people together that have a common passion for travel, and they also tend to be more open minded, culturally and socially.”

In closing, I asked Paul if he wouldn’t mind sharing some personal food favorites:

Favorite cooking gadget: A wireless meat thermometer

Favorite childhood memory of food: On Sundays in Spain, people would get together and prepare huge amounts of paella.

Favorite cookbook: I don’t use cookbooks.

Favorite chef: Oh man, that’s like asking me who is my favorite child. I will say, I really learned a lot from Chef Rolle of Café Rolle here in Sacramento. In fact, he introduced me to the wireless meat thermometer.

Last meal on earth: Prime rib and banana cream pie. And sashimi.

Paul is planning on teaching a Spanish cooking class at Whole Foods sometime in September, so if you would like to meet him and take his class, or if you would like to join his supper club, go to and sign up. I guarantee you, you will be totally inspired by this man.

Posted by: michellelowrey | August 24, 2009

Eat Dessert First

After all these years of being in a cooking club, actually coming up with an interesting theme can be a challenge. This is a group that has been around the block, so you really do need to think outside the box, and come up with something that is new and unique. Way back last January, it was my turn to host cooking club, and I had been wanting to do an entire cooking club event on desserts for a long time, and when I read about Johnny Iuzzini’s book that was coming out in a few months, I knew exactly what my theme was going to be. I took the plunge, pre-ordered his book, and waited two months for it to arrive. When it finally came, I was like a kid at Christmas! I was so excited to try his recipes.

Just who the heck am I talking about?? Well, to back up a little bit, I had had the pleasure of eating at the restaurant Jean-Georges in New York City the year prior, and had the most amazing dessert from the head pastry chef, Johnny Iuzzini. Right then and there, I knew at some point I wanted to recreate his recipes for when it was my turn to host cooking club. The dessert that inspired me was a Chocolate Soup with Devon cream. The “soup” was the most ethereal broth of chocolate I’d ever tasted. It wasn’t overly sweet, and you could actually taste the cocoa bean in a way that I’d never experienced before. The devon cream that was pillowed over the top was heavenly. I just loved how complex it tasted, but it also had a playful, whimsical flair to it that made it fun to eat. Johnny Iuzzini is the head pastry chef at Jean-Georges, and he is such an amazing talent. I knew it might be hard for us to pull off desserts this intricate for cooking club, but once again this group of amazing women, met and rose to the challenge. I mean, was there ever really a question??

Johnny Iuzzini’s new dessert cookbook is called: Dessert Fourplay- Sweet quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef, and the entire book, consists of intricate and beautiful desserts that are meant to be served as part of a dessert tasting. Each of the four desserts for each pairing, builds upon the next in their levels of complexity. The recipes are each made to be served as he recommends, as a tasting quartet, or you can make each dessert in a larger form, to be an individual dessert. The book is full of lush photographs, and really explicit directions on how to recreate each masterpiece.

For my cooking club event, we started with a simple dinner of an amazing portobello mushroom appetizer, then had a simple braised chicken, with homemade bread and a salad, and built up to the star of the evening…..the 4 desserts! I really didn’t want to do anything but dessert for the entire night, and stay true to my “eat dessert first” motto, but I figured there might be mutiny amongst my cooking club, hence the chicken, bread and salad. These desserts were so lovely though, I don’t think I would have had anything to worry about if I HAD just done desserts!

The dessert menu consisted of:

Chocolate Soup with Devon Foam……of course we had to eat that right?

Jean-Georges warm Chocoalte Cake with vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate crumble

Malted Chocolate rice pudding with a crispy rice cracker

Milk chocolate Mousse with flambeed bananas and a hazelnut caramel sauce

Another sweet cooking club was in the books, and a good time was had by all. Do I need to remind any of you to eat dessert first? No? I didn’t think so…..

Chocolate soup with Devon Cream with Johhny Iuzzini's book in the background

Chocolate soup with Devon Cream with Johhny Iuzzini's book in the background

Jean-Georges Warm Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Chocolate Crumble

Jean-Georges Warm Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Chocolate Crumble

Malted Chocolate Rice Pudding with Crispy Rice Cracker

Malted Chocolate Rice Pudding with Crispy Rice Cracker

Milk Chocolate Mousse with Flambeed Bananas and a Hazelnut Caramel Sauce

Milk Chocolate Mousse with Flambeed Bananas and a Hazelnut Caramel Sauce

Carolyn Soriano lighting the Bananas

Carolyn Soriano lighting the Bananas

Carolyn and Maria having fun as usual in the kitchen

Carolyn and Maria having fun as usual in the kitchen

Cindy and Maria with their "sugar highs" in full swing

Cindy and Maria with their "sugar highs" in full swing

Lisa Frazzetta and Bonnie Bussard posing for the camera

Lisa Frazzetta and Bonnie Bussard posing for the camera

Posted by: dinaguillen | August 17, 2009

Doooo as Julia and Go For It!

“The grand thing about cooking is you can eat your mistakes.” — Julia Child

I keep getting feedback from people saying they are hesitant to join cooking clubs because they are uncertain of their cooking abilities.  And I totally remember those feelings of insecurity – not sure if I can cook well enough to be in a cooking club.  My son was barely crawling when Michelle invited me to join her gourmet cooking club.  I remember thinking at the time that I should turn down her invitation because while I loved to cook, I just hadn’t cooked enough in my life to be good at it (it slipped my mind that the whole reason for joining a club was to GET good at it).  But at the time I was in a very bad place in my life, being a new stay-at-home mom in a new town where I knew absolutely no one, and my husband was working out of town during the week and was only home on the weekends.  I agreed to join out of sheer desperation to get some adult social time.

I remember the very first time I hosted cooking club almost nine years ago.  I made a Thai grilled salmon dish and was so nervous the entire evening that I convinced myself the salmon tasted like it had been fished out of the water over 28 years ago.  Actually, it is only within the last year – nearly eight years later – that I have been able to enjoy eating salmon again.

So, I get it.  It’s not easy taking that step to join a cooking club – especially one that touts itself as a “gourmet” group.  And if you’re one of those people going back and forth, debating whether or not to put your cooking skills out there for a cooking club to see, I have two words for you.  Julia Child

I went to go see the movie Julie and Julia today.  Oh Em Gee – what a great movie.  Up until this moment, I had not been a big fan of Julia Child mostly because she wasn’t on my radar growing up.  I never had the chance to see her on television, and I missed out on what I am now understanding is one of her biggest influences on cooks – that go-for-it attitude. 

I wish I had been introduced to Julia Child a lot earlier in my life.  If Meryl Streep did a good job capturing Child’s essence (and from what I’ve read – Streep’s performance is Oscar –worthy…again), then Child gave cooks everywhere the best gift ever – she taught us mistakes happen while cooking, and it’s okay.  Most importantly, she taught cooks to have fun.  And all with such a breezy confidence. 

The movie also made me realize how much I love food and cooking.  There were so many great parts in the movie, but one of my favorites is when Child was in cooking class at the Cordon Bleu preparing pastry.  She turns to one of her classmates with such glee and enthusiasm in her face, and says “Isn’t this fun?!”  And that’s exactly how I feel when I’m cooking.  It’s what I turn to after a hard day.  Hell…it’s what I turn to on a good day.  And it’s what I look forward to every month with my cooking club. 

In July’s issue, Bon Appetit magazine prepared a wonderful cooking club menu in honor of Julia Child, and it would make a great theme for your next cooking club gathering.  Put the nerves aside, join a cooking club, and prepare this wonderful meal for your new foodie friends from Julia Child’s cookbook: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Doooo as Julia and go for it! 

First Course

Pissaladiere Nicoise
Bandol Rosé

Main & Sides

Poulet Saute aux Herbes de Provence
French bread

Salad Course

Green Salad with Sauce Vinaigrette


Reine de Saba

To see the recipes, click here.

Posted by: michellelowrey | August 10, 2009

Beyond Black Eyed Peas

I love talking about my cooking club….  and if you get me started, I sometimes don’t know when to stop.  It was at a party recently where I was talking to a friend about starting up a club, and she very politely responded that she didn’t think that “she could ever get as fancy as we do”, but that she would really like to get some friends together who like to cook, but wasn’t sure where to start.

There are groups out there doing anything and everything under the sun, and if you are looking for a fun and vibrant group for some inspiration, than keep reading because these ladies are having a ball in the kitchen, and so can you!

Beyond Black-Eyed Peas

What started out as a way to be involved in their community, has lead to one of the Florida Panhandle’s most vibrant cooking clubs.  Located in Panama City Beach, Florida; this group of 10 eclectic women are all members of an organization called, The Bay Point Women’s Club, and it was through their involvement through that particular organization, that they came together and formed a club within a club.

They call themselves, “Beyond Black-Eyed Peas” and have been coming together since the fall of 2005.  “We wanted a name that personified a typical Southern food like the black-eyed pea, but would let everyone know that we were about so much more than fried foods and okra.  Hence the word beyond” said cooking club member Courtney Hanahan.

The makeup of this group is certainly “beyond” the ordinary.  “What a diverse group we are”, says fellow cooking club member Carol Proctor.  Members range from a retired bank executive from Missouri, a retired School administrator from California, via Alabama; a mother of nine children, a partner with her husband in a scrap metal business, the wife of a retired Navy Captain, the wife of a retired Army Colonel, the wife of a grocery store chain owner, a former school teacher; turned decorator and wedding planner, “and then there is the young sexy one that doesn’t like to cook”, says Proctor.

They meet the 3rd Tuesday of every month without fail, and for this group it is about the experience as a whole, as well as the attention to detail. “In the beginning, the group started out where every member picked a theme and everyone else brought an assigned side dish,” said Proctor, “But then we decided that we cooked so much through our involvement through The Bay Point Women’s Club, that it would be a treat to have each member cook and entertain us.  So now the hostess provides everything.”  “You have much more control in how each dish is presented, when one person does everything, “says Hanahan.

Every member has an agreed upon list as to who hosts a particular month, and it is up to the hostess to choose the theme for the evening.  The host is responsible for the appetizer, the main dish, the side dishes, as well as alcohol and dessert.  “What makes us different is our attention to detail”, saidHanahan.   “The theme and the food are well thought out. No dinner reservations are allowed”.

When asked how best to describe the group, Hanahan say’s with a laugh, “We’re all just so cute and fun”.  While this group may be cute and fun, they can certainly add innovative to their list of attributes as well.

“We’ve had some really creative cooking club events over the years”, said Hanahan, who is particularly proud of a theme that she hosted that she called “Illusions”.  “Nothing was as it seemed on the surface”, she said.    The guests were first greeted with a champagne flute mixed with white cranberry juice and vodka.  The bottom of the glass had “nerd” candies at the bottom for rocks, and was garnished with a gummy fish for an “aquarium” effect.  The appetizer was called “Green Eggs and Ham” and was actually an “egg” made out of shaped honeydew and cantaloupe, and the ham was actually sliced prosciutto.  The main course was a whole salmon steamed in the dishwasher.  “You should have seen the look on everyone’s faces when I took that fish out of the dishwasher instead of the oven”, said Hanahan.  The dessert was “french fries” that were actually toasted pound cake strips placed in McDonald’s french fry boxes. “I garnished them with ketchup bottles that were filled with raspberry sauce”, said Hanahan.

When asked what type of cuisine is the groups favorite to make, Hanahan says, “Each member is unique and has its own specialties.  Ruth Bond is fabulous at Asian, Wilma Hall is a caterer and can do absolutely anything, and Bonnie Hale and I profess we don’t cook at all except one time a year for this group, so our specialty is creativeness”.

Other cooking club events have included an event where they made their own sushi, a “guess the ingredient” theme, and a spectacular picnic basket luncheon.  “We have even done a farewell to Martha Stewart event”, says Proctor.  “We wrote to her in jail when she was convicted, except we like to refer to her time away as camp, not jail”.

For this group, having fun is second nature.  “I would say our biggest budget is alcohol”, Hanahan says with a laugh.  “We definitely don’t skimp on the drinks”.  While these women know how to have fun together, they do charity work together as well.  Within their involvement through The Bay Point Women’s Club, they donate their time to Habitat for Humanity as well as local church organizations throughout Bay County.  They have also donated a progressive dinner party for 8 that was auctioned off at the Bay Point Women’s Club.  “It feels good to give back”, says Hanahan.

When asked if she had any funny stories to share about the group, Hanahan jokingly states,
“Let me talk to the girls and get back to you on whether we want you to know any of our deep dark secrets”, she says.

Any deep dark secrets that may or may not have been divulged are safe with us, but you can bet that we would love to be a fly on the wall at this group’s next gathering.  Wouldn’t you?

Courtney Hanahan was nice enough to share some photos of their May cooking club event with all of us……and even a recipe!  Thank you Courtney!  May your wonderful group inspire many new people…..   Their theme was:  Strawberry Fields Forever, and here is the menu:

Strawberry Mojitos

Strawberry-Mango Salsa

Chef Shelley’s Brown Butter Viniagrette and Lettuce Salad

Asparagus and Mushroom Tarts

Strawberries Romanoff

Beautiful Spring Table setting

Beautiful Spring Table setting

Strawberry Mojito

Strawberry Mojito

Stawberry Mango Salsa

Strawberry Mango Salsa

Asparagus and Mushroom Tarts with Chef Shelley's Brown Butter and Viniagrette Lettuce Salad

Asparagus and Mushroom Tarts with Chef Shelley's Brown Butter and Vinaigrette Lettuce Salad

Stawberries Romanoff

Stawberries Romanoff

Strawberries  Romanoff

Serves 4

3/4 c fresh orange juice

1/2 c sugar

1/3 c. orange liquer (divided)

1 lb. fresh strawberries, rinsed, huled and quartered

1 T. grated orange zest

1/4 fresh vanilla bean, split

1/2 c heavy cream

1 c. vanilla ice cream (softened)

Stir orange juice, sugar, and 1/4 c orange liquer into strawberries; macerate 30 minutes to three hours.  Strain orange juice mixture into saucepan; reserve strawberries. Add zest, vanilla pod o.j. mixture; boil over high heat until syrupy and reduced by half (about 10 minutes). Set syrup aside to cool. Remove vanilla pod and toss cooled syrup with berries.

Whip cream with remaining orange liqueur until stiff peaks.

Using a mixing spoon, in a chilled bowl smash ice cream until it is soft and pliable.  Gently fold in whipped cream. Divide berries with syrup into dessert cups. Mound ice cream mixture on top of berries.

Posted by: dinaguillen | August 3, 2009

I Love Me Some Ina Garten

So I turn on the television last week, and there’s Al Roker interviewing Ina Garten on the Today show.  The interview is taking place in the middle of Rockefeller Center where a replica of Garten’s barn kitchen has been rebuilt, in its entirety, in honor of House Beautiful naming it Kitchen of the Year 2009

If you’ve seen her show on the Food Network, then you’ve seen her kitchen.  Sigh.   I should preface this next statement by saying I’m a huge Ina Garten fan.  Like many of you out there, I have a bucket list where I have written down things I want to do before I die, and meeting her highness is on my list.  So, in my biased opinion, her kitchen is the perfect entertaining, cooking, and “hosting a television cooking show” kitchen.  In the Today show segment, she walks Al Roker around, explaining why her kitchen works.

Before I get to Ina’s tips, I should say that one of the great perks about being in a cooking club is learning, through trial and error, how to entertain.  And after cooking in seven other cooking club members’ homes, I have also learned some great tips on how to set up my own kitchen the best way for cooking and entertaining. 

My parents used to entertain a lot when I was a kid.  Looking back on it, it seems like every weekend there was some party at our house, although I’m sure that it wasn’t nearly that often.  No kids at these parties, of course, so my brother, sister and I would often sneak around some partition or door trying to listen in on conversations or sneak some delicious appetizer into our pajamas and run like the wind as if we had accomplished some great feat of espionage.  But what I remember most about those parties is the ease in which my mom hosted them.  She never appeared stressed, and in fact, she always seemed to be having fun and laughing, and ready to plan her next one.

Before I joined my cooking club, I was always intimidated about entertaining in my own home, and wondered how my mom did it, time and time again.  But it turns out that was the great secret – doing it time and time again until it just comes naturally.  And there is no better place to get it right then in a cooking club, where the whole purpose of getting together is entertaining and cooking.

But learning from great party throwers like Ina Garten  is another great resource, so here’s what Garten says about getting your kitchen cooking and entertaining ready:

First, the classic kitchen work triangle is sacred.  The triangle encompasses the stove, refrigerator and sink.  Simple, easy, and quick access to all three is essential, and can work in any style kitchen.  Garten’s sink is built into her 18-foot island, but it is only 3 ½ feet away from her stove, and both are a few feet away from her fridge.  Garten’s barn kitchen is almost as big as my entire house, but she made sure the kitchen triangle was intact.

Second, designate which part of your kitchen is for cooking.  I have parts of my kitchen that are specifically for cooking, with easy access to my pots, cooking utensils, counter space, cutting boards, etc.  Everything is in that area, so when my cooking club comes over, they know the general area of my whisks, spatulas, skillets – anything they may need to cook or finish their dish.  The rest of my kitchen is open for the myriad of other things that go on in my kitchen, like homework, crafts projects, and computer station. 

Third, get rid of the clutter on your countertops.  My husband loves this tip, as he is an advocate of getting rid of ALL clutter.  Plus, I think it’s pretty easy for Garten to throw this tip out there since her barn kitchen is 2,000 square feet with an ample amount of storage space, and mine is maybe a quarter of that.  But her point is to find a place for everything, and whether you have a New York apartment or live in suburbia with a little more space, it is so much easier to find things if they have a place to live.

Fourth, think about the functionality of your kitchen.  My parents have some rental property in Vancouver, Canada, and the person who designed the kitchen installed the dishwasher at the far end of the kitchen – faaar away from the sink and the cabinets.  I actually started to hyperventilate at the stupidity of it all.  Seriously, did this moron ever wash a dish in his (I apologize for the stereotyping – I assume it’s a “he”) life?!!!  Garten has cabinets, shelves and drawers right above her dishwashers (she’s got two – which she says is a must when entertaining – umm, whatever).  I moved into my home with the dishwasher already installed (near the sink – someone was thinking), so I just made sure my dishes and utensils were stored in the cabinets and drawers directly above.  And since this just makes common sense (shout out to the aforementioned kitchen designer!), my cooking club members naturally head for a drawer in that direction when looking for a fork or other eating utensil.

Actually, I have no right to be so judgmental of the kitchen designer on placement of things, since this all did not come together for me until I became part of a cooking club (although seriously – a kitchen designer!!!).  Anyway, my point is, while I love to cook, the other parts to entertaining – creating beautiful invitations, decorating the table, putting together a beautiful flower arrangement – none of them come easy to me.  It’s only because I’m in a cooking club that I have started to research these things, and my go-to gal has always been Ina Garten.

I have all her cookbooks, and I record her television show on the Food Network.  From her, I learned how to organize my pantry, the essentials of planning a menu, how to “set a table like a pro” (page 156 in her Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics cookbook), and to do most of the preparation the day before.

But most important of all, the lesson I’ve learned most from Ina Garten is to have fun with it all.  If your cooking club or dinner guests sense that you are stressed and not having fun, that really gets your party off to a bad start. 

To see Ina Garten’s interview on the Today show, click here.

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