I Dream of Camping?

Words I rarely utter, trust me. But this camping trip to Chaffin Family Orchards in Oroville, California by fellow food blogger Cheeseslave looked awesome. It is the epitome of California Dreamin’ – u-pick ’em mandarin oranges, pomegranates, olives.

Pomegranates@ Chaffin Farm courtesy of Cheeselave

And the accommodations are more cabin-like than pup-tent. Sign me up, Cheeseslave.

Indulgent and delicious: Garlic Soup

It’s fall and it’s soup season. As I thought about our dinner and recent CSA pick-up, an amazing Garlic Soup came to mind.  Hubs and I had sampled this delectable dish during a wine-tasting trip to Sonoma. On a whim, we indulged in a multi-course tasting meal and wine pairing at J Vineyards  in the Russian River Valley.  J Vineyards is one of the first vineyards founded by a woman in Sonoma (Judy Jordan), and renowned for its sparkling wines.

Creekside at the lovely J Vineyards

The Garlic Soup was served in an espresso cup as the amuse-bouche. The tiny cup packed a powerful punch: creamy, complex, almost toothsome. All that flavor from a pale, cream-colored soup! It was a total shock. We had to know more…after lunch the chef came to chat with us and the other guests. We inquired about the soup, and a few moments later, he produced a print out of the recipe. I have saved the tattered piece of paper and proudly pulled it out on Saturday to prepare it for dinner. But no more espresso cup-sized portions. I wanted a bowl to myself.

I’ve reproduced the recipe below and borrowed a photo for the visual. My only regret is I do not know the chef’s name – he modestly did not share it on the recipe itself. The photo below is from the Smitten Kitchen blog, which posted a similar recipe from “Bon Appetit.”

Creamy Garlic Soup courtesy of the Smitten Kitchen

Creamy Garlic Soup
recipe adapted from the J Vineyards Bubble Room


2 tablespoons butter
1 cup onions, thinly sliced (1 medium onion)
15 garlic cloves, smashed
1 cup Pinot Gris or other dry white wine
1/4 bunch of fresh thyme, chopped, no stems
1 quart vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
2 cups of French bread, cubed into 2″ pieces
3/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives for garnish


Heat butter in a large soup pot. Add onion and garlic, cook over medium heat for 10 -12 minutes. The onion and garlic should begin to caramelize. Add the wine and thyme, continue to cook for 10 minutes. Add the stock and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and add bread cubes, allow to sit for 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.

Use a hand held blender and puree until smooth. Add the cream and taste for salt and pepper. Serve in a shallow bowl and garnish with chives.

Yield: 4 cups, or 2 bowls.

Warning:  Highly addictive.

And, if you are planning a visit to Napa or Sonoma, go to J Vineyards and reserve a spot for lunch or dinner at the Bubble Room.

1 Star Dining with a 2 year old, aka “The Meal That Did Not Turn Out as Planned”

I’m going to do a quick flashback to our August vacation in Italy. As I mentioned, we dined out a lot and cooked very little. In Italy, you can have a great meal at an everyday pizzeria or trattoria, so I didn’t do much research in advance on where to eat or reserve a table. But I did have my eye on one spot that I dreamed of dining at: La Pineta.

La Pineta is a renowned fish restaurant housed in a typical Italian beach club. Think Flamingo Kid on a smaller scale. It’s directly on the beach in the village of Marina di Bibbona, along a strip of sandy beach adjacent to a pine forest. It is attached to a bar/cafe and and a row of small cabanas, overlooking 3 rows of beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent by the same establishment.

You would never in a million years think this was the site of a 1 star Michelin restaurant. But wait. You enter the restaurant and the tables are covered in fine linen and beautiful stemware. There is an air of elegance in the dining room, but not stiffness. Your eyes drift to the blue-green Meditteranean sea just beyond the white sandy beaches, umbrellas and sunbathers. It is a beautiful setting, in the simplest terms. I like this review on a travel blog called Mapitout-Tuscany, too.

I was quite pleased to have secured a table with only a few days notice at peak season. With much anticipation, I discussed the meal with Hubs and baby Sam. The morning of our scheduled lunch, Hubs awoke feeling ill. He thought it was something he ate the previous night, but  the symptoms evolved into something flu-like. Ever the trooper, Hubs rallied around 11 AM and we hopped in the car to head to the beach club/knock-your-socks-off restaurant. We got to the beach, squeezed into a parking spot with assistance from an employee (who later turned out to be one of the head waiters) and hit the beach. Hubs was not feeling it, so he hung out in the shade while Sam and I frolicked in the surf. Lunchtime rolled around and Hubs had taken a turn for the worse. He begged off lunch, but insisted that I go ahead without him, but please take Sam because he couldn’t manage. Yup, me and my 2 year old dining companion.

I was torn – husband turning green, whiny toddler, stomach grumbling, reservation waiting – so I plowed on. Sam and I cleaned up for lunch and presented ourselves to the maitre d/head waiter/parking attendant. I apologized profusely for the shrunken dining party. He shrugged it off as he seated us at a corner table. I sensed my dining companion getting antsy, and knowing I couldn’t study the menu forever (though I wanted to), asked for advice on what to order. Everything, and I mean everything sounded awesome. I settled on a plate of raw seafood to start (crudo) and then a whole fish sauteed in a delicate tomato sauce with rosemary as my secondo. Only 2 courses for me – didn’t want to keep the little one waiting too long. For Sam, I ordered 1/2 portion of fresh pasta with a light tomato-based sauce speckled with mullet. No kids menu here. And a glass of vermentino for me, of course.

Sam’s lunch: straccetti di pasta fresca con le triglie. Fresh pasta with red mullet

Another head waiter popped by and asked if Sam would eat “alici”, or anchovies (there were 3 head waiters who worked the room as a team). I said let’s give it a try, and lo and behold, the munchkin had a few bites of fresh anchovies with juicy cherry tomatoes. Within a few minutes, our table was covered in treats. A basket of freshly baked breads and focaccia and another plate with carta da musica (crisp, thin flat bread). I thought we were set, but Sam got curious and started exploring the cabinets near our table which stored the restaurant’s extensive wine collection. Despite this chaos, no one batted an eye. The dining room staff could not have been more gracious.

Sam at La Pineta

Sam’s pasta arrived and my plate of crudo. I was in heaven. Raw langostines, delicate deep red shrimp, and several types of fish drizzled lightly with olive oil and sea salt. Oh, and a separate plate with an oyster, because not everyone likes oysters. Sam had a bite or two of pasta, but was preoccupied. We managed to get through the first course and then it got a little dicey. I broke down and agreed to let him play with iPhone, but where was iPhone. Uh-oh. We went out for a walk to find it and also check on Hubs.

Hubs was slumped in a chair in the cafe. He asked how much longer. Again, not the way I planned this meal. Sam and I hurried back to the table and my whole fish was ready. The Head Waiter expertly deboned it table side and presented it with a flourish. He also topped off my wine glass. I hurriedly ate the delicate white fish, all the while feeding Sam his pasta and nervously scanning the now full dining room hoping we were not disturbing anyone. I was cursing myself for having even ordered a second course, but had felt obliged to do so and then couldn’t leave the dish untouched, right? Oh, the obligations of fine dining! I made my way through 3/4 of the fish and felt full and satisfied that no one would be offended. The waiter asked if I’d like dessert (and he wasn’t joking). I declined and asked for the check. He passed by with the wine bottle and offered another splash – I am sure I looked like I needed it.

Hubs joined us as I paid the bill. The kind waiter dropped off a small plate of mini-lemon tartlets and asked if Hubs felt better. They didn’t even charge us a service fee for Sam. I was touched by how respectfully the staff treated us. And after paying the bill, I was stopped mid-stride while exiting the restaurant so that the chef and owner could say hello (center in photo below).

When does that happen?? It was an amazing meal, as much for the service as the ambiance as the food itself. And not to mention the company.

Guess who’s back?

No, not the slim shady, just me, your fearless foodie writer. Back from my Italian adventures and eager to hit the keyboard. I’ll spend a few minutes sharing about my trip and then we can get back to business. And how can I not thank the tireless efforts of my fabulous guest blogger Dan Doern? Was he great, or what? If you didn’t get a chance you should check out some of his inventive recipes, like roasted edamame, or breakfast pizza. I hope Dan will continue to contribute to the blog.

The trip was great: lots of carbs and vino were consumed, few churches were visited, and I honestly didn’t hit the pots and pans once. I visited friends in the Alps, and then spent the rest of the trip at the Tuscan seaside. We took advantage of Italy’s love of children to bless restaurant owners and casual diners with our son’s vivacious presence at mealtimes, dinner included. And when we dined at home, it was a simple preparation, more assembly than anything else. This picture of Sam reaching on his tippy toes for freshly baked focaccia sums it up.


Sam reaching for freshly baked focaccia – San Vincenzo, Tuscany, Italy

I took advantage of the delicious, locally grown, seasonal fruits with daily pit stops at the nearby fruit stand to stock up on peaches, plums (from green to fuschia to purple)  like these,

Reine-Claude plums


grapes and tomatoes of every color, size and variety. And also made daily pilgrimages to local bakeries and focaccerie.

For lunch there was usually bruschetta (or crostini, a local version), insalata caprese, freshly baked focaccia and an assortment of local cheeses like pecorino and thoughtfully prepared meats and salamis. We did have pasta at home a few times, but only in it’s simplest form. I prepared some store-bought hand-made ravioli on a few occasions, drizzled with olive oil and grated parmigiano. But I don’t really count that as hitting the pots and pans. No sauces were cooked, no ovens were heated, and no recipes were used on this trip. And that was just fine.

So, stay tuned for more recipes and musings from yours truly. And let’s give it up for Dan – woot woot!

Grilled Fish at Altitude: Branzino in Montagna

Ever grilled a whole fish? Easier than you think if you have a trusty fishmonger and a hot fire. I’m visiting dear friend Alyce Henness in the Italian Alps. Alyce and her snowboarding superstar husband Luca live in a cozy, Alpine-style home with all the mod cons in the town of La Salle, which is in the region of the Valle d’Aosta. Imagine clean mountain air, soft green grass, a river roaring past and Mont Blanc in the background. One could do worse…
Not eating meat is a rarity in Italy, but actually extremely easy to do with all the readily available fresh produce, pasta and fish. Even here in the mountains, Alyce picked up a beautiful whole branzino for me at the local supermarket.

Branzino is Italian for sea bass, and let me tell you, we are hours from the sea and this guy looks like he blew his last bubbles this morning. The branzino weighed in at a hefty pound an a quarter and thankfully Alyce had the foresight to ask the fishmonger to clean it for us. Like I said, need to have a good fishmonger, because no one wants to scale a fish in the kitchen. I stuffed the fish with sliced lemon, branches of rosemary, and some sliced garlic. Drizzled it with olive oil and some salt and pepper and it was ready to go.

Luca grilled it to perfection on the charcoal grill in their garden – about 6 or 7 minutes per side and voila.

I removed the flesh from the bones and placed the delicate white meat on a clean plate, drizzled it with a little more olive oil, squirt of lemon and some salt and pepper. Cooked perfectly. Delicious – even Alyce and Luca, who were happily eating grilled fillet, agreed. Bravo, Luca!

And to accompany our meal, Alyce prepared yummy baked zucchini boats topped with melted parmiggiano. The recipe was passed along from Alyce’s mom Susan, in Erie, PA. Maybe Alyce could share her timely recipe as we are all overloaded with zucchini at this time of year…and to drink, we had a local, light and refreshing Muller-Thurgau with our meal.

And as if that weren’t enough, hostess extraordinaire Alyce served homemade strawberry ice cream, made with tiny pieces of local fragole. I couldn’t get a picture because my 2 scoops were consumed too fast. Whoops.
Thank you again, Alyce and Luca!

Grilled Branzino

Bayside Dinner in Bristol

Had a delicious meal last night at cousins Kara and David Milner’s beautiful bayfront home in Bristol, Rhode Island. Is nothing better than a lovingly prepared home-cooked, market-driven meal prepared by someone else?? Add a to-die for view and easy-going companionship and you’ve got a recipe for a perfect evening. Kara prepared Campfire Salmon, Israeli couscous and a crunchy seasonal salad.

Kara’s Camfire Salmon

The Campfire Salmon is a variation on a recipe from a handy cookbook called Simply in Season. Kara kindly walked me through the recipe briefly. Good thing about it is that you can prepare it in advance, wrap it up in tin foil, and pop it in the fridge until you are ready to grill (or bake in oven). Kara sliced up onion, placed a large filet of wild salmon on top, sliced up lemons and local zucchini to go on top, sprinked with some fresh dill, a dash of olive oil and a splash of white wine. Fold up the tin foil and cook immediately on a heated grill or 450 degree F oven, or store in fridge until ready to do so. This versatile recipe is a great way to feed a large group and you can add/subtract veggies based on what’s in season. Like it.

On the side, I loved Kara’s crunchy salad featuring heirloom cherry tomatoes and yellow cucumbers from a local CSA, crunchy fresh corn kernels, spinach, maybe some watercress (?) and sliced sweet red onions. Kara, chime in if I missed anything.

Kara’s Salad: tomatoes, yellow cucumbers, corn, spinach, red onion and watercress

And did I mention the Sour Cream Blueberry Pie for dessert?? So yummy, with a crispy lattice top and crust. Hubs refused to even taste at the mere mention of the words “sour cream.” His loss – was scrumptious. I haven’t bugged Kara yet for the recipe and probably won’t. Fear if I make it, it will go straight to my hips.

Thank you, Kara & David!

It’s PYO Time

Everything you need to know about how, where and when to pick your own fruits and veggies can be found at http://www.pickyourown.org.  What a great resource for seekers of local, farm-fresh foods and farmers. The site also has a lot of valuable tips on what I call the “lost arts” of home canning, preserving and freezing, as well as a Harvest Calendar for each state so you’ll know what’s in season where you live.  The site itself has a homegrown feel, too. And if you know of a farm that’s not listed, just submit it.  In Western MA, we’ve got blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and peaches in season right now. And I am already looking forward to fall apple picking.

I learned about this website from Red Rabbit Foods, a great organization that makes healthy lunches for school children in the NY area.

What are you picking now?

Ye Grande Olde Yakitori

“Greetings from Nashville, Tennessee,” said my father-in-law in a recent email, attaching this tantalizing photo.

Yakitori by chef Chieko Hamado – Nashville, TN – July 2012

The colors and textures of this meal look fantastic, and I love the bamboo placemats as well. Steve, my father-in-law, enjoyed this eye-catching Yakitori at his friend Chieko Hamado’s home in Nashville, TN. I researched Yakitori and learned from Wikipedia that it can refer to any skewered foods. Here are some details about the meal as told by Steve, my father-in-law and roaming gourmand.

Organic home grown carrots, cold new potatoes, shrimp and mashed avocado with onion and cream cheese, couscous and tomato and onion salad, prosciutto wrapped around cucumber, miniature tomato mozzarella.  Korean style BBQ beef and Yakatori chicken.  Garlic and olive oil  sauce from ground green leaf like basil called beef steak leaf.

Take me to Tennessee, I say.  Steve, please chime in on anything I missed.

Down at the Shore

As I stated earlier, my story this week is that it’s too hot to cook, and I’m sticking with it. I took a jaunt down to the shore yesterday to celebrate my fabulous friend Becky’s birthday. Yes, the Shore, home of Snookie and Jwow and all those scary characters. But as many folks know, the Shore is vast and has many lovely areas, and some are even named as such, like the town of Loveladies where I stayed.

Even better than not cooking, I had the good fortune of having others cooking for me. My generous and kind host Doug Gray prepared a great casual lunch today. He manned the grill, steamed the broccoli, prepared the insalata caprese, and all the assorted fixings. Worth mentioning were the hamburgers and the Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, just in season now. And, if nothing else, I hope that making mention of Doug in this post will bring him here to visit.  Cheap, I know.

Last night after an afternoon at the beach, brother-in-law Darren prepared fajitas for the crew, including grilled chicken, ribs, peppers and onions and accoutrements. For dessert, I had a slice of Becky’s decadent, chocolate birthday cake. Very necessary.

Good to see you, friends. And thanks for feeding me and the munchkin.

Reminiscing at Red Sky and Happy Anniversary

It’s far too hot this week to cook, so I’ll take a few minutes to write about a favorite restaurant we recently visited in Southwest Harbor, Maine, called Red Sky. The intimate dining room is open year-round for dinner (a rarity in these parts) and has a wonderful menu focused on fresh, local seafood, local organic produce and home-baked breads and sweets. During the summer, Elizabeth and James works round the clock, front of house and back, to bring delicious, elegant and thoughtfully prepared meals to the table 7 nights a week.  They stand out in a sea of tourism in the area, and rise far above basic, traditional dining like the classic Maine lobster pound.

Red Sky Restaurant in Southwest Harbor, Maine


As we dined on house-cured salmon, sweet Maine shrimp, fresh sole, and 100% crab meat crab cakes (I don’t think they use any binding agents, kinda ridiculous), and scrumptious, crunchy, sauteed snow peas (not even mentioned on the menu), we reminisced about past visits to Red Sky. Our first meal here was 9 years ago, and at the time, farm-to-table dining was simply what James and Elizabeth did. They were not following a food trend, merely supporting their community and preparing great food. They are leaders in the drive to source locally, particularly in a geography like Maine which has a relatively short growing season.  But what is grown is so flavorful and delicious that it makes it worth the effort.

So, back to reminiscing.  Hubs and I have had some wonderful meals here, including the weekend of our wedding 5 years ago. And, our trip this summer was to celebrate our 5 year anniversary. Coincidentally, we learned from Elizabeth that they are proudly celebrating Red Sky’s 10th anniversary this year. Happy Anniversary to Elizabeth and James, and many more! We look forward to our next visit.