California Avocado Dreamin’

imageI am a proud Californian — born, raised and have lived here the majority of my life, and I love my home state. I’ve been up and down the entire state and have seen gorgeous beaches, tall mountains capped with snow, ginormous redwoods, large cities and tiny towns, forever-seeming deserts — did I mention beaches?

I could go on and on about the Golden State, but what I really want to share with you about California that you may not know is that we are an agricultural mecca. While there are patches of agriculture across the state, much of it comes from Central California.

Actually, California not only provides the rest of the country with much of its produce, many cities across the state have made a name for themselves — Gilroy (in NorCal) is the garlic capital of the world; the Salinas Valley (also in NorCal) is the “salad bowl of the world” because it is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing lettuce, artichokes, strawberries, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, among other produce; Castroville (in Monterey County) is the artichoke capital of the world; and Fallbrook (in San Diego) is the avocado capital of the world.

The humble Haas avocado is what we’re mostly known for — it’s our state fruit. Before the ban was lifted back in the ’90s (Mexico is [and was] the world’s largest producer of avocados), all the avocados in the United States came from California. Since I grew up in SoCal, I had them at my fingertips, but people back in New York or Florida weren’t as luck because avocados don’t grow year round. Now that the U.S. gets a large portion our supply from Mexico, as well as Peru, Columbia and even South Africa, we can now eat avocados almost year round.

Avocados have sky rocketed in popularity in the past couple of decades probably because now they’re easily accessible. They’re a superfood, full of vitamins and nutrients — not only do they taste good, but are good for you, too. Best of all, there’s so much you can do with avocados — salads, dips, spreads, guacamole (of course), smoothies, spring rolls, soups, mousse and because I am from California, you can even do — avocado margaritas!

Haas avocados (the most common found in stores) are easy to identify by their distinct oval shape and dark green outer shells. Personally, I love avocados because the texture is rich, melt in your mouth, yet the flavor is so subtle and mild. You can brighten up so many dishes with avocados and from savory to sweet dishes, your possibilities are left to your imagination.

I took the ever-so-popular guacamole and put a spin on it, creating the GuacaBLT. See, I love BLTs and guacamole is up there on my list so I put the two together. This dip is great on nachos, tacos, burritos and you guessed it — put it on your next BLT sandwhich.

Live zestier.

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GuacaBLT

INGREDIENTS

4 thick pieces of bacon, cooked, diced small (or crumbled)

2 ripe Haas avocados

1/4 cup lettuce sliced into 1/4″ strips

2 tablespoons tomatoes, diced small

2 teaspoons cilantro, chopped fine

2 teaspoons green onions, chopped small

2 teaspoons grapefruit vinegar **

1 lime, juiced

Black pepper and Kosher salt

 

DIRECTIONS

Cut the avocados in half, remove the pits and scoop out the flesh and into a medium bowl. Add the lime juice and mash with a fork, leaving the avocados chunky. Add the bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, green onions and vinegar and mix gently. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Refrigerate for 15 minutes before serving.

** As I’ve raved in previous blogs, I can’t get enough of fruit-flavored balsamic vinegars. In this recipe, I used a grapefruit balsamic vinegar, but don’t worry, if you haven’t ordered a bottle or found one at your local store, just add lime juice. Start with the lime juice that’s already in the recipe and then add a teaspoon at a time to your taste. Enjoy.

 

 

Pie on the 4th of July

image.jpegKids of all ages are on summer break; families are on vacation; and I just went and saw “Independence Day: Resurgence” — the sequel 20 years in the making (yes, I’m that “old” as my little brothers remind me all the time). It must be Fourth of July weekend!

When it comes to the Fourth, we all have traditions that we were raised on or that we like to do as adults: whether it’s going to the local Native American Indian Reservation to shoot off fireworks while watching the extravagant fireworks show (I was introduced to this tradition while up in the Pacific Northwest), or sitting on an overpass in SoCal in the perfect spot while catching a dozen major firework shows (I may have done this as a young adult a time or two), or gathering your buddies for a big barbeque and having some laughs.

Speaking of traditions, when I was a kid, I usually got to pick any kind of cake I wanted my mom to make for my birthday, and there was this pie that I’d ask her to make sometimes. It reminds me of a not-so-rich cheesecake but just as yummy!

My mom just came to visit me for my birthday, and just like I did as a kid, I asked for the special birthday pie. The recipe has been around as long as I can remember, but we have no idea where it originated.

I was inspired to zest it up and make it my own. Personally, I’m not usually a baker, but that’s why this is so perfect — there’s no baking involved! Plus, it only takes a few minutes to prepare. And of course, I had to decorate the pie in red, white and blue for the patriotic holiday.

I hope you enjoy this simple but delicious bit of my past.

Have a safe holiday weekend, and as always, happy zesty eating!

 

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Red, White & Blue Cream Cheese Pie

INGREDIENTS

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
3 medium lemons, juiced (1/3 cup)
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 9-inch graham cracker crumb pie crust
2 teaspoons fresh mint, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lime zest (about 1 medium lime)

Fresh berries: strawberries (my favorite), blueberries, raspberries, blackberries — pick your favorite berries to top the pie.
DIRECTIONS

Using a mixer, in a medium bowl, blend the cream cheese for about 30 seconds on medium speed. Slowly add the condensed milk, lemon juice and vanilla extract and continue mixing for 2-3 minutes or until smooth.

Gently fold in mint and lime zest.

Pour mixture into pie crust and refrigerate for 4 hours or until firmly set. Add fresh berries, slice and serve.

Enjoy!

 

 

Finger Lickin’ Good

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My dad is a very simple guy, so when Father’s Day rolls around, give him a bottle of diet Mountain Dew, sunflower seeds or popcorn, his favorite TV show and some peace and quiet, and he’s a very happy man on Father’s Day.

Other dads want big barbecues with plenty of steaks and burgers, along with all the fixings. This year, the last day of the NBA Finals falls on their special day — coincidence? I think not.

When I worked out in Florida many lifetimes ago (it seems like), I worked at a resort and at a sports bar. One of the dishes that I learned how to prepare at both restaurants was chicken wings, but two different preparations — fried and baked. At the sports bar, I was making endless fried wings with whatever sauce the guest could come up with and at the resort, we made baked jerk wings. I’m took a little bit of what I learned and went way left field with it. Boy, would my bosses be proud!

For my wings recipe, I decided to go with the baking process — mainly, because it’s healthier than fried wings (and just as yummy), and I wanted to keep the kitchen semi-clean for once (you can imagine how a kitchen looks when someone is working on a cookbook).

And I love barbecue, so I thought I’d bring the best of both worlds, creating baked chicken wings with a sweet and tangy bbq sauce, using an infused balsamic vinegar (raspberry was my choice, but you get to pick your flavor), and a whisky buffalo sauce because who doesn’t love whiskey?

Whether you like wings drenched in sauce (like me), plain wings and don’t get me started on that good ol’ debate on which sauce to dip those wings in — my ranch is so yummy even though I know there are some of you who love that blue cheese, too — make sure to give your dads a hug and happy zesty eating!

 

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Sweet & Tangy BBQ Wings

Wings:
(Use this method with both of the following wing recipes.)

1 dozen chicken wings, halved, with the tips removed and discarded (unless you’re saving them for a future chicken stock)

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Lay out all the wings in a single layer on a baking sheet and pat dry (this will help keep the wings crispy). Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on both sides (not too much), and sprinkle both sides with kosher salt and black pepper.

Stick the wings in the oven for 35-40 minutes (depending on if you like them extra crispy like I do), flipping them halfway through the cooking time.

Sauce:

1 cup ketchup
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (use your favorite infused — I used raspberry)
2 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 tablespoon Worcesteshire sauce
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

DIRECTIONS

In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients (except for the balsamic vinegar) and heat on medium-low heat until it begins to boil. Turn off heat and stir in the balsamic.

Transfer to a bowl and toss with wings. Serve and enjoy.

 

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Whiskey Buffalo Wings (sauce on side)

Sauce:

INGREDIENTS

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4-1/3 cup hot sauce (use your favorite)
2-3 tablespoons whiskey (again, your favorite)
1/2 lemon, juice
1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

DIRECTIONS

In a small saucepan, add all ingredients and heat on medium-low heat until low boil. Transfer to bowl and toss with wings. Serve and enjoy.

**Pro tip: When alcohol is added to a dish, it burns off once it is brought to a boiling point. We add it to recipes for taste. The sauce is just as good without it if you don’t like alcohol or you have kids and are wanting to be extra cautious. Also, if you do like alcohol and want to “taste” it in the sauce a little more, add it half-way in the cooking process instead of the beginning.

Veni, Vidi, Vinegar

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I love random unbirthday gifts in the middle of the week. And I received one in the mail — a bottle of delicious ruby red grapefruit white balsamic vinegar (say that 10 times fast) — last week that I’ve been using in some new recipes.

There are quite a few vinegars that are probably in your kitchen — dark balsamic, apple cider, white distilled, red wine, rice and maybe even champagne vinegar, but is there a bottle of white balsamic or have you ever even heard of it? My aunt had never heard of white balsamic until I was going on and on about my new bottle of happiness, which got me thinking … maybe people don’t realize that the not-so-hidden treasure is even out there, so I’m going to tell you a little about it and why I enjoy white balsamic so much.

Balsamic vinegar, like all good things aged (AKA, wine) originated in Italy way back in the day, and much like wine, it’s all about the aging process. Both white and dark balsamic vinegars are made from the juice “must” of Trebbiano grapes. The juice is pressed and boiled until a syrupy consistency and placed into different wood barrels that give the vinegars character and build on the flavor as it’s aged for 12-plus years.

The white balsamic is put into new wood barrels that haven’t been fired on the inside — which the dark balsamics have — because you don’t want the white to change color (think of wine … wine is aged in barrels almost the same way). White balsamic is going to have a cleaner, lighter, more elegant feel to it and be a little more acidic than the dark balsamic, and to me, the dark balsamic is a little richer and fruitier with a thicker consistency.

Both balsamic vinegars make delicious dressings and marinades and the whites can be added to summer salads and the dark can be added to sautéed veggies … I could go on and on.

Bottom line: I highly recommend ordering one of these infused vinegars from Nan’s Gourmet Foods — they were the kind senders of my unbirthday gift last week —or find an oil and vinegar store near you and play around in your kitchen. Don’t be afraid to try new things. My advice is to start by making a simple dressing and go from there, but definitely add white balsamic vinegar to your collection. Go easy to start — add it at the end of your dish; start with a smaller amount than what you think you’ll need; and you can always add more if you need to in the end.

I will  be publishing a BLT-amole recipe very soon, which will have a white balsamic in the recipe, so keep an eye out for it. Don’t forget to try my summer salad, which uses a raspberry balsamic in the dressing.

And as always, happy zesty eating!

Here Comes Memorial Day

imageRight now we’re in the middle of a long weekend. Woohoo! Time for busting out those dusty grills for barbecuing, gassing up the cars for a weekend-long road trip, or just a nice staycation with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other.

But aside from the grilling, the socializing and the drinking, this weekend is really about remembering our troops. It is, however, Memorial Day weekend.

The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day — which is in November this year — is that this Monday we remember our men and women who we lost when they were serving our country. Veterans Day is a day set aside to thank our troops for their service. My dad was in the Navy for 20 years, and I was very lucky and blessed to have never lost him. He retired the year I graduated high school.

The cool thing about having a long weekend for most of us (not those who are in the newspaper, retail or restaurant industry — sorry, peeps!) is that we get to sit around and have good food, company and laughs!

I created a quick and easy potato salad to go with your barbecue or to just chow down at the kitchen counter like I did (shh, no judging!!). I was inspired while walking around in a local vegetable stand that had a little bit of everything and totally reminded me of my days in Santa Cruz.

Anywho … I found these adorable fingerling potatoes and there my brain went in the direction of a salad made with Greek yogurt. Sure, why not? You should also try out my summer salad with berry delish vinegrette.

I hope you enjoy! Don’t forget while you have the day off Monday, to take time to give family and loved ones an extra hug and remember our troops.

Happy zesty eating!

It’s All Greek to Me Potato Salad

For salad:

INGREDIENTS

image2 pounds little red fingerling potatoes, washed (not peeled) and diced into roughly 1/2-inch cubes (about 5 cups)

1 cup grape tomatoes, diced into roughly 1/2-inch cubes

3/4 tsp salt (1/2 tsp for boiling potatoes, 1/4 tsp for dressing)

1/2 cup red onion, brunoise cut (approximately 1/8-inch dice)

1/2 cup baby kosher dill pickles, sliced in thin rounds

For dressing:

image1 tsp fresh dill

2 tsp fresh parsley

1 tsp green onions

1/3 cup Greek nonfat yogurt

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1/2 lemon, juice and zest

Pinch of black pepper

DIRECTIONS

Boil water for potatoes with 1/4 tsp salt. Cook potatoes on medium-high heat for 8-10 minutes or until tender.

Mix yogurt, mayo and Dijon in a smallish bowl. Then add in dill, parsley, green onions, pinch of pepper and the salt. Dressing is best if chilled for about 30 minutes before adding to salad.

Mix potatoes, red onions, pickles and tomatoes in a large bowl. Add 1/3-1/2 cup of dressing (depending on the moisture level you like for your salad) to the potato mixture; stir until everything is fully blended.

Chill salad for about 30 minutes before serving.

Fresh and Fruity

imageThere are a few splurges in life that I truly enjoy — a glass of dry, aromatic Cabernet or a rich dark chocolate bar, preferably together if at all possible. So when I was given the chance to go wine and chocolate tasting, you bet I jumped on that train immediately!

A couple of weekends ago, Paradise, a small town in NorCal, put on its annual Chocolate Festival. I was cordially invited to be entertained the evening prior to the official festivities, where I donned a glass of red wine in one hand and an elegant chocolate bite in the other.

While walking around and tasting the different wines, chocolates, cheeses, meats and a little of everything in between, I came to a stand where Brad Roth was handing out samples of his infused oils and vinegars.

As a cook, I love infused vinegars and oils because they bring a whole new level to dishes. For instance, a basil-infused olive oil is a perfect addition for a pasta dish or a fruit-infused balsamic vinegar goes phenomenal over sautéed vegetables.

imageAfter careful consideration — and sampling — I came away with a bottle of delicious raspberry balsamic vinegar. While chatting with Brad for quite sometime, in between sampling of course, I mentioned that I was working on a cookbook and promised to incorporate the balsamic into some of my dishes.
I highly recommend adding an infused oil or vinegar to your kitchen — you’ll definitely thank me later. You can order one from Brad’s website (there are other delicious foods on the site so definitely check it out!). However, if for some reason you cannot, there are specialty olive oil stores in many cities that offer tastings, as well, or check out a local specialty grocery store in your area.

My first recipe is a simple but delicious dressing to top your favorite salad. I incorporated certain flavors and profiles that I thought would mesh perfectly with the dressing, creating a fresh summer salad.

Let me know your verdict. Enjoy!

Berry Delish Vinaigrette

INGREDIENTS

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup raspberry balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh garlic, minced
1/2 lemon, juice and zest
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

DIRECTIONS

In a small bowl, stir all ingredients (except the olive oil**) together; slowly whisk in the oil until fully blended. Transfer to an air-tight container — mason or glass jars are perfect — and refrigerate for 10-15 minutes serving over salad.

Pro tip: Dressing will keep up to 5 days if refrigerated.

** Whisking in the olive oil last will give you the consistency you want in the vinaigrette. The 3/4 cup is a guideline — it could be more or less, depending on the viscosity you desire.
Summer Salad:

Of course, you can use your favorite veggies, nuts, cheeses and fruits, but here are my recommended toppings:

Red leaf lettuce
English or Persian cucumbers
Cherry tomatoes
Strawberries
Slivered almonds (or crushed walnuts)
Feta cheese
Fresh basil
Shredded chicken (for the meat lovers)

 

 

 

Cinco de Mango Salsa

imageTomorrow is Cinco de Mayo so start chilling those margarita glasses and get ready to eat some good Mexican-inspired food!

Despite what many assume, it is not a day celebrating Mexico’s independence — which is in September— it is a holiday honoring Mexican culture, as well as remembering the victory that Mexico had over France in the early 1860s.

The holiday (not a national one) started in NorCal when Mexican workers heard of the victory and began shooting off their rifles in celebration. Through the decades, more states started celebrating the holiday but it wasn’t until the ’80s, when it took off commercially, that it became popular.

I love Mexican food. The spice and heat make each dish unique. I’ve been lucky enough to have tasted some darn-good authentic Mexican food since I lived in San Diego for many years and traveled over the border a couple of times. It wasn’t until I started working in restaurants and talking with my fellow co-workers that I really learned how to cook with spices and chiles familiar in Mexican food.

When I worked at a resort, I was given a nickname: Blanca Mexicana. It’s stuck ever since. If I remember right, I got it because of my Spanglish (which I perfected with each restaruant) and for my cooking (which has always been zesty.) (It also might be from my easily burned light, light skin.)

Personally, I think a good salsa or guacamole is the perfect addition to any Cinco de Mayo celebration. Instead of a typical tomato salsa, I decided to make a fruit salsa. Mangos are perfect for such a recipe and being a strawberry lover, I just had to incorporate them into my dish. I swapped onions (which are common for salsas) for yellow bell pepper, making this particular salsa very colorful and bright, as well as sweet and tangy.

Yes, this salsa is perfect for tomorrow’s dinner, but you can use it to top white fish like tilapia or halibut, as well as chicken.

Appreciate the spices and flavors in tomorrow’s dishes, and don’t forget to top them with my Cinco de Mango salsa!

Happy eating!

 

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Cinco de Mango Salsa

INGREDIENTS

3 ripe mangos, peeled, cored, diced small (about 2 2/3 cups)
2 2/3 cups fresh strawberries, cored, diced small (or equal amount as diced the diced mangos)
1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded, diced small (about 1 cup)
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 medium jalapeño, seeded, minced (more for the spicy lovers)
1 large lime, juiced
Salt to taste — sugar to taste for those who needed a pinch of sweetness

DIRECTIONS

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir. Cover and refrigerate for 1/2 hour before serving.

Pro tip: If you like salsas juicy, continue to stir. The longer strawberries are stirred, the more juice is produced from the fruit.