Recipes: Warm Up With My Favorite Hot Cocoa...

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{image via}

Ohhhh, hot cocoa. Don't you just love it? It's the only time marshmallows actually taste appropriate to me. I love my cocoa dark & rich and most certainly made with whole organic milk. Trust: this is some of the best cocoa you'll ever enjoy this side of the Alps. 

The method? Brace yourself for my under-a-minute recipe. 

WHAT YOU NEED

Williams-Sonoma Hot Cocoa Mix // Set of 4 White Mugs // Breville Milk Frother (or my trusty Nespresso Aeroccino frother) // Acrylic & Brass Tray // Tatte Bakery Biscotti

WHAT TO DO

Honestly, the real secret here is the high quality cocoa flakes and the milk frother. I personally love my Nespresso Aeroccino but there are other frothers on the market making it just as easy (see the rumored-to-be-awesome Breville above). Fill the frother to the recommended line with milk, turn it on & let it heat the milk. It takes less than a minute and creates a rich, amazing foamy drink you will LOVE. Just as the frother is finishing foing what it does best (the milk will swell and the mixing will appear to slow down), toss in a tablespoon of Williams-Sonoma Hot Cocoa Mix (my tip: choose CLASSIC formula). Let it mix just long enough for the flakes to melt.

The rest is easy.... Simply pour into a pretty mug of your choice. Garnish with a pinch of cocoa flakes for extra rich topping.

Repeat the process for as many mugs as you have guests. Place these rich, chocolatey creations on a tray, pair with biscotti (a personal weakness) & serve with a smile!   

Bonus points: If you are of the Eddie Ross, Danielle Rollins variety and never met a creative task you didn't want to take to a new fabulous level... look no further than these adorable gingerbread house mug toppers. Yes, this festive creation is edible and will be the center of much pinterest-worthy love. These are so, so cute. Be forewarned: these baked creations are sold individually. For a more efficient (read: less pricey) option, consider baking up some gingerbread cookies instead. If you're throwing a holiday fete and want to go the extra mile to make your guests feel festive, don your best reindeer ear headband, put on your sparkly holiday sweater & bust these out on your glamorous mug of hot cocoa. Instant Polaroid moment.  

Culinary Pursuits: Qui veut de délicieuses crêpes faites maison?

Food and literature have been intertwined for years. Under the Tuscan Sun inspired many to create authentic Italian countryside dishes. At the moment I'm reading two books making me yearn for authentic French food, the most accessible of these being crêpes.

Their simple preparation and fast cook time make crêpes ideal for weekend breakfast - especially if you have children with eager eyes and hungry stomachs. Which brings me to my next topic: encouraging these girls to crave healthy breakfasts when the western world seems bent on telling them a bowl of sugared flakes is the norm.

Crêpes - especially those of the savory variety - are rich in protein and vegetables. And did I mention how pretty they can be? Yes, sweet ones are all the rage and a fun treat, but for regular meals I love the idea of a chicken and broccoli crêpe or spinach and cheese. Both of these being easy to convince a your Francophile to try. 

A few quick and easy basics to help you channel your inner French girl (or guy): 

CREPE-MAKING ESSENTIALS

Ready to go beyond the basics? I thought so. Step up your crêpe game and brace yourself for an onslaught of compliments from your family & guests with a few culinary superstars: 

NEXT LEVEL ACCOUTREMENT

Now, about those books... I'm absolutely smitten with both. One is a novel that I can't put down and simultaneously hope never ends. Sadly I'll finish it this weekend, but every Loire Valley filled page of it has been inspiring and interesting. French Illusions has all the makings of a page-turner: tension, European travel and the potential for romance that never quite seems to pan out. An ambitious young American girl fibs her way into a lavish au pair position for a wealthy French family only to discover that perhaps lying about her language skills wasn't the most wise of plans. I won't spoil the story, but this is a fantastic read. 

My next recommendation is more of a reference book, but is so beautifully designed and chock full of useful information it is mind-blowing. I can't help but see the irony that The Farm-to-Table French Phrasebook would have helped the subject of the novel I'm reading navigate the terrain of her foreign surroundings with aplomb. Packed with foodie terms, cultural tips and everyday French phrases that will make even a novice sound like a local (well, except for that telltale accent). Even if you're not boarding the Boeing 777 Dreamliner soon you'll want to snag a copy of this book - if merely to entertain family and friends while you whip up those fancy crêpes. 

BOOKISH RECOMMENDATIONS

What I like most about these books is their non-touristy appeal. Both of them - in their own unique ways - are educating you on the nuances of French living, French language and the esteemed cultural cuisine. Reading each I've gained a getter understanding of customs, etiquette and an awareness of more pronounced and nuanced cultural differences. If you'd like a mini-vacation without lifting your passport from the drawer, consider these two books a delicious tour of French cuisine and cultural divides.

So now... Qui veut de délicieuses crêpes faites maison? Translation (courtesy of the fab Farm to Table book mentioned above) Who wants some delicious homemade crêpes? Answer: I believe we all do. Happy Weekend! 

Culinary Pursuits: How I Became the Queen of Quinoa...

One day you're scoffing at the nervous nellies desperate to ensure those lemon cupcakes are both gluten-free and organic, the next you're trolling the grass-fed recipe sites and cooking up quinoa wondering when exactly you yourself became so healthy food obsessed. It took a while, but I'm definitely looking at everything through my whole food lenses these days. Perhaps it's my quest to improve my own energy levels and reduce risk of future disease. Even more likely, the two smiling faces that look up to me (literally and figuratively) to prepare tasty meals have had a huge impact on my thinking of where our food comes from and how it is grown before it arrives at our table. Farm to fork, baby. Farm to fork. 

My new obsession? Quinoa. I'm not a pasta girl or a rice lover. I avoid wheat like it's the plague, but this ancient grain rings my bell. New to this superfood? I've rounded up a few transition products to ease you into the protein-rich goodness I've come to know and love. 

First, these Simply 7 chips. Let me apologize to you now for your new crunchy addiction. We can barely keep a bag around the house more than a day - and we are NOT snackers. They are that good. Made of quinoa and better than any chip I've had, these non-GMO goodies come in a range of flavors. They are also available in Hummus and Lentil varieties - but the quinoa are straight up amazing in my book. Ah-mazing. I grab mine at Whole Foods, but I've seen them popping up in quite a few shops. Seems I'm not the only fan! 

Next, these great Ancient Harvest rotelle noodles. A year ago I switched my daughter to brown rice noodles and never looked back. Now we've rolled over to these quinoa based oodles and she practically begs me to make my signature italian dishes with them. Major win. Another Whole Foods find that's worth searching for in the aisles. 

My new pantry secret weapon is this packet of goodness from Seeds of Change. It's a mix of brown rice & quinoa and it takes just moments to simmer in a pan and prepare. This incredible (and organic) combo has become the base for many a fabulous meal in our home. I LOVE this stuff and am always grabbing one or two more when I hit the market. It opened my eyes to the marvel of the delicious taste of quinoa. And... the whole family loves it. Another major win. 

Already a quinoa lover? You'll dig this tasty recipe from Alter Eco Foods. Packed with protein and a lively mix of fresh flavors, it's a terrific dish to introduce as spring and summer unroll themselves. Make it for brunch and watch eager eyes ask for the recipe. It's that tasty.  

RECIPE: BASIL, PEPPER & CORN QUINOA SUMMER SALAD

INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 cups Alter Eco quinoa
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups fresh or frozen corn
1 cup tightly packed basil leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup roasted red peppers
1/2 cup diced red onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 to 5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (1 or 2 lemons)

METHOD

Rinse Quinoa thoroughly in cool water and drain.
In a medium saucepan combine quinoa, salt and 3 cups water. Bring to boil over high heat.
Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Add corn, cover and cook until water is
absorbed. Let cool, then transfer mixture to large serving bowl. Toss well with fork, fluffing
quinoa. Add basil, peppers and onion. Stir in oil and enough lemon juice to give salad a
distinct lemony edge. Adjust seasons to taste.

Culinary Pursuits: Late Summer Raspberry Sorbet...

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We can't help but love a recipe for fresh, homemade raspberry sorbet in 30 minutes. Tiffany at Creme de la Crumb strikes again with a quick and easy formula for chilled fruity perfection every time.  I love the hint of vanilla extract she adds. It's small tweaks such as those that transform an ordinary recipe into a favorite dish. 

Culinary Pursuits: Father's Day Brunch...

brunch

As noted previously, I love breakfast. If there's a meal worth celebrating, it's the first one of the day. I also find this meal to be my preferred choice for hosting soirees. Get them in, serve them coffee, delight them with a frittata or quiche and then off everyone scatters to enjoy the day.

In the past we've done custom omelettes for everyone. This is tedious at best and results in the obvious byproduct of staggered mealtimes. Not ideal.

Father's Day brought about motivation to reshuffle our hosting plan and make it far more fuss-free. While a quiche was our family's go-to brunch item growing up, I personally prefer the frittata. Why? For one, I'm allergic to cheese. The real reason, however, is the crust. Any dish served in a pastry is judged largely on the flakiness of said crust. Frittatas - at least here in Dallas - tend to be more boldly seasoned and loaded with vegetables. It's a dietary/culinary win-win.

Neatness counts too, of course. You've cleaned in preparation for guests and now your sparkling kitchen can be spared. These crustless egg-centric brunch entrees can be prepared using the oven only, keeping your stovetop glistening and cool to the touch.

Which recipe did I make? This one. It's meaty enough for the men but elegantly suited for ladies. It sits nicely on the fork and looks gorgeous plated. What more can a hostess as for on a Sunday morning? You might notice the recipe calls for gruyere. We served it without and I heard not a single complaint. We paired it with fresh brioche, orange juice and coffee. Brunch was easy from a hosting perspective. As for the guests, the meal was light yet filling - the perfect start to a sunny holiday.

SET THE TABLE

CHEF'S FAVORITE TOOLS

My special hostess secret? I love to eat my breakfast before guests arrive. Yes, a full meal. Not only does this keep me energized, it gives me the peace of mind to relax and focus on the arrival of people. I'm not so patient when I'm hungry, and once the first person comes through the door its "go" time. There are often few opportunities to focus on enjoying the meal myself. There is also the small matter of my two litle girls. When I'm not pouring OJ for someone I'm very likely chasing a toddler through the halls. Thus, my pre-party meal fuels me and makes the entire experience an exercise in "giving" rather than trying to sneak in a bite here or there. Besides, I genuinely love breakfast and like to fully take in the "moment" of the meal solo. 

This little frittata trick will be the basis for many future lazy Sunday brunches to come. I was able to circulate and have easy conversation without keeping my eyes on the food. It also ensured that Mr. Venti could unwind and enjoy the guests. Father's Day or not, I highly recommend you experiment with breakfast dishes you can bake. You'll be smiling and gracious and guests will leave happy and sated. Brunch success by every measure!

{image above of our al fresco Father's Day brunch}

Culinary Pursuits: Breakfast...

Over the course of the past few years I altered my food intake completely. My beef is grass-fed, my eggs are free range brown, I'm gluten-free and milk (if I drink it) is organic and whole. And let's not forget the butter... it's now real butter. Kerrygold Irish butter, to be exact. Before you write me off as a saint, trust that this is the norm and I do eat the occasional cupcake or croissant. But by and large I'm come to realize that it isn't just the type food you eat, but the trusted source of the food. 

In addition to my organic farm-to-table food sources, I also have made major changes in the way I prepare meals. Gone are the days of the microwave. I now heat foods in a toaster oven. We said see ya later to the toxic pans. Most of our meat is grilled outdoors.  

All of that is great for dinner. But what about my favorite meals? I do harbor a certain weakness for breakfast. I could eat the first meal of the day all day, every day. Given the choice, I always opt for a broccoli & egg white omelette with toast. Mmmmm mmmm. This is my perfect breakfast. 

How do I prepare it? It's quite simple, actually. 

The Perfect Egg White & Broccoli Omelette

Steam broccoli florettes & chop into smaller bits
Heat non-stick pan (I prefer these)
Add extra virgin olive oil once pan is heated
Toss in broccoli to lightly sear
Add three to four egg whites
Let eggs turn white before carefully turning over
lightly brown both sides
fold & slide onto plate
add sea salt & fresh ground pepper to taste

The more adventurous of you can easily add in extra veggies such as spinach and diced tomatoes. You may also wish to toss in a handful of feta to make it a bit more indulgent. I love mine just as described with two pieces of this bread or this one toasted to a golden brown in the Breville with the above mentioned butter on top.

This is my idea of heavenly breakfast perfection. What do you eat each morning? Are you a breakfast fan as well? 

KITCHEN HELPERS

Culinary Pursuits: Mongolian Beef...

mongolian

This afternoon I discovered Creme de la Crumb's homemade version of PF Chang's Mongolian Beef. As you may know from reading, I prefer my beef grass-fed and my meals gluten-free. You certainly won't get that at a chain restaurant. Making this (and any) dish at home gives me control over ingredients, portions and sugar/sodium levels. With small children in the house, food allergies are a concern as is convenience. Hence, recreating favorite meals at home is both enjoyable and preferable. 

How difficult is it? The ingredients and steps are fairly simple. Procure the best flank steak you can buy. Whip up that signature sauce. Mix, serve over rice. Viola! For an even faster preparation method, we love using this jasmine rice. I've not actually tested the recipe yet, but you can bet my little judges are eager for me to give it a whirl this coming weekend. 

What about you. Do you have any restaurant recipes you love to recreate at home? 

Culinary Pursuits: Iced Coffee Popsicles...

On the menu... iced coffee popsicles. That's right. Iced coffee popsicles. You'll be dreaming about these tonight and running out to procure the accoutrements tomorrow. This, I promise. So without further ado, the recipe:

The goods...
These amounts are approximate, based on my mold. Mix up about 2 1/4 cups of cold coffee with cream and sugar to your liking. You'll need a little extra sweetened cream for the white tips of the pops.

1 3/4 --- 2 cups cold strong coffee
1/2 --3/4 cup heavy cream, plus extra for the bottom of the molds
sugar to taste

The process...

Set aside 1/3 cup of cream and sweeten it with a little sugar. Stir until completely dissolved.
Pour a little of the cream into the bottom of each mold, just about 1/4 to 1/2 inch high.
Freeze the mold until the cream is solid, about an hour.
Mix the coffee, more cream and sugar (to taste) in a glass measuring cup and stir until the sugar is dissolved. You will need about 2 1/4 cups total. Refrigerate until chilled.
Carefully pour the chilled coffee mixture into each mold, filling it to the top.
Cover the top with foil, and insert the sticks. Freeze until solid.
To un-mold the popsicles, fill your sink with hot water, and submerge the mold in the water right up to, but not past, the top ledge for about 15-30 seconds. If the popsicles don't slide out, submerge it for a few seconds longer.

Tidbit...

This recipe works for a mold with 10 slots, 1/4 cups each. Your mold might hold more or less liquid. Adjust recipe to accommodate your unique popsicle molds.

Culinary Pursuits: Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream...

Hello, hot weather and warm summer days! It seems pool season has arrived, and with it, the noticeable shift in our dietary cravings. Gone are longings for warm foods and steaming beverages. With the mercury rising and the sun high in the sky, I've come to realize that having my beverages on ice is the way to go. With this in mind, I've rounded up some less-than-ordinary ways to enjoy your coffee. These are guaranteed to breathe new life into your summer entertaining. I can assure you this: guests will ask about the delicious coffee that forms the base of each of these marvelous recipes. But who are we kidding... you'll enjoy these all yourself before your guests arrive at the door ;)

First up... ice cream! This is REALLY delicious and perfect for après swim or as a more original option for dessert. (Note: Those of you sensitive to caffeine can opt for using decaf espresso as the foundation ingredient.)

Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart, prep 10 min, chill and process according to your ice cream maker’s instructions, adapted from Cafe Fernando and David Lebovitz

 - 1 cup espresso or very strong coffee
 - 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
 - 1/3 cup heavy cream or whole milk
 - pinch of coarse ground coffee

Whisk to combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.
Chill until cold, then process in your ice cream maker according to the instructions.

Culinary Pursuits: March...

MARCH
MARCH
MARCH
MARCH
Pesche

Add this to your list of cool places to check out in San Fran. MARCH is part kitchen, part pantry, part design studio. By the looks of it, the unique shop might also be the San Francisco's best kept secret for lunch as well. I imagine they do cooking demonstrations and host intimate culinary events on site. Doesn't it look like just the sort of space you'd see Giada sharing her family's recipes and making dinner right before your very eyes? Definitely on my visit list.

For those of us not on the west coast, have a look at their online boutique.