Monday, April 28, 2008

Mother's Little Helper - A Jar of Spagetti Sauce

The cover story for this month's issue of Saveur magazine is dedicated to the quest for the perfect Ragu sauce in Bologna, Italy. There are numerous recipes for delicious sounding, slow-cooked, authentic Italian Ragu dishes - most taking about 3 hours or more to prepare. The very thought of those rich and meaty sauces over fresh-made pasta is enough to make my mouth water in anticipation. While reading the article I started trying to mentally schedule a day when I could devote the 3 to 4 hours needed to make the perfect saucy pasta dish for friends and family to enjoy. After a few minutes of contemplation over the scheduling manipulations that would be required to free up the 4 hours of cooking time needed for my pasta feast, I was forced to admit scheduling defeat. (Scheduling is so hard when you are trying to do it all from Career Woman, to Family Manager to Domestic Goddess!) So maybe I will have to leave the creation of the perfect home-made pasta feast in the capable hands of one of the local Italian restaurants (at least for now), where my only time requirement will be the hour or so to sit and enjoy dinner.

There was another interesting shorter article in Saveur this month, titled "Mother's Little Helper". Deputy Editor, Dana Bowen, talked about her mother, a second generation Italian-American woman, and her surreptiticious use of Ragu-brand pasta sauce as a basis for her own legendary "homemade" Italian sauces. Dana even mentioned that if family and friends were coming over for dinner her mother took great care to throw the store bought sauce jars away in the outside trash cans so that no one would spot the confederates to a true "homemade" meal in the kitchen trash. I wonder if Dana realizes that while her mother was bring old world traditions over to America she was also modifying those traditions to work in an increasingly fast pace society. Her mom's creative uses for store bought pasta sauces as a basis for her own variety of Italian dishes made her an early adopter of the semi-homemade cooking trend which is all the rage in American kitchens today.

Today's cooks are more sophisticated in their tastes but less proficient in their cooking skills than past generations. What they want is slow cooked authentic deliciousness when they dine out and simple dinner solutions that taste homemade for busy meals at home. If you want to appeal to the masses, simple recipes using pre-made ingredients that generate healthy interesting meals in a hurry are just the ticket. Be sure to mix it up with an interesting selection of ethnic dishes as well as simple versions of familiar classics for the broadest reach on usage occasions and the widest appeal to consumers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Latin American Trend

Cinco De Mayo is almost here. What better time to talk about trends in Hispanic cooking....or at least trends in the types of Hispanic foods average America is eating. In the 1990's fast casual Mexican restaurants were extremely popular. No matter what the name of the particular restaurant was over the door, you knew before you even looked at the menu generally what was going to be offered to you - various combinations of similarly seasoned beans, meat, cheese and rice with tortillas or chips. Today those types of Mexican restaurants continue to be ubiquitous through out America, however the true emerging trend is Hispanic-influenced foods. According to Datassential's Food Bytes e-Gazette, 44% of restaurants now offer what they call a "Mexican-Inspired entree" (think of menu items like a tequila lime salsa burgers or a prime rib sandwich with a zesty jalapeno mesquite spread).

Following behind the Mexican-Inspired trend is a new trend towards Latin American foods which would include dishes from Mexico but also foods from the many other Latin American countries located in North, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. New menu items being seen are things like Cuban sandwiches; chimichurri sauces* (popular in Argentina) and ceviche (a popular dish in Peru). In fact a Datassential survey showed that 22% of Americans were very interested in Brazilian foods, which makes it only slightly less popular than Thai.

So as you are thinking about recipes to add to your library it is definitely time to add a few dishes with a Hispanic twist. These could be things like Chipotle Chicken Alfredo or Spicy Lasagna made with habonaras. And if your target consumer is a little more progressive you can start adding in some more exotic Latin American dishes like Brazilian Rice Pudding or a flavorful Puerto Rican Stew. Fruit flavors like coconut, mango and pineapples are also a part of this trend so things like Coconut Infused Rice or a Pineapple Mango Salsa Grilled Chicken are more great menu options. May is a great time to debut your new Latin American-inspired dishes! So grab a margarita if you need the inspiration (or mojitos if you prefer), put on your salsa shoes and say ole! You won't want to miss this deliciously sassy trend!

*Chimichurri sauce is a thick herb sauce or condiment popular in Argentina. It is made from olive oil, vinegar, and finely chopped parsley, oregeno, garlic and onion and then seasoned with salt, cayenne and black pepper.
*Ceviche (also spelled seviche) is fish that has been "cooked" with lime juice. Often ingredients like tomatoes, onion and green peppers are added to the marinade.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Making it Simple

I opened up the April issue of Gourmet magazine and was intrigued by the picture of the Asparagus Ravioli in Parmesan Broth. The soup looked delicious and fresh and matched my desire to find to new recipes that could use the fresh asparagus which are just coming into season. So I flipped to the back to see how to make it. Of course this is Gourmet magazine so the first thing it called for was making fresh pasta dough followed by making fresh chicken stock infused with a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind and then making your own ravioli using, of course, a pasta machine to roll out the dough. OK that sounds absolutely wonderful except for the fact I do not have 2 1/2 hours to make a first course for dinner tonight. So I got to thinking about what I could do to make this delicious sounding soup in an abbreviated version. Below is the recipe I came up with. Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

Ravioli and Asparagus Soup
(Makes 4 first course soup servings in about 20 minutes)

1/2 lbs asparagus (roughly half a bunch)

1 9-oz package fresh refrigerated cheese ravioli

64-oz chicken stock (can substitute vegetable stock if desired)

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cracked black pepper

*Pour chicken stock into a medium to large pot and place on high heat.

*Rinse asparagus. Cut off the bottom portion of the stalks (roughly the bottom 1/3 of the stalks ) and discard. Cut the top portion of the stalk into 2 inch pieces. Set aside until ready to use.

*Once the stock comes to a medium boil reduce heat to medium. Add ravioli and cook according to package directions (roughly 7 minutes).

*When the pasta has 2 minutes left to cook, add cut asparagus pieces to the pot and slowly sprinkle in the Parmesan cheese. Stir well and continue cooking remaining 2 minutes. Season soup with cracked black pepper to taste.

*Ladle into bowls and serve hot.

Voila you have taste fresh homemade soup in minutes - not hours!

Now please do not mistake my recipe makeover as a slight to Gourmet Magazine. My recipe is really more of a tribute to the great work the creative culinary team does over there. The magazine does an outstanding job of delivering deliciously gourmet recipes for me to drool over. Every month it inspires me to try to new flavor combinations and to step out of my familiar cooking patterns to try new things. However, the truly hot on-trend wave in cooking in the average American home right now is semi-homemade cooking. Recipes that use a little creative substitution of pre-made ingredients to make a nearly gourmet version of a meal that mom can bring to her family's dinner table any night of the week. While the true die-hard cooks will happily do scratch-cooking most of us don't have time to do it, at least not on a regular basis. So if you are putting together a collection of recipes for middle America rather than chef and gourmet cook type people, remember to keep it simple, quick and help the consumer take timing saving short cuts whenever possible.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


April is a great season to consider the egg. Both and Martha Stewart Living Magazine have features this month about all the different types of eggs available beyond the standard chicken variety. Even Olive, a food magazine from the UK, starts off its April Starters section (which tracks food shopping, trends and news) with a beautiful picture of blue free range eggs. Maybe the editors of these publications were just all chicken egg-ed out following Easter and decided to look around the world for some variation on the traditional egg. Or maybe it was the emerging season of spring showers (I am talking about the baby and wedding variety here, not the rain producing type) that led to the interest in the most versatile of brunch foods. In any case we are treated to some delightful egg facts and pictures. features a delightfully informative slide show on different types of eggs - from chicken to iguana to the chocolate variety. Each image is adorned with a few informative sentences about the particular type of egg and its uses around the world. Let me just add here that I learned things about the harvesting of iguana eggs to make them truly unpalatable to me..... as if the idea of eating a lizard egg wasn't bad enough by itself.

Martha Stewart Living features a delightful article called Exemplary Eggs . It includes many beautiful egg dish images with the recipes to follow in the back portion of the magazine. Almost all of the recipes, of course, use the standard chicken variety of eggs but there is one recipe for Noodles with Poached Duck Egg that gets into the more exotic. (As soon as I locate some duck eggs I will let you know how the recipe tastes.)

So thinking forward, why not think about adding a few new egg recipes to your recipe library? Eggs are so versatile you can add almost any ingredient to them and come up with a delicious dish - usually in just minutes. You can dress them up for company (think a fancy crepe wrapped asparagus for a Saturday morning brunch) or dress them down for good old comfort food (think rich and egg-y french toast with lots of butter and syrup). Either way the chances are good that your egg dish will be a hit! And if you are feeling particularly gourmet you can always try that Noodles with Poached Duck Egg recipe. Just let us know how it tastes.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring Forward

Spring has officially sprung! We have moved our clocks forward, celebrated Easter and are already trying to think about what to get our mom's for Mother's Day next month. Depending on what part of the country you live in the first flowers are also starting to bloom and the first fresh spring vegetables are making an appearance at your local farmer's market. What a great time of year!

It is the perfect time to shake things up in the kitchen. After a winter of frozen vegetables, start looking for recipes that call for fresh ones. Fruits and vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, beets, butter lettuce, peas and strawberries are just coming into season. Yes I know, through the beauty of intercontinental shipping it is possible to get many of these things imported to your local grocery store year-round, but there is something deliciously fresh about the first local produce of the season. Below is one of my favorite springtime recipes to whet your appetite.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies

2 1-lbs packages refrigerated sugar cookie dough
1 8-oz package cream cheese, room temperature
5 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons whipping cream (could substitute Half and Half)
Fresh Strawberries, sliced

* Bake sugar cookies according to package directions.

*In a small bowl, mix the softned cream cheese, sugar and whipping cream with an electric hand mixer until well blended. The mixture should be the consitancy of frosting. If it is too thick to spread like frosting you can add a little more whipping cream and blend again.

*After the cookies have been allowed to cool, spread a generous layer of cream cheese frosting on top of each cookie then layer on slices of strawberries.

*Serve and enjoy!

A few notes about this cookie, because of the cut strawberries the cookies do not store well. So plan on eating them or setting them out on your buffet table the same morning or afternoon that you make them. If you need to make things ahead of time, I recommend baking the cookies and making the icing in advance (storing the icing in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it) but waiting to slice the strawberries and assemble the cookies with cream cheese icing and fruit right before you are ready to set them out for people to eat. Of course, if you have a little extra time or are feeling particularly gourmet you can always step it up a notch and make the sugar cookies from scratch. My favorite scratch sugar cookie recipe is the Classic Sugar Cookies in the Chocolate-Packed, Jam-Filled, Butter-Rich, No-Holds-Barred Cookie Book by Judy Rosenberg, but you could use whatever one you like.

Happy Spring!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Return to Butter!

I admit it - I have always loved butter. In the 90's I slathered it on bread even when prevailing diet wisdom advised a shift to "heart-healthy" margarine. By the late-90's and into the early 2000's however I, like many other Americans, followed the food trends and shifted to more Mediterranean-style cooking. This, of course, pushed me towards using more olive oil. Butter went from a staring role in most of my meals to an supporting and indulgent role for certain recipes. And as one would expect my rate of grocery store purchases of butter dropped dramatically. More recently though I noticed a gradual increase in recipes calling for butter. Maybe it has been because of our increasing dalliance into new types of ethnic recipes which call for for wonderfully rich ingredients like butter and ghee. It could be due in part to a certain amount of consumer disillusionment with the previous claims of the "heart-healthy" virtues of margarine. I think it also has something to do with just the natural circle of life in all trends (every trend seems to come back into style eventually).

It seems like I am not the only one noticing this delicious butter trend. This month's issue of Saveur magazine is a special issue devoted to "The Beauty of Butter". In the editorial by the Editor-in-Chief, James Oleland, he notes that 2005 was the first year since 1957 that Americans ate more butter than margarine. To me this shift makes sense as you look at how Americans are starting to being more mindful of the foods they eat. There is shift from overly-processed food towards more natural and organic options or at least towards foods with ingredients people can pronounce.

So as you look for recipes to fit your needs think about what type of ingredients your target market prefers - butter, margarine, olive oil, corn oil or something else. You want to keep your recipes diverse and current while being mindful of what staple ingredients your target consumer is currently stocking in her refrigerator and pantry.