Saturday, December 19, 2015

Holiday Food in a Hurry!

While the holidays can be a stressful time of the year, the thought of cooking or even preparing food for a small gathering can be overwhelming. 

So here are a few simple ideas that can make an otherwise stressful process pretty easy. You don't have to make everything yourself. As a matter of fact, you don't have to make anything at all if you really don't want to. There are many prepared foods you can "just put together" that taste amazing and can even satisfy the savviest of your foodie friends. However, you can also impress people with a small amount of effort. 

One of my favorite red's is a very affordable bottle
from the Rhone region of France. 

You can keep the drinks selection simple. Red and white wine, a couple of different beers, and soft drinks are enough to get any party started. Of course the sky is the limit and you can always mix a couple of pitchers of your favorite holiday cocktails ahead of time. 

Everyone loves nibbles, so pick up a couple of snack mixes and put them out in small or medium bowls. Visit the bulk section of the grocery store for some fancy variations. Roasted cashews, almonds, pecans, or pistachios are always popular. Check your market for sweet or savory spiced variations. Wasabi peas work for those with nut allergies. 

Marinated olives are also pretty easy to find at your local grocery store these days, check the salad bar or ask at the deli counter where you can find them. If you can't find them marinated, it is as simple as sprinkling them with a bit of olive oil and dried oregano or thyme. Specialty food markets have many many variations of olives. 

Pick a nice platter or wood cutting board and put out a variation of cheeses. Pick a soft cheese such as brie, a good piece of white cheddar, gruyere, a blue cheese (such as Cambozola), etc. Add some olives, nuts, and even some salami slices, grapes, and put out a variety of crackers. 

You can work magic with goat cheese. Pick up a piece of goat cheese, and sprinkle it liberally with balsamic vinegar, then a bit of olive oil. Add some sliced fresh basil leaves and put it out with crackers. For a different take, drizzle some honey over the goat cheese, and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and serve with crackers. (Thank you Foodie Friend Susan Hugart for the delicious honey variation!)

You can find my favorite Alexian Pate your 
deli counter or prepackaged as pictured.
One of my favorite platters consists of a piece of brie cheese, a nice thick slice of pate (my favorite is Alexian, 2% truffle), and a nice pile of very thinly sliced prosciutto from the deli. I love to add some marinated tomatoes (I find them in Houston on the olive bar at Central Market). Decorate the platter/board with a small bunch of basil leaves, a few lemon wedges (a sprinkle of lemon juice compliments the pate very well) a small bowl of olives, sliced baguette, and crackers (I'm partial to the little square french toasts you can find at most stores for this platter). Your guests can create an endless variation of combinations as they enjoy this tray. 

Savory pinwheels really can make an impression and they are so easy to make. You'll have them ready for the oven before it even preheats. You'll need three ingredients: 

1 box of defrosted Pepperidge Farm puff pastry (there are 2 sheets in the box). 
Thinly sliced prosciutto (prepackaged it fine)
Sliced Provolone cheese (prepackaged is fine)

Remove the puff pastry from the box while you preheat the oven to 400 F.  Make sure to keep the pastry refrigerated until you are ready to use it. 

Unfold the sheet and layer the provolone onto the puff pastry in a single layer and then add a single layer of prosciutto, leaving at least a quarter inch border across the top and sides. 

Roll the sheet up into a round cylinder. Slice the cylinder into 1/3 inch slices with a sharp knife and arrange the pinwheels on a sheet pan, leaving about 2 inches in between each piece. (NOTE: If your puff pastry has become too soft to slice evenly, you can put it into the fridge to firm up before slicing.) 

Bake for about 15 minutes or until they are nice and lightly golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

A variation of this is to use pesto and parmesan cheese instead of the provolone and prosciutto. Just spread the puff pastry with a good amount of pesto and sprinkle liberally with grated parmesan. Proceed to bake 15 minutes or until lightly golden. 

If you need something a bit more substantial, pick up a spiral sliced ham from your local grocery or specialty store and set it out with some small party rolls, or a hearty sliced loaf of bread and some nice grainy mustard. As an alternative you could pick up sliced boneless turkey breast and serve warm or at room temperature. 

For something sweet, a trip to your local bakery should suffice. But for a quick dessert, that looks like you worked all day, I suggest a Trifle. Trifle's can be one of the easiest things to put together. Do a quick google search to find a plethora of recipes or literally just wing it. Here is have simplified a recipe from the iconic Ina Garten. All you need to have on hand: 

1 store bought plain pound cake
1 cup of you favorite berry preserve or jam (i.e.: raspberry or strawberry) 
Your favorite liqueur (framboise, orange, or even cognac) or you can opt to use a little fruit juice such as pineapple or orange. 
2 small packages or 1 large package instant vanilla pudding (made according to package directions - no time for pudding? Buy it made in the snack aisle or omit it all together and layer trifle with extra whipped cream)
2 half pints fresh raspberries 
1 half - pint blackberries or blueberries 
1 pint fresh strawberries
Whipped cream 

Whipped cream recipe: 
2 cups cold heavy cream
1-2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sugar 

Wash and dry the berries, slice the strawberries and mix all berries together in a bowl. 

Cut the pound cake into1/2 inch slices and spread each slice on one side with jam. Set aside. 
Place a layer of cake, jam side up, in the bottom of a trifle bowl or 3-quart glass serving bowl, cutting the pieces to fit. Sprinkle lightly with liqueur or juice. Top with a layer of berries and then with pudding. Repeat the layers ending up with a third layer of cake (jam side down). Pile the whipped cream over the top and you have a very impressive desert. 
Whip the heavy cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer. When it starts to thicken, add the sugar and vanilla and continue to whip until it forms stiff peaks. 
I hope you have found even one suggestion on this post helpful and I wish you all a very Happy Holiday season free of cooking stress! 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Second Annual Thanksgiving Throwdown! This year's dish? Pumpkin Pie!

I was invited to "wrangle" pumpkin pies at the Second Annual Thanksgiving Throw Down on the Cleverley Radio Show last week. As official wrangler my job was to coordinate all entires and provide blind samples of 6 pies for three judges to decide which pie tasted best, was the most imaginative and finally was the best looking. As the official wrangler, I was not allowed to influence the judges by offering my opinions... which was tough, because I usually have pretty strong opinions! 
Chef Kiran Verma's Pumpkin Pie

The winner for best tasting pie was unanimous and I am happy to add that it was also my choice. Congratulations to Chef Kiran Verma of Kiran's Indian Restaurant! When it came down taste this was one of the best pumpkin pies I have ever put in my mouth. The crust was fresh, buttery and crisp and the filling was light and custardy with a diverse but not overpowering spice blend with subtle Indian nuances that left you wanting more. The good news is that Chef Kiran is making this pie available as part of her "Kiran's Thanksgiving at Home"  Make sure to read through the offerings here because even if you aren't looking to totally outsource your Thanksgiving meal, you can certainly add creative element's when it comes to sides and of course deserts. 
Tandoor Roasted Turkey
The Tandoor roasted turkey is another culinary feat featured in the Houston Chronicle last year. The recipe can be found here on an earlier post in my blog.  I have big Greek family, and one of the things we do well is cook. However, Kiran's pumpkin pie will be on our desert table this year. 
B & B Butcher's Pumpkin Pie
Now, on to the best looking pie! The award went to Ben Berg's B&B Butchers for their version of pie which included a surprise ingredient. There was a layer of artisanal bacon between the crust and the filling adding a savory slant to the flavor profile. Also incorporated into the pie was Dr. Pepper.. Yes, that is correct... Dr. Pepper. On top are more sweet and savory elements such as whipped cream, candied bacon bits, along with a drizzle of a Dr. Pepper based sauce.  

The pie is available as part of B&B's "Butcher Shop Thanksgiving Menu" which includes a plethora of other choices from turkey to prime rib and a melange of traditional sides and deserts. If you haven't been to B&B's yet to dine or to sample the the fare available at the Butcher shop, get there as fast as you can. You can thank me later. And don't forget to pick up some of New York's finest bagels, made right here in Houston at the Butcher shop. Tell Bob, John sent you! 
Lady Luck's Pumpkin Pie
Finally, the pie that won for most creative was submitted by Facebook Houston Foodie Friend member, chef and caterer Lauren Kelly of Lady Luck Catering. Lauren's pie had a distinct chocolate topping that set it apart from the others while it also delivered a traditional pumpkin flavor profile. I found the  addition of pecans to the filling to be quite pleasing. 
Pies to go from Lady Luck! 
You can order pies throughout the holiday season from Lady Luck Catering on line. Also, look for Lady Luck Catering on Facebook

Saturday, September 19, 2015

It's Fall, Did someone say Pumpkin Roll?

Tikaa Cone's Pumpkin Roll
You see them ready made in bakeries, grocery stores and even at Costco. But wouldn't it be great if you could whip one up yourself with ingredients you already have in your fridge and pantry? 

I ran across this recipe my friend Tikaa Cone published on her blog I always call Tikaa the "Country" Martha Stewart because she has exquisite style with a very down home feel. Her family and home are straight out of a Southern Living magazine spread. Tikaa likes to keep things simple and that's what attracted me to try this recipe. I think it may take more than one try to perfect the technique, but it's not hard and there isn't a long list of ingredients to pull together. In interest of full disclosure Tikaa found the recipe on a friend's YouTube channel so if you would like to see step by step instructions go to Kristin Gehm's post

                                        Pumpkin Roll

                                         Ingredients for Cake 
                                 3 eggs
                                 2/3 cup 100% Pure Pumpkin
                                 1 cup Sugar
                                 1 teaspoon Baking Soda
                                 1/2 teaspoon Cinnamon (heaping) 
                                 3/4 cup Flour
                                 Powdered Sugar for dusting

                                      Ingredients for Filling 
                                8 ounces of Cream Cheese, softened 
                                2 tablespoons Butter, softened 
                                3/4 teaspoon Vanilla
                                1 cup Powdered Sugar 

Preheat over to 375F. 

Prepare a 10X15 jelly roll pan (cookie sheet with sides). Lightly grease the pan with Crisco and then line with a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper and then grease the paper as well.  I used non stick parchment and it worked best. 

In a stand mixer, beat three eggs together lightly. Add the pumpkin puree and mix until incorporated. Add sugar. In a small bowl whisk together baking soda, cinnamon, and flour. Blend the flour mixture with the other ingredients and beat until well combined on medium to medium high speed. 

Scrape batter into cookie sheet spreading it out evenly. Bake for 13-15 minutes until lightly brown and springy to the touch. While the cake is baking lay out a tea towel or kitchen towel and cover it liberally with a good dusting of powdered sugar. 

Remove Cake from oven and while still quite warm,  turn it over onto the sugar coated towel. Carefully remove wax paper. Fold the end of the towel over the cake and slowly roll it into a cylinder keeping it as tight as possible as you go.  Let the cake cool for at least an hour. You can store it in the fridge until you are sure it is no longer warm. 

Mix together cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat a bit longer. Carefully add the powdered sugar and beat until light and fluffy. 

When the cake is totally cool, carefully unroll it and spread frosting over entire cake, making sure to leave a small border around the edges. Carefully, roll it back up as tightly as possible so it maintains a circular shape. Sprinkle with additional sifted powdered sugar. 

You can serve immediately or chill first.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Oxheart - A much anticipated experience leaves me wondering

There are times when great reviews coupled with an intense national buzz about a local restaurant makes us want to run out and see what all the excitement is about right in our own back yards. Of course it's never easy to actually get a table at such avant-garde eateries. And this my foodie friends is what spurred my acute interest in dining at Oxheart Restaurant in Houston's warehouse district. Chef Justin Yu has cooked in Chicago, Napa, Denmark, as well as Belgium but returned to Houston last year to open Oxheart. 

I found the building and interior, stark, retro and modern all at once – an inviting setting where the food can take center stage. I read that the menu was seasonal and that it changes more often that seasonally to showcase locally sourced ingredients. I joined a group of 5 friends who were all eager to try Oxheart. (6 is the largest party the restaurant can accommodate at one table.) We booked about a month in advance, which allowed for a good amount of anticipation to build. I checked the menu weekly to witness for myself how it might change over time, but it stayed exactly the same. 

There are two tasting menus to choose from, one of which is vegetarian. Both consist of six courses. You may also opt for a drinks pairing menu to accompany your meal. 
Dried beets soaked in tangerine juice, with kaffir lime, shiso, and mandarin peel 
Our first course was the dried beets soaked in tangerine juice, with kaffir lime, shiso and mandarin peel. It was evident that a great deal of thought and labor went into this plate, but in the end it didn't make an impression. I just don't see how some thinly sliced pickled beats draped over a few tangerine segments would taste much different. 

Slowly roasted and charred sunchokes brushed with honey, jasmine tea and salted cream
My favorite dish of the night came next, the slowly roasted and charred sunchokes brushed with honey, jasmine the and salted cream really were impressive. The texture and caramelization of sunchokes was outstanding. Combined with the sauces on the plate the taste was memorable and left me wanting more. 
Black Spanish radishes and a sofrito of dried shellfish, with steamed gulf crawfish and fragrant herbs 
Next up was the Black Spanish radishes and a sofrito of dried shellfish, with steamed gulf crawfish and fragrant herbs. Once again, it was evident that a lot of time went into this elaborate dish. But many of my fellow diners were left wondering whether it was worth it.  
Stew of preserved allium and 'indica' rice, with charred scallions
The fourth course was quite complex in its simplicity. My first reaction to the stew of preserved allium and 'indica' rice, with charred scallions was that again too much time was spent on something unremarkable but as I took in a second spoonful the flavors began to build and I thoroughly enjoyed my portion. 
Lightly smoked wild boar, with pork thailande, fermented mustards, and kohlrabi 
The final savory course was the lightly smoked wild boar with pork thailande, fermented mustards, and kohlrabi. The presentation was impressive however, I did not need to know that the wild boar was trapped in West Texas and that it had been fed a strict diet of acorns for the last 6 weeks of its life. The dish itself was adequate. However, I believe this dual treatment of pork missed the mark. 
Carrot mousse glazed in Greenway coffee, with sable breton and citrus
The dessert course was quite petite and pleasing to the eye. Great care was once again clearly employed in creating the small carrot mousse glazed in Greenway coffee, with sable breton and citrus. Unfortunately, the flavor was even less than subtle. 

Overall the meal fell quite short of my expectations. My adventurous dining companions resoundingly shared my sentiment. Which leads me back to how the anticipation built over time would have been hard to live up to. I must say that the service at Oxheart is beyond reproach. The staff is courteous, respectful and very knowledgeable and that is something to be very thankful for when it is such a rarity these days. 

Would I go back? Probably not for a long time and only if the seasonal menu piqued my interest. 

Fresh Ricotta - There is no substitute!

Fresh Ricotta
I recently set out on a quest to source fresh ricotta cheese in Houston, I am sad to report I was unsuccessful. I wanted the type of ricotta that you can get when you walk into any Italian market in New York, New Jersey or Philadelphia. The type of market I profoundly wish would open in Houston. I found prepackaged whole milk ricotta in local stores which would have worked, but I was really seeking an exceptional quality ricotta. I have not yet been to Houston Dairymaids, where I have been told I might find fresh ricotta. Instead I decided to make a bold culinary move (bold for me) and research how to make ricotta at home. I was pleasantly surprised as to how easy the process appeared. So, I began experimenting and what you see here is the result.

The active time involved is basically the amount of time it takes to measure 4 ingredients and bring them to a boil. I highly encourage you to try your hand at creating this creamy delight. I believe you will be very glad you did and I venture to say you'll never buy ricotta at the grocery store again.  


  • 4 cups whole milk 
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar


Bring milk, cream, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat. Add vinegar and stir gently until mixture starts to curdle. Let stand 4 minutes.

Pour mixture into a fine-mesh sieve lined with 2-3 layers of cheesecloth set over a medium bowl. Let stand for at least 25 minutes. The longer it strains the thicker the cheese will become, I find that 1-2 hours will yield a very firm texture. 

Cover and chill cheese in the refrigerator until ready to use. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

What to cook when it gets cold?

It’s been just about as cold as it gets during winter in Houston lately and that’s had me thinking about cooking comforting, uncomplicated, and relatively easy meals. This first one is a soup, comes together rather quickly and can be served within an hour from start to finish.

Potato Leek Soup

3 tablespoons olive oil (more if needed to cover bottom of your pot)
3 leeks*, white and light green parts only, cleaned well and finely sliced or chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
1 large shallot finely sliced
½ cup white wine
Small bunch of fresh thyme tied together with kitchen string. (If you don’t have fresh a couple of teaspoons of dry will do)
1 bay leaf
3 lbs potatoes but into chunks (Yukon Gold or Russet)
6 cups low sodium chicken broth (more if necessary to cover potatoes)
1 teaspoon salt
½  teaspoon fresh ground pepper (white if you have it)
½ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
½ cup heavy cream
Sour cream, chives or finely sliced green onions for garnish

Heat a heavy bottomed 4-5 quart pot (I prefer an enameled cast iron pot) over medium heat. Add olive oil, leeks, garlic and shallot and cook over medium heat until the vegetables have wilted and become translucent, but not browned. Add white wine to deglaze. 

Stir in thyme and bay leaf, salt, pepper and potatoes. Pour in the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and continue to simmer until the potatoes are fork tender.

Remove the thyme and bay leaves. Let pot cool slightly and then puree using an immersion blender. Alternately, you can puree in a blender or food processor in batches. Pay attention not to overfill your container if you need to work in batches. Return to pot. If the mixture is too thick you may add more broth to bring it to a desired consistency. Stir in sour cream until it melts into the soup. Stir in cream. Adjust seasonings and serve. Garnish with a big dollop of sour cream, and minced chives or green onion.

* To clean leeks – Cut off the tops and bottoms of the leeks, then cut in half lengthwise. Rinse each half under running water making sure water gets to each layer and to remove any sand and grit between the leaves.

The second recipe requires more cooking time than it does prep time, but you can have this delicious meal on the table for dinner in just over an hour once you get it simmering.

My cousin Marcella Lolos shared this recipe with me years ago after she cooked it for dinner one night and I love it.

Marcella’s Hungarian Goulash

2 Tbs olive oil
2 Tb butter
3-4 lbs stew meat (cubed)
1 large onion chopped
3 garlic cloves minced
½ tsp dry mustard
3 tsp paprika
¾ cup ketchup
2 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups water (or enough to cover meat)

Add olive oil and butter to a heavy bottomed 5-6 quart pot (I prefer enameled cast iron). Brown meat in batches over medium high heat until nicely caramelized. Reserve meat.

Add onions to pot on medium heat and stir until they become translucent and slightly caramelized. Add garlic and stir for one minute. Stir in dry mustard, paprika, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar. Return meat to pot. Add about a teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper, then pour in enough water to cover meat by at least half an inch.  Bring to a simmer. Cover and continue simmering about an hour or until meat becomes tender and sauce reduces and begins to slightly thicken.  Serve over buttered noodles.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Aji Peruvian Cafe - The next best thing if you can't get to Machu Picchu

I was recently indoctrinated to the wonders of Peruvian cuisine when I was invited to an impromptu dinner by my commercial real estate broker and cousin, Gus Lagos. Gus knows a good thing when he sees it, so he was quick to invite me to Aji located off the beaten path in West Houston. 
We were warmly greeted by co-owner Pilar Forkel upon our arrival. One thing Pilar does not lack is personality. She is a breath of fresh air and was eager to describe the national dishes of Peru. That evening I sampled causitas, mashed potatoes flavored three different ways and topped with Peruvian chicken salad. Each iteration was replete with it's own flavor and sauce. 

Picante de Mariscos
The Picante de Moriscos bursted with fresh flavors from the sea and was enrobed in a spicy cream sauce, served with rice and deftly fried yucca. 
Saltado de Carne
The Saltado de Carne, which is tenderloin stir fried with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro has left me wanting to have this dish again. The flavors are terrific. 

Tres Leches Cake
That evening we finished the meal with a most different version of the South American sensation, Tres Leches Cake. It was layered with a filling that was described as fruit based. I am somewhat of a Tres Leches aficionado and I have to say  I found it absolutely delicious. It's unusual to find a layered Tres Leches rendition and especially one so moist. 

It was inevitable that I had to make a return visit to Aji, so within about two weeks I was back, this time with my dear friend and fellow foodie Susan Poe in tow. 

One of the most refreshing drinks I've ever had is a Chicha Morada and it's made from purple corn. I had never heard of it, but it's such a surprising mix of flavors including hints of cinnamon and fruits. I have asked Pilar to please bottle and sell this elixir. You must try one when you visit! There are also many fresh Peruvian juice drinks on offer. 
Fried Pork Sandwich
I couldn't deny Susan the opportunity to try the Causitas, and they were just as good if not better than what I remembered from my first visit. But I was anxious to sink my teeth into one of the Peruvian sandwiches on the menu. I chose the fried pork. The pork is not breaded. It is simply deep fried and layered with thinly sliced sweet potato slices and salsa criolla. Trust me on this one. 
Spaghetti Huanciana
Susan opted for a very festively colored pasta dish, that was 

topped with the aforementioned beef saltado, so how bad could it be?! The sauce gets it's vibrant color from cilantro and a Huancaina sauce. I feared it would be pasty but it was smooth and silky with an unusual hint of evaporated milk that mellowed out the flavors. 

Chocolate Cake with dulce de leche filling
Once again desert was unavoidable. This apparent Peruvian specialty marries a dense chocolate layer cake with dulce de leche and a thick creamy chocolate frosting. If I had to do it again, I would have ordered a tall glass of cold milk to go with it.

All in all Aji Peruvian Cafe is a small local restaurant that brings something different to the neighborhood. There isn't a plethora of Peruvian restaurants in Houston and I welcome this newcomer whole heartedly. 

Ahi does not however come onto the scene without a touch of controversy. The chef and some three employees who are all quite happily turning out dish after dish to locals and Peruvians from all parts of town used to work at another much larger Peruvian restaurant called Latin Bites. Co-Owner of Latin Bites, Carlos Ramos has made accusations in an actual press release that Aji has allegedly copied many of Latin Bites' recipes. Having researched Peruvian cuisine in the last few weeks it is my opinion that both restaurants serve traditional Peruvian dishes and that's where the similarities end. I don't believe Aji's meager eight tables could possibly be a threat to the few other Peruvian restaurants in town.  

If you live in West Houston Aji Peruvian Cafe should be on your restaurants to try in 2015 list. Maybe they should be on your list even if you don't live nearby.