Monday, May 11, 2009

Moving, moving, moving

Hello readers! Culinary Casual is moving to!! Please check soon for the fresh new blog, recipes, article links and more!

Thanks for your support,


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Adios Verano

How could it be over so quickly? It was already dark when I emerged from the subway last night. It was only 7:30pm. Two days ago, I left for work a little earlier than normal in the morning and that very particular smell hung in the air. Instead of the air being heavy with the impending humidity of the day, it was the crisp, cool mustiness of fall that rushed my nostrils. Part of me is seduced by the idea of brisk nights spent with apple cider spiked with bourbon and cinnamon, creamy pumpkin pie, and roasted poultry stuffed and rubbed with copious sage. There’s something appealing about dragging out that box of sweaters, scarves, and furry boots and dusting them off while tossing all these boring tank tops and tattered flip flops back into storage.

Now wait one minute here, let’s not get in some sort of poached pear and spiced cream induce autumnal daze. Sure we’ve had three solid months of hot, sticky, sweltering heat here in the Northeast. We may be sick of the putrid heat on the subway platforms, our tired summer uniforms of jean shorts and scant tops, the stomach churning change from sauna to icebox of central air, and our astronomical Coned bills because of those damned window air-conditioning units. . .but don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what we lose at the end of summer. I know I, for one, will pine for ragtag picnics at outdoor movies, guilty street fair pleasures like charred corn and dripping gyros, and fruity slushy drinks at the beach. I don’t know about you, but I think I can choke down a few more ears of sweet corn, and I know for certain I have not had even close to my fill of honeyed-juice-running-down-your-chin peaches or warm perfect field tomatoes.

At least for a week or so, I plan to cling desperately to summer and make the best of it, at least culinarily speaking. I am not ready to start braising and roasting. The pumpkins and pears can wait. So join me in a dish that celebrates both the best of the season (fresh produce, bright flavors) and makes the best of the worst of it (no need to turn on a stove or oven).

Shrimp Ceviche

Ceviche is a traditional Latin American seafood dish. It’s light, fresh, and lively, perfect at the height of a sweltering summer. The citrus juice in ceviche denatures the proteins or “cooks” them in fruit acid without the use of heat. When making ceviche with less dense seafood like bay scallops or white fish (red snapper, Chilean sea bass, halibut, etc.) there is no need to pre-poach the seafood; cut in small pieces the seafood will “cook” thoroughly in the citrus juice. Shrimp, however, are dense, and it is wise to pre-poach them briefly before they marinate.

1 lb Fresh Shrimp, peeled and deveined leaving the tails attached

3/4 cup diced fresh jicama, 1/4 inch pieces

1/2 cup finely chopped red onion

3/4 cup diced pineapple, 1/4 inch pieces

1/2 c fresh squeezed lime juice

1 lime, cut in half, not juiced

1/2 c fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/2 c finely chopped fresh cilantro

1 T very finely chopped fresh jalapeño, ribs and seeds removed

2 avocados, diced into 1/4 inch pieces

1 T salt for ceviche, 2 T salt for poaching water

For Serving: Extra jicama thinly sliced into planks or Blue or Yellow Tortilla Chips

Bring a large pot with approx. 1 gallon of water to boil with 1 lime cut in half and squeezed into the water (put the squeezed rind in the water as well) and 2 T salt. Reduce the water to a slow simmer and add the shrimp. Poach for 40 seconds (do not overcook) and remove them to a bowl full of ice water to stop the cooking immediately. Drain the shrimp, remove the tails, and dice them in 1/4 inch pieces. The shrimp should look underdone in the middle, as they will finish “cooking” in the citrus juices. Put the shrimp in a non-reactive (not aluminum or copper) bowl with the lemon and lime juice, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, add all of the rest of the ingredients (including the 1 T salt) except the avocado and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours. Just before serving, gently fold the avocado into the mixture. Serve the ceviche on Tortilla Chips or thin slices of jicama as hors d’oeuvres or by itself for a light, refreshing lunch.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Money, Manicures, and Mussels

There are two things that are cheap in New York City, manicures and flowers. Since moving to New York City seven years ago I have tried to figure out why in place where a casual meal for two in a average restaurant costs more than $80, a pint of beer in a dive bar can hurt you for $7, and a studio apartment with the bathtub conveniently located in the kitchen is over $1000 a month, you can buy 2 dozen glorious roses at any corner bodega for less than $10 and get your nails sparkled and shined at your neighborhood nail salon for less than the price of a Brooklyn Lager on tap. I suppose it’s supply and demand, at least in my primitive understanding of supply and demand. There are a bazillion people in New York City clamoring to buy flowers and get their nails done, so clever bodega flower purveyors and neighborhood salon owners can make money not by lots of mark-up but by lots of sales. Wait though, there are lots of people to buy beer and eat in casual restaurants. As far as apartments go, New Yorkers are constantly asking friends if they know a friend who knows of an apartment. . . but I guess that’s maybe sort of supply and demand too, just the other way around? O.k., so clearly my expertise does not lie in the subjects of consumerism or business practices, maybe I should just stick with what I know.

Especially as of late, New Yorkers aren’t the only ones that have been feeling the hurt when it comes to their food dollars. Grocery prices all over the country are skyrocketing, and we all need some culinary penny saving inspiration. After years of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and years of struggling in this city as a wish-I-wasn’t-so-starving artist, I have cultivated some tricks and perfected some go to recipes.

1. Frozen vegetables are your best friends. Unlike their canned cousins, frozen vegetables are generally picked at the height of their growing season and often flash frozen individually using a process called IQF, which preserves their texture and flavor. My personal favorites are frozen peas. Thaw these brilliant nuggets on the counter or under running tepid water and throw them strait into soups, stews, salads, and pastas for freshness and flavor for mere pennies. Warning: Simply thaw, do not cook them before you toss them in to your favorite dishes. They are cooked quickly and then frozen immediately to retain their color and texture. You don’t want to ruin all of that hard work by microwaving or boiling them so that they wrinkle and mush. Just put them into your creations with enough time to warm through.

2. When only steak will do, think skirt. Skirt steak, found in most grocery meat counters for a fraction of what any of the “steakhouse” cuts go for, is extremely flavorful and easy to prepare. Similar in to flank steak, but in my opinion far more succulent and tender, skirt steak takes well to marinating, but there is no need. Simply liberally salt and pepper the skirt steak, grill or pan fry in just a little neutral oil on very high heat for just a few minutes per side and let the steak rest before slicing. The key to succulent skirt steak is to slice it before serving, fairly thin, and always across the pronounced grain of the steak to enhance tenderness.

3. Don’t be afraid of the bi-valves. Many of us have only enjoyed oysters, mussels, clams, cockles, etc. in restaurants. That must mean they are incredibly expensive and difficult to prepare, right? Not on your life. Mussels and clams, specifically, are shockingly affordable (often under $3 a pound, a pound of mussels or little neck clams can mean 2-3 dozen, plenty for a hearty meal for two). As for ease, both clams and mussels simply need to be steamed in a little liquid in a covered pot just until their shells open on their own. Of course, a few more flavorful ingredients can really sweeten the pot.

Spanish Steamed Mussels

Serves 2 (double, triple, quadruple the recipe to feed more, just make sure your pot is big enough)

3 dozen Fresh Mussels

1/2 lb Spanish (dried not fresh) Chorizo, sliced thin

1 12 oz jar Roasted Sweet Red Peppers, very roughly chopped (about 1 cup when chopped)

1/4 c Finely Chopped Shallot

1 T Olive Oil

1 c Finely Chopped Fresh Flat Leafed Parsley

3/4 c White Wine

2 T Unsalted Butter

Crusty Bread such as a baguette, Italian loaf, sourdough, etc.

Wash the mussels under cold water to remove any dirt from their shells. If any mussels still have the “beard” attached – hairy looking filaments coming from the shell - pull off the beards and discard. If a mussel is not tightly closed or will not close tightly and stay closed when pinched together, discard it. When clean, keep the mussels in the fridge or on ice until right before they go into the pot. In a large heavy bottomed dutch oven or stock pot, heat 1 T olive oil over medium high heat. Sautee the chorizo and shallots together, until the shallots soften and the chorizo browns a bit at the edges. Add the red pepper and cook just to warm through. Add the wine and let it come to a simmer. As soon as the wine is simmering, add the mussels all at once, stir once gently and immediately cover. Steam for 4-5 minutes shaking the pot every minute just until the mussels open. Discard any mussels that don’t open. Do not over cook mussels or they will get tough. As soon as the mussels are open add the parsley and butter and stir gently to melt the butter and combine. Serve the mussels and their flavorful juice in large bowls immediately. Sop up the delicious juice with the crusty bread.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Avocado Dreamin'

Avocados have followed me throughout my life, or perhaps I have followed them. After spending their entire lives in the St. Louis area, my parents, with youthful abandon, decided to pick themselves and little six-month-old April up and flee the Midwest to settle in sunny California amongst shining stars of L.A., the citrus trees, the smog, and the avocados. It was there that my family embraced, no obsessed over, California’s take on Mexican cuisine. To this day, you would be wise not to get my mom started on the topic of the “real” way to make a Chile Relleno. It is a debate you will not win and will walk away from feeling abashed. Avocados were everywhere in my California youth; growing in my neighbor’s backyard, starring in simple guacamoles in pig shaped molcajetes at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant, and sliced and scooped up with fresh made flour tortillas at my babysitter’s house just down Golden Street. When my family moved back to the Midwest when I was in 4th grade, it was that Cal-Mex flavor we would seek like the grail, rarely to much avail. Just starting out as a young actor in New York City, I was thrilled to get my first gig. . .as a hostess and later server at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. If a dish of Bobby’s didn’t have chipotle it had avocado in it; who am I kidding, it usually had both. Now, as a chef, avocados are one of my go to ingredients.

There is something so complete about the avocado. Few foods feel so decadent and so enriching at the same time. Avocados are high in vitamins B, E, and K and have more potassium than bananas. Although they do have high fat content for a fruit, most of that fat is monounsaturated and they are packed with more fiber than any other fruit. Avocados can take a simple salad of romaine, tomatoes, and red onion and make it a rich and satisfying meal. Normally, I would never mess with the perfect balance of something like the BLT, but add a little sliced avocado and perfection becomes ambrosia. Avocados are such an amazing ingredient because they can not only scrumptiously heighten the everyday but are also sublime with little to no finagling.

The epitome of that simple lusciousness shines in guacamole. In fact, my golden rule of guacamole creation is the simpler the better. Adding sour cream, salsa, cream cheese, or any other such nonsense will only serve to distract from the perfection of the avocado. On the flip side, certain additions like cilantro, lime juice, and salt will actual serve to bring out the flavor of the naturally mild avocado. The crunch and bite of onion (in moderation) makes the silken flesh of the avocado feel even more sensuous.

Guacamole can be a very personal thing. Some will argue that it is just plain offensive to not include jalapeños in the recipe. Personally, I don’t want to mask the avocados brilliance with heat. Some may wonder, if guacamole is good why not add other good things like corn and black beans and make it even better? I say if I’m making guacamole, I want to eat avocados, no distractions, no masking, and no adding. Truthfully it feels a little uncomfortable to call the following a recipe. I didn’t create its deliciousness, nature did. I just mashed it up a little and put it in a bowl.


Makes 1 ½ cups of dip

2 ripe Haas Avocados*

½ cup yellow onion chopped fine

1/3 c fresh lime juice

½ c fresh cilantro, chopped

Kosher Salt

Mix avocado and lime juice, mashing avocado with a fork until slightly creamy but not completely smooth. Stir in onion and cilantro. Season with salt to taste. Note, salt really brings out the flavor of the avocado and is an important ingredient in guacamole.

*Avocados oxidize and turn brown very quickly, the lime juice will slow the process, but serve guacamole as immediately as possible.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Enter into Summer

The best thing about my new job is walking in the front door. When you walk into Whole Foods Market, Union Square, you walk through an automatic sliding door into a small vestibule before you walk through another sliding door in to the store. By no accident, this vestibule is always stocked full of the most fragrant fruit. One day it is stacked high with bright, bumpy pineapple, another with brilliant red, plump strawberries. . . and then there are the peaches, bright and warm smelling. The honeyed sweet smell almost knocks you over. If it weren’t for the throngs of people constantly streaming into the entrance pushing me to that second door, I could stand in that vestibule for hours.

Filled with the tedium of email set up, benefit paperwork, orientations and trainings, my first week was not exactly a culinary dream. Yet, each morning I would walk through that vestibule and be transported to the warm summer afternoons of my youth, coming in from playing on the swing set in the backyard or later coming home from a day idling cruising around in someone’s nearly broken down boat of a car with the windows down and the music up to a dinner of chicken and dumplings, sliced tomatoes from pop’s garden, and a warm peach crisp for dessert. Each morning I walked through that vestibule, I knew as soon I could start cooking, it would be that memory I wanted to share first.

There are many ingredients that beg you to do nothing. It can be a shame to fiddle with the sheer perfection of a juices-running-down-your-arm peach, a pristinely briny oyster, or a tomato still hot from the garden by sautéing, braising, or any such nonsense. I am, however, a chef, and sometimes I just can’t help myself. I need to get my hands in and my creation on. Early this summer, when I first started walking through that vestibule it was the strawberries that called to me. So, I did what I had to do. For my very first cooking demonstration, I made strawberry rhubarb crisp. The crisp is a fantastic way to do almost nothing to perfect fruit, whether the fruit is sweet juicy summer berries, luscious stone fruit, or tart fall apples. I knew it would be a great way for me to celebrate the coming summer, the glorious produce, and – secretly – present to strangers what moves me about food. And they got it.

So I suppose being able to share what food inspires in me with random strangers as they gobble up what I created, snap up the recipe, read it carefully, and ask me questions about, may indeed be the best thing about my new job. . .but that vestibule really is something to behold.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp


3 lbs Fresh Strawberries

2 lbs Fresh Rhubarb

1 c White Sugar

½ c Brown Sugar, packed

1/3 c All-Purpose Flour

Streusel (Crisp Topping):

1 ½ c All-Purpose Flour

1 c Brown Sugar, packed

½ c White Sugar

½ lb (2 sticks) Unsalted Butter, Cold, plus an extra T room temp for buttering pan

1 c Quick Oats

½ t Kosher Salt

¼ t Ground Cinnamon

¼ t Ground Nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Dice butter into small pieces and then return it to the refrigerator so it stays very cold. Butter a 9x13 baking dish.

For the Fruit:

Trim the ends of the rhubarb, split them in half lengthwise, and slice the stalks into ¼ inch slices. Hull and cut the strawberries in halves or quarters, depending on the size of each berry, the pieces should be fairly uniform. Toss the fruit with sugars, salt, and flour and let the mixture sit at room temperature while you make the streusel. The liquids will release somewhat.

For the Streusel:

Mix flour, sugars, oats, and spices with a whisk so they are incorporated, making sure to break up the brown sugar. Cut the cold butter into the mixture using a pastry cutter, stand mixer, or two knives until the biggest pieces are the size of lentils.

Putting it all together:

Pour the fruit mixture into the buttered baking dish. Top with the oat mixture loosely; use your hands or a spoon to do this. It will be a thick layer, slightly higher than the sides of the baking dish. Do not pack the mixture down.

Bake at 350 degrees F for about 1 hour until the top is brown and the fruit is bubbling at the edges. You may put the baking dish on a sheet tray to catch any dripping. Let the crisp cool at least 30 minutes before digging in or the fruit will be too runny. Serve it warm or at room temperature; plain or topped vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

And so here I am with a career. . .

School’s out, and I lucked out and got an amazing job as my very first job as a chef. I am the Demonstration Chef Specialist for Whole Foods Market, Union Square, NYC. Quite a mouthful, I know. What it means is that I create recipes and food programs using the products we sell at Whole Foods Market, and then do “demos” on the sales floor. Sometimes these demos are simple; sampling an ice cream, olive oil, or beverage the company is excited about and wants to sell. The demos I love and the ones that really allow me to shine, though, are my creative demos. I create recipes highlighting something in the store; our farm-raised catfish, jicama, our private label dried pastas, etc. I test the recipes. Our store graphic artists put these on my official recipe cards (cool, huh). Then I cook the dish on the sales floor and answer questions about the recipe. I also get to do similar demos exclusively for the staff. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t even imagine a job like this existed, blending my passion for food, and my background in public speaking, writing, and teaching.

Finishing school, leaving my old 9-5, and starting this new job has really enveloped me, and poor little Culinary Casual has been the hardest hit. From here on out, however, I vow to no longer leave my blog and its faithful readers in the cold. I will be posting new entries weekly, every Monday morning. So, tune in, read, cook, and comment.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Mid-Winter Day's Dream

I’m dying here. Down with boots, scarves, and sweaters! Is it ever going to be daylight anymore? It never is when I get to go outside. Speaking of outside, why does going there have to be such a physically painful experience, what with biting wind and stinging snow and sleet? Sure when the snow fell last week it was gingerbready for all of about ten minutes, until the cars whizzed past and people trudged by in the dirty, fuzzy boots.

Even the food is getting me down –gasp. Sure, brussel sprouts, butternut squash, and braising were exciting in October, November, December, and even a few weeks into January, but enough is enough. I want vegetables that are still warm from the fields when I pick them out of the bin at the farmers’ market. I want the smell of berries to be so overwhelmingly fragrant and sweet you can still smell them on your clothes when you get back home. I want cold, fresh ceviche and hot, sticky bar-b-que. I want pink, crisp rose wine and Mexican beer spiked with lime. . .and I want all of it all outside under the glowing sun! I want it to be summer.

I realize, of course, that I am out of luck here in blustery New York City, at least for two or three more months. What I also know, and believe like a religion, is that food can transport you. Fresh, seasonal ingredients are the first and most important step to making a truly great dish, and I am not proposing that anyone start grilling up corn on the cob and eating tomatoes simply sliced in the middle of January. Ewww. However, there are a few things you can cook up on these endless winter nights, with ingredients that don’t take too much of a winter beating, that can help you ride it out. It won’t be quite the same as slicing a warm tomato just brought in from my dad’s garden to eat with BBQ ribs cooked all day outside on the grill followed by fresh peach crisp, but it might just help you see the light at the end of the snow storm.

Ian’s Frozen Tequila Sunrise

Ian and I constantly have at least five bottles of amazing tequila in our apartment. Now that may sound a little suspicious, but it is because we are fortunate enough to be able to get it from the source. Ian’s mom, a native of Mexico, travels to see her family in Mexico City about once a year, and in her infinite kindness makes sure to bring home to us plenty of liquid souvenirs! While this drink is a simple twist on a classic, that little twist turns an ordinary bar cocktail into a summery treat.

For 1 Drink

1.5 oz Silver (Blanco or Plata) or Reposado Tequila (if it’s not 100% agave it’s not tequila if you ask me)

3 oz Fresh Orange Juice (or as fresh and you can get)

1 oz Grenadine

Lots of Ice

Fill a blender with ice and pour in the tequila and orange juice. Blend until frozen drink consistency and pour into a pint glass (or a hurricane glass if you happen to have them). Float the grenadine on top. To do this, pour the grenadine over the back of a spoon held over the drink. You can also gently push the spoon down the sides of the glass to aid the grenadine in dripping down the edges. Garnish with an orange slice, cherries, an umbrella, etc.

American Tacos

I grew up on my mom’s tasty tacos made ‘70’s ethnic food style with powdered taco meat seasoning, hard fried corn tortilla shells, jarred salsa, sour cream, onions, tomatoes, etc. etc. etc. - lots of toppings. I’ve had real taco stand tacos in Mexico. They are glorious in their absolute simplicity; just two extraordinarily thin, warm soft corn tortillas (like none you’ve ever eaten) with flavorful meat inside (barbaquo, carnitas, chicken). They are adorned simply per your taste with pico de gallo, fresh cilantro, or salsa verde and other salsas depending on the place, sparingly. This version falls somewhere in between and while not as good as those in Mexico, much more tasty and “authentic” feeling than the topping laden monstrosities sold by many “Mexican” restaurants in the States.

1 lb Ground Beef, chicken (diced small), or lean pork (diced small)

3 T Chili powder

2 T Ground cumin

Neutral oil such as Canola, Vegetable, Corn

1/4 c Fresh Cilantro picked from stems but not chopped

4 Scallions (green onions) chopped in ½ inch pieces

2 Limes cut in 6 wedges each

2/3 cup Chopped tomatoes (best you can find), squeeze out most of the liquid as you chop

12 Corn tortillas

Sprinkle the meat with all of the chili powder and cumin and season with salt and a little black pepper. Brown the meat in a neutral oil (canola, corn, vegetable). In a small, dry (no oil) pan on medium heat warm and very slightly brown the tortillas one at a time on both sides (they will stay soft). As each tortilla is done, keep them warm on a warm plate and cover with a clean kitchen towel. After the tortillas are all warmed and slightly brown, pour 1 teaspoon of neutral oil in the pan and turn the heat to high. Quickly sauté the green onions. You are not cooking them all the way through. They should retain their crunch, but get a little caramelization on the outside.

To build the tacos, fill a corn tortilla with 2 T of meat, 1 T tomatoes, a few pieces of onion, and 1 T cilantro. Squeeze one wedge of lime over all the ingredients. These tacos are best if they are not overfilled, so you can taste the corn in the tortilla, not just the fillings.