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Archive for October, 2011

TIP OF THE DAY: Food Plating For A Great Presentation

It’s easy to make your dinners look
this good. Photo courtesy


We’ve suggested this before, but are returning to this tip because food plating is an effortless way to make your meals look more exciting.

Instead of placing food in three separate piles on a plate, do what some fine restaurants do: create a “skyscraper” of food, topping each item with another.

The process is easy:

  • Plate the base. Start with rice, beans, mashed potatoes or mashed squash, vegetables or a chunky vegetable purée.
  • Top it with the protein.
  • Crown it with a third component: a complementary garnish that can be anything from sautéed mushrooms, spiced apple slices, crisped leeks, asparagus, pickled vegetables—whatever.

  • Add an optional sauce. The dish above features “maître d’hôtel” sauce made of butter, lemon juice or vinegar, chopped parsley and seasonings. In France, it’s a popular accompaniment to fish, poultry and meat.
  • Snip fresh herbs over the dish: basil, chives, parsley, etc. (not shown in photo). We use kitchen scissors to snip them finely. They’ll add color, flavor and visual appeal.

    Let us know your favorite combinations.



    HALLOWEEN: Festive Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

    Show of hands: Are these Halloween strawberries cuter than yesterday’s meringue ghost cookies? Not as cute? A tie?

    You can send them as a gift, via

    Or you can make your own.

    You can even plan a strawberry-decorating get-together this weekend. Ask a friend or two if they want to bring their own ingredients and join you. (They’ll also need to bring a baking pan to carry home the decorated berries.)


  • 1 quart of fresh strawberries (1-1/2 pounds—you may wish to go for large or jumbo berries)
  • 8 ounces white chocolate (chocolate chips work fine), plus dark chocolate morsels if you want to make dark strawberries as well
  • Red and yellow food coloring (to create orange)

    Who said boo? Photo of chocolate-covered berries courtesy


  • Halloween-colored sprinkles, confetti or other embellishments (check the cake-decorating aisle of your grocery store)
  • Parchment paper
  • Chocolate tempering machine or substitute (if you find that you enjoy making chocolate-covered berries and want to do it regularly, you can pick up an inexpensive electric melting pot)

    1. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Wash and completely dry the strawberries so the chocolate will adhere properly. You may wish to do this a couple of hours in advance.

    2. If you own one or can borrow a chocolate tempering machine, great! If not, simply melt the chocolate in a microwave oven or double boiler. For the microwave, melt at half power for 1 minute in a microwave-safe bowl; stir, then heat at 30-second intervals until completely melted.

    4. For orange chocolate, whisk two drops of yellow and one drop of red food coloring into melted white chocolate; stir and continue to add color until you get the right shade of orange.

    5. Holding each strawberry by the stem, dip about half of it in chocolate. Give it a quick twist, shake off the excess and point it at the ceiling for a second, bottom side up, to be sure the chocolate adheres.

    Decorating The Berries

  • Confetti Design: Before chocolate dries, roll the berries in sprinkles or confetti. Place on parchment paper to set. You can also set the chocolate by putting the tray in the fridge for 5 minutes.
  • Jack O’ Lantern Design: Melt dark chocolate morsels or a plain chocolate candy bar. Pipe on the face using a pastry bag and a fine tip.
  • Swirl Design: Use the tines of a fork dipped into melted chocolate of contrasting color(s). Your swirls won’t be as thin and perfectly circular as in the photo, but a thicker swirl is just as good.
  • Ghost Design (not shown): Dip berries in white chocolate. With the tip of the strawberry as the top of the ghost’s head, pipe eyes in dark chocolate.


    TOP PICK OF THE WEEK: The Amazing Rice Cube

    From hors d’oeuvre to sushi to snacks,
    Rice Cube turns out dazzling food in minutes.


    Faster than most recipes. More powerful than many kitchen utensils. Able to turn out dazzling foods in a single bound.

    It’s our latest super gadget find, the Rice Cube.

    This handy gadget will help you turn out impressive foods for just about any purpose—from hors d’oeuvre and sides to snacks and desserts.

    And it’s so easy, even the kids can help out, or create their own kid-flavored snacks: carrots and peas rice cubes, peanut butter and raisin rice cubes…the combinations are infinite, and include everything from BBQ pork to smoked salmon to a “rice pudding” cube.

    Rice Cube also helps you make sushi at home without having to master the rolling mat.

    Check out this amazing little gadget.

    Good things come in small packages. Consider the Rice Cube for holiday gifts for friends who love to cook and entertain.

    Perhaps your first social event of the new year can be a cube-off competition.


    Rice Cube can “cube” other foods, as well. Read the full review.

    RICE 101

    There’s more to rice than “white” and “brown.” Take a look at our glamorous Rice Glossary for gourmet rices that are begging to be cubed.



    TIP OF THE DAY: The Sugar To Agave Conversion

    Agave nectar, also called agave syrup, is a wonder food. It has a natural sweetness that’s more elegant than table sugar—never cloying or “sugary.” Its glycemic index is 32, half that of sugar (GI 60-65) and more than 40% less than honey (GI 58) and pure maple syrup (GI 54). It’s diabetes-friendly.

    A teaspoon of agave has 20 calories; sugar has 16 calories and honey has 22 calories. But since agave is 1.4 to 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, you don’t need to use as much.

    It follows that when you’re cooking or baking with agave, you need to use less. Agave is also 20% moisture, so you also have to reduce the moisture when baking.

  • Substitute 2/3 cup agave per 1 cup sugar.
  • Reduce other liquids by 1 fluid ounce per 2/3 cup agave nectar.
  • Reduce oven temperature by 25°F and baking time by 5%.
    The best conversion, of course, would be to have a book of favorite recipes converted and tested with agave.


    Agave nectar is one of our favorite
    products. Photo by Hannah Kaminsky | THE NIBBLE.


    Alas, there’s no one great book of agave recipes (publishers take note!). Those that exist have as many critics as fans. Here’s one to take a look at: Baking with Agave Nectar: Over 100 Recipes Using Nature’s Ultimate Sweetener.

    More Agave to Sweetener Conversions

  • Brown Sugar: For each cup of brown sugar, substitute 2/3 cup agave; reduce other liquids by 1/4 cup. Because the moisture content of brown sugar is higher than that of white sugar, liquids may not have to be reduced as much.
  • Brown Rice Syrup: Use 1/2 to 1/3 as much agave; increase other liquids in the recipe by up to 1/2 cup.
  • Corn Syrup: Use 1/2 as much agave; increase other liquids by up to 1/3 cup.
  • Honey: Replace each cup of honey with 1 cup of agave syrup.
  • Maple Syrup: Replace each cup of maple syrup with 1 cup of agave syrup.
  • White Table Sugar: For each cup of white sugar, substitute 2/3 cup agave; reduce other liquids by 1/4 to 1/3 cup. This substitution also works for demerara sugar, evaporated cane juice, Sucanat and turbinado sugar.
    Find more information at

    All About Agave

    Here’s everything you need to know about agave nectar.



    HALLOWEEN: Make These Meringue Ghost Cookies

    Melt-in-your-mouth meringue ghosts.
    Photo © Michael Klashman |


    We loved this idea from Michael Klashman of so much that we signed up for all of his blog feeds.

    Meringues are gluten-free, cholesterol-free airy bites. Airy ghosts are perfect Halloween fare.

    This recipe makes about 24 ghosts, each 2- to 3-inches: crunchy on the outside and slightly gooey on the inside.

    Serve them on a tray, use them as cake or cupcake toppers or make a ghostly sundae.



  • 5 egg whites
  • 1½ cup superfine sugar (you can grind regular
    table sugar into superfine)
  • Pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
  • Small black or silver dragées* for the eyes


    1. PREHEAT the oven to 225°F. (Always use an oven thermometer—you can’t trust the calibration, even on the finest oven.) Prepare two cookie sheets by lining with parchment paper.

    2. BEAT the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, at medium-high speed just until frothy (about a minute).

    3. ADD the salt and cream of tartar. Continue beating and very slowly add the sugar. Continue beating until the whites have become very thick (although not dry) and glossy. The whites should hold their peak when the beater is pulled out of the bowl.

    4. ADD the vanilla extract, and continue beating for another fifteen or twenty seconds, just until it has been absorbed into the meringue.

    5. TRANSFER the meringue to a large piping bag fitted with a plain, wide tip (for example, Ateco #808). Pipe ghost shapes onto the lined cookie sheets. Using a pair of tweezers, set the dragée “eyes” into the ghosts. This is the painstaking part of recipe, so be patient and have fun. You can use the back of the tweezers or other implement to draw an optional smile. (We used an straightened-out paper clip.)

    6. BAKE for fifteen minutes, checking frequently to make sure the meringues do not brown. After fifteen minutes, turn the oven off and leave the meringues inside for 3-4 hours to dry.

    Then, WATCH those ghosts disappear!

    *Dragée, pronounced drah-ZHAY in French, refers to various types of hard, sugar-based confections. Jordan almonds, for example, are called dragées in France. In the U.S., the term most often refers to a tiny ball of colored sugar, commonly 3-4 millimeters in diameter, used to decorate cookies and cakes. In comparison, the dragées on nonpareils candies are 2 millimeters in diameter. The word derives from the Greek tragêmata, meaning sweets or treats. According to Wikipedia, the dragée was originally a spiced lump of sugar eaten after meals as a digestive.


    TIP OF THE DAY: Make Your Own Peanut Butter

    Last month we wrote about Planter’s Peanut Butter, “the creamiest peanut butter ever.”

    But what if you don’t like a creamy, homogenized PB paste, writes a reader? Or the amounts of salt and sugar in your PB?

    Your dilemma can be solved in minutes, with a bag of peanuts and a food processor.

    You can adjust the salt and sugar (or use a low-glycemic sugar substitute) and you’ll end up with a far more aromatic and peanutty-tasting spread. You’ll save a few cents in the process.


    Makes 2 cups. You can split the batch and make some plain, some with honey or low-glycemic agave nectar, for example.


  • 1 pound shelled unsalted roasted peanuts, skinned
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil or canola oil*
  • Salt

    Turn these peanuts into peanut butter
    in minutes. Photo by Watcha | IST.


  • Optional: sweetener (sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave nectar or non-caloric sweetener)
  • Optional: finely diced peanuts for a “chunky” version
    *Peanut oil and canola oil are monounsaturated fats: good for you. Vegetable oil is a polyunsaturated fat: less good for you. More on healthy oils.

    1. Combine peanuts and oil in a food processor and grind to a creamy paste. Add more oil if needed for thinning. PB will firm up in the fridge. If it’s too thick for you, just put it back in the food processor with a bit more oil.
    2. Sweeten and salt to taste.
    3. Stir in optional chopped peanuts.
    4. Store in the fridge in an airtight jar. Without preservatives, it will keep for 4-6 months.

    PB FUN

  • Check out the history of peanut butter—it was invented for people who couldn’t chew!
  • Take our peanut butter trivia quiz.
  • See our favorite peanut butters and PB recipes.


    PRODUCT: Prima Pasta Ravioli, Striped For The Cure

    Enjoy delicious ravioli as you contribute
    to breast cancer research. Photo courtesy Pasta Prima.


    Ravioli (and its baked cousin, lasagne) is one of our Top 10* comfort foods, even though it isn’t on any published list we’ve seen.†

    While cheese ravioli can be bland, we never turn down butternut squash or pumpkin ravioli. (INSIDER FOOD TIP: Butternut squash, which has a smoother texture and a similar flavor, is often substituted for pumpkin in prepared foods—from ravioli to “pumpkin” pie.)

    Enter 100% Natural Pasta Prima Butternut Squash Ravioli. A delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors including imported Parmesan cheese, sage and cinnamon, each pasta pillow sports three pink stripes for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with $20,000 pledged to cancer research.

    Who can resist? Add your favorite white sauce or a mild red sauce, or simply toss with extra-virgin olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese.

    The family-owned business is one of a number of fine companies to produce a special edition for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every pink package purchased from Pasta Prima supports The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.


    Pasta Prima is a good corporate citizen in other ways, too. One-third of the company’s energy is powered by Green Energy. The company has also made the move to renewable packaging: compostable plastics made from corn instead of petroleum.

  • Take a look at beautiful ravioli recipes from Pasta Prima, including Butternut Squash Ravioli in Brown Butter Walnut Sage Sauce, or with fresh herbs: chives, parsley and sage. (We could devour the photos.)
  • Learn more at
    *For those who care enough to read this footnote, the others on our personal Top 10 list include bagels (with lox and cream cheese, pickled herring or whitefish salad); bundt or loaf cake; Chinese dumplings; gourmet mac and cheese; the ice cream, sorbet and frozen yogurt group; mashed potatoes (with basil, goat cheese or truffles); pain au chocolat; PB&J with a glass of milk; and scrambled eggs with a toasted English muffin.

    †Comfort food lists typically include beef stew, biscuits, chocolate, cereal, fried chicken, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, meat loaf, pot pie, soup and spaghetti.



    PRODUCT: Atlanta Fresh Greek Yogurt

    If you’re a yogurt lover who travels, instead of looking for a lunch spot, consider heading to the nearest fine grocer to check out the local yogurts.

    Artisan fresh dairy products tend to be regional businesses, and there are luscious yogurts to be found in many regions.

    The Atlanta Fresh company recently sent us their 2% Low Fat Greek Yogurt line (it’s also available in fat-free and whole milk versions). We ate it as eagerly as if it were dessert—for which it can easily substitute.

    Made using old world methods—by hand, in small batches—this all-natural yogurt is a treat. Talk about “from scratch”: The company makes its own fruit conserves to flavor the yogurt. Nothing premade is added from a jar.

    The yogurt is available in plain, plus eight flavors: Black Cherry & Port Wine (don’t worry—you can feed it to kids), Chocolate Rocket, Ginger Peach, Mixed Berry, Tropical Sweet Heat, Vanilla Caramel, Vanilla and Wildflower Honey.


    We eat lots of yogurt—all of it Greek-
    style. Photo courtesy Atlanta Fresh.


    Only the Chocolate flavor didn’t work for us. It’s a tough flavor to get right—which is why the market isn’t flooded with chocolate yogurt. For us, the cocoa powder didn’t meld well enough with the yogurt. But we’re sure there are fans aplenty.

    Fot us, the hands-down winner is Tropical Sweet Heat: diced mango, pineapple and ginger with habanero and ginger heat (plus brown sugar for complexity). We were sad when carton was empty. The heat and ginger accent enliven the creamy yogurt in a way you can’t imagine until the spoon is in your mouth. It’s the first “hot” yogurt we’ve had, aside from our homemade concoction of plain yogurt with pepper jelly. Yogurt artisans of America: Follow the heat!

    The runner up: Vanilla Caramel, a delicious dessert masquerading as yogurt.

    The handmade artisan yogurts are rBST-free. The freshly cultured yogurt, made from the milk of happy Jerseys at the nearby Johnston Family Farm, is very high in active bulgaricus and acidophilus probiotic bacteria.

    Learn more at

    What Is Greek Yogurt?

    Greek yogurt (or more accurately for products made in America, Greek-style yogurt) is triple-strained to make it thicker and creamier than American-style yogurt. It often has the consistency of sour cream. Most yogurts are thickened with gums, starches or milk powders. Greek yogurt is thickened by removing the moisture.

    Greek yogurts can also be sweeter, meaning less tangy, than European- and American-style yogurts. While many mass-marketed American yogurts have evolved from tart-and-tangy to pudding-like, there’s nothing like the texture and flavor of Greek-style yogurt.

    How “Cultured” Are You?

    How much do you know about yogurt? Talk the talk like a pro: Check out our Yogurt Glossary.

    Find more of our favorite yogurt products, recipes and other yogurt information in our Gourmet Yogurt Section.



    TIP OF THE DAY: How To Remove Wax From Apples & Other Produce

    Our favorite Honeycrisp apples, beaming with
    a wax coating. Photo courtesy


    Those shiny, tempting apples are wearing make-up: a layer of wax. Waxing apples (and other fruits and vegetables) not only makes them look better, but it also helps them last longer.

    All-natural waxes—such as carnauba wax, derived from the leaves of a Brazilian palm tree, and candellia wax, made from a small desert shrub native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, are certified as edible by the USDA and have been used on fruits and vegetables since the 1920s.

    After harvest and before the apples are packed and shipped, they undergo several washings to remove dirt. The extensive washing removes the natural wax that many fruits and vegetables make to help retain moisture.

    Replacing the wax also helps inhibit mold growth and protect fruits and vegetables from bruising. The amount of wax used is minuscule: Each apple (or other waxed produce) is coated with only a drop or two.


    You don’t want to peel the apple to remove the wax: Most of the nutrition is in the skin and the seeds. (But don’t swallow too many seeds for the nutrients—they have minute amounts of cyanide that build up in quantity.)

    How To Remove Wax From Apples

    We don’t have a problem with the wax—although we are wary that it can cover pesticides that aren’t fully removed during the washing cycle.

    But we do miss the apple aroma we enjoy when picking apples at orchards. Removing the wax releases the lovely apple scent and completes the organoleptic* experience.

    Take your pick of these wax-removal techniques:

  • Lemon Juice Technique. Use a vegetable brush and a lemon juice or vinegar bath (one tablespoon in a bowl of water, along with a tablespoon of baking soda). Scrub, then rinse well.
  • Boiling Water Technique. Immerse the apples in boiling water for 10 seconds and immediately wipe with a kitchen towel.
  • Commercial Wash Technique. Use a vegetable wash spray.
    Buying organic isn’t the solution: Organic apples may also be waxed. But you can find unwaxed apples at some supermarkets and farmers markets.

    Wax may turn white on the surface of fruits or vegetables that have been subjected to excessive heat and/or moisture. This whitening does not impact the flavor or the healthfulness.

    Thanks to Rainier Fruit Company for much of this information.

    *Organoleptic: Relating to qualities that stimulate the senses: appearance, aroma, color, feel and taste.



    PRODUCT: Crystal Head Vodka

    While both are in the spirit of Halloween, a skull of vodka may be an even better gift than a bottle of Death’s Door Vodka.

    The packaging of Crystal Head Vodka is based on an archaeological mystery:

    Thirteen crystal heads have been found in regions around the world, from the American southwest to Tibet. They are between 5,000 and 35,000 years old, and are believed to have been polished into their shape from solid quartz chunks over a period of several hundred years.

    Inside Crystal Head Vodka’s glass heads—or skulls, as we prefer to call them—is premium vodka that is quadruple-distilled, then triple-filtered through polished crystals known as Herkimer diamonds. (You can read that story on the company website).

    The vodka is made in St. Johns, Newfoundland with water from a deep glacial aquifer and a proprietary blend of grains. The result is a creamy texture with a slightly sweet taste on the finish.

    The brand owes its existence to actor Dan Aykroyd, whose interest in archaeology and the supernatural got the ball rolling. (His Wikipedia bio describes Aykroyd as “a Canadian comedian, actor, screenwriter, musician, winemaker and ufologist.”)


    A glass skull filled with premium vodka is a treat, not a trick. Photo courtesy Crystal Head Vodka.


    According to the company website, the heads are “thought to offer spiritual power and enlightenment to those who possess them, and as such stand not as symbols of death, but of life.”

    As to why the skulls are called “heads” when “skulls” seem more accurate: We have an email in to Mr. Aykroyd.

    The vodka is certified kosher by OU. Here’s a store locator.

    Find more of our favorite spirits, plus cocktail recipes, in our Cocktails & Spirits Section.



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