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Last weekend I was fortunate enough to gather for a potluck with a fantastic group of fellow food lovers.  We are all part of Food52, a fabulous online community of inspired home cooks and knew each virtually through viewing, cooking, and commenting on each other’s recipes.  The gathering celebrated  the publication of the first Food52 cookbook, in which many of the party-goers had their own amazing recipes published.  The cookbook is beautiful and I can not wait to cook my way through it!

Not surprisingly, we all had a lot in common, most notably our love of good food.  The table was brimming with amazing dishes, most of them made from recipes found on Food52. It was difficult to decide what to bring, but I opted for fresh baked bread.

Forbidden Rice and Green Onion Hearth Bread is based on a recipe from Montana Culinary Students on Food52.  The contrast in texture and color that the black rice brings the bread drew me in.  Wild rice works as well, but Forbidden Rice sounds irresistibly tempting!  The onion adds a deep savory quality and works beautifully with the aromatic rosemary.  A hint of lemon zest adds a pleasant brightness to this hearty loaf. This bread will definitely become a regular in my baking rotation.  I imagine that it would make great croutons as well, if you are able to resist the bread while fresh.  This bread would also be a tremendous addition to the Thanksgiving table!

Check out what some of the fabulous cooks I met are doing on their own sites!  TasteFood, Still Simmering, The Year in Food, The Wimpy Vegetarian, The Beet Goes On, My Kitchen Solo.

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My mom taught me how to can.  In fact, she was full of useful instruction when I was a kid including: how to make my bed (hospital corners), the art of the thank you letter, and the ever-so-wise tip: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” (I seem to have forgotten this last one recently and so I am resurrecting it as my new mantra- I think it will serve me well.)  Though I do still try to do my best with thank you letters, I admit to having given up on the tightly made bed (duvees are the way to go!)  The canning skills I learned from her though,  are still extremely relevant and useful.  I took it for granted growing up that the pantry was always full of a variety of delicious jams.  It was not until I was older that I realized how few people my age knew about this practical art.  Gratefully, the art of preservation is experiencing a resurgence.  Just look at the popularity of sites such as Punk Domestics and Food in Jars.

My first canning projects were jams: apricot , raspberry, blueberry.  My mom showed me how to carefully sort the fruit, meticulously wash the jars, fill them leaving just the right amount of head-space, and secure them with clean lids and bands.  It was a fun activity to share and I of course loved to taste the fruits of our labors.  Over the years, I branched out in quantity (such as the 200 jars I made for our wedding favors out of our 20 square foot college kitchen) and variety by adding in pickles and relish, as well as applesauce and curds.This recipe is not one of my childhood.  It has become a family favorite none-the-less, born out of necessity as my parents’ garden expanded and they learned that three of four zucchini plants really are extreme plenty for a two-person household.

Sweet and Spicy Zucchini Pickles is the recipe that makes me yearn for our zucchini plants to over-produce.  No matter how many jars I make each year, it is never enough.  By February or March, I find myself rationing them so that we have enough to last until the next harvest.  Sweet, tangy, and crunchy with just a little bit of spice.  These are a staple on our weekend lunch table.  They are great on sandwiches or on their own.

What tips did your mother teach you that you still put to use?

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Though brunch provides the allure of a relaxed meal to share with friends and family, casually sipping on Bloody Marys, the harsh reality is that someone has to get all the food ready to eat early in the morning.  Beside being insanely delicious and versatile, stratas assemble the night before, so serving a crowd in the morning is a cinch!  In our family, we routinely have overnight gatherings and I often make a strata.  All the work is done the day before.    Sometimes I even put the oven on delay start, so it will preheat while I sleep.  When I wake up in the morning with a house full of guests, all I have to do is slide the dish into the oven and make some coffee.

You can make a strata with almost anything.  The eggs and bread are standard, but the vegetables, cheese, or meat that you add are completely up to you.  Bacon Breakfast Strata happens to be one of my favorite combinations.  Brown off the bacon, saute the onion and mushrooms, then mix everything up with a pile of bread and cheese and pour egg and milk over the top.  It is easy.  The bread absorbs the egg and milk overnight and puffs up in the oven.  The interior texture is light and almost creamy, while the top browns and creates a cheesy crunch.  It is delightful.

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Over the past four and a half years, my husband and I have mastered the art of the special dinner at home.  Our kids, too young to tuck themselves in, hold us captive.  We have a running joke where one of us asks, “What do you want to do tonight?”  In response, the other spouts off lists of adventurous ideas all involving actually leaving the house together, even though our kids are sound asleep.   We laugh as we pretend we have options aside from the rented movie, the game of dominoes, or going to sleep at a deliciously early hour- oh, now I really am sounding old.  All jokes aside, a night at home can be quite special.  We prefer to celebrate the opportunity staying in presents, rather than long for the greener grass.

In our home every detail of our meal can be catered to our whim.  We choose festive, fancy, or casual.  Our tastes can travel to Thailand, Italy, or Mexico.  We can eat with china or our fingers.  At home we make the food exactly how we want to eat it.  We use only the freshest, seasonal ingredients, all at a fraction of the cost of a nice restaurant meal.  There is no need for reservations or babysitters.  Perhaps the best reason to celebrate the special dinner at home, is the pride and satisfaction of sitting down together to eat a meal which one of us (or both) have put our heart and hands into preparing with love.

Our most recent special meal was  Herb Rubbed Pork Loin.  I used an exceptional brine from the girl and the fig that I have used in the past with chops.  Brining allows the meat to retain moisture through the cooking and infuses the meat with tremendous flavor.  To ensure the brine and seasoning could permeate the entire roast, I sliced the meat horizontally, a technique I picked up from Cook’s Illustrated.  After the brine, I marinated the meat in mustard and herbs from the garden.  We were able to take advantage of unseasonably warm weather here in Sonoma County and grill the loin.  This could easily be roasted in the oven as well with the added bonus of being able to collect the juices for a gravy.

The pork loin turned out incredibly moist and flavorful.  The brine perfectly seasoned the interior of the meat, and the marinade gave a delightful herbal tang to the exterior.  Do not overlook the Onion, Raisin, Garlic Compote, it is fabulous!  We both agreed that we could eat an entire bowl of it as an official side dish.  Onions, raisins, and garlic are cooked down with butter, port, and herbs.  This is a perfect accompaniment to the pork loin.  This meal turned another night at home with the family into a special night indeed.

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Cheesy Onion Corn Muffins

February 3, 2011

Cornbread may be the ultimate quick bread.  In under 45 minutes, basic pantry staples- flour, cornmeal, milk, and eggs- turn into hot, tender, crumbly goodness.  Cornbread is a natural accompaniment to chili, but is also great with any other bean based soup or grilled meats.

This recipe is one of my favorites, I have made it many times.  The onion and cheese add deep flavors to the bread.  This combination not only tastes great, but the additional moisture also increases its shelf life.  While most cornbread is best eaten right out of the oven, these muffins will stay moist through the day.  For added color, try green onions in place of the white onions.

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Caramelized Onion Relish

January 16, 2011

I love my pantry.  This may be an unusual favorite room of the house, but for me it is a place of comfort and a source of pride.  Come visit my home and I’ll be sure to show you my special place.  Though it is not often in perfect order, my pantry is my sanctuary.  In our small home, this is the place where I can escape (briefly, until someone finds me) the commotion and demands of the other members of the family. Inside its walls I store my stacks of cookbooks, the baskets of garlic, squash, and potatoes harvested from last summer’s garden, and of course my canned goods.  My pantry shelves are full of all the grains, beans, seeds, and more required to make almost anything I can dream of.

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