San Francisco Inspiration

13 01 2012

This week I took a trip down memory lane and had the opportunity visit old friends, incredible restaurants and the fabulous farmers markets in San Francisco and Berkeley.  After living in the Bay Area for almost four years, I knew I was in for a treat, but I was surprised by the overwhelming nostalgia and appreciation I felt almost every moment of my trip.  San Francisco is not only one of the best food cities in the entire world, it is truly the place that transformed me from a passionate foodie to a chef.

While my pace and cooking skills advanced in San Francisco,  the most important skill I learned was how to create menu’s with seasonal ingredients.  Believe it or not, in Chicago I had never worked with kale, Meyer lemons, satsuma tangerines, tarragon, parsnips, turnips, dandelion greens or frisee before stepping foot in Boulettes Larder (my first San Francisco restaurant).  I had no idea that restaurants had menu’s that changed on a daily basis depending on farmers produce.  I couldn’t understand how a chef could see produce at a market and simply be inspired to put unique flavor combinations together and make a new menu.  It’s something that is hard to explain and just happens to those cooks that live and breathe food.

On Saturday night I went to Nopa, one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco.  I choose this restaurant because it embodies the quintessential San Francisco restaurant experience with its consistent use of local ingredients, incredible hand-made cocktails, an exposed kitchen, wood-burning stove and a long community table.  One of my friends ordered their pork chop and I jealously stared as he ate the luscious meat with crispy onions, fingerling potatoes in each bite. The next morning I hit up the Ferry Building Farmers Market to buy produce for a dinner party I was hosting at my friend’s house in Berkeley.  In true San Francisco style, I walked into the market having no idea what I would be cooking that evening.  I knew I would let the ingredients inspire my decisions.

Here’s a little clip of how I choose what to make for dinner:

I got home extremely energized from my wonderful experience at the market and cooked all afternoon.  My friend went to the fish market and picked up a 4 lbs. of fresh cod that I decided to poach with olive oil, Buddha’s hand, orange rind and white wine.

I used my inspiration from the Pork dish at Nopa to roast fresh turnips, spring onions and fingerling potatoes in the oven to give contrast in texture and color to the buttery fish.  I must say, the meal turned out delicious because it was made with the best ingredients around a lot of love!


Alberto’s Pasta Carbonara

22 12 2011

There is nothing better than eating an incredible meal when you have no expectations.  Last year when I lived in Italy for four months I had a ton of over the top food experiences.  Most of them were when my mom or friends came to visit and we went to fancy hot spots in Florence, Chianti and Sienna.  The raw ingredients in Italy were so incredible that it was truly hard to have a bad meal.

However, one of the most memorable dinners in Italy was when my boyfriend at the time, Alberto, offered to make me dinner.  Now I have to be honest, in the four months I lived with this man, I never saw him make a sandwich.  Alberto was a total guy’s guy.  The refrigerator would have been empty if I didn’t live there…completely bachelor style.  He actually went home on his lunch breaks from work to eat with his family because his mom made elaborate three course meals. (could you blame him?)  So the night Alberto said, I’m going to make you my “famous Carbonara”, I didn’t get too excited.

My expectations were in-line with the Americanized Pasta Carbonara which is typically pasta with bacon, cheese, eggs, garlic, green peas and cream.  Nothing about that combination ever seemed too sexy to me, primarily because my tummy doesn’t do well with rich heavy dishes. (lactose intolerance doesn’t help).  I’m an olive oil kinda girl.  That’s why I love Italian food!

Alberto’s Carbonara was full of simple ingredients, bold flavor and was amazingly light for a Carbonara.  He shared his special tricks with me and I’d love to share them with you.  If you notice, there is no cream, butter, or peas in this recipe.  Instead, the whipped raw eggs and Parmesan cheese naturally make a light creamy sauce.

Watch the video and try this recipe for satisfying and delicious winter meal!

Alberto’s Pasta Carbonara: (with a Kasey twist)
12oz. fresh spaghetti or linguine pasta (I recommend Al Dente Pasta)
½ large yellow onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
7 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced in thin lardoons
2 extra large eggs, at room temperature
4 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
1 handful of fresh arugula
½ lemon, juiced (optional)
Kosher Salt and Fresh Cracked Pepper, to taste
Put the thin slices of bacon in large sauté pan over medium heat.  Let the bacon render and begin to crisp for 10-15 minutes over low heat. In a separate pan, heat 1-2 Tbs. of olive oil.  Saute the slivered onion and minced garlic and for 4-5 minutes, until the onions start to caramelize. Place the cooked onion, garlic, bacon and bacon fat in a big bowl. (reserve the bacon fat to add later)  In a separate bowl, scramble the eggs with 2 oz. of Parmesan cheese.  Set aside.
Boil the pasta in a big pot of salted water.  When the pasta is al dente (just done with a bite), drain it with a slotted spoon and put the hot pasta in the bowl with the bacon, onion and garlic mixture.  Stir in the scrambled egg mixture and the bacon fat.  Mix together while slowly adding in the rest of the Parmesan cheese. Season with lots of fresh black pepper and Kosher salt.

The Sexiest Cheese on the Planet

7 12 2011

Last winter I was strolling the isles of Whole Foods and I stopped at the cheese section to take a look.  I casually took a piece of bread and smeared the gooey wash rind cheese sample all over my bread and kept walking with my shopping cart.  By the time I reached the bread section I put the cheese in my mouth and literally was hit with an explosion of flavor: salty, funky, creamy, tangy, freaking DELICIOUS!  I closed my eyes and literally felt like I was dancing in a dark room with my future husband. (I am single, by the way)  I decided right then and there Epoisse de Bourgogne was the sexiest and most exotic cheese I have ever tasted in my life. My new favorite!  I hurried back to the cheese counter and without hesitation I picked up my first round of Epoisse for 20 bucks.  I couldn’t picture a better way to spend my money.

Let me break it down for you.  If you don’t like a cheese with funk and character, you probably won’t fall in love with Epoisse like I have.  But if you’re a fan of Italian Taleggio or “stinky” cheese, Epoisse is the French equivalent of heaven.  Epoisse is made in small town in France in the Burgundy region.  It’s an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese that is “smear-ripeded” (brushed in Burgundy wine, giving it that amazing orange-red color), which produces a firm flavorful rind around the cheese that intensifies as the cheese matures.  As the cheese sits out in room temperature the rind stays firm while the center melts into a pudding-like texture.

So what do you drink with a cheese so complex?  The perfect pairing is a Burgundy wine from the exact region the cheese is made.  Usually food and wine that are made in the same place taste great together.  (funny how that works) The cheese tastes fantastic with French baguette or toasted crostini.  I prefer thin slices of Artisanal raisin-nut bread with Epoisse to blend the funk and salt with a little sweet and savory. A year later I still feel giddy when I buy a round of Epoisse at the store.  I hope that you give it a try and hopefully you fall in love like I did.

Cedar Paper Grilled Salmon

5 12 2011

What I love about cooking is finding ways to make a single ingredient shine.  I’ve never been big on smothering a dish with butter or cream, like many restaurants do, in order for it to taste good.  If you start with fantastic product you should be able to end with fantastic results, using good cooking techniques of course.

Last weekend one of my clients asked me to make grilled salmon for a very high-end dinner.  At first I was a bit stumped thinking, “how can I seriously impress these people with a simple piece of grilled salmon?”  I went to Whole Foods to find the most pristine salmon I could get my hands on.  When chatting away with the fish specialist I asked him if he had any cedar wood planks for grilling fish. Grilling on cedar wood planks infuses fish (of whatever you are grilling) with a subtle hint of smokiness while retaining its natural moisture.  It is a fabulous way to showcase a great ingredient without completely overpowering its natural. (and that is what I am ALWAYS looking for!)

The fish specialist looked around for planks, said he was sold out, but showed me a new product that just came in: Cedar Wood Paper!  I immediately got psyched!    What a genius invention!  Pliable cedar wood that can be wrapped around fish. This would give the fish more moisture and flavor and it would look gorgeous for presentation.  I bought a bunch of scallions, some honey and whole grain mustard and left the grocery store ready to fire up the grill.

So how did I prepare the salmon and cedar paper?

1. Soak the cedar paper under water for at least one hour (this will prevent instant burning on the grill)
2. Bring a small pot of water to a boil.  Trim the white ends of the scallions and blanch the scallions in the water for 1 minute.  (they should be wilted but not super soft)
3. Sprinkle the salmon generously with Kosher salt and a pinch of freshly cracked pepper on both sides
4. Place individual pieces of salmon in the center of the cedar wood paper, skin side down. (i recommend having the skin taken off for you when you are purchasing it)
5. Combine equal parts of honey and whole grain mustard in a bowl and mix.  Brush this “glaze” on the top of the fish.
6.  Fold both sides of the cedar paper over each individual fish. Tie the paper together with a scallion.
7. Place a piece of foil over the grates of a hot grill. (this is super important because the cedar paper and fish will burn if you do not put the foil down)  Place the individual pieces of wrapped salmon on the grill and cook for 10-12 minutes, depending on how you prefer your salmon and how thick it is.  Serve immediately!

Why am I so obsessed with Cedar Paper?  Because it add’s a “wow” factor to such a simple preparation of fish.  Also, it is so incredibly versatile!  You could use the same technique listed above with meat, tofu or vegetables.  You can add any spice blend or aromatics to this dish and make it your own.  Go to your local Whole Foods or World Market and buy this fabulous cedar paper and let me know what you decide to make!


Thanksgiving “Wow” Recipe

23 11 2011

It’s crunch time.  Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving and are you still trying to figure out what make for dinner?  I am sure the turkey and stuffing are a must, but what about a great side dish?

You want to impress.

 You want to cook something easy.

 You want to make something heathy because EVERYTHING else is going to be so heavy.

Look no further….I have a FANTASTIC recipe for you that will “WOW” your family and friends.  I made up this recipe last week for my a Culinary Gatherings “quick, easy and healthy” cooking class and it was the hit of the class. This dish is a perfect side to make for Thanksgiving or any upcoming holiday party.

Have a wonderful holiday!

Squash, Walnut and Pomegranate Salad
2 small Delicata squash, cored and thinly sliced (found at Whole Foods Grocery)
1 small butternut squash, cored and small diced
1 small Acorn squash, cored and thinly small diced
½ cup olive oil
2 handfuls of fresh arugula or dandelion greens
½ cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
4 oz. crumbled blue cheese
½ cup fresh pomegranate seeds
3 Tbs. sherry vinegar
1 shallot, minced
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/3 cup canola oil
Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.  On separate sheet trays, lay out the three different types of squash.  Toss each squash with olive oil and sprinkle with Kosher salt.  Roast in the oven for 15-25 minutes, until tender, depending on the thickness of the squash.  Set aside to cool.

In a small bowl whisk together the sherry vinegar, shallot and mustard.  Slowly drizzle in the canola oil and season to taste with salt and pepper.

In a medium sized bowl add 1/3 of the cooled squash.  Delicately add the arugula, walnuts, blue cheese and pomegranate seeds and drizzle with the vinaigrette.  Continue this process (two more times) with another layer of squash topped by the other colorful and delicious ingredients.   Drizzle the vinaigrette over the top and season with freshly cracked pepper and sea salt.

*If you don’t like blue cheese you can substitute goat cheese

**Crispy bacon would also be another fantastic addition to this salad!

Is Whiskey the New Vodka?

15 11 2011

I know, that’s bold question.  But I am pretty certain whiskey IS the new vodka.  As of today, I am a self-declared whiskey lover.  Bourbon, in specific. (this affair has been going on for over a year but today I am officially out of the closet)   I love its full body and funk.  I love its personality and the way that it can mix with such a variety of flavors.  I love how it warms my tummy and makes me happier on a cold night.  While I am in love, it seems like I am not alone. Chicago restaurants, bars and trendy gatherings are focusing on Whiskey cocktails more than ever.

Last Sunday I went to this fabulous market in Chicago called “Dose” at the River East Art Center.  Dose is a year-round market featuring ever-changing local vendors of fashion, artisanal food and high-end design.  It’s a mix of vintage and current fashion trends, hipsters and preps and wonderful local bites.  It’s hip, it’s happening and even if you don’t have money to buy Versace, it’s an amazing place to people watch.  It’s also one big  “Culinary Gathering” of strangers.  What’s not to like?

The highlight of the market for me  was tasting the incredible alcoholic cocktail that was offered at this artisanal bitters booth called bittercube (, you can order the bitters and get free recipes on the website).  I thought I was going to get the typical “spiked apple cider” but this warm Fall beverage was above and beyond my expectations.  It was a blend of hot cider, whiskey and bitters.  The bitters were definitely the secret ingredient that added the “wow factor”.  As a chef, I am always on the look-out for the key ingredients that will make my food or drinks taste unique.   The owner of the company explained that he used two types of bitters used in this drink:  Jamaican #1 and Cherry Bark Vanilla.  The Jamaican Bitters added a blend of allspice, ginger and black peppercorn  while the Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters added infused the cider with  wild cherry bark, vanilla and cocoa.  I mean, how cool are those flavor combinations?!

The bottom line is that Bittercube bitters can make any simple cocktail into an exotic creation.  I bought the sampler pack of 6 types of bitters and feel so excited to experiment with these flavors in all types of cocktails.  Tonight, I re-created the Apple Cider Whiskey cocktail for myself and I am feeling GOOD!!!  I might have another….

Check out the recipe:

Whiskey Cider with Bitters

1.5 oz. Templeton Rye, Jefferson Whiskey, Makers Mark (or any other nice whiskey)
4.5 oz. Spiced Honey Cider
1 dropper Bittercube Jamaican #1
1 dropper Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla
Cinnamon Stick for garnish (optional)
Warm a mug and add the Whiskey and Jamaican #1 Bitters.
Add the warmed spiced cider when it is near a simmer. The
spirit will cool it a bit. Rim the glass Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters.  Add a cinnamon stick and  enjoy!

Chicago’s mixology scene is literally overflowing with whiskey cocktails. Here are some great spots in the city to try a fantastic Whiskey Cocktail:

Barrelhouse Flat
The Bristol
Violet Hour
The Aviary
Guilt Bar
Longman and Eagle
In Fine Spirits
Big Star

I welcome all of your feedback and whiskey cocktail recipes!

Culinary Gatherings Review in Crain’s

10 11 2011

Here’s a Friday submission from chicagosnob on how to spice up — and more importantly, survive — the holidays:

*BLINK* Welcome to the Holidays; summer is over! Thanksgiving is right around the corner, along with Chanukah, Christmas, and the New Year. It’s time to plan get-togethers and holiday parties with the friends you like, and strategically avoid the ones you don’t.

Enter, holiday anxiety. What do you do? How do you plan? What will be fun and different?  What will stand out and create an experience that everyone will remember and talk about?

Do what I did: have a beautiful Chef come to your home and host a dinner cooking class.  Allow me to introduce you to the lovely Chef Kasey Passen, owner of Culinary Gatherings.

Culinary Gatherings brings a shared culinary learning experience like that of The Chopping Block or The Wooden Spoon, to the intimacy of your own home without the headache of having to coordinate everybody for the same class or dealing with limited space, etc.  In the same vein, Chef Passen will do all of the shopping, bring the food and equipment, and suggest a good wine or beer to pair with the experience. 1-on-1 classes, and private catering are also available.

What makes Chef Passen stand out from the rest? She’s qualified. This young Chef is ambitious. She’s a graduate of the University of Michigan, attended the Kendal College Culinary Arts program and moved to San Francisco to work at Boulettes Larder (where the menu changed three times every day) to work with locally-grown food, in the farm-to-table movement, prior to being hand-selected to be the Chef, design and implement the culinary program at Cellar360’s flagship wine bar, where she designed the menus to be specifically paired with the in-house wine selection, catered hundreds of events, and launched an in-house culinary education program. She has also traveled throughout Spain, Italy, Israel, and a good portion of South America, learning and studying local cuisine the entire way.

Recently, I put her to the test. “Teach me something,” I challenged her.  To my surprise, she responded with salt. Salt? Yes, salt. Little did I know how little I knew about salt and properly seasoning my food. Growing up, I was always told not to salt my food, not to cook with salt, and to beware of salt in general. This was a wake up call.

Chef Passen held a Salt Class where she presented and educated me and my guests on a variety of salts, ranging from the usual iodized table salt, to Kosher salt (which isn’t blessed by a Rabbi), to Fleur De Sel, varieties of unrefined sea salts, including Hawaiian Black Lava and Red Alaea Clay Salt,Porcini Sea Salt, and Maldon (sea salt flakes) – all of which can be found at Chef Passen’s and my favorite place for spices: The Spice House. What’s more, she didn’t just educate us, she had us all experience the difference these salts make when properly implemented. My guests and I made both unseasoned and seasoned versions of a few dishes.

Chef Passen with FishAmong these dishes were Truffle Popcorn, Roasted Cauliflower with a Szechuan Sprinkle, Salt Encrusted Yellow Snapper (shown left, pre-salt encrusting), Tri-Tip Steak, and a Butternut Squash and Ginger Soup. As we cooked and tasted the various dishes, Chef Passen educated on why we were using the salt(s) we were using, and made sure we tasted pre- and post-seasoned versions of each dish. The differences were astounding!

As educational and impressive as this evening was, here’s why I recommend Chef Passen and Culinary Gatherings: I would actually do this class again and invite more friends, not only for a refresher, but for a truly memorable and remarkable experience.

For more information on Culinary Gatherings, and to book your own event, visit theCulinary Gatherings website and call Chef Kasey Passen at 312.447.1354. For innovative recipes and video demonstrations, visit Chef Passen’s blog, Chow Bella. With the Holidays fast approaching, her calendar is filling up quickly, so call right now before she’s no longer available for your event. Make sure you mention this post when you call.

By the way, a great wine pairing for Chef Passen’s Salt Class is the Frank Family Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir.