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Photo Credit: Jeff Martinez

Close by me, on my way to and back from many things, is a new eatery called Syrup.  As the name suggests they serve breakfast and lunch and you should go in and check them out. I sat down with the Chef, Tom Willis, to talk a bit about the concept and direction of the new place, and I think you would have enjoyed talking to him as well.  Before we get into that, the space has been completely redone. There are contemporary colors of spring green, brown and white, the furniture is freshly painted, and all the natural light coming through the windows makes the whole place glow. Syrup has an open kitchen where you can see your food as it comes up, and watch the cooking dance of the chefs. The idea, say Chef Tom, is to make classic comfort food yet update it and make it exciting.

Photo Credit: Jeff Martinez

Yeah, you can have pancakes, but you can have them any way you want them, with any of the (as of now) six different infusion syrups they have.  They make all of them in-house, with flavors like apple-cinnamon, buttermilk, and honey-agave. They also do a cool little thing, they have breakfast apps!  Fruit kabob, beignets, a basket of little muffins.  Great for sharing with your friends while you wait for the rest of your meal.  Everything they make there is made from scratch, and they hope to have around 10 different syrups by the end of the summer with a line of preserves and conserves to go along with them.

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My Uncle David likes to cook. He enjoys tinkering and tweeking recipes until they taste just right to him. Best of all, he shares. And does so seemingly without a bit of jealous, guarding, MY secret recipe behavior that often accompanies a finally perfect recipe. Now me, I have to fight off my grandmother’s little devil voice encouraging me to pretend I just didn’t hear the request at all, or leave an ingredient out so it won’t taste as good as mine. I do admit that there have been a few times that I have grudgingly turned over a recipe, and once that I just flat-out refused to give it to anyone for years. Now I have this blog, where I give out all (almost) my recipes and encourage others to do so as well. Anyway, back to Uncle David. He has long been a foodie, well before the term was even coined, searching out and celebrating great cooking and food wherever it could be found. He loves the small Mom & Pop businesses that have none of the flash and splash of the big celebrity restaurants preferring the smile of the cook in the back and a plate of simple, fabulously good food. Once when visiting him, he took me to a place for lunch (I can’t remember her name) that was basically a camp. Stoves set up outside and plastic tables set up under a tarp to keep the sun off your head. The food? Pork chops and greens, skillet cornbread, gravies, sweet tea, heaven. I don’t think I had much to say that lunch, I was too busy stuffing food in my face and watching everybody else do the same. The man definitely finds the best places to eat. Like my Mom, his cooking is intuitive and fearless, substituting, adding, and combining ingredients until it all fits just right.

This is his breakfast bread recipe.  One he’s been playing with for a bit and one that’s he’s now happy with.  That doesn’t mean I won’t get a revised version at some point, but for now, this is the one. This is most certainly a sweet bread recipe, with a hearty crumb and sturdier texture than the loaf cake it resembles. There is one unusual twist, and I’m telling now so you don’t get to that part and think you can skip it. You can’t eat this right out of the oven, well, you could, but it’s better if you don’t. You let it cool and then wrap it tightly in foil and let it sit at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.  The cake kind of settles into itself. The texture improves and the flavor intensifies. Yes, I tried it both ways and he’s right. So plan ahead and do it his way. It’s a perfect vehicle for cream cheese or jam as he advises, and I think it’s perfect on its own as an afternoon snack with tea.  I had a sneaking suspicion that there was another way this would be perfect for. Now you know me, I have a compulsion to turn anything bread or baked into bread pudding. I don’t know why, but I do. I try very hard not to have leftover baked goods of any kind in my house because I know what will happen. Now, I actually didn’t think this would be good bread pudding on its own, but I thought maybe bread puddings distant cousin, French toast (come on, bread soaked in eggs and fried, bread soaked in egg custard and baked, cousins) would be perfect. I also love to make French toast out of anything other than regular bread. Oh boy, was I right! Slice thickly, let it dry out just a bit, usual french toast method, and ta da! A little bite of heaven on a plate. See if you don’t agree.

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Sure, sure, it sounds easy enough.  Truth be told, it isn’t hard. What could be difficult?  Canned, yes you heard right, canned chickpeas. Canned tomatoes (I know, again with the canned!). Some onions, some spices, and Bob’s Your Uncle, Chana Masala. What isn’t spoken of is the obsessive tweaking, the endless variations, and an order of said dish in every restaurant that makes the stuff. This isn’t a life long quest for me. I fell in love with Chana Masala several years ago at a friend of friend’s pot luck, party, fund-raiser thing. Balancing glass and plate in hand, wandering the table of offerings taking a spoonful of this and a dab of that, I almost passed it over. Very unassuming, chickpeas in tomato sauce, I thought. Pass. Well, maybe not. I like chickpeas, ok, a spoonful on the plate. A few moments later, in the middle of doing the very awkward, sip from your drink, hold your plate in the same hand as the glass so you can put of bite of food in your mouth, smile, chat a bit while trying not to spill anything on the lovely carpet it happened.  My first bite of Chana Masala slipped through my lips, seductively played with my taste buds, and slid away. Whoa, what was that? Another bite, the last one on my plate. Now I was eyeing the buffet table, and scouting a quiet corner where we could be alone. I inconspicuously made my way back to the table, took a another spoonful, ok, two, and backed into the corner by the bookcase. Sweet tomato, with an underlying smokiness, and a hit of tang.  The meatiness of the chickpeas and the spice that started at the front of your tongue and then gently filled your mouth with heat and left a slow burn. Hooked. I was totally hooked. I started collecting and making recipes from the internet. I visited every Indian restaurant I could to taste their version. I went to the bookstore and copied recipes from cookbooks. Over the last several years I’ve been refining and adjusting the same recipe over and over again. I think I have a version that works on so many levels. But of course, those levels would be the ones I define.

That is the best thing about cooking at home. You get to decide how you want your food to taste. Sure, use a recipe, but use it as a guideline. Don’t like chickpeas? Try this recipe with cut up cauliflower, or add a bunch of different veggies and create an Indian ratatouille. Hate cilantro? Leave it out. You get to be the magician and create your own magic. So make my recipe, and then stand there, hand on hip, taking bites and deciding what you like and don’t like. Scribble your thoughts on the margin so the next time you make it, it’s already your recipe. Really, you’re gonna have to trust me, it’s so much fun!

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I love to make cakes for people. Not just random, anyone next in line people, but my friends and family. My usual rule is the higher the better. I’m madly, madly in love with 3 layer cakes. They make me beyond happy. There is something about the all those layers stacked up, filling gently oozing out and swirls and swirls of icing. Never mind the decorating part, ooohhh! When I get one of those cakes done, the sense of accomplishment is so very sweet. Turning it around for a last look, nodding, yep, they’re gonna like this. I just know that with each bite they’re going to feel the love. Mercy! Feel the love! CAKE = LOVE. Okay, before you start looking up the closest Mental Health facility (do they have spas?) I am aware that cake is not love (sob) and there won’t be a tent revival in anyone’s mouth when eating a piece of cake.  I was just letting you in on the giddy delirium that happens at 2am when you finally finish one of those suckers. But I digress.

Sour Cream Lemon Cake will not make you giddy, it’s not a 3 mile high show stopper, and I’ve never put icing on it.  An abundance of powdered sugar sometimes (I can get carried away with that), a fruit sauce might get dribbled over now and then, but never icing.  This cake is very simple to put together, there are no scary ingredients, or stacks of cake pans, and lists of a plan of attack need not be attached to your fridge.  One bowl, one pan, one cake.  Embellish or not.  It’s good, tender and delicately tangy, and appropriate for almost any occasion.  The LBD of cakes.  So you know, I will only make this cake in twos from now on.  There will be one in the freezer, ready to be unwrapped, put on a plate and served so that anyone who drops by for tea will think that there must be a bit of magic in my home.  I might suggest that you do the same.  Oh, and pssssssttt? Cake does equal love.

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Not a marshmallow in sight. For the longest time, the only sweet potatoes I saw were either covered in bubbling marshmallow goo, or baked in a pie. A pie that kinda tasted like pumpkin, but not really. It was stickier and not as creamy. I prefered pumpkin. As you can see, my sweet potato reference was limited. Then there’s yams. The word feels funny coming out of your mouth. While I know they’re different, I’m not exactly sure of the distinction so I looked it up for you. We are talking about sweet potatoes here. Bright orange, moist and so very good. I’m seeing sweet potatoes show up on all kinds of menus, from the fanciest places to fast food joints. Surely you’ve had sweet potato fries? Seriously, are they fantastic or what?

Now I have a sweet potato biscuit recipe for you. No fooling, you’ve got to try these biscuits. They are just made for butter and honey. Ham? Absolutely. Bacon? Did it. With some apply jelly. Wowsers. I would serve these along side a fried chicken dinner. You could gussy these up with pork belly or duck confit and serve them as appetizers. (I just talked myself into that, so if you’re coming to dinner at my house in the near future, get ready.) The best part? Easy. So easy. Roast the sweet potatoes ahead of time, even days ahead of time, and you’ll have these biscuits put together in 5 minutes. Hot, fragrant biscuits out of your oven in no time. Pale orange (pretty!) sweet potato biscuits. Do try them, I’m fairly certain you’re going to fall for them like I did.

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Chef Elise Wiggins is here! I got to sit down and talk with Chef Elise of Panzano about home cooking, flavor profiles, and recipe development. Not only that, she shared a recipe with me, which I’m sharing with you, AND I got to taste one the dishes on the new menu. I know, right? Let me tell you, this woman is a force of nature. When I arrived at Panzano she was finishing up a staff meeting, talked to me while cooking through the lunch rush, and smiling for the video camera that was her next appointment. She is like her food, vibrant, approachable, and thoughtful. With a beautiful smile that lights her whole face, she was gracious and generous.

One of the first things we spoke about is her total immersion in cooking and food. She says she’s always known that she wanted to be a chef. One of her earliest memories was being held by her mom who was putting her little hands into cool cookie dough. The cookies they prepared made her family happy. Cookies = happiness. That’s what she was going to do, cook and make people happy. I asked her if she wasn’t a chef what would she be doing. She said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else and had never thought of doing anything else. She’s a cookbook junkie (like me) who spends her days off reading cookbooks, getting inspiration, and creating new dishes in her mind. There doesn’t seem to be much that she does that doesn’t involve food or cooking in some way. She’s out sourcing local ingredients and suppliers, leading cooking classes, or grabbing a bite at a favorite restaurant. Her current fave is really good mexican, other than Italian of course.

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Panade.  According to Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe, it translates to “Big Bread Thing”. Which I guess it is.  I think it’s as much about the onions and whatever else you put in it as the bread.  It has caramelized onions in it.  I almost automatically love anything with caramelized onions.  Then there’s cheese. Cheese is always good. When this version of panade is done it’s a light, souffle-y creation. I used beef stock in this, which made it very onion soup-ish. The bread soaks up the broth, the onions and cheese melt into the bread, need I say more?  Also, it’s a great way to use day old bread. You can even save money and buy the day old in the bakery if, like me, you don’t always have loaves of bread around. Now I’ve made another version of panade, which was more soup like. Both are wonderful, and I’ve been looking at her recipe for quite a while.  (Don’t you just love the Zuni Cafe Cookbook?) It’s warming up here, spring has definitely arrived. Nights are cool and breezy, perfect to curl up in a chair with a bowl of this warming your hands and tummy.

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” ….a land flowing with milk and honey”.  The phrase conjures an image you can settle into. Green and lush, softly warm, with a gentle sweet fragrance.  A pillow-y chair in morning sunlight that you can curl up in and sip your tea.  Santa Barbara is such a place for me.  A long weekend there is an affirmation that all is right. Prince Charming and I recently spent a weekend there.  A beautiful hotel, sunny, lazy mornings, and evenings filled with the scent of night jasmine.  Perfection. Oh, and fabulous food.  What has all of that to do with the picture of an avocado up there? I’m going to tell you.

One evening, we made reservations for dinner at 8 pm.  By 6, we were hungry. We went into town very early thinking that we’d sit at the bar and have drinks and appetizers until our table was ready, and of course, since we were there they’d give us our table early.  Ha! The joint was jumping, not a square inch to even stand in to see if we could wait for a seat at the bar.  We would have to wait for our appointed time and come up with Plan B.  Plan B was “we’ll wander through town until we find a place to drink and hopefully have a bite until 8”. Gratefully, I wasn’t wearing stilettos and actually had shoes that I could wander around on. Fingers entwined, we start on our journey. Cross the street, turn the corner, wait, what’s this?  “This” turns out to be a zen/funky/retro tapas bar called…….Milk and Honey. (The circle is complete!)

We happily enter and settle into a pillow filled banquette table.  We’re handed a drink list and menu and quickly become even happier.  Blood orange martini, why yes, thank you!  Single malt scotch, of course!  We order. They have cool, funny names for their dishes which I can’t remember, but we have bacon wrapped dates, goat cheese in a thick, tomato sauce, and avocado hummus.  We were blown away by the avocado hummus which neither of us ever had before.  We actually finger boxed for a moment to get the last piece of pita to scoop the final bit up with.  Prince Charming won, popped the last bite into his mouth with ummms, an “I’m in heaven face”, followed by “wow”.  After another round of drinks we went on to dinner and enjoyed every scrumptious bite.  We even sat next to a minor Food Network celeb! What do we remember most about that night?  Avocado hummus.  I knew that I’d be making that soon.  Weekends end, no matter how much we don’t want them to, and we have re-enter real life.  😦

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The Name Game

Sometimes, words can elude me.  I can stammer, totally lose the next word in the middle of a sentence, and stumble along while hunting for the right words. A title for this post completely stumped me.  This is a recipe for Peppers stuffed with Chicken and Quinoa with a Creole Sauce.  Lengthy, and frankly, boring. Various arrangements of those words didn’t work, and finally editing it down to just Stuffed Peppers was equally apathetic.  I was trying different combos, assorted word substitutions, when I found myself singing “pepper pepper bo bepper, banana fana fo fepper……”.  Yikes.   Anyhow..

For some unknown reason stuffed peppers have been on my mind.  My mom used to make them when we were growing up, and I hated them.  We were a clean plate family.  No leaving the table until you cleaned your plate.  My father would tell us how good they were, my Mom would be all “Well, that’s what we’re having”, and I devised ways to either eat it as fast as possible or hide it and dispose of it.  She stuffed green peppers with ground beef and white rice, then baked them with canned creole style sauce called Sauce Auturo.  Somewhere in my teen years the Sauce Auturo became tasty and the filling was acceptable.  I never found a way to like the green peppers.  While I’m a fan of red and yellow peppers, especially roasted ones, green bell peppers are still not a favorite. When I was learning to cook, I would make the dishes that my Mom made, knowing that I could call her and get directions.  Occasionally I made stuffed peppers, and found that if I made them with red peppers it was more than bearable.  It’s been years, many years since I’ve made stuffed peppers so I can’t tell you why they’ve been in the back of my mind for months now.  So here it is.  Re-done, updated, and pretty tasty, if I do say so myself.  If you come up with a better name for them, I’d be interested in hearing that!

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Blood Oranges.  You love ’em or you hate ’em.  Most of the haters I know seem to base their dislike purely on the name and appearance.  Use the term “blood” in the title of anything food related and you’ll get an automatic ‘squick’ from almost all Americans.  It’s how we were raised.  It’s okay.  There are an awful lot of us, hopefully more, that are taking an interest in where our food comes from, and in the case of animals, where and how they lived, and how they died.  We’re trying make sure that what we put into our bodies is as good as possible and honor the animals by using as much as possible from each one.  We’re facing the fact that there is blood involved. But I digress, this is about lovely, deep and vibrantly hued oranges.  These that you see here are tiny little oranges, about the size of those baby clementines and not as deep red as I would have liked.  Still, they were beautiful.   The flavor, oh the flavor! Blood oranges have that traditional orange flavor but with a tart, raspberry-ish infusion.  It’s a deeper and softer taste, one that makes you want to sit back and savor it.  It’s slower than the usual bright, acidic, okay, time to go juice that we chug in the morning.  While they’re here, try them in cocktails, cook with them, make sorbet.  I guarantee that you’ll fall in love with their lovely red-orange color and their captivating taste.

This picture is just for fun.  I think it looks cool even if it didn’t work the way I wanted it too.  Happy accidents!

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