Monday, October 29, 2012

Riding the Culinary Carousel, My life in a Box

The Nitty Gritty information: The Culinary Carousel is a high-end tasting event, held at Hawk Pointe Golf Club in Washington, Warren County, New Jersey. It is an event that raises the majority of funding for the Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Warren County. This was the 18th year CC was held and I think it was about the 6th or 7th year I have donated my food and service to the event, as do about 13-15 other area chefs and restaurateurs. For several years, I was also a committee member, helping to put the event together.

One year, we made a fountain
using all natural resources
we harvested from the woods.
Culinary Carousel is hard. As a committee member, it was really hard at times to get the restaurants to participate, or send in their forms, or sometimes even show up and we would have to scramble at the last minute. A great deal of time was invested lining up the restaurants, doing follow up, meeting with other committee members, and then making a floor plan. All while conducting my life as normal AND finding something creative to offer. AngelFood's standard position is to offer appetizers during the initial entry/silent auction portion of the event. And I only worked on the Restaurant Committee. There are other committees who worked just as hard soliciting and creating silent auction baskets, volunteers, table decorations, etc...These are volunteers extraordinaire. The best of the best.

Held the third Monday of October, Culinary Carousel typically falls during or after an exceptionally busy time for us and it doesn't leave a whole lot of energy left for creativity. The problem with this is: I have used the CC to roll out our newest, most original, or at times, most outrageous offerings. It's part of the fun; thrilling the crowd. Just like a good Carnie would.

Our donation has evolved from the first year when I stayed in the kitchen, away from the guests, shuffling hors, while my staff butlered them. I had no presence there that year, I simply didn't get it. But the food was still good. Another year, the staff and I bussed the food, but I offered Rice Noodle wrapped shrimp and Thai Meatballs with a Lemon Grass Sauce in a pipette that guests had to squeeze into their mouths. Wild, fun, original at the time.

Asian Take-out Boxes,
Misting Buddha Fountain (and growing boy).
A different year Miniature Chinese take-out boxes filled with Vegetable Lo Mein were coordinated with the guest favors we sponsored, complete with custom-made fortune cookies with AngelFood messages. Loved those fortune cookies!

Another year, I offered Carnival Food for Adults: Homemade Soft Pretzels with Mustard Brie and Baby Cones filled with Avocado Mousse and Smoked Salmon Mousse that looked like ice cream cones. Also on that table, shrimp corn dogs dipped in onion marmelade.

Inside-out olives.
The year of Molecular Gastronomy was outrageous.Green Dot, a bystander prevention program, was the theme, so I made "inside-out" olives. They looked like olives, until you placed the spoon in your mouth. The texture was clearly in flux as the olive flavors burst in your mouth. Some people were thrilled, others were confused, but the effect was universal. It got your attention.

2012 Polenta, fresh mozzarella
and Tomato Vodka Sauce

But in the end, after each Culinary Carousel, we walk away so happy. We came, we cooked, we conquered and all in the name of ending domestic violence. No matter how stressful it was getting there. I used to think the joy came from the food and the event. This year I realized how wrong I was. It has very little to do with the food and the event. The Culinary Carousel is so important because it symbolizes My Life in a Box.

Table decorations and design help
courtesy of Donaldson's Nursery and Greenhouse.
See, I spend a great deal of time considering how I am going to offer the best of myself that year. Then I spend a lot of financial resources making that happen along with a lot of time orchestrating when the job is going to get done amongst all the other tasks in my life. BUT I cannot work ahead because the product, as all other products, must be of the freshest nature. And then the evening comes.

The best moment of the evening.
My son took an impromptu photo of
us together-unsolicited!!
The Culinary Carousel calls me to live in the glory of God, out loud, no hiding. Like the little drummer boy, I have no gifts to give, but myself. I create some beautiful food, decorate a gorgeous table (sometimes with the help of my bff at Donaldson's Greenhouse and Nursery!!) and then enjoy the evening with my staff, seeing many of my best friends in our community. My life in a box has come full circle. Gone is the time I wallowed and clamored for wholeness and healing as a domestic abuse survivor. Now I stand as a domestic abuse warrior and champion.

Make no mistake. Business is business. But this, this is personal.

El Dia de los Muertos

El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is not the name of a cult horror flick, but a celebration that originated with the Aztec civilization in Mexico. What was once a month-long commemoration of the dead has evolved into a celebration that begins at midnight on Oct. 31, when the gates of heaven are said to be opened to allow the spirits 24 hours to reunite with loved ones until Nov. 2, much like All Souls' or All Saints' Day.

To prepare for the deads' arrival, families create and decorate an altar, known as an ofrenda. Offerings include various items which can range from flowers, fruits, hot cocoa, Pan de Muerta, candles, soda, and anything else a weary spirit might need for rejuvenation. For rural peoples, this can become an expensive prospect, but it's a responsibility taken with much pleasure and enjoyment. On Nov. 2, the party is taken to the graveyard, where music is played, tombstones are cared for and the families gather for a feast, complete with music.

Sugar was brought to Mexico in the 17th century. The Mexicans, while rich in spirit, were often too poor in the pocket to be able to afford expensive European-style altar pieces with which to honor their dead, but they had sugar, and lots of it! With it, they created incredible pieces of art, sugar skulls, of many different sizes. Regionally, the skulls may differ a bit, but brightly colored royal icing, sparkles, and colored foil are all constants.

A few years ago, I used the molds for a cake-topper on a Halloween wedding cake. This year, I broke out the molds again to try a bit of decorating action. It had been a long time since I did fine icing work and here's what came back to me:
Royal icing needs to be just the right consistancy.
I like to make my own small paper cones for the icing because of the way they feel and the way my small hands can control them, but they are tough because they get loose. AND, if the icing isn't just right, it will "bump out" the cone and the tip will be too wide and your icing line will be thick and coarse.
So, for some, the disposable plastic icing bags (in small) might be a real help.
But there's something about making my own cones that takes me right back to culinary school and makes me feel like I know what I am doing!
We start by molding the sugar recipe and immediately unmolding the pieces to dry. The photo on the left has the front and back portions of our medium (Oaxacan style- the shape and jaw are the distinct characteristic) skulls. The small pieces are tiny one-piece skulls. The purple pencil gives you a size perspective.

The photo on the right shows the finished medium skull "blanks", which is what the skulls are called before decorating. On the left
is a decorated skull. There is no rhyme or reason that I know of to decorating, just let creativity reign.

And here is a photo of the finished platter, complete with spider cupcakes. So simple. Ice your favorite cupcakes with your favorite buttercream. Roll in black sprinkles (you can color your own white sprinkles with food/cake colors) or oreo cookie crumbs. Attach black licorice lace legs. Pipe on some eyes and we used chocolate covered sunflower seeds for the fangs.
Here are some more fun cookies. We made Black and White cookies but decorated them as monsters. "Franks" for reading this! You can always "Count" on AngelFood!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Celebration of a Lifetime

She's one smart cookie, my friend Sarah. She really knows how to live it up, she knows how to celebrate, and she knows just whom to invite to make the party a lively one. So, when she spent a recent weekend celebrating a landmark birthday, she called AngelFood to serve a private, family dinner party for 15 guests.
Appetizer Course
We were honored to serve her immediate family, whom we know and love dearly, along with some her siblings, their families and some of her best friends. After getting a general feel for the type of food Sarah was looking forward to, a menu was created using the last of Warren County's Garden State Bounty.

What a wonderful evening. We are blessed to have been invited to this celebration of a lifetime and we look forward to many more joyous occasions with this family!

Each plate got an original, organic blossom
from the AngelFood Herb Garden
The menu:
Appetizer plate of Goat Cheese Mousse with Roasted Beets
Warren County Corn Relish with Lime Cream
Caprese Salad with Balsamic Pipette

Green Salad served with Warm Risotto Croutons and House Dressing

Beef Tenderloin with Shallot Port Sauce and Green Beans with Green Goddess Dressing

Peach Melba Shortcakes served with Spicy Almond Croquant

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How do you like them apples?

Dipped in Caramel.

I like mine covered in caramel. And nuts. Just the basics. I don't need the other fancy stuff like chocolate and M&Ms. However, I like caramel apples so much that I wouldn't send a fancy one packing if it were the only caramel apple available. I'm particular, not foolish.
Here are some tips for producing great caramel apples:
  • Use disposable chopsticks for wooden sticks. You know you have extras laying in that takeout drawer.
  • When making caramel, use a silicone utensil to stir and keep a pastry brush and a small bowl of water nearby to brush down any sugar crystals from the sides of the pot. You don't want your caramel to turn out grainy (and that's what those dastardly crystals do!).
  • Stir the caramel often to prevent burning. Don't walk away. Once on its way, sugar cooks and burns rapidly.
  • Control the heat under your caramel. If the heat is up too high, it will splatter and burn you like Napalm.
  • After your apples have been "stuck" on the sticks, quickly dip them in a pot of boiling water to remove any wax. This will help the caramel stick better.
  • Dip refrigerated apples in the caramel.
  • Add the garnishing goodies like nuts, etc. while the caramel is still warm.
  • Use local, tangy apples such as McIntosh, Macouns for dipping. The only thing a Red Delicious apple is good for is photo opps.

Caramel Apples 

1 cup butter
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 -10 wooden sticks
8 -10 medium tart apples
Optional: Melted chocolate for drizzling, mini chocolate chips, chopped nuts, mini M&Ms for dipping apples in.

Insert 1 wooden stick into each apple.
In a heavy saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and milk; bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Cook and stir until a candy thermometer reads 248 degrees (firm ball stage) about 30-40 minutes and for a softer caramel cook just to a few less degrees.
Remove from heat; stir in vanilla.
Dip each apple into hot caramel mixture; turn to coat.
Holding by the stick, sprinkle with nuts or whatever you desire while the caramel is still warm (work quickly the caramel sets up fast).
Set on silicone mat or buttered parchment paper. Forget waxed paper. It's a mess.
Adapted from

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tell me! How does your light shine in the Jars of Sambal-a?

It's not a typographical error. I know that's not exactly how the song by Three Dog Night goes. However, that's how I've been singing it and I cannot get it out of my head.

It all started with the mangoes that were on sale. Only 66 cents. I put 12 in a bag with visions of mango chutney dancing in canning jars through my head. While I was at it, I looked up the recipe on my phone and made sure I had all the ingredients on hand. One interesting recipe contained pineapple, so in the cart one went!

It took a week for the mangoes to ripen. During that week, the recipe plans changed, as they are wont to do when you have a creative, distracted nature. This is what I did with my fruit:
6 mangoes got made into a basic chutney.
6 mangoes and 1/2 of a pineapple went into a Sambal, half of which then had curry added to it.
The remaining 1/2 of the pineapple was made into its own Sambal.

Classically speaking, sambal is a condiment popular in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Southern Phillipines, Singapore and other places of high flavor, made of dried chili flecks ground with salt and oil. With the addition of other ingredients, the sambal takes on a last name. For example, sambal asam is made with the sour tamarind.

Pineapple used in sambal is typically under ripe. I am guessing that the relish takes on a whole other dimension when it is not as sweet as my sambal turned out. Since my intention was to preserve the relish, it actually turned into more of a chutney. Unfortunately, by the time I realized that, I had been singing "Sambal-a" (or Shambala, as the song is really known as) all morning long.
Hey, at least the song has a melodious tune and is about a spiritual paradise. I have to admit, that the taste of the sambals will keep me singing. They are really delicious. I imagine them used on crackers with goat cheese or topping my favorite Chicken Korma served with homemade naan. I will not hesitate to mix them with softened cream cheese, form the mix into a log and roll it in nuts to impress my friends and neighbors at happy hour, because that's just how my light shines, with the jars of sambal-a!

Just a note: I used my hand blender to further crush the cooked mix down so the chunks would be easier to dip into as a finished product. The finished texture is up to the maker.

Pineapple Sambal

1/2 ripe pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2" chunks
1/2 large yellow onion, small dice
1 red bell pepper, small dice
1/2 serrano chili, minced (use gloves)
1 Tablespoon ground mustard
1 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pickling salt
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes

Put all the ingredients into a pot. Simmer over medium to low heat for about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours, until thickened. Blend chunks into smaller pieces, if desired, with a hand blender. Ladle into prepared jars (I used mainly 4-ounce jars), wipe, lid and ring and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Yield: 9 4-ounce jars.

Pineapple Mango Sambal

1/2 ripe pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2" chunks
6 mangoes, peeled, pitted and cut into 1" chunks (about 6 pounds, total)
1 large yellow onion, small dice
1 1/2 red bell peppers, small dice
1 1/2 serrano chilies, minced (use gloves)
2 Tablespoon ground mustard
2 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger
6 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups cider vinegar
4 cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes

Curry used (optional) for half of this recipe was 2 Tablespoons.

Put all the ingredients into a pot. Simmer over medium to low heat for about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours, until thickened. Blend chunks into smaller pieces, if desired, with a hand blender. Ladle 1/2  into prepared jars (I used mainly 4-ounce jars), wipe, lid and ring and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.  To the other half, add desired amount of curry powder. Yield: 15 jars with curry and 15 jars without, for a total of 30 4-ounce jars. Don't hesitate to make several different sized jars based on your intended usage of the finished product.

Mango Chutney

6 ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, cut into 1" chunks (about 6 pounds, total)
1 cup golden raisins
4 cups cider vinegar
4 cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
Curry can also be added to this recipe, but I did not. I would use up to 2 Tablespoons for this amount of fruit.

Put all the ingredients into a pot. Simmer over medium to low heat for about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours, until thickened. Blend chunks into smaller pieces, if desired, with a hand blender. Ladle 1/2 into prepared jars (I used mainly 4-ounce jars), wipe, lid and ring and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.   Yield: 9 4-ounce jars.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Yes Men Team

I had heard that he would be at the wedding. The mysterious, foreign stranger I had heard bits and pieces about; my younger niece's friend. "He's so charming." "And tall. He's very tall."

I saw him standing, all alone, against a wall, after I exited the receiving line. He looked dumbstruck when I stuck out my hand and said, "You must be Martin. I am Aunt Jewels." The rest of our first conversation revolved around the differences between American wedding cake and cake served in his home country of England. We hit it off then and haven't looked back since.

We have a complex and strange and wonderful connection. Better than siblings, better than family, less intense than paramours, we are friends and confidantes. Long distance pen pals. He tells me some of his secrets. I tell him some of mine.

I am smart enough to know that when Martin visits the U.S., his dance card is full, but almost every trip he and my niece have included me/us in their plans. I am honored with the precious gift of time from these world-travelling young people, whom I imagine would rather be dancing and hobnobbing with their contemporaries than sitting around on a Saturday night with Auntie J.

Martin gave me advanced notice of this visit. It came upon me quickly. From afar, I watched his time here (he stays in Philadelphia-two hours away) whittle away as I prepared my children for the new school year. I mournfully resigned myself to the fact that I would miss seeing him this time.

And then my cell phone rang yesterday. It was my niece, (and Martin!!) calling to say that Martin could be spared from visiting her at work, and although it was late notice, he was available to visit. Martin was willing to drive 2 hours each way to visit with me for a total of 3 hours. When was the last time a boy drove that long to see me for such a short time?? And I almost said no.

We talked about that. I'm great at being a friend, but still getting better at making friends. Getting over the hump is difficult for me. The hump of seeing him in the driveway, figuring out the perfect amount of entertaining versus relaxing and hanging out. But once we got that out of the way, our time together flew. I have no problem saying yes to adventure. I am working on becoming a better Yes Man to everyday living.
I had set aside the day to can 30 pounds of tomato sauce. As it turns out, Martin would have been thrilled to do that (next time, I promise!). Instead, we ate some of the best pizza in New Jersey and then went to Mackey's Orchard for peaches and sweet corn and peach ice cream. We talked about hopes and dreams and literal and figurative plans for the days to come and the beauty of the United States and up-and-coming Bulgaria. I watched him eat a whole bowl of my refrigerator pickles and sent him home with a jar of last year's sauce and this year's pickled okra for his martinis (and more refrigerator pickles).

Yes, Martin is very tall. And who the heck is that guy in the background?!

I had some very important lessons driven home for me today:

Make the window! (that's kitchen-talk for Seize the Day.) There are lots of unknowns in life, pick the produce when it's ripe, even if you're not quite sure what you're going to make from it.

When given with the best of intentions, what you have to offer is good enough. I was so concerned about offering Martin best Warren County experience. It took about 10 minutes for me to remember that when you're with friends, none of that really, truly matters.

New Jersey peaches (and ice cream) taste sweeter when you eat them with a friend.

Let go and love. You can sort the rest out later. I'm talking to you.

Saying goodbye is harder than saying hello. It is certainly harder than being a Yes Man.

Have fun, my friend. But come home safe. and soon.

In a Pickle!

After this week's earlier post about canning, a preserving pal of mine asked for a spicy bean recipe. Here's one I found on that looks delicious!

Spicy Dilly Beans
  • 2 lbs green beans, washed and trimmed at ends (Do not snap beans)
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, per jar (according to your heat preference) or 1/4-1/2 teaspoon tabasco sauce per jar (according to your heat preference)
  • 2 garlic cloves, per jar, whole and peeled
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, per jar (optional)
  • 1 head dill, per jar (or 1/2 tsp. dill weed)
  • 5 cups distilled vinegar
  • 1/2 cup pickling salt
  • 5 cups water
Prepare jars for canning. Bring vinegar, salt and water to a boil. In the bottom each hot sterilized jar, put the garlic cloves, cayenne pepper, mustard seed, and dill. Pack jars with fresh green beans, packed lengthwise. Do not snap beans. Process for 20 minutes at 1000' altitude, or adjust time according to your altitude.
I also wanted to share my basic refrigerator pickling recipe. My friend/kitchen assistant, Kelly S. shared this with me (after she shared a jar of pickles she made) and I told her they were the tastiest pickles I have ever had. I maintain that opinion, by the way. I have been refrigerator-pickling about 2 gallons of kirby cucumbers bi-weekly to stock up for winter. A one-gallon jar of the best pickles costs me $9. Considering one quart-sized jar of refrigerated pickles cost $4 in the store last time I looked, I feel like I'm getting a bargain!
Kelly's Refrigerator Pickle Recipe (Her family calls them Garlic Dills)
Garlic Dill Pickles
2 qts of water
1/4 cup of salt
1/4 cup of sugar
1 cup of vinegar
I would estimate that about 2 pounds of sliced kirby cukes makes up a gallon. I have been doubling the solution for 2 gallons.
Kelly says for the jars:
Cucumber ( we usually just go by what we have from our garden but i would say maybe about 4 or 5 large cucumbers sliced will give you about 4 or 5 quart jars

2 to 4 sprigs of dill per jar
2 to 4 cloved of garlic mined or sliced per jar

Bring the liquid mixture to a simmer. Slice the cucumers and insert in to jars, add liquid mixture to the jars. add some more garlic and dill to the top of the jar, then seal . let the jars cool , then refrigerate for 24 hours or more.

I use this recipe as a base to pickle all sorts of vegetables, adding herbs and spices as I see fit.