Thursday, May 4, 2017

Chicken Tagine with Lemon-Scented Herbed Couscous

Bringing the taste of Morocco home is made easier with the help of Mina Tagine Moroccan Cooking sauces. 

There is something really comforting to me about the smell of chicken roasting. It brings back memories of an easier time when all you needed to worry about was which sneakers to wear to school and whose backyard you were going to play in this weekend. Roasting a chicken at home instead of picking up a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket really isn't difficult and gives you complete control over your ingredients. And here at 'Confessions,' we're all about knowing what's going into your food and making sure it's real ingredients and not overly filled with sodium and chemical preservatives.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to try a trio of new sauces from the folks over at Mina.

You might remember that I introduced you to Mina a few years back when I discovered their line of harissa which I still use in my cooking today. It's a quick way to add a burst of flavor to nearly any dish. So of course I jumped at the chance to try their new line of tagine sauces. The line includes special blends for chicken, beef or lamb, and fish. Today, I'm sharing with you how ridiculously easy it is to get the flavors of Morocco at home with delicious, succulent chicken stewed in the chicken cooking sauce. 

Here are the ingredients: One whole chicken, an onion, some green olives, a few sprigs of cilantro and a jar of Mina Tagine Moroccan Chicken Cooking Sauce. That's it. And I gotta say, even though I've made tagine from scratch, this cooking sauce is so ridiculously delicious, I don't know that I'll go through the trouble of measuring out all the various spices needed to do it from scratch again. 

What's in the sauces you ask? Here's the entire ingredient list: water,  extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, salt, black pepper, cumin, turmeric, coriander, and saffron. That's it. Just clean, good for you ingredients. 

You might have noticed this beautiful blue lid in my photographs and wondered what the heck is that? So the word "tagine" refers to both a cooking vessel AND the dish typically cooked in one. The tight-fitting conical lid aids in keeping the meat moist while cooking. The first time I cooked with the Mina tagine sauce, I used a Dutch oven and the results where just as tasty, the meat just as succulent. But when I saw this gorgeous tagine on sale while out and about a few weeks back, I simply couldn't help myself. There are several Mexican stews that I'm also itching to try cooking in it perhaps even one of those Dutch oven bread recipes. (Why, yes! That is my inner voice trying to justify purchasing this new kitchen toy. Shush!)

My point is, you don't need to rush out and buy a tagine to use these sauces or cook these dishes. In fact, next month, I'll be sharing my experiment with Mina Tagine for beef or lamb and I'll be making it in a 12-inch cast iron skillet. However a Dutch oven, a slow cooker or even an InstaPot can be used. Don't let the cooking vessel, or lack there of, keep you from trying these sauces. They're too easy and the meals that come from them too tasty to not rotate them into your monthly or even weekly cooking routine.

Chicken Tagine with Lemon-Scented Herbed Couscous
Save a little money and buy a whole chicken and break it down yourself. Don't know how? Follow Melissa Clark's easy video how-to. The added benefit is that you'll be left with the backbone to use for making the stock for the couscous. Don't want to make the stock? Use your favorite low-sodium stock instead. Don't want to make the couscous, skip it and use crusty bread to sop up the sauce. For the olives, I used Castelvetrano because I like the slightly sweet, buttery flavor which I think balances the spices in this dish but use whichever green olive you prefer. 

Serves 4

For the tagine: 

1 (4-5lb) whole chicken (organic if your pocketbook can afford)
1 medium onion
1 jar Mina Tagine Moroccan Chicken Cooking Sauce
12 pitted large green olives

For the couscous stock:

1 chicken backbone
2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ onion
1 stalk celery, quartered
1 large carrot, quartered
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper corns
1 whole dried bay leaf

For the couscous:

1 cup prepared stock
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
⅔ cup couscous
1 tablespoon minced mint
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
salt and pepper, to taste

3-4 sprigs fresh cilantro, leaves rough chopped or torn, for garnish

Place an oven rack on the lower third of the oven and preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

For the chicken: Cut the chicken up into eight pieces, saving the backbone for the couscous stock. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Finely dice or grate the onion. Line the bottom of you tagine, dutch oven or skillet with the diced onion then arrange the chicken on top of it. Shake the jar of tagine sauce well, then evenly pour the sauce over the chicken. If using a tagine, place the tagine on a rimmed baking sheet to make it easier to take in and out of the oven. Cover the tagine with its conical lid and roast for 1 hour, checking the tagine halfway through the cooking time to see if the cooking liquid has evaporated too much. If it's looking a little dry, carefully add 1/2 cup to 1 cup of water, careful to avoid washing any of the sauce off of the chicken, and continue cooking. After 1 hour, remove the lid, add the olives and roast for an additional 15 to 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

While the chicken is roasting, make the stock for the couscous. Place all the ingredients for the stock in a large pot. Fill the pot with 2 -3 quarts of water, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and allow to cook while chicken is roasting.

When chicken is ready, remove from oven. cover with lid and make the couscous: Strain the stock. Add 1 cup of stock to a small pot. Add the olive oil, lemon juice and zest; cover and bring to a boil. Add the couscous, cover and remove from heat. Allow the couscous to steam and soak up the broth for at least 15 minutes. Remove lid, carefully fluff with a fork. Stir in the herbs. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Divide the couscous between four plates. Divide the chicken, placing it on top of the couscous, spooning sauce and olives onto each plate. Garnish with cilantro leaves.

This post was created in partnership with Mina and Casablanca Foods. All opinions, recipes and photography are my own. Find Mina on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

First Look: The Migraine Relief Plan + Maple Sesame Glazed Chicken

For my first post of 2017, I'm taking a look inside the new book by health and wellness coach and life-long migraine sufferer, Stephanie Weaver called "The Migraine Relief Plan: An 8-Week Transition to Better Eating, Fewer Headaches, and Optimal Health."

Copyright 2016 by Laura Bashar

I get headaches.

Sometimes I get them accompanied by nausea, light sensitivity, or dizziness. I've been to a neurologist who said they were just headaches, not migraines. But you could have fooled me! After my diabetes diagnosis back in 2014, I changed the basic make up of my daily eating habits and along with reversing the disease, the headaches accompanied by these terrible side effects also drastically reduced to maybe 1 or 2 every few months. Granted, I still get tension headaches from stress but even these aren't anywhere near in number what they were just 3 years ago. So I'm a big believer that what we use to fuel our bodies makes a huge difference.

"It turns out I’ve been having migraine attacks my whole life, but because they were atypical, I wasn’t diagnosed." Stephanie Weaver, author of The Migraine Relief Plan

Meet Stephanie

My friend Stephanie Weaver knows headaches, too. She's lived with them all her life. She, along with her mother, have called them "weather headaches." In 2014, after suffering some serious bouts of vertigo, she finally got her answer: Stephanie suffered from migraines with Meniere's variant (Meniere's disease affects the inner ear and is made worse by a sodium-rich diet).

Author and wellness coach, Stephanie Weaver, pauses while preparing to give a cooking demo during the launch party for The Migraine Relief Plan on Sunday, Februrary 12, 2017 in Point Loma, California.

Stephanie is an impressive woman. An author, blogger, certified wellness and health coach, she has a Master of Public Health in Nutrition Education and has dedicated her life to eating well and living healthfully. She spent years as a vegetarian, then vegan, thinking a plant-based life was the most healthy for her body. Yet, she suffered from crippling headaches.

As a person who advocates for people to take charge of their own health and now finally armed with a diagnosis, Stephanie set out to do her own research and found that there was a gaping hole in the books available: none offered a gradual transition with recipes to nourish the body while at the same time avoiding all the migraine triggers.

"I wrote the book that I needed," Stephanie recently told the crowd gathered in a beautiful home in Point Loma that hosted her book launch. "If this book had already been available, I would have bought it and that would have been that. But it wasn't."

"I don’t assume that you will change overnight. It’s not realistic, especially for people in pain." Stephanie Weaver


A peek inside the book

What she did do is create a book that gently guides you into a lifestyle change that addresses not only food, but also the mind and body.

The Migraine Relief Plan: An 8-Week Transition to Better Eating, Fewer Headaches, and Optimal Health

Author: Stephanie Weaver, MPH, CWHC
Photographer: Laura Bashar
Publisher: Agate Surray
List Price: $19.95
Paperback, 336 pages, 78 recipes
Meal plan is gluten-free, sugar-free, low sodium and easily adapts to a Paleo diet.
Available on Amazon


The book is divided into 5 parts:

  • Part 1 is an overview of the plan, why she created it and the Migraine Relief Plan food list.
  • Part 2 explains the plan, broken down week by week over the course of two months that covers everything from changing your mindset, setting up your environment for success, cleaning out your fridge and even a week devoted to how to eat out while on the plan.
  • Part 3 takes you through month 6, teaching you how to maintain the plan through self care, detoxifying your body, home and work environments, as well as addressing sleep and gentle exercise.
  • Part 4 addresses long-term lifestyle changes that includes trigger testing: slowly adding some foods back into your diet to see how your body responds.
  • And finally, Part 5 are the rigorously tested recipes written using only the approved foods on the Migraine Relief Plan food list. 

"Most diet books and programs assume that you will follow the program 100 percent. As a health and wellness coach, I know that’s not realistic." Stephanie Weaver

Delicious food

Any diet that doesn't include delicious food is going to be challenging to adhere to. Therein lies the beauty of having a recipe developer write a book like this: once you adjust your tastebuds to lower-sodium salt and get back to what real, whole food is supposed to taste like, you can't help but fall in love with these recipes.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I made the recipe I'm including here, the maple sesame glazed chicken. When the marinated chicken hit the hot pan, an explosion of mouth-watering aromas took up residence in every nook and grannie in my kitchen. The first bite made me a convert: Stephanie successfully created a teriyaki-inspired dish that didn't need all the sodium, soy and sugar found in traditional teriyaki to taste great.

Copyright 2016 by Laura Bashar
Copyright 2016 by Laura Bashar

During the book's launch party, I had the opportunity to try several more dishes including the Creamy Not-ella Carob Butter, the Spicy Kale and Swiss Chard Sauté, and Pomegranate Marinade for Beef or Chicken (we were served beef). For dessert, we were served Carob Squares (yes, there's dessert and snacks, too).

Other recipes in the book that I can't wait to make include Spicy Fish Tacos, Smoky Butternut Squash Soup, Peachy Pulled Pork, Berry Cobbler, and Bacon Salad Dressing.

Not just for migraine sufferers

Although this book is geared towards migraine sufferers, everyone can benefit from the lifestyle changes that Stephanie suggests like meditation, gentle movement, or embarking on a social media fast. Plus, the recipes presented here are anti-inflammatory, gluten-free, low-carb, low-sodium and most are already Paleo-friendly. With her gentle guidance and expert, first-hand knowledge, I truly feel this book can help anyone become a healthier, happier version of themselves.

Copyright 2016 by Laura Bashar

Maple Sesame Glazed Chicken

Makes 4 servings

Prep time: 25 minutes Cooking time: 45–50 minutes Passive time: 1/2–8 hours

This Asian-inspired glaze is close to teriyaki without being sticky-sweet. This dish is shown on the cover with Wild Rice and Carrots (page 246) and Spicy Kale and Swiss Chard Sauté (page 243).

1 bunch green onions

2 tablespoons white vinegar (see Cooks’ Note)

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 3/5–2 pounds (0.8–1kg) boneless, skinless chicken thighs (5–6 thighs)

1 tablespoon coconut oil

2 tablespoons dry toasted tan sesame seeds

Budget friendly: Very

1. Remove the roots and tips from the green onions. Cut the white parts into chunks and put them in a blender. Slice the green parts thinly and set aside.

2. To make the marinade, add the vinegar, maple syrup, toasted sesame oil, garlic, smoked paprika, garlic powder, and ginger to the blender and blend, along with the white parts of the onion, until smooth.

3. Put the chicken in a large bowl. Pour marinade over chicken. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.

4. Heat the coconut oil in large nonstick lidded skillet set over medium heat until shimmering. Add the chicken pieces and cook for 5 minutes on each side, or until browned.

5. Drizzle any remaining marinade from the bowl over the chicken and sprinkle the reserved sliced green onions, stirring to coat chicken. Then, partially cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium–low. Cook for 10 minutes, turn the chicken, and cook for 10 minutes more. Leave a small opening between the cover and the pan so some of the steam can escape.

6. Remove lid from chicken pan to check chicken for doneness. Cook just until done, either by checking with a meat thermometer for 165°F (74°C), or by cutting open. Sprinkle sesame seeds over. Remove from the heat.

7. Serve right away or store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Cooks’ Note: Use skinless chicken for this recipe, as this cooking method will not deliver crispy skin. If you’re not sure about sesame oil, start with 1 tablespoon, then taste.

Per serving: 46g protein, 11g carbohydrates, 18g fat, 3g saturated fat, 196mg sodium, 681mg potassium, 2g fiber

Reprinted with permission from The Migraine Relief Plan, copyright 2016 Stephanie Weaver. Published by Surrey Books, an imprint of Agate Publishing, Inc.
About the author: Stephanie Weaver, MPH, CWHC is an author, blogger, and certified wellness and health coach. She has a Master of Public Health in Nutrition Education from the University of Illinois. Her recipes have been featured in Cosmopolitan, Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, Parade, and more. She lives in San Diego.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Migraine Relief Plan directly from the publisher for review consideration; I received no further compensation. Opinions expressed are my own.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Test driving Blue Apron {review} + Cabbage Pizza with Romaine & Apple Salad {recipe}

Imagine not having to spend hours of your weekend at the grocery store, list of meals for the week in hand and having to buy more than you know you need for any given recipe (how often will you actually use oyster sauce or an entire can of chipotle in adobo sauce?). I've been cooking, styling and photographing a lot for the newspaper over the last few months and with the emotional roller coaster that has occupied my life outside of work, not much energy has been left for big weekend shopping trips let alone for creating blog-worthy recipes or even healthy weekday meals after long hours at work. Just when I was feeling like I couldn't eat another scrambled egg for dinner, along came the folks at Blue Apron – the ready-to-cook-at-home meal delivery service started in 2012 that sends you a box of pre-portioned, high quality ingredients along with step-by-step instructions to prepare your meal – inquiring in my interest to try their service and provide feedback to share with you.

Of course I said yes. I already knew how convenient a meal delivery service can be having reviewed another cook-it-at-home meal delivery service last summer. But I had been curious about Blue Apron since I have several friends who are using the service. It's also a few dollars less expensive per serving than the service I reviewed last summer.

So, let's have a look, shall we?

Navigating the website
Blue Apron's website is easy to navigate with every section clearly labeled:

Note that along with the meal delivery service, they also have a wine delivery service (six 500ml bottles that serve 2 at $10 a bottle) and a market place that sells knives and prep tools, cookware, bakeware, pantry items, and wine accessories:

The menu and ordering

2-Person Plan (Seasonally-inspired meals for two)
Recipes per week: 3 (2 servings each)
Weekly total: $59.94
Family Plan (Family-style meals for four)
Recipes per week: 2 or 4 (4 servings each)
Weekly total: $69.92 or $139.84 
When you sign-up, you're automatically enrolled in Blue Apron's weekly delivery system. However, you have the opportunity to preview each week's menu and can opt to skip as many deliveries in a row as you want. This is especially convenient if you know you have a busy week coming up that won't allow for three to six nights of eating at home.

Being single, I opted for the 2-person plan. Looking at my delivery week's menu options I have to admit, I felt a bit limited. I had only 6 options, or so I thought. Once I started selecting, options grayed out, leaving me with only 4 meals to choose from. For comparison, the other service at the time of review had seven and currently offers 12 recipes including a variety of paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, soy free and dairy free options.

The Blue Apron meals the week I ordered weren't labeled for dietary restrictions. In fact, Blue Apron doesn't currently offer recipes for specific dietary needs (i.e., paleo, gluten-free, soy free, dairy free) and only the 2 person plan offers a few vegetarian options. (I just checked for this review's purposes and see that vegetarian meals are now labeled with a small green leaf on the photo.)

My final choices were the Spiced Beef Skewers, Spicy Hoisin Chicken & Broccoli, and Smoked Mozzarella & Cabbage Pizza. I would have preferred the rigatoni as my third meal over the pizza but it wasn't an option for me.

Delivery day is Friday, a day that I typically don't get home from work until 8:30 p.m. I don't know what time my box was delivered but the ice packs kept the meat sufficiently cold. The produce at the top of the box farthest from the cold packs were still slightly cool and still looked fresh with no signs of wilting.

Ingredients were clearly labeled for which recipe they went with, including three small paper bags called "Knick Knacks" which contained the seasonings for each recipe in small plastic packets, miniature bottles and small condiment containers.

All the packaging is recyclable and depending on where you live, curb-side recyclable. If you prefer, you also have the option of printing out a return label and returning the packaging directly to Blue Apron.

Also in the box were 8.5-inch by 11-inch sheets of instructions with photos of the finished dish and ingredients needed on one side and step-by-step instructions on the other.

The recipe cards
The first recipe I tried was the Smoked Mozzarella & Cabbage Pizza with Romaine and Apple salad.

I admit, I was intrigued by the idea of a cabbage pizza plus, being familiar with, and a fan of, smoked gouda, I was excited to try smoked mozzarella.

The instructions were clear and easy enough for any level of cook to follow with step-by-step photos of the height of the action within every step, almost like having a professional chef in the kitchen with you, looking over your shoulder. They have you prepare all your ingredients before getting started, a professional culinary technique called "mise en place" which can make you feel like you're taking a very long time before actually getting started with the "cooking" portion. But this can be very helpful for the novice cook who needs the extra time to concentrate on their knife skills without the fear of something boiling over or scorching while waiting for you to catch up.

How'd they taste?
The pizza & salad: The weakest part of this meal for me was definitely the salad. It was in dire need of crunch (the description says it's crunchy romaine and juicy apple but there wasn't much "crunch" to the lettuce) and another layer of flavor. I would add toasted walnuts or pecans for crunch and to the simple olive oil and apple cider dressing, some chopped shallots and/or fresh garlic along with a small dollop of dijon. The pizza was good, especially fell in love with that smoked cheese. But again, I felt like pizza needed something. Perhaps some caramelized onions mixed in with the cabbage or maybe even some mushrooms for added protein? Or, if you aren't necessarily vegetarian, some crunchy bits of pancetta would be divine. Either way, I would definitely make this again on my own and I've even included the recipe at the end of this post, courtesy of Blue Apron.

The beef skewers with roasted squash and garlic rice: I'm in love with Middle Eastern food and have had kofta before – a well-seasoned meatball, often made into a kebab, sometimes a mix of beef and lamb – and was excited to try making it at home. The supplied Ras el Hanout spice blend that went into the ground beef packed a punch of flavor. Ras el Hanout spice blends can differ according to household but typically it contains up to 10 spices (cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, paprika, mace, nutmeg, peppercorn and turmeric). I loved the garlic rice and have used this technique for farro and wheat berry since making this recipe. Also, cutting the butternut squash into rings to roast was genius, the cooking time was reduced and presentation stellar. I also liked the prep on this which included both lemon juice and lemon zest.

The chicken & broccoli with garlic rice: This is a super simple dish that is fast to prep and cook. I would have preferred brown rice over the traditional jasmine rice only because I like to avoid white rice and I would also add garlic to the chicken and up the scallion from 1 to 2 as well as add more broccoli.

The verdict
I found Blue Apron's ingredients to be high quality. The produce was fresh and in good shape. Blue Apron works directly with farmers, some produce being organic and all the farmers incorporate sustainable growing practices. The grind of the beef was a little finer than I like so I felt like the beef skewers were denser than had I bought the meat locally but it was fresh and had great flavor. Blue Apron sources their meat from ranchers that employ humane farming of their animals and source only sustainable seafood.

The recipes were simple, quick and expose the home cook to spices, produce and preparations they might not otherwise have tried. For busy worker-bees who might stop at a fast food joint on the way home, this is definitely a better, healthier alternative. I'd like to see more options, though, and look forward to when Blue Apron expands their dietary offerings (a paleo option would be especially welcomed) as well as better at-a-glance labeling of those dietary offerings (i.e, paleo, gluten free, soy free, dairy free).

I think one of the best things about Blue Apron is not having to think about what you're going to make as you're driving home from work. Everything you need is conveniently portioned out, waiting in your fridge for you to cook. And if you're single like me, then even better as you cook one night, then eat leftovers the next night. Also, the leftovers can be repurposed, if you like. For example, the night after I had the beef skewers, I chopped up my cooked beef and squash and made a hash, adding onions and bell peppers from my fridge and topped it with a fried egg. It was utterly delicious and super quick since the bulk of the meal was already cooked.

If you've been thinking about trying out a cook-it-at-home meal delivery that provides convenience and a chance to try a variety of produce and spices, then give Blue Apron a go.

Smoked Mozzarella & Cabbage Pizza 
with Romaine & Apple Salad
Serves 2

1 pound plain pizza dough
7 ounces smoked mozzarella cheese
4 cloves garlic
1 Gala apple
1 Romaine heart
4 teaspoons olive oil, divided, plus more to grease the pan
3/4 pound green cabbage
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
salt & pepper to taste

Prepare the ingredients: Remove the dough from the refrigerator to bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash and dry the fresh produce. Cut out  and discard the cabbage core, thinly slice the leaves. Peel and mince the garlic. Small dice the cheese. Cut off and discard the root end of the romain, half the leaves crosswise. Core and thinly slice the apple.

Cook the cabbage: In a large pot, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil on medium-high until hot. Add the cabbage and garlic; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally 7 to 8 minutes, or until softened. Add the capers and as much of the red pepper flakes as you'd like, depending on how spicy you'd like the dish to be. Cook, stirring occasionally, 1 to 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Remove from heat; season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Prepare the dough: while the cabbage cooks, lightly oil a large sheet pan. On a clean, dry work surface, using your hands and a rolling pin, gently stretch and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness (if the dough is resistant, let rest for 5 minutes). Carefully transfer to the prepared sheet pan, rub dough into the pan to coat the bottom in oil.

Assemble & bake the pizza: Evenly top the prepared dough with the cooked cabbage and cheese, leaving a 1-inch border around the edges. Season with salt and pepper. Bake, rotating the sheet pan halfway through, 16 to 18 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand for at least 2 minutes.

Make the vinaigrette: While the pizza bakes, place the vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in 2 teaspoons of olive oil until well combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Make the salad & place your dish: Just before serving, in a large bowl, combine the romaine an apple; season with salt and pepper. Add enough of the vinaigrette to coat the salad (you may have extra vinaigrette). Toss to combine and season with salad and pepper to taste. Garnish the baked pizza with a drizzle of olive oil. Divide divid 2.3 of the baked pizza and salad between 2 dishes (you will have extra). Enjoy!

Recipe courtesy of Blue Apron. Reprinted with permission.

Disclaimer: Blue Apron supplied me with a one week trial of their 2-person menu plan for consideration for an editorial review. No further compensation was received. Receipt of product did not guarantee a review nor influence the outcome of the review. All opinions are, as always, my own. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Rosemary Olive Oil Popcorn with Garlic, Parmesan and Smoked Paprika {Recipe+Travel}

Inspired by my recent trip to Capay Valley, this rosemary olive oil popcorn is a spicy variation of my classic stovetop version.

When it comes to salty snacks, popcorn is at the top of my list. Growing up, the smell of popcorn being made in the large lidded pot normally reserved for making a big ol' pot of frijoles de la olla would bring all of us girls streaming into the kitchen in anticipation of the salty, buttery, crunchy snack. To this day, I'm not particularly big on microwave popcorn, what with it's super high sodium and chemical additives. Gross. Instead, it's stovetop popping every time. And these days, it's made in my trusty, old hand-hammered wok. I learned that trick from an ex-boyfriend who made it that way the very first night he had me over to his place for dinner and a viewing of his favorite DVD ("When Harry Met Sally"). The great heat conductivity of the wok made for some light, crunchy popcorn and after that first fistful, I was sold. 

As a rule, I make my popcorn in a good quality extra virgin olive oil sometimes flavored with garlic cloves and finished with lots of cracked black pepper and finely grated Parmesan. But last month, while in Sacramento for the International Food Blogger's Conference, I was able to participate in two field trips a few days before the conference started. The one I'm sharing today was to the Capay Valley where we were treated to a lovely farm-to-table lunch and got a tour of Capay Valley Ranches' olive and almond tree farm. While there, we received samples of some olive oil, honey and balsamic vinegar. We also got to pick a full-size bottle to add to our gift bag. I picked the Rosemary Infused Olive Oil which inspired today's recipe. We'll talk more about the popcorn in a bit. First, let's chat about what I learned about olive trees and olive oil-making with some pictures and thoughts from our afternoon.

Rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye can see

The Capay Valley is about an hour northwest of Sacramento in Yolo County. (I'll mention here that it's also 10 degrees hotter than Sacramento and was 110 degrees on this day that we visited. Hello, and thank you, air conditioned bus!) It's a lovely drive through rolling hills, vineyards and farmland sporting a casino, golf course, tasting rooms, and plenty of opportunities to partake in farm-to-table dinners. 

Our first stop was Taber Ranch Vineyard & Event Center.
The event center grounds are charming with a converted barn playing host to weddings and big events (weddings are booked nearly a year out so if you're interested, plan early!).
We were treated to fresh lemonade, iced tea, local almonds and fruit to whet our appetites.
That was followed by this silky ice cream made with CVR's olive oil.  It was so bright, slightly citrusy and refreshing. A real hit and I'm anxiously awaiting the recipe. I might have to give up and experiment on my own. 
Once lunch was ready, we moved to the loft part of the barn and helped ourselves to food. Lunch was locally grown produce and chicken prepared with CVR's oils, vinegars and honey. 
The highlight of the meal for me was the grilled chicken with CVR's Mango Sriracha Infused White Balsamic Vinegar BBQ Sauce. I was afraid it would be too spicy for me but the mango tempered the heat just enough. 
After we ate, we hopped back onto the cool bus and headed to the CVR farm where they grow three varieties of olives (Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki) as well as three varieties of almonds (Aldrich, Nonpareil and Sonora).

Joe Armstrong, pictured below, is the lead farmer at CVR and was our tour guide. Some of the tidbits he shared was that they've had to rely on cutting edge techniques to keep the trees healthy and thriving during our California drought. They've mapped the soil throughout the ranch and developed a system to accurately measure the dryness of the soil so that they can give the minimal amount of water to the trees to keep them just at fruit bearing stage. If I heard correctly, these almond trees can get away with a soak just once every three weeks. Considering our drought, I found that very impressive.

Lead farmer at CVR, Joe Armstrong passionately shared his knowledge of almond and olive growing with us, encouraging us to pick nuts right off the three trees, removing the outer hull, then peeling away the shell to reveal the nut and trying them so we could taste the difference. 
The trees get a good shake, ripe nuts fall to the ground and are left to sun dry before being collected for processing.
Rows and rows of olive trees.

Some fun facts about CVR's olive growing practices:

  • Olive trees do best in the poorest soil. CVR will add lime to the soil, helping the olive trees to thrive.
  • CVR reclaims as much rain water as possible, filtering it to remove impurities before using it to water. They've found that the olive trees do best with frequent little shots of water totaling about a gallon of water per hour per tree.
  • The olives are harvested by a grape harvester which concentrates on the "fruiting" zone of the trees which is 8 feet and below. Harvesting is done mostly at night when the fruit is cool. Harvesting during the day in the heat would cause the fruit to begin fermenting almost immediately.
  • Last year, 128 acres of CVR olive trees produced 36,000 gallons of olive oil.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the only kind to use

Séka Hills Olive Mill processes the olives from several growers in the valley, CVR being one of them. Because the olives need to be processed immediately after harvesting, it's vital that mills are located as close to the farms as possible. During harvest, Séka runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to ensure the freshest product.

Unlike the old days when olives were actually pressed in vertical presses, after grinding the olives, pits and all, modern day mills put the paste into a centrifuge to extract the oil. At Séka, the fruit is kept well below 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the extraction to qualify as a cold press extra virgin olive oil which is the only kind of olive oil produced at the mill. The spent paste is sold to local farms for hog and cattle feed supplement. As comparison, some growers and mills will sell that spent paste to other producers who then treat the paste with chemicals and heat to extract more oil. This oil is labeled as olive oil or light olive oil. These, because they've been heat and chemically altered, offer none of the antioxidant benefits of extra virgin olive oil. 

Something I also learned during the mill tour is that it's recommended that you buy your oil from sources closest to you or directly from growers with expedited shipping as the oil is only best up to 18 months from the fruit's harvest date in order to maintain any of the health benefits. Imported olive oil, though popular, has spent much of it's usable shelf life in transport or sitting on shelves. Personally, I'm addicted to California olive oil and have been for quite some time.  

Now that we've learned a little bit about olive oil, let's make some popcorn!

An already infused olive oil works great but you can also make your own by tossing a sprig or two of fresh rosemary into the oil with the garlic, then adding some fresh finely chopped rosemary to the popped corn to further carry that woodsy rosemary flavor. Also, you could use regular paprika but do look for the smoked kind. I use a Spanish smoked paprika which is my favorite. You can find it online or at your local Sur la Table. 

Serves 4

¼ cup plus 3 teaspoons Capay Valley Rosemary Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
Generous ⅓ cup organic popcorn kernels
1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika, divided
¼ cup finely grated parmesan, divided
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Place a wok or heavy potted pot with lid on high heat. Add ¼ cup olive oil and carefully add the peeled garlic. Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Pour in the popcorn, cover and shake vigorously every thirty seconds to ensure all the kernels pop. Remove from heat when popping slows to only a few pops every few 5 to 10 seconds. Total time should be about 5 minutes. 

Place ⅓ of the popcorn in a large bowl. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon of olive oil, ½ teaspoon of the paprika, and ⅓ of the cheese. Crack some black pepper over the popcorn to your liking (I'm fairly generous). Toss well. Repeat with two more layers. Store leftover popped corn in a resealable bag. Will stay fresh for about two days.


Taber Ranch Vineyard and Event Center

Road 81
Capay, CA 95607
Phone: 916.716.5333

Capay Valley Ranches

Highway 16 @ Road 81 & 82
Capay, CA 95607
Phone: 916.451.4477

Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room

19326 County Road 78
Brooks, CA 95606
Phone: 530.796.2810

Notice: As a Citizen Blogger for the International Food Blogger Conference, I received a reduction in my registration fees in exchange for agreeing to write a minimum number of posts related to the conference before, during or immediately following the event, topic to be of my own choosing. This is the second of those posts. As always, all photographs, recipes and opinions are wholly my own.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Roasted Cherry Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt {recipe video + product review}

Try this healthier frozen treat that is lower in fat with less cholesterol and sugar than a traditional custard-based ice cream.

Most cooks love kitchen tools that make prep easier. I'm no exception. I recently received a cherry pitter from Crisp, a line of tools created to promote healthy living. When our SoCal weather went from warm to hot, I knew that I wanted to put this new tool to the test with something cold, creamy and sweet. Originally, I thought of ice cream but since I'm trying to be good and get back on track with my diet after two indulgent vacations two months apart, I instead opted for a healthier frozen yogurt. 

I'm doing things a little differently today: I created this fun recipe video for you so you can see how easy this Crisp Cherry Pitter is to use.

Ready to try this recipe? Scroll to the end of this post for written instructions.

Until next time! xo, ani

Roasted Cherry Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt

This recipe makes a little less than a quart, perfect for four people. Use the leftover roasted cherries, in regular yogurt, oatmeal or even pancakes or muffins. A little bourbon is added to the cherries when processing which helps to keep them from getting rock hard in the freezer since alcohol doesn't freeze. That's also the reason why I called for 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract in addition to the vanilla beans as most extracts are alcohol based (I used my homemade vanilla extract). Use full fat Greek yogurt for a creamier texture or 2% if you must. Nonfat can be used but the texture will greatly suffer. Be sure to freeze your ice cream maker bowl for at least 24 hours for the best results. Optionally, also return the blended yogurt mixer to the refrigerator for 2 hours if there is time before churning.

Serves 4


for the cherries:
cooking spray
2 cups cherries, pitted
2 tablespoons erythritol, or two individual packets of no calorie sweetener
2 teaspoons lemon juice, divided
1 tablespoon bourbon

for the yogurt base:
3 vanilla bean pods, split in half length-wise
17.5 ounce container of Fage Greek Yogurt
2/3 cups half and half 
2 tablespoons organic liquid stevia (I like SweetLeaf or Trader Joe's brands)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Spread the pitted cherries onto the baking sheet and sprinkle with the erythritol and 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice tossing to coat. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes or to taste, being careful not to burn fruit. Remove from pan immediately. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Place the cherries into a zipper bag, seal and place bag into ice water bath to cool completely. When cool, place cherries in a food processor, adding the reserved lemon juice and the bourbon, pulsing to desired texture. Set aside.

Cut the vanilla bean pods in half length-wise. Working with half at a time, carefully pry the pod open then use the back of a knife to remove the beans and place them in a small prep bowl. Repeat for all pods. Scoop the yogurt into a blender. Pour in the half and half and stevia. Add the vanilla beans and vanilla extract. Blend on high for 2 to 3 minutes or until the mixture is smooth and the vanilla beans are evenly distributed. 

Add the yogurt mixture to your ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer's instructions for the churning process, typically churning for 12 to 20 minutes depending on the brand or until yogurt is firm. Transfer the yogurt to a freezer safe 1 quart container. Add desired amount of dollops of cherries to the yogurt, carefully folding them in. Yogurt can be served immediately or for a firmer texture, cover tightly and place in freezer for 2 hours. If yogurt is too hard, allow to rest on counter for 10 minutes before serving.

I received a cherry pitter from Crisp for review and post consideration. No other compensation was received nor was a favorable review guaranteed. All opinions, recipe, and photography are my own. Thank you for supporting the sponsors who help me keep this site going. 

Want a cherry pitter of your own? Click here.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Traveling to Sacramento? Visit Tequila Museo Mayahuel for a killer flan

California State Capitol Building
If you follow me on any of my social media channels, you might already be aware that I just spent a long weekend in Sacramento, California for my second attendance of the International Food Bloggers Conference. It’s also my second visit to California’s capitol, the last having been more than 15 years ago in which we only spent a little time visiting a few shops in Old Town Sacramento. This trip, however, I’m getting a chance to partake in some of the excellent food and wine that this city, located in the heart of the farm to fork movement, has to offer. 

Arriving in Downtown Sacramento a day before the conference events were set to kick-off, my friend Mimi (of Mimi Avocado), texted me to say that she, too, arrived early and would I like to meet up for dinner? She suggested Tequila Museo Mayahuel, a restaurant that strives to immerse it’s customers in the culture of Mexico through authentic flavors blended with a fresh and modern twist, drinks featuring some of the best tequila, a mezcal bar, art and music.

Mayahuel is located on K Street, just a quick stroll around the corner from the Hyatt Regency, our host hotel for the conference. It's proximity was a blessing since the days have been in the low 100s with the early evenings not that much cooler. The restaurant was about a third full so we were able to be quickly seated. The space, with it's bold paintings and gorgeous flower arrangements, had an overall comfortably welcoming vibe. There is also a shaded outdoor patio if al fresco dining is your preference, however, we opted for air conditioning.

Mimi had looked over the menu beforehand but I went in not knowing what to expect. We found our tastes perfectly aligned as both of us ordered the same items.

We started with their house special cocktail, the Así Sabe México which can be figuratively translated to “a taste of México”.

Created by their in-house mixologist, it’s a smooth combination of fresh watermelon, cucumber, lime, tequila, tajín chile on the rim and sells for $9. The menu states that the drink embodies the “true spirit of México” however, Mimi and I both decided to forgo the chile as both of us were afraid it would over power our palates. Well, that’s a half truth. I’m simply a chile wimp. Ok, I admitted it. Moving on.

I am a huge molé fan and make a few different kinds myself. However, I’ve never attempted pipian verde which is traditionally made from pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and gets a hit of tang from tomatillos and just a hint of spice from fresh chiles. When I saw Pipian Verde con Chuleta de Puerco (chuleta de puerco is pork chop), I knew I had to try it. The menu states that it’s a “mole verde made from sesame seed” which, in my experience is used in other kinds of mole, not in pipian verde so I was very curious to try it. The dish was described as being served with cilantro rice and a starter salad. Unfortunately, we never received our starter salad and our waiter was unfamiliar with the description of the dish and didn't seek to rectify the oversight when we inquired about a salad. So, in hindsight, the $23.50 price tag for pork chops and rice wound up feeling a tad high. It's a good thing we loved the dish as much as we did.

Mayahuel’s pipian was a little thinner than red mole, however, green mole does tend to be looser than its red counterpart. The first several forkfuls left a distinct tingling sensation front and center, especially on the lips, from the chile but it eventually fell to the back as the well balanced bite finished with a tangy brightness that complimented the perfectly grilled tender, ever-so-slightly pink, pork chops. The side of rice was a delicious way to sop up the sauce, and we used every last bit of grain to do so until nothing was left on our plates. Now that I have closed out five evenings of dinners during my time in Sacramento, I can say assuredly that it has been my favorite entree.

But the highlight of the meal was yet to come.

Looking over the dessert menu, Mimi and I both zeroed in on one called ‘Imposible’ – heavenly slices of flan atop a slightly spongey, very dark chocolate cake bottom served with fluffy whipped cream garnished with mint and strawberry slices along with toasted walnut pieces for a little crunch. Sometimes I have found flan to be too sweet or soft but this was just sweet enough with the texture of the cake nicely contrasting the texture of the flan. The cake was intensely chocolate, providing the perfect backdrop to the creamy custard. This $9 unique dessert, unlike anything I’ve seen or tasted anywhere, is wildly successful and the perfect ending to a lovely meal.

Next time you visit Sacramento, make your way downtown, stroll through Capitol Park, snap a photo of the iconic California Capitol Building and be sure to stop in at Mayahuel for a unique taste of Mexico.

Tequila Museo Mayahuel
1200 K Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 441-7200

Visit them on

Instagram: mayahuelsac
Twitter: mayahuelmuseo
Facebook: MayahuelSacramento
YouTube: mayahuelsac

Notice: As a Citizen Blogger for the International Food Blogger Conference, I received a reduction in my registration fees in exchange for agreeing to write a minimum number of posts before, during or immediately following the conference, topic to be of my own choosing. This is the first of those posts. As always, all photographs and opinions are wholly my own. 

As a side note, during this dinner visit, I only had my iPhone 6s Plus so all restaurant images where taken with it and processed with Snapseed. And no, Apple and Snapseed did not pay me to mention them. I just really love the products and wanted to share the information with you. :)