Nutritious life week at the Golden Door

Golden Door 11 6 13

This week I have been fortunate enough to participate in Nutritious Life Week at the Golden Door Spa in Escondido, California. Along with 5-mile morning mountain hikes, classes in Fast Fit, daily workouts with my trainer, strenuous water aerobic classes, and daily tennis lessons, the days are sprinkled with massages, manicures, pedicures and facials. There is also time for me to talk to the guests about my own fitness program, my cooking, and signings for my new book, The French Kitchen Cookbook. Pictured above are a few guests enjoying the spa's first outdoor picnic, held overlooking the 3-acre organic vegetable garden, a paradise that right now is bursting with multiple varieties of beets, carrots, fennel, kale, society garlic, nasturtiums, oregano, and Mexican tarragon. Tonight, in our cooking class, we sliced many of these vegetables paper-thin, blanched them, then tossed them with an avalanche of herbs and a Yogurt, Lemon and Chive Dressing (recipe follows.) We also prepared a lighter variation of my Miniature Onion and Goat Cheese Appetizers, as well as Grilled Polenta Squares with Tomato and Onion Sauce, both variations on recipes from The French Kitchen Cookbook.

Yogurt, Lemon, and Chive Dressing

Equipment: A small jar, with a lid.

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup plain, low-fat yogurt

1/3 cup finely minced fresh chives

In a small jar, combine the lemon juice and the salt.  Shake to dissolve the salt.

Add the yogurt and chives. Shake to blend. Taste for seasoning. Store covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week. Shake to blend again before using.

About 3/4 cups

Miniature Onion and Goat Cheese Appetizers

These tasty, savory, miniature appetizers are a huge hit in my cooking classes. There is always a great sense of satisfaction, when one removes a tray of these fragrant, golden nuggets from the oven. These are best warm from the oven but are also delicious at room temperature. They can serve as appetizers or as sides to a simple green salad.

Equipment: A food processor; 2 nonstick petit four molds or mini muffin tins, each with twelve 2  1/2–inch (6.5 cm) cups, or a 24-cup mini-muffin pan.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound (500 g) onions, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into thin half moons

Fine sea salt

Coarse, freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces (125 g) soft, fresh goat’s milk cheese

Grated zest of 1 lemon, preferably organic

3 large eggs, preferably free range and organic lightly beaten

1 teaspoon fresh lemon thyme or regular thyme leaves

Fleur de sel, for garnish

  1. Evenly center two racks in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
  2. In a skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Reduce the heat to low, add the onions and a pinch of salt, and sweat – cook, covered, over low heat until soft and translucent – about 10 minutes. Season generously with freshly ground black pepper. Taste for seasoning.
  3. In the food processor, combine the goat cheese, lemon zest, eggs, and thyme leaves and process to blend. Add the cheese mixture to the onions in the skillet and stir to blend. Taste for seasoning.
  4. Spoon a tablespoon of the mixture into each mold or muffin cup.
  5. Place the molds in the oven and bake until the mixture is golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Then remove them from the cups. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fleur de sel.

Makes 24 miniature appetizers

Wine suggestion: The mineral-rich flavors of this blend of Marsanne, Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Bourboulenc with their touch of spice make this white wine –Domaine du Paternel Cassis Blanc de Bancs -- a perfect palate opener to pair with the tatins.

Grilled Polenta with Tomato and Onion Sauce

This light, colorful vegetarian weeknight dinner is a favorite, and this soothing, comfort-food dish knows few rivals, particularly in cooler weather.

Equipment: A 1-quart (1 l) gratin dish, 4 warmed dinner plates.

3  1/2 cups (875 ml) 1 % milk

Fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3/4 cup (135 g) instant polenta

1/2 cup (3 ounces; 90 g) freshly grated Gruyère cheese, plus extra for garnish

1 large onion, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into thin half-rounds

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 fresh or dried bay leaves

One  28-ounce (765g) can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice

Fresh, flat-leafed parsley leaves, for garnish

1. In a large saucepan, bring the milk, 1 teaspoon of the sea salt, and the nutmeg to a boil over medium heat. (Watch carefully, for milk will boil over quickly.) Add the polenta in a steady stream and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook until the mixture begins to thicken, about 3 minutes.

2.Remove from the heat. Add half of the cheese, stirring to blend thoroughly.  The polenta should be very creamy and pourable. Pour it into the gratin dish. Even out the top with a spatula. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes to firm up. (Or store, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days.)

3.Prepare the tomato garnish: In a large skillet, combine the onion, the olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of the sea salt and sweat – cook, covered over low heat until soft and translucent – about 5 minutes. With a large pair of scissors, cut the tomatoes in the can into small piece. Add the bay leaves and tomatoes and their juices and cook, covered, over low heat for about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

4.At serving time, preheat the broiler. Cut the polenta into 8 even squares. Place on the baking sheet, cheese side up. Place under the broiler and broil until the cheese sizzles, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the squares to the warmed plates, stacking the second slice at an angle over the first. Spoon the sauce all over. Garnish with parsley and cheese.

4 servings

WINE SUGGESTION: An inexpensive everyday dish suggests an equally fine but gently priced wine. A favorite is Michel and Stephane Ogier’s La Rosine Syrah, a deep purple vin de pays from the hillsides north of the old Roman town of Vienne.

MAKE AHEAD NOTE: Both the tomato sauce and the polenta can be prepared up to 3 days in advance, then covered and refrigerated separately. Reheat at serving time.

THE SECRET: When using whole, canned tomatoes, use a scissors to cut the tomatoes into small pieces, making for a still chunky yet finer sauce.

For the love of almonds

Rosemary-Toasted Almonds

Rosemary-Infused Almonds with Homemade Almond Oil

While preparing a cooking demonstration for the Google staff in San Francisco, the chef presented me with the most delicious homemade pistachio oil. He said he couldn’t readily find what I had requested, so prepared a batch himself! That put me in a creative mood, and now when the proper nut oil is not readily at hand, I make my own. Here’s a version I created using top-quality almonds. I use the oil to embellish all manner of foods, from braised asparagus to these toasted, herb-infused almonds.

Equipment: A small, nonstick skillet;  an electric spice mill; a baking sheet.

2 1/2 cups whole almonds, divided

1/3 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as grapeseed, peanut, or safflower

4 sprigs fresh rosemary, plus more for garnisH

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

  1. Center a rack in the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. . Prepare the almond oil:  In the skillet, toast 1/2 cup of the almonds over moderate heat until toasty and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Toss from time to time to toast them evenly. Remove to a plate to cool. Once cooled, transfer the nuts to the spice mill and grind coarsely, to about the size of a small grain of rice.
  3. In a small saucepan, warm the oil. Off the heat, add the ground almonds and stir to blend. Set aside for at least 1 hour to infuse the oil. Transfer the oil and nuts to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups of almonds, 1 tablespoons almond oil (with the ground nuts), 1 tablespoon minced rosemary, the lemon zest and the salt. Toss to coat the nuts. Transfer to the baking sheet. Scatter with the whole sprigs of rosemary.
  5. Place the baking sheet in the oven and toast until fragrant and golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Once cooled, remove and discard the rosemary sprigs. (Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.) At serving time, garnish with fresh rosemary sprigs.

2 cups

Appetizing nuts for the holidays

Christmas Nuts

Asian Nut Mix with Kaffir Lime Dust

I am always on the lookout for unusual appetizers and this one brings back memories of travels to Vietnam, where kaffir lime and all varieties of  nuts -- especially peanuts --  appear freely and frequently. Kaffir lime trees grow easily, so if you live in a temperate climate, add one to your garden or patio. Fresh, frozen, and dried leaves can be found at Asian food shops. Fresh leaves, of course, are the most intensely flavored.

1 cup (4 ounces; 125 g) salted peanuts

1 cup (4 ounces; 125 g) cashews

Olive oil spray

12 kaffir lime leaves, chopped, then ground to a fine powder (2 teaspoons)

1 cup (2 ounces; 60 g) Japanese rice crackers

Equipment: A baking sheet.

  1. Arrange a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
  2. Combine the nuts on a baking sheet. Spray lightly with oil and toss to coat.
  3. Place the baking sheet in the oven and lightly toast the nuts,  about 5  minutes.
  4. Transfer the nuts to a bowl, and while still warm, add the kaffir lime powder and rice crackers and toss to blend. Taste for seasoning. Serve.

3 cups (310 g)