Cook the Book, Revsited

With a towering cookbook collection and new additions added regularly, it was clear...I'd need twelve lifetimes to work through those books.  An idea began to take shape. What if...we combined the elements of a book club...and a potluck? What if...each person cooked out of the same book so we could compare notes--rejoicing in the winners and mulling over the duds, collectively?

And that's what we did. Back in 2006 we spent a few months working out the kinks. We tackled a few of the latest and greatest chef cookbooks, only to determine...they weren't so great. "I don't get it. Everyone's talking about this book!" An industry veteran cooed in my ear, "That's marketing, darling."

Eventually, we settled on tried and true and modern day classics. Julia Child, Lydia Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Julie Sahni, Thomas Keller, etc. One Christmas, we took over a culinary school kitchen for a baking marathon.

For two years, we gathered around the table. We explored cookbooks, and stretched our culinary skills. Seasoned pros joined the ranks and provided valuable insight when a recipe went awry or needed improvement.

On an average day, we'd try 10-14 dishes from a book. Sampling a variety of dishes side by side, a picture takes shape. Beyond the text, you begin to understand the author's culinary point of view--a penchant for sour notes, or earthy flavors. Elements of their writing style come into focus. "What if I can't get fresh epazote? Are substitutions recommended? Where? In the recipe, headnotes, or introduction?" It's a deeper look that extends well beyond my one-recipe-at-a-time approach.

It was an incredibly valuable experience. But in the end, it became difficult to sustain. And things wound down a couple years later.

:: :: ::

In the intervening years, I experienced some dramatic life changes. When things finally slowed down, I started asking myself some tough questions. What's working? What not working? And what am I missing?

In the process of reevaluating that big LIFE picture, I realized how much I missed our cookbook group. The original members are spread around the world, but maybe others would be interested. I sent out a few feelers.

Within a few weeks, we had our first gathering. We extended the table twice, and then realized all the food would not fit. Buffered with two other tables, it was an incredible feast! Raising a glass among new friends, old friends, and others I'd only met that day, it was incredibly fulfilling.

Our first gathering we tackled:

Essential Classics of Italian Cooking 
by Marcella Hazan

- Chickpea Soup with Rice
- Cucumber and Orange Salad
- Scallop Sauce with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Hot Pepper over Pasta
- Braised Carrots with Parmesan
- Baked Escarole Torta
- Baked Polenta with Bolognese Meat Sauce
- Pork Stewed with Porcini Mushrooms and Juniper
- Olive Oil Cake & Vin Santo
- Homemade Limoncello

Dishing at Macy's with Chef Tom Douglas

Do you know about Macy's Culinary Council? It's an all star line up of celebrity chefs including Rick Bayless, Wolfgang Puck, Ming Tsai, Cat Cora, Emeril Lagasse, and more. The goal? To bring cooking back home. In Macy's stores across the country, Culinary Council chefs provide cooking demonstrations and share essential tips. (Check the events page for dates near you.)

Last week, home town Culinary Council member, Chef Tom Douglas, took the helm at Macy's kitchen. With thirteen restaurants under his banner ("soon to be fourteen"), a radio show, the launch of a new cookbook, and appearances across the country, it was fun to see Tom in action.

Macy's flagship store, downtown Seattle

Hot off the press! Tom Douglas' Dahlia Bakery Cookbook. Tom was quick to note the recipes have been tested...and retested by three pastry chefs and two home cooks.

As the crowd swelled to over 100 attendees, I was grateful for prime seating. 

Cameraman, ready for action! 

Chef Tom Douglas paused for a photo, then quipped, "I have a face for radio."

The Macy's kitchen is an island in the middle of their retail floor.

And my seat was dangerously close to the Le Creuset display!

Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Broccoli Rabe and Fontina
Surprise! I didn't know Dahlia Bakery sold sandwiches. My loss. Of the three recipes we sampled, this was my favorite. The trick here is to caramelize the broccoli rabe and "use a fatty cheese." Tom was quick to add, "That recipe is so good, it actually made the cover [of the book]."

While conversation hovered on the book, Tom took a question from the audience.
"Baking is too precise. I don't measure correctly and then things don't come out right."
Tom's response lingered with me for days: 
Learning to bake: "It's worth the effort. I suggest you make one recipe three times. The first time you may make a mistake. The second time, you figure out where you went wrong. The third got it figured out." Repetition is the key.

The next recipe was Tom's contribution in the Macy's Thanksgiving and Holiday Cookbook.

Coffee-Bean Turkey with Sweet Onion Gravy
"Seattle is famous for its coffee. And that inspired me to stuff the turkey cavity with whole roasted coffee beans. Turns out the add a nice toasty-smokey aroma that seasons the bird from within. I leave them in even after the turkey is done. If a few slip out at the table while I'm carving, it's a good conversation starter." 

Chef tip: Instead of roasting one big turkey, roast two smaller turkeys. (I'm a fan of this method too.)

Chef tip 2: When buying a knife, make sure you can get your hands on it, and hopefully on a cutting board. Be sure you get a knife that fits your hand. Tom's hands are large and with the wrong knife, his knuckles hit the board.

Herschell Taghap, Tom's social media guru, passing out samples.

Pear Tarts with Dreamy Caramel SauceAnother recipe from the Dahlia Bakery Cookbook. "I've been making this tart for 25 years." Here Tom's illustrating how to make caramel.

Chef tip: Use a high-sided pan for caramel. When you add cream to the caramelized sugar, it bubbles up ferociously.

Chef tip 2: Chef recommends All Clad stainless in, stainless out pans. Why? They hold up to the abuse in a professional kitchen. In his kitchen, the average All Clad pan lasts 10-15 years. For the home cook? They'll last forever.

Passing out the Pear Tarts. This portion size would be perfect for parties, no?

As I was walking out the door, look who I spotted! Meet Stacy Fortner, Pastry Chef at Dahlia Bakery. Dear Santa, please bring me a copy of this book!

Disclosure: I was contacted by Everywhere on behalf of their client, for coverage of this event in exchange for goods, services, or payment for my participation. Like Everywhere, I abide by FTC guidelines in disclosing this information.

Dishing at

It's no understatement to say I love the foods of fall. Long, slow braises, soups simmering for hours, the scent of yeasted breads hanging heavy in the air. Tie my favorite foods together with a holiday? Thanksgiving is nothing short of bliss!

Do you know It's the largest recipe website in the world--dominating markets from the United States to Australia, Singapore, and Japan.  And their headquarters are right here, in downtown Seattle.

Last week, AllRecipes decided to throw party. The focus? A Thanksgiving-centric potluck, "Bring your favorite side dish."  I love this idea! Beyond the traditional mashed potatoes and stuffing, what do you bring? For this party, there were more than a few surprises.

Canal house French Cheese Puffs, brought by Frank ( - uber cheesy gougers that worked equally well as an appetizer or at the table. Recipe.
 - Pumpkin dip - an interesting appetizer twist, heralding the flavors of fall
- Quinoa cakes with parsley salsa verde brought by Emmy ( - a terrific vegetarian main or side dish option that meat eaters enjoy too. Recipe link
- Serrano ham and poblano corn pudding - my friend Kathy serves this for brunch, but I'd love it alongside a turkey or ham just as well. Recipe link.
- Onion quinoa and cheese casserole - brought by heart-healthy blogger
- Black pepper almonds (I used cashews) - a terrific predinner nibble that's easy to throw together. Recipe link. 
- Blueberry Pie - made by Judith at AllRecipes. The fruit was a nice counterpoint to other starchy elements on the table. 
- Pumpkin Pie - (I didn't catch who made this, sorry.)

And now that we've covered the food aspect of this post, I believe a tour is in order! Want to take a look at the AllRecipes space? Come along with me... headquarters

Right here!

Reception desk

Across from the reception desk is this stunning kitchen. See the oversized windows and the marble countertop? Yes. This is the employee kitchen.

Double ovens and a flat the employee kitchen! "Sometimes we make pizza for lunch." From scratch. At work!

Panini press, blender, and yes, two Kitchen Aid mixers. My friend Lorraine works here, "I make a smoothie for breakfast every day."

Condiments...with a view. In a few weeks, Macys will be decked out for Christmas and just outside the front door will be the annual holiday carousel.

With the condiment selection looking so snazzy, I wondered, "What's in the fridge?" A keg from microbrewer, Georgetown Brewing Company, naturally! With over 200 food-focused employees, a staffer nods to the keg, "For our employee parties."  

This spot just off the kitchen does double duty as a cafeteria and meeting space.

I managed to snap a few photos of food before getting pulled into the festivities. Here's the Serrano Ham and Poblano Corn Pudding that I brought Though the recipe calls for a 9x13 pan, the pieces were a little thin for my liking. Next time, I'll make the same recipe, using an 8x8 pan for thicker pieces. 

A terrible shot of Emmy's Quinoa Cakes (same size as a crab cake). The salsa was a lovely, refreshing counterpoint.

Judith from AllRecipe's terrific Blueberry pie. 

And of course, we had to have pumpkin pie!

What a wonderful time! Rumor has it we can expect more parties in the future. I'm lobbying for an appetizers or dessert party. Fingers crossed!

Eye on the Prize

Crafting my first post, I had no idea where this blog would lead.  Six years later, it still boggles my mind. One month I'm dining with Food Network stars and the next, I'm bonding with butchers. I love the journey...and exploring new opportunities.

And that's how I ended up at the Third Annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest.

Perhaps a little background is in order. Foster Farms Cooking Contest is divided into state-wide competitions, taking place in Washington, Oregon, and California. Those regional winners will travel later this month to Napa's Culinary Institute of America campus for the final competition. Grand prize? $10,000.

But first, contestants need to make it through the Washington state leg of the competition. I've got my camera  and an all access pass. Come along with me.

The competition site: chef Kathy Casey's Food Studio in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood

Guests were greeted with a lavish display of cheeses and seasonal fruit. The grape leaves and fennel fronds were harvested behind Kathy's studio.

Whipping up cocktails is Kathy's husband, John Casey.

Look at these lovely cocktail garnishes. In the middle? Those iridescent jewels are pretty, but sour. At this stage of development, there's a high seed-to-fruit ratio...which makes them a better garnish than eating fruit. 

From over 1,200 entries, five were selected to compete in the Washington leg. Coincidence? These two ladies are from the same town! Rebecca Cameron on the left, and Donna Beck on the right, from Bonney Lake, WA. 

Minutes before the competition begins, there's a buzz of activity behind the scenes--three camera folk and multiple people Tweeting. No pressure!

Sandra Gray...calm and ready for action. Contestants must finish their dish in 90 minutes. To get her timing down, Sandra established a schedule and practiced her dish weekly.

Tools of the trade.

To created a level playing field, competition organizers supply all the ingredients--no outside food or equipment is allowed. Rebecca Cameron examines the ingredients she's been given.

And we're off! Working with unfamiliar equipment...presents its own set of challenges. During the competition, Rebecca's blender mysteriously kept shutting off. She'd get it working again, then...nothing. Eventually, she muddled through. 

Donna's taco dish is an easy weeknight meal. Here, she's preparing the rub.

Brush the all natural chicken breasts with olive oil.

Then massage the chicken with a rub of cumin, chili powder, ground espresso, salt, and pepper. (To distinguish competitor's dishes, notice Donna's name is taped to the sheet pan.)

Kathy Casey's staff prepared samples for the guests. First round: Donna's chicken tacos.

Contestants prepare four platings: three for the judges and one for photos. Here, Donna puts the final touch on her dish.

Cocktails? Sangria for a crowd.

Among the strainers and whisks...a little bling from New Orleans.

 Erwin Santiago with another round of samples. 

Julie Merriman is a cooking contest pro. Does she look familiar? Julie won Food Network's Ultimate Recipe Showdown. She left nothing to chance when entering the Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest--with fifteen recipe submissions! The final recipe selected? Cumin and Coriander Spiced Chicken with Pistachio Crumble and Pomegranate Olive Salad.

Uh oh! Panic struck when Brandi's dish didn't come together according to plan. With too much liquid in the pan, her chicken tenders didn't caramelize. Eventually, she drained off some liquid. Each contestant is allowed only one burner, so she waited until the chicken finished cooking, then reduced the remaining sauce separately.  Brandi's dish: Coffee Glazed Chicken Tenders with Hazelnut Confetti Quinoa 

The judges finalize their numbers. On the left, Table Talk radio host and PR maven, Jamie Peha. Center: Chef, author, and mixologist, Kathy Casey. Right: International Association of Culinary Professionals board president and author, Cynthia Nims.

Waiting for the final announcement, contestants gather for a photo: (L-R) Sandra Gray, Brandi Morang, Julie Merriman, Donna Beck, and Rebecca Cameron.

And the winners are....
(Drum roll)

Sandra Gray won with her Cherry and Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken with Merlot Scented Lentils and Rebecca Cameron won for her Tea Rubbed Chicken with Apple Spinach Salad and Spicy nuts. They each won $1,000 and will be headed to Napa for the finals later this month.