Start the Party: Glamorous, Luscious, Easy Appetizer

Five minutes and you have starters that are as delicious as they are glamorous. These beauties are lavash (bought at Trader Joe’s) spread with cream cheese and rolled around watercress (or arugula) and pickled ginger. EASY.


Got 5 minutes?

(Thanks to videographer Curt Norris for taping and editing this quickie video!)

Ginger Roll-Ups
Yield: 16 servings
One (8-ounce) plus one (3-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature
2 (9-by-12-inch) sheets of lavash, see cook’s notes
2 1/2 cups baby arugula or 1 large bunch watercress (large stems removed, washed, patted dry)
One (8-ounce) jar pink pickled ginger, liquid squeezed out, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: Lavash is soft, thin flatbread; it’s sold at some supermarkets, Trader Joe’s and Middle Eastern markets. It should be pliable enough to roll, but if it isn’t you can moisten it with a damp paper towel. Pink pickled ginger is sold in many supermarkets in jars, either in the refrigerated deli close to the wonton skins, or in the sushi section.
1. Place cream cheese in food processor; whirl until soft. Spread cream cheese on one side of each lavash. Place leaves in a single layer on top; cover with pickled ginger. Starting from long side, roll each into a long roll (if it cracks don’t worry, just keep rolling). Trim each end.
Do-Ahead: Wrap each roll in a dampened paper towel (slightly moist, not wet). Refrigerate up to 3 hours in plastic bag or airtight container. Cut crosswise into 1 1/4-inch pieces. Place cut-side down to display spiral design created by ingredients.






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Best Appetizer: Bombay Spread!


Six-Layer Bombay Cheese
Yield: about 30 servings
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 cup mango chutney
2 tablespoons unsweetened flaked coconut
1/4 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon finely chopped green onions (include dark green stalks)
1 1/2 tablespoons dried cranberries
For serving: water crackers and apple wedges, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: To toast nuts, place in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Place in 350-degree oven until nicely browned, about 4 to 5 minutes. Watch nuts carefully because they burn easily. Cool.
To prevent apples from discoloring, place apple wedges in a bowl of cold water augmented with a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. Allow apples to soak for a minute, then drain on clean kitchen towel.
1. Combine cream cheese, grated cheddar and curry powder in food processor fitted with metal blade. Whirl until smooth. Shape into ball or disc; wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm. Can be prepared to this point two days in advance of serving.
2. Unwrap cheese and place on serving tray. Dump garnishes on top of cheese ball, starting with the chutney and ending with the cranberries. (I garnished the top with a chive flower from my garden.) I like to assemble the spread in a shallow bowl, and then set the bowl on a larger platter to hold the crackers and apple slices.
Source: Jane Packer


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Brunch at The Loft: Upscale Irresistability

On a recent Sunday, I dropped in for brunch at The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach. Although I was initially focused on the splendor of the Pacific coastline, it wasn’t long before it was the dishes that had my attention.


With plenty to choose from, the menu offered a pleasing balance of updated traditional dishes and lively surprises. Their Blood Orange Mimosa, a mix of Piper Sonoma Sparkling Wine, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and blood orange, got me off to an inspiring start, its lovely garnish a see-through slice of candied orange.


Brunch began with an amuse bouche of sugar-dusted banana bread.

Lush and moist – full of ripe banana flavor – this small square of banana bread fired my engines. Not bread-like, it’s texture is more of a cross between a quick bread and a cake. Dark brown sugar gives it a perfect edge of molasses (yes, the difference between light and dark brown sugar is the amount of molasses).  Delicious.

The Loft’s Banana Bread recipe follows, but to see more of the luscious brunch dishes and hear Chef Campbell describe the details, read my story on Orange Coast Magazine’s Website.

Michael Campbell Makes Brunch Soar at The Loft at Montage

Or, to see Yvon Goetz (executive chef-partner at The Winery) prepares his delicious short rib hash for brunch at The Winery Newport, click here


The Loft’s Banana Bread
A small square is served, dusted with powdered sugar, as a Brunch amuse bouche.
Yield: One 13-by-18-inch “cake.” Amount of servings depends on how big or small you want to cut the pieces.

When testing this recipe, I first made it in a Pyrex 9-by-13-inch baking pan. It made pieces that were almost three times thicker than the one I had at The Loft. I baked the bejeebers out if it, 45 minutes – but when cut, the center-of-the-pan pieces weren’t the right consistency. I remembered that the cake (bread) wasn’t thick, so I tried another batch baked in a half sheet pan (18-by-13-by-1-inches). Bingo! I was concerned during the first 10 minutes of baking that it was going to overflow, but it didn’t thank goodness. But a word of advice here; sometimes half sheet pans are fractionally smaller than this. If yours is slightly smaller (to avoid overflow), consider taking out 1/4 cup of batter – use it to make yourself a tasty pancake.

1 stick (1/4 pound) butter
4 over-ripe bananas
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups buttermilk
Optional garnish: powdered sugar
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a half sheet pan (18-by-13-by-1-inches) with butter.
2. Melt butter; set aside. Puree bananas until smooth in a food processor; set aside.
3. In a large bowl, add flour, brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Thoroughly mix until evenly incorporated. Set aside.
4. In a separate large bowl, combine melted butter, bananas, eggs, vanilla and buttermilk. Whisk until well combined. Add egg mixture to dry ingredients and stir to combine; do NOT over-mix – batter may be slightly lumpy. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 29 minutes; a toothpick inserted in center should come out clean. Cool in pan on rack. Cut into serving pieces. If desired, dust with powdered sugar. Or if serving as a dessert, accompany with whipped cream and sliced bananas.
Source: adapted from The Loft, Montage Laguna Beach
Brunch is served every Saturday and Sunday.







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Roasted Pears – Easy Pizzazz on the Plate

Good Tidings of Comfort and Joy, my friends.


Savory OR Sweet! With meat or as dessert …

I’m always looking for easy ways to create palate joy on the plate.

But … without creating much work. Roasted Pears are so easy to prepare and armed with spices to make them perky. Cinnamon and cloves + lemon juice and sugar. Ripe pears are buttery, melt-in-your-mouth perfection.

Use them as a side-dish with roast or grilled pork, chicken dishes or game.


Serve them atop green salad or grain salad.

Use them as dessert accompanied with crisp cookies or a good dollop of whipped cream and crushed English Toffee (such as Almond Roca).



OR …



Or top with some hot fudge sauce and toasted nuts or shaved roasted coconut.


RIPEN PEARS: They are usually sold rock hard; so you have to plan ahead and allow them time to ripen at home. The easiest way is the brown bag method. Enclose them loosely in a brown bag; check them every day. When ripe they will give to gentle pressure next to the stem. Once ripe, they can be refrigerated 3 to 6 days.


Roasted Pears
Yield: 4 halves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided use
2 ripe pears, such as Bosc, Bartlett, D’Anjou or Comice, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, cored with melon baller (see video, or if you prefer, leave them uncored, they are good that way, too)
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, stir together juice, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. Set aside.
2. Coat a medium-sized rimmed baking sheet (nonstick preferred) with half of the vegetable oil. Toss pear halves in juice-spice mixture and place cut-side down on prepare baking sheet. Drizzle remaining oil on top. Roast until caramelized on bottom and tender, about 35 to 45 minutes (roasting times will vary depending on ripeness and size of pears). Remove from oven and allow to cool. Serve at room temperature.


You can also roast them un-cored … and let your guests eat around the seeds …



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Babette’s Twist on Cauliflower Soup: Vegan But Fabulous

Babette’s Truffled Cauliflower Almond Soup


The ingredient list puzzled me. I’ve made hundreds of pureed soups, showcasing everything from asparagus to zucchini, most often including dairy products (cream, yogurt or milk) to achieve lush texture and taste.

Cooking with Zach Layton, executive chef-owner of Babette’s in Newport Coast, opened my eyes to a vegan approach.

His Truffled Cauliflower Almond Soup won me over. Quickly cooked without much fuss and then processed until smooth in a high-speed blender, the almonds complemented the vegetables lending both subtle nuttiness and an alluring silky mouthfeel.


The garnish, a drizzle of truffle oil plus a generous pinch of toasted sliced almonds, offered just-right aromatic components to enhance the dish. Nix the dairy.


Babette’s Truffled Cauliflower Almond Soup
Yield: 4 to 6 (generous) servings
1 to 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 large brown onion, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 cups sliced almonds, divided use
1 large cauliflower, trimmed, cut into florets
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt to taste
Garnish: truffle oil to taste
1. Place oil in a soup pot or Dutch oven on medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally (do not brown).
2. Meanwhile toast almonds until lightly browned in a small dry skillet on low heat, stirring occasionally; watch carefully because nuts burn easily. Coarsely chop cauliflower florets; add cauliflower to onions and toss to combine. Add toasted almonds (reserving about 1/4 cup to use as garnish) and thyme leaves; toss to combine. Add water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil on high heat; reduce heat to medium or medium-low and simmer until cauliflower is tender but not mushy, about 10 to 12 minutes.
3. Puree in batches in blender (high-speed blender works best) or food processor, adding salt to taste in the process. Pour into bowls. Garnish each serving with a small drizzle of truffle oil and reserved toasted almonds.
Source: Zach Layton, executive chef Babette’s, Newport Coast

Babette’s, Crystal Cove Shopping Center, 7962 East Coast Hwy, Newport Coast, 949-715-9915





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Make Limoncello Now: Perfect Gift From Your Kitchen


Homemade goodies seem to capture the spirit of the holidays in a way no store-bought treasure can. Create homemade liqueurs and then sit back and enjoy the pleasure that those soul-warming libations bring as gifts.


Homemade liqueurs don’t take a lot of prep time. However, they do require advance planning and patience during the aging period.



All fruits carry bacteria that can potentially spoil the liqueur. This potential hazard only exists when you opt to leave the fruit in the liqueur rather than straining it out.

To prevent spoilage with “fruit-in” liqueurs, make sure the spirit you select is at least 40 percent alcohol — a concentration strong enough to kill the bacteria. After a month or so, the liqueurs can be strained and poured into bottles, decanters or snazzy jars.

My favorite is limoncello, an Italian-inspired liqueur made from fresh lemons, liquor and simple sugar syrup. It has become very popular over the past several years and can be used in baked goods and as a cocktail ingredient.

But it is most often served ice cold right from the freezer, poured into small glasses.


Limoncello (3 1/2 pints)
14 lemons
4 cups grain alcohol or high-proof vodka (40 percent alcohol)
3 cups simple syrup, see cook’s notes

Cook’s notes: For simple syrup – combine 2 ½ cups water and 3 cups granulated sugar in medium saucepan. Stirring occasionally, bring mixture to boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat; simmer about 3 minutes. Cool.

  1. Wash, dry and peel lemons, using a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to cut wide strips without much pith. Put peels in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid. (Juice leftover lemons to use in drinks or in cooking – you can freeze it.)
  2. Add grain alcohol or high-proof vodka and seal. Place in cool, dry spot away from sunlight. Let sit for 2 weeks.
  3. Add simple syrup; stir and reseal. Return to its spot. Let sit 2 more weeks.
  4. Strain liqueur through a double layer of cheesecloth into a pitcher or other easy-pouring vessel. Strain again through two new layers of cheesecloth into one large bottle or a number of small bottles or jars.cathythomascookslogoModified*************************
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Sweet-Spicy Melon: Easy-Perfect for Buffet-Style Entertaining

Sweet and Spicy = Delicious piquant-sweet melon.

Perfect for the buffet table and holiday entertaining!


Use any ripe melon for this delicious dish. I like to serve it as part of a showy buffet.

(AND, remember, cantaloupe is on of the most nutrient-dense fruits on the planet.)


(Make the syrup in advance if you like, and then drizzle on the melon up to 30 minutes before serving.)

Spicy-Sweet Firecracker Melon
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1-1/2 teaspoons seeded and minced Serrano chili, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
2 tablespoons minced red bell pepper
2 large, ripe cantaloupe

Cook’s notes: Use caution when working with fresh chilies. Upon completion wash hands and work surface thoroughly and do NOT touch eyes or face.
1. In a small saucepan, make a chili syrup by combining the sugar and water over medium-high heat and boiling until the sugar is dissolved. Pour into a small bowl and let cool.

2. Stir in the chili, lime juice, mint, and bell peppers.

3. Cut the melons in half and remove the seeds. Cut into wedges or other interesting shapes and arrange attractively on 8 chilled plates. Drizzle about ½ cup of the chili syrup, or to taste, over all the melon. Reserve the remaining chili syrup for another use.


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Easy Chinese-Style Appetizers, Katie Chin Style

Chinese tapas, yes!


Cookbook author-caterer, Katie Chin, learned how to cook from her Chinese mother. She helped in the kitchen with her late mother, Leeann Chin, an award-winning restaurateur. In 2003, the two starred in a PBS national cooking show “Double Happiness.”

I joined her in the Melissa’s Produce kitchen to test out some of her favorite recipes from her newest book, “Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook” (Tuttle, $24.95).

Everything she cooked was delicious, but I seem to focus on appetizers this time of year. Home entertaining around the holidays always requires delicious starters – hors d’ oeuvres with palate allure and eye appeal.


Her six-ingredient Firecracker Shrimp recipe teams shrimp with matchstick carrots and strips of spring roll wrappers (much easier than batter).

She says you only need about 10 minutes to make them.

(Yes, maybe after you practice once!)


Fried crisp, they are served with a simple-spicy dipping sauce of mayonnaise and Sriracha chili sauce.

Watch the crisp-bubble dance in this short video …

Chin’s Firecracker Shrimp
Yield: 6 servings as appetizers
12 shelled (tail left intact) and deveined large raw shrimp
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt, divided use
4 spring roll wrappers1 large carrot, peeled, cut into 3-by-1/4-inch matchsticks
1 egg, beaten
Oil for deep frying
Dripping Sauce: 4 tablespoons mayonnaise mixed with 1 to 2 tablespoons Sriracha (to suit your taste)

  1. Cut each spring roll wrapper into thirds to make 12 long narrow strips.
  2. Place carrot matchsticks in small bowl. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt and set aside. Sprinkle shrimp with remaining garlic salt.
  3. Brush top third of each spring roll strip with egg. Place shrimp at bottom of strip. Place a carrot matchstick on top of shrimp. Roll each shrimp and carrot up tightly in the spring roll strip (egg will hold it together). The tail of the shrimp and the carrot should be protruding from one end to resemble a fire cracker. Repeat the process until all the wrappers are filled.
  4. In a large wok or deep skillet heat 2 to 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees. Fry the shrimp rolls until golden brown, about 2 minutes, turning 2 to 3 times. Drain on sheet pan lined with paper towels. Serve with dipping sauce.chincathycathythomascookslogoModified
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Cooking Class with Chef Michael Rossi, The Ranch


Award winning executive chef at The Ranch in Anaheim, Michael Rossi, charmed  students with his skill and culinary passion in a recent cooking class. It was the first class taught in the beautiful teaching kitchen on the sixth floor – high above the restaurant.

Twenty-four students sipped sparkling wine in this intimate-yet-high tech setting while watching Rossi’s every move. If they wanted a tight shot of the action, they could view it on three large screens arranged to capture every move.

He flawlessly prepared 5 dishes, everything from appetizers to main course, while his brother, award-winning executive pastry chef David Rossi, taught the dessert; scrumptious Butterscotch Pots de Creme.


Wild Mushroom Ravioli with Brown Butter, Sage and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Pasta made from scratch …

The menu was themed to fall, a season that cooks look forward to for its richly flavored ingredients, slow braises and decadent desserts. Wild Mushroom Ravioli made with from-scratch pasta wowed the crowd, each pillow-like disk generously filled with irresistible flavors.


A tomato salad showed off a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes harvested at “the farm;” the colorful concoction was napped with a classic vinaigrette and topped with blue cheese and house-cured bbq bacon (note anything with blue cheese and bacon in my opinion is a big winner). ranchtomatotrimmings

Even the trimmings are pretty ….

The main course was Veal Osso Buco served with Anson Mills’ polenta and roasted root vegetables.



Appetizers are always high on the list of what home cooks want to master.


His Fig & Burrata Toasts were easy to prepare and designed to tempt any palate. (If you want to prepare this and figs are out of season, substitute cubes of caramelized butternut squash tossed with dried cranberries, or diced Fuyu persimmons). Here is the recipe:

Fresh Figs and Burrata Toast
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon minced orange zest (colored portion of peel)
2 teaspoons honey, divided use
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh basil and 1 teaspoon minced fresh mint
Kosher salt to taste
12 fresh figs, stems removed, halved lengthwise top to bottom
Nonstick spray
6 slices baguette or rustic Italian bread (1/2-inch thick)
Extra-virgin olive oil for lightly coating bread slices
6 ounces burrata cheese
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Garnish: microgreens  (I buy them at Trader Joe’s)
1. In a medium bowl, combine vinegar, zest, 1 teaspoon honey and olive oil; whisk to combine. Stir in basil, mint and salt. Add figs and toss to coat. Set aside for 10 minutes.
2.Spray grill pan with nonstick spray and heat on medium-high. Brush both sides of bread lightly with olive oil. Grill bread until nicely toasted; set aside. Grill figs on cut side until soft but not squishy, about 2 to 4 minutes. Return figs to bowl with residual marinade and cool; toss. Cool bread.
3. Tear pieces of chilled burrata cheese to fit the top of each bread slice. Top with figs, cut-side up. Drizzle with reserved honey and season with Maldron salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Top each with a smidgen of microgreens. Source: Michael Rossi, executive chef, The Ranch, Anaheim


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Roasted Asparagus with Crunchy Parmesan Cheese? Please!

Asparagus and cheese – a marriage made in food heaven.

Roast asparagus topped with crunchy Parmesan cheese is a favorite.



The short video shows how easy it is!


Roasted Asparagus with Crunchy Parmesan
Yield: 4 servings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 bunches medium-sized asparagus, tough bottom portion of stems trimmed off
Coarse salt, such as kosher, to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese or Grana Padano cheese
1. Adjust one oven rack to bottom position, the other rack to a position about 6 inches below broiler element. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spread asparagus out on large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with oil. Use clean hands to roll asparagus in oil to coat the entire surface. Arrange so that asparagus is in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt. Roast on bottom rack until tender-crisp, about 5 to 7 minutes (time depends on thickness of asparagus).
2. Remove from oven and turn on broiler. Top asparagus with the cheese; place on top rack in oven over the broiler. Broil until cheese is browned and asparagus is tender but not squishy.cathythomascookslogoModified

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