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eG Foodblog: Abra - I take food personally!

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Another personal chef question for you: how difficult is it to work in someone else's kitchen? I know I cart around practically everything but the kitchen sink when I cook at a friend's house unless I know they have essentially the same utensils/spices/knives as I use. Do you find it more difficult dealing with a new range and oven each time, and knowing what to bring?

The menu sounds delicious. Can't wait to see how it all comes out.

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The dinner was awesome, and the pictures are pretty nice too. I've got them all formatted, but have drunk too much wine to stay up late writing everything up. First thing in the morning, I promise.

At first it used to throw me, the strange kitchen thing. But I always have my own spices, knives, food processor, rice cooker, and sometimes pressure cooker, and the rest falls into place. There are only so many ways to stock and organize a kitchen, and I pretty much have gotten used to them all. If i know that a client has really terrible stuff I'll schlep a lot more of mine, but usually I try to use as much of their stuff as possible. For one thing, the schlepping is a pretty big deal anyway, with all the groceries and whatever I do bring, and for another, I can leave their stuff washing in the dishwasher when I leave, whereas all of my stuff has to be hand washed before I can leave.

I'm off to bed, totally pooped. Back in a cyber-flash.

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Abra, thanks for the fantastic blog! I'm not a personal chef, but I have considered it. As someone who does most of his cooking in other people's kitchens, my first rule now is to always bring my own knives. After that, it seems to be a matter of getting to know the advantages and failings of each kitchen. If I'm lucky I'll remember beforehand what the biggest void is in the particular place, and manage to compensate for whatever is lacking. More often than not, though, I still end up winging it (I even forgot my knives last weekend, much to the detriment of my left thumb), which is a big part of why I haven't tried to do the personal chef thing the way you have: I simply lack the organizational discipline! I am, however, having a great fantasy life through your blog!

Thanks again and cheers,


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I'm sure you've sorted this out by now, but I wanted to weigh in on the "should I give her the recipe?" question. I think the answer is no. As you point out, your recipes are your livelihood. I suspect the woman who asked wasn't thinking of it that way -- she's used to asking her friends for recipes when they cook something good, and she just translated that behavior to you.

On an only somewhat-related note, I have a problem with people expecting that because they are friends or good customers, you are obligated to give them a little something -- a recipe, in your case, a free book, in mine. Don't get me wrong: I offer "little somethings" when I can, when it seems appropriate. A lovely couple came into my bookstore on Sunday, piled up a bunch of stuff on the counter, and mentioned that they were in town for their 27th anniversary. So I gave them a 10% discount. It was their anniversary, we were having a good day, they were buying a bunch of stuff...it all felt right. But it sure would not have felt right if they had said "This is our anniversary, so would you give us a discount?"

I think the real trick with your recipe-lady will be in not making her feel embarrassed for having asked -- again, I suspect she didn't remotely realize that she was asking you to give her something that has actual monetary value for you, and would be mortified to have this pointed out. In your shoes, I would be tempted to lay it off on someone else -- "I would love to give you the recipe, and I used to do it all the time, but my husband is trying to help me organize my business, and he's laid down the law: No more giving out recipes. But I'll tell you what: I would love to come prepare it for you sometime, and I'll be happy to do it at a 10% discount, if you promise not to tell my husband!"

Playing the Beleagured Little Woman card does have its advantages sometimes. :biggrin:

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Squeat - the organization part is something you can learn. If you're already cooking for other people, and making them happy, you're half way there. I really encourage anyone who dreams of being a personal chef to check it out. It's a pretty neat thing to do.

Mags - I did decide, but not in the way you recommend. What I did was to leave her a voice mail saying that normally I don't give out my recipes, because I hope people will pay me to prepare them. However, in her case I was going to make an exception because a) I put the dish together just for the party she attended and had never made it before, b) I might never make it again, shrimp and rice salad not being a much-requested item, and c) it seemed a shame that the recipe might sit forever untouched when she had enjoyed it so much. I haven't heard back from her with her address, so maybe she was embarrassed by her faux pas, or maybe she just doesn't get her messages very often.

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Ok, here we go with the blow-by-blow on last night's dinner. Since the theme was fresh herbs, we have to start in the garden.


This rosemary tastes great and is big enough for a 95 lb dog to lounge under.


It's hard to pick out the individual herbs, but from front to back, roughly, there are oregano, chives, lemon thyme, sage, thyme, tarragon, angelica, and marjoram.


This is what I picked to use for the dinner, but later I had to run back out for more basil and more sage.


I'm going to have to make pesto today or tomorrow - this basil is getting huge.

So, first to get the beans going. Those corona beans take at least two hours to cook.


Here they are, simmering with a little garlic, a sprig of sage, and a couple of fennel stalks.

Next I started dessert.


The cornmeal cake was supposed to be in an 8" round pan, but I decided to use my little springforms instead. They're too big for an individual serving, but in this case I wanted cake wedges anyway.

Then there's the marinade for the ahi


and some of it stirred into mayonnaise for the sauce


The beans are finally done and draining


Armandino used Italian tuna in oil, but I used a local tuna packed in nothing but its own juices. I had to add a lot of olive oil because of this choice, but I used a nice one and it was delicious. Armandino didn't use capers, either, but I wanted some in there last night.

I mixed shallots, green onions, and basil with goat cheese to stuff the tomatoes.


The tomatoes drain a little prior to being stuffed, as does the fried chopped sage that'll go on top as a garnish.

I cut the corn off the cob


and the onions and fennel caramelize slowly while the corn has a little rest.

The tomatoes are stuffed


and the tuna and the cook are marinating.

We have appetizers


The beans with tuna and crostini were polished off, lickety-split

Between bites, I get the grill going


Here the tomatoes and ahi are almost ready

Dinner is plated


This picture isn't the best, but the food was awesome. The sauce on the ahi, while not real aioli, was absolutely killer, and the tomatoes were beyond juicy and savory. Oh yeah, and the corn was excellent too.

You wouldn't have thought we'd have room for dessert, but we did, oh yes we did. I sneaked a little Fiori di Sicilia into the whipped cream, and with the rosemary syrup that soaked the cake, it was wonderful. The cornmeal was a little coarser than I'd imagined, so the cake had a slight rustic crunch to it.


So all in all it was a fun afternoon of cooking, and a lovely evening of eating. Wish you'd all been here!

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Wow, what a beautiful summer meal, Abra! Those cornmeal cakes look and sound lovely. Did you wing it, or did you work from a recipe?

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Those cornmeal cakes look and sound lovely. Did you wing it, or did you work from a recipe?

I was just going to ask: Did you use Tom Douglas's Polenta Cake recipe? The rosemary syrup sounds familiar. I've made it three times, all to rave reviews. Once as a whole cake, once as two 6-inch rounds, and once as mini-muffins for a work event.

I'm really enjoying your blog, Abra. Thanks for sharing it with us.


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A big Yum. :wub:

What is Fiori di Sicilia? I love cakes soaked in syrup and I have tons of rosemary, so I'd love to try something like this.

What did you guys have to drink? I couldn't read the label on the wine...

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Oh my! I wish I'd been there too.

What a wonderful meal!!!

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So all in all it was a fun afternoon of cooking, and a lovely evening of eating.  Wish you'd all been here!

Thanks to your wonderful blog and great photos, we were!

I am green with envy over your beautiful herb garden. :wub:

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Fiori di Sicilia is a fantastic flavoring that, so far as know, is only available from King Arthur Flour. It's been described as a cross between orange and vanilla, or as Creamsicle-flavored, and it adds an indefinable floral note to sweets that's quite addictive. I'd add a link, but their website seems to be down at the moment - it's www.kingarthurflour.com.

We drank a Liparita Chardonnay. I am normally an ABC wine drinker (Anything But Chardonnay), but this one is made by the brother of a friend, who gave me some, as well as some of their very nice Cab. It's got a little oak, which I normally do not want to taste in a white wine, but with the smoky flavors of last night's dinner is was quite nice. And the acidity was just right for the mellow oilive oil and bean concoction.

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Goodness, Abra, I wish your blog could go on and on. This is my idea of real food. You really should write a book; I'd be the first to request a signed copy. You're so enthusiastic and creative - but that's been apparent since I first "met' you on COOKS.

Passing thought: Do you ever use lovage? I have a huge ungainly plant in my herb garden which started out last summer as a pathetic little thing. I've had to cut it back, as it was almost my height (5' 5"). Anyway, the leaves do have that ùber-celery flavor, and I hear that the stems can be used as straws for Bloody Marys! I also understand that it's used in Knorr flavor bases. I wonder whether one can just snip up a leaf or two into a dish, or whether IYO it's just too overpowering.

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I'm way behind on a ton of food projects, so I'll share my housekeeping efforts with all of you.

First, I have two packages of sourdough starter that have been lurking in the back of my freezer since August 2001! I've taken them out and will see if they can be revived. One is the Nancy Silverton grape starter, and the other we call cyber-starter, because it's been passed around between various online friends (via the mail, before the mails were suspect). The cyber-starter is milk-based, and makes a less-sour, fluffier sort of bread than the grape starter, which is my favorite..

While it's thawing I'm making blueberry-lavender jam with the last of the blueberries and this lavender:


I'm an old-fashioned jam maker: equal amounts of sugar and fruit, and nothing else, although I do include the lavender in this case.


While the jam gets going, we have lunch


The Weight Watchers among us should breathe a sigh of relief - for me it's leftover turkey, a little beans and tuna from last night, and a big bowl of tomatoes. The burger is for my husband, who had half of his breakfast spirited out from under his nose by our sheepdog Riley, 95 pounds of eternal hunger and creativity. Oh, and about those blueberries in the photo...it was wishful thinking that the jam would finish my blueberry life for the summer. These are still left, and I need to make something else with them today, before it's totally too late.

And then I also had a bowl of slightly over-the-hill lychees. If you haven't seen them fresh before, those brown pod/ball thingies in the photo is what they look like before you peel them.


The jam is still cooking, an hour and a half later. Should be done soon. The jars are sterilizing in the oven, and I'm trying to think of what to do with those blueberries.

I adore lovage! I love it best snipped into salads, but I also put the leaves on sandwiches, and just eat it plain, as a breath-freshener. Thanks for the compliment. I've been having so much fun doing this that I too wish it could go on - can't figure out how to get to be a highly-paid blogger, though.

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Looking back at your photos of the herb planters, I noticed that the plants are rather small (especially the sage), considering how large herb plants can get. Did you just plant them this year? I started my herbs in containers but then they just started outgrowing things and when I set them free in the garden, they had a big growth spurt!

Now, what do you do with angelica and marjoram? I've never heard of angelica, but I have some marjoram plants. I don't know what to do with it although I heard of it as a kind of oregano. In fact, I can't tell it apart from my oregano - I'm always wondering which is which... :sad:

You've inspired me Abra! Next week I'm going to do your cornmeal cakes for my dinner with my friend. We get together every couple weeks for our "gourmet" cooking dinners. We will switch on who makes the main dish and who does the starter and dessert. So, I have to hustle myself out into the blackberry patches tonight... I'm also considering your grilled stuffed tomatoes for a starter course.

Damn, what do I need cookbooks for, I've got eGullet! :laugh:

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Most of those herbs are in their third year, but I keep them cut back because it's already more than I can use. Marjoram is a wonderful herb for vegetables, especially corn. It's mellower than oregano, with less bite. I just planted the angelica and haven't used it yet. I've seen several recipes where the candied stems are used in desserts, and also some liqueur recipes call for it. I'm not sure if the plant will get big enough to use this year or not, but I seem to have enough projects on hand at the moment without it.

For example, I did a turkey on the Weber about a week ago, and now I need to make broth with the carcass, plus those dratted blueberries, and then the vinegar mother, and the sourdough starter...and believe it or not, I even have other things that need doing. This blog is really pointing up how crummy I am on follow-through. Now that you see how much I've let get piled up, my inner Martha is shrinking in mortification.

Off to get that jam into jars and the turkey bones into the pot. Good thing I don't have to work this week!

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Oh, and about those blueberries in the photo...it was wishful thinking that the jam would finish my blueberry life for the summer.  These are still left, and I need to make something else with them today, before it's totally too late.

Perhaps this thread on the Pastry & Baking forum might give you some ideas.

edited to add: If all else fails, I like jgarner53's suggestion of freezing them. Imagine blueberry muffins in the middle of winter made from your frozen summer stash. :wub:

Edited by Toliver (log)

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As another Washingtonian, I definitely do not consider the blackberry a noxious weed. I think we're lucky to have berries in such profusion. The other day I went to my local video store in West Seattle and picked myself a container of them, enough to make a fresh cobbler just from the vines in the alleyway.

When I lived in Portland, I was thrilled by all the "free" food right outside my door. I found the best blackberries (I'd call them marionberries, they were so big and sweet) behind the gas station up the block. Apples, plums, pie cherries, and bing cherries grew in my backyard. Acres of abandoned strawberry fields with a large variety of different artisan berries a few miles down the road (long gone, covered with condos).

Now I live in starvation land (Denver, Colorado). I can find the odd crabapple :raz:

Edited by Rusa (log)

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Washington is Berryland. :biggrin: I spent many years in Utah and that was devoid of berries as well. However, I did raise killer peaches in my backyard. You can't do that on the wet side of the Cascades. When I came here, I was overwhelmed by the native foods like berries and then oysters, shrimp and clams. It was heaven for a food lover.

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Ok, the jam is done.


You can see how much it cooked down.

I'll use these for little holiday gifts.


Then to get the turkey taken care of. I've had enough of long, slow simmering for one day, so this baby's going into the pressure cooker with some onions, carrots, fennel stalks, and a sprig of thyme. I love my pressure cooker!


Now, the final moment of blueberry madness. I already have at least 10-12 pounds frozen for winter muffins, so I decided to try something that would actually be useful to my business, if it works. Unfortunately, we won't find out during the life of this blog, but I see no reason in the world why it wouldn't be just fine.


I mixed the berries with sugar and a little cornstarch, then made a soft cobbler dough.


I set the dough atop the berries, gave it a dusting of Demerara sugar, wrapped it up tight, and popped it into the freezer. Has anyone done this before? How long will it need to bake when frozen? This would be a really great little personal chef thing, to be able to leave people a nice cobbler they could bake "fresh" for themselves.

Now for a little break, then to roust out my husband for vinegar mother assistance. It'll go better with two people, one whose hands aren't all goopy who can hold the camera.

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Abra, I've living in a hotel room for almost a week now, with nothing but a fridge and a microwave. You're killing me, woman! :biggrin: I damn near ate my monitor looking at the gorgeous basil! Incrediblly beautiful stuff, all of it! Thanks for sharing!

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Abra, did you make Nancy Silverton's starter yourself? While I haven't made it, I've seen her demonstrate it (aahh, the internet!). How does the bread turn out? If you keep the starter in the fridge, how often do you have to feed it?

Since you've got it frozen, what are you doing to revive it and get it going again?

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