Nov 272012

Beef Stew with Chestnuts, Pearl Onions, and Potatoes from

I know I am not the only one out there experiencing fierce post-Thanksgiving blues. We dutifully ate various incarnations of the smallest turkey I could find for four days, and there is still a hefty package sequestered in the freezer and a huge pot of turkey stock cooling off on the stove. This morning at the store I closed my eyes tightly and quickened my pace as I passed the poultry section on my way to dairy products. Not even the sight of beautiful duck breast I bought at Lazy Acres Market a while ago perching on my freezer shelf seductively could make me excited.

It was time to get the animal protein that did not have feathers, and when I saw rosy fresh, halal beef at our local Persian store, I knew what I wanted to make: a beef stew with pearl onions, chestnuts, and baby Dutch potatoes. I don’t need sub-zero temperatures and ice storms to put me in the mood to braise and simmer; there was just enough chill in the air to wear long sleeves and in my book that’s as perfect as it can get for an ordinary fall day in southern California.

I opened the apartment door trying not to pay any attention to the excited shrieks of a few small children enjoying our outside pool, immersed in my autumnal reverie. I knew that was a risk as seductive aroma of sweating onions and peppers would inevitably entice every neighbor passing by to peek in. But I needed to feel that breeze, even though it did not bring on its wings the icy touch of a northern wind nor the smell of wet leaves and wood-burning fireplaces.

I don’t follow a recipe any more when I prepare these one-pot meals – call them stew, braise, carbonnade, goulash, paprikash, fricasse, or anything in between and beyond. I know what vegetables to add and how long to leave them on the stove to yield to the heat and become soft and translucent. I can sense the right moment to add just enough wine or stock when I smell the sweetness of caramelizing tomato paste. And if I add a bit too much liquid, all I have to do is leave the lid off and let it steam off and escape out through the doorway, tantalizing my neighbors even more.

Melissa's Chestnuts from

I am not the next Food Network Star by any means. I remember the days in my late twenties when I was convinced I did not inherited one single culinary gene from Mother and my two grandmothers. Every time I attempted to make a  one-pot meal I despaired upon seeing dark bits and pieces sticking to the bottom of my pan thinking that I burned it and ruined it forever. I had no clue that those unseemly little plies were the essence that would permeate the dish, thicken the sauce, and carry through the depth of its flavor. When Mother was behind the stove stirring, it seemed like magic, easy, effortless and smooth. I almost suspected that she omitted a step or two in the recipe she wrote in the little black book I took with me to my junior year in college.

But I became confident, not because I channeled my inner Volfgang Puck over night, but because these dishes are very forgiving and versatile. They let you experiment and play; they encourage you to be creative and build the layers of flavor with layering of the ingredients. They are going to taste slightly different every time as you vary your choices of meat, vegetables, liquids, and seasonings. The more you play, the better you’ll get. All you need to know are a few basic steps; the rest is your call.

Meat: The obvious choice is beef, something lean and not suitable for grilling, but you can opt for chicken, pork, lamb shanks, beef shanks, even ox tail. The time of the cooking the dish will vary as they all cook differently, but you are there to monitor and taste.

Vegetables: Onion is necessary; the rest is up to you and the yield of your pantry and fridge: carrots, celery, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, even apples, pears, or prunes (or in my case, earthy chestnuts and sweet pearl onions).

Liquids: I prefer to use wine (red for beef and lamb, white for chicken and pork) and stock, but you can use all stock, beer and stock, tomato juice and stock, or even a little cider along with the stock.

Herbs: Thyme and rosemary are my favorites, but bay leaf certainly holds its own, as well as tarragon (preferably with chicken and if there are mushrooms involved)

Carbs: Potatoes are easy, as they cook right in the stew. But you can also add barley, or homemade dumplings. You can serve it on top of buttery egg noodles, mashed potatoes, or creamy, cheesy polenta.

So go ahead and tinker, switch and swipe, be spontaneous and impulsive and enjoy the variety of the results. You will always end up with a cozy, comforting dish that will make your heart sing and melt even the imaginary snow.



  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 lb lean beef (chuck, top round, or bottom round), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper (I prefer red, orange, or yellow, as green bell peppers tend to be slightly bitter), diced
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 1 / 2 cups beef stock (start with 1 cup and add as needed)
  • 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, minced
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme, minced
  • 6 oz pearl onions, peeled (I used about half a bag of Melissa’s Red Pearl Onions)
  • 6 oz peeled and cooked chestnuts (I used a 6.5 oz package of Melissa’s Vacuum-Packed Chestnuts)
  • 1 lb baby Dutch potatoes (I used Melissa’s Peewee Dutch Yellow Potatoes)
  • coarse salt and pepper to taste


Melt butter and oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pour the flour into a plastic zip bag. Season the meat with salt and pepper and add to the bag with flour. Close the bag and shake vigorously to evenly distribute the flour.

When the butter and oil are hot, add meat and brown on all sides for 8-10 minutes. If necessary, divide the meat into two batches to avoid the overcrowding, which would prevent the meat from getting crispy on the outside. Take the beef out, lower the temperature to medium, and add onions and peppers.

Sautee for 6-8 minutes until soft and stir in the tomato paste for 1 minute. Add the wine and deglaze the bottom, making sure that you scrape all the delicious bits and pieces that stick to it.

Stir until wine evaporates, add herbs and water, raise the temperature to medium high and cook until it boils. Lower the temperature to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour. Add pearl onions, chestnuts, and potatoes, cover and continue cooking until the meat is fork-tender and potatoes soft and buttery, for another 30-45 minutes.Taste and adjust the seasonings. Let it rest for a few minutes and serve with a green salad, crusty country bread, and a glass of red.

Thanks, Melissa’s Produce for making this stew memorable!

Here are some more recipes from some of my favorite bloggers:

Beef Stew – Reluctant Gourmet

Bo Kho Vietnamese Beef Stew – The Ravenous Couple

Ox Tail Stew – Bibberche

Nihari/Indian Beef Stew – Rasa Malaysia

Basic Beef Stew Recipe – Food Blogga

Marha P̦rk̦lt РHungarian Beef Paprika Stew РThe Shiksa

Guiness Beef Stew – Geez Louise

Nov 172012

Produce from

I had a chance to visit Product Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit which took place the last weekend of October in Anaheim, California. It was the biggest fresh produce expo in history with about 21,000 attendees from more than 60 countries sharing the imposing 247,000 square feet of the exhibit hall. Food industry professionals gathered here to present their best accomplishments, to network, and learn about newest trends in ever-changing world of fresh food.

It was exciting to see so many people enthusiastic about food in one place. Many booths were designed with utmost care to attract the attention in the interminable sea of colors, with soft carpets installed on top of hard floors, cushy chairs, amazing backdrops, neatly stacked products, or piles of picture-perfect produce in all its glory.

Beans from

We walked through the elaborate labyrinth talking to the representatives of various products and services that make the world of fresh produce: small, organic vendors, big and established farms, distributing, packaging, and transportation companies, and they all eagerly shared their passion and expertise with us.

As the public is getting more concerned and vocal about healthier choices in food, food safety, sustainability, and food advocacy, the fresh produce industry is under pressure to constantly improve and not only follow, but set new trends. It was obvious from the general feel at the expo that the vast majority of the companies represented here listen to the consumers and try to predict and satisfy their needs.

Tomatoes from

With kids being the main focus of  this year’s exposition, we encountered many products reared towards children, with healthier foods packaged in fun and colorful ways to appeal to the youngest and their parents. To emphasize the growing awareness of this issue, eleven professional chefs competed at a live Chef Demo Challenge to come up with healthy, but still tasty kids’ menu options that would meet U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Half the Plate guidelines. The adult, industry judges picked Chilean Fresh Fruit Pizza from the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association as the winner, and the kid-judges chose the Date Shake by the California Date Administrative Committee.

While most of the producers of familiar fruits and vegetables strive to expand their assortment by offering a number of different types, including  heirloom varieties, we noticed an abundance of unusual and exotic produce rarely found at most big grocery chains in the U.S. With globalization and Internet, the world is getting smaller and the consumers more and more curious and educated. To answer their demands, the growers and suppliers of fresh produce have to offer a wide array of products.

Mushrooms from

Vendors chose many approaches to promoting their brands, from games, to sweepstakes, to giving out samples, to passing out shopping bags and kitchen items bearing the logo of the company, to having your picture taken with the Ocean Spray bog guys! Many opted for appealing to the taste and smell of visitors, as some of the most distinguished local, national, and international chefs prepared flavorful small plates featuring fresh produce in most imaginative ways.

Ocean Spray Bog Guys from

LA Chef Ricardo Zarate of Picca and Mo-chica prepared a delightful Roast Beet Salad with Burrata and a Ceviche featuring the produce from his native Peru. There was pisco sour, too.

Patricia Jinich, whose TV show Pati’s Mexican Table airs on Create TV, celebrated bold flavors of Mexico with her Classic Avocado Soup and Tomato and Mozarella Salad with Ancho Chile Pickled Vinaigrette.

Pati Jinich from

With Patricia Jinich

New York food writer and recipe developer David Bonom served an Asian wrap and sliders, representing fresh flavors of Coastline Produce, a grower-shipper company of produce farmed in California, Arizona, and Mexico.

David Bonom from

With David Bonom

LA’s celebrity chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales” and owners of Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, Las Vegas and Downtown LA, set up a south-of-the-border party for California Avocado Commission in front of their Border Grill truck, passing out Cilantro Chicken with Avocado and Pickled Tomato Salsa, Cumin Glazed Rib Tacos with Avocado Pineapple Salsa and Grilled Corn Esquite,  and Guacamole with Roasted Tomato and Bacon.

Idaho Potato Commission had a great buffet line set up at their cozy, centrally located space, featuring Creamy and Comforting Mashed Potatoes and Potato Donuts. Thank you, Don Odiorne, for letting us see that there is a much bigger picture hidden in a homely spud! I am just a little sorry I missed the Big Potato Truck.

Potato Doughnuts from

Potato doughnuts were perfect pick-me-up while we took an informative break at Idaho Potato Commission’s pavilion

San Francisco-based celebrity chef Ryan Scott prepared Double Chocolate Cookies, Grilled Escarole Salad, and Pancakes, using Sunsweet’s Plum Amazins.

At the Korean Pavilion we were greeted by Sauteed Assorted Korean Mushrooms, Seaweed Snacks in various flavors, and Korean Kimchi featuring some of the best Korean produce.

Melissa’s Produce’s chefs had a long line in front of their counters where they served Lentil Tacos with several different great tasting salsas, and extremely popular Vegetable Sushi and  Asian Fruit Salad featuring stunning magenta-colored dragon fruit. It did not surprise us that they won People’s Choice Award for best display at Fresh Summit, as their pavilion was like a colorful farmers’ market in a faraway country.

PMA Melissa's from

At closing, my feet were tired, my shoulders in pain, my belly full, and my mind reeling from all the sights and smells of the day. But I felt excited as I processed all the information I received, feeling grateful to play a small part in this amazing world of food. Thank you, Meg Miller of PMA for this educational experience!

Thanks, Robert Schueller for the red-carpet treatment – you were the most gracious and knowledgeable host!

Some of my friends shared their experiences and impressions of PMA’s Fresh Summit on their blog

Fresh Summit – The Jolly Tomato

The World of Produce: My Visit to the PMA Fresh Food Summit – Family Spice

Bijouxs Bits: Five Little Gems from the PMA Fresh Summit – Bijouxs

Everything but Produce: Attending the Fresh Summit PMA Show in Anaheim, Part 1 – California Greek Girl

P.S. It makes me even happier to be associated with this industry when I know that the companies who exhibited at PMA’s Fresh Summit donated 231,165 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables – about 24 truckloads – to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County on Oct. 28.


Nov 142012

Seared Duck Breast with Korean Pear from

My mother grew up in Vojvodina, the part of the country that was under the Austro-Hungarian rule until the end of WWI. When she married my father and joined him in central Serbia, she brought with her many culinary traditions which were not very familiar to the natives. Some of them were immediately accepted by her new friends and family; some needed a longer time and more cunning approaches to become a staple at dinner time; and some just never survived the challenges of the impenetrable barrier of the palates unaccustomed to weird, different, and foreign influences.

While we ate plenty of chickens along with  pheasants and quails Father brought from his intermittent hunting expeditions, only when we went to Vojvodina did we have a chance to taste a duck or a goose. We were entranced by these white birds that seem to frolic in every yard, splashing in the ponds and squawking, the shape of their bright-orange beaks the only notable difference between the species: sharp, pointy beaks belong to geese, the flatter and rounded ones to ducks.

And while the holidays in our home town always involved roasted piglets or spring lambs, in Vojvodina we were treated to roasted ducks and geese. As if the mere taste of the water fowl was not enough to separate the two geographical regions deeper than the river Danube that marked the border, the fruit sauce that accompanied them made us feel as if we were visiting another country, with the benefit of still speaking the same language. Depending on the season, we had cherry, apple, pear, or quince sauces, only slightly sweetened, chunky and surprisingly delightful along the stronger tasting meat of the water fowl.

Korean Pears from

Back at home, we never mixed sweet and savory, even though Father was an adventurous eater. And I have never seen a duck or a goose at the Farmers’ Market (forget the grocery stores, as we do not buy our meets there) in my home town.

But then I decided to make my new home all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and my first Thanksgiving meal was turkey served with cranberry sauce from the can and many other side dishes and desserts, most of which originated in a can or a box. I have never tasted cranberries before and I immediately fell in love with their tart and assertive taste so capable of pairing with the gaminess of turkey. It took years to fight my way over to the real food and side dishes made from scratch, but I am now happy to know that my daughters will remember my slowly simmered cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, and giblet gravy as the part of their holiday tradition.

And more than that, I carried over my mother’s culinary ways, including fruit sauces with roasts, always leaning on seasonal produce. That’s why I though of pairing beautiful duck breasts I bought at Lazy Acres Market with crunchy and juicy Korean pears simmered in apple cider (they worked so well in Kale Salad I made last week). My ancestors might be rolling their eyes, but the combination worked beautifully. The pears were firm and kept their texture without becoming mushy, while adding a fragrant note to the sauce slightly enriched by the spiciness of the cider. A pat of butter was enough to add a smidgen of richness without competing with the complex taste of the seared duck breasts.

My family has dwindled in size in a few last years, and a whole turkey at Thanksgiving looks very intimidating. But a pair of flavorful, seared duck breasts with a tart cranberry sauce, some cornbread dressing, and gravy might be just right for an elegant and intimate family affair.

My mother passed away last July. She might have raised an eyebrow if I served her this dish and she might have given me an advice on how to make it better, but I know that she would have approved of my creativity after a few hours of grumbling. She might have been silent at dinner table, but I am pretty sure that she would have smiled comforted in the thought that her culinary traditions are making their way across the meridians and across the generations.

Seared Duck Breast with Korean Pear Sauce From



  • 2 duck breasts
  • a pinch of salt
  • some freshly ground pepper

Korean pear sauce:

  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp rendered duck fat
  • 1 Korean pear, cored and diced
  • 1 cup of apple cider


Heat a cast iron skillet on medium heat (you can use a stainless steel skillet, too). Score the duck skin in a criss-cross manner, making sure not to cut into the meat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the duck skin down in the skillet for 6 minutes, allowing the fat to render and the skin to turn brown. Turn the breasts and cook or another 4 minutes for medium-rare, up to 8 minutes for well done.

Place on a plate and let them rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting into thin slices.


Pour all but 1 Tbsp of duck fat into a separate bowl and save for frying potatoes (or anything else). Add butter and heat a 10-inch skillet on medium heat. Add diced pears and saute for a minute, until they start to brown and sizzle. Add apple cider, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Take the cover off and simmer for another 15 minutes, reducing the sauce until it’s thick and chunky.

Serve atop of sliced duck breast.

Korean pears are in season from November through March. Check out what some of my friends did with them – you will be amazed!

Thank you Melissa’s Produce for the sample of glorious Korean pears! They are truly magnificent and versatile.

 I received a sample of Korean pears from Melissa’s Produce. I was not otherwise compensated for this post. The opinions are mine and only mine:)

Nov 122012

Lazy Acres from

Lazy Acres Market opened this week in Long Beach. Some of you might shrug your shoulders and move on to the story of the Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez break-up (do not ask me how I know this; it is not because I have two teenage daughters under my roof, but despite of the fact). And I understand and forgive the ambivalence of the un-initiated. But  the mere thought of a grocery store based completely on natural, organic, mostly local products was enough to set me driving on south-bound Pacific Coast Highway, navigating the dreaded round-about and roaming the unknown, and therefore hostile territory without a GPS (horrors, I know!)

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

By the time I arrived, the parking lot looked like a mosh pit at a Scandinavian death metal band concert, with cars weaving around the aisles in a desperate attempt to find an empty space. I silently invoked my inner Buddha and parked in front of a T. J. Maxx, as my eyes followed a seemingly interminable line of people snaking around the corner, patiently waiting for the doors of Lazy Acres to open.

Lazy Acres from

I was inside the store minutes before the grand opening, snapping pictures of employees and perfectly arranged produce with enthusiasm of an E! reporter at a Versace fashion show. I tell you, people, I could set up a tiny tent and live in this store. As a matter of fact, I don’t even need a tent, as they sell yoga mats in the fitness section. Which is right next to the organic teas and natural supplements.

Lazy Acres from


Lundberg Family Rice Products at Lazy Acres from

I was happy to discover Lundberg Family Rice products here!

The coffee station is better than Starbucks and you can pick a variety of flavors for your smoothie right from the refrigerated bins filled with produce. As tempted as Kale Smoothie sounded (not! I know I am bad, but I have not jumped on the green wagon yet; I love to eat green food, but drinking it is an alien concept), and as satisfying as a sample of Breakfast Smoothie tasted, I chose Blueberry Splash, thick, vivacious, and splendidly speckled with berry goodness.

Lazy Acres Long Beach from

Breakfast taken care of, you can move along a few paces and get your lunch order filled as you pick between juicy Santa Maria marinated tri-tip, seasoned grilled chicken breast, peppery roast beef, and pastrami; if your preferences lie in the herbivorous realm, your choices are even better (thin crusted  Pizza Margherita with burrata? Pizza sandwich with grilled vegetables? Or with tofu? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Seriously, this place has a bona fide wood-burning oven on premises! You squint slightly and you are in Tuscany, just like that.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Looking at the cheeses lined up on the shelves made my eyes glaze over as I imagined myself rolling a wheel of raw-milk gouda down the aisle and to my car. This pale yellow baby encased in waxy red skin was so big that my fingers would not have touched if I tried to encircle it. So, carrying it out was definitely out of the question. Then, again, if I manage to get squatter’s rights, all I would need is a small paring knife and a trip or two to the produce section to be in heaven.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

A small area of the store is designated solely to sushi and sashimi. And sake, of course. Because it is punishable by law not to imbibe sake while eating raw fish. I think. At least it should be. The workers behind the counters moved so fast that most of my photos ended up blurry. Or they were blurry  because I stared at the perfectly aligned rolls on black trays and pressed my shutter randomly. Oh, the choices! I wished my dear friend E. were there with me as I put my face against the glass transfixed by glistening cubes of Hawaiian poke, as welcoming as a soulful sound of ukulele that played in the background. OK, ukulele was all in my head. But it should have been there. Along with pretty girls in hula skirts.

Lazy Acres from

The fish counter was like an art exhibit displaying every hue on the color wheel from pristine white of cold-water fish to almost maroon of wild-caught swordfish (which happened to be on sale). And just in case you lived in a glass bubble for the last decade and have not heard about the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a warning is taped on the glass guiding you to better choices.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Pete was standing behind his little table grilling New York strip steaks from naturally raised beef and passing out the samples, reciting again and again for the sake of some unbelieving customers (no, no, no, definitely not me!) that the only seasoning on the meat was salt and pepper. I assumed that he was in competition with the sushi people as he was moving with lightning speed trying to refill his tray of quickly disappearing samples. I would have to give him a medal for multitasking as he managed to fulfill his task while explaining in details the air-chilling process of chicken and pork sold at Lazy Acres.

Lazy Acres from

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

I am a trivia geek, and learning about the proverbial mammoth I bring home to my young ones is of the utmost importance to me. Allow me to paraphrase Pete, and enlighten you. The most important thing in meat industry is chilling the meat once the animal has been killed (I have to apologize to my herbivore friends for this segment) to prevent the bacteria from multiplying. Most big meat producers dunk the chickens in icy water, thousands at a time, and stir them for a while to get them to the right temperature. This makes them water-logged, heavier, and more prone to being infected with salmonella (if one out of 15,000 chickens has salmonella, the rest being plunged in the mix might develop it, too).

Lazy Acres from

A few smaller poultry and pork producers are employing an air-chilling process, where the chickens (and pigs) are suspended on lines or racks and blasted with frigid air which instantly brings the temperature of the meat down and prevents breeding of the harmful bacteria. These chickens are not frozen, nor water-logged, and their chances of containing salmonella are minuscule. “I’ll take ‘Poultry Processing’ for$2000, Alex!”

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Produce section offered as many varieties and more than a thriving European Farmers’ Market. Just knowing that every leaf, stalk, and root displayed on the shelves was grown seasonally, organically, naturally, without GMOs and mostly locally was enough to make me feel all cozy and warm.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Lost in the sea of heirloom apples, citrus with stems and leaves still attached, and gnarly, alien-looking bulbous stalks of Brussels sprouts, I felt relieved to find my friends from Melissa’s Produce showing off their sweet young coconuts and pouring samples of coconut water for weary customers (yes, shopping and taking pictures is an extremely demanding and tiring job!).

Lazy Acres from

As I was dragging my feet towards the checkout and exit, I stumbled onto the bulk produce department and mills that grind nuts. You know how you can buy coffee beans and grind them at the store for the freshest experience? Well, Lazy Acres Market has the mills that grind peanuts into peanut butter, cashews into cashew butter, almonds into almond butter, and so on. All you have to do is place your plastic container underneath the wide spout and press the button! No preservatives, no additives, no extra salt or sugar – just the nuts in all their beauty. (Psssst, there is one machine that makes peanut and chocolate chip butter, but this is just a rumor :)

Lazy Acres from

I left the store feeling like Bugs Bunny in one of the Looney Toon cartoons where he sees colorful bubbles in front of his eyes. I saw various fruits and vegetables and meats dancing inside my eyes as I made my way towards my car, toting a beautiful duck breast and a wedge of that raw-milk gouda that I coveted so much. All the way home, after making one wrong turn after another, I kept on planning my next excursion to this store, thinking of inviting my friends who would be as excited about natural, healthy, locally grown, farm-to-table, organic foods as I am.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Robert, thank you for giving me the chance to explore the Lazy Acres Market. And thanks for that beautiful, soft, flame-kissed pizza Pastrami sandwich:) This was, indeed an enlightening experience, even though I did not end up staking a claim on the store’s real estate.

Lazy Acres Market in Long Beach is the second store to open after the success of Santa Barbara location. I just hope they open another one somewhere in my neighborhood! But even if that does not happen, taking a forty minute road trip down the picturesque albeit treacherous PCH  to Long Beach is definitely worth it.

Nov 092012

Korean Pear and Kale Salad from

As the Fall firmly takes a hold even in southern California where we bundle up and don gloves and hats as soon as the temperatures drop bellow 60F, the last brave specimens of the late summer fruit slowly retreat and surrender the coveted shelf space to bright orange persimmons, dark red pomegranates, apples colored every hue from green to yellow to red, Weeble-shaped fragrant and sun-kissed pears, and ubiquitous pumpkins who reign not only because of their heft, but also because of their colorful kitschy appeal.

And as if we did not have enough drama in the produce department of any given grocery store, enters Korean pear, the prima donna of fruit, the spoiled Asian heiress grown to be the juiciest, the freshest, the lightest fruit in the aisles. Its delicate brownish-yellow skin is thin, unblemished, and perfect, as the fruit is wrapped while it grows for protection from the elements and parasites that threaten to mar its smooth surface. The flesh is white and crunchy. It does not turn brown or wrinkly when exposed to air. You can imagine it in a floppy hat and big sunglasses, sipping a mint julep at the races, looking all fabulous and haughty.

Korean Pears from

When I opened the box from Melissa’s Produce, a dozen Korean pears were nestled comfortably in soft indented trays, wrapped in delicate netting, not touching each other. I gingerly picked one out of its nest, unwrapped it, and barely resisted the temptation to start chanting a line from one of my favorite Loony Toones, “I will love him, and pet him, and squeeze him, and call him George.”* But I remembered in time that it was, after all, only a piece of fruit. I dropped the silliness and started thinking of the ways to use them in my kitchen. They are like Kobe beef of produce, coddled, nurtured, loved, but destined to satisfy the gourmands of the world in search of the best culinary experience.

Just to get an idea how pampered these pears are, watch this video:

My daughters ask for them at every meal and they make a perfect addition to their school lunches. They are crunchy like an apple, extremely juicy and refreshing, and sweet without being overbearing. For their size (and they are pretty hefty at about 10 ounces or 275 grams a piece), they pack surprisingly few calories, only 115, and less than 30 grams of carbs. They are available November through March, which means that they will start appearing at your local grocery stores soon. If you are not sure what stores carry them, contact Melissa’s Produce, the largest U.S. distributor of Korean pears, for the information.

Korean Pear

We could have easily eaten them all just like that, fresh from the box, crispy and firm and juicy. But I knew that I could pair them with a few other seasonal ingredients that would allow them to shine, all sophisticated and special. I picked up some gorgeous, dark green Tuscan kale at Torrance farmers’ market and decided to tame it with these juicy pears, plump dried cranberries, crunchy pecans, sweet matchstick-cut carrots, and roasted chicken breast. The salad came together with a light dressing of lemon juice, Dijon mustard, honey, olive oil, salt and pepper. A pinch of lemon zest on top added just enough citrus fragrance to make it Californian.

I was happy. I shared it with a friend and she was happy. Looking at the small chunks of Korean pears glistening from the dressing, pristine and white in the sea of bold colors, made me confident that they were happy, too,

*You do know which cartoon I am talking about? It features Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the Yeti. If you have not seen it, find it on YouTube; it’s hilarious.

Korean Pear Salad from



  • A bunch of Tuscan (Lacinato) kale, rinsed, trimmed of tough stems, and cut into thin strips
  • 1 Korean pear, cored, cut in wedges and then in smaller chunks (I prefer mine smaller, as I like to get a bit of everything on my fork, but this is up to you)
  • 1 handful of dried cranberries (dried cherries or even raisins would work, too)
  • ½ cup of chopped pecans (or walnuts)
  • 1 medium carrot cut into matchsticks or grated
  • 4 oz roasted chicken (I used ½ of roasted chicken breast) cut into cubes


  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp honey
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • a twist or two of freshly ground pepper


Toss all the salad ingredients together in a big bowl.

Place the dressing ingredients in a small recycled glass jar, twist the lid on tightly and shake vigorously for 30 seconds to combine. Pour over the salad and toss well. If you want kale to soften a bit, let the salad sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

For more recipes using Korean pears check some of my favorite blogs:

 I received a sample of Korean pears from Melissa’s Produce. I was not otherwise compensated for this post. The opinions are mine and only mine:)

Nov 072012
Candied Southern Sweet Potatoes from

Photo credit: Dorothy of Shockingly Delicious

I encountered sweet potatoes at my first Thanksgiving, a few months after I moved to the U.S. I watched from the sidelines as my ex-husband, his sister and her boyfriend woke up with the first rays of sun to start the vigorous and detailed preparation for this, for me an unknown holiday. Roasted turkey and mashed potatoes were the only two dishes made from scratch. The rest arrived to the table straight from the can or a box. For years I participated only as a menial laborer – stirring, dicing, mixing, and washing dishes, fearful not to upset the feelings of a traditional holiday meal.

And for years I did not see the appeal of gorging on processed and semi-processed food three times a day, only to collapse on a couch and watch an interminably long game that held absolutely no interest for me. My ex-husband’s ancestors arrived to this country on the Mayflower and I bowed to the traditions as a newest family member. I wanted to feel the goosebumps and excitement of sharing the familial table, experiencing the closeness, support, and love, but there was no pay-off to the hours of hard work, as everyone scarfed the food down in minutes and migrated to the living room, whining and patting their engorged bellies.

I am an adventurous eater, not afraid to try new and unknown dishes, but grayish spears of green beans baked with a can of cream of mushroom soup and mealy sweet potatoes poured into a pan from a huge can and roasted with marshmallows on top left me uninspired and disappointed. I was not a food snob, but I was raised on dishes prepared from scratch, fresh produce, and meat raised humanely and ethically. I accepted the fact that creativity was not welcome at this holiday, and went along with family traditions presented to me.

FBLA Thanksgiving table from

Judy’s pumpkins stuffed with stuffing – the epitome of the season

After my divorce, I sent my daughter and my mother to my ex-husband’s family for Thanksgiving and I enjoyed the holiday on my own, watching movies, drinking wine and eating crackers and cheese. I really liked my new holiday tradition and did not miss the gloopy jellied cranberry sauce plopped on a platter, still bearing the markings of the can that housed it, nor the gravy mixed hastily from an envelope.

My second husband hailed from the south and even though he pined for green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and jellied cranberry sauce, he introduced a few innovative and to me appealing dishes: southern dressing and giblet gravy. I embraced both, appreciating the efforts that went into preparing them, relishing the idea that there were no cans or boxes necessary for preparing them. All of a sudden, Thanksgiving started to shape into a different kind of holiday, a day that I would look forward to, a family event that made us all excited. It might have had something to do with a fact that my second husband could care less about sports of any kind, and enjoyed sitting at the table for hours, talking and sipping wine, surrounded by piles of dirty dishes and platters still filled with food.

There was no sister-in-law nor mother-in-law to reign over the kitchen and impose the habits that I would have to accept unconditionally. My husband craved certain tastes that brought him close to his childhood and I obliged him with every dish I prepared for Thanksgiving, but I refused to build my children’s traditions on cans and boxes. From our first holiday, everything I prepared was from scratch.

FBLA Thanksgiving table

And this was not all…

Our Thanksgiving table’s theme is mostly southern. Turkey is roasted unstuffed, with cornbread dressing baked on the side and hearty giblet gravy to spoon on top. My cranberry sauce is chunky and simple, dinner rolls soft and buttery, green beans blanched and tossed with diced tomatoes and garlic. There is always a pecan pie, rich and boozy, decadent and oh-so-satisfying.

But one dish that is all mine and that fits beautifully in my adopted southern Thanksgiving tradition is candied southern sweet potatoes. This simple dish allows the taste of mashed sweet potatoes to come forward, accentuating their soft texture and elevating them to a higher level with a crunchy topping of melted butter, chopped pecans, brown sugar, and a hint of nutmeg. When I feel inspired, I stir in a glug of bourbon just to cement it firmly south of the Mason-Dixon line.

This November marks a third anniversary of our Food Bloggers LA group that ideally meets once a month. On Sunday, more than twenty of us showed up in Santa Monica at Andrew Wilder‘s place, bringing our favorite Thanksgiving dish. I am happy to say that my southern sweet potatoes disappeared and I brought an empty dish home. The best compliment came from my friend Christina from Christina’s Cucina, who brought this insanely good Pumpkin Cheesecake and Chocolate Mousse Cake with Ganache topping. She does not like sweet potatoes, but said that done my way, they can grace her family table any time.

Pineapple Cake

Leslie baked this pretty Pineapple Cake for the third anniversary of our FBLA group

I hope you all have a great holiday with family and friends. I know that I have only a few more years to train my daughters’ sensitive palates and develop culinary traditions that will bring them home once they fly away and make their own nests. And I hope these sweet potatoes are going to be a part of their family celebration.



  • 2 lbs of sweet potatoes (2 big ones)
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp Bourbon (optional – but why not? It’s the holidays!)

Praline Topping:

  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 3 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg


Preheat the oven to 400F. Pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork in a few places to make sure they bake evenly. Place in the heated oven and bake for 45-60 minutes. If the knife goes in easily, the potatoes are done.

Turn the heat down to 350F.

Cool the potatoes, peel an place into a large bowl. Add brown sugar, egg yolk, butter and bourbon if using and mash with a hand=held mixer for a few minutes until fluffy and combined.

Melt the butter fir the topping and combine it with the rest of the topping ingredients. Spoon on top of mashed sweet potatoes.

Pour into an oven proof dish and bake for 35-40 minutes. Let it rest for a few minutes before serving.


Nov 052012
Oroville Dam from

Nicole, Kim, Jeanne and I at the biggest earth dam in the U.S.


“Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” ~~Noah Cross… Chinatown

While the east of the country gets pummeled by Hurricane Sandy and whole towns are devoured by tons of dirty, churning water, I cannot recall if we even had a few days of rain here in southern California since last winter. I remember the worried faces of Serbian farmers as they looked at the skies early in the morning this summer when I was there, shaking their heads in desperation, resigned to the fact that a few random clouds would disperse by noon and the cracks in the thirsty soil that did not see the rain in months would just get deeper.

But for us city dwellers, it takes a natural disaster to get us to start thinking about water as something different than a routine shower in the morning and a reliable stream that comes out from the state-of-the-art faucet in our custom-made kitchens. We take water for granted and it takes a tsunami in Java, the earthquake in Japan, and the disasters caused by Katrina and now Sandy to bring home the fact that water is our friend and our enemy. But the deep concern we feel is fleeting and we easily fall back to our old ways.

Most of us have become so distanced from the origins of our food, that we do not give a second thought to the relationship between the abundance of  produce in our grocery stores and water. So how does all of this work? California Farm Water Coalition has a motto: Food grows where water flows, and a few days ago I witnessed that in ways I had never experienced before.

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation System

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation System

My consternation over noticing enormous fields flooded with water was dispersed when Bryce of Lundberg Family Farms assured us that the actual depth of water in rice fields does not exceed 5 inches, due to a layer of hard-packed clay underneath. The wetlands are not only great for suffocating the weeds, mulching the stalks, and germinating the rice seeds, but also they make for excellent wild bird sanctuaries which are often much better than the natural refuges. Between 300 and 400 different avian species find food and shelter in flooded rice fields.

We learned that all water is measured in acre feet (1 acre foot is the volume of water that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot; I am sure that my fellow Europeans, educated on simplicity of the metric system, will find it fascinating that there are 325,851 gallons of water in an acre foot – good to know if you ever end up as a contestant on Jeopardy!). Rice plants consume only 3.3 acre feet of water in their growing process.  It takes only 16 gallons of water to grow 1 serving (1 ounce) of rice, which is comparable to tomatoes and other vegetables.

Feather River from

Feather River feeds the second biggest man-made lake in the U.S.

Driving away from the Sacramento airport, following the Sierra Nevada foothills, we stopped at Oroville Dam, the tallest earthfill embankment dam in the U.S. Built by the California Department of Water Resources, this 770 feet tall dam is a main feature of the California State Water Project , one of two major projects that  California’s water system consists of.  Construction started in 1961 and the dam on the Feather River started generating electricity in 1968. Oroville man-made lake is the second largest in the U.S. The river is fed by rain and snow melting off the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Besides generating power, the dam warms the water and regulates irrigation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When the reservoir is full, it contains three and a half million acre feet, which is enough to supply water for thirty million people.

Glenn-Colusa District Pump and Fish Screen from

Glenn-Colusa District pump and fish screen in real size

The intricate irrigation system is what attracted many Midwestern farming families to migrate west and in retrospect it allowed California to prosper and offer the abundance of produce to the nation and abroad. Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District is the largest district in Sacramento Valley covering over 175,000 acres. The 65-mile long irrigation canal feeding off Sacramento River has over 900 miles of laterals and drains which provide water for agriculture only. That makes it possible for water to be used and reused over and over.

Glenn-Colusa from

Glenn-Colusa District pump system

To keep fish from entering the irrigation canals, fish screens were built back in the 1920s. With Chinook salmon being on the endangered list, the District had to reconstruct the elaborate system of screens, employing the U.S. Engineers Corps. To learn more about this project, click on the YouTube video link:

Glenn-Colusa fish screen from

Glenn-Colusa fish screens are the biggest in the country

To find out how California deals with water, where the water comes from, and how it is dispersed, visit Jolly Tomato and let Jeanne educate you. She has years of journalistic experience behind her and her two adorable sons motivate her to explore the origins of food available to us.

Nov 022012

Meat-Stuffed Collard Greens / Zelene sarmice from

As the spring accelerated into summer, and the linden trees sent their sweet scent on the wayward wisps of a gentle breeze, we would get antsy. The days grew longer, the nights gradually lost the chill, and the smell of the warm asphalt under the noon sun sent us the message that school was almost over and the lazy days of summer were ahead.

The green market would start out shyly with bright green and crisp butter lettuces, ripe green onions, tender spinach leaves, young sweet peas, and fuschia hued radishes. The first strawberries would join the party, followed by early bing cherries, yellow, green, and purple-spotted snap beans, and pinkish tomatoes that everybody tried to avoid. The first time wild sorrel appeared at the stalls, gingerly tied in bundles, we knew that our wait was over: green sarmas were on the horizon!

Collard Greens from

The chopped onions were sauteed until translucent. Ground beef was stirred and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Rice was warmed up until nutty and flavorful, and then everything got a rest, to cool off and meld together. In the meantime the sorrel leaves were cleaned, and the stems cut off. They lay on the plate or a cutting board eagerly awaiting the addition of the filling, only to be rolled into tight round packages and placed in a deep pot, layer upon layer. The water came in, covering the little bundles half-way, some seemingly random, but not; a small amount of salt was added,  and the pot went on the stove for 45-60 minutes. A bit of oil was heated and some paprika added to make a roux, which went into the pot, making a sound that the word “sizzle” only begins to cover. The rolls were dished into a bowl, covered with a big dollop of yogurt and consumed with vigor, juices sopped up by fresh bread. Very few meals scream summer to me like these green rolls.

Meat-Stuffed Collard Greens / Zelene Sarmice from

And now my daughters vie for them, as if they grew up in Serbia. But I cannot find sorrel here. There is young spinach, and beautiful colorful chard, and curly Tuscan kale, and dark, flat collard greens, and beet greens, and mustard greens, and turnip greens. I have tried them all without succeeding in the replication of the taste of tender sorrel leaves.

This time, I could not resist a vendor at Torrance Farmers’ Market, who talked me into buying a bag full of various gorgeous looking greens giving me a discount here, a great deal there, until I surrendered my greens for his.

I made little stuffed rolls with collards, thinning the stem and blanching them for several minutes, just until they turned vivid green. Of course, everybody was lamenting the lack of tender sorrel, even though I enjoyed the toothsomeness of the collards. We managed to finish off every single little green roll vowing that the next time, it would taste even better.

Meat-Stuffed Collard Greens from


You can use grape leaves or collard greens instead of sorrel. If you are using sorrel, there is no need for blanching, as the leaves are very tender. But if you are using the more robust collards, you might want to thin the main vein on the back of the leaf to make them more flexible.

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 500gr (1 lb) ground meat (beef or lamb)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup short-grained rice
  • 20 grape (collard) leaves, stemmed, and covered by boiling water for 15 minutes; if you are using sorrel, there is no need for blanching, as the leaves are very tender
  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 sup of plain Greek-style yogurt


Heat the skillet on medium heat.

Add the oil and onions.

Cook for 5-8  minutes until translucent.

Add the meat and stir until brown. Stir in the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, until nutty.

Season with salt and pepper.

Let the mixture cool a bit.

Lay a sorrel ( gape, collard) leaf on the cutting board and place 1-2 teaspoons of filling (depending on the size of the leaf) in the middle of the lower third.

Fold the sides over the filling and start rolling from the bottom up, until a tight roll is formed.

Place in the pot and continue rolling.

Heat the oil on moderate heat and add the paprika.

Stir for 30 seconds and pour into the pot.

Stir very carefully and let it rest for 5-10 minutes. Serve with a big dollop of plain Greek-style yogurt.