Back on the Braisy Chain

November 9, 2007

A few weeks back, I tagged a few of my fellow bloggers and asked them to share their favorite braises. Some, in turn, tagged others and thus a Braisy Chain was born.

Here’s what’s simmering so far:

Wine Braised Duck with Chestnuts and Polenta

DuckAmanda, from Figs, Olives, Wine, concocted this gorgeous Wine Braised Duck with Chestnuts and Polenta. Could there be a dish more autumnal?



Braised Pork with Onions and Apples

Pork and applesKatie, from Thyme For Cooking, shared Braised Pork with Onions and Apples (along with a hilarious story about a bungled golf tournament victory).



Stracotto with Fennel Seeds and White Wine

StracottoKatie also tagged Ilva from Lucullian Delights, who posted a delectable looking Stracotto with Fennel Seeds and White Wine.

Thanks to Amanda, Katie and Ilva for playing!




Anyone else want to join the Braisy Chain?

My thought is that you can never have too many braises to choose from. So throughout the long, chilly nights of winter, I’ll be tracking who joins the Braisy Chain and doing a roundup here, on Swirling Notions, on the second and fourth Fridays of each month.

Here’s how to join:

1. Write a post with a recipe for your favorite braise (and a photo too, if you’re so inclined) and include Swirling Notions Braisy Chain somewhere in the text.

2. Link back to the person who tagged you, and a link back to this page on Swirling Notions.

3. Tag other bloggers to join the Braisy Chain.

I’m excited to see where this leads! Talk about keeping the home fires burning . . .






Pumpkins and Peanuts

November 1, 2007

Yet another self-indulgent post here . . . for three reasons:

1) My daughter is turning turned one (ONE!) on Tuesday and we had her party this past weekend, with loved ones mingling and toasting and sipping pink champagne. I swear, when we all broke out into Happy Birthday, Noe clapped her hands and got this look on her face that said, “oh wait a second, you mean you’re really all here for ME?” It was precious. 

2) I baked cupcakes. Pumpkin spice cupcakes with caramel cream cheese frosting to be exact (you may have skidded to a halt in shock after reading “I baked,” so let me just restate . . . I . . . baked . . . cupcakes)—and they turned out FABULOUS. 


3) We dressed Noe up as a peanut for Halloween and paraded her about our cozy little town with all the adorable kiddos trick-or-treating from shop to shop (naughty mommy and daddy even filched a Snickers bar) and she was so dang cute I had to share.


So consider this an “isn’t life grand?” post. Can’t get the smile off my face . . .

{ Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting }

I had the combo of pumpkin cake and caramel-cream cheese frosting in mind and scoured the internet for recipes, bound and determined as I was to actually follow a recipe. I even gave my friend Julie free reign to smack my hand if I so much as uttered a “but what if we . . .” In the end, I went with pumpkin spice cupcakes from Martha Stewart Living, and a caramel-cream cheese frosting from Cottage Living. (Nicole, as much as I wanted to make your double chocolate pumpkin cupcakes, we thought these might pair better with champagne . . . so I’ll just have to make yours for the next party and serve red wine!)

{ Cupcakes }

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice; set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together, brown sugar, granulated sugar, butter, and eggs. Add dry ingredients, and whisk until smooth. Whisk in pumpkin puree.

Divide batter evenly among liners, filling each about halfway. Bake until tops spring back when touched, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating pans once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

{ Frosting }

1/4 cup light brown sugar
10 tablespoons butter, divided
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dash of salt
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar

Melt brown sugar and 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil over medium heat; remove from heat. Whisk in cream; blend well. Transfer to a heat-resistant bowl. Cool at room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Place remaining 6 tablespoons butter and cream cheese in a large bowl; beat with a mixer on medium-high speed until smooth. Beat in vanilla and salt. With mixer running, slowly pour in cooled brown sugar mixture; beat until smooth. Add powdered sugar gradually, beating well after each addition until completely smooth. Chill slightly for a firmer texture, stirring occasionally.

PS — I also made a mix of the spices used in the cupcakes, added a bit of salt and olive oil, and tossed it with almonds and pumpkin seeds (separately) and roasted them at 350 until they were nice and toasty and crisp. Then I cooled them and mixed them together and served them as a little nibbly before the cupcakes. It was kind of cool to have the spice theme play throughout the party.

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A Hallowed Harvest

October 31, 2007

I am going to usurp an idea a friend of ours shared at a harvest party last year. He, (the one who posted the eloquent comment on What is Wine Anyway?), shaped some of his thoughts on the season around the letters for HARVEST and it got me thinking too. So over the past few days, I’ve been pondering the feelings that this time of year arouses in me, and tried to capture them here . . .


HHope. There’s something about harvest that conveys hope to me. It’s the end of a cycle, a time of reaping what was sown in faith, knowing it would grow.

AAbundance. I feel such gratitude during harvest for the abundance that it brings. Some of it is subtle, a smile that creeps up when I smell the sweetness of crushed fruit on the breeze. Some of it is intimate, gathering with close friends to laugh and toast and enjoy the fruits of our (well, their) labors. And some is universal, a feeling that the earth has yielded what it will for this year, and that now is the time for restoration.

RRest. I love how the pace here slows as winter sets in — in the vineyards, in our homes. It’s a time when we’re deepening our roots and gaining nourishment to enable the fruits of the next season to flourish.

VVaried. When I hear people say that California doesn’t have ‘real’ seasons, I always beg to differ (and I grew up in Illinois and Connecticut, so I know what people mean by ‘real’ seasons). No, we don’t get snow (although the Mayacaymas mountains do get dusted every few years, and it is magnificent), but each year I’m riveted by the beauty of the vines in their cloak of colors, and the way the autumn mist adds an otherworldly element in the morning. We most certainly do have seasons here in wine country.


EExuberant. When I think of harvest, I think of laughter. Every year, we help out our friends with harvest in some way, shape or form. I think about laughter floating above the vines as we clip grape clusters row to row. Or the mishaps that weave their way into our collective stories after a day of pressing. And the lighthearted laughter shared around the table (enhanced by silly song lyrics and grapevine ‘crowns’ to be sure).

SSustenance. Sustenance is about more than just fueling your body with what it needs to survive, it’s about being a part of a larger whole that feeds our soul . . . as is harvest. Sharing the bounty with those we love is just as much sustenance as the fruits of harvest itself.

TTrust. I sometimes find it hard watching the vines go dormant, the garden laid bare–both literally and metaphorically. I get impatient for the next season of growth to arrive. But I need to trust–that the buds will come again, that the fruit will follow, and even that there is purpose to this season of starkness.


PS — Seeing as it is Halloween, I thought today would be a good time to mention that we’ll be getting a new look here at Swirling Notions soon. But before we launch the new design, if you have any thoughts—what you wish you’d see here, something you don’t think belongs—I’d love to hear. Thanks!

I mentioned that I was going to the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference at CIA Greystone (co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School Osher Institute) a couple of weeks ago, and that was the impetus for this post. I’ve long believed that healthy doesn’t have to be ho-hum and delicious doesn’t have to be over-the-top decadent, and I’m inspired anew to see others think the same (as evidenced by so many of your blogs!).

I started out writing about travel, then shifted to food and wine after I moved to California and became smitten with the bounty of my adopted Fivestate. Eventually, though, I began incorporating a health and wellness angle to many of my pieces. Part of this was parallel to my own journey; I had struggled with ongoing health issues since college and had been on and off a laundry list of medicines with no improvement. In the end, it was a healthy diet and a balanced life that made a difference, and I wanted to share what I learned through my writing. Around the dinner table, doling out advice can sound preachy. But, I reasoned, if I wrote articles with the messages I wanted to pass on, my friends (and others, presumably) may read them and reap the same rewards I have.

So here, my friends, are five things I’ve discovered in writing about food, health and life that I wish to pass on to you. I could spin these five things a hundred different ways, but this is what they would all boil down to:

1) Eat More Vegetables.
There’s been quite a bit of talk about this in the pasta realm, as of late, and I’m glad to hear it. Five years ago, I lost twenty pounds and have kept it off (well, between fifteen and twenty at any given time any way), and I can honestly cite this one principle as being a major reason why.

When I was writing an article on how the healthiest cultures on the planet eat, this one kept coming up again and again (vegetable consumption has been proven to lower risk of stroke, heart disease—even more than some of the pills on the market—and some cancers). So I thought it was time to change my paradigm of what my plate should look like. Rather than filling half of it with some sort of meat, a quarter with some type of starch and a quarter with vegetables, I swapped it. Now, half of my plate has veggies on it (really yummy veggies, not the steamed stuff), a quarter has protein, and a quarter some variety of whole grain. With pasta, I simply half the amount of pasta and double the amount of veggies. And you know what? I find after a meal, I’m actually MORE satisfied with the new configuration.

2) Go For Whole Foods.
I’ve gotten reamed on various low-carb sites for stating that carbs are not the enemy, but I continue to stand by that statement. Our bodies need carbohydrates, in the form of vegetables and whole grains. What they don’t need are the huge amounts of refined carbohydrates that are rampant in our modern diet in the form of soda, packaged foods, white bread, rice, pasta—even pretzels. (There’s a whole sub-topic here on glycemic index and glycemic load, but I won’t get into it here)

When we eat whole grains and unprocessed fruits and vegetables (most of them, anyway), our body digests them at a healthy rate, absorbing the myriad nutrients and allowing our systems to remain balanced. But when the layers of fiber are removed from a food, as they are in refined starches, our digestive enzymes delve right in and get to work—too quickly. In this case, our bodies respond with a spike in blood glucose and epinephrine, essentially acting as if they were in danger. You can imagine that putting your body through this several times a day would start to take a toll, and it does. This is one of the reasons type II diabetes is on the rise

I used to be intimidated by cooking whole grains, but lately, I’ve been challenging myself to explore a new whole grain every other week. I’ll buy a bag of bulk quinoa or bulgur or pearled barley and see what I can do with it and, I have to say, it’s quite an education. I find that once I get comfortable cooking a particular grain and incorporate its flavor profile into my repertoire, it opens up new worlds to the question, “what’s for dinner?”

3) Eat the Right Kinds of Fat.
It’s amazing, I’ve been writing about this for over five years now. I’ve spoken to brilliant experts who have proven time and again that fat, in and of itself, does not cause us to gain weight. And yet I still shy away from foods with higher fat content—even the healthy fats.

Here’s the bottom line: fat, like carbs, are not bad. However, like carbs, there are types of fat that are really bad for us, types of fat that aren’t great for us and types of fat that our body needs to thrive. Here’s the bottom line, don’t eat anything with trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils (a label can have partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list yet claim 0 grams trans fats if it contains less than 0.5 grams trans fats . . . which means they can still add up to several grams of trans fats a day). Limit your intake of saturated fats—these can come from dairy or meats. Up your intake of monounsaturated fats (olive oil and canola oil), as long as you’re not going nuts with your total caloric intake (in other words, don’t douse a 14–ounce steak with olive oil and feel like you’re being healthier . . . instead, saute a bunch of kale in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and serve it with a small slice of steak).

I’ve found something very interesting happens on the subject of fat in my own psyche. When I’m focusing on sticking to a “low fat” diet, I feel like I’m depriving myself and more often than not will end up “splurging” in an unhealthy way. Yet when I just tell myself to focus on healthy fats—and in fact increase my consumption of good fats—I eat a lot healthier (more veggies, less slip-ups), feel healthier, and generally lose weight. It’s not an easy paradigm to shift; we’ve had the “low fat” message pounded into our heads for decades. But it’s an important—and ultimately enjoyable—one.

4) Eat Local and Organic as Often as Possible.
I’m sure I’ll get push-back on this one, and that’s fine. But I have a couple of reasons for believing this belongs here. First, local farmers and organic producers (for now anyway) are the ones on the front-line protecting our food chain. When lobbyists step in and try to weaken organic standards, or try to sneak a little something under the radar (just a little genetic modification wouldn’t hurt . . .), it’s these people who raise the red flag. And for that reason I believe we should support them.

The other reason is a selfish one—taste. I am sorry, but you cannot tell me that an heirloom tomato bought from the farmers’ market tastes anything like those pale red ones in the supermarket. It just isn’t so. I find it the same for lettuce, carrots, zucchini, beans, not to mention peaches and plums and figs. As a society, we’re only getting a fraction of the vegetables and fruits we’re supposed to be getting (the USDA is now recommending at least nine servings a day), and I’ve often wondered if that isn’t because the vegetables we buy at the supermarket—the cucumbers in February that have come from Ecuador and the asparagus in November that comes from Peru—taste so bland and boring. Grow your own, buy from the farmers’ market, join a CSA—just taste how incredible, and varied, really fresh produce can be.

And in case you were wondering, here’s my own hierarchy of how to buy, in descending order:

  • Buy local and organic and seasonal produce. If I can’t do that then I . . .
  • Buy local or organic seasonal produce (This one is up to you . . . some people feel more passionately that produce be grown closer to them, even if chemicals were used, rather than being grown organically and then shipped to their store.). If I can’t do that then I . . .
  • Buy organic produce (If what I’m buying is out of season and I have the choice of conventional or organic, I’ll choose the organic one). If I can’t do that then I . . .
  • Buy produce

5) Pay Attention and Enjoy.
I make pretty healthy choices about the foods I put in my mouth. Where I slip up is eating too much. When I’m running a million miles an hour and eating in front of my computer, I’ll eat whatever’s in front of me whether I’m full or not and not even really mentally process that I’ve eaten it. And that is the very opposite of mindful eating.

The flipside of that is paying attention to your body, to what you eat, how you eat it and how it makes you feel. New studies are showing that the simple act of being mindful at meals can have a huge impact on our health (I hope to be writing more on that in the very near future . . . stay tuned). No surprise. I find that when I’m more present at a meal, I feel satiated to the core—even if there’s food left on my plate. There’s something sacred involved in sharing food and wine, and when we tune into it, we’re allowing ourselves to be nurtured at a very deep level.

This applies to exercise too. I’ve heard several experts from all over the world say that, over the long haul, making a habit of taking a half hour walk every day will do us much more good than going to the gym in fits and spurts over a couple of decades. Philosophically, I embrace this whole-heartedly—what better way to reduce stress and stay fit than taking a walk with family or friends, noticing the details as each season passes into the next. But in the rush of the day, my daily walks get squeezed out more often than not. I’ll be working on this one.

So there you go. My five nuggets of wisdom that I wanted to share . . . forgive me if it sounded preachy. If it did, I’ll just let you know the next time I’ve got an article to show you . . .

Romano Beans

October 23, 2007

I think I planted too many romano beans this year. I’ve already confessed to how terrible I am at thinning, and that definitely came into play with these guys. The seedlings kept sprouting up and looking so vigorous and healthy that, rather than tug every other one out, I’d just add another string and let it climb. All summer long, I’d harvest a good bowl-ful every day; my entire crisper drawer was constantly filled.


Yesterday, I picked the last bunch and felt a nostalgic pang for the bonanza that was no more. I was all excited about cooking the braised dish in the Zuni Cookbook (I love the idea of braising last-of-the-summer 150x150WHblogging_57veggies . . . it’s like summer and fall colliding) until I calculated the timing and realized I didn’t have three hours to do so.

So I improvised.

I sizzled some garlic over medium-high heat and gilded the beans with it, then added chopped tomato and a splash of wine, lowered the heat and simmered until they were melt in your mouth tender.


For those of you not familiar with romano beans, they’re meaty little beasts (actually, they’re quite BIG). The Zuni braise is my go-to recipe for romanos, but after asking many of you (thanks to my CLBB buddies!) what to do with my surfeit this summer, I found out that they also cook up tender quite quickly. So I expanded my horizons and used them successfully in a delicious curry, and even steamed them, sliced them, and mixed them up with a garlicky vinaigrette and some arugula. Yum.

I wish I could tell you more about these impressive pods but, alas, I’m at a loss. I’ve spent the better part of the summer (and much of today) searching for information and recipes and, aside from a little help from my friends, have found virtually nothing. So by all means, chime in if you have something to share!

This is yet another entry to Kalyn’s Kitchen Weekend Herb Blogging (happy second year anniversary Kalyn!), hosted, once again, by Pille at Nami Nami.




A Generous Pour

October 19, 2007


It’s up! A Generous Pour—the campaign I waxed on about—is here! I promised you that this would be an opportunity to support a cause that tugs at all of our hearts, and when I tell you that the organization we’re raising money for is Share Our Strength—one of the nation’s leading organizations working to end hunger in America—I think you’ll agree. I mean, I’m pretty confident in my belief that everyone here has a serious passion for feeding people.

Here’s the other cool part . . . in order to give to Share Our Strength, all you have to do is receive. Download an exclusive remix of soulful songstress Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Like a Star” (or one of the other featured songs) and Clos du Bois will give $1 to Share Our Strength. 

The other part of a Generous Pour (the part I was most involved in) features recipes, tips and playlists from top chefs around the country. Over the past couple months, I’ve been chatting with Govind Armstrong, Allen Susser, Dewey LoSasso, David Gilbert, Tracy Miller and Martial Nougier about how they enjoy their holidays, culling recipes and stories and party tips and the like. For even more of a personal touch, we asked each chef to give us their “perfect playlist” for a holiday party. So, for instance, you can make Allen Susser’s Stone Crab Cobbler while listening to his favorite tunes by Dylan and The Who (just hit the download button and a music player will open in a separate window). 

“But that’s not all,” she said, wielding a set of Ginsu Knives (just kidding . . . about the Ginsu that is). The other cool thing up there—and this was a fairly last-minute addition by the incredibly creative team working on a Generous Pour—is a party kit with pre-designed invitations (both electronic and print), menu templates, placecards and even votive covers so you can host a Generous Gathering of your own over the holidays if you’re so moved, and contribute even more to Share Our Strength.

Here’s the chance to nourish not only those you’ve gathered around your own table, but others who face empty plates all over America.

So join me in a Generous Pour!


I Love Paris in the Autumn

October 16, 2007

This is a completely indulgent post, brought on by an evocative sentence by New York Times wine writer, Eric Asimov, where he described walking out into a warm, misty evening in Paris. As I read his words, I was transported back to a particular evening that has, for whatever reason, stayed with me all these years.

I was 20 and had just moved to Paris after spending the end of the summer at school in the Loire for a last-ditch, this-is-all-you’re-gonna-get month of French grammar and culture courses before starting classes at the Sorbonne. It had been my dream to live in Paris and attend the ParisSorbonne from the time I was ten years old, in fifth grade. I used to read French novels for extra credit, I chose Tulane because of their rigorous French program (you had to be fluent to be one of the 15 accepted into the Junior Year Abroad program). I was a bona fide Francophile at a very early age.

But my dream had tarnished a bit during my first few days in Paris. As the first communication student in the Tulane program, I was let loose in the university system (the university system in Paris has colleges scattered all over the city) and told to find my own classes—ones that had to count towards my major . . . and yet I couldn’t enroll or pay, since I was officially enrolled at the Sorbonne. So I literally had to go door to door at each applicable university and try to find course schedules and professors and set up appointments and beg them to let me audit their classes. It wasn’t the welcome I had hoped for and I was feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and very much alone.  

That evening, the one I remember so clearly, I put on my running shoes and popped INXS into my Walkman, wound down the spiral staircase that wrapped around the old-fashioned grate elevator in my building, and stepped out into the streets of Paris. It was that time of day the French call “entre chien et loup”—between the dog and the wolf—when the sky seems to pulsate with the last rays of light, even more so when back lighting the autumn fog. As I ran towards the Jardin du Luxembourg, the streets grew dim and the statues loomed in the mist like specters. “The Stairs” was playing on my Walkman.

In a room above a busy street, the echoes of a life.

I turned back towards Boulevard Raspail. As my heart pounded, windows illuminated one by one under the Mansard roofs of Boulevard St. Michel.

There are reasons here to give your life, and follow in your way. The passion lives to keep your faith, though all are different all are great.

I was amongst a city full of strangers. Yet as each person returned home and flicked on their lamps, they were lighting my way too.

Climbing as we fall, we dare to hold on to our fate. And steal away our destiny, to catch ourselves with quiet grace.

The damp air literally seemed to glow around me.

Story to story, building to building.

I opened the heavy door, crossed the courtyard and climbed back up the winding staircase to my room.

Street to street, we pass each other on the stairs.

I walked to the window and looked out at the shimmering, golden Paris night. And then I turned on my own light. I was home.

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