Chocolate Coconut Macaroons

My coconut conversion:

Chocolate Dipped Macaroons - Gluten Free!

The bane of my childhood candy experience was a Mounds Bar. I just didn’t get it. I would bite into the promising chocolate nugget, which would immediately give way to a chewy, shredded, nutty interior, that in, my opinion, had no rightful place in a chocolate bar. It was clearly the texture that I did not like. I was mystified by my friends, who bought super-sized packages of Almond Joys to scarf down when we went to the movies. Every Halloween, when my brothers and I would pile our loot in the middle of the kitchen table, gloating and eyeing trade-ups, my chocolate covered coconut bars were the first to offer up with no regrets. Sadly, my brothers were not so keen on coconut either, so the negotiating could get ugly.

As a parent, it baffled me that my children loved coconut. But as chief cookie baker, I stepped up to the plate and used coconut more and more freely in bars, cakes, and cookies. And, you know what? I, too, developed a fondness for this tropical “nut,” appreciating its flaky fresh and nutty interruption like a cool breeze in a sea of sugar. I guess you could say I grew up.

I eat coconut now, unforced, and prefer it paired with dark chocolate. Sometimes I make macaroons, a jumble of coconut bound together with egg white and condensed milk. Yes, the milk is icky-sweet, but it seems to yield the best juicy-soft interior, which is what prevents dryness and distinguishes a great macaroon. I’ve followed a recipe from Ina Garten from time to time, but switch out some of the sweetened coconut with unsweetened, which I find reduces some of the cloyness, and add a whiff of almond extract. Oh, and I always give them a generous dunk in dark chocolate, which has a magnificent grounding effect on, well, everything.

Chocolate Dipped Coconut Macaroons

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Makes about 24

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
7 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
7 ounces unsweetened shredded coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 large egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 ounces dark (70%) chocolate

1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine the milk, coconut, vanilla, and almond extract in a large bowl and stir to blend.
3. Beat the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gently fold into the coconut.
4. Drop heaping tablespoon-sized mounds of coconut, about 1 1/2 inches apart, on the baking sheets. Bake on the two center shelves in the oven until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the baking sheets to ensure even baking. Remove and cool completely on a wire rack.
5. While the cookies are cooking, melt the chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water over low heat, stirring until smooth. Dip one half of each macaroon in the melted chocolate and transfer to a board or platter lined with parchment. Refrigerate until set. Store at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Grilled Salmon with Kale and Quinoa

Grilled Salmon Skewers with Kale and Quinoa Salad

Yes, you can grill all year. I often use my grill as my second oven and fire source for cooking meats, chicken, and fish, no matter the weather … well, usually. Sometimes, I admit that I can’t bear the thought of stepping out into frigid temperature or a downpour to quickly char-grill my dinner. So I turn to my oven broiler for (nearly) the same charred results. This is how I prepared these salmon skewers.

Whether you use your oven or the grill, this healthy meal is bright and satisfying. I use my go-to marinade for the salmon. With a balance of bright citrus, sweet chile heat, and piquant mustard, it hits all the flavor categories, and provides a welcome bite to cut through the buttery richness of the fish. The salad is another go-to favorite, where I massage the kale leaves – you’ve probably heard of this method by now. In case you haven’t, massaging the tough leaves helps to tenderize them, so that they are slightly softened, but not limp, while taming their earthy flavor. It’s really a must for kale salads, and can often be done well ahead of serving without the risk of wilting, thanks to the sturdiness of the kale leaves – and it’s a brilliant prep trick for salad.

You might wonder why I skewered the salmon, especially since there’s nothing else threaded on the skewers with the fish. I do this so that the salmon, which is cut into large chunks, has more surface area and corners, that are exposed to the grill. This ensures that there will be lots of crispy charred bits all over the salmon, which in my opinion is the best part of this recipe.

Grilled Salmon Skewers with Kale and Quinoa

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: about 30 minutes, plus marinating time
Serves: 4 to 5
Special equipment: Pre-soaked bamboo skewers

2 pounds salmon filet, skin and pin bones removed, cut into 1-inch chunks

Marinade:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce (or tamari)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon sweet chili sauce, such as Sriracha
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salad:
1 small bunch curly green kale
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
Salt
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped cauliflower florets
1/2 cup cooked quinoa, room temperature
1 medium carrot, coarsely grated or shaved
1 small red chile pepper, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus extra for garnish

1. Place the salmon in a medium bowl. Whisk the marinade ingredients in a small bowl. Pour over the salmon and stir to coat. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. Remove the tough ribs from the kale and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces. Place in a large bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil, the lemon juice, and season with 1/8 teaspoon salt. With your hands, toss and rub the leaves to thoroughly coat for about 1 minute. Let stand at room temperature.
3. Whisk the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, the vinegar, 1/4 teaspoons salt, and the black pepper in a small bowl.
4. Preheat the oven broiler.
5. Thread the salmon on the skewers and discard the marinade. Arrange the skewers on a grill pan and place on the top rack under the oven grill. Grill until cooked through and well marked in places, about 8 minutes, turning the skewers once.
6. While the skewers are grilling, assemble the salad. Add the cauliflower, quinoa, carrot, chile pepper, cilantro, and mint to the kale. Drizzle with the dressing and toss to coat.
7. To serve, spread the salad on a platter or individual serving plates. Top with the salmon skewers and garnish with additional mint.

Blood Orange Crostate with Salted Caramel Sauce

When Imperfect Desserts are Perfect:

Blood Orange Crostata with Caramel Sauce

When it comes to baking, I like my desserts messy – which is to say that I like desserts that are free-form, imprecise, and often referred to as “rustic.” Thank goodness for the generations of country kitchens which devised homey, family-style, and more-ish desserts. Often involving fruit and usually containing folksy and forgiving words such as crumble, slump, crisp, and fool, these desserts revel in imprecision, delightfully embracing dribbles, lopsidedness, and even mistakes (tarte tatin, we are looking at you). Sure, some technique is involved, but the overriding rule is a relaxed un-fussiness with a big helping of simplicity. Bring on the mess.

Blood Orange Crosatas

Which brings me to these *slightly* disheveled crostatas (actually, I believe that’s crostate in the plural). Citrus is abundant right now, and with that comes the ruby blood orange. Sweet and tart, murky and winey, the blood orange is more nuanced than its navel counterpart, and its brilliant hue is a sight to behold when presented in desserts. I bought a bag of these oranges this past weekend, and made this recipe. It takes inspiration from a recipe I found years ago on The Kitchn, to which I’ve added my own tweaks – including a sour cream crust and a luscious salted caramel sauce for drizzling.

Blood Orange Crostate with Salted Caramel Sauce

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling time
Makes 8 (4-inch) crostate

For the crust:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, chilled, cut in cubes
1/2 cup sour cream

For the filling:
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, room temperature
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 navel oranges, skin and pith cut away, sliced crosswise, about 1/4-inch thick
3 blood oranges, skin and pith cut away, seeded and sliced crosswise, about 1/4-inch thick, each slice cut into 3 to 4 sections
1 egg beaten
8 teaspoons demarra sugar, for sprinkling

1. Make the crust: Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Briefly pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse to achieve a crumbly consistency. Add the sour cream and pulse a few times until the dough just begins to stick together. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and shape into a disk. Wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
3. Whisk the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon in a small bowl to lighten and combine.
4. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide into 8 equal portions. Roll out each portion in a circle about 6 inches in diameter and 1/4-inch thick. Place a tablespoon of mascarpone in the center of the dough, spreading it slightly, while keeping about 1 inch clear around the border of the dough. Place a navel orange slice in the center. Top with 3 to 4 blood orange sections. Fold the exposed edges of the dough in around the oranges, shaping and pinching to create a rim of crust (the centers will still be exposed). Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment and repeat this process with the remaining dough.
5. Brush the pastry dough with the egg and sprinkle each crostata with about 1 teaspoon demarra sugar. Transfer to the oven and bake until the crusts are firm to the touch and golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature, drizzled with Salted Caramel Sauce (recipe below).

Salted Caramel Sauce
Makes about 1 cup sauce

1 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons European-style unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 4 pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream, room temperature
1 teaspoon fleur de sel sea salt flakes, such Maldon

1. Pour the sugar into a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar melts, whisking occasionally and swirling the pan to ensure even cooking. The sugar may clump, but that’s ok – keep stirring until it melts. When the sugar is the color of dark amber, carefully whisk in the butter (it will foam).
2. Remove the pan from the heat and slowly pour in the cream (it will foam again) and whisk until smooth. Add the salt. Cool for about 10 minutes and then pour into a glass jar and cool to room temperature. The sauce may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Condiment Spotlight: Green Olive Tapenade (with Oven Roasted Salmon)

The Green Olive Tapenade is a keeper.

Green Olive Tapenade Topping on Roasted Salmon

I’ll be honest. The real star of this salmon dish is the green olive and almond tapenade. No offense to the salmon, which is sublime as always and a no-fail simple, healthy meal. But, frankly, it’s the tapenade I want to talk about: it’s positively addictive with a briny brightness that complements the buttery rich salmon. It’s also versatile. Not only is the tapenade a worthy accompaniment to grilled fish (halibut is also a good contender), it’s a great stand-alone starter spooned on crostini or sprinkled over pizzas, pasta, and grains. The good news is that this recipe makes a generous amount of tapenade, so you can refrigerate the leftovers. Then you will have extra to smear on a slice of bread or swipe a carrot stick through. You might even find yourself eating it straight up from a bowl with a spoon. I’m speaking from experience.

Recipe: Roasted Salmon with Green Olive Tapenade

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: about 40 minutes
Serves 4; Makes about 1 1/2 cups tapenade

Tapenade:
12 ounces pitted green olives, such as Castelvetrano
1/2 cup almonds, toasted
2 anchovies, drained
1 large garlic clove
2 teaspoons capers
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salmon:
4 (6 ounce) salmon fillets, pin bones removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for garnish
Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus 4 lemon wedges for serving
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Make the tapenade: Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process to a coarse paste, without letting it get mushy. (The tapenade may be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.)
2. Heat the oven to 350°F. Arrange the salmon in one layer in a roasting pan, skin side down. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and the lemon juice. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven until the salmon is just cooked to your desired doneness, about 25 minutes for medium, depending on the thickness of the filets.
3. Transfer to serving plates and top each filet with about 2 tablespoons of the tapenade. Serve with a lemon wedge.

Greek Tomato and White Bean Stew with Feta and Ouzo

 A splash of Ouzo and a sprinkle of feta add Greek inspiration to this hearty vegetable stew:

White Bean, Kale, Tomato Ragout with Ouzo and Feta

I love hearty vegetable soups in the winter. They are quick to prepare and non-judgmental when it comes to emptying the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator for a healthy dinner. One of my favorite stocks is Italian inspired and tomato based, sometimes with a splash of wine, and often with a rind of cheese added into the mix to exude delicious umami flavor while the soup simmers. I’ll then finish with beans or grains and handfuls of winter greens which wilt in the simmering stock just long enough to soften without discoloring. For this soup, I tweaked my favorite method and took a detour further south to Greece for inspiration. A splash of Ouzo (a Greek anise liqueur) amplifies the fennel in the soup and adds an extra layer of flavor that rounds out the tomatoes’ natural acidity. Rather than submerging a rind of cheese in the stock, I sprinkled feta over the soup for garnish. I must say I was pleased with this little detour, and I hope you are too.

Greek White Bean Stew with Tomato, Feta, and Ouzo

Active Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, with juices
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for a vegetarian option)
2 to 3 tablespoons Ouzo or anise liqueur
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch lacinato kale (or chard)
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Crumbled feta for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, and the onion is translucent without coloring, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, thyme, and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato paste to blend and then add the wine. Simmer until the wine is reduced by about one-third, about 2 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, 2 tablespoons Ouzo, the bay leaf, sugar, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, and add a little more salt or another tablespoon of Ouzo if desired.
3. While the stew is simmering, remove the tough stems from the kale, stack the leaves, and slice crosswise into thin ribbons. 
Stir the kale and white beans into the stew and cook until the kale wilts, stirring frequently, 3 to 4 minutes. If the stew is too thick, top off with additional chicken stock and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Ladle the soup into serving bowls and serve garnished with crumbled feta and the reserved fennel fronds.

Baja: All Zen and Fun on the Eastern Front

Loreto, Mexico

Loreto Mexico

It’s easy to associate Baja, Mexico with throngs of partying beach goers. No doubt the touristy tip of Cabo has this rep, but this is only a tiny part of Baja, the skinny California peninsula stretching more than 700 miles (1100 km) south of the U.S. border to its glittery tequila-soused point. For those seeking a more remote location, fret not, there are plenty of quieter and lesser trod areas in between that will quell the craving for a low key, sun soaked, holiday experience – with a margarita or cerveza in hand, of course.

Loreto Mexico

I was recently invited to attend a Chef’s Week event at the new Villa del Palmar Resort in Loreto, Baja, to not only indulge in rocking cuisine from a trio of world class chefs, but also to explore this relatively and refreshingly undiscovered niche of Baja.

Danzante Bay Mexico

Situated 300 miles (500 km) north of Cabo on the eastern coast overlooking the Sea of Cortez, the resort is away from it all, yet clearly in the middle of exactly where it should be, with abundant opportunities for relaxation and activity. Everything evokes balance – including (literally) the mighty location of its stunning golf course landscaped into the teetering cliffs overlooking the sea. I don’t golf, but I thought pretty hard about taking a lesson when I hiked the trails around the Rhees Jones designed golf course, perched on a bluff with panoramic views.

View from Hike

The orientation of the resort is equally spectacular, sandwiched between the jagged ridge line of the grand Sierra de la Giganta Mountains and the picturesque and vertiginous outcroppings of the Islands of Loreto, a pristine Unesco World Heritage Site.

Villa del Palmar Resort Loreto

Boat Tour Villa del Palmar

North of the resort lies the historically rich and vibrant colonial town of Loreto, which also (conveniently) has an international airport with direct flights to and from Los Angeles on Alaska Air. Loreto is a quaint fishing village, easily walkable and offering a little bit of everything, including an historic mission, muchos curios shops, and a vibrant plaza ringed with restaurants and bars that come alive at night. A long promenade stretches along the town’s sandy beach, home to fishing and tourist boats, thatched beach umbrellas and cafés overlooking the waters of the Sea of Cortez which beckons with its multitude of islands and marine life waiting to be explored.

Downtown Loreto Mexico

Loreto Mexico

Loreto Mexico

Thirty minutes south of the town, with easy shuttle access, lies the secluded property of Danzante Bay and the Villas, surrounded by unrivaled nature with an expansive white sand beach, miles of hiking trails, and all of the active and zen (your choice!) amenities of one-stop shopping resort life, including the aforementioned golf, a world class spa and fitness center, all things water sport, and beach yoga. The easiest task at hand is to simply park yourself and let time slip away while you contemplate your next cocktail, meal, or form of exercise.

Villa del Palmar Loreto

For nature lovers – and you will be one, after you explore the Islands of Loreto – take a private boat tour from the Villa and Danzante Bay, where you will weave between the craggy rocks and jutting, cactus strewn islands dotted with deserted beaches and private coves inhabited by a lexicon of birds, with plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and whale watching, likely in the company of pods of playful dolphins.

Snorkling and Boat Danzante Bay

Whale watching Danzante Bay

Back on the mainland, I was lucky enough to be at the Villa for Chef’s Week, which perfectly balanced my zen downtime. It was a 5-day fiesta extravaganza helmed by Celebrity Chefs Keith Breedlove, Manouschka Guerrier, and the Villa’s Gerardo Garcia Martinez, where we were treated to demonstrations and tastings, multi-course extravaganzas, plenty of local wine and tequila, and all around socializing with a fun group of food-loving (and writing) folks.

Chefs Week Culinerdy

Chefs Week Villa del Palmar

Chefs Week

Clearly there is something for everyone at this destination, which is conducive to families, couples, and even solo travelers. You can be as active, festive, or exploratory as you wish – or not, and simply chill with a book and beverage in a hammock on the beach. The point is that you will come back relaxed, refreshed, and well-fed, with no travel burnout or crowd fatigue, which to me is the whole point of a vacation escape.

Danzante Bay Mexico

Disclosure:
My travel costs and accommodations were provided for by Villa del Palmar and Alaska Air. I was not compensated for this post, and all opinions and impressions are my own.

Braised Lamb Meatballs with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Feta

 – It’s a Meatball Time of Year –

Recipe for Lamb Meatballs with Feta

When the weather is cold, wet, and snowy, nothing is more comforting than a platter of comforting meatballs, browned and braised in a fragrant and spicy tomato sauce. These meatballs take inspiration from my two favorite types of meatball, a Moroccan lamb kefta and an Italian meatball, and roll them into a spicy and oh-so satisfying dish. In this recipe, the ground lamb is seasoned with North African spices, and each ball is filled with a nugget of feta cheese nestling in the center. After a quick browning in a skillet, they are popped into the oven to braise and finish cooking in a blanket of roasted tomato-pepper sauce infused with spices and a kick of heat, harissa-style. It may be chilly outside, but these meatballs will surely warm you up.

Braised Lamb Meatballs

Braised Lamb Meatballs with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Feta

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling time
Makes about 20 meatballs and 2 1/2 cups sauce; Serves 4 to 6

Sauce:
1 (14.5-ounce) can fire roasted tomatoes with juices
1 (12-ounce) jars roasted peppers, drained
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons ground chili paste, such as sambal olek
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Meatballs:
2 pounds ground lamb
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/4 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 garlic cloves, minced or pushed through a press
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces feta, cut into 1/3-inch cubes, plus 1/4 cup, crumbled, for garnish
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or mint leaves

1. Combine the sauce ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process to blend.
2. Combine all of the meatball ingredients, except the feta, in a bowl. Using your hands, gently mix until the ingredients are evenly distributed.
3. Shape the meat into 1 1/2 inch balls. Make a small indentation in the centers with your thumb and insert a feta cube, then close the meat around to seal it. Place the meatballs on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
4. Heat the oven to 350°F. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs in batches, without overcrowding, and brown on all sides, turning as needed, about 5 minutes. (The meatballs will not be cooked through at this point. They will continue to cook in the sauce.) Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
5. Add the sauce to the skillet and cook briefly over medium heat, scraping up any brown bits in the pan. Return the meatballs to the skillet and nestle them in the sauce, turning to coat. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until the meatballs are thoroughly cooked through, about 30 minutes. During the last 5 minutes of cooking time, sprinkle the crumbled feta over the lamb.
6. Serve with couscous or rice and garnish with chopped mint or cilantro.