Friday, February 26, 2010

So You Want to Start a Culinary Blog

Recently I participated in a workshop called "Culinary Blogging 101" at the DC Les Dames d'Escoffier Seventh Salute to Gastronomy. I was excited to be there along with two other great bloggers and speakers, David Leite (left) and Monica Bhide.

I originally planned to post a handout of handy hotlinks for the session attendees. But the response to our presentation was so enthusiastic and the interest so high, I decided to recap my talk for anyone who might be considering plunging into the food blogging pool. Here are both my Powerpoint highlights and tips, as well as the hotlinks that may help you on your way to fame and fortune as a food blogger. Bon Appetit!  (For more tips, see my post on Life's a Feast blogger Jamie Schler who generously shares her secrets to success.)

What You Need to Get Started Blogging
>A Keyword-Rich Domain Name
>An Effective Tag Line such as:
       Leites Culinaria: Hot Food, Dry Wit
       Kitchenlane: Where Food, Friends, & Fond Memories Meet
>A Nice Logo
>An Attractive Blog Design (unless you're a tech-geek hire a designer)

How Do You Get a Keyword-Rich Domain Name?
Go to the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. If you need help figuring out how to use it, check this great tutorial at: youtube here .

Understand the 90-9-1 Traffic Rule:
Of those visiting your blog, 90% will be "lurkers," 9% will comment occasionally, 1% will comment often.
For more info on this rule check out:
>To track your traffic (and learn from it) install traffic monitoring software, such as Google Analytics.
>To encourage blog comments, never make visitors register before commenting. Plus check the following link on increasing comments @ problogger here.

Culinary Blog Text Content
Always credit material borrowed from others (provide hotlinks if available).
>Recipes (always tested, always with intros).
>Culinary how-tos, techniques, dos & don’t.
>Personal musings, comentaries, rants (if that suits your particular blog).
>Anything with a killer headline (must deliver on the promise, though).
>Favorites/Best-of Lists, Reviews
>Revisit your most popular topics with new info/takes.

Visual Content--Food Pics
>Shoot with a good DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera.
>Shoot food in natural light.
>Keep compositions simple.
>Use a tripod. Learn to shoot tethered.
>Look at and learn from good food photography and food styling.

Things to Remember
Some tips borrowed from David Lebovitz @
>It’s a Big Time Commitment.
>Blogging Isn't Just You Writing--It's a Conversation. (Sort of; see next point.)
>Good Writing is like Good Broth—Strong, Clear, Concentrated.
>Don't Assume That When You Jump In the Pool, You're Gonna Make a Big Splash.
>Don't Start, Then Stop. Then Start, Then Stop.
>Like Good Wine, A Good Blog Takes Time.
>You're in a Community; Support/Interact with other Food Bloggers

Protocols, Rules & Regs
>Don’t ask for link exchanges with other bloggers (unless they’re close friends).
>Do leave comments (especially thoughtful ones) on other blogs you like.
>Don’t leave your URL or link to your blog every time you comment; it’s seen as self-serving.
>Do post a blog roll of sites you like on your blog.
>Fully Credit use of text & recipes of others.
>Must Disclose if you were given products endorsed.
>Must Disclose being paid for an endorsement.

Sources of Info on Blogging Basics
"How to Blog 101" has array of great topics/lots of links here.
 This experienced blogger gives you 100 tips on how to be better at it here.
 Some food styling and photo shooting tips are here and here.
 Tips on getting your work published--see here.

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Quick Pesto-Pasta Soup--Perfect for a Chilly Day

I adore soup. I could eat it every day, in any season. So long as it's homemade, I like any kind--hearty chowder, old-fashioned beef and vegetable, ham and bean, mulligatawny, tomato, fancy seafood bisque, my zesty minestrone--you name it.

Canned soups don't usually make the grade for me, though. It actually seems rather amazing that the manufacturers manage to deliver such uniformly disappointing products. How do they make them taste  so, well ... canned? Even the loads of salt incorporated usually can't save them from the blands.

The obvious drawback of homemade soups is that many take time to prepare. And almost nobody, including me, has tons of that to spare these days. So, the last few years I've been working up a repertoire of really easy (yet full-flavored) soups that can be made in a hurry. Last fall I created six 30-minute or less recipes (including this one) for Eating Well magazine--yes, I set out a timer to be sure!

I've been fiddling with additional ideas ever since, and this very healthful soup is one result. One of my kitchen helpers liked it so much she asked for the recipe and has been making it often, too. The pasta, spinach, beans and basil pesto seem just made for each other--the fragrance and taste are seductive.

Quick Pesto-Pasta Soup

To keep the recipe fast and easy, I rely on good-quality canned broth and canned white beans, a commercial basil pesto and pre-washed baby spinach. Yes, commercial pesto isn't as good as homemade, but it works just fine in this recipe and really cuts down on the prep time. If you have fresh basil on hand, by all means chop up some leaves and toss them in with the pesto--they will brighten up the commercial pesto and enhance the soup flavor greatly. Note that the soup is suitable for vegetarians if  you use a vegetable broth.

The recipe is good as is, but downright spectacular if you can throw in a handful of chopped fresh basil and chives. Green basil is better in the soup, but purple makes a gorgeous garnish.  Though it's the dead of winter and snowy here in Maryland, I do have one struggling basil plant on a window sill I harvest when I make the soup. And I almost always keep a big bunch of chives purchased from a nearby Asian market on hand in my crisper.

Tip: It's possible to turn this into a substantial meal with a loaf of crusty bread. Or if you’ve got just a bit more time, make some quick crostini: Thickly slice that bread and brush the slices generously with olive oil (and a little basil pesto, too, if you like). Bake the slices in a 375-degree F oven for about 10 minutes or until crisp and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with a combo of shredded mozzarella and parmesan (and sliced Kalamata olives if desired). Then bake until the mozzarella melts and just begins to brown.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/3 cup peeled and chopped carrot or celery (or a combination)

4 to 5 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth for a vegetarian soup)

1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves or dried thyme leaves

1/2 cup 2-inch-long pieces broken up vermicelli or other similar fine pasta

Half a 6-ounce bag fresh, ready-to-use baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped

1 14- to 15-ounce can cannelloni beans or great Northern beans, rinsed and well drained

1/4 cup lightly packed chopped fresh basil leaves (stems removed), optional

3 to 5 tablespoons basil pesto (homemade or purchased), to taste

1 15-ounce can diced garlic- and basil-seasoned tomatoes (or plain diced tomatoes), including juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a 5- to 6-quart soup pot, combine the oil and carrot (or celery). Cook over medium heat, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes.

Stir in 4 cups broth and marjoram (or thyme), and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Stir in the pasta. Cook until it is barely al dente, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the spinach, beans, fresh basil (if using), pesto, and tomatoes to the pot. Bring to a gentle boil. Cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes so flavors can blend. If needed, thin the soup with a bit more broth or water.

Taste and add salt and pepper as desired. Makes a generous 1 1/2 quarts.
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ways of Celebrating Valentine's Day--Pretty Cookie House

There are lots of ways to celebrate Valentine's Day. Most people give or send cards with sentimental messages, a custom that dates back at least to the 15th century. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote the earliest known Valentine to his wife back in France in 1415 while imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt.

The now popular habit of giving fancy heart-shaped boxes of candy is modern and only took hold in the 20th century. Ditto the custom of sending flowers by wire, messages via e-cards, and serving up chocolate treats like brownies with chocolate sauce or chocolate pots de creme!

Lizzie's Valentine's cookie house
Over the past decade or so, I've started noticing that some families celebrate by making gingerbread Valentine's cottages. These are obviously a take-off on the Christmas gingerbread house custom. This year I drew up plans for a little cookie house, which my niece then constructed. Earlier this week my 6-year old granddaughter had great fun finishing the decorating. (I helped when asked, but forced myself to let her do this on her own!) She's been informed that she has to share the house with her brother, since he wasn't around to help with it. (To make some pretty Valentine's cookies go here. Cookie decorating can be fun at other seasons, too; my granddaughter and niece loved "painting" some Halloween cookies last fall.

Probably because I'm good at making my own desserts confections, I generally recieve cards and flowers, not candy, and give my hubby the sweet treats. One of his faves that actually contains no chocolate are my zesty, easy berry streusel bars.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chocolate Pots de Creme--Sweet Treat for Any Valentine

What sweet treat comes to mind when you think Valentine’s Day? Chocolate, of course! Turns out, there’s a good reason.

For literally centuries, chocolate has been linked with romance, sex and overindulgence. The Aztecs associated it with Xochiquetzal, a goddess of earth, moon, fertility and love. When the explorer Cortez arrived at the court of the Aztec emperor in 1519, he found Montezuma downing large quantities of a bitter, heavily-spiced chocolate brew every day—especially before visiting his harem.

Cortes reported back to King Carlos I that chocolate was“… the divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink enables a man to walk for a whole day without food.” When the conquistadors returned home, they took cocoa beans, recipes and more stories of chocolate’s special properties with them. Gradtually the passion for chocolate drinks, then eventually confections and desserts spread across Europe and the world.

Chocolate really does function as a stimulant, partly due to theobromine, an energy booster somewhat like caffeine.  Another chemical in chocolate causes the body to produce phenylethylamine, a mood lifter associated with euphoria and falling in love. And one of chocolate's chemicals revs up the body’s production of serotonin, known for producing a feeling of well being.

If you don’t already have your Valentine’s chocolate indulgence at the ready, here’s a favorite of mine. It's elegant, yet easy, too. Or another heavenly option that's healthful, too try my luscious, tempting lower-fat brownies.

Chocolate Pots de Crème

Pots de crème is an apt name for these classic little French desserts. Baked and served in individual custard pots, or cups, they are as rich as chocolate mousse, softer and creamier than good pudding and more elegant than old-fashioned baked custard. These particular "pots of cream" also have a deep, satisfying chocolate flavor.

Tip: Chocolate has a natural starch that makes it tricky to mix with liquids. That’s why the recipe calls for adding the hot milk mixture into the chocolate in several batches.

6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped into 1/4-inch or smaller pieces
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Generous 1/3 cup granulated sugar
7 large egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Whipped cream for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Set out 8 3- to 4-ounce pots de crème baking cups or similar oven-proof custard cups or ramekins. Also set out a roasting pan large enough to hold the baking cups. Lay a double thickness of paper towels flat in the bottom of the roasting pan.

In a medium heat-proof bowl, microwave the chocolate on high power 1 minute. Stir, then microwave on 50 percent power 30 seconds. Combine the milk and cream in a 2-quart or larger saucepan over medium-high heat and bring almost to a full boil. Immediately remove pan from heat. Pour 1/4 cup hot cream mixture over the chocolate, stirring vigorously until thoroughly blended. Add 1/4 cup more hot mixture over the chocolate, stirring until well blended and smooth. Stir 1/2 cup more hot liquid into chocolate until completely incorporated and smooth. Reserve the remaining cream mixture in the saucepan.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together sugar and egg yolks until well blended. Whisking continuously, slowly add about 1/2 cup hot cream mixture to yolk mixture until well blended. Pour the yolk mixture back into the hot cream mixture in the saucepan. Whisk the chocolate, then the vanilla back into saucepan until thoroughly incorporated.

Pour the custard mixture through a fine sieve into a 4-cup measure. Divide the custard evenly among 8 cups (which should be no more than two-thirds or at most three-fourths full). Set the cups in the roasting pan. Transfer it to the oven. Carefully add enough hot water to the roasting pan to come half way up sides of cups. Bake (middle rack) for 18 to 23 minutes or until the custards look almost set when the cups are jiggled (don't tap the tops as the surface will be marred). Transfer the cups to wire racks until thoroughly cooled. (Let the pan of water cool in the oven before removing it from the oven.) Cover custards with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 4 days, if desired. Let warm up slightly before serving. Garnish with small dollops of whipped cream, if desired. Makes 8 servings.

 Perhaps you'd prefer the molten lava chocolate mini-cakes here.
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Monday, February 1, 2010

Thoughts of Love, Chocolate, & Counting Calories

Like lots of folks, my thoughts turn to love--and then immediately to chocolate this time of year. In the past I've given my favorite people homemade Valentine's truffles, heart-shaped chocolate cookies, chocolate-dipped raspberry-flavored marshmallows--and even decadent chocolate pots de creme.

But right now I'm focusing on ways to occasionally indulge in chocolate yet still stick to my New Year's eat better/trim down plan. One good option--my Better for You Brownies. topped with the chocolate sauce below.

The sauce tastes rich enough that it satisfies serious chocolate cravings. Yet it doesn't break my daily calorie bank.

For a special treat, I drizzle the sauce over light ice cream and a reduced-calorie brownie, as shown. When seriously dieting I settle for just the sauce and a single scoop of low-sugar, low-fat ice cream. It keeps me from running off the healthful eating track and into my chocolate bar stash!

Quick "Skinny" Chocolate Sauce

Unsweetened cocoa powder is what's left when most of the natural chocolate fat, called cocoa butter, is removed from pure chocolate. Which is why cocoa tastes quite chocolaty but is much lower in fat (and also calories).

The character of this sauce depends mostly on the flavor and texture of the cocoa powder, so be sure to use a good brand. Two fairly readily available choices I've been happy with are Ghirardelli and Droste. Because some cocoa powders are much more absorbent than others, you may need to thin the sauce with more water, especially if it stands awhile.

For a lower-cal sauce or to accommodate someone who has diabetes, you could substitute an artificial sweetened such as Equal or Splenda for up to half the sugar called for in the recipe. Note that the sauce is also gluten free; I've got some gluten-free brownies to go with it..

1/2 cup good-quality American-style or Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
3 1/2 to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar, or more to taste
1/3 cup hot water, plus more as needed
1/2 tablespoon light or dark corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium bowl stir together the cocoa and sugar until blended and free of lumps. Stir in all remaining ingredients until thoroughly blended. If the sauce is too thick or thickens too much upon standing, thin it with a bit more water. Store, covered and refrigerated, for up to 10 days.

Makes 3/4 cup sauce, about 27 calories per tablespoon.

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