Saturday, September 14, 2013

Where Inspiration Lives

Good light

Inspiration is a funny thing. It has to strike in just the right way, in just the right moment for me to put pen to paper, or whisk to bowl. For me, inspiration often lives in our apartment, early on a quiet weekend morning, sun streaming through the windows, illuminating the plants. Music. Cat, sleepy-eyed and happy that I'm home. Clothes tumbling in the dryer. Moments like now, when I look around and see how blessed I am, and realize how good I truly have it, that's when I feel inspired to create. At this moment, it happens to be writing. Sometimes in these early mornings, I creep out of bed as my husband rolls over and back to sleep, and I sneak downstairs to bake. Alone in the kitchen. That's inspiration.

Where does your inspiration live? Is it a particular place? Or a time of day? With a particular person? I always enjoy that feeling. When you spend time with someone who inspires you and then you go home feeling energized and ready to take on.

Saturday morning

Sometimes find myself chasing that feeling and when you have to chase it, it seems nearly impossible to catch. Other times,  it catches me and tackles me to the ground. Like right now. I should be cleaning, grocery shopping, going to the bank. But the light is just so and the coffee is hot and perfect. I'd love to hear what inspires you. Will you share?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

In Her Kitchen: Tamales with Mary Ann

I have so much appreciation for home cooks – my friends, family and colleagues that live to be in their kitchens. For whom cooking is more than a way to feed their families, but a way to feed their souls. I’m going to be featuring some of those home cooks and the moments I spend in their kitchens, here on The Coquettish Cook blog.

My first opportunity to spend time with a cook in their element came through Mary Ann Barajas, a colleague with whom I've enjoyed many conversations about food and cooking. Last Saturday, I was welcomed into the Warwick home that Mary Ann shares with her partner, Missy, to watch some tamale making in action.

Clockwise: One of many pieces of Mexican Day of the Dead folk art in the house;
Mary Ann, tasting her creations;
A party guest, showing her daughter how to roll a tamale.

Mary Ann’s family is Mexican and lived on a ranch in San Angelo, Texas until she was 7. “We had chickens, cows, pigs and goats on the ranch. Sometimes when I was small I would wake up early and go into the barn or the chicken coop where my mom would find me fast asleep." The kitchen was a big part of her life. "My mom and my brother are both excellent cooks.”

Tamales are a dish that Mary Ann grew up with – tender meat, enfolded in a corn dough, called masa, steamed in a corn husk. But tamales are not something you make for just one dinner guest. In fact, Mary Ann said, in Mexican culture, tamales are typically a Christmas dish, made for large groups. (When Mary Ann called her brother in Texas to verify a step in the tamale making process, he asked “what are you doing making tamales in July?”) Seasonality aside, an important part of the tradition is that the family gathers to make the tamales as a group – it’s part of the festive nature of the dish. Mary Ann called for reinforcements and the party began. While a hungry crowd chatted and laughed outside, a few of us gathered inside to learn how to spread the masa on the corn husk, fill it with the slow cooked, shredded  top round beef and roll it into a tight package.

Rolling and steaming the tamales

The tamales steamed in a large pot for about an hour. Fortunately, we had other tasty treats to keep us happy. Mary Ann and Missy’s friend Jean, who is Columbian, made both sweet and savory fried plantains. The savory variety were my favorite – crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and lightly salted. Jean said the savory style was made from green plantains, cut, smashed and fried til golden brown. The sweet variety are made from yellow, more ripe plantains, cut and fried whole. No eggs or coating are used. I love the simplicity of them.

Jean's Sweet Plantains

While we waited for the tamales to reach the perfect degree of doneness (with the corn husk pulling easily away from the masa), Mary Ann set out some additional dishes: ground beef enchiladas with home made enchilada sauce and queso fresco; yellow rice with peppers and onions and slow cooked pinto beans with bacon.

Enchiladas, Rice and Beans

Finally, the main event. The tamales came out piled high on a platter and everyone dug in. They were like nothing I've ever had in a restaurant, with layers of flavor infused into all the components of the tamales. We all ate packed into the kitchen, unwilling to wait for the extra second it would take to bring our plates to the table. For a short time, I got to experience a little slice of Mexican Christmas. Surrounded by people, happily eating and laughing, kids, dogs, cat and one lucky blogger. When it was time to leave, Mary Ann sent me home with a heaping plate of tamales and enchiladas. Merry Christmas indeed.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I love vacation. I love being far from home, far from responsibilities and obligations. I love forgetting what day it is because you just don’t need to know. Having 4 glasses of wine at lunch with absolutely no reason to say no or feel guilty. I don’t get enough vacation. I take days off here and there, I visit my folks down south. But I don’t get a week of whatever, whenever… hardly ever. So my recent trip to Colorado to spend time first with my sister and law and then with 2 dear friends was kind of magical.

There was bike riding, eating, drinking, reading, hammocking (I just made that a word), laughing, more eating and drinking, singing, driving, star-gazing… oh and dog loving! Because everyone in Colorado has a dog.

Here are some things I ate, drank and saw…

Denver skyline, from a bike.

A sampler at Odell Brewing Company, in Fort Collins Colorado.
My friend Emily works in the tap room.
Crab stuffed, fried avocado at Colorado's Austin's American Grill.

Sugar crusted cornbread at Austin's.

My friend's husband Dennis made the most amazing grilled
pizza with a crispy crust, kale, tomatoes and goat cheese. Amazing.

Welcome to Wyoming. My friend Stacey Doyle and I at the
Colorado, Wyoming border.

I fell in love with several canine friends during my trip. Among my favorites were
Cookie and Daisy, these two loves from Wyoming.

Wyoming is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

We took the long way out of Wyoming. Along the road, we stopped
at The Bar at the Forks for a beer. With country music in the background and a
bartender who was more akin to someone's mom, this saloon was in the
proverbial "one horse town." This was no Budweiser thought. The Forks served up
an icy cold Odell IPA.

Larkburger. While chains are typically not my thing, good food is.
This Colorado burger chain specializes in all natural ingredients, biodegradable
packaging and the juiciest, most flavorful burger I've ever had.
Oh, and those Parmesan truffle fries? Decidedly un-chain-like.

A picnic along the Poudre River allowed time for both
contemplation and lady giggles.

When I returned, my sister in law texted me: "So when are you moving to Colorado?" I wanted to say, "Tomorrow."

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Recently, the husband and I put our brave faces on and ventured down the street in the extreme, hell-fire like heat to the Providence Flea, a market that pops up on summer Sundays on South Water Street. If you've been in Rhode Island at all lately, you know the kind of heat I’m talking about. Absolutely brutal. But the sky was blue and it was something to do and hell, there would be food trucks. (In case you ever need to sell my husband on something, always open with “there will be food trucks.”)

We spent minimal time browsing the wares. I think I may have mentioned the heat? Yeah, it was way too hot to browse. But we did manage to put away some food. First we went up the line of trucks and investigated what each had to offer. (This is John's influence, of course.) After much debating, we hit up RadishFancheezical, Rocket and Flour Girls Baking Company.

Our chosen trucks, in all their glory.

The Radish truck is the tasty baby of some JWU and RISD students. We sampled their arrancini and their beef empanada. The empanada is fried to flaky, golden perfection and filled with juicy, flavorful beef. The arrancini, a fried risotto and cheese ball was the perfect combination of salt, cheese and fried goodness. We dipped them both in Radish’s red chili mayo sauce, which frankly, I could have eaten by itself.

Flour Girls, Fancheezical, Radish
Clockwise: Flour Girls' apple cider donut; Fancheezical Old Skool
and Radish's empanada

Over at Rocket, I went with the Rocket dog, the all beef,naturally cased Pearl frankfurter. When it comes to hot dogs, I like simple, so I dressed this doggie up with just some Dijon mustard, chopped onions and celery salt. The dog is delicious, but the bread really makes it.

While I waited for my dog, John opted for a grilled cheese from Fancheezical. He went simple as well. The “Old Skool,”  - add bacon. Buttery bread, crispy bacon, melted cheese. Yes. These guys also had another delicious surprise for us. Their cucumber lime and watermelon sodas were so refreshing. Not too sweet or cloying. Perfect on a hot day.

Fancheezical's cucumber lime soda; Rocket's dog;
Flour Girls' cookies and Radish's arrancini

You would think that after all that, we'd be ready to call it a day. You would be wrong. Next up was the Flour Girls Baking Company truck, where a sign advertising apple cider donuts drew John like a moth to a flame. They were served to us hot and smothered in cinnamon sugar, and were gobbled up in seconds flat. But this truck, out of Fairhaven, MA, also boasted some gorgeous cookies. We opted for chocolate chip and double chocolate. Okay, okay, we took the cookies home. Heat stroke was beginning to set in and we feared one more bite would be the bite that set us over the edge.

Now that was some good eatin'.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Baby Bucket List

Last night was one of those great nights out with good friends that I’ll look back on fondly for a long time. Awe sat at a lovely outdoor table at a downtown restaurant, I mentioned that this may be, at least I hope, my last child-free summer.

It’s that time. My 35th birthday is just weeks away. In March, I married my best friend of 20 years. And every time I see, hear, or worst of all, smell a baby, I’m reminded of how badly I want one. John and I agreed to give ourselves until the fall before we started trying, so it wasn’t the first time the thought had crossed my mind that this summer is something of a last hurrah. But it wasn’t until I said it out loud that the enormity of that statement hit me. I know what you’re going to say – having a child is not the death of fun. I know that. But I am certainly unfettered right now in a way that I will never be again once a child hits the equation.

I told my friends that I wanted to make sure that this summer is extra fun. And that I wanted to make the most of the time I have, even if that means going out “on a school night.” Never one to shy away from a list or a project, my friend Courtney ran inside the restaurant to procure a long strip of receipt paper and a pen. It was then that the Baby Bucket List was... ahem... born.

We started off writing down silly things. Fun things. Check out the Connecticut Wine Trail. Sky diving. Ride some roller coasters. Eat a cronut. But quickly, and fueled by much white wine, the list began to evolve into a manifesto for other areas of my life, aside from the fun.

Reach my goal of a 30 minute 5k.

Experience working in a restaurant kitchen.

Save money for a big transition.

Then we started asking others what would be on their lists. Our server suggested “Teaching something you’re passionate about to someone else.” A bartender suggested “Running away for a few days, no agenda, by yourself, just you and your car and some good tunes.” These were added to the list and circled and underlined.

I won’t share my whole list, but I’ll keep you posted as I check some things off. And hopefully, by the time I find out I’m about to start that new chapter of my life, I’ll feel like I’ve missed no part of the old chapter.

Have you ever made a list like this? What’s on it? Are you doing the things, or is the list relegated to your refrigerator door or cork board? I’d love to hear your stories!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Waffle House

The Coquettish Cook

One morning, very soon after our wedding, John announced that he wanted waffles. It took me by surprise, because my husband is just not a breakfast guy. I'm not afraid to out him on this - he's a protein shake guy. Maybe he thought eating homemade waffles together would really seal the deal? The conversation went down something like this, and if you know us both, you'll hear it:

J: Make me waffles?
K: We don't have a waffle maker.
J: Oh. Make me waffles?
K: Honey, I can't make you waffles without a waffle maker.
J: Can't you do it on the stove or something?
K: Those are called pancakes.
J: I hate pancakes.

Believe me, this conversation would have gone on for days. So I bought a waffle maker. It's a red beauty of a Cuisinart that I got at 45% off because it was a floor model.

The Coquettish Cook

Ok, waffle maker purchased. Next, learn to make waffles. Heh heh. There are a lot of waffle recipes out there. And since this quest began, there have been several waffle disasters in my house that were the source of much cursing. The most egregious error turned into an item we nicknamed, the baffle. Or the wagel - dense like a bagel and heavy like a brick. Not ideal. I realize now that the main mistake here was waaaayyy over-filling the waffle maker. (Yeah, I realized this when batter started squirting out the sides. What?)

I finally arrived on a great buttermilk waffle recipe from Bon Appetit. And I learned the two most important lessons of waffle making. Number 1 is "a little dab'l do ya." Really, a half a cup per waffle at the most. Do. Not. Over. Fill. And Number 2 is "trust the machine." Do not open the door until the buzzer sounds. Trust me. Trust it. Trust the process. It went well.

Yesterday, we enjoyed perfectly cooked waffles that were crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and light and airy as our new marriage! (I said that with a straight face.) But if he wakes up next weekend and asks for crepes... he's getting cereal.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Chain Gang

Last night, a friend and I had a beautiful dinner at Farmstead in Providence. As always, the food and the service at Farmstead were perfection.  We shared a selection of 3 artisan cheeses, Prince Edward Island muscles in rich broth and a to-die-for burger with gorgonzola cheese and fat polenta fries. Our server was warm and friendly and allowed us to draw her into ourcackly conversation with good humor. As I ate, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky we are to have such a wealth of amazing food and restaurants in our small city. From food trucksto fine dining, we Providonians, in particular and Rhode Islanders, in general, are fortunate enough to have access to amélange of mind-blowing culinary experiences… if we choose to.

That’s where my itty, bitty, tiny rant for the day comes in. There seems to be a strong contingent of folks who are happy to avoid the amazing, independently owned establishments and instead veer toward the safe, the bland… the chain. I know Rhode Islanders who hate to come “into the city.” There are one way streets! They might have to parallel park! The horror!

But it’s not even just those who don’t want to come to Providence, because I know there are tons of great restaurants in the other 38 cities and towns. I know Rhode Islanders who fear trying something other than their usual dish because they might not like it. Or fear a particular ethnic cuisine because it’s unfamiliar to them. Or fear trying that new place because “it looks sketchy.” Or fear the food truck because where will they sit?

And it’s not just Rhode Islanders. On a recent visit to my parents’ place in the South, they took me to a VPN certified, Neapolitan-style pizza place. It was incredible. Thin, crispy crust, hand-made mozzarella, delicate sauce, fresh basil. But the place was struggling because the neighborhood is used to Domino’s. I think my parents are eating copious amounts of Neapolitan pizza, single-handedly working to keep this place in business. Then there was a former co-worker of my husband, who told me that when he travels, he only eats in chains “because he knows they’ll be clean.” Sad… and also false.

I know I sound harsh here. I get it - for some people, food just isn’t that important and there’s no real reason for them to venture outside of Chili’s or Applebee’s or… Shenanigans? Is that one or am I thinking of a fictional movie restaurant?  I just wish that some of those “meat and potatoes” folks would every once and a while step outside of their comfort zone. Just for a bite or two. When I was growing up, my parents made me try everything. And while their tastes were not necessarily exotic, it showed me that there was a wide world out there and you can only benefit from venturing a nibble. Even if you hate it, you can at least check it off the list. (I'm proud to note here, that in my 35 years, I've found only one food I don't like - okra - shudder.) 

You may find me preachy. You may roll your eyes all the way to the back of your head. But do yourself a favor - leave the chain gang behind.

I hope to see you out there.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Shrimp & Bacon Farfalle in a Creamy Chive Sauce

If you ask me to bake, I will bite my nails, study my cookbooks as though my teenage SAT scores depended on it and soldier forth. I will nervously switch back and forth between the recipe and the bowl so quickly and so often it will give you whiplash. I'm a nervous baker. This Mothers' Day, while I was frosting a coconut cake that I woke up at 5am to bake, my hands were actually shaking.

But ask me to open the fridge, pull out the three remaining items inside and fix you a little dinner - that's my ballgame. Some of my favorite meals have been born from pulling random items from the fridge and declaring, "this will do nicely." This is one of those recipes. My measurements are far from exact, but don't worry, we're not bakers.

farfalle pasta
3/4 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined & patted dry
5 strips of bacon, chopped
zucchini, halved and thinly sliced
asparagus, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
cream cheese
white wine
red pepper flakes
kosher salt & pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook farfalle until al dente, reserving a cup on starchy pasta water.

Heat a large skillet and add chopped bacon. Cook until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove bacon and set aside on a paper towel.

Add shallot, garlic and red pepper flakes (to taste) to skillet. Cook until translucent. Sprinkle salt and pepper on shrimp and add to the hot skillet, leaving untouched for about 2 minutes. Flip the shrimp to cook the other side.

Add zucchini. Cook about 3 minutes, then add mushrooms and asparagus. Add a splash (completely subjective) of white wine and stir, allowing wine to cook off.

Add pasta, cream cheese, chives, pasta water in amounts to reach the desired sauce consistency. Add reserved bacon back in. Taste for seasoning, sprinkle with parsley and serve hot.

I hope you like it!

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Happiest Place on Earth Ain't Disney

Here I am in Aiken, South Carolina, soaking up some sun, lovely weather and parental guidance. I have to be truthful, since my introduction to this southern town in 2010, the list of things I like about Aiken has been short. My parents are here, that's number 1. Their downtown area is full of cute boutiques and that old southern charm, that's number 2. And Duke's BBQ, that's number 3. Don't get me wrong, this is a terrific town, it's just a little sleepy for me, is all.

But yesterday, my mom brought me to Aiken's newest grocery store, The Fresh Market. Hold the phone. This is a new development. This town might have more for me after all. The Fresh Market has locations across the country, but with the closest to me being in Hingham, MA, I had never seen one. And I certainly never expected to see a store like this in Aiken. I may be going back every day of this visit. Move over Disney, this is the happiest place on earth.

The flower section at The Fresh Market transports you to a 
far-away tropical locale.

Willy Wonka was here...

l feel it's important to say that this is not a sponsored post. I'm just a wee blogger, so no one cares enough what I think to ask me to do that... plus I'm not sure I would. But I wanted to show you all this place because my lord, I was practically skipping through the aisles.

...but Willy Wonka's packaging was never this good.
From gorgeous produce, to desserts, craft beer and wine, prepared foods, meats, fish and more, this place had it all.

The fish monger was happy to let me try the cold smoked and the
roasted salmon. The roasted was the winner.

I was just the strange girl, taking photos of all the food... and maybe drooling a little. Each time my mom saw me whip out my iPhone, she would walk a few steps away. "I have no idea who this person is," her face implied.

Greek, sure. Icelandic, sure. But I'd never seen New Zealand yogurt before.

The staff at The Fresh Market was lovely, though I can't say if that was the store philosophy or simply a southern thing.

Hello, spices.

If my parents can't find me later, can you please tell them where I'll be?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Almost Stressless

This Sunday, I had an 11-person, surprise birthday dinner for my mother in law. But I also had a 5K to run the morning of the party and well, a life. That means I couldn't do anything too time consuming, or that I couldn't tackle ahead of the party. Here are a few things that can be made pulled together quickly or made ahead - and the most important things I've learned about stress free partying.

Mediterranean Orzo Salad I made this for Sunday’s party on Friday night and wrapped it tight in the serving bowl I planned to use. By Sunday, the flavors had combined beautifully and it tasted even better than when I made it on Friday. And the beauty of an orzo salad is that it's a blank canvas. I included olives, roasted peppers, tomatoes, feta, tarragon, olive oil and lemon. 

Buffalo Chicken Wonton Cups On Saturday, I baked the wonton cups and put them in an airtight container. I made the Buffalo chicken filling and put it in a Ziploc bag so that on Sunday, I could just snip a corner off the bag and use it to pipe the filling into the wontons. Right before the party I baked the filled wontons and added garnishes. If Buffalo chicken is not your thing, baked wonton cups can be filled with just about anything.

Deviled Eggs Have you ever met someone that doesn't like a deviled egg? Me either. They’re a total crowd pleaser. I used the same phased approach for the eggs that I did for the wonton cups. I hard boiled the eggs on Friday night; made the filling on Saturday and put it in a Ziploc bag; and piped the eggs straight from the bag right before guests arrived. 

Salad Bar Why not let everyone fulfill their own salad destinies? I chopped up various veggies and set them out with toppings and dressings. It was the “choose your own adventure” of salads.

Lobster Rolls It’s summer. It’s New England. People love lobster. I love lobster. But the nice fish market man did the math for me – 1/3 pound of lobster meat to make a roll – 3 to 4 pounds of whole lobster to get a pound of meat. For 11 people? I did not have the time for a lobster massacre of that ilk. The nice fish market man then let me in on a little secret: 24 fresh, prepared mini rolls for $70. Sold. Picked-up on Saturday, refrigerated until Sunday. Ask your local fish market what they have available. These rolls, while cocktail size, were well-stuffed, fresh and delicious.

Take a breath. Have a drink. Get some help.

Take a breath. Your friends and family are happy to be invited to your home and not have to make dinner themselves that evening. If you aren't quite ready when the first guest arrives; if someone alerts you mid-party that there is not a square of toilet paper to be had; if you burn the dip – relax. No one. Really. Cares.

Have a drink. Your guests will have fun if you’re having fun. Do the prep work ahead of time. Go ahead, get crazy and anal-retentive about it – or don’t. But once your guests arrive, be with them. Pour yourself a cocktail when you pour theirs and have fun at your own damn party!

Get some help. People like to help and it will help you immensely. The birthday girl’s close friend makes outstanding cakes. She was happy to be the dessert hero of the evening. I asked another friend of the family to do a signature cocktail. Never hesitate to ask for a hand.

All in all, it was a successful party. My mother in law  and all of her guests had a lovely time. The food was good and plenty, glasses were full and merry was made. And not a single soul missed that dip anyway.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Welcome Back Cotter

Here she is. The most delinquent blogger in the history of  blogging. Since I last wrote in October of 2011, I've finished culinary school, walked down the aisle with my best friend and lived a lot of life. I'm not going to apologize or make excuses for my absence. Life got in the way of this thing that I love. It happens.

But this spring, I was at a food event with all sorts of great folks who inspire me and I bumped into Andrea, owner of The Locals restaurant and fellow JWU grad. She introduced me to her friend as "Kate, a food writer." It was like an arrow to the heart. Didn't she know? I wasn't worthy of such an introduction! I hadn't put pen to paper to talk about food in almost 2 years! But sometimes an arrow to the heart is also a flame under the ass and here I am. 

You'll notice I've tweaked the look of The Coquettish Cook a little bit. I like to think it represents a little bit of growth in the last 2 years. I have some ideas of what I'd like to do here, beyond the usual recipes and restaurant trips. I can't promise that I will post every day, but I am vowing to myself - and to you - that I will make this my home once again.