How to Choose A Good Melon….

It isn't difficult to purchase a ripe melon when you know what to look for. I've included photos below to help you make a knowlegable choice. Hope you'll give it a try for melon season is upon us. 

Okay, this sort of thing happens to me in the produce section frequently. I must look relaxed and as if I know what I'm doing or perhaps I'm just a little OCD when selecting my fruits and veggies. I'll admit though, this encounter was more fun than most of my shopping experiences.

I stood in the store, intently perusing the melons. I heard a male voice say, "How do you know when a melon is ripe?" I tried not to smirk, knowing that if I did I was going to LOL. I looked up, surprised to see a fireman standing before me in his blue and yellow S.F. Fire Department t-shirt. "Well… I take a few things into consideration when making my choice" I say casually. "I usually choose the medium sized ones and look at the stem end to determine when it was harvested.  If it was cut from the vine and has a long green stem, that means it was harvested early, so it is not vine ripened. If the stem has dried up and fallen off or is loose enough to gently pull away from the melon, than it's probably ripe. I look for the ones that have a clean divot, like that one, see where the stem used to be.  Then I press on the divot to see if it yields a bit to the pressure, which is a good sign. Oh! And when most melons are fragrant, they’re ripe." I handed him one of the three I'd been comparing and said, "Does that help?" He grined and said "Yeah thanks! Wow! You really know your stuff". I shruged as I turned to walk away, then glanced back at Mr. SFFD and replied "I'm a chef, it's what I do." 

More on melons…
If you can only buy a melon with a stem on it, let it ripen on your counter until you can tug the stem from the fruit. This will happen when the stem starts to dry. When melons mold at the stem end and get soft patches, you may find they taste winey and are past their prime. If a bit too soft but really sweet, you can make a quick soup with the following recipe. I like to cut a melon up when it's at room temperature, but then chill it until ready to serve.

Chilled Ginger Melon Soup

Perfect for those hot summer days. Its light and refreshing

Serves 4
1 2-1/2 pound cantaloupe
3 tablespoons chopped candied ginger
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
a pinch of cinnamon
1 cup crushed ice
1-1/2 cups low-fat yogurt

10 strawberries
sugar to taste

Peel and seed melon, cut into wedges. Place sugar and ginger in blender and puree. Add lime juice and cinnamon and blend until smooth. Add a slice of melon to the ginger mixture and puree. Pour into a large bowl. Blend the remaining melon with yogurt and ice until smooth. Whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl.

Chill soup and serving bowels in the freezer for 1/2 hour. Garnish each serving with fresh berries or a berry puree sweetened with a touch of sugar.

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Home Cooking with a taste of Julia Powell’s Book Julie & Julia

By Mark Johnson

Heat and timing are key elements to master when learning to cook. One trick I use when making an omelet; is heat the pan, whisk the eggs, add them to the pan, then wash the dirty bowl and whisk while the eggs begin to cook. The other night I made a three egg omelet, using my dish washing routine as the timer. Standing at the sink I noticed that the eggs were'nt cooking as fast as usual. I quickly realized that the pan was on the wrong burner. You see, my stove has big burners in front which quickly heat the outside of a pan. The back burners on the other hand are the opposite, heating the center of the pan. That’s great to maintain a simmer, but not hot enough for a sauté. So, as soon as I noticed the omelet was not sizzling from lack of heat, I brought it forward to speed things up. I finished washing the bowl and whisk, and then went back to the stove to finish the omelet. Using a silicone spatula I moved the eggs around the pan, gently folding each side of the omelet over to envelope it’s filling. I slid the omelet onto my plate, sat down and ate.

It seems that this winter my good friends keep me on speed dial when needing a gravy lifeline or a bit of advice on cooking. Helping my friends in this way really sparked my thoughts on the value of kitchen experience. I’ve been thinking about recipe use comparing the knowledge of an accomplished cook to that of a novice. Experience based taste matters when it comes to reading through and selecting a recipe. During the holidays my mom and I decided to skip the tarragon in a dish, mid-preparation, because we agreed, tarragon is pungent and throws its weight around. Other decisions I’ve made allow me to condense a recipe's step-by-step narrative. For instance; not using every mixing bowl, whisk, platter, and skillet, a recipe calls for, makes for easy clean up without affecting the flavor of a dish.

Another area where kitchen knowledge is valuable is when reading a recipe. Sometimes it's a matter of saying "that sounds great" (or awful), but a lot of times it's the ability that experience has allowed me to figure out a confusing recipe. Recently I read directions that said "continue to let the vegetables simmer…" Well, that made no sense because there were no liquids in the dish, making the word simmer non-applicable. After skimming the recipe's ingredient list again, I decided that the author had switched the word "sauté” for "simmer", an error sure to confuse the cook. What happens to the inexperienced cook who prepares that recipe? Someone who knows the difference between sauté, simmer, broil or bake could easily decipher that recipe. Inexperienced cooks however, may give up, call a friend, or take a chance and add wine or broth, ending up with a glippity-glop.

The difference between an expert cook and the beginner became apparent when I blended four of Julia Child 's recipes together to create a delicious creamed spinach dish. More accurately, Spinach in Mornay sauce with Gruyere topped with a bread crumb gratinee. This was simple for me, already knowing what a Béchamel looks like. I did however; have to pay close attention to the many detailed steps chosen from the various recipes I fused together.

That dish brings me to Julie Powell's book, Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. This book, which started out as a blog, is where Julie endeavors to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". The author took the project on to challenge herself hoping to give her life some meaning. This was, to say the least, an ambitious journey as a novice cook who had no idea what she was getting herself into. At first she is challenged by the basics. How do you make the foundation sauces? What does she mean by mince? Oh yeah, there's an illustration of that. Later in Julie’s culinary escapades it's a search for odd, unfamiliar ingredients Child’s recipes call for. Included in the focus of one chapter is a marrow bone, the oddness of this little morsel, the trouble with finding it, and the question of what to do with it in the recipe. Julie regularly finds herself putting a meal on the table at 11 at night, exhausted and not really interested in eating the crêpes she just spent five hours preparing.  Her husband tries to remain positive about her project despite the messy kitchen, late dinners, and some less than successful results. In addition Julie packs on the pounds as Chef Child’s recipes call for lots and lots of butter. Powell is frequently confounded by Child’s Cookbook but manages to forge through her personal challenge.

Julie does improve her cooking skill; several recipes turn out brilliantly and at a decent hour to boot. She masters pate brise without having to think, and aspics quickly become routine preparation. This book is about several things, accomplishment, Julia Child, relationships, and how messy a kitchen can get. It's also about learning to cook and how experience, through trial and error, can become a powerful teacher. By the end of one year Julie Powell learns to flip food in a pan (something I still can't do), figure out realistic prep times, and that Child was heavy handed with the butter.

 I knew my omelet wasn't cooking fast enough the other night  because as I started to wash my dishes because I didn’t hear it sizzling. Over time and with experience I’ve learned to use all my senses when cooking.  Precisely the experience that caused me to say "that's insane" when I heard about Julie Powell's writing project. "Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?" I thought. I realized that she didn't and that’s precisely what makes this book so entertaining. The insight Powell gains through her experiences make Julie & Julia, a fun and worthwhile read for any cook, novice or pro.

Also available as an audio book

Buy the book used on

Mark Johnson is an experienced cook and writer who generously contributed to iSimmer's blog. Thank you Mark!

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Review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, A Year of Food Life


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, A Year of Food Life; Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp & Camille Kingsolver, Harper Collins Publisher, New York, 2007, 354 pages.


This is the perfect book to read in conjunction with, An Omnivore’s Dilemma as it is a memoir and part journalistic investigation of a family of four that returns to a rural farm to test the premise that a family can sustain themselves on only the food they themselves grow and raise or can obtain locally. This makes a passionate case for putting the kitchen back in the center of family life and diversified farming at the center of an American diet of locally produced foods. Kingsolver’s family makes out a food shopping list that excludes all items not locally grown and produced to see if they can sustain themselves for a year. Along the way are humorous and poetic descriptions of their gardening and live stock raising efforts interspersed with some great recipes. A great read that will make you think to change your dinner menu from a food industry driven menu to a menu of fresh grown and raised foods.

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An eye opening book about the food we consume

The Omnivore’s Dilemma; A Natural History of Four Meals;  Michael Pollan, 2006, Penguin Press, New York, 535 pages.


This is a fascinating story that follows each of the food chains that sustain human beings; industrial food, organic or alternative food and the food humans forage or grow themselves. Pollan follows each food source to a final meal and the process gives an account of the American way of eating. As omnivores, humans can eat all most anything that nature or industry has produced. America is currently suffering from a national eating disorder that is harming the health of the environment as well as the health of the population of America. This story is extremely well researched as Pollan describes the politically driven agricultural changes that have genetically and chemically changed our current food supplies. The changes have left the American public over weight and undernourished while creating an enormous drain on energy resources. It is an intensive read that will have the reader making notes on how to make changes in what goes on their food shopping lists.


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A Review of Heat


Heat, Bill Buford, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf. Random House, 315 pages.


Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker, and Apprentice to A Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany)  spins out as Buford relates his exploration of the business of professional cooking from an amateur-home cook’s viewpoint.The author begins the adventure by first apprenticing himself at New York’s Babbo under Chef Mario Batali. There he captures the essence and drama of the pleasures of preparing a perfect meal that others will enjoy while trying to keep up with the exuberant antics of Chef Mario Batali. Most people while dining out do not know or want to know of the frenetic “back of the house” kitchen dance of people, food, and heat that changes raw food into satisfying food for the body.


From Babbo to a hillside restaurant in Chianti to learn pasta making, to an egocentric famous butcher who prepares meat for the soul, to England’s notorious Chef Marco Pierre White for instruction in wild game preparation, the reader is lead on the food journey by the well written author’s reflections on the history of food as the shaper of world cultures and the what and why of the foods we eat today. The exuberant presentation keeps the reader wondering what will be next and laughing over the hilarious antics of the “larger that life” Food Artists called Chefs.



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Roasting Coffee Beans for the Best Coffee Money Can Buy


In talking to some friends and tasting their brew, I’ve learned about a new affordable luxury… roasting coffee beans. As I listened and tasted, it is inspiring enough for me to want to embark upon this journey. With this new found interest I’d like to connect you to some informative sites that offer expert advice on the topic in addition to all that’s needed to become a master roaster.


Coffee experts say that coffee is meant to be ground and brewed within three days of roasting. That’s a far cry from the roasting dates I see on packages of whole beans in stores and coffee boutiques. This kind of freshness seems hard to obtain unless you roast your own beans, a much simpler process than you might imagine.


The integrity of green coffee beans can be preserved for two years when stored in cool, dark, dry conditions. That’s a HUGE difference in shelf life compared to top quality, store bought beans! Other bonuses to home roasting are the cost of raw beans and roasting to meet your household's consumption. Unroasted coffee beans cost much less; in fact, they are about half the cost of pre-roasted beans. The home roaster also has the advantage of experimenting with beans that have been picked from around the world. This includes a wide variety of certified fair trade beans. The possibilities of creating personalized roasts are endless. What a unique gift to give to a friend or party host, one that is sure to stir up an interesting topic of conversation!


Coffee roasting units range in price but are a wise investment if you take your coffee seriously. And hey, let’s face it, many of us relish and even depend upon that fist cup to get us going in the morning. Why not make that boost the best cup of coffee it can be? After all, working in today’s hustle and bustle, don’t you deserve the best?


I’ve found that people who roast their own beans speak a language similar to that of a wine connoisseur. They talk about the complexity of a brew’s flavor along with its relationship to the bean’s origin, and the soil and climate they’ve been grown in. Many start to favor certain beans which are described in detail by the seller. One Award Winner, Bella Visa, was given the El Salvador 2007 Cup of Excellence, a very distinguished award among cuppers. The bean is described as having: a bright sweetness with detectable notes of almond, hazelnut, orange and a hint of brown sugar. It is also noted that it has a slight winey note as it cools. See the correlation to that of wine tasting?


A basic roaster is reasonably priced and can be purchased and shipped for under $100.00. A roasting unit consists of a heat element, fan, timer and a chaff filter. The roasting process is short and simple. As the beans roast the water content begins to escape, in turn, causing an audible first crack, similar to that of the pop of popcorn. Then, as the internal temperature of the bean rises, the woody, cellulous matrix of the beans caramelizes which then produces a second crack. When beans are roasted too long however, there is a third crack, which is a bad sign. In short when the beans begin to char, around the time of the third crack, they should be used for nothing more than compost.


Other methods of roasting include H.G.D.B. roasting, the acronym for; heat gun, dog bowl roasting; a very basic but affordable way to process your beans. There are pros and cons to this method so here is a link for your perusal.


Another somewhat primitive but highly effective and somewhat aerobic method is the skillet or wok roasting which is covered in detail, here at;


Whatever method you choose; I’ll say… for people who usually take cream and/or sugar in their coffee, you might be surprised to find yourself savoring the complex coffee flavors without the addition of anything. To get you started I’ll simply direct you to the expert’s source on coffee roasting which includes a ton of equipment and bean buying options. This is the most popular web based source for home roasters, Sweet Maria’s. 


I’d like to give special thanks to Phil and Kristine Vuncanon for sharing their freshly roasted coffee and expert advice. In addition I want to thank Spencer of Ann Arbor, a fellow 365 member and flickrist with photos at: for his additional imput. Spencer has a coffee roasting site which gives details on his roasting experience:


tristanstephenson, another flickrist, offers up an interesting visual trip though the life of coffee beans at


Lots to see, so enjoy the view and happy roasting! I’d love to hear about your coffee adventures and favorite brews! Please send me your feedback at Oh! And by the way cheers to you who use travel mugs instead of disposable coffee cups! Thanks for stopping by!!





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Satsuma and Clementine Mandarins are in!

These little gems are easy to peel, sweet to eat and seedless. They're great for a snack or to pack in lunches, and what's not to love about their natural wrapper. Get them now, the price is right and ths season's short!

Ripen mandarins at room temperature.Test the fruit for ripeness by gently pressing the center or the mandrin's bottom, it should yeild to the pressure. (the stem end being the top ;0}-) Once ripe, be sure to refrigerate so the fruit's juice doesn't begin to ferment.


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Question for you….

What are you serving for the holidays and what drink will you be pairing with it ? 

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Freshly baked cookies…

MMMMMM, Butter Cookies!

People have asked me for this butter cookie recipe so many times that I thought I better add it to the blog. You can use any kind of cookie cutter you want. For bite sized cookies I've used the floral shaped cutteres used by sushi chefs for garnish making. People especially like the bite sized cookies, which are perfect for parties.

Two quick tips: Make sure your butter is softened and dip your cookie cutter into some flour so it doesn't stick to the dough.


 Butter Cookie Recipe

Yield: 30 medium sized cookies or around 60 + bite sized morsels.


1 cup of room temperature salted butter at about 80-85 degrees

1 cup of super fine granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 2/3 cups of sifted all purpose flour


Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream butter and sugar together until pale yellow then add vanilla. Gently mix in flour. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Gather the dough together and press into a ball with the warmth of your hands. Roll out on a clean, floured surface into a ¼ inch thickness. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters then place on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper. Leave ½ inch between each cookie. Bake at 300 degrees for 15 minutes then turn temperature up to 350 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes or until they begin to turn golden brown in color. Once cool ice with a layer of the icing recipe which follows.



1 ½ cup confectionary sugar

1 tablespoon water or milk plus–add just enough liquid and stir until smooth 

food coloring as needed




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Fire Roasted Salsa

These Anaheim peppers are great toasted on the grill over medium heat! First drizzle the peppers, tomatoes, garlic and onions with vegetable oil along with a sprinkle of kosher salt. Char the garlic and onions, cooking until the onions become translucent. Set aside.

Blacken the skin of tomatoes and peppers, place in a plastic bag for 5 minutes, then peel. Place the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and salt to taste, in a blender, then puree. Seed and dice the chilies then fold into the puree. Add chopped cilantro, which is optional. Serve with grilled steak, chicken, chips or sauteed zucchini and garbanzo beans. Garnish with lime wedges.

These chilies are medium to hot. Use gloves to peel and seed them if you are sensitive to caspacin, the oil based molecule, which contains the spiciness or "heat".

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