Sep 3, 2015

Gin & Tonics & the Last Days of Summer

I am currently in Greece. Beautiful, warm Mykonos to be exact.  I am obviously trying to stretch my summer. Summer is lazy compared to fall. And sometimes, I am plain lazy. Fall is much more ambitious as it demands warmer food, warmer drinks and when I go out I have to remember annoying things, like sweaters.

I know no one thinks LA has weather or seasons, but we do. It's been hot but clear here. Blue skies and warm nights. The August heat wave had me inviting friends later in the day and instead of a glass of wine, serving cold, brisk gin and tonics. 

I like gin. I like the flavor of botanicals and I have found a new favorite: Hayman's. Not too expensive and I can taste juniper berries. With that flavor on my tongue, I decided to add rosemary ice cubes to the cocktail. I have a rosemary bush and a funny, long ice cube mold. I went to work. I used bottled water to make the ice cubes,  because I could.  If you're going fancy, do it.

I'm not going to give you a  recipe, for crying out loud. Take a glass, fill it with rosemary ice cubes, enough gin to taste it, don't be cheap, and then bubbly fresh tonic water. You need the tonic to fight scurvy. There could be an outbreak any day.

Sometimes I chill my glasses, and I always add a splash of fresh lime juice and a wedge as a garnish.

I bet you forgot how good this tasted! Bottoms up.


Aug 13, 2015

Rosemary Pear Flatbread with Gorgonzola

August is one of my favorite months. It always has been. The end of  lazy Summer days, and knowing that exciting Fall is just around the corner. The world assumes that California doesn't have seasons, but she does. I know because I have lived here all my life. June gloom is gone, July hot and sticky has passed and August is hot but clear and the last days are cool in the evening. I replace old patio furniture cushions and love to invite friends for snacks with wine or Sangria. I cook everything on a grill outside with my guests so I don't miss a minute of my party.

The recipe that follows is one easy and divine Sunday afternoon appetizer.

It was an idea that Cindie and I came up with when we wanted pizza but not the calories.  The most important ingredient for this tried and true flavor combination is a ripe Bartlett pear. Bartletts are available from July to October. A tasty Bartlett has a smooth yellow-green skin. Not soft to the touch, but like an avocado -held in the palm of your hand- there is a suggestion of a give. (Forgive me.
I know too much about produce. My father owned grocery stores!)

Make the flatbread, invite friends and pop a cork, and toast to August.  

Rosemary Pear Flatbread with Gorgonzola

This is a light and simple flatbread that can be cooked right on your grill. Perfect as an appetizer or a light meal alongside a salad. Add delicious protein by serving with skewers of grilled shrimp. Serve with a sparkling white or rose.

Makes 6 servings

6 whole wheat tortillas

1/4 cup olive oil

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

½ cup red onion, thinly sliced

1 (12 ounce) jar roasted red bell peppers, cut into strips

1 Bartlett pear, cored and thinly sliced

1/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

4 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled

2 teaspoons rosemary, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a grill on high.

Place tortillas on pieces of heavy-duty foil or a pizza pan.

Divide mozzarella, onion, peppers, pears, walnuts and Gorgonzola evenly over tortillas. Sprinkle with rosemary, salt and pepper.

Place directly on grill, close cover and cook until cheese begins to bubble around the edges, about 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for a minute before slicing and serving.

Alternatively, bake tortillas directly on an oven rack in a preheated 400 degree oven until crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to baking sheets before topping and baking until cheese is melted and bubbly around the edges, about 5 minutes.

Jul 24, 2015

Pork Makes Life More Fun

I grew up eating pork. My father was a butcher and owned a small chain of grocery stores. Food supported us. Food sustained us. Food was why we got up in the morning, and that feeling is still with me.   

Years ago, I worked on a TV show with a very famous nutritionist. I always thought she was mean because she was hungry. No matter what the crew was eating, she would comment on what was wrong with it: Too much sugar, too much fat, not enough fiber...I did lose ten pounds in a month on the production but also fantasized about strangling and roasting her. I thought she'd be stringy like goat. She made me hungry for fun. 

Recently, Cindie and I worked for the National Pork Board.  We did a small video at the beach with the funny and very fun Donald Faison

There are some great tips in the video. It's part of the Pork Be Inspired marketing campaign. And guess what? I came home and thought to myself, "I used to love pork chops, why haven't I been cooking them?"

So the following evening, pork cooking commenced. 

I bought two center cut loin pork chops on the bone. There was a thin layer of cover fat and each one was one-inch thick. Not as expensive as beef and just as satisfying. One chop with vegetables was the perfect portion per person.

I mixed 1/2 cup of A-1 sauce (my father's favorite) with  1/2 cup Agave syrup, then squeezed a fresh orange into the marinade. 

I cook almost extensively in cast iron because I like it. It gives my chops or burgers a beautiful color when sautéing.  I colored both sides of my chops on high heat for about two minutes per side, then transferred them to a roasting pan. 
I finished them in a 350-degree oven for 4 minutes. They were still slightly pink inside. Not dangerous; only
delicious. While my chops were in the oven, I reduced my marinade until thick and like syrup. Put it in a small pitcher, and then cooked the green beans right in the same pan.

Plated my chops, added the beans and poured my sauce. One pan dinner in ten minutes. 

Pork is perfect for summer; simultaneously light and decadent, and tastes great with any summer fruit. The next time you're at a loss for dinner...remember pork makes life more fun!

Jul 17, 2015

Every Picture Tells a Story: 
Ten Tips to Improve your Food Photography

Introduction –How Every Picture Tells A Story: from the food to props to lighting. 

Denise’s Slide Presentation-Hamburger and Sandwich Demo and Current Work

What’s In Style Today?


Have a clear vision of what you are selling. Are you selling beef (sponsor) or are you selling a lifestyle? Are you selling a memory or your blog? Be clear on what you want to achieve with your photos.

Have at least two of what you’re shooting, i.e., burgers, pies, etc. so you or your stylist has ample pieces to play with.

Go through your product and get rid anything wilted, old or unsightly. Don’t shoot a dish that isn’t perfect or appetizing or mouthwatering. Give yourself the best product to work with. If you are unsure of a dish, just shoot ingredients!

Under-cook the food. Food looses moisture and shrinks as it cools. Cook food only long enough so that it no longer looks raw. You can always color too-light areas or apply heat with a kitchen torch or heat gun. You under-cook for the camera lens.

When designing a plate or environment for your photo, consider color (contrasting or complimentary), texture, and balance.

Create elevation and movement. Prop pieces up from the back to create definition. 
Make a hidden base under food to hold it in place using shortening, damp paper towels, cosmetic wedges, or even mashed potatoes.

Plan for the use of garnishes. Have appropriate herbs, lemon or limes, or extra ingredients to use if needed.

Know that cool food photographs better than hot food. Make cool or room temperature food appear hot by adding moisture and shine by spraying your food with PAM or water or brush with a little Karo syrup.

Study food photographs you like. What do they have in common? What don’t you like? What is your emerging style?

Less is more. Appreciate how the camera’s eye is different than your “natural” eye. You don’t need to have a sliced mushroom in every square inch of your food to know that it contains sliced mushrooms; one or two will get your point across without making the image confusing.

Click here for troubleshooting common food styling problems.
Click here for Denise's food photography resources.

About Denise
A classically trained chef, Denise founded Food Fanatics in 1988, a catering, recipe-development, and food-styling firm based in Los Angeles, California. In 2012 Denise re-branded her company as Denise Vivaldo Group, Inc.

As a consultant, food stylist, and culinary producer with over 30 years experience, Denise has helped with numerous television productions, infomercials, food manufacturers, grocery stores chains, restaurants, publishers, authors and celebrities with their projects and products.

Denise is a popular contributing blogger to the Huffington Post as well as her own blog, Denise Vivaldo Blogs.

She teaches food styling, catering and cooking classes and workshops in a multitude of locations across the country and internationally, and has been a featured guest expert on many television shows.

Denise is the author of eight books: The Food Stylist's Handbook, winner of numerous awards and considered to be the food styling bible; How to Start a Home-Based Catering Business, which has sold more than 150,000 copies and is in its 7th edition; How to Start a Home-Based Personal Chef Business, now in it’s 2nd edition; The Entertaining Encyclopedia, winner of the Cordon d’Or for International Culinary Entertainment, and its companion book, Perfect Table Settings; Do It For Less! Parties, and Do It For Less! Weddings, entertaining books with quantity recipes; and The Top 100 Napkin Folds, winner of the Mom’s Choice Award. 


Jun 8, 2015

Beautiful Weddings on a Budget

 It's June and that means wedding season. Brides and grooms are everywhere you look: In the closets, under the beds, up in the trees...don't shoot them! They don't mean to be that self-consumed.

Take a breath. June will be over in 30 days. No more tulle. No more Bridezillas. No more fake smiling for the camera. If you're the bride or mother-of-the-bride, pretend we didn't just say that.
 Several years ago, Cindie and I wrote Do It For Less Weddings. It is still in print and has relevant and valuable information.  Let us share some important tips with you.
Ten Cost-Saving Tips for Weddings

Have an afternoon wedding to avoid the expense of serving a full sit-down meal. Serve champagne, cake and cheese platters. It works for two hours.

If serving lunch, place a variety of salads on your buffet table. Plate on many dishes in varied heights, so it looks abundant. Salads are great for the ever growing number of vegans and vegetarians, and you save on not having to purchase as much animal protein, which can be pricey.

Keep control of more expensive appetizer items by having them served by roving waitstaff. This is code for, "pass the shrimp."

Present foods as attractively as possible. As an example, use straight-sided glass containers to hold cut vegetables upright. Stack containers at different levels. Have several colorful dips to choose from. Crudite never goes out of style never! It's low carb and vegan and primal and paleo!
Garnish serving dishes with fresh herbs, petals from edible flowers, or a drizzle of sauce. Food garnish is like a scarf. It helps a dull outfit.
Have sorbet already scooped and frozen into small dessert or liqueur glasses for serving with cake. Many people pass on the cake these days but sorbet is popular and inexpensive. And gluten free!
Order your dream cake in just 2 layers for less significant bucks. And the use it for the pictures. Have a simply decorated sheet cake in the kitchen for servers to cut and pass out to guests.

Decorate your cake with homemade cookies or fresh flowers. Or skip a cake altogether and make beautiful cupcakes instead. See the adorable pictures we have included with this newsletter free of charge.

Wrap small flowering plants or spices in fabric (satin, burlap, whatever goes with your décor) and tie with a ribbon (satin, twine, whatever goes with your décor) and use in place of floral arrangements. Have extra to decorate buffet table. The cost of centerpieces for about four hours of use is ridiculous, unless you like to spend money.
Forego a formal wedding. (Unless you are rich and want your parents to pay because you hated going to camp as a child and your sister got the money for a nose job and you didn't.) 

Want more DIY wedding tips? Check out my interview with Judy Bart Kancigor at JLife!

Jun 7, 2015

Avocado, Coconut & Pistachio Ice Cream

Avocado, Coconut & Pistachio Ice Cream
Makes 6 servings

1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lime zest
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
3 ripe avocados
1 (8.5 ounce) can coconut cream
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped, plus extra for garnish
Shredded coconut for garnish

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and water over high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat. Stir in lime juice.

Refrigerate until cool to the touch.

Cut avocados in half, remove pit and peel.

Place lime juice, avocados, and cream of coconut into the work bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Add syrup, pulsing to combine. Stir in pistachios and lime zest.

Pour into an ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s directions. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the freezer.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Spread coconut on a cookie sheet and bake until lightly golden, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
Garnish with toasted coconut before serving.

May 6, 2015

20 Proven Happiness Habits and Practices to Create Joy

Denise and Cindie were lucky enough to teach at Rancho la Puerta this April. During there stay, they heard an inspiring speaker, world religion teacher Hana Matt, talking about The 20 Proven Happiness Habits and Practices to Create Joy.

Cindie was inspired to share some personal thoughts as well as Hana's wisdom (see link at the bottom to Hana's full presentation).

In a nutshell, neuroscientists have found that certain activities cause the joy area of the brain to light up, causing happiness-producing biochemicals to be released.

To think that we can improve our moods and increase our feelings of joy simply by incorporating some of these activities into our lives is incredible to me. 

The habit I found surprisingly easy to change was transforming negative thoughts into constructive, positive thoughts. Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson found that “Thinking new and different thoughts creates new neural pathways. Changing your thoughts produces changes in your brain, and perhaps in your DNA. When you change your thinking to support your happiness, the old negative neural pathways shrink, and the positive neural pathways widen. That makes it easier and more automatic to think positively.” Davidson goes on to say, “When you experience a negative situation, find an equally true thought about the situation that makes you feel better, and lean into it. It is the equally true but happier thought that will lead you to joy. This is not the same as wishful thinking, or simply deciding to be happier. Instead you are shifting your focus from one part of your situation to another truthful part of your situation that creates a better feeling.”

Hana Matt is a therapist and teacher of world religions at Graduate Theological Union and The Interfaith Chaplaincy Institute, Berkeley, CA. She is also the Co-Director of the Spiritual Direction Training Program at the Interfaith Chaplaincy Institute. You can contact her at

Click here to view Hana's entire presentation and uncover YOUR joy!