Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Macaroni and Cheese Please!"

When my husband made this request for dinner, I was pretty floored. He generally prefers "clean" foods like fish, tofu and vegetables, especially for home cooked meals. I knew what the culprit was- we had spent a lazy afternoon loafing on the sofa, watching the Food Network on which Giada or Dave Lieberman (I can't remember who) whipped up a luscious version of the dish favored by children all over the U.S. Another reason for craving the cheesy stuff was that he hadn't been feeling well all weekend and wanted a big dose of comfort food. What could be more comforting than mac 'n cheese? I jumped at the opportunity and headed out to Trader Joe's.

I returned with all the fixin's- half & half, parmesan, fontina, cheddar and gruyere. I was crushed to see that TJ's doesn't sell macaroni so I had to get penne instead since I was low on time. I preceded to make the béchamel and added some mustard powder and a pinch of grated nutmeg to the mix. I combined that in a huge bowl with the al dente penne and four grated cheeses, topped it with buttered panko and popped it in the oven.

Needless to say- it came out all brown/buttery/crunch on top and oozing with cheese in the middle. A nice scoop of that plus a green salad and wine made the perfect Saturday night comfort meal. I can't make a habit of cooking like this (calling Paula Deen!), but it was well worth the calories and the smile on my husband's face! And don't even get me started on the crispy brown edges. That might be my last meal request if I ever get one- "Crispy brown edges of baked macaroni and cheese."

Somtimes, ya just gotta treat yourself!

Monday, January 30, 2006


When I lived in Japan, especially during the first two years or so when I couldn't really speak the language, I'd have the occasional run-in with a rude person. I think some Japanese people treated me badly because they figured if I was living in their country, maybe I should learn how to communicate more clearly. Some people were just.....scared. I mean, I don't want to assume something negative about anyone, and I can only make observations based on my personal experience. On more than one occasion, a customer at Tower Records (where I used to work) would come up behind me and say "sumimasen" (excuse me) and then scurry off when I'd turn around and show my gaijin face- my black hair probably tricked them into thinking I was Japanese. I am half-Japanese but I guess my caucasian side is a bit stronger in my facial features. Now I'm not saying that anyone would ever mistake me for Phoebe Cates, but I'm hardly Jabba The Hut's twin sister. I could only assume that my gaijinness was the culprit that made the customer turn away and run for the hills.

After I became fluent in spoken Japanese, life got much easier. My tolerance for such behavior also declined as the years wore on and I became more comfortable in my surroundings.

Now that I'm back in the US, in Los Angeles no less, that feeling of shame/embarrasment/frustration is a distant and faded memory....or so I thought.

Last Saturday, I decided that I wanted to make a Japanese feast for dinner and invited my good friends M and R who I met in Tokyo and now live here. I went to Mistuwa Market in downtown LA and gleefully pushed my mini cart (just like in Japan!) around the vast supermarket. I knew I wanted some sashimi, a salad or some sort and then check out what looked good that was on sale. But the one thing I was dead set on making was Buri Daikon. Buri is an older yellowtail, and buri daikon is buri no ara (head, tail, various leftover pieces/bones from the fish) stewed with daikon in a lightly sweetened soy broth.

I went to the fish section and looked through the rather large pile of packaged ara from various types of fish. Since the type of fish isn't written on the label, and each package contains different parts, I had to ask which was which. The fish monger was standing right near me so I asked politely what this type was, and he chirped "Sake!" (salmon). I chose another pack and asked again, to which he replied "HIRAME!" (Halibut). So finally I just asked him "Buri no ara arimasuka?" (do you have buri no ara?) to which he practically barked "BURI NAI!" (NO BURI!) and then turned and walked off. I decided to just skip the fish section for now and get my ground chicken over on the other side of the store. After about 10 minutes, I returned to the fish section and the same fish monger had brought out a cart full of new fish to put in the display. He walked away from the cart momentarily so I darted over to check it out- and sure enough, there was the hamachi no ara. Ok- so hamachi is not exactly buri but they are both yellowtail. Hamachi is simply younger. I grabbed the package and went halfway down the next aisle, from where I could see the grumpy fish monger being as polite and mild mannered as friggin Julie Andrews to a Japanese customer. I thought about going up to him and yelling something about customer service but I wasn't sure how large my Japanese Curse Word Vocabulary was (plus, I go there all the time and I wouldn't want to be 86'd) so I didn't.

By the time I was eating the Buri Daikon (or Hamachi Daikon if we want to get all techincal!) the anger had left me and my belly was stuffed with lots of Japanese goodies. I went a little overboard but I think it was my way of making up for my lack of Japanese cooking lately. In addition to the buri we had salmon and toro sashimi, shimesaba which my mom made for New Year's, toriniku no isobe-ni (chicken rolled in nori) which I got from this site, sunamono (wakame,cucumber & fake crab salad), ingen no goma-ae (green beans with sesame paste), mugi gohan (rice w/ barley), astuyaki tamago (egg block) and pickled zai-sai.

I know this sounds immature, but there was a part of me that wished the fish monger could see the meal- only to prove that I'm not some ugly gaijin- which is a weird thought considering we are in Los Angeles, NOT Japan! I guess I'll just take comfort in knowing that he was actually the one being an ugly gaijin.

ingen no goma-ae

astuyaki tamago


toriniku no isobe-ni
toro and sake sashimi


Buri Daikon

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Sugar Free Friday #15

When Sam from the venerable Becks & Posh announced that this month's Sugar High Friday would be a challenge in making sweets without the calories/fat, I was thrilled. Do you remember the TV commercial for Nutrigrain bars where a woman's butt consisted of two giant cinnamon rolls? Well, that is how I felt after the holidays and I vowed to lose a few pounds...which isn't easy when you're in the food blog universe. However, I knew it had to be done and challenged myself to the South Beach Diet, which I've been on for exactly 4 1/2 days. The first two weeks are the most difficult - no carbs which means no flour, sugar and grains. And let me tell you- I am a bread girl. I went shopping last Sunday and stocked up on various lite cheeses, lean meats, veggies and a few backups like some sugar free Jello cups and South Beach Diet frozen meals in case I got lazy.

The last 4 1/2 days have actually been pretty easy- the key is to make everything yourself. I had one of the frozen meals for lunch but realized that homemade low-carb is SO much better, and you can eat more volume for the same amount of calories as a boxed meal. Mashed cauliflower is a favorite I've been making for awhile now- it honestly fills that need for carbs! I made a big batch of it over the weekend and ate it throughout the week along with some chicken marsala and green beans, baked chicken coated in almond meal/parmesan (instead of bread crumbs) or baked salmon with peppers and onions. All of it was delicious. But a girl can't live without dessert right? Now for the results of the Sugar (not) Free Friday challenge...

Normally, I wouldn't just substitute Splenda or Equal to make a light dessert, but since I am on the low-carb diet I have to stay away from all sources of sugar- including honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, etc. I didn't want my creation to simply taste like an overly-fake-sweet version of the real deal so I was cautious with the amount of Splenda that I used. Using any sort of flour at this stage of the diet is also a no-no so any baked goods were out of the question. I decided to make panna cotta and used low-carb vanilla yogurt, fat free half & half, a few packets (not cups, packets!) of Splenda and half of a vanilla bean. I wasn't sure if the lack of fat content would make it watery. I dissolved the gelatin, combined the ingredients, poured the mixture into ramekins and waited.

The next day I eagerly took one of the ramekins out, unmolded it and topped it with a fruit compote (frozen berries + 1 packet of Splenda) for the photo's sake (I can't have fruit either but hey- what's the harm of one bite?). Took the photos, and then tasted. Wow. I have to say- it was delicious! Creamy and smooth with an undeniable vanilla taste. It was not overly sweet and had a pleasant yogurt undertone. The main thing was the texture- it was so satisfyingly creamy. It reminded me of eating melted ice cream, and at under 80 calories per serving, it was a treat I could live with! The aftertaste of Splenda was faint at best, although I am probably used to it from having in my coffee every morning.

I have to thank Sam for the challenge- it resulted in a light dessert that I actually look forward to making again. I suppose you could use any flavored low-carb yogurt but the vanilla flavor mixed with both vanilla extract and vanilla bean is one of the high points of this dessert.

Note: I was in a bit of a hurry so I didn't cool the fruit compote before putting it on the panna cotta, which resulted in the panna cotta cracking a bit under the heat!

Vanila Bean Yogurt Panna Cotta
(makes 6 servings)

2 TBS water
1 1/2 teaspoons unfavored gelatin
2 cups fat free half & half
1 1/4 cups low-carb or sugar free lite vanilla yogurt (I used Dannon's Lite & Fit)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean
4 packets of Splenda

Pour the water over the gelatin to dissolve (about 12 minutes). In a large bowl mix one cup of the half & half, all of the yogurt and vanilla extract. Scrape the vanilla beans out of the pod and add them to the remaining half & half along with the Splenda and heat mixture in a small saucepan. Pour mixture over the yogurt mixture and stir to combine. Pour into 6, 4 ounce ramekins and refrigirate until set (overnight is best).

To unmold, set each ramekin in a shallow bowl of warm water for a few seconds, place plate over the ramekin and flip over. Top with any fruit compote or preserves you like.

Nutritional info per serving (without fruit):
Calories: 78.8
Fat: 1.25 g
Carbs: 9.2 g

Weight Watchers Points per serving: 1.5


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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Too Much Information Meme

Obachan, from Obachan's Kitchen & Balcony Garden tagged me for Too Much Information Meme. The idea is simply to make a list of 10 facts (funny, quirky, whatever) about yourself. I doubt this will interest anyone, but here goes! I am supposed to tag five people, so I will email some fellow bloggers- The Wednesday Chef, Cynthia/Food Migration, Joe/Culinary in the Desert, Santos/Taste of Green Bananas and Michèle/Oswego Tea (hope you all don't mind!). We'll see if this carries on into the food blog universe.

1) I could eat French Onion Sun Chips all the live long day (but I won't......I do have some dignity).

2) I brought my cat, Cory, back from Japan with me when I moved back to the USA in 2000. She has a short little tail that people always accuse me of cutting off (could you imagine??!?!) but a lot of Japanese cats have short, stubby tails and I have no interest in cutting off animal tails.

3) I love Elliott Smith, Elvis Costello (back when he was angry), The Like, The Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain and many others. My love of music started with my parents' Abba records (who's didn't?!) and a Wham! Make It Big cassette I got for 11th birthday.

4) I've been to France, Italy, Canada, Mexico and Japan and feel that Vancouver BC and Nice, France are two of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I'd love to go to Croatia one day.

5) Although I could never narrow any one food to being my "favorite," I have a penchant for well-made sandwiches (tuna being a favorite), kohada sushi, gyoza with a crunchy bottom crust, bi bim bap (but it MUST be in the hot stone bowl or it's not bi bim bap to me!!), pappardelle w/ boar or lamb ragu, DORIA (a dish I miss so much- basically a rice casserole served at many cafes in Japan), thin crust margherita pizza, foie gras torchon w/ toast points, green beans, kumamoto oysters and criossants.

6) Liquids I love: Rochioli Pinot Noir (for special occassions), Lavazza coffee, Billecart Salmon brut champagne, mugicha (barley tea), green tea w/ jasmine, water and Vitamin Water in Revive (the purple one).

7) I have a sort of "missed the boat" mentality- I overthink things so much that I am still trying to decide whether to do something while an opportunity presents itself.....and then that opportunity is gone while I am still......thinking about it. A habit I'd like to break in 2006!!!

8) I'm completely addicted to cooking magazines (Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Cooking Light, Food & Wine) and cooking shows- Everyday Italian, Barefoot Contessa, Dave Lieberman, Michael Chirarello and Iron Chef. However, Giada's "crunchy, chewy, gooey and sweet!" adjective overdrive makes me batty and Michael will be off my list if he keeps calling cilantro "cilanTHRO." Ugh! The BEST cooking/food show on television is Dotchi No Ryori Show (translates into Which One Cooking Show). Japanese celebs have to sit in a kitchen studio while 2 MCs with 2 cooking teams make 2 different dishes- it's a battle of which dish wins. For example, last week was bi bim bap versus crab fried rice. Hungry celebs watch both chefs make the ULTIMATE version of both dishes, then must pick one dish by pushing a button while their eyes are closed. Majority wins and gets to eat. The losers just get to watch.

9) My husband is a musician.

10) I am an identical twin.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Restaurant review: Ammo

To celebrate a friend's birthday, we went to Ammo Cafe a couple of weeks ago. I work near there and had been for lunch a couple of times and basically fell in love with their puy lentil salad w/ beets and goat cheese. I also loved the minimal interior and the fact that there were several healthy options on the menu.

Three of us arrived at 7:00 pm and were seated promptly. Our waitress was very helpful without being too pushy and helped us select a wine from the Euro-centric wine list (we're more familiar with California wines). We were waiting on one more person but the groaning noises coming out of my tummy were almost deafening so we ordered a couple of appetizers to share. The Grilled Calamari, Shrimp and Scallop Salad with blue lake beans, haricot verts, sungold tomatoes, marinated baby artichokes and preserved lemon was smoky, lemony and just plain scrumptious (uh oh, I am beginning to sound like Giada De Laurentiis with all of my juvenile adjectives). The portion was quite generous so we all had our fair share of each crustacean. We also opted to share the beef carpaccio which was an excellent version drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, lemon and scattered with arugula and shaved parmesan.

When our fourth member arrived, we all placed our orders and nibbled on the crunchy flatbreads which came in the basket, along with olive and French bread. Soon the entrees arrived- my husband's Wild Bass braised in the wood oven with teardrop tomatoes, baby carrots & potatoes, white wine, fresh herbs was very mild and comforting, although I think he was a bit disappointed that it was, er, braised. I think he just saw "Wild Bass" and assumed that it would be pan seared. My friend ordered the rack of lamb special which was succulent while the other friend ordered Wood Oven Roasted Half Chicken inspired by “Zuni”, on a bed of torn croutons, young mustard greens, currants, pine nuts and scallions which was also delicious, even though it was a tad on the dry side. My magherita pizza was ultra thin, just the way I like it, and not too gooey. The crust was a real winner- chewy and yeasty with great flavor. My only disappointment was that I had asked to substitute burrata for the regular mozzarella (offering to pay more, of course) but the chef turned down my request. I guess I'm not supposed to screw with his art.

Even though we were pretty full (ok, stuffed to the gills is more like it) we were on a carbohydrate high and decided to order dessert. Make that four desserts- one for each. We all dove into my Trio of Ice Cream Sandwiches- the favorites being the lemon sorbet ensconced between two fiery gingersnaps and a praline ice cream matched up with butter cookies. My friend's sorbets were all delicious, particularly the green apple. Again, my poor husband got the short end of the stick with the well-intentioned warm chocolate pudding. It sounds all gooey and lovely until you remembered that chocolate pudding (not cake, not brownie) is best eaten chilled. The apple tart a la mode was pretty much devoured in record time.

Overall, I must say I quite love Ammo. The service is subtle and efficient and the atmosphere is very modern but peaceful. I was sad to see my beloved puy lentil salad absent from their dinner menu, but I know we will meet again during daylight hours.

PS- I didn't want to send the other patrons into a seizure with the shock of my extra bright camera flash which basically resulted in these artistic (read: fuzzy and dimly lit) photos.

1155 North Highland Ave
Los Angeles,CA
Tel: (323) 871-2666

Saturday, January 14, 2006

I don't think Colin Cowie is sweatin' me just yet!

A few weeks ago, a coworker asked me if I would cater a small cocktail party he was throwing for his mom's 60th birthday. "Me?" I thought sheepishly as I tried not to jump up and down in his office. I have to admit, I was thrilled at the prospect and not really nervous about it. I soon typed up a menu for him to select a few appetizers from and was well on my way to planning what I thought would be a fabulous affair.

The five appetizers he chose were all things I had made before. I figured I'd go shopping on Friday night, spend a few hours on Saturday morning prepping 90% of it and then finish it up in an hour or so at my friend's house. No worries, right? I based my prices on the cost of the ingredients and about 5 hours of labor. At the end of it all, I think I averaged about $2 an hour!!

Steaming the new potatoes, making the smoked salmon creme fraiche, clipping the perfect little sprigs of dill, spearing multiple chicken skewers, toasting the crostini.......what I had imagined would take a few hours ended up taking me all day Saturday and by the time I got to my friend's house, I was exhausted. The two hours before the guest of honor arrived were spent frantically (at least on the inside) broiling the flank steak and slicing it up into bite-sized pieces, stuffing the mushrooms and dredging the tops in panko, filing the tiny savory tart cups with carmelized onions.....I barely finished before everyone yelled "SURPRISE!" Totally spent, my assistant (aka husband) and I got in the car and drove home.

The "clients" were happy and all in all, it was a great experience. The food all came out well, and I would definitely do it again but probably charge enough so that I am at least clearing minimum wage! I am grateful for the chance I got to actually cater a small party but I learned my lesson- never underestimate the work that goes into it.
Here's to you, Wolfgang.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Mushrooms and wine......so fine.

When people ask me what my favorite vegetable is, asparagus or broccoli usually pops into my head. After all, they often appear as the Lead Side Dish at many fine restaurants and they taste great without much fuss. However, I had to look deep into myself (and my eating habits) and ask, "What vegetable do I consume almost daily?" The answer to that question is mushrooms and onions. It's true- the bright green cheerleader (asparagus) and football player (broccoli) lose out to the slightly dirty and sometimes mangled dirt dwellers better known as the mushroom (clearly the chess club president of the veggie world) and it's good friend, the onion (the janitor, perhaps?). Although they aren't the most handsome veggie, a day without at least one of them isn't complete.

Let's start with the onion. I love green onions, red onions, pearl onions, brown, white, sweet, hot- you get the idea. I eat them raw in salads, stir fried with meat, braised with beef or sprinkled over fish. During some of my poorer times living in Tokyo, I'd eat onion sandwiches. Yup. Thick white bread spread with Kewpie mayonnaise enveloping several thick slices of raw, white onion. Don't knock it till ya try it. I'm sure one bite of that culinary masterpiece now would whip me back to the days where I sat in my Tokyo "apartment" (a 15 x 20 box with a sink) watching Dotchi No Ryori Show while munching on my sandwich. Ah, good times. To me, onions of any preparation are Good Eats.

Mushrooms, on the other hand, need a little nudge of oil, a sprinkling of seasoning or coaxing of garlic to really bring out their full potential. Raw mushrooms, if thinly sliced, are good in salads but otherwise I'm not the biggest fan. Why eat Mr. Mushroom raw when he can pair up with his perfect mate to make the perfect couple?? Wine is Mushroom's soul mate. To me, nothing tastes better than any sort of mushroom sautéed in almost any sort of wine (well, the ones I have cooked with, anyway!). Cooking mushrooms in wine even puts me in a good mood WHILE I am cooking. I can't explain it. Maybe because such little effort is rewarded with such delicious flavor. Maybe the smell of mushrooms in wine drifting through the house acts as some sort of mood enhancer. Whatever it is, whether it's button mushrooms stewed in with burgundy and beef or criminis sautéed with a splash of vermouth, garlic & thyme, I find myself smiling and doing little dances around the stove.

Last night I had to make dinner in a hurry (not because I was going anywhere but because I was about to keel over from hunger) and I knew the perfect dish. Chicken Marsala w/ Mushrooms. So easy, so delicious and contains lots of mushrooms and onion. One of those recipes where you almost always have all of the ingredients on hand. I've made this several times and each time I marvel at how delicious the outcome of so little work can be. Simplicity at it's best. Served with some egg noodles and veggies, it's the perfect weeknight dinner.

As the mushrooms and onions simmered in the Marsala wine, the stress of my workday and looming deadlines just absolutely disappeared. It's in those moments that I find the utter pleasure of cooking and feel overwhelmingly satisfied. It's completely different than the times I've spent hours meticulously creating a four course meal for guests- I love the challenge and the concentration that requires. Sometimes I get carried away, trying to make too many intricate dishes and winding up at dinner time exhausted and irritated with sore feet even though the meal came out great. After those instances I always tell myself that it doesn't require 50 ingredients to impress guests.

Delicious simplicity is something I need to strive for more often and this dish is the perfect example. And of course, it contains my favorite mushrooms and onions so it's perfect!

(I adapted this recipe a bit and increased the liquids so that there would be more reduced sauce).

(Adapted from Gourmet June 1995)

3 whole boneless chicken breasts with skin (about 2 1/2 pounds),
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 container crimini or white button mushrooms, sliced thin
1 cup Marsala
2 cup low salt chicken broth
2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley leaves

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a large heavy skillet heat oil and 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and brown chicken in 2 batches, transferring with tongs to a large plate as browned.
Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from skillet and sauté onion and mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until liquid mushrooms give off is evaporated. Add Marsala and cook mixture, stirring, until Marsala is almost evaporated. Add broth and chicken with any juices that have accumulated on plate and simmer, turning chicken once, until cooked through, about 15 minutes. Transfer chicken with tongs to a platter.

Simmer mushroom sauce until liquid is reduced to about 1 cup. Remove skillet from heat and stir in remaining 2 tablespoons butter and salt and pepper to taste, stirring until butter is just incorporated. Spoon mushroom sauce around chicken and sprinkle with parsley.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Akemashite Omedetou.....Again.

Since my husband and I went out of town for New Year's Eve, my parents invited us over this past weekend for Osechi Ryori, the traditional Japanese New Year's meal.

We went over at noon and started with a non-osechi appetizer that was fantastic nonetheless. My mom made a mix of chopped boiled eggs, onions, yogurt and mayonnaise and topped it off with some caviar. Served on top of some buttered toast triangles, it is truly a tantalizing accompaniment to a nice cold glass of champagne.

We sat down at the dining table to an array of lovely and delicious offerings. There were plates filled with salmon sashimi, shime-saba (marinated mackeral- my husband's favorite, and my mom makes the best!), renkon no kimpira (lotus root sauteed with sweet/spicy soy and sesame oil), green beans with goma (sesame) paste, ika sashimi (raw squid) mixed with tarako (salted cod roe), kuri kinton (sweet anko beans and chestnuts) and my mom's world famous chawan muschi (savory egg custard conatining shrimp, fish cakes, chicken and ginko nut). Washed down with some cold sake, it was one fabulous lunch.
Cooking lighter.....

After the breads, cookies, prime ribs, lobster bisques, dips, crackers, spreads, wine and countless pieces of chocolate (and more wine) that permeate the holidays, I knew I had to commit to cooking lighter and more healthful fare to kick off the new year. Don't get me wrong- a lot of our favorite foods are naturally healthy- but after being fed by other people for a couple of weeks during Christams/New Years, I had to get back into the swing of things.

Since I don't usually get home before 6:30 PM, I stuck with simple things. I started documenting our weeknight dinners and I think we are both feeling a bit lighter and more energized. Of course a weekend dinner at a new French bistro in our neighborhood kind of sabotaged a week of the healthy dinners (the frites were absolutely PERFECT) but today is another day.
Sweet potato hash w/ egg + salad
I just boiled one cubed sweet potato and sauteed it with chopped bell peppers, onions, green onions, chopped turkey sausage and BBQ sauce (and lots of white pepper for spice). I like the "breakfast for dinner" idea sometimes. Scrambled egg and a green salad finished the meal.

Tuna patties

Tuna patties, mixed vegetables and balsamic brussel sprouts w/ pancetta.
Canned tuna mixed with chopped red bell pepper, onion, green onion, Italian parsley, good Dijon mustard, a bit of light Kewpie mayonnaise, a small amount of bread crumbs and one egg- sauteed in a hot pan coated with cooking spray. After blanching the brussel sprouts, I rendered one slice of pancetta in a pan and added the sprouts + sliced shallots. Salt, pepper and a splash of balsamic finish the dish and give it some nice carmelization.

Note: none of this is gourmet!! Just quick and easy weeknight dinners that I thought I'd share.

I did make a pear and almond tart for a friend's birthday which I also documented but did not consume. Pear Halves in White Grape Juice sold at Trader Joe's makes this tart SO easy and beautiful. You could poach your own pears, and I have for this recipe, but honestly- these are perfectly juicy and sweet and the color is just perfect.