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Red Storm Rising: The Sauce vs. Gravy Debate

persnick-tomatoes

It is safer to talk politics and religion than to refer to your tomato-based pasta topping by the wrong name in New Jersey. There is no Mason-Dixon Line of gravy/sauce demarcation. The terminology is family/tradition based, transcending geography and even ethnicity. The best explanation I have received states that when it is made with meat it is gravy, without meat it is marinara sauce. This definition does not often satisfy the wooden spoon wielding legions on either side of this fracas. For the record, I am in the “sauce” camp. That is what it was called where I grew up in Central Jersey, even by most of the Italian families. More important and contentious than the name debate, is the debate over the proper ingredients and technique that should be used when make sauce/gravy. The following are my views on sauce making Dos and Don’ts.

“Only fresh tomatoes should be used.” This restrictive dogma would only permit us to enjoy sauce for about six weeks of the year. You can, of course, buy bushels of Roma or plum tomatoes during the peak of the growing season and blanch, skin, and can them yourself for use throughout the rest of the year. Those of us who aren’t masochistic overachievers just buy good quality canned tomatoes. I look for the Jersey Fresh label because everyone knows the Garden State is blessed with the best tomato growing soil on earth. Whole peeled canned tomatoes will yield the best textured sauce without having to reach for the can of tomato paste.

“If your tomato sauce is too acidic, add some sugar.” Save the white sugar for your breakfast cereal or cappuccino. There are better ways to balance your sauce than using the evil sweetener of the industrialized world. Grate a carrot into your onions and garlic while sweating them. This will add natural sugars and depth of flavor to your sauce. Add a splash or three of red wine. If you cook like I do, there will be an open bottle close by.

“Tomato sauce has to cook for half a day to be any good.” Types of tomato sauce in Italy are as abundant as beautiful women there. The infamous putanesca sauce is not the oldest in Italy but was created by the oldest profession. Commerce cannot be slowed by long simmering sauces. Pomodoro is a quick fresh sauce that exploits the virtues of fresh tomatoes when they are at their peak.

Every cook and family has their own rules and traditions for the perfect sauce. Some use basil or oregano, some both, others neither. With herbs dried are fine for long simmering sauces. If using fresh, add just before serving so their bouquet and aroma can be appreciated. Watch the video this month for a quick easy pomodoro style sauce that takes advantage of the now abundant local tomatoes which will disappear too soon. I look forward to hearing your feedback on your sauce tips and why I am wrong to call it sauce. Until next month, Buono Appetitoend

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Persnickety’s Pomodoro

  • 10-12 large Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped
  • 5-7 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 bottle red wine — splash for the sauce (the rest to drink while cooking)
  • Salt to taste
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • 12-14 large basil leaves, cut chiffonade.
  • 1 loaf crusty bread to dip in sauce to check flavor and consistency
  1. Heat stainless steel or non aluminum pan over medium heat.
  2. Add half the oil. When you can smell the olive oil aroma, add garlic.
  3. Sweat stirring often. You want to soften the garlic. Brown garlic is bitter garlic.
  4. Add pepper flakes, wine and tomatoes. Simmer on low heat 10-15 minutes.
  5. Taste sauce with chunks of bread. Tear don’t slice. It tastes better that way.
  6. Puree with immersion blender. Short pulses for a chunky, rustic sauce; longer for a smoother sauce.
  7. Add basil and remaining olive oil. Toss pasta with sauce.
  8. Serve with fresh grated parmesan, Grana padano or pecorino Romano cheese.

Time to Get Sauced

timetogetsuaced

Sauce making is not an art form. Art relies on inspiration to come to fruition. If diners waited for chefs to be inspired to create sauces, there would be a lot of dry food and hungry patrons. Sauce making is craftsmanship. A craftsman learns to utilize his tools, materials and skills to create a superior product. Art is admired from a distance. The product of a craftsman is utilized and enjoyed by the consumer. Craftsmanship can be learned. So can building great sauces.

The function of a sauce is to elevate and enhance the focal point of a meal. Some sauces are painstakingly built over hours and even days. These sauces are the pinnacle of the saucier craft. They require time and patience, two ingredients often in short supply for the home cook with a hungry family that wants to eat ten minutes ago. Good, even great sauces are within reach of the home cook. The place to begin to learn the craft of sauce making is at the bottom of the pan. The humble pan sauce is quick, easy and delicious.

The key qualities of a sauce are flavor, appearance and texture. The building blocks to achieve these goals are a flavorful liquid, aromatics and a thickening agent. Pan sauces provide the cook with an added flavor tool, deglazing. Searing and roasting proteins creates a caramelized exterior to the product yielding the yum factor which provides the bulk of flavor to the dish. This flavor is also left behind in the pan this can be incorporated into your sauce by deglazing with a liquid. This liquid is often wine or booze but can also be stock or even water. This is then reduced to fortify the flavors and thicken the sauce.

Enough of the theoretical jargon, we will walk through the basic pan sauce. Follow these steps and you can create a multitude of dishes by simply varying the ingredients.

  1. To make Scallops with a Mushroom-thyme Cream Sauce, dry the protein. Moisture is the enemy of browning.
  2. Get your pan hot and have all your ingredients close by. This is going to happen fast.
  3. Add oil to hot pan.
  4. Sear protein until brown on both sides and remove. Don’t worry about cooking the item thoroughly. It can be finished in the oven or returned to the sauce to finish.
  5. Add mushrooms, shallots and garlic.
  6. Move pan or stir to cook items quickly and avoid burning.
  7. Add sherry or white wine and reduce until most of the liquid is gone.
  8. Add cream and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.
  9. Finish with fresh herbs like thyme or tarragon.
  10. Add the scallops back in to warm.
  11. Taste the sauce. Adjust seasonings and serve.

Don’t like scallops? Use shrimp, chicken or veal. Don’t want a heavy cream sauce during swimsuit season? Use stock or even carrot juice. The ingredients can be varied to suit your own tastes, the technique for building the sauce never varies. That is the mark of a good craftsman.

Enjoy this month’s video and recipe for creating a pan sauce. Look forward to hearing about the dishes you create utilizing this template. end

Scallops with Sherry-Mushroom Cream Sauce

(Serves 2)

  • 10 large scallops
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 Tbsp chopped tarragon
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup cream
  • ¼ cup sherry
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Heat large sauté pan over medium high heat.
  2. Add oil. Let come to temperature.
  3. Brown scallops 4-5 minutes per side remove.
  4. Add mushrooms, shallots and garlic. Cook until softened.
  5. Deglaze with sherry. Reduce liquid by two thirds.
  6. Add cream. Reduce by half.
  7. Add tarragon, salt and pepper.
  8. Add scallops back into sauce. Warm and serve.

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Grill of my dreams

persnick-grill

The voices have started again. It happens annually. Starting as whisper then progressing to a deafening crescendo that awakens me from my winter food slumber. The steady diet of braises, stews and starches, that carried me through the chilly and damp off-season at the shore, have weighed heavily on my body, soul and palate. From the depths of a beef and burgundy burdened Dutch oven the simmering sauce whispers, “If you grill it they will come.” A Man needs his grill to be complete. Men love to grill. It is deeply encrypted in our DNA right alongside the belching and scratching genes. Give a man an open fire and a pair of tongs and he thinks he is an Iron Chef. It is a shame so many get it wrong. Grilling should never involve lighter fluid or the fire department. If a coroner’s inquest is required to identify your supper you are cremating not grilling.

Grilling is not all about high heat, red meat and syrupy sweet barbecue sauce. Down at the shore we know that seafood and the grill are a perfect union. Most fish and shellfish can be grilled successfully without long preparation or cooking times. Marinades for grilled fish serve a different purpose than for meat. There is no need to tenderize most fish. Overexposure of fish proteins to acidic marinades will actually toughen the product. Shellfish like shrimp and scallops are particularly vulnerable. The main function is to add flavor and fat so the product doesn’t stick to the grill.

The flavor of grilled foods is unique. Charcoal and wood add to that sensation. The aromas stimulate our senses with that mix of fire, smoke and caramelizing proteins. Most anything can be grilled with the right technique – even flaky fish like flounder or tilapia. The French have been cooking food in paper pouches for centuries providing moist flavorful food that steams and creates its own sauce. This technique doesn’t translate well to open grills but American grillers are an innovative bunch and have pragmatically adapted the technique with that icon of industrialization aluminum foil. The foil packet allows us to grill our food and create sauces at the same time.

The versatility of the grill is part of its charm. You can cook low and slow or fast and furious. Most of the flavor is provided by the fire itself. Before convection ovens and microwaves took over our kitchens and lives humanity grilled. As grilling season commences expand your grilling repertoire with seafood. You don’t need to buy special grill pans or baskets don’t turn to Williams and Sonoma. Turn to Reynolds. Listen to the voices. It is time to grill. Enjoy these recipes for Mojo Shrimp and Sweet Chili Fish in Foil. cape may dog friendly beaches

Mojo Shrimp

  • 2 lbs shrimp
  • 3 heads garlic, peeled
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 cups sour orange juice
  • (In a pinch, use two parts orange to one part lime juice)
  • 1 cup minced onion
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1 bunch scallions chopped
  • 1 cup Spanish olive oil
  1. Mix all ingredients in blender until smooth. (This is garlicky. If you are having a romantic evening or if you are a vampire, it is ok to back off on the garlic. Many Cubans have told me that my version needs more garlic.)
  2. Toss 2 lbs of peeled and deveined shrimp with just enough marinade to coat.
  3. Marinate 20 minutes then grill over medium heat.
  4. Serve with black beans and rice.
  5. Use reserved marinade as a dipping sauce.
  6. This marinade also works well with chicken wings.

Sweet Chili Fish in Foil

(Serves 4)

  • 4 7×9 pieces aluminum foil
  • 4 fish fillets one-half inch thick (salmon, sword fish, even tilapia* will work)
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 8 lime slices
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • ½ cup thai sweet chili sauce
  • 2 tsps minced ginger
  • 8 mint leaves
  • Oil
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Lightly oil the shiny side of the foil.
  2. Place fillets skin side down.
  3. Arrange 2 lime slices and 2 mint leaves on top of each fillet.
  4. Whisk together remaining ingredients.
  5. Fold up sides and ends of foil then pour coconut milk mixture over shrimp. Foil to form tight seal.
  6. Place on grill over medium heat. Shut lid of grill.
  7. Drink beer/wine/cocktail check in 12-15 minutes. (With thinner fish, adjust the cooking time.)
  8. Serve with steamed jasmine rice or cous-cous.

Pulling Mussels from a Shell

mussels

I never understand why some foods are more popular than others. Mussels are the black sheep of the shellfish world. Inexpensive to buy and simple to prepare, mussels are shunned by the public more readily than an Amish teenager with body piercings and a sports car. Lacking the sex appeal of oysters and not as boldly flavored as clams, mussels need some muscle in the P.R. department.

No shucking required. Mussels, unlike oysters and clams, don’t exact a blood sacrifice on behalf of the kitchen staff. Cleaning mussels only requires the ability to yank the “beard” which doesn’t take a whole lot of effort. There is no strenuous activity needed on the part of the diner in eating mussels, unlike crab or lobster and they pair well with beer or wine.

The best quality mussels come from cold water sources. The black shell varietal that hail from Prince Edward Island and are marketed by the brand name PEI mussels are my personal favorites. This Canadian province harvests some amazing seafood. The line grown mussels are a shining example of sustainable aquaculture. Mussels are also high in protein and low in fat in cholesterol in comparison to other shellfish. As a chef this makes me feel better about adding cream and butter to my mussel dishes.

mussels2

All a cook needs to make a tasty mussel dish is a deep sauté pan with a tight fitting lid. Armed with these tools, mussels can be transformed into a vast array of dishes by utilizing the same basic technique and varying the aromatic ingredients you choose to add. The mussels will steam releasing their nectar gleaned from the sea laying the foundation for your sauce.

Heat your pan over high heat, and then choose your sautéing fat. Most of the time I opt for olive oil, rendered bacon however is always a close second. Next you are going to add your vegetables, onions, leeks, shallots, carrots, fennel or a combination of all the above. Lower the heat slightly. The goal is to draw out the flavors from the vegetables to accent your sauce. Now it is time for seasoning. Garlic, red pepper flakes, thyme, mustard, red or green curry paste. Sweat these aromatics out and let the flavors fill the air. Toss in your clean mussels and some liquid, such as beer, wine, coconut milk or your favorite red sauce. Cover and wait. Luckily you won’t have to wait long since the aromas will have you salivating.

After about 8-10 minutes, peek to see if all the shells have opened relinquishing their treasures. At this stage a finishing technique such as whipping in chunks of whole butter or splashes of heavy cream can be applied for those who crave rich and decadent flavors. For some extra panache, squeeze a fresh lemon and add chopped fresh herbs into the sauce. Ladle the mussels and sauce into bowls, slice some crusty bread to sop up the sauce and enjoy. Watch the video for a basic mussel preparation. I look forward to hearing about your variations and experimentations. Until next month, Bon Appétit.

Mussels in Wine Sauce

  • 2 lbs Prince Edward Island (PEI) mussels, scrubbed
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 3 tomatoes diced
  • 1 bunch scallions diced
  • 3 Tbsp. butter
  • Kosher Salt and pepper
  1. Heat large sauté pan over medium heat. Add oil. Sweat onions over medium heat 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add garlic, tomatoes and mussels.
  3. Add wine. Cover. Steam 7-8 minutes.
  4. Add scallions and parsley.
  5. Whisk in butter season and serve.

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Oyster Stew: Simply Sinful

oysterstew

Some foods are just easier to work with than others. The flavors and textures are so perfectly created by nature that the chef’s main job is to not screw it up. The oyster is a prime example –delicate in texture yet brimming with the saltiness of the sea and an earthy mineral flavor. The oyster needs little adornment, save for lemon, hot sauce and horseradish. Still chefs with our arrogance and conceit, part of our charm, think we can improve upon nature. With experience and seasoning in the kitchen, the good chefs learn to restrain this impulse and let good ingredients shine. Sometimes simple can be more powerful than an arsenal of spices and heavy handed techniques.

Oyster Stew is one such dish. I first experienced this nectar of the ocean in my grandmother’s kitchen. Her cooking was peppered with the simplicity and frugality of someone who had lived through the Great Depression and wartime rationing. In a saucepan that had aged less gracefully than its master, she would methodically render the ends of bacon. The center pieces were always saved for the breakfast table. After draining some, but not all the fat, into the always present can on the counter, she would add the onion. Here I would be reminded to gently let it soften being sure not to let it brown. As the kitchen filled with scents of smoky bacon and sweet onion, the oysters would appear. Plump and freshly procured from Gaskin’s market the whole pint, liquor and all, would hit the pan with a sizzle. The next step was executed with perfect precision only when the edges of the oyster had begun to retreat and curl would the cream be added. As the pot started to bubble, salt and pepper would be added. The finishing touch was butter, from the cupboard never the icebox, the golden gobs would slowly melt into the creamy foam.

oysterstew2

Pronounced perfect, she would ladle it into a bowl and serve it to her best friend, my grandfather. A smile of anticipation appeared as quickly as the bag of Trenton Oyster Crackers. These round hard biscuits seemed inedible on their own but my grandfather would crush two together in his hand and let the broken pieces fall into the stew, then he would savor every spoonful.

When I was finally allowed to partake of this dish, the flavor was ethereal. Straightforward and with no nonsense or adornment much like the woman who made it. Enjoy my re-creation of this simple dish. Until next month, Bon Appétit.

Oyster Stew

(Yields 2 man-sized portions)

  • 6 slices bacon, diced
  • ½ pint oysters with liquor
  • ½ an onion, minced
  • 1 pint cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  1. In sauce pan render bacon at medium heat.
  2. Add onions. Cook until softened.
  3. Add oysters and liquor. Cook until oyster edges curl.
  4. Add cream. Bring to boil. Reduce to simmer.
  5. Season with salt and pepper
  6. Dot stew with butter. Let melt. Serve immediately.

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The Crab Cake Doctrine

crabcake-header

The Pacific Northwest has their salmon. New England has their lobster. In the Mid-Atlantic States we tend to be a little crabby. For the truly crabby, only Blue Claw Crabs will do. Don’t waste your breath talking Dungeness, King or Stone. In these parts we know what we want and it is Blue Claw Crabs. Steamed and tossed on a picnic table garnished with cases of beer and sweet corn, swimming in cream and vegetables in a soup or methodically manipulated into a patty, we enjoy our Blue Crabs. The last variation may be the most popular. Making a great crab cake is a badge of honor that chefs and cooks wear proudly. Sadly, many crab cakes miss the boat on achieving greatness. What makes a superior crab cake?

In my, not so humble, opinion, the key to success is honoring the main ingredient. Too many chefs contaminate their cakes with ingredients that mask the delicate flavor of crabmeat rather than enhance. Green and red peppers are an abomination. Green peppers add a bitterness that disrupts the palate. Red peppers can be used in a sauce or relish with the crab cake, but need to be put in their place. They are a supporting player not the star. Scallions and chopped parsley are okay adding contrast without overpowering. Mince or chop secondary ingredients finely, the only large chunks you want in a crab cake are the sweet nuggets of jumbo lump crabmeat. That leads to the next key to success, mixing.

When buying crabmeat – the bigger the lumps of crab, the bigger the flavor and the bigger the hit to your wallet. The most common and unforgivable crustacean crime is turning jumbo lumps into crab sawdust. Fold your binding ingredients GENTLY into the crabmeat. Use your hands carefully turning the crab into the liquid mixture as you pour. The binding ingredient should be added next. This ingredient has only one function: to hold the jewels of crab in place. Many chefs over think this step and try to add a kitschy item like pretzels or potato chips as a binder. Keep it simple. I prefer panko bread crumbs for their neutral flavor. Crustless bread cubes will also do the job and blend into the background leaving the crab flavor at center stage. Mix your binder into the liquid ingredients and let sit for a few minutes for the best results. When adding seasonings, remember less is more. Some crab cakes have sent me into an old bay induced coma. This spice mixture should be used sparingly.

I prefer to griddle or pan fry my crab cakes since they aren’t cloaked in breadcrumbs as opposed to deep frying.

Good chefs know when to let the ingredients speak for themselves. Creativity in crab cakes is best saved for sauces and accompaniments. With crabmeat costing close to $25 a pound, I want my crab cakes to taste like sweet east coast Blue Claw Crab.

Enjoy my award-winning crab cake recipe and video (not award winning, but helpful and informative all the same) Until next month, Bon Appétitcape may dog friendly beaches

Persnickety Chef’s Award-winning Crab Cake Recipe

  • 1 pound jumbo lump crab
  • 1 bunch scallions, minced
  • 2 Tbsp minced parsley
  • 1 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup mayo
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • Salt, pepper
  • 2 Tbsp whole grain mustard
  1. Mix all ingredients gently.
  2. Let mixture rest 30 minutes.
  3. Pan fry by heating sauté pan. Add oil to lightly coat pan. Cook 4-5 minutes per side.

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The Persnickety Chef: That’s Amore

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s amore.

  As the above lyrics prove, the connection between love and food has long been understood, even going back to ancient times Many foods have the reputation of being aphrodisiacs. Some gained their notoriety due to their shape or appearance such as asparagus and artichokes.  Other foods have legendary reputations as aphrodisiacs such as oysters. The Italian lover Casanova consumed 50 oysters every morning for breakfast. Now that’s Amore.

   Scientific research is inconclusive on whether oysters are really an aphrodisiac, but their reputation may be more influential than the science behind the legend. Oysters are high in zinc, which reportedly increases the male libido.

   Champagne & strawberries have been rumored to arouse passion in the fairer sex and most definitely add an aura of romance to an evening for two. Cacao and its offspring, chocolate have long been associated with passion and romance and were used in ancient Aztec fertility ceremonies.

   So what does this mean for the guy who wants to impress the lady in his life on Valentines Day? This information may lead one to believe that combining several of these ingredients would be a major turn on.  Be careful. I doubt chocolate covered oysters or asparagus would stimulate anything but indigestion. Even if you don’t think you can cook, you can conjure up a meal that will make her melt like a Hershey Bar on a hot summer day.

   First set the mood and the table. A bouquet of flowers is a good place to start. Multi-colored roses make for a lively table.  Candles will allow you to keep the lights low so she can’t see the chaos in the kitchen. Important note: Do Not Use scented candles around food. It takes away from the sensuality of the meal.

   Have wine glasses on the table. Greet her at the door with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine (Champagne, strictly speaking, only comes from the Champagne region of France. There are plenty of good sparkling whites and even rosés available.)

   Rim the glass with a fresh strawberry. Bite the berry, then sip the champagne for a sensory overload experience.

   Have soft music in the background.

   For a simple first course, oysters on the half shell are nice. If you are ambitious, try Poached Oysters in Champagne Cream over Wilted Spinach. Follow this with a simple salad. All varieties of mixed greens can be found in any supermarket. Elevate with some grilled lobster, sliced mangoes and a lemon chive vinaigrette. Or go classic winter with some dried cranberries, crumbled goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. Lightly toss the salad in the dressing. Pile it in the center of the plate and fan the sliced lobster tail around.

   Next serve a sorbet. HINT: Häagen Dazs has several varieties of sorbets available in stores. Pick her favorite flavor. Serve in a champagne glass and top with a splash of champagne and a mint leaf. For the adventuresome, pick lemon sorbet and cut a base off the lemon so it sits flat on a plate and cut off the top ¼ way down hollow and fill with sorbet top with mint leaf.

   For the entrée, Filet Mignon is always a winner (if you are married to or dating a vegetarian, my condolences.)  Try it with a Cabernet and Oyster Sauce Artichoke, Potato Hash and Roasted Asparagus and Tomatoes.

   And now for the big finish. If you are gun shy about tackling dessert, go to a bakery and pick an assortment of dessert miniatures. Serve with fresh berries. Chocolate is always a good place to start. For a simple homemade ending, try Chocolate soup with Fresh Raspberries and Marscapone. Yes, it sounds weird, but think of it as adult hot chocolate. The liqueurs in it will add some more warmth to the evening.

   Take a risk. Cook her a meal she will remember. A man who can cook can turn a women on. If you want to excite her even more, clean up and take out the trash. Until next month, bon appétit.


Oysters in Champagne Sauce for Two

  • 6 Large shucked oysters save and clean shell
  • 1 Shallot minced
  • 3 Tablespoons butter
  • ½ Cup champagne
  • ½ Cup cream
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh chives
  • 2 Cups spinach cleaned and rough chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Squeeze of fresh lemon

In sauté pan, melt butter. Sweat shallots until soft. Add champagne. Reduce by ½. Add oysters. Cook 2 minutes. Remove oysters. Add cream. Reduce over medium heat until sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper and lemon. Finish with chives. In separate pan melt remaining butter and wilt spinach. Season with squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper. Place spinach in oyster shell. Top with oysters. Drizzle with sauce.

Chocolate Soup

  • 1 Cup milk
  • 1 Cup heavy cream
  • 1 Cup milk chocolate chips
  • ¼ Cup kahlua
  • 6 Tablespoons mascarpone cheese
  • 1 Tablespoon honey

In saucepan, heat milk and cream. Add chocolate. Whisk over medium heat until smooth. Add liqueur. In a separate bowl mix the mascarpone cheese and honey until smooth. Pour soup in bowl. Place dollop of mascarpone and honey mix. Sprinkle with fresh raspberries.