It's sure not easy keeping kosher. Not with keeping milk separate from meat, as in separate cookware, utensils, bowls and dishes in separate drawers and cabinets, plus two sinks, two disposals, two dishwashers and two ovens (all stainless steel, and blessed by a rabbi).

Even shopping isn't easy. Creatures have to be slaughtered in a prescribed ritual and humane way, with the blood meticulously removed before the flesh is soaked and salted. Eggs must come from kosher birds, and be free of blood spots. This is not your typical stop into Circle K kind of stuff. Never fear, Cactus Kosher is here. Everything in this shop is certified by a rabbi, with traditional staples like gefilte fish, pickles, pastrami, corned beef and deli sandwiches to go. If wishes were knishes, we know where we'd be.

How we celebrate as the Valley slips into fall, and mourn the last days of spring. Not just because blistering summer means we'll no longer be able to touch any surfaces without wearing hot pads, but because summer is the only season we can't spend our Saturdays browsing through the luxury of Vincent's outdoor market.

From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the cooler months, Vincent's black asphalt parking lot is converted to a slice of Provence, with a gorgeous grouping of stalls filled with the freshest local produce, plus imported exotic fruits and designer vegetables. There are warm, crusty breads, buttery croissants, cookies and pastries. We love the imported cheeses, signature dressings, fresh pastas and pestos, herbs de Provence, homemade mustards, wines. Just looking at all the exciting, one-of-a-kind ingredients makes us believe we, too, could be gourmet chefs. But why would we bother firing up the stove, when Vincent Guerithault and his team of skilled artisans are already on the job for us, creating cooked-to-order treats like crepes, tamales and pizzas that we can enjoy while relaxing at umbrella-topped tables right in the market? Vive la Vincent's!

Readers' Choice for Best Farmers' Market: Sprouts

Real fruit, real juice and non-dairy smoothie mix make chilling combinations like strawberry-banana, peanut butter-banana, pineapple-coconut-orange, blueberry-banana, and raspberry-banana. If we need an extra boost, we can add in such healthful stuff as protein powder, carbo powder, lecithin, wheat germ, bee pollen, ginseng, brewer's yeast, spirulina, wheatgrass, creatine, or multi-vitamin powder. In hot months, we gravitate toward slushies (guava strawberry really rocks), or old-fashioned lemonade with lots of ice. When it cools down, we get an extra kick with the Power Energy Squeeze, a trademark blend of ATP and creatine (when put together, we're told, these ingredients race around inside our body's cells to increase our energy level). Whatever the concoction, it all tastes terrific at Surf City.

Readers' Choice: Jamba Juice

Duck and Decanter
Lauren Cusimano
The list of cheeses available at the Duck reads like a phone book, with more than 60 varieties from around the world. We've been stopping in at the place for years, trying different cheeses each time, and have never been able to catalogue all our adventures -- that's how often the cheese whizzes here update their fresh offerings. Every day, it's something surprising and new, like St. Andre, an extravagantly rich triple-cream cheese with a mild, mellow flavor; or the rare l'Explorateur, an incredible triple cream concoction with 75 percent butterfat. Do we know all of the exotic cheeses? Of course not. We just rely on the Duck's experts, and vow to sample them all.
Many chefs test their creativity on appetizers. ItÕs less risky to get wild with small-portioned dishes, and diners feel more comfortable sampling an exotic plate thatÕs not entree-priced. Chef Gregory Casale is a perfect case in point. WeÕve never seen such fantasy at any other fancy restaurant, with compelling, perhaps a bit crazy, choices like Southern fried frogsÕ legs over leek-tomato fondue with black-eyed peas. Starters are also where Casale lets loose with dynamite delicacies such as Thai lobster bisque with kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and Thai crayfish cake; hazelnut-encrusted veal sweetbreads over truffle-scented pea risotto in roasted corn broth; and beef tartare with spicy soy vinaigrette and cold sesame noodles. With starters like these, we know our meal is going to come to a most exquisite finish.

The fact that Michael DeMaria is a spectacular chef is reason enough to choose him to cater your next intimate party. The fact that he was trained at some of the Valley's best resorts makes him perfect for large corporate events, too. He handles each occasion with excitement and ease. DeMaria does on-premises catering in his high-tech kitchen studio adjacent to his elegant restaurant (12 to 17 guests) where diners watch the chef in action with Q&A sessions and take-home recipes. Or, you can relax at the Chef's Table (6 to 10), with multiple courses paired with wines. Larger groups of 20 to 60 can take over the private dining room, with glowing fireplaces and views of a pond-strewn garden, or one of the patios (12 to 60), with desert trees, adobe walls, a cascading waterfall and mesquite-burning fireplaces.

For catering at your own location, DeMaria's team arrives equipped for a memorable full-service wedding, private cooking in our own home, party at the property of our choice, and even backyard barbecues and picnics. The dining choice is yours, with tasting menus, custom menus, multi-course services and more, selected from an encompassing arsenal of contemporary, American and Mediterranean specialties. Better yet, let the remarkable DeMaria choose the menu.

Barmouche may be a fancy-looking restaurant, owned by a big-name celebrity chef (Mark Tarbell). It may have upscale dishes like "laitue," organic butter lettuce with Roquefort cheese and walnut dressing. But we go there for the things that everybody loves and understands -- mom's home cooking. Tuesdays through Saturdays, there are Blue Plate Specials (chicken fried steak, spaghetti and meatballs, fish and chips). Every day, there are the cozy basics, like "Mark's Mom's Mac & Cheese," biscuits and country gravy, or baked veal meat loaf. Desserts can't be missed -- chocolate banana bread pudding, ice cream sandwiches, an old-fashioned banana split and peach cobbler hit the spot. Not only cozy, though, this comfort cuisine is gourmet, prepared with loving care and the best ingredients (that cobbler gets its fruit from the local farms of Queen Creek, so we know it's fresh). It's the best of two worlds -- like mother's cooking, if we had grown up in the house of Julia Child.
Cyclo Vietnamese Cuisine Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti
Cyclo's owner, Justina Duong, loves to chat with her guests. One of her favorite stories to tell is about her chicken noodle soup, a classic comfort food she used to consume by the bucket as a child. It's one of the best sellers on her menu.

Except Duong is Vietnamese, her restaurant is Vietnamese, and her chicken noodle soup is Vietnamese, a dish called mien ga. We assure you, though, this is food that spans any culture. The chicken is tender breast, torn in toothsome shards and grilled. The noodles are delicate, opaque glass variety. The broth is aromatic brew, puffing steam, bobbing with chopped green onions, tears of pungent cilantro leaves and bean sprouts, plus a splash of fermented fish sauce and lime.

The bowl is huge, almost too much to finish, but so captivating that somehow, we always find the room. And at just $5, it's as comforting to our budget as it is to our soul.

We are so pleased to have found exquisite tortilla soup served at a most unlikely place: a restaurant inside the out-of-the-way Fiesta Inn resort at Priest and Broadway. It's a business hotel, a very nice one, but tucked on the edge of an industrial park. That's right, this is the best Mexican recipe we've come across. The rich broth is almost a stew, so packed is it with chicken, onion, bell peppers and chiles (spicy hot!), and capped with lots of fresh avocado, Cheddar and blue-red tortilla frizzles. It's robust, soothing, exciting and in all ways excellent. Way to olé, Fiesta Inn!

Zinc Bistro
David Holden
Zinc could send out merely decent smoked salmon. Lesser quality fish could be hidden when wrapped in such perfect, pillowy crepes as it is here, the feather light batter infused with fresh herbs. Less succulent fish might be forgiven, when dipped in such rich lemon crème fraîche created by Zinc's chefs. Even only okay fish might seem fine when partnered with the most garden-gorgeous shaved cucumber, red onion slivers and aromatic, peppery arugula, hand-picked to best the best of the day. Yet Zinc takes its salmon to a pristine level, smoking only the finest swimmers in-house and presenting it in eyelash-thin ribbons. Silky, succulent, melt-in-the-mouth wonderful, this is the fish of our wishes.

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