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Hang Out with Emeril and Rachael Ray at the Beach This Christmas

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"Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook: Recipes and Behind-the-Scenes Stories from America's Hottest Chefs" by Lee Brian Schrager with Julie Mautner (Clarkson Potter, $35)

What's the only thing better than spending the winter holidays lounging on the beach at South Beach, Florida's ritzy sand 'n' surf playground? Perhaps sharing a beach blanket with TV star chefs Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay as you shoot the breeze and sample some of their favorite dishes.

That's pretty much just what the lucky throngs who attend the annual Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival get to do. Next best bet: Read the snazzy compilation cookbook (scrapbook, really, with all its luscious photos of both charismatic food and equally star-wattage chefs) by Lee Brian Schrager — a food and beverage company executive who created the affair — while lounging in a comfy armchair writing a shopping list of ingredients for your next blowout meal.

The fun fare isn't just from Food Network chefs, but lots of celebrities who've written cookbooks (like Marilu Henner) and star hosts on rival networks (like former model Padma Lakshmi, who helms the long-running Bravo hit "Top Chef).

What all these popular folks have in common is that they know that fresh, top-quality food, simply prepared in an easily explainable way is the fastest route to creating memorable culinary fireworks. A few scrumptious standouts:

—- Chicago restaurant-based Chef Carol Wallack says she's been perfecting her easy No Ka Oi burger for years (which means "the best" in Hawaii), and it's definitely worked. Top Wagyu beef gets augmented with onions that have been sweated in bacon fat and sweetened with fresh pineapple juice, those bacon slices, Cambozola cheese and argula leaves before crowning a pretzel bun and being served with out-of-this-world truffle fries.

— The gremolata that marinates Ming Tsai's swordfish kebobs is a fresh and tangy mixture of chopped fresh cilantro, fresh lemon juice, minced garlic, lemongrass and olive oil.

— Even layering various simple elements can show how quick it can all still be. Iron Chef's Cat Cora creates a sassy avocado salsa with lime juice, red onion, fresh cilantro and olive oil. The chunky avocado pieces help make it a wonderful mini sandwich filling, which she then adorns with a split-second mango coulis.

All of these first-class recipes help turn this first-class affair into a truly first-class keepsake.

NO KA OI BURGER

6 onions, julienned

8 slices bacon, cooked, fat reserved

1 cup fresh pineapple juice

2 pounds Wagyu beef (80 percent lean American-style Kobe beef)

4 pretzel buns, split

5 ounces Cambozola cheese

16 arugula leaves

Yields 4 servings.

In a large skillet, sweat the onions in the reserved bacon fat over low heat.

When the onions are half done, add the pineapple juice. Cook until the onions are lightly browned and sugary sweet. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Heat a grill to high. Divide the meat into 4 portions and form them into patties. Cook until medium-rare.

Remove the patties from the grill and place them on the bottom halves of the buns. Divide the cheese among the burgers, then the onions and arugula. Top with the top halves of the buns.

TRUFFLE FRIES

Canola oil or rendered beef fat, for frying

5 Idaho Russet potatoes, cut on a fry cutter and placed in water

(Preferably La Truffiere or Urbani) white truffle oil, to taste

4 ounces freshly ground Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

(Preferably high-quality fine) salt, to taste

Yields 4 servings.

Heat the canola oil in a deep-fat fryer until it read 275 F.

Drain the potatoes and pat them very dry.

Carefully add the potatoes to the fryer and blanch for 1 minute. Remove the potatoes and place them on a baking sheet to cool. Set aside.

Increase the oil temperature to 350 F. Carefully return the fries to the fryer and cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the fries and place them in a mixing bowl.

Place some truffle oil in a spray bottle and spray the fries with the oil. Add the cheese. Sprinkle with the chives and a little salt, toss and serve immediately.

Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." She also writes the Creators News Service "After-Work Gourmet" column. To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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