Happy Birthday to Me

March 5, 2012 § 3 Comments

Though I had been toying with the idea for a little while, the final decision to host a dinner party on my birthday weekend was made only hours before the event itself.  I had not thrown a party in a while, and I considered the menu planning and grocery shopping a gift to myself.

Had I made this decision a day beforehand, I might have tried out the cassoulet recipe in The NY Times magazine last Sunday.  It’s still chilly enough in the Northeast to make the idea of a cassoulet party very appealing.  And it’s been something I wanted to try – such a project.  Bean-soaking, confit-making, in addition to providing another opportunity for me to confront my lamb issues.  But it may just have to wait until next winter.  Instead, I built the menu around a recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, something called a sweet-salty potato far.  It involves grated potato, raisins, prunes, and a crepe-like batter.  (Oh, I can just hear the groans of raisin detractors far and near!)  Dorie’s description, and its Breton roots captured my imagination.  The infinitely more common version of the recipe is the traditional far breton, a clafoutis-type dessert, studded with prunes.

Now that I had decided on potatoes, beef was not far behind.  A few backward turns of the pages, and there it was, Dorie’s beef daube, calling for carrots and parsnips.  An arugula and endive salad (surprised?) would round things out.  And dessert?  It was a toss-up between two custard recipes from this week’s dining section of The NY Times.  Baked Tapioca Pudding with Cinnamon Sugar Brûlée or Chocolate Pistachio Pots de Crème?  The salty/sweet idea won out.  And don’t birthdays just about demand a little bit of dark chocolate anyway?

Since it was to be a birthday celebration, I also wanted something festive to begin the evening, something other than our usual olives and cheese.  Since I clearly had a French theme at work, I chose gougères and Kirs.  Gougères are essentially cheese puffs, and the Kir is a popular French aperitif, made of white wine with a splash of crème de cassis.

List in hand, at 3 p.m. I headed to the grocery store.  Though a very late bedtime the night before was beginning to catch up with me as I drove to the store, I felt my energy grow and my anticipation build as my cart began to fill.  There is something I simply love about carefully selecting each shallot, looking over the different chuck roasts, deciding which extra-bittersweet chocolate to use, and seeing these ingredients assembled together in my shopping basket, imagining how they will leave their packaging or have their skins peeled away, be melted or chopped, stirred or seared, and become something altogether other.

Provisions procured, the cooking began in earnest, since the daube was going to require 2 1/2 hours in the oven.  As I began cutting the roast into large chunks, my sous-chef (aka my sister) began the browning process – of both bacon and beef.

Somehow I always underestimate the time it takes to properly brown 3 1/2 pounds of cubed beef.  We would have been eating at midnight if my sister had not been available (and willing!) to assist.  But thankfully she was both, and I moved on to the other tasks.  Carrots and parsnips were pared and chopped, onions, shallots, and garlic skinned and sliced.  Next up, the gougères – our guest were due shortly!

Gruyère is traditionally used for these puffs, but in a nod to the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, I used an Irish farmhouse cheddar.  Once the cheese is shredded, these whip up in a matter of moments.  Some very brief melting and stirring on the stove, and then eggs are beaten into the batter (it’s a basic pâte à choux – water, milk, butter, flour, eggs),

followed by a goodly amount of shredded cheese.  Spoon tablespoons onto a baking sheet,

and about 30 minutes later you will offer your guests the airiest bit of cheesy loveliness ever.

The potato far is rather fun to make.  First some thick batons of bacon are browned.  Next, an easy batter is whipped up (milk, eggs) and shredded potato, a cup of raisins, and some halved prunes are folded in.  It’s poured into a buttered deep pie dish, studded with more butter, and baked.  The end result is certainly more rustic than sophisticated, but all agreed it makes an excellent partner for a saucy beef stew.

Finally, the pots de creme.  Once again I was measuring milk and cracking eggs, to which I then added a mixture of ground pistachios, flour, and sugar.  Thinking about the salty-sweet relationship, I had opted for roasted, salted pistachios.  Not sure this is what Melissa Clark had in mind, as The Times recipe didn’t specify.  Next time around – and there will be a next time – I will go with unsalted nuts and I will cut down on the sugar, as I think both ends of the spectrum were a little too intense.  One of my guests commented that the dessert was almost like chocolate fudge, and in my book, that’s not a good thing – too sweet.  I had used extra-bitter dark chocolate (72% cocoa), but the additional sugar in the recipe took things a little too far for my taste, as did the pre-salted pistachios.   The freshly whipped cream (no sugar added) did help to balance things out.

All in all, the dinner was a terrific success, and a great deal of fun.  The only thing that could have improved it, and would have immeasurably, would have been the presence of several super special guests who, due to reasons varied but unalterable, could join us only in spirit.  Maybe they’ll be the beneficiaries of the cassoulet and baked tapioca next year . . .

Pre-Dinner Brussels Sprouts

February 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

On a recent evening, as my sister and I surveyed my mother’s cabinets for the makings of pre-dinner hors d’oeurves to accompany pre-dinner drinks, Greta piped up with an offer to roast some brussels sprouts.  Hmmm, brussels sprouts for cocktail hour . . . well, sure, why not?  Thanks, Greta!

And so Greta set about paring and chopping, tossing, salting and peppering.

Twenty-five minutes of roasting passed, during which guests arrived, drinks were poured, and soon the brussels sprouts were pulled from the oven.  The individual leaves that had separated from the main sprouts had crisped into salty little chips, which Greta ate while she poured the larger pieces into a serving dish.

Roasted brussels sprouts as an aperitif accompaniment would never have occurred to me, but all present agreed it was a stroke of genius.  Greta appears to be on a roll . . .

My Daughters, the Sous-Chefs

February 16, 2012 § 5 Comments

Leslie Kaufman’s recent NY Times article, “My Sons, the Sous-Chefs”, is inspirational.  It describes the results of an experiment, now in its 6-month, requiring each of her sons, ages 14 and 10, to cook dinner for the family once a week.  They must decide what they will prepare ahead of time, to allow for mom’s yay or nay (the menu must be balanced, fairly healthful) and the requisite grocery shopping.  Much has been learned by all involved.  Mom has learned to curb her kitchen-control and I-can-do-it-quicker impulses, and the boys have learned about planning and experienced the pride and satisfaction that comes from seeing your loved ones enjoy a meal of your making.

I mentioned this article to my girls and their response was, “When can we start!”  Since I don’t get home until close to 7 most evenings, I realized that this was not something that could work for us, at this point, on weeknights, since an adult needs to be nearby.  But if we aimed for weekend cooking, either for a weekend meal or something that could be prepared and reheated for a weeknight dinner, we could be in business.   And so we began!

Greta poked around the kitchen, asked a few questions, and for our Sunday night dinner decided to use the ingredients we had in the house.   She found a couple of marinated chicken breasts, carrots, a red pepper, and brussels sprouts in the fridge.  In the cabinet, jasmine rice.  In the freezer, chocolate ice cream.  On the baking rack, bananas.  She had a plan.

Reading the Sunday paper in the living room, I was close by to offer frequent reminders about the importance of proper knife technique (trimming of brussels sprouts, chopping of carrots and peppers), instruct on oven operation, and suggest that the rice be covered for its 20 minutes of steaming.

Sometime later, Greta appeared to take drink orders from me and her sister and announce that it was time for us to be seated.  And what next?  A perfectly plated bowl of pepper and carrot-studded rice, encircled with halved roasted brussels sprouts, topped with sliced roasted chicken breasts, and garnished with a flower of kale!  How proud Greta was as she told us that she had added a touch of cumin to the chicken to spice it up a bit.  And it is not simply a mother’s pride speaking when I tell you this was a fabulous dinner!  But this wasn’t the end of it. . . as we tuned into Downton Abbey, Greta set down bowls of chocolate ice cream, topped with sliced bananas and a sprinkling of pink sugar.

The girl has a knack.

If You’re Not Makin’ Whoopee . . .

February 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

How about makin’ whoopie pies instead!

Seeing the delight on the faces of the loved ones who are the fortunate recipients of these all-grown-up Devil Dogs will bring its own special satisfaction.  I used a 2003 Gourmet recipe, and so should you.

Dinner with Jean

February 12, 2012 § 5 Comments

There is much to enjoy about Downton Abbey, but Violet, aka Dowager Countess of Grantham, as portrayed by Maggie Smith, is the creme de la creme.  Which is what led me to rent The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for a recent movie-watching evening with “my gerls”  (can’t you hear Miss Brodie and her Scottish accent now?)  To the enormous pleasure of spending an evening in the company of the romantic and passionate Miss Brodie, we added the pleasures of rib-eye steak, pommes dauphinois and Toutoune’s Winter Salad.

The rib eye preparation was straight-forward – salt and pepper and a few minutes under the broiler – accompanied by a slew of sauteed onions and mushrooms.

While the steak was sitting for a few minutes, I dressed the salad, which I had discovered in Patricia Wells‘s At Home in Provence.  When I read her introductory sentence, “I think of this salad as a winter vitamin pill – all crunchy, healthy, wholesome”, I knew it was exactly what we needed to provide some balance to the rest of our meal.  Match-sticked endive and Granny Smith apples are tossed with a dressing of lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a few tablespoons of heavy cream.

But the foundation around which this meal was built, was the pommes dauphinois, which my girls have been agitating for on a regular basis since they first encountered it on New Year’s Eve 2010.  I use Julia Child’ recipe, from volume 1 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Thinly sliced potates are layered in a garlic-rubbed and buttered casserole dish, each layer sprinkled with Gruyere, salt and pepper, and dotted with butter, and then doused with a cup of boiling whole milk.  Bake until bubbly, golden, and tender, and then attempt to get your children to eat something other than a plateful of potato!

Bisquick Be Gone

January 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

My mom is a fabulous cook.

I just wanted to put that out there before telling you that the pancakes of my youth involved Bisquick.  My mom is on her way to Florida right now, else I would have a quick conversation with her to allow her to provide us with some sort of an explanation.  I guess four kids could explain the short-cut, but experience has shown me that it’s just not that much of a timesaver.  All it really does is cut-down on the measuring of a few more dry ingredients.  And I just don’t think the risk/benefit analysis is coming out in favor of Bisquick here.  Having enjoyed a nice number of married-but-child-free years during which weekend mornings were quite relaxed, I can attest that preparing a batch of pancakes from scratch – sans Bisquick – is no big deal.  (Once out of bed, what else were weekend mornings for but cooking, eating, drinking coffee, and reading the paper before strolling around the city, maybe catching an afternoon matinée?)

An early-in-my-marriage Christmas gift from my mom and dad, The Joy of Cooking provided me with my go-to pancake recipe.

I’ve fiddled with the recipe a bit over the years – my ex-husband loved the addition of creamed corn, and for years I’ve left out the melted butter Irma and Marion call for, finding no real difference in texture.  I’ve tried them with buckwheat and whole wheat, but have finally settled on a mix of white and whole wheat.  I use less sugar than suggested, sometimes leaving it out altogether.  Here’s the result:

Not Bisquick Pancakes (Adapted from Joy of Cooking)

Sift together:

1 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. whole wheat flour

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. sugar (optional)

1 3/4 tsp. baking powder


2 slightly beaten eggs

1 to 1 1/4 c. whole milk (or enough to achieve a pourable consistency)

Mix the liquid ingredients quickly into the dry ingredients; leave a just a little lumpy – do not overmix.  Melt a little unsalted butter in a cast-iron skillet and wipe out any excess, leaving a fine film in the pan.  You want the pan to be hot enough to cause a bit of water to scatter into droplets but not so hot as to immediately vaporize the water on contact.  Pour in the desired amount of batter and allow to cook until tiny bubbles begin to appear on the surface of the pancake.  Flip, and cook another minute or two (not as long as side one); the pancakes should puff up.  Remove from the pan, slather with salted butter, top with real maple syrup if your budget allows (I’ve left the Aunt Jemima of my youth behind, as well), and if you’ve got any berries, by all means, use them.  Bisquick be gone!

Going Nordic

January 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

I think I may have been the last person in the country to have read the “Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, and I really can’t believe I waited so long.  Being more than a little partial to Jane Austen, I just couldn’t imagine that I’d be captured by a Scandinavian thriller series, involving a heavily pierced and tattooed, reclusive female protagonist.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I devoured these books, completely captivated by the characters, particularly our heroine.  She really is a role model for all women, young and old, who have ever been inclined to put up with a bit too much – of anything.

So engrossed did I become that I have watched the Swedish movie versions of the first and second novel, saving the third and the American first in order to prolong my involvement.  And perhaps it can be chalked up to the once-you-buy-a-Passat VW-everyone-has-a-Passat VW phenomenon, but it seems that I now cannot escape all things Nordic.  In sorting through the various sections of the NY Times that I had held aside for follow-up reading, I discovered “An Open Invitation to Eat in Copenhagen”, quickly followed by Mimi Sheraton’s ode to Nordic cuisine, “Nordic Once, Nordic Twice.”  And on the list of “Where Will You Go in 2012?”  Why, Helsinki, Finland, of course.

I was therefore not terribly surprised to run across Trina Hahnemann‘s recipe for Nordic Winter Vegetable Soup in a back issue of Food and Wine while hanging out at Kathleen’s house recently.   Barley, leeks, celery root, parsnips, thyme, spinach.  A perfect early January post-holiday meal.  I “borrowed” the magazine and headed home.

I chopped, I sautéed, I simmered, and I browned some bratwurst.  Eventually I buttered some rustic rye bread.  And when I had tucked my daughters into bed, after this perfect wintry meal, I checked the airline prices for Stockholm.


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