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 . . .
February 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
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!
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)
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!
September 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
She couldn’t have made a better choice. It was the Monday following Hurricane Irene and I had been rendered carless thanks to the flooding that occurred in the parking lot of our building. We were planning a walk to the grocery store later on, but for lunch I needed to work with what I had. And what I had, thanks to a day before gift from my sometimes-farming boyfriend, was a beautiful little assortment of fresh red and yellow grape tomatoes.
Into my favorite 50¢-at-a-yard-sale cast iron skillet went some olive oil and chopped garlic, followed a few minutes later by the halved tomatoes.
Basil, of course, would have been the herb of choice, but having only parsley on hand, we went with that. A generous shower of parmesan finished things off. Voilà – Anna’s lunch!
August 5, 2011 § 2 Comments
Between fish tacos and margaritas, I got quite a bit of reading in during our visit to Sayulita. Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck, the story of his summer as a chef on a private sailing yacht in the Mediterranean, was a perfect beach read, except that it made me want to race to my kitchen. But on Sunday night, when I had retrieved my daughters from their annual week in Massachusetts with my parents, it was time for David’s Linguine with Clams and Zucchini. Additionally, Greta informed me as we were driving home from our Connecticut rendezvous spot that she was feeling the need to do a little baking.
“Can we do that, Mommy? Can we bake something?”
“Well, I picked up some nectarines at the farm stand this morning. How about a nectarine crumble? And we could use some of those blueberries you’ve got there from your blueberry picking expedition with Nana and Grampa. How’s that sound?”
The thing that made me want to give this clam recipe a try, was the idea that the almost over-cooked zucchini provides a coating that allows the sauce to better adhere to the linguine. (Plus, as you know, I’ve just got a thing for linguine and clams. New twists always welcome!) You cook the zucchini in garlic and a nice amount of olive oil, remove the zucchini, and then cook the littlenecks (I had to use mahogany clams from Maine on this night) in the zucchini-garlic-flavored oil. Add some hot red pepper (which I had to forgo in consideration of my daughters’ sensitive palates) and parsley, toss it all (including zucchini) together, using a bit of pasta water to make a bit more of a sauce, and va bene!
As for the crumble, we peeled the nectarines, added the blueberries, and Greta did her magic with cinnamon and grated nutmeg. She then mixed together some whole wheat flour, oats, brown sugar, dash of salt, and pinched it all together into crumbles with half a stick or so of butter. Many would insist that vanilla ice cream is the only appropriate accompaniment, but I prefer something to cut the sweetness a bit – honeyed yogurt or creme fraiche will do the trick. If you’ve got some heavy cream in the fridge, how about that?
August 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
July 16, 2011 § 4 Comments
The schools were closing early due to the 100 degree heat, and a sweet little bag of key limes became the inspiration for dinner. Steak fajitas with guacamole, rice and beans seemed the perfect dinner for the south of the border-type heat we were experiencing.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but for a brief period of time I worked in the garde manger station of David Burke’s now-defunct Park Avenue Café . We were responsible for cold appetizer preparation, and for a few hot summer days, this included a special of guacamole.
A quick search on Epicurious produces 48 guacamole recipes. Among the several versions found on The California Avocado Commission website is guacamóle auténico, which calls for cumin, tomato, sweet white onion, Serranos, cilantro, and lime juice. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen we were told that Chef Burke’s version was the authentic one, and being young and impressionable, I believed it and have stuck by it. Our version called for nothing more than salt, lime juice, and cilantro. I seem to recall that some chopped tomato may have garnished the plate, but it certainly wasn’t incorporated into the guacamole prior to serving.
Aside from ingredients, another place where the guacamole camps diverge is on the question of texture. There are some folks out there who apparently like their guacamole to have the texture of Cool Whip. Should you find yourself invited to my home for margaritas, the guacamole I will serve you will be chunky. The preparation of the avocado is, in fact, my favorite part of guacamole-making. After scoring the avocado in half the long way, twisting each half in opposite directions to release one side from the pit, you can (carefully) smack the heel of your chef’s knife into the pit and twist to remove the pit from the other half. You can then take a smaller knife and score the flesh of the avocado diagonally in one direction, then the other, forming a diamond pattern. Now, take a spoon and, pressing the back of the spoon against the shell, you can scoop out the flesh, and voila! Diced avocado! (For those visual learners among my reading audience, the next time I have avocados on hand, I will take a few photos of this process and add them here.)
One thing about which I’ve learned that my sous chef friends were mistaken, however, is the notion that submerging the pit in your guacamole will prevent discoloration. Thanks to the thorough experiments of Harold McGee, author of The Curious Cook, I now know that the best way to prevent browning (which is caused by the interaction of oxygen with an enzyme in the avocado), is to lay plastic wrap directly on the exposed surface, being sure to eliminate all air bubbles. While the pit will protect the small bit that it touches from browning, Harold tells us that a light bulb would perform the same function. Nothing magic about the pit, and plastic wrap does a more effective job.