oysters and arugula


Dorie Greenspan

Happy Birthday to Me

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. Continue reading “Happy Birthday to Me”

Score 1 for Team Raisin

Newsflash:  Saturday, 9:56 p.m., Pelham, New York

Former raisin detractor (see Raisins Ruin a Good Dessert)  and best friend of this reporter, devoured a bowl of Linguine Mendiant – raisins, figs, pistachios, and almonds all!   Eyewitnesses heard her trying to hide behind the old “butter makes everything taste good” defense, but when pressed, she was woman enough to confess the error of her raisin-slandering ways.

Unfortunately, her husband, who was not present for the meal, has yet to be persuaded.  By long distance phone call from Vermont he had this comment, “Raisins have no business in pasta.”

We’ll make a convert of him yet.

Salted Butter Break-Ups

I am not a baker.  I am certainly capable of baking, and do bake my share of birthday cakes and cupcakes and Christmas cookies, but I’m not a fan.  The measuring, the sifting, the flown-away flour gumming up my sponge . . . these things do not rev my engine (and my engine could use a little revving right now, but I digress . . . )  A few factors, however, conspired to induce me to bake Dorie Greenspan’s Salted Butter Break-Ups:

1.  The French Fridays with Dorie crowd was making her Salted Butter Break-Ups last week, and I had failed to participate, hence a sense of having missed a homework assignment (even if self-imposed).

2.  There are only 5 ingredients (if you don’t count the water) – butter, flour, sugar, salt (albeit sel gris, but coarse kosher is a happy alternative), and an egg yolk.

3.  A family get-together this weekend provided the perfect venue in which to introduce this convivial cookie.

Let me report that this has to be some of the least labor-intensive baking I have ever encountered.  Toss the first four ingredients in a food processor, scrape the dough into a rectangle, refrigerate, roll into a flatter rectangle, paint on some egg wash, bake and break!

The twist on what is basically a butter cookie, is that you serve it whole, placing it in the middle of the table and encouraging your guests to break off how ever much they like.   Fun and unfussy!   We served it after a Vietnamese meal from a favorite local restaurant – curry chicken with vegetables, chicken with onions and oyster sauce, beef with snow peas – and it was reduced to mere crumbs in a flash.

There are those in my life who are generally desirous of no more than a piece or two of dark chocolate after a meal.  But I think I do not go out on too much of a limb to predict that when presented with this cookie, there may be something other than chocolate melting in their mouths . . . and since seeing those I love happy, makes me pretty darn happy, maybe baking could rev my engine after all!

Beggar’s Linguine for a Birthday

Having been apart on my recent birthday, my daughters informed me that we would celebrate my birthday this evening.  They had a little plan up their sleeves, about which they whispered and plotted with our dear friend and irreplaceable sitter, Beth.  I decided to make my own contribution to the evening by trying out this week’s French Friday recipe, Beggar’s Linguine, or Linguine Mendiant.

Calling for pistachios, almonds, golden raisins, and dried Mission figs, a healthy heap of Parmesan and dusting of orange zest and chopped chives, this is not a recipe that would normally catch my eye – even if the 1 1/2 sticks of butter might!  I simply could not get my mind around what it was going to taste like.  Sweet?  Fruity?  Is that really something we want for dinner?  The raisins alone gave me quite a long moment of pause.   Some readers may recall the dismay I caused at my best friend’s home when I showed up with a dessert containing golden raisins.  And a person with whom I generally share a similarity of taste in all things culinary, made a face bordering on disgust when I suggested we share a cinnamon raisin bagel one recent morning.  Would my daughters and Beth join this group of people offended by the inclusion of raisins in their meals?  (Topic for future blog:  Where to do raisins belong?)  After mulling this all over for a few minutes, I decided, “What the hell!” and made my grocery list.

A little background on where the inspiration for this pasta may have come from.  Dorie Greenspan tells us that there’s a French candy called a mendiant, which comes in the form of a chocolate disc topped with chopped nuts, dried fruit and sometimes a little orange rind.  Traditionally, the nuts and fruits represented the four mendicant monastic orders – dried figs for the Franciscans, raisins for the Dominicans, hazelnuts for the Augustinians, and almonds for Carmelites.  So it seems that someone thought it might be a good idea to apply this idea to a pasta dish and, somewhat surprisingly, it was!

Beggar's linguine

After browning that stick and a half of butter, in go the chopped fruits and nuts, followed by the cooked linguine.  Toss that all around, pour it into a bowl, add a generous heap of Parmesan, little orange zest, and healthy handful of chives, and oh my how happy you will be!   I am, in fact, so certain of this fact that I intend to prepare this dish for each of the aforementioned raisin detractors in the very near future.

Good as this pasta was however, it couldn’t beat dessert – a birthday cake baked, decorated, and served with an abundance of love by my two beautiful daughters.

Almost Friday . . .At Least in My Kitchen

My apartment smells of toasting cheese – Comté, to be exact – and scallions.   In the oven is a loaf of Dorie Greenspan‘s cheese and chive bread, though I’ve taken her bonne idée, substituting scallions for chives and throwing in a handful of toasted walnuts, as well.   Cooking this bread is my way of hurrying the start of my weekend, because as I chopped and stirred and now enjoy the warm scents drifting through the apartment, I am thinking of tomorrow night, when this bread will be the accompaniment to a well-deserved glass of Friday-night scotch for an overworked, carbohydrate-loving doctor I know.

Paris, We Miss You!

A week ago last night, we were sitting at the counter at Les Cocottes, and last night we enjoyed those memories over steaming bowls of curried mussels.  (And I’ve not forgotten that I owe you a few more details about that trip.)  We had spent our Saturday consumed with many domestic activities and errands, and I wanted our dinner to be easy and quick but more special than a weeknight dinner.  Flipping open my  now page-stained Around My French Table, I quickly zeroed in on Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for curried mussels.  I also discovered that the Paris establishment, Horse’s Tavern, that inspired this recipe, was right around the corner from the hotel in which we stayed!  Quel dommage!  Adding it to our list.

This was the girls’ first experience and it was most successful.  Not knowing what they were missing, the girls were quite content to sop up the cream-fortified curried broth with a piece of bread rather the crispy pile of salty frites that should have accompanied the dish.  I was less accepting, but kept my complaints to myself.   Expressing her surprise that dinner was ready so quickly, Anna remarked that she didn’t know why people go to fast-food restaurants when they can make such good food at home.  Michael Pollan would be so pleased (as, of course, was this mother.)

French Saturday Night

Since my daughters were both involved with sleepovers on Friday night – one at our place, one at a friend’s – we pushed our “movie night” off to Saturday this week.   We included a stop at the library in our Saturday errands, and picked up “Julie & Julia”.  Having read the book, I’d been rather reluctant to watch the film, but multiple friends had insisted I would enjoy it, the girls had actually heard about it from some friends and were therefore gung-ho, and then, of course, it did have the whole Paris connection.   In the spirit of our evening’s theme, I chose a couple of recipes from Around My French Table for dinner:  pork loin with oranges and broth-braised potatoes.  I also decided to see if the girls’ palates were ready to recognize the delights of roasted brussels sprouts.

I wish I could report that the pork loin was a hit, but alas I cannot.  I had high hopes, given how beautiful it both looked and smelled as it cooked.

Orange zest, scallions, and cardamom flavored the sauce, but somehow the pork left us all a little unmoved.  It was just okay, not something I can see myself cooking again.  And though I thought the brussels sprouts just grand, my daughters were left cold.  The more apropos word would actually be “offended.”   Thank goodness for the fingerling potatoes and raspberry chocolate chip ice cream that followed later, else my children would have gone to bed hungry.

The movie helped to make up for the disappointing dinner, as well.   We loved the “Julia” scenes!  The glimpses of Paris – restaurants, markets, streets scenes – flamed the anticipation that has been building in our home.  The girls declared that we must visit Shakespeare and Company and E. Dehillerin.  Greta decided it’s time to get serious about learning some French phrases, and spent an hour or so with one of our French textbooks today.  And I found myself captured once again, as I was when I read Julia’s biography, by the story of her life with Paul in Paris and beyond.  The two of them exploring together, eating, cooking, hosting dinner parties, making Valentine cards in the bathtub, and sweet toasts to one another.  He loving her boisterous quirkiness, and she doting on him, and both endlessly encouraging and supportive of one another throughout their lives.  Of course, one can never know the truth of another couple’s relationship, but from what I’ve read, it certainly seems to have been a romance and partnership worthy of admiration.

Let me leave you with this poem, written by Paul Child on the occasion of Julia’s birthday, August 15, 1961:

O Julia, Julia, cook and nifty wench,
Whose unsurpassed quenelles and hot souffles,
Whose English, Norse and German, and whose French,
Are all beyond my piteous powers to praise —
Whose sweetly rounded bottom and whose legs,
Whose gracious face, whose nature temperate,
Are only equalled by her scrambled eggs:

Accept from me, your ever-loving mate,
This acclamation shaped in fourteen lines
Whose inner truth belies its outer sight;
For never were there foods, nor were there wines
Whose flavor equals yours for sheer delight.
O luscious dish! O gustatory pleasure!
You satisfy my taste buds beyond measure.

Lentils for Luck

In Italy, lentils are believed to bring good luck, particularly if eaten as the first meal of the New Year.  And Signora Salvadore, with whom I lived during my semester in Florence, reminded me each time she served lentils for dinner, that when I someday had children, I must feed them lentils to keep them healthy – “piena di ferro!” – “full of iron!”, she would tell me.

I have followed her advice, and my daughters are huge lentil fans, as am I.  We eat a big bowl for lunch with bread and butter on a cold day, or over pasta for a quick dinner.  But I think I like them best with salmon.

Desirous of a little more luck in 2011 than I had in 2010, and in need of a menu for a special evening last week, I turned to Dorie Greenspan‘s roasted salmon and lentils, from her new book Around My French Table.  It being a work night, and there having been a little space of time since my guest and I had an evening together, this was the perfect recipe.  I could prepare the lentils on Wednesday night – toss them in a pot with some vegetables and chicken broth – and merely reheat them while the salmon roasted on Thursday night.  An arugula salad with a little blue cheese would round out the meal.

Dorie’s recipe worked like a charm! (As a member of her French Fridays with Dorie cooking group, I cannot give the recipe here, but I strongly recommend taking a trip to your local bookstore to pick up a copy.)  Dorie is certainly not the first person to offer a salmon and lentil recipe, but this one is terrifically basic while sacrificing nothing in flavor.   The moral of this little story?  I did my part to fortify us with luck and good health AND there was still plenty of evening left for catching up.

"Raisins Ruin a Good Dessert"

So says my best friend Kathleen and her husband, Gary, stands firmly by her side in this opinion.  And now, as I sit and type this in their living room, I have just overheard her whispering in the kitchen to her 6-year old son, “What do we do with this terrible dessert?”

Yes, I’m afraid this was the verdict on the “Caramel-Covered Semolina Cake” from Dori Greenspan’s Around My French Table.  I prepared it this afternoon at my home in New Jersey and transported it, still warm, to Westchester County.  It sat in Kathleen’s kitchen, quietly waiting, for our return from a hockey game and group dinner, and I had high hopes for it, as an accompaniment to our wine and conversation.  Alas, my hopes were quickly dashed as both Gary and Kathleen pronounced the golden raisins problematic.

“I need to try a bite without raisins,” said Kathleen.  “Hmmm…is it supposed to be served cold?”

“Warm or room temperature,” I replied.

“Let me stick a non-raisin bit in the microwave.”  By now, Gary had entered the kitchen.

“Here – try this,”  Kathleen said while passing a forkful to him.

Gary made a bit of a face.  “Raisins really don’t belong in dessert. I don’t even like them in a noodle kugel.”

“Well, Dori says you can substitute any dried fruit, or even a bit of apple or pear sauteed in butter.  She also recommends serving it with a bit of creme fraiche.”

“Now THAT sounds like a good idea – but skip the fruit entirely, ” came Kathleen’s response.

And so ends my report of this week’s French [Saturday] with Dori.

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