Archive for January, 2008

Doing the ‘due

I’m not one for mottos, but if I had to pick just one it might be, “The only thing better than cheese, is hot cheese.” And by hot cheese I mean fondue – which is probably hot cheese at its best.

Fondue has been haunting my dreams. It started with Food & Wine magazine’s January edition. Then, the NY Times ran a story about fondue in late January. Despite my best efforts to cajole Gavin into joining me for a fondue night, I was on my own. I had to do the ‘due for one.

Fondue is surprisingly – and frighteningly – simple. Combined with a salad, some crusty bread and a glass (or two) of red wine, you have a very, very satisfying supper.

Classic Cheese Fondue for One
Adapted from Food & Wine magazine

4 oz. Gruyère cheese, grated
2 oz. Emmentaler cheese, grated
2 teapoons cornstarch
1 garlic clove
2 oz. dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Crusty French bread, cut into cubes

In a bowl, toss the Gruyère and Emmentaler with the cornstarch. Rub the inside of a heavy-bottomed saucepan (or fondue pot) with the garlic, then add the wine and bring to a simmer. Add the cheese mixture all at once. Using a wooden spoon, stir over moderately low heat just until the cheese is melted and smooth, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve with the bread (orange tabby optional).

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Olive Poppers

I don’t get invited to many potlucks. This is probably because I tend to take charge of the kitchen and want my food to be the star. I know this about myself and sincerely do want to be better…someday.

Last Friday, my friend Meris invited a number of us over to her penthouse pad (OK, it isn’t exactly a penthouse, but it is on the top floor). She invited us over for games, drinks and…dududdum…a potluck. The very word sends my head into a spin – what should I make? How will it travel? Who is the crowd? Sometimes it feels like a curse. Most of the time though, I really enjoy the process.

Lately, my go-to recipe for gatherings where, let’s face it, massive amounts of alcohol will be involved…are olive poppers. My friend passed along this recipe by Kathy Casey. She is some Seattle-area food lady who I has never really been on my radar other than this recipe and the cocktails she evidently help concoct at Volterra. Hazelnut and bourbon?! But I digress.

This recipe is pretty easy and a guaranteed hit (unless you don’t like olives). The only caveat is that they take FOREVER to make. You can easily make them ahead of time though (even the day before) and bake just before you serve them.

Olive Poppers
Makes about 30 poppers

1 cup (4 ounces) finely grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup sifted flour
Dash cayenne pepper
1 jar pimiento-stuffed olives (I just buy the inexpensive supermarket brand)
1/3 cup mixed white and black sesame seeds

Beat the cheese and butter together with a wooden spoon, then stir in the flour and cayenne. Flatten the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Drain the olives and toss any broken or pimiento-less ones. Place the sesame seeds onto a large plate.

Take the dough out of the fridge. Break off a chunk of dough and use the thumb of one hand to press each piece of dough into a flat pancake in the palm of the opposite hand. Then press the pancake around an olive. Roll each ball in the seeds and place the balls on baking sheet.

Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes. Serve hot.

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Just when you think you know someone – they tell you their favorite dessert is something entirely different than you thought it was.

Gavin and I started dating 14 years ago this month. All this time, I thought pie was his favorite dessert. I should have suspected something was afoot though. First, his favorite was apple pie. For years I worked on perfecting apple pie to please him (OK, I love pie too so this wasn’t such a chore). Then, blackberry was his favorite. Again, I tried and tinkered and tested to make the perfect blackberry pie. Next was blueberry and let’s see, what else? Oh yeah, banana cream pie.

The thing I figured out is – his tastes change over time and every few years a new flavor pie is his favorite. That makes sense. Pie is pie at the end of the day, no matter what the filling is.

All this changed last Sunday. I brought home a copy of Donna Hay magazine (total food porn, btw), that Gavin started thumbing through. Out of blue, totally without warning, he turns a page and exclaims, “Ohh poundcake. I love poundcake, it is my favorite dessert.”

Screeeeeech….What was that dear? Poundcake?! Since WHEN? Well, hell…I’d have to research some poundcake recipes and give it a shot.

I thought my first attempt should be from the trusty America’s Test Kitchen Family Dinners cookbook. This recipe is a little different than others, since you melt the butter and add that to a mixture of sugar, egg and vanilla. Whisk in some cake flour, baking soda and salt and pour into a greased loaf pan. Bake for about an hour and it’s done.

The only hard part was keeping Gavin’s mitts off of it until it cooled. I wasn’t successful, but thankfully no damage was done.

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Last week’s episode of The Splendid Table had a segment about souffles – specifically, how simple they are to make. I’ve always wanted to make a souffle, but have to admit that I also thought they must be really complicated. The segment was great and they talked about the common myths surrounding souffle: you can’t open the oven door during baking, don’t over beat the egg whites, and on and on. I was convinced and decided to give it a go.

The recipe and step-by-step instructions were provided on the show’s website. I have to admit that I don’t usually read a recipe before starting a dish. I know, I know. Everyone says you have to do this. I actually did read the entire recipe first this time and am glad I did. I also measured out all the ingredients in advance. There were some great tips in there too – like prepping the bowl for whipping the egg whites.

All in all it was a success. It wasn’t easy though. I would say it was simple, but did have a lot of steps and required a fair amount of prep. I will definitely give it another go. I love working with eggs – incorporating them into hot cream or sauce, whipping egg whites, folding all the ingredients together without losing the air that will keep the dish light.

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Cooking Club – January

One of my New Year’s resolutions involved my friend Rachel. We resolved to cook more, but more specifically to cook more together. Once a month, we’ll take turns hosting and choosing a menu then shop for, prep and cook the meal together.
January 13th was our first “Cooking Club.”

Rachel chose the menu from the newly designed Bon Appétit, February edition.

Earth-Friendly Dinner Party

We started the day with a list and a trip to Central Market. This store is great – lots of unusual produce, imported food, cheese and organics you can’t get at your normal mega-mart. We each contributed some ingredients from our own pantries, so our bill was only $80.

Off to Rachel’s house to begin the prep. We decided to start with bread. It was already 2pm (Splendid Table was playing on the radio), so we needed a quick bread. Thankfully, the NY Times has provided some great short-cut bread recipes the last couple of years. I love the No-Knead bread, but that requires 18 hours to rise. Thankfully, this 5-minute bread needs only 2-3 hours.

Next we turned to the crudite platter. When I think of crudite, I imagine the usual carrots-broccoli-celery-ranch spread. Bon Appétit suggested turnips & fennel, which were much better than I expected. The turnips were kind of like bland radishes. We didn’t need to make our own fennel salt, since I picked some up last time I dined at Volterra. The fennel salt on the veggies was great – who needs ranch?!

As the bread continued to bake, we continued our prep: brine the chicken (5 1/2 # chicken in 4 qts of water with 1/2 cup each of salt & sugar); chop the squash, onions, garlic, kale, potatoes and sunchokes.

When I cook, I always clean as I go. I learned this from my mom and I like cutting down on the end-of-night massive clean-up. Rachel is from a different school of thought. She was fascinated by this concept though and interested in learning more. She wasn’t always enthusiastic at embracing this philosophy however. When I asked her, “We have 20 minutes until the chicken is done brining, what would be a good thing to get done during that time?,” she replied, “Play Wii!” Wrong answer.

The butternut squash soup was pretty simple – once you peel and chop the squash that is (hint: a rubber mallet is a must). For any pureed soup, I strongly recommend an immersion blender. Forget pouring scalding hot soup into a blender and pureeing in batches. That has disaster written all over it. Drama – the new cat at the Unck household – was curious about the soup, but was probably more interested in a warm lap.

The soup recipe called for toasted breadcrumbs. We had to make them twice (don’t ask), so that gave us plenty of time to practice our pan-flipping (pan-tossing?) skills. Rachel had an ingenious idea – practice tossing using beans (not food you plan on eating). We spilled a lot of beans but also got the flipping technique down.

Kale was on the menu and since one of Rachel’s resolutions, we had to give it a go. This recipe called for onions and smoked paprika, which made it very flavorful. The smoky paprika almost gave it a meaty taste (bacon would have probably done this better, of course). Rachel was skeptical about kale; her comment, “I thought it was only used as a garnish, like to decorate salad bars. What are we gonna eat next, holly?”

The starch for the menu was mashed russet potatoes and sunchokes. Sunchokes are also known as Jerusalem artichokes. I can’t say that I am a huge fan. They had a really pungent flavor that I didn’t find appealing. Maybe in a different dish I’d like them better.

The star of the show (besides Drama the cat?) was the chicken. We brined that bird for about an hour, then butterflied it, rubbed it with the herb spread (under the skin too!) and roasted it on a bed of rosemary springs. The recipe called for 90 minutes, but we checked after 60 minutes and the thigh meat was edging towards 160 degrees. About 10-15 minutes later and it was done. It was SO juicy and butterflying it really crisped up the skin nicely. We ate about 1/2 the bird between the 3 of us, but had lots leftovers. Rachel and I cleaned the carcass and made a quick chicken salad we could have for lunches this week (chicken, celery, scallions, mayo, Dijon mustard, salt & pepper).
Dessert was light and tasty. Poached pears with Point Reyes blue cheese and pine nuts – yum. It would have been yummier if the recipes caramel sauce had turned out, but was good nonetheless.
The verdict: the menu was good, but not every dish was a winner. I will do the soup, the kale and the chicken again. I will also try to incorporate turnips into a future veggie platter.

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Simple Tomato Sauce

Marcella Hazan’a Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is a “must have” for anyone who loves eating and cooking Italian food. It is full or opinions (regarding olive oil, “cook with the best you can afford”) and somewhat unreal expectations (if you have a good, conscientious cheese dealer, ask to be notified when a fresh wheel of gorgonzola arrives from Italy), yet has loads of great recipes.

One of my go-to recipes is simply called “Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion.” It is simple, quick and great on any shape or size of pasta you have on hand. It is a bit high in fat (given the stick of butter!), but since it is meat-free, who cares? The sauce starts off kind of weird, since you don’t dice the onion – just cut it in half and put it in the pot. It cooks down though and adds a great, oniony sweetness to the sauce.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
2-15 oz cans diced tomatoes (I prefer Muir Glen). Avoid “stewed” tomatoes
1 stick of butter, but into cubes
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
1 lb of pasta
Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Don’t fuck around with the imitation or pre-grated crap.
Salt & pepper to taste

Place canned tomatoes in a saucepan with onion and butter. Simmer for 40-45 minutes, stirring occasionally and mashing the tomato chunks with the back of a wooden spoon. Discard onion and salt & pepper to taste. Serve over pasta with grated parm.

Full Disclosure
My friend Debi read this post and reminded me that, ahem, I didn’t believe a sauce this simple could taste this good. She first told me about this recipe 6 or 7 years ago and I guffawed, “what, no garlic? no herbs? impossible.” I stand corrected.

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The more time I spend in the kitchen, the more I recognize how key the right tools are. I’m not talking about gadgets (we all know what a slippery slope that can be), but useful tools that really earn their space in the drawer or cupboard.

Here is a round-up of gear that is making my life easier this month:

Dansko Clogs
Standing on your feet for any length of time is tiring, particularly if your day job is sitting on your ass all day. I’ve been suffering from plantar fasciitis too, thanks in part to my high arches, so I needed some good arch support. While these aren’t the most attractive shoes, they are damn comfortable. I can stand for hours and hours wearing them and my feet and legs feel great.

Flour Sack Towels
For Christmas this year, my mom gave me a dozen of these. I use them for everything: tucked into my apron during long cooking sessions, covering rising bread, draining freshly washed salad fixings or lasagna sheets and more.

1/4 Sheet Pan
This is such a handy sized pan to have. It easily fits in the fridge and is ideal for small batches or meals. I can’t really think of what I use it for, but just know that I love it.

Electric Kettle
I am not a tea drinker, but am an Americano drinker. This kettle boils water in about a minute. If you need a hot water bath – for crème brûlée for example – this is really handy because it is easy to pour too. Of course, we also use it when we need to unclog a drain…

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