Wednesday, December 31, 2008

hors d'oeuvres math

Question: Sally has to bring a dish to a New Year's Eve party at 7:00 PM but she only has $12 to spend. It is 6:00 PM. The supermarket is a five minute walk away. The party is a twenty minute drive away. What can she make and still get to the party on time?

Answer:
A (spicy sausage):


Plus B (Rick's Picks pickled green beans):
Equals C (instant appetizer):


You get an A plus! Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

the very best cold-weather meal

'Twas the night before Christmas; a cold, rainy evening when we started out for our friend E's house. After a long walk from the subway (we got a little lost) Dan and I were soggy and freezing, not to mention 45 minutes late. Which isn't cool when you're the one bringing appetizers. Sorry, guys! Luckily, E already had a pot on the stove that was full of the very thing you want to eat when you're coming in from the cold: ragu.

When E originally emailed me saying he was making pasta with lamb ragu, I thought he meant Ragu. So I was totally surprised to find no empty pasta jars lying around, just a tall stockpot full of a thick, aromatic sauce. This was an all-day kind of sauce, a stay-in-and-stir kind of recipe. And when he told me it was his fifth or sixth time making it, I have to say I discovered a newfound love for the guy. And lamb ragu.

So I am willing to take bids on this fine gentleman. If you're a single lady living in the Brooklyn area (preferably off the G line) leave a note in the comments. You will not be disappointed. And E's not too shabby either.

Dinner at E'sCheese, crackers, spiced cashews, and salami-wrapped Rick's Picks Mean Beans
Pasta with lamb ragu
Arugula with parmesan and fennel
Gummy bears
Dark and Stormys (someone's been reading this blog...)


Pasta with lamb ragu
E originally found this recipe in the New York Times and has made a few tweaks since, mainly adding extra vegetables and a shit load of garlic. (His words, not mine.) He suggests cooking the vegetable puree, the base of the sauce, on low heat stirring a lot. E served this pasta over egg noodles, which I think is the very best choice. If you can't eat gluten, I recommend Sam Mills brand pasta, which is made with corn and is gluten- and wheat-free. The ziti noodles I bought tasted surprisingly like regular pasta.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)


1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt

3 lbs. ground lamb leg or shoulder
1 cup tomato paste
3 cups of hearty red wine (basically one bottle)
2 Tbsp. fresh rosemary chopped
3 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. fresh thyme
Ground black pepper

2 large bags egg noodles
Parmesan to top the pasta

Using a food processor, puree the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic to a coarse paste. Coat a large pan generously with olive oil and set over medium heat. Add the pureed vegetables, season with salt and cook until the water has evaporated and the vegetables begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir frequently and be patient--this is where big flavor develops.

Add the lamb, season generously with salt and cook until it is browned, about 25 to 30 minutes--brown food tastes good, don't rush this step. Add the tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the red wine, rosemary, and bay leaves. Cook at a lively simmer until the wine has reduced by half. Add the thyme and enough water to cover lamb by 1 inch. Simmer for 3 to 4 hours, stirring and tasting frequently and adding more water as it evaporates.

Skim the fat off the surface. Remove the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Toss with al dente pasta and grated parmesan.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

home for the holidays

How was everyone's holiday? Great, I hope.

We had a leisurely late-afternoon Christmas lunch here in Brooklyn with our Australian neighbors, Jennifer and Mark Henry. It was the kind of cozy day spent cooking, eating, and lazing about, in between playing with their two daughters, April and Rose. They not only believe in Santa, they left him a beer--how could you not fall in love with these girls?


It was such a nice day that I won't dwell on the accident. I feel like I write about mishaps a lot here and this blog isn't called Dinner Party Disasters. So I won't really get into the misfortune that was the walk downstairs with all of the food we made. And how the uncooked potato gratin started leaking out of the baking dish, dripping down someone's coat and all over the stairs. And how when someone pointed out the mess, the other person tried to set down the potatoes, inadvertently dropping a bag holding caramel sauce and six dessert bowls, so that there was a caramel explosion all over the stairs as well. (Note to landlords: we cleaned. And the stairs are a filthy mess to begin with.) And then someone twisted an ankle trying to reach for the falling dishes and missing a stair. Luckily no dishes or ankles were broken and the caramel was superfluous anyway. But let's just say that if we were discussing mishaps, it wasn't exactly the smoothest start to Christmas dinner.

Soo, moving on.

Christmas celebrated without your family always feels a little strange even though the holiday is usually spent in a universal way for most people: opening gifts, eating a big meal, possibly attending church. The difference is in the particulars. Do you eat turkey or ham? Do you open gifts before or after dinner? Do you say grace before the meal? Are you from Australia and eat roasted pumpkin? It's the little specific things that make it your family's holiday.

Last Christmas, Dan and I stayed in Brooklyn and had a quiet day by ourselves. But because we were spending the day with another family this year, I think I felt more conscious of being away from my own relatives. Instead of helping my mom make her sweet potato casserole, I made a potato gratin by myself in our apartment. Instead of catching up on the breezy back porch with Nanny, Dan and I chatted with Jennifer and Mark Henry and ate roasted chestnuts in their warm living room. Instead of being peppered with questions like "So, how is work?" and "How much snow have you gotten in New York?" around the dinner table, we had a late lunch and talked about traveling and food and our neighborhood. We ate turkey of course, but instead of Nanny's cranberry sauce I made cranberry relish. Instead of Mom's sweet potatoes, we ate the aforementioned roasted pumpkin. And instead of watching my parents doze off on the couch post-dinner, we played Brooklyn Monopoly after watching the girls do an impromptu dance performance, making dizzy circles in the kitchen.

In many ways I missed my family, but in many ways this was a more relaxing and fun way to spend Christmas. It was a holiday that felt more like my adult life, rather than re-entering my childhood again and again. Although that's what makes the holidays the holidays.

Christmas with the Henrys
Roasted turkey with gravy
Chestnut and barley stuffing
Potato gratin with goat cheese and garlic
Roasted pumpkin
Green beans
Cranberry relish
Apple-cherry crisp with cinnamon whipped cream

Cranberry relish
This is cranberry relish the way I like it: spicy, tart, and chock-full of whole berries. The original recipe is by Jasper White, a chef who specializes in New England cuisine. Be sure to make the relish one day in advance and chill it in the refrigerator so the mixture takes on a jelly-like consistency and the flavors deepen.
(Makes 3 cups
)

2 oranges
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
1 bag (12 ounces) fresh cranberries
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

Peel 1 orange and cut the zest (orange part only) into a very fine julienne, as thin as possible; set aside. Squeeze both oranges for juice; set aside. Combine sugar and lemon juice in a small pan. Heat up slowly and continue cooking until the sugar begins to caramelize. If necessary, wash down the sides of the pan by brushing with a little water to keep the sugar from burning.
When the sugar is caramel colored, add the julienned ginger and orange zest. Cook for about 1 minute, then add the cranberries, orange juice and pepper. Continue to cook on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes or until the cranberries are slightly broken but not mushy. Remove from the heat and let cool.


Potato gratin with goat cheese and garlic

Christmas dinner isn't complete without potatoes of some sort, and while I love them mashed, I wanted to try something new this year. This gratin, from
Bon Appétit, is mild and creamy, with a slight tang from the goat cheese and a hint of spice from a little nutmeg. To make the potatoes a little livelier, you could add one tablespoon of thyme or rosemary. Carry with care if uncooked.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)



1 cup whole milk
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup crumbled soft fresh goat cheese (about 5 ounces)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter an 11 by 7 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Whisk the first 7 ingredients in medium bowl until smooth. Arrange 1/3 of potatoes in bottom of prepared dish, overlapping slightly and covering completely. Pour 1/3 of cream mixture over. Repeat layering potatoes and cream mixture 2 more times. Bake uncovered until potatoes are tender and top is golden brown in spots, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Serve hot.

Roasted pumpkin
This Aussie specialty was the surprise of the meal--in my opinion, the best thing on the table next to the turkey. Here is Jennifer's recipe.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)

1 butternut squash or Japanese pumpkin
Roasting fat, bacon fat or olive oil
1 head of garlic, broken into cloves
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, or 350 if you are roasting meat simultaneously. Remove the skin from the pumpkin and cut the flesh into small, fist-sized chunks of about 2 to 3 ounces each, allowing about 3 chunks per person. Place in a baking dish with a few tablespoons of fat or oil, throw in the garlic cloves, and sprinkle liberally with salt, and then add pepper to taste. Shake the dish to coat all pumpkin pieces, then put in oven and roast around 1 hour. Baste the pumpkin with fat every 15 minutes or so. The pumpkin is cooked when it feels tender when tested with a skewer or fork.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

merry christmas


Hi everyone,

I hope you're all eating well today, but more importantly, spending time with people you love. More posts to come next week. As always, thanks for reading!

xo,
Lisa

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

the taste of christmas


For me, the holidays don't begin with Black Friday shopping, or putting up the Christmas tree (no thanks, not in our teeny apartment), or getting that first holiday card in the mail. The season begins with a box from my grandparents in New Mexico containing an aluminum foil-wrapped log of potica. My grandma has been making potica since way before I was born and every December she ships it to various relatives scattered across the country. She also sends cookies, and dense cubes of walnut fudge, jars of homemade preserves, and I even remember getting bread and butter pickles one year. But it's the potica, a sweet yeast bread spiraled with cinnamon, dates, and nuts, that I always look forward to the most.

Not too long ago, my editor Mark and I were reminiscing about potica. I always assumed it was strictly Italian, but he told me it's also a Polish specialty. As with most things, he was right: it's even more common in Croatia, Slovenia, and most of Eastern Europe, often called povitica. So how did it become a tradition in my family? After some more research I discovered the Italy connection—in a way that is surprisingly specific to the Cericola family. Southwestern writer Sharon Niederman says that the recipe was brought to the American west by Slovenian miners, who shared it with their Italian and Hispanic neighbors in coal mining communities including Raton, the small town in New Mexico where my grandma (and great-grandma) lived for some time.

After Raton, my grandparents stayed in New Mexico and raised three kids, moving around a bit, eventually to Santa Fe and later, Albuquerque. My dad didn't stay out west. As a young man, he moved to Florida, met my mother, and later, they had me. I visited New Mexico many times as a kid and loved it, but I've never spent the holidays with my grandparents. We exchange cards and emails and the big box of year-end sweets, but our relationship has always been somewhat distant.

Which is why I'm always a little surprised at how nostalgic I am for this stuff. Even though I've never been there to help Grandma make potica, I can see her rolling out the dough on the kitchen table, wrapping the baked loaves in foil, and labeling the silver logs with family members' names. It's a memory I wish I had experienced in person, but I've imagined it so many times now that it's real to me. When I bite into a soft slice of the bread, I taste sweetness and Christmas morning, but also New Mexico—juniper bushes, and posole, and dried chiles, and every food memory of that place and my family intertwined.

Potica

My grandma Jennie's recipe. This bread is significantly better hot out of the oven or warmed up in a toaster. I like it for breakfast, but it's kind of an all-day-long snack food.
(Makes 3 loaves)


For the filling:
1 lb. pecans, chopped
2 lbs. sun palm dates, chopped
1 cup half and half
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs, separated
1 Tbsp. cinnamon

For the dough:
8 oz. sour cream
3 Tbsp. butter
5 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 packages yeast
2 eggs
3 cups flour

Make the filling: In a saucepan, warm the half and half over medium heat. Add sugar, egg yolks, cinnamon, honey, butter, pecans, and vanilla. Stir until combined then remove from the heat, and let cool to lukewarm. Beat the egg whites until stiff, fold into the nut mixture.

Make the dough: In a saucepan, warm the sour cream. Remove from heat and add the butter, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Cool to lukewarm, then add the yeast and eggs, stir until the yeast is dissolved. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Add in the flour, mix well, and let stand 15 minutes. Roll the dough out onto a floured counter. Spread on the filling, then roll it up. Let it stand one and half hours. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees and bake for 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool before serving.

Monday, December 22, 2008

a dark and stormy holiday night

What have you been drinking at holiday get-togethers? This year, I'm going with the dark and stormy. It's a mix of ginger beer, rum, and lime; therefore, always made me think of little cocktail umbrellas and resort wear and sand in your toes. But really, ginger and rum are the essence of the holidays. Sure, it's not as HO!! HO!! HO!! (eek) as egg nog or some sort of cranberry juice concoction, but think of it as a more unassuming, cool nod to the season. If you're really angling for a wintery vibe, another variation is to substitute one quarter of an orange or one half of a clementine for the lime. It won't add as much tartness, but the flavors work really well together.

Dark and Stormy
(Makes 1 drink)
Ice
2 oz. dark rum
10 oz. ginger beer (I used ginger ale, but a spicy ginger beer like Reed's would be ideal for this)
1/2 lime

Fill a tall (drinking glass-sized) glass with ice. Add 2 ounces dark rum and enough ginger beer to fill the glass. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 of a lime into the drink, add the wedge if you'd like. Stir and serve.

Friday, December 19, 2008

link-o-rama

One week to go, people! Let's get inspired with some links.

50 homemade gift ideas: breadsticks, chocolate-covered orange peels, spice rubs, etc. [via the LA Times]

A host gift is always nice to bring along if someone else is cooking the holiday meal. [via Apartment Therapy]

Hanukkah menus
from Gourmet. [via Gourmet]

Smitten Kitchen tackles the seven-layer cookie. I only wish I were as brave (and photographically talented) as Deb. [via Smitten Kitchen]

Something to help you get through the rest of this jam-packed month: Bon Appetit's Drink a Day Calendar. [via BA]

And something for the Flight of the Conchords fans out there, some very fun holiday party ideas from Mel (Kristen Schaal). Yis! [via NY Mag]

Also, one small, personal plug: I am a finalist in the Marx Foods holiday recipe contest. If you could take five seconds to vote for me by clicking the box below, I'd really appreciate it. I am listed under "Lisa: Sweet and Spicy Peanuts." Voting is open until Monday at 4 p.m. PST. Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

saving your sanity with toffee

I don't have a lot of holiday traditions, religious or otherwise. But I always like to make at least one homemade gift every year. I've done stationary, and chocolate truffles, and last year, salted caramels and dozens upon dozens of jars of marmalade and pumpkin butter with my friend Mindi. It nearly killed us, but those fabric-topped jars were pretty darned cute.

This year, we wised up. Jam-making is really fun but not when you've got gifts to wrap, cards to write, a holiday party to rush off to, and a million other things on your mental to-do list. So we went really simple and just made one thing. I dithered between truffles, and coconut macaroons, and chocolate salted caramels. I even considered making all three, then slapped some sense back into myself. It's easy to get carried away with all aspects of the holidays, especially baking. But for sanity's sake, I highly recommend making large batches of one item. Especially if it's chocolate-pistachio toffee. Similar to a Heath bar, but more delicious, this buttery toffee is covered with a layer of milk chocolate (I usually opt for dark, but the milk lends a great candy bar-like flavor) and topped with pistachios. And best of all, it was ready to go into pretty little gift bags in under an hour, leaving Mindi and I time to have a leisurely lunch and even do a mini pilates workout. Which might sound crazier than canning three dozen jars of marmalade, but hey, you've got to offset the toffee somehow, right?


Chocolate-pistachio toffee
I started with this recipe from Gourmet, and then made some major tweaks, mainly using pistachios instead of peanuts. A little bit of bright green really says Christmas to me. After reading the numerous comments attached to this recipe, I also made some minor changes to the toffee, like using salted butter instead of salt, and adding six tablespoons of water. (By the way: did you notice that Epicurious now allows you to print selected comments with a recipe? Maybe I'm late to the game on this, but I love that feature.)

4 sticks (1 pound) salted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups sugar
6 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups shelled pistachios
1 1/2 bag milk chocolate chips

*Optional: candy thermometer

Butter two cookie sheets and put on a heatproof surface.

Bring butter, sugar, water, and vanilla to a boil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot over medium-high heat, whisking until smooth, then boil, stirring occasionally, until mixture is deep golden and registers 300 degrees on a candy thermometer, 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove from heat and carefully pour hot toffee between the two pans, as evenly as possible. (Don't worry if it's not perfect.) Spread with a metal spatula, smoothing the top, and let stand 1 minute, then immediately sprinkle the chocolate on top. Let stand until chocolate is melted, about 3 to 4 minutes, then spread over toffee with cleaned spatula. Sprinkle evenly with pistachios, then freeze until chocolate is firm, about 30 minutes. Break into pieces.

Monday, December 15, 2008

guest post: rock the (jingle) bells


Hi all,

Continuing our holiday-centric posts, Dan is here with some stellar soundtrack recommendations for all of your upcoming festivities. He's sort of a secret Christmas music connoisseur. --Lisa

As a Jewish fellah, I didn’t grow up with Christmas music. But as connoisseur of rock and roll arcana, I have developed a fondness for the genre, classics and oddities alike.

The challenge of creating a playlist for your holiday party is that you want to include enough sentimental favorites to kindle the ol’ Festivus spirit without descending into hokeyness. Even the most diehard hipster doesn’t want to hear your collection of obscure dub and Krautrock when the weather outside is frightful. But is that an invitation to snuggle up with Michael Bublé’s Swingin’ Kwanzaa or A Night in the Manger with Seals & Crofts? I say, no, it is not.

With this in mind, here is a holiday party play list that balances fond memories, cool curios, and just the right amount of corn. Confession: A few of these tracks can be found on Elton John’s Christmas Party, which much to my own surprise, is one of the best Christmas comps to come out in recent years. I don’t own it myself, though, because I would have to break my No John Mayer Under Any Circumstances rule. What’s next? “Your Body Is a Winter Wonderland”? Blech.

Hope this is useful. For the love of god, stay away from the caroling cats!

1. James Brown—Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto, available on 20th Century Masters – The Christmas Collection: The Best of James Brown


2. Run-DMC—Christmas in Hollis, available on Greatest Hits

Because Christmas isn’t just for the reindeer sweater, giant-bow-on-a-Lexus crowd.

3. The Funk Brothers—Winter Wonderland (instrumental)


4. Marvin Gaye—Purple Snowflakes, both available on Motown Christmas: Playlist Your Way

The Funk Brothers were the legendary backing band behind Motown’s greatest hits. As for Marvin and his purple snowflakes…he just saw things the rest of us can’t see. [note from Lisa: I really love this song. Just sayin'.]

5. Darlene Love—Marshmallow World, available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

6. Elvis Presley—Santa Claus is Back in Town, available on Elvis’ Christmas Album

Representatives from the two undisputed Greatest Christmas Albums of All Time.

7. The Beach Boys—Santa’s Beard, available on Ultimate Christmas


8. Brian Wilson—Christmasey, available on What I Really Want for Christmas

These aren't radio staples like “Little St. Nick” and “The Man with All the Toys.” Maybe at the North Pole.

9. Bing Crosby & David Bowie—Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy, available on Bing Crosby’s Christmas Classics

10. Magnetic Fields—Mr. Mistletoe, available on Distortion

We now enter the more eccentric portion of our program.

11. Rufus Wainwright—Spotlight on Christmas, available on Elton John’s Christmas Party

12. The Kinks—Father Christmas, available on Come Dancing with The Kinks: The Best of The Kinks 1977-1986

Two great songs that just happen to be about Christmas. The latter is about a Santa-for-hire who gets mugged by the poor kids in the neighborhood. Ah, holiday cheer.

13. My Morning Jacket—Xmas Curtain (live), available on Okonokos


14. The Band—Christmas Must Be Tonight, available on Islands

Is the MMJ song even really about Christmas? Not sure. Let’s pair it with this track by their heroes in the Band just to be safe.

15. Willie Nelson—Christmas in Prison, available on Songbird (itunes version)


16. Elvis Costello & The Chieftains—St. Stephen’s Day Murders, available of Mighty Like a Rose (Expanded Edition)

The dark side of the season. Nothing like an Irish air about poisoning the dinner guests to brighten up your caroling repertoire.

17. Don Byron—Dreidel Song, available on Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz

18. The Klezmatics—Hanukkah Dance, available on Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hannukah


Where my Jews at? Did you know Woody Guthrie married into a Jewish family, moved to Coney Island, and wrote lots of Hanukkah songs? You did? Know-it-all!

19. The Pretenders—2000 Miles, available on Learning to Crawl


20. Keith Sweat—Be Your Santa Claus, available on A Christmas of Love

The former is only the greatest Christmas song ever recorded. The latter is…not. But hey, it’s been a long hard year. Treat yourself.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

holiday party snacks


As promised, here are two recipes designed with LDGTYILA's holiday party in mind. Mint juleps (like the one above) are typically served in the summer around derby time, but their minty sweetness makes them very holiday-appropriate too. The other recipe, parmesan-pepper popcorn, is the perfect thing to scatter around the house in small bowls. Just be sure to have extra popcorn kernels on hand because it will be gone before you even lick the cheese off your fingers. (For more snack ideas, check the archives.)

Mint juleps
Most recipes for mint juleps instruct you to bash the mint and sugar together in a cocktail shaker, but I prefer to make a mint-infused simple syrup and garnish the drinks with a mint spring. This unorthodox technique might get me in trouble in Kentucky, but I think it's a more efficient way of making these drinks for a crowd (you can easily serve it in a punchbowl this way). Plus, you won't get little bits of mint stuck in your teeth.
(Serves 6 people)

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 large handfuls of mint sprigs
1 liter club soda
6 shots bourbon whiskey
ice

In a small saucepan, combine water, sugar, and 1 handful of mint. Turn the heat on medium-low, and stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for about an hour, so the mint really infuses the syrup. If you don't have an hour, let it sit until it comes to room temperature. Pour one shot of whiskey into each glass, add two to three spoonfuls of the mint syrup, then top off each glass with the club soda. Stir, add ice, and garnish with a mint sprig in each glass.


Pepper-parmesan popcorn
Dan and I recently tried out a new restaurant in our neighborhood on opening weekend. The meal was pretty much a disaster except for the pre-dinner snack: a cigar box filled with chile-dusted popcorn. It reminded me of how good freshly-popped corn can be. It's such a simple thing, but feels retro and fresh at the same time. I think it's a nice surprise over the typical guac and chips or bowl of pretzels. Especially when you add parmesan and lots of freshly ground pepper (a la Gourmet). Someone asked me if I sprinkled crack over it, and I have to say, it was pretty addictive.
(Makes about 8 cups)

2 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
2 Tbsp. melted butter
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese (asiago or romano would also work well)
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt

Heat oil with a few popcorn kernels in a tall, large saucepan over medium heat. Cover the pan until you hear the kernels pop. Quickly add the remaining popcorn, then cook, covered, shaking pan frequently, until kernels stop popping, about 3 to 5 minutes. When the popcorn is done, take it off the heat and toss it with the butter, cheese, salt, and pepper. Taste and readjust the seasonings before serving. But try not to eat all of it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

mailbag: how to stay out of the damn kitchen



Dear Lisa [intoned like a Dear Abby letter]:


I'm not sure the comments section of your blog is the appropriate place to ask, but I'm seeking guidance.
I'm throwing a holiday party for probably about 25 guests--the first time I've had that many people over since red cups and a keg were the name of the game. So my question is this: When entertaining that many people for cocktails in your home, how do you manage to stay out of the kitchen the whole time? For a specific example: If you want to serve a fancy signature cocktail, how do you keep from mixing up new batches every 15 minutes, which would prohibit you from having any real conversations? I'm thinking a punch bowl full of egg nog, or some other single holiday-ish drink. Is this gauche? Plus of course lots of wine and other, easier things, and of course, lots of graze-able hors d'oeuvres and crudites all around the house as well. Anyway, what say you? Maybe this can inspire a post.

Fondly,
Less Domestically Gifted Than You in Los Angeles


Dearest LDGTYILA,

I feel your pain. When you're at home alone, the kitchen is like any other room of the house, meaning that you can enter and exit. But when you have people over, suddenly the kitchen develops an invisible dinner party-related force field that sucks you back in at every possible moment. Better go check on that cake in the oven twenty times. Someone ate two olives, you should go get more from the refrigerator. Napkins, anyone? Shoot, you forgot the festive coasters. Go search the entire kitchen for them. And then your party's halfway over and you haven't even really had a chance to sit down, let alone talk to everyone or try your own onion dip. Obviously, as a host, you want to make sure your guests are well-fed and socially lubricated, and the tools to achieve those things are usually in the kitchen. The trick is to get in and out as quickly as possible.

You're on the right track with a punchbowl. Punch is cool again, didn't you hear? If you want to serve a special cocktail in addition to a big-batch drink, set up all of your ingredients in a prominent area where people will congregate. Then, when someone inevitably asks you: "What can I do to help?" just hand them the cocktail shaker and your recipe. Everyone likes playing bartender, and it's a good way to get strangers talking. But choose wisely: you don't want hot buttered rum all over your carpet or someone who will pour weak drinks, or even worse, drink the entire bar themselves.

So drinks are solved. What about food? While it's impossible to stay out of the kitchen completely, you can definitely spend more time with your friends if you make food ahead of time. Have room temperature food plated before everyone arrives. A bowl of chips can sit out for a few hours, so get that kind of stuff out of the way first. If you're serving cold or hot food, do it in stages. Bring out the cold food first while the hot food is cooking, or vice-versa. Then you'll have a little time to hang out with everyone and eat in between. I used to put everything out all at once, buffet-style, but I've found that it's easier and more fun to bring out food in stages throughout the night. It makes things a little more exciting and I think people end up enjoying the food more because there is the constant surprise of not knowing what's next.

Your plan to place food throughout the house is great. The dinner party force-field effect also occurs in other areas of the house, causing people to congregate in small spaces like sheep in a pen. Spread the snacks around and you won't discover 20 people mingling in your hallway.

Tomorrow I'll post two recipes that might come in handy for your holiday shindig.

Yours,
Lisa

PS to everyone: I love letters! Send more my way.

Monday, December 8, 2008

link-o-rama

Looking for things to take to all those holiday parties filling up your calendar? Here's a few links to help you get inspired:

Edible gift recipes (candied nuts, fruit compote) from New York chefs [via NYMag]

A round-up of Thanksgiving appetizer ideas that can work for any cocktail party [via The NYT]

Cookies from Gourmet's archives, which date back to the 1940's. Scotch oat crunchies, anyone? [via Gourmet]

Yummy-looking dark chocolate tart with a gingersnap crust [via Smitten Kitchen]

Altoid brownies (yes, Altoid brownies) from Baked bakery in Brooklyn, made lovingly by David Lebovitz in Paris. It's a small, small world, isn't it? [via David Lebovitz]

I know I professed my newfound love of brussels sprouts earlier, but this brussels sprout Christmas tree might be crossing the line [via Apartment Therapy]

Thursday, December 4, 2008

chocolate cake: one that's good for you and one that's very very bad.

I used to work at a women's magazine that purposely ran giant photos of multi-layered chocolate cakes adorned with chocolate-covered strawberries, whipped cream poufs, and cut-up twinkies (I kid you not). The more dripping with sugar the better, because calories didn't really count. My editor believed that simply gazing at chocolate cake would produce the same serotonin boost in the brain as actually eating a slice.

So take a good, hard look, readers. Nice, but I'd rather eat it--wouldn't you?

Chocolate's not the worst thing you can consume in moderation. I just tried a chocolate cake made with a surprisingly healthy secret ingredient. At a recent dinner party, my lovely friend Jennifer asked what she could bring. I didn't have a game plan for dinner yet, so I suggested a dessert. I'm not quite on the gluten-free bandwagon yet, so it's an easy thing for someone else to take off my hands. And that way everyone else can enjoy something other than ice cream or gluten-free fruit crisps, two things I can serve with confidence. She wrote back, "We’ll bring a gluten-free dessert on the 22nd–what time?" Imagining her spending hours in the supermarket squinting over labels, or concocting some flop of a cake with three different types of rice-based flour, I told her not to worry, that anything would be fine, gluten-free or not. Really, don't go to any trouble for little old me! Undeterred, she showed up with a decadent-looking gluten-free chocolate cake and hot fudge sauce. Wow. Lesson learned: never underestimate Jennifer.


Gluten-free chickpea chocolate cake
This is not a cake of the Duncan Hines variety. It's more like the whole wheat bread equivalent of chocolate cake: wholesome and dense with a thin, brownie-like crispness on top. When Jennifer told me it was made with chickpeas, I assumed she meant chickpea flour, but it's actually made with canned beans! Don't be scared. If she hadn't said anything, I don't think anyone would have thought this cake was gluten-free. Or made with chickpeas. The original recipe, which is highly ranked on AllRecipes, can be found here.

1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 (19 oz.) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. confectioners' sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan. Place the chocolate chips into a microwave-safe bowl. Cook in the microwave for about 2 minutes, stirring every 20 seconds after the first minute, until chocolate is melted and smooth. If you have a powerful microwave, reduce the power to 50 percent. (You can also melt them in a small pan on low heat on the stove, or over a double boiler) Combine the beans and eggs in a food processor and process until smooth. Add the sugar and the baking powder, and pulse to blend. Pour in the melted chocolate and blend until smooth, scraping down the corners to make sure chocolate is completely mixed. Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pan. Bake for 40 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes before inverting onto a serving plate.


Hot fudge sauce
A cake like this calls for a nice, thick sauce. Jennifer wisely opted for homemade hot fudge from AllRecipes. Even more wisely, she left the jar in our fridge, and I have been slowly draining it ever since.

4 (1 oz.) squares unsweetened chocolate (Or cut the sugar down to 1/2 cup and use 1 oz. semisweet chocolate)
1 cup white sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Place the chocolate in a microwave safe bowl and cook on high 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until mostly melted. Transfer to a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat and stir in sugar, salt, and butter. Stir in cream, a little at a time until smooth. Heat through, without boiling, then remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Store in refrigerator.

And now for the very, very bad. For Thanksgiving, I wanted to make a dessert other than pumpkin pie. I considered pears baked in wine, and my trusty fruit crisp, and then I thought about doing a flourless chocolate cake. Even though everyone always goes for the pumpkin pie anyway, I thought what the heck. After finding the cake almost three-quarters gone, post-Thanksgiving dinner, I think I made the right choice.



Flourless chocolate cake with caramel sauce
There's nary a chickpea in sight in this recipe, another winner from BA. Just chocolate, butter, eggs, sugar, and more butter. Slice this cake thinly, it's like a fudgy, extra moist brownie.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into pieces
8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup sifted unsweetened cocoa powder
6 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch springform pan. Stir butter and chocolate in heavy large saucepan over low heat until melted. Mix sugar and cocoa in large bowl. Add eggs; whisk until well blended. Whisk in chocolate-butter mixture. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cake completely in pan on rack. Run knife around pan sides to loosen cake. Release pan sides.

Caramel sauce
This buttery, slightly salty sauce pairs well with this cake. Or ice cream...

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 tsps. fresh lemon juice
1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbsp. (1/4 stick) unsalted butter

Stir sugar, water, and lemon juice in heavy medium saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring until syrup is deep amber color, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat. Add in cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Return to low heat; stir until any bits of caramel dissolve. Add butter; whisk until smooth. Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

dishes new and old

Oof. That's all I can say post-Thanksgiving. Too much food, too much wine, too many slices of leftover pumpkin pie for breakfast. Don't get me wrong, I love I looove pie for breakfast but it's all a bit much.

Fullness aside, what I love most about Thanksgiving is the potluck nature of dinner. In my family everyone contributes something (well, at least the women do). Some dishes, like my Nanny's cranberry sauce, are things I've been eating as long as I can remember. Others, like my roasted brussels sprouts, are newer additions to the table. And now that Dan and I have combined our families for the holiday, we've got even more food to be thankful for--like a perfectly roasted turkey with gluten-free stuffing courtesy of my mother-in-law.

While it seems a bit strange to share Thanksgiving recipes with you after the fact, these side dishes would be great for Christmas or any other dinner party.

Thanksgiving dinner '08

Roasted turkey and gravy
Cornbread stuffing with dried apples and sausage
Steamed green beans with citrus zest
Sauteed mushrooms
Mashed sweet potatoes
Roasted brussels sprouts with bacon and lemon
Nanny's cranberry sauce
Pumpkin pie
Apple pie
Flourless chocolate cake with caramel sauce

Roasted brussels sprouts with bacon and lemon
Oh, I hated brussels sprouts as a kid. Hated them. Had to sit at the dinner table long after everyone had finished because I wouldn't eat my vegetables. Even though I was being sort of a brat, my six-year-old palate wasn't too far off. When boiled, brussels sprouts turn into sour little stink bombs. But a few years ago, brussels sprouts started popping up on menus in restaurants I liked. So I tried to get over my childhood paranoia and roasted them with bacon and lemon as instructed from this recipe from BA. The effect was completely different: the sprouts were caramelized, slightly sweet, and deliciously smoky from a generous portion of bacon. In short, delicious. These will convert the most brussels sprouts scarred person.

1 1/2 pounds brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
1 1/4 cups diced bacon (about 6 ounces)
zest and juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
(Serves 6 to 8 people)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook brussels sprouts in medium saucepan of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain. Spread brussels sprouts on rimmed baking sheet in single layer. Sprinkle with bacon, lemon zest, juice, salt, and pepper; stir. Roast brussels sprouts until tender and beginning to brown, stirring every 10 minutes, about 30 minutes. Transfer to bowl and serve.


Nanny's cranberry sauce
This what I always ask for around the holidays. Yes, it's a Jell-O mold, but it's been one of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes since I was a kid. Call it comfort food. Unlike modern cranberry sauces with ingredients like orange zest and spicy peppers and triple sec, this version is very 1950's in its jiggly, walnut-studded, pineapple-filled glory. I usually eat it straight out of the Tupperware the next day.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)

2 cups hot water
1 can whole bean cranberry sauce
2 boxes cranberry-raspberry Jell-O
1/2 cup. chopped walnuts
1 small can crushed pineapple (about 1 cup)

In a medium-sized bowl, combine hot water and the can of cranberry sauce. Stir until the sauce is fairly broken down. Add the Jell-O powder and stir until combined. Stir in the pineapple and walnuts. Pour into a plastic mold (or serving bowl) and refrigerate overnight.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

adios (and a few menu ideas)

Hi all,

Pardon my absence for a little while. Dan and I are heading down to Florida to spend some time with our family. On the agenda: catching up with the parents, reading the paper by the pool, eating oysters on my birthday, a day trip to South Beach, playing with the dogs, and consuming obscene amounts of my Nanny's cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving. (Recipe to come.)

Speaking of which, looking for dishes to supplement that turkey or ham? Here's a few ideas from the archives:

Appetizers
Curried deviled eggs
Sausage rolls
Spiced cashews
Sweet and spicy peanuts
Sweet potato pancakes

Drinks
Sparkling ginger cocktail
Big apple cocktail
Fall sangria

Sides
Braised red cabbage with apples and caraway seeds
Orzo with cinnamon brown butter and parsley
Roasted beets with horseradish and fried capers
Roasted acorn squash with maple syrup and nutmeg
Twice-baked potatoes

Desserts
Pear crisp with vanilla brown butter
Pumpkin custard

Happy Thanksgiving!
Lisa

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

snacks for thanksgiving (or any time)


Can you believe it's almost Thanksgiving? I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I don't even know what I'm making yet.

I volunteered to contribute a vegetable (maybe roasted brussels sprouts? or butternut squash?), a dessert (possibly a flourless chocolate cake, or roasted pears, or maybe a ricotta cheesecake?) and an appetizer (um..??). Luckily my mother-in-law is in charge of the turkey and my mom is picking up the rest of the slack. Thanks, Mom(s).

Over the past few years, I've always made some sort of hors d'ouevres for Thanksgiving. Nothing fancy—deviled eggs, blue cheese dip with celery sticks, or even guacamole and chips (hey, my family lives in Florida). Most people just want something to nibble on before the main event, so you really only need to serve one thing. A bowl of nuts is lovely. Or a platter of cheeses. Or some olives. Really, anything bite-sized that hungry people can grab as they hover in the kitchen, sticking their fingers in all the pots. An even better idea: place the snacks in another room to keep everyone out your hair and the stuffing.

Here's a few snacks I've made for recent dinner parties that I may revisit on Thanksgiving. What are you all serving?

Bacon-wrapped dates with parmesan
This recipe (available from many places, including Gourmet) has gotten me through many a dinner party. Smoky, salty, and sweet, these dates (shown above) are kind of the best thing you'll ever put in your mouth. If you serve them, dinner will be a success, even if you burn everything else.
(Serves about 6 people)

18 (1- by 1/4-inch) sticks Parmigiano-Reggiano (from a 1/2-lb piece)
18 pitted dates
6 bacon slices, cut crosswise into thirds (I tried this with regular and turkey bacon, and both work, although I prefer the pork)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Stuff 1 piece of cheese into each date, then wrap 1 piece of bacon around each date, securing it with a pick, or placing the dates with the bacon fold side down. Arrange the dates 1 inch apart in a shallow baking pan. Bake 5 minutes, then turn dates over with tongs and bake until bacon is crisp, 5 to 6 minutes more. Drain on a paper towel. Serve immediately.

Lamb meatballs
I've had this recipe by Melissa Clark bookmarked for awhile and my quasi-Mediterranean dinner for Megan seemed like the perfect time to try it out. These are not your average meatballs: the cinnamon, parsley, and mint add brightness and an extra depth of flavor. One change: grate the onion instead of mincing it. Bits of raw onion do no one any favors.

As you'll see below, I made many tweaks to this recipe.
In my ongoing quest to cut out gluten, I omitted the breadcrumbs and one egg. Although everyone liked the end result very much, if you can eat bread, I would recommend keeping the recipe as-is because it will make the meatballs more tender and juicy.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. ground lamb
1/2 cup minced onion (I recommend grating it)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs (I omitted this)
2 eggs (I used one)
2 Tbsp. chopped mint
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped dill (I used parsley)
1 Tbsp. plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt

Preheat your broiler. Brush a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil. In a large bowl, combine the lamb, onion, bread crumbs, eggs, mint, lemon juice, cinnamon, 1 tablespoon of the dill (or parsley), 2 tsp. of garlic and 1 tsp. of salt; knead until combined. Form the mixture into 1 1/4-inch meatballs. Arrange the meatballs on the oiled baking sheet and broil as close to the heat as possible for 6 minutes, turning the pan halfway through, until firm and lightly browned.

Herbed yogurt sauce
This sauce is also great with grilled meat. You can also add a chopped cucumber to turn it into a slightly more substantial side dish.

(Serves 4 to 6 people)

8 oz. container Greek yogurt or plain whole milk yogurt
juice of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped mint
1 clove garlic, minced
salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Sweet potato pancakes
I love potato pancakes and was inspired to make them with sweet potatoes from a recent article in Mark Bittman's blog. The recipe was sort of loose and seemed deceptively simple, having only one ingredient: sweet potatoes. After scraping burned bits of sweet potato out of my frying pan, I can conclude it's just deceptive. So I regrouped, added two eggs, and produced a light and slightly sweet potato pancake that held together.
(Serves about 6 to 8 people)
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, grated
2 eggs
2 tsp. nutmeg
1 Tbsp. salt, plus more
2 Tbsp. butter

Combine all ingredients except the butter in a large mixing bowl. Stir until combined. Heat a medium-sized frying pan to medium-high heat and add the butter. When it melts and starts to bubble, spoon 1/3 cup sized portions of the shredded potato mixture into the pan. Let the pancakes cook for about 3 minutes, then flatten with a spatula and flip, cooking about 3 more minutes on the other side, or until browned. When done, drain the pancakes on a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately with 1/2 cup sour cream mixed with the juice and zest of one lime.

Monday, November 24, 2008

pay-offs


Sometimes, this dinner party thing...it's not so easy. Like when you've got three pots on the stove and it's an hour before six people arrive, and the lights in the living room keep flickering on and off and on and off. Until they go dead. You think about lighting 50 tea lights, but a dark, candlelit room might seem a bit creepy to everyone, especially those guests you don't really know all that well yet. So you drag out the stepstool and try to reach the overhead light, and curse all 5 foot 1 inches of yourself. Luckily, your helpful, slightly taller husband comes and switches out the dead light bulbs, just in time for you to rush back to the stove and rescue the potatoes from burning. That light fixture--it looks a little loose to you too, right? You start to imagine it crashing down on someone's head and the eventual lawsuit and the fact that you'd have to repay the injured party in meals. Lots of meals.

Deep breath.

And then your friends arrive, coming in from the cold, shrugging off their winter coats. Thoughtful people that they are, they're bearing wine, and homemade pumpkin ice cream, and (gluten-free!) chocolate cake, and a wedge of Humbolt Fog, your favorite cheese ever. And wine glasses are filled and passed around and thoughts of that damn wobbly light fixture start to fade. And dinner is fine. There's juicy chicken legs with crispy skin and no one cares that the potatoes are slightly burned. Everyone drinks a lot and has fun. Which is always good. So much so that they even offer to wash the dishes before they leave. Which is incredibly generous (thank you, Mark), but also a no-no. I mean...right? Absolutely not. So everyone heads home except for the last friend standing, and you linger until after midnight finishing up the wine and talking sleepily about the virtues of Mariah Carey until it is bedtime. And even though there is a scary amount of dirty dishes staring you down, you wash them smiling.

Sometimes it can seem like a marathon when you have people over, but there is always a pay-off in the end. The immediate pay-off of friendship rekindled or solidified, but sometimes thank-you notes the next day, and a copy of the New Yorker food issue waiting for you on your doorstop. Which motivates you to plan your next dinner party.


Hearty fall dinner for six
Bacon-wrapped dates
Sweet potato pancakes
Roasted chicken with potatoes and tomatoes
Braised red cabbage with apples and caraway seeds
Pumpkin ice cream
Chocolate cake with chocolate sauce


Braised red cabbage with apples and caraway seeds
I amped up the vinegar and honey in this recipe (from the Joy of Cooking) to make the cabbage even more tangy, but if you're timid about vinegar, start with 3 tablespoons and taste as you go.


4 slices bacon, sliced into 1/2 inch strips.
3 Tbsp. finely chopped onion
1 medium head red cabbage, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
1 large Granny Smith apple, sliced into matchsticks
6 Tbsp. apple cider or red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. caraway seeds

Heat a large, nonreactive skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the bacon and cook until it releases its fat and starts to brown. Add the onions and cook until translucent and slightly golden. Add cabbage, apple, vinegar, honey, salt, and caraway seeds; then cover pan and cook over medium-low heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is very soft but not falling apart, about an hour.


Roasted chicken legs with tomatoes and potatoes
This recipe, from Jamie's Dinners, could not be simpler. Like a lot of Jamie Oliver's dishes, you just chuck everything into a pan and roast until done. It's the combination of ingredients that's brilliant: the chicken gets crispy, the tomatoes form a delicious jammy sauce, the potatoes soak in the savory chicken juices, and the garlic roasts in its own skin, creating a delectable, spreadable paste.


6 chicken legs, thighs and drumsticks
2 large handfuls of new potatoes, sliced in half, length-wise
2 pints cherry tomatoes
10 cloves garlic, skins on
1 Tbsp. chili flakes
1 handful basil leaves
Olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Season your chicken with salt and pepper and place the legs in two roasting pans. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic cloves dividing them equally between the two pans. Drizzle liberally with olive oil. Bake for about one hour, pull out the pans and stir the potatoes and tomatoes to keep them from sticking. Scatter the basil leaves on top and continue baking for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken skin is golden brown and crispy. Insert a knife into the thigh to check if the chicken juices run clear (a sign of doneness). Serve hot, on a large platter. Tell guests to squeeze the roasted garlic out of the husks and mix it with the potatoes. Amazingly delicious.

Friday, November 21, 2008

dinner party on design*sponge


Hi everyone,

I'm on Design*Sponge today! Grace was nice enough to let me contribute some fall cocktail recipes (like the fall sangria above) for her Friday "In the Kitchen With" feature. I couldn't be more excited to be part of a site I've read and loved for years. It's really an honor.

Hope you enjoy these drinks this weekend!
Lisa

PS: Hello to any new readers—have a look around and say hi in the comments!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

dinner on the cheap: brunch


Yeah, I know. Brunch isn't dinner. When I was a kid, sometimes my mom would make eggs and bacon for dinner, which always seemed exciting for some reason, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about having people over for brunch instead of dinner. It's a great alternative for lots of reasons, especially cost-wise. A dozen eggs can cheaply feed a lot of people—at least six or more, depending on whether you're making them sunny side up or in a quiche. Don't like eggs? Brunch-y baked goods like pancakes and waffles are equally affordable when made from scratch, although they can be a bit more time-consuming. That's why I'm in the egg and bacon camp.

Still not sold?

Pros:
--Brunch is inherently more casual. Which can be extra nice for people with kids or people who aren't into cocktail parties.
--Bacon
--There are less courses, meaning less money and clean-up.
--Usually, brunch isn't as much of a time commitment as dinner. A few hours, tops.
--Bacon
--Brunch is a good alternative for a non-drinking crowd, but if your guests are into drinking, you can serve mimosas, bloody marys, or seabreezes.

Cons:
--You (and your guests) have to wake up early.
--You need to serve coffee. Or tea. Or anything with caffeine. Otherwise you might have a group nap on your hands.
--Brunch doesn't have as much of a dress-up, special occasion feel.

Mainly, though, it's a nice kick-off to the weekend. A homemade morning meal puts everyone in a good mood and then leaves you the rest of your day to do whatever you want.

A few weekends ago, my friend Amanda came over for brunch. We ate eggs, caught up on each other's lives, and then went on our merry, separate ways to the gym. There's something really satisfying about making time for friends without it being a big production. Sure, we could have gone to a restaurant, but it was nicer to linger in the living room rather than being stared down by a hungry line of brunch-goers waiting for a table.

Brunch for Amanda
Mushroom and parmesan frittata
Spicy roasted potatoes
Fruit salad with yogurt and almonds

Mushroom and parmesan frittata
If you don't like mushrooms, you can substitute any type of sauteed greens, tomatoes, or cubed, roasted potatoes. You can also use any other type of cheese.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)

3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces mushrooms, thinly sliced (I used criminis, or baby bella mushrooms)
1 Tbsp. thyme
6 large eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup, plus 2 Tbsp. grated parmesan
pinch of salt and pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and thyme and sautee until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, cheese, salt, and pepper until combined. Drain any liquid from the mushrooms, patting them dry with a paper towel, if needed. Add the mushrooms to the egg mixture. Pour the mushroom-egg mixture back into the skillet (make sure it is oven-proof) or into a 9-inch ovenproof casserole dish. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the frittata is puffed and golden around the edges and slightly soft in the center. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan on top. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Spicy roasted potatoes
This recipe came together sort of spontaneously--I had potatoes, tomatoes, and an onion in the fridge, all of which went into a roasting pan, creating a spicy, savory version of hash browns.
(serves 4 people)

1 lb. fingerling potatoes, cut into 1 inch pieces
1/2 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, whole
1 onion, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
pinch salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place the vegetables in a roasting pan, and drizzle with the olive oil. Toss to coat. Sprinkle on the red pepper flakes, paprika, salt, and pepper and toss to coat. Bake for 15 minutes, then toss the potatoes, and bake for 10-15 minutes more, or until they are browned and soft inside. Add a sprinkle of coarse salt and serve hot.

Monday, November 17, 2008

link-o-rama

Link time!

Ina Garten's interesting-sounding recipe for roasted shrimp cocktail sounds like a great Thanksgiving starter. [via Serious Eats]

Thanksgiving wine picks from The New York Times. What makes a wine "Thanksgiving" appropriate, anyway? Eric Asimov, the paper's wine critic says it's challenging to find wine that can complement such a wide variety of dishes, but isn't that the case with almost any meal? [via the NYT]

A pretty and delicious-sounding fall cocktail, the Northwood #2, made with apple cider, maple syrup, and rum [via BA]

The Chicago Sun-Times has the best meatless Thanksgiving dinner I've read about in awhile. It's from Molly Harrison, the chef at Green Zebra, a well-regarded vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. The menu: mushroom-chestnut cobbler, glazed sweet potatoes, roasted beet salad with oranges and cranberries, and apple crumb pie. Yum.

But even better is her advice. Here are a few smart tips from Harrison we can all use when it comes to Thanksgiving or any dinner party:

-Keep it simple. Don't over-complex your meal; cook simply. Or make it a potluck and ask each guest to bring a dish.

-Use foods in season. For example, don't use strawberries for Thanksgiving. Instead, use apples --they're in their prime. Serve baked apples, apple butter, casseroles with apples, apple pie. Serve fall and winter squash. Simply cut it in half, put it on a tray, add some butter, salt and pepper and roast it in a 350-degree oven for an hour or so. Use beets, root vegetables -- they are very tasty.

-If you find making homemade rolls impossible, bake easy-to-make popovers or even bake refrigerated or frozen rolls or bread.

-Don't sweat it if your dish doesn't look like the picture in the Martha Stewart magazine. Your guests didn't see the photo. Don't bring it up.
[via the Chicago Sun-Times]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

a cold-weather salad


I tend to think of main-dish salads as hot weather food. Fall is for soups, and stews, and warm roasted things. But like a lot of people, all this hearty eating eventually makes me feel a little heavy. And bulky sweaters can only conceal so much, you know. So I revisit salad. A nice big plate of mixed greens is great, but when you add a few seasonal ingredients (roasted squash, nuts, apples, braised meat) you've got a dinner worthy of company and something easy enough to throw together on any weeknight.

A few weekends ago, I cobbled together a roasted duck salad inspired by a recent visit to Northeast Kingdom, a super charming restaurant in Brooklyn. I didn't get the recipe from the chef, but I mentally cataloged all of the components (shredded duck, pomegranate seeds, chopped dates, parsley) then tried to reproduce it at home. I made a few changes, adding oranges and pistachios and omitting the dates. Although the restaurant's version had more of a spicy sweetness, my orange zest-infused dressing paired well with the duck. Speaking of which, this was my first time cooking duck. I'm not sure why I put it off for so long. I guess duck always sounded complicated and greasy, but I can happily report it was no more time consuming or difficult than cooking chicken or turkey. If you're still duck-shy, you could substitute slices of roasted squash, grilled steak or chicken.

Roasted duck salad
(Serves about 4 people)

For the salad:
2 boneless duck breasts, skin on
5 oz. baby greens (I used Earthbound Farm's herb mix, which was nice)
2 heads endive, sliced
2 oranges, segmented
1 handful pomegranate seeds
1 handful pistachio seeds, shelled
salt and pepper
olive oil

For the dressing:
1 Tbsp. minced shallots
2 1/2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. orange zest
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the duck breasts on a foil-lined cookie sheet, skin side up. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Roast for about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the duck. The juices should run clear when the center of each breast is with a knife. Remove from the oven, wrap the duck in the foil, and let it rest for about 10 minutes to seal in the juices. Unwrap the duck (watch out for the hot steam), then remove the skin and set it aside. Using a serrated knife, slice the duck and skin thinly and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk all of the dressing ingredients together until combined. If you want to make the dressing a bit richer, add a spoonful or two of the pan juices from the roast duck. Yum. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, endive, and fruit. Pour the dressing over the salad, and toss until combined. Plate the salad and arrange the duck slices on top. Sprinkle with pistachios and sliced duck skin.

Serve with:
Roasted acorn squash (click, then scroll down for the recipe)
Pumpkin custard

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

link-o-rama

Hi all,

Ready for turkey day? No? Maybe these links will help whet your appetite:

For the budget-minded (and who isn't these days?), the ever-impressive Jacques Pepin makes a five-course dinner for six people--for under $24. What's on the menu? Short ribs with mushrooms, cabbage slaw with mustard dressing, sweet and sour glazed squash, sauteed cabbage with kielbasa, and baked apples for dessert. [via the Washington Post]
A dinner party-worthy fall side dish: Spaghetti squash with ricotta, sage, and pine nuts. [via Serious Eats]

Melissa Clark reinvents the Thanksgiving breadbasket. Her corn and black pepper crackers sound like a major step up from Pillsbury twisty breadsticks. [via the NYT]

20 Thanksgiving menus
from Bon Appetit. [via BA]

Monday, November 10, 2008

a very special soup


Last week's election was one of those days I'll always remember, down to the smallest details: the excitement on everyone's faces emerging from the voting booths, the album I listened to when waiting in line to vote (Vampire Weekend's Vampire Weekend), nervously refreshing NYT.com a million times at work, what I wore (a purple sweater vest over a white t-shirt and jeans), and most importantly, what I ate.

Instead of going out to watch the returns, Dan and I decided to hunker down in our apartment with our neighbor Caledonia (of peach jam fame) and her adorable daughter Selena. We've only hung out together a few times, and mostly know each other in the unfamiliar-yet-entirely-intimate way of being neighbors in an old building with thin walls. But we both wanted to be home on election night and agreed it would be more fun to spend it together. The day before, Caledonia emailed me to say she would make soup and Selena would make cookies, and I agreed to provide the salad and wine. This was not a time to fuss with food--my stomach was in knots the entire day. More than anything, I just wanted a strong drink.

But when I walked into Caledonia's apartment and smelled this spicy, tomato-ey aroma, I instantly relaxed a bit and exhaled the breath I had been holding all day long. There was soup. Everything would be okay, no matter what. We poured wine, gathered around the TV, and cheered as each blue state was announced. Obama's speech and the excitement leading up to it will always be the center of my memory of that night, but my memories are always intertwined with food, and the scent of that comforting soup will always be there too. A bowl of soup and a mix of anxiousness and elation and feeling permanently connected to people I'm just beginning to know.


Election night dinner
Spicy chickpea, sausage, and tomato soup
Spinach salad with parmesan and green apples
Humbolt Fog cheese
Ginger cookies and ice cream

Chickpea, sausage, and tomato soup

Apologies for the blurry photo above, it was snapped with much haste. In reality, this is a very pretty soup, deeply flavored with cumin, jalapeño, and sausage. Caledonia says she clipped this recipe from a copy of Bon Appetit dating back to 1995 and has held onto it since. After tasting it, I agree it's definitely a keeper. Serve with chopped cilantro and avocado. A dollop of sour cream might be nice too.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)

1 tsp. olive oil
3/4 lb. turkey sausage, casings removed, crumbled
8 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup canned diced peeled tomatoes with juices
2 Tbsp. thinly sliced seeded jalapeño
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
3 15- to 16-oz. cans chickpeas, undrained
2 cups canned chicken broth or beef broth
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Chopped fresh cilantro
1 avocado, peeled, sliced

Heat olive oil in heavy large Dutch oven (or stock pan) over medium-high heat. Add turkey sausage and chopped garlic and sauté until sausage is golden brown and cooked through, breaking up sausage with back of fork, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add tomatoes with their juices, sliced jalapeño chili, ground cumin and chopped fresh rosemary and simmer 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add chickpeas with their liquid and chicken broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer soup 15 minutes. Stir in fresh lemon juice. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat before continuing.) Ladle soup into bowls. Sprinkle soup with chopped fresh cilantro and top with sliced avocado. Serve immediately.

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