Monday, October 25, 2010

mailbag: in search of kick ass pad thai

Dear Lisa,

I made Mark Bittman's pad Thai recipe a while ago and it sucked. I mean, really sucked. Too much fish sauce or was inedible. Anyway, we have no good Thai restaurants where we live and I would love some shrimp pad Thai. I have all the ingredients, but am nervous to give it another go.  Any chance you want to take on my challenge to make a kick-ass pad Thai at home?

Pad Thai-Less in Vermont

First off, not to knock Mark Bittman, but I have had the same experience with some of his recipes. And so have other people I know. My mother-in-law, a fantastic cook and baker, screwed up a simple recipe for popovers because he didn't give correct baking instructions. (You put the popovers in a cold oven, then turn on the heat, Mr. B.) So don't feel bad, PTLIV, A.K.A., my friend Mindi.

Before attempting this dish, I had never made pad Thai from scratch at home. I've eaten it plenty of times in restaurants, tasty and gloppy versions alike. In my experience, pad Thai is not a uniform dish and it varies widely depending on the chef. Ideally, I wanted my homemade version to not be overly cloying or sticky, and to have some freshness from herbs and texture from eggs, peanuts, and the other typical add-ins.

While doing some research I came across Pim Techamuanvivit's (A.K.A. Chez Pim) recipe for "pad Thai for beginners." She says that there are four essential ingredients in pad Thai sauce: "tamarind pulp (for the sour flavor), fish sauce (for the salty part), palm sugar (for a slight sweetness), and paprika or Thai chili powder (for the spice)." She recommends making a big batch of sauce, then making each portion of pad thai to order, combining the noodles, sauce, and other ingredients in a wok. This method makes a lot of sense if you're feeding a crowd.

The second place I looked was an old favorite cookbook of mine, Vegetarian Planet by Didi Emmons. Her recipe, "Your Pad Thai or Mine" replaced the tamarind paste and palm sugar with lime juice and brown sugar. While her version didn't seem as authentic, I had all of the ingredients on hand, so I decided to give it a try on a Monday night after work.

Maybe if I had made this dish on a Saturday or Sunday night things would have gone a little differently. I quickly scanned the ingredients list and got to chopping. There's a lot of prep involved: cooking rice noodles, toasting and chopping peanuts, scrambling two eggs, mincing garlic, chopping scallions and cilantro. Then you whisk lime juice, brown sugar, fish sauce, and chile paste into a pungent sauce.

The kitchen counter was a mess (yes, that is my ENTIRE kitchen counter), but everything seemed to be coming together nicely. I sipped a glass of wine, thought about the annoying thing that happened that day at work, talked to Dan about the Mad Men finale, scrambled my eggs, re-checked the recipe, and then...wait? What? I need to mince some ginger? Okay, no big deal. A minute later, I distractedly dropped a carton of bean sprouts on the floor, then realized I forgot to julienne a carrot. Whew! 
Once all of the prep was done, I sauteed the ginger and garlic with the carrots, scallions, and shrimp, then added the sauce, eggs, and noodles. In the end, the pad Thai was not the end of me and I served it forth. Maybe a bit later than we typically eat dinner, but whatever.

The verdict? Interesting. It was much lighter than any pad Thai I've ever tasted. The sauce was subtle, and not as thick as usual. Because the sauce wasn't the main focus, each ingredient came through. I could taste the sweetness of the shrimp and eggs, the bright greenness of the cilantro and scallions, the acid from the lime juice. Perhaps a spoonful of tamarind paste would give this dish more complexity, but Dan and I liked my lightened up version very much.

One rule of advice: make your mise en place beforehand and double-check that you didn't miss anything. This recipe is all in the prep. Once you've gotten everything ready, the dish takes five minutes to assemble and serve. But if you forget to mince the ginger or julienne a carrot, you'll feel like you're stuck in an ingredient pile-up on the pad Thai highway.

Got a dinner party connundrum? Email me at lisadinnerparty(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

 Pad Thai
Adapted from Didi Emmons' "Your Pad Thai or Mine" in Vegetarian Planet. Emmons says: "Do not try to reheat this dish in the microwave. A friend of mine did, and it became a large and scary gelatinous glob of noodles that was absolutely inedible." So, you've been warned.
(Serves 4 people)

3/4 lb. dried rice noodles (the width of fettuccine or linguine)
¼ cup lime juice, or more, to taste (from about 3 limes)
3 Tbsp. fish sauce
2 1/2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 to 2 tsps. hot chile sauce (I used a Thai chile paste, but I'm sure Sriracha would work too)
3 Tbsp. canola or corn oil
2 eggs, beaten
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 carrot, peeled and cut into thin julienne strips
5 scallions, halved lengthwise, then cut into 2-inch lengths
1 cup mung bean sprouts
¼ cup dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts, toasted until golden, then chopped
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, sliced into quarters
1 lb. shrimp, cleaned, de-shelled, and de-veined

Cook the noodles in hot water according to the package directions, then drain them. (At this point you can store them, covered, for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.) In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, fish sauce or salt, sugar, chile sauce, and 1 tablespoon water.

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a large non-stick skillet, and cook the eggs over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the eggs are barely cooked, transfer them to a plate.

In the same skillet (rinsed if necessary), add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Over medium heat, add the garlic and ginger. Sauté for about 30 seconds, then add the carrots, scallions, and shrimp. Sauté until the shrimp are pink, stirring frequently. Add the lime juice mixture, then the drained noodles. Cook the noodles, stirring constantly, until they are tender but still chewy, about 1 minute. Add a bit more lime juice, if desired, and the sprouts and the scrambled eggs, stirring well. 

Quickly divide the mixture among plates, sprinkle with the peanuts and cilantro, garnish with the lime slices, and serve.

Friday, October 22, 2010

golden delicious

So you know that apple tart I told you about? The one with the delicious apple-spice syrup you brush on top? Well, I had a lot of leftover syrup. It tasted so nice that I couldn't bring myself to pour it down the drain. So I decided to tinker around with it and make a cocktail. My first inclination was to reach for the whiskey. Bourbon would be nice as well, but I didn't have any. And then I tasted the syrup again and thought about rum.
You might think this syrup would taste very apple-cinnamon-y. But the addition of cloves gives it spicy, cola-like undertones that reminded me of a really good soda. Which put me in a rum and Coke state of mind, I guess. I filled a glass with ice, added a shot of rum, a few spoonfuls of syrup, and topped the whole thing off with club soda. It tasted nice, but it needed something. Acid. To cut the sweetness and play off the rum, I added the juice of a lime. Depending on your taste, you might want to scale it back to half a lime, but I love citrus.

The overall effect? It doesn't scream apple or spice, but there's a mellow, autumnal rum and Coke thing going on that's quite tasty.

Apple-spice syrup
Adapted from David Tanis
(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

1 cup sugar

1 cup water
1/2 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
4-5 apple cores, or 2 apples peeled and sliced into quarters

Put all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then let it simmer until it thickens into a syrup, about 10 minutes. Strain and reserve the syrup. Let cool.

Golden Delicious
Omit the rum and you've got a nice homemade soda.
(Makes 1 drink)

Fill a drinking glass halfway with ice. Add 1 shot (or more, if you like a stiffer drink) of gold rum. Add two spoonfuls of apple-spice syrup, the juice of one lime and stir. Fill halfway with club soda and stir. Taste and readjust the ingredients if you'd like a sweeter or stronger drink.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

apple tart

The short window between late summer and early fall is my favorite time to go to the farmers market. There are still pints of cherry tomatoes and piles of beefsteaks and fresh herbs, but also pumpkins and knobby gourds and apples. By the end of November, I'm a little sick of apples to be honest, but right now all of their wonderful colors and flavors are still a novelty. And their names. Bonnie Best, Cat's Head, Crimson Crisp, Smokehouse, Earliblaze, Honeycrisp, Summer Rambo, Lady in the Snow, Maiden's Blush. I love the names.

I wanted to make an apple tart for Martha's dinner, and I stood at one particular stand at the market, eating all the different apple samples, trying to imagine what would taste best layered on a pie crust, brushed with a cinnamon-infused syrup. Really, any of them would have worked, but the slice of Mutsu apple I tried had a bright, citrusy flavor that I really liked. Two pounds of Mutsus went into my shopping bag and home I went.
As you know, pie crust is not my strong suit. But I love David Tanis and his beautiful cookbook A Platter of Figs so much I figured his apple tart recipe wouldn't steer me wrong. And I was right. His dough, based on a friend's Amish pie dough recipe, came together quickly and easily. After it chilled in the fridge for a few hours, I rolled the crust out onto a cookie sheet, then layered thin, overlapping slices of apples on top. I think peeling and cutting all those apples was the hardest part of this recipe.
One neat trick: to give this fairly plain dessert some extra sweetness and flavor, the recipe calls for you to simmer the apple cores in equal parts sugar and water, making an apple syrup that you brush on top of the warm tart. After tasting the syrup, I thought that it needed a little extra something so I tossed in a few cloves and half a cinnamon stick and let it come to a boil a little longer. The spices gave the syrup, and the tart, just enough of a flavor boost and (added bonus!) made the house smell so good.

I served the tart with vanilla ice cream, but cinnamon ice cream would be amazing, or some homemade caramel sauce, if that's your kind of thing. Either way, it's a rustic, homey taste of fall.

Apple tart
An ever-so-slightly tweaked recipe by David Tanis. His recipe has you make the dough by hand, which I did, but you can also use a food processor.
(Serves 10 to 12 people)

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for sprinkling
2 sticks (1/2 pound) cold butter, in thin slices
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten, plus enough ice water to make 1/2 cup
6 to 7 medium crisp apples, about 2 lbs. (David recommends 3 lbs. but I had a lot of apples left over)
1 cup sugar for the glaze, plus extra for sprinkling on the apples
1 cup water
1/2 cinnamon stick
4 cloves

Put the flour, butter, and salt in a big bowl. With your fingers, work the butter into the flour until it looks mealy, with some large flecks of butter remaining. Pour the ice-egg water mixture into the bowl and quickly knead the dough for only a minute or two, until it comes together. It will be soft, a little sticky, and though gathered together, a little rough looking.

Sprinkle the dough with a little flour and pat it into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight. Divide the pastry in half (there will be enough for two tarts, you can freeze one half for later). Use a rolling pin to roll out the pastry into a rectangle, about 11 by 16 inches, using a 15 1/2 inch by 10 1/2 inch baking sheet as a template. (Mine was 13 by 9 1/2).

Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and let it relax, then trim the edges to fit the pan with a little going slightly up the sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you peel the apples and cut them as thinly as possible. It's okay if they turn brown. Reserve the apple cores.

To make the glaze: combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water in a saucepan with the cores and spices, if using. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then simmer to a thick syrup. Strain and reserve. (Or use honey or a good apricot jam, thinned, for a glaze.)

By rolling the first quarter of the dough onto a rolling pin, carefully lift the dough from the surface and transfer it to the baking sheet. Let it relax, then trim the edges to fit the pan with a little going up slightly on the sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Arrange the apple slices in 4 or 5 rows, overlapping them like cards in Solitare. At this point the tart can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 8 hours. It's okay if the apples darken.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle the sugar generously over the apples and bake until they are beautifully browned and the pastry is crisp, about 45 minutes. Cool on a rack. Just before serving, reheat the glaze. Paint the apples with the warmed glaze. Slice into small rectangles and serve warm.

Monday, October 18, 2010

what's for dinner, tim mazurek?

Today we have a great Q&A with Tim Mazurek, the man behind one of my favorite food blogs, Lottie + Doof. Named for his grandmother Lottie, Tim's site features exquisite food photography and a well-curated selection of recipes, many of which emphasize seasonal ingredients. (I can always count on him for a good cocktail or cookie recipe.) Here, he shares his love of salty, carby desserts, favorite dinner party soundtracks, and the way he plans menus. Thanks, Tim!

1. Name, occupation, and city

Tim Mazurek, food blogger/freelance writer/photographer, Chicago!

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
This past weekend we had friends over for my birthday. We ordered Indian food from our favorite restaurant and then made apple fritters for dessert. The dessert was a group effort, which made it fun.

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
I don't know, I tend to remember the people and conversations more than the food. But I made an onion pizza and a blood orange tart that were both delicious. I found it satisfying that both parts of the meal were the same shape. Also, they are both easy to prepare ahead and make quickly when guests are over.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?
We usually have a house cocktail that we invent for the evening and then wine with dinner. I like the fun of cocktails but there needs to be wine with the meal. I don't think about beer very often, but it is good too.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
We play all sorts of stuff with dinner: David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Joanna Newsom, Bruce Springsteen, Desmond Dekker, She & Him, Dolly Parton, M.I.A.. I usually throw together an iTunes mix before guests arrive.

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?

Pasta and a salad! Easy.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?

I am kind of a control freak, I like to make everything myself. I also believe in carefully planned menus and on the rare occasions when I ask for help, I usually supply a recipe. Luckily my friends understand this about me and are not offended when I tell them what to cook.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?

Everything is made from scratch. Sometimes I'll buy bread at the bakery down the street, but I'd prefer to make it myself. Consequently, I take on more than I should and am often wondering to myself why I didn't just buy the bread at the bakery.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert?

I spend a lot more time thinking about the dessert than the rest of the meal. I often start with what I want to make for dessert and work backwards. Often some sort of baked fruit thing. I like making my own ice cream, but I don't like to serve a dessert without carbs so I usually make a pie, crisp or cookies to accompany the ice cream. Never chocolate though, I don't care about chocolate. Fruit, butter, salt. I like some salt with my sweet.

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?

My friends! Honestly, there is nobody I would rather have over than my best friends. We are spread out around the country and we don't get to eat together nearly enough.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

steak salad

As I said in my last post, this salad, originally from Smitten Kitchen, has become a weeknight staple around our house. It's easy to throw together after a long day and feels fairly healthful, because of its low meat to vegetable ratio.

I tweaked the recipe a bit for our dinner with Martha, based on a trattoria-inspired recipe from
Epicurious. Before you grill the steak, the recipe instructs you to warm a clove of garlic and a spring of rosemary in some oil, infusing it with flavor. Then you discard the garlic and rosemary and cook the steak. It's a small thing, but one of those steps that really counts, resulting in a very flavorful piece of meat.

I kept the salad dressing recipe from Smitten Kitchen as-is because it's perfect. The savory, umami-rich kick from Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce pairs perfectly with the steak and blue cheese.

To assemble the salad, simply dress your greens, slide the strips of sliced steak on top and sprinkle liberally with grilled onions and blue cheese crumbles. The original SK recipe calls for halved cherry tomatoes, which you could add as well. Some roasted bell pepper slices would be nice too, I bet.

Steak salad with blue cheese and sauteed onions
Adapted from Gourmet (via Epicurious) and Smitten Kitchen
(Serves 4 people)

For the salad:

7 oz. baby arugula
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, smashed
1 large sprig fresh rosemary, plus 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced.
1 lb. skirt steak, trimmed of excess fat (if necessary), halved crosswise, at room temperature
1 large onion, sliced into 1/2-inch slices
Salt and pepper

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese (or more, to taste)

For the dressing:
1 Tbsp. coarse Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp. wine vinegar
1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. honey
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the oil with the garlic and rosemary in a 12-inch heavy skillet over high heat, turning garlic once or twice, until the garlic is golden, about 4 minutes. Discard garlic and rosemary.

Season the meat with salt and pepper. Add the meat to the skillet all at once and do not move it for 5 minutes. Turn it once, and cook for another 3 minutes for medium-rare. (You may need to cook your steak halves separately, depending on the size of your pan.) When the steak is done, transfer it to a cutting board and let it rest, loosely covered in foil, for 5 minutes.

While the steak is resting, reduce the heat to medium and use the same pan to cook your onions in the pan juices. Add the onions and minced rosemary. Saute until the onions are soft and brown, about 10 minutes. Set aside the onions to cool a little bit.

Whisk all of the salad dressing ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the arugula, and gently toss the greens with tongs, making sure they are evenly coated. Mound the salad on a big platter. Arrange the steak over the salad, then top with the onions and blue cheese. Serve immediately.

Monday, October 11, 2010

know your customers & potato focaccia

When I wrote about my dinner party sanity saving tricks the other week, I left out one very important tip: know your customers. By "customers," I mean guests--friends, family, co-workers. Does your mother-in-law love pears? Make a mental note of that and file it away for future use. Then, when she comes over dinner months later, make her a pear crisp or torta di pere, and she'll love you forever. Does your cousin have the palate of a five-year-old? Make her some spaghetti and meatballs (sauce on the side) and she'll feel extra special.

Knowing people's preferences will make you a dinner party hero, even if it's the smallest detail. Put a vase of tulips on your table if you know your best friend loves them. Set out some bacon-wrapped dates if you know your boyfriend is going through a bacon phase. Knowing how to make other people happy will make you happier in the long run.

Our friend Martha came over for dinner last week. When I started to figure out a menu, I thought about Martha and the things I know about her food preferences. Martha is a relatively health-conscious eater, she has spent a good deal of time in Italy and loves all things Italian, hates chocolate (I know!), and isn't a big drinker.

I love homey, rustic Italian food, so that was a no-brainer. But I didn't want to go the traditional route of pasta or a big piece of roasted meat. It was fall, but the weather hadn't turned cold yet, so I could get away with something fairly light and not too rib-sticking.

My first thought was my favorite focaccia, by Luisa of Wednesday Chef. After much tweaking and re-jiggering, she developed a tomato and oregano-topped potato focaccia that she fell in love with after eating it in Europe. It's a fairly traditional focaccia--crusty around the edges and pleasantly chewy inside, but her version has little pockets of potato throughout from a baked potato that you knead into the dough. The top is dotted with sweet cherry tomatoes and crunchy flakes of salt. In the past I've dusted it with dried oregano, as Luisa makes it, but this time I would use up some of the fresh rosemary hanging out in my fridge.

Bread alone does not make a meal, so I decided to pair it with a steak salad Dan and I have been eating on weeknights. It's pretty simple, just a bed of arugula with thinly-sliced strips of steak, blue cheese crumbles, and halved cherry tomatoes. I'd replace the tomatoes with grilled onions--sort of trattoria-ish, right?

And because I am now paranoid about not making enough food, and also because it is autumn and I love butternut squash, I made a simple side dish of roasted squash to eat alongside the steak salad and bread.

For dessert, a lovely apple tart that I will tell you more about later.

Did my plan work? Was this a Martha-esque meal? After digging into the salad she said, "This is perfect. A bridge between late summer and fall." I couldn't have said it better myself.
Dinner for Martha
Potato focaccia
Butternut squash
Apple tart with ice cream

Potato focaccia
Via the Wednesday Chef. Luisa's recipe calls for the bread to be baked in an 8-inch cake pan lined with parchment, but I've found that a pizza stone works just as well.
(Makes 1 8-inch focaccia)

1 medium Yukon Gold potato
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 tsp. fresh yeast (I used Fleishman's yeast, from a packet)
A pinch of sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt, plus more for salting water
2/3 cup warm water
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced crosswise
1 to 2 tsp. dried oregano
Coarse sea salt
Wash the potato and place it in a small saucepan along with enough water to cover the potato by an inch. Place the pot over high heat, covered, and bring to a boil. Add a handful of kosher salt to the water. Simmer until the potato is tender when pierced with a knife, around 20 minutes. Drain the potato and let it cool. Peel the potato and mash finely with a fork. Set aside.

Put the yeast in a large mixing bowl along with a pinch of sugar. Add the warm water in a thin stream over the yeast, using a fork to help dissolve the yeast entirely. Let the mixture stand for a few minutes.

Pour the flour into the yeast water and stir with a fork, then add the mashed potato and the salt. The dough will be relatively thick and shaggy. Use the fork to incorporate the potato into the flour. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and begin to knead the dough by hand. It will come together quite quickly. Knead against the bowl for a minute or so, until it is relatively smooth. Add more flour if the dough is too sticky to handle. Form the dough into a ball and let it rest, covered with a kitchen towel, in the bowl for an hour.

Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of an 8-inch cake pan, if using. Using your fingertips, gently release the puffy and risen dough from the bowl and place it in the cake pan or on top of the pizza stone. Gently tug and pat it out so that it fills the pan, or is about 8 inches wide on the stone. Cover the top of the focaccia with the tomato halves, distributing them evenly. Sprinkle the oregano and a large pinch of coarse salt over the tomatoes, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and let it rest for another hour. (I was short on time and let it rest for about 30 minutes.)
While the focaccia is resting, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the cake pan or pizza stone in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes before removing the focaccia from the pan. I serve it right on the pizza stone, once it has cooled enough to slice.

Friday, October 8, 2010

the communal table

No real post today, but I recommend checking out Michael Pollan's article in this week's New York Times Magazine, in which he chronicles an epic 36-hour dinner party. Don't worry, the guests weren't held hostage and forced to eat during that entire time. A group of Bay Area chefs and food lovers used a single wood fire to cook an impressive number of delicious-sounding dishes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a second lunch, all over course of one weekend. Like most of Pollan's work, it's a thoughtful piece on how and why we eat, as well as a completely different take on the traditional dinner party.

Have a great weekend!

[photo via the NYT]

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo

I'm all for food that is delicious and genuinely easy to prepare, but I really hate recipes in magazines or on certain food television shows (you know who you are, Landra See) that are billed as some sort of culinary trickery. You know: FAST! EASY! TIME-SAVING! STORE-BOUGHT MADE SPECIAL! SO SIMPLE IT WILL FOOL YOUR FRIENDS INTO THINKING YOU SPENT TIME COOKING! Doesn't it give you the heebie jeebies? If you want people to think you spent time cooking, spend some time cooking. Otherwise, just make something homemade and straightforward. A simple pasta and salad will almost always be better than something doctored up from a jar or box, or a shortcut version of a labor-intensive dish.

That said, this semifreddo? So simple, so fancy-seeming. And it took all of 15 minutes to assemble.

(Am I overselling?)

Semifreddo means "half cold" in Italian, and its texture is fluffy and melty like a frozen mousse. To make it, you mix egg yolks and sugar with the flavoring of your choice, then fold in a good amount of whipped cream. You pour the mixture into a Saran Wrap-lined loaf pan, freeze it overnight, then cut it into wedges and serve with or without extra garnishes like sauce, more whipped cream, fresh fruit. (It's good straight out of the freezer as well. Not that I have eaten it that way.)
Before my friend Joanna came over for dinner, I had a little crisis of confidence about what type of semifreddo to make. There are a lot of recipes out there in Internet-land. So I emailed her to ask the all-important question "chocolate or lemon?" and she replied that she liked both. I decided on lemon because it sounded a little more interesting.

And then I forgot to buy lemons at the grocery store. Smart. Luckily I had cocoa powder, chocolate chips, and hazelnuts in my cabinet, creating the happy accident of chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo. In the end, I inadvertently made the right choice. Slightly spiked with rum, crunchy from a layer of toasted hazelnuts, and drizzled with raspberry sauce, this dessert was just perfect. And really, truly simple to make.

Chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo
Adapted from the Meyer lemon version, from Bon Appetit.
(Serves 8 to 10 people)

1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts, toasted (or chopped pecans, or sliced almonds)
1 3/4 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
7 large egg yolks
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips (I used 60% cacao)
3 Tbsp. cocoa powder
1 1/2 Tbsp. light rum (or vanilla)
1/4 tsp. salt 

Line a 9 x 5 x 3-inch metal loaf pan with plastic wrap, leaving generous overhang. Sprinkle nuts evenly over bottom of pan. Using electric mixer, beat whipping cream in large bowl until soft peaks form. Refrigerate whipped cream while making custard.

Whisk 1 1/4 cups sugar, egg yolks, chocolate, cocoa powder, and salt in large metal bowl to blend. Set bowl over large saucepan of simmering water and whisk constantly until yolk mixture is thick and fluffy and the chocolate chips melt, about 5 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into mixture will read 170 degrees F.) Remove bowl from over simmering water. Using electric mixer, beat mixture until cool, thick, and doubled in volume, about 6 minutes. Fold in chilled whipped cream. 

Transfer mixture to prepared loaf pan and smooth top. Tap loaf pan lightly on work surface to remove air pockets. Fold plastic wrap overhang over top to cover. Freeze semifreddo until firm, at least 8 hours or overnight. Semifreddo can be made 3 days ahead. Keep frozen.
Unfold plastic wrap from top of semifreddo and invert dessert onto platter; remove plastic wrap. Dip heavy large knife into hot water; cut semifreddo crosswise into 1-inch-thick slices. Transfer to plates; spoon raspberry sauce over the slices, if using, and serve.

Raspberry sauce
(Makes about 2 cups)
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
2 Tbsp orange juice (or Triple Sec or Cointreau)
1/2 cup sugar

In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients and stir until combined. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to a boil. Turn off the heat and set aside. The sauce can be stored in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for up to a week.

Monday, October 4, 2010

playing it (too?) simple

Last Saturday my friend Jo came over for dinner while our husbands were out galavanting at a bachelor party. The last time I cooked for her I made meatloaf, somehow forgetting that she was a vegetarian. Jo, being the kind person that she is, gamely took a few bites and said it was delicious. While that gesture didn't completely relieve my embarrassment, it did make me love her a little more.

This time I was determined to do right by my friend. I wanted to make a vegetarian meal that focused on tail-end-of-summer produce: tomatoes, figs, and basil. A long, leisurely dinner with one other person is one of the nicest ways to catch up and unwind, in my book. And because I was only cooking for two, I didn't have to worry about making enough food to go around. But maybe I didn't worry enough. 
I didn't want to make a smorgasbord of food, and in the end, I couldn't find all of the ingredients I wanted (namely figs) at the farmers' market. So I pared down my menu to a scalloped tomato dish and a simple salad of lettuce with mustard vinaigrette. Plus snacks and a dessert. Which all seems totally acceptable in writing, but something felt a little lacking menu-wise.
We started the meal with rosemary cashews, puff pastry twists, and drank a few Lillet and vodka cocktails. Everything was off to a good start. But something fell short with the main dish: scalloped tomatoes with croutons, an Ina Garten recipe. I discovered it on Smitten Kitchen, where there was a long list of comments praising and complaining about the dish. Some people swooned over it, others had all sorts of issues. The recipe sounds good in theory: a mixture of tomatoes, toasted croutons, and basil, baked until bubbling, kind of like a warm panzanella. But when I took a bite, it was a little soggy, as some of those commenters warned. Damn.

Both Jo and I had seconds of the scalloped tomatoes and Dan polished off the rest for breakfast the next morning. Clearly it was far from inedible but there was something a little 'meh' about the whole thing to me. At one point I looked at the table
and realized Jo and I were eating tomatoes, bread, and lettuce for dinner. Maybe I played it too simple?

Have you guys ever made things for company that just didn't turn out the way you expected?

Simple Saturday dinner for two
Lilet cocktails
Rosemary cashews
Puff pastry twists with pecorino and cayenne
Chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo

Scalloped tomatoes with croutons
Adapted a tiny bit from Smitten Kitchen and Ina Garten. Adjust the bread if you have extra juicy tomatoes, or do as I did, and reserve some of the juice to cut down on sogginess. Although I think sogginess is part of this dish's "charm."
(Serves 4 to 6 as a main course)

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/2 cups bread from a French baguette, in a 1/2-inch dice (I went closer to 3 cups, since my tomatoes were very juicy)
2 1/2 pounds tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice (I used beefsteak)
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. sugar

2 tsp. Kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup thinly slivered basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese (or Parmesan)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high. Add the bread cubes and stir so that they are evenly coated with oil. Cook cubes, tossing frequently, until toasty on all sides, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine tomatoes, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper in a large bowl. When the bread cubes are toasted, add the tomato mixture (reserving some liquid, if desired) and cook them together, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in the basil. Pour into a shallow (6 to 8 cup) baking dish and top with Parmesan cheese. Bake 35 to 40 minutes until the top is browned and the tomatoes are bubbly.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Hi, there. Happy first day of October. Even though the weather isn't very fall-like in our corner of the world, I'm feeling ready for roasted vegetables, hearty soups, and my favorite pumpkin bread. Here's a few more ideas to whet your autumn palate.

Melissa Clark's lovely-sounding red lentil soup with lemon (on my weekend menu for sure) 

[via Orangette]

Apple recipes
and a buying guide [via Bon Appetit]

Homemade applesauce
[via Food in Jars]

Grape focaccia with rosemary
[Smitten Kitchen]

Recipe ideas for fall produce
(cauliflower gratin with Manchego and almond sauce, savory ricotta-squash tart) [via F&W]

And from the Dinner Party archives:
Roasted duck salad
Pork tenderloin with grapes and shallots
Braised red cabbage


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