Monday, November 29, 2010

a nontraditional thanksgiving

Last year, I really wanted a traditional Thanksgiving. Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, something pumpkin for dessert. I bought a pretty new tablecloth and made a handmade centerpiece. I topped each plate with a gingko leaf and felt very Martha-ish in that moment. The rest of the day? Not so much. (Although it all worked out in the end.)

My in-laws had traveled to New York to have dinner with Dan and me and I wanted to really impress them. Instead of contributing a dish or two, as I normally do at my family's potluck-style feast, I had complete control over the menu and wanted to create my ideal version of the classic Thanksgiving feast.

This year? I threw all of that out the window. No cranberries, no stuffing, no gravy, and most importantly, no turkey. It's not that I don't love all of those delicious things smooshed together on one plate, because I really, really do. But this year, it was just going to be me, Dan, and our friend Jamie around the table and it seemed silly to cook so many things for three people.

Yeah, I could have made a turkey breast, but Dan likes dark meat. I could have roasted some Cornish hens for a tiny turkey approximation, but who wants that, really? I could have done a vegetarian meal based around Thanksgiving side dishes. Again, who wants that? I wanted a seasonal meal that felt special occasion-worthy but didn't have the normal Thanksgiving trappings. Because once you get started down that path, it's hard to turn back. You can't serve stuffing without the gravy, and what's turkey without stuffing, and of course you need cranberry relish to go with the turkey. And on and on.

In the end, I decided to make short ribs from the cookbook Sunday Suppers at Lucques. The recipe includes the usual short rib ingredients: wine, celery, carrots, and herbs, plus a few surprising extras like pearl onions and Swiss chard. The meat simmered all morning as we watched the dog show on TV, one of my favorite Thanksgiving day activities. Some rituals can't be messed with.
After several rounds of bacon-wrapped dates and fuji apple-ginger beer-lime cocktails (soo good, make them now!), I served the short ribs atop a bed of Swiss chard and pearl onions with celery root puree on the side. Oh, and an apple-blue cheese salad to start. More on that later.

We picked up our forks and tore into the meat. It was so tender and juicy, knives weren't really necessary. Did it feel like Thanksgiving? Sort of. I wasn't surrounded by the rest of our family, and there was no stuffing on my plate. But everything tasted delicious, and it felt liberating to do something different.

When you are confronted with countless articles and ads about pie crust and turkey the entire month leading up to Thanksgiving, it's tempting to throw in the towel completely. But it's not something most people do. Instead we recreate the same meal over and over again. Because Aunt Alice would be disappointed if there was no green bean casserole, or Dad would complain if you didn't make his favorite pumpkin pie. Although my tastes have grown past Jell-O salads, I still look forward to my grandma's cranberry sauce every year. The holidays are often tied to peoples' expectations. And it can be nice to meet those expectations, to please someone with a dish they've grown up eating every Thanksgiving.

But sometimes it's nice to be free of all of that, to celebrate things in your own way. To serve whatever you want, to not eat at 5 o'clock, to use the fancy napkins and china, or not. To be able to listen to the new Kanye album as you sear your short ribs in your pajamas, watching the parade of cute dogs on TV.

Thanksgiving 2010
Cider-ginger beer sparklers
Bacon-wrapped dates
Olives and nuts
Apple, blue cheese, and walnut salad with pomegranate dressing
Braised short ribs with Swiss chard and pearl onions
Celery root puree
Ginger-apple crisp a la mode

Braised beef short ribs
From Sunday Suppers at Lucques via Smitten Kitchen. I skipped the horseradish cream that is included in the original recipe, and served celery root puree instead of mashed potatoes. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to make this dish. One day for seasoning the meat overnight in the fridge, and another to make the dish. You can also allow for an extra day to chill the short ribs overnight, then scrape off the fat that has risen to the top. I didn't have time for that and made the recipe as written below.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)

6 beef short ribs, about 14 to 16 ounces each (ask for 3 bone center-cut)
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. thyme leaves, and 4 whole sprigs thyme
1 Tbsp. freshly cracked black pepper
3 dozen small pearl onions (I used 1 bag of frozen pearl onions)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1/3 cup diced carrot
1/3 cup diced celery
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups port (I substituted extra beef stock)
2 1/2 cups hearty red wine
6 cups beef or veal stock
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
2 bunches Swiss chard, cleaned, center ribs removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Season the short ribs with 1 tablespoon thyme and the cracked black pepper. use your hands to coat the meat well. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Take the short ribs out of the refrigerator an hour before cooking, to come to room temperature. After 30 minutes, season them generously on all sides with salt. When you take the ribs out of the refrigerator, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Toss the pearl onions with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon thyme, 3/4 teaspoons salt, and a pinch of pepper. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast them about 15 minutes, until tender. When they have cooled, slip off the skins (if they are not pre-frozen and have skins) with your fingers and set aside. Turn the oven down to 325 degrees.

When it’s time to cook the short ribs, heat a large Dutch oven [or a large saute pan, if you would like to use a separate braising dish; I aimed to use fewer dishes] over high heat for 3 minutes. Pour in 3 tablespoons olive oil, and wait a minute or two, until the pan is very hot and almost smoking. Place the short ribs in the pan, and sear until they are nicely browned on all three meaty sides. Depending on the size of your pan, you might have to sear the meat in batches. Do not crowd the meat or get lazy or rushed at this step; it will take at least 15 minutes. (Deb notes that this step takes closer to 45 minutes if you're really thorough.) When the ribs are nicely browned, transfer them to a plate to rest.

Turn the heat down to medium, and add the onion, carrot, celery, thyme springs, and bay leaves. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the crusty bits in the pan. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables just begin to caramelize. Add the balsamic vinegar, port, and red wine. Turn the heat up to high, and reduce the liquid by half.

Add the stock and bring to a boil. (Because my stock pot was slightly small, I did not use the entire amount of stock.) Arrange ribs in the pot, lieing flat, bones standing up, in one layer. If you used a saute pan for previous steps, transfer the ribs to a braising pan at this point. Scrape any vegetables that have fallen on the ribs back into the liquid. The stock mixture should almost cover the ribs. Tuck the parsley sprigs in and around the meat. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid if you have one. Braise in the oven for about 3 hours.

To check the meat for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the escaping steam, and piece a short rib with a paring knife. When the meat is done, it will yield easily to a knife. Taste a piece if you are not sure. (If you would like to cook these a day ahead, this is where you can pause. The next day, you can remove the fat easily from the pot -- it will have solidified at the top -- bring these back to a simmer on the stove or in an oven, and continue.)

Let the ribs rest 10 minutes in their juices, and then transfer them to a baking sheet. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Place the short ribs in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes to brown.

Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with a ladle to extract all the juices. Skim the fat from the sauce (if you made these the day before, you will have already skimmed them) and, if the broth seems thin, reduce it over medium-high heat to thicken slightly. Taste for seasoning.

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Tear the Swiss chard into large pieces. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil to the pan, and stir in the cooked pearl onions. Add half the Swiss chard, and cook a minute or two, stirring the greens in the oil to help them wilt. Add a splash of water and the second half of the greens. Season with a heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of ground black pepper. Cook for a few more minutes, stirring frequently, until the greens are tender.

Place the Swiss chard on a large warm platter, and arrange the short ribs on top. Spoon lots of braising juices over the ribs. Yum.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

link-o-rama: details, details

Chances are, if you're hosting or attending a Thanksgiving dinner this week, you've probably got your menu or token dish sorted out. (And if not, here's some links to help.) All that usually remains in the days leading up to the Big Feast are the little details. With that in mind, here are some ideas to help you out. If you're celebrating, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Entertaining advice (for Thanksgiving and beyond) from Clinton Kelly [via Epicurious]

Easy Thanksgiving tabletoppers [via BHG]

Fancy floral centerpiece ideas from Design*Sponge [via D*S]

A step-by-step guide to making a classic Thanksgiving floral arrangement [via Epicurious]

And more pretty ideas via Kim Vallee [via At Home with Kim Vallee]

Finger food recipes
for pre-meal snacking [via Martha Stewart]

A video tutorial on how to carve a turkey [via Serious Eats]

And to get all your ducks in a row, here's last-minute checklists for Thanksgiving hosts and potluck hosts [via Real Simple & Yahoo Shine]

Monday, November 22, 2010

guest post: turkey day snacks

Today we have a timely guest post from Casey Barber of Good. Food. Stories. on Thanksgiving Day snacks, for both the cook and the guests. Thanks, Casey!
"A word about Mrs. Flax and food: the word is 'hors d'oeuvre.' Fun Finger Foods is her main source book and it's all the woman cooks." Winona Ryder, Mermaids

Cher had it right. Maybe I was warped by too much movie-watching during my teenage years, but like Rachel Flax, I firmly believe that finger foods are the best parts of any meal.

This goes double for Thanksgiving. When one is tied to making the same potato gratin year after year because the family won't have it any other way, appetizers allow a experimentally-addicted cook to sneak in some unexpected flavors without causing chaos among the nearest and dearest gathered in the dining room.

And though I might not serve cheese ball pick-me-ups accompanied by miniature franks and marshmallow kebabs, I've been known to sneak things that really have no business at Thanksgiving, like deviled eggs, beet-pickled deviled eggs, cheese-and-almond-stuffed peppadews, and a plate of rumaki or two onto my menu this way. No one's made a peep of complaint, not even the folks who are first in line for the cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes.

When planning your hors d'oeuvre sneak attack during a big meal like Thanksgiving, logistical concerns should help dictate your choices. Melissa Clark, the always-practical writer, suggests you pick an appetizer or two that can double as a lunch snackie for the hungry head cook. As someone who ends up eating random cheese ends and half the olive plate before it heads out into the dining room, this is a movement I can certainly get behind.

I also recommend choosing nibbles that can be served at room temperature, so if you and your guests are waiting for the turkey to hit its mark, you won't need to worry about reheating the first round of finger foods.

Meeting all these requirements and more are the humble arancini: Italian rice balls. Arancini are filling little buggers, so you don't need to make hundreds of them to keep the hordes satisfied‚ two or three per person are suitably ample. Though they're traditionally deep-fried and served piping hot, the following Food & Wine recipe lets you bake the arancini rather than frying to order, which makes me ever so happy.

Feel free to make these the night before Thanksgiving and throw them into the oven for a few minutes as soon as you remove the turkey. Like most Italian dishes, they also taste just as good eaten cold as breakfast leftovers.

Arancini with gruyere and parmesan
Adapted from Food & Wine.
(makes approximately 36 rice balls)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium shallot, minced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup arborio rice
2 cups water
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup panko
1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese, divided in half
1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, minced
2 Tbsp. flat-leaf parsley, minced
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.

Heat the olive oil in a high-sided saucepan over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the shallot and garlic and cook for 3-4 minutes or until softened. Add the rice and stir to coat with the oil and aromatics, then add the water and bring to a boil.

Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the rice completely absorbs the water. Transfer the rice to a large bowl and place in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to cool.

While the rice is cooling, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form and set aside. In a large bowl, mix the panko and half the Parmesan (1/4 cup).

Remove the bowl from the fridge, stir all the Gruyere, the remaining half the Parmesan, and all the herbs into the rice. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then gently stir the egg whites into the rice.

Roll the rice mixture into 1-inch balls, dredge with the panko-Parmesan coating, and transfer to the baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Friday, November 19, 2010

link-o-rama, turkey day edition

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and unlike last year, I haven't even started planning. Crazy, right? Maybe my slacking is due to the fact that it's probably just going to be me and Dan this year and I'm starting to rethink the idea of turkey for two. If you're like me, here are some Thanksgiving-themed links to help get you back on track. Or, if you're Sally Organized, maybe these ideas will help you finalize your game plan.

Chef's tips for a Thanksgiving meal (have lots of chicken stock on hand, cut up your bird before cooking it(?), choose your battles) [via NYT]

Worried about getting everything done on time? Here's how to create a Thanksgiving day timeline (plus a handy download!) [via Good Food Stories]

Bargain wines for Thanksgiving [via Food & Wine]

A Thanksgiving turkey slideshow plus recipes [via Bon Appetit]

And Bon Appetit's "ultimate Thanksgiving guide" with recipes for gravy, sides, desserts, and more [via Bon Appetit]

10 fast side dishes (braised greens with tomatoes, oven-roasted cauliflower) [via Food & Wine]

Marilyn Monroe's recipe for stuffing
. Really! [via NYT]

And my Thanksgiving menu from last year:
Cranberry-lime sparklers
Foie gras with cornichon, homemade mustard, and crackers
Turkey and gravy
Mushroom-herb stuffins
Mashed sweet potatoes
Roasted brussels sprouts with bacon and lemon

Cranberry relish
Chai tea
Pumpkin mousse parfaits

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

zuni cafe roasted chicken and bread salad (omg)

I'm sorry if I've been a downer lately, but I feel like I've been on a mediocre dinner party streak. It happens to the best of us, as we saw in the comments section. But culinary redemption is always just one good recipe away, right? And if you're looking for a way to break out of the cooking doldrums, I've got that very recipe for you.

Zuni Cafe
's roasted chicken made the blog rounds years ago, and while I love a good roasted bird, the recipe seemed overly fussy in spite of the deafening hype. People looove this damn chicken but the recipe is three pages long. Shouldn't roasted chicken be a simple endeavor? And anyway, I already had a favorite chicken recipe--or so I thought.

Recently, I rediscovered Deb's tweaked version over at Smitten Kitchen. (Yes, this is Smitten Kitchen week over here.) Although the recipe still seemed fairly complicated, she took out a lot of the superfluous stuff and whittled it down to the main essentials. Which is why we all love Deb.

So I tried it out on a Sunday night for Dan and myself. And, wow. That favorite chicken recipe of mine? Out the window. What seemed like a lot of steps on paper actually turned out to be not that much work and resulted in the perfectly golden brown bird of my dreams. Not to mention the absolutely delicious bread salad,
a stuffing-like take on panzanella, that goes with it. You could skip this side dish but I can't think of a reason why that would be a good idea. 
After my trial run, I made the chicken again (along with some roasted vegetables) for a cozy Sunday night dinner with two out-of-town friends. And, double success! Maybe the meal was especially great because I rarely get to see these friends, or maybe because I pre-tested this recipe, or maybe because this chicken is really effing delicious.

So why is this chicken so awesome? The recipe includes several techniques that make a difference--and that you can apply to your favorite roasted chicken recipe, if you can't let go of your old standby:

Obsessive drying
Most recipes tell you to wash and pat your chicken dry. This recipe is almost obsessive about this step. Why? A wet chicken will steam instead of turning golden brown. A dry bird also sticks less to the pan, leaving you with more crispy skin to eat! So grab some paper towels and get to blotting.

2. Pre-salted

Salting the bird at least a day in advance helps lock in moisture and some say it also improves the flavor of the meat. And you can leave the salted chicken in the fridge for up to three days.

3. Herbs under the skin

Seems like a small thing, but slipping a few herbs under the skin of the chicken really infuses the bird with flavor.

4. No extra oil or fat

I usually slather my chicken with olive oil before putting in in the oven. Some people do the same with butter. In this recipe no extra fat is needed. The chicken renders its own fat, leaving the skin crisp and the meat juicy, not greasy.

5. Resting

It's hard not to tear into a perfectly roasted chicken the minute it comes out of the oven but if you let the bird rest for awhile, it's worth the self-restraint. Like letting a steak rest before you slice it, this will help retain the juices and make the chicken more succulent. 

Are you sold yet? Here's the recipe.

Zuni Cafe's roasted chicken
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and the Zuni Cafe cookbook from the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco

(Serves 4 people)

1 small (preferably organic) chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 lbs.
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
About 1 Tbsp. salt
3/4 to 1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
A little water

1 to 3 days before serving, prepare the chicken. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out.

Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or a large cast iron pan (which is what I used). Preheat the pan on the stovetop over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

Place the chicken in the hot pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set it on a plate to rest. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. (I skipped this step.) Let it rest while you finish your side dishes (or the bread salad, below).

Warm your serving platter in the oven under low heat, if desired. (Make sure your platter is oven-proof!)

Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve on the platter or on top of the bread salad.

Zuni Cafe bread salad
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and the Zuni Cafe cookbook. The cookbook describes this as “a warm mix of crispy, tender, and chewy chunks of bread, a little slivered garlic and scallion, a scatter of currants and pine nuts, and a handful of greens, all moistened with vinaigrette and chicken drippings.” Yum.
I tweaked this recipe a tad to save a pan, but it's pretty perfect as-is.
(Serves 4 people)

1 baguette, or an 8 oz. loaf of peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 Tbsp. mild-tasting olive oil

2 Tbsp. Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 Tbsp. dried currants plumped in 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar and 1 Tbsp. warm water for ten minutes or so
2 Tbsp. pine nuts
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions)
A few spoonfuls of chicken drippings, reserved from the chicken (or chicken stock, or lightly salted water)
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens

Preheat your broiler. Cut up a baguette into irregular 2- to 3-inch chunks, wads, bite-sized bits and fat crumbs, enough to make 4 cups.

Toss the bread cubes with a few tablespoons of olive oil and broil them for about five minutes. If you’d like to toast the pine nuts (recommended) you can sprinkle them over the bread about halfway through the cooking time. Be careful, they burn easily.

Whisk about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. (Kitchen tongs are great for this.) Add a little more salt and pepper, if needed, and toss again.

Heat the pan you cooked the chicken in over medium-low heat. Add the the garlic and scallions, and cook, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape the garlic and scallions into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts, if they were not already mixed with the bread scraps from the broiling step. Dribble a few spoonfuls of the reserved chicken drippings (or stock or water) over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread — a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well.

The easiest thing is to pile the bread salad on a big platter, tent it with foil, then place the cut-up chicken on top just before serving. If you want to serve the bread salad on the side, place it in a 1-quart shallow baking dish. (Hang onto the bowl you mixed it in—you’ll use it again.) Put the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the hot bread salad back into the salad bowl. Drizzle and toss with another spoonful of drippings. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again, then serve.

Monday, November 15, 2010

what's for dinner, deb perelman?

Does Deb Perelman, proprietress of Smitten Kitchen, need an introduction? If you read food blogs, it's a safe bet that you read and love hers. Smitten Kitchen is one of the most popular and highly regarded food sites not only for Deb's funny, down-to-earth voice and mouthwatering photographs, but for her ability to curate (and tweak) a constant stream of appealing recipes, from elaborate cakes to homey pastas. And she makes all of this beautiful food in a tiny New York City kitchen which is no small feat! Deb graciously took time away from her many projects (and her adorable young son) to talk about her entertaining philosophy. Hope you enjoy!

1. Name, occupation, and city

Deb Perelman, freelancer/dilettante, New York City

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
A terribly long time ago, as we have a baby who goes to bed early and a small apartment. But I used to have people over all of the time, generally just a few of my friends who live in the city and can get together at the last minute, often on a weekday night, and usually because I made too much lasagna again.

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
My two favorites are
Julia Child's Moules a la Mariniere and baked pommes frites with a big green salad, crusty bread and dense chocolate brownies for dessert and this onion tart with mustard and fennel and Susanne Goin's ridiculously amazing braised short ribs with swiss chard, a potato puree and horseradish cream sauce. And a ridiculous amount of wine.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?
I am picky about wine. I know what I like -- I'm especially fond of New York's North Fork wines and wish I could find them on more wine lists in the city -- but I sort of hate the "wine roulette", as I call it, of the odds of getting what you think you will when you order a glass out (and even if you do, if it's not lukewarm or been open for ages). Because of this, I've become more of a beer person when I'm out. A bottle of great beer will always taste like that bottle of great beer. And I get misty-eyed over a perfect Manhattan cocktail.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
Something unexpected: Beastie Boys with some 1970s-era Aerosmith plus some Duke Ellington and Patsy Cline. I want a surprise.

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?
Whatever I was already making. Okay, that sounds terrible, but these days, while working on
my cookbook and website, there's always something cooking and a shortage of mouths to eat it up. Obviously, it's time to get back to having more dinner parties.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?
By myself. I've never learned to delegate anything but dishes. Nor have I never had a kitchen that comfortably fit more than one person.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?
Something is always store-bought. I love to cook but I'm not a martyr. If I'm having people over, I like to focus on one big ta-da and maybe a couple of sides and let New York City, and it's awesome range of resources, do the rest: Murray's for cheese, Balthazar for bread, an Italian market for olives, and so on. I am happy to "outsource" the filling out of a meal, so I don't look harried, exhausted and miserable by the time friends arrive for what was supposed to be a good time.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert?
Something compact. If you're going to do short ribs and soup and appetizers and sides for dinner, without a doubt, people will be glutted by the time dessert rolls around. I'm the kind of person who needs something sweet at the end of a meal, but I don't need a lot of it: small cookies, like Dorie Greenspan's incredible, now-classic
World Peace Cookies or something fun, like Salted Brown Butter Rice Krispy Treats, cut tiny. If it's more of a long afternoon thing, like friends watching a football game, I love this caramel cake or homemade oreos. Or doughnut holes.

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?
My kid? Okay, that's weird but he goes to bed really, really early these days so we've yet to experience many family dinners. Everyone loves a bottle-swigging, belching, belly-laugher at the table, right?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


As much as I miss summer's warmer weather, I love the coziness of fall. Especially when it comes to food. And chunky sweaters. Here are a few autumnal dishes to warm and fill you up.
12 slow cooker recipes (Sunday sauce, coconut pork curry, spicy brisket) [via Food & Wine]

For good measure, a fall cocktail: The Glasgow Ginger [via Good Food Stories]

And from the Dinner Party archives:
Pasta with lamb ragu

Martha Bruegge's ham and beans

Casey's chicken potpie

Baked macaroni and cheese

Monday, November 8, 2010

pear-chocolate-hazelnut crostata

Readers, I cannot lie to you. This crostata? Not one for the history books.

Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a hide-it-under-your-napkin kind of dessert. It was fine, totally acceptable, even earned a few "mmms" from the crowd. Pears and chocolate and hazlenuts are a pretty hard combination to screw up. One of my all-time favorite desserts is a chocolate-pear cake. (I should have made that cake instead.)

Like the Bolognese that was served before it, this dessert seemed a little lacking. I wanted something a little bolder, richer. Something that made my eyes roll back in their sockets.

I think it had something to do with my choice of fruit. Pears have such a light flavor that I think they taste best when poached in something flavorful, like wine or some sort of juice or spice-infused syrup. When paired (ha) with the chocolate and hazelnuts, their floral delicacy was lost.
Maybe a thin layer of pear preserves brushed onto the crust would have boosted the flavor?
Also, the chocolate chips look dorky. Next time, I'll be more sophisticated and buy a bar of chocolate to shave over the pears.

This tart cries out for whipped cream, which is how I served it, but I'd recommend spiking the cream with some bourbon. Or maybe even poaching the pears in a little bourbon-infused syrup? Or maybe just scratch the tart altogether and just have some bourbon.
Pear-chocolate-hazelnut crostata
From Bon Appetit via Epicurious. Be sure to place your rolled-out tart crust atop a piece of parchment before you start layering the pears. I didn't and had a heck of a time transferring the whole thing to a baking sheet. I also used only semisweet chocolate instead of a combination.
(Makes one 11-inch tart)

Pie crust (I used David Tanis' recipe for pie crust since my apple tart yielded two crusts)
1 large egg
2 Tbsp. whipping cream
4 large firm but ripe Bosc pears, peeled, quartered, cored, each quarter cut lengthwise into 3 slices
3 Tbsp. chopped husked toasted hazelnuts
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped imported milk chocolate
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate
6 Tbsp. raw sugar, divided
1/4 tsp. coarse sea salt (optional)

Whipped cream, for garnishing

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Place large sheet of parchment paper on work surface. Place crust dough atop parchment; roll out dough to 14-inch round. Transfer parchment with dough to large unrimmed baking sheet. Whisk egg and cream in small bowl. Brush center 10 inches of dough with some of egg glaze, leaving 2-inch plain border. Arrange pear slices in concentric circles atop glaze on dough. Sprinkle hazelnuts and both chocolates, then 4 tablespoons raw sugar over pears.

Fold dough border over filling to form 11-inch round, pleating loosely and pinching to seal any cracks in dough. Brush crust with egg glaze; sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons raw sugar, then with 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, if desired.

Bake crostata until crust is deep golden and pears are tender, about 40 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to rack. Run long thin knife under crust to free from parchment. Cool to lukewarm on parchment on sheet. Using large tart pan bottom as aid, transfer crostata to platter. Serve lukewarm or at room temperature with whipped cream

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

frankies-style antipasto

Frankies Spuntino is my favorite Italian restaurant. The Brooklyn location is just a few subway stops (or a pleasant walk) away from where Dan and I live, so you'd think we'd go there all the time. But nearly every time we enter the restaurant's cozy, candlelit entryway, we face a nice guy with a clipboard telling us it's gonna be a two hour wait, or we can hang out at the bar. The bar is usually surrounded by a crowd that's three people deep angling for the bartender's attention. And so we shake our heads politely and head back outside to figure out a plan B, which is never as appealing as Frankies.

Frankies is a friendly, casual neighborhood-type spot most people would kill for. It's not expensive, it's reliably good, and it used to be the kind of place we could get in early on a Saturday night, or after work on a Tuesday. But after many glowing reviews, and a cookbook, and lots of other positive press, it's mobbed. Constantly.

Oh, Frankies! I miss your pine nut-flecked meatballs sitting in a pool of marinara. I miss your expertly-dressed salads piled high on white plates. I miss your ricotta cheesecake, your modestly-priced house wine, your bread served with your own bright yellow olive oil. But most of all, I miss your antipasto plate.

Oh, it's so good. You get a big platter beautifully filled with two types of meat (I like the proscuitto and spicy soppressata), a generous handful of olives, two types of cheese, and two vegetables. The vegetables might be the best part of this whole thing. Frankies has a way with roasting veggies. They dress them in their good olive oil, and season them perfectly. And that's it. You get sweet, caramelized carrots, savory brussels sprouts, lovely little room temperature mushrooms, or if you're lucky, crispy cauliflower that's nicely charred around the edges. The chef chooses the combination of things, so every time it is a little different, a nice surprise.

With some bread and a glass of wine, it could stand as a meal, and I've ordered it that way many times. Although not as often as I'd like. So I am left to make my own bastardized version at home. Which wasn't half bad! Actually, it was almost as good as the real thing, minus the romantic atmosphere and backyard view of the F train speeding by. 
Roast some veggies, grab a few kinds of good cheese and cured meat, add a handful of olives, and slice up a nice baguette. Toast the bread if that's your thing. Grab your prettiest platter and arrange these things in an attractive way. Serve it forth, sigh in happiness.

Monday, November 1, 2010

shoulda but didn'ta

After our guests have put on their coats, after they've said their goodbyes, after Dan and I have cleared away the dirty dishes and washed them in the sink, after I've blown out the candles on the mantle and put on my pajamas and washed off my makeup, I usually think about that night's dinner and how well I did. No matter how laid-back you are, entertaining is a performance of sorts. And while it may not seem like it, I am always my worst critic.

There have been a few meals in my dinner party-throwing history that made me feel like I'd hit a home run. Not just in the quality and variety of food on the table, but in how fun the night was, how late people stayed, how much I laughed and really enjoyed myself. Nights like those make you feel like you've conjured something magical. And some nights, well, not so much.

After a dinner party is over, I pat myself on the back then think about all the things I'd do differently: we should have played less Bob Dylan on the iPod, there should have been a lighter dessert after such a rich meal, I should have made more salad/guacamole/chocolate cake, I should have made less salad/guacamole/chocolate cake, I should have stayed out of the kitchen more, I should have had fewer gin and tonics. As Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel so brilliantly says on The Simpsons: "Shoulda but didn'ta."

Maybe this line of thinking is unproductive, or obsessive, or overly negative. Cooking a multi-course meal for several people in a small kitchen is no easy feat and I always feel a small sense of achievement every time people come over hungry and leave full. But sometimes I wonder whether they like my cooking as much as they say they do. When I eat at other people's houses everything seems impressive. I'm bowled over by cocktails, a bowl of nuts on the coffee table, pretty napkins on peoples' plates. 

These are the kinds of things I do myself, but because I do them on automatic pilot, they don't seem as interesting, as special. Can we ever truly judge our own efforts without a cloud of self-doubt getting in the way?

The other weekend, Dan and I had three friends over for antipasti, linguine Bolognese, salad, and a chocolate-pear tart. It was a fine menu in my mind--the sort of uncomplicated, rustic comfort food I like best. The sauce, a speedier version of the classic Bolognese came together easily and made the house smell wonderfully of meat and tomatoes and sauteed onions. It was rich and brick-colored and I couldn't wait to serve it over steaming bowls of pasta.
Which I did. Maybe I served too much pasta because a few bowls were still full when I cleared everyone's plates before dessert. Or maybe the sauce wasn't as good as I hoped it would be? It was rich with pork and beef and a little sweet from the tomatoes and carrots, but somehow it didn't have the depth of flavor that I associate with Bolognese. Maybe because my version took one hour, as opposed to three.

There was a lot of leftover pasta. "It's so good but I ate too many appetizers," said one friend with a famously robust appetite. Hmm. I liked it myself, but wanted a little more oomph, a little more something.

The tart I made for dessert was tasty, but not the way I imagined it as I rolled out the dough and arranged slices of pears on top. The chocolate chips I sprinkled over the pears had re-hardened after the tart cooled and now they looked kind of silly. I should have warmed the tart in the oven before serving it. Shoulda but didn'ta.

After dinner, as Dan and I stood side by side washing and drying dishes at the sink, I asked him, "Did you really like that dinner? Be honest."

"Yeah, I did," he said. "Why?" 

"I feel like I have a hard time evaluating my own cooking. Sometimes I know it's really good, but most of the time it doesn't measure up to how I wanted it to be in my mind. That Bolognese was fine, but I thought it could be better. I wonder whether my cooking is as good as people say."

"Oh, I'd definitely tell you if something wasn't good. Everyone likes your cooking and appreciates that you do it."

I believed him but didn't feel convinced.

A few days later I was at a party with some friends including Colin and Anne, two of the people we had over for Bolognese. As we nursed our plastic cups of wine, they brought up the dinner and how much they liked it. "Really?" I asked. "Because I wasn't sure if it was all that great."

"I knew it!" Anne said.

"Knew what?" I asked.

"I told Colin that you were doubting your cooking abilities, but we've never had a bad meal at your house," she said. "You are the most consistent cook we know."

Between the wine and the compliments, I am sure my face was pretty red.
Is there a moral to this story? I guess its that no one is harder on you than yourself. It's true! People, myself included, love a homecooked meal and are happy to be fed by anyone other than themselves. No one is thinking about the stupid little thing you're mentally kicking yourself over. I'm going to remind myself of this the next time I overcook the meat or forget to buy the ice cream.

Some meals are just better than others. And every time you have people over it's a clean slate, a brand new chance to make something delicious, to create a perfect night.

Saturday night dinner with friends
Frankie's-style antipasti
Linguine Bolognese
Red leaf lettuce with red onions and Parmesan
Chocolate-pear tart

Pasta Bolognese
Via Epicurious
(Serves 6 to 8 people)

2 28 oz. cans whole tomatoes with juice or crushed tomatoes
3 Tbsp. olive oil
6 oz. pancetta or 6 slices bacon, finely chopped
1/4 lb. ground pork (not lean)
1/4 lb. ground beef chuck (not lean)
1/4 lb. ground veal (I used 1/2 lb. beef, and omitted the veal)
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 carrot, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. kosher salt (I used much more, taste as you go)
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. linguine (or other pasta such as spaghetti, ziti, or orecchiette)
Grated Parmesan, for a garnish

If using whole tomatoes, in blender or food processor, purée tomatoes with juice. Set aside. In large, heavy pot over moderate heat, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Add pancetta and sauté until golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add beef, pork, and veal (if using) and sauté, breaking up meat with back of spoon, until browned, 7 to 8 minutes. Add onion and carrot and sauté until vegetables are tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in red wine and simmer, scraping up browned bits stuck to bottom of pan, until liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, cream, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat to moderately low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and brick-red in color, approximately 30 minutes. In large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta until almost tender. Drain well and toss with sauce. Serve with grated cheese.


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