Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beware the mace

My parents have had long-time friends of over 50 years who have a fairly large organic garden in upstate New York.  Their friends grow a lot of heirloom vegetables, and when they came to visit recently, they brought with them some heirloom squashes.  We cooked one of those squashes on Christmas Eve Day, known as a "Long Island Cheese" because of its resemblance to a large wheel of cheese.  Deep, dusty orange on the exterior and looking rather like a perfect pie pumpkin, we roasted it and then scooped out the beautiful, dense, ochre-colored flesh.  It was sweet, creamy and I thought it needed no seasoning.

I was cooking for an appreciative group on Christmas Eve Day, however, not all of them would appreciate the absence of butter, sugar and other culinary furbelows.  So I drizzled in some maple syrup.  And I stirred in some butter.  And I seasoned with salt and pepper.  And then the impulse to use some mace gripped me.  I had had plenty of experience with mace before: in doughnuts, cakes, custards, so I believed that my experience was guiding me.  Remind me to have a discussion with you sometime in the future about my false beliefs.   

Mace has an interesting history and comes from the nutmeg tree, unusual for giving us two spices from the same fruit (the second spice being nutmeg, of course).  Mace is a very odd-looking thing before it's ground up into something you can easily incorporate to sauces and batters, although whole pieces of mace can be used to season clear broth, much like a bay leaf.  Some people have described the flavor of mace as more delicate than the nutmeg it holds, but I have always thought it was a bit more floral and citrusy, and just a bit more peppery.  Maybe that's just me.

I had seen a jar of mace in my mother's spice cabinet just the day before.  She had purchased it recently at her local grocery store, which is a fairly mundane kind of grocery store in a fairly mundane kind of small Southern town.  I know this because I mundanely shop there when I'm visiting my mother.  Things such as Roquefort, Ruinart and ramps could not be found among its inventory.  However, perfectly good things such as liver mush, lima beans and Lucky Charms can.  To each his own.

And so I thought that fresh spices could not be found there either, having searched the shelves just two days ago for coriander and fennel seed.  The first jars I picked up had been sitting there for awhile, their bleached-out contents tattling on their shelf-life.  I had reached way to the back of the shelf, hoping to find jars that were less elderly, or at least less damaged by the flourescent lighting.  Pickin's were slim.

And so I thought that the jar of mace in mother's spice cabinet would be feeble and whimpering its swan song.  And so I liberally seasoned that wonderful squash with mace.  And then I put a lot more butter on top and called it a day.  Readers who follow my blog will detect a pattern here with my cavalier use of seasonings.

And so, at our lovely, intimate little Christmas Eve dinner that night, we each tasted that beautiful Long Island Cheese squash and then tasted again.  General consensus among the appreciative souls: there was a strange, overpowering taste that made it almost impossible for us to detect that there was any squash at all.  That strange, overpowering taste turned out to be...mace.  Potent as a can of pepper spray, lethal as a medieval bludgeoning weapon, fresh mace can be unpleasantly pungent.  This was very fresh mace.

I apologized for ruining the beautiful squash and winced when my mother commented that it was the worst thing I had ever made.  She was right. 

So during the night, when I was awake and thinking, I wracked my brain for a way to transform the squash into something lovely, silky, fragrant and most of all, delicious.  I decided that I wanted to make a souffle or a custard for breakfast.

I found a Rachel Ray recipe that I adapted and added 1/2 tsp. cinnamon.  I had about a half a cup of coconut milk and added enough soy milk to equal the quantity of heavy cream called for.  The custard was lovely and completely transformed the pungent, peppery squash into a creamy, comforting breakfast. 

And while I'm sharing recipes, this roasted pork recipe that my mother found in one of her magazines was amazingly stupendous on Christmas Day.  Blanketed in crushed fennel, coriander, garlic and olive oil, and served with roasted pears and red onions, it perfumed the house and was beautiful on the platter.  Did I say it was delicious too?  The accompanying just-sweet-enough roasted sweet potato casserole was also a hit, with cranberries and a crunchy pecan topping.

So I redeemed myself.  For now.

I hope you all had a very warm, very bright, very magical Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

I never said it was "health food"

Having parties means having party food.  For me, that's food that I wouldn't normally eat everyday, but would like to.  And it's inevitable that there are some leftover ingredients after a party that any Puritanical soul would be loathe to discard.

In this case, it was creme fraiche with lemon zest.  And some toasted pine nuts.  And some pork belly.  And some fresh herbs.

I also had some leftover cooked pasta, some mushrooms and some Romano cheese and some lovely salt-preserved capers.  I dreamt throughout the day of what I could do with all these things once suppertime arrived.  And so here is what resulted.  And I promise you, it is definitely not health food.  In fact, I think my triglycerides are a little high this morning.  I'm still thinking about how delicious that shatteringly crisp fried parsley, pine nut and salted caper garnish was...

After-Party Pasta

4 to 6 oz. pork belly, cut into 1/2" lardons (I actually think bacon would be a better choice next time)
2 medium shallots, minced
a little EVOO, if needed
8 large mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup madeira, marsala or medium-dry sherry
1 cup creme fraiche with about 1 tsp. lemon zest stirred in (you can substitute half sour cream and half light or heavy cream if needed)
3 cups cooked pasta (I used whole wheat spaghetti)
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (or use about 1/2 tsp. dried)
a generous amount of freshly grated Romano cheese
1 Tbs. EVOO
2 Tbs. toasted pine nuts
2 Tbs. rough-chopped flat leaf parsley
1 Tbs. salt-preserved capers (or used brined capers that have been well-drained)

1.  Render out the pork belly or bacon until crisped and caramelized in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
2.  In same pan, in pork fat, add shallot and saute until golden around the edges, adding a little EVOO if there is not enough fat.
3.  Add mushrooms and garlic, continuing to saute until mushrooms are beginning to caramelize.
4.  Salt and pepper to taste, then add the madeira and reduce heat to medium low while liquid reduces by about one half.
5.  Add creme fraiche and stir well.  DO NOT BOIL.
6.  Add cooked pasta and thyme leaves.  Stir well to coat pasta with sauce.  Reduce heat to low and cover pan.
7.  Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbs. EVOO in small skillet over medium-high heat.
8.  Briefly fry pine nuts, parsley and capers until parsley is intensely green and crisp.
9.  Divide pasta between two plates and generously sprinkle with Romano cheese.
10.  Garnish with fried pine nuts, parsley and capes.  Serves 2.

To drink:  Vistalba Corte B 2006 (Argentina).  Asparagus/artichoke on the nose.  Deep red fruit with a long, lovely finish.  Nicely balanced.  70% Malbec; 30% Cabernet Sauvignon.  About $17.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Roots, gourds and nightshade

Recently, I hosted another Voluptuous Table dinner event.  It was a small party, only six guests, but that number of people gathered around the table tends to create an opportunity for interaction and conversation that doesn't occur in larger groups.  People lean in, form couplets and triplets and take a chance with bold opinions.  What is also amazing is that couples that attend these kinds of gatherings usually don't know the other guests at the start of the evening.  But within an hour, there is laughter, joking, and good-spirited debate over food and wine.  And that is the whole reason for The Voluptuous Table.

I want to also mention that a very talented friend provided guitar music and sang throughout the evening, much to the pleasure of my guests.  Music (and a cozy fire in the fireplace) always tends to enhance one's experience on a cool, fall evening.  And hats off to my wonderful husband, who worked so hard to make the yard look great and who is becoming quite handy at serving and clearing plates, pouring wine and just generally being a great host.

The menu was meatless (with the exception of the proscuitto garnish on the verrines) and focused on foods that were root vegetables, gourds or from the nightshade family.  I served three appetizers and a cocktail, followed by soup and salad courses with a bright, limey white wine selected to enhance them (Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2010 (Washington State).  The main course and vegetable were accompanied by rich, beautifully balanced red wine with a spicy finish (Juan Gil Rioja 2008 (Spain), and dessert was served with coffee and after-dinner drinks.  The last guest departed just past 11 p.m.  My husband collapsed, exhausted into bed while I contentedly tidied up and reminisced about the evening.

Here are the recipes from our evening together:

Miniature Goat Cheese Tarts with Roasted Beets, Herb Salad and Chive Oil

If you have the inclination to make these delicious and complex little bites, start early.  The beets can be roasted and diced up to 3 days ahead, and the chive oil can also be made in advance and kept in the fridge for up to 5 days or frozen until ready to thaw and use.  You can also make the goat cheese filling up to one day ahead.  In any event, they're really yummy and even beet-haters will enjoy them (not knowing there are beets lurking under the herb salad).

Make the chive oil:  Combine 1 large bunch chives (1 ounce), minced with 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and a little kosher salt (to taste) in a mini blender.  Puree all until smooth.  Strain the oil through a fine sieve. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.   The chive oil can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen.

Roast the beets:  Trim ends and leaves from 2 medium beets and scrub well.  Rub with olive oil, then sprinkle with dried thyme, salt and freshly ground pepper.  Roast beets, turning occasionally, on a small pan at 400 degrees for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until beets are tender when pierced with a fork.  Remove beets from oven and set aside to cool.  Remove and discard skin from beets.  Slice into 1/4" slices, then make 1/4" dice.  Dress with a little chive oil and set aside or chill until ready to use, up to 3 days.  If you are lucky enough to have access to very high-quality salad bar or deli, you may be able to skip the roasting step by purchasing about 1/4 lb. roasted beets and dicing them yourself at home.

Make the garlic and herb seasoned goat cheese:  Bring 4 oz. chevre to room temperature.  Season to taste with fresh minced garlic, finely minced fresh herbs (I used chives, thyme and parsley) and some salt and freshly ground pepper.  Add half and half or heavy cream in driblets, mashing with a fork and blending until you have a smooth but still somewhat firm consistency (like room temperature cream cheese).  Chill until ready to use, or set aside until ready to assemble.

Make the herb salad:  I used 2 Tbs. each chopped parsley, sorrel and beet greens and 1/2 Tbs. chopped chives as well as a generous pinch of sturdy, spicy sprouts, such as radish sprouts.  Use whatever combination of herbs you wish, but complement the herbs in the goat cheese and remember the earthiness of the beets.  Combine herbs in a small bowl and drizzle with a little chive oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Toss to coat herbs evenly and set aside until ready to use.  Can be made up to 15 minutes ahead, while the goat cheese is warming in the phyllo shells.

To assemble the appetizer:  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  You'll need about 20 to 24 miniature phyllo shells (such as Athens brand).  Fill each shell with the goat cheese mixture (you can pipe this in with a pastry bag, a zip bag with the corner cut off, or just use a butter knife).  Place filled shells on a baking pan and bake in oven until cheese is warmed through, about 10 to 12 minutes.  Remove from oven and put about 1 tsp. diced beets on top of each shell.  Divide herb salad among shells, using a small set of tongs, or your fingers if necessary.  Drizzle shells with additional chive oil.  Serve warm.  Make about 2 dozen appetizers.

Crusted Pumpkin Wedges with Dill and Lemon Creme Fraiche Dipping Sauce

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe in the October 2011 issue of House BeautifulHis recipe calls for sour cream, but I used creme fraiche for its richness.  Find the procedure for this easy and elegantly essential ingredient here and use sour cream in place of the buttermilk if you like for extra richness and texture.  Of course, you can eat these without anything to dip them in and they would still be delicious.

1 1/2 lbs. pumpkin (scrubbed well and skin on)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
3 Tbs. panko
6 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
2 1/2 tsp. finely chopped thyme
zest of 2 large lemons, divided
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
salt and white pepper to taste
1 cup creme fraiche
1 Tbs. chopped dill

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  
2.  Cut the pumpkin into 3/8" slices and lay them flat, cut-side down, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
3.  Mix together in a small bowl the Parmesan, panko, parsley, thyme, half the lemon zest, the garlic and a little salt and pepper to taste.
4.  Brush the pumpkin slices generously with olive oil and sprinkle with the crust mixture, covering the slices generously.  Pat the mixture gently down.
5.  Roast the pumpkin for about 30 minutes, or until the pumpkin is tender when pierced with a fork.  If crust starts to darken too much during roasting, cover pan loosely with foil.
6.  Mix together in a small serving bowl the creme fraiche and the dill, seasoning with salt and pepper.  
7.  Sprinkle a little of the remaining lemon zest over the creme fraiche and the rest over the roasted pumpkin slices.
8.  Serve warm or at room temperature with the creme fraiche on side for dipping.  Serves 4 to 8.

You can prepare as the recipe is written in Bon Appetit, or you can do as I did and fry those little beauties in duck fat.  Gotta love the purple fingerlings.  And the duck fat?  Oh, yummmm.

Cranberry Pear Cobbler

I added 3/4 cup pear nectar to the citrus-cranberry mash to steep before straining.  A very potent cocktail, nonetheless, and very pretty in the glass garnished with cranberries and mint.

Curried Orange and Carrot Soup with Orange Creme Fraiche and Crystallized Ginger

I adapted this recipe from the cookbook Citrus by Ford Rogers.  Find the procedure for making creme fraiche here.  I substituted sour cream for the buttermilk because I wanted a thicker end result.

1 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb. carrots, peeled and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3 cups rich chicken broth
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
3 whole cloves
1 tsp. coriander seed
12 black peppercorns
1/2 tsp. cumin seed
1 dried red pepper
1/2 tsp. fennel seed
1 3-inch piece cinnamon stick, broken in half
6 allspice berries
2 cardamom pods, split
4 slices fresh ginger, about 1/4" thick (no need to peel)
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice (you can substitute reconstituted o.j.)
1 cup half and half or heavy cream
3/4 cup creme fraiche
1 tsp. orange zest
4 tsp. crystallized ginger, jullienned

1.  Melt the butter in a 3-quart soup pot over medium heat.
2.  Add onion and saute until edges are golden, about 10 minutes.
3.  Add carrots, garlic, broth and turmeric.
4.  Combine remaining dry spices and ginger in a large teaball or spice bag, or tie them up in a double thickness of cheesecloth.
5.  Add spices to pot and bring to a boil.
6.  Lower the heat and simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
7.  Remove the spices and puree the soup in 2 batches in a food processor or blender, or use an immersion blender (which I think is safer and easier).  At this point you can store the soup for up to one day ahead in the refrigerator.
8.  Rinse out soup pot and return pureed soup to it.
9.  Add orange juice and heat gently.
10.  Add half and half or heavy cream.  Blend well.  DO NOT BOIL.
11.  Combine creme fraiche and orange zest in a squeeze bottle or a small plastic zip bag with a very small corner cut off.
12.  Divide soup among 6 to 8 soup bowls and squeeze a zigzag of creme fraiche on the surface of each bowl.
13.  Use a toothpick to draw lines through the zigzag in the opposite direction.
14.  Garnish with crystalized ginger and serve hot.  Serves 6 to 8.

These rich, elegant salads are labor intensive, but such a treat to make and serve.  Your guests will adore you.  They can be made ahead and garnished at the last minute.

Roasted Eggplant with Studded Pilaf and Manchego Bechamel

You can make the various components of this satisfying main course ahead of time or in stages: roast the eggplant and chill it up to 2 days ahead, roast the butternut squash for the pilaf up to two days ahead, make the pilaf up to 1 day ahead and/or make the bechamel up to 1 day ahead.  Then bring everything to room temperature and assemble, reheating the bechamel in a double boiler or in the microwave.

Prepare the eggplant:  Cut 2 medium-size eggplants in half from stem to blossom ends.  Place cut side down in a sided baking dish.  Add a little dry sherry and about a cup of water.  Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes or until very soft when pierced with a fork.  Remove from over and set aside until ready to use, or store in refrigerator up to 2 days.

Prepare the pilaf:  Cook 2 cups brown rice with 4 cups liquid (water, broth or watered-down tomato juice) according to package directions.  Meanwhile, peel and dice a small butternut squash (you should have about a cup and a half of diced squash) or purchase prepared diced butternut at the grocery store if you wish to save time.  Toss butternut pieces in a bowl with enough EVOO to coat each piece and salt and pepper to taste.  Turn out butternut pieces onto a baking sheet and roast uncovered for about 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or until tender and caramelized.  If you plan things right, you can roast the butternut and the eggplant both 2 days ahead of time and store them in your fridge until ready to assemble.  

Toast about 1 cup of pine nuts gently in a skillet on medium-low heat or in the oven, watching carefully so they don't burn.  Cool and set aside.  Measure out about 1/2 cup golden raisins and set aside.

Next, chop an onion into small dice and brown gently in a large skillet with plenty of olive oil.  Add 2 to 3 cloves minced garlic, saute briefly, then add the roasted butternut squash, the raisins and the pine nuts.  Stir gently to blend and remove from heat.  Stir in 1/2 tsp. each cinnamon and thyme.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Gently stir in brown rice, blending all ingredients together.  Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.  Sometimes I add chopped parsley for a little green, sometimes not.  Add a little extra olive oil if the rice looks too dry or pasty.  Your finished pilaf should glisten and not be starchy or glutinous-looking.

Stuff the eggplant:  Carefully turn the eggplant halves over in the roasting pan with a spatula so that the skin side is down.  Gently mash the pulp down with a fork.  Mound a generous amount of pilaf onto each eggplant half, dividing pilaf evenly among 4 servings.  Pour a little sherry (2 to 4 Tbs.) in the bottom of the roasting pan and add about 1/4 cup water.  Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees until heated through, about 25 minutes.

Make the bechamel:  Melt 4 Tbs. butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add 3 Tbs. flour and whisk rapidly to blend well and break up any lumps.  Slowly pour 2 cups warm milk into the pan while whisking, being careful to whisk out any lumps.  Reduce heat to medium and stir and cook until sauce is creamy, rich and smooth.  Season to taste with salt, pepper and about 1/4 tsp. nutmeg.  Remove from heat and add 1 1/2 cups shredded Manchego cheese (or substitute Emmentaler, Gruyere, Fontina, Monterrey Jack or another nutty white cheese) and stir well until cheese is melted.  Store for later use (reheat gently in a double boiler or in the microwave) or keep warm until ready to use.

To assemble the dish:  Carefully place stuffed eggplant half on a plate with a long spatula, mounding up pilaf again if necessary.  Ladle a generous amount of bechamel over each serving and garnish with finely chopped parsley.  Serves 4. 

Roasted Red Peppers and Fennel

These peppers are lovely to look at and will bring moans and praise from your guests.  I decided to grind the peppercorns, coriander and fennel in a spice grinder for a more pleasant mouthfeel, otherwise, the crushed spices are rather crunchy and unpleasant.

Pumpkin Roll Cake with Toffee Cream Filling and Caramel Sauce

You can use purchased caramel sauce as suggested in the recipe, or you can make your own, as I did.  I always like to "push" the sugar past the point that most recipes recommend to a deep, dark caramel--like black roux.  This sauce adds so much more flavor to the finished dessert.  Top it with whipped cream and more toffee pieces.  It's gorgeous and delicious.

May your tastebuds dance nonstop!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Jump-in-the-mouth pork chops

Oh dear lord, these pork chops were over the top.  I don't normally fry food, but I had been dreaming of these for several days.  I had a good supply of fresh sage on hand, courtesy of my wonderful friend and cooking companion, TXMama.  I intended to do a riff on saltimbocca, so I skipped white wine and proscuitto because I wasn't rolling these thin, bone-in pork chops like the classic presentation, but I used plenty of fresh sage in the egg batter, panko and then finished the little brown beauties with melted Romano and mozzarella cheeses and fried capers.  No pan sauce necessary.

Oh my.

Accompanied by baked garnet sweet potatoes (the best--no, I mean it--the best sweet potatoes), so rich and flavorful they need no seasoning, and roasted garlic brussels sprouts (yes, he ate them.  With gusto.), this meal, as my father would have said, hit the spot.  I chose an Argentinian red, Bodega Benegas Don Tiburcio 2007 to accompany the food.  Complex and rich, this blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc is full of dark fruit and is firm and delicious next to bolder flavors like the sage, capers and brussels sprouts.  Argentinian wines, like Spanish wines, are still great values and deliver a high level of quality at a very reasonable price point.  You can buy this wine for under $13.

Jump-in-the-mouth Pork Chops

I used thin pork chops to avoid having to pound the meat, but you could certainly buy a thicker cut of boneless pork and pound the meat thin with a mallet.

4 thin-cut bone-in pork chops
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup cooking oil
1 egg
2 Tbs. water
2 heaping Tbs. chopped fresh sage leaves
1 cup panko
1/2 cup shredded Romano cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup capers, drained (you can also use dried, salted capers if you wish)

1.  Salt and pepper the pork chops to taste and set aside to come to room temperature.  Have a sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper nearby.
2.  Meanwhile, begin gently heating the oil in a large skillet.
3.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
4.  Beat egg in a shallow dish or pie pan; add water.
5.  Add chopped sage and stir well to distribute.
6.  Put panko in another shallow dish.
7.  Bring cooking oil up to temperature.  It should ripple a bit when it's at the right temperature.
8.  Dip pork chops one by one into egg mixture, then cover completely with panko.  Set aside on waxed paper until all chops are coated and ready to fry.
9.  Fry the pork chops, regulating the temperature as necessary and turning only once.  They should be a lovely golden brown on both sides.
10.  Place pork chops on a baking sheet or oven-proof platter and divide Romano cheese among them, sprinkling on top of each chop.  Repeat with mozzarella cheese.
11.  Place baking sheet in oven and turn off oven.  Leave door closed.
12.  Meanwhile fry the capers briefly in the oil.  Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
13.  Remove pork chops from oven.  The cheese should be all melty and gorgeous.
14.  Plate pork chops and divide capers among them, sprinkling capers over cheese.  Serve while chops are still warm.  Serves 4.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

As easy as it gets

Recently, a friend passed a recipe on to me that she had gotten from her sister.  She told me that it was easy, and that although she didn't particularly feel competent about cooking some things, even finding cooking overwhelming sometimes, this recipe had really boosted her self esteem and that it was absolutely devoured by her husband.  The recipe?  Slow Cooker Lasagna.

I tested this recipe on a recent evening, and apart from the texture of the pasta, which you need to expect will be different from the traditional preparation, it was a smash.  The flavors are outstanding and it couldn't have been much easier.  Of course, I tweaked the original recipe a little (you'll see my additions and changes below).

We enjoyed this on a cold, rainy night with a salad.  And I poured a lovely little Barbera d'Asti 2009 from Villa Jolanda, a wine full of bright acidity and red fruit with a spicy nose and a soft, silky finish.  It will set you back about $10 or so and it's a charming wine to drink with this dish.

Slow Cooker Lasagna

1 lb. lean ground beef (I also added 3 links of hot Italian sausage, removed from their casings)
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
28 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
15. oz. canned tomato sauce (I added 1/2 cup dry red wine for rinsing the cans)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried basil (I also added 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves)
1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)

1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided (I added 1 cup chopped fresh spinach leaves and 1 egg, well beaten and salt and pepper to taste)
6 to 7 uncooked lasagna noodels
1/2 cup (or more) shredded Parmesan cheese

1.  Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  
2.  Add ground beef and sausage if using.  Fry for about 5 minutes, breaking up clumps with a wooden spoon, until meat begins to brown a little.
3.  Add onion and garlic, continuing to fry and stirring frequently for another 5 minutes.  Reduce heat if garlic begins to brown.
4.  Stir in crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, rinsing cans with red wine if desired.
5.  Stir in salt, oregano, basil, thyme (if using) and crushed red pepper.
6.  Simmer for 5 to 7 minutes to allow flavors to blend.
7.  Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix together ricotta cheese, 1 1/2 cups mozzarella, chopped spinach, egg, salt and pepper (if using).  Blend well and set aside.
8.  Spoon 1/3 of the meat mixture into a slow cooker, covering the bottom completely.
9.  Cover with lasagna noodles, breaking to fit as necessary.
10.  Top noodles with half of cheese mixture, spreading to the edges of the slow cooker.
11.  Repeat with another layer of lasagna noodles, 1/3 of beef mixture, the rest of the cheese mixture and ending with the remaining 1/3 of beef mixture.
12.  Cover slow cooker and cook on low setting for 4 to 6 hours.  
13.  Combine remaining mozzarella and the parmesan cheese; set aside.
14.  Remove cover and turn off heat, then sprinkle lasagna with mozzarella and parmesan mixture.
15.  Cover slow cooker again and let sit until cheese melts and lasagna firms up, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Serves 6 to 8.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Too many grapes? You could make wine...

or you could make grape cake.

It happens to all of us.  Those beautiful, plump, crunchy grapes that you bring home fresh from the store lose their youth and vitality and become dull, slightly shriveled and less than optimal for eating out-of-hand as they transition their way to raisinhood. What to do with the little devils?

I went searching several months ago for a quick bread recipe that would use grapes.  I found lots of recipes that called for grape skins (thank you Finger Lake wineries of upstate New York), and an Italian grape focaccia, which is gorgeous and lovely, but requires more effort and is not the same as eating a moist, crumbly sweet cake scented with cinnamon and nutmeg, warmed gently and given a dollop of creme fraiche or cinnamon-brandy whipped cream.  Or, a simple dusting of powdered sugar.  Brandy or Pedro Ximenez sherry on the side.

Do I have your attention now?

So this is my recipe for grape cake, which is ridiculously easy to make, looks beautiful if you make individual portions in those jumbo muffin tins, or bake it in those small foil loaf pans to give away as gifts.  I always make this cake to give away and get rave reviews.  So let me know what you think after you've whipped up a batch.

Grape Cake 

3 large eggs
1 cup oil
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk
2 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
2 1/2 cups brown sugar (you can substitute white if you wish)
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
3 cups seedless grapes (I like to use black, green and red for color)

1.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2.  Beat together eggs, sugar, oil, buttermilk and vanilla until light and smooth.
3.  Mix together remaining ingredients except for grapes and fold dry ingredients into egg and oil mixture until well-blended.  Batter will be stiff; do not beat or cake will be tough.
4.  Gently fold in grapes.
5.  Spoon batter into two greased and floured loaf pans, five smaller loaf pans, two round cake pans or muffin tins.
6.  Bake large loaf pans 1 hour; smaller loaf pans 40-45 minutes, cake pans 35-40 minutes and muffin tins 25-30 minutes.
7.  Test for doneness by inserting toothpick, which should come out with just a few crumbs clinging.  Cool for about 30 minutes, then carefully remove from pans.  Garnish as desired; serve warm for best flavor.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vindaloo's pickles

Perfect for snacking, perfect for those holiday relish trays, perfect for gifting.  What's more, beautiful to look at.  That's the wonder of Vindaloo's pickles.

You may have seen or even tasted a recipe that circulates called Texas Christmas Pickles.  I've heard about them for awhile now, and just tasted them the other day.  OK, they're tasty.  But I am always challenged to recreate and to up the ante.  I think I have.  I wanted a more beautiful, green, crisp pickle.  I wanted less sugar and a clean, spicy note without cloudy brine.  I managed to get what I wanted, which is something my husband thinks I have elevated to an art form in general.  But get this: my husband, who does not even like pickles, said when he tasted them that they were pretty good. Wow!  A recommendation from a non-pickle person is top-drawer!

These pickles are as easy as it gets.  They are pretty in the jar and are very tasty.  They are perfect to make now and to give for the holidays.  Your recipients will return the jars to you and then ask if there are more.  Guaranteed.

Here is the procedure:

Buy one gallon of sliced dill pickles.  Make sure you get them in a glass jar if you plan to pickle the whole gallon in the same jar; otherwise, you can divide them up into smaller pint or quart jars.

Drain the pickles and reserve the brine.  Either return the pickles to the glass gallon jar, or divide evenly among smaller canning jars that have been sterilized.  Have your lids and rings ready.

Bring the reserved brine to a boil and add 6 cups of sugar, 2 Tbs. dehydrated chopped garlic (I get mine from Penzey's) and 2 Tbs. Tabasco sauce.  You can use garlic powder if you wish, but I find that it has a funky taste when it rehydrates.  You can always use real garlic, roughly chopped.

Reduce heat to low and continue to simmer the brine. 

While the brine was coming to a boil, I put a dried red chili along the side of each jar, along with a spear of fresh carrot and a peeled clove of garlic.  The red, orange and white against the green of the pickles is very striking.

Fill the jar(s) with brine and screw on caps and lids but do not fully tighten.  Wait for about 30 minutes to tighten completely, then invert the jar(s) and put in your refrigerator for 24 hours.  After that, they are ready to eat.

A note about food safety:  These pickles will last for up to one month in your refrigerator.  After that, you may have a science experiment on your hands.  However, I don't think they'll last that long if you are giving some away and eating your share.  You can, of course, process them and seal them for longer shelf life if you have canning equipment.  But my advice is to just eat them very quickly, then make more!

Enjoy your pickles, and may your tastebuds dance.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Breaking news: Yankee girl makes cornbread dressing

Even though I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, I was raised pure Yankee.  I knew not one thing about my Southern roots until I moved to Maryland during grad school and discovered biscuits and gravy.  I'm not talkin' about the kind of tough, hard biscuits covered in white, glutinous gravy the consistency of wallpaper paste, I'm talkin' about tender, steaming hot, buttery biscuits smothered in the most delectable of all the food groups: redeye or sawmill gravy.  You can have cream gravy with sausage if you wish, but I prefer the kind of gravy made from salt-cured country ham.  And a good-sized slice of ham too.

Those of you who know, know that you can make an entire meal of biscuits and gravy.  Hunger has been quelled, wars have been won, hearts have been smitten and the South has been defined by a simple meal of biscuits and gravy.  And then there are the grits.  Now, I'm not so much a fan of corn as I am a fan of grits.  Put some smoked cheddar or gouda in them, lay a few dry-barbecued shrimp--or better yet--a thick piece of seared pork belly--on top of a steaming bowl of them, and I am experiencing a Nirvana that not even your first speedball could deliver.

And then there are certain of us foodies that prefer to think of their grits as polenta.  I'm all over that.  Pass the asiago, please.  If you've got any osso bucco or a rich, rustic ragu to accompany my polenta, that would be even better.  Long story short, any kind of dried, ground corn made into something as comforting and satisfying as grits or polenta is the kind of corn I want to be eating at least three times a day.  And while we're on the subject of corn, I feel the urge to digress and to mention of one of my favorite Cajun dishes, maque choux, which is pretty much the best whole-kernel corn off the cob I've ever eaten.  This is a good place to mention Evangeline Cafe, where I ate with my brother earlier this week.  He had a plate of grilled catfish smothered in a creamy crawfish macque choux gravy that was out of this world.  I had other delectable things, such as the Crawfish Pistolette and the Oysters Contraband...and I'm going back just as soon as I can.

So try as I might to deny my Southern roots, they are definitely there.  My magician of a hairdresser usually very artfully disguises other root-related matters, but I'm finding that I can't suppress my craving for corn, usually in the form of coarsely-ground meal.  And furthermore, being a die-hard white-bread-herb-dressing- with-my-Thanksgiving-turkey sort of girl for over 50 years, I totally surprised myself when I made what I thought was some of the best cornbread dressing I have ever put in my mouth.  I wanted a dressing with some of the same elements of my favorite dressing: herbs, aromatic vegetables and buttery moist goodness, but I wanted something more toothsome than my beloved white bread herb dressing recipe from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook.

Typically, I pass up cornbread dressing for one or more of the following reasons: it's too sweet; it's too dry; it has too much other stuff in it that just doesn't belong there--like oysters.  I LOVE OYSTERS, but not when they're all grey and shriveled, buried as a nasty surprise in that pan of dressing.  I'm sorry to mention it, but my impulse control is totally depleted for today: oysters buried in dressing remind me in some dark, twisted way of kitty litter.  I'll stop right there.

So maybe you'll look this recipe over, turn up your nose and say, "This is nothing special."  That's OK.  But maybe you'll look this recipe over, say, "Hmm, I want to try this," and find out that it's pretty darn good.  Let me know.

Yankee Girl Cornbread Dressing

Make the cornbread:

2 eggs, beaten
2 cups buttermilk
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 cups cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2.  Mix together eggs, buttermilk and oil in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
3.  Add cornmeal, salt, baking soda and baking powder; stir with whisk to combine.
4.  Pour batter into greased 9-inch square baking pan.
5.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden.  Cool until ready to make stuffing.

Make the dressing:

Cornbread from above recipe, cooled and crumbled
3 slices oven-dried sourdough bread
6 tablespoons butter
2 cups chopped celery
1 large onion, chopped
4 cups chicken broth
1 tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. chopped fresh sage
2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. thyme, fresh or dried
1/4 cup dried cranberries (optional)
1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
3 eggs, beaten

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  In a large bowl, combine crumbled cornbread and dried sourdough bread slices: set aside.
3.  Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.
4.  Add the celery and onion and cook until transparent, approximately 5 to 10 minutes.
5.  Add the vegetable mixture to the cornbread mixture.
6.  Add the broth, mix well, taste, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
7.  Add chopped sage, chopped parsley, thyme and cranberries and nuts (if using).
8.  Add beaten eggs and mix well.
9.  Pour mixture into a greased pan and bake until dressing is cooked through, about 45 minutes.  Serves six to eight.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I left my heart in Southeast Asia

This is the year of visits and visitors.  You'll recall my youngest brother, the other talented sibling who cooks really well, visited at the end of October.  Then there was my friend whom I hadn't seen in almost ten years, who was here last weekend and with whom we enjoyed several wonderful meals.  And now, my other brother is here.  He has several talents too: we have decided that he is a really talented eater.  I've been doing a lot of cooking and have been having a lot of fun being inventive and trying new recipes.

So last night, I was feeling like making a foray into familiar, yet still very exciting territory.  I was craving the intoxicating flavors and seductive aromas of Southeast Asian cooking.  I had white fish, banana leaves, Emerald Sauce (see below for recipe), coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, ginger, jasmine rice, spinach and shallots.  I had an old standby technique for cooking fish, a new coconut rice recipe and an idea for sauteed spinach.  I also had two wines that I wanted to compare and contrast with the evening's flavor profiles:  Barton and Guestier Vouvray 2009 (France) and Charles Smith "Kung Fu Girl" Riesling 2009 (Washington State).  These wines run about $10 and $14, respectively.

I had invited another friend with an adventurous palate to join us--she reads my blog regularly and always has great feedback on the recipes.  It is a pleasure to cook for her and to introduce her to new wines.  We started our evening with the vouvray, a light, floral white that is reminiscent of pear and peach blossom.  This wine carries some sweetness, which is a good balance for intense sauces and especially for Southeast Asian cuisines.  Vouvray, as you may already know or recall, is the product of the chenin blanc grape and is generally produced in the Loire Valley.  As the rice was cooking and the air was perfumed with kaffir lime, lemongrass and coconut, the vouvray primed our palates.  Everyone enjoyed the interplay between the aromas and the wine.  And before dinner was even on the table, we had finished the vouvray (oh, but it was yummy) and had opened the riesling.

Kung Fu Girl Riesling is fun and doesn't take itself too seriously.  The label is amusing and boldly graphic.  Chilled to about 42 degrees, it was light and spicy with clove and nutmeg essence, bright with key lime and mellowed with tangerine and apricot, slightly mineral and just weighty enough to hold its own against the pungent and spicy Emerald Sauce on the fish.  It also played beautifully with the Malaysian coconut rice, a combination I am eager to repeat.  Note to self: this wine disappears fast.  Next time, get two bottles!

Basa with Emerald Sauce in Banana Leaves

You can make this sauce ahead of time and hold it in the refrigerator or freeze it.  I make it in large batches so I always have some ready to go.  Since I have a banana plant in my back yard, getting banana leaves is easy.  Otherwise, use parchment paper or foil.

1 cup frozen baby peas
2 to 3 Tbs. green curry paste
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/3 to 1/2 cup rich chicken broth
salt to taste

4 basa fillets, or other firm white fish, such as halibut
banana leaves, parchment paper or foil

1.  Put peas in a small saucepan with enough water to cover.  Bring to boil, then remove from heat, cover and let stand for one minute.  Drain cooking liquid and put peas in food processor or blender.
2.  Add curry paste and coconut milk and blend until smooth.
3.  Add salt and drizzle in chicken broth, blending until sauce is the consistency of heavy cream.  
4.  Taste and correct for salt; set aside as you prepare the fish packets, or chill or freeze for later use.  Sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
5.  If using banana leaves, prepare them by heating them lightly one by one (in sections if necessary) over a flat-top electric range or in a large skillet or griddle until pliable.
6.  Put a fish fillet in the center of a section of banana leaf (or parchment paper or foil) and spoon about 3 or 4 Tbs. sauce over fillet.
7.  Cover fish with another section of banana leaf and fold edges over, fastening with toothpicks.  If you are using parchment paper, you can seal the edges by rolling and folding (or use staples).  If using foil, seal edges by folding and rolling loosely around the fish.
8.  Cook over low heat on a preheated grill for about 10 minutes, either directly on the grill if banana leaves are thick and sturdy, or on a sheet pan.  Or you can cook the fish packets in an oven heated to 400 degrees for about 12 minutes.  Obviously, if you have thicker fish fillets, like halibut, you will need to cook the packets longer.  Serves four.

Nasi Lemak  (Malaysian Coconut Rice)

Must.  Make.  Incredible.  Rice.  Yum.

Baby Spinach Leaves with Frizzled Shallots and Tomato

     Coconut oil can be found near the other oils in your supermarket.  It imparts a nutty flavor to the spinach, the tomatoes bring acid and depth and the frizzled shallots on top are crunchy and textural.

2 Tbs. coconut oil
2 large shallots, peeled and cut into thin rings
1 medium tomato, cut into medium dice    
1/2 lb. baby spinach leaves
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Heat the coconut oil in a large skillet until rippling.
2.  Add shallots and stir, cooking until rings are separated and fried to a golden brown.  Be careful not to burn them.  Drain them on paper towels and set aside, reserving coconut oil.
3.  Add diced tomato to the skillet, then layer spinach on top.  Saute quickly until spinach is wilted and tomato is softened.
4.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
5.  Just before serving, scatter frizzled shallots on top of spinach.  Serves 4.

What we ate for dessert:  I departed from the Southeast Asian theme because I had a lot of fresh berries and a can of Reddi-Whip in the fridge.  OK, now's the time to confess that I often keep a can of Reddi-Whip on hand because my husband refuses to drink hot cocoa without whipped cream on top.  He really likes recreating that Denny's experience.  So, what we did was to slice up some strawberries in a small bowl and then add some blackberries.  We sprinkled a few teaspoons of sugar over the berries, then drizzled them with about an ounce each of good quality triple sec (you could use orange liqueur) and some amaretto.  Added some Vietnamese cinnamon (or use another good quality cinnamon), about 1/4 tsp., and stirred.  Then we set them aside to meld flavors.  Meanwhile, we toasted a little unsweetened shredded coconut (which you can find in Indian markets or health food stores) and some sliced almonds.  To assemble: spoon some berries and their syrup into champagne coupes or martini glasses.  Top with a crown of Reddi-Whip and sprinkle with the toasted coconut and almonds.  Oh my.  Watch it disappear.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Give me sauce choron or give me death

Did you ever taste something so good that you ate it with everything?  Something that tasted so delectable that you imagined all the ways that you would eat it next time?  A food so perfect that you couldn't imagine life without it?  A concoction so delicious you would try to get some of it through security at the airport if you knew it wasn't available once you arrived at your destination?

We experienced that on Saturday night.  With my friend still in town and spending her last night with us, I wanted to make a sending-off dinner.  She had brought a bottle of Silver Palm Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (CA), which was full of black currant, black cherry, chocolate and the vanilla finish that comes with barrel-aging in oak.  My friend prefers red wines and I wanted to make a dinner that would play to the wine.

I had a lovely fillet of wild sockeye salmon, some fresh broccoli, fresh spinach and a packet of Lundberg Wild Blend, which is a rice mixture of long grain brown rice, sweet brown rice, wild rice, whole grain Wehani rice, and whole grain black Japonica rice.  It's nutty, chewy, wonderfully wholesome.  It's also wonderfully expensive, but my rationale is that nothing is too expensive when I'm cooking for people I love.  The rice blend was cooked with browned butter, garlic and shallots, the broccoli was roasted with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and the spinach was simply sauteed with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and drizzled with a little cream at the end for flourish.  I roasted the salmon simply with Murray River Apricot Salt, a beautiful, pale peach-colored salt that is delicate and mildly briny, and lots of cracked black pepper.

So what's the big deal, you say?  She's gotten us all worked up into a lather about a meal full of pedestrian and predictable omega 3's, overpriced whole grains, and dark green vegetables full of vitamins A and C???  So???

So, it was the sauce.  As soon as my friend suggested we pair her red wine with fish, I thought "Salmon Fillet with Sauce Choron."  I adore Sauce Choron, which is basically a ramped-up, piquant bearnaise sauce.  I have been known to lick my plate after eating something with Sauce Choron.  I want to put Sauce Choron on everything.  That night at the dinner table, we did put Sauce Choron on everything.  And in no time, my friend began listing all the things she would want to eat with Sauce Choron in the future.  She liberally dressed her salmon with it, then her broccoli, then another helping of broccoli, and then put another spoonful of sauce on her plate after all the food was gone, and ate that too.  My husband did much the same thing, and I couldn't stop with the superlatives because it was just so darn good.  I think you will react much the same too.  Here's the recipe.  Make lots.  You'll need it for eggs, pork, chicken, shrimp, vegetable, toast, pasta, potatoes...and the occasional piece of shoe leather.

Sauce Choron

     If you go by the book (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I, that is), or by other classic recipes, this sauce should be strained of the shallots and tarragon and should also be very smooth.  I prefer a more rustic version, which you can always put in the blender if you want a smoother sauce after it cools a bit.  The recipe I settled on was Emeril Lagasse's, a variation of the one found in MAFC.  Except, as you may know because it's Emeril, there's a lot more butter.  BAM!

3 Tbs. white wine vinegar
3 Tbs. dry white wine
10 peppercorns, crushed
2 Tbs. finely chopped shallots
1 Tbs. finely chopped tarragon
1 Tbs. tomato paste
3 egg yolks, beaten
1 cup unsalted butter, melted
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper

1.  In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, white wine, peppercorns, shallots, tarragon and tomato paste.
2.  Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce liquid to 2 Tbs.  
3.  Lower the heat and add the egg yolks, whisking over low heat until frothy, about 2 to 3 minutes.
4.  In a slow, steady stream, add the melted butter and whisk until the sauce thickens.
5.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Strain sauce if desired, or cool and put into the blender to incorporate the flavors, or serve as is.  Makes about 1 cup.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Warm fire, fennel-roasted pork, lovely wine

A friend that I haven't seen in almost a decade contacted me earlier in the week and said she'd like to visit for a few days on her way to Arizona.  She's been driving around the country for several months, having left California in order to help take care of a very ill friend.  She's been visiting friends and points of interest along the way and just came from New Orleans, which we both agree is a stupendously magical place for so many reasons.  She arrived, road-weary and tired, Friday evening.

There is (finally) an appropriate November chill in the air.  And it is time for the warmth and comfort of a cheery fire.  We had our first fire of the season in our fireplace last night and it was lovely.  My husband built the fire after we migrated in from outdoors, having enjoyed some celebratory bubbly and a few appetizers.  As my friend and I sat, sipping, nibbling and reconnecting we were startled by heavy clattering and footsteps above our heads.  I stuck my head outside to see our aluminum extension ladder propped up against the side of the house and my husband on the roof with a pole trimmer, sawing off tree limbs.

I had called the county sheriff's office earlier that day to make sure that, in the midst of the burn ban, we could still have a indoor fire.  But my husband was taking no chances.  Even though the Labor Day wildfires were extinguished, the emotional pain and trauma of the destruction was not.  My husband trimmed back every limb that was even remotely close to the chimney so that any embers managing to escape from the flue and out from under the chimney cap would have no easy time of it.  I was grateful that he was being so conscientious.  Lord knows I wouldn't have been the one climbing up on that roof!

Earlier that morning, I had started to slow-roast a pork roast and had come home mid-afternoon to the aroma of fennel, lemon and garlic.  I had quite a few fennel stalks left over from last weekend's event and will often use them in the bottom of a roasting pan as a sort of roasting rack.  So I found a recipe for pork rubbed with fennel, garlic and red chile and adapted it to use the fennel stalks.  Of course, you can make this recipe without the fennel "roasting rack" and it will be just as good, or if you have whole fennel bulbs with stalks, slice the bulbs thinly and roast them separately in a shallow pan with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little Parmesan cheese.

The secret to a perfect pork roast is in the slow roasting process, which produces a very moist, succulent slice of meat on your plate with a lovely pan sauce.  As an accompaniment, I also roasted parsnips, carrots, rutabaga and potatoes with smoked paprika and some of my beloved duck fat in a separate pan.  And of course, what meal would be complete without my favorite: roasted kale done simply with olive oil, salt pepper and a little garlic.

After seeking advice from one of my wine guys, I looked for a bright, acidic red that was fermented and aged in stainless steel.  I found Tormaresca Neprica 2009 (Italy), a blend of three grapes: Negroamaro, Primitivo and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The tasting notes indicated that it had a balanced acidity with notes of dark chocolate, fruit and hints of licorice.  It ended up being a perfect choice with the fennel-braised pork roast and the acidity balanced the richness of the pork beautifully.  This wine is about $10 a bottle, so it's well within reach for a Friday night dinner.

For the pork, I adapted a recipe by James Martin, host of Saturday Kitchen on the BBC network.  The original recipe is here, but I thought that more garlic, less fennel seed and no finishing pesto would work well.  It did.  Here the recipe I developed:

Slow-Roasted Pork with Garlic, Fennel and Chiles 

several fennel stalks, with fronds (optional)
3 to 5 lb. bone-in Boston butt pork roast
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. fennel seed
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 to 2 tsp. crushed dried red chiles
olive oil, to taste
5 lemons, juiced
3 Tbs. olive oil

1.  Wash fennel stalks and trim away discolored edges, if using.  Set aside.
2.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
3.  Score pork roast on all sides with a sharp knife, about 1/4 inch or more deep.  Place in a large roasting pan.
4.  With a mortar and pestle, make a paste of the garlic, fennel, salt, pepper and chile flakes.  Add enough olive oil to make ingredients adhere to each other.
5.  Rub the pork roast all over the with garlic and fennel paste.
6.  Roast the pork for 30 minutes, until the surface begins to crisp and brown, turning roast to brown all sides.
7.  Remove pork from oven and place optional fennel stalks under pork roast to make a roasting rack.
8.  Pour half of the lemon juice over the pork and drizzle with 2 Tbs. olive oil.
9.  Turn down oven to 225 degrees and tent the roast loosely with foil.
10.  Roast the pork overnight, or all day long, 8 to 24 hours, basting occasionally with the remaining lemon juice and olive oil.
11.  The roast is ready when the meat falls away from the bone.  Slice thinly, deglaze the pan with additional lemon juice, if desired, and serve with the roast and any side dishes you might want.  Serves 6.

May your tastebuds dance!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Voluptuous Table goes beyond virtual reality

This past Saturday night, something very special happened.  I experienced the realization of a long-time dream.  I launched The Voluptuous Table as a prix fixe dinner venture with a premier event featuring a dinner buffet of rustic French cuisine for 30 people.

It was a perfect day, weather-wise.  The house looked great, the back yard looked stupendous (thanks to my husband), and the menu was full of rich, fall flavors.  Wine flowed like the river Loire.  And there were charming tables and seating areas everywhere, both inside and out.  Candles twinkled, Edith Piaf warbled, incredible aromas emanated from the kitchen.  I was running a French bistro for the night!  Where were the black-turtlenecked existentialists with their sour looks?  They must have stayed in Paris.

There were many memorable moments and I enjoyed my guests--many familiar to me and several not.  One of the highlights of the evening was that some friends of mine have a lovely 14 year old daughter who sang for us beautifully in Italian, French and English.  She brought the house down with her rendition of "The Lady is a Tramp."  End-of-the-evening entertainment is always one of those little surprises that I like to arrange for specific gatherings and my guests were both surprised and delighted.

If the appetites of my guests are any indication, I'm going to have a very successful business.  They ate almost everything.  Every toast point (with plenty of pate and handmade goat cheese loaded on top), every spoonful of rich, silky cassoulet, every slice of the five pounds (and five varieties) of artisanal breads I baked, most of the homemade butter, practically all of the two salads served and every last dainty slice of the banana cake with caramel frosting.  All washed down with countless glasses of wine and pots of coffee.   Bon appetit!

Wines served: Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone 2010 (France), a lemony, floral, medium-bodied white suggested to accompany the goat cheese appetizer; Domaine Sarcin Cotes du Rhone 2009 (France), a medium-bodied red with earthy herbal notes, dark red fruit and wild strawberry suggested to accompany the pate; Chateau Tuilerie Pages Bordeaux 2007 (France), with mild tannins and good, firmly structured red fruit to accompany the main course of cassoulet, artisanal breads and salads.

Here's what I cooked and the recipes:

Lemon Goat Cheese with Lemon Oil, Herbes de Provence and Nicoise Olives

For the cheese:
Follow procedure for making homemade goat cheese here, or purchase 16 oz. chevre or montrachet.  Whether you make your own or buy it, knead in about 1 tsp. fresh lemon zest.  Form into a ball and chill until ready to serve.

For the lemon oil:
Heat one cup of the lightest olive oil you can find slowly and gently.  Add the zest of one lemon and steep for at least one hour.  Strain, cool and set aside until ready to use.

To present the cheese:
Place cheese on serving plate.  Drizzle generously with lemon oil.  Sprinkle with about 1 tsp. herbes de Provence.  Scatter about 1/2 cup pitted nicoise olives around the cheese.  Garnish with Prince Edward pansies, violets or other small flowers and small sprigs of parsley.  Serve with toast points.  Serves 12. 

Rustic Pate
This pate recipe sets up into a creamy and rich finished product.  Don't be alarmed by how loose it is before it chills down.  Superb flavor and beautiful on the plate with the pistachio garnish.   Adapted from http://larry-ervin.suite101.com/how-to-make-two-easy-chicken-liver-pate-recipes-a43473.

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
8 oz chicken livers, chopped
1 tsp chopped fresh sage
1/4 cup marsala (or sherry or Madeira)
2 anchovy filets, drained and coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp capers, drained
1/4 cup shelled pistachios plus 2 Tbsp chopped for garnish
Freshly ground pepper
  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the celery and garlic and cook two minutes.
  2. Turn the flame up to high and add the chicken livers. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the livers are crisp outside but still a bit pink inside, about 3 minutes.
  3. Stir in the sage and deglaze briefly with the marsala. Transfer all to the bowl of your food processor.
  4. Add the anchovies, capers and whole pistachios. Process until fairly smooth, but not puréed. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The anchovies are salty enough that you should not need to add more salt.
  5. Transfer to your serving dish and serve warm or at room temperature.  You can also chill this pate in a mold and serve it slightly cold.  It is highly seasoned enough for the flavors to come through.  Serve with thin slices of toasted baguette or dress it up by using it to fill individual endive leaves. Garnish with the chopped pistachios and strands of fresh chives.  Serves 12.

Artisanal Breads

I've run this recipe before under my first blog entry in February of this year.  You can do it as you like and add chopped scallions, herbs, raisins, orange peel, chopped olives or anything you like.  It's great bread and very versatile.  This recipe made five one-pound loaves.

Homemade Compound Butter

Homemade butter is ridiculously easy if you have the right equipment.  Pour a quart of heavy cream and about 2 tsp. kosher salt into the bowl of your food processor, blender or stand mixer.  Turn on the machine and let 'er rip.  Let it go beyond the proper stage for whipped cream and when the whey splatters out of the bowl, it's done.  Squeeze all the whey out with your hands and form into balls.  At this stage, you can flavor your butter with fresh herbs, garlic, spices, etc.  Press into ramekins or form into logs wrapped in parchment paper or plastic wrap.  Chill until ready to serve.  Makes about 2 cups.

Peppery Green Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Mustard Vinaigrette

Combine 12 cups mixed greens such as arugula, watercress endive, spinach and/or romaine in a large salad bowl.  Toss with several tablespoons of Mustard Vinaigrette (recipe below) until leaves are coated lightly.  Do not overdress!  Scatter with about 1/2 cup toasted walnut pieces.  Serves 12.

An Excellent Mustard Vinaigrette

¾ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and emulsify.  Makes about 1 cup.  This is wonderful on bitter greens with toasted walnuts, bleu cheese and pickled onions.  Yummm!  Enjoy…

Note: I like to experiment with different vinegars (like tarragon and champagne vinegar) and also like to use white Worcestershire instead of the regular kind for variety.

Celery, Fennel and Apple Salad with Tarragon Vinaigrette

Cassoulet Toulousain 

This cassoulet recipe (affectionately and forevermore known as French Beanie Weenies in my circle of friends) has enough richness, meat, pork fat and duck fat to, as one of my friends says, give a small child a coronary after the first bite.  It is, by far, the best cassoulet I have ever made in my cooking career.  I will warn you: the preparation is very labor intensive and long and if you don't like to cook, then get a plate of cassoulet at Justine's instead.  But if you do like to cook, if you covet the aromas of the French countryside in your kitchen and if you're looking for good, hearty peasant fare on a blustery day, then do make the effort and try this dish.

You can take a shortcut and purchase rendered duck fat and prepared duck confit, but it is very expensive to do so.  It was almost as expensive to buy a pound tub of rendered duck fat and a fresh duck, but I thought it a very satisfying venture to make my own.  You can see an excellent procedure for making duck confit here.  Start this procedure at least 7 days before you plan to make the cassoulet.  Duck confit and duck fat keeps for up to 2 months.  And since you can use the duck fat to again confit another duck (or to make duck fat-roasted potatoes or duck fat fries), it is truly the gift that keeps on giving.  And...you can use duck confit in so many other ways...

Gateau de Banane with Caramel and Toasted Pecans

This banana sheet cake is exceptionally moist and is delectable with the caramel icing and toasted pecans.  I literally cannot make this anymore without seriously overeating it.  It is beautiful when you cut it into diamonds before serving on large, frilly pastry papers (I got mine at Hobby Lobby).  Serves 20 to 24.

Banana Cake recipe.  Use butter, not margarine--it really does make a difference.  Cool the cake until ready to frost.

Caramel Frosting recipe.   I use half and half in place of the milk for a creamier, richer frosting.  Use frosting while it's still quite warm; it will be easier to spread.

Garnish with toasted pecans if desired.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Involtini a la rustica al fresco

By the way, my brother, who is still here for several days, actually rode his Harley from Virginia to Texas, something I neglected to mention in my list of superlatives about him and his cooking the other night.  He has also managed to repair several things I didn't even know were in need of repair.  Is this guy a Renaissance Man or what?  Sorry ladies, he's taken.  But this should be encouraging to you: there are still nice men out there that your mother would approve of.  Those nice men will also climb up on your roof and clean out your gutters.  Those nice men will also sit at your dinner table and eat your prissily elegant food without so much as a wimper.  And they will ask for seconds.

Thursday's weather was beyond sublime, perfect picnic weather.  Cloudless, piercingly bright and a luscious temperature of 78 degrees.  During our evening meal, we dined al fresco on a beautiful rustic table (one of the projects my brother completed for me), shared a bottle of Petronius Chianti Classico 2007 (Italy), and plates of eggplant and zucchini involtini with a simple mixed salad on the side.  The Petronius has lots of fruit with a medium range of tannins and good structure to complement the marinara that formed the base for the involtini.  I also think that a lighter red, like a soft, not-too-assertive zinfandel or a rounder, richer pinot noir would have been good accompaniment.

The involtini are relatively simple and I've used some shortcuts which don't compromise quality, but this dish does involve a longer process than you might think, so I've written out the recipe to indicate where you could make them ahead and then finish the final steps when you're ready to cook and serve them.  They are fabulously light and flavorful, and impressively beautiful on the plate in their pool of marinara sauce.  I garnished them with fresh basil leaves and they made a very elegant supper indeed.  I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

Involtini a la rustica

1 large zucchini
2 medium eggplant
olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper

32 oz. ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (reserve 2 Tbs. for finishing)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup chopped arugula, spinach or parsley (or a combination)
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups panko (reserve 2 Tbs. for finishing)
1 Tbs. finely minced parsley (or 1 tsp. dried)

3 cups good-quality marinara sauce (or make your own)
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
basil leaves for garnish

1.  Wash and trim the stem-ends of the eggplant and the zucchini.  
2.  Cut both vegetables lengthwise into long slabs about 1/4 wide.  Don't worry if your cuts are imperfect; you can piece slices together later.
3.  Brush both sides of the vegetable slices generously with olive oil and place on baking sheets.  Season generously with salt and pepper.
4.  Roast in oven at 375 degrees until softened and slightly caramelized, about 20 minutes.  Do not let the slices get crispy--they must stay pliable.
5.  Set aside vegetable slices to cool while you prepare the filling:  combine ricotta, parmesan (less 2 Tbs.), eggs, nutmeg, onion powder and garlic powder.  
6.  Mix well and then season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
7.  Lay a cooled vegetable slice vertically on a flat surface.  Put about 2 Tbs. filling at the widest end and roll vegetable slice up around the filling, placing seam-side down in a well-oiled baking dish.  Continue with remaining vegetable slices, piecing together as necessary.

You can prepare this dish ahead to this point, then cover and chill the involtini until you are ready to finish and serve them.  Prepare up to 24 hours ahead if you'd like.

8.  Measure the panko into a shallow dish, setting aside 2 Tbs. for finishing.
9.  Roll each involtini in the panko and replace in baking dish.
10.  Combine reserved parmesan, reserved panko, and minced parsley.  Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
11.  Sprinkle panko/parmesan mixture over involtini.
12.  Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until tops of involtini are lightly golden and crisped.
13.  Meanwhile, gently heat marinara sauce.
14.  To serve: place a pool of warm marinara on a plate or shallow dish.  Arrange involtini on top of the marinara.  Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with basil leaves.  Serves 6.