Monday, May 30, 2011

Three to tango

Last Friday night, we had a dinner guest.  Although I really like cooking for my husband, I really like cooking for people who are guests in our home.  I'd had my eye on a recipe for Argentinian grilled chicken with chimichurri sauce that I found on CHOW, a website that sends me almost daily posts with a lot of great recipes and ideas.  I also wanted grilled warm tomato salad, a recipe from an old Eating Well magazine that I have since misplaced, so I would have to reconstruct it from memory.  And I was still on a paella kick, still on a residual high from the saffron, garlic and pimentos from last Sunday night's virtual trip to Spain.  So I wanted another paella this time, but one a bit lighter and full of artichoke hearts.  By the way, if anyone knows the half-life of paella and whether or not it is actually lipid-soluble (and I suspect that it is), please write me.

I had the wine figured out--an Argentinian white recommended to pair with the chicken and plenty of back-up sauvignon blancs well-chilled--but also wanted a pre-dinner cocktail that was icy and refreshing in the humidity of late May in central Texas.  I had a lot of mint syrup in my freezer from last summer's mint crop. Having missed my annual excuse to have multiple mint juleps this year (e.g., the Kentucky Derby), I was hoping that I could create a drink that was at least 5 light years away from a mojito, but not as old-school as a mint julep.  Was there such a thing as a mint daiquiri?

Apparently, there is, and with a few modifications of a basic recipe I found online, I made a pitcher of very sophisticated slushies that packed quite a wallop.  These are not your Daddy's Daiquiris.  Here's the recipe:

Frozen Mint Daiquiris

8 oz. white rum
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
8 oz. mint syrup, chilled (recipe follows)  OR 24 mint leaves muddled with 1/4 cup sugar
4 cups ice
lime wedges
fresh mint leaves

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until mostly smooth.  Pour into highball glasses and garnish with lime wedges and mint leaves.  Makes 4 drinks.

To make mint syrup:  Boil 1/2 cup sugar and 1 cup water in small saucepan for 1 minute.  Remove from heat; add 4 large sprigs of mint and steep.  Chill and remove mint before using, or freeze until later use.

Argentinian Grilled Chicken with Chimichurri Sauce

There is a special technique for preparing the chicken for the Argentinian Grilled Chicken.  It is worth the extra effort because it produces a very moist grilled chicken.  Find the Chimichurri Sauce recipe here.  Leftover chimichurri sauce keeps for about a week in the refrigerator and is delicious also on grilled beef.

Warm Grilled Tomato Salad

6 large tomatoes, cored and cut into 6 to 8 wedges
Kosher salt for sprinkling
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs. EVOO
1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. fresh basil leaves, slivered finely

  1. Place tomato wedges on a baking tray and sprinkle generously with salt.
  2. Prepare grill and heat to medium-hot.
  3. Mix together in a medium-sized bowl the Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar and EVOO.  Stir in jalapeno; set aside.
  4. Grill tomato wedges until liquid begins to bubble and the skin on the bottom begins to char a bit.
  5. Transfer grilled tomatoes directly to the dressing mixture in bowl and toss well.
  6. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
  7. Sprinkle slivered basil leaves over the top.
  8. Serve warm or at room temperature.  Serves 6.

Artichoke Paella

     This paella can be made totally vegetarian if you wish by using vegetable stock instead of chicken stock.  I've adapted the original recipe by Trish Sebben-Krupka so that I can use frozen artichoke hearts when fresh baby artichokes are not available.  Sauteing the artichoke hearts in a little garlic and olive oil before adding them to the final dish makes a lot of difference in the finished product.

6 1/2 cups rich chicken stock
1/2 tsp. saffron threads
2 Tbs. EVOO 
2 9 oz. pkgs. or 1 18 oz. bag frozen quartered artichoke hearts, thawed 
1 large clove garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup EVOO 3 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. dried oregano
1 Tbs. smoked Spanish paprika
1 bay leaf
2 Tbs. salt-cured capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup pimento-stuffed green olives, sliced
3 cups Valencia or arborio rice
3/4 cup dry white wine
juice of one lemon
2 cups tiny green peas (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 roasted piquillo peppers, sliced thinly (you can use jarred peppers)

1.  Pour chicken stock into large saucepan and heat to a simmer.
2.  Crumble saffron threads into hot stock; reduce heat and cover until needed.
3.  In a paella pan or large saute pan, heat 2 Tbs. EVOO over medium-high heat.
4.  Add artichoke hearts and saute until heated through.
5.  Add 1 clove of minced garlic and saute, stirring well.
6.  Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
7.  Transfer artichoke hearts to a small bowl for later use.
8.  Heat 1/4 cup EVOO in the same pan over medium-high heat.
9.  Add onions and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
10.  Season onions well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
11.  Add remaining garlic, oregano, paprika, bay leaf, capers and olives and cook another 3 minutes or so, stirring often.
12.  Add rice and stir constantly, cooking until grains are evenly coated with oil, about 3 more minutes.  
13.  Add the wine and the lemon juice, stirring to deglaze the pan.
14.  Spread the rice evenly over the bottom of the pan and then add the hot chicken stock all at once.
15. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook without stirring for about 5 minutes.
16. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, again without stirring, for an additional 20 minutes.
17. Remove lid and add sauted artichokes, distributing evenly.
18. Sprinkle peas over all.
19. Cover and continue to cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
20. Remove from heat, uncover, sprinkle with parsley and decorate with piquillo pepper strips.  May be eaten warm or at room temperature.  Serves 8 generously.

What wines to serve with this meal?  We drank two Chilean sauvignon blancs, both very crisp and light and full of citrus/grapefruit aromas.  Both under $10 a bottle, I would recommend Lapostolle Casa Sauvignon Blanc 2010 and Gryphus Sauvignon Blanc 2010.  I also had a bottle of Weinert Carrascal Blanco 2007 (Argentina), which was originally recommended to pair with the grilled chicken due to its "assertive buttery and caramel-y flavors."  However, the wine had oxidized in the bottle before opening and we didn't get to taste its true characteristics.  A review of this wine complained that it was too sweet and too fruity, however, so perhaps the Fates of Bacchus guided us that night.

May your tastebuds tango!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Four hours in Barcelona

Sunday evenings have become a way for me to connect with friends, drink some good grape juice and to also do some intensive cooking.  Since these are some of my very favorite things in the world, I look forward to the end of the week when I am relaxed, enjoying fabulous wine, fabulous food and fabulous friends.  I've noticed a pattern: wine needs to be well-matched and "finish the bottle" good.  Food needs to be approachable, but far from routine.  The table and presentation of everything served needs to be beautiful.  And friends?  They never disappoint: an evening spent in the company of warmth, lively conversation and laughter is the panacea that heals me after the work week. 

As I've mentioned in previous posts, cooking is therapeutic for me and imagining how to serve and present the food I've cooked renews and restores me.  I love the feeling of anticipation during the week while I'm preparing for Sunday evening guests.  And I love it when the doorbell rings and friends arrive, hugs and kisses are passed 'round and then, just a few moments later, the happy sound of a popping cork, wine being poured, appetizers being passed...and the evening is underway.

This past Sunday, I planned a very ambitious menu.  Having run into some friends earlier in the week who have traveled to Spain frequently, we agreed that it had been far too long since our last meal together.  The menu came together when one of my friends suggested that her lovely and talented daughter make a tapa that was a favorite in their household: poquillo peppers stuffed with cod and bechamel sauce.  At that moment, I envisioned a table full of tapas, and a relaxed gathering that would eventually culminate in paella for dinner.  My friend also suggested that her husband make an avocado and herb crostini they had enjoyed, and that she would make Crema Catalana, the Spanish version of creme brulee, for dessert.  I was delighted! 

One of my great pleasures where food and wine are concerned is collaboration.  When friends bring good wine and when they bring food that enhances the experience of eating together, I am overjoyed.  But when friends cook with me, I am in my element.  Being an over-achiever, I had decided to make two different paellas, so it was wonderful to stand apron-clad, side-by-side with one of my friends (highly skilled in her own right at making paella), cooking in authentic paella pans, making a holy mess of the stove and talking with the guests that stood opposite us, on the other side of the stove where there is a large opening in the wall that divides my kitchen and dining room.

As we cooked and talked and drank wine together, the air was perfumed with smoked paprika, saffron, garlic, onion, wine, and I drifted dreamily into the sensuous alchemy of olive oil, tomatoes, and pimento melding together in the pan, mussel shells glistening like onyx, shrimp curling and lusciously pink, lobster tails, elegant and kingly, and clams opening expectantly, as they all lay luxuriously on their bed of rich, rosy rice, enchantingly infused with essences of the sea, the vineyard, and what must surely have been the original fruits of the Garden of Eden.
                                       ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Dreaming about creating this beautiful, rustic food all week produced a lot of pleasure--and a lot of inspiration.  Envisioning the intensity of paprika, saffron and abundant Spanish wines inspired the table settings.  The indoor table, set for tapas, was adorned in black and gilded in topaz organdy, candles and small bunches of life-life grapes.  The outdoor table, in our lovely garden "dining room," was dressed in black and draped in scarlet organdy, golden chargers, ruby goblets, candles, small bunches of grapes and small cache-pots of scarlet and gold Gerber daisies.  More scarlet organdy adorned chairs.  It was a beautiful setting, indoors and out.  Spanish music, provided by my friends, transported us to Barcelona for the evening.  And here's what we ate:

Pimientos Rellenos de Bacalao

     Red Peppers Stuffed with Cod  (from Classic Tapas: Authentic Spanish Recipes, 2002) 

5 oz. salt cod, soaked in water 24 hours prior to use, flaked and drained well
3 Tbs. olive oil, divided
1 large onion, divided, half finely chopped, half roughly chopped
1 green pepper, divided, half finely chopped, half roughly chopped
2 cups tomato sauce
tobasco or cayenne to taste (optional)
1 Tbs. flour
1 Tbs. butter
1/2 cup milk
10 poquillo peppers (you can use peppers from a jar, or roast, stem, seed and peel your own from fresh)
salt and pepper to taste
grated Manchego cheese, optional
chopped fresh parsley for garnish

1.  Heat 1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil in a frying pan and saute the finely chopped onion and green pepper until just lightly browned.
2.  Add the flaked cod and saute for a few more minutes to blend flavors.
3.  Melt butter in small saucepan, add flour and whisk to blend.
4.  Stir in milk and blend well.
5.  Heat and stir until bubbling.
6.  Add white sauce to cod, onion and green pepper mixture. 
7.  Taste and correct for salt.
8.  Stuff drained poquillo peppers with cod/white sauce mixture and place in ovenproof dish.  Set aside.
9.  Heat oven to 375 degrees.
10.  Heat remaining 1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil in a frying pan and saute remaining onion and green pepper without browning.
11.  Add tomato sauce, tabasco or cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.
12.  Continue to heat sauce, stirring, until bubbling.
13.  Pour sauce over stuffed peppers.
14.  Bake peppers in oven for about 5 to 6 minutes.  Serve hot, garnished with grated Manchego cheese if you wish, and chopped parsley.  Serves 6.

Ensalada de Champinones con Aceitunas

     Mushroom and Olive Salad (adapted from a recipe by Simone & Ines Ortega)

16 oz. large mushrooms
juice of one lemon
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 red or green bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
2 cups tomato sauce (either commerically prepared or homemade)
1 can medium-size pitted black olives, drained
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
chopped parsley for garnish

1.  Wash the mushrooms in cold water with a dash of lemon juice.
2.  Remove mushrooms from water, pat dry, and trim the stems.
3.  Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. 
4.  Add the bell pepper and the mushrooms to the pan and saute, stirring occasionally.
5.  When the vegetables begin to soften, stir in the tomato sauce, olives and garlic.
6.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.
7.  Bring to a boil, the turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
8.  Remove skillet from heat and serve warm, or let cool completely and serve at room temperature.  Serves 6.

Crostini de Aguacate
     Crostini with Avocado and Basil Pesto (from Cocina Mediterranea, 2004)

8 slices ciabatta bread, or 16 slices baguette
1 garlic clove
1 bunch parsley or basil, or mixed
5 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
salt and ground pepper to taste
2 avocados
1 Tbs. or more fresh lime juice
flake salt and freshly ground pepper for garnish

1.  Toast ciabatta bread in a 325 degree oven for approximately 10 minutes.
2.  Chop garlic, parsley and basil finely, then transfer to mortar and mash with a pestle.
3.  Add olive oil and continue to mash to a paste.  Season with salt and pepper.
4.  Cut avocados in half and and remove seeds.
5.  Scoop avocados from skins, chop coarsely flesh and combine in a small bowl with lime juice.
6.  To serve, spread crostini with parsley/basil mixture, top with chopped avocados and season with flake salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Serves 4.

Mini Meatballs in Saffron Sauce

         Originally published in Bon Appetit, October 2002.  I substituted smoked paprika for the sweet paprika.  You can also substitute ground beef for the ground veal.  Redolent with garlic and saffron, and absolutely delicious...

Gambas al Ajillo

        Shrimp in Garlic Sauce is quick, easy and very garlicky.  Serve with warm crusty bread for dipping in the sauce, and pass Romesco Sauce (recipe follows) separately for extra depth.

Romesco Sauce  (adapted from a recipe by Kate Ramos)

1/2 medium tomato
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 slices crusty bread (about 2 oz.)
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 (7.25 oz.) jar roasted red peppers, drained (about 1 cup)
2 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1.  Heat oven to 400 degrees.
2.  Arrange oven rack in middle of oven.
3.  Place tomato, garlic, bread and almonds on baking sheet.
4.  Roast until bread and almonds are lightly toasted, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Watch carefully so that almonds do not burn.
5.  Transfer roasted ingredients to food processor or blender and chop coarsely.
6.  Add roasted red peppers, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and paprika and combine until relatively smooth.  Makes about 1 cup.

Manchego and Membrillo with Fresh Mint Leaves

        Beautiful and delicious.  See procedure here from a previous post.

Cocoa Cardona with Thyme Honey

        A lovely and incredibly delicious combination of honey and cheese.  Cocoa Cardona is an artisinal domestic semi-soft goat cheese with an edible rind of cocoa powder, made in the Carr Valley, WI.  This cheese goes exceptionally well with earthy, red wines of Spanish, Chilean and Argentinian origins.

Procedure:  Place cheese on a beautiful plate.  Drizzle with honey.  Garnish with fresh thyme leaves or tiny, unsprayed flowers.  Serve with a cheese knife and picks.

Sopa de Ajo Blanco

       White Garlic Soup (adapted from a recipe by Lisa and Tony Sierra)

4 oz. (1/2 cup) blanched, peeled, almonds (or an equal amount of packaged slivered almonds)
4 slices stale baguette or other rustic white bread
3 cloves garlic, peeled and root ends discarded
5 Tbs. EVOO (preferrably Spanish)
3 to 4 Tbs. sherry vinegar
4 cups water
salt to taste
sweet paprika, for garnish
green grapes, for garnish

1.  Trim crusts from bread if very hard.
2.  Soak bread in 1 to 2 cups cold water to soften.
3.  Combine almonds and garlic in food processor.  Pulse until smooth.
4.  Remove bread from water with slotted spoon and squeeze out excess water.
5.  Add bread and 1 tsp. salt to garlic and almonds.  Blend well.
6.  Slowly drizzle in olive oil, then vinegar and finally, the water.
7.  Taste and adust seasonings.
8.  Strain mixture through a sieve into a container or bowl.  Press as much liquid as possible through the sieve. 
9.  Cover and chill at least 3 hours or overnight. 
10.  Serve in glass mugs or tall parfait glasses, sprinkle each glass with sweet paprika garnish with small clusters of grapes on the side.  Serves 4. 

Ensalada con Rabanos

     Radish Salad (adapted from a recipe by Simone & Ines Ortega)

11 oz. mixed salad greens (such as baby lettuces, argula, chicory and radicchio), well-rinsed and patted dry)
1/2 bunch radishes, washed, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 Granny Smith apple, washed, cored and thinly sliced


2/3 cup plain yogurt
1 to 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. chopped scallions
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. sweet paprika
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Make the dressing first by beating together the yogurt, Dijon, scallions, lemon juice and paprika in a small bowl. 
2.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Chill for at least one hour to blend flavors.
3.  Mix together salad greens, radishes and apples.
4.  Pour dressing over salad and serve.  Serves 6. 

The Ultimate Paella

      Published in Bon Appetit in May of 1992, this recipe developed by Penelope Casas is labor-intensive but well worth the effort.  Rich and complex with seafood, wine and saffron, it is as beautiful as it is delicious.  I made a few adaptations to simplify it.  Make sure you have everything prepped and ready to go before you start cooking the paella.


8 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 tsp. salt
2 cups mayonnaise
2 Tbs. EVOO
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

1.  Mash garlic and salt with mortar and pestle, or in a small bowl with the back of a spoon.
2.  Transfer to medium-size bowl.
3.  Whisk in mayonnaise, olive oil and lemon juice. Chill.
4.  Can be made up to 1 week ahead.  Makes about 2 cups.

Fish Stock

Shells from the 1 1b. of shrimp that will be used in paella
32 oz. clam juice ( 4  8 oz. bottles)
2 cups water
2 fresh parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 cup white wine
1 tsp. saffron

1.  Put shrimp shells, clam juice and water in a large pot and bring to a boil.
2.  Add parsley and bay leaf; reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
3.  Add white wine and heat thoroughly.
4.  Strain stock into large measuring cup.  If stock measures more than 5 1/2 cups, return to pot and simmer until reduced to 5 1/2 cups.
5.  Mix in saffron.  Keep warm, or cool, cover and refrigerate.  Can be made up to one day ahead.


1/2 cup olive oil
1 lb. peeled medium shrimp (21-25 shrimp per pound), tails intact
18 mussels, well rinsed  (purged if wild-caught)
18 cherrystone clams, well rinsed
2 lobster tails, cut into 3 pieces each
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped green bell pepper
12 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika
1 15 oz. can crushed or finely diced tomatoes
1 Tbs. minced fresh parsley
1 bay leaf, crumbled
3 cups bomba, Valencia, Arborio, or other pearl/short-grain rice
1/2 cup frozen peas (optional)
1 4 oz. jar pimientos, drained and sliced
minced fresh parsley for garnish
lemon wedges

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.  Make sure fish stock is simmering, cover and keep warm over very low heat.
3.  Place 14" paella pan or heavy 14" skillet over two stovetop burners or one very large burner.
4.  Add oil and heat over medium-high heat.
5.  Add lobster tail pieces and saute for 2 minutes.  Transfer to large bowl.
6.  Add shrimp to pan, season with salt and saute for 2 minutes, rotating pan occasionally for even heat.  Transfer shrimp to bowl containing lobster.
7.  Add bell pepper and saute for 3 minutes.
8.  Mix in garlic and saute for 1 minute.
9.  Add 3 Tbs. alioli (as prepared in recipe above) and the paprika, stirring to combine.
10. Stir in tomatoes, 1 Tbs. parsley and bay leaf and cook for 2 minutes.
11. Add rice and stir to coat with tomato mixture.
12. Add fish stock and peas and cook until rice is partially cooked and liquid is thick, stirring frequently, about 15 minutes.
13.  Season to taste with salt and remove from heat.
14.  Add shrimp and lobster and any accumlated juices from bowl to rice mixture.
15. Arrange mussels, clams and pimiento decoratively on top of rice mixture. 
16. Transfer paella to hot oven and bake until rice is almost tender, about 10 minutes.
17.  Remove from oven, cover with foil and let stand 20 minutes at room temperature.
18. Garnish generously with parsley and serve immediately, passing alioli and lemon wedges separately.  Serves 6 with leftovers.

Another Ultimate Paella

    This recipe is from Tyler Florence.  Although it is not authentic, it won rave reviews from my husband, the original chicken and sausage man...

Crema Catalana

       Rich, complex and utterly delicious when served with Spanish brandy and strong coffee.

And now a word about the wines we drank....

We began with a lovely and unusual cava recommended by my friends who know Spanish wines and food, Naveran Brut Vintage, made from the classic triumvirate blend of varietals that gives cava its distinctive notes.  This is a dry, refreshing cava and there is definitely citrus, but there is also spice and almond.  Clean, minerally finish.  About $14 per bottle. 

The Cune Monopole Rioja Blanco 2009 (Spain) was young, fresh, citrusy and floral on the nose and opened up to a deeper citrus and more tropical flavors.  Long, lovely finish; clean, crisp and delicious.  About $13 per bottle.

El Quintanal Rueda Verdejo 2009 (Spain), about $14 per bottle, is another light, young classic Spanish white.  Crisp, refreshing, citrusy and nicely balanced.  Pleasant mineral finish. 

Esperanza Verdejo Viura 2010 (Spain):  This is a young wine, a blend of two varietals.  It is a crisp, floral, fruity white that is a lovely match with seafood paella; just under $10 a bottle.

Las Valles Tempranillo/Garnacha/Syrah 2009 (Spain): an incredible bargain ($8) when you consider that this blended red is well-balanced and full of dark berry and spice.  Scrumptious with tapas and paella with enough fruit to carry the most intensely flavored tapas.

Cune Rioja Crianza 2007 (Spain): Bordeaux-style blend, aged in American and French oak.  Berry/cherry and spice, faint floral notes of woodland shade flowers.  Less than $13 per bottle.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Post-party depression: it deserves its own diagnostic category

You've heard of post-partum depression?  Although I've never experienced it, I do experience a kind of PPD: Post-Party Depression.  Let me describe the diagnostic criteria for you.  Depressed mood for most of the day following a party and for a period of up to one week; presence, while depressed, of at least two (or more) of the following: poor appetite and/or overeating, insomnia or hypersomnia, low energy or fatigue, poor concentration and/or difficulty making decisions, feelings of hopelessness.  The symptoms are not due to other causes (such as finding that your champagne selection is running dangerously low, or that you haven't the funds to afford another party for several weeks months).  The symptoms are not relieved by shopping, a massage, or by having friends over for dinner.  The symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (such as deciding whether or not to have dessert).

My experience with Post-Party Depression is very similar to an experience I had when I was working with a summer Gilbert and Sullivan troupe.  You bond with the rest of the cast very intensely and they become a strange, new sort of family.  You rehearse together, you eat together, you drink together, you party together (some of you even sleep together, which produces a lot of interesting and hystrionic drama in rehearsals), you spend hours and hours being together and then, on the last night of the show, at the after-party, where everyone is really gay and really drunk and really exhausted, you have a realization that cuts through the fog of inebriation like flashing lights in a rear view mirror.  The realization is that the show is over and that the family is breaking up.  There are no more rehearsals, no more lines to run, no more twisted double-entendre and bawdy jokes in the King's English, no more pot-luck dinners and all-night parties after weekend rehearsals.  There is just no more.

My first really big "production," the Roaring Twenties Halloween Ball, resulted in a very similar let-down.  I had planned for weeks, gathering information, researching foods and beverages of the period, collecting props, devising menus, staging the back yard.  Plating, lighting, garnishing, music--nothing was left to chance.  I had fun (and plenty of giddy insomnia) every moment along the way.  And after the last guest left, boa feathers still wafting on the breeze, lights twinkling in the trees, champagne bottles everywhere, and popular music of the era still echoing softly and ethereally through the gardens, I did not realize how very sad I would be because the adrenaline was still coursing through me.  I reminisced about the conversations and events that night as I organized what I could, did what dishes I could, and then collapsed, weary and happy, into bed.

I awoke not with a headache, but with a heartache--the kind of sadness that follows the loss of a significant attachment.  And here's where you might think: HUH???  Why would she be so sad after a Halloween party?  But it wasn't just a Halloween party, it was the Mother of All Halloween Parties, and it spawned several successive Roaring Twenties Balls, each one more wonderful and magical than the last.  More than that, my sadness was about the fact that the show--my show--was over, the audience--my audience--had all gone home, the cast--my cast--had hung up their costumes and had put away all their props.  The adrenaline rush was gone, the hopeful expectancy had evaporated, the energy of people reacting to each other, to their environment, and experiencing pleasure together, had dissipated.  And there was no more.

I experience Post-Party Depression after a lot of large parties I've given, and after other special events.  I'll admit I live for the adrenaline rush of making a plan come together, setting a stage, painting a canvas, creating an experience for guests that will be memorable and one-of-a-kind.  I put a lot of time and energy into the smallest dinner party, and I love every minute of it.  And afterward, with wine glasses abandoned at the table, candles burning low, a sink full of dishes, and stains on the tablecloth as colorful reminders of an evening we shared together, I feel more than a little sad.  And I wish we could do it all again.

In my life-long struggle with Post-Party Depression, I've discovered only one thing that helps: allow myself time to grieve and then plan the next party.  I'll be sure to tell you all about my recovery process as it unfolds.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

With apologies to Ben Franklin

Two nights ago, a very good friend came for dinner.  She is often a guest at my table and I am always delighted to have her.  Both of us were in need of some serious wine and food therapy.  We never planned dinner, never articulated anything specific, but there was a silent understanding that the food needed to be beautiful, delicious and above all, comforting.  Wine needed to be plentiful and well-paired.  The resulting alchemy was a success and I recall great sighs of contentment 'round the table and then, afterward, on the patio for dessert, cordials and coffee.

A new gal pal who makes fabulous brownies and loves to cook had passed along a recipe she developed.  I wanted to road-test it, explore alternatives to her original suggestions, and then post it here.  As I read through her recipe, I thought that the ingredients would produce an outstanding flavor profile and decided to make it for my friend.  Everyone agreed it was on the money.  You simply cannot go wrong with crispy bits of smoky bacon, sauteed garlic, wilted spinach, fire-roasted tomatoes and copious amounts of Parmesan cheese over pasta. 

Lingering at the table after dinner, my dinner guest-friend commented that she thought that bacon was God's gift to us.  I couldn't agree more, as I've already debated in a previous post.  Wine consumption and sharper wits frequently seem to be a confounded event for me, but nonetheless, I ventured into twisted historical quotation territory, being prompted by my friend's bacon sentiments.  I parried, "Yes, bacon is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."  So thank you, Ben Franklin, for your obvious love of beer, and thanks to the pig who so graciously contributed the bacon, and last but not least, to the wine that assisted in my attempt to mangle a famous quotation.  I'm so sorry, Mr. Franklin, but I'll take bacon over beer any day.

I also want to tell you about the dessert, a much-improved version of the bougatsa I served last Sunday with my very tame little spring toga party.  Bougatsa has always presented challenges for me.  I am not a pastry chef and so I lack the skills to make a blow-you-away pastry dessert.  The puff pastry in the bougatsa recipe is too thick, so it seems that there's always too much pastry and it's never balanced well with the proportion of apple cinnamon custard.  It's also far too easy to overcook.  This time, I followed my instinct and put small spoonfuls of apple custard into miniature phyllo shells, heated them well, then plated them on a beautiful golden-flecked plate.  While they were still warm, I heavily dusted the pastries with 10x sugar, then with cinnamon and then sprinkled all with sliced, toasted almonds.

The miniature bougatsa were absolutely gorgeous on the plate.  We completely inhaled them between sips of Amaretto di Saronno and rich, dark Creole coffee.  The balance between pastry and filling, shattering crunchiness and silky warm custard--resplendent with almonds, cinnamon and powdered sugar--to me was a perfect 10.  After the pastries were gone, the not really empty plate still held piles of powdered sugar, cinnamon and almonds (also delicious).  My friend sighed contentedly.  She said, "What we ate tonight was essentially comfort food.  But it was more than that.  It was comfort food done very elegantly."  Yes indeed.  It was the kind of comfort food you would want to eat on the way to the ballet while riding in a vintage limosine.

My Fabulous Gal Pal's Pasta
    We enjoyed this pasta dish with a mixed greens salad topped with chopped hearts of palm, hot house tomatoes and diced red onion.  The salad was simply dressed with lemon juice and a mild, fruity olive oil.  I like to combine dried herbs for extra punch after I dress the salad--I typically use dill, marjoram and mint.

6 slices bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
2 Tbs. EVOO
1/2 lb. (or more) shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups baby spinach leaves
1 14.5 oz. can diced fire-roasted tomatoes (or use four medium hot house tomatoes, chopped and 1/4 cup white wine)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 lb. penne pasta, or your choice, cooked according to package directions and kept warm
Parmesan cheese, for serving

1.  Fry bacon bit until crisp; drain on paper towels and reserve. 
2.  Discard about half the bacon fat.
3.  Add the EVOO to the pan and heat over moderately high heat.
4.  Saute shrimp until they begin to curl and become opague.
5.  Add garlic and stir briefly.
6.  Add spinach leaves, stirring well to coat with ingredients in pan.
7.  Add tomatoes (and wine, if using) and simmer for about 1 to 2 minutes to meld flavors.
8.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.
9.  Put warm, cooked pasta on individual plates or in a large serving bowl.
10. Pour shrimp and sauce over pasta.
11. Top with crisp bacon.
12. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese.  Serves 4.

Miniature Bougatsa Pastries

1 cup cinnamon apple custard
1   1.9 oz. pkg. miniature phyllo shells (like Athens brand)
Confectioner's sugar for dusting
Ground cinnamon for dusting
1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds for garnish

1.  Heat oven to 375 degrees.
2.  Place miniature phyllo shells in cups of mini-muffin pans.
3.  Fill each phyllo cup with custard.
4.  Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, until heated through.
5.  Arrange warm pastries on a serving platter.
6.  Dust generously with confectioners sugar and then with cinnamon.
7.  Sprinkle with toasted almonds.  Makes 15 pastries.

But I haven't forgotten the wine...
We drank two dry roses this time.  Becker Vineyards Provencal 2008 (Texas), made from the grenache grape.  Frankly, I was disappointed in this wine.  We sipped it on the patio (as we nibbled on Pepperidge Farm Goldfish) and did not have it with dinner, so it was a serviceable rose, but not remarkable.  In other words, I would not buy this wine again.  A beautiful color in the glass and a lot of bright, tart spring fruit on the nose, it was a disappointment in the mouth with only faint strawberry essence.  It seemed flat and one-dimensional and the finish was a bit abrupt.  I prefer wines that linger and invite you to take another sip.  This one failed me.

However, we drank the Crios Rose of Malbec 2010 (Argentina), with dinner and it continues to be a lovely wine, even though it appears to be "the color of weak Kool-Aid" in the glass, as my friend observed.  Wine made from the malbec grape is one of my favorite wines and I have enjoyed two different malbec roses earlier this year that I tend to purchase over and over again, not only for their outstanding characteristics, but for their price.  In addition to the Crios, I also highly recommend the Pigmentum Malbec 2009 (France) reviewed previously here.

I hope your continue to enjoy all of your cooking adventures...and may your tastebuds pirouette!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Toga party

I had been craving Greek food for weeks.  Friends were expected for dinner last Sunday night, and I wanted food that was full of flavor, and would also be a good balance between rich and healthful.  I typically think of Greek food in the spring and summer months.  There is something about those sun-drenched days that make me crave lemons, olive oil, tomatoes and cucumbers, all balanced by the salty, sharp flavor of feta cheese.

We had a flight of Greek appetizers and olives (including the obligatory shot of ouzo, followed by the obligatory "Opa!"), plenty of wine and then a simple main course of pastitsio and Greek village salad with bougatsa for dessert.  We also tried Metaxa, the Greek brandy liqueur, for the first time.  I can't say that I enjoyed that cordial; it made me think of Southern Comfort for its perfume-y properties, but it is apparently an acquired taste. 

I always say that the measure of a good dinner party is how late your guests stay after they've eaten.  Is one o'clock a.m. on a Sunday night late enough?

Miniature Spanikopita
       OMG!!!  Make lots of these--they won't last long.

1 10 oz. pkg. chopped frozen spinach, thawed and moisture pressed out
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tsp. dill weed
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
pinch nutmeg
2  1.9 oz. pkgs. (15 pieces each) phyllo shells (like Athens brand)
1/4 cup melted butter

1.  Heat oven to 400 degrees.
2.  Combine thawed spinach, beaten egg, feta cheese, dill wead, pepper, salt and nutmeg.  Mix well.
3.  Fill each phyllo shell with spinach mixture, being generous.
4.  Place filled shells on a baking sheet.
5.  Drizzle a small amount of melted butter over the top of the spinach mixture.
6.  Bake for approximately 17 minutes, or until shells are puffed and sizzling.
7.  Serve immediately.  Serves 10 people.


This is a dramatic appetizer of flaming cheese, brandy and lemon juice.  Make sure you have all your ingredients ready to go once the cheese is fried so that the presentation is dramatic, as it is intended to be.

8 oz. Kasseri cheese (have your cheesemonger cut the cheese into a wedge)
1 egg, beaten
flour for dredging
1/2 cup oil
1/4 cup brandy
matches or lighter
1/2 lemon
warm, crusty bread

1.  Dip cheese in beaten egg, then in flour, then repeat process.  Let dry on a plate slightly while you prepare to cook.
2.  Heat oil in a small, stainless steel skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat until rippling.
3.  Carefully lower wedge of cheese into skillet and fry on both sides until a golden brown crust develops.  Remove from heat.
4.  Warm brandy gently in microwave safe container (about 10 seconds).
5.  Pour brandy over cheese in skillet. 
6.  Light brandy and allow to flame for a few seconds.
7.  Extinguish flame by squeezing lemon over cheese.
8.  Serve cheese with crusty bread.  Serves 6 to 8.


     Very, very garlic.  Very, very good.  Excellent as a dipping sauce for all kinds of things, or as a spread for crusty bread.  Lovely with fish.

3 Tbs. minced garlic
3 to 4 boiled potatoes, mashed (or 6 slices white bread, crusts removed, soaked in 1/2 cup cold water and squeezed dry)
1 cup olive oil
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Combine garlic, potatoes (or bread) in blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
2.  With motor running, add olive oil and vinegar.
3.  Add up to 1/4 cup cold water to get a mixture the consistency of mayonnaise.
4.  Add salt and pepper.  Makes about 2 cups.

Kalamarakia Krasata (Calamari Cooked in Wine)

     Squid cooked this way is tender and flavorful.  Serve as an appetizer with warm, crusty bread.  Leftovers make a really great sauce for pasta as well with plenty of feta cheese on top.

1/3 cup olive oil
1 lb. squid, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces
2 medium onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 lb. tomatoes, grated, or 1 14.5 oz. can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 bunch parsley, chopped (about 1/2 to 1 cup)
salt and pepper to taste
chopped parsley for garnish
warm, crusty bread for dipping

1.  Heat olive oil in medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat.
2.  Saute squid with onions and garlic, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes.
3.  Add wine and cook until sauce is reduced to original volume, about 10 minutes.  Stir and scrape bottom of pan frequently.
4.  Add tomatoes, parsley, salt and pepper. 
5.  Blend well and simmer until squid is soft and tender, about 25 minutes.
6.  Correct salt and pepper, garnish with chopped parsley and serve with warm, crusty bread for dipping.  Serves 6 to 8.

Horiatiki  Greek Village Salad

4 cucumbers, peeled and sliced into 1" chunks
1 lb. cocktail or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 green pepper, cored and seeded and cut into 1" pieces
1/2 cup red onion, cut into 1/2" pieces
1 8 oz. block feta cheese, cut into 1/2" pieces
1/2 cup (or more) pitted kalamata olives
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 Tbs. red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
fresh oregano for garnish

1.  Layer cucumbers, tomatoes, green pepper, onion, feta cheese and olives in a large glass or decorative bowl.   Chill until serving time.
2.  Mix together EVOO and wine vinegar, season to taste with salt and pepper.
3.  Just before serving, pour dressing over salad and garnish with fresh oregano.  Toss at the table.  Serves 8.

Pastitsio    adapted from The New Doubleday Cookbook (1975)

     I love this dish for the creamy, rich sauce, the base of pasta and the cinnamon-scented meat sauce.   I
      also love it because you can assemble it up to 12 hours ahead and bake it the next day.  Instead of
      preparing two bechamel sauces, one thick and one thin, this recipe uses a clever shortcut.   You can
      substitute beef or turkey (or a combination of both) for the lamb if you wish...

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 lb. ground lamb
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. oregano
1 cup canned plum tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
1 cup tomato sauce
3/4 lb. ziti or elbow macaroni
3/4 cup dried bread crumbs
1/4 cup (or more) grated Romano cheese

Cream Sauce: 
4 Tbs. butter
6 Tbs. flour
2 1/4 cups milk
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 Tbs. milk

1.  Fry onion, garlic and lamb in olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan 8-10 minutes over medium-high heat, breaking up lamb with a spoon, until no longer pink.
2.  Add salt, pepper, cinnamon, oregano, tomatoes and tomato sauce.
3.  Cover and simmer 30 minutes.
4.  Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
5.  Cook and drain ziti according to package directions; rinse in cold water and drain again.
6.  Make the cream sauce:  Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan over moderate heat.
7.  Blend in flour.
8.  Slowly add 1 3/4 cups milk and heat, stirring constantly, until very thick.
9.  Blend in salt and pepper.
10. Off heat, measure 1 1/4 cups sauce into a bowl and beat in remaining 1/2 cup milk; set aside.
11. Mix a little of the remaining thick sauce into egg yolk/milk mixture and return to pan.  Blend well, still off heat; set aside.
12. Skim any fat off meat sauce and discard. 
13. Blend in 1/2 cup bread crumbs.
14. Sprinkle remaining bread crumbs over bottom of a well-greased shallow 2 1/2 quart casserole dish.
15. Layer in half the ziti, spread with all of the meat sauce, then half the thin cream sauce.
16. Sprinkle with half the cheese.
17. Top with remaining ziti and thin sauce.
18. Using a spatula, spread thick cream sauce evenly over all, then scatter remaining cheese over the top.
19. Bake, uncovered for 30 minutes, then reduce temperature to 325 degrees and bake 10 minutes longer, until lightly browned.  Serves 6 generously.

Bougatsa  adapted from Sofi's Aegean Kitchen (1993)

     This apple and custard pastry is lovely--and rich.

2 cups milk
3 Tbs. flour
4 Tbs. plus 2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch
2 medium egg yolks
4 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 Tbs. vanilla extract
3 large golden delicious apples, peeled, cored and diced
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed and cut into four pieces each (I used Pepperidge Farm)

Confectioner's sugar and ground cinnamon for garnish
Toasted, sliced almonds for garnish

1.  Heat 1 1/2 cups milk in medium saucepan.
2.  Meanwhile, combine flour, 3 Tbs. sugar and cornstarch in a bowl.
3.  Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup milk and the egg yolks.
4.  Whisk mixture into heated milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until it is thick and creamy.  Remove from heat.
5.  Beat in 1 1/2 Tbs. butter and the vanilla.
6.  In a heavy skillet, melt the remaining butter over medium heat.
7.  Add the apples and cook until soft, stirring frequently, about 5 to 10 minutes.
8.  Sprinkle with remaining sugar and continue to cook until lightly caramelized and golden.
9.  Sprinkle with cinnamon and stir the apples into the custard.  Set aside to cool.
10. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Roll out each piece of pastry on a lightly floured board to about 7" squares.
11. Spoon equal amounts of custard filling in the center of each square, then fold pastry in half to form 3 1/2" rectangles, pinching edges to seal.
12.  Bake on a greased baking sheet until golden brown and puffy, about 30 minutes.
13.  Remove from oven and sprinkle lavishly with confectioner's sugar, cinnamon and toasted, sliced almonds.  Serve immediately.  Serves 8.

About what we drank...starting with appetizers, we opened Branciforti Inzolia-Catarratto 2010 (Sicily).  Light, slightly mineral, with hints of grapefruit.  Refreshingly bracing.  We followed with a classic, Segura Viudas Brut Rose, a beautiful and elegant strawberry-colored cava that is soft, lightly acidic and hints of cherry and grenadine.  We also drank Rosa del Golfo 2007 (Italy), an herbaceous, dry rose with an intensely coppery hue in the glass.  This rose is silky and floral, a lovely counterpart to the olives and garlic in the appetizers.  With dinner, we drank Henry Fessy Beaujolais-Villages 2009 (France).  This lovely Beaujolais-Villages, much more sophisticated than a Beaujolais-Nouveau is full of red currant, cherry and raspberry.  It's soft and mildly tannic with hints of earth and some floral notes.  A flattering counterpart to the main course.  Thanks to both my terrific and helpful wine guys at Spec's for their continuous and unflagging assistance with all of my wine needs and desires!

Opa!!!  May your tastebuds dance!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Talk food to me, baby

I have a friend that talks food to me.  You know, the kind of talk that gets you all hot and bothered about braising techniques, Scoville units, dinner parties and pho shops.  It's the kind of talk that makes you want to go home and get down and dirty in the kitchen.  In fact, after the minor pleasantries are exchanged and out of the way, we just get down to business and talk about food, food, food and more food.  What we've eaten, where we've eaten it, who we've eaten it with and how it made us feel.  What we cooked recently, whether for ourselves or for friends.  We miss no detail: the textures, the aromas, the mouthfeel, the visuals.  We talk about what wine we drank with our food and what that wine tasted like, smelled like, looked like.  How it opened up and bloomed in the glass.  Talk that is explicit and salicious in every way.

I appreciate someone who speaks my language and can communicate to me on my level.  Talk like this for a foodie is a major turn-on.  And, my friend not only speaks my language, he walks the talk.  He loves food, and loves cooking, and loves talking about food and cooking with someone else who loves talking about food and cooking.  And he can throw down--doesn't matter what the cuisine or how long the list of ingredients, he's the man.  I have only a small handful of friends who can talk with me on this level, cook with me on this level, and even stand to be with me on this level.  I am on fire when I'm talking about food.  I am obsessed.  I am unable to think about anything else.  I am single-minded.

Recently, on a blustery, rainy evening that was more November than May, my friend and I had tapas at Fino (Austin, TX).  I had been jonesing for several days, in serious withdrawal from beautiful food and beautiful wine that I did not have to cook myself or think about selecting.  I also needed to be pampered, coddled, rescued from the mundane.  My friend had no idea he was participating in a rescue mission because I offered no informed consent.  I just set the stage:  "I want to have some inventive small bites and some good wine.  Some place moody, atmospheric and evocative.  Join me?"  Apparently, that was all it took.  Like I said, my friend speaks my language.

This is what we ate:

Olives & Pickles / Marcona Almonds / Manchego
Blistered Padron Peppers & Sea Salt
Piquillo Pepper with Gulf Crab & Basil
Pork Pinchitos with Sea Salt
Tortilla Espanola with Almond Romanesco
Fried Olives with White Anchovies and Smoked Paprika

This is what we drank (sorry, vintages not available):

Mencia Tempranillo
Fontsainte Rose
Berger Gruner Veltliner
Mencos Rioja

This is what we said about what we had to eat and drink: 

The blistered Padron peppers were definitely my favorite.  Earthy, smoky, slightly bitter and only about two inches long, each had its own way of jumping into my mouth without much assistance.  The olive oil and sea salt made them totally addictive (which was why halfway into the first dish, we ordered a second).  The heat was subtle, but every few peppers would yield a surprising little kick.  My friend really liked the crab-stuffed poquillo pepper.  The filling was creamy, with plenty of crab, and the rich, velvety texture of the poquillo pepper along with its deep, sweet flavor was entirely lovely.

The pork pinchitos arrived hot, succulent, crispy on the edges, infused with olive oil, garlic, cumin, paprika.  With two skewers of pork apiece, there was no jousting over who would get the last few bites.  The Spanish tortilla, served at room temperature, had a generous amount of coppery-hued romesco sauce, rich with olive oil and ground almonds.  And the fried olives, a close runner up to the Padron peppers as my favorities, were a revelation.  The right amount of salt from the anchovies, perfumed with smoked paprika and really crispy (probably due to panko), it was too easy to pop these in my mouth one after the other.

I drank Mencia Tempranillo, a lively Spanish red that is full of tannins beautifully balanced by tart red fruit, spice and an elegant finish.  The perfect foil for tapas.  I followed that with a Mencos Rioja, another tempranillo that is rounder, richer and full of cherry and spice dovetailing to a slight anise note.  Lovely, warming, perfect also with tapas.  My friend drank the Domaine de Fontsainte Rose, a gorgeous rich salmon color in the glass and full of raspberry, strawberry and tropical notes.  He followed with the Berger Gruner Veltliner, one of my food-friendly favorite whites that I love for its great balance of acid and minerals.

And for dessert, I had Goat Cheesecake with Poteet Strawberries, Rosewater and Fried Rosemary, lovely, tart and sophisticated with the herbal notes from the rosemary.  I drank a lovely Sauternes, but regrettably did not memorize the label.  My friend had the Salted Caramel Pot de Creme with Bruleed Banana, wonderfully rich and the bananas a surprise for their firmness and greenness, a brilliant combination with the burnt sugar topping.  And my nightcap: Sercial Madiera, a domestic madiera that was very lovely.  Soft, dry, and pale topaz, it was a fabulous finish to a great evening.

I must also mention that the service at Fino was outstanding.  We sat at the bar and were regaled by Clinton, mixologist extraordinaire, who will make a hot toddy with seared orange peel and cloves in a flash for customers with sore throats, who mixes his own bitters and infuses his own spirits.  Clinton will tell you anything you want to know about what he stocks on his bar, and he is knowledgable about and helpful with his wines.  He will give you clever answers to your queries and laugh at your jokes.  He gives impeccable, personable service.  He knows his menu and his ingredients.  He is, in short, a Renaissance Man.  So thank you, Clinton.  You made my evening very memorable.

Friday, May 6, 2011

While you were sleeping

I am often wakeful in the night, a long-standing sleep pattern since early adulthood.  I used to get up, clean house, write letters, read, watch a movie.  But now, I tend to stay in bed and allow my mind to wander into the creativity department.  It's kind of fun and sometimes it's so enervating that I can't possibly relax enough to return to sleep.  My closest friend and natural night owl, Texas Mama*, knows first-hand about my sleeplessness, especially when we are planning a large event.  I am so concentrated on the details that my brain often refuses to let go long enough to get any appreciable sleep (or to give her much relief from my relentless stream of consciousness).  She has patiently weathered through hours of late-night conversations with me.  Conversations that to others might appear to be a full-blown manic episode that not even a massive dose of lithium carbonate could stabalize.

I am convinced that I was born in the wrong era.  I am also convinced that I was a flamboyant flapper (although some of you may find this hard to imagine), and have always been fascinated with the Twenties and Pre-Prohibition history.  I decided one sleepless night that I wanted to have a 1920's Halloween Ball.  I wanted it to be period-authentic.  I wanted to have a really big party--Great Gatsby style.  I downloaded menus from the Algonquin and the Plaza Hotels from the 1920's, researched wines and spirits that would have been available, scoured thrift shops for vintage hollow stem champagne coupes (and made a killing), found old ironstone tea cups and saucers (for the "bathtub gin"), researched speakeasy history, 1920's slang, decor, music, clothing and even learned how to apply makeup like a flapper.  I set up a large movie screen in my back yard to play silent movies during the party.  I even staged a "raid" that was quite impressive: one of my friends who is actually a DEA agent and another who channels a Jimmy Hoffa-style gangster really well, busted through the front door in trench coats and fedoras with fake tommy guns.  The expressions on the faces of my guests were priceless.  That party was such a success, it's become a regular event.

But I didn't take anything more than a midnight catnap every night during the week leading up to the party.  Details were constantly swirling in my head and were always being refined and streamlined.  By the time the big night came, everything was perfect.  I was decked out to the nines, tens and elevens in fringe, feathers and an auburn bob.  Even my beloved dog wore a feather head ornament and a feather collar.  And I was running on pure adrenaline, bolstered by a small, ornate flask of "giggle juice" (secured discretely to my garter like any self-respecting flapper) and copious amounts of champagne and caviar.

The glittering tables of food and Art Deco props transported the dining room to the decadent era I so adore.  It was an experience out of time and so believable that my guests expressed awe in hushed tones as their eyes widened when they entered the room.  Music from The California Ramblers, Jan Garber, Ed Kirkeby and other popular hotel ballroom bands of the Twenties echoed evocatively through the room and out into the garden.  A friend who collects antique clothing from the Twenties drove up in a canary yellow vintage Studebaker with her tuxedoed husband, honking their ca-hoo-ga horn gaily.  That night, my friend taught everyone the Charleston and we had quite a stomp--beads, fringe and feathers flying everywhere.  We ate, we drank, we swooned over The Sheik on the silver screen. 

After everyone had said goodnight long after midnight, I surveyed the remains.  What a party!  Jay Gatsby had NOTHING on me!!  Champagne glasses and empty champagne bottles everywhere.  Half-eaten plates of food.  Silver platters of canapes and petits fours long past their prime.  Ostrich feathers of every color, everywhere (I'm still finding them in my back yard).  And one bewildered dog, head ornament askew and feather collar long gone.  I cleaned up the kitchen and organized until 4 o'clock in the morning.  Then it took me a long time to wind down enough to relax and fall asleep for a couple of hours, when I woke with the sun.  And post-party depression.

Smaller scale dinner parties also get planned in the wee hours.  Usually, I have some kind of theme in mind and am obsessive enough about details to want everything to be as authentic to the theme as possible.  This past New Year's Eve, I served an authentic French country meal, at a rustic and simple table.  We drank earthy French wines and of course had plenty of champagne, all the while serenaded by the atmospheric piano music of Claude Debussy and singers Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier on the retro phonograph.  I suggested that we play charades in French.  My guests declined.

A sultry August night was the setting for A Night in Morocco, with Sufi trance music, a belly dancer, lamb kabobs, couscous studded with pistachios and apricots, mint tea and a screening of Casablanca.  Guests came in long tunics, gauze pants and one wore a beautiful fez.  And I am recalling a Mardi Gras party one year that was especially fun, the house dripping with beads.  I set up a "make your own Mardi Gras mask" station, served authentic New Orleans cuisine,  played zydeco music, Pete Fountain, and Preservation Hall jazz.  We ended the evening with Cafe Brulot, the spicy, citrusy Creole coffee that is laced with brandy and then set aflame.

One of the most fun parties I've had as a result of insomnia was the Croquet in May Victorian lawn party.  Ladies were encouraged to wear white linen, white gloves and large hats.  Men were encouraged to wear linen or pale, light attire.  On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed lavender lemonade, tea cookies, watercress finger sandwiches, radish canapes, and of course, we played croquet on the front lawn.  And believe me, there is nothing quite like a long game of croquet to highlight aspects of marital aggression among couples.  We were quite the spectacle as my neighbors drove by, observing a small crowd of oddly-dressed people who gave the appearance that they were merely politely engaged in sport and genteel frivolity.

And last night, while you were sleeping?  I've been planning your next visit to Greece, India, Italy, Thailand, Vietnam.  I've been thinking about a 1950's Hollywood cocktail party with lots of starlets and movie moguls, glitz and glamour.  I think the Rat Pack might be in attendance as well.  And how about a trip to interior Mexico via an Oaxcan tamale party, with authentic pollo y mole negro cooked in toasted banana leaves?  Or a cheese, honey and wine pairing party to raise funds and awareness for research on Colony Collapse Disorder and to encourage the proliferation of honeybees.  Or a silk sari/shalwar kameez party with artisanal stone-baked flat breads and hand made soft goat cheese to be eaten with a Northern Indian and Pakistani lentil curries and hot pickles.  Every night, the ideas dance in my mind and I envision people, food and wine together, magical, memorable, and magnificent in every detail.

So I continue to embrace my insomnia.  Because while you were sleeping, I was dreaming.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

And then, out of nowhere...

I had absolutely no idea what would happen for dinner.  I had taken some leftovers out of the freezer to thaw, but didn't feel very committed to having them for dinner.  I didn't really feel much like cooking an elaborate meal.  What I really wanted was for dinner to cook itself.  Influential as I am, however, I cannot charm dinner into materializing on the table.  Yet.

I had some bone-in chicken breasts, though, and thought about roasted chicken.  The more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me.  So I decided to use a cooking technique popular in the Midwest and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: broasting.  Broasting is actually a patented process that creates a crispy exterior and a moist, flavor-infused interior.  It's most commonly associated with chicken.  I knew that without the Broaster (a patented pressure cooker/deep fryer), I wouldn't get truly broasted chicken.  But I was willing to settle for an approximation of the broasting process.  Now, just how to do it?

What I was after was pure delectability, not so much crispness.  I wanted a moist, tender chicken breast that had a fairly intensive amount of flavor and I wanted a side dish that would be a true foil for the flavor profile I was developing.  What happened was pure alchemy.  The chicken breasts were beautifully moist, tender and their parsley-anchovy pesto, enriched with olive oil and heightened by the acid of the sherry vinegar, was smoky and deep thanks to the smoked paprika.  The fried polenta was crusty outside, creamy inside and mingled beautifully with the pan juices from the chicken.  The poquillo peppers, a last minute inspiration, not only gave this dish a gorgeous shot of color, they echoed the smoky depth of the paprika.  I served the chicken and polenta with a salad of spring greens and herbs dressed with fresh lemon juice, Sicilian olive oil, ground pepper and flake salt. 

Not knowing what will happen for dinner can sometimes produce amazing results.  It really did feel as though dinner cooked itself.

Broasted Chicken Breast with Parsley and Anchovy Pesto 

I prepared this in my very small, very old toaster oven.  You could use a standard oven as well.

2 bone-in chicken breasts, skin removed
salt and pepper to taste
smoked paprika
2 cloves minced garlic
1/3 cup parsley pesto
1/2 Tbs. sherry vinegar
2 Tbs. EVOO
2 anchovy fillets (or substitute 1 to 2 tsp. anchovy paste)

1.  Place chicken breasts on a foil-lined baking tray.
2.  Make a paste of a little salt, freshly ground black pepper, smoked paprika, EVOO and garlic.  Quantities are to your taste, but make sure you have enough EVOO to spread the paste evenly and easily over the chicken breasts.
3.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes.
4.  Make a paste of parsley pesto, sherry vinegar, EVOO and anchovies. 
5.  Spread the paste evenly over the chicken breasts.
6.  Cover with foil and bake an additional 20 to 25 minutes.  The chicken should be moist and very tender.  Spoon pan juices over chicken and fried polents and peppers (recipe below).  Serves 2.

Fried Polenta and Poquillo Peppers

1/4 cup EVOO
1 cup prepared or leftover polenta
salt and pepper to taste
2 roasted poquillo peppers, cut into thick strips

1.  In a small skillet, heat EVOO until shimmering.
2.  Form polenta in to two thick patties.
3.  Brown polenta well on both sides, using salt and pepper to taste.  Make sure you develop a nice crust on both sides, reducing heat if necessary.  Cover pan slightly to reduce splattering (this also helps to steam-heat the polenta).
4.  Add poquillo pepper strips to pan and heat through.
5.  Serve friend polenta and peppers with broasted chicken.  Serves 2.

What you might want to drink...

I had a bottle of Crios de Susana Balbo Rose of Malbec 2010 (Argentina) chilled and ready to go in the fridge.  Although I found the color of this wine a bit off-putting (it's a very bluish pink in the glass), in the mouth, it is very lovely.  First-of-the-season cherries on the nose.  Lots of strawberry, and very youthful.  Clean lines, nicely dry finish.  Well-balanced and less than $15 a bottle.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Al fresco dinner

Recently, I hosted a dinner for friends who love wine and food.  It was early April, a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon and temperate.  The back yard was near-paradise (thanks to my landscaping and architect genius husband) and the sound of water soothed and softened everything.  Roses bloomed, leaves rustled, and the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle wafted elusively around us.  The vision for this dinner had evolved over several days and with solid input from my food and wine-loving friends: we would dine outdoors in a natural setting, Barefoot Contessa style, with a lovely table, flowers everywhere, soft lighting, plentiful, wonderful food, well-matched wines and most importantly, good company and good conversation.  All this came to fruition and more.  The unexpected bonus came in the form of gale-force winds (which blew clumps of catkins, debris and leaves everywhere from the oak trees), what seemed like hundreds of green worms rappelling from the trees and swinging wildly in the wind, and of course, a profusion of bird droppings.  In other words, the Scourge of the Central Texas Spring Pestilences.

I had set the table earlier in the afternoon, being challenged by the wind and flying debris at every turn.  Worms would drop suddenly out of nowhere and then plop, stunned, on the table cloth.  I could only hope the damned things had died from severe head trauma or internal hemmorhaging after their unexpected and very abrupt encounter with the tabletop, thanks to Mr. Gravity and the exponential potentiation of Snell's Law.  My apologies to Sierra Club members and naturalists everywhere, but REALLY

I kept up a steady stream of muttering and cursing, and brushed eveything off as I went.  I overturned all the glasses to keep them clean and covered the entire table with white tulle.  I weighted it down three times.  It looked like a mummy on her wedding day.  My husband asked several times (gently) why we couldn't eat inside.  "Because this is an al fresco dinner," I replied, my jaw tight.  "Al Franken's coming to dinner???" he asked incredulously.  I rolled my eyes (the universal sign of marital contempt) and sighed.  "No, al frescoIt means we're eating outdoors.  It's a nice day.  I want to have an al fresco dinner."  This last statement was delivered rather petulantly.  My husband has learned not to debate these things with me when I use that tone.  Wise man.

I managed to get everything prepped and to even get myself ready 30 minutes before ETA.  I am unaccustomed to having this much time before parties, usually engaged in some last-minute frenzy as guests are streaming in the front door.  But I was amazingly relaxed and totally in the moment, worms, catkins and all.  Everyone arrived.  Promptly.  Smiling and bearing food and wine.  We decided on what wine to open first, a deliberation among foodies and wine lovers not unlike a mild-mannered congressional debate.  We all migrated outside to sun, water, flowers.  And A Plenty of Pestilences.  One of my friends complimented me on the table and when I apologized for all the debris a bit anxiously, he told me not to worry, that people in Italy deal with these things all the time.  It felt a bit better to pretend we would all have dinner in Italy, since Italian flying worms and catkins had to be much more sophisticated and much more bellisimo than the Texas varieties.  I held my head a little higher.  I imagined how graceful flying worms would be in Italy--magnifico!  I envisioned Italian catkins dancing in the light, arid breeze--demurely and oh so allegretto!

Although I really had no idea what challenges al fresco dining might bring in Italy, I was certain they could never match Central Texas.  And although I am not squeamish about ingesting additional organic matter (live or otherwise) with my outdoor meal--thanks to years of intensive desensitization treatment after the infamous BLT sandwich event of my childhood (tune in later for a blow-by-blow description of the psychological trauma I endured), I knew that my husband was squeamish.  And furthermore, he had voiced his squeamishness.  Several times.  But I had planned low lighting (theory: what you can't see won't hurt you) and had advised everyone to blow off their plates and serving ware (see Mirriam-Webster and for a full definition of caveat emptor).  So I called on the only other resource I had at that point: my Higher Power.  I prayed.  I prayed hard.  I prayed the wind would die down when it was time to eat, and it did. 

Everyone was having a good time--one of us a biology teacher and able to give genus and species identification to all the airborne debris--and my friends good-naturedly helped cover the food with paper towels once appetizers and wine started flowing.  And then we--uh, I--promptly forgot about all the minor unpleasantness.  We started with Codorniu Reserva Reventos (Spain), one of the most elegant cavas (I think) on the market.  It has very creamy, fine bubbles and is soft, faintly peppery, with a hint of sweet almond.  It's always a great ending with pastry or cake, but we thoroughly enjoyed it as an aperitif.  Vindaloo's Number One Rule of Party-Making: always start and end with bubbles!

From here on out, Vindaloo must admit that things became a bit of a blur.  We tasted several wines and paired them with several hors d'oeuvres (recipes follow), notably:  Dry Creek Fume Blanc 2009 (Sonoma County, California), predominantly crisp, refreshing citrus/grapefruit--all the reasons we love a good Sauvignon Blanc--with Smoked Salmon and Caper Salad,  Kestrel Pure Platinum (Yakima Valley, Washington), a fabulously peach/peach blossom white wine blend made from Gewurtztraminer and Viognier grapes with Scallop, Shrimp, Jalapeno and Bacon Skewers, ia Garnacha 2009 (Spain), full of fruit, spice and a lot of cherry, with Manchego, Membrillo and Mint and Cep d'Or 2009 (France), a lovely pale salmon-colored rose that is crisply refreshing and light, hinting at grapefruit and herbs with Goat Cheese Tower with Artichoke and Olive Insalata.

Vindaloo also served an amuse bouche (literally translated: amuse the mouth) of chilled coconut milk pureed with Thai green curry paste, tiny spring peas, caramelized scallops and Thai basil that succeeded in both surprising and delighting her guests.  One friend asked for seconds, then thirds (and eventually secured the rest of the puree for his own uses!), while another closed his eyes and, after a few non-verbal reactions stated (and I quote), "Now, that's sex in a glass."  Guess Vindaloo hit the jackpot on that little number, huh?

It was eventually time to rustle up dinner.  You'd think that with so many people in one place who cook that dinner might just miraculously materialize out of sheer combined metaphysical energy.  Vindaloo can assure you that it did not, and it took a lot longer to get things organized and in full swing than she had envisioned.  But Readers, do remember that wine was flowing freely (like the River Rhine), which tends to make things a lot more chatty (like Monday night Bunco) and laissez faire (literally translated: deliberate abstention from intervention but not alcohol) and a lot less industrious and goal-driven (like time has no meaning).  Or haven't you had this experience while imbibing?

Our dinner menu was as follows: Make Your Own Fish Grilled in Banana Leaves (three of us chose Asian flavors, two of us Yucatan Peninsula), Grilled Vegetables with Garlic and EVOO, Lemon Infused Rice and Orange-Basil Infused Rice.  The wines we drank with dinner (or rather, the wines that Vindaloo can recall that she drank with dinner) were Trimbach Riesling 2008 (Alsace, France), a bone-dry, citrusy Riesling with lots of green apple and a good acid content.  Also, Sauvion Vouvray 2009 (Loire Valley, France) reviewed previously , a perfect match with spicy Southeast Asian cuisine.

We talked and lingered over dinner, and the wind blessedly died down.  We could talk across the table without shouting (or without accidental ingestion of worms or other organic matter).  We discussed our astrological signs.  We debated whether it was more dangerous to fly or to stand in a fixed spot on the earth when meteorites enter the earth's atmosphere.  We discussed the possibility that alien life was truly among us--perhaps at this very table!  And then it was time for dessert, a coconut milk panna cotta with cardamom and rose water, finished with a flambeed mango sauce.  And to drink?  Segura Viudas Aria Estate Extra Dry Cava (Spain).  This lovely cava is full of honey, pineapple and citrus.  An elegant ending to a memorable evening.  Recipes follow.

My Wine Guy’s Jalapeno, Bacon and Shrimp Skewers
This recipe is exerpted from an email exchange (and I had to pry this recipe from my friend because he's pretty humble)...

"The shrimp skewer is pretty simple - butterfly your shrimp, insert a spear of jalapeno in the butterfly cut.
Wrap with bacon which was slow cooked on low heat so it doesn't get crispy (I recommend not fully cooking the bacon to insure it remains flexible. Salt, pepper, paprika...Skewer!  Grill until it's happy!  I think garlic powder would be a nice touch too, though I didn't add it to those I brought to your house.

Another riff on this would be to take a JUMBO shrimp, half of a jalapeno stuffed with cream cheese and then bacon wrapped.  Or stuff the jalapeno with a crab meat mixture like this one."

**Note** The skewers we had at the dinner party also included bay scallops, so there's another version. 

Smoked Salmon and Caper Salad

1  8 oz. fillet of salmon, smoked with your choice of wood chips on your grill.
1/4 cup minced shallot
1/4 cup nonpareil capers, drained
1 tsp. dried dill
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4-1/2 cup mayonnaise
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
liquid smoke seasoning (optional)

1.  Remove charred skin from salmon.  Debone and flake with your fingers into a medium-sized bowl.
2.  Add shallot, capers and dill and season to your taste with salt and pepper.  Blend well.
3.  Mix together mayonnaise, lemon juice, garlic powder and liquid smoke seasoning (optional).
4.  Add mayonnaise mixture to salmon mixture and blend well. 
5.  Taste and correct for seasonings, adding more mayonnaise if necessary.
6.  Chill and serve with melba toast or crackers.  Makes about 2 cups.

Goat Cheese Tower

1 8 oz. pyramid-style chevre (or substitute 2 4 oz. logs)
1 12 oz. jar marinated artichokes or marinated artichoke salad, drained
2  roasted poquillo peppers (I use jarred peppers), drained and slivered
1 cup assorted gourmet olives (I use DeLallo brand from the olive bar at my supermarket), drained
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 scallions, sliced thin
cracked black pepper

1.  Place pyramid chevre on serving platter.  If using chevre logs, cut each log in half.  Place 3 halves together (like a clover shape) on serving platter and one half centered on top.
2.  Combine drained, marinated artichoke salad, roasted peppers, olives, garlic and scallions in medium-size bowl.  Drizzle with plenty of EVOO.  Stir to combine.
3.  Arrange artichoke and olive salad over cheese in a pile.
4.  Drizzle with more EVOO if desired.
5.  Season generously with cracked black pepper.  Serve with ciabatta toasts or crackers.  Serves 4.

Manchego, Membrillo and Mint

1 4 to 6 oz. wedge manchego cheese
1 15 oz. pkg. membrillo, such as Goya (quince paste, which you can find in the Hispanic foods section)
Fresh mint leaves

1.  Trim rind from cheese and cut into triangles approximately 1/4" thick, following natural shape of wedge.
2.  Cut quince paste into triangles slightly smaller than cheese triangles and place on top of cheese.
3.  Garnish each triangle with a fresh mint leaf and serve on a beautiful silver platter or black plate.

Thai Sex in a Glass  

1 10 to 12 oz. pkg. petit pois
3 oz. green curry paste (find this at M & T Supermarket or Fiest Market)
1 13.5 oz. can coconut milk
1 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. canola oil
2 oz. bay scallops
1 pinch sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Holy basil leaves (about 6 large leaves)

1.  Steam peas gently (about 2 minutes) in microwave and drain.  They need to stay bright green.  Empty into workbowl of food processor. 
2.  Process peas and add curry paste, blending well. 
3.  With motor running, add coconut milk in a steady stream.  Process until very smooth.  Chill well.
4.  Heat butter and oil in small saute pan until rippling.  Saute scallops with a pinch of sugar to help brown them for about 1 minute.  Do not overcook.  Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
5.  When scallops have cooled, thinly slice crosswise.
6.  Stack basil leaves together, roll into a cigar shape and slice thinly into chiffonade.
7.  To serve, pour puree into tall shot glasses or stemmed cordials.  Garnish with slices of caramelized scallops and the holy basil chiffonade.  Makes about 12 appetizers.

Halibut Grilled in Banana Leaves

Banana leaves
Firm white fish, such as halibut, cut into serving-size pieces (4 to 8 oz. each)
Your choice of seasonings (the sky's the limit here)

1.  If using fresh banana leaves, wash and separate into long sections along the rib.  If using frozen banana leaves, gently and carefully wipe dry.
2.  For fresh banana leaves only, use this procedure to soften the leaves enough to fold:  Toast on a comal, in the oven directly on the baking rack, or on a flat top range.  Banana leaves are pliable when their color transforms to an emerald green.  If you don't toast them, they will split when being folded.
3.  For each piece of fish, use about 1 foot of banana leaf.  Place fish in center of banana leaf.
4.  Season as desired.  Use a little fat, like butter or oil for moistness.
5.  Fold banana leaf around fish like a package and secure with small skewers or toothpicks.
6.  Grill or bake at 425 degrees for 14-17 minutes, or until fish is done.
7.  To serve, remove skewer/toothpick and unwrap.  Discard banana leaf.

Citrus-Infused Rice

2 cups rice (I used jasmine because it's not gummy)
4 cups water or chicken broth
2 Tbs. butter
Citrus ingredients such as zest and juice of one lemon, zest and juice of one orange)
Salt to taste
garlic powder, onion powder, fresh chopped herbs (optional)

1.  Combine rice and water or chicken broth in medium-sized saucepan.
2.  Add butter, citrus ingredients and salt.
3.  Add dried ingredients such as garlic or onion powder or dried herbs, if using.  If using fresh herbs, stir these in just before serving.
3.  Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and let cook for approximately 17 minutes.  Serves 6.

Cardamom Panna Cotta with Jubilee of Mangoes, Muscovado Sugar and Rum

For the panna cotta:

2 cups canned coconut milk
22 green cardamom pods
¼ cup sugar
1 ¼ teaspoons rose water
1 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin, such as Knox

1.  Crush the cardamom in a mortar and pestle or with the back of a large spoon and microwave on full power for 1 minute.
2.  Pour the coconut milk into a small pan, and add the cardamom. 
3.  Heat mixture on low heat until steam rises from the surface and small bubbles begin form on the edge. 
4.  Add rose water and sugar.  Stir to dissolve and bring back to a simmer.
5.  Meantime, add a quarter cup of water to the gelatin, stirring briskly.  Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes, until gelatin has bloomed.
6.  Remove the coconut mixture from the heat and strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove the small cardamom seeds. 
7.  Using a whisk, stir hot coconut mixture into the gelatin and stir quickly, making sure there are no lumps. 
8.  Pour into 4 stemmed goblets, fluted dishes or ramekins.
9.  Chill for 2 hours or until softly set.  Can be made up to a day ahead. 

For the mango jubilee:

1 Atulfo mango, peeled, pitted and diced
1 Kent mango, peeled, pitted and diced
Juice of ½ lime
2 to 4 Tbs. muscovado sugar (substitute dark brown sugar if you can’t find muscovado)
Pinch of salt
¼ cup vanilla or dark rum
Additional rum for serving

  1. Combine mangoes, lime juice, muscovado sugar and salt in a small saucepan. 
  2. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until ingredients are melded, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Taste and adjust sugar and lime juice as necessary.
  3. Stir in rum and cool.  You can prepare the sauce up to this point and chill until ready to serve, if you wish.
  4. To serve, reheat sauce, if chilled, and transfer to a shallow flameproof container. 
  5. In a small vessel, such as a demitasse cup or juice glass, heat about ¼ cup rum for about 20 minutes in microwave.
  6. Pour rum over mango sauce and ignite.  Spoon flaming sauce over panna cotta.  Serves 4.