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

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. 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.