Sunday, February 22, 2009

Carnevale 2009

Carnevale is, without a doubt, one of the best of our family feasts. Part of it owes, I believe, to the fact that we don't compete with the familial obligations some of our "usual suspects" have at other times. While the season of Carnevale is a tradition of the Church, this particular night, this Saturday night before Lent belongs to us. It is always a full house. It owes also to the simple fact that I cram as much butter, cream and eggs into the meal as possible. Carnevale means "farewell, meat" and we are determined to give Meat the happiest of send-offs. And finally, we do have time in the evening to share our Lenten intentions, a time that after 15 years with largely the same group of people, is very intimate. We bare our souls if we need to, laugh and weep as called for, and then promise to pray faithfully for each other in Lent. Commitments bound together by fat and chocolate...makes for a pretty strong bond.

We started with glasses of champagne and some Warmed Olives with Orange Zest which yes, is almost ridiculously predictable but you see, too much food is coming down the pike. I don't want everyone full already when they come to the table).

The amuse bouche of Toasted Cheese Sandwiches & Tomato "Soup" was most amusing. I was just ding-dongily proud of myself for this little smarty pants tribute to a classic comfort food combo. The toasted cheese sandwiches were made in the traditional manner...with lots of butter and mayonaisse. The "soup" was diced sugar plum tomatoes (one tiny tom to a spoon) drowned in Bloody Mary mix with a drizzle of vodka and a sprinkle of salt. (The children had a Virgin Mary version). It was delicious.
The soup course was Roasted Red Pepper Soup with a Jalapeno Cream Float and I ask you, is there anything easier than roasting peppers over a gas flame, peeling them, then setting them to simmer in beef stock? A spin with the immersion blender to puree the peppers, half again as much cream added to the mix and salt and pepper to taste. The float was a seeded and diced jalapeno slowly warmed in cream and then beated just a tiny bit to thicken so it would float on the surface of the red pepper soup. So simple. But in a martini glass it suddenly seems ever so grand.

Celery and Parmesan Salad followed the soup act. I've sung the praises of this Provencal salad before. Crazy sounding combo but it is light, refreshing and delicious.

The entree was a big steaming plate full of Roast Leg of Lamb, Mixed Vegetables with Rouille, and Potato Casserole. The Spouse outdid himself this year...the lamb was a particularly beautiful piece of meat and his judicious use of salt, garlic and rosemary brought it to perfection.
The side dishes were not from scratch and while I do not make a virtue of "semi-homemade", nor do I believe that food only "counts" if everthing was built from the ground up, so to speak. So the veggies were a wonderful frozen melange from Trader Joe's, jazzed up with a rouille - aioli with cayenne and saffron...only I couldn't find the saffron and the potatoes, well, they are only the second best potatoes you'll ever eat. (I reserve the right to find something even more spectacular...I just haven't yet).

Bertie’s Potato Casserole

a 2-pound package frozen cubed (Southern style) hash brown potatoes
1 ½ sticks of butter
1 pint sour cream
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 tsp. garlic salt
1 c. shredded Cheddar cheese
1 c. chopped onion
2 cups crushed corn flakes

Melt butter and reserve ½ cup. Combine this ½ c. butter with the corn flakes and set aside.

Mix all other ingredients together. Place in greased 9 x 13 casserole. Spread corn flakes over the potato mixture.

Bake at 350° for one hour.

Can be made a day ahead and baked before serving.

And the culinary finale was Chocolate Gourmandise, a Patricia Wells' recipe that has become the stock dessert of this feast. Rich, chocolatey and molten and the hardest part of the recipe is buttering and flouring the ramekins.
Now it is Monday morning and we're still cleaning the kitchen but it was, as always, worth it. Round the time we're getting very, very tired of simple Lenten fare we'll remember Carnevale and be content to know that our parting with meat was only temporary. Meat, like spring, will come again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pure Egg Goodness

Much as I enjoy cooking and live to fathom depths of flavor, explore new ingredients and master the fundamentals of various cuisines; much as I love to explore and read and cook and eat, I honestly believe that some of my favorite dishes are the simplest to prepare.

I've been exploring the riches offered by a superfantastic little bakery in our neighborhood and last week I picked up a loave of their challah.

"What are you gonna do with that?" asked The Spouse.

"Toast it".

Sure, challah makes terrific French toast and is perfect for dipping into chicken soup but for my money its best and highest use is as toast, topped with a poached egg.

Now, poached eggs and toast is a delicious and pretty nutritious way to start your day. But for it to be really good, the yolks must be runny, so they ooze nicely over and into the bread, mingling with the butter and crowned by just the merest bit more than a mere bit of salt. Pepper optional.

When I was a kid, my mom had one of those aluminum egg poaching pans that had the little individual egg cups. The eggs would slide out, perfect little round shapes. Although the yolks were usually firmly set, which was fine because we didn't eat our poached eggs on toast, we ate them with toast. Whole different culinary experience.

I've never had a proper poacher but I have figured out the perfect method to get the eggs exactly the way I like them.

Poached Eggs on Toast

2 eggs
2 slices challah bread
butter to taste
salt to taste

Fill a small saucepan half full of water. Bring to a boil. (This is the point where I preheat my Dualit toaster, which is not an inconvenience because it pretty much acts as my timer).

Crack eggs into a bowl. When water has come to a full boil, gently slide eggs from bowl into hot water. Remove from heat immediately and cover with a lid.

Toast your bread. Butter it.

With a slotted spoon, remove poached eggs from water, making sure they drain well. (The moistness of toast soaking up egg yolk is very different, and far more pleasing, than the sog of toast that has poaching water on it. Eeewww). Place eggs on toast. Salt to taste. Add pepper if desired.

Poached eggs on toast can't wait. You have to sit down and enjoy it right away. Which I have for the last 2 mornings straight. Which is also why I haven't included a picture. Perhaps I'll try tomorrow, when I have it again.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Kitchen Essentials: Mandarin Olive Oil

Oliviers and Co., otherwise known as O&Co., is a specialty shop that features a wide range of olive oil (and a few other treats). I wandered into their shop a couple of years ago and was captivated by their mandarin olive oil. The flavor is spectacular. They use a very light oil, which conveys the floral notes of the orange straight to your olfactories. Then you drool.

I stopped by the other day to pick up a tin and they had some for 50% off. "It's getting old," said the shopkeeper. "So you'll have to use it within a year". Oh. Really? I think I can manage that. So now I have 2 tins for the price of one. Gotta love that.

I use this oil somewhat sparingly. (It is regularly priced at $19.50 for 8.4 fl. oz). It sings on my signature salad or on a crazy but fabulous salad of oranges and olives. (Trust me). It is beautiful in a marinade. And sometimes, when no one is looking, I just drink a spoonful of it straight. Healthy and delicious.

Pork Tenderloin. With a Sauce.

I have an odd relationship with pork. Bacon is, of course, essential. Ham is a dream. But if I never ate another pork chop or pork roast for the rest of my days, I would be just fine. Oh, sure, I've had some delicious pork. Seattle Coffee Girl makes a posole that is to die for. Once I had a boneless pork chop at a place in Portland. (The name of the restaurant totally escapes me). It was lightly smoked and cooked with some sort of Thai inspired sauce. It was awesome. But those are the exception. The rule is that most pork chops and roasts, no matter what you do, seem to end up rather dry. The only other cut of pork I really enjoy is the tenderloin. Now that is some good eating.

I have a recipe for pork kebobs that are marinated in orange juice and thyme. Quite a yummy summertime treat. I was craving it the other day but as we were in the midst of impossible April hail storms, grilling was out of the question. Plus I was feeling lazy and didn't feel like cubing up the tenderloin anyway. So I thought some more about the original dish and came up with this. It was very tasty.

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Orange- Thyme Beurre Blanc

1 pork tenderloin
4 oranges
several sprigs of thyme
crushed garlic
mandarin orange olive oil (regular olive oil if you don't have it)
salt and pepper
2 T. brandy
3-4 T. unsalted butter

Into a bowl (large enough to hold the tenderloin) zest the oranges, reserving 2 T. of zest for later. Juice the oranges. Pull the leaves off the thyme sprigs, reserving some for garnish, and add the thyme leaves, along with a tablespoon or so of crushed garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Whisk in 1/4 c. or so of the olive oil. Place tenderloin in the marinade, turning to coat. Cover the dish and place in fridge for a few hours (or overnight).

Preheat the oven to 425°.

Remove pork from marinade and place on a rack in a shallow baking dish. Roast in oven for about 30 minutes, until internal temperature reaches 160°. Remove tenderloin from oven, cover loosely with foil and allow to rest 10 minutes.

While pork is resting, place marinade in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn down heat to medium high, add the brandy, and continue cooking until it begins to reduce. (I know some people say you shouldn't use the marinade once raw meat has been in it but I usually do and I'm not dead yet. If the idea skeeves you out, just make a fresh batch of the marinade. I won't tell).

Stir in the butter, a tablespoon at a time, allowing it to melt completely before adding the next tablespoon.

Slice tenderloin and arrange on a serving plate. Spoon the beurre blanc over the pork. Garnish with remaining orange zest and thyme leaves.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bread and Butter Pudding

We are not big dessert eaters; which is to say, I don't plan and execute dessert for every meal. We all enjoy the occasional sweetie, but The Child is the only one who regularly asks "What's for dessert". (Hope springs eternal, I suppose. She would consume her weight in sugar if allowed).

The thing about dessert is that all too often it calls to mind huge effort: separating eggs and frothing and macerating things, folding, whipping, and all the other (when you think on it) rather violent sounding contortions required for a mere slice of something after the roast, especially on a weeknight. Or maybe I just don't make dessert often enough and so make these associations because of the fuss I go to for holidays and occasions.

This is a dessert that bursts that particular bubble and that's a good thing because really, a sense of occasion is just as important as the occasional occasion.

In my experience a bread pudding has always been something rather heavy, studded with far too many raisins, not especially sweet and if there was any edibility, it stemmed from some kind of tasty sauce which did nothing to alleviate the overall density of the so-called dessert. (I apologize to those of you who adore that sort of pudding. You can have my serving).

This pudding is nothing like any of that. Which is why I love it. And why I make it every once in a while to the delight of the entire family. There are rarely any left-overs but if there are, they make a tasty breakfast.

The concept here is not unlike a pain perdue (lost bread), where the bread soaks in a lovely little bath before cooking. Which is probably why it is equally nice for breakfast as for after-dinner.

I serve this with strawberries but there's no reason you couldn't use any fruit you fancy and last night The Spouse was wondering if there was some whipped cream in the house (there wasn't). This is a dessert that makes a very nice starting point to any additions or amendments you might want to make.

Bread & Butter Pudding with Strawberries

4 large eggs
1 c. half-and-half
11 T. sugar
2 T. dark rum
1 T. pure vanilla extract
8 slices white bread (something like country potato, with a bit of heft to it)
4 T. unsalted butter, softened
1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled & sliced

Whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, 7 T. of sugar, rum and vanilla. Set aside

Spread top of each slice of bread with generous amount of butter. Cut slices in half on the diagonal. Overlap bread slices in oiled 9x13 pan. Pour egg mixture over bread and let stand 1 hour.

Heat oven to 400° degrees. Sprinkle pudding with 2 T. sugar. Bake until puffed and golden brown, and pudding has set, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine strawberries with remaining 2 T. sugar. Let stand while pudding bakes. Serve strawberries with bread pudding.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Twists: Lemon Tart with Somethin' Extra

Last summer, when we were in Chicago, I got to spend some time with my dear friend Nicole, who lives in France but was in the States visiting family. When we met she gave me this pretty little jar saying, "I have no idea what you do with it but I thought it was fun". Confit de violette? Violet jelly?

Well, sure. I'm not at all opposed to the use of flowers in cuisine. I have had some very lovely experiences with edible flowers.. the peppery nip of nasturtiums in a summer salad, a breathtaking rose ice cream...and though I say it myself, I do some rather nice things with lavender honey (grilled duck breast and a chicken/chevre thing, to name a few).

When I got the confit home I opened it. Holy mother! The fragrance was intense. Intense in a "dab some, sparingly, on all your pulse points" sort of way. Which gave me pause because the complaint I hear most often about flowers in food is that it makes the diner think she is eating linen water. In fact, 2 or 3 people said words to that effect at my Easter table last night. Only in this case, they were comments of surprise, because the guests were eating a lemon curd tart with confit de violette and they loved it.

It had occurred to me that the light purple of the confit would be a nice accent on the bright yellow of the tart. To confirm, I had tasted the confit and, to my surprise, the strong perfume wasn't present in the jelly itself. Oh, it tasted of violet to be sure, but it had a much mellower, less perfumy flavor than I had thought it would. So, what the heck?

The only problem was that when I tried to pipe the jelly onto the tart it was entirely too slippery to make the little beads I'd envisioned. So I ended up just spreading it gently onto the tart, which was then covered with a layer of whipped cream.

It was a magical pairing. The tongue first took the tart of the lemon, barely noticing the violet until the floral notes opened up in the back of the throat...a little sweet whisper on a cloud of lemon and cream.

The good news? The product (and many other delicious sounding treats) are available on the web for only a few euros per pot.

Lemon Curd Tart with Confit de violette

Prebake pie crust in a tart pan and allow to cool.

Lemon Curd
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. unsalted butter
1/3 c. fresh lemon juice
zest from the lemons
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk at room temperature

In the top of a double boiler, combine the sugar, butter, juice and zest. Place pan directly over moderate high heat and stir until sugar melts.

Beat together the eggs and egg yolk and strain into hot mixture, stirring constantly. (You don't need to temper the eggs if you stir quickly enough because it leaks slowly through the strainer).
Cook over barely simmering water for 15-20 minutes, stirring often, or until the mixture has thickened quite a bit. It will thicken up more as it cools but you want it to have a good start.

Pour the curd into a jar or bowl, cover tightly with buttered waxed paper and chill. The curd will keep for up to 3 weeks.

Note: you can make orange curd in the same way; simply substitute orange juice and zest for the lemon.

Whipped Cream
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 T. sugar

Whip cream until thick. Stir in vanilla and sugar.

Spread crust with lemon curd. Dot confit on top of the curd. Spread with a thin layer of whipped cream

I would have taken a prettier picture of the tart but it was practically gone before I remembered to pull out the camera.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thoughts for Easter

No, not those thoughts. Not the deep ones of light searing the darkness, life triumphing over death. I'll save those for church tonight and the festal celebrations tomorrow. Right now I'm engaged in the other sort of Paschal thinking, the sort that is to do with lists and last minute errands even though I thought I'd planned so well. (How is it 3 dozen eggs really isn't enough for one simple celebration?) What I do not have to think about, too much, is the menu. For the last several years it's been pretty much the same thing for the simple reason that once I hit on the crowd pleasing combination, why mess with it?

The guests who join us for Easter are in our home for other feasts throughout the year, feasts where we mix it up. They know what we can do. But Easter is one of those feasts which, for us, is a liturgical menu ...what we always eat.

My darling Kimberly Ann was sniffing around for some Easter inspiration. As I've waited until Holy Saturday to write anything it may be too little too late but here's our menu, with a recipe or two.

For aperitif we're having green olives and peanuts. I admit, this one is being phoned in a little this year. Usually there is a clever bruschetta or something. But we are also having people in for brunch in the morning and a girl has her limits.

Other than the cocktail hour, there aren't going to be any courses. We'll just have a big ol' family style dinner, the centerpiece of which will be what we all lovingly refer to as the BAH, the Big Ass Ham. The Spouse will be in charge of this beauty and the recipe, with nary a variation is straight out of Martha Stewart. The glaze is delicious.

Accompanying the ham will be these mind-blowing and marvelous biscuits:

Molasses Biscuits

2 c. all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 T. packed brown sugar
½ t. coarse salt
1 T. baking powder
¼ t. ground ginger
¼ t. ground cloves
1/8 t. freshly ground pepper
6 T. unsalted butter, chilled and cut in to pieces
¼ c. plus 2 T. milk
¼ c. molasses
1 T. heavy cream, for brushing

Preheat the oven to 375° with rack in center. Sift together flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, ginger, cloves and pepper. Using a pastry blender cut in butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

In a small bowl, whisk together milk and molasses until completely combined. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and add the milk-molasses mixture.

Using a fork, stir the mixture until it almost comes together. Gently bring the remaining smaller bits together with fingertips. Transfer dough to a very lightly floured surface, and pat into a flattened circle about 6 inches in diameter and ¾ inch thick. Cut dough into rounds with a 2-inch cookie cutter. Gently press the excess dough together, and cut several more biscuits. Gently press the remaining excess dough together one more time, and cut one more biscuit.

Transfer biscuits to a parchment-lined baking sheet; generously brush tops with cream. Bake until golden brown, 24-26 minutes. Place biscuits on a wire rack to cool slightly.

Recipe makes 10 biscuits. I strongly recommend you double or even triple the recipe if you are serving more than 4 people. Seriously. I don't lie about these things. Or make little mini-biscuits but even then, they will be inhaled so be prepared.

There will be two casseroles on the table, the classic green bean and a potato dish. And yes, I'm making the green bean casserole you're thinking of and go ahead and smirk if you wish, because they all did the first Easter I served it. Guess what is never left over?

I do make a few changes to the standard recipe. In the first place, I don't use tinned beans because that's just evil. Rather, I substitute a 24 oz. bag of Trader Joe's frozen haricot vert, cooked and drained. I also like to chop and saute a cup or so of crimini mushrooms, just to add a little more character to the dish.

Another regular feature of the Easter board is a roasted beet salad. The Spouse does not care for beets. I don't know how this particular fact escaped the vetting process before we were married. I might have made a different choice.

I adore beets and invented this in their honor. It is particularly pretty if you can find different colored beets but Easter came too early this year so I'll be using regular ol' sweet beets.

Roasted Beet and Orange Salad

2-3# beets
4 oranges
1 t. Dijon mustard
rice wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 450°.

Trim beets if they still have greens, leaving on about 1 inch of stem. Poke beets a few times with a skewer and place on a baking sheet. Place in oven and roast until tender but not soft. (I can't give you a time because it depends entirely upon the size of your beets. The ones I'm roasting at the moment are mammoth so I'm not even going to check them for at least 40 minutes).

When done, remove beets from oven and allow to cool thoroughly. (You can do this a day ahead if you want).

While the beets cool, zest all the oranges, setting aside the zest. Peel the oranges. One at a time, holding the fruit over a bowl, supreme the oranges. (This is nothing more than slicing the flesh away from the membrane, section by section. The oranges will look like jewels and it's not at all difficult). When you have finished removing the fruit, give the membrane a good squeeze to get any remaining juice.

When beets are cool, peel off skins and slice (or cube) the beets.

For the dressing, whisk the Dijon into the orange juice. Add 1/4 c. rice wine vinegar and whisk in enough olive oil to emulsify dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning.

If using one kind of beet, toss the sliced beets in the dressing and arrange on serving plate. Lay supremed oranges over beets and drizzle with remaining dressing. Sprinkle with orange zest.

Salad may be served cold or at room temperature.

Note: if you are using multi-colored beets, toss each color in the dressing separately, leaving the darkest beets for last. If you toss everything together it will all look like the red beets and then what was the point of buying different colors?

Note 2: Sometimes I add a chiffonade of basil, if you can get your hands on some fresh. Otherwise, don't bother.

Have I forgotten anything? Oh, of course, dessert.

Easter dessert is typically a non-chocolate affair. No one notices. The Neighbor always brings a boisterously rich triple coconut cream pie from one of Tom Douglas' restaurants. I counteract all that richness (if only in theory) with a lemon curd tart. This year I'm going to try and decorate it with some violet confit that Nicole gave me last summer. It is, quite simply, a pot of violet jam. She had no idea what I'd use it for, she just thought it was pretty. It is. It smells quite strongly of violets (which is the loveliest of perfumes but perfume is the operative word) but the taste is much more delicate. (Don't ask me how they did that. Those French). I'm thinking of piping little beads of the confit around the edge of the tart or maybe even attempting violet-like flowers. But I'm not really handy with a piping bag so it will probably be beads or strips or swirls or something. But the pale purple against the deep yellow of the curd should be very pretty and spring-like, I think. Which is the point.

So that is what we are having and now, if you'll excuse me, I still have to start the dough for hot cross buns and prep the casseroles so I can have a good long Easter nap after brunch tomorrow.

Happy Easter!