Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cook Schmook

Who says an awesome dinner requires cooking?  One our favorite meals is an antipasto platter of yummy items simply collected from the olive bar and deli counter at the store.   On the occasion that we "make" this, we take a totally casual approach by assembling everything on a huge, inviting plate and parking it on the couch in front of a funny TV show to enjoy the effort-free feast.  A baguette slice offers the foundation for impromptu, open faced sandwiches built with random selections from the smorgasbord of goodness.

I am going to take a second to ramble about some components of this particular platter, as I believe each deserves a tribute. 

Bufalo mozzarella - this is the creamy and far more flavorful cousin of fresh mozzarella...requires no salt, no pepper, just your face. 

Sopprossata - our usual go-to is Genoa salami, but this was a glorious, salty substitute.

Peppadews - I seriously love these.  They are tangy and sweet with a wee bit of spice all at the same time.  We love to keep these around, as they are the perfect, zesty addition to a boring sandwich.

Roasted red pepper stuffed olives - Ryan happens to not care for olives of any kind, which sort of pains this olive-obsessed girl.  So I just get them anyway and ask him to overlook them.

Cipollini - these little balsamic marinated onions have kind of changed my life.  I simply adore their vinegary bite and could just eat them all day with a fork.

Cherry Pepper Poppers - we go halfsies on these oil-marinated hot peppers stuffed with proscuitto-wrapped provolone; this results in a manageable amount of heat vs. getting burned out (not to mention looking ridiculous) stuffing a whole one in my mouth.

The moral of this story is that no-fuss assembling can be as exciting and delicious as an all day cooking fest.  Awesome ingredients equals awesome meal.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fondue Fun

We have somehow found ourselves in possession of three fondue pots.  I am pretty sure we received two as wedding gifts, but as to how a third one has joined the ranks, your guess is as good as mine.  The point is that we actually use them....sporadically if I'm being entirely honest, but they do venture out of their boxes at least once or twice a year.  I personally think the experience of fondue is a blast and need not be confined to the four walls of The Melting Pot.  Please know that I'm so not hating on that place; on the contrary, I love it.  But I also love to eat at home for the sakes of frugality and relaxation, as well as to rock the clearly necessary expandable pants without shame. 

Our great friends helped me celebrate my birthday with a seriously fun, delicious, and rather disgustingly excessive fondue feast.  We skipped the main course, raw meat bit and opted to simply gorge ourselves on cheese and chocolate.  I mean, that's the good stuff anyway, right? 

We kicked off the party with a dainty appetizer of Roasted Shrimp Cocktail, courtesy of my Barefoot BF.  It's a yummy departure from the standard shrimp cocktail we've all had, and the spicy sauce is fantastic.  The appetizer certainly wasn't necessary from the perspective of food quantity.  I mean, we were preparing to park ourselves in front of a mound of savory dippers and a pot of cheese - which I'll chat about in a sec - followed by a pot of rich chocolate and a platter piled with bite-sized sweet things to dip into that.  I guess I just thought the addition of shrimp demonstrated an attempt at nutritional redemption in the otherwise truly naughty meal.  Yes, I'm calling it a meal.

I realized later that I actually forgot to take a photo of the cheese course.  I suppose the overcoming excitement to dive in presented too much distraction.  We dipped Granny Smith apple slices, cubes of a bakery sour dough loaf, baby carrots, cauliflower florets, and my personal fave, tangy cornichon, into a glorious pot of Neufchatel Cheese Fondue.  This is a 50/50 mixture of grated Gruyere and Emmenthaler, which I think has a great amount of flavor without being too sharp.  The technique is fun and easy: 

Neufchatel Cheese Fondue

1 clove garlic
1 cup dry white wine
10 oz Emmenthaler cheese, shredded
10 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded
1 1/2 Tbsp corn starch mixed with 1/4 cup kirsch or brandy
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Rub a heavy bottom sauce pan with a clove of garlic.  Place the pot over medium heat, add the wine and bring to a boil.  Immediately reduce heat to low, and add the cheese, stirring slowly until just melted.  Add cornstarch mixture, pepper and nutmeg, and simmer for about 2 minutes more.  Pour the fondue into a warmed fondue pot and serve immediately.

I mean, yum.

Next came the chocolate!  The first step was to prep the yummy dippers:

I don't know if it's the experience of fondue or what, but rational dessert portions go out the window when a pot of chocolate is present.  When would it normally be okay to eat multiple brownie bites, rice krispie treats, macaroons, pound cake cubes and marshmallows - and THEN dip them in a mixture of chocolate and heavy cream?  I think I'll just put that thought behind me and rest in the fact that the damage is done.  You know what?  It was worth it!

Classic Chocolate Fondue

1/4 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp kirsch, triple sec or brandy
9 oz milk chocolate, preferably Swiss, chopped

In a double boiler over simmering water, heat the cream and liqueur or brandy.  Add the chocolate, and stir until smooth.  Transfer to a warmed fondue pot, and serve immediately.

Don't write off fondue for a fun dinner party or girls' night option!  It's easy, fun and totally scrumptious.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Experience

The obvious reason I adore food is to savor flavors.  The time and location are typically of no consequence as long as the cuisine is delicious.  As many know, often the best food is actually found in hole-in-the-wall joints where patrons rub elbows around a possibly dirty, circa 1978 table that probably hasn't moved since the place opened.  These establishments are the gems of the culinary world...nothing fussy - just fresh, homemade, tasty food.

Now having said all of this, sometimes I just love a completely gorgeous table that begs a lingering, four-course experience accented with a delicate glass of pinot noir and a cozy cup of coffee to accompany dessert.  I allow myself to melt into the chair (figuratively...I'm still vertical) and offer up all my senses to drink in the atmosphere.

The best of both worlds, in my mind, is to create a special, beautiful, and foremost delicious experience in the comfort of home.  Who achieves this with a perfectly tasteful, simple and yet still casual/unfussy approach?  Well, Ina Garten, of course.  I mean, who wouldn't want to dine at this table next to fun, food-loving friends for hours on end?  Clearly, I do.

Ina table - town and country
Picture courtesy of Town and Country
 Here's another shot with her signature orange tulips adding effortless freshness.  What is that wine there?  Whatever it is, I want some.

Picture courtesy of House Beautiful
  Another picture of her "barn".  (Aside for those unaware: this woman has a barn that was built solely for entertaining.  This pig would be very comfortable in that barn.)

Picture courtesy of House Beautiful
Don't get me wrong here; it's still all about the food and the people gathered to eat it.  If either is upstaged by the table or setting, I think the point has been missed.  But putting a bit of thought into the dining atmosphere does seem to provide an extra welcome to friends coming into your home, as well as an opportunity for creativity.  While I find it blissful to imagine it, you don't even need a barn in the Hamptons to do it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fish Stick Break

After finalizing last week's menu, I was pleased to have assembled what I thought was a group of tasty meals that the fam would enjoy.  If you witnessed the serving of several of these meals, however, it might appear more that I was torturing our children than providing nourishment.  I won't lie that it was defeating watching Molly push her plate across the table toward me over, and over, and over again, and have to respond to Andrew's frequent, desperate "how many more bites?" pleas.  After three consecutive days of meal-time battle, Ryan implored a fish stick break.  A plate of microwaved fish sticks (albeit the healthiest ones I can find at Whole Foods) accompanied by the safest kid veggie ever, canned green beans, does guarantee us a peaceful table in addition to full kid bellies.  It is true that this image evokes a warm, happy calmness, and thus, perhaps some temptation toward an extended hiatus.  BUT alas, I must press on in my pursuit of fresh and varied flavors to open my kids' palates beyond the single fish stick dimension. 

The good news: some of this food was actually quite good for an adult!  As such, I'll share!!  The titles bear the links to the recipes.

Sweet Potato and Gruyere Turnovers

These mouthwatering pouches are kind of like potpies with the volume turned up (I totally stole that phrase, Ina.  Sorry.)   The scrumptious filling includes grated sweet potatoes, Gruyere cheese, and a sauteed mixture of fresh spinach and onions.  I found these little guys in Real Simple, which also provides quantities and methodology to make them in bulk and do a "dinner swap" with others.  While I didn't participate in the bulk part, I did make them in advance and freeze them.  They go straight from the freezer to the oven beautifully.

Speaking of the crust, here is one of the turnovers in process.  I opted to make my crust instead of purchase the pre-made ones.  With Ina's recipe (referenced in  Pumpkin Lasagna), being so completely delicious, easy and quick, I figured I'd just save a couple bucks.  As a result, it's kind of 'rustic' looking and not the lovely semi-circle I should have had.  But you get the idea.

Here is the finished, baked turnover served with a lightly dressed side salad.  These made divine leftovers..though I didn't dare try to present them to my kids for a repeat of the torturous prior dinner.

The next main course, Chicken Schnitzel with Mustard Sauce, wasn't quite as bad.  In fact, the kids actually did well with the chicken, sans sauce of course. (Ryan and I found the sauce, a mixture of Greek yogurt and whole grain mustard, to a be a tangy and delightful accent to the chicken, fyi.)

It was the side dish here that jump started the drama: Balsamic and Parmesan Roasted Cauliflower.  I get why this was kind of a mean trick by mom, because undiluted balsamic vinegar packs quite a bit of punch for a four year old's (and worse, a 21 month old's) taste buds.  But I maintain that it couldn't have warranted the spitting shenanigans that ensued. 

The last dish was somewhat laborious and turned out to be, well, a disaster.  In fact, there are no photos because I chose to not document the upsetting service of these plates.  I prepared spaghetti squash topped with meatballs and a sauce made with chicken stock, peas and onions.  The original recipe included mushrooms and spinach, so I thought I did the kids a favor with my substitutions.  Not so much.  I opted to put that experience behind me and promptly deposited the recipe in the trash.

I am putting forth my best effort to not be discouraged by my food's reception last week.  Though I'll admit I'm ever so slightly dreading the predicted response to the artichoke ravioli and plum tomato cream sauce on the menu for Tuesday.

Monday, January 3, 2011


While cliche, the New Year's detox concept seems like a good one to me.  After a season of presumably naughty eating, our systems could use some "clean" food.  The celeb definition of clean eating is a tad more extreme than I'm thinking here.  Personally, depriving myself just makes me grouchy and perhaps more inclined to dive into a bowl of ice cream.  My perspective is a little more middle-of-the-road: weeding out processed snacks, adding an extra dose of veggies and easing up on the butter.  Here are two light and tasty meals easily accomplished on a weeknight.

Parsnip, Leek and Potato Soup with (optional) Gruyere "Toasts"

I deviated so significantly from the recipe, originally from Real Simple, that I'll just give you the version I made.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp chicken base (if you don't have it, just leave it out)
2 leeks, thoroughly cleaned and sliced into half moons
4 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 lb Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
5ish cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
Kosher salt and black pepper
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, parsnips, chicken base, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the potatoes and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 12 to 15 minutes.  Partially puree the mixture (so to thicken the soup but still leave some good chunks for texture), either by using an immersion blender directly in the pot and giving it a few turns, or transferring half the mixture to a blender and then adding it back to the pot.  Stir in chopped parsley, and serve.

You see that "toasts" is in quotes because, well, I grabbed the closest item resembling toast in my pantry: a whole wheat English Muffin.  These make this meal feel more substantial and perhaps elevate it from Sunday lunch to dinner time fare.  I toasted the English Muffin halves, spread them with a bit of butter (shhhh), topped them with grated Gruyere, and toasted them again until the cheese was bubbly and just browned.

The next dish is seriously fantastic.  On my own accord, I would never think, "hmm, I think I'll top my salmon with a hazelnut puree tonight."  It's those more unique flavor combinations I stumble upon that keep cooking fresh, fun and delicious.  This is a Weber recipe, so you know it involved grilling - on a cedar plank this time, which was marvelous.  No worries if grilling is not your thing though.  An alternative would just be to put the brown sugar covered salmon under the broiler (on a foil lined pan...miserable mess otherwise) for about 10 minutes.  The sauce is super easy and involves no cooking - just buzzing some ingredients together in a food processor/mini chop while the fish is cooking.  It is a totally yummy embellishment to the delicately sweet fish.

Cedar-Planked Salmon with Tarator Sauce

3 Tbsp plain bread crumbs
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Salmon fillets (6 oz/person)
1/2 cup brown sugar

In the bowl of a food processor, zap the garlic and hazelnuts until finely ground. Add the lemon juice, and then, with the motor running, slowly stream in the olive oil.  Add the parsley, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper, and pulse quickly.  Season to taste with additional salt, pepper and lemon juice if desired. 

Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat.  Generously season the fish with salt and pepper.  Place a cedar plank (that has been soaked in water for at least an hour) over direct medium heat and close the lid.  After 5-10 minutes, when the plank begins to smoke and char, turn the plank over and then lay the fillet on the plank.  Carefully sprinkle the brown sugar over the fish.  Close the lid and let the salmon cook until lightly browned on the surface.  Cooking times will vary based on thickness, but it will take roughly 15-20 min for medium rare.  Serve with the sauce.  

Near East Whole Grain Blends Brown Rice Roasted Garlic Flavor 5.1If you're wondering, the beige pile on the plate next to the salmon came from a box...this box actually.  I usually keep a few of these kinds of things around for quick side dishes.  Some brands, like this one, offer easy fixes that aren't too preservative-filled.  

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!