February 17, 2009
Valentine's Day 2009 Menu
November 06, 2005
I've been trying to put together a menu for this dinner party all week. Nearly every evening for an hour or so, I pored over recipe books and websites, looking for ideas. Normally, this is enough to generate more ideas than I could ever pursue for a single dinner party, many of them unusual and at least somewhat original. I typically get very excited about the possibilities and can't wait to start shopping and prepping.
Not so this time. For the life of me, I couldn't really come up with anything that I wanted to eat. I felt as though someone had taken away some part of my brain that is responsible for cooking skills and desire. Or perhaps I had been stricken with culinary impotence.
What kind of meal would this result in? The best I could do was try to rework some dishes that I've already made a few times. Here's what happened:
The salad consists of diced roasted golden beets, frisee, and shredded roast duck placed in equal volumes in separate piles in a bowl. The dressing is poured over each pile. This plating worked fairly well; my friend Eric commented that the dressing tasted different in each part of the salad.
The dressing began with a sage-walut pesto, made with sage, italian parsley, toasted walnuts, garlic, romano, and olive oil. To this I added Champagne vinegar, bacon fat, and prepared horseradish.
Originally I'd planned to duplicate my standard beet-orage salad, which uses cubes of beef, but with yellow beets instead of red. The dressing was going to be made from orange juice, pureed yellow beets, and prepared horseradish. But when things went awry with the sage-walnut pesto I'd planned for the pork dish described below, I decided to co-opt it for use as a salad dressing. This worked out very well -- much better than I'd imagined.
This is a fish stew with scallops, tilapia, squid heads, bacon lardons, a bit of smoked pork shank, green beans, shiitake mushrooms, and a few sun-dried tomatoes. I served it with a square of puff pastry.
I made something like this a few weeks ago as a weeknight meal composed mainly of leftovers. It was fantastic. I curse myself every day that I didn't write down the recipe. This version took longer to make, was more expensive, and was about half as good. It wasn't terrible...just strangely uninspired.
But one good thing did come out of it: an increased confidence with making good fish stock. This stock was even better than the first. Ingredients: lots of ginger, some garlic, daikon radish, a huge fish head of some unknown provenance, two small yellow croakers, lots of mushroom stems, some Napa cabbage, and a pinch of herbes de provence. Saute in some anchovy oil, olive oil, or duck fat. Add some bones from a roast duck, from a smoked shank of pork, or whatever bones you have in the fridge. Add 1/2 bottle of white wine and a lot of water. Simmer lightly for 30-45 minutes.
A simple preparation. I seared the tenderloin over high heat, then set it aside. I deglazed the pan with rum, and then covered the bottom of the pan with grade B maple syrup, which I feel is better for cooking than grade A. I put the tenderloin back in the pan, turned them in the maple syrup, and put them in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or so, turning them in the syrup every five minutes.
For the dried fruit mixture, I sauted some dried cherries and chopped dried apricots along with the rest of the bacon lardons in butter, added a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and some brandy for good measure.
Another technique that I have increased confidence in as a result of this meal: brining. I used the Cook's Illustrated brine recipe: 1 quart of water to 1/2 cup of kosher salt to 1/2 cup of sugar. I substituted molasses for half of the sugar. I cut the tenderloin in half and brined it for about an hour and a half. The result was an unbelievably tender and juicy tenderloin.
The original title of this dish was "Pork Orgy", as it consisted of small servings of different cuts of pork with various preparations. Along with the tenderloin, I was going to serve loin chop with the aforementioned pesto, strips of Chinatown BBQ pork with julienned vegetables, and mashed potatoes with bacon lardons. But my lack of inspiration was taking its toll on my energy levels at this point; I was losing steam. So I just focused on one of the components.
Rebecca put this delicious dessert together and took the very excellent photographs pictured here. This was a great end to the meal and is a valuable addition to our repertoire, as it is very quick to make, and we don't always have the energy at the end of a meal to make a complex dessert.
Despite the lack of inspiration, I wouldn't count this dinner party as a failure. Except for the fish stew, the dishes were unexpectedly satisfactory -- good, even -- and each one built my confidence in a technique or approach that I don't use very much. Maybe inspiration isn't absolutely necessary for a good menu.
September 06, 2005
First SF Dinner Party: Menu
In Irvine, I had a bad habit of throwing dinner parties and forgetting to take pictures of the dishes as they went out to the table. Worse yet, sometimes I would take pictures and forget to blog about them later. After moving back to San Francisco, I promised myself I'd photograph and blog every dinner party I threw. Well, I nearly fell off the wagon on the first go-round.
Two weeks ago we threw the first dinner party in the new place, and I only took one servicable picture, and I nearly forgot to write the whole thing up. Here's the lone picture and what I remember of the dishes.
I was going for something unexpected and fun here. There's a delicate balance which, when achieved, it tastes pretty good. If one of the flavor elements dominates, which is easy to do with the stilton, it tastes one-dimensional and flat. In truth, I think it needs a third ingredient to tie the two tastes together more tightly, but I'm not sure what it would be, especially given that it would have to fit inside of a half of a date that's already stuffed with cheese. Interesting, but I don't think I'll be pursuing it further.
I haven't made a tomato soup in a long time, so I thought I'd break it out for this party. This soup is made with porcini mushroom stock, the reconstituted porcinis themselves, white wine, good canned tomatoes, some herbes de provence, a little sour cream and one lone carrot. There is enough porcini flavor to come through as a dusky, brooding undertone, but not enough to drag the focus away from the bright, acidic tomatoes.
The epitome of tomato soup, for me and for a surprising number of people, is from Bistro Jeanty. For me, it's nearly an ancestral memory, since it's been five years since I had it last. I remember a number of great things about it, but one of them is a particular indescribably round, golden, delicious flavor that I've never known how to even attempt to duplicate in my versions. This time, I remembered an email that someone sent me years ago that made some suggestions as to how to improve my soup. I used a couple of them and tripped across the answer.
The "secret", as it turns out, is merely to swirl a metric sh--load of butter into the soup just before serving. That's it. Am I a dullard or what? The thing is, when you taste it in the soup, it doesn't come across exactly like butter. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Anyhow, if you make a tomato soup, try it the next time you have a dinner party. It is totally worth the calories, at least when you're making it for guests. Don't just do it for your own dinner unless you're terminally skinny, because it's quite addictive.
I use Cook's Illustrated's approach to making the goat cheese rounds -- freeze a log of goat cheese, cut it into rounds, roll it in herbs, egg, and then Melba Toast crumbs, and bake. It generally turns out well. (Though I'm not nearly as enamored with the magazine as I was when I first started cooking, I find that I still use it quite a bit, and this is exactly the sort of preparation that it is useful for.)
This is another dish I haven't made in awhile. Last time, I used roasted white asparagus and a basalmic redux. This time, I just tossed the greens with truffle oil and good port vinegar. I prefer the reduction, but I think the tossing method works better with loose greens like this.
I'd like to try this recipe with an aged goat cheese.
Yes, you read that right, leeks and fennel. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of home ruled that in this instance it was okay to cook these ingredients and add them to the dish as long as Rebecca's didn't have any in hers.
This was basically a rectangular slice of puff pastry underneath a bit of salmon fillet, with the artichoke bit in between and the sauteed leeks and fennel on top. The "artichoke creme fraiche" was essentially a modified version of my baked crab artichoke dip, but that isn't nearly a fancy enough name for this dish, now, is it?
I chose this format partially because I thought it might be easier to prep than a regular wellington. It actually turns out to be a lot fussier, because the elements are cooked separately and then assembled at the end, so you have to worry about timing everything properly. By the time I got everything to the table, nothing was at the right temperature. Nevertheless, it has its advantages in dinner parties because portion control is far easier, and because the puff pastry won't get soggy.
I found the flavor of these cookies so intriguing that I thought they might be good in a savory recipe, perhaps as a pie crust. This was my first attempt to use the recipe in a savory context. I cut back on the sugar and the baking soda and pressed them a little thinner.
The resulting dish was, I thought, a success. Arguably, the flavor of the rounds is a bit too strong for pork. One of my guests suggested lamb or venison, which I did try later on that week. It was also good, but not the dream combination of flavors that I was hoping for.
I may try to groom this into a signature dish. It's unsual enough that people will remember it, and if I can get the balance of flavors just right, it could be very good. It's the sort of dish that people talk about. A few weeks later, at a Labor Day Barbeque, I was the "Pork Cookie Guy".
February 07, 2005
Bachelor Party Menu
It's not a real bachelor party menu, of course; I only called it that because Rebecca was out of town for the weekend. If that disappoints you, just imagine eating each dish off of the firm stomach of a long-legged exotic dancer.
I get listless and irritable when Rebecca's out of town unless I have something to do, so I try to make plans that will occupy my time while she's gone. Hosting a dinner for ten people is definitely a time-suck. And the fact that Rebecca was out of the picture meant I got to put onions in everything.
The go-to appetizer for those pressed for time. From zero to oven in 15 minutes or less, assuming you're using a prepared filling (which I didn't use) and storebought pastry dough (which I did) and that you've already defrosted it. Far less classy than many of its proponents believe, the baked brie is nonetheless quite useful and should be in your bag of entertainment tricks. The master recipe is as follows: Roll the sheet of pastry dough thin enough to wrap around the round of brie. Optionally lay down some spices or brown sugar on the dough. Cut the brie in half. Place the bottom half on the pastry crust. Slather on a thick layer of your filling of choice. Put the top half on. Sprinkle brown sugar and/or spices on the top of the brie (or don't). Wrap the pastry around the brie, sealing the top and cutting off any excess dough. Toss it in the oven until it's ready, which should be 40-45 minutes or so for a medium-sized brie. There you go. It's not cooking so much as configuration management.
I made the apricot chutney using dried apricots and fresh pears. It turned out pretty well despite the recipe being created completely ad hoc. My rule of thumb is: A jam is basically equal parts fruit and sugar, cooked down. A chutney is equal parts fruit and sugar plus onions, ginger, vinegar, "pumpkin pie" spices, and perhaps peppers. This, of course, only one style of chutney -- a sort of "Major Grey" style. Authentically Indian chutneys vary widely in style and are often more like relishes than jams.
Some tips: There is no need to cut the rind off of the brie, even if you're one of those weirdos who insists on only eating the middle out of a cheese with a perfectly edible rind. (Let me guess, princess -- you made your mom cut the crusts off of your sandwiches as a kid, too, didn't you?) During baking, the rind will soften and melt just like the insides. And speaking of melting, you really want the insides molten-lava hot, as the dish is best consumed before the brie begins to congeal. You should nevertheless warn your guests about the temperature, unless they've already offended you somehow and the insides of their mouths are just begging for a good searing. If the pastry is browning too quickly, throw some aluminum foil over it. You know the drill.
My intent had been a thin, frothy, milky, corn-flavored broth slightly thickened with fish and corn puree and flavored with lemon, Pernod, tarragon, and fennel, with bits of corn, peas, shrimp, and herbs floating sparsely in the broth around a pile of lobster in the middle. Alas, things did not work out the way I imagined. After cooking the kernels from six ears of corn in four or five cups of milky liquid, pureeing the result in the Cuisinart, and attempting to strain it, I got...somewhere around two cups of liquid and a huge mass of wet corn that wouldn't go through the strainer no matter what I did to it. I had honestly thought things would go differently. Since I was serving ten people, I had no choice but to mix the liquid back into the corn and serve a chowder that was pretty much like my normal corn chowder recipe. Which, you know, I like a lot, but several of the guests have had it before, and I was looking to add something to my repertoire.
But it wasn't a total loss. It turns out that the Pernod and fennel are an amazing addition to my standard recipe (the original already has the tarragon and the lemon), giving it an extra oomph that I didn't even know it needed. Care must taken, of course; you can easily overdo it with the Pernod. But I think the recipe has definitely gone up a notch in quality.
I'd still like to explore my vision; I'm just not sure how. Using more liquid would just require more corn to in order to get enough corn flavor in the broth. That means you'd still just wind up with a big mass of unused corn that won't strain and that soaks up all of the liquid. Is there any way to get the corn flavor? Can you put corn through a juicer? Does anyone sell corn juice? Maybe if I could find something else to do with the corn, that would be alright. But what? There would be far too much for ravioli. A gratin? I don't know.
The bread was just a regular french loaf cooked in the breadmaker with finely chopped rosemary added. The result was very aromatic, although if I hadn't been so rushed I would have shaped the dough into a boule and cooked it in the oven instead.
The concept of the dish is simple: Pasta stuffed iwth ground goat meat mixed with goat cheese and fresh basil. It's also simple to execute: Buy a (half of) a goat leg. Debone it, trim it, and grind it (a food processor will do for this). Cook the meat with garlic and spices. In a large bowl, combine the meat with a log of goat cheese (8 oz for every 2-3 lbs of goat or to taste) and basil in chiffonade. Mix well, stuff it in some nearly-cooked pasta, top with a sauce, and bake for 30 or 40 minutes.
This dish works perfectly well with lamb, which is the only way I've made it in the past. I'm glad I tried it with goat, though. I felt there was a particular compatiblity between the flavors of the goat meat and the goat cheese, a subtle interplay that wasn't there with the lamb. On the other hand, I could be totally imagining that, because I remember thinking it was pretty damn good with the lamb.
Most of the goat meat I've had in my life has been in Indian- or Mexican-influenced dishes. It was interesting to taste it prepared in a more Continental style, even in a dish as straightforward as this one.
I'd originally intended to make fresh pasta for this dish, but as afternoon slid into evening it was clear that something would have to give. I used large pasta shells that I had sitting around, which is unfortunate because cannelloni (or even manicotti) are a much better format for serving to company. Shells are far clumsier; they have an unfortunate tendency to slide around (or off) your plate as you try to cut them. On the other hand, you have much finer portion control with the shells, which is important for a large meal. On the other other hand, with fresh pasta I could have made the cannelloni any size I wanted to.
The sauce was a basic tomato sauce recipe with the addition of minced sun-dried tomatoes and a touch of red pepper. This was a quick, functional sauce; the sun-dried tomatoes added just a touch of depth and flavor interest without dominating the sauce, and the red pepper supplied a little sleight of hand (those tricksters!). I've found a secret about buying sun-dried tomatoes that you will almost certainly want to know, but you will have to wait for a later post.
Beef cheeks are actually the muscles which control and power chewing, which, as you might imagine, are relatively large in cows. They're a dark, tough muscle that turns very tender during a long braising. I've never made them before, but I thought they turned out well, and with some experimentation I think they'll prove to be a strong addition to my repertoire. They're relatively inexpensive to boot. I paid under $3/lb for mine, although they were untrimmed; I probably lost a third to waste.
For this dish I braised them in homemade beef stock, red wine, and vegetables. I then strained the vegetables out and cooked fresh ones separately to serve with the cheeks, as per Bouchon. I then reduced the sauce and served the meat and the vegetables with a few tablespoons of sauce over it.
The cauliflower dish was straight out of the aforementioned Bouchon. It was good even though I undersalted it. I don't know if it was worth all of that butter and cream, though. I like my mixed root vegetable gratin better. Or better yet, Keller's glazed turnips.
Creme Brulee is the perfect dinner party dessert. It's straightforward, you can make it a day ahead, and it's percieved as classy. What impresses me is the huge differences in basic creme brulee recipes, despite the fact that there are only a few ingredients. This was my first time, so I have no idea which recipes are better and which are worse.
The most important point of variance, I'd imagine, is the ratio of cream to egg yolks. This will determine how firm the custard is. I think I used 3 cups of cream to 7 egg yolks. The custard was firm -- still very good, but a little on the firm side. Next time I think I'll drop it to 6 or maybe even a little less.
I made a standard creme brulee recipe, but added a tablespoon of brandy and 1 1/2 tablespoons of a freshly ground masala chai (I think I used cloves, cardamom, cinnamon stick, and maybe a dash of nutmeg). I don't usually make desserts, but this was a breeze. Masala Chai and brandy really work in this dish. It'll be even better next time when it's a little creamier.
(Actually, I forgot to serve these with the raspberries and the truffles, but I had one that way the next day, so I'm pretending that everything went off without a hitch. Come to think of it, several things went wrong. I thought I had vanilla in the pantry, so I didn't buy any when I was shopping, but when I got home I couldn't find it. I had to leave it out. I put one (or two) too many eggs in the batter, as I mentioned -- not by mistake, just out of ignorance. I forgot to get butane for the kitchen torch, so I had to use the broiler, which isn't nearly as good at carmelizing the top of the custard. The dessert turned out great anyhow, which is a testament to how easy it is to make.)
Some notable creme brulees across the blogosphere include: Clotilde's Pear Rosemary Creme Brulee and her Lemon Thyme Creme Brulee, A Spoonful of Sugar's Strawberry Liqueur Creme Brulee, food.indiboi's Classic White Creme Brulee, which uses white chocolate, and the Barefoot Kitchen Witch's base Creme Brulee Recipe. Check them out!
As you can see, what's been turning me on lately is Alsatian wines and varietals. I've had a background interest in Alsace for years, but that interest has always taken a back seat to lust for German wines. Lately, though, Alsatian wines and varietals are all I want to drink.
Pinot Grigio is the Bud Lite of the wine world, as far as I'm concerned. It's worlds away from Alsatian Pinot Gris, despite the fact that they're made from the same grape (Gris = Grigio = Gray). The latter is rich and opulent, with flavors of peaches, apricots, lychee, almonds, and honey often making an appearance. Despite these rich flavors, Alsatian Pinot Gris usually has the acidity and minerality to keep the wine in balance. This is the perfect antidote to Chardonnay.
I've had some success with Pinot Blanc picks lately as well. In fact, the first (and only, as far as I can remember) wine that I've bought at Trader Joe's that was surprisingly good was a Pinot Blanc. Oh, I've bought plenty there that I thought were fine -- you know, the usual Californian suspects. But I picked up the 2001 Lorca Monterey County Pinot Blanc on a whim; it was $8 or so, and I really didn't want another Chardonnay that day. Lo and behold, I found the perfect house white: forward and friendly, but still packing. And inexpensive.
The Charles Schleret selections are definitely a step up from the Lorca. This is unsurprising, as they are twice as expensive. But these are fabulous wines that deserve your attention. I promise you, you will never get as much pleasure out of a $16 California Chardonnay -- or a Chardonnay anywhere, at that price -- as you will from these picks. Take a chance!
August 22, 2004
A game night menu
If you know anything at all about me, you know that "game night" doesn't refer to Monday Night Football. I'm not talking about baseball or soccer or any other (in)activity that involves watching people on television kick or throw a ball back and forth and beat each other senseless. I'm talking about participating in a contest of minds. Not mano a mano, but tete-a-tete. And if we still occasionally beat each other senseless, well, that's our business.
One unfortunate similarity between our game nights and the other, duller kind is the cuisine. Somewhere along the way in board game history, someone decided that all food served must be finger food: pizza, hamburgers, chips, etc. This is probably because participants often don't want to take a break for dinner between games, so you need food you can eat while you play rather than food that requires a full place setting. And if you're hosting the game night, you probably want to actually play some games rather than be stuck in the kitchen cooking a five-course meal while everyone else is having fun. Besides, to serve gourmet food and play board games at the same event is to risk accusations of being two different types of dweeb at once.
Well, we're not afraid of that in my household. (At least, on my side of the bed we're not.) Besides, if you love your games -- or even if you just spent a bunch of money on them -- the last thing you want is for some hamhanded neanderthal with pizza-greased extremities thrusting his dirty fist into the bag of Carcassonne tiles.
I decided this time that everyone would be issued a bowl. Every course would be eaten out of that one bowl. This way, people could still eat and play, since a bowl doesn't take up too much room. Even if space is at a premium, guests can hold the bowl in their hands or laps and keep playing. I limited the meal to three courses in order to curtail my time in the kitchen, and tried to make dishes that I could prepare substantially in advance. Here's what we wound up with:
There is little that is actually Thai about this salad. The meat is a Cuban-influenced braised pork butt with lime juice and tomatillos. Strangely, it also includes figs. Beneath this are rice noodles, supported by lettuce and various vegetables.
The dressing tastes somewhat asian as it includes lime, ginger, cilantro, and coconut milk, but the cashew butter was less analogous to peanut butter than I'd hoped and the result didn't feel particularly Thai-like.
It was good, though I thought it needed a bit of a kick; the lime juice didn't provide a strong enough kick to balance the coconut milk and cashew butter. Perhaps some good sherry vinegar or rice vinegar would be in order.
I didn't have any of the dressing left when I ate leftovers the next night. Instead I pureed some of the figs and tomatillos from the pork dish with some of the braising liquid and balsamic vinegar. This was also a very good idea. I don't think I'd take this approach with guests; it just modifies and deepens existing flavors, where the "thai" dressing adds an array of new, contrasting flavors to the dish. But it was certainly suitable for weeknight dinner. It might make a great dressing for a different salad.
This dish needs a better name. The sauce is dark, deep, tangy, and very rich. It has a character all its own, which won't make you think of tamarind or tomatoes in particular (though it owes more to tamarind than tomato).
I've made this for people before. In fact, as Sushil, one of the friends that I'd invited over, pointed out, I made it the last time I had him over for dinner. Oops.
Well, he should be grateful, because it was even better than last time. I made a few small improvements this time, including:
- More tamarind is better. At least, more than I used the first time.
- A handful of fresh tarragon thrown in near the end does wonders for this dish. It's very transformative. This is in the original recipe, but I ignored it or forgot about it last time. That was a mistake. I may go back and perform some of the other steps that I ignored last time as well! Imagine it --me actually following a recipe!
I don't have much practice making desserts. On the rare occasion when I do make one, if it is successful, I eat far too much than is good for me. It's no surprise, then, that I don't make them very often.
I have, for instance, never made a cheesecake. I've been considering the idea ever since having a stupendous goat cheese cheesecake at Hawthorne Place in San Francisco three or four years ago. When I looked around on the web at the time, there weren't many recipes available. (I didn't realize that goat cheese cheesecakes aren't substantially different from regular cheesecake.) Now a search for "goat cheese cheesecake" recipe turns up 141 results, which is enough to work with.
I didn't have time to bake and cool a whole cheesecake, so I decided to make individual portions in ramekins. I found a recipe that did just this and used a cookie for the crust.
In my version, The cheesecake mixture included papaya puree, purple basil, and coconut milk along with goat cheese and cream cheese. Interestingly, although the batter tasted strongly of papaya, the
end product did not. Which was fine, but I'd like to consider ways to bring the papaya flavor forward a little more.
I learned a lot making this. I hadn't realized, for instance, that cheesecakes rise and fall like souffles, and that they only gain cheesecake-like texture after subsequent refrigeration; before that, they seem more like a custard. (At least, this is the way mine worked; I'm assuming my experience is somewhat typical.) And they are not very difficult to make, although achieving the refinement of a high-quality cheesecake is probably somewhat more difficult. Mine was a little bit grainy, though not unpleasant, and this texture could simply be a result of using goat cheese in the first place.
January 19, 2003
I spent $200 at the grocery store on Saturday. This is unsurprising, considering that I haven't made a real shopping trip since before I left town for the holidays. What is surprising is that I felt the need to go to the Farmer's Market yesterday. I spent maybe $35, but at the Farmer's Market, $35 goes a long way. For instance:
Ten ripe persimmons: $1.00
Enough wild greens for 7 salads: $2.50
Two largish Dungeness crabs: $6.00
While I was buying the crab, I noticed a bin of mackerel nearby. Ever since acquiring Peterson's Fish & Shellfish I've wanted to mess around with mackerel. I looked at the sign: $1.00/lb. They looked to be about a pound each, so I asked for three pounds. After a moment, I was handed a bag with at least 10 mackerel. (Apparently I am a very bad judge of weight.)
Every time I go to the Farmer's Market, I think: why do I ever buy produce at the grocery store? Convenience is the answer, but the premium paid is quite extravagant considering that I have a Farmer's Market within walking distance that, with a little foresight and a willingness to contribute an hour and a half on Sunday mornings, can serve to satisfy all of my produce needs.
When I got home, I cooked and froze the crabs and made persimmon chutney. Then Rebecca and I had sex and played videogames until it was time to start thinking about what to make for dinner.
This is the life, I tell you.
I rarely make salads. The salads I grew up with were mostly banal constructions -- vegetable barriers which had to be surmounted before one could get at the main course.
As an adult and a foodophile, I now know that building a truly successful salad requires sensibilities that I do not posess in large amounts: economy, balance, style. Salad-making, I've always thought, is very Japanese; food reduced to its barest essentials. Breathtaking when successful, but the slightest misstep is glaringly obvious.
Nevertheless, I've come full circle to the situation I faced in my youth. I need more vegetables in my diet, and salads are one of the easiest ways to do that. So I must resist my own laziness. With you as my witness, I pledge that if I ever catch myself throwing random greens and chopped vegetables into a bowl, dousing it with Ranch, and serving it up to someone, then ... I'll cut off my own hand. Er, a finger. No, that would make it too hard to cook. How about a toe? Maybe the little one.
Though this salad needs work, I think I'm on the right track. The sweetness of the grapefruit contrasts nicely with the strong, salty mackerel flavor.
I had a lot of trouble coming up with a rabbit dish to follow up the Rabbit Pie. I tried to think of what I wanted out of a rabbit dish. I kept coming around to rabbit and mushroom ragouts in creamy, roux-thickened, brandy- and madiera- laden sauces. Throw a crust on that and what do you have? Rabbit Pie. I was stuck in a rut.
I still think that ragout is the best way to present rabbit. That way you get the subtle gamy flavor and pleasant texture distributed through as much food as possible.
The other major direction for rabbit dishes is with a tomato-based sauce. I'd been resisting this, thinking that tomatoes would overwhelm the taste of the rabbit. If your game meat is too gamy, I suspect that a tomato sauce is a good idea. Otherwise, I'd say to avoid it.
But I couldn't think of anything else. Then I remembered a wierd recipe I'd run across a few months ago involving rabbit, tomatoes, and figs. Sure, why not?
Here's what I improvised:
1 large rabbit or 2 lb rabbit meat 1 rib of celery 1/2 c diced ham 6 dried figs 1 14 oz can tomatoes 2 tbsp tomato sauce 8 oz chopped fresh mushrooms 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped fresh basil, chopped
Chop rabbit into bite-sized pieces. Mix a cup of flour with salt, pepper, and sugar and coat the rabbit pieces with it.
Saute celery, diced ham, and garlic in olive oil. Add the mushrooms and dried figs. Once the mushrooms have lost their water, remove all ingredients from the pan.
Add more olive oil and a third of the rabbit. Saute until browned, making sure to keep the bottom of the pan reasonably clear of accumulation from the flour. Repeat for the other two portions of the rabbit.
Deglaze the pan with wine. Return the vegetables to the pan. Add the tomatoes and the basil and stir. Add half of the stock. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. Add the other half of the stock and stir.
Serve over polenta.
This dish was fairly successful. Sufficiently different from the pot pie so as not to attract unwarranted comparison, and moderately healthier, response was positive enough that I may experiment with it further. In the future, I think I'll focus on freshness and discreteness of the flavors rather than trying to cook them together. I'll still use dried figs, but I will parboil, peel, and chop fresh tomatoes instead of using canned. I won't saute them with everything else, but sprinkle the over the dish afterward. I won't flour the rabbit. I'll nix the tomato sauce and opt for something thinner but with more bite.
The Macrostie Chardonnay was excellent. At $15, it's a revelation. It's got all the earmarks of an over-the-top California Chard: 100% Malo, 1/4 new oak, Hungarian wood -- but in the end, what you taste is lush tropical fruit and spices, with just enough oak and butter to fill it out.
January 08, 2003
Impromptu Dinner Party
Impromptu Dinner Party
I enjoyed hanging out with my friend Joe over New Year's, so last weekend I suggested that we get together on Saturday and do some wine tasting and maybe some cooking. It turned into an impromptu dinner party. We met at 4 to discuss possible dishes, went to the wine store by 4:30, made it to the grocery store by 5:45, made it to his place by 7, and served dinner by 9. The menu:
I've been on a fish/shellfish cake kick ever since the company party. I think I'm mastering one basic approach. I need better control over the frying temperature to get a nice even browning on the outside, but other than that I've been making them consistently well. Easy and quick to make, and they use ingredients that can be found in most any kitchen (with the possible exception of the panko). A useful addition to the repertoire.
The salad was simple but quite excellent -- very refined. Joe found some fantastic grapefruit and made a very balanced dressing from sherry vinegar and olive oil.
The Puligny-Montrachet was a little disappointing. It was a younger and considerably less expensive brother of the wine that I had at the company Christmas party. Perhaps with a few more years under its belt it might approach the kind of complexity that its older sibling had. At this age, though, it was just a well-balanced Chardonnay. It's still more expensive than domestic Chardonnay. I might have prefered the two bottles of the Kendall-Jackson "Great Estates" I could have gotten for the same price.
We decided we wanted lamb to eat, but couldn't settle on a preparation. When someone mentioned "Shepherd's Pie", we considered the matter settled, as it rendered the preparation of side dishes unnecessary.
Neither of us had ever made a Shepherd's Pie in recent history. (I think I made one once around seven years ago for a girl I was trying to get into bed; she didn't sleep with me, so it couldn't have been that good.) But it didn't matter, because it was easy as, er, pie. You make some mashed potatoes (truffled, parmesaned, or garliced is good). You cook some ground red meat (beef is fine, but lamb is better) and fresh spices. You parboil some nice tender vegetables. You optionally make a small amount of gravy, perhaps a pan sauce from the drippings of the ground meat. Then, in a casserole, you put the meat and vegetables down, pour the gravy on top, and apply a thick layer of mashed potatoes. Throw it in the oven until the potato crust browned on top and everything is heated through.
We wanted to use braised lamb shank instead of ground lamb, as in this recipe, but wisely decided we didn't have time. I'll do that when I make this again, though.
Joe found some great baby vegetables, including some near-dazzling golden beets.
This is another useful addition. It's a great party recipe because of its one-dish-meal nature and because it scales effortlessly.
Once again, few details on the wine. I apologize; I don't have the bottles in front of me, and it's been a few days at this point, so I've forgotten most of the names. It was a pretty wine, a nice expression of Grenache. It may have been a little feminine to pair with this dish, but I wasn't complaining.
December 01, 2002
the sweet, bacony smell of success
Don't have much time to chat, but I thought you might want to know that Saturday's post-Thanksgiving dinner party seemed to go over well. I may go through the preparation of some of the dishes in later entries, but for now, here's the menu:
Originally I'd planned to make just the Crab Corn Chowder, since the regular corn chowder recipe uses chicken stock and we had an ichthyophagous guest, but Rebecca likes the original a lot and encouraged me to make both.
Truth be told, they both came out kind of weird. The crab version was kind of lemony. It's amazing what just a little too much lemon zest will do. The sun-dried tomato version tasted kind of...southwestern. All in all, a bit of a disappointment, considering how refined these soups have tasted when I've made them in the past. But still quite edible.
I can't comment on exactly how well the wine went with the dish, as I was in the kitchen prepping for the next course while this one was served. But the idea was to match the sweetness of the corn and the creaminess of the ...cream with a wine that was smooth, full, and had just a bit of residual sugar. A second choice would have been a malolacticized California Chardonnay, but since I was serving a Chablis with the next course, I decided to diversify a bit.
I made this dish earlier in the week as I was desperately casting about for a second course after many failures. It exceeded my expectations quite a bit. Rebecca says this second try was even better.
It consists of three items stuffed into a puff pastry shell: slices of king salmon filet, a diced red pepper and mushroom mixture thickened with beurre manie, and a simple salmon-sage mousse. I found some great mushrooms this time: a mix of cinnamon cap and portabello. This gave much more character to the mixture than the previous effort.
I still can't make a decent curry cream sauce to save my life, however. Not sure what I'm missing, but evidently it's something very, very important.
I served my first try at this recipe with the white Cotes du Rhone that I served with the previous dish. It didn't pair well at all. In this case, the slight sweetness of the dish and the creaminess of the sauce seemed to demand an acidic bite to cut through it. The Becasonne seemed cloying and sticky. But I still wanted a wine with some richness, so I went with this very nice Chablis.
I thought the pairing was a success. The placement left something to be desired, as the Becasonne is bolder and richer and the Chablis, subtler, suffered a bit from being served right after it. If I had it to do over again, I may have gone for more contrast and served a Sauvignon Blanc or something with this course.
The same recipe as the one I made a few weeks ago, with some of the mistakes corrected. It still doesn't do justice to its source material, my friend Eman's Bourguignon. But it was pretty good. It seemed to draw raves from the invitees.
For the pescetarian I seared a sea bass filet and served it with a mango salsa.
I asked one of the guests to bring a Burgundy to serve with the Bourguignon, and he brought this lovely Rouget. Silky, earthy and spicy, it was the perfect counterpoint to the dish.
Golden raisins were nowhere to be found. The produce guy at Whole Foods murmured something about small harvests in Turkey this year or something; I didn't care. I was distraught. I was forced to use Thompsons Seedless. It just didn't turn out the same. (Listen to me whine! Pretty good, eh?) Actually, the raisins were only part of the problem. Wish I knew what the other part was. The first time I made this it was fantastic. I was convinced it was nearly as good as the goat cheese dish I'd had at the Laundry. Not true of this version.
Overall, though, the menu was a success. No major disasters, and a couple of strong entrees. I promise to give the Wellington recipe in a later entry, as it's easy to make but can be quite dazzling. As long as you promise to improve on the sauce and send me the recipe.
July 23, 2002
three menus in brief
I know, I know. Don't I have other things I should be doing? Yes, it's true, I should be studying for the GRE, working on projects for my college applications, straightening up my finances, or any number of other things. Or at least doing something that would be interesting to write about. But instead, I'm cooking.
Sunday: Fish Tacos, Salsa Tropica, and Black Bean Stew
Sunday I just had to have fish tacos. Wierd how cravings just come upon you sometimes. The last time I had fish tacos I was in Mexico. That was nearly three years ago. Haven't thought about them since.
"Fish tacos? That doesn't sound good at all," Rebecca said. Rebecca is a food psychic. She has premonitions about foods she's never seen before, and most of them are bad.
But it's my job to make her try new things. She'd probably be happy eating the same five things over and over again. I enjoy broadening her food horizons, but really it's an issue of self-preservation. I don't want to wake from a nightmare one night and find myself throttling her, screaming "NO MORE TUNA SANDWICHES! AS GOD IS MY WITNESS, WE WILL HAVE NO MORE TUNA SANDWICHES!".
One problem Rebecca may have had with the fish taco concept may be that it sounds like Mexican food. Rebecca just doesn't like Mexican food. I don't consider it a personal failing, since the food served at "Mexican" restaurants is not typically my favorite kind of food either, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great dishes that are Mexican in origin. Furthermore, there are a lot of other culinary traditions in Latin America that make interesting contributions, traditions I haven't even begun to explore.
In retrospect, however, I might have been better off if I'd bought pitas instead of tortillas and told her that they were "Greek Fishsteak Wraps" or something. Hmmm.
But since I'd already gone the Mexican food route, I figured I might as well try to chip away even further at Rebecca's Mexican food intolerance. I decided to make a pork and black bean stew infused with cloves.
To do this, I braised a pork shoulder for an hour and a half in the remnants of Eman's pork braising liquid from the dinner party, which I supplemented with some stock and honey. I'm all about reusing braising liquid these days. Eventually, it's like having the richest, most flavorful stock at your disposal, only you've amortized the work over many days and you never need to mess around with bones and parts you're never going to eat.
I then chopped that up and sauteed it with herbs, garlic, and a few other things I can't remember, added black beans, stock, red bell peppers, and a few other ingredients, and let it stew for 45 minutes or so. (If I'd been using dried beans, I would have just cooked the pork with the stew, but this was a last-minute decision, so I hardly had time to start with dried beans.)
The tropical salsa was very good this time. Mango-heavy and tomato-light this time. It also had papaya and pineapple and lots of cilantro. The fruit was hand-chopped this time; using a food processor is generally a mistake for fruit salsas, I think.
The fish tacos were made from a large catfish filet. I'd been going back and forth about whether to do the right think and saute the fish or do the delicious thing and fry them. In the end I did half and half. (You know me and my penchant for hedging my bets with recipies.)
I made a beer batter by putting flour, an egg, salt, and pepper into a bowl and whisking in beer until I got a viscous liquid. (I've never fried fish before, and I don't do much frying in general. I love it when things come together even when I'm totally clueless about how to go about it, which is a good percentage of the time.) I then soaked the catfish in the batter and shallow-fried them in about 3/4 in. of canola oil.
I served the strips with warm tortillas, lettuce, the salsa, and the stew, which I put on the tacos as an additional condiment.
"You know, I have to admit -- these aren't half bad," Rebecca said, which, given the circumstances, can be considered high praise. At least I took it that way.
Monday: New York Steak and Beet Orange Salad
I've been fascinated by the dishes that Eman made at our dinner party last week. This was my attempt at replicating his beet-orange salad. I was too cheap to buy Filet Mignon at Safeway prices and too lazy to make the trip to the butcher where I can get it cheap, so I "settled" on serving it with a New York cut.
This is a very easy dish to make. You roast the beets, peel them, and chop them. Peel and chop the oranges and mix them with the beets. Then add salt, pepper, and a touch of orange or lemon juice. Portion it out. Place sliced steak on top of the beet piles.
Eman also had a sauce that he made from bottled beet juice and some other stuff. I just combined the pan drippings from the roasted beets with the pan drippings from the steak, both of which I'd deglazed with a little wine, and poured it over each one. Seemed to work OK.
I liked the result nearly as well as Eman's salad, although there are a few things I haven't figured out yet, such as what temperature it's best served at. Also the beet consistency wasn't quite as exquisite; maybe I overcooked them a little. Rebecca didn't like it as much, though. I think I added too much pepper for her. I've been getting pretty liberal with adding pepper to stuff lately; maybe I need to hold back a little. Darrell also didn't say anything about it (although he ate all of it), so I can only assume that I have some work to do on this dish.
Tuesday: Braised Pork Shoulder with Apple-Olive Relish
Eman said his inspiration for this was the old "Pork chop and applesauce" warhorse. I aspire to this level of creativity. This could almost be a restaurant dish.
Last week, Eman braised this for nearly six hours. Since I don't have that kind of time after work, I'm trying this as a crockpot recipe. I'm braising it in the sauce that I used Sunday for the other half of the pork shoulder. I'm supplementing that with a little chicken stock, veal demi-glace, and honey. To the liquid I added three sweet potatoes, two carrots, and the pork shoulder. Turned the crockpot on when I left work, and I imagine it'll be done by the time I get home.
The relish is a work of genius and I hope that whatever I wind up with will even be a pale imitation of what he made. The gist of it, from what Eman says, is to chop the apples and saute them in lots of butter. When they get soft, add brown sugar, enough to make them taste like apple pie. Then add the olives (he used nicoise olives) and cook a little longer. Then add cognac and flambe. Season with salt, pepper, and rosemary.
I might try to play up the apple-pie angle and add a dash of cinnamon and/or nutmeg to the mix. We'll see.
He served it with truffled mashed potatoes, and although the dish could definitely use the starch to soak up the sauce, I think we'll have plenty to eat between the sweet potatoes and leftovers from the last few days; making something else would only generate more leftovers.
Mixed success. The pork was good, if not transcendent. The sweet potatoes and carrots that cooked along with it tasted strangely, as if they'd cooked all day with something that had burned, although I couldn't find any evidence of burning. I'd planned to make a mash from them and use that as the starch for the meal, but I was forced to make mashed potatoes instead. The relish was good, but not as good as Eman's. Perhaps I overcooked the apples?
I'll definitely come back to this menu. Next time I'll make it on a weekend, and I won't use a crockpot.
July 19, 2002
dinner for five
I'd worried that the dinner party wasn't going to be worth the trouble, given the associated cost, my waning interest in cooking, and the dental work I had done in the morning. I was so wrong. I ate so much that when I got up the next morning I was still too full to even think about food. I didn't eat anything the whole next day.
Here's the menu:
Corn and Sun-dried Tomato Chowder
This was only slightly different from the chowder I made a few weeks ago. This time I blended the sun-dried tomatoes in with the rest of the soup, eschewed the sun-dried tomato oil in favor of olive oil (both because Rebecca felt that the sun-dried tomato flavor in the original was too strong), and used champagne instead of white wine (because I was out of the latter). When it first came out of the blender I didn't like it as much as the original, but after it had some time in the refrigerator, I decided it was just fine.
Roast Quail Stuffed with Chicken Livers and Cognac Prunes
Eman made this from quail in my fridge that I've been meaning to cook for some time. He'd read briefly how to debone quail in the Chez Panisse cookbook, but had mostly forgotten and had to bumble his way through the process. He figured it out eventually. He'd brought some chicken livers and some prunes that had been marinating overnight in cognac. After stuffing the quail with them, he tied them up and roasted them. It was a nice dish. The only thing it needed was a cognac-based sauce, but he'd forgotten to bring the cognac over.
Filet Mignon and Beet Orange "Salad"
A highly entertaining dish. Eman brought over some nicely roasted beets and oranges prepared in some kind of light dressing, and stacked it on top of slices of filet mignon, which were tiered on top of a flat disc of bread. I myself am largely indifferent to beets, but I loved these. I may have to try my hand at a dish like this.
The best thing about this dish was that I learned where I can get Filet Mignon for $8/lb.
New York Steak in Cherry-Port Sauce with No Braised Cabbage
I made this to get rid of the New York steaks that I'd had in the fridge for a couple of days and the rest of the cherries from the weekend. Not the most creative dish in the world, I know, but after getting my crown done, I was going for a low-effort evening.
Originally, I'd imagined a smooth, viscous reduction sauce, but I quickly settled for a coarser sauce in which the body came from mixing in pureed cherries. I used some of Eman's duck stock for this, which was nice to have around. I need to learn to make stocks like his -- thick and full of flavor.
I'd intended to serve my favorite braised cabbage recipe with this, but I tried to push the temperature to lower the cooking time because I was in a hurry, and I burned it. Hence, the steak was served with No Braised Cabbage.
Braised Pork Shoulder with Apple and Olive Relish and Truffled Mash
This was an excellent dish -- probably my favorite of the evening. The sauce was tasty, the pork was tender, and the mashed potates were well truffled. The relish was a brilliancy, and as far as I know, it's an original of Eman's. Very impressive.
It's great to watch Eman's cooking get better and better. Now I just need to work on mine.