Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dinner on the Fly: Entertaining on a Weeknight

I would like to feel like my door is always open to the ones I love.  It sounds really simple, doesn't it?  I am making dinner anyway so what's one more (or two or three)?  Sometimes I would even like that dinner to be a little special.

Growing up, even the smallest dinner party was an affair worthy of some serious preparation.  The house was scoured and scrubbed, and food preparations began two days before.  I am not talking about holidays where we hosted thirty relatives.  That was serious.  That might have to be another blog post.  I am talking about smaller dinner parties.  Until the guest (or guests) actually arrived, it seemed like a rather stressful event.  Don't get me wrong, I loved the dinner parties and holidays for that matter.  So I figured out early that if I could make them less of an arduous task then I could probably have them more often.

Sure it's a weeknight. And maybe, just maybe, my apartment isn't perfectly in order.  The floors aren't freshly mopped and the tiles aren't recently scrubbed clean.  That being said, perhaps there also some shortcuts to my gourmet dinner.  This week I did have two friends over for dinner who had not been to my apartment before which means, of course, that they haven't tasted my cooking.  I certainly don't want to disappoint.

It was important to me that I was not busy with food preparations while they were visiting.  As a gracious hostess, I wanted to spend time with my guests.  So I devised a menu where most of the preparations could be done the night before.

Appetizer:  Baked Brie with Fig Jam Wrapped in Puff Pastry

This was all prepared the night before.  So you can pop this in the oven 10 to 20 minutes before your guests arrive.  It will bake about 15 to 20 at 400 degrees.

Sliced apples or pears are a nice pairing with this.
Cut the brie through the center. If you can, use a knife that has a hollow, center blade for cheese.

Add a generous layer of fig jam in the center.

I definitely cheated for this part.  I am hereby apologizing to all the foodie gurus who are reading this but, yes, that is store-bought puff pastry.  If you are a greater home chef than I am you will have your own homemade version in your freezer. So, by all means use that.  I am an imperfect foodie.

Just out of the oven!

Main Course: Coq Au Vin

This is my slow cooker version of the classic. Here you want to do the prep work the night before and then dump your bowl of ingredients in your crock pot before leaving for work.

Start with good quality bacon,

Chop the bacon into pieces and fry it in a skillet with a little butter.  I know, I know... but it probably wouldn't be a french dish if you didn't add butter. (I would say about four thinly sliced bacon strips to a whole chicken.) When the bacon is crispy set aside on a paper towel.  Leave the bacon drippings in the pan.  This is not a light meal after all.
Brown your cut up chicken in the same pan with the bacon fat (make sure you season your chicken with salt and pepper first).  You don't want to cook it through because it is going in the slow cooker.  You just want some good color and to seal in the juices.  Then set the chicken aside, at this point maybe in a large bowl with the bacon. You will end up having all your ingredients in the same bowl. That way you can reach for in the morning when you are ready to put them in the slow cooker.
Now add your aromatics to the same skillet. I used chopped carrots, onion and garlic.  Let that cook until they are soft. Then sprinkle with flour, stir for one more minute.  Add a good red wine and bring to a boil.  I used about three fourths of a bottle of wine.  Once it reaches its boiling point, bring the heat down to a simmer.  How long you want it to simmer depends on how much you want the sauce to reduce.  Essentially, it depends on how thick you want your stew. Then add that to your bowl with the chicken parts and bacon.

Dump your bowl full of cooked ingredients into the crock pot the next morning.  Add chopped button mushrooms, sprigs of thyme and a little extra salt and freshly ground pepper.  Turn your crock pot on low and you're off.

Serve as is or over egg noodles.  I served a very simple salad of pears, red lettuce and almonds, to accompany this dish because it is so rich.

Dessert:  Framboise Lambic Ice Cream Floats

So I learned this cheat trick at a the home of a friend of mine. This dessert is so easy it's pretty self explanatory.  Vanilla ice cream goes in the glass. Pour Framboise Lambic (raspberry, Belgian beer) over it.  Done.  You will be surprised how good this is.

An ice cream float toast to dinners at home with friends!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Kindred Spirit: Wayne Thiebaud

“Cakes are glorious. They are like toys.”  -Wayne Thiebaud

Cakes, 1963
Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961
I would have liked to have dinner with Wayne Thiebaud.  Maybe desert, come to think of it. I would have liked to talk to him about his art. As an artist I would love to hear about the progression of his work.  I mean, how did the work evolve to include such detailed and luscious paintings of confections?  I have to wonder also, what kind of cook was he? (I was somewhat giddy to learn that he had worked in a café in his youth and enjoyed recreational cooking.) We never covered that in art history class.

I remember looking at these paintings during my school days and thinking “Why cakes?” Not a landscape, figure or portrait. I understood painters mimicked nature in their struggle to understand it. I understood that abstract expressionism was born out of that practice when Jackson Pollack exclaimed, “I am nature.”  But what is the greater meaning in painting desert?  What do we as artists and viewers gain from still life? What do these paintings tell about our natural desires?

That’s what I would ask him (over a glass of Vin Beato and a pastry) “Why did you want to paint cakes?”  I imagine Wayne Thiebaud, the optimist that I read he was, talking about what he loved about cake, about the display window in the café and his mother, Alice’s baking.  Still life is, very simply, the appreciation of a subject’s existence.  At first glance, we label the desert as what we know and recognize the way in which it looks like every other slice of pie we have ever seen.  Then we see in the texture of the paint what we remember as the experience of pie.  Gooey, sweet, fruity, flakey pie. I am glad that there is nothing else in these paintings to distract me from the delicious subject.  The only thing on the canvas to be compared with a slice of pie is another slice of pie. 

Perhaps for Wayne Theibaud and I, painting is a craft that, like cooking, revels in pleasure.  In this case, a fluffy, spongy pleasure slathered in butter cream.  

chai tea cupcakes with honey cream frosting

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dinner on the Fly: Chunky Cauliflower, Leek and Potato Soup

Okay, so it is 8pm on a Thursday evening and I have just gotten home.  Yesterday was our CSA pick up  and we have a fridge full of veggies just calling my name.  There is no way I can order some greasy, not-so-extraordinary, delivery pizza just so we can eat before 10pm.  This is just one more weekday night of Iron Chef in Steph's kitchen.

Here are this evenings ingredients.  A leek, a cauliflower, some potatoes and one hour to put dinner on the table.  So I here is what I came up with:  a variation on the classic leek and potato soup but using cauliflower as well.

You want to start with a good, old fashioned roux.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and add the same amount of flour, stirring all the while.  This will cook quickly, not much more than 30 seconds.   Add your diced potato, leek and cauliflower, then cover with milk (preferably warm).  Give it some sea salt and black pepper, and let it simmer.  I left it on the heat until the potatoes were tender.  I am not sure exactly how long that was but I managed to answer my emails before setting the table.  So maybe a half an hour.  Garnish it with parmesian cheese and chives.  It would probably be great if you pureed it also.  I may try that with my leftovers!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Community Table: Making Neapolitan Pizza without a Brick Oven

This is my brother, Paul.  I could say he is a pizza enthusiast. I could say that and no one could accuse me of exaggerating.  But that wouldn’t give you the full picture.  Paul’s one true, quintessential, worldly pleasure may be a good, yeasty, cheese laden, colorful, steaming pizza. Is that not an exaggeration, you ask? Perhaps, but even when we were children, if it wasn’t called pizza, he wouldn’t eat it.  Believe me, I understand how absurd that sounds. He would have had to eat pizza every day or starve to death.  Luckily, he managed not to do either thanks to some creative, culinary arranging on my mother’s part.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were served open face and sprinkled with coconut flakes. What about breakfast during the week?  Our English muffins were topped with melted mozzarella and sprinkled with oregano.

So how do I reap the benefits of having a brother who is thus gifted in the art of pizza?  I invite myself over to learn his secrets (share them too I might add) and eat a little pizza myself.  (Maybe more than a little.)

When I arrived it looked like he had already started.  (‘How could you! You are to keep no pizza secrets from me, your own flesh and blood!’)  He assured me that he had only just begun seeding the tomatoes.

Here he uses canned whole plum tomatoes.  He strains them first to separate out the tomato juice from the actual tomato.  The tomatoes are broken apart by hand and separated.  Then you can add the juice back into the tomatoes to taste.  It will thin out your sauce so that you can get the right consistency for your pizza.  (Too thin?  You can cheat and add tomato puree, although Paul insists he never does.)

Then add basil from your herb garden.  Or, if you are a city dweller like myself, your windowsill, or the supermarket.   He also adds, Italian seasoning, garlic powder and salt.  If your tomatoes are not sweet, you may want to cheat and add sugar. 

This is the starter.  This mixture of approximately 1 cup flour, ¾ of a cup of water and yeast is kept in a mason jar in their fridge.  “Feed it when you want to use it,” my brother says.  The culture tends to go dormant.  “Feeding it” means pouring out half of this mixture and adding another 1 cup of flour and ¾ of a cup of water.  This will reactivate the yeast.  When the starter has grown 2 inches it is ready to be used.  The longer you wait before “feeding” the starter the longer it takes to wake up.  Rest assured…this is not a problem at Paul’s house.  They don’t go more than a week before making pizza again. 

Paul has a couple of types of yeast that he prefers:  One from Naples and one from Ischia.  Both are found at

These are your pizza peels.  The wooden one is to put the pizza in your oven and the metal one is to take it our.  Of course if you are going to have only one, the wooden peeler will suffice.  The metal will stick to raw dough but it does get under a hot pie more easily.

It is key to flour the wooden peel so that your dough doesn't stick and spreads more easily.  Very little flour is needed.  Paul distributes the flour evenly onto the wooden peel and then brushes it off.  What you are left with is a light flour coating on your wood.  

Paul spreads out the dough in rapid, circular movements, sometimes patting and turning it like a wheel.

There is no trick to putting the toppings on the pizza but care should be given to shopping for them.  Like most of Italian cooking, pizza does not have a vast number of ingredients so you should make them count. Fresh and flavorful vegetables and herbs paired with good quality cheeses and (or) meats. 

Paul made three pizzas for us on this day, the first being a Margherita.  A Margherita is what comes to mind when you are looking for a classic Italian pizza, tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella.  No more no less.  The pizza bakes at 500 degrees for roughly 10 minutes.  Before you take it out you will get these beautiful lava-like, air bubbles.

Here is the key to an awesome Margherita…low moisture, fresh mozzarella.   (This one is from Valley Shepherd Farms (NJ).  It is soooo good.)  It has a denser consistency then the type that comes in a tub of water.  Less water means there is less moisture to make the center of your pizza soggy and it is great for melting.

The second pizza was topped with arugala that had been dressed lightly in olive oil, lemon and salt, ricotta salata (from Murrays' Cheese Shop in Grand Central Station in case you are wondering), fresh tomato sauce and cured breasiola.

The last pie had mushroom, fresh tomato sauce, cacio cavallo (also found at 

Murrays' Cheese Shop)

, and truffle salt.  Three earthy flavors that compliment each other well.  Cacio cavallo is a southern Italian, gourd shaped cheese made from raw cow’s milk.  It is salty and sharp. 

Pizza bliss!  Thanks, Paul.  Glad we could all benefit from your food obsession.