Friday, December 30, 2011

Hosting Holiday Brunches



We like hosting brunches.  Because Will’s strength is in baking—he even bakes yeast breads, something I’ve never seriously attempted—brunches are good opportunities for us to cook up a storm and entertain a large group of people.  We’ve hosted annual holiday brunches for 7 years now with attendance fluctuating between 12 and 20 adults and children, depending on who is in town or has other commitments.  It’s a lot of work to prepare—especially the deep-clean of the condo that is necessary after my semester grades are submitted—and lots of food to keep track of, but we’re starting to develop strategies to make the brunch-hosting easier each year.

Everything doesn’t have to be cooked-from-scratch:
Sure, we were proud to say that we baked (from scratch) the brie, basil and roasted red pepper quiche or the Spanish egg-potato tortilla pie or the caramelized onion-pear-gorgonzola focaccia pizza (all items we have prepared in previous brunches).  They were good, but they were an awful lot of extra work when 2 people were preparing 8-10 dishes.  Then it turned out that one of the big hits from a previous brunch was a tomato-basil-mozzarella tart that was a cinch to bake and used a Pillsbury pre-made pie crust (which actually works better than a homemade crust for this particular dish).  I'm not quite prepared to go "semi-homemade" the Sandra Lee way for all items, but I don't turn up my nose anymore at a few shortcuts for a limited number of dishes.

In fact, you can even put out items that you’ve purchased from a store!:
Last year’s brunch was a revelation.  People loved (loved loved) potato knishes we got from a store.  No seasoning and shaping of potato patties or battering them and then frying them.  All we did was just pop them in the oven for 15 minutes, but guests not only didn’t mind that these were not homemade, but they raved about how special they were.  When something is unique or nostalgic or made really well (this last part is quite important), it doesn’t matter who made them.  They are just tasty.

 
Balance the selection of savory and sweet items:
We bake up a storm and offer many sweets, but we also recognize that brunch is most satisfying when you have a number of savory items to offset the sweets that the holiday season will inevitably include.  Adult guests almost always start with savory dishes and then work their way to sweets.  (Sometimes, they run out of room by the time they’re supposed to get to the sweets if they have not paced themselves.  This is a weakness I still have not overcome with all-you-can-eat buffets…)  On the other hand, some of our younger guests might eat nothing but sweets.  So, with 15-20 guests, we aim for 5 savory and 5 sweet items.

This year’s brunch menu consisted of:
Savory:
1) Smoked salmon with crème fraiche, capers, chives—with French baguette rounds
2) Spiral Spinach pie with phyllo dough crust
3) Mango Jalapeno Chicken Meatballs and (when those ran out) Caramelized Onion Chicken Meatballs
4) Cocktail sized potato knishes (and a second tray of these were necessary when the first 30 were perilously close to running out)
5) Brie en Croute with Orange and Cranberry Compote. 

We always offer a cheese dish (or even just a cheese platter) and a mini-sausage or chicken meatball dish.  Some sort of smoked salmon and potato knishes have been on the menu the last couple of years—and these are very popular!  The spinach pie was new for this year and was a nice option for those who wanted something that vaguely resembled health food.


Sweets (all the pictured items):
1) Will’s famous poppy seed tea ring
2) Will’s equally famous cinnamon tea ring
3) Chocolate chip-brown sugar bundt pound cake with maple-espresso glaze.  (I decided to have sections of the glaze be regular vanilla glaze for the kids.)
4) Gingerbread Cake with Whipped cream-Lemon curd icing
5) Cornmeal scones with Fresh Raspberries and Blueberries (with Double Devon Cream offered next to them)

Will’s tea rings have always been a part of these brunches, and I suspect they always will.  It’s sort of nice to have a little continuity so that our guests can recall and look forward to items that are available only at our brunch once a year.  The other selections change yearly, but we generally like to have some type of scones (like almond chocolate chip or cranberry orange), some type of fruity item (like blueberry streusel buckle or pear and cranberry crumble), something gingerbread-y (last year it was ginger scones) for the holiday season, and something kid-friendly (this year, I heard kids asking their parents if they could have more slices of chocolate chip pound cake).

Some final thoughts before we close out this year’s brunch season:
1) Try to keep track of the latest in everyone’s dietary preferences:
Last year, we discovered that one of our young guests really loved scones (he had two ginger scones!).  So, we found a new recipe that looked to be a moist and flavorful scone: Cornmeal berry scones.  Well, it turned out that Tyler didn’t like to mix his fruits in food, so he stayed far away from the berry scones.  Luckily, they turned out quite tasty and were a big hit with others…

2) Try to remember everything you were going to put out:
We specifically got French Vanilla yogurt for the brunch (though we ourselves mostly consume unflavored Greek yogurt with honey and fruits).  The yogurt, along with fresh fruits we were supposed to offer, is a nice bit of “healthy”-seeming addition to a brunch and is usually much appreciated.  This year, we completely forgot that yogurt and fruit were sitting in the fridge until after everyone left.  True, no one left hungry, but it would have been nice to follow through with our best-laid plans.

3) Continue to rely on traditional items that guests bring:
Ever since our brunch tradition began in 2004, our friend Hector has brought a rich Puerto Rican drink called Coquito.  Rum-laced and sweet, the coquito is as tasty added to coffee as it is on its own.  He brings a non-alcoholic version (with rum to add, on the side) so that everyone can enjoy the coquito.  Hector’s coquito and his wife (my friend) Loretta’s fruits slices with a creamy-nutty-curry dip are as much staples of these brunches as Will’s tea rings.  It’s nice to have others as invested in our brunch tradition as Will and I are.

Admittedly, these brunches are time-consuming and involve a lot of work.  But we enjoy hosting these brunches every year and getting everyone together, and we always remind our guests to mark their calendars for the next year as they are leaving.

Have a very Happy New Year, and see you all in 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wonderful World of Cheese


It is said that Asians do not like cheese.  (Notice the intended unclear pronoun reference to avoid having to make unpleasant or otherwise ambiguous attribution...)  The supposed aversion was traditionally more widespread—to dairy of all kind—but somehow it was difficult to imagine anyone not liking ice cream.  Perhaps that’s why the guilty party has to be milk and cheese.  In any case, this rule does not apply to me.

I love cheese.  My refrigerator is given over to a veritable European Union of cheeses.  At any given time, I have about 10 different kinds of cheeses.  To prove this, I am going to raid the contents of my fridge right now, pledging that I have not purchased any new cheeses (in the past week) for this post.  In fact, the inspiration for this post came from the fact that, just minutes ago, I could not close the large bin I devote to cheeses.

Anyway, I have. . . (drumroll, please) . . . St. Andre Triple Cream Brie, Comte Gruyere, Tillamook Extra Sharp White Cheddar, Cotswolds Cheddar with Chives, Rembrandt Aged Dutch Gouda, Cropwell Bishop Creamery Blue Stilton.  Those are just the ones with recognizable brand (or farm) names associated with them.  I also have Grana Padano (as a change of pace from Parmigiano Reggiano this week), Bufala Mozzarella, Baked Bread Cheese, Queso Quesadilla, and Haloumi.  Ok, there are some low-fat string cheese sticks that Will got for snacking during hikes.  I’ll throw those in there too to round out an even dozen.


Drats!  It looks like I don’t have any goat cheese this week.  When I do, I usually have Chevre Goat Cheese for cooking, though my favorites for eating might be Humboldt Fog and Midnight Moon (very different from each other).  I also like Port Salut, Cambozola, Wensleydale, Saga Bleu, Pierre Robert, Dill Havarti, Hunstman, Truffle-dusted Brillat-Savarin, Morbier, Taleggio, Manchego.  I could go on and on, but I think you believe me perhaps that I do indeed like cheese.  (By the way, I’m always interested in hearing about cheeses I’ve not tried, so let me know if you come across one you think I might like.)

Discovering that I had enough special cheeses to operate a small European-style deli—and realizing also that perhaps we should cut down our sweet pastry and chocolate consumption—I’ve gone back to assembling cheese plates for our after-dinner dessert course.  Cheese plates are also nice, of course, for wine and cheese parties and with champagne to celebrate during the holiday season.

Here are my tips (entirely personal and unprofessional) for what you can do to put together your own delectable cheese plate:

1) Don’t do what I do in buying big hunks of cheese: 
I don’t exactly agree with gourmands out there that many cheeses are inedible only a few days after purchase—and that wouldn’t apply anyway to hard cheeses like aged Gouda.  But they are right that many cheeses are best consumed the first couple of days after you get them home.  So, do as I say and not as I do.  Buy smaller chunks of cheese that you can polish off in a few days, especially if you are going to present them on a cheese platter for guests!

Whole Foods is a very good supplier of high-end cheeses in small sizes.  Trader Joe’s has a smaller selection and are not as freshly-wrapped, but they are still a good back-up if you are looking for much more reasonable prices.  If you live around the Chicagoland area, places like Binny’s Beverage Depot are surprisingly good.  They have big wheels of specialty cheeses, and you can ask someone to cut small wedges for you (¼ lb  is always a safe amount to be able to go through quickly).  Slightly better prices than Whole Foods with not much loss in selection.

2) Aim for about 3 cheeses of different flavors and textures and colors:
I like this combination:
a) one that is soft (popular varieties like Brie and Camembert)
b) one that has a distinct, even pungent, flavor (like some sort of Blue/Roquefort/ Gorgonzola/Stilton variety) or one that has additions of herbs or fruits (like Cotswold Cheddar with Chives, Goat Gouda with Rosemary, Wensleydale with Cranberries)
c) one that is an easy crowd pleaser, a relatively mild cheese that would appeal to most.  Here you are not going for a too-ripe Taleggio—rather something more like Gouda or Manchego or even just plain old Extra Sharp Cheddar. 

Of course, you don’t want repetition or too much overlap between the categories.  For instance, if you already have Cambozola for your soft cheese, don’t also include Roquefort.  If Cotswold Cheddar with Chives is already sitting on your plate, don’t also provide Extra Sharp Cheddar. 

Admittedly, in the picture above, I have both a wonderful creamy Blue Stilton and Cotswold Cheddar with Chives.  (I know, mon dieu!)  I decided I could cheat with two distinct flavors because the chive cheddar is quite mild and popular with most.  The butteriness of the third cheese (St. Andre Triple Cream Brie) makes it also a crowd-pleaser.  These days, practically no one will admit to not liking Brie.  Going with something extra special like St. Andre, Delice de Bourgogne, Brillat-Savarin, or Pierre Robert will make the platter especially memorable.

Even if you have a huge wheel of cheese, only put out a smallish wedge to begin with.  The bigger a hunk of cheese, the less special it seems (and the quicker it becomes translucent at the edges and dried out).  Plan on replenishing, but make the selection special, like it’s a privilege to be presented with these cheeses.


3) Do remember proper accompaniments:
No, I don’t mean crackers—though you can certainly provide some Carr’s Table Water Crackers or a mild-flavored flatbread.  Or something unique like a dense raisin or nut bread (for instance, Evanston’s Bennison Bakery’s award winning raisin rye bread—a dense bread that slices nicely into thin cracker sizes) along with thin rounds of a French baguette.  But, in any case, I’m still not talking about crackers or bread.

Cheese wedges are lovely when accompanied by a combination of dried and/or fresh fruits, nuts, and drizzles of special honey.  I actually like to drizzle balsamic glaze (balsamic vinegar that you cook down to a thick syrupy consistency) over cut up dried figs and dates as well as dried apricots drizzled over with white orange balsamic vinegar, along with nuts and honey.  (When in season, I also go for fresh berries or other fresh sliced fruits.) That’s for a large platter for a party.  The more intimate the occasion, smaller the presentation.

Combination of creamy and hard, pungent and nutty, sweet and sour, chewy and crispy.  All washed down with wine, port, sauternes, or champagne with loved ones.  Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Tale of Two Fried Chickens


 
It was the best of fried chickens . . . and it was the best of fried chickens. 

Being a huge fan of fried foods—really, just about any fried foods—I was in heaven when I tried out a couple of top-rated chef’s fried chicken recipes in the past two months. 

The two coastal chefs are quite different temperamentally and geographically, by reputation and by their relationship to the recent history of U.S. cuisine.  Thomas Keller, famous for his Napa Valley destination restaurant French Laundry (and Ad Hoc, and Bouchon, etc.) already has a legend status and is considered by many to be one of the most significant culinary personalities in the U.S. 


David Chang, 22 years younger than Keller, is the upstart (of the Momofuku empire) who has still been able to snag top cooking awards like consecutive James Beard awards for various categories.   And he seems nearly unstoppable in stirring up the culinary world, both with his Asian-inflected cooking in New York and with his recent criticisms of San Francisco cuisine for not being innovative enough. 

And their two fried chickens?  Both marvelous, for very different reasons—and tastes. 

With Keller, I tried the Buttermilk Fried Chicken recipe in his Ad Hoc at Home cookbook, except I used chicken tenderloin pieces (and skinless breasts sliced horizontally) for the picture below. 
(In case you don’t have the book handy, there are numerous websites which provide the recipe, such as this one at epicurious.com: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/THOMAS-KELLERS-BUTTERMILK-FRIED-CHICKEN-50000340)

Although we also liked frying up the traditional chicken parts as suggested by the recipe, Will almost preferred the gourmet version of chicken cutlets.  Double-dipping regular skin-on pieces in the seasoned flour and the buttermilk (between the two dippings in flour) produced almost too much crust and fried nooks and crannies.  I know: I cannot believe I just wrote that something had too much fried surface area, but perhaps there is something to be said for too much of a good thing.  Though the brining produced a nice salty and seasoned interior for the pieces (bay leaf notes are fairly prominent), you can skip that step for the chicken tenders version if you are short on time.  Because the pieces were skinless, the double dipping yielded just enough crustiness, and the process was invaluable in producing a lovely texture.  Each bite was able to deliver both the crunch on the outside and the very tender interior breast meat.

I also slightly modified Chang’s recipe for his Momofuku Fried Chicken with Octo Vinaigrette which is pictured at top (and one of the various blogs which carry the recipe is the following, with some mouth-watering pictures: http://almostbourdain.blogspot.com/2010/01/momofuku-fried-chicken-with-octo.html).  Chang’s recipe has you fry up larger pieces, cutting the chicken initially only into 4 pieces and then making the smaller cuts after the frying.  I didn’t want to bother with the mess of taking a knife to already-fried chicken, so I cut my organic free-range bird into 10 pieces (2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, and each breast further cut in half to produce 4 pieces) that were fairly similar in size.  Next time, I would either use all drumsticks—as the blog writer above has done—or use all wings (like Buffalo wings), or actually follow the original recipe and cut the bird into smaller pieces after the frying.  While the chicken was otherwise phenomenal, since the pieces were not breaded at all, the exposed areas of meat where the skin pulled away got tougher than they needed to be.  As for the actual frying part, the brining and steaming the pieces beforehand allowed the cooking time to fly by.  Only minutes after dropping the pieces into hot oil, the pieces were nicely browned and crackly-skinned.  The Octo Vinaigrette was a nice addition of vinegariness to cut the grease, and the spicy tanginess provided a needed complement to what might be too unctuous a flavor of plain fried chicken.

The verdict: Both of these are far far better fried chickens than you are likely to find elsewhere. . .

Friday, December 9, 2011

Politics and Poetics of Pooch Parks


Will and I were introduced fairly recently to the joys of dog-ownership after we got our dog Katie from a shelter in Chicago last October.  Since we live in a fourth floor condo unit, our dog does not get as much exercise as we’d like for her (though, yes, she gets three 30-minute walks a day).  So when we discovered that there is a dog park not far from us, we quickly signed up for membership—getting along with it a cute little member card for our dog with a paw-print logo on it. 

Since we first started frequenting our Pooch Park a year ago, I have arrived at a few conclusions—entirely unscientific and based solely on my personal observations—about the pooch park population.

The Know-It All:
There is at least one Cliff Clavin-type in each visit, someone harmless but slightly pedantic and pretentious about knowledge of dogs that anyone with access to PBS, Discovery, or the Nature Channel might already have.  This person will latch onto you, Ancient Mariner style, and talk to you about how you could pay $69.99 for DNA testing of your shelter dog to get her exact genealogy.  He might also launch into a distressing tale about the way a British canine society suggests routinely “culling” (read: killing) Rhodesian Ridgebacks who were born without the ridge.  (I’d seen the same special.)  But the Know-It-All, usually male, is not a bother really, and somewhat sweet in his own way. 

Holier-than-thou dog-owner:
I’m more annoyed by the holier(-and-more-experienced)-than-thou dog owner who tells you that you are not doing the right thing, whatever it is you are doing.  The first time we brought our dog to the Pooch Park, we couldn’t really orient ourselves to know whether we were in the general play area or the separate fenced-in area for puppies and small dogs.  Since Katie was 45 pounds, we didn’t want to release her in the wrong area.  The woman took high canine offense at the fact that our dog was still on her leash.  “That’s the worst thing you can do to a dog in a pooch park!  It is very cruel and it's upsetting for the dog,” she huffed and puffed. 

The Overly Permissive Owner:
Let’s admit it.  As with parents overseeing kids on a playground, dog owners at the pooch park have varied understandings of what is or is not acceptable level of play.  My personal feeling is that if Katie is mouthing or pawing or barking too much at another dog, I should try to restrain her unless the owner of the other dog says that she’s fine with such play.  Once, when another dog was nipping at our dog and was continually pushing her down to the ground and snarling at our cowering and whimpering dog, I told the aggressive dog to stop (that is, “No!”) and just tried to get Katie away.  The other owner scoffed at my concern and said that his dog was just playing and intimated that I was coddling my dog. Does this sound familiar to those who have had to confront parents of pint-sized bullies during Little League baseball?


The Do-Gooder:
I am fond of this category of dog owners though I don’t belong in it myself.  We hear “God bless you” a lot when we announce that we got our dog from a rescue shelter.  Of course, we know that we only “rescued” her from going to another household with possibly more to offer a dog—a back yard, kids who would grow up with her, a stay-at-home spouse, etc.—but we still get the undeserved thanks all the same.  Unlike us, there are those dog owners who did not go online and select from the newest and cutest dogs to consider adopting.  (It's somewhat like an online dating service, except completely one-sided.)  There are others who adopt dogs from shelters really to rescue them—dogs with sad histories of physical or behavioral problems.  Owners who care for and love three-legged and two-legged dogs.  I respect these people quite a bit.

On the whole, people who visit dog parks are liberal-minded, generous, and almost always owners of rescue dogs.   They share extra water and toys they bring to the park, praise other dogs and keep watchful eyes on all to make sure that no mischief occurs.  It might not take a village to raise a dog, but the pooch park population comes through with an impressive level of care and attention.  I’ve come to enjoy my outings at the pooch park almost as much as Katie does.  I get to see her walk the plank and jump through hoops (she’ll do anything for a treat) and run around with other dogs and compete after flying tennis balls.  Then, completely pooped from the day’s fun and exercise and the inevitable bath, she’ll lie down with a treat.  Dare she hope for an empty peanut butter container?





Friday, December 2, 2011

Holiday Gifts for Foodies



A few years ago we hosted a dinner party for two other couples.  Seated at the dining table, one of the husbands looked meaningfully at his wife and pointed to our table centerpiece, a glass bowl filled with decorative stones with tea-light candles and flowers floating in water.  He said, “The bowl looks nice this way, doesn’t it?”  Clearly, there was some subtext the rest of us were missing. 

It turned out that he had committed the unpardonable sin of giving his wife a kitchen “gift with a plug” for her birthday one year.  She took umbrage at a gift which seemed to pigeonhole her with a traditional gender stereotype, and she returned the insult (with a twist) by presenting him with a decorative glass bowl which was as undesirable—and useless—for him as his gift was for her.  The lesson he learned: Be very careful about giving kitchen gifts to your wife.  But, of course, kitchen gifts are perfectly appropriate if it’s the right gift for the right person. 

To start, we can probably agree that kitchen-y gifts are fine if it’s for a man, or if a woman has asked for a particular item, or if it’s for yourself.  In addition, I generally think kitchen gifts are ok...


If they are colorful or novel:
Silicone spatulas and spoons that withstand high heat are great for non-stick coating or on your most treasured pots and pans.  I asked for these last Christmas and my husband got them for me.  In case you are trying to decide on just one: the spoon gets much less use than the spatula, the thin flexible side of which works great to scrape down precious last drops of pan sauces.  Will got these from Crate & Barrel, but Williams-Sonoma and other major kitchen stores also carry similar items.  This year, I am asking for a multi-colored plastic coated whisk to work with demi-glaces and gravies.


If they are gadgety or associated with gourmands:
Though we have a more expensive (and bulkier) stainless-steel French mandoline with a julienne blade and a stand, the slicer we actually grab is a simple and lightweight Kyocera which takes up much less room in our drawer.  We ordered it through Amazon for about $20.  Sure it doesn’t have a julienne blade—though it’s certainly possible to get that model instead—but it does such a fast job of slicing in 4 different choices of thicknesses.  If I need to julienne something, I am happy to stack up mandolined vegetables and fruits to do the final matchstick slicing myself.  Be sure also to order a cut-protection glove to go along with any mandoline since mandoline use is perilous unless you have proper protection. 

Since you're going to have steel-mesh protection for your hands anyway, I would suggest a few Microplane graters as well.  Two sizes are really handy: the longer thin zester for lemons and limes; and the wider ribbon grater for parmesan or chocolate shavings.


If the gift is artisanal or exotic or sophisticated (or anything European):
Especially if there is a baker in the household or if you use lots of recipes with metric measurements, a scale (with both ounces and grams) is indispensable.  We use it ALL the time.  After ditching the cup measure and deciding to follow grams/ounces instead, Will discovered that his breads and pie crusts yielded more consistently satisfying results.   

No one looks at our olive-wood table cheese grater and our salt bowl (for salt crystals) and thinks that these items are offensively gender-stereotyped.  These particular items were brought back from San Gimignano (in Tuscany), but we see similar items in stores everywhere.  Speaking of wooden salt bowls, I really get a lot of use from the dual-drawer bamboo salt cellar which we first saw in Hawaii but were able to order from Amazon.  I have fine sea salt in the top drawer and coarse kosher salt in the bottom drawer.  It sits right next to our stove range, and we use it constantly.

When I look around my well-stocked kitchen (my mother thinks I have the neatest items!), I see lots of items which I could not cook without.  That doesn’t mean I want holiday or birthday presents to consist of blenders or toasters (unless they are super-special and unique).  Nor do I particularly favor too-cute items with limited utility (read: cookie cutters in the shape of a reindeer).  However, any of the above categories of gifts are more than welcome—and some of the smaller items (like a silicone spatula) make nice stocking stuffers.  And, yes, to be safe, do avoid items with plugs…

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving 101


Having just survived another gut-busting weekend of eating, now seems a good time to reflect on some rules we live by when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving.  In part, the trick to a successful Thanksgiving dinner (for us, at least) resembles the rhyme that a bride follows in dressing for her wedding.  To wit, our household adheres to these rules to host Thanksgiving by: “Something old, something new, something simple, something non-turkey.”

“Something old”
We tend to design a fairly untraditional Thanksgiving menu, so I always try to sneak in one dish that is familiar.  Last year, it was whipped sweet potato casserole.  The year before, it was candied sweet potatoes with walnuts.  Before that, it was sweet potato and pumpkin pie.  Now that I think of it, sweet potatoes feature fairly heavily on my “something old” category.  Perhaps it's because my mother-in-law is partial to sweet potatoes, or perhaps it's because they are just so tasty.  In any case, this year I skipped the traditional versions of sweet potatoes since the soup course was already going to be “Warm Sweet Potato Vichyssoise” (Hay Day Country Market Cookbook by Kim Rizk, p.89).  Instead, I settled for a traditional Bacon Cornbread Stuffing.  The salty bits of bacon played off of the caramelized dates in the parsnip dish—and was picked up nicely by the pork roast.  Also, a Thanksgiving dinner doesn't feel complete for me unless my husband Will makes his buttermilk rolls shaped in a demi-rosette…


“Something new”
For our main vegetable dish, I decided to go with a new recipe: “Sauteed Parsnips with Dates” (Food and Wine, December 2011, p.229-230).  A few years ago when we lived in England for a year, Will and I consumed prodigious amounts of parsnip once we discovered how sweetly they roast.  Since then, we roast parsnips whenever we can get our hands on them—often to make a nice fall/winter roasted root vegetable salad of beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and onions with feta cheese, toasted walnuts, and a balsamic glaze.  For this Thanksgiving, we sautéed parsnips in garlic-infused olive oil before roasting them with Medjool dates and marjoram.  The already-sweet parsnips picked up the caramel flavors of the dates while roasting, but the sweetness was nicely cut by the savory garlic-infused oil and the herbs.


“Something simple”
Perhaps a surprise hit of the evening turned out to be the very simply prepared minted peas.  As with all really good simple vegetable dishes, it’s important that you forego the frozen variety (since they get too mushy too quickly) and not even dare think about canned (and I cannot remember if I’ve ever used canned green peas).  Sure, late November is not the time when you can find fresh peas at grocery stores, but I happened to find beautiful shelled fresh English peas.  That’s when inspiration struck for the minted peas.  Again, since this is a side-dish with a minimal list of ingredients, it is crucial that you also use the best Extra Virgin Olive Oil, sea salt, fresh lemon juice, and fresh mint.  And, most of all, cook the peas only until crisp tender, with a little bite (like al dente pasta).


“Something non-turkey”
Since turkey is sacrosanct for many people, we tried a few different ways of making turkey work for us.  We tried injecting it with a Cajun spice blend (mixed with chicken broth) one year, but that felt a little too reminiscent of high school Chemistry.  Last year we tried a teriyaki lacquer, but that dried out the turkey and made it get too dark too quickly.  Besides, the essential flavorlessness of turkey (apologies to turkey lovers) seemed an inadequate base for something so overwhelming as soy sauce.  No, we’d happily substitute the turkey with chicken, duck, or capon.  Better yet, we’ve had luck with bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin or prime rib or a pork crown roast.  This year, we tried a “Fennel-Garlic Pork Roast” (Food and Wine, December 2011, p. 229).  The overnight brining made the roast very flavorful, and the fennel seed and garlic paste provided a nice bit of crunchy flavor-boost that everyone enjoyed.  I would suggest planning on longer than the 1 hour the recipe called for the cooking of a 4 lb pork loin, but otherwise the roast was lovely.


Of course, there are other important rules to cook by as well.  You should definitely make the soup course the night before if at all possible and just reheat right before serving.  Soups usually fare better with overnight blending of flavors anyway, and it really shaves an important step from your cooking on Thanksgiving Day itself. 


If a guest offers to bring something, ask for dessert.  Your oven gets a huge workout on Thanksgiving—regardless of what main course you are serving—so it frees up important oven space if you are not baking a delicate pastry along with your turkey or pork roast or prime rib.  And unlike soups which benefit by overnight melding, dessert is usually at its best on the day baked.  Our friend Debra bakes excellent pies, so she brought over a flaky traditional double-crusted apple pie.  I chose Butter Pecan ice cream for accompaniment since the nuttiness and the slight saltiness of Butter Pecan nicely complement the sweetness of an apple pie.


For extra enjoyment, ask your guest to bring a friend for your pet as well (if you have one).  Part of our Thanksgiving entertainment consisted of seeing which dog (Katie or Duchie) had more fun sniffing at the pork roast and hoping for food spills!


Friday, November 18, 2011

Making History ANONYMOUS: A (Limited) Review

                 (http://images.broadwayworld.com/upload/43336/shakespeare.jpg)

My friends think I’m entirely humorless.  Having convinced themselves that it would be fun to watch Anonymous with an English professor, they were a bit taken aback by my initial outraged rant about the movie’s complete abandonment of historical accuracy.  But there was another reason I was scowling furiously.  I was internally debating: the part of me that enjoys a good yarn thought the movie kept me entertained with its wild conjectures; the scholar of early modern British literature was dismayed that the producers of the movie decided to ride rough-shod over incontrovertible historical events.  After mulling it over a few more days, I’ve concluded that the scholar won.

It should be acknowledged, and ungrudgingly, that the movie is quite a bit of fun.  Political intrigues are multi-layered and engrossing, the cinematography is attractive, and most of the actors are eminently watchable.  Rhys Ifan as Earl of Oxford, outfitted with ink-smudged hands and what appears to be eyeliner-enhanced gaze, manages to look dignified and pretty at the same time.  As Elizabeth, Vanessa Redgrave's alternation between imperious and doddering perplexed me at times, but I still bought her portrayal. I'd always pictured Ben Jonson as smoother than the almost doltish figure that Sebastian Armesto at times depicted, but I found moving his awed reverence for the superior craft of the "real" Shakespeare's beautiful lines.

Action is brisk, and I often I found myself breathlessly awaiting what would happen next.  But then I was kicking myself for engaging with the improbable conspiracy theory that is Anonymous.  Sure, we understand the movie’s director Roland Emmerich is best known for his disaster films like Independence Day and Day after Tomorrow, and we shouldn’t have expected this movie to be radically different—that is, thoughtful, nuanced, and dare I say “realistic”?  Besides, it’s somewhat naïve of viewers to expect complete adherence to established historical narratives.  But what ultimately bothered me most was that the movie trashed history needlessly. 

Let’s take Christopher Marlowe.  With the film’s fondness for flashbacks (within flashbacks within flashbacks), one is never certain at any moment what year the movie purports to cover.  As far as we can tell though, it seems that the bulk of the action covers the period between the Earl of Oxford’s death (in 1604) and “Five Years Earlier” (thus providing two flashbacks within the movie’s first few minutes).  That means that the movie is primarily covering the years 1599-1604, give or take a year in either direction.  Can someone on the movie production roster explain what Christopher Marlowe is doing at all in this movie when he was killed in a shady bar-fight in 1593, thus cutting off a brilliant career that could possibly have surpassed Shakespeare’s? 

My guess is that the movie producers wanted to use his name: they probably bet that the audience must have heard of Christopher Marlowe, might even know that he is another candidate brought forward periodically—and incongruously—as the “real” writer of the Shakespeare plays.  It would kill two birds with one stone by making the audience feel smart recognizing Marlowe’s name, and by winking at ones aware of the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory.  But if Anonymous is advancing the Earl of Oxford as the real playwright, then why are we bothering with resurrecting the specter of Marlowe anyway?  And it’s not like there were no Renaissance dramatists whose names they could have invoked (Tourneur, Marston, Dekker, etc. etc. etc.) all of whom died after 1604.  No, the producers wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  Marlowe, as a name and personality, was too good to pass up.  So they passed up history instead.

In many other instances, intentional inaccuracies were distracting.  (I won’t bother calling them mistakes because they could easily have been corrected with a Google search on Wikipedia.)  In a montage of scenes from Shakespeare plays put on during Elizabeth’s last years was included the iconic scene of the witches from Macbeth.  Unfortunately, this is a play that has some historical significance since the Scottish James’s ascension to the throne of England preceded, and most likely prompted, this exploration of Scottish history and witches—both subjects that James was particularly interested in.  And, as was the case with Christopher Marlowe’s character, the error was not necessary for the movie’s central claims.  Instead, these unnecessary inclusions point to over-indulging the dramatic flair at the expense of history.

That same dramatic flair comes also at the expense of narrative plausibility.  At one point in the movie, the frontman Shakespeare is challenged by his (justifiably) irate colleagues to prove himself a writer—of any sort.  When mocked to produce the letter “i,” the rascal somehow evades having to follow through (and thus having to reveal himself to be a fraud).  Suspensefully though the scene might unfold, the logic escapes me.  Will Shakespeare was not challenged to spell “antidisestablishmentarianism.”  All evidence points to the Stratford grammar school having taught proficient English and even Latin.  And, as the movie itself acknowledges that the actor Shakespeare was literate enough to read for his roles, it takes a stretch of imagination to believe that he could not have reproduced a single “i.”  The viewer almost wants to say, “Oh, come on!”  And I’ll skip discussing the unsavory claims of incest and illegitimate children of Elizabeth since they, mercifully, seem so outrageous as to flaunt their status as unfounded conjecture. 

Admittedly, the movie is entertaining.  However, it could also have salvaged its conspiracy theory appeal and historical drama creds by giving the tiniest bit of lip-service to accepted history.  Instead, rather than the movie merely being a-historical, it seems to embrace being anti-historical.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Almost Best Pumpkin Pie


Several years ago, I decided that Nancy Silverton was not full of hubris when she introduced the recipe for her “Pumpkin Pie” by saying “I don’t think there’s a better pumpkin pie out there” (Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, p. 267).  It really was an amazing pie.  However, given that her ingredient list included a vanilla bean, brandy, and white pepper (never mind the insistence on “2 medium Jewel or Garnet yams” for a pumpkin pie), her recipe is not the most economical choice.  

But let’s say that money is no object.  How about time?—and, for that matter, patience?   Do you have time during Thanksgiving craziness to roast yams, then puree them with pumpkin puree, then cook them together to evaporate the moisture before making a brown butter sauce by scraping a vanilla pod?  Hers is also one of the few pumpkin pie recipes out there which demands a blind-baked pie crust before filling it.  None of these steps—or ingredients—is outrageous on its own.  Combined, it’s a headache you don’t need when you are already doing too much.

Just when I decided that no pie is worth that much effort, my mother-in-law quashed my resolve never to bake the Silverton pie again.   The first time she ate a slice of that pie she was in her late 70s (now 85), and she clearly had a long lifetime of consuming homemade pumpkin pies.  She didn’t know that this was a particularly famous pastry chef’s recipe.  What she did know?: “This is the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had.”  So, clearly this pie recipe is worth another look.

Now we all have our compromises and our hard lines-in-the-sand when it comes to substitutes and shortcuts.  For instance, I know that many believe that homemade mayonnaise and chicken stock are indispensable, but I’m not too ashamed to admit I’ve been known to use packaged (organic free-range chicken stock and Hellmann’s mayonnaise).  On the other hand, I suspect my mother would disown me if I ever even contemplated using that jarred chemical-smelling pre-chopped garlic.  (After all, we are Korean…) 

So, we individually need to decide on what modifications we can live with.  This is what I came up with.  You too will have to decide which steps are too onerous for you and which are worth the extra investment of time or money or energy.  It’s true that during the holiday season we usually have homemade pumpkin puree available, packed (and often frozen) in 1-cup quantities for muffins, breads, and—of course—pies.  If you don’t have that, a can of pumpkin puree usually contains 15-16 oz and is a fine substitute.  If vanilla beans are not a staple in your kitchen, you can just use vanilla extract.  But it’s worth remembering that Trader Joe’s and Costco are good places to get vanilla beans for much less than at many other stores, and those little vanilla bean specks add a lot of flavor. 

Note: Like Nancy Silverton's original recipe, this one uses less spices than most pumpkin pie recipes (though more than Silverton herself calls for).  Your primary flavor will be vanilla-butter custard.  If you like more spices, just add more ground cinnamon, cloves, ginger, etc.



Recipe:

Crust:
--Your favorite single-crust pie recipe  (Our household likes Hay Day Country Market Cookbook’s “All-Purpose Pie Pastry”—by Kim Rizk, page 272)

Filling:
2 cups pumpkin puree (preferably homemade, then strained of excess liquid.)
4 tbs unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
2 eggs
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp kosher salt

Garnishing seasoning:
1 tbs granulated sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg

Whipped cream for topping


Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 375.  You should have your rolled out pie crust lining a 9-inch pie plate and chilling in the refrigerator as you prepare your filling.

2. Melt butter in a small saucepan, scrape vanilla bean seeds into the butter, and then throw in the pods too for extra flavor.  Stir occasionally over medium heat for just a few minutes until the butter becomes brown (but don’t let it burn).  Remove from heat and discard vanilla bean.  Or, just lightly brown the butter by itself and mix with vanilla extract.  If you decide to use vanilla extract and canned pumpkin puree instead, you’ll sacrifice a little flavor (and having to follow Step 3).



3. Scrape entire butter mixture into a bowl that has 2 cups of pumpkin puree, combine, and then place mixture in a medium mesh colander so that the mixture can be scraped down into a mixing bowl (but leaving behind bits of vanilla pods or hard bits of puree to get discarded).

4.  (If you skipped Step 3, blend together the pumpkin puree and slightly cooled butter-and-vanilla-extract mixture.)  In another bowl, mix 2 eggs, cream, maple syrup, brown sugar, and spices for the filling.  Then whisk the cream-egg mixture with the butter and pumpkin puree mixture.

5. (If you wish, you can brush the edges of pie crust with milk or cream.)  Pour filling into the crust, then mix and sprinkle over the filling the garnishing sugar and spices.

6. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, checking to see that the crust is not browning too fast.  Once the crust is a just a little lighter than you would like for the final product, cover the crust with a pie-crust shield (cheap and easily accessible through places like Bed, Bath, and Beyond—and so very handy).  If you don’t own one of these handy shields, use strips of aluminum to cover edges.  Unlike some other cooks, I like covering the crust later in the baking process rather than at the beginning.  This way, you don’t have anything sticking to possibly wet crust, and you can control better how brown you want your crust.

7.  Bake for another 20-30 minutes until the filling is just set (no jiggles, but no cracking of center either).  Remove, cool to room temperature, and serve with whipped cream. 



Basil Pesto: An Italian Kitchen Staple


When traveling through Italy, treat your senses by entering a neighborhood deli.  These little grocery stores sell freshly prepared food—mostly made in-house—that you can take away with you.  Of course, you might prefer to enter a full-fledged large chain grocery store if you’d rather have more anonymity with limited—or non-existent—Italian.  The mom-and-pop operations are infinitely more charming, but also a bit more daunting, with the promise (or threat, depending on your Italian and social proclivities) of personal interaction. 

In either case, if you have a kitchen you can use during your travels, you can make a lovely “home-cooked” meal with a few items from these grocery stores simply and quickly prepared—or assemble a picnic with cheeses, fruits, bread, and wine.  One item that I always wished I could take back with me in vast quantities was pesto.  Not the jarred kind with oil already separated from the herbs.  Not even those “fresh” pestos we get at our grocery stores that have a plastic freshness seal on top.  No, the heavenly light-green Genoa pesto scooped up with a spoon and put into a little container for your dinner tonight—not next week or next month.



Ever since I saw a mound of pesto in a Vernazza deli (in Cinque Terre), I have tried various different pesto recipes to duplicate the fullness of flavor somehow packed into the almost mousse-like texture.  Many recipes call for adding parsley to prevent darkening of the pesto, but I found the parsley also added a little bitterness (and, besides, the pesto wouldn’t get darker if I ate it right away, right?).  Some recipes try to make me feel guilty if I don’t want to mortar-and-pestle this sauce.  But that process—no doubt authentic a hundred years ago—didn’t seem to produce the lightness of texture.  I started to suspect that contemporary grandmothers in Italy actually were not pounding away tons of pesto in their unwieldy mortar and pestle.  So, while I occasionally use a knife to “rough chop” my pesto, my preferred method is the food processor.

The recipe that best resembles the pesto I enjoyed in Vernazza and Siena is a variation on the pesto recipe from Williams-Sonoma’s Mastering Pasta, Noodles, and Dumplings. 



Recipe:

1 cup packed basil leaves
3 tbs pine nuts (Note: Pine nuts being rather expensive, you can substitute walnuts.)
2 cloves garlic
¼ tsp salt (or more to taste)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 oz. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese

1.     Place basil, nuts, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor (a mini-processor is fine for this small batch of pesto).  Pulse several times to finely grind and combine.

2.     Pour a thin stream of olive oil through the lid of the processor with the motor running.  Keep processing or pulsing until the color is a fairly uniform bright green.

3.     Once the consistency and color is to your liking (a bit darker green than you’d like eventually), scrape mixture from the food processor into a medium bowl.  Add most of the grated cheese and stir to combine.  Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt and cheese.  At this point, the pesto should be a little saltier and more flavor-packed than you might expect since you will be adding pasta (and/or other ingredients) later.  In color, it should be a light but vibrant green with specks of darker green of the basil.

Note: Keep in mind that you are not “cooking” pesto the way you would a tomato sauce.  Instead, you reserve some hot pasta cooking water and add that with your pesto to the dish.  The pesto will stick to the pasta rather than being thinner, like some other sauces.  I like to serve pesto pasta with a plate of tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and balsamic glaze.  If you don’t have balsamic glaze, come back for another post on that other lovely staple for your Italian kitchen. 



Odeng (Fishcake): Ingredient Spotlight


Several years ago, a friend of mine traveled to Hong Kong to visit with a friend of his who was temporarily working and living there.  Since my friend is such a strict vegetarian that he wouldn’t even consume miso soup because it contains bonito fish flavor, I was a bit concerned that he would not be able to find anything to eat in Hong Kong.  (I tend to worry quite a bit about whether people will be able to eat enough.)  When he came back, he reported that he enjoyed Hong Kong and its food and ate a prodigious amount of fried fishcake products.  Apparently, when my hungry friend asked whether it was “vegetarian” and servers nodded assent, he decided that ignorance was bliss.

Well, I have a package of “fishcake” in front of me right now.  In addition to modified food starch, potato starch, and other sundry fillers, key ingredients for fishcake include Alaska Pollock and bonito flavoring.  In other words, the Hong Kong servers also wanted to make sure that my friend did not starve.  Despite the fillers, I myself love fishcake, especially the “tempura odeng” variety which taste vaguely fish-like—and most definitely fried.  You can get packaged frozen fishcake, but I personally like getting sheets and pieces of different tempura odeng in bulk food areas in Asian grocery stores.  They are fresher, and you can get different selections.

Tempura odeng are a godsend for quick weeknight meals.  You can take a portion you need out of the freezer before you start your other food prep, and they are usually defrosted enough to slice up by the time you actually need to cook them.  You can add them to stir fries and soups and noodle dishes, and they add a nice dimension of flavor if you enjoy a mild fish flavor—with tasting notes of onions, carrots, potatoes, and the aroma of a deep fryer.

Here are 3 quick uses for tempura odeng:

Spicy Stir-Fried Odeng
Stir fry onion in some canola oil, then add red and green pepper pieces and fry another few minutes and remove all from heat while veggies are still crisp.  To some more canola oil and some chopped garlic, add sliced odeng pieces and dried hot peppers to taste.  When odeng pieces are cooked, return veggies to the pan (and add more oil if necessary).  At this point, add soy sauce and some sugar and salt and pepper to taste.  If desired, finish off with a few drops of sesame oil.  (Always taste again for seasoning and adjust as necessary.)



Stir-Fried Udon Noodles with Odeng (and Vegetables)
In a medium bowl, combine some chicken broth, soy sauce, and some salt and pepper and set aside.  In heated canola oil, stir fry chopped garlic, onion, and an assortment of vegetables that you have around.  Aim for a good mix of color and texture (julienned carrots or snow peas, squash, zucchini, peppers, cabbage).  Then remove veggies from heat; fry up odeng slices and set aside with the veggies.  Loosen a package of fresh udon noodles in a medium heat pan with a little oil and water to soften them.  Add broth-soy sauce mixture and have noodles cook while absorbing some of the liquid.  And then add veggies and odeng to noodles and heat together.  Again, it’s a nice touch to add a few drops of good sesame oil at the end.  Serve with hot chile sauce (like sriracha).


Odeng Guk (Soup)
Boil about 4 cups of water and add a large halved peeled onion and carrot (halved or quartered).  Add eggs to hard-boil (about 15 minutes), then remove eggs and dunk them in cold water to stop the cooking.  Add bonito flavoring flakes to the simmering soup along with soy sauce and salt to taste.  Add sliced odeng pieces to the broth and bring to a boil before peeling and adding hard-boiled eggs.   Adjust seasoning, but make the soup a little less salty than you might like.  Once everything is heated through, serve in deep bowls with steamed rice and a dish of wasabi and soy sauce for dipping odeng pieces.

CSA Box Extravaganza


I am a huge fan of Community Supported Agriculture.  Usually during the dead of winter when no one is seriously thinking about fresh produce, you sign up for a subscription.  Depending on where you live, you might have a variety of choices.  Because we live in Chicago—with lots of farms within 90 minutes of us and a profusion of city-dwellers who provide a stable market for farmers—we have lots of choices.  Some offer only vegetables, but most now offer both fruits and vegetables.  Almost always, CSAs are organic (or in the arduous process of earning organic certification) and local (or try to be as long as the seasons permit). 

We have belonged to a CSA of one sort another since 2003.  The idea is that you sign up for a “share” before the farming season and then you get to share in the glory of bounteous produce with good crops and also share in the risk in cases of bad yields.  Actually, the boxes we’ve gotten have almost always been full—too full.  Our current membership is only quasi-CSA in that we are not dealing with a particular farm but a service that draws from many area farmers.  It is true that winter seasons are much less local.  Having made a New Year’s resolution one year to eat better produce, we signed up with this service in January.  Our first box included a red pepper from Israel.  Hardly local.  However, it was still good to eat all organic goods—which were local when possible—and then spring and summer made me glad I stuck with the service.

Most people belonging to CSAs will tell you that the best part of receiving their weekly boxes is turning all the goodies into dishes that you did not think you were going to be eating (kohlrabi slaw, roasted kale, sautéed sunchoke).  On the other hand, some of these boxes can be a bit overwhelming.  Each box we get typically includes 3-4 different types of fruits and 6-8 different types of vegetables or herbs.  Fruits are easy because we can just eat or juice them.  But there’s just the two of us in our household, and it’s become something of a challenge to figure out how I will use up every single vegetable in my box.   Yes, comparisons to Iron Chef are inevitably made by CSA shareholders.

Since we had a successful week with our latest box, I wanted to share with you how we got through the following items in our box: Peppers, Mini Sweet Peppers, Curly Kale, Roma Tomatoes, Parsley, Spaghetti Squash, Romaine Lettuce, Edamame.


Some tips:
1)   Make Sunday dinner a major event:
Try to plan at least one big weekend meal that will use up as much veggies as you can while they are freshest.  We typically cook a multi-component Sunday dinner, and that’s really the best time for us to make a dent in our box.  Last Sunday, we roasted on the grill a chicken (rubbed with cinnamon-cumin-cayenne garlic rub), and we sautéed some curly kale with red onions, garlic, and red chile flakes.  We cubed Yukon gold potatoes (from last week’s box) and a red pepper, and roasted them in the oven.

2)   Embrace Vegetarianism:
Understand that at least half of your work-week meals will be simple and vegetarian: no multi-course meal on a Wednesday after a long day of work.  We try to eat only 1-2 days of meats, and we studiously stick to our Meatless Monday mantra.  It helps though if no one is grilling a steak nearby.


3)   Experiment with new ways of cooking:
Many CSA-type boxes include easy recipes.  Though they are not always very specific with details (how much, how long, what heat, etc. are questions you must answer yourself), you can get some general idea about how you might cook a particular item.  Wednesday, I stuffed some Italian Frying Peppers (also from last week) with cheeses and parsley and then made a mini sweet pepper-garlic sauce.  Thursday, I roasted my first spaghetti squash parmesan.

4)    Expect to eat a lot of salads: 
By the end of the week, you are throwing everything you have together in a bowl and calling it a salad.  Thursday’s salad consisted of romaine lettuce, arugula, parsley, roma tomatoes, and radishes (from two weeks ago!).  Toss the veggies with some homemade Caesar dressing, fresh croutons, and parmesan.



5)    Go simple:
Sometimes, the simplest preparation is the best way to showcase fresh produce.  While I enjoyed everything this week, my favorite might have been the edamame that I steamed and sprinkled with large salt flakes.

As you can see, I’m not always successful with every box, and there is a good amount of carry-over to the week after.  But I consider it a challenge met when I am able to go through all the different items in the box.  Of course, it starts all over again with another box this Friday…  


Truffled Mushroom Risotto


During an old-fashioned weekend house-party, my husband and I met up with two other couples (from Ann Arbor, MI and Columbus, OH) and we convened for some catch-up time and good food.  Most of the time, I was drooling over the beautiful new home of our Columbus friends who graciously hosted all of us (six adults, four children).  The rest of the time, we were cooking or eating.  All three couples are what one might call “foodies”—interested in (and perhaps even a bit fussy about) food preparation, ingredients, restaurants, and cooking utensils.  For instance, a topic of extended conversation revolved around whether Le Creuset’s enameled cast-iron casserole pot was really that much better than the much cheaper dutch ovens produced under the Tramontina label.   What does Cooks Illustrated say about it?  Did Taunton’s agree?  Amazon.com reviewers thought so, etc.  You get the idea.

The Tramontina dutch oven in question was on the stove because one of the recipes for our dinner was an “Easy, No-Stir Risotto” which called for the use of an enameled cast-iron pot.  Because our host was busy marinating Thai chile-pepper chicken breasts (which turned out excellent and succulent!), he asked the rest of us to follow this new recipe he saw in one of his myriad cooking magazines.  I briefly glanced at the recipe and decided that it was a variation on the traditional method except that one cooked the Arborio rice as you would steam rice and then added cheese, butter, and herbs at the end for a “creamy” risotto-like texture.  I ditched the recipe and just made risotto my usual way, which others might call “Difficult, Stir Constantly Risotto.”

Home cooks often freak out about cooking risotto.  I know I did.  But once you make it a couple of times, it becomes one of the easiest dishes to prepare.  Moreover, risotto is actually very dinner-party friendly.  While one might opt for an easier no-stir option to alleviate stress during a dinner party, I find the stirring of risotto a calming and soothing act, almost an indulgent movement that reduces your tension and puts your guests at ease.  Couple of tips though: 1) You should have everything else ready to go so that you may leisurely stir to your heart’s content and serve your risotto when it is piping hot and creamy; 2) If you find your timing is off and that your risotto will finish before your guests could sit down, you should turn off the heat halfway through your cooking time and remove from heat and resume cooking only when you can be sure that you can present your risotto hot.  Otherwise, you might be presenting an unappetizing mess that is getting gummy and cold; 3) Always have extra hot broth/stock/water (whatever!) on hand so that you can incorporate more liquid if necessary.

Risotto is sort of like pasta or fried rice.  Once you get the hang of it, you can make it with any ingredients and for any season.  Experiment with varieties: Asparagus risotto for spring, Butternut squash with sage brown butter for fall and winter seasons, apple or pear with goat cheese or gorgonzola for a savory and sweet main course.  I’m giving a recipe for Truffled Wild Mushroom Risotto since it’s quite basic and can be made with refrigerator staples and pantry ingredients.


Recipe

½ cup (or more) dried wild mushrooms (porcini, chanterelle, etc.)
2 cups boiling water
Butter
Olive Oil
1 medium chopped onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1½ cups risotto rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)
¼ cup white wine or red wine
(Note: You might want to use red wine if you are using more beef broth.  If you are using more chicken or vegetable broth, you might want to opt for white wine.  In any case, don’t panic about things like this.  Go with the flow.)
2½-3 cups combination of any stocks you have, like vegetable, chicken, beef
(Note: You need to have about 4½-5 cups total of liquid, including the water that you soaked the mushrooms in.  I like my risotto only slightly al dente—not soft, not hard—but also with a little moisture too.  You might need more or less liquid depending on how you like your texture)
Grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Truffle Oil or Truffle Salt



1) Before prepping other items, place dried mushroom in a medium bowl, cover with boiling water, and make sure the mushrooms stay submerged (by placing a saucer on top of the bowl, etc.).  After about 30 minutes, remove rehydrated mushroom pieces and coarsely chop them into small pieces.  Do not worry so much if some pieces seem harder than others as they will keep rehydrating as they cook.  Bring the 2½-3 cups combined broth to a simmer, and carefully pour in broth from the dried mushrooms—but stop before you get to the gritty bits on the bottom of the bowl.   Let the liquid simmer together on the lowest heat.

2) Using either a dutch oven or other large heavy-bottomed pan, melt about 1 tbs butter with about 2 tbs olive oil over medium (to medium-high) heat until butter is slightly foaming and becoming golden.  Add chopped onion and minced garlic, and stir for a few minutes until they soften.  Add mushroom pieces and stir another minute.  Add the rice and stir another minute to coat the rice with the oil and butter.  Pour in your ¼ cup wine and let the mixture absorb the wine.

3) Now comes the fun and relaxing part (really!).  Using a ladle that holds about ¾ cup liquid, pour in a ladle of the liquid into the rice mixture and stir constantly until the liquid is almost all absorbed.  Continue a ladle at a time until the rice is to the consistency you like, but make sure that you are reserving at least a few tablespoons of broth for the finishing touch.

4) When the rice is ready, stir in 2 tbs of soft butter and 2 tbs of grated parmesan with the last few tablespoons of broth.  This last touch is essential to making the risotto complete and creamy.  Salt and pepper to your taste.

5) Once you spoon your risotto into your serving bowl or individual bowls, you may surround the rim of the bowl with truffle oil (either white or black truffle oil) or shake truffle salt on top—or both!  If you want a little extra color, you can sprinkle finely chopped parsley.  If truffle flavor is not your thing, you can certainly sprinkle sage leaves (and skip the parsley in that case).