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:
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

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:  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…