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Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

Camellia blossoms cloaked in ice today. They'll be in bloom by March. Hope springs eternal.

Is that you I see over there, 2010? I’ve been looking forward to getting to know you.

And 2009, so long, farewell. I’ve cooked a lot of wonderful food, grown some amazing crops and flowers in the garden, read a zillion books and learned so much about so many things. But I'm ready to move on.

This blog, something I muttered about for months, was born in March (albeit quietly), but now calls to me frequently. Between the blog, the inspirational Food52 site, and my new ‘invisible’ friends on Twitter, this December 31 looks very different than 12/31/08.

Last year, I was a landscape designer who cooked. I had one client and that wasn't working out too well. And business had completely dried up with the economy. It was a bleak landscape, indeed.

Now, it seems, I’m a cook who writes and gardens. Maybe teaches, too. Not a day goes by without pondering what the heck I’m doing with all this. Maybe 2010 will be when I figure it out. For now, I’m just putting one foot in front of the other, going with what feels right, and cooking to beat the band.

Since college, when I bartended at a very popular bar, I have avoided the Circle of Hell that is New Year’s Eve. Ours will be spent at home, just the two of us. Well, four, if you count Dylan and Beans.

We’ll have a nice dinner. I’ll open a big burgundy from the wine stash. There will be Buzzed Brownies from Sugar & Spike (so fantastic, I immediately had to freeze 8 of the dozen received.) We’ll watch a movie or two. Up & Taking Woodstock are waiting in their happy Netflix packages. It’s unlikely I’ll be awake at midnight.

I am immensely grateful to everyone who visits me here. Wishing you a very happy, healthy new year.

grass fed & finished steak from Stoneyman Gourmet Farmer (Bethesda Women's Market), rubbed in spices and brown sugar

Recipes for a quiet New Year’s Eve:

Parmesian Cod (for Dennis)

Cowboy Steak (for me)

Sweet Potato Gratin (maybe Potatoes Anna, haven’t yet decided. )

Grilled Brussel Sprouts

Parmesian Cod
(Something I saw Jamie Oliver make, I think.)
Serves 1

2/3 lb Cod, or one fillet
½ c Flour
1 egg
½ c Parmesian Cheese, freshly grated
Pinch cayenne
½ avocado
½ lemon
A good handful of mache or tender arugula
Olive oil

Get out a non-stick pan – do not attempt in anything else. Seriously.

Rinse the fish fillet and pat dry.

Set up a dredging station. You’ll need two flat plates and one pan or shallow bowl with sides.

Put ½ c flour on a plate, season with salt and pepper, and place it on the left.

Whisk up the egg with a little water in the pan. Give it a pinch of salt & pepper, too. This goes in the center.

On the other plate, stir together the cheese, a tablespoon of flour and the cayenne and place that plate on the right.

Now, with your left hand, place the fish in the flour. Pat the flour into the flesh, turn, and pat the flour into the other side.

Next, using your right hand, pick up the fillet and dip it into the egg mixture. Both sides.

Again, using your RIGHT (wet) hand, place the wet fillet into the dry cheese. Use your LEFT (dry) hand, to pat the cheese into the fish on both sides.

You can do this prep an hour or so before dinner. Just put the fish back in the fridge to stay cold, and remove 10 minutes or so before cooking.

Ready to cook? Heat a whisper of oil in the non-stick pan until a drop of water sizzles.

Slip in the fish and cook on medium high for 4 minutes or so. The cheese should be nice and brown and crispy. Turn and do the same to the other side.

While the fish cooks, toss a handful of mache with olive oil (I have some heavenly Pistachio Oil from the LeBlanc Huilerie on Rue Jacob, Paris. That's what I'll use.) Add salt & pepper and pile the mache on the plate.

Top with the cooked fish, and the avocado half, cubed, and add a healthy squeeze of lemon juice to the whole thing.

Serve piping hot.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Almost Famous

Wow. The Washington Post picked up my Snow-pocalypse cooking story. Here's the link to the piece in the WPost. and here's the link to my Flickr photos, detailing a day spent cooking during the snowstorm.

Today, I'm completely engrossed in Cleaving, the new book by Julie Powell (of Julie & Julia fame.) It's not great, but it's an engaging read. Must say, her husband is very forgiving. Not sure I would be.

Monday, December 28, 2009

More Dessert Stories. Part Two: Buche de Noel

We were invited to a dinner party, and I was asked to bring dessert. As the party was the day after Christmas, and we're still in the official sugar holidaze, nothing but a Buche de Noel would do. So, in the midst of whipping up that Trifle, I was also carefully crafting the decorations for the buche.
If you've never seen a Buche de Noel, check out this wonderful post from Dorie Greenspan on the Parisian art that is the Buche.
The traditional "yule log" cakes are wonderful treats. They may look fancy, but they're really just a jelly roll. A genoise, or sponge cake, is coated in a tasty filling, rolled up,
then covered in ganache or frosting, and decorated to resemble a log. I've made these before and, really, I just love the fussiness of all the preparations.
There are the meringue mushrooms. Tasty on their own, these meringue confections are a breeze to make and they impress everyone! As Maida Heater, Goddess of Chocolate Desserts, suggests, just tumble the little meringues in a straw lined basket for a fabulous centerpiece, then pass it around for dessert. They last for a month if the atmosphere is dry. (Humidity turns them sticky.)
There is the marzipan. Kneaded with food coloring then sculpted into leaves, berries or whatever makes you happy. I had fun with the leaves. Thought about sculpting other things, but I wasn't happy with the execution. I need more practice! Marzipan also lasts forever, which means both mushrooms and marzipan can be made well in advance of making the buche.
Some Parisian buches are decorated with little people and I just love the idea of creating a whole winter wonderland, but there is the issue of GIANT LOGS and little teeny marzipan people - hey, it's all about scale! Nevertheless, I scurried around the house, checking out all the doo-dads that I've collected for Christmastime, just to see what I might be able to include in the wintry scene.
These cats and dogs look a little scary up close.
(seriously, what's with the tree growing out of that cat's head?)
These little heads are fun, a little weird... but still not right...
I finally landed on the Christmas Tree Angels. They fit in perfectly.
I prepped the huge silver platter (my grandmother's - what the heck did she do with this thing? it weighs a ton.) with greens and holly branches. Then, covered a piece of cardboard in foil, as I wanted to be able to frost the cake away from the platter, and, anyway, I couldn't fit the massive platter in the refrigerator.
I used Martha Stewart's recipe for the cake, making genoise,
ganache and mousse.
What isn't mentioned in her recipe is the need for hours!!!! of chilling. I wish, in retrospect, I had made the cake and the mousse the day before the party. I would have rolled the cake up in the morning of the party, then frosted it a couple of hours later.
As it was, I baked the cake in the morning of the party, and made the mousse around noon, and I was a little worried it there wouldn't be time to set up and chill properly.
All in all, it was a lot of fun to make. It was certainly enjoyed by everyone at the party, and made quite a splash. The buche served 8 easily, with a couple of pieces and a handful of meringue mushrooms left for the host & hostess.
So, no recipe in this post. Just a little bragging. It is pretty, don'tcha think?

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Tale of Two Desserts- Part One: Trifle

It's a perfect Christmas here at our house. It's our tradition to spend the day together, just the two of us (plus dog and cat.) We enjoy a leisurely breakfast - today I made apple fritters and, for me, a couple of my homemade breakfast sausages. We lingered around the tree with our coffee and tea, opening gifts and making and receiving holiday phone calls.
The afternoon has been spent watching movies on TV, noshing on whatever we could find in the fridge. That included last night's leftover Parisian-style gnocchi with butternut squash and shitake mushrooms.
But this post isn't about breakfast, or about dinner. It's about dessert.

At the last minute, I invited a friend to have Christmas Eve dinner with the two of us. Now, if dinner had just been the two of us, I wouldn't have made any dessert. Dennis is perfectly happy without sweet temptations and I'm so happy to have them, I'll eat too much. But with another dessert eater coming over, I was ready to give in to temptation.

Just two days ago, in a lovely Christmas moment, a friend sent us an astonishingly delicious butter rum cake from Sugar & Spike. It was so good, and with a nudge from that same friend, thought suddenly about Trifle.

A traditional holiday sweet, trifle is made up of jam-smeared cake slices, doused in booze, then layered with creme anglaise/vanilla cream and fruit. Several of these layers are then topped with sweetened whipped cream.
I could already tell this butter rum cake would layer beautifully in a trifle. I peered into the depths of the refrigerator and saw about 3 oz of apricot glaze leftover from tart-making, three egg yolks leftover from some meringue art (post forthcoming,) - those would make a beautiful vanilla sauce, just add cream and milk and vanilla bean. I had some raspberries and blueberries. And there were all the wonderful liqueurs from the summer fermenting. In a glorious moment of inspiration, I remembered David Lebovitz' candied cherries (from A Perfect Scoop.) Suddenly, a trifle was born. I put it together in the early afternoon. By the dessert hour, it was heavenly. While making the trifle, I thought "this is how trifle came to be." finding bits and pieces all around the kitchen that come together in delicious beauty.
Serves 4

Leftover pound cake, stollen or pannetone, about six slices
Jam - raspberry or apricot seems best
Brandy or Apricot or Peach liqueur
Vanilla custard (3 egg yolks, 1/4 c sugar, 1/2 c milk, 1/2 c cream, 1 tsp vanilla)
1 pt Raspberries, blueberries
Candied cherries**
1/2 c whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks
A beautiful glass bowl, about 1 qt size

Make the vanilla custard. Heat the cream and milk (I use the microwave and heat for about a minute.)
In a small saucepan, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks. Stream in the cream/milk mixture slowly, whisking all the time. Keeping the heat at medium, stirring constantly, the custard should thicken in about 5 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Continue to heat until slightly thickened - stir with a wooden spoon, then drag your finger through the custard on the back of the spoon. When the line remains, the custard is done.)
Strain through a sieve into a bowl set in an ice bath, to cool the custard quickly.
Now make the trifle.
Start by spreading jam on one side of the cake slices.
Begin the layers with two or three slices of the cake pressed into the bottom of the bowl.
Sprinkle a healthy slosh of liqueur over the cake.
Add a few raspberries.
Add 1/3 of the custard.
Start again with the jammy cake slices - and repeat the whole process two more times.
Cover with plastic and pop in the 'fridge for at least two hours.
No more than two hours before you are going to serve the trifle, cover the top with whipped cream.
If you have raspberries left over, place them on the top of the trifle.
**I made the candied cherries using some sour cherry jam I made last summer than never quite jelled. I just cooked them down forever until all the liquid was gone, then carefully plucked them apart onto parchment paper to dry a bit. The recipe/idea from A Perfect Scoop - an indispensible ice cream cookbook by David Lebovitz. It's such a treasure, I suggest you put it on your wish list right away!)

Chill the trifle well and serve cold.

Merry Christmas from my kitchen to yours.

Christmas Eve appetizers gravlax, dill mustard, marcona almonds, kalamata olives,
Stoneyman Gourmet Farmer Hillandale Tomme. jack rose cocktails.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Easy Dinner: Vegetable Pie

It's a funny limbo - these days right before Christmas. I'm busy planning Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day breakfast and dinner and just don't have time or mental energy to plan TODAY's dinner.
These are days when I fall back on the easy favorites that Dennis loves. The dishes I've been making for years and years. Like Vegetable Pie. I first came across this recipe in the '70's - back in college when I was struggling, poor, and hungry! It's been a staple ever since. Great for vegetarians. Very pantry-friendly. Easy to alter to your liking or the limits of your refrigerator. The crust is kind of a latke, kind of a kugel and totally tasty. And the filling is like that old fashioned classic, cheesey cauliflower.

And it uses so little equipment. Hardly any clean up.
a food processor (best) and/or box grater
a knife & cutting board
a pie pan
a mixing bowl & wooden spoon
a skillet & same wooden spoon
a cup measure & whisk/fork

Serve with a quick green salad and a glass of wine for a satisfying, warming dinner.

Vegetable Pie
adapted from The Moosewood Cookbook

Olive Oil
3 Yukon Gold potatoes
2 onions
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cauliflower, cut up into smallish bits
1 tsp herbes de provence
3 eggs
1/3 c milk
1.5 c shredded cheddar cheese (I cheated tonight and used a bag o cheddar cheese from Trader Joes)
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 400F
Lightly oil a 9" deep pie pan
Using the food processor, or a box grater, grate 1/2 onion and the potatoes into the large mixing bowl. Generously salt & pepper, add one egg, and mix well.
Press mixture into the pie pan, pushing it up the sides to make a thick crust.
Bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the pie from the oven and brush the crust with olive oil. Return to the oven for 20 minutes more.
While the crust is baking, dice the remaining 1-1/2 onions.
Heat some oil in the skillet and add the onion, cooking until it's just beginning to brown on the edges.
Add the minced garlic and toss around in the pan for a couple of minutes.
Add the herbes de provence.
Add the chopped cauliflower and stir to coat all the pieces well. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until just cooked. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
When the crust is done, sprinkle with 1/2 c of the cheese. Add 1/2 the cauliflower mixture. Next, layer 1/2 c of cheese, the rest of the cauliflower, and, finally, top with the rest of the cheese.
Break two eggs into the milk and beat well with a fork or whisk. Make a hole in the filling and pour the milk/egg mixture into the pie.
Bake at 375 for 35 minutes. Allow the pie to rest for 5-10 min. before serving.
Other things to think about: mix broccoli & cauliflower, add a layer of chopped spinach on the bottom of the pie, add frozen tiny peas, use Emmenthaler & thyme, Ricotta/Parmesian and rosemary. Do NOT use the pretty purple heirloom cauliflower. It makes a VERY scary looking pie.

Friday, December 18, 2009

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

I cannot believe it's been 9 days since I checked in here. But when I chronicle these days, I hope you'll understand. The best news of all? I'm all ready for the holiday, finished with the chores and now, lazily gazing at the trimmed tree and planning fun cooking projects in between reading all the books that I've piled up.
In the last three weeks, we've had three sets of houseguests and parties for 7, 50, 18 and 8. I've baked 1,123 Christmas cookies in between all that party cooking. Mailed out 20 cookie boxes, dropped off another 15 cookie bags. Finished shopping for Dennis, the dog and the cat. Wrapped all that and filled stockings.
Thankfully, many years ago, I "Tom Sawyer'ed" my tree trimming party into a (fair) exchange of work for food. Friends arrive ready to string lights, hang ornaments and fashion ribbon bows. This year, I made cassoulet, and if you've been following along here, you'll recognize the confit and duck breasts that contributed to that meal.
I must must must give a shout out to Rancho Gordo beans. The Christmas Lima and Flageolet beans were spectacular. I also sourced Tarbais, at an absurd price, but my desire for authenticity overwhelmed me.
The charcuterie class I took last fall was very helpful as I sorted out all the versions of cassoulet. I remembered one thing in particular - Chef Moore said that different types of beans made for the most interesting cassoulets. And it really did make a huge difference. The textural ranges of the beans, in between the bite sized pieces of duck confit and duck breast, all studded with diced carrots, celery and leeks, made this a true symphony of a dish.
Lucky me, my women friends (plied with Jack Rose cocktails, grilled oysters, and cassoulet, arugula salad with a fig vinaigrette) decorated tree, mantle, dining room and kitchen. The house was sparkling with mercury glass, candles, (LED!) lights and crystal.
We sat to toast one another, the year to come, enjoy our friendships - and two desserts - Meyer lemon meringue pie and raspberry tart with creme anglais.
Did I mention - the dishwasher, two of the three showers, and (yesterday) the washing machine each stopped working, requiring repairmen and plumbers and so on - all in the past three weeks. I think it's a sign to slow down for a few days.

I'm going to enjoy this period of rest. And it's starting tomorrow, with a predicted 12" of snow.

Tree Trimming Cassoulet
Serves 18
I used a Staub 7 qt. cast iron oval oven to make and serve this dish.

3# mixed dried beans (flageolet, Tarbais, Christmas lima were my choices, but any white beans work)
1 fresh ham hock
Large bunch thyme
3 bay leaves
Large bunch parsley
2 onions, quartered
Whole peppercorns
1 T Salt

Soak the beans overnight in copious amounts of water.

The next day, drain and rinse the beans, place them in a large (7 qt or larger) stock pot with the ham hock and cover with water. In a large piece of cheesecloth, tie up the celery tops (leaves), three carrots, chopped coarse, onion quarters, six stalks of thyme, 10 stalks of parsley, 2 bay leaves and 10 peppercorns. Submerge the cheesecloth bag. Bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer, covered for about 45 minutes.

Add 1 Tbls. salt and continue cooking for another 15 minutes, testing to be certain they are cooked through, but not mushy. Dispose of cheesecloth bag. Pluck the lovely meat from the ham hock and put it in with the beans. Set aside or refrigerate for up to one day.

1.5# fresh (not smoked) bacon, diced
4 celery stalks, 1/8" dice
8 carrots, 1/8" dice
6 leeks, white and light green parts only, cut in half vertically, then thinly sliced into half-moons
4 fat cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 c thyme leaves
Six duck confit leg quarters
Six duck breasts, fresh, skin & fat crosshatched & scored
6 c chicken or duck stock
3 c dry bread crumbs
1 c chopped parsley

In the pan in which you intend to cook and serve, crisp up the confit pieces in their fat. As they crisp, remove from the pan and set aside. When all the confit has been crisped, add the duck breasts, fat side down. Cook 6 minutes on medium high, then turn and cook for 4 minutes on the reverse side. Remove from the fat and slice into six pieces each. Add to the confit pieces and hold.

Into the cast iron pot, add the bacon, cooking slowly until cooked through and just starting to crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon. Pour off and reserve all but 1/2 c of the fat, which should be left in the pot. Saute the leeks until soft, then add carrots and celery. Now add the garlic and cook quickly, so it doesn't burn. Generously salt and pepper all the vegetables.

If additional fat is needed to coat all the vegetables well, add it back to the pot. Gently toss and coat everything, then add the beans and combine. Add fat as needed to make it moist. Finally, add in the meats and combine well. Taste for salt and pepper and correct.

Pour in the stock until everything is nice and moist and the stock is just showing at the top.

Stir together the bread crumbs and parsley. Add 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper. Spread the breadcrumbs across the entire surface of the cassoulet.

Bake for at least an hour at 350. After that, it can be held for two hours at 225, but additional stock may be needed to moisten everything, and can be added at the edge, trying not to disturb that beautiful crispy topping.

Do serve a salad with this. Don't try to serve anything else. Cassoulet. You'll never forget it and neither will your guests.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What I've Been Doing

It's down to the wire. I'm mailing out all the Christmas packages in two days. This is the first post I've done since joining forces with the inimitable Jennifer Perillo and the Share Our Strength 12 Days of Sharing program. Please consider donating to this important cause, to help end childhood hunger.

Here's what I've been doing.

I made my favorite candied grapefruit peel. Also threw in some Meyer lemons, just because I found them at Trader Joe's and it seemed like an omen. This is my favorite recipe -- it's a four day process. But so worth it.
Forget dipping them in chocolate. After four days, I'm done messing with citrus peel. And, once I peeled the grapefruit, I made my favorite breakfast fruit salad with grapefruit and bananas and a few blueberries from my frozen berry stash.

I made some granola for my brother-in-law.

And then I made some orange pistachio biscotti

And then I made some florentines

And then, I spent last night making cookie doughs that need to be chilled. Almost every cookie dough will benefit from chilling, but in the case of thumbprint cookies, and gingerbread chocolate cookies, if they're not properly chilled, they don't hold their shape. Here's an example of hazelnut thumbprint cookies that smooshed. Still taste great, but not so pretty for presentation.

Here are my three chilled doughs: hazelnut thumbprint, cheddar thumbprint and gingerbread chocolate, with the jams all ready, too.
I like to make the doughs while dinner is cooking, then pop them in the 'fridge until the next morning. All three are sturdy. They need to be kneaded and formed into the nice packages you see here. I put the dough inside the plastic and then push it around and use my rolling pin and bench scraper to make a nice even square.

When I take the dough out, I cut it into cubes, making them all the same size. I like a small cookie, so I get around 48 cookies/recipe, but 36 cookies would yield a very nice sized cookie. Then roll into little balls and chill again for a couple of hours, then dip in egg white and chopped nuts (for the thumbprints) or roll in sugar (for the ginger/chocolate.)

I like making all the similar types of cookies on one day. It creates a rhythm - the oven temp is the same - and you need the same equipment. If you're thinking of a holiday baking day, you can make these three cookies in a total of five hours. You'll have a sweet, a savory and a chocolate - almost all the food groups!

Cheddar Thumbprints
Makes 48 two bite cookies

12 oz grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
4.5 oz unsalted butter
1-1/2 c flour
1 c toasted pecans, chopped very fine
2 egg whites, beaten
4 oz hot pepper jelly, habanero jelly, vidalia onion jam or apple butter

Cream together cheese and butter.
Add flour and beat until the mixture forms a ball.
Form dough into a disk and chill overnight. (or freeze for two hours)
Remove dough from the refrigerator and break off 1 tsp. pieces and form into a ball.
Chill for two hours.
Preheat oven to 350.
Line two baking sheets with parchment.
Put beaten egg whites in one bowl and pecans in another bowl.
Dip the cookie ball first into the egg white and then into the pecans.
Place an inch apart on the baking sheet.
Slide the baking sheet in the oven for five minutes. Remove and make a deep indentation in each cookie with the end of a wooden spoon or a small dowel. Spoon some jelly into the indentation.

Return the cookies to the oven and bake until the tops are lightly brown - about 10 minutes.
Cool completely on the sheet pan.
Will keep for three days. Store in layers between wax paper.

Hazelnut Thumbprints
Makes about 48
8 oz unsalted butter, softened
1 c sugar
2 egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla
2-1/2 c flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 c hazelnuts, chopped fine
4 Tbls sugar
2 egg whites
4 oz raspberry jam (Some people run the jam through a sieve to remove the seeds. I don't.)

Cream sugar and butter together in the mixer. Add egg yolks and vanilla and beat until well blended. Add flour and salt and combine well.
Chill dough in plastic wrap (form into a nice square) overnight.
Cut the dough into 48 pieces and form into balls.
Chill the balls on a sheet pan for two hours.
Preheat the oven to 350
Beat the egg whites in one bowl. Mix hazelnuts and sugar in another bowl.
Dip the balls in egg white and then in the hazelnut/sugar mixture and place on a parchment lined sheet pan.
Bake for 10 minutes. Remove and make a deep indentation in each cookie with the end of a wooden spoon or a small dowel. Spoon some jelly into the indentation.
Bake for an additional 8-10 minutes until golden brown.

Here's Beans the cat. She sat in this chair all day while I baked. I wish she could do the dishes.