December catch-up: Cocktails for 35+

12/13: We had a slightly last-minute cocktail party for our friends who were still in town by the second week of December. Ben bought a very large quantity of cheese at the Coop, and we still have tons of cashews from an unfortunate bulk-buy this fall. Our friend Nancy (the Foods that Begin with P genius) volunteered to bring sweets, so I was off the hook for dessert, thank god. I had made a double batch of the strange flavor eggplant earlier in the week so I’d have a bunch for the party, and we put that out with fresh croutons. Note to self: those flavors don’t just pull together as they sit, they strengthen. What had been sweet and spicy on Sunday was CRAZILY garlicky on Wednesday. Very potent.

For hot snacks we grilled sausages and cut them up into coins, which we passed around hot. I made about 80 little mozzarella balls wrapped in prosciutto, inspired by an appetizer I’d eaten in Boston that week. These were broiled and served hot, but sadly I didn’t think it through AT ALL, and I used fresh mozzarella balls instead of cutting up a wedge of firm mozzarella. The water content, of course, was far too high, and they melted all over the place instead of staying in tidy balls. They tasted great, though, and I want to try again soon with the right cheese! Here’s the top of my prepared mountain of them, before they met their melty fate:

Inspired by an old, old post on Chocolate and Zucchini for creatively flavored palmiers, I set out to make a savory version, using a couple spreads I bought at the Coop: one sun-dried tomato (not usually my favorite, but it worked here) and an olivata. This is SUPER simple and a useful trick. I thawed store-bought (Pepperidge Farms) puff pastry, laid it out flat, spread it with the…spreads, grated a bunch of parmesan over it, and then rolled it up from both sides. Once it was rolled all the way up (I don’t have a photo of that stage) I pressed the whole thing together firmly so it wouldn’t unroll, then threw it in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up. You don’t want it frozen, just hard enough that you can cut thin slices off with a serrated knife. I baked those, and voila, savory cocktail nibbles!
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There was slight confusion over the desserts and palmiers: one of the desserts was a fabulous batch of little turnovers filled with chocolate and nuts. I had couple people tell me they bit into those expecting meat, and the palmiers expecting sweet!

It was fun, though I didn’t have a sip of wine until all but a couple friends had left (we forced them to stay and visit and help us eat the cheese.) Amazing how many people can cram into a little house if you push all the furniture back against the wall…

December catch-up: Chinese food for four

December 10 we had our friends Stephen and Danielle over for dinner, and I broke out my wok and made a big stir-fry. Earlier in the day I made another double batch of Strange Flavor Eggplant, using the biggest eggplant I’ve ever seen:

I also spent much of the afternoon prepping, in my excruciatingly slow way, all the ingredients for the stir-fry, so that once the guests arrived I wouldn’t still be slaving away over the cutting board. I made Lemon Hoisin Chicken, another recipe from Barbara Tropp’s wonderful China Moon Cookbook, and an old favorite of my family’s. When I have made it before I left out the peppers completely (since I don’t like them), but I left them in this time so there would be some nice color contrast in the dish, which otherwise is a bit Blah Beige. I love napa cabbage, which plays a large role in this dish–I need to find some kind of good slaw recipe to use it when I make this stir-fry, since you use about half the head.
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I used a set of divided glass dishes my mom gave B a few years ago for the eggplant and some cashews:

And used the handy pasta bowls for the stir-fry (they were out of white short-grain rice at the Coop, so I used Brown…eh.):

For dessert I made caramel sauce (a recipe from Chris Kimball’s cookbook). It was very simple, though I burned the hell out of my finger. One flaw: it hardened as soon as it went on ice cream (and it was billed in the book as ice cream sauce), and not in a “oh, this fudge sauce firmed up” way, this was a solid caramel shell, nearly impossible to beat your way through with a spoon. We all ended up eating our ice cream and then sucking on the lumps of caramel at the end. It looked nice, though! I love salted caramels, so I sprinkled sea salt on before serving it.

All in all a nice casual dinner with friends. Ben thought the stir-fry was a bit too spicy but he was in the minority!

Impromptu Chicken Dinner for 5

Last week I bought my first ever chicken to roast whole, a challenge that I had been avoiding assiduously. Everyone says roasting chicken is incredibly easy, but I was a little overwhelmed by the whole “different sorts of meat at one time” thing. I figured I should get over it, bought the smallest chicken at the Coop (3 pounds), and planned to roast it for the two of us one night, along with brussels sprouts and potatoes. Then Tom emailed to see if we wanted to get together before he went home for the break, and I invited him to join us. No sweat, Tom understands, he’s family, it’s not a dinner party really. Then Ben went skiing with a friend from school and the friend and his wife were invited as well. Uh-oh. The friends had made us a lovely dinner a few weeks ago; I had really wanted to repay the favor by, say, making something I know how to cook.

But I faced the challenge, and got everything ready to go. I love brussels sprouts, especially when they’ve been roasted and are crispy (I need to replicate a recipe another friend made for us, in which she shredded the sprouts in her cuisinart and then roasted at high heat). I cut the sprouts in half, and just before putting them in the oven I tossed them with olive oil and a couple crushed garlic cloves, and spread them on a half sheet.
(Pretty! Another lovely vegetable:)

The potatoes were in two sizes–when I realized we were feeding 5 I asked Ben to pick up more, and he brought back much bigger potatoes! I cut everything into roughly equal slices, and tossed those in an oil/rosemary mixture, as directed by Bittman in How To Cook Everything. (This was mistake number one. I have a foolproof method for roasting crispy potatoes, and I strayed by not par-boiling these.) They went into the bottom of the roasting pan, and I slipped a little rack (from my slow cooker!) over them for the chicken, which was looking a little pathetic. Very small, and the skin was missing from a bit of the back…


At this point I eyed the sad little chicken, thought about feeding three adult men plus two women, and poked around in the cupboard for something to serve as a starter. I always have arborio, and risotto is one thing I can cook in my sleep (thanks Mom!), so that seemed like a safe bet. Of course, the Coop didn’t have dried porcini the time I went looking for them, so I had dried chanterelles, which turned out to be utterly flavorless. Nevertheless, I soaked a bunch of them, chopped them up fine, and fried a few in butter to top the risotto. The rest I stirred in once the shallot/onion was cooked.

Meanwhile the chicken and potatoes went into the over, and once there was 30 minutes (supposedly) left on cooking those, in went the brussels sprouts. We ate risotto. It was tasty. It looked pretty on my nice white pasta plates (this photo is actually the remainder from the pot, ungarnished; I forgot to photograph the plates).

Half an hour later, out come the brussels sprouts, a little too mushy, and in goes the meat thermometer. The chicken isn’t done. The potatoes are hard. Ok, more time. (Open another bottle of wine, honey!)

In with the thermometer. Maybe the chicken IS done! That reads 160 in a few places. I pull it out. Tom comes to see how I’m doing. We transfer the rocks/potatoes to the baking pan the sprouts were on, while Tom holds the chicken in the air with tongs down its neck. Potatoes back in the oven, chicken resting in the pan, another go with the thermometer and…it’s definitely not done. Back in the oven. Back out a while later, another rest, we start to carve it and despite all the statements to the contrary made by the thermometer, it is RAW along the backbone. Half flayed open, the poor thing goes BACK in the oven and I start making strange sounds under my breath. Ben comes in to see what’s taking so long. I say something rude. He retreats.

Tom picks the potatoes over and sorts out the ones that are somehow cooked.

Long story not-very-short, we did eventually serve dinner. It even tasted fine, though I was not thrilled with the not-crispy potatoes and the overdone sprouts. No one else seemed to notice or mind, though; Ben always says I obsess too much. The chicken, miraculously, was juicy and tender, if not the world’s most flavorful. It also lacked a crispy skin–can you imagine why? Sigh.


Interesting points:
1) Bittman’s carving instructions DID work. I was shocked to find myself suddenly producing a perfect boneless chicken breast. My knife did have a little trouble getting through the thigh joint, but Tom made it happen.

2) Good thing everyone drank two bottles of wine before dinner.

[An aside: Though we had a pathetic dusting a few weeks ago, during dinner we got our first real snow, leaving all the trees sparkly. After cleaning up the three million dishes at midnight, we went for a short walk and it was nice to finally see the neighborhood under snow!]

Potato Leek Soup (+ masterpiece cookies)

Another quick weeknight dinner; another recipe from mom. Potato Leek Soup is one of Ben’s favorites and is almost criminally easy to make. Practically no ingredients–leeks, potatoes, some butter and a little cayenne. I think leeks are so pretty, and it was fun to see their nice geometric shapes throughout the cutting-up. Ben prepared the potatoes for me, which sped the process up even more.
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I want to experiment more with leeks while they’re still in season… Maybe while I’m home for Christmas we could make a tart of some sort, maybe with blue cheese. The trick would be cutting them up so that bites could be taken without coming away with a stringy beard of leeks!

Speaking of Ben in the kitchen, he has been doing more than brownies from a mix lately! Last week at the Coop he presented me with a bag of chocolate chips, pointed out the tollhouse cookie recipe, and asked which other things we didn’t have at home. He then made the cookies from scratch, and they turned out to be quite wonderful:

Sugo al Burro e Pomodoro

A favorite cookbook in my family is The (sadly out-of-print) Classic Pasta Cookbook by Marcella Hazan’s son Giuliano. It looks sort of like a kid’s book (it is published by the Eyewitness Books people, I think), with photos illustrating each recipe, but the recipes are really good and quite sophisticated and traditional.

My version of the ingredients:

I finally received my very own copy of the book recently, but hadn’t used it yet, and I broke it in for a casual dinner last week by making the simplest thing in the book: a tomato and butter sauce, which I served over store-bought fresh ravioli. Very easy, very comforting, and quite pretty–the (large amount of) butter gives this a softer flavor and color than marinara-style tomato sauces.

-2 14 oz tins of whole peeled tomatoes with their juice, coarsely chopped [I use one -28 oz can of the muir glen chopped ones]
-3.5 oz butter
-1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
-4 T freshly grated parmesan cheese
Put all ingredients except the cheese in a saucepan and simmer over a low heat until tomatoes have reduced and separated from the butter: 20-40 minutes depending on the size of the pan.
Remove from the heat and set aside, discarding the onion halves.
Toss the pasta in the hot sauce with the cheese.

(Gah, all my evening photos are so blurry—the lighting in the kitchen is terrible! I’m sorry.)

The best part, though, was the leftover sauce. The next day I suddenly felt inspired to use the sauce in my lunch, and I put it over fried eggs on sourdough toast. I could write a whole post about how much I love fried eggs on toast, and eggs in almost any form, but this was especially good. The soft flavor of the tomato sauce was perfect with the egg but did add a nice fresh taste, and made the whole thing seem more lunchy.

It was pretty, too.

Pink and Purple Potatoes (for 15)

Last weekend we went to a wonderful dinner at our friend Nancy’s house, during which she served three courses to 15 people without breaking a sweat. Nancy, who is the whimsical sort, had decided to cook a meal consisting of Foods That Begin With P. The first course was a pair of “petit pot-pies” (little tartlets filled with delicious fillings) served on a warm potato salad with some greens. For the main course we ate *sensational* Pork loin wrapped in Prosciutto, served with roasted Parsnips and Pears. Dessert was a tiny poached pear perched charmingly atop ice cream.

I just love this photo I took of the potatoes for the salad, before the were roasted—the Coop had Purple AND Pink varieties in stock the day of the party! (No food coloring was used.)

I was inspired by her composure and organization. Clearly I must aim higher in giving dinner parties!

Sausage soup for four, Hearty breakfast for Tree-Hunting.

(Still playing catch-up…)

A couple weeks ago I finally got around to trying my mom’s Simple Sausage Soup recipe, which she had long been telling me was a great weeknight soup. It involves a bit of sausage browned first in the pan, then held back to be added in at the end, cannelini beans, good canned tomatoes (Muir Glen), and not too much else.
At the end, along with the sausage, you add in a couple handfuls of julienned spinach. I improvised when I discovered that the soup was much more liquidy than I like–I’m a big fan of thick soups and don’t usually like brothy ones as much–and pureed some of the beans in the pot using my immersion blender. (That, by the way, is among my best wedding gifts. I use it several times a week, for pureeing soups, making strange flavor eggplant, beating egg whites, etc. It’s so easy to clean, I’m much more willing to use it than the cuisinart or a blender or something.)

I served the soup with assorted panini, which I forgot to photograph, and it was a nice quick dinner for a couple friends.

[Sidetrack about plates: I never thought much about plating my food before moving up here, since I so rarely cooked anything beyond a friend egg sandwich, scrambled eggs with toast, etc. We did get 12 place settings of nice china for the wedding, but we currently have them in storage until we’re settled into our long-term apartment next year. So our combined dishes are plentiful, but utilitarian and not very refined. We also didn’t have any pasta/soup bowls. I hated serving pasta and soup to guests in big tall cereal bowls, so we picked up 8 simple shallow bowls at Ikea last month, and I’ve really enjoyed using them. In fact, I’ve used them for the last 4 or 5 dinners I’ve made, in a row!]

Last weekend my dear friend Bridge came for a visit with her boyfriend, and we went Christmas Tree Hunting. To prepare for a day prowling the wilds of New Hampshire (actually a Vermont tree farm; very rustic) we made an enormous country breakfast. Ben is the Pancake Man in our house, and I contributed eggs and sausage. I dearly, dearly love breakfast…

Thus fortified, we triumphed over nature with the acquisition of a very lovely tree:

Which was soon trimmed, to great effect:

So festive!


We spent a week on Long Island for Thanksgiving. Tom joined us for most of it, and I spent a lot of time shuttling to and from the city for work and play.

Before Tom joined us Ben and I went for a cool walk on the grounds of an old estate that backs up to his family’s house. It was a gorgeous late afternoon.

Late sun through ornamental grass in the yard:

Wonderful weathered red shutter on a collapsed potting shed abandoned in the woods:

The last gasp of sunset:

We cooked most of the sides for Thanksgiving: Super-creamy (and amazing) mashed potatoes (wheeee, 6 pounds of potatoes, 3 cups of cream, 3 sticks of butter!), stuffing/dressing, cranberry sauce and gravy. It was my first attempt at any of those things and I was delighted that everything turned out well. The gravy freaked me out because the turkey turned out to have dropped 2 cups or fat with virtually no juice. Since nothing separated I assumed it was all juice, no fat, used butter to make my roux, then found myself with a separating greasy mess of gravy. I eventually drained off most of the fat and gave it a final good whisking before giving up, and Poof, it pulled together, very velvety and glossy if a bit (a lot) thick.

Ben’s brother John’s second or third helping:

On our final night on the Island, Tom made one of his standby specialties, chicken with cashews. Delicious as always!

Pasta for four (2 veggies), Chinese eggplant for a crowd, a nearly un-recorded dinner for 8

Another long delay in posts but I have a bunch coming.

A couple groups including vegetarians came over in mid-November. For the first duo, it was just four of us and I made Mom’s Penne Vodka recipe. It came out well but I was a little short on sauce–I should have kept back some of the pasta when I was mixing it. A tiny bit spicy for me, too, even though I went with the low-end red pepper measurement, but the guests liked it fine.

That Sunday I was going to a Gourmet Club meeting (all Partners of students up here), and the theme was Foods We’re Thankful For. I was bringing an appetizer and decided to ignore the harvest-theme in favor of something I’m actually thankful for. For appetizers, that left me with two eggplant options, Mirza (a Persian spread/dip that I’m obsessed with) or Strange Flavor Eggplant, a fantastic recipe from Barbara Tropp’s China Moon Cookbook. Since Mirza looks even worse than most eggplant dishes and really leans on excellent tomatoes for flavor, I went with the chinese version, which is super simple and wonderful. It was the amuse bouche at China Moon, and it’s sweet + spicy (“strange flavor); delicious on crispy garlic croutons/crostini.
Lots of ginger, garlic, scallions and some red pepper for the aromatics.

Pureed roasted eggplant, sauce made from soy, vinegar, brown sugar.

After a quick stir-fry, it’s all done:

I was a little nervous about taking it to the club (afraid it would come off as weird and off-topic) but people loved it. It’s an especially good intro point for people who don’t think they like eggplant!

The next night we were hosting a study group that Ben is advising. It was a total of eight, including two more vegetarians, so I spent Sunday afternoon on the phone with Mom as we both made meat lasagna. (I forgot to take any photos.) I also made a meat-free baked ziti. With about 4 pounds of meat, sauce, cheese and pasta resting in the fridge overnight, I just had to make dessert and salad on Monday. I baked another Mom recipe (sense a theme here?), an Almond cake that was more like a torte. I think maybe my pan was a bit big? The cake was very thin but delicious and quite rich since it’s mostly almond paste.

For salad I half-replicated a favorite salad from Inoteca in the city. I had mesclun instead of romaine, but I cut up half a head of radicchio and dressed those together, then topped each plate with a MOUNTAIN of finely shredded ricotta salata. (Now that I think of it I should have made a ricotta cake of some sort for dessert and had a themed meal!) My rotary grater worked perfectly for the cheese, which I’d feared would be a bit soft. It made a much fluffier pile than a regular grater would have.

Burgers for four.

Two of my best friends from Fortune were in town for a journalism workshop, so they joined us for dinner on 11/1. Back at the beginning of the year I had made the pork burgers from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, which Tom had seen on the blog Well Fed. They’re a little rich for my taste (they have chorizo AND bacon in them) but Ben loved them and he wanted to grill again while the weather was nice. There are a lot of ingredients in the burgers, though I left out the cumin, which I dislike.

The meat: Ground pork, bacon, chorizo. (+parsley)
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Flavoring: Shallots, a mild roasted chile powder, thyme leaves, lots of garlic, salt. These are sautéed together before being added to the meat mixture.
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Then the whole mess is shaped into burgers:

Then grilled, topped with manchego cheese, arugula and tomatoes, and served on toasted rolls slathered with a cheater’s version of aioli (mayo with mashed garlic and some cayenne):
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I served a salad and some roasted potatoes on the side, but the potatoes weren’t as good as usual–I’d cheaped out and gotten regular red potatoes instead of the new ones, and so instead of quartering them and having nice evenly-sized pieces, I had to cut them up smaller and it was a bit of a mess.

Still, the burgers tasted great–I liked them much better this time–and it was a fun night. I missed having my cooking buddy, Tom, to help with the chopping/mixing, though.

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