Sunday, January 31, 2010

Candied Kumquats


I love making New Year resolutions, and this year I outdid myself.  Check out my list:

1. Be more generous (which happily goes hand in hand with the weekly dinner parties),           2. Experience Chicago to the fullest, 3. Finally put our wedding photos into an actual album (we’ve been married over three years now!), 4. Go to more garage sales, 5. Learn more about opera, 6. Can a homemade preserve, once a month, 7. Be more stylish, 8. Drink more water, 9. Drink more wine, 10. Collect and compile all of the Schoen family recipes into a little cookbook, and of course 11. Stop biting my fingernails (an annual member of the list)

It’s a big list, a bit daunting, but realistic too, I think, and after a month, I’m feeling pretty good about my progress.  Some resolutions I’ve been really good about keeping (1, 5 & 9), some may take a little while to get rolling (4 & 8), some are pretty vague and not even measurable (2 & 7, but I’m working at ‘em), some technically don’t even have to be accomplished until the end of the year (3, & 10) so I’ve got time, and one has a very slim likelihood of ever actually happening (11, but I won’t be too hard on myself).



But it’s number six (Can a homemade preserve, once a month) that I’ll talk about today, in this first non-dinner-party-related blog post.

I’ve canned from time to time throughout the years, but all too seldom. I love having homemade preserves around the house, to eat ourselves or give away as gifts. It’s always a project I really get into – a great way to celebrate seasonal produce, and such a blast. But for some reason it’s one of those things that no matter how much I wish I did more of, I never do enough. So I decided that in 2010, this just had to change. And so arose New Year resolution number six.  I’m even toying with the idea of holding onto a few jars from each month, and giving a whole year’s worth of homemade preserves as Christmas presents to some extra-special people.

IMG_0998 IMG_1074

Last week I made January’s preserve, Candied Kumquats. I’m simply obsessed with candied citrus – sweet and sticky, bright with tart citrus flavor - and when I found a great deal on some beautiful kumquats at the neighborhood fruit market (I mean, seriously cheap), I knew right away what my first monthly preserve would have to be.


A kumquat is a tiny, orange citrus fruit, about the size of a big olive.  They’re kind of like mini oranges, just their flavors are inside-out – Their insides are sour and their skins are sweet.  And they’re so cute too!  Pretty photogenic, don’t you think?


You can eat them whole– just plop them into your mouth– although they’re pretty intense this way and I only ever eat a few whole ones at a time.  And they’re really great for thinly slicing into circles and adding to salads.  But my absolute favorite way to eat kumquats is candied.


Simmering for only a few minutes in a sugar syrup turns kumquats into tender, glossy, sugar-soaked confections.  The syrup seeps into their every nook and cranny, saturating every cell and turning the tiny fruits into gleaming, nearly transparent jewels of bright orange.  When I’m not eating them by whole spoonfuls, I like to drizzle them, along with their syrup, over vanilla ice cream, or on top of pancakes.  They’re wonderful with all sorts of desserts, say like anything chocolate.  And they’re perfect served alongside different cheeses, for an extraordinary cheese course.  Or the syrup itself can be combined with seltzer or booze to create kumquat flavored cocktails.  Yum!  The uses are endless, but always incredibly delicious.


Candied Kumquats
for 1 pound of fruit

Vanilla is such a nice addition. It complements the sweetness and rounds out the tart edge. The specks of vanilla seeds do add a nice touch of style too.


1 # kumquats (just about 4 cups)
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split down the middle and seeds scraped

Wash kumquats in cool soapy water, then rinse really well in cool running water. Remove the stems and slice each kumquat in half through the center of the fruit (not end to end, but like, around the equator). Now remove the seeds. The amount and size of seeds varies from fruit to fruit. I find it helps to squeeze the kumquat half just a bit, in order to push the big seeds out. Only worry about the big seeds, the ones that get squeezed out. Don’t stress about the little ones – when this is all through, you’ll never even know they’re there.

Now, combine the water and sugar in a cooking pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally to help dissolve all of the sugar. Add the vanilla bean half and its seeds to the syrup. Simmer gently for 5 minutes, then add the kumquat halves and stir to combine. Return to a simmer, and then adjust the heat to keep the simmer at a bare minimum. Continue to simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat. Remove the vanilla bean half and discard. Remove kumquats with a slotted spoon, and set aside. Return the syrup to the heat and simmer gently for 5 more minutes.

At this point, you can fill canning jars near-full with the candied fruit, cover them with the 
syrup, and then follow a basic canning procedure, in order to keep these at room temperature for up to a year. (Any left-over syrup is great on its own too. You can jar this too, all by itself.)

Or you can combine the kumquats and syrup, allow them to cool to room temperature, and then store refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to two weeks.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Guys’ Night = Steak Night


I’ll admit, this week’s menu was none too creative.  It’s ultra-typical actually.  Kind of plain old boring even.  Take a look and see for yourself…

Winter Salad with Dried Tart Cherries, Cinnamon-Spiced Pecans, 
Sliced Red Onions and Crumbled Blue Cheese

       Skillet-Seared Strip Steak with Parmesan-Creamed Spinach and French-Fried        Yukon Gold Potatoes 

          Brownie Sundaes with Hot Fudge Sauce, Whipped Cream, Toasted Walnuts,                and a Cherry on Top

See what I mean.  It could come straight from any steak house in America.  Certainly not Haute Cuisine.  It sure doesn’t take a professional chef to think up this kind of stuff. 

But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this menu.  Because I have to tell you, this dinner was Good with a capital G.  Darn Good.  And you know why?  Well, because I didn’t just make plain-old steak, creamed spinach and french fries.  I made the best ever steak, creamed spinach and french fries.  And the same with the salad and dessert too.  The best ever vinaigrette, the best ever brownies, the best ever hot fudge. 

So while a bit on the boring side on paper, on the plate this meal was nothing short of spectacular.  Trust me when I say this:  You’re going to want to pay attention to these recipes.  Each and every last one is a complete winner.  A must try.


And now that I sound one-hundred percent full of myself, I’d like to make clear one thing.  Many of these recipes here today are not even my own.  A few are, but most are pretty thoroughly adapted from other chefs’ recipes.  So again, I’m none too original this week.   But I don’t care at all.  Because sometimes, for the sake of eating yummy food, you have to swallow your pride and follow a recipe or two (or five).  Even when you’re a so called professional :). 

Now, let’s set the stage.  This week we had another quite exceptional guest of honor, Ramón, an old friend of Ben’s, who’s from Spain, but has lived in Australia for the past ten years, and was once upon a time a foreign exchange student living with Ben’s family in Geneseo, NY.  So, it was this worldly guy whom we shared our dinner table with last Thursday.  Though I’d heard plenty about Ramón, we’d never met before.  But I liked him right away.  He was full of fun ideas, was gracious and warm, and was super-enthusiastic about everything.  In short, he was a blast to have over for dinner, and I can definitely see why he and Ben have been friends for so long. 

And so, to celebrate Ben’s guy friend, we wanted to have a guy-ish sort of meal.  And that meant steak, plain and simple.  So now let’s talk about the food.

And let’s start with the salad.  Now, people have been tossing salads just like this for at least a decade or so.  Blue cheese, spiced pecans, dried cherries.  It’s a common theme among salads, but one I have little interest in composing variations to.  You know why?  Because it works.  It worked then, it works now, and it always will work.  The salty, pungent, creamy blue cheese, the tart and chewy cherries, the warm and spicy-sweet crunchy pecans.  I’m obsessed with each of these ingredients just on their own.  But man, when you put them together, what a combination!  And they’re pretty as anything, all together too. Oh, and the vinaigrette that goes with it is just perfect.  For nearly any salad I ever make, I use the same basic ratio, and just sub in different vinegars and seasonings.  Check out the recipe.  It’s seriously good.  Based on a typical French vinaigrette, it’s one of my very own best evers.  


Okay, I’m gonna let you in on a big secret here.  Really, a real secret.  I’m embarrassed to tell you even.  Really, I don’t know why I’m admitting this.  I don’t want to lose credibility with you all, especially so early on in this blogging relationship.  Please don’t think any less of me as a chef, when I tell you that… well, here goes… I had to get a little extra help when it came to cooking the steaks. It doesn’t get any more basic than that.  Pan-searing is a technique I learned in my Cooking Skills 101 class at culinary school.  And I’d grilled about a hundred million steaks in a handful of restaurants, before ever even going to school.  So this was something I should have been perfectly capable of doing all by myself.  But the sad truth is, I wasn’t. 

It’s just that these were really nice NY Strip steaks.  Really nice.  They came from grass-fed cows, they were dry aged, and were twice as expensive as anything else in the meat case at Whole Foods.  (Side note: We only eat steak like once a year or so, so we decided a splurge like this was worthwhile.)  So I really didn’t want to mess up and overcook the steaks.  And this flashback from few years back when we’d splurged on steaks and I overcooked ‘em kept popping into my head.  And earlier in the week, when I was flipping through the pages of an old Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, looking for my favorite buttermilk pancake recipe, I happened to come across an article called The Secrets of Pan-frying Steak.  Well, of course I had to read it.  And of course, I had to try it too. 

You see, I inherently trust every last word from Cook’s Illustrated.  It’s my favorite magazine out there.  For those of you who don’t know too much about it, here’s Cook’s Illustrated in a nutshell.  They take classic recipes, say like Strawberry Shortcake or Eggs Benedict or yeah, Buttermilk Pancakes, and use the scientific method to perfect them.  They’ll attempt a single recipe dozens and dozens (sometimes hundreds) of times, tweaking and fine-tuning at every attempt, until they arrive at absolute perfection.  And what’s really cool, each of the articles describes this whole process they went through to reach this ultimate recipe.  Everything I’ve ever made from this magazine has been spot on.  And anytime I want to make something classic, say like brownies or spiced nuts or hot fudge (yep, I relied pretty heavily on the Cook’s Illustrated this week), I usually at least check out what they have to say.  Really, I have to attribute the sheer magnificence of this week’s dinner to Cook’s Illustrated.  I couldn’t have done it without you.

So, I followed The Secrets of Pan-frying Steak directions to the T, and then threw in a step of my own and poured melted butter all over them.  And believe me when I tell you (you really should trust me by now, after all that honesty I just laid out on the table) these steaks were unbelievably, insanely good.  The method is failsafe, and it’s the one I’m going to follow from now on, forever. 

Okay, onto the sides.  The creamed spinach to be exact.  Now I’m sure Cook’s Illustrated has a recipe for this – this is just their kinda thing.  But I went with my own for this one, because over the last few years, I’ve made creamed spinach enough times myself, that I think I’ve reached perfection all on my own.  The whole thing is just, well, exactly right.  Emerald green ribbons of tender baby spinach wrapped in a cozy blanket of creamy sauce.  Mmmmm.  Each ingredient plays an important part, but none is too obvious.  It’s these subtle touches that make this such a sweetly humble, but utterly delicious dish. 


Now the french fries.  They’re not only the best ever french fries.  They’re the official best ever french fries.  Seriously.  It’s been officially proven by the Alicia Foundation (a food science research institute in Catalonia, and the place where I was lucky enough to work for a while last year), that these are the best french fries in all of creation.  In true Cook’s Illustrated fashion, Alicia took a scientific approach to creating the perfect fry.  And what they came up with really, truly is the best.  It’s a revolutionary method, but one that’s easy enough to pull off at home.  I won’t blab on about it now.  I’ve done enough of that already today, and plus, the recipe speaks for itself.  Go check it out.  Oh, but I should tell you a bit about the fries themselves, because the recipe alone can’t begin to relay the vast scope of their staggering deliciousness.  Let me just say, they’re like these rich and creamy sticks of mashed potato, oh so gently enclosed in the most delicate, web-like crust of golden crispiness. You’ve never had French fries like these before.  They’re beyond perfect.

On to dessert.  Brownie sundaes are Ben’s favorite dessert, I think.  At least, they’re the one he asks for most often.  Not that I blame him.  Really, what’s better than this combination?  Cold and rich vanilla ice cream, warm and chewy chocolate brownies, fluffy clouds of whipped cream,  studs of toasty walnuts and thick, gooey hot fudge oozing over everything.  Oh, and let’s not forget the cherry!

The Cook’s Illustrated (oh my gosh, I’m such a broken record!) brownies have been in my arsenal for a few years now, and I’ve more recently been introduced to their stellar hot fudge sauce.  The hot fudge does that thing where it gets a little bit chewy when you pour it over cold ice cream, which to be honest, has always been my favorite thing about hot fudge.  And the brownies are simply awesome.  After making these the first time, I knew I’d never follow another brownie recipe for as long as I live.  Now like with any cookie, everyone has their own opinion of what makes the best brownie.  In my version of the best, it’s a brownie that’s chewy but not exactly fudgy, tender on the insides, but not, definitely not cakey, and with a crisp and crackly top crust and really, really chewy sides.  If you too like brownies just like these, do go and try this recipe.  I promise, you won’t be disappointed at all!


Well, that’s all for now.  Thanks for putting up with all my insecurities regarding my huge lack of creativity this week.  I do feel like a bit of an imposter when I follow anyone else’s recipe too closely, but like I said before, it can’t be such a bad thing, if it’s done in the name of yummy-ness.  And this entire menu was nothing if not for yummy-ness. 

Green  Salad with All My Favorite Fixin’s 
Serves 4 

I can’t say enough how important it is to season your salads at the very end with salt & pepper.  Be liberal with both, and you’ll turn a pretty good salad into something sensational, something so amazingly tasty you’ll want to forsake good manners and just shovel it into your mouth. 


For the vinaigrette:
1 egg yolk *
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 small clove garlic, peeled & finely minced
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or any mildly-flavored oil, like canola or grape seed)
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste 

For the rest of the salad:
mixed greens (such as baby spinach, butter lettuce or radicchio), torn into
    bite-sized pieces, enough for four people
a good handful of cinnamon-spiced pecans (see recipe just below)
a good handful of dried cherries
half a small red onion, very thinly sliced and soaked in cool H2O for 15 min **
about 6 oz good blue cheese, crumbled
1 small pear, thinly sliced (which I completely forgot to add, but I think would
    still be a pretty good addition)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

First make the vinaigrette:  Combine the egg yolk, mustard, vinegar, thyme, minced garlic, a good pinch of salt and a good few grinds of pepper.  Whisk together, and slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  This can be made ahead (but only by about a day, thanks to the raw yolk) and stored in an airtight container until needed.

Next, assemble the salad: Combine the greens, and most of the spiced pecans, dried cherries, sliced onion, crumbled blue cheese and sliced pear in a large bowl.  (I say most of the pecans, cherries, etc. because you’ll want to keep a little bit left over to top the salads.  It’s always nice to have some of the pretty stuff right on top.) Drizzle a bit of the vinaigrette on top.  Don’t use it all here, just enough to thinly coat everything to your liking, and save the rest for a nice salad tomorrow.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Toss to coat thoroughly, and place onto salad plates.  Top with the rest of the pecans, cherries, onion, blue cheese and pear.  Serve immediately.

*  I know some of you may be sketched out but the raw yolk here.  I’m usually pretty courageous about things like this, but certainly Salmonella is nothing to flirt with.  I always, always make sure to use the freshest eggs possible - organic and free-range eggs wouldn’t hurt at all.  Of course, you can always omit the yolk altogether, and make a perfectly good vinaigrette.  But I love the addition of the yolk.  It really helps the emulsion, and lends a creamy smooth texture to the vinaigrette.

** A lot of people are wary of raw onions.  But I love what they can add to a salad – a pretty pink color, a nice crunch, and truly, a great flavor.  So most times when I use raw onions, I take this extra step: I place the sliced/chopped/diced onions in a small container and cover them with cool water.  I let them soak in the water at least fifteen minutes and then drain them.  This takes the pungent edge off, and lets the onions serve as a nice addition to the overall dish, rather than taking over and being super obvious. 

Cinnamon-Spiced Pecans
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Holiday Entertaining 2009
Makes 1 cup

These are so good you’ll want to ‘test’ a few, you know, just to make sure they’re not poisonous or anything.  Maybe do yourself a favor, and plan to make extras.


1 cup pecan halves
2 Tbl sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbl rum (but only if you have it on hand; otherwise you can just use water)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp dark brown sugar
1 Tbl butter

First toast the pecans.  Preheat the oven to 350°F, line a sheet pan with parchment paper and spread the pecans across the paper.  Toast for five minutes, turn the pan, and continue to toast until you can smell the nice nutty aroma and the color of the nuts has deepened a bit, about 10-15 minutes total.  Remove from the oven and reserve the nuts.

Next, combine the sugar, kosher salt and ground cinnamon in a medium bowl.  Stir together and set aside. 

In a medium saucepan, combine the rum, vanilla, brown sugar and butter.  Stir to combine and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly.  When it comes to a boil, add the toasted pecans.  Stir to completely coat the nuts with the glaze.  Continue to cook, stirring constantly until nearly all the liquid has evaporated, about 1-2 minutes.  Immediately transfer the glazed pecans to the bowl with the sugar mixture and toss to completely coat the nuts with the sugar.  Transfer the coated nuts back to the parchment-lined sheet tray.  Allow to sit until cooled to room temperature, and then store in an air-tight container.  These will last about a week. 

Skillet-Seared Strip Steak
Method adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, May/June 1997
Serves 4


Just look at that beautiful pink center!  Is that perfection or what?!  Seriously, the method I describe below is failsafe.  I still can’t quite get over it. 

4 boneless strip steaks, about 1-1 1/2 inch thick and 10-12 oz each
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbl vegetable or canola oil
1/2 stick butter (4 Tbl), melted

Allow the steaks to sit at room temperature for at least an hour or so before you cook them – it’s always best not to work with super cold meat.  

Heat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet for 10 minutes over medium-high heat.  After 10 minutes, thoroughly dry the steaks by patting with paper towels, then season them liberally on both sides with salt and pepper. (Wait until the last minute to season, because in order to get a good sear, you’ll want the meat as dry as possible, and salt will cause juices to come to the surface of the steaks.) 

Add oil to the pan and swirl to coat the bottom.  Add the steaks to the pan, cover with a splatter screen.  You’ll definitely want to use a splatter screen!  And while you’re at it, turn on the fan over the stove, and maybe even open all your windows :). 

Cook the steaks for five minutes, then flip them over and cook for 3 more minutes for rare (120°F on the inside), 4 more minutes for medium rare (125°F), 5 more minutes for medium (130-135°F), and please, if you want them any more done than that, don’t bother with steak at all ;).  But if you must… If you’re after medium-well (150°F), cook 6 minutes on the first side and another six minutes on the flip side.  Cook 7-8 minutes on each side for well (160°F).  Remove the steaks from the pan and allow to rest on a plate for 5-10 minutes, covered with tin foil, before serving.  (Resist the urge to check the doneness by slicing into one of the steaks.  That will just cause you to lose out on tons of flavorful juice.  Just trust me - This method will give you a perfect steak, done just to your liking.  If you simply must check the doneness, do it with an instant thermometer.)

Now, to bring these steaks completely over the top, pour a tablespoon of melted butter over each one, and then serve immediately. 

Parmesan Creamed Spinach
Serves 4

For the ease of throwing a dinner party, I like to make this dish in a few steps, over the course of 24 hours.  I wilt the spinach the day before and keep it covered overnight in the refrigerator.  I prep all the other ingredients and go through the rest of the steps right before the guests come.  Then I just keep the creamed spinach in its pan, out of the way at the back of the stove, and reheat it over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, at the last minute.  It couldn’t be easier this way, and you’d never know you made it ahead.  It tastes perfectly fresh.  And really, really fabulous.

1 # baby spinach, stems removed
2 Tbl butter
3 Tbl finely chopped shallot
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 Tbl flour
3/4 cup whole milk, warm
1/4 cup cream, warm
1/4 cup grated parmesan
pinch nutmeg
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Add the spinach and about 2 Tbl water to a large pot.  Place over medium heat, and stir constantly as the spinach thoroughly wilts.  Remove from the heat, and allow to cool a few minutes.  When cool enough to handle, squeeze the spinach with your hands to press out as much water as possible.  At this point, the spinach can be covered and refrigerated until needed (overnight, even). 

In a medium sauté pan, melt the butter over low-medium heat.  Add the shallot and a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Sweat the shallots until they just turn translucent and then add the garlic and cook about one minute more, until fragrant but not browned.  Add the flour and cook, stirring, about two minutes, until nutty smelling.  Slowly add the warmed milk, whisking as you pour, about a 1/4 cup at a time, whisking until it is thoroughly incorporated into the flour mixture.  Then add the warmed cream and whisk to thoroughly combine.  Add the parmesan and a pinch of nutmeg, and season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Bring to a simmer and cook for about two minutes.  Add the wilted spinach and mix to thoroughly coat the spinach with the sauce.  Taste and season with more salt and pepper if needed.  Either keep on heat about two more minutes, stirring frequently, until heated through, and serve immediately.  Or set aside for a little while, and reheat when ready to serve.  Also, this is perfectly good, stored in an air-tight container in the fridge, and re-heated for leftovers.

‘The Best’ French Fried Potatoes
Recipe of the Alicia Foundation
Serves 4

Be prepared here: These need an over-night freezing, so you’ve got to start this a day ahead.  But trust me, it’s worth the wait!


36 oz Yukon gold potatoes
fry oil (vegetable or canola or peanut), as needed
kosher salt, to taste

Peel the potatoes, slice them into half-inch batons and keep them submerged under cool water until ready to cook.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the sliced potatoes and adjust the heat so that the water says at the very barest simmer, so that only a few little bubbles escape each second.  Be very gently with the potatoes, stirring only occasionally to make sure they don’t stick the bottom of the pan.  Continue cooking at a gentle, gentle simmer until the potatoes are cooked through, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and gently lay the potatoes on a sheet pan covered with bed of paper towels, arranging them in a single layer.  Allow to dry and cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and freeze overnight. 

If you don’t have a deep fryer, prepare a makeshift one.  Fill a medium pot with about 4-6 inches of oil (making sure to leave at least another 4-6 inches of room at the top, so that it won’t boil over when you add the potatoes).  Using a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, bring the oil to 350°F.  Add about a third of the sliced frozen potatoes.  Stir once gently with a slotted spoon, just to make sure they don’t stick to each other or the sides of the pan.  Keep an eye on the temperature and keep adjusting the heat to maintain the 350°F.  Fry until crisp and perfectly golden.  Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a bed of paper towels.  Sprinkle with kosher salt.  Repeat twice more with the remaining two-thirds of potatoes.  Serve immediately.  Seriously, these fries must be fried at the very last minute!!  It’s absolutely key.  And everything hinges on this.  But have no fear, a meal like this sets itself up perfectly for last-minute frying.  As you rest your meat (which is an essential step, for the sake of juiciness), you’ll have the perfect amount of time to fry your fries.  What could be more convenient?

Brownie Sundaes
Serves 4


4 large brownies (see recipe below)
4 big scoops great-quality vanilla ice cream
hot fudge sauce, as needed (see recipe below)
toasted walnuts, as needed (following the same method as described above for
    toasting the pecans)
whipped cream, as needed (see recipe just below)
4 maraschino cherries

Reheat brownies (just cheat and use the microwave) and place one each in the bottom of four bowls.  Top each brownie with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Cover with a good douse of hot fudge, and then with a good dollop of whipped cream.  Sprinkle with a handful of toasted walnuts, top it all off with a cherry, and dig in.

For the whipped cream
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbl sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whip cream to soft peaks. Add sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks.

Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, March 2004
Makes about 18-24 brownies, depending on what size you’re after 

These are a great for making a day ahead, to free yourself some time the day of the get-together.  Sometimes I think they’re even better the next day :).


1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
6 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine
1 1/2 sticks butter (12 Tbl)
2 1/2 cups sugar (!)
4 large eggs
1 Tbl vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325°F and place the oven rack in the middle of the oven.  Cover the bottom and sides of a 9x13” casserole pan with two sheets of tin foil, so that one fits across the long side and the other across the short side, pushing them into the corners and up the sides of the pan.  Fold the excess handing edges over the outside of the pan.  Spray with nonstick spray.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk to combine the flour, salt and baking powder.  Set aside.  Melt the chocolate and butter in a large heat-proof bowl set over a medium pot filled with about an inch or two of simmering water.  Stir occasionally until melted and smooth.  Gradually whisk in the sugar.  Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking to incorporate after each addition.  Whisk in the vanilla.  Add the flour mixture, a third at a time, folding it in with a rubber spatula until smooth.  Pour this mixture into the prepared pan and smooth out the top with the rubber spatula.  Bake until a toothpick stuck into the center pulls out with just a few crumbs sticking to it, about 30-35 minutes.  Cool about two hours, until it reaches room temperature.  Remove from the pan, peel off the foil, and cut into square brownies.  Can be stored in an air-tight container at room temperature for about 3-4 days.

Hot Fudge Sauce
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, July 1997
Makes about 2 cups

Oh, you know how, in most situations, I advise you to use only the best quality ingredients.  I think this sauce could be an exception.  I don’t want to name any names, but go with those regular chocolate chips for this.  I’m not sure why exactly, but good chocolate can get a bit lost in this sauce.  Maybe it’s because most of the hot fudge eating experiences throughout my life were in places like Friendly’s and TCBY.  (Perfectly great places, but something tells me they probably don’t use fine chocolate.)  Sometimes, you just like what you’re used to, you know?  Anyways, no need to splurge here.

10 oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup sifted Dutch process cocoa powder
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 Tbl butter, cut into small pieces

Melt the chocolate in a large heat-proof bowl set over a medium pot filled with about an inch or two of simmering water.  Stir occasionally until melted and smooth.  Remove from the heat and add the cocoa.  Whisk to dissolve.  Set aside.

Add the sugar, corn syrup, cream, salt and 1/3 cup water to a medium saucepan set over low heat.  Stir until sugar dissolves.  Increase heat to medium-high and simmer mixture, stirring frequently for about 4 minutes.  Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and butter, stirring until the butter melts.  Cool about two minutes, then whisk in the melted chocolate.  Serve warm.  Can be kept in the refrigerator for about 10 days in an air-tight container.  Reheat in a microwave for about 1 1/2 minutes, stirring every thirty seconds.   

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Long Lost Celebration


I rambled on and on (and on) last week before I ever even gave you the barest hint at what I actually cooked for dinner.  And now that I think about it, I’m not sure if those digressions made for the best first impression.  I’m actually quite fond of a good ramble, especially when it comes to food. 

But I’m also awfully fond of structure.  So in order to give some guise of literary structure to my ramblings, I think it’s best that I present to you the weekly menu, straight away.  Here it is.

Wild Mushroom & Gruyere Tart

Pan-Seared Sea Scallops with Braised Leeks, Roasted Beets and Blood Orange Beurre Blanc

Chocolate Bread Pudding with Banana Ice Cream

And oh wow, it just turned out fabulous!  A fabulous dinner for an even fabulous-er  guest. (I’m also really fond of poetic license, if you haven’t already noticed.)  This Friday we had my lovely, long-lost cousin Katelyn over for dinner. 


Katelyn is my second cousin.  My Grandpa Schoen and her grandma were brother and sister, and my mom and her dad are cousins.  Now, our family is huge, and despite growing up in the same town, I’m not certain Katelyn and I have ever actually met before.  If we have, it would have been years ago, and she would have been like, six, and me sixteen, so I don’t think that even counts.  But a few months ago, we crossed each other’s paths, and realized how much we had in common.  We both live in Chicago.  We’re both chefs.  Both into catering.  And, we even share a hero.  Really, she is the long lost cousin of my dreams.  She’s incredibly adorable and just so bright (them Schoen genes are powerful!), I can’t believe she’s only twenty.  After years of living far away from family, I just couldn’t be happier to have her in town.

Well, needless to say, Katelyn’s visit called for a special menu.  So this week, I pulled out all the stops.  Racked my brains for the tastiest recipes I could think up.  Used some seriously high quality ingredients.  And even made homemade ice cream.


Let’s actually skip the hors d’oeuvres for now and start with the main course, and the leeks in particular.  Because, it was these leeks that inspired the entire meal.  These melty, succulent, utterly heavenly braised leeks.  I hadn’t been able to get them off my mind for the past few weeks. 

It all started in Catalonia.  For one of my work assignments, I had to prepare leeks from our garden, every which way – raw, boiled, pan-fried, deep-fried, roasted, etc…  But as with all these garden produce taste tests, the preparations had to be really simple.  I could use nothing more than a bit of cooking oil.  No salt.  No pepper.  No nothing.  The point was to sample the product in as pure a form as possible, to discover the most subtle of its qualities and attributes.  Kinda scientific, you know.  No room for actual tastiness.  But here I had this huge bushel of gorgeous organic leeks, harvested that day from our garden.  And I had this notion of braised leeks just sticking in the back of my mind.  And so I broke the rules, and on top of all the boring preparations, made a dish of these too.  At first, I got little snickers from a few people, and a few “whad’ya make those for?”.  But then they tasted it.  And tasted it some more.  And cleaned the plate in a minute flat.  These guys, El Bulli chefs mind you, were just loving my braised leeks.  They even asked me to include the recipe in my report! 


Well, I basked in their mmmmmms for a while, and then suddenly realized that while years ago, these braised leeks had been a go-to dish for me, I’d completely forgotten about them somewhere along the line, and had never made them for Ben.  And they are just so good!  They’re rich and sweet and buttery.  And just so smooth and utterly decadent, like plush, wide ribbons of green velvet.  With long and slow cooking, they just seem to dissolve into caramelly goodness.  Throughout the rest of the trip, the thought of finally making these for Ben became my obsession.  I couldn’t wait, and took the first opportunity to whip some up when I got home.  And then I knew I had to make this long lost recipe again to properly celebrate my long lost cousin. 

These divine leeks were the star from the very start.  But I have to say, the supporting cast, every last one of ‘em, was not outshone.  This weekend’s meal had an Oscar-worthy cast.  And they all had such chemistry.  It was quite a remarkable ensemble. 


Now, it’s worth noting that these leeks would be sensational with any manner of things.  With roasted chicken or seared duck breast, or grilled salmon.  (In a house or with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, here, there or anywhere.)  But for whatever reason, scallops seemed to just ring true to the spirit of the evening.  So I got a pan blazing hot, poured in a few glugs of olive oil, and seared us off three big scallops apiece.  Like a row of golden coins, I arranged these glorious shellfish atop a puddle of rich, pink blood orange beurre blanc, right next to the equally wealthy pile of luxurious leeks.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about the beurre blanc sauce.  And let me get a little geeky, and go off on a scientific-ish tangent.  Because really, on a molecular level, I’ve always thought beurre blanc was so cool.  Essentially, it’s inside-out butter.  Now, butter itself (like mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette, or milk, or any number of food things) is an emulsion – a mixture of two incompatible liquids (e.g. oil and water) that are mixed up so furiously that tiny droplets of one liquid get evenly dispersed all throughout the other.  In the case of butter, a million little droplets of water are scattered throughout and surrounded by a continuous phase of butter fat.  But when you make a beurre blanc, as you slowly add little cubes of butter into a small amount of water-based liquid (in this case blood orange juice), whisking all the while, you turn this emulsion around, and suddenly, it’s backwards.  It’s now composed of a million tiny droplets of butterfat, surrounded by water (or in this case, blood orange juice). 


The really cool thing about it is, this molecular turning of the tables serves to completely change the texture and mouth-feel of the butter.  You’d imagine something that’s nearly all butter to taste greasy and excessively rich and way too over the top, but this magic trick of a method turns it into something all together different.  Smooth and bright and charming, it’s still rich, yes, but not cloyingly so.  And while it’s easy to see how the sweetly acidic orange juice can tame the rich butterfat, there remains a mysterious alchemy I can’t quite explain.  The whole of this sauce is so much more than the sum of its parts. 

And that brings us to the beets.  I had the leek, scallop and beurre blanc components (all of them a bit on the buttery side) set from the very beginning.  And so now I needed something to round out all that luxury, something bright and fresh and a little sweet.  Something to add a touch of zing.  The beets took care of all this.  And they went even further.  Their touch of earthiness perfectly complemented the savory, homey leeks.  It was a well composed a dish as any I’ve ever created, with each element delicious on its own, but even so much better next to its neighbor.  Hey, what can I say, I’m altogether proud of it.

Now that I’ve done my weekly bragging, let’s go backwards to the hors d’oeuvre, the wild mushroom tart, which was also delicious.  But I can hardly take the credit.  It’s a recipe of an incredible Los Angeles chef, Suzanne Goin.  I bought her cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, about a year back, and I adore it.  It’s one of my current favorites, one of those cookbooks where you want to try every last recipe.  And this puff-pastry wild mushroom tart was one of those must-tries.  Simple and rustic, with deeply caramelized wild mushrooms, nutty gruyere cheese and a sprinkling of fresh green herbs, it sounded like just the thing for a winter appetizer.  And it certainly was.  We devoured it.


And for dessert, chocolate bread pudding with banana ice cream.  For three years now, ever since having a truly sensational chocolate bread pudding during a brunch at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I’ve been searching for the perfect recipe to recreate that divine dessert.  But nothing I tried was ever quite right.  Nothing until now.  I found this recipe online, on epicurious.  It was the only one whose picture looked chocolaty enough, but it was actually for chocolate-chile bread pudding.  So I made a few adjustments, and left out the chile parts, but more or less followed the general theme of their recipe.  And violà, it was exactly what I wanted. 


And to top it off, homemade banana ice cream.  During a cold Chicago winter, homemade ice cream is a tough sell.  But banana ice cream, which I couldn’t find at the grocery store, was calling my name, and really loud.  It just totally seemed like the perfect winter ice cream.  You know, it’s so easy to fall into the citrus trap during this time of year, but bananas are a great seasonal fruit too.  And I really wanted to use this kinda boring staple that we all have sitting around on our kitchen counters and transform it into a decadent dessert.  So I pulled the ice cream maker out of the storage closet, and thawed some overly ripe bananas I had stashed in the freezer.  I took the basic ice cream ratio I learned in school and added mashed bananas.  You know what, it turned out superb.  On top of chocolate bread pudding, it tasted just like a banana split.  And just like a really good ending to a really good meal.

Wild Mushroom & Gruyere Tart
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
Serves 6 -8 

Depending on the occasion, a tart like this can be great as a low key bite-size hors d’oeuvre, or you can add a bit of instant classiness and serve it with a simple green salad as a elegant first course.  This time, I took the hors d’oeuvre route.  Since it’s kinda rustic itself, I served it in a rustic fashion, just sliding it off the pan onto a cutting board, slicing it into 2 inch squares, and serving it just like that, right atop the cutting board.  It never even left the kitchen counter, and was a perfect casual appetizer to snack on while we chatted in the kitchen, as I put the final touches to the main course.


1 sheet frozen puff pastry
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 pounds wild mushrooms *
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl butter
1 bunch green onions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
2 tsp thyme leaves
1/2 cup ricotta
1/4 cup sour cream
6 oz gruyere cheese, grated
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/4 cup tarragon leaves
1/2 cup chives, sliced in 1/2 inch slices
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
juice from 1/2 lemon
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Allow the puff pastry to defrost in the refrigerator, for about two hours or so, until it can be unfolded easily without ripping.  Unroll onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Score a 1/4 inch border with a paring knife along the edge of the pastry.  Make an egg wash by mixing one egg yolk with 1/2 tsp water.  Brush this egg wash along the border, only using as much as you need.  Place the puff pastry in the freezer until you are ready to use it.  

Wash and trim the mushrooms, and then depending on the type of mushroom, slice thinly or tear into large bite-size pieces.  Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for about two minutes.  Add 2 Tbl olive oil and 1 Tbl butter, and swirl around the pan.  When the butter is melted and foamy, sprinkle half the mushroom into the pan.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Sauté for about five minutes, stirring only occasionally, until tender yet golden and a little crispy.  Remove and spread the mushrooms over a baking sheet, to cool.  Repeat these steps to sauté the second batch of mushrooms.  **

When the second set of mushrooms is just cooked, turn the heat down to low and add the reserved mushrooms back to the pan, along with the green onions and thyme.  Season again with salt and pepper, to your own taste.  Sauté gently for just a couple minutes, until the onions are a little wilted. Spread over a baking sheet, to cool. 

Combine the ricotta, the sour cream, 1 egg yolk, 2 ounces of grated gruyere, a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Mix with a rubber spatula to combine thoroughly.  Spread over the prepared puff pastry, keeping within the lines of the scored border.  Scatter the remaining gruyere on top, and arrange the mushroom/onion mixture on top of this.  At this point, the tart can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated until ready to serve.  It can even be made a day ahead. (Always good when it comes to having dinner parties!)

About 45 minutes before you want to serve the tart, preheat an oven to 400°F.  Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown (both on the outside border and underneath – lift it up a bit to peer beneath and make sure the bottom of the tart is thoroughly cooked too) and the cheese is bubbling.  Allow the tart to cool a few minutes. 

Meanwhile, toss the parsley, tarragon and chives in a small bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper, the olive oil and lemon juice.  Sprinkle over the tart.  Slice the tart and serve. 

* I’ll just admit right now, wild mushrooms are pretty pricey.  For this tart, I used oyster, trumpet and enoki mushrooms, which were definitely kinda expensive.  But it really is worth it.  Trust me – I actually am a frugal shopper.  But I do allow myself to splurge, when it counts.  And here it does.  A perfectly yummy tart can be made with less expensive shitake and cremini (baby Portobello) mushrooms, but I do think it falls a little bit short of the utter mushroomy deliciousness you can achieve with true wild mushrooms. 

** For a sure fire way to get nicely caramelized sautéed mushrooms, remember three things: 1. Always use high heat, and get the pan really, really hot before you add the mushrooms.  2. Never crowd the pan.  You want no more than a single layer of mushroom slices covering the bottom of the pan.  And 3.  Don’t stir too often. Give them time to develop a nice golden sear.  If you mix them around too much, they’ll never get the chance. 


Pan-Seared Sea Scallops
Serves 4 


24 oz sea scallops (about 12 medium-sized scallops)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Pull off the abductor muscle from each scallop (the extra little flap of meat at the side), if it’s still attached.  Heat a sauté pan over high heat for about 2 minutes.  Meanwhile, pat the scallops dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.  Swirl the olive oil into the pan, enough to cover the bottom, and wait about a minute.   Carefully place the scallops, one by one, into the hot oil.  Allow to cook about 3 minutes without touching, in order to allow a golden crust to develop at the bottom.  When a golden sear has formed and the scallops are easily lifted from the pan, flip them over and sear on the other side, cooking about another 2-3 minutes.*  Remove from the pan and blot with paper towels.  Serve hot.

* Don’t try to force it when it comes to flipping the scallops.  If one sticks to the pan and is not easily lifted, give it another minute and try again. Be patient! If you try to flip them before they’re ready, you’ll never get that beautifully golden sear.


Braised Leeks
Serves 4

Oh my gosh, these are just so good.  Go to the store today and buy some leeks.  You already have everything else you need, in your fridge and cupboards!

4 medium-sized leeks
2 Tbl butter
1/4 cup chicken stock or water
2 tsp red wine vinegar (or sherry vinegar or any kind, really)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To trim and wash the leeks: Discard the tough outer leaves.  At the bottom end, cut just the roots off of the leeks, slicing only just above them and no more, so that the leek leaves are kept connected.  Cut the top end so that the leeks are about 6-7 inches long.  Slice, lengthwise into quarters.  Place in a bowl filled with cold water and allow to soak about 10 minutes.  Lift the leeks, and if you see any sand or grit in the water, drain the water and repeat with clean water.  Repeat soaking and draining as many times as needed until no grit is left behind. 

To cook: Melt the butter in a sauté pan placed over medium-low heat.  Remove the leeks from the soaking water, align in the melted butter, cut sides down.  Turn the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and slowly, slowly cook, allowing the leeks to soften and the bottoms to turn a slight golden brown.  After about 10 minutes, turn the leeks over and slightly brown the opposite cut side.  Slow is key here.  The longer they cook, the creamier and meltier they become.  When the second side too is lightly golden brown, add the stock or water and the vinegar.  Cover and allow to simmer slowly until the liquid is just evaporated.  Can be served hot, warm or even cold.


Roasted Beets
Serves 4

I’m not a huge fan of microwaves, but sometimes (times like this) I can pretty easily talk myself into using them.  I roast the beets in the oven a day before, which allows for a lot less juggling the day of, and then quickly re-heat them in the nuker before dressing them with a quick vinaigrette.  It’s not a super cheffy move, but it doesn’t do any harm, and makes everything a lot easier.  (Of course, these are also great cold, in which case there would be no need for the microwave, but I was after hot beets this particular night.) 


6 small to medium beets (about a pound or so)
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp blood orange (or any kind of orange) zest
1 small shallot, peeled and finely diced
3 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbl chives, thinly snipped
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To roast the beets:  Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Cut off and discard the stem and tails of the beets.  Wrap each beet in foil and place on a sheet pan.  Roast until a toothpick can easily be poked into the center of the beets, about 1 1/2 hours.  Cool.  When beets are cool enough to handle, peel them and slice each into 8 wedges.  At this point, the beets can be cooled and reserved (to be reheated, in the microwave and then dressed with vinaigrette when needed), dressed now with the vinaigrette and served hot, or dressed now, cooled and served cold later.

To finish: Combine the vinegar, mustard, orange zest, diced shallot, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Whisk together, and slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking as you pour.  Add cooked beet slices (still hot from the oven or re-heated for about a minute or so in the microwave) and the chives, and mix to coat.  Serve either hot now, or chill and serve cold later. 


Blood Orange Beurre Blanc
Serves 4


1 shallot, peeled and diced
2/3 cup blood orange juice
1 Tbl red wine vinegar
2 strips blood orange zest
1 sprig thyme
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 stick butter, cut into cubes and kept cold until needed
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small sauce pot, combine the shallot, orange juice, vinegar, zest, thyme and peppercorns.  Simmer over medium heat until the liquid is reduced to about 2 tablespoons.  Strain out the solids and return the liquid to the pan. 

Over low-medium heat, add a few cubes (about 1 tablespoon) of cold butter, and whisk constantly.  When the butter is just about all melted, add about another tablespoon, and again whisk continuously while it melts.  Continue adding butter a tablespoon at a time, whisking all the while, until all the butter is incorporated into the sauce. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve hot.* 

* This sauce can be a bit fickle, especially temperature-wise.  As you’re preparing it, don’t allow it to get too hot, or it will ‘break’.  Lift if from the heat and whisk occasionally, if you need to cool it a bit.  Also, if you need to let it sit for a little while before serving, as you hurry about getting everything else together, keep it over the barest low heat, and stir frequently.  Mainly though, it’s best to whip this sauce up at the last minute and serve it straight away. 


Chocolate Bread Pudding
Adapted from Gourmet, February 2005 on
Serves 6 

Again, here is a time where quality really counts.  Use a top-end chocolate here.  I like Valrhona or Callebaut, and both can be found relatively easily in a decent grocery store. 

4 Tbl butter (1/2 stick), plus more for greasing the baking dish
1 1/3 cup heavy cream
8 oz + 2 oz bittersweet/semisweet chocolate, chopped 
2 Tbl sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
4 large eggs
8 slices good quality white sandwich bread.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Arrange the bread slices on a baking sheet and very lightly toast, about 5-7 minutes per side, not allowing the bread to color.  Remove from oven, cool, and slice into 1/2 inch cubes with a serrated knife.  Reserve.

Meanwhile, butter the bottom and sides of a small casserole dish.  Combine butter, cream, 8 oz chocolate, sugar, salt and vanilla in a medium sauce pot.  Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate is melted and sauce is smooth, about 2-3 minutes.  Remove from heat, and add about a third of this mixture to the eggs, whisking to combine.  Add the rest of the sauce to the eggs and whisk to combine.  Allow to cool about ten minutes, then add the bread cubes and the last two ounces of chopped chocolate.  Stir to combine completely.  Allow to stand 15 minutes.  Pour into the prepared baking dish.  At this point, the pudding can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated until needed (up to 1 day) or baked straight away. 

Bake, uncovered, until set around the edges but still moist towards the center, about 30-35 minutes.  Allow to cool for about five minutes before slicing and serving.  Top with a generous scoop of banana ice cream.  (Or any kind, really.)



Banana Ice Cream
Makes about 6 cups

2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup white sugar
10 large egg yolks
1/4 cup brown sugar
pinch salt
3 medium bananas

Combine the cream, milk, vanilla and white sugar in a medium-sized sauce pot and bring just to a simmer over medium heat. 

Whisk the egg yolks with the brown sugar and pinch of salt.  Pour about a third of the hot cream mixture into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Return this egg-cream mixture back into the remaining hot cream mixture in the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.  The temperature of the custard should not exceed 180°F.

Strain the custard into a 2 quart container and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, then cover and refrigerate until very cold, about four hours to overnight. 

Peel bananas and puree thoroughly in a food processor or blender.  Add the custard and pulse to combine.  Strain again.

Immediately process in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.  (If you allow the banana custard to sit too long before freezing, it will quickly begin to discolor.)  After processing, transfer to an airtight container and freeze until ready to serve.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Resuscitated Flop


I really thought New Years Eve was going to be a good subject for my first post – a true new years resolution.  But I was dead wrong.

We spent the holiday in Binghamton, NY with our great friends, Ralph and Bill, two modern Renaissance men whose vast and varied talents both happen to include incredible kitchen skills. I seriously love staying with these guys. Whenever we visit, the itinerary always begins with a trip to the grocery store. And then we just cook and cook (and maybe watch a little Strangers with Candy) and then cook some more. And everything is always so darn delicious. 

So when we came up with our grand plan for New Years Eve – Asian appetizers all day long - I assumed it would all be to-die-for like always, and make for a perfect first post. But alas, I can say always no longer. Now when referring to the fabulous food at Ralph & Bill’s, I have to use usually or maybe normally, because for some strange reason, absolutely everything was off that night. The chicken wings didn’t get roasty enough, the dipping sauce was too acidic, the pot-stickers were just meh, and on and on. Don’t get me wrong, nothing was a complete failure. But nothing was drop dead tasty either. The whole night was just a flop. (Luckily, Bill (a pastry wizard of Merlin proportions) put an end to this unlucky streak the next morning with his unbelievable homemade bagels.  Thank you, dear Bill, for starting our 2010 off right!)

So why am I going on and on about New Years, if it’s not even the main topic here? Well, one, because I’m still a little bummed about it all, because I was so psyched to tell you all (i.e. shamelessly brag) about our incredible, amazing, out-of-this-world New Years Feast, and now I can’t. I guess, even though the dinner proved to be a complete dud, I can’t help but want to give it just a little bit of time in the spotlight, even if that spotlight happens to be shining a sad shade of blue.

And I expound on for another reason too.  Because this New Years Eve Flop of 2009 served to remind me of another past flop, one that happened about a year ago. One too that had all the makings of a great meal, but just fell short.  And so I got it in my head to re-try this once upon a time failure, to freshen up my CPR skills and breathe new life into a former fiasco that needed some major saving.  And that’s what (finally!) brings us to our first ever Scrumptious Company menu.  Here is is, folks:

Crab & Artichoke Phyllo Triangles with Basil Aioli 

         Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Chops with Sage-Butter Sauce, Butternut Squash Risotto          & Roasted Radicchio

Butterscotch Pots de Crème with Whipped Cream and Gingersnap Cookies

So let’s shift gears, let’s desist with the mopey musings of past dinner duds, and let’s instead talk about a meal that was absolutely delicious, and a night that was completely fabulous.  Because friends, this time round, everything turned out great.


The fabulousness of the night was due in large part to the fabulous company. When it came to inviting our first official Scrumptious Company guests, there was no question at all as to who it would be. Downstairs-Matt-and-Sara, of course! Let me tell you a little bit about our friends Matt and Sara.  In our wildest dreams we couldn’t have cooler downstairs-neighbors.  Sara is one of those friends who, you know, you sit down to have a ‘quick’ coffee break with, and end up in the middle of such a great conversation, that three hours later you look up to realize your afternoon has totally vanished. She, like her sweetie of a husband, is wicked smart (Notre Dame PHD’s, both of ‘em. If I can’t brag about our New Years, I’ll just have to brag about our friends.) And they’re both really, really funny too. Needless to say, time with Downstairs-Matt-and-Sara is always a blast, and this night was no different.

I could go on forever about our neat friends, but let’s talk about the food, shall we? As I was telling you before, everything tonight was just spot-on, and it’s all stuff that I think you all would really love too.  The crab & artichoke appetizers, while first-time round a tad disappointing, were suddenly delicious, thanks in no small part to the bright and fragrant basil aioli served alongside.  Brilliant green and oh so pretty, packed with fresh basil and a just-right level of garlic (you know, a blatant hint of it), it turned out to be one of those dipping sauces where you end up not even caring what you’re dipping in it.


Ben was certainly thrilled to hear that butternut squash risotto would be on the menu again. In the past, this gorgeous, golden, creamy rice has even earned the coveted ‘ten-out-of-ten’ status from my discerning husband.  (While many a meal has reached the heights of nine-out-of-ten, it is a rare, rare day when Ben awards a true ten.)  But the first time I made this butternut risotto for him, Ben wasted no time in holding up all his fingers.  It’s been a dud only once – at the dinner party I was telling you about, and I seriously still have no idea what that heck was going on with me that dumb night – but every other time I’ve ever made this, it is simply glorious. Smooth and dreamy, with sweet and salty tones of roasted squash and nutty parmesan cheese, it tastes like coziness itself.  No wonder Ben was thrilled.

The pork chop was a bit of a twist on the Italian dish, Pork Saltimbocca, but rather than pan-fried cutlets, I went with meatier chops, and rather than garnishing with whole sage leaves, I whipped up a quick sage-flavored compound butter. I just really like compound butters. Placing a slice atop hot food turns them instantly into aromatic sauces, so they’re a neat solution for freeing up your hands at the last minute, which is always a good thing when it comes to a dinner party.

And last but not least for our main course… the roasted radicchio!  Man, I was loving this. That dreaded time when this meal flopped, I didn’t make this – in its place were roasted brussels sprouts.  And I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking “Brussels sprouts! Of course it was a flop!”, but I’m telling the truth, they were the one thing that night that were really good.  (Some other day I’ll tell you how I make my brussels sprouts, but for now, back to the radicchio.)  Since the brussels sprouts weren’t terrible enough to warrant another go tonight, I needed something similar to take their place, something savory but a little bitter, at once crunchy and tender, a wintery sort of vegetable.  Winding my cart through the produce aisles, I racked my brain, until my eyes fell on the vivid deep pink globes of radicchio.  Perfect!  Cut into wedges, dressed with a touch of olive oil and vinegar, and roasted until warm and tender at the core with crackly ribbons of caramelized outer leaves, it was just the side dish I was after, and one I know I’ll go to again and again from now on.


Oh yes, dessert. Well, here’s how dessert came about. You know how sometimes you suddenly become aware of something that for some strange reason you never knew existed before, and then, for some even stranger reason, you keep hearing about it again and again, just all over the place, randomly, everywhere you turn?  This is what happened to me too with butterscotch pots de crème. They’ve been all over the place lately, everywhere - on other blogs and in a magazine, and twice since Christmas I saw it on restaurant menus.  So I just got the bug for butterscotch, and had to make some on my own.

And I’m glad I did. These were sooooo delicious.  Sara thought they were pure bliss, and needed to take a moment of silence, sitting back in her chair with closed eyes and smiling lips.  Like Werther’s Originals, but in smooth and creamy pudding form, they really were remarkably impressively good.  And what made them even better was a dollop of whipped cream and a crackly gingersnap cookie.  Heaven, truly.

And that was it, a perfect ending to a splendid meal.  After the fiasco of New Years, I was so relieved!  Just as I ended the last year with everything flopping, I started it out with a slew of successes, one right after the other.  Let’s toast to these successes continuing throughout the course of this blog.  Cheers to that!

Crab & Artichoke Phyllo Triangles
Adapted from Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer
Makes about 10 appetizer-size portions (about 20 triangles)

I’ll tell you up front, this recipe makes a ton. A whole lot more than you’d ever need to feed four people. But that’s alright, because they freeze great, and the extras will keep for a good few weeks, at least. Then, whenever you need them, you can just pop them into a warm oven and presto, instant appetizer (or light lunch or snack). Can’t beat it, really. I prefer to make them the day ahead anyways, and freeze them overnight. Then it’s one less thing to worry about the day of the party.

For the Filling:
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 (15 oz) can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
3 Tbl flour
1 cup milk
1 (10 oz) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and
thoroughly squeezed to remove as much water as possible
8 oz cream cheese
juice from half a lemon
2 Tbl fresh basil, chopped
1 bunch chives, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled
8 oz crab meat *
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and season with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the red pepper flakes and cook 1 more minute. Add the artichoke hearts and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the flour and stir to evenly coat the vegetables. Cook for about five minutes, then slowly add the milk, whisking as you pour to smooth out any lumps. Add the spinach, mix to combine, and simmer for about five minutes. Turn off the heat and add the cream cheese (cut into pieces) and mix to combine. Allow to cool about fifteen minutes. Add the lemon juice, basil, chives, feta and crab meat. Mix to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Cool completely or refrigerate until needed.

To assemble:
1 package phyllo dough
1 1/2 sticks butter, melted
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
flaky sea salt, as needed

Arrange one sheet of phyllo on a work surface with the short side facing you. Brush evenly with butter and sprinkle evenly with a thin coating of breadcrumbs. Top with a second sheet, brush with butter and sprinkle with crumbs. Repeat once more with a third sheet, butter and crumbs. Slice the sheets vertically into four equal strips. Place about two tablespoons of filling at the bottom corner of each strip. Fold the corner over to enclose the filling and form a triangle. Continue folding the strip (like a flag), maintaining a triangle shape. Place the triangle, seam side down, on a baking sheet. Brush the triangle top with butter and sprinkle with more bread crumbs and salt. Continue with this process until all filling is used up. Refrigerate until ready to bake. (They can be frozen too at this point, and popped right into the freezer.)

Preheat the oven to 435°F (350°F if frozen). Place the triangles on a cooling rack placed over a baking sheet (or simply on a greased baking sheet). Leaving a bit of space between the triangles, bake until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes (20-30 minutes for the frozen ones). Serve warm with Basil Aioli.

*Don’t go crazy with the crab here. There’s no need to buy any of the expensive jumbo lump stuff. It’s getting mixed together with all other sorts of tastiness, so don’t go breaking the bank. As long as it has a good fresh flavor, it’ll be fine for this. (And here’s a secret. If you’re feeling extra frugal, these are even great with no crab at all. In fact, once you start dunking them in the basil aioli, you’ll hardly notice anything’s missing.)

Basil Aioli
Makes about 1 cup

IMG_0618 (2) 

When I make aioli (it’s a French term for a garlicky mayonnaise-like sauce, by the way) I like to combine oils. Extra-virgin olive oil has a great flavor, but all by itself it’s just way to strong. So I always find myself combining it with whatever mild salad oil I have around, like vegetable or canola. Mix them together, half and half. It’s just a bit nicer that way, I think.

2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup chopped basil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp sherry vinegar
juice of half a lemon
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable oil or canola oil

In a blender, combine the yolks, basil, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Blend on high to puree it all as best you can. With the blender running, slowly add the oil, a few drops at a time. As the mixture slowly incorporates the oil, it will become thick and smooth. Once both oils are incorporated, taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Can be made a day ahead.

Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Chops
Serves 4

Brining is an easy step that really gives these chops some extra moisture, which goes a long way towards making them a real hit. That and cooking them to the right temperature. You do not want to overcook these guys. In fact, if I can convince you to try it, err on the side of undercooking. In the directions, I say remove them from the oven when their internal temperature reaches 155°F, but honestly, I always pull them out at about 145°F, and let them come up to temp as they rest on the countertop for a few minutes. This way they’re juicy and a lovely blushing shade of pink.

For the brine:
2 quarts water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
2 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp black peppercorns

4 pork chops (about 8 oz each)
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 thin slices prosciutto
4 slices Sage Compound Butter (see recipe below)

Combine 2 cups water with the rest of the brine ingredients in a medium pot. Bring to a boil, stirring, in order to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat, add the remaining 6 cups cold water and cool completely. Add pork chops, cover and refrigerate at least six hours and up to 1 day.

At dinner time, preheat oven to 350°F. Remove pork chops from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Heat about 2 Tbl olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the pork chops to the pan, without crowding, working in batches if you need to. Brown the pork chops, turning once and cooking about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove the pork chops from the heat, wrap each with a single slice of prosciutto, and transfer to a roasting pan. Roast in the oven until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat registers 155°F, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer pork chops to a platter, top each with a slice of Sage Compound Butter, and allow to rest about 10 minutes before serving.

Sage Compound Butter Sauce
Makes about 1/2 cup


1 stick plus 1 Tbl butter, at room temperature
2 medium shallots, diced (about 1/3 cup)
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 Tbl chopped sage
2 Tbl chopped parsley
zest from half a lemon
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Melt 1 Tbl butter in a small sauté pan over low heat. Add the shallots and season with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sage and cook 1 minute more, until garlic just begins to turn golden. Allow to cool to room temperature. Combine the shallot-garlic-sage mixture with the parsley, lemon zest and stick of butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until just combined. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. Transfer the butter mixture onto a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Roll into a log of about 1 inch. Refrigerate until ready to use. Can be refrigerated 4 days and frozen a month.

Butternut Squash Risotto
Serves about 4 as a main course and 8 as a side


I do know what I did wrong that one time I made this dish. Against all popular advice, I worked ahead, did many of the steps before my guests arrived, and thought I could get away with finishing it with the last few steps right before dinner. I really should have known. And I definitely paid for it. Please, for the best results, do make this at the last minute. Once you get the hang of risottos, they’re really no stress to make, even with friends in the kitchen. It’s one of those things I wouldn’t make for every dinner party, but when you’re having the right people over, no one’s gonna care if you have some last minute things to do in the kitchen. It’s more fun and festive that way anyways.

1 medium-sized butternut squash
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl + 2 Tbl butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli short-grained rice
6-7 cups chicken stock *
1/2 cup dry white wine
pinch nutmeg
1 Tbl chopped sage
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the butternut squash in half, scoop out the seeds, drizzle insides with the olive oil and sprinkle with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Place cut side-down on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with foil, and roast until utterly tender, about 45 minutes or so, completely depending on the size of your squash. When cool enough to handle, scoop the tender flesh into a mixing bowl and discard the skins. With a rubber spatula, perform a combination whip/mash/beat motion until the squash is smooth and velvety. Reserve until needed. (This step can be done the day ahead.)

Over high heat, bring the chicken stock to a boil, then immediately lower heat to low, just in order to keep it warm.

Melt 2 Tbl butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and season with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one more minute. Add the rice and cook, constantly stirring, for 2-3 more minutes. Stir in about 1-2 cups of stock, so that the rice is just covered. Simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, until the stock is nearly all absorbed. Continue adding more stock, a cup or two at a time, until the rice is creamy and slightly firm, but no longer hard in the center. This usually takes about 20 minutes, and you may not need to use all the stock. Add the wine, nutmeg and sage and simmer a minute or so more until the wine is absorbed. Add the roasted squash and fold in completely.  Cook for about two more minutes to heat through, stirring occasionally. Stir in the parmesan cheese and 2 Tbl butter. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

* I can’t say enough how important it is to use a good chicken stock here. The only way you’re going to achieve a perfect ten is if you use home-made. But if you absolutely must use pre-made, go with one of those boxes, especially this one. But by no means use the canned stuff. Please don’t.

Roasted Radicchio
Serves 4


2 medium-sized heads radicchio
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut each head of radicchio in half, from top to bottom. Then cut each of these halves into quarters, again from top to bottom, through the stem. Dress the radicchio wedges with olive oil and vinegar, a good sprinkle of salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Gently toss. Arrange, one next to the other, in a small casserole dish. Roast about 30 minutes. The insides will be tender with the outer leaves a little crisp and caramelized. Serve warm.

Butterscotch Pots de Crème
Adapted from Gourmet, Oct 2003 on
Serves 4 generously, and 5 as an easy stretch

This was the best looking recipe for butterscotch pots de crème I could find on the web. Unfortunately, it calls for some fancy-schmancy ingredients. But fortunately, these can be easily substituted with common ones. You can use dark brown sugar for muscovado and white sugar for Demerara. You can. But you shouldn’t. You know, the chef in me wants to tell you to only use the fancy sugars. You are going to get a much deeper, more complex flavor with these. But the person-who-doesn’t-want-to-spend-an-hour-calling-specialty-food-stores-all-over-town-just-to-find-some-stupid-sugar in me wants to tell you to just go ahead and use the stuff on hand. Either way, they’re no doubt yummy.


2 1/4 cup heavy cream
9 Tbl dark muscovado sugar
1/2 tsp salt
9 Tbl water
3 Tbl Demerara sugar
6 large egg yolks
3/4 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 300°F. Combine cream, muscovado sugar and salt in a small saucepan, and over medium heat bring to just a simmer, stirring to completely dissolve the sugar.

Combine the water and Demerara sugar in a 2-3 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook, but do not stir, until deeply caramelized and foamy, about five minutes or so. (The more you caramelize the sugar, the deeper the color and more complex the flavor will be. Be brave and take it to the edge, but be careful not to burn it.) Remove from heat and add about a third of the cream mixture and whisk until combined. It will violently bubble and steam. When this subsides, add the rest of the cream mixture and whisk to thoroughly combine.

Whisk the yolks and vanilla in a large bowl. Slowly pour the cream mixture over the yolks, whisking the yolks as as you pour. Whisk until combined. Pour mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Using a spoon, skim off any foam. Pour custard into 6-oz soufflé cups, just to the rimed border. Arrange cups in a roasting pan. Pour hot water into the pan surrounding the cups, enough so that it rises about half-way up their sides. Bake, uncovered, until just set but still a little jiggly in the center, about 45-50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. These can be served warm, room temperature, or cold. If serving cold, cool first to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Can be held in a refrigerator for up to four days. To serve, top with a dollop of whipped cream and a single gingersnap (see right below).

For the Whipped Cream
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbl sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla

Whip cream to soft peaks. Add sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks.

Gingersnap Cookies
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking
Makes 12 dozen(!) tiny cookies


I’m kind of obsessed right now with really crunchy gingersnaps, and thank goodness, because thanks to this recipe, I’ve got about a million in my freezer. Of course, if you like a chewier, more tender cookie, just decrease the cooking time by a few minutes.

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
4 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
12 Tbl (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/3 cup dark molasses
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 cup coarse sugar (Demerara, Turbinado or sanding sugar)

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt. Combine the butter and sugar and beat on medium speed until very fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, molasses, lemon juice and orange zest and beat until well combined. Add the flour mixture to the molasses mixture and mix on slow until just blended. Refrigerate about half an hour or until ready to bake.

Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease the cookie sheets. Scoop out even tablespoons of dough. Tear each scoop in half. Roll each half into a ball and pat down to flatten it a bit. Roll in the coarse sugar, and place on the greased cookie sheet, spacing about 1-2 inches apart. Bake, one sheet at a time, about 15-18 minutes, rotating the sheet half-way through the cooking time, until cookies are golden brown and crackly on top. Remove the cookie sheet and allow to sit 1 minute. Using a metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool. The cookies will firm to crisp and crunchy as they cool. Store in an air-tight container, in the refrigerator for a few days, or the freezer for a few weeks.