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.


  1. Kate,
    This meal is so creative and sophisticated. As always, your photos are beautiful too. I like the scientific perspective - it helps illustrate the texture that pictures can't always relay. This looks much better than anything you can get at a restaurant. Seriously.

  2. Oh my gosh, thanks Meg! I can't help but get scientific - I'm such a nerd! And seriously yourself, if this blog serves any single purpose in the end, I hope it's to entice you to finally come out here and visit. Dinner's on me!