Thursday, February 4, 2010

Something Special


Something about this week’s dinner was special.  It all just came together, as if with no effort.  It was simple and fun and easy, so easy that I hardly had to think about the details at all.  My mind could just rest with the fun of the evening.  Maybe, after a month of regular dinner parties, I’m simply on a roll.  Perhaps with all this experience, having guests over is nothing to sweat anymore.  It is getting a bit easier in that way, I suppose, but there was definitely something else behind the pleasant easiness of this particular week’s meal.  I’m not saying I know what that something else was.  And I like it that way too, not exactly knowing.  It lends a sort of mysteriousness to the whole night, a sense that some other element was at work, something just barely beyond our reach but most certainly there, something that aligned all the invisible cogs and wheels to set in motion the rare perfect evening. 

The cooking itself even turned out to be a complete breeze.  Each dish was prepared simply, with nothing too fancy or over the top.  Each tended towards rustic, with a small handful of good ingredients prepared in careful but uncomplicated ways.  And it all was so beautiful, just in its own natural simplicity.

Crostini with Parmesan, Pancetta & Rosemary

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Crème Fraiche and Sliced Chives

                                        Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Paillards topped with                                             Green Salad with White Beans, Shaved Fennel, Herbs and Sherry Vinaigrette

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Cake with Whipped Cream and Candied Kumquats

Of course, our special guests, my cousin Joe and his gorgeous girlfriend Thy, had plenty to do with the creation of such an extraordinary time.  These two were just so fun to be with.  We laughed all night long.  As soon as they left, Ben and I turned to each other and asked the same question: “Why in the world have we waited so long to have them over?”  They only live a neighborhood away, and we’ve meant to have them for dinner at least a half dozen times.  But you know how that goes, life just gets in the middle of everything, and things you mean to do sometimes don’t materialize right away.  The funny thing is, I’ve known Joe nearly all my life.  We played together all the time as kids, but we haven’t spent any quality time together since we were little.  With such a big family, during the infrequent times we’re all together, I end up spending just a little bit of time with everybody, rather than a good amount of time with any single one.  And so – and I’m sure this is the case with just about every cousin I’ve got – while I’ve known Joe for ages, I haven’t had the chance in a long, long while to spend any significant time with him, to connect with him, or to really, actually know him.  Suddenly, fifteen years have gone by all too fast, and my little cousin Joe is this whole other person that I’ve never even gotten to know.  And  it was just really good to finally get to meet him. 

Okay now, enough of that.  How about we focus these gushy sentiments elsewhere, say, like on the food :).  First up, the hors d’oeuvres.  To borrow a word from Wonka, these were scrumdiddlyumptious.  Seriously, these are one of those things (and I’ve got a few of them up my sleeve, which I’ll be sure to relay to you in good time) that are so incredibly tasty, there is no word in the English language to do them justice.  The main ingredients are so simple:  Garlic, and lots of it.  A good punch of heady rosemary too.  A few strips of salty and peppery pancetta, and a decent handful of sharp, nutty Parmesan.  These four components all take center stage, singing in perfect harmony, each voice loud and strong, all demanding your full and rapt attention, but without seeming like they’re competing with each other for it.  It’s a perfect chorus of deliciousness. 


These four ingredients are ground together with a pinch of parsley for a bit of brightness, and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil, for texture.  And then this glorious conglomeration is smeared atop toasted circles of French bread crostini, which are placed under a broiler until they’re bubbling and fragrant and gorgeously golden brown.  You’ll just have to try them out for yourself, to see just what I mean.  And I promise, they’re all too easy!


Next up, the soup.  And who doesn’t love butternut squash soup?  But it’s not so much the soup I love, as the process behind it.  I love taking the slow, subtle, careful steps necessary for making a truly divine bowl of soup.  The ingredients and procedure are utterly simple for any bowl of pureed butternut.  But it’s the care you take in following this procedure, the respect you show to these few simple ingredients, which make all the difference in the world. The key to a sublime result lies in slow, sloooooow cooking.  Onions, leeks, garlic and herbs get cooked in butter over the lowest of heat, until they’re soft and glistening and nearly melting into each other.  I keep the lid on, stirring only now and again, to allow them as much time as possible, so that they become mellow and sweet and fragrant.  The squash too is ever so slowly cooked, roasting away in the oven for up to two hours, until its caramelly deep orange flesh is as soft and tender as warm butter. 


Then these lovely vegetables that you’ve so tenderly prepared are combined with rich and flavorful homemade chicken stock.  They simmer for a time at a gentle bubble.  And it’s during this time that all the splendid flavors meld together, weaving themselves into a gorgeous but rustic fabric, one that magically transforms into the finest of golden silk with a spin in a blender.


After such utter smoothness, the next course up turned out to be a delightful switch.  A crunchy and refreshing salad, full of snappy shards of shaved fennel, bright leaves of fresh green herbs, ribbons of aged Parmesan, creamy white beans and a pungent, mustardy vinaigrette – all piled high atop a golden, crispy pan-fried chicken breast.   So rustic and simple.  A little sloppy even, to tell the truth.  But, my!  What flavors! 

A salad like this would be great on its own – indeed, a few nights later we enjoyed big bowls of it all by itself, for a quick dinner.  But served atop the chicken, you just can’t beat it.  It’s so fast and easy to whip up.  Just prep all the salad components ahead of time, and mix them all together as the chicken fries.  It’s so completely simple, it could easily be a weekday meal.  But it’s so beautiful and soooo delicious, it can be perfect too for a special night just like this one. 


Dessert was simple too, especially considering that the candied kumquats were already taken care of, ready and waiting in cute little jars.  I’d been wanting to try this recipe for olive oil cake (by the illustrious Suzanne Goin…again…seriously, I think her cookbook is just so rad) for a long time now.  And after studying olive oil in Spain for two months, the wanting turned into a needing.   Tonight ended up being the perfect time to finally do so.

The sugar-soaked citrus and fluffy whipped cream were a perfect complement to this ultra moist cake, with its faint hints of spicy, herbal olive oil.  It was truly delicious, and we all agreed, it was a perfect treat.  Looking back, I think this simple and elegant dessert ended up being the star of the night, and a subtle yet grand finally to a simple and elegant meal.



Crostini with Parmesan, Pancetta & Rosemary 
Adapted from
Saffron, Garlic & Olives by Loukie Werle
Makes enough for about 3o crostini

I don’t own the above cookbook, but one of my clients in New York did, and I served  these for a ladies’ luncheon a few years ago, to great success.  But for this recipe alone (well, that and the incredibly cool name of its author), I think it’s worth buying. 

6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
4 oz Parmesan cheese, cut into small cubes
4 oz pancetta, cut into small cubes *
2 Tbl fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
4 Tbl fresh parsley, plus 1 Tbl for garnish, roughly chopped
3 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
French bread crostini (see recipe below)

Add the roughly chopped garlic to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until finely chopped, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice.  Add the parmesan cubes and pulse again about five times.  Add the pancetta, rosemary and parsley, and pulse a few more times until everything is pretty finely (but not too finely – really, it’s all a matter of taste) chopped.  Add the olive oil, and pulse once or twice, only until everything is combined.

Preheat the broiler.  Top each toasted crostini with about 1-2 teaspoons of the above mixture.  Spread the mixture in order to nearly cover the top of the crostini.  Broil until the topping is bubbly and golden brown.  Remove from the oven, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon chopped parsley (because like many other incredibly delicious things, these tend to be on the homely side, and really benefit from a bit of bright green garnish) and serve hot.

* I always get my pancetta at the deli counter, and I ask them to slice it 1/4 inch thick.  This makes it easy to cut it into small 1/4 inch cubes for this recipe.


French Bread Crostini  
Makes about 30 or so crostini

These are such a great base for just about any sort of hors d’oeuvre.  Be warned, you’ll see them on here again and again.   They’re really tasty served alongside any kind of dip too.


1/2 loaf French bread
1 stick butter, melted
flaky sea salt, as needed

Preheat an oven to 350°F.  Angling a serrated knife directly across the loaf (to make round-ish crostini), or at a slight angle (to make longer, more oval-like crostini), and using a sawing motion, slice the bread into eighth-inch slices.  Arrange these slices on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.  Brush the top of each slice with a generous amount of melted butter.  Flip the slices over and brush the opposite sides with butter too. Sprinkle evenly with a generous amount of flaky sea salt. 

Bake until golden and crispy on top, about 10 to 20 minutes.  Flip over each crostini, return to oven, and bake until the opposite side too is golden and crispy, about five minutes.  Remove from oven, and allow to cool to room temperature. 
Can be stored in an airtight container for about half a day.  Any longer and they’ll become stale.


Roasted Butternut Squash Soup 
Makes about 12 servings

As much as long and slow cooking is important for the success of this recipe, long and fast blending is key too.  Don’t be rushed at all with this step.  A good whirl in the blender is my secret ingredient. 

2 large butternut squash (about 6 #)
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
2 Tbl butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large leek, chopped, washed thoroughly (soak in cool water) and drained
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
2 quarts chicken stock, hot
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
crème fraiche, to garnish
sliced chives, to garnish

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, drizzle the insides with 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 completely tender, about an hour 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. Reserve the cooked flesh until needed. (This step can be done the day ahead.)

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over low-medium heat. Add the chopped onion and leek, and season with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Place a lid over the pan and cook very slowly, stirring occasionally, until meltingly soft and translucent, about 20 minutes or as long as you can stand it. Add the garlic, thyme sprigs and bay leaf, and cook with the lid on again, for about five more minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove the lid, add the squash, and cook again, about five minutes, mixing to combine.  Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and continue to simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally. 

Turn off the heat, and allow to cool about fifteen minutes.  Remove the thyme sprigs and bay leaf.  Blend the soup in batches, running the blender for about a minute and a half for each batch, until the soup is incredibly smooth and bright yellow in color.  Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

Cool to room temperature, and refrigerate overnight in an airtight container.  (The flavor really benefits from a night’s rest.)  When ready to serve, heat to a simmer in a pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Pour into serving bowls, and top with a small dollop of crème fraiche and a sprinkling of chives.  


Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Paillards
Serves four

‘Paillards’ is just a fancy word for cutlet.  But don’t let it fool you.  This preparation is hardly fancy at all.  Super simple, really.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, tenders removed
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, as needed
1 1/2 cups flour
3 large eggs
2 Tbl water
1 1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 Tbl butter
4 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
4 Tbl vegetable or canola oil

Spread a sheet of plastic wrap over a cutting board or counter top.  Place a chicken breast on top and then cover the chicken with another sheet of plastic wrap.  Using a meat mallet, pound the chicken into an even quarter inch thickness.  Follow same procedure for the other three chicken breasts. 

Assemble a breading station assembly line: In one medium-sized container, place the flour.  Add the eggs and water to a second container and whisk to combine.  In a third container, add the bread crumbs & grated Parmesan and mix to combine. 

Pat dry a chicken breast with paper towels.  Season both sides liberally with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken breast into the first container and coat both sides thoroughly with flour.  Shake off excess flour.  Move the breast to the second container and coat both sides thoroughly with egg mixture.  Shake off excess egg.  Place the breast in the third container and coat both sides thoroughly with breadcrumb-Parmesan mixture.  Shake off excess crumbs.  Place the breaded chicken breast on a wire cooling rack placed over a sheet pan.  Follow same procedure for the other three chicken breasts.  All of this can be done earlier in the day, and the breaded chicken kept in the refrigerator until ready for cooking.

Add the butter, olive oil and vegetable oil to a large straight-sided pan.  Heat over medium heat for about 3 minutes.  Test the temperature of the cooking oil mixture by dropping in a single bread crumb.  If ii sizzles violently and burns right away, it’s too hot.  If it doesn’t sizzle at all, it’s not hot enough.  You want a medium sizzle.  When your cooking oil is just about right, slowly lower two chicken breasts into the hot oil.  Cook the first side until golden and crisp, about two-three minutes.  Flip using a metal spatula, and cook until the opposite side is golden and crispy as well, about two-three minutes.  Remove to a clean wire cooling rack placed over a sheet pan, and continue with the other two chicken breasts. Serve hot, with a generous bunch of salad served right on top.


Salad with White Beans, Shaved Fennel, Herbs & Sherry Vinaigrette 
Serves 4 

It’s pretty traditional to serve pan-fried chicken cutlets with a simple salad all piled on top.  This recipe, all chock full of goodness, just takes it to the next level. 


For vinaigrette
1 egg yolk
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
1 Tbl finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 Tbl chopped chives
pinch dried fennel seeds, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, peeled and 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 and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the egg yolk, mustard, vinegar, tarragon, chives, fennel seeds, 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.

For the rest of the salad:
1 cup dry Great Northern beans
1 tsp salt
4 good handfuls of baby arugula
1/2 head radicchio, sliced into thick ribbons
1/2 small fennel bulb, sliced very thin
6 sprigs tarragon, leaves plucked and stems discarded
1/4 cup whole flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/4 cup chopped chives
2-3 oz Parmesan, peeled into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

First, cook the beans: Sort through the beans and discard any wayward pebbles.  Then, either cover with cool water and soak overnight at room temperature, or cover with boiling water and soak one hour.  Pour off the soaking liquid.  Add the beans to a medium pot, cover with water, add 1 tsp salt, and simmer very gently until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally.  Drain beans and cool to room temperature.  The cooked beans can be refrigerated until needed in an air tight container, up to three days. 

To assemble the salad, combine the arugula, radicchio, cooked beans, sliced fennel, tarragon, parsley leaves, chives and Parmesan ribbons.  Drizzle a bit of the vinaigrette on top, but no need to use it all - just enough to thinly coat everything to your liking. Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Toss to coat thoroughly.  Serve immediately, piled high atop hot pan-fried Parmesan-crusted chicken.


Olive Oil Cake with Whipped Cream & Candied Kumquats 
Adapted from
Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
Makes 10 slices


3/4 cup all purpose flour, sifted
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup semolina flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup great-quality extra-virgin olive oil (and a little extra for greasing the pan)
1/4 cup brandy
4 large eggs
7 extra-large egg yolks
1 cup sugar
whipped cream (see recipe right below)
candied kumquats

Preheat your oven to 375°F.  Brush a 9-inch cake pan with a bit of olive oil. 

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, semolina flour and salt.  Whisk to combine thoroughly.  In a small bowl, combine the olive oil and brandy. 

Combine the eggs, yolks and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Whisk on high for seven minutes, until incredibly light and fluffy.  Transfer the egg-sugar mixture to a large mixing bowl.  Alternate folding in the dry and wet ingredients, a third at a time, starting with the dry and ending with the wet.  Pour the batter into the greased cake pan, and tap on the counter a few times to release any air bubbles.

Bake until the top of the cake is golden brown, the center is just a bit jiggly, and a toothpick stuck into the center pulls out clean, about 40-45 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack for at least fifteen minutes.  Invert onto a serving plate.  Cut ten slices from the cake and serve each with a dollop of whipped cream, some candied kumquats, and a good drizzling of the kumquat syrup.

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

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


  1. Great work, Kate..the pictures barely do it justice (although they did turn out great). Thy and I have been waiting all week to read this. Dinner was great, and it was fun to catch up with you and Ben. Considering Thy and I just finished dinner and had pre-made microwaved mashed potatoes, we cant for next time!

  2. Thanks so much Joe! We had such a blast with you both! And we can't wait for the next time either - We'll have to make it soon :).