Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Winter’s Final Evening


This week’s dinner party took place last Saturday, on the last evening of winter.  It was certainly wintery outside, with sleety snow and big Chicago winds.  And we had a wintery dinner inside too, making the most of the last of the season’s bounty.  Our dinner guests were Ben’s boss Chris and his wife Melece.  Yep, we performed that age old ritual of having the boss for dinner.  Under normal circumstances, this sort of to-do has all the makings for being a bit stressful.  But this was the eleventh dinner party we’ve thrown in as many weeks - We were all around cool as can be.  Still though, I was aiming this week for a particularly extraordinary menu, one that was perhaps a bit more exceptional than the norm, one sure to delight and impress.  And I do believe I achieved it. 

Cremini Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Sausage, Herbs and Parmesan

Root Vegetable Ribbon Salad with Fines Herb Vinaigrette

                 Pan-Seared Salmon with Sautéed Mustard Greens, Roasted Purple Potatoes       and Brown Butter sauce with Capers and Currants

Hazelnut-Maple Tart with Whipped Cream

We started out with an hors d’oeuvre that is nothing short of spectacular – stuffed mushrooms.  My Uncle David (an awesome cook, and my earliest inspiration) first made these for a family party about ten or so years ago.  They immediately achieved family favorite status.  Literally.  If you took a poll of everyone in our family, I am certain these would come in first place among favorite family dishes.  I think Uncle Dave first got the recipe from some magazine or other, but as far as any of us are concerned, they’re an original family heirloom.  They’re so incredibly delicious, and such a staple at family events, we can’t help but fancy them as our very own, passed down from great, great ancestors. 

As an aside, I’ll admit upfront that these are not gourmet by any stretch.  With ingredients like cream cheese and breakfast sausage and garlic salt, they seem downright unsophisticated.  But it’s nothing I’m ashamed of.  I’d gladly sacrifice every last ounce of my epicurean pride for these amazing mushrooms.  And also, they are not very pretty.  They’re absolutely homely actually – little, brown, ugly lumps that are anything but photogenic.  (Hence the the blatant lack of pictures.)  But my goodness, one bite and you’ll swear they’re the most beautiful things in the world.  And anyways, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, a taste is worth a trillion.


Our salad took a place at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, thanks in no small part to its complete span of the color spectrum.  With its pastel hues and bright flavors, this collection of thinly shaven raw root vegetables was a spring-like spin on a cold weather staple, a perfectly suited dish for the night day of winter.  I gathered a pretty assortment of root vegetables from the fruit market – turnips, carrots, rutabagas, parsnips, celery root, radishes and golden beets.  Sliced paper-thin then simply dressed in a creamy vinaigrette of buttermilk and fresh herbs, these pretty ribbons of root vegetables are a perfect basis for a fresh and delicious salad.  Crisp yet delicate, they act like leaves themselves, and easily stand in place for typical salad greens. 


Looking through the lists of Scrumptious Company menus I’ve served so far, I realized it was high time we did something with salmon.  Rich and fatty, with a succulent flavor unique to all other fish, and a lovely pinkish-orange flesh of such a gorgeous tone, it’s an official color itself.  What could be better than salmon, really?  I just love the stuff.


Alongside pan-seared fillets of this beautiful fish, I served braised mustard greens and oven-roasted Peruvian purple potatoes.  The potatoes were wonderfully aromatic, with tender insides of bright purple, and crispy skins of a deeper purple tinged with golden brown.  Roasted with pink slivers of shallots, minced garlic and a generous dose of fresh thyme, and dressed with a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil, they were a vibrant accompaniment, in both color and taste, to the robust flavors and texture of the salmon. 


Mustard greens are, in one word, bitter.  But as with such favorites as dark chocolate and coffee and beer, the bitterness of mustard greens is nothing to be afraid of.  In fact, it’s an all around noble attribute.  Bitterness, an oft overlooked taste, is indeed worthy of its own celebration from time to time.  And tonight, mustard greens were the belle of the ball.  Cloaked in sauce of butter and garlic, and spiked with a bright dash of sherry vinegar, these tenderly braised greens were creamy and smooth, a delicious reminder of how sweet a bit of bitterness can be. 


And to bring everything together, a brown butter sauce with bicolor speckles of capers and currants that echoed the earthy greens and purples of the rustic sides.  Fragrant and savory, this rich and vibrant sauce rounded out the bitter greens, earthy potatoes and buttery salmon.  Its combination of flavors – salty pickled capers, fruity currants, mellow garlic and vivid lemon – made it a fitting complement and wonderful addition to the entire dish. 


To make this week’s dessert, we again happily dug into our generous supply of surprise hazelnuts. This time round, they took their place, and were an all-around smashing success, in a hazelnut-maple pie.  Along the same lines as pecan pie, this handsome dessert could be considered by some (including my handsome husband), even better than the pecan version.  With a golden, flaky crust, and a sticky filling of gooey maple custard studded with toasted hazelnuts, this pie was a real treat.  And with a steaming cup of our favorite coffee, it was a perfect ending to not only the wonderful night, but also the winter.


Cremini Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Sausage, Herbs & Parmesan
Adapted from my uncle David Schoen’s recipe
Serves 6

1 # breakfast sausage (something along the lines of this)
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup grated fresh parmesan (about 4 ounces)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp garlic salt
8 oz cream cheese
1 large egg yolk
30 Cremini mushrooms 

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for about two minutes.  Add the sausage to the pan, then sprinkle the oregano and crushed red pepper over the sausage.  Sauté, stirring frequently and breaking the sausage into small pieces with a potato masher or the back of a fork, until the sausage is cooked through.  Remove from the heat and reserve.

In a medium bowl, mix half the grated parmesan with the Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt, cream cheese and egg yolk.  Stir with a rubber spatula to thoroughly combine.  Add the cooked sausage and stir to combine. Reserve.

Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel.  Remove the stems from the mushrooms.  (No need to cut - Just pluck them out.)  Make a very thin slice across the top of each mushroom cap, to form a steady base.  Stuff each cap with a scant tablespoon of sausage filling, using more or less filling for larger or smaller caps, as necessary. Place the remaining grated parmesan in a small bowl and dip each stuffed mushroom into the parmesan, stuffing-side down.  The grated cheese will stick to the top.

Arrange the stuffed mushroom caps on top of a baking sheet lined with a single layer of paper towels. (The paper towel will absorb the water that will be released from the mushrooms, and make for a much neater end-product.)  At this point, the mushrooms can be covered with plastic and refrigerated overnight, or baked right away.

Bake, uncovered, in a 35o°F oven until the stuffed mushrooms are hot and the tops are golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.  


Root Vegetable Ribbon Salad with Fines Herbs Vinaigrette
Serves 4-6

For the dressing:
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 Tbl mayonnaise
2 Tbl sour cream
1/4 cup sliced chives
1/4 cup chopped tarragon
2 Tbl chopped parsley
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1 Tbl cider vinegar
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt

For the root vegetables

2 medium carrots
2 medium parsnips
4-6 radishes
2 medium golden beets
1 small turnip
1 small celery root
1 small rutabaga
kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the dressing:  Combine all the ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl, and stir to combine.  Refrigerate in an air-tight container until needed, up to a day.

For the root vegetables: Wash all of the root vegetables in cool running water.  Peel the carrots, parsnips, celery root and rutabaga, but leave the skins on the radishes, beets and turnip.  Using a mandolin, slice the root vegetables into paper-thin circular slices.  Add the slices to a large mixing bowl and cover with cold water.  Refrigerate covered, until ready to serve. 

To assemble:  Dry the sliced root vegetables very thoroughly in a salad spinner.  (Give this step about twice as much time as you think it needs – it’s important that they are very dry, so the dressing will stick.)  When no more water is released from the salad spinner, pat the sliced vegetables with paper towels, to pick up any lingering water.  Place the sliced vegetables into a large, dry mixing bowl and top with the dressing.  Season with salt and pepper. Stir with a rubber spatula, evenly coating each slice with the dressing.  Arrange a small cluster of dressed root vegetable slices in the center of each salad plate.  Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a small grind of pepper.   


Pan-Seared Salmon
Serves  4
4 6-oz portions skinless salmon
vegetable oil, as needed
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Heat a large non-stick sauté pan over high heat for two minutes.  Add enough vegetable oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan, about 1 Tbl, and heat 1 minute more.  Pat the salmon fillets dry with paper towels and season both sides with salt and pepper.  Lower each portion of salmon (skin-side up, pretty side down) into the pan, leaving space between each fillet.  Turn the heat down to medium-high, and allow the salmon to cook about three minutes, without touching it.  Give the pan a little shake.  If all the fillets move loosely on the pan without sticking, flip the fillets over, using a metal spatula.  (If the fillets are still sticking to the pan a bit, allow them to cook about a minute more, then try again.  Don’t try to rush it here – if you try to flip them before they’re ready, you’ll mess up the beautiful sear.)  Once the fillets are flipped, place the pan into the oven and bake until cooked through, about five minutes more.  This will give you something near medium doneness.  Increase or decrease the time in the oven, as needed, for desired level of doneness.  Serve hot.


Roasted Purple Potatoes with Shallots, Garlic and Thyme
Serves 4

In this recipe, the potatoes and shallots are roasted separately ahead of time, then combined and roasted again when ready to serve.  These may seem like a lot of extra steps, but they ensure proper cooking of both the potatoes and shallots, and also allow for easy last minute work.  The extra steps make it easier in the long run. 

1 # small purple potatoes *
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
2 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced 
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

Preheat the oven to 450°F.  Wash the potatoes in cool running water.  Slice into quarters.  Toss with about a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, just enough to coat.   Place on the lower-middle rack of the oven, and roast until tender and slightly browned, about 25-30 minutes, turning with a spatula after about 15 minutes. 

In a small mixing bowl, toss sliced shallots with about 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil, just enough to coat.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss to combine.  Spread over a sheet tray lined with parchment paper.  Place on the upper-middle rack of the oven, just above the potatoes and roast until slightly caramelized, about 15-20 minutes, turning with a spatula after about 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature and reserve until needed, up to 2-3 hours. 

When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 375°F.  Heat a medium non-stick sauté pan over high heat for two minutes.  Add a scant tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, and heat 1 minute more.  Add the potatoes, garlic and thyme, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine.  Turn the heat to medium and sauté about 1 minute.  Move the pan to the oven, and roast about 7 minutes, until the potatoes are heated through and the garlic is golden brown.  Serve immediately. 

* This recipe works great for any sort of small potato.  Try it too with red (Red Bliss) or yellow (Yukon gold) or white-skinned potatoes.  Just stick with ones that are small and round, with smooth, waxy skins - the ones normally referred to as boiling potatoes.  Large, dusty-skinned potatoes like russets and Idaho’s have their time and place too (mashed potatoes!), but it’s not here. 


Braised Mustard Greens
Serves 4

2 bunches mustard greens, stems and lower ribs discarded, leaves coarsely chopped
2 Tbl butter
1 large clove garlic, minced
about 1/2 cup water
1 Tbl + 1 tsp sherry vinegar
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Wash the greens: Place the prepped greens in a large mixing bowl and cover with cool water.  Lift the leaves out of the water with your hands and place in a colander, leaving any dirt at the bottom of the bowl.  (Don’t pour the greens and water into a colander, or you’ll just be pouring the dirt right back on top of the greens.)  Repeat this step as many times as necessary, covering the greens with fresh cool water and lifting the greens out of the bowl, until no dirt is seen in the bottom of the bowl.  Drain the greens and spin dry. 

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter.  Add the minced garlic and sauté, stirring constantly until the garlic just barely starts to turn towards golden.  Add the prepped greens and stir to combine – your aim here is to stop the garlic from over-cooking, so combine it well with the greens, to limit its contact with the hot pan.  Add 1/4 cup water and cover the sauté pan with a lid.  Cook about 1 minute, then stir the greens, folding them over so the wilted greens are on top and the raw greens on the bottom.  Cover and cook for another minute or two.  Add another 1/4 water and continue to cook and stir in this way until all of the leaves are tender to the bite, about 5-10 minutes.  (Taste one and see if it’s tender.)  Add more water if you need.  When the greens are tender, remove the lid and cook until any leftover water has evaporated.  Sprinkle with the vinegar and season with salt and pepper.  Stir to combine.  Taste and season with salt and pepper, and more vinegar if needed.  Serve hot.


Brown Butter Sauce with Capers and Currants 
Serves 4

1/4 cup dried Zante currants
6 Tbl butter
1 large shallot, peeled and finely diced
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
2 Tbl capers, drained
zest and juice of 1 lemon
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the dried currants in a small mixing bowl and cover with boiling water.  Allow to set about 15 minutes, then drain.

Place a medium sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter.  Stirring or swirling occasionally, cook until the butter begins to turn golden brown and give off a rich and nutty aroma, about 3-4 minutes.  Add the diced shallots, a small pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and sauté until tender and translucent, about 3-4 minutes.   Add the minced garlic and sauté 1 minute, then the capers and lemon zest, and sauté 1 minute more.  Add the lemon juice and stir to combine.  Remove from the heat.  Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Either serve hot now, spooned over a portion of meat or fish, or cool to room temperature, refrigerate until needed (up to two days), and reheat over medium heat.


Maple-Hazelnut Pie
Adapted from Bon Appétit, October 2008 on
Pie crust adapted from the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook by Martha Stewart
Serves 8

A word about maple syrup: Real maple syrup, that is.  Not the maple-flavored corn syrup that comes in squeezable plastic bottles.  Please try never to use that stuff.  Like most of us, I grew up on it.  And up until only a few years ago, I still preferred it to real maple syrup for topping my pancakes.  Truth be told, it’s thicker and somehow more maple-flavored than the pure stuff, not to mention a lot less expensive.  For the longest time, I liked the idea of real maple syrup, and would use it begrudgingly.  But I always knew my heart was with the fake kind. 

But then I discovered Grade B maple syrup.  I’d always bought Grade A, assuming naturally that A was better than B.  Less refined than Grade A, Grade B is thicker and darker and absolutely more full of maple flavor.  It has all the pure goodness of real maple syrup, and all the rich flavor and gooey viscosity of the fake syrups.  It’s in a class all by itself, and is the only maple syrup I use now, with not a hint of begrudging, for both baking and for drizzling over pancakes and waffles.  I can’t recommend enough that you give it a try!


For the pie dough:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces, plus more for coating the pie plate
1/4 cup ice water, plus more if needed
1 large egg white, for egg wash

Combine the flour and salt in a bowl and stir to combine.  Add the butter.  Rub the butter and flour mixture together rapidly between your finger tips until the fat is broken into tiny pieces and the mixture resembles dry oatmeal.  Tablespoon by tablespoon, drizzle the water over the flour mixture, mixing with your hand (use your actual hand, not a spoon) between additions, until the dough begins to hold together, without being wet or sticky.  You can test the dough by squeezing together a small amount – if it is still too crumbly and does not hold together, add a bit more water.   Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface.  Knead once or twice to bring the dough all together.  Shape into a flattened disk.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate.   On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the chilled dough to about 1/4-inch thickness, forming a 10-inch diameter round.  Lift the dough with the rolling pin and drape it over the prepared pie plate.  Press along the sides to fit the dough into the pie plate.  Use kitchen shears to trim the dough along the outer edges of the plate, leaving a slight overhang. Using your fingers, crimp all along the edge of the dough to create a fluted border.  Chill in the refrigerator about 20-30 minutes. Whisk together the egg white and 1 tsp water in a small bowl.  Brush the dough with the egg wash, to coat thinly.  (You won’t need to use all of the egg wash.) 

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Line the chilled pie shell with parchment paper, leaving a 1-inch overhang over the edges.  Fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake until the edges begin to turn lightly golden, about 20 minutes.  Remove the parchment paper and pie weights.  Cool the pie shell on a wire rack while you prepare the filling. 

To assemble:
3/4 cup Grade B pure maple syrup
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbl bourbon
1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 cup hazelnuts
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Turn the oven down to 35o°F.  Combine the maple syrup, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.  Continue boiling 1-2 minutes, reducing the heat as necessary, so the mixture doesn’t boil over.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the bourbon and the butter and whisk until the butter has melted.  Allow to cool, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.   

Spread the raw hazelnuts on a parchment-lined sheet tray and roast until lightly toasted and aromatic, about fifteen minutes or so, rotating the pan about half-way through.  Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature.  Removing the skins can be a real hassle, so just try your best – I like a bit of skin left on anyways.  Here’s a handy trick: Take a handful of cool, toasted hazelnuts and, holding them over the colander bowl of a salad spinner, rub them between your hands to remove as much of the skin as possible.  Place in the colander, then repeat with the rest of the nuts, Give the salad spinner a few spins and the papery skins will separate out from the nuts.  Discard the skins. Now, slice each hazelnut in half.  Scatter the halved hazelnuts over the base of the pre-baked pie crust. 

Whisk the eggs and vanilla together in a medium bowl.  Pour the cooled maple-sugar mixture into the egg mixture, and stir to combine with a rubber spatula.  Pour the mixture over the hazelnuts in the crust.  Bake pie until the filling is set and slightly puffed, about 50 minutes to 1 hour.  If the edges of the crust start to darken too much, before the filling is set, line the crust with a border of tin foil.  When the center of the pie is just slightly giggly, remove from the oven and cool completely on a rack.  Can be made 1 day ahead and kept covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator.  Serve slices cool or at room temperature, topped with whipped cream.

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

Whip the cream to soft peaks (When you stick a spoon into the cream and lift it out, a point will form then droop down after a second or two).  Add sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks (The point formed in the whipped cream will stand straight up and not fall over).



  1. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! The flecks of butter in the photo of the unbaked pie crust are amazing. And those root vegetables! One of the most photogenic menus yet!

  2. Thank you, Sara! You are too kind :). And I can't take all the credit - Those root vegetables are stunning all on their own!

  3. Kate those root vegetables are just the way they should be eaten at the end of the season - simple, colorful and in all thier glory! This was their grand finale.

    I always look forward to your dessert recipes. This is where I get stuck and yours are always so inspired

  4. Thanks a lot, Katie. Thinking up desserts can definitely be a challenge for me too! This project has given me lots of practice on the pastry side of the kitchen, which I'm glad for. Baking and cooking are such completely different ball games :).