Saturday, April 24, 2010

Book Club Get-Together


I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that when, about six months ago, I joined a book club, I’d reached a milestone.  To say I’d always dreamed of joining a book club, sounds a bit sappy.  But I will say this at least - that I’d always eagerly looked forward to it.  My mom’s been part of an incredibly neat book club, for gosh, it’s got to be over ten years.  She and her six book club ladies get together at least once a month, to talk a little bit about the monthly book, and a lot more about well, anything but.  These six fantastic women have become some of my mom’s best friends over the last few years, and I can tell that their get-togethers are some of her favorite moments of every month.  Beyond a doubt, book club is a really special part of her life.  Watching my mom and her book club friends, and seeing how much they all enjoy this special group, I’ve always wanted to one day join a book club myself. 

And so, when I was lucky enough a while back, to fall into a book club of my own, I couldn’t have been more thrilled!  And I just sort of happened into it.  Last fall, I was catering a Labor Day party for our then brand-new friends Josh and Dana.  It was one of those laid-back gigs where I was the cook, but still more or less a guest.  Once the grill was turned off and the food on the table, my apron was off too, and I could join Ben in getting to know all of Josh & Dana’s wonderful friends.  It was an instant blast, and we knew right away that this was a seriously fun group.  Dana and some of her girlfriends had recently started a book club, and wouldn’t you know it -  without a hesitation, or even a vote -  they invited me to join!  Of course I accepted right away, and called my mom the first chance I got, to tell her the exciting news.

A few months in and I have to say, book club is pretty darn awesome.  These girls are great!  I’ve loved getting to know them over the last few months, and I’ve got a good feeling that this book club of mine has all the makings for being as special to me as my mom’s is to her. 

Last Sunday, it was my turn to host book club.  The monthly reading was Ayn Rand’s humongous tome, The Fountainhead, definitely one of our more daunting book club choices.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s one of my favorite books (just check out the tattered cover of my well-read copy in picture above) but it’s seven-hundred-plus pages of teeny type make for quite an undertaking!  Preparing the menu below was a complete breeze in comparison.

Secret-Ingredient-Sangria with Sliced Fruit
Grilled Chicken Sandwiches with Walnut-Pesto, Roast Yellow Peppers, Goat Cheese, Arugula, Balsamic Vinegar & Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Black Rice Salad with Pecans, Asparagus, Oranges, Grapes, Celery, Scallions, Golden Raisins & Sherry-Orange Vinaigrette
Arugula-Spinach-Radicchio Salad with Strawberries, Radishes, Red Onion, Almonds
& Strawberry-Balsamic Vinaigrette
Seven-Layer Bars & Lemon Bars


As I put the finishing touches on the sandwich and salads, the girls gathered around the kitchen island, chatting and laughing and helping themselves to the pitcher of delicious sangria.  I’m not normally one for mixed drinks, but Sangria is not your normal mixed drink, and I can’t help but adore it.  It’s a traditional Spanish beverage, a combination of wine and brandy and sliced fruit.  This Sangria recipe is one of the best things I brought home with me from Spain.  My flat-mate Anna had made buckets of it one Friday night, for an impromptu end-of-the-work-week party.  This stuff was unbelievably delicious, and we all begged for the recipe.  She generously shared it with us, including her ‘secret’ ingredients: a pinch of cinnamon, and a good glug of Fanta orange soda!  A kaleidoscope of colorful fruit surrounded by sparkling ruby red, no drink could be prettier.  But I doubt one could be tastier either. 


This grilled chicken sandwich, with all the fixin’s listed above, is one I love to make from time to time.  It’s a great combination– the smoky-sweet yellow peppers and spicy green arugula, the pungent goat cheese and garlicky pesto and fruity balsamic vinegar.   They all create a perfect harmony with sliced grilled chicken, marinated in lemon and thyme, and a fresh crusty loaf of bread.  Gosh, I just love a good sandwich!


For I don’t know how long, at least a few months, I’ve had a package of beautiful black rice camping out on the top shelf of a kitchen cupboard.  I finally decided it was high time I did something with it, and that is how this beautiful salad, chock full of lovely fruits, nuts,  vegetables and herbs , came into being.  Dressed in one of my favorite spins on vinaigrette (that of the sherry-orange variety), the collage of bright spring-like flavors twisted together into something really spectacular, a deserving fate for that top-shelf bag of gorgeous black rice.


For a second salad, I threw together some of my all-time favorite ingredients – strawberries, arugula and radicchio.  (You know you see them on here just about all the time!)  With a touch of thinly sliced red onion, a handful of slivered almonds, and a drizzling of a rich strawberry-balsamic vinaigrette, it came together into a perfectly pretty spring salad, a wonderful something to have on the table, for any ladies’ lunch.   


For desserts, I chose two of the bar variety – seven-layer bars and lemon bars.   If you’ve never made seven layer bars, you’ve got to try them out.  A perfect treat for just about any occasion – pot luck, bake sale, dinner party or luncheon.  And they’re a breeze to make too.  It’s funny, I’d always thought this was family recipe, until about a year ago, when I saw it on the back of a can of condensed milk!  Oh well, even if they’re not a personal heirloom, they’re no less delicious. 

One thing though, I’ve never understood why they’re called seven-layer bars, rather than six-layer bars.  There’s the graham cracker crust (1), the chocolate (2), the butterscotch (3), the coconut (4), the condensed milk (i.e. the nectar of the gods) (5), and the chopped nuts (6).  Clearly six layers, not seven.  The only way I can figure it, you’ve got to count the butter too, which is part of the crust.  I don’t buy it though.  It’s certainly misleading.  Seven seems like an unfair exaggeration to me.  But like I just said, they’re no less delicious for it!


Bright, tart lemons bars were a great contrast to the rich, chocolaty seven-layers.  The lemon bar recipe below is from my friend Sara.  She’d made a batch a few months ago, and brought some up for me to sample.  One taste and I knew, this was the only lemon bar recipe I could ever need.  Hers was a perfect specimen of the ultimate lemon bar.  Delicate and buttery shortbread-like crust, smooth lemony filling with the perfect balance of bright acidity, and a light dusting of powdered sugar.  I am a huge fan of all lemon sweets, but this one in particular, is exceptional.  My book club girls agreed – These were a hit all around!


Secret-Ingredient-Sangria with Sliced Fruit
Adapted from my Spanish friend Anna
Serves  6-8 

2 small oranges, washed and thinly sliced into circles, ends discarded
2 limes, washed and thinly sliced into circles, ends discarded
1 granny smith apple, washed, cored, and sliced into thin wedges
2 plums, washed, pitted, and sliced into thin wedges
1 bunch red grapes, washed and thinly sliced into circles, about 5-6 per grape
2 (cheap but yummy) bottles of medium-bodied, dry red wine, cold *
1/4 cup brandy
1 1/2 L orange Fanta soda, cold
1/4 cup + 2 Tbl granulated sugar
pinch ground cinnamon

Wash and slice all of the fruit.  Place a small handful of sliced fruit (containing a little bit of each type) into each of six or eight glasses (or jelly jars, which I like to use).  Place the rest of the fruit into the pitcher. 

In a large mixing bowl, combine the wine, brandy, Fanta, sugar and cinnamon.  Whisk to completely dissolve the sugar.  Pour the wine mixture into the fruit-filled pitcher.  Refrigerate for about an hour or two, along with the fruit-filled cups.  (If you’re pressed for time (or just really excited to drink some sangria) you don’t really have to wait – It will be delicious right away.)

When ready to serve, add a few ice cubes to the glasses, then fill each glass with sangria from the pitcher.  Keep the pitcher nearby for refills.

* Traditionally, Sangria is made with Rioja, a Spanish wine.  But Rioja can get pricy.  With extra fixins’ like sugar and Fanta, it should be clear to you that we’re not after anything complex and fancy.  Any cheap but yummy wine will do.  Box wine even, is perfect for this situation.  There’s nothing wrong with box wine!   Yes, it certainly lacks complexity, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Box wine can actually be pretty tasty, and that’s all we’re after here.

Aim for a medium-bodied mixture of wine.  Any combination of Pinot Noir, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon would do.  (I mixed a bottle of Merlot with a bottle of Cab.)  I only advise against using two bottles of Cab, which may be a little too full in body for a light-hearted beverage like this. 


Grilled Chicken Sandwiches with Walnut-Pesto, Roast Yellow Peppers, Goat Cheese, Arugula, Balsamic Vinegar & Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Serves  4-6
For the sandwich
1 sub-like loaf Italian/French bread (the soft inside/crusty outside kind), about 2 feet long
3 Tbl balsamic vinegar, divided 
3 Tbl extra virgin olive oil, divided
about 3 oz goat cheese (the smooth kind, not the crumbly kind) 
3 grilled chicken breasts, sliced (see recipe below)
3 roasted yellow bell peppers (see recipe below)  
about 1/2 cup pesto (see recipe below)
2 handfuls arugula
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste 

Slice the loaf of bread in half, length-wise.  In a small bowl, mix 2 Tbl balsamic vinegar and 2 Tbl olive oil with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Liberally brush this vinaigrette all over the cut sides of the top and bottom halves of bread.  Sprinkle both halves with a bit of salt and pepper.  Spread the goat cheese evenly over the bottom half of the bread.  Evenly layer the chicken slices over the goat cheese, then the roasted yellow pepper slices over the chicken.  Spread about 1/3 cup of pesto over the top half of the bread.  In a medium size mixing bowl, toss the arugula with the remaining 1 Tbl of balsamic vinegar and 1 Tbl olive oil.  Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Arrange the dressed arugula over the bottom half of the sandwich, and top with the pesto-dressed top half.  Slice into 6 or eight equal portions.  Serve immediately.

For the grilled chicken:
3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 lemon
3 garlic cloves
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
vegetable oil, for preparing the grill

Marinate the chicken - Slice half of the lemon, cross-wise, into circular slices, but leave one half whole.  Crush the garlic cloves with the broad side of a large knife (no need to remove the peels).  In a medium container, combine the sliced lemon, crushed garlic cloves, chicken breasts and thyme sprigs.  Mix to combine.  Add the olive oil and juice from the half of the lemon.  Season with salt and pepper and mix again.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to marinate at least six hours. 

Preheat the grill to very hot.  Here’s a way to tell if your grill is at the right temperature.  Hold your hand right over it.  If you you can keep it there for five seconds, it’s not hot enough.  If you can’t hold it there for even half a second, it's too hot. 

When the grill is hot, soak a clean rag or a bunch of paper towels with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil, and using tongs, rub it over the grill rack.  Pick off the lemon slices, thyme sprigs and garlic cloves, and discard.  Place the chicken breasts onto the grill rack, close the grill lid, and cook about 5 minutes.  Flip the chicken breasts and grill a few minutes more, until cooked through.  For chicken to be officially fully cooked, the inside temperature should register 165°F.  But, if you pull the chicken from the grill when the temperature is about 155°F, then cover them with foil and allow them to rest for about ten minutes, the temperature should creep up to the safety of 165°F, giving you fully cooked but still juicy chicken.  No matter what, allow the chicken to rest about ten minutes, before you slice it.  Thinly slice the chicken, against the grain, on a slight diagonal.

For the roasted yellow peppers:
3 medium-sized yellow bell peppers

If you have a gas stove-top: Turn a burner onto high heat.  Place the peppers directly on the grate over the flame.  Keep an eye on the peppers, turning pretty frequently, until the skin is evenly charred all around.  Place the peppers in a container and cover with a lid or plastic wrap.  Allow them to set for about 15 minutes. 

[If you don’t have a gas stove-top: Preheat the oven to 500°F.  Place the peppers on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast, turning every 5-7 minutes, until the skin is loose and blistery.  Remove from the oven and place the peppers in a container. Cover with a lid or with plastic wrap. Allow them to set for about 15 minutes.] 

Remove the peppers from the container.  Slice each pepper in half, length-wise, and then into quarters, lengthwise again.  Remove the stems, seeds, and any tough, pithy membranes inside.  Using a knife, scrape off the charred skin from the outside of the peppers.  Refrigerate the cleaned roasted peppers, in an air-tight container, until needed.  



Walnut Pesto
Makes 1 cup


1/4 cup walnuts
3 medium-sized garlic cloves, peeled and bottom ends sliced off
2 cups basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup + 2 Tbl grated parmesan
Add the walnuts and garlic cloves to the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse until finely chopped.  Add the chopped basil leaves and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse, grainy paste.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, using a rubber spatula.  Add the salt, pepper, oil and lemon juice, and pulse to combine.  Add the grated parmesan and pulse to combine.  Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Keep refrigerated in an air-tight container, up to a week. 


Black Rice Salad with Pecans, Asparagus, Oranges, Grapes, Celery, Scallions, Golden Raisins & Sherry-Orange Vinaigrette
Serves  6-8 

For the vinaigrette:
2 Tbl fresh orange juice (from the oranges, below) 
1 tsp chopped thyme
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
1 tsp dark brown sugar
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the orange juice, thyme, mustard, brown sugar and sherry vinegar.  Slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  This can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to a week in an airtight container, until needed.

For the rest of the salad:
1 cup medium grain black rice *
1 cup pecan halves
about 10 medium-sized asparagus stalks
2 oranges
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 c grapes, washed and sliced in half
4 stalks celery, washed and sliced very thinly on the diagonal
3 green onions, washed and sliced thinly on the diagonal, both white and green parts
1 Tbl orange zest
1 Tbl thyme leaves (whole, not chopped)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Prep the rice: First, rinse the rice - Place the rice in a large mixing bowl and cover with cool water.  Give it a few good stirs, then drain off the water.  Cover with new cool water, stir, and drain again.  Repeat covering with water, stirring and draining, until the water no longer turns purplish.   Add the rice and 2 cups clean water to a medium-sized sauce pot.  Bring to a boil, stir once, then cover with a lid.  Reduce the heat to low, to keep the rice at a bare simmer.  Simmer for 50 minutes.  To check if the rice is done, tilt the pot to see if any water is left at the bottom.  If there’s a bit of water left over, cook for about 3-5 minutes more.  When all the water is absorbed, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to rest ten minutes.  Fluff the rice with a fork, then pour the rice over a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Allow it to cool to room temperature, then transfer to an air-tight container and chill it in the refrigerator.  The rice is best made a day ahead, and chilled overnight. 

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 set the pecans aside until needed.

Prep the asparagus: The bottoms of the stems are tough and woody but the tops are tender.  To determine where to trim, take one stem and holding the bottom of the stem in one hand and the middle in the other, bend the stem.  It will snap right at the point where tough turns to tender.  Line up the rest of the asparagus so their tips align, and slice off their bottom portions at the same point where the first one snapped.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the asparagus and cook until just barely tender, about three or so minutes.  Drain, then plunge into a large bowl of ice water, and let soak for about a minute.  Drain from the ice water, and slice the asparagus into bit-size pieces of about 1-inch long.  Set aside until needed.

Slice the oranges: With a sharp knife, remove the peel - Slice off the top and bottom ends.  Rest the orange on the cutting board, and slice from top to bottom down the sides, removing the skin and the white pith that lies beneath.  Continue to slice away the skin, around the entire fruit.  Cut away any pith you may have missed. Now, slice the orange into segments - Hold the peeled orange over a bowl. Slice downward towards the center of the orange, as close as possible along the white membrane separating the segments. Make the same slice on the opposite side of the same segment.  When the two cuts meet at the center, the orange segment with slide out, and fall into the bowl.  Repeat with the remaining segments.  When done with the entire fruit, squeeze the juice into the bowl.  Strain the juice into a separate container (use 2 Tbl of this for the vinaigrette).  Set aside the orange segments until needed.

Prep the raisins: Place the raisins in a small bowl.  Cover with boiling water and soak for about 15 minutes.  Drain and set aside until needed. 

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked rice with the toasted pecans, sliced asparagus, orange segments, soaked raisins, halved grapes, sliced celery, sliced green onions, orange zest and thyme leaves.  Drizzle with the vinaigrette.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a good few grinds of pepper.  Toss thoroughly to combine.  Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.   The salad can benefit greatly if you allow it to set for a few hours.  The rice will soak up the vinaigrette and all the flavors will meld.   To serve, transfer to a serving bowl or platter.  Best served at room temperature.

* Black rice may be one of those ingredients that’s a bit tricky to find, but it’s just so pretty, I think it’s worth the search.  I used this type, and I find it at Whole Foods, but my bet is that you’d have pretty good luck finding it at any somewhat-specialty grocery store.  (Long-grain wild rice is a very pretty type of black-colored rice too.  It’s maybe easier to find, but it’s maybe a bit more expensive too.)  No matter what type of rice you end up using, you’d be better to follow the directions on the rice package, as far as cooking times, rather than following mine to the T, since the cooking time for each specific type of rice varies a bit.  Adjust the times, but still follow the same general method of bringing the rice and water to a boil, then covering the pot, reducing the heat, and simmering until done.  And definitely make sure you rinse your rice well though before cooking it.  Otherwise, it will be an ugly, sticky mess. 


Arugula-Spinach-Radicchio Salad with Strawberries, Radishes, Red Onion, Almonds & Strawberry-Balsamic Vinaigrette
Serves  6-8
For the vinaigrette:
(makes about 1 cup dressing, more than you’ll need for this salad)
1 cup roughly chopped strawberries (from about 6 medium-sized ones)
1 Tbl sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl vegetable oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Add the chopped strawberries, sugar and balsamic vinegar to a small sauce pot.  Simmer for about ten minutes, then remove from the heat.  Add the strawberry-balsamic mixture to a blender or food processor.  Blend until smooth.  With the blender/processor running, slowly add the oils.  Taste, then season as needed with salt and pepper.  Cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate in an air-tight container, up to a week.

For the rest of the salad:
1/4 cup very-thinly sliced red onion
9 oz baby spinach, stems plucked off
4 oz arugula, stems plucked off
1/2 head radicchio, sliced into 1/4-inch ribbons
8 radishes, washed and sliced into thin circles
12 medium-sized ripe strawberries, washed, cored and quartered
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the sliced red onion in a small bowl and cover with cold water.  Soak about fifteen minutes, then drain.  (This removes some of the harsh oniony flavor.)

Place the onions, spinach, arugula, radicchio, radishes and strawberries in a large mixing bowl.  Drizzle about a quarter cup of the vinaigrette over the top, and season with a sprinkle of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Toss well to combine, and coat everything with the vinaigrette.  Taste a leaf.  Add more vinaigrette, or more salt or pepper, if needed.  Transfer to a serving bowl or platter and serve immediately.


Seven-Layer Bars  
Adapted from the recipe on cans of Eagle-brand condensed milk
Makes 24 2-inch bars
1 stick butter, melted
1 pack graham crackers (1/3 of a box), finely crushed (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 can condensed milk
1 1/2 cups pecans, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Add the melted butter and the crushed graham crackers to a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Mix with a rubber spatula to combine.  Pour the mixture into a 9x13-inch pan.  Press evenly over the bottom of the pan. Scatter the chocolate and butterscotch chips evenly over the graham cracker layer.  Sprinkle the shredded coconut evenly over the chips.  Slowly pour the condensed milk as evenly as you can over the coconut – This is a bit tricky, but don’t stress too much over it – It will be delicious no matter what.  Finally, sprinkle the chopped pecans evenly over the top.  Bake until set and lightly golden on top, about 25-30 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.  Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, until needed.

Trim about 1/4-inch to a 1/2-inch around all four borders.  (The border scraps are the cook’s (and the cook’s hungry husband’s) treat.)  Slice the center area into 24 2-inch square bars, 4 rows by 6 columns.  I always hate this part of making desserts of the bar-variety!  Every time, I end up wrestling with the pan, trying to get the first square out.  Once you get that first one though, lifting out the rest gets a bit easier, especially with the help of a good metal spatula.  So don’t be discouraged – Keep at it!

I think these are best served a bit cold.  But they’re good too at room temperature.  And now that I think about it, they’d probably be pretty delicious served hot with vanilla ice cream on top.


Lemon Bars
Adapted from my downstairs friend Sara’s family recipe
Makes 24 2-inch bars


For the crust:
1 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Place the butter, sugar and flour in a medium mixing bowl and mix well to combine, with a rubber spatula. (The dough will resemble fine sand, and will hold together a bit if you squeeze it between your fingers.) Pour the dough mixture into a 9x13-inch pan.  Press evenly over the bottom of the pan.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature on a wire rack. 

For the lemon filling
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
powdered sugar, for dusting

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking powder, and set aside.  Crack the eggs into a medium-sized mixing bowl, and whisk.  Add the sugar and mix to combine.  Add the lemon juice and mix to combine.  Add the flour-baking powder mixture and mix to combine.  Pour this mixture over the cooled crust.  Bake at 35o°F until the center is set, about 25-30 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.  Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap. 

Trim about 1/4-inch to a 1/2-inch around all four borders.  (Another treat for you, and kitchen-lingering loved ones.)  Slice the center area into 24 2-inch square bars, 4 rows by 6 columns.  Like all bar-variety deserts, getting these out of the pan can be the bane of my existence!  But once you get the first square out, the rest is more-or-less smooth sailing.  Using a sturdy metal spatula helps a lot. 

Right before serving, dust with powdered sugar.  Don’t do this too soon, or the sugar will dissolve into the lemon mixture, and it won’t look as pretty.  Serve cold or at room temperature. 


  1. it was delicious!!!!! can't wait to try the chicken at home....but one thing...i'm not getting the automatic blog updates anymore :(

  2. Thanks,Dana! I had a blast with all you lovely ladies, and it was so much fun hosting bookclub!

    I don't know what's going on exactly with the email notices. It definitely didn't work for last week's post. I only posted this one this morning, and the emails get sent out in the middle of the night, so we'll know by tomorrow morning whether or not email is up and running again. Keep your fingers crossed :).

  3. i'm obsessed with that black rice salad! well, i haven't actually tried it, but i know if i did (and i will) i'd be totally obsessed! and the spinach salad too!

  4. Thanks, Meg! I seriously adore the black rice salad, too! Definitely fill me in when you give them a try :).