Friday, May 28, 2010

An All Too Summery Spring Night

Preparing the Hors d'Oeuvres

We had a hot, hot night on our hands, for this dinner party!  It was that week – there’s one ever year – when the temperature suddenly goes strait from being a bit too cold to way too hot, with no sort of perfect in between.  We’d been looking forward all spring to having our first outdoor Scrumptious Company dinner, out on our back deck.  And for a while there, we were sure this would be our night.  But the temperature kept rising, all Sunday long.  And now, instead of rain or cold or crazy Chicago wind, it was the sun, still all too fierce at seven in the evening, that kept us indoors for dinner. 

Undeniably summer in every sense, save for its place on the calendar, this too-hot day begged for summertime food.  Nothing too heavy, nothing to hot.  In weather like this, eating can seem like a chore!  The last thing I wanted to do was make our dinner guests feel like I was putting them to work.  After all, these were pretty special guests.  Tonight I was cooking for two of my new catering clients, Eileen and Gerard.  They hosted the big party I catered a while back, and this night’s dinner was a ‘thank you’ for the great opportunity and generous support they’d given to my fledgling company. 

So, light and cool was the name of the game.  A bright, crunchy slaw of fresh fennel, and a creamy, goat-cheese studded salad of tender lentils (conveniently cooked the day before and served at room temp) were cool counterpoints to juicy grilled pork chops and some quick-roasted green beans.  And a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream atop the strawberry-rhubarb crisp chilled things down for dessert. 

Mini Gougère Sandwiches with Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Pickled Onions & Arugula
Grilled Pork Chops with Orange-Tarragon Butter, Lentils-Goat Cheese Salad,
Fennel-Red Onion Slaw, and Roasted Green Beans
Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream

We started the night off with a summery hors d’oeuvre, a miniaturized spin on BLT’s.  A recipe I’d been eyeing in one of my favorite cooking tomes, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I’d been wanting to give these a try for a while.  Thick-cut, apple wood-smoked bacon, sweet and tangy quick-pickled yellow onions, peppery green arugula.  These three inner elements certainly made for a good start.  And yes, normally when it come to sandwiches, just like with people, it’s what’s inside that counts.  But in this instance, it wasn’t just the filling that made these little bites extraordinary.  It was the bread itself.  Well not bread, per se, but gougères.  Lovely French cheese puffs, full of nutty gruyere flavor, with tender, airy insides and crispy outsides of golden brown.  Sliced in half like mini buns, these sublime little pastries made for some fabulously delicious tops and bottoms to these fancied-up bacon sandwiches.

Grilled Pork Chop with Orange-Tarragon Butter, Fennel-Red Onion Slaw and Roasted Green Beans

Now, onto the main course.  And forgive me as I skip the all too ordinary (albeit awfully tasty) pork chop and go straight to the sides.  Because I was pretty thrilled with how these side dishes turned out.  Plus, what’s there to say really about grilled pork chops?  That they’re delicious?  Sure, but you know that already.  Plus, these side dishes had deliciousness going for them too, and in a major way. 

Especially the lentil-goat cheese salad.  This was a big hit with all of of us.  French green lentils, gently simmered until tender and creamy, combined with an aromatic heaping of freshly chopped green herbs, sweetly pungent specks of minced shallots, and a crumbling of creamy white goat cheese.  Folded together, these various ingredients join forces seamlessly, forming a velvety blend of earthy and vivid flavors, a delicious mixing of coolness and comfort. 

So often it seems, the lentils we encounter come in warm, steaming bowls, served hot off the stove, all mushy and stew-like, the epitome of cold weather coziness.  But this lentil dish is all together different.  These lentils are more akin to a summery side dish, like a potato or pasta salad,  than a wintery stew of hearty legumes.  It’s a refreshingly refreshing twist for an ingredient that’s just too delicious to only be eaten in cold weather. 

Fennel-Red Onion Slaw

This crisp, cool fennel-red onion slaw seemed a naturally fitting cohort to the creamy lentil salad.  Thinly sliced ribbons of licoricy, pale green fennel and sweetly spicy, pink-edged onion, delicately dressed in a light and citrusy vinaigrette.  Each bite of this simple, rustic slaw yielded a punch of vibrant flavor, and a telltale crunch of undeniable freshness.

Sliced Fennel & Red Onions

Like grilled pork chops, green beans seem like none too astonishing a dish.  But roasted green beans, well that’s a dish worth dwelling on, at least for a little while.  Quick-roasted in a searing hot oven, the green beans sizzle away, getting all blistery and browned, turning a shocking shade of vibrant green, and becoming both tender and crunchy, full of rich, caramelized flavor. Try them like this once, and you’ll never even think of merely boiling green beans again.  

One last element of dinner I should mention – the orange-tarragon compound butter.  If you’ve been following along with this blog, you’ll know I’m very fond of these flavored butter sauces, and that I’ve written about them a time or two before.  I just can’t help but adore their convenience.  Melting over anything hot, they create an instant sauce, and make for no last minute work whatsoever.  And what more could you ask for, when throwing a dinner party!? 


You’ll let me know when you get tired of strawberries or rhubarb, right?  But I do hope your not tired of them yet, because I have a feeling I’m just getting warmed up when it comes to these pretty-in-pink springtime fruits.  I just can’t seem to get enough.  And this simple-as-can-be strawberry-rhubarb crisp was a natural outlet for this seasonal obsession of mine.  Juicy, sweet strawberries and tart, tender rhubarb, slowly baked until syrupy and bubbling.  On top of this, a golden, crunchy crust of oats and butter and brown sugar, so humble yet so rich, and so undeniably delicious.  Combined with a melty scoop of vanilla ice cream, I can’t believe there could be a better way to eat either rhubarb or strawberries. 

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Mini Gougère Sandwiches with Bacon, Pickled Onions & Arugula
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
Makes about 24 bite-sized sandwiches, enough for 4 to 6 people
Mini Gougere Sandwiches with Bacon, Pickled Onions & Arugula   
24 gougères (see recipe below)
12 slices thick-sliced applewood-smoked bacon, cooked, cut in quarters
pickled yellow onions (see recipe below)
about 2 oz baby arugula
Slice each gougère in half, cross-wise through the center.  Arrange two pieces of bacon (half a slice total) on the bottom half of the gougère.  Top with a few slices of pickled onions.  (Make sure to drain the pickling juice from the onions, then dry them slightly by blotting them with paper towels.)  Over the onions, arrange a few leaves of baby arugula, then top with the top half of the slice gougère.  Serve immediately.  
Pickled Yellow Onions
Pickled Yellow Onions
1 large yellow onion
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 cup water
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme
1 Tbl sugar
1 tsp salt
Slice the top end (not the root end) off of the onion, then slice it in half from top to bottom.  Peel off the skin, then slice cross-wise, from the top towards the bottom, forming half-rings of about 1/8-inch thickness. 

Combine the vinegar, water, bay leaf, thyme, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan.  Over medium heat, bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt.  Add the sliced onions, and continue to simmer for 1 minutes, stirring occasionally.   Turn off the heat, and rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then refrigerate in an air-tight container until needed.  Will keep about 2 weeks. 

Gougères (Cheese Puffs)
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer
Makes about 30 gougères
Gougères make wonderful little buns for mini sandwiches.  But they make for an incredible appetizer all on their own, too.  They taste like goldfish crackers for grownups.  Serve them with a great beer for a simple, delicious & sophisticated snack. 
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup whole milk
1 stick butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese, divided
Preheat the oven to 400ᵒF, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.
Combine the water, milk, butter and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a full rolling boil over medium heat.  Add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.  Continue to cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute. 
Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Using the paddle attachment, and setting the mixer to medium speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Make sure that the mixture is smooth and that the egg is fully incorporated before adding each next egg.  Once all the eggs are incorporated into the dough, add 1 cup Gruyère cheese, and beat the dough until is it smooth and shiny, about 1 minute more.  (If you don’t have an electric stand mixer, you can do the mixing by hand, with a wooden spoon.)
Fill a pastry bag with the dough.  Slice off the tip of the bag, to create an opening of about 1-inch diameter.  Line a baking pan with parchment paper.  Holding the bag at a 90ᵒ angle to the baking sheet, and with the tip of the bag just above the pan, gently squeeze the bag (squeeze from the top of the bag with your right hand while guiding the tip with your left) to form a shape no wider than about 1 1/2-inches.  Push the dough out slowly and gently, until the height reaches about 1-inch.  To stop piping, stop applying pressure to the bag before lifting the tip, then push the tip down, and quickly jerk it upward.  Leave about 2-inches of space between each shape.  Once all the shapes are piped, dip your fingers into cool water and smooth out each shape into smooth, rounded domes.  Top evenly with the remaining half cup of grated cheese.  (These can be refrigerated, uncovered, for up to about six hours before baking – Then just pop them in the oven, right before your guests arrive.) 
Bake at 400ᵒF for 15 minutes, then decrease the oven temperature to 350ᵒF.  Continue to bake until the gougères are golden brown, firm, and cooked in the center, about 15 to 20 minutes.  (Taste one to make sure they’re cooked through.  If it tastes a bit eggy, they need a little more time.)  Cool a bit on a wire rack, and serve either warm or at room temperature.   (These are best baked at more or less the last minute.  But if you make them ahead of time, just reheat them a bit, say for five minutes or so, in a 350ᵒF oven.) 
Fresh-Baked Gougeres

Grilled Pork Chops
Serves 4
Brining is an easy step that really gives these chops some extra moisture, which goes a long way towards making them a real hit.  That and cooking them to the right temperature. You do not want to overcook these guys. In fact, if I can convince you to try it, err on the side of undercooking.  I always pull them out at about 138-14o°F, and let them come up to temp as they rest on the countertop for a few minutes. This way they’re juicy and a lovely blushing shade of pink.
It’s never fun being stuck at the grill, away from the guests.  So what I usually do is this:  Just before the guests arrive, I give the chops a quick grill, just a few minutes on each side, just long enough to give them some good grill marks and a nice smoky aroma, but not long enough to cook them through.  Then I transfer the chops to a wire rack placed over a baking sheet.  About fifteen minutes before we’re ready to eat, I pop them in a hot oven to finish cooking.  It’s a little trick that frees me up a lot and lets me be a more sociable hostess.   
Grilled Pork Chops with Orange-Tarragon Butter
For the brine :
2 quarts water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
2 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp black peppercorns
4 pork chops (about 8 oz each)
vegetable oil, for grilling

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

About an hour before your guests arrive, pre-heat the grill.  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 a second, it's too hot.  Lightly oil the grill rack.

When the grill is hot, pat the pork chops dry with paper towels.  Place the chops presentation-side down on the grill.  Grill until well-browned on the first side, about 2-3 minutes.  Flip the chops over and grill 2 minutes longer.  Remove the chops from the grill and place on a wire rack arranged over a baking sheet.  Reserve until needed.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.  (Start preheating the oven right about when the guests arrive.  It will come to temperature as you eat hors d’oeuvres.)  About 15 minutes before you’re ready to eat, place the pan of pre-grilled pork chops in the oven.  Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat registers 138-140°F, about 10 minutes or so.  The internal temperature is a really important indicator of how tender and juicy the meat will be.  So really try not to overcook the pork!  Here’s another trick that I highly recommend…  Get yourself a ‘leave-in’ thermometer.  (I know you can find them here.)  Here’s how they work – You insert a metal thermometer probe into the meat, then put it in the oven.  The probe is connected by an oven-safe wire to a digital temperature monitor that you keep outside of the oven.  You can program the temperature you’re after, and the thermometer will beep when your meat hits that mark.  It’s all too easy, and a bit of a cheat, but oh well, it ensures perfectly cooked meat every time!

Transfer the pork chops to a platter, cover them with a loose tent of tin foil, and allow them to rest for about 5-10 minutes before serving.   (The temperature of the meat will rise a few degrees even once it’s out of the oven, bringing the pork chops to the perfect doneness.  If you don’t rest them for a few minutes, they may be a little undercooked.  So don’t forget about this important step!)

Orange-Tarragon Butter
Makes about 1/2 cup
Orange-Tarragon Compound Butter
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 Tbl finely grated orange zest
2 Tbl finely chopped tarragon leaves
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl, including a good pinch of salt and a generous grind of pepper.  Mix with a rubber spatula to thoroughly combine. 

Transfer the butter mixture onto a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Roll into a log of about 1 inch. Refrigerate until ready to use. Can be refrigerated 4 days and frozen a month.

When serving, slice into portions of about 1-2 tablespoons.  Place over hot servings of meat or fish, which will cause it to melt into a lovely sauce.

Lentil-Goat Cheese Salad
Serves 6
Lentil-Goat Cheese Salad
1 1/2 cup French lentils
1 small onion, peeled and sliced in half
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl finely chopped shallots
2 Tbl chopped parsley
2 Tbl chopped chives
2 Tbl chopped basil
6 oz goat cheese, crumbled
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cook the lentils: Sort through the lentils and discard any wayward pebbles.  Rinse in cool water then drain.  In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the lentils, onion, bay leaf and garlic clove.  Cover generously with about 2 quarts of water.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer the lentils very gently until they are tender, about 25 minutes.  Drain off the water, then spread the lentil out over a parchment paper-lined sheet tray.  Cool to room temperature. 
Make a vinaigrette: In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the Dijon mustard and vinegar.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a good few grinds of pepper.  Whisk together, then slowly add the olive oil, pouring in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.
Pour the vinaigrette over the lentils.  Add the chopped shallots, the chopped herbs and the crumbled goat cheese.  Stir to combine with a rubber spatula.  Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.  The salad can be made ahead of time, and stored refrigerated in an air-tight container.  Bring to room temperature about an hour before serving. 

Fennel-Red Onion Slaw
Serves 6
Fennel & Red Onion Slaw
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
1 tsp chopped thyme
1 tsp chopped tarragon
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl vegetable oil
2 large heads fennel
1 medium-sized red onion
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Make a vinaigrette:  In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the mustard, vinegar, orange zest, thyme, tarragon, and minced garlic.  Whisk to combine, then 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. The dressing can be made ahead and stored refrigerated in an airtight container.
Slice off the stems of the fennel, just above the heads.  Remove any discolored outer layers, and slice away any bruised areas.  Using a mandolin, thinly slice the fennel, slicing cross-wise, starting at the top end, and working your way down until you reach the core at the bottom.  Aim for a slicing thickness of just under 1 mm.  You want it very thin, but not so thin that you take away all the crunchiness.  If you slice the fennel ahead of time, make sure to store it submerged under cool water and in the refrigerator. (Otherwise it will discolor.)  Drain and dry it before assembling the salad. 
Slice the top end off the onion.  Slice it in half length-wise, then peel off the skin.  Using the mandolin, thinly slice the onion halves into half-rings, cutting directly across the onion.  Aim for a thickness slightly thicker than paper-thin and slightly thinner than the fennel.  Soak in cool water, at least half an hour (to take away some of the pungent onionyness), then drain and dry before assembling the salad.
To assemble the salad: Combine the sliced fennel and onions with the vinaigrette in a large mixing bowl.  Toss to coat.  Taste a bite, and season as needed with a good pinch of salt and pepper.  Serve immediately.  (The vinaigrette and the vegetables can all be prepared ahead of time.  But don’t combine them until your ready to serve, or the salad will loose its crunch.)

Roasted Green Beans
Serves 4
Roasted Green Beans
12 oz green beans, stems trimmed
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat an oven to 450°F. 
In a large mixing bowl, toss to coat the green beans with the olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper, and toss again to coat evenly.  Transfer the green beans to a baking pan and roast in the oven until browned and tender, about 10-12 minutes.  Once or twice during the cooking process, quickly mix the green beans with a metal spatula, moving them around the pan a bit.  This will ensure even browning. 

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp
Serves 8
Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream
For the topping:
1 1/4 cup old-fashioned oats *
1 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup sliced almonds (optional)
Combine the oats, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Using the paddle attachment, mix on low speed to just combine the ingredients.  Add the butter and mix on medium speed until the mixture begins to resemble coarse wet crumbs.  (At this point, the mixture should hold together loosely if you squeeze it in your hand, but should still easily crumble apart.  If you mix it for too long, the ingredients will become too thoroughly incorporated, and the mixture will turn dense like cookie dough, so don’t get carried away.)  Add the almonds and mix by hand to incorporate.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.  This topping can be stored for 2 days.
For the filling:
3/4 cup sugar
3 Tbl flour
3 cups sliced strawberries
3 cups rhubarb, sliced in roughly 1/2-inch cubes
Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Butter a 9x13 inch glass baking dish.
In a large mixing bowl, stir to combine the sugar with the flour.  Add the sliced fruit and mix with a rubber spatula to evenly coat.  Transfer the fruit to the prepared baking dish.  Sprinkle the topping over the filling.  There’s a trick to doing this:  Grab a handful of the topping and gently squeeze to make it somewhat stick together, then crumble this mass into coarse pieces, spreading the crumbs evenly over the filling.  Bake until the fruit is tender and the crisp topping is golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes.  Cool about 20 minutes, then serve topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
* By ‘old fashioned oats’ I mean oats that aren’t instant oats.  I also don’t mean stone-cut oats.  Definitely not those.  Old fashion oats will look a lot like the flat, flaky instant oats, but are a little more substantial.  I like the brand Bob’s Red Mill, which is pretty easy to find in most good grocery stores.  But I don’t think the regular old Quaker Oats brand could be too bad either. 


  1. Hi Kate!! I just wanted to chime in and say you are doing such a fabulous job with this blog, please keep it up! I do always check it, though I may not always comment. The pics, the writing, the recipes...they're all great!

  2. Thank you, Brooke. That is so sweet of you! Too bad you and Jeff aren't nearby, to have over for dinner. You two were our fave dinner guests in NY! You'd be Scrumptious Company regulars by now!