Friday, September 24, 2010

Sometimes That’s All it Takes

Soup in the Making

Soup and bread and cookies.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to throw a fantastic dinner party.  But you’d better make darn sure you’ve got a sensational soup, brilliant bread and downright crazy-good cookies.  And this menu definitely satisfies all three stipulations:

White Bean-Kale-Chorizo Soup
‘Ralph & Bill Bread’
Cinnamon-Glazed Pumpkin Cookies

Our dinner guest for this simple yet satisfying Monday night meal – my lovely cousin Katelyn, whom you’ll probably remember from a couple other dinner parties.  With busy schedules and lots of out-of-town trips, we hadn’t seen Katelyn all summer.  Luckily, this casual get-together gave us plenty of opportunity to catch up with a good long chat, thanks in no small part to the easy menu, which required no last-minute work at all.  In fact, everything was done and ready to go hours before Katelyn even arrived.  Who wouldn’t love a dinner party like that?!

Gorgeous Red Kale

White Beans & Bay

Let’s start with the soup.  This heartwarming concoction is one of our favorite, favorite soups.  It’s just packed full of all sorts of deliciousness – plump and creamy Cannellini beans, large green curls of tenderly wilted kale, juicy slices of smoky Chorizo sausage, sweet specks of sautéed onions and red peppers.  But best of all, the broth.  The golden elixir is full of delicious, invigorating flavor - smooth garlic, earthy paprika, floral bay, heady saffron, and a tart kick of sherry vinegar, all woven through a savory chicken stock.  Each bite fills your mouth with a rich, full smoothness, and sends a warm wave of coziness through your veins.  The flavor is simply addictive – absolutely luscious and undeniably wholesome, with harmonious hints of spicy, sweet, sour and salty hitting all your taste buds in unison.  It’s at once wholly decadent and fully nourishing.  Just one spoonful, and you’ll instantly feel good about the world.

Pinch of Saffron


Aside from a deep bowl and a big spoon, such a hearty soup as this needs little else.  But a crusty wedge of warm home-baked bread is certainly a nice touch.  Especially this bread, ‘Ralph & Bill bread’ we call it, because like lots of my favorite recipes, this one comes from their kitchen.  It’s actually a recipe from the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC, but by the time we found that out, the given nickname was already an ingrained habit.  And so it sticks, our favorite bread, forever dedicated to our dear friends Ralph & Bill.  
To be honest, I’m not one to slave away in the name of home-baked bread.  All the kneading and waiting and kneading again seems a little silly when there are more than a couple wonderful bakeries just a quick bike-ride away.  But this gorgeous bread is a complete breeze to make, and so worth it.  You’d never guess, based on the incredible flavor, golden crust and airy interior, but whipping up a loaf of this bread takes hardly any effort at all.  Maybe five or ten minutes of your time.  Active time, that is.  It does need to rest overnight, but you’ll be asleep anyways, so who’s to care. 
  'Ralph & Bill' Bread
There’s a handful of these easy bread recipes out there, like ‘five-minute-a-day’ bread and ‘no-knead’ bread.  They’re getting a lot of attention lately.  I’ve tried a few of them, and I always end up thinking they’re pretty good… for easy bread.  But not compared to the real, knead-and-wait kind of bread.  So as Ralph and Bill baked us up our first loaf, my hopes were not all that high.  One bite proved me wrong though.  And I happily ate my words.  Devoured them, really.  The golden brown crust was crackly yet perfectly delicate, the pale white interior springy and light, the flavor deep and amazingly complex, with notes of honey and earthy yeast.  You’d never in a million years guess that this was one of those ‘easy’ breads.  And you’ll never want to knead and wait again, or even ride your bike to the bakery for that matter. 
Golden Raisins
And finally, cookies for dessert.  And these were some pretty awesome cookies!   They were tender and incredibly moist, with sweet hints of brown sugar, smooth streaks of pumpkin puree, specks of plump golden raisins and toasted walnuts, and a heady aroma of  warm autumn spices – cinnamon, cloves and ginger.  Tiny and round, like golden coins, with a shining drizzle of cinnamon-sugar glaze, these delicious cookies could be eaten by the dozen.  To protect us from that all-too tempting fate, we distributed samples to all our neighbors.  The prompt text messages, emails and Facebook wall posts from our gracious apartment-mates all attest that these are some especially stellar cookies!  Try them for yourselves, and be sure to let me know too, what you think!
Freshly Glazed
White Bean-Kale-Chorizo Soup
Serves  8
My apologies to the original creator of this soup, but I honestly can’t remember where this recipe heralds from.  It’s been in my files since long before I was in the habit of keeping track of that sort of thing.
    White Bean-Kale-Chorizo Soup
1/2 pound dried white beans (such as Cannellini or Great Northern)
8 cups chicken stock (homemade is best, but Swanson’s certified organic free-range     
   chicken broth
is a close second)
1 bay leaf
pinch saffron
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 pound Spanish chorizo sausage, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 large red bell pepper, seeded, cored and chopped
1 Tbl paprika
2 small bunches kale, tough stems removed, washed well and torn into large pieces
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Soup Ingredients
Place the beans in a large bowl and cover by one inch with water.  Let sit overnight.  Drain the beans, discarding the water.  Transfer the beans to a large soup pot.  Add the chicken stock and bay leaf.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to maintain a low simmer.  Cook, partially covered, and stirring occasionally, keeping it at a bare simmer, until the beans are tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  Drain the beans from the cooking liquid.  Reserve both the beans and cooking liquid, keeping them in separate containers.
In a small bowl, combine the saffron with 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid.  Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in the soup pot over medium-high heat.  Add the chorizo and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 5-6 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to a plate and set aside.  Add the chopped onion to the soup pot.  Season with a good sprinkling of salt and pepper.  Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and translucent, about 7-8 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer.  Add the red pepper and cook about 4 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the paprika and cook, stirring frequently, about 1 minute more.  Add the kale, cooking liquid and saffron mix to the soup pot.  Cook at a low simmer, stirring occasionally, until the kale is wilted and tender, about 20 minutes.  Taste, then season as needed with salt and pepper.  Add the beans and cook again at a low simmer, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.  Add the chorizo and vinegar, stirring to combine.  Taste again, and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Serve hot. 
This soup can be made ahead and kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to five days.  Making it a day or two ahead can actually improve the flavor even. 
Bowlfull of Comfort
‘Ralph & Bill’ Bread
Makes 1loaf
This is one of the easiest bread recipes out there.  And one of the most delicious easy-bread recipes too.  The only tricky thing is you’ll need a Dutch oven, one of those heavy duty enamel-coated cast iron pots.  (This is a great brand, but very expensive.  There are many good less expensive options out there too.)  Aim for a size of about seven quarts or so, but a little smaller or bigger would be okay.  Either round or oval shaped will work.
Hot out of the Oven
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups water
extra-virgin olive oil, for coating the bowl
wheat bran or wheat germ, for dusting
The night before:  Grease the insides of a medium-sized mixing bowl with olive oil, and set aside.  In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast and salt.  Add the water and incorporate by hand, making just a few turns of the wrist until everything is combined.  Transfer the dough to the greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough rest for at least 12 hours and up to 18 hours at room temperature.
The day of (about 3-4 hours before you want to serve the bread): Remove the dough from the bowl and fold it over once or twice, deflating it a bit.  Let it rest for 15 minutes, either on a clean work surface or back in the greased bowl. 
Spread a clean, dry cotton towel on the countertop.  Generously coat it with wheat bran/germ.  Place the dough, seam-side down (although there’s really not much of a ‘seam’ so don’t worry about it) on the towel and dust very lightly with flour.  Cover the dough with another cotton towel.  Let rise 1 to 2 hours at room temperature.
After about an hour or so of rising, preheat the oven to 475°F.  Place the a large Dutch oven (about 7 quarts, either round or oval shaped) with its lid into the oven, and let it heat for at least 30 minutes. 
Remove the pot from the oven, and remove the lid.  Lifting the dough by the cotton towel, flip it into the heated pot, seam-side up.  Cover with the lid and return to the oven.  Bake with the lid on for 30 minutes.  Then remove the lid and bake 10-20 minutes longer, until the loaf is nicely browned and firm to the touch.
Remove the loaf of bread from the pot, and allow it to cool on a wire rack for about 30 minutes before slicing.  Can be kept at room temperature in an air-tight container for up to a day without decreasing in quality too much. 
Cinnamon-Glazed Pumpkin Cookies
Adapted from Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer 
Makes about 6-7 dozen small cookies
Cinnamon-Glazed Pumpkin Cookies
For the cookies:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing the cookie sheets
3/4 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 cup pumpkin puree (from a can)
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 cup golden raisins
For the glaze:
1 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 + 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup water
Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease cookie sheets with butter and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt and baking soda.  Set aside.
Combine the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric stand mixer.  Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, about three minutes.  Add the egg and pumpkin and beat again for one minute.  Add the flour mixture, and mix on slow speed just to combine.  Then stir in the walnuts and raisins by hand with a rubber spatula. 
Pumpkin Cookie Batter
Measure tablespoon-sized scoops of dough and drop onto the greased cookie sheets, spacing them about 2-inches apart.  Bake for about 10-12 minutes, until the cookies are golden brown around the edges and tops are set.  Transfer to a wire cooling rack using a metal spatula.  Allow to cool to room temperature.
Small Scoops
To make the glaze, whisk together the confectioners sugar, cinnamon and water in a small mixing bowl.  Using a fork, drizzle the glaze generously over the cookies once they have completely cooled.
Lots & Lots

Monday, September 20, 2010

As Fun as it Gets

Blue Cheese, Green Beans & Tomatoes

Last Friday night’s dinner party was about as fun as it gets. We had over a super cool couple, Becky and Jim.  Becky’s one of my little sister’s oldest friends. I’ve known her since she was basically a baby, and I have about a million memories of her as a little kid.  Almost all of them make my laugh out loud – She was always so fun and cute and funny.  And as I found out this weekend, none of that has changed.  It’d been ages since I’d last seen Becky, I don’t even know how long.  But the moment she and Jim walked through our door, it felt like no time at all had passed.  She was as fun and adorable and hilarious as she ever was.  So while Ben and Jim got in a little male bonding out on the deck, the two of us had a ton of fun catching up in the kitchen.  

Zucchini-Bacon Fritters with Basil Aioli
Grilled NY Strip Steaks
Salad of Green Beans, Tomatoes, Arugula & Blue Cheese
Twice Baked Red Skinned Potatoes with Chives
Blackberry Cobbler

So now let me fill you in a bit on the happenings in the kitchen.  Along with all our laughs and reminiscing, there was quite a bit more a’ brewing. To start, these all too tasty zucchini fritters: 

Zucchini Fritters with Basil Aioli

I’ve been going crazy with zucchini lately, eating it around the clock, serving it with everything and in every which way, just savoring it completely while it’s still at the height of its seasonal, summery goodness.  Luckily, it’s overall a pretty healthy infatuation.  But not tonight.  On such a fun night as this, healthy zucchini just seemed like a drag.  And so, combined with bits of crumbled bacon, a smattering of sliced chives and a hot kick of minced jalapeño, then folded into a smooth and creamy batter, and plopped spoonful by spoonful into a hot pan of bubbling oil, this wholesome vegetable got the chance to show off a deep-fried naughty side.  These hot, delicious fritters were a perfect late-summer indulgence.  A crisp and beautifully golden crust yielded to a tender, puffy inside generously studded with bits and pieces of tasty goodness.  With a quick sprinkling of salt, this starting snack was near perfect.  But when dipped into the huge flavors and cool creaminess of basil aioli, well that’s when true perfection was reached.

Deep Frying Fritters!

And now onto the main course - steak.  Charcoal grilled, salt and pepper rubbed, New York strip steak to be exact.  Man oh man, how good is grilled steak?!  It’d been ages since we’d last cooked up some big ol’ steaks, so we figured it was high time to do it again, and this time with a summery grilled twist.

Gorgeous NY Strip Steaks

Dinner Spread

It’s hard to put into words just how much I adore the extraordinary combination of steak and blue cheese.  They’re an unbelievable pair.  The steak - with its seared, blackened crust and its lush, pink interior, so tender and incredibly juicy, so perfectly medium-rare – and the blue cheese – its creamy white crumbles streaked with blue ribbons of enormous flavor, sharp and pungent and intensely delicious.  Wow oh wow, nothing could be better! 

Big Dinner!

This perfect pairing served as a strong inspiration for a first side dish.  I combined huge hunks of blue cheese with bright green spears of tenderly cooked green beans, juicy wedges of heirloom tomatoes (jade- and emerald-striped Green Zebras and a rosy-golden variety I’ve always nicknamed ‘Sunset’ tomatoes) peppery leaves of arugula and a sweet balsamic vinaigrette.  The blue cheese was certainly the principal player in this dish, but the rest of the ingredients came together beautifully, serving as a gorgeous backdrop.  A cool, crisp, bright and flavorful salad, it was a great match for our hot-off-the-grill streaks.  

Some of Summer's Last Heirloom Tomatoes

I felt from the beginning that this was going to be a meat & potatoes sort of night.  And these twice-baked beauties are one of my favorite ways of cooking (or eating) potatoes.  Rather than going with the all too typical, all too large and ugly russet potatoes, I like to use cute little red-skinned potatoes.  A bit more delicate (their thin, waxy skins aren’t quite so tough as russets’ dusty jackets, and so you must be a bit careful when scooping out the insides), but way more charming.  And if you ask me, way more delicious too.  With regular twice-baked potatoes, the rough leathery skins seem pretty pointless – who wants to eat those?  I always end up eating just the insides and leaving the skin behind.  But with these potatoes, the skins are tender and prettily pink, just as lovely as their pillowy, creamy, chive-speckled centers.  And on top of that, they’re just so cute, which if you ask me, is reason enough to abandon the russet. 


And finally dessert – a blackberry-apple cobbler.  A fitting blend of summer (blackberry) and fall (apple).  I’ve found myself in an interesting predicament lately – most of the time aching for autumn, but still savoring those last lingering hints of summer whenever I enter the market.  As excited as I am for the coziness of sweater weather, I’m pretty bummed to say goodbye to such gorgeous stuff as tomatoes and corn and blackberries.  Ah well, soon enough I’ll be properly excited for other gorgeous stuff like butternut squash and apples and pumpkins.  For a while though, I’ll wean myself into fall by following the pattern of this delicious crumble, blending summer’s last bounty with the beginnings of autumn’s harvest. 

Cobbler Filling

Hot Out of the Oven


Zucchini-Bacon Fritters
Adapted from 
Makes about 40 fritters, enough for about 6 people
Don’t worry (like I did) if your batter seems too thin.  It should be of about the same consistency as pancake batter. 
Zucchini Fritters
8 slices bacon
about 48 fl oz frying oil, such as vegetable or canola
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp cayenne
1 pound small zucchini, chopped into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
2 Tbl chopped chives
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup whole milk
basil aioli, for dipping
Heat a sauté pan over medium heat, about 2 minutes.  Add the bacon and cook until the bottom sides are crispy, then flip and continue cooking until thoroughly crisp.  Drain the bacon on paper towels.  Finely chop the bacon, then set aside.
Zucchini Chopping
Fill a medium saucepot with about 3-5 inches of frying oil (making sure to leave at least another 3-5 inches of room at the top, so that it won’t boil over when you add the fritter batter). Place over medium-high heat.  Using a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, bring the oil to 350°F.
Meanwhile, whisk to combine the flour, baking powder and cayenne in a large mixing bowl.  In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir to combine the zucchini, jalapeño, chives, salt and pepper.  Add the egg, milk and bacon to the zucchini mixture and stir to combine.  Add the zucchini mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just combined.
Drop small spoonfuls of the batter into the oil, working in batches of about six to eight at a time.  Turn and flip the fritters occasionally, until golden brown all over, about 3-4 minutes.  Continue to keep an eye on the temperature and keep adjusting the heat to maintain the 350°F.  Remove the fritters with a slotted spoon and place on a bed of paper towels.  Sprinkle immediately with kosher salt.  Return the oil to 350°F between batches. 
Serve immediately, with basil aioli for dipping. 
While best fresh out of the oil, if you’d like do most of the work ahead of time, I’ve found that just a quick re-dipping in the oil crisps them up quite nicely at the very last minute.
Also, if you’d like to save any left-over batter for a day or two, you can.  But make sure to stir in another 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder into the batter before frying. 
Zucchini-Bacon Fritters
Basil Aioli
This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.
Grilled NY Strip Steaks
Serves  4
Grilled NY Strip Steak
4 well-marbled NY strip steaks, about 12-16 oz each
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
vegetable oil, for preparing the grill
For a charcoal grill:  Turn all the burners on high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, about 20 minutes. Here’s a way to tell if your grill is hot enough: Hold your hand right over the grill rack.  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, scrape the rack clean with a grill brush.  Then 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.  Leave one burner on high, but turn the rest to medium.
For a gas grill: Light 6 quarts (about 100 briquettes) of charcoal and allow to burn until the coals are fully ignited and covered with a thin ash layer, about 20-30 minutes.  Build a two-level fire by arranging most of the coals on one side of the grill for a hot fire, and the rest of the coals in a single layer on the other side of the grill for a low fire.  Set the grill rack in place, cover with the lid, and heat the grill for about 5 minutes.  When the grill is hot, scrape the rack clean with a grill brush.  Then 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. 

*   *   *

Pat the steaks dry with paper towels, then season all over with a good dose of salt and pepper.  Grill the steaks, uncovered, directly over the hottest part of the grill until well-browned on one side, about 3 minutes.  Then flip the steaks over and grill until well-browned on the other side, another 3 minutes or so. 

Move the steaks to the cooler side of the grill.  Continue grilling until the desired doneness is reached, 120°F for rare (about 5-6 minutes), 125°F for medium-rare (about 6-7 minutes), 130-140°F for medium (about 8-9 minutes),  150°F for medium-well (about 10-11 minutes) and 160°F for well (about 12-14 minutes).   (It’s always best to go by temperature rather than time!!)

Remove the steaks from the grill and allow it to rest, covered with a loose layer of foil, for 10 minutes.  Serve hot. 

Salad of Green Beans, Tomatoes, Arugula & Blue Cheese
Serves  6
Salad of Green Beans, Tomatoes Arugula & Blue Cheese
For the vinaigrette:
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl balsamic vinegar 
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 small clove garlic, peeled & finely minced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, cored and sliced into 1-inch wedges
1/2 pound good-quality blue cheese, crumbled into large chunks
2 cups baby arugula, trimmed
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the vinaigrette: Combine the mustard, vinegar, thyme, garlic, a good pinch of salt and a 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.  The dressing can be made ahead and stored about five days, refrigerated in an airtight container.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil.  (Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean.)  Add the trimmed green beans and boil until tender, about 2-3 minutes. Drain in a colander, then immediately plunge the beans into ice water.  Allow the beans to cool in the ice water, about 1 minute, then thoroughly drain. Slice cross-wise in halves or thirds.  Reserve.
Combine the green beans, sliced tomatoes, blue cheese and arugula in a large mixing bowl.  Drizzle the vinaigrette over the top, just enough to evenly coat. (You definitely won’t not need to use it all – Save the rest for another salad.)  Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.  Serve immediately.
Twice-Baked Red Skinned Potatoes with Chives
Serves  6
Twice Baked
6 medium-sized red skinned potatoes
1/2 stick (4 Tbl) butter, plus more for buttering the pan
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 oz sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup plus 1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 cup chopped chives
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Wrap each potato in a separate sheet of tin foil, then place on a baking pan.  Bake until tender, about 1 hour or longer.  Then unwrap the potatoes and allow them to cool enough to handle.
Slice each potato in half.  Using a melon baller or a round teaspoon, scoop out the inner flesh from the potato and place it into a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Make sure to scoop no closer than about 1/4-inch from the skin of the potato. 
Mash the scooped-out potato flesh either by hand or preferably with a potato ricer.  Add the butter, cream, grated cheddar, 1/4 cup parmesan and chives to the mashed potatoes.  Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. 
Grease the baking pan with butter.  Arrange the hollow potato halves across the pan.  Fill each potato half with a generous dollop of mashed potato mixture.  Then top evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.  This can be prepared up to four hours ahead.  Let stand at room temperature.
Twice Baked Potatoes
Return to the oven and bake until the potatoes are hot throughout and the tops begin to turn golden brown, about 30 minutes.  Serve hot.
Blackberry-Apple Cobbler
Another recipe from my friend Ralph :)
Serves  up to 12
Blackberry Cobbler
4 pints blackberries
4 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/3 cup plus 2 Tbl granulated sugar, divided
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
good pinch of kosher salt
1 stick (8 Tbl) butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, room temp, plus more for buttering the pan
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbl heavy cream, divided
Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Generously butter a 9x13-inch casserole dish. 
In a large mixing bowl, toss the blackberries and sliced apples with 1/3 cup sugar.  Transfer to the buttered casserole dish.  Set aside. 
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk to combine the flour, baking powder and pinch of salt.  Add the cubed, softened butter, and using a pastry blender, cut in into the flour mixture, working until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.  Add 3/4 cup cream and mix with a rubber spatula, to form a sticky dough.  Divide the dough into 12 egg-shaped balls. 
Arrange the dough balls evenly over the fruit in the casserole dish, in rows of 3 by 4.  Brush the surfaces of the dough with the remaining cream, then sprinkle with the remaining 2 Tbl sugar. 
Blackberry Cobbler, Just Before Going into the Oven
Bake for 40-50 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the fruit is soft and juicy.  Let stand 15 minutes before serving.  Serve hot or at room temperature, preferably with vanilla ice cream.
Fresh Blackberries

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Especially Fond

Sliced Plums with Honey & Rosemary

Even though I’ve loved them all so far, I’m for some reason especially fond of this week’s dinner party, a little bit partial maybe.  I can’t really put my finger on why – It’s just that this meal has felt like a special one from the very beginning.  To start with, I was in a really great mood last week when I sat down to think up what to fix for dinner.  It was one of those good, good days, and I was just loving life.  All my happy feelings must have brought out the creativity, because the ideas came so easily and just seemed so absolutely right.  I instantly fell in love with this late summer menu:

Roasted Figs Stuffed with Blue Cheese
Sugar-Spiced Nuts
Concord Grapes
Prosciutto-Wrapped Sea Bass
Sautéed Summer Squash with Fresh Herbs
Wild Rice & Green Lentils
Braised Radishes
Vanilla-Poppy Seed Cake with Roasted Plums and Whipped Cream

And then things kept getting better.  The prep was a breeze, much easier than I expected, way simpler than the menu would let you believe, and loads quicker than nearly all the other dinner parties up here.  Even better, every last bite turned out absolutely delicious.  Absolutely, enormously delicious.  But best of all were out guests, Downstairs Marty and his girlfriend Nichole. Marty’s just a floor below and right underneath us, in what’s a pretty small apartment building.  But, sad to say it, aside from now and then passing him in the stairway, or hearing his muffled cheers through the floor during big games on TV, we’d hardly known Marty at all.  He always seemed like a neat guy, but it turns out he’s on the really-neat side of neat.  Nichole too is a cool, cool girl.  Downstairs Jen and Ted and little Luca came up too, just in time for dessert & wine, and before you knew it, we were in the merry midst of a spontaneous apartment bash.

Fresh Figs

And now let’s get to that enormously delicious food I was talking about.  First, the blue cheese stuffed figs, a savory treat I used to make all the time, only years and year ago, while I was cooking back in Ithaca.  I haven’t made them in ages, and I’d all but forgotten about them, until I saw these lovely figs at the fruit market.  And then it all came back to me… those fresh, lush figs, with smooth, deep purple skins and glowing pink, seedy insides.  A quick roast in the oven brushes them a hue of light golden brown, turns them succulently tender, and concentrates their juices and sugars to a caramel-like syrup.  Atop this goodness I dollop a spoonful (or if I’m feeling fancy, pipe a swirl) of intensely flavored blue cheese, whipped into a velvety mousse with nothing more than a touch of cream.  The rich pungency of the blue cheese combined with the sugary tartness of the fig just sends me to the moon. I can’t believe I’d forgotten about these for so long.

Concord Grapes

And this flash from my past reminded me of another old favorite, and from the same place too, the sugar-spiced nuts from Just a Taste.  A sensation among many a customer of this marvelous eatery, these sweet-salty-spicy nuts could always be found in a huge glass jar atop the Just a Taste bar.  With their glistening crust of sugar, salt and a myriad spices, a handful of these addictive nuts makes for a perfect sweet treat and simultaneously salty snack.  But they’re sensational too alongside fruits and cheeses and beer and wine.  They seemed like just the thing to serve with the blue cheese figs and a glass of red.  And they most definitely were. 

And while at the market, I just couldn’t resist the concord grapes, those gorgeous clusters of dusty, deep purple orbs.   Sweet, seed-studded juice capsules of the loveliest pale green, rolling within their tart, leathery skins - they’re like perfect packages of intoxicating flavor.  And so these tasty little lovelies became hors d’oeuvres too.

Dinner Buffet

And now let’s move onto the main course, and all its fabulous sides.  I’m just so excited about these sides, I’m almost tempted to skip the fish and delve into descriptions of these sensational dishes. But I really should tell you at least a bit about this sea bass.  Perhaps a bit boring next to those gorgeous grains and stunning vegetables, but it deliciously deserves an equal amount of praise.  This wonderful fish really hit the mark - moist and tender and immensely tasty, with huge, tender flakes of snow-white flesh atop a crispy, silvery skin, all wrapped in a wide ribbon of pink prosciutto. Truly, it was very much a worthy hero to it’s crew of delicious sidekicks.

Lovely, Yummy  Dinner

I’m in love right now with this simple summer squash dish: Green and gold coins of sliced zucchini and yellow squash, gently sautéed to melting tenderness in a swig of extra-virgin olive oil and a pat of butter, then doused in a shower of emerald green herbs – bright parsley, floral marjoram, sweet basil and peppery thyme.  It’s so, so simple, just a handful of fresh green confetti away from a nothing-but-typical vegetable dish.  But confetti has always seemed kind of magical to me.  Whether a shimmering cascade of colored specks of paper, twinkling through the air, or an herbal sprinkling over warm, buttery vegetables, confetti of any sort promises an enchanting effect.  It certainly works it’s magic on this dish. 

Summer SquashesIMG_0095

When it came to a starchy side, I couldn’t make up my mind between the nutty chew of wild rice or the warm, tender bite of French green lentils, and so I decided to mix them.  When blended together, the attributes of both seemed to compound and augment, enhancing each other and creating a texture and flavor much enticing than either rice or lentil alone could achieve.  Of course, the smoky bits of crispy pancetta, sweet specks of sautéed shallots, and bright scattering of fresh parsley didn’t hurt things a bit either. 

French Green Lentils Wild Rice

And lastly, a vegetable dish I particularly adore, the braised radishes.  If you’ve been a Scrumptious Company reader for a while now, you may remember this beautiful dish from a post back in February.  I know I’ve been repeating recipes a bit lately, and really, I’m trying not to do that too much.  But as soon as these radishes popped into my mind, I just couldn’t pop them back out of it.  And why would I want to?  They’re such a fabulous match for the sea bass and other sides, and they’re ridiculously, gorgeously delicious.  Ever so slowly sautéed in butter, their spicy, biting radish flavors mellow out into creamy, earthy smoothness.  And just as the flavor infuses throughout the tender spheres, the bright red color of the skins permeates through to the radishes’ centers, painting them a lovely watercolor pink.  


It’s convenient that dessert comes so naturally, right after dinner.  Because otherwise I’d have had an all too difficult time saving the best for last.  And the best is exactly what this vanilla poppy seed cake is – my favorite part of one of my favorite dinner parties.  Densely freckled with about a million minute poppy seeds, this beauty of a cake is a sight to behold.  The crust is deeply golden brown, and just on the edge of crispy, while the inside is moist and delightfully spongy, with rich vanilla flavor and countless constellations of tiny, chewy poppy seeds weaving through its tender crumb.  It was the first time I’d ever baked this cake, a recipe of Deborah Madison’s.  But for sure, it was the the first time of many.  I will make this cake for years and years.  I will make this when I’m an old lady.  And I’ll be known around my neighborhood as that little old lady who makes that fabulous poppy seed cake.  

Poppy Seed Cake

Along with this simple yet elegant cake, a pillowy dollop of fresh whipped cream and a generous spoonful of rosemary-scented roasted plums.  We are right in the middle of plum season, and the stalls of my fruit market are piled with such a vivid array of different varieties and colors of plums – deep inky purple, pastel yellow, bright ruby red, and pale chartreuse with blushes of pink.  I couldn’t resist on my last shopping trip, and grabbed a few of each.  I sliced them into slender wedges, tossed them with a few rosemary springs and a drizzling of my cousin Ann’s homemade honey, topped them with a few pats of butter, then roasted them until achingly tender and surrounded in a thick, deep pink syrup. 

Seven Different Kinds of Plums

Oh my lord, these roasted plums are pure heaven.   Absolutely blissful alongside the poppy seed cake, and just as divine swirled into my steel-cut oatmeal the next morning.  I can think of a hundred ways to use these sticky, rosy slices.  And not just for dessert or breakfast.  Served with a roast chicken or grilled pork chops, or with a rich wedge of fabulous blue cheese.  Holy yum, I could eat them with anything!  In fact, I’m grateful this post is drawing to a close, because now I’m off the the market again, to gather up another colorful collection of plums.  

Roasted Plums

Roasted Figs Stuffed with Blue Cheese
Serves  6
Roasted Figs Stuffed with Blue Cheese Mousse
about 12-16 fresh figs
8 oz blue cheese, rind sliced off and discarded
2 Tbl heavy cream
about 1 Tbl olive oil, for greasing the pan

Preheat the oven to 350ᵒF and arrange an oven rack in the middle position. Cover a sheet pan with tin foil and great the surface of the foil with olive oil.

Slice the stems from the tops of the figs, then slice the figs in half, from tops to bottoms. Arrange the fig halve, cut sides up, over the pan. Roast until tender, juicy and slightly browned, about 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature.

Place the blue cheese in the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the cream and beat to incorporate. Transfer the blue cheese mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a medium-sized star attachment. Pipe in a circular motion, onto the tops of the roasted fig halves. If you’d like, you can make these a little while ahead, and store them in the refrigerator, up to 2 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Sugar-Spiced Nuts
Adapted from a recipe by Nancy Silverton, by way of Jen Irwin of Just a Taste
Makes 4 cups
Sugar-Spiced Mixed Nuts
about 1 Tbl butter, for greasing the pan
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 Tbl plus 1 tsp kosher salt
pinch of black pepper
pinch of cayenne
1/2 tsp plus 1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1 egg white
1 cup whole almonds
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup walnut halves
1 cup hazelnuts or cashews

Preheat the oven to 325ᵒF, and arrange an oven rack in the middle position. Generously butter the surface of a large baking sheet. Set aside.

Stir to thoroughly combine the brown sugar, white sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne, coriander, allspice, cumin and ginger. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg white until frothy. Add the nuts and toss to coat. Add the sugar-spice mix to the nuts and toss to coat. Spread the nuts in a sinle layer over the buttered baking sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown and fragrant, stirring every 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir often as they cool, in order to separate the nuts.

Serve at room temperature. These can be stored in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

Prosciutto-Wrapped Sea Bass
Serves 4
Prosciutto-Wrapped Sea Bass
4 6-oz portions sea bass fillets
4 thin slices prosciutto
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Season the sea bass fillets with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then wrap each fillet with 1 slice of prosciutto. If you tuck one end of the prosciutto beneath the other, it should stick well and you won’t need any toothpicks or anything to hold it in place.

Heat a large non-stick sauté pan over high heat, for about 2 minutes. Add about 1 Tbl olive oil and continue to heat about 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to about medium , then add the prosciutto-wrapped fillets, presentation side down. Cook for about 1-2 minutes, until lightly golden brown, then flip the fillets over and cook on the other side for another 1-2 minutes. Transfer the fillets to a wire rack placed on top of a baking sheet. Hold the fillets at room temperature, until you’re ready to serve dinner, up to 1 hour.

About half an hour to 45 minutes before you want to serve dinner, preheat the oven to 400ᵒF. Bake until the fish is cooked through, opaque in color and flakes easily when gently pressed, about 15 minutes. The internal temperature should be 135ᵒF. Serve hot.

Summer Squash with Fresh Herbs
Serves  6
Summer Squash with Fresh Herbs
about 1 # small-sized zucchini
about 1 # small-sized yellow summer squash
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbl butter
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 Tbl chopped fresh basil
1 Tbl chopped fresh oregano
1 Tbl chopped fresh marjoram
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Wash and dry the squash. Slice crosswise into circle, about ¼-inch thick.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the butter melts, decrease the heat to medium-low, and add the sliced zucchini and summer squash. Season with a sprinkling of salt and pepper and stir to coat. Cook, tossing or stirring the squash every 4 minutes or so, until tender and just barely golden, about 20 minutes. Add the the chopped herbs and toss to coat. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving platter and serve hot.

Wild Rice and Green Lentils
Serves  6
Wild Rice & Green Lentils
1 cup wild rice
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
2 oz pancetta, sliced 1/4-inch thick then cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup French green lentils
1 bay leaf
2 Tbl chopped flat leaf parsley
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a medium-sized saucepot over high heat, bring about 3 cups water to a boil. Add the wild rice and about 1 tsp kosher salt and return to a boil. Then reduce the heat, cover and keep at a bare simmer until the rice is tender, about 45 minutes. Drain and discard the water and reserve the cooked rice.

Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for about 2 minutes, then add the olive oil and heat about 30 seconds longer. Reduce the heat to medium, add the chopped shallots and sauté until tender and translucent, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook 1 minute more, stirring frequently. Add the chopped pancetta and continue to cook until crisp and golden, stirring frequently, about 7-10 minutes more. Add the lentils and cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute more. Add about 1 ¾ cups water along with the bay leaf. Season with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cover and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 35-40 minutes. Most of the liquid will be absorbed by the lentil or evaporate, but some may remain in the pan.

Discard the bay leaf. Add the rice to the lentils and cook over medium, uncovered, until heated through and the liquid is absorbed, about 5-10 minutes. Add the parsley and stir to combine. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Braised Radishes
This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.
Vanilla-Poppy Seed Cake with Roasted Plums
Cake recipe adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Serves  10
Poppy Seed Cake with Roasted Plums & Whipped Cream
For the cake:
1 cup poppy seeds
1/2 cup whole milk, hot
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for preparing the cake pan
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for preparing the cake pan
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

In a small mixing bowl, combine the poppy seeds and the hot milk. Set aside until needed. Preheat the oven to 375ᵒF and arrange an oven rack in the middle position. Butter and flour a 9-inch spring form cake pan. Set aside.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium-high until firm but moist peaks form. Transfer the egg whites to a small mixing bowl. Using the same bowl as for the egg whites, but now using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, then beat in the egg yolks, adding one at a time and beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, as needed.

Drain the milk from the poppy seeds, discarding the milk. Add the sour cream and the drained poppy seeds to the batter. Beat until well combined, then again scrape down the sides of the bowl with the rubber spatula. Add the flour mixture to the batter, in thirds. Again scrape the bowl with the rubber spatula, making sure it’s all well mixed. Fold in about a quarter of the beaten egg whites with the spatula, then fold in the rest, mixing gently until just combined.

Cake Batter

Transfer the batter into the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top with the rubber spatula. Bake until golden and firm, with the sides just beginning to pull away from the pan, about 40-50 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack. Carefully run a sharp, thin knife along the sides of the cake, just against the pan, then gently remove the rim and allow the cake to cool to room temperature. Slice into 10-12 wedges and serve with roasted plums and whipped cream (See recipes below).

Gorgeous Crumb
For the roasted plums:
3 # plums, of as many varieties and colors as you can find
3 Tbl honey
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 Tbl butter

Preheat the oven to 400ᵒF.

Wash and dry the plums, then slice in half, remove the pits, and slice again into 1-inch thick wedges, about 8 per plum. Combine the sliced plums and honey in a large mixing bowl and toss to coat. Add the rosemary sprigs and toss again to coat.

Grease the surface of a large baking sheet with butter, then spread the plums and rosemary evenly over the pan, in a single layer. Dot the tops of the plums with small pieces of the remaining butter.

Sliced Plums

Bake until the plums are tender, juicy, and just barely turning golden at the edges, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool to room temperature before serving. These can be kept refrigerated in an airtight container for up to days, but make sure to re-heat slightly before serving.

For the whipped cream:

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tbl granulated sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Whip the cream to soft peaks (When you lift the whisk out of the cream, 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 cream will stand straight up and not fall over).

Pretty Plums