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


  1. I see you have 17 left...I'm sure I am available for 17 nights :)

    I really want to try the figs!

  2. Great to know, Dana! You are always a welcome SC guest!

  3. Kate! I love your blog! Becky said she had a great time and great food last weekend. I'd love to chat with you sometime about culinary school, cooking, and photography. Hope all is well. Keep up the good work!

  4. Jaime! I'd LOVE to get together! It's been so long :). I'll be in touch via Facebook, and we can figure something out... a meet-up for lunch, or a dinner party here!