Friday, October 1, 2010

Heaps of Houseguests

Ratatouille Ingredients

What a whirlwind these last few weeks have been!  With an old culinary school friend staying here for ten nights, plus another visitor to boot, for five of those ten, and then two more surprise guests who, with hardly a night in town on their haphazard cross-county trip, stayed not nearly long enough – well with all these extra bodies, our already cozy apartment was for a while downright snug.  And our days were just as crowded as our little apartment, the hours packed full of neighborhood tours, downtown sight-seeing and eating all around the city, at all the best Chicago spots.  Wanting to share with our friends our favorite foodie places, we hardly ate a bite at home the entire time.  But on this one night, about half way through our crowded week, we snuck in a nice and homey dinner party. 

Lemon & Thyme Roasted Halibut
Mashed Red-Skinned Potatoes with Green Onions & Goat Cheese
Glazed Pear & Walnut Cake

Ratatouille is a summertime staple around here.  This time of year, I make it every other week or so, usually as a vegetarian dinner, and serve it atop a bed of nutty brown rice, chewy quinoa or a spin on mashed potatoes kinda like the ones above.  But on this night, I was in the mood for something a little more substantial, and decided to fishify our favorite summertime meal.  

Halibut with Lemon & Thyme

And so I added to the mix some lovely white fillets of halibut.  Drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, then roasted atop fresh sprigs of thyme and thin slices of lemon, this meaty yet wonderfully flaky fish was imbued with the delicate citrus and heady herb flavors.  A simple preparation, subtle yet elegant, and delightfully delicious. 

Ratitioulle, Prepped and Ready to Go

Although you could consider it a demotion, from a main course down to a side dish, I still think the ratatouille was the star of tonight’s meal.  Thin spicy strips of sautéed onions, tender cubes of purple-skinned eggplant, sweet ribbons of sliced bell peppers, green-rimmed half moons of zucchini, seedy red cherry tomato hemispheres, a touch of garlic, a swig of extra-virgin olive oil, a pinch of licoricey fennel seed, sprinkle of flowery thyme, dash or fresh oregano and shower of tender green basil.  A perfect distillation of a late summer harvest.  Like a vegetable garden in a bowl, all ready for the eating.


Roasted Halibut with Ratatouille & Green Onion-Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes

Another great dish worthy of more than its status as a simple side are these wonderful mashed potatoes. With their earthy specks of pretty red skins, creamy swirls of pale white goat cheese and silky slivers of spicy green onion, they’re absolutely, positively sensational.  I just love them.  And ah, I’m so glad I made lots of these lovely mashers, because along with some surplus ratatouille, they made for some pretty glorious left-overs throughout the next few busy days of houseguest hosting!

Goat Cheese & Green Onions

And now, finally, dessert.  A new dessert, one I made for the first time this week.  And one I know I’m going to make again and again in the future.  This glazed pear and walnut cake was simply incredible, moist and sumptuous with a dense yet tender crumb.  Crowning the  top and dripping decadently down the sides, a buttery caramel sauce.  And inside, gleaming gems of crystallized ginger, tiny pieces of cracked walnuts, a hint of warm cinnamon and tender, juicy slices of Bosc pear. 

A Still-Life of Pears

Wow oh wow, one bite and I was in dessert heaven.  I’m so glad I decided to try this cake, and I definitely can’t wait to make it again.  I think the next time someone invites us over for dinner, this will have to be that something I offer to bring!

Glazed Pear & Walnut Cake

Lemon & Thyme Roasted Halibut
Serves  4
 Oven-Roasted Halibut
4 6-oz fillets of halibut
about 1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 lemon
4-8 sprigs fresh thyme
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 450°F and arrange a rack in the middle position. 
Slice the lemon in half cross-wise.  Cut thin slices from one half of the lemon, saving the other half for later.  Evenly arrange the sliced lemon and thyme sprigs over a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Season the halibut fillets with salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil.  Using your hands, gently rub the olive oil evenly over the surfaces of the fish.  Arrange the fish over the bed of sliced lemon and thyme sprigs.  Bake until just cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.  Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemon half over the baked halibut.  Serve warm.
Serves  6
Beautiful Ratatouille
4 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1 medium-large eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 3-4 cups)
2 medium red, orange or yellow bell peppers, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
3 small zucchini, sliced lengthwise then cut into thin slices
2 pints cherry tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
2 tsp fresh oregano leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bell Peppers
Heat a very large sauté pan over high heat for about a minute.  Lower the heat to medium, add 2 Tbl olive oil and heat about 30 seconds longer.  Add the sliced onions.  Season generously with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are just turning tender, about 7 minutes.  Add the garlic, thyme and fennel seed and cook, stirring frequently, for another 2 minutes.  Add the remaining 2 Tbl olive oil and stir to combine.  Add the eggplant.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant softens slightly, about 8 minutes.  Add the bell pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes.  Add the zucchini, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 7 minutes.  Stir in the oregano and basil.  Taste, then season as needed with salt and pepper.
OnionsOnions, EggplantOnions, Eggplant, Bell PeppersOnions, Eggplant, Bell Peppers, ZucchiniOnions, Eggplant, Bell Peppers, Zucchini, TomatoesRatatouille!
Serve warm.  The ratatouille can be kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to five days.  Reheat before serving.  
Mashed Red-Skinned Potatoes with Green Onions & Goat Cheese
Serves  6
Mashed Red-Skinned Potatoes with Green Onions & Goat Cheese
2 pounds large red-skinned potatoes
2 Tbl butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
5 oz goat cheese
1 bunch green onions, finely sliced
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse the potatoes in cool water.  Peel the potatoes, leaving small areas of the red skin here and there.  Cut the potatoes into medium-sized chunks.  Add to a pot of boiling salted water and cook until tender.  Drain, then add back to the pot.  Add the butter, and mash with a potato masher, leaving a few lumps.  Add the cream and goat cheese, season with a good pinch of salt and a good few grinds of pepper, and mash until just combined.  Add the sliced green onions to the mashed potatoes and mix well to combine.  Serve hot.

If you want to make this ahead and keep it warm, scoop the mashed potatoes into a metal mixing bowl, and cover with plastic wrap.  Place the bowl over a sauce pot filled with about an inch of water, and place the pot over low heat to keep the water at a simmer and the potato mixture warm. Make sure the bowl fits well over the pot – the diameter of the bowl shouldn’t be much larger than that of the pot.

Glazed Pear & Walnut Cake
Adapted from a recipe on
Serves  8-10
Glazed Pear-Walnut Cake
For the cake:
butter, for greasing the cake pan
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp plus 1/8 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1 cup plus 2 Tbl granulated sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbl plus 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 pound Bosc pears (about 2 medium pears), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice
For the glaze:
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups pear nectar
1 cup whipping cream
Pre-heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle position.   Generously butter a 9-inch spring-form cake pan, then dust it with flour.  Set aside.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.
In a separate small mixing bowl, toss the walnuts and crystallized ginger with 1/4 cup of the flour mixture.  Set aside. 
Using an electric stand mixer fitter with the paddle attachment, beat the sugar, eggs, oil and vinegar on high until very thick, about 4 minutes.  Add the remaining flour mixture to the egg mixture and mix on low speed until just combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.  Add the diced pears and walnut-ginger mixture to the batter.  Mix by hand with a rubber spatula to combine. 
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.  Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour.
About half-way through the baking time, make the glaze:  Combine the sugar, pear nectar and cream in a small saucepot.  Place over high heat and stir constantly until the sugar dissolves.  Boil until thick, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. 
Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack set over a wide sheet of parchment paper, wax paper or foil. Carefully run a sharp, thin knife along the sides of the cake, just against the pan, then gently remove the spring-form rim.  Spoon a half cup of the glaze (it should still be hot) over the cake (which should also still be hot), reserving the rest of the glaze for serving.  Let the cake cool completely. 
Slice the cake into wedges.  Re-warm the sauce over low heat.  Spoon the glaze over the cake slices and serve.  
The cake and glaze can be made one day ahead.  Cover the cake with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature.  Refrigerate the glaze in an airtight container. 
Pear-Walnut Cake


  1. Okay... a few comments. I would like to be a house guest if I am served potatoes and goat cheese (two of my favorite foods) I will also invite you over if that means you will bring that cake :) and Ben can come over any time. Lastly....on a serious you usually put your potatoes in once the water is boiling? I feel I have read you should put them in the pot with cold water, because it keeps the starch in or something to that effect?

  2. Hey Dana, Next time we have you over, I'll definitely keep in mind your love of potatoes and goat cheese!

    Now as for your mashed potatoes question... I do wait until the water is boiling to add my potatoes. I recall too hearing that tip about starting out in cold water, and how that has something to do with starch. I don't think I aggree though. Here's the way I look at it (and I'm not claiming this is 100% right, only that it feels right to me, based on a bit of thought and a lot of experience)... Anyways, starting the potatoes in cold water allows more of a chance for the starch to leach out, and make the potatoes gluey, like wallpaper paste. Starting them in already boiling water limits their time in the pot, and reduces the opportunity for starch release. Really though, I don't know. The starting-in-cold-water trick sounds a bit like an old wive's tale. And all I really know is that I'm always thrilled with my starting-in-boiling-water mashers!