Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Three Overnight Dinner Guests

Pre-Tossed Salad

Ben’s good friend James was staying with us all week last week.  And I’m beginning to think that our houseguests are somehow magnetic, because as it always seems to happen, one out-of-town friend attracted some more, and we ended up with more guests in the midst of his stay.  Julie, my close friend from culinary school, and her boyfriend Joe, came in on Saturday from Madison, and stayed for the night too.  And so, for this fiftieth Scrumptious Company dinner party, we had a fun mix and match of friends.  And man, was it fun!  A total blast!  We laughed all night, ate some tasty food, drank some tremendous wines (thanks to Julie and Joe), told many a scandalous story I can’t even repeat here, and then, right before dessert, out on our snowy back deck, we taught James to saber a bottle of (cheapo) Champagne! 

Black Bean Dip with Corn Chips & Vegetable Crudités
Chopped Romaine Salad with Radishes, Black Beans, Cucumber, Red Onion, Avocado, Pumpkin Seeds, Mint, Queso Fresco & Roasted Pepper Ranch Dressing
Pork Stew with Ancho Chiles, Carrots, Tomatoes & Lime
Long Grain Brown Rice Pilaf
Pickled Jalapeños
Chocolate Cinnamon Tart with Whipped Cream

The menu was filled with Mexican flavors and ingredients.  But it was a cozy, wintery sort of Mexican fare, which made for a nice, spicy change of pace, this time of year.  I’ve been wanting to make this pork stew for ages, and built the rest of the menu around it its warm flavors. 

Black Beans

For a starting snack, a silky puree of black beans, fortified with huge flavors of garlic, lime, cilantro and cumin.  This dip was all about the flavor and texture.  It’s certainly not a looker, I’ll be the first to admit.  A drab and dreary plop of purpley-brown goop, it would be down-right homely without its pretty garnish of cilantro, and some colorful chips and crudités on the side.  But it’s this unassuming guise that makes the first taste so surprisingly good.  The texture for one is totally luxurious – velvety smooth and wholly creamy.  And the flavor is truly out of this world – bright lime juice, smoky cumin, a hint of spicy cayenne, that singular prickly taste of cilantro, and a rounding out of smooth, heady garlic.  So utterly good, you’ll be surprised again and again with every single bite. 

About  to be blended

Black Bean Dip with Corn Chips & Vegetable Crudites
Once the final scoop of black bean dip disappeared (and in record time),  I tossed together my current favorite salad.  Inspired by (i.e. lifted straight off the menu of) our favorite Chicago taqueria, this salad is full of everything good – avocado, cucumber, black beans, radishes, pumpkin seeds, queso fresco (a crumbly Mexican cheese), mint leaves, red onion.  Oh my gosh, every bite is filled with clean, bright flavors and fresh, magnificent crunch.  And all of it swathed in a creamy dressing of herbs and roasted poblanos.  Every next element adds layer upon layer to this awesome salad.  But the key to all,  I’ve got to say, lies in the mint.  This fresh zing of flavor highlights every last bite.  Like a secret ingredient in a magic potion, it transforms this dish into something altogether fantastical.  I can’t recommend this salad enough! 
Pumpkin Seeds
Salad Ingredients (except I forgot the avocado, and added cilantro by mistake)
Salads with all sorts of good things
And then it was time for the dish that inspired it all – the utterly tender stew of cubed pork shoulder, with smoky strips of ancho peppers, sweet batons of bright orange carrots, bright currents of lime juice, speckles of fresh cilantro and tender slices of tomato dissolving into the rich, full sauce.  Ah, so completely good.  So warm, so tasty, so full of coziness and comfort.  I served this lovely Mexican stew atop a warm bed of brown rice.  And then as a garnish, added a few green coins of pickled jalapeño. The recipe, found within the pages of an old Food & Wine, just begged me to make it.  And I’m so glad I gave in to its wishes.   I really was happy to oblige. 
Lots of Limes
Sliced Ancho Strips, and a Relatively Small Ancho Chile
Sliced Jalapenos
And finally, a Mexican chocolate tart.  Rich, deep chocolate and warm cinnamon, in both the crust and the filling.  The bottom crust, made of crushed chocolate wafer cookies, was crisp and crunchy, a lovely dark shade of deepest brown.  Atop this, a creamier hue – a  rich, velvety layer of chocolate ganache, blending whole cream and cinnamon with both bittersweet and imported Mexican chocolate.  Sliced into thin wedges, these intensely rich triangles of spicy chocolate needed nothing more than an airy dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream.   It was truly a fitting end to an all together amazing evening. 
Chocolate Cinnamon Tart
Black Bean Dip
Makes about 3 to 4 cups
Black Bean Dip with Vegetable Crudites
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves,  peeled and minced
1/2 large green bell pepper, stem and seeds and pith removed, chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 15-oz cans black beans, rinsed well and drained well
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from about 3 to 4 limes)
1/4 cup packed chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat, then add the olive oil, garlic, green pepper and onion.  Season with salt and pepper, then cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender and the onion translucent.  Remove from the heat. 
In the bowl of an electric food processor, combine the onion-garlic-pepper mixture with the beans, lime juice, cilantro, coriander, cumin and cayenne.  Process until very smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Add a tablespoon or two of water, if necessary, to reach a silky consistency.  Taste, and season as necessary with salt and pepper.  Serve at room temperature.  Can be kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to 2 days. 
Romaine Salad with Radish, Black Beans, Cucumbers, Red Onion, Avocado, Pumpkin Seeds, Mint, Queso Fresco and Roasted Pepper Ranch Dressing
Inspired by The Big Star Salad, at Big Star, Chicago
Serves 6
Chopped Romaine Salad with Radish, Black Bean, Cucumber, Red Onion, Avocado, Pumpkin Seeds, Mint, Queso Fresco & Roasted Pepper Ranch Dres
For the dressing:
2 medium-sized poblano peppers
1 large egg yolk
1 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
juice from 1 lime
1 tsp onion powder
2 Tbl finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 Tbl finely chopped fresh chives
2 green onions, finely chopped (both white and green parts)
2 Tbl finely chopped cilantro leaves
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sliced Green Onions, Parsley, Chives & Cilantro
For the rest of the salad:
3 medium-sized heads romaine, rinsed and dried, chopped cross-wise into thick ribbons
about 6 to 8 medium-sized radishes, very thinly sliced cross-wise into circles
1 English cucumber, thinly sliced cross-wise into rings
1 15-oz can black beans, rinsed well, drained and dried
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced, then soaked in cool water for about 20
     minutes, drained and dried (this will soften some of the pungency)
2 avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup mint leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup queso fresco cheese (found in most stores near the shredded cheeses), crumbled
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
To make the dressing:
First, roast and puree the poblano peppers:  If you have a gas stove-top, turn a burner onto high heat.  Place the peppers directly on the grate over the flame.  Keep an eye on the peppers, turning pretty frequently, until the skin is evenly charred all around.  Place the peppers in a container and cover with a lid or plastic wrap.  Allow them to set for about 15 minutes. 

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

Remove the peppers from the container.  Slice each pepper in half, length-wise, and then into quarters, lengthwise again.  Remove the stems, seeds, and any tough, pithy membranes inside.  Using a knife, scrape off the charred skin from the outside of the peppers. Place the pepper flesh into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth, about 2 minutes. 

Roasted Poblano Peppers
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolk until it is slightly foamy.  Slowly add the vegetable oil, just a few drops at a time, constantly beating with the whisk, until all the oil is incorporated and the mixture is thick and smooth, the consistency of mayonnaise.  Add the buttermilk, mustard, lime juice, onion powder, parsley, chives, green onion, cilantro and roast poblano puree, and stir to combine.  Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Keep refrigerated in an air-tight container until needed, up to 2 days. 
To assemble the salad:
In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped romaine with the sliced radishes, cucumber, black beans, red onion, avocado, pumpkin seeds, mint and queso fresco.  Add a few spoonfuls of the dressing, just enough to lightly coat everything, and toss well to combine.  (You won’t use nearly all the dressing.  Safe the rest for another salad, or for dipping veggies.)  Taste and season as needed with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then toss again to combine.  Serve immediately.
Pork Stew with Ancho Chiles, Carrots, Tomatoes & Lime
Adapted from a recipe by Tia Harrison on Food&
Serves 6 to 8
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
4 1/2 pounds trimmed boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 large white onion, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 dried ancho chiles (see picture above), seeded and cut into thin strips with scissors
3 bay leaves
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of cayenne
8 cups chicken stock
1 pound carrots, peeled, sliced vertically in half, then sliced cross-wise into 2-inch pieces
6 ripe plum tomatoes, quartered length-wise, seeded and cored
1/4 cup fresh lime juice, plus more to taste, if you’d like
2 Tbl chopped fresh cilantro leaves
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Set a very large cooking pot (either an enameled cast-iron casserole pot, or a large straight-sided cooking pot, but not a stock pot - as long as it is big enough to fit the stew, and wider than it is tall) over medium-high heat.  Add the vegetable oil and heat it until shimmering, about 2 minutes.  Working with about 1/3 or half the cubed pork at a time, blot it dry with paper towels, then season all sides liberally with salt and pepper.  Carefully add the seasoned pork to the oiled pan, and cook until browned all, turning every few minutes, about 10 minutes total.  Using a slotted spoon or tongs, transfer the browned pork to a plate.  Repeat with the remaining pork.
Add the chopped onions to the pan, and stir to coat with the left-over oil, scraping the bottom of the pan to bring up any browned bits and pieces.  Season with salt and pepper and cook the onions, stirring frequently, until well-browned but not falling apart, about 10 minutes.  (I always find that adding a few tablespoons of water here or there, using it to scrape up any browned areas on the pan, and then letting it evaporate, helps onions brown deeply without burning.)  Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes longer, stirring frequently.  Add the sliced anchos, bay leaves, cloves and cayenne and stir to combine.  Add the chicken stock, and return the browned pork to the pot. 
Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, then reduce the heat to maintain the barest of simmers.  Lifting the lid to check the stew frequently, gently simmer until the pork is incredibly tender, about 3 hours.  Also, throughout the cooking time, it is wise to skim off with a spoon or ladle, any fat or frothy impurities that collects at the top of the stew.  Do this before each time you stir. 
While the pork is cooking, cook the carrots:  Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil.  Add the sliced carrots and boil until just tender, between 4 and 7 minutes.  Drain immediately, then spread over a parchment covered baking pan to cool.  Reserve.
When the pork is thoroughly tender, strain the solids from the liquids with a colander, collecting the liquids in a large measuring cup or pitcher.  Set aside the solids.  Allow the liquid to rest a few minutes, then use a spoon to collect any liquid fat that rises to the top and discard it.  (For easiest collection of the fat, it is best if the container holding the strained liquids is taller and more narrow than the cooking pot, and also clear.) 
Return the liquid to the cooking pot and simmer until it is reduced to a good flavor and consistency.  (The time for this can vary greatly.)  When a deep flavor and velvety texture is achieved, add the strained solids back to the simmering liquid, along with the sliced tomatoes and stir to combine.  Cover the pot and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes longer.  The tomatoes will break down a bit and disappear into the sauce, but that’s okay. 
Add the lime juice and cilantro to the nearly done stew and stir to combine.  Taste, then season as needed with salt and pepper, and perhaps more lime juice.  Add the cooked carrots to the stew and stir gently to combine. 
The stew can be made a couple days ahead, then reheated over a low flame.  Stir frequently while reheating. 
Serve hot, spooned over rice, garnished with pickled jalapeños
Rice Pilaf
This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.
Rice Pilaf
Pickled Jalapeños
This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.
Pickled Jalapenos
Chocolate Cinnamon Tart
Serves  10
Chocolate Cinnamon Tart with Whipped Cream
For the crust:
1 cup chocolate wafer cookie crumbs, finely ground in a food processor (from a little more
     than half of one 9-oz package)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp kosher salt
5 Tbl unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 (3.1 oz) disk Mexican chocolate (this brand is easy to find in most stores), chopped
1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp kosher salt
To make the crust:
Pre-heat the oven to 350ᵒF and arrange a rack in the middle position. 
Blend the chocolate crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and salt in the electric food processor.  Add the melted butter and process until the crumbs are well moistened.  Press the crumbs into a 9-inch diameter tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing them evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan.  (I only had a 10-inch tart pan on hand, so I increased by 25% all the ingredients, for both the crust and the filling (multiplied each by 1 1/4) and it worked well.)  Bake until set, about 20 minutes.  Cook on a wire rack. 
To make the filling:
Add the cream to a medium-sized saucepot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.  Remove from the heat, then add the chopped chocolates.  Whisk until melted and smooth.  Add the butter, one piece at a time, whisking until smooth between each addition.  Whisk in the vanilla, cinnamon and salt.  Pour the filling into the crust, then let stand at room temperature about 15 minutes.  Then chill uncovered in the refrigerator until completely set, at least 4 hours.  Can be made a day ahead. 
To serve, push the tart from its bottom, to remove the side rim.  Then slice into wedges.  Top each slice with a dollop of whipped cream.  (See recipe below.)

For the whipped cream:
1  cup heavy cream
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Whip the cream to soft peaks (When you stick a spoon into the cream and lift it out, 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).

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