Family Dinner: From Soup to Nuts

3326

Shopping list for last week’s dinner. ? means look in the cupboard first!

I think the only nut is me but almost every Sunday I cook family dinner to which my parents and brother (and their dogs, Maxwell and Dutch) have a standing invitation. Sometimes to broaden our circle I will invite others but frequently it’s just me, Jack and my mom and dad.  Cocktails are always at 5:00, with dinner following shortly after. The whole affair is wrapped somewhere in between 7:00-8:00, because when you’re getting together weekly, it doesn’t need to last for hours.

I started this “tradition” a year and a half ago when my mom’s back was bothering her and she was feeling housebound. I invited them to dinner on a Sunday at 5:00 and served simple but delicious Chicken and Noodles (a la Maidee Watson). After we were done, I thought, “I should do that again next week” and here we are. It seemed like a great way to utilize (ahem, justify?) all the cookbooks I’ve amassed, do a little cooking therapy and see my parents and brother, which when you work 40+ hour weeks can be tricky to do. Occasionally if Sunday night is busy with other activities, we will do lunch instead (Jack’s got a killer Rueben recipe!).

There are three four components to my menus: Cocktails, the main course (including veg and if needed starch and bread), dessert and the table settings. I don’t do hors d’oeuvres because most of us don’t have the appetite for a snack and then dinner and I usually serve dinner soon enough after the cocktails that I am not concerned. The exception is in the summer when I serve margaritas, I’ll make guacamole, of course!

I’ve learned the hard way to decide on a cocktail on Saturday because if it’s a new recipe and it needs testing, you’ve only (or at least I’ve only) got a few opportunities to get it right before it all goes downhill. Tonight I’m serving Jameson and ginger ale because I don’t think serving my parent’s Irish Car Bombs would be a good idea.  My stand-by and crowd favorite is a Manhattan. A few weeks ago I served a Nacho Vidal from Bon Appetit which was a hit  and the bonus was they could be mixed up in a pitcher versus made individually.

If I don’t have a menu in mind (based on what’s in my cupboards or freezer)  by the time the weekend rolls around, then I start perusing cookbooks Saturday morning.  I try to pick one new or edgier recipe one week followed by a more traditional/favorite the next week.  Last week I made Chicken with Cardamom Rice from “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (go buy it now!) that I wasn’t sure would float, but everyone enjoyed it (my brother pushed the currants to the side of his plate). I figure if it doesn’t turn out or everyone hates it, we can always order pizza, right? Tonight, there’s a Wagyu Corned Beef bubbling away in the oven  (Cooks Country) which I will also serve with a side of mashed potatoes as well as with the boiled red potatoes, carrots and cabbage.

If the dish warrants a starch I’ll usually default to mashed potatoes because my dad LOVES them.  A few weeks ago I switched it up and made Deb Perlman’s mashed Yukon golds with browned butter and buttermilk that were fantastic served with tomato glazed meatloaf .  Depending on the maindish, I cook a vegetable and usually also make a green salad because I love a simple romaine salad with a lemony mustard vinaigrette and parmesan.  Because my dad is not a green salad fan, I’ll do broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, beets, etc. but I will frequently serve them with a flavored butter or vinaigrette so they have a little kick.  Most weekends, I make two loaves of bread from the amazing book by Ken Forkish, “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast” (go buy it now!) or if the meal doesn’t lend itself well to bread, I’ll make popovers which are a favorite and so much easier! Tonight with our corned beef we’re having Irish Soda bread.

Dessert can be as simple as tonight’s  Barefoot Contessa Chocolate Chunk Blondies or as elaborate as the Maida Heatter chocolate cake I made last week.  One week I served all the leftover bits and pieces I’d frozen from previous dinners, not the biggest hit, but it sure was easy!  Soon the rhubarb will be ready and we’ll have four to five weeks of rhubarb desserts.

I set the table every week, trying to make it a step up from the weeknight and not as fancy as the holidays. I own a lot of white serving pieces (bowls, platters, etc.) and my everyday dishes, as well as my china, are also white, which makes it so easy to change the look with a tablecloth or placemats and the food always looks good in white. I rarely serve the main dish from the pot, unless it’s something that would be risky to try to transfer to another dish. Because I am the daughter of Ida, I also own a lot of stemware, so cocktails are always in a fancy glass. I try to find fresh flowers from my yard or the store but I loathe to spend a fortune on them.  Last weeks camellias were courtesy of the vacant house at the end of the street. If I was honest, I would say there are five components to family dinner, because the clean-up is definitely part of the deal.  Jack usually helps me and and all those dishes I did as a kid also helps, because, I don’t want to boast, but I can wash dishes/clean a kitchen in record time.  Monday night is usually spent unloading the dishwasher and putting all the serving pieces away in my sewing/dish storage closet, while hopefully eating leftovers!

The reality is, it is a lot of work to have people for dinner every week but it’s work I love.  It does not need to be as elaborate as I make it but that’s the fun part for me. Now that the kids are grown and gone, I’m not really sure what to do on the weekends, and this fills my time and fulfills the creative side of me (and allows me to justify my cookbook/kitchen tool habit!). And I get to spend time with people I love. Maybe someday more people I love will be around to come for cocktails at 5?

Look at the time, I’d better get going. Invite someone to dinner next week!

3330

Beautiful camellias!

3315

Narrowing down the choices, the chicken won over the short ribs last week.

3344

Last week’s cocktail choice

3360

Another excellent, but involved, Maida Haetter cake

3359

Baked the cake on Saturday and frosted it on Sunday

3366

Had a lot of broccoli in my fridge. Remember to peel and cut up the broccoli stalks, too. They have more flavor than the flowers.

3365

Yummy mustard butter!

3388

Finished Chicken with Cardamom Rice in my huge All Clad pan–paella pan would have worked well too

3390

Easy but delicious popovers

3370

Simple table

Advertisements

Crying Cake

IMG_1461

It’s not an actual recipe, and this particular cake was not a crying cake, this was a delicious graham cracker flour, milk chocolate cake with marshmallow frosting (which involved a blow torch) from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. But as I recipe plan for holiday menus I am reminded to not make a crying cake.

I’ll tell you the story. It was the Christmas of Megan’s senior year of college. She had been dating John Hansen for a couple of years and she was going to spend the Christmas holidays with his family in Portland, OR. I knew this, I had prepared for it and I was ready for it (?). They were planning to drive down early on Christmas Eve but it snowed that morning and the roads were treacherous. They thought about not going and a part of me was happy but then I thought about how much Katy, John’s mom, was looking forward to spending the holiday with them and we had already exchanged gifts and I had prepared myself for this so I encouraged them to go, to take the train down. They purchased last minute tickets, we said our “good byes” and “have a good times” and Jack and Mitch drove them to the train station. I busied myself finishing the Christmas Eve dinner preparations as we had guests arriving in a few hours. I was making a cake from a Giada cookbook, Hazelnut Crunch Cake with Mascarpone and Chocolate. I had baked the cake layers and frozen them, so all that was left was the frosting and then the hazelnut candy on top. That’s right, hazelnut candy. First of all, hazelnuts are a pain in the %^&# to skin. You have to roast them and then rub them in a dish towel, creating a mess everywhere. Then I had to make a sugary concoction which seemed from the instructions to be easy–no candy thermometer, no scary words like “hard crack”, just boiling the sugar for about 8 minutes until it is light brown, pouring it over the nuts, chilling it, breaking it into small pieces while saving some bigger shards to decorate the top. My first attempt was a sticky mess, my second (after skinning more hazelnuts) was no better, which was when Mitch and Jack came home and I was in the kitchen, crying. The tears were not just about my frustration over the candy failure, obviously. I had done what you should never do when you are entertaining. I had gotten myself in too deep–it was too much. Maybe on a normal day, it would have been fine but I had not factored in the emotional quotient. And the holidays are never emotional, right?

So, as you plan your holiday menus, don’t make a crying cake. Know your limits–whether that be time, skill level or your physical and emotional state. If you’ve been living on little sleep trying to get everything done, you might not want to attempt a Bee Sting Cake from Smitten Kitchen (I really, really want to make this). If a recipe looks like it might be a crying cake, take the time and spend the money to try it out in advance. Think about the day, what your end goal is. Mine is good food, a nice party (where I don’t look like I’ve been crying) and time preparing with those I love.

To end the story, Jack make the hard crack hazelnut candy (he has the candy making gene) in one attempt, I pulled myself together, we threw a great party and I learned a valuable lesson, actually I learned several! Now, off to pare down those menus…

Crying Cake

A picture from the cookbook because if you go on line for the recipe it appears people were smarter than me and did not attempt the candy shards!

French Fries and Ketchup

IMG_2534[1]

This is all it takes to make a fantastic fall dinner

Actually it’s Gnocchi in Tomato Broth, but upon further reflection–and after having cooked and eaten this dish four times, I think I know why I like it so much–potatoes and tomato sauces  are delicious together. Tender gnocchi (potatoes and flour) with the most subtle, rich, delicious tomato broth, EVER.  I’ve ordered gnocchi in restaurants but usually with a rich, creamy sauce which is just too much when paired with the richness of the gnocchi.  This tomato broth cuts the richness of the gnocchi making the perfect combination–like french fries and ketchup or dare I say, hash browns and ketchup? but don’t worry, I will never say mashed potatoes and ketchup–that just seems wrong.

Megan and I first made this recipe from the  The Smitten Kitchen cookbook by Deb Perelman last Christmas Eve. I made it one other time last winter and then Megan and I made it again in October when I visited her and John in Cambridge.  We were smart this time, and froze half of the gnocchi but slurped down all the tomato broth so on my last day in town when Megan and John were both working, I made another batch.  It was a relatively warm autumn day so I had the back door open, workman were doing some sort of brick work to their building and when one of them drove by on his little tractor type vehicle, he said “Shuh , smells good in thah”and indeed it did!

The recipe is not difficult but I do not recommend it for a weeknight meal–I’ve tried it–you eat at 10:00 p.m., but it is a perfect recipe to make on a weekend  and if you can bear not consuming it that day, freeze it or freeze half of it.  You start by baking potatoes for the gnocchi and while they are baking you make the tomato broth.  It’s sort of like making chicken stock but with tomatoes.  You saute onions, celery, carrot and garlic and then add white wine, chicken broth and whole tomatoes.  You cook it until it thickens (about 40 minutes) and then strain it, unfortunately, throwing all those ingredients away,  leaving  you  with a beautiful tomato broth.  The gnocchi is a simple mix of riced or grated potato, egg and flour.  For a non-holiday meal, I forgo making it fancy (rolling it over fork tines) and just cut it into 3/4 inch pieces.  The gnocchi are boiled  in salted water until they float and then are drained and added back to the broth (or put on a parchment lined baking sheet to freeze until solid when they can be placed  into a freezer bag)  If you decide to freeze some of the broth, put it in a freezer bag, lay it on a baking sheet, place it in the freezer and you’ll have a nice flat  bag of frozen deliciousness.  Make it, it’s wicked good!

IMG_2539[1]

Onions, carrot, celery, garlic, tomatoes, white wine and chicken broth bubbling away

IMG_2541[1]

2 pounds of baked potatoes riced

IMG_2543[1]

Everyday gnocchi–no fancy fork tine designs

IMG_2546[1]

When they float to the top, they’re done!

IMG_2554[1]

Served with a dollop of ricotta and a chiffonade of basil

 

These are a few of my favorite things

2491

One of my stashes–I use these the most.

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.  Bright copper kettles…”  Now you’re talking my language!  I admit it, I LOVE cooking supplies:  pots, pans, utensils, gadgets, dishes, glassware, cookbooks and on and on and on. I now peruse cooking equipment catalogs liked I used to go through the Sears and JC Penney catalogs as a kid.  And if I didn’t have a mortgage and did have a staff, I’d have more bright copper kettles.  However, while I am lacking in copper, I do own All Clad cookware.  I know, everyone uses All Clad now but I have had mine for a LONG time, before Martha and everyone else made it popular (and too expensive).  It cooks like a dream and I use it almost exclusively, unless I am using my enameled cast iron or one of Jack’s beautifully seasoned black cast iron pieces.

2494

Yikes, someone needs to do some polishing.

Utensils, I have a lot of them–three crocks and one drawer full.  Perhaps too many? but I use most of them.  My favorites are tongs, Microplane graters, sieves, heat tolerant spatulas (and lots of them), citrus squeezers,  good quality whisks, Y vegetable peelers (thanks to Megan for introducing me to this gem while I visited last week) and of course, knives.  My knives are sharp–sharp enough to send you to Urgent Care for stitches, twice.  I’ve never purchased a knife, there would be no point, that’s Jack’s job, and one he takes quite seriously. We also have a rule that I must be notified/warned  when knives have been sharpened.

2463

I keep a salt pig filled with kosher salt next to my stove.  I always cook with kosher salt as it is less salty and easier to incrementally season food with.

2462

And my newest favorite thing that I lived with out until this year and I never thought I wanted, but now I can’t imagine how I lived without it,  is  the automatic ice maker in my new refrigerator.  Ice all the time!  Blanching vegetables no longer means you don’t have ice for cocktails.  I freaking love this thing.

2495

I no longer hang soccer schedules or ortho appointment cards on my fridge but I do keep notes, pictures and mementos that remind me of the kids or of favorite places, notepads and snarky magnets–which make me laugh.

My fridge--notes from the kids, pictures an snarky magnets

My collage

Of course there are many more things I love, like the granite counter top next to my stove, my Bose radio which fills the quiet hours (and the magnetic remote volume control that attaches to my fridge) , my kitchen window which gives me something nice to look at while scrubbing pots…

“When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”  I head to my kitchen!

Cheers!

This post brought to you by the letter “M”

Cherry Mess

As in Meringue!  I’ve always loved macroons and Megan’s, John Hansen, makes a great, chewy macaroon dipped in dark chocolate. Yum! but my meringue obsession has been broadened this summer by a few new recipes.  The first is a delightful concoction called  Cherry Mess that I found on David Lebovitz’s blog.  If you are not a follower of his blog, you really should be– delicious recipes, funny stories–a great read!  Anyway, I made the cherry mess(es) for a family dinner in July and they were delicious.  They consist of a cherry/red wine almond mixture, crisp almond meringues (or not, if you forget to put in the almond like I did the first time I made them), candied sliced almonds and whipped cream with just a hint of almond (or not, if you forget to put it in the second time you made them, notice a theme here?)  The only thing that could have possibly made them better (besides making them correctly each time) would have been if I could have purchased the adorable wine glasses that Crate and Barrel had on their website–that strangely,or not, in my experience, were not for sale anywhere.  But my mom came to the rescue with her boopie glasses, which looked pretty cute, too.  And my brother said they were indeed cherry messes as he ended up wearing a bit down his shirt.

Next new love?  the macaron–which is not macaroon spelled incorrectly, like I thought the first time I saw the word a few years ago.  I’ve tasted some upscale grocery store macarons and have been less than impressed. A few weekends ago I was looking for a couple-of-hours creative project and something to take to dinner at my parents when I remembered a saved Dining section of the New York Times that had a macaron recipe and the not yet used silicon macaron template sheet that Megan  brought me from France.  Perfect!

1532 - Copy

The dough is stupidly simple to make–almond flour, egg whites and sugar.  You don’t even need a mixer.  The panic set in when I read those words I dread, “using a pastry bag fitted with a smooth tip” The pastry bag is where most projects involving a pastry bag seem to go to H-E double hockey sticks for me.  Almost as bad as the other four culinary terms that terrify me, “hard crack” and “soft ball”.  But, I kept a positive attitude (or something close) and figured the dough was so simple, if it all went south, no big deal.  It actually went pretty well and the little silicone template sheet worked fantastic, and they actually baked like the recipe said they would.  I was on a roll.

1533 - Copy

Now to fill them.  Quick google search (the time to leave for dinner was getting closer) for a macaron filling and the first hit was, of course, a Martha Stewart recipe.  Don’t get me wrong, I have followed Martha Stewart since Entertaining was published (and I have a signed copy that was my dear friend, Sally’s) but I have learned sometimes her recipes don’t quite turn out right.  It only required sugar, egg whites and butter which I had all of and it was pretty simple to assemble. It seemed to turn out a little on the thin side to me and when put in the pastry bag (yes, another), it pretty much ran out.  I refrigerated them for one hour and they set up fine so maybe that’s how it was supposed to turn out, but if that’s the case, tell me in the notes or directions!

When all was said and done, they were delicious little morsels.  Great almond flavor with a rich filling and not a crumb was left after dinner.  Next, I might try a floating island with a delicious creme anglaise sauce…

Go have some fun in the kitchen!

1552Nancy Macarons

Adapted from “Cuisiniere Lorraine” by Elisabeth Denis

Time: About 30 minutes

Yield: Approximately 40 2-inch cookies

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/4 cup almond four or meal

2 egg whites (large eggs)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (or silicone template sheet)

In a medium bowl, make a paste using 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons water.

Add almond meal and unwhisked egg whites and mix. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and mix until thoroughly combined.

Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a smooth tip; pipe out circles about the size of quarters, spacing each disk at least an inch apart. Rap the pans on the counter a few times to even out batter and eliminate air bubbles.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until edges are golden but centers are still light and slightly soft.  Let cookies cool on baking sheets for a few minutes to set.

The No Garden Summer Garden Pasta

Droopy Doodle is wondering what the heck happened.

Droopy Doodle is wondering what happened to her garden.

I have yet another confession to make, no, nothing from this post was pulled out of the trash, it’s even worse,  I am filling in my garden with, *gasp*, grass.  Sorry,  I know it goes against all the current trends and Sunset magazine will probably revoke my subscription if they find out  but I have too much yard to take care of by myself  and I am not married to a man who likes yardwork.  I enjoyed the vegetable gardening thing for awhile,  I grew radishes and green onions and kale with pretty good success and I grew great crops of cherry tomatoes.  But other than that, I spent a lot of time weeding, watering, picking worms out of cabbages and trying to outsmart the chickens.  Their entire life’s mission is to get into the garden so they can pull out every seedling and eat every flower.  So this weekend, all the herbs were moved or repotted,  four yards of soil was spread and grass seed  and peat moss were sprinkled.  Ironically, until this weekend I have not missed anything about not planting a garden until I decided to make the Barefoot Contessa’s Summer Garden Pasta for  family dinner on Sunday.

$5 a pint!

$5 a pint–which is probably a bargain.

I first made this recipe a few summers ago when I had buckets of cherry tomatoes all ripening at the same time as it takes a whopping four pints.  Yesterday  at the local farm stand when faced with forking over $5 a pint for organic tomatoes, I  decided three pints would do just fine.  If you are an order Muppet like me, you can start this dish in the morning by preparing  the tomato marinade and then head out for a bike ride or some yard work and still throw together an awesome dinner. The tomatoes are marinated  with the olive oil, basil, garlic and red pepper flakes for about 4 hours which makes your entire house smell delicious and makes those you live with think you are a culinary genius.  You finish it off by cooking a pound of angel hair pasta  and then mix it  together with the marinade and copious amounts of freshly grated parmesan.  Couldn’t be easier!  Serve it with a nice loaf of bread and maybe another wedge salad and, of course, something fabulous for dessert.  Oh, and don’t forget a chilled bottle of white!

Tomatoes, garlic, basil and red pepper

Tomatoes, garlic, basil and red pepper

Barefoot Contessa’s  Summer Garden Pasta by Ina Garten

From Barefoot Contessa At Home

serves 6 (generously)

4 pints cherry tomatoes, halved

good olive oil

2 tablespoon minced garlic (not the jar kind, mince it yourself)

18 large basil leaves, julienned, plus extra for serving

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound angel hair pasta

1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving (again, grate your own)

Combine the cherry tomatoes, 1/2 cup olive oil, garlic, basil leaves, red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and the pepper in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and set aside at room temperature for about 4 hours.

Just before you’re ready to serve, bring a large pot of water with a splash of olive oil and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil and add the pasta. Cook al dente according to the directions on the package (should be 2-3 minutes). Drain the pasta well and add to the bowl with the cherry tomatoes. Add the cheese and some extra fresh basil leaves and toss well.  Serve in big bowls with extra cheese on each serving.

The smell from this is fantastic

The smell from this is fantastic!

So, when you visit, we’ll sit on my backporch and admire my lovely green grass and I’ll make you this yummy dish! Oh, and there’s still plenty of flower beds to weed–don’t worry, I have extra gloves!

Cheers!

Rhubarb Roundup (part 3)

IMG_1693This past weekend I tried two things rhubarb.

First on Saturday, which was a gloriously warm day, I had a Campari and soda.  Did you know Campari has rhubarb in it ?  Campari is considered a bitter and is an acquired taste but on a warm summer (or spring) day nothing beats sitting on the back porch with a little Campari over ice and a good portion of soda water while  picturing yourself  sitting at some little outdoor restaurant in Italy wiling away the afternoon. You can make other drinks with Campari like the Negroni, which usually elicits strong opinions–love or HATE!

My second encounter with rhubarb was rhubarb ice cream for Sunday’s family dinner.  The recipe was super easy and with my Cusinart ice cream maker I had creamy rhubarb ice cream in no time.  But you can’t just serve rhubarb ice cream by itself because some in my family dislike it as much as they dislike purple onions and meatloaf.

I decided to make a Barefoot Contessa Lemon pound cake but instead of using full fat yogurt, which the recipe called for, I thought I would try using the non-fat Greek yogurt I always have in my fridge.  I wasn’t as concerned about the fat content as the ice cream had plenty of whipping cream, as I was not having to go to the store.  The recipe called for vegetable oil, which I rarely use, and when I measured it out I thought it smelled funny but I ignored my gut and carried on.  Well, my oil was rancid and the pound cake tasted terrible (though Jack ate several slices and Buster and the chickens liked it). Always follow your gut; if you think it smells or looks bad, save yourself the heartache (maybe a little dramatic) and don’t use it.  I think the non-fat yogurt also made it a bit tough.

IMG_1696

Earlier in the week Megan and I had a  conversation about whether angel food cake would be good served with rhubarb compote (which it would)  and I decided it would also be delicious with rhubarb ice cream.  I found the Lemon Angel Food Cake recipe in one of my Barefoot Contessa books and gave it a try. The cake turned out perfect! Light and airy and just a little lemony, which was the perfect accompaniment to the rhubarb ice cream–not to mention the Rick Bayless Paella for 6–but that’s another post.

IMG_1698

Rhubarb Ice Cream    

IMG_1685

Every  Which Way With Rhubarb by Amanda Brannon

1 pound rhubarb, finely chopped

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice (fresh)

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 cups heavy whipping cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Place the rhubarb in a shallow baking dish along with the sugar and the lemon juice. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender. Let it cool slightly. Pour the rhubarb into a food processor and process until you have a smooth puree. Pour into a container, cover and transfer to the refrigerator and chill. Stir the vanilla and cream into the rhubarb puree, pour into an ice cream maker and churn until the mixture has the consistency of soft whipped cream.  Freeze for a minimum of two hours or until the ice cream is firm enough to serve.

Rhubarb ice cream and Lemon Angel Food cake!

Rhubarb ice cream and Lemon Angel Food cake!