November 30, 2007
Last night was Family Dinner. My sister was coming over for the evening to not only dine but to help us trim our Christmas tree (which is fake–point of contention–and on it’s very last leg, after moving from DC to Chicago and then again across Chicago) and otherwise decorate our place for the holidays (or Chrismakkah, as this “blended household” likes to call it).
What was on the menu, you ask? One might guess I had planned a festive meal—something pure holidays or perhaps just seasonal. Something that fit the holiday color scheme at the very least (but that’s probably a little too “semi-homemade” for my taste; what’s next? a tablescape & a cocktail?). But, because I am the Grinch, I eschewed these thoughts and instead opted for one of my favorite summer meals–an Asian pan seared/oven roasted salmon recipe. You see, I’m on a mission to make my sister a salmon fan. Yes, I repeat, I’m the Grinch. She comes over once a week and I made her a dinner featuring a protein about which she’s on the fence.
I also chose this recipe because it’s insanely quick and easy—perfect for this evening, because I didn’t want to miss too much of the tree trimming. I also was pretty sure it would win my sister over. The flavors in the glaze are some of her favorites. The same tactic (smother a potentially un-popular item in ingredients sure to please) worked with my husband when he began to eat more fish.
Operation Make-a-Salmon-Fan-out-of-Ali was a success. She cleaned her plate (which also included steamed edamame, tossed with sesame oil, black sesame seeds and chili flakes, and brown rice). And our place looks gorgeous, decked out with a tree (fake), menorah (a little too early, I know, but it’s all in the same box), garland and wreath. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve at least served some egg nog or glogg …. no, no, no. Who am I kidding? The wine was just fine.
November 29, 2007
As I’ve already mentioned here (and approximately 700 times to my husband), this was the first Thanksgiving I’ve spent away from home. At my parents’ house, Thanksgiving is a big deal. On Turkey Day itself, my parents have hosted upwards of 30 guests during certain years. And while the exact number of chairs at the table (or, back in the day, the main table and the kids’ table) changed, many things remained the same. While my step-father has experimented with new turkey methods (oven roasting, grilling on the gas grill and charcoal grill and even deep frying), many of the dishes are constant. If you tasted my grandma’s stuffing (featuring pork sausage) or my mom’s stuffing (featuring Italian sausage) (yes, two stuffings, both laced with pork — we’re that kind of family) you’d know why.
So breaking with tradition this year to spend the holiday with my husband’s family brought mixed emotions. I would of course miss my family and our traditions, but I looked forward to experiencing a new set of traditions with this new part of my family. And, Kevin’s grandmother would be making the meal and she is an excellent cook. Before the holiday, we called Kevin’s grandmother to see what we could bring. I was envisioning maybe a side–perhaps an amped up version of brussel sprouts or green beans. Or, ooooh even better, maybe she’d want me to bake something! I’ve told you about my love of making baked goods (especially those I can pass off on others). I had visions of pies (pecan!) and tarts (cranberry!) and cheesecakes (bourbon spiked pumpkin!), oh my.
Well the answer came back: Grandma wanted cookies. I have to admit, my heart sank a bit at first. I guess I just don’t associate cookies with Thanksgiving. They’re more of a Christmas thing to me. But then I remembered, I was keeping an open mind to this new Thanksgiving thing! With resolved spirits, I began searching the blogosphere and Internet for recipes. Eventually, I settled on three new recipes (peanut butter chocolate chunk (per my husband’s request for something along these lines); molasses spice; and giant chocolate toffee cookies). And I knew I had to stick with one old favorite: Spritz. Sure, Spritz are pure Christmas to me, but I planned to Thanksgiving-ify them with the addition of harvest-colored sanding sugar.
Well, the giant chocolate cookies (recipe, if you’re a masochist, is here) were a total bust. I swear I measured the cookie scoops exactly according to the recipe, but they spread out into each other while baking—to the point that the first batch resembled a pan of brownies. In subsequent batches, I reduced the size of the scoops, but had a terrible time getting them off the pan. They all went straight into the “cookie graveyard” (a container full of the cookies that flopped; heartily enjoyed by my husband).
The other two new recipes (peanut butter/chocolate chunk and molasses spice) were both delicious. And the spritz, while very good, will apparently never be as good as my mom’s. She swears she’s given me her exact recipe, but I have a feeling she’s holding out. So I put together a platter of these three types of cookies and embarked on my first new Thanksgiving.
In the end, I’m happy to report that both the cookies and the “new” Thanksgiving were a hit. Kevin’s grandma made a delicious turkey and her stuffing even featured sausage (albeit the chicken variety). And now I can’t wait to get to Minnesota for Christmas. Maybe I’ll surveil my mom while she makes her spritz cookies. If I discover her secret, I’ll be sure to share! Read the rest of this entry »
November 28, 2007
I’m not a huge dessert fiend (except for ice cream, which I’ve already mentioned). However, I do love making desserts. I find that if I follow the recipes exactly, I am generally met with success. And most desserts end up looking gorgeous (not always the case with the average, every-night dinner). But, by the time I’m done mixing the batter, baking the layers, cooling the layers and icing the layers, I have a hard time getting all that excited for a slice of cake. Same goes for cookies (I mean, how many batches can one recipe possibly call for?), tarts (I generally have to physically restrain myself from trying to pop the thing out of the pan immediately out of the oven), pies (of course I have to make my own pate brisee) and the list goes on and on.
So I tend to get unreasonably excited for the opportunity to bring a dessert to a party, dinner or, heck, even a bakesale. A recent weeknight dinner with two of our friends (make-your-own pizzas, a theme I highly recommend) provided the perfect opportunity to try my hand at Tiramisu.
I scanned scores of recipes in search of the perfect one (another element of the dessert-creation process that I love). I ultimately settled on Ina Garten’s recipe for two reasons: (1) every recipe of hers I’ve tried has come out well above average (especially in the dessert category — perhaps because of the copious amounts of butter and cream) and (2) it called for a lot of mascarpone. I wish I could tell you my mascarpone motivation stems from a culinary reason, but–truth be told–I had several containers of the stuff in my fridge, periously close to expiring (how did they get there, you ask? stay tuned for a future post that will tell the sordid tale!).
Once again, Ina did not disappoint. This tiramisu was creamy and had a wonderful, strong coffee flavor. And the ladyfingers were flavorful without being mushy. The recipe (to which I made a few small tweaks, see below) was also incredibly easy. You do need to build in plenty of time for chilling, but beyond that, the recipe comes together extremely quickly.
And this one certainly satisfied my penchant for presentation. It was a beauty. And, best of all: we got to leave the leftovers with our friends, who happily ate them up!
November 27, 2007
Growing up, my sister was a stand-out hockey player. Yes folks, in Minnesota (and elsewhere), girls play hockey. I, on the other hand, can fend for myself on a pair of skates—but give me a hockey stick, and it’s all down hill (read: it’s all fall down) from there. While she was the captain of her hockey team, I was the student council president. While she shot pucks at our battered garage door, I tucked into good books.
Our differences continued during our childhoods and early adulthood. I hesitantly chose a college that, at 7,500 undergrads, seemed impossibly large to me. By contrast, her Big Ten alma mater seemed just big enough to her at 30,000 undergrads. There, she developed a real flair for the social life, which garnered countless great stories—some riotous and others regretful. As she put it in her Maid-of-Honor-Toast at my wedding last August: “Kristin chose a career in the law. And, me? I’ve had a few run-in’s with the law.” (Don’t worry, nothing serious.)
So I guess it shouldn’t come as a shock that I developed a penchant for complicated recipes and obscure ingredients when I finally had a kitchen to myself after college, while my sister has turned to Lean Cuisines with a vengeance in her newly-fresh-from-college days. Despite my deep, wide, intense dislike for frozen, boxed dinners (especially those containing 50% or more of one’s daily recommended intake of sodium), I can’t complain too much. You see, my sister’s first real kitchen is here in Chicago—less than mile from my place.
This proximity has spawned what we now affectionately call “Family Dinner.” My parents aren’t here (and we always wish they were!), but my sister, husband and I have formed a little Windy City tradition of our own. Each week, Ali gets a respite from the Lean Cuisine regimen and makes the trek west on Armitage to our place (never fear—she cues up her DVR to catch whatever TV shows she might be missing that night). And I have an excuse to hatch a particularly delectable menu approximately once a week (and an excuse to have an extra glass of wine, too!).
During one of our first Family Dinners, we embarked on a homemade pizza recipe I found at smittenkitchen.com. As an avowed pizza connoisseur, I have never been bowled over by the pies I’ve whipped up myself. The crust is too spongy, the sauce lacks pizzazz (wow – that almost spelled pizza – cool), and the toppings just never attain the right level of doneness. They simply can’t live up to my favorite Chicago spots (none of which, by the way, involve the deep dish style for which this fair city is known): Spacca Napoli, Piece and Coalfire.
But I’ve come to trust Deb, the woman at the helm of Smitten Kitchen. And, with her pizza recipe, she didn’t lead me astray. In fact, she even led Ali on one of her first major culinary voyages—she and I staged a pizza cook off, of sorts. We each made a pie and left my husband, Kevin, (all too happy to be the judge) to choose a winner.
In the Family Dinners since then, I’ve taken the reins on much of the cooking. I assumed my sister would much prefer a home-cooked meal (one that didn’t leave her up-to-the-elbows in flour) to being roped into sous chef duties. Much to my surprise, then, my mom recently called while my sister was visiting her in Minnesota. Apparently, Ali had announced a make-your-own pizza night, using none other than the recipe we’d used during Family Dinner. Maybe we aren’t so different after all. And perhaps my assumption that Ali didn’t like being “roped into” a kitchen duty or two was just plain wrong.
Oh, and the winner of the original Family Dinner bake off shall remain nameless!
November 26, 2007
There are a couple of explanations for why I just had to make Wild Rice Soup yesterday. Perhaps it’s because this Thanksgiving was the first I’ve ever celebrated outside of Minnesota and I was craving a homegrown taste (wild rice, after all, is Minnesota’s “State Grain”—what, you don’t know your state’s grain?). Or maybe it’s because the promise of a steamy bowl of goodness was just what I needed to ease out of a four-day weekend and into a Monday. And the fact that it was a light meal, loaded with vegetables certainly didn’t hurt after a weekend of indulgence.
If I’m really honest, though, there are a couple of other reasons for getting to the grocery store yesterday morning for wild rice, carrots, celery (the recipe doesn’t call for it, but I usually throw some in) and fresh rosemary. You see, the last time I made this soup (which, I should add, I’ve probably made 100 times) I was delighted to find a “deal” on wild rice at Whole Foods. Or so I thought. Whatever I was using was not wild rice. While it looked just like the small dark grain my home state takes pride in, it sucked most of the liquid out of my lovely soup and turned the liquid that did remain purple. Yes, purple. Soup—with the possible exception of borscht (on which I am definitely not yet sold)—is not meant to be purple. So I guess this was a bit of a mission to redeem myself.
And the final motive: leftovers. This soup is even better warmed up the next day (or, because I often double the recipe for this exact reason, the next four days). It was a beautiful sight to see this stack of lunches-in-waiting in my fridge this Monday morning:
Whatever the cause, I had a pot of this soup—one of my favorites—bubbling away by early afternoon yesterday. It was creamy (the slurry of 2% milk and flour really does impart a velvety texture to this soup, unlike most “light” creamy soup recipes) and earthy (thank you, rosemary and wild rice) and hearty. And, best of all, it wasn’t purple! Read the rest of this entry »
November 26, 2007
In my book, weekends call for special treats. There are certain desserts—pies, cheesecakes, tarts, and the like—that I simply don’t consider making (or eating) throughout the week. One major exception: ice cream.
Hands down my favorite food, I love all its flavors (from vanilla to butter pecan to chocolate to pistachio to …) and incarnations (cones, sundaes, DQ Blizzards, straight from the carton). And because summer in Chicago can be all too brief, I like to live the ice cream season to the fullest. Not that I see anything wrong with ice cream in February, mind you.
One of the most wonderful, guilt-reducing discoveries I’ve made in the ice cream realm is Haagen Dazs’ line of extra rich light ice cream. In particular, I’ve fallen head over heels for the coffee flavor. It’s creamy with a strong coffee flavor and, did I mention that it’s “light”?
Pints of this stuff often crowd our freezer and it makes a great (occasional) weeknight treat. But, on the weekend, like I said, it’s time for special treats. Recently, I stumbled across a Bon Appetit recipe on Epicurious.com that promised to marry my weeknight favorite with a weekend-worthy dessert: Coffee-Toffee Ice Cream Tart. And, it was a great excuse to use another as-yet-unused wedding gift: our new tart pan.
This tart is very, very good. However, I have a couple quibbles. After searching the shelves of several grocery stores for chocolate wafers without luck, I gave up and bought Oreos. My sous chef was happy to twist them apart and scrape the filling from them. Almost as delighted as he was to bash them into crumbs, once the de-sandwiching was done. Also, I neglected to read the Epicurious comments until I was already home from the grocery store. Had I read the multiple suggestions to double the amount of crumbled toffee, I would have happily followed the advice. As I made it (according to the recipe exactly), the toffee flavor was not all that pronounced. Finally, I’m really, really glad I read the recipe thoroughly ahead of time. The multiple freezing stages definitely call for some advance planning.
Despite these minor stumbles, the end result was scrumptious. The hint of cinnamon in the crust really lends a depth of flavor. And the white chocolate topping (about which, I must admit, I was a bit hesitant at first) was a wonderful addition—both in terms of taste and elegant presentation. Oh, and I used my favorite Haagen Dazs light coffee ice cream for the filling. Does that mean I can enjoy a leftover slice on a weeknight?!?
November 25, 2007
I’m sure that most Americans couldn’t possibly bear the sight of a roasted bird a mere two days after Thanksgiving. But I didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner and in fact arrived to my dinner destination after the turkey had already been pulled from the oven. So, I don’t mind writing about roasted chicken today. Especially one this spectacular.
When I first started cooking, the thought of trimming the excess fat off a boneless, skinless chicken breast was enough to make my heart thump. And any red meat? Forget about it. While I quickly overcame these fears in my early cooking days, I still couldn’t fathom dealing with an entire chicken. In fact, I averted my eyes at the butcher’s counter, much preferring the already dismembered parts. So I was shocked when a certain roasted chicken recipe—from San Francisco’s Zuni Café cookbook—began to pique my interest. At the time, the recipe got a lot of discussion on Chowhound.com’s Home Cooking message board. The marvels and swooning over this particular recipe finally got to me. I had to try it.
The key to this recipe is the pre-salting and the high heat. Because this was the first roasted chicken recipe I’ve tried, I can’t speak to how it measures up to others. And this recipe will probably be the last roasted chicken recipe I try because it’s that good. And because my husband would certainly revolt if I abandoned his beloved bird (which we refer to as simply “Zuni”).
From the very first time I tried it, the recipe has not disappointed. Every time, the chicken comes out golden and crisped on the outside, with incredibly flavorful and succulent pieces of chicken. This is how chicken is meant to taste. I typically surround the chicken with thinly sliced potato rounds, which fry in the chicken drippings—a tip I picked up from one of the Chowhound Zuni faithful. The potatoes are extremely decadent and I usually can’t justify having more than one or two rounds, but my husband has no problem polishing off hefty mound. Served with a pile of spicy greens, it is a simply perfect dinner.