Thursday, April 29, 2010

Putting on the Ritz

Sharing a meal brings friends together. Making a meal together with friends cements those bonds. For months, a group of my friends has been planning a foodie event. Our host planned a menu based largely on recipes from Fine Cooking magazine, and we shared responsibility for gathering ingredients. On Saturday morning, we loaded up the car and drove to New Jersey to prepare the feast. Annette, our host, provided a beautiful venue, including her dining room set with an antique linen tablecloth and sterling, and shopped for fish and chicken and vegetables. Judy visited the Devon Farmers Market for fresh berries, cantaloupe, kiwis, and cheeses. Paola provided the wine. I brought along chocolates from Eclat and ingredients to make fresh pasta and sauce. We were set.
Together we chopped, sliced and diced; we sauteed, braised and roasted. We rolled pasta dough. We laughed and we learned. We paired appetizer cheeses, bread, and crackers with Italian bubbly (don't call it champagne!) as we waited for the guys to return from a hike. We moved to the dining room for the arugala, shaved baby artichoke and parmesan cheese salad tossed in a lemon vinaigrette. We twirled pasta fresca in tomato sauce without getting stains on the linens. We feasted on fresh trout stuffed with herbs and lemons, chicken with mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes and caramelized onions, asparagus drizzled with truffle oil, and roasted fingerling potatoes. We ended with fresh berries, more cheese, and chocolates.
Dinners like this were a staple in my parents' house. Almost every month they hosted a dozen friends who dressed in tuxes and formal dresses. My mother spent the week before polishing silver, ironing tablecloths and napkin, rinsing the crystal, shopping, cooking, and baking. My grandmother and I helped her prepare and assisted in the clean up. I remember watching the adults sit at the table, the candlelight reflected in the crystal and silver. I listened to them talk about politics and religion. I saw the faces flush with excitement and with wine. I envied their glamour.
This dinner party echoed that glamour in all the important ways. Annette pulled out all the stops, and the conversation rose to the occasion. I felt adult in a way that it is impossible to do when sitting in the kitchen with the everyday dishes and tableware.
My generation is different from my parents'. I used to wonder why we didn't use the good stuff everyday, but I seldom use my grandmother's china or the good silver even when we have company. After this weekend, though, I'm looking at the china cabinet with a new glint in my eye. The next time we get together with friends, we'll have dinner in our dining room with the crystal and the china and the silver, and we'll behave like the grownups that we are. Finally.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What's for dinner?

What's for dinner? That is a question that strikes terror in the heart of day-to-day cooks. After four decades of cooking, I figure I've turned out something in the vicinity of 10,000 dinners alone. (If you don't want to know your own startling statistic, don't do the math--it frightened me, for sure!) After a while, making dinner gets boring. What else is there to make? And if your house is like mine, you don't get many suggestions from the peanut gallery. Maybe I should take it as a compliment, but my family trusts me implicitly with meal planning. It's a nightly dance. "What do you want for dinner?" "Oh, I don't know. Whatever you want to make." AARGH!

Chicken is my go-to entree. Out of those 10,000 meals, I bet over half have involved some form of fowl. It's versatile and easy to prepare, but I usually end up grabbing a package of skinless, boneless breasts because they cook more quickly than the whole bird. Here's a good compromise that is featured in the May 2010 issue of Everyday Food (although I've seen it in other books and magazines long before it appeared there).

Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees. Yes, 500. It's going to make the skin crispy without drying out the delicate breast meat. While the oven preheats, take your chicken (3 to 4 pounds), rinse, dry, and place it breast-side down on your working surface. Using sharp kitchen shears, cut down one side of the backbone, turn the chicken, and then cut down the other side. (I collect the backbones and the necks in the freezer until I have enough for stock. Waste not, want not.) Flip the chicken so the breast is skin up, and press on the breastbone until the chicken is flat. Sprinkle generously with salt (if using) and freshly ground pepper. Gently loosen the skin and insert aromatics (slices of lemon, or halved garlic cloves, or springs of thyme or rosemary) between the skin and the breast and thigh meat. Place the prepared chicken in a roasting pan or oven-proof skillet.

I like to put my oven to work, so I add vegetables to the pot. Tonight, I peeled a large sweet potato, cut it into chunks, dressed it with olive oil, and added the chunks to the pan. They were tender and slightly charred when the chicken was ready. I've also added chunks of potatoes and carrots. Everyday Food has several other suggestions.

Put everything into the oven for 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear and the temperature at the thigh reaches 165 degrees. Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before serving. Another advantage to this preparation: you don't have to actually carve a bird, one of my least favorite chores. This recipe serves four. When you add a salad, slice a crusty loaf of bread, and pour a glass of your favorite white, you'll think you're in Tuscany.

Bon appétit!

Monday, April 19, 2010


Nutritionists say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but when I was a teenager, I balked a breakfast like a filly approaching a jump. There was no amount of cajoling that would get me to eat. Eggs were slimy, cereal soggy, and pancakes, French toast and waffles set-my-teeth-on-edge sweet. My mother, the saint that she is, whisked an egg into a cup of whole milk augmented with sugar and vanilla, and she barricaded the front door until I gulped it down. Mind you, these were the days before anyone worried about cholesterol, and e. coli and salmonella poisoning had not been invented. And those were the days that no amount of food added an ounce to my skinny frame.

Today I don't need any coaxing to eat breakfast. I'm spoiled for choice. Maybe oatmeal, topped with raisins and walnuts, sweetened with brown sugar. Maybe Rice Krispies with a sliced banana. Maybe a fresh pear with a big dollop of ricotta cheese. Maybe a sliced orange sprinkled with toasted coconut and a slice of Italian toast slathered with Plugra. Maybe a hard-boiled egg with French sea salt and some thinly-sliced radishes from Saturday's Growers Market. Maybe a slab of sour cream coffee cake and a mug of caffe latte with a thick cap of foam dusted with cinnamon sugar. See what I mean? What's a girl to do when she is on sabbatical and the kitchen is open?

Here's my latest favorite coffee cake recipe. It starts with a version found in The Scholarly Chef: The University of Richmond Cooks, but I've modified it. It's buttery and decadent!
Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Cinnamon Chips
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup good quality plain yogurt
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Grease a 9x13 inch glass baking dish with butter. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour, baking powder and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper or a paper plate. Reserve. Beat butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar gradually and beat until light. Add eggs one at a time and beat until well incorporated. Add vanilla. Mix sour cream and yogurt. Reserve. Add the flour to the creamed butter mixture in three portions, alternating with the sour cream and yogurt (use the waxed paper or paper plate to make a funnel to pour the flour into the mixing bowl). Pour half of batter into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon chips. Top with remaining batter and smooth. Combine topping ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle topping over cake. Bake for 40-45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. You get to decide how many servings!

They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It's certainly the most versatile.

Bon Appétit!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Perfect Pizza

When I was growing up, Friday was the night for pizza. My father would pick up a couple of pizzas and a stromboli so my mother had a night off. As I got older, I learned how to make pizza from scratch, and I would make pizza for the family. I loved the feel of the yeast breathing life into the flour as I kneaded five pounds of flour into dough, no mean task, I assure you. There was enough pizza for a party, or for our family of nine.

To me, there are two kinds of pizza. No, not the Sicilian square and the Neapolitan round. I'm talking homemade and everything else. If you have never tried to make pizza on your own, there's no need to fear. Yes, it does involve yeast, and many people run from yeasty bread recipes as if they are being chased by the devil himself, but trust me, pizza is as easy as pie.

Why bother making your own dough when Domino's is just a phone call away? First of all, you get to control the quantity and quality of all the ingredients. Second, it tastes infinitely better than anything out of a delivery box. Third, it is satisfying to watch those you love dig into a pizza you made all by yourself--or with their help.

The ratio is simple: 3 cups of flour to an envelope (a scant three teaspoons) of yeast (regular or quick rise), a generous sprinkling of salt, a cup of warm water (give or take, depending on the humidity in your kitchen), and a drizzle of olive oil. With a food processor, preparing the dough is almost too simple to imagine. Put the dry ingredients into the processor bowl, take it for a brief spin, then slowly drizzle the water through the feed tube while the processor is running. Add the olive oil (a couple of tablespoons, if you are squeamish about guestimating). When the dough comes together, stop, wait five minutes, then give the dough another 20 second mix. Transfer the dough to a flour-dusted counter top and knead briefly. Grease a large bowl with another tablespoon of olive oil, and transfer the dough into the bowl. Turn the dough so it is covered with oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and wait. If you are using instant yeast, the dough is ready in well under an hour. If you are using regular yeast, wait two hours or longer. You will know that it is ready when it is puffy and your fingers leave an indentation (rather than just springing right back at you). This quantity of pizza will serve four people with ordinary appetites. If you have teenagers in your house, you probably will want to make two times the recipe. Don't be tempted to put the doubled ingredients into your food processor at the same time, however!

Once the dough is nicely risen, the fun begins. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. That's about as hot as a home oven gets. Then choose the size and shape of your pizza. With the above recipe, you can make one thick square pizza in an 11x16 inch jelly-roll pan, or you can make a thinner pizza in a 16 inch pizza pan, or you can divide the dough into fourths and make personal round pizzas as thin as you can roll the dough. I don't use a pizza stone personally, but there are some people who swear by them. I found I was usually swearing at mine.

Sprinkle corn meal on the pan to prevent sticking. Shape the dough in the pan and let it rise a second time while the oven heats. Add your toppings. Bake for 10-18 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your pizzas. You want your crust to be a golden brown, no matter how thick or thin. The thinner the pizza, the shorter the cooking time. Remove from the oven when the crust in golden brown and the toppings are bubbling.

Time your pizza so that people will be able to eat it hot from the oven. Of course, you probably want to make enough for left-overs. Cold pizza is a delicacy in and of itself.

Here are some ideas for toppings:
Traditional margharita: spread the dough with your favorite pizza sauce (see below for an easy recipe), bake for 6-7 minutes, remove from oven to top with fresh mozzarella cheese sliced very thin and torn fresh basil leaves. Return to over and continue baking until crust is browned (about 7 minutes for a 16-inch round pizza).

The Italian flag: drizzle the dough lightly with olive oil. Cover with thinly sliced fresh tomatoes and sprinkle the tomatoes with salt to taste, then arrange ricotta cheese and lightly cooked spinach attractively over the tomatoes. Bake for 14-16 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

White pizza with broccoli: Drizzle olive oil over the dough, sprinkle generously with shredded mozzarella cheese, and top with broccoli cooked al dente (I stir fry my broccoli with olive oil and garlic until it gets bright green). Sprinkle with red pepper flakes, if desired, and bake.

Other toppings: roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni, cooked Italian sausage. Really, just about anything. Artichoke hearts, asparagus, broccoli rabe, cauliflower--almost any vegetable is at home on a pizza. Experiment with cheeses. While I love a good gooey mozzarella, any grated cheese alone or in reasonable combination can be enlisted.

Quick pizza sauce: Pour a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil into a heavy medium saucepan over low heat. Add 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons) and red pepper flakes to taste (I usually add about a teaspoon of red pepper). Cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently and watching constantly (don't let the garlic burn). Add a 28-ounce can of good-quality chopped tomatoes in puree and a bay leaf, and bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce to low and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes. Add salt to taste.