Thursday, December 20, 2007

Two Easy Nibbles: One Savory; One Sweet

From amongst all the delicious hors d'oeuvres and desserts I sampled at recent holiday parties here are two I'll be serving my own guests:
*A few days ago I baked a batch of cream puff shells, each just a bit bigger than a silver dollar. They're stashed in the freezer to be warmed and crisped a bit before being filled with halved cherry tomatoes, sprigs of watercress and pieces of freshly cooked bacon. I'll serve them with drinks when friends stop by to exchange gifts early Sunday evening.

*To sit on a tray next to the coffee pot on Christmas Eve, I made a batch of my friend Diana's addictively-good miniature coconut tarts. After lining tiny muffin tins with pastry (I used my homemade pate brisee but a sour cream pastry or even a good-quality commercial pie dough would work here - but not puff pastry) I lightly beat three whole eggs and stirred in 1 cup sugar and 3 ounces of shredded coconut. I spooned this into the pastry shells and baked them at 375-degrees until set and golden brown on top. These freeze perfectly once they've cooled.

And the photo at the top of this post? The entryway to the same hilltop home where we enjoyed the harvest dinner in September. The two-year-old pictured in that post was at the Christmas party in full red-plaid-and-black velevet regalia. As a group of us stood chatting on the dance floor she came up to us and said, politely but firmly: "You're standing on my stars." Sure enough, a special light fixture overhead was casting a starry pattern onto the floor. We immediately moved, the band began playing and the young lady danced amongst her stars.
Have a lovely holiday weekend -- and don't stand on anyone's stars. They might need the dancing space.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sprouts Salad: Warm and Wonderful

In the not too distant past I avoided brussels sprouts almost as assiduously as I did (and do) peas. Almost. And then, at a Christmas party six years ago, J cajoled me into trying this warm salad of shaved sprouts and pancetta. Twas bliss in a bowl.
I'm going to be very honest with you and admit that if you're making this for more than three or four people, the prep is a PITA, but I promise you on my love for Jeremy Irons, Kris Kristofferson and my border collies that the result is worth the work.
Oh, and if you aren't willing to search out duck fat, you'll never achieve the taste nirvana of this dish, although chicken fat probably would work *almost* as well. You need only two ingredients in addition to the sprouts and fowl fat: pancetta and white pepper. No salt: the pancetta does that duty.
This is one of those annoying no-quantities-specified recipes--you have to play around with it a bit to discover the proportions you like best, but as long as you apply a modicum of common sense, you're going to end up with a delicious result.
The basic method: fine-chopped panecetta is sauteed in a bit of duck fat until it is browned but not yet crisp and then a mound of shaved-as-thin-as-possible brussels sprouts is added to the pan, tossed just until wilted, seasoned with white pepper and then served promptly.
The PITA factor? You have to shave the little sons-of-cabbages on a mandoline or Japanese slicer to get truly thin strands and, god, it gets tedious after a while. But, no whining. The chef who gave me the recipe prepares it for the staff Christmas party each year and he told me on Sunday that he'd spent an hour and a half that morning slicing enough sprouts to satisfy a hundred people.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Don't Make this Recipe

"I love the smell of shrimp shells in the morning."

I mean it. Do not make this recipe unless you are willing to follow my instructions EXACTLY.
It's not as if I'll be asking you to prepare puff pastry from scratch or shuck a bushel of oysters or bone a grouse -- instead I submit for your consideration an extremely easy appetizer that will bring you raves -- raves, I tell you -- if you will do EXACTLY WHAT I SAY. OK, I'll stop yelling now. But this is one of my most cherished recipes and it breaks my heart to see it screwed up -- and I've seen it screwed up twice in the last few weeks. So, do what I say and do what I do and you'll have an outstanding addition to your recipe repertoire.

I learned how to make this from Charlotte Combe, an excellent teacher at the late lamented Jack Lirio Cooking School in San Francisco,

Charlotte Combe's Marvelous Marinated Prawns

1/4 cup good mustard
1/2 cup wine vinegar
1/2 cup truly excellent olive oil
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped shallots
salt & pepper
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
Bring a large, well-salted pot of water to a boil and drop in 2 lbs. prawns, still in the shell. When they turn pink, they're probably done. Do not overcook them; a tiny bit underdone is far preferable to even a little overdone.
Drain and, as soon as they're cool enough to handle, peel the prawns and then mix them with the marinade.
Refrigerate overnight. Drain very well before serving.

Sounds simple, right? Well it is. But people like to take shortcuts and said shortcuts will ruin this dish. Here are the shortcuts you MAY NOT TAKE:
*No pre-cooked prawns
*No semi-peeled raw prawns
*No cheap-o olive oil
*No dried parsley flakes
*No omitting the red pepper flakes
*No trying to get away with a less-than-overnight marinade
*NO FORGETTING TO DRAIN THE PRAWNS REALLY WELL BEFORE SERVING. They should not be sitting in a pool of marinade at serving time.

You are permitted one substitution: scallions sliced thin for the shallots. The rest of the instructions are to be considered commandments -- carved on stone tablets, broken only at the risk of infuriating the gods of gastronomy
And me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

4 Questions 4 Michael Ruhlman

Much of my holiday gift shopping involves books, and this year each cook on my list is getting a compact little compendium of kitchen wisdom called "The Elements of Cooking." Written by one of my favorite authors, Michael Ruhlman, "Elements" is a departure from his best-selling narratives like "The Making of a Chef" and "The Soul of a Chef" or cookbooks like "Charcuterie" and "The French Laundry Cookbook."

I've been sitting here trying to write some lines that would whet your appetite for this elegant little book, but I cannot escape the fact that Anthony Bourdain has, in the introduction, done a better job than I ever could:
Eight essays on vital, primary concepts like stock, sauce, salt, eggs, heat and tools...and an absolutely rock solid definition of every term professional chefs should know as a matter of course after years of working in professional kitchens; now you will learn them easily and concisely -- without burning yourself, cutting yourself, or having your ass kicked in the process

Ruhlman was en route home to Cleveland from a month-long book tour when he took a few moments to answer my questions.

CE: The book's impassioned first chapter on the importance of well-
made stock has almost -- almost -- convinced me to take on the
making of veal stock. Do you swear on your love of Cleveland that
"It's no more difficult than chicken stock"?

MR: Absolutely. Though don't buy ten pounds of bones, just two or three will do. Buy a veal breast at the grocery store and have them cut it up; it's
perfect for veal stock.

CE: One of my most-loved cookbooks is the stunning "A Return to Cooking," your collaborative work with chef Eric Ripert. The recipe for snapper with caramelized and braised shallots on a puree of fresh cranberry beans is an entire cooking lesson captured on a few pages,as are so many of the other recipes. If Eric suddenly phoned and said he was coming to Cleveland for a brief visit, what would you cook for him?

MR: Pork belly, of course!

CE: I've read nearly all of your books but my favorite is "House: A Memoir." Having survived several long and gut-wrenching remodels of a 1910 so-called "summer cottage," I raced through "House" on an empathetic surge of I'm-not-putting-this-down-until-I've-reach-the-end. One of the many delights of the Cleveland episode of No Reservations was the glimpse inside your home. Are there still rooms that need work? Certainly the kitchen looks spectacular. And, if you'd known at the beginning what you do now, would you still have undertaken this project? And would your wife, similarly knowledgeable, have agreed, fled or murdered you in your sleep?

MR: While the kitchen and my office are splendid, the living room looks
half like a living room, half like a studio and half like an office,
something you'd find in NYC in SoHo. The guest bedroom fireplace and
hearth are still bare concrete; must tile it this winter! Our bedroom is
bare and unfinished. But all in all I feel like a king in my house
and would not change any decision we've made. Donna may at any moment
come to her senses and murder me in my sleep.

CE: I was intrigued to read that you "started writing at age 10 and have written something almost ever day in the ensuing years." I've also read that while a student at Duke you studied with Reynolds Price. (When I was a Duke I never had the courage to take one of his courses: a major life regret). Early next year Duke celebrates Price's 50 years of teaching. What specific impact did he have on your writing?

MR: You missed a great opportunity to study with Reynolds--that man is connected to the source. His impact on my writing? Were it not for him, I'd never be able to make a living at it, and so I'd long ago have had to cut my throat. He taught me how to sit down and do the work. I wasn't very good, and he gave me the tools to keep working at it until through stubbornness I figured it out.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Cooking Nude

Ever since the New York Times published chef Anna Klinger's recipe for malfatti back in November, 2002, I've loved eating these fat little pillows of ricotta, chard and nutmeg and loved part of the process of making them. Also known as gnocchi gnudi (nude gnocchi) these require no rolling, cutting or flicking off fork tines. You just plop a tablespoon of the gnocchi mixture into a wineglass, twirl the glass wine-snob-style and watch the rather sticky little glob turn into a perfect little oval. That's the part I love.
Here's the part I don't love: preparing the chard:
Bring a large pot of water, heavily seasoned with salt, to a boil. Trim the (4 pounds of) chard, removing all stems and large ridges. Add half to the boiling water and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Fish out and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Repeat.
Squeeze out chard with your hands. On a dish towel, spread the chard in a circle the size of a pie. Roll up the towel and have someone help you twist the ends to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Pulse in a food processor until fine. Squeeze out in a dish towel once more, until very dry. You will have about one cup.

All that trimming and boiling and draining and squeezing is, to be honest, a pain in the butt. And since most of the time my only kitchen companion is Georges the cat, the have-someone-help-you-twist-the-towel-ends step is challenging. Georges is a very dignified cat; he does not twist chard-filled towels.
Recently I've been substituting spinach for the chard and finding I make this variation a lot more often. Georges approves.

One more reason I love these malfatti (which translates as "misshapen"): they taste like pasta but are relatively low-carb. As I'm a bit misshapen myself these days and am dining with the ghost of Dr. Atkins at the table, they soothe my pasta yearnings.

Anna Klinger's Malfatti--Modified

1 pound best-quality fresh ricotta
Enough fresh spinach -- blanched/extremely well-drained/chopped super-fine -- to equal 1 cup
8 ounces butter
1/4 cup flour, plus more for shaping
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 large egg yolks
1 large whole egg
Freshly ground black pepper

For serving:
Fresh sage leaves
Parmesan cheese

Drain the ricotta in a sieve lined with cheesecloth overnight in the refrigerator. [Do not skip this step] Measure out 1 + 1/4 cups.
Blanch enough fresh spinach to equal one cup, post-blanching. [I have no idea how much this is -- if you've ever cooked fresh spinach you can eyeball the amount. If not, buy more than you think; spinach is cheap. I get the already trimmed baby spinach from the salad greens section of my market.]Drain it very well, but towel-twisting really isn't necessary.
Melt half the butter. Mix spinach and ricotta. Add melted butter, 1/4 cup flour, 1 heaping teaspoon salt, the nutmeg and mix again. Drop in egg yolks and whole egg, pepper and mix again.

Sprinkle a cutting board with flour. Shape into 1-ounce balls, about 1 tablespoon each, dropping them on the cutting board. You should have 25 - 30.
Put a teaspoon of flour into a narrow wineglass. Drop in a ball and swirl until it forms an oval. Repeat. (You'll need to add bit more flour along the way or even change to a cleaner glass.) You may freeze them at thes point.

To serve, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the malfatti and cook at gentle boil until they float. Watch carefully; this can happen in a matter of moments and the delicate malfatti can disintergrate if overcooked. (Straight from the freezer they will take only an additional minute or two.)While the gnocchi are cooking, brown some buttter until it smells nutty. Add fresh sage leaves and cook 30 seconds. Add a bit of salt and use the sage butter to sauce the drained gnocchi. Top with grated Parmesan.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

4 Questions 4 Stephanie March

As Margin Notes approaches its half-year anniversary, it's time for the first of a series of mini-Q & A interviews designed to indulge my nosiness about the things people I admire cook, eat and pursue with passion.

Broadway, film and television actress Stephanie March is the daughter of my dear friend Laura -- and if you could meet the mother, you'd immediately know the source of the daughter's beauty. In the early years of Law & Order, SVU, J. and I used to Tivo each episode and then fast-forward it to the last 15 minutes so we could watch Stephanie -- as ADA Alexandra Cabot -- work her court room magic.
Laura is a terrific cook, but when your son-in-law is Bobby Flay, it does give you a moment or two of menu-planning anxiety. Once Laura e-mailed me: "What do you make for Bobby Flay?" and I replied: "Room in the kitchen for HIM to cook."
I caught up with Stephanie when she was just back from Africa.

CE: My secret source (aka your gorgeous mother) told me you recently were in Africa working with a charitable group called One Kid One One World.
How did you get interested in this particular organization?

SM: I became involved with OKOW through one of my dearest college girlfriends. Her husband is a comedy writer in Los Angeles and his writing partner, Josh Bycel, started OKOW about 3 years ago. The idea behind the organization is so simple that it's brilliant. It is basically this: "What could you and your friends and your friends' friends do to help someone if you all gave $100?" The answer is: A LOT. The organization focuses primarily on girls' education and health and it has been a real honor to participate. I just returned from our trip to Kenya where where we witnessed the completion of the solar power project that will allow the girls to have lights, computers, a library, and a chemistry lab. It was extraordinary to see the first bulb turn on and the looks on the girls' faces at that moment. I'll never, never forget it.

CE: You're married to a chef; your mother's a great home cook and your sister graduated from culinary school. You have access to so much great food; what is your secret shame fare? Little Debbie Snack Cakes? Peanut butter on squishy white bread?.

SM: I have more than one secret food shame and it really is something I have to be kind of cautious about around the house. First of all, I love, and I mean LOVE, the Double Jalapeno Cheeseburger at the Sonic in San Angelo, TX. It is so cheesy, greasy, spicy, mustardy and decadent. I have to eat it in the car by myself so Bobby won't catch sight of me with fast food.
My second secret shame fare is chili con queso....but made the real Tex Mex way with Rotel and Velveeta. Yes. You read that correctly. Velveeta. My sister (who has no shame about this because it's her hometown delight, too) made it once in my apartment and Bobby was mortified. He begged me to throw it out and then went about making his own queso fundido type dish to try to lure me back to "the light."

CE: One of my favorite Food Network episodes is the one where you cook Bobby dinner on his birthday. Is there a story behind that killer peach cobbler?

SM: That peach cobbler is out of the Junior League Cookbook from Jackson, Mississippi. If you are looking for it its proper name is "Peach Cobbler Supreme," and I always insist on calling it by its real name. My Mama made it when Charlotte and I were growing up and even to an 8 year old who generally prefers anything chocolate, it was a pretty spectacular treat.

CE: It's always a treat to see you on Bobby's show, but where else can we see you performing in the near future? Broadway, perhaps?

SM: I would love nothing more than to do another Broadway show, but my accountant would prefer for me to get a job on TV. I just did a spot on Grey's Anatomy and was up for a big show, but now there's this strike and things are completely on hold. I am supportive of the writer's for sure (we are all in this together) but it's making the industry pretty sluggish right now. Cross your fingers.

CE: Fingers crossed.