Thursday, November 29, 2007

No-hassle Holiday Gifts

For holiday gifts, some people bake cookies. I booze cherries.
A few years ago I was on deadline for a Boxing Day story and needed more column inches. Remembering the marinated fruits on the cheese cart at Campton Place, I ransacked my pantry, found some dried tart cherries and macerated them in brandy to pair with a wedge of Stilton I had in the refrigerator.
Result? Fabulous.
I've since made these for all kinds of occasions:
*as take-home favors from an 80th birthday party, with tags that said "Like M--, these just get better with time."
*as table favors for a New Year's Eve dinner with tags that re-worked the above line to "Like friendship, these just get better with time."
*as a hostess gift for an ice-cream-loving pal with the note: "Thanks for having us. Tomorrow you can relax with a bowl of ice cream topped with these."
*as a birthday gift for a friend who likes to bake, accompanied by the recipe for Flo Braker's cornmeal pound cake. (from "The Simple Art of Perfect Baking.")

The procedure is too ridiculously simple even to be called a recipe. You simply fill a glass container with *tart* dried cherries and then top off the container with decent brandy -- although I often use Tripe Sec for a slighly sweeter variation. Stick the jar in the refrigerator (I know. I know. It'd probably be fine stored on a pantry shelf, but you're not going to get botulism from a suggestion on *this* blog) and give the fruit at least a couple days to absorb the booze. My friend Brady -- a great cook and a playwright with a gift for concise dialog -- summed up the procedure perfectly:
"Pour booze over tart dried cherries in a jar; close jar; try to wait."

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Venetian Supper [with Mental Margin Notes]

Back in August I posted about my affection for La Posta restaurant in Santa Cruz, particularly the 4-course Sunday dinners, served family-style. The menu is fixed -- no choices; no substitutions. I never call ahead to ask what's being served; I like the surprises. But this past Sunday, my initial reaction to the menu was disappointment. Return with me:
The hostess seats us at our favorite table in the front corner near the bar and hands us the night's menus. First course: a radicchio salad with marinated anchovies. [Ho-hum. I make radicchio salad at home all the time.]
J orders a plate of the house-made salamis. [Because we've been eating so lightly all weekend we need five courses tonight instead of four.] The salamis are excellent. I eat more than my share [Because I'm just going to pick at the boring salad.]
Only, the salad is spendid. Tossed with the radicchio leaves are sprigs of flat-leaf parsley -- "Very Nigella," our friend R notes -- and the anchovies are the plump white boquerones I love.
The second course is risotto with squid ink. [I'd been hoping for pasta. Preferably a repeat of the pasta with duck we had here a few weeks ago] Of course it is delicious and certainly isn't something I make frequently at home. Like: ever.
Next comes petrale sole marinated in sweet and sour sauce. [Is there a more boring fish in the sea than petrale sole? And I hate sweet and sour sauces.] Ok, once again I decide chef Chris Avila is a genius. I LOVE this dish, redolent with mounds of sauteed onions, plump raisins and a perfect balance of sweet and sour notes. A side dish of kale with pine nuts is a fine complement.
Dessert is seckel pear poached in white wine. [Waah. I want my pears swathed in caramel or tucked between layers of pastry.] And my record is now 4 for 4 in the boy-was-I-wrong department. Each of us gets a perfect wee pear, perched jauntily in a pool of poaching liquid which tastes of lemon zest and cinnamon. Bliss: start to finish.
Dear Chef Avila: I shall not doubt you again. [Unless, of course, on some tragic Sunday you make a dish permeated with peas.]

And in a small spurt of serendipity, today's mail brings a beautiful new cookbook by Anna Del Conte: "The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina." I turn to the "Veneto" chapter and find, on adjacent pages, a recipe for Risotto Nero and another for Sardines in Sweet and Sour Sauce. Perhaps I'll try them. Or perhaps I'll hope Chris Avila repeats last Sunday's menu before too long.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Twas the Night before Turkey

The sweet potato pudding is defrosting in the refrigerator; the pie crust is resting in the freezer and the cranberry/orange relish is getting damned tasty after its week-long marinade in Tripe Sec. Despite a day spent here at the beach house last week getting a head start on the Thanksgiving preparations, tomorrow will be a marathon -- and despite my joy at spending the day with people I love, the meal itself probably won't be proportionately tastier than the one I fixed tonight in about 15 minutes, start to finish.
J and I rarely eat steak anymore, but sometimes a New York strip just calls our names. Besides, steak, broccolini and salad was the simplest meal I could think of. To jazz it up a little I made a quick compound butter: minced shallots marinated for 10 minutes in red wine vinegar and then blended into soft butter along with some minced parsley. Dolloped generously onto thick slices of black-on-the-outside-and-ruby-red-on-the-inside steak, it was fabulous.
A few weeks ago I used a blood orange (from J's beloved little tree) in a butter to top grilled fish. Minced shallots, again, this time marinated in a little blood orange juice for 15 or 20 minutes, then blended into soft butter along with a generous amount of grated rind. Twas lovely as it melted over the hot sturgeon.
If I were more organized I'd make a variety of savory compound butters into logs and store them in the freezer.
And, if I were really organized, I'd have taught my daughters to cook and I'd be watching them fix Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow while I sipped champagne and nibbled almonds. Instead I'm immensely thankful that they are angelic about doing the dishes. And equally thankful that I have reservations for dinner out on Friday.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Do-ahead Sweet Potato Pudding

Once again, as I have been for the past two Thanksgivings, I'm thankful for Marian Burros and her splendid recipe for Spiced Sweet Potato Pudding. Any Thanksgiving recipe that can be made way ahead and still taste fabulous on The Day, is gratitude-worthy, but one that eliminates my mashed potato meltdowns of years gone by earns my deepest thanks.

Spiced Sweet Potato Pudding
from the New York Times 11/16/ 2005
(with margin notes)

3 pounds sweet potatoes (I use yams)
3 eggs
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves or to taste
salt to taste
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lime rind (don't even *think* about omittimg this; it's essential)
4 tablespoons regular or low-fat sour cream (low-fat sour cream? ugh.)
creme fraiche for topping, optional (I omit this)

*Peel sweet potatoes (yams) and slice 1/8-inch thick. Cook in water to cover; bring to boil and cook until potatoes are fork tender, about 10 minutes. (I just cut each yam into two or three big chunks and toss them in the pot with the skins still on. Takes a little longer to cook, but no tedious slicing and the cooked skins slip right off.)
*In food processor, process the potatoes slightly; add remaining ingredients, except creme fraiche, and process until smooth. (I made this yeasterday at my beach house where there is no food processor, so I smashed the potatoes vigorously with a gorgeous masher I bought mostly because I liked its looks. I then beat in the rest of the ingredients with an electric handmixer. Worked just fine.)
*Place mixture in greased baking dish and refrigerate for 2 or 3 days or freeze for longer. (I froze mine, first laying cling wrap directly on the surface of the potato mixture and then overwrapping with foil)
*To serve, bring to room tmeperature and bake in a 350-degree preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Dot with creme fraiche, if desired.
Yield: 8 servings. (Not at my house, Marion. 6; maybe 7. Maybe)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Radicchio di Castelfranco

I was heading to the far corner of the vegetable garden to cut the last dahlia of the season -- a bright red blossom I'd spotted from the kitchen window -- when I found this gorgeous radicchio tucked among the kale plants. It perfectly illustrates Anna del Conte's description of this variety: "a beautiful cabbage rose ...flecked with magenta spots -- as if from the brush of Jackson Pollock."
In all honesty, my radicchio recipe repertoire is severely limited. Nine times out of ten I julienne the leaves and toss them with crushed garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar and crumbled blue or feta cheese. The tenth time I rough-tear a few leaves to add a slightly bitter undernote to a mix of sweeter lettuces.
But this weekend I discovered a terrific new (to me) use for radicchio: slivered angel-hair thin and piled onto bruschettas spread with a mash of white beans, garlic and great olive oil. A plate of these plus a flute of well-chilled Prosecco reminded me once again that Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of London's River Cafe are geniuses. If you don't own every single one of their books, your Italian cookbook collection is sadly incomplete.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

True Love --- at last.

Over the years I've wasted silly amounts of money in search of the perfect containers for fridge and freezer storage, but my long, frustrating quest is over. My heart now belongs to decor tellfresh containers -- made in Australia but available from the Container Store's website. They're dishwasher safe, relatively inexpensive, come in a variety of shapes and sizes and stack beautifully. To my surprise, the smallest (3"x4") have proved so useful that I've reordered them twice. All the sizes come with nifty little reusable labels that work well for fridge storage but are often dislodged by the hurly-burly of traffic into and out of my freezer. Masking tape and sharpies remain my choice for long-term labeling.

This afternoon J. did his bringing-in-the-sheaves number with most of the basil plants. He even plucked all the leaves so the subsequent pesto-making was way less tedious than usual. A mammoth bowl of basil leaves yielded only three small containers of pesto -- one for the fridge and two for the freezer -- but their summery flavor will be a welcome brightener to winter fare.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Thanksgiving Countdown

Here's my dining room table, already set for Thanksgiving. Well, I *did* co-write a book about organization (with San Francisco interior designer Randall Koll) and what could be more organized than setting a holiday table two weeks early?

OK, so there are a couple little lies in that first sentence. It's not my table, not my dining room and I haven't even ordered my turkey yet, much less figured out my table decor. Years ago, J and I were fortunate enough to attend a harvest luncheon at Iron Horse Vineyard, and I still savor the memories of the exquisite food, the flowers and this luxuriant table setting. (You can read more about Iron Horse and the Sterling family in a delightful little book titled "A Cultivated Life: A Year in a California Vineyard.")

The second photo is much more recent: Halloween dinner at the home of close friends--but the table would be just as striking at Thanksgiving. Note the small pumpkins hollowed out for votives and the large one used to hold the flowers.

Finally, minimalism, c'est moi. This is my table from last Thanksgiving when J and I were at our beach house with nary a relative nor guest. Four little artificial birch trees I'd found at a gift shop, straw mats and French jacquard napkins in tones of orange and gold were my nod to the holiday; the best part of the decor was the late afternoon sun setting over Monterey Bay.
If you're the host at Thanksgiving this year -- whether you're using four tiny trees or forty pumpkins to bedeck the table -- it's really not ridiculously early to give it some thought. And I urge, URGE, you to set the table the day before. You cannot believe how much this helps dilute the pressures of The Day.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pears Perhaps-Pepin

Years ago, in a Houston cooking class taught by an elegant woman named Neva Paul, I learned a delicious and simple recipe for caramel pears. So simple that I soon stopped referring to the printed recipe and just tossed the ingredients together from memory: peel, halve and core firm pears; place them cut side down in a buttered baking dish; sprinkle generously with sugar and dot liberally with butter; bake on the bottom shelf of a fairly hot oven until the pears begin to get tender and the juices have mingled to form a light caramel; pour a little heavy cream into the baking dish and let it all cook until the pears are fully tender; spoon pears and caramel-like pan juices into serving dishes and serve with whipped cream and toasted almonds.

Then, in a spate of sorting old recipes, I found the one for these pears. And at the bottom of the ingredients list were three puzzling items. What was I supposed to have done with the second portion of sugar, some water and a pinch of cream of tartar? And did the recipe title -- Poires Pepin -- mean it had originated with The Sublime Jacques? I suspect so, as I found a recipe for Pears in Caramel in La Methode which required making a separate caramel and simmering pears therein.
Clearly I was supposed to make a caramel with those last three ingredients and then add it to the partially-baked pears. If I ever included that step, doing so is lost in the mists of memory. It probably produces a transcendent dessert, but one that no longer fits my definition of Super Easy.

So, I'll continue making my mis-remembered recipe, unless Jacques shows up in my kitchen some afternoon. If he does, I'll make the Official Version -- as long as he's willing to help by making the caramel.