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Archive for December, 2011

I am leaving tomorrow for a two-week trip to Guatemala, but before I head out of town, I wanted to post a quick update on my beer making efforts. Jeff and I cracked open our first bottle of IPA on Sunday, when my sister and her husband came over to exchange Christmas gifts. I decided to split one bottle among the four of us to start, on the off chance something had gone dreadfully wrong in the fermenting process, so that no one would feel compelled to drink a whole unpalatable beer. Thankfully, the IPA turned out splendidly, and I have no doubt everyone would have happily consumed his or her own bottle.

Our beer had a nice amber hue, and it was incredibly flavorful from the moment it hit the tip of your tongue. While I am a devoted fan of IPA, sometimes I find that the initial burst of flavor peters out very quickly, so I was pleased our beer had strong finish, too. The Colombus and Cascade hops were a powerful combination – not for the faint of heart. While the beer was fairly light in color and texture, the intensity of the hops reminded me of an imperial IPA. It was great on its own, but I think paired with a spicy meal, it would have been outstanding.

We did not get a chance to bottle our mustard brown ale before our vacation, so that will be on our list of things to do in 2012. We’re tentatively planning to hold a little party in January to test out the raclette machine we received for Christmas, so perhaps that beer will be ready in time to serve as a counterpoint to the slabs of cheesy garlic bread we will serve our guests. I will report back once I am home in early January, but until then I’ll be looking for new culinary inspiration in Guatemala. See you in 2012!

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Holidazzled

Every year when I was growing up, my parents would throw what I now recognize to be a killer holiday party at our house in Connecticut.  My mom would spend several days preparing either a spread of different lasagnas, or a few pots of cassoulet, which would be complemented by dozens of appetizers, side dishes and salads, and a vast array of holiday cookies.  I would guess between sixty and eighty guests would make an appearance at these parties, and I am sure many gallons of wine, beer and spirits were consumed.  I looked forward to my parents’ party throughout the fall and early winter, and I have no doubt this event was a high point in the  holiday season for many of our friends and family members.

My parents live out in California now, so my sister and I have tried to carry on the Fenton Christmas party tradition on the East coast.  This year marked the fourth consecutive year we have hosted a holiday party in Brooklyn, but it was the first year that I could offer my home as the locale for the festivities.  Now that I have a proper sized kitchen to prepare party food, I was excited to try some new dishes, or at least new iterations of classic Fenton holiay fare.  Laura’s delicious baked ham was the star of the show, and I prepared a massive tray of macaroni and cheese that was also a big hit with our guests.  I’ve tried many variations on mac in cheese for parties over the years, but this year I used a Melissa Clark recipe that included a generous helping of shredded carrot to offset some of the detrimental health effects of the pounds of cheese and butter the dish contained.  Personally, I thought it was one of the best, if not the very best dish of macaroni I have ever cooked, and our guests seemed to agree.  I’m not sure this photo really does it justice, but here is a visual representation of the macaroni, ham and some other delicacies.

We also prepared a nice spread of dips and other appetizers, including a delicious salmon spread Laura whipped up, a batch of roasted red pepper hummus prepared by yours truly, a bubbling, creamy dish,of artichoke dip, a beautiful array of veggies (including fennel, which was one of the surprise hits of the evening) and a sizzling tray of bacon wrapped figs and dates.  Almost all of the aforementioned items were devoured with reckless abandon, with the exception of some carrots and hummus.  I suppose after a few cocktails, bacon and cheese must have seemed more appealing than our attempts at healthy holiday fare.

Laura and I baked massive batches of cranberry cookies and mini red velvet cupcakes, but unfortunately we forgot to unveil these items until fairly late in the evening, so I am afraid some of our guests missed out on dessert.  The cranberry cookies are a staple item in our family’s Christmas traditions, so while I was not sorry to have some left over, I am pretty sure I have devoured enough decadent food for 2011.  If anyone reading this post would like a special delivery of cookies or cupcakes, please do let me know – the holidays only come once a year, and I am happy to share my wealth of desserts while they last!

 

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The pickings at my local farmers’ market are starting to get a bit slim, so I found myself this weekend with a generous helping of root vegetables, but not too much else.  My first thought had been to prepare some soup, but after perusing a couple of cookbooks, I decided to attempt a recipe for whole wheat carrot gnocchi, which was featured in Mark Bittman’s Food Matters.  I have included a link for the recipe below, but I did want to share a few thoughts on this dish, should you wish to try it at home.  First, I suspect I should have cooked my carrots longer than Bittman recommended, because I found it absolutely impossible to mash them with a fork after they had cooked for 45 minutes. I eventually resorted to using my Cuisenart, which got the job done very quickly, but I wonder if perhaps he had intended for the puree to have a more “rustic” texture.  I followed his advice to try cooking a piece of dough after incorporating only half the flour mixture, to see if it would hold its shape in boiling water (the idea being, the dough will be more tender if you use less flour and knead it less).  My gnocchi did, indeed, maintain its shape when cooked, but when I went to roll it out into a long rope, my work surface and rolling-pin were quickly covered in sticky dough that refused to cooperate.  I took that as a sign that I needed to add more flour (perhaps this was a mistake?), but even after adding the full quantity of flour Bittman had recommended, my dough was still extremely sticky and difficult to manipulate.  I think perhaps if I had stuck it in the refrigerator for an hour or so before trying to shape it, I might have had better luck, but I was pressed for time, so eventually I just shaped each piece individually with a spoon. While this did not produce the most beautiful gnocchi I had ever encountered, it got the job done in the end.  When it came time to cook the gnocchi, I substituted some fresh rosemary for the sage Bittman had recommended (it was languishing in my refrigerator, so I figured why not?) and probably added a bit more butter than was entirely necessary.   When paired with a salad of lettuce, radicchio, gorgonzola and walnuts, the (delightfully butter) carrot gnocchi made for a delicious meal.  Thanks Mark Bittman!

Whole Wheat Carrot Gnocchi Recipe

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All in the Timing

Frantically assembling hors d'oeuvres, moments before our guests arrive

In 2012, I would like to learn to plan and execute a dinner party so that I do not find myself trapped in the kitchen, frantically stirring pots and scrubbing pans as my friends and family enjoy their pre-dinner drinks and appetizers.  Some of my nearest and dearest acquaintances seem to have a natural gift for hosting, and can casually lounge with their guests as dinner seemingly cooks itself.  Sadly, that has never been one of my personal strengths, and it seems no matter how humble or ambitious a meal I have planned, I always scramble at the last moment to pull everything together and to feed my guests at a reasonable hour.

This past Sunday was no exception, when I hosted the first meeting of the supper club my sister and I recently formed with our significant others. My plans for getting an early start on dinner preparations were  derailed when my Sunday afternoon bocce game began half an hour late, but I was not overly concerned since I had already checked a few items off my list of things to do. By five o’clock I had my apron on, and was ready to tackle the seemingly straightforward menu of white bean stew with Israeli couscous and rosemary, a winter salad with radicchio, fennel, grapefruit and manchego, and, last but not least, maple walnut ice cream.  Somehow, though, I fell into a black hole of time, and found myself only about halfway through my preparations by seven, and forced to feebly attempt conversation from my kitchen as the rest of the gang happily snacked on olives and hummus in the living room.

Please note my seasonal color scheme

In spite of my lack  of social graces, I think everything came to together relatively well.  Yes, I did forget to prepare the Israeli couscous until I was nearly ready to serve dinner, but we averted that crisis by serving salad first while the stew continued cooking (I should note, in my household growing up we almost always had salad after the main course, so this was a bit of an adjustment for me). Yes, I also forgot to churn the ice cream until about 7:30, which meant it was still quite soft and well, soupy, by the time we were ready for dessert. But, on the bright side, my homemade hummus (for which I cooked and shelled the chickpeas!) was good and garlicky, the salad turned out to have a nice blend of tangy, tart and creamy flavors and textures, and the ice cream tasted delicious, in spite of its dubious consistency.  A little too much wine was probably had by all, we were absurdly cramped sitting around my tiny table intended for four, and a few people may or may not have burned their tongues on the scalding hot stew, but I think everyone had fun and left with a full stomach.  And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Yes, six people did eat at this tiny table

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Brewing Beer: Part II

Bottling my very first IPA.

Yesterday was truly a landmark day in my beer brewing career.  Not only did Jeff and I successfully bottle our the IPA we started a few weeks ago, but we also began brewing a batch of mustard brown ale, which will be ready in early 2012.  Our apartment is currently the scene of some serious fermentation, and I think its safe to say in the last 24 hours we have graduated from beginner to intermediate beer makers.

The bottling process was decidedly smoother this time around than our first attempt, many moons ago.  Perhaps this was because we made peace with the fact that we would need to start the siphoning process ourselves by sucking on the siphoning tube (Jeff did the honors, and enjoyed many mouthfuls of sanitized water over the course of the evening).   I would love to be a purist, but I really do not think it’s possible to siphon a gallon of beer into bottles relying purely on gravity.  We eventually filled nine bottles with our brew (a little short of the projected ten, but we had lost some liquid in the first steps, and proceeded to spill another half bottle on the kitchen floor last night), and we are looking forward to unveiling the IPA at our holiday party later this month.

We decided to transition right into brewing a new batch of beer, knowing full well we would probably put it off for a month if we didn’t seize the day.  We managed to eliminate several of the problems we faced in brewing our IPA by purchasing a new, appropriate-sized mesh strainer (we had previously Jerry-rigged a system using a colander and a small mesh sieve – I don’t recommend that method), and we also generally had a better understanding of each step of the process.  We cooked the mash at about 160 degrees for a hour, and before straining and running another gallon of water through the grains, thus producing the wort (note my use of brewer terminology). From there we boiled the wort for an hour, adding various hops, peppercorns and mustard seeds along the way.  It was all quite calm and collected compared to previous brewing experiments, although for reasons we could not quite fathom, we ended up about two cups short of a gallon at the end of the process.  In a few days we will remove the blow-off tube that is preventing our beer jug from exploding during the fermentation period, and then if all goes according to plan we will bottle this batch the weekend before Christmas.  I’ll drink to that!

Cooking the mash for our next batch.

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Brooklyn Supper Club

Back when I lived in Santa Fe, my roommates and I started a monthly supper club to encourage us to eat at home, and to be more creative in the kitchen.  Each person took turns making delicious, multi-course meals for the rest of the group, and as the year progressed, we encouraged each other to become more daring with the dinners we prepared. My crowning achievement that year was Julia Child’s Torte Milanese, complete with homemade puff pastry.  Yum.

I recently decided I wanted to revive this tradition with my sister, her husband and my boyfriend, and so this Sunday will mark the first meeting of Supper Club 2.0: Brooklyn Edition. This time around, I proposed that the host should be allowed to invite two additional guests, and since I am taking charge of our inaugural meeting, my good friend Claire and her husband to join in the festivities.

When I saw with Claire earlier this week, she happened to mention she was undergoing a weeklong cleanse, which meant she was somewhat restricted in what she could eat. By Sunday, she expected to have returned to a fairly normal diet, but I still thought I would make an effort to prepare a particularly healthy meal, with minimal processed ingredients.  While I haven’t totally committed yet, I am thinking of cooking exclusively from my new favorite cookbook, Cook This Now by Melissa Clark (when I first buy a cookbook, I tend to use it compulsively until a new obsession takes over; before Cook This Now it was Food Matters by Mark Bittman).  I might prepare her white bean stew with garlic, rosemary and farro, coupled with a salad of fennel, radicchio, walnuts and manchego.  For desert, I am very tempted by her maple walnut ice cream, since I am still in the honeymoon phase with my ice cream maker, but I may opt for baked apples with figs and cardamom instead.  The jury is still out, but I will report back on Monday on how we fared at the Brooklyn Supper Club.

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