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Archive for the ‘Entertaining’ Category

Our new toy.

The latest kitchen appliance to enter my house came not from Sur la Table or William Sonoma.  No, no, this particular gadget, a raclette machine, traveled far and wide to grace my Brooklyn abode.  Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est la raclette, you say?  The short answer is raclette is a delicious cheese, which is served melted upon bread and vegetables as a hearty winter meal.  The long answer, in case you are curious, can be found on Wikipedia.  My boyfriend Jeff first tasted raclette at a Christmas market in Germany last winter, and as an avid consumer of bread and cheese, he was thunderstruck by this particular European treat. His mother took note of his infatuation, and lucky for me she decided to purchase Jeff his very own raclette machine this Christmas.  We could scarcely contain our excitement upon unwrapping this unexpected gift!

This past Sunday we invited a few friends to our apartment to give the raclette machine its first tour of duty.  We researched the traditional format for raclette parties and quickly realized our machine, which I would describe as “apartment sized,” required a different approach.  While a classic raclette machine serves six to eight people simultaneously, we decided it would be best for one person to continually operate our machine, and for guests to come up individually for a smattering of melted cheese.  We did offer the traditional side dishes of boiled potatoes and gherkins, we also sliced up fresh tomatoes and apples and blanched a couple of heads of broccoli.  Finally, we served up plenty of fresh bread and set out some grainy mustard and a buttery garlic spread for guests who wanted a more minimalist experience.

I felt a bit of of my typical hostess anxiety at the start of the party.  The combination of an open source of extreme heat, cheese and alcohol seemed to be potentially disastrous, but I am pleased to report there were no raclette-related injuries.  In fact, everything went quite smoothly, and by some miracle we seemed to have the perfect amount of food.  Our guests were quite adventuresome, and discovered many exciting combinations of bread, fruit, vegetables and cheese – really, only the gherkins failed to please.  Everyone seemed to embrace the spirit of the party, and several people had sought out wines that would pair well with a cheesy meal.  Really, I could not have asked for a better crowd; thank goodness for cheese-loving friends.

The spread.

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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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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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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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The dishes I cooked for Thanksgiving this year were, for the most part, not terribly ambitious.  I prepared a fairly simple spread of mashed potatoes with roasted garlic, stuffing with mixed mushrooms, sautéed brussels sprouts and orange scented cranberry sauce, none of which took more than about an hour of active prep time (my boyfriend was responsible for our sage roasted turkey and bourbon gravy).  Considering the relative simplicity of the meal, I decided to be a bit more ambitious with our choice of dessert, and to make a pie with a fresh pumpkin this year, rather than good old Libby’s canned pumpkin.

There’s one thing you should know about cooking with fresh pumpkin before you try this at home: it’s REALLY hard to cut into a raw pumpkin.  I referred to an Alton Brown recipe when it became clear none of the knives we had on hand would make a dent in our little sugar pumpkin, and he suggested cutting the pumpkin in half with either a meat cleaver or a mallet.  Unfortunately, we did not have either of those items on hand, so we resorted to using a hand saw. See below for a very technical illustration of how to hack a pumpkin in half with a rusty saw.
Once we had managed to cut through the pumpkin, the rest of the process was pretty straightforward.  I scooped out the seeds, cut the remaining fibers with kitchen shears and roasted the pumpkin halves in a 400 degree oven for about forty minutes.  After allowing the pumpkin to cool for another twenty minutes, I scooped out the flesh and puréed it in a food process for a few minutes.  Sawing aside, it really took minimal time and effort to produce my own pumpkin purée, which had a much more distinct taste, texture and color than Libby’s.

I prepared the purée and pie dough Wednesday night, but didn’t assemble my creations until Thursday to maximize their flavor and freshness.  I didn’t have a specific recipe in mind ahead of time, but I eventually consulted with both the Joy of Cooking and the original New York Times Cookbook because they seemed simple and called for only ingredients I had on hand.  My companions and I all had a slice of pie with vanilla ice cream late on Thursday night, after sufficient time had elapsed for us to digest the rest of our meal, and I was quite pleased with the result.  The pie tasted very fresh and flavorful, and the crust was deliciously buttery.  Would I have been able to distinguish it from a store bought pie in a blind taste test?  I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s safe to safe the process had made me a fresh pumpkin convert.

 

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Last week I promised to send my dad’s instructions for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey to perfection on the grill, so here they are, unedited:

First, steal a turkey.
Ha ha, but seriously…if you buy a frozen turkey, let it thaw in the refrigerator for two or three days.
Then on the day before your feast, I recommend that you brine the turkey. Get a big plastic bag that can be tightly closed. Then whip up a brine with enough water to submerge the turkey completely in the bag. Heat the brining water on the stove while adding a lot of salt, a bunch of brown sugar, and a bunch of spices like black pepper corns, coriander seeds, cloves, Chinese star anise, bay leaf, maybe some allspice (or find a prepared brine at a gourmet food store). Heat until salt and sugar dissolve and spices give off some aroma. Cool the brine.
Then put the turkey in the bag, pour in the cooled bring and close the bag getting out all the air and sealing it as tight as you can. Put it someplace where it will be cool or cold and leave overnight.
On turkey day, pull the bird out of the brine and dry it off an hour or more before roasting it. Stuff it as you desire. Rub the skin all over with some softened butter or olive oil.
Now for the fire. I use my Weber charcoal grill. For roasting things with indirect heat, I have two steel baskets that fit on the bottom grill. I fire up the charcoal in a chimney starter and pour the hot coals in the two basket and push the to the side leaving room to put a drippings pan between and have the middle of the top grill over the pan, not the coals. My grill has two flip up “doors” that let you add charcoal as roasting proceeds; cover these with foil to keep then direct heat from burning your bird. Place the turkey on the grill so the foil covered doors are on either side of it above the baskets of coals. Make sure the bottom vents are open and put on the lid with the top vents open.
You may want to tent some foil over the breast as the BBQ is hot and the turkey can brown too fast.  You’ll roast it for about as long as would be recommended for oven roasting of a bird of x-weight, but check it every half hour or so adding charcoal if needed. When it starts looking done check it with a meat thermometer  (check Joy of Cooking for temp.). Don’t over cook it or the breast meat will get dry. When it’s done take it off the fire and let it sit with foil tented over it for 20 min. or so before carving.
Oh yeah, I forgot. Get some hickory or mesquite or other wood chips to smoke the bird. Soak the chips in hot water then drain them and scatter over the hot coals. Add more chips throughout the roasting.
The web page at this link illustrates the process: http://www.smoker-cooking.com/grilling-turkey-weber-kettle.html
And here is a PDF of our family’s preferred brine recipe, in case you are interested!

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Cook This Now

Last night I invited a foodie friend over to test out a couple of recipes from Melissa Clark’s new book, Cook This Now.  I’ve been a fan of her column “A Good Appetite” for awhile, but it wasn’t until I attended a reading at Greenlight Bookstore a few weeks ago that I realized Clark is such a prolific cookbook writer.  I only needed to take a quick gander through Cook This Now to realize it would soon become a staple of my cookbook collection.  Like Mark Bittman, Clark takes a relaxed, encouraging approach to recipe writing, and usually suggests substitutions or shortcuts for every dish.  I also loved how she had divided the recipes by month, so readers could tell at a glance what was in season at any time of year.  After shyly asking the author to autograph my copy, I happily brought the book home and started planning what I would cook first.

Seeing as it is nearly the end of the month, I felt it was acceptable to pick one recipe from October and one from November.  October provided our starter, which was a celery salad with walnuts and parmesan, and for the main course, we selected butternut squash risotto with pistachios, which Clark included in her November recipes.  I had not planned far enough ahead to pick up the necessary vegetables at my farmer’s market this weekend, but I am lucky to have an excellent organic grocery store, Green Grape Provisions, just around the corner from my apartment.  I am also very fortunate to have a cousin who grows walnuts out in California, which add great flavor to many salads I assemble throughout the year.  Armed with an array of good, fresh ingredients, we tackled these two recipes, and were pleased to discover both were easy to follow and were ready before we had even finished our first glass of wine.

Both dishes turned out well, but I thought the risotto was a particularly good recipe.  Clark suggested shredding the butternut squash in a food processor, which was a revelation. I have many painful memories of spending half the night hacking apart a butternut squash for risotto or pasta, only to produce ugly cubes of varying sizes.  By shredding the squash, I saved myself probably 20 minutes of manual labor, and I think it gave the risotto a richer, creamier texture.  I used olive oil instead of butter, which did not seem to make too much of a difference, and I forgot to buy a lemon, so sadly I didn’t get the slight citrusy kick that Clark recommended.  Oh well.

All in all, it was a very positive cooking experience, and I am excited to keep experimenting with recipes from Cook This Now.  Next on the agenda: stir-fried chicken with leeks, oyster mushrooms and peanuts.  Yum.

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I’m having a housewarming party tonight, which will be the first party I have hosted in my own home since moving to New York four years ago.  I’m mostly very excited to entertain friends in my new apartment, but also haunted by the fear that I won’t have enough food and drinks for all my guests.  I suppose that’s a common hostess anxiety, but after so many years of always having to hold parties in bars and restaurants due to my tiny living quarters, I’ve really lost my sense of what it takes to feed a crowd.  I’ve also become much more conscientious about what I serve my guests since the last party I hosted at my house in Santa Fe when I turned 25.  I believe the menu for that evening was pizza and beer.  Not that I have any objection to that particular food and beverage pairing, but this time around I wanted to come up with a menu that was tasty, tasteful, healthy and relatively inexpensive.

My sister had some leftover supplies to donate from her Mexican-themed wedding, so that helped guide my menu choices.  We decided to keep the drinks options simple, opting for a couple of varieties of Mexican beer, red and white wine and margaritas (thanks, sis, for the margarita fixings!).  For food, I also wanted to keep things simple and straightforward: chips with a few varieties of homemade dips, two kinds of enchiladas, a big salad with Mexican flavors, and home-baked corn cookies for dessert.  In the process of preparing some menu items last night, I started feeling obsessive that there wouldn’t be enough food, so I added another kind of cookie into the mix (chocolate chili) and decided to whip up some quesadillas as an appetizer.  Even with those additions, I am still freaking out a bit, but in reality we will probably have enough food for an army.

These parties preparations have definitely reminded me a) it is so much cheaper to prepare all the food yourself, rather than relying on prepared foods and b) that the DIY method is oh, so much more satisfying (not to mention healthy!).  Yes, I was a little crazed last night while I was simultaneously roasting chicken breasts, simmering black beans and prepping cookie dough, but I’ll feel much more satisfied tonight knowing that I am serving my guests good, healthy food that was made with care.  Here’s to the first of hopefully many dinner parties to come!

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