Monthly Archives: December 2011

Belief, with a fine dice of mango.

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A brunoise is a fine dice, usually for garnish. It is considered to be one of the hardest cuts to master: perfectly even pieces less than 3 millimeters on a side. The mango that tops these ginger chicken cakes is ideally cut in a brunoise.

I first served these bites at a dinner party five years ago. Our friend Joe came over to help with prep. I handed him a mango and a knife and turned my back to continue shaping the  dumplings I had been working on. Two minutes later I turned around. I finally understood how Luke felt when Yoda raised the X-Wing from the swamp. I too had not believed it possible. Joe had peeled and perfectly cut the mango into a brunoise – in the time it took me to fill and shape four dumplings.

This remains the most important moment in the development of my knife skills. I didn’t actually learn how to do anything that day. I just now had proof that it could, in fact, be done. Since then I’ve diced the mango myself, ten or twelve times now. It is still not as good as Joe’s, but I’m getting better. Because I know I can.

Gingered Chicken Cakes

Ask your meat counter to grind some boneless thigh meat for you. Breast meat dries out to quickly. Use your thermometer and remove these from the oven when they hit 165 F. They will remain a bit pink inside so color can’t be your guide.

Ingredients:
For cakes:

  • 1 pound ground chicken thighs
  • 1 inch ginger, minced
  • 1 tbs fish sauce
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts, chopped
  • Sriracha hot sauce

For sauce:

  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise*
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tbs chopped cilantro plus whole
  • leaves for garnish
  • 1/4 cup finely diced mango
*If you make your own mayo, use a neutral oil here, like canola or grape seed. Olive oil will taste terrible with these.

Directions:

  • Mix together chicken, ginger, fish sauce, garlic and scallions. Season to taste with Sriracha.*
  • Shape chicken mixture into small cakes. About 1 tbs each.
  • Blend mayonnaise and cilantro. Season to taste with lime juice.
  • Sauté chicken cakes over medium heat until browned and cooked through. Or bake 12-15 min at 400.
  • Top with mayonnaise, mango and a cilantro leaf.

*To check seasoning cook a small cake before shaping the rest.

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*Warning: may contain advice.

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While I am often loathe to admit it at the time of delivery, my dad gives valuable advice. Truth be told, I am blessed to have many in my life whose advice I value, but he’s the one I turn to for life’s biggest decisions. Today I am going to share a piece of his advice that I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the past few days.

Several years ago he said to me, “we spend most of our time thinking about life as a timeline, running away from us into the distance. From that perspective, the nearest moments take on the greatest importance. Take time, he advised, to reflect on your life as a series of volumes on a book shelf. You can pull each one off at any time and read it. What does 40 look like, or 60 or 70? Or even six months from now? Remember that those volumes are being written right now by decisions you are making today.”

So I’ve been taking pause and imagining myself, one year from today. What advice would I send back? Which of the resolutions that I am contemplating today would I encourage, saying the sacrifices were small and the payoffs unimaginable? Which challenges, that seem so frightening now, would he tell me to tackle, without reserve, so that I can discover how attainable they have always been?

I wish you all a happy new year. We’ve all got some exciting things to take on in the year ahead! And remember, you are out there, one year older, cheering you on.

Making the cut.

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Every time I serve a really ambitious meal I invariably drop one item from the menu. No matter how well prepared I think I am, something unexpected happens and I’ve got to make a cut for timing’s sake. Learning this hard-earned lesson began Christmas 2001, when my family sat down to Beef Wellington and Baked Alaska at 11:20 PM. Pictures still circulate of us sitting around the table exhausted, our noses nearly touching our plates.

At Christmas dinner this year, After a hiccup with dessert preparations, I cut one of the hors d’oeuvres: phyllo cups filled with sweet chili-spiced shrimp, topped with cucumber, ginger salsa. I live in fear of phyllo and was likely subconsciously just looking for an out. Kind of like when reorganizing your sock drawer gets in the way of a skydiving trip.

With a pound and a half of shrimp in the house, we revisited the recipe the next day. My fear of phyllo has been unfounded. The cups were easy to make and far prettier and better sized than store bought for the chopped shrimp. Sure, in a pinch you can buy pre-made phyllo cups right out of the freezer case – they’ll be with the puff pastry – usually near breakfast items. But take a few minutes to make your own, or just cut them from the menu and enjoy popping one after the other while relaxing the next day.

Spiced Shrimp In Phyllo Cups

With a catering job coming up in two weeks, I wanted to see if these would hold up, pre-filled, for three hours, allowing me to assemble them ahead of time. The filled cups remained crispy after three hours both in the fridge and at room temp. Note: for food safety, please chill these, but for flavor, we preferred them at room temp. Just take them out of the fridge for fifteen minutes before serving.

Ingredients:
For salsa:

  • 1/2 English cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely chopped about 1.5 cups
  • 3 scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped
  • 1/4 finely chopped cilantro
  • 2 tsp rice wine vinegar
  • Sriracha hot chili sauce

For shrimp:

  • 1 tbs peanut oil
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped, white and light green parts only
  • 1.5# cooked, peeled and deveined shrimp, tails removed*
  • 1 tbs Tamari soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup sweet chili sauce
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro

*You can buy Medium (40-50 count) or large (30-40 count). The large will require less prep work.

For phyllo cups:

  • 1 package phyllo dough sheets*
  • butter, melted, and lots of it
  • Mini muffin tins

*You will need to purchase the phyllo dough at least 24 hours ahead of time and allow it to defrost in your refrigerator over night. This is important – DO NOT defrost phyllo at room temperature.

Directions:

  • Make the salsa: Mix cucumber, ginger, scallions and cilantro together. Season to taste with rice wine vinegar, sriracha and salt. Sriracha is HOT so add a little at a time. Refrigerate to let flavors develop.
  • Prepare the shrimp. Begin by heating the oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Cook the scallions until softened.
  • Add the shrimp and sauté until cooked through, about 2-3 minutes per side. Do not crowd in the pan. Cook in batches if necessary.
  • Roughly chop the shrimp into 1/4 -1/2 inch pieces, and toss with soy, chill sauce and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Taste it first, because the soy adds some salt.
  • Make phyllo cups: Heat oven to 375 F.
  • Butter a mini muffin tin.
  • Remove the phyllo dough from the package and lay flat on the counter. Remove one sheet from the stack and cover the remaining sheets with a barely damp kitchen towel.
  • Brush the single sheet with butter using a pastry brush. With a sharp knife, cut the phyllo into 2-3 inch squares.
  • Layer four squares inside each depression in the muffin tin, overlapping them in the bottom and sticking up slightly over the edges. The top edges will not be even.
  • When you have filled a tray, brush the insides of the phyllo cups with butter and bake until golden brown – about 5 minutes. They cook fast, so check after 3 minutes.
  • Remove tins from oven and cool slightly. Lift cups out to a cooling rack.*
  • Fill each cup with a tablespoon or two of shrimp and a teaspoon of salsa. Serve at or slightly below room temp.

*Note: If your kitchen is cool and you let these sit in the tins for a bit, the butter can harden, glueing the cups into the tin. To avoid breaking them, rewarm the tin. Our oven is not well insulated, so I just placed my muffin tin on the stovetop which was still warm after baking. They will slide right out.

An ode to the caramelized onion.

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Holiday entertaining is as emotionally loaded as the towering height of the gifts stacked under your tree. Our minds are filled with images of tables laden with roasted meats and clever hors d’oeuvres, covered in sparkling china and silver, festooned with flowers and greens. Anything less would be a terrible disappointment; not a seasonal blessing but a symbol of scarcity. These thoughts plagued my mind as I took pen to paper to craft the menu for this year’s Christmas-party-on-a-budget.

There was no joy in thinking of the cost of prosciutto, shrimp, artichokes and haricots vert. But I was determined. This party was going to be fabulous! It would bring great food, bright decor, fellowship, laughter and joy to me and to our friends. Which is about the time I thought of the caramelized onion.

For pennies you can fill a pot with jammy, deep brown goodness. As rich as foie gras, sweet as the finest confections and with the slow cooked depth of roasted cuts of meat. The caramelized onion is as simple as three ingredients and one hour of stovetop love. (A few more ingredients will take you all the way to heaven.)

So entertain. Do it richly. Spread joy and good cheer to your friends. And do for no more than $5 and a baguette.

Caramelized Onion Crostini

Butter, onions and salt will deliver wonderful, rich, caramelized onions. Fresh herbs, cheese, nutmeg and Cognac make these exceptional.

Ingredients:

  • 1 baguette
  • olive oil
  • 3 tbs butter
  • 5 cups thinly sliced onion
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbs chopped rosemary
  • 1/4 cup Cognac or Mardeira
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta or sharp cheddar
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • nutmeg
  • Sherry vinegar

Directions:

  • Cut bread in 1/4” slices. Brush will oil and bake at 400 until golden, about 5-7 minutes.
  • Melt butter in a 4-6 qt pan over low heat. Add onions, salt them and cook 30-40 minutes until rich, dark brown and gooey. Stir to avoid burning. Add a little water toward the end if needed.
  • Add rosemary and liquor and cook 1-2 minutes over medium heat until liquid is evaporated.
  • Stir in feta and parsley. Season to taste with salt, pepper, nutmeg and vinegar.
  • Spread on crostini to serve.

OMGG

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I feel a strong nostalgia for the 70’s.

It may be the simplicity and ease of early childhood. It might be built on images in family slideshows: my parents in slightly faded colors, always smiling, young, and full of joy. They are a beautiful couple – camping in Nova Scotia, pressing cider, by the Long Island sound in Fairfield. We are a happy family – at the beach, in the back yard, blowing out candles for summer birthdays.

Christmas is filled with a similar nostalgia. My family could gather tonight, decorating the tree, and name, as if a catechism, the source of each ornament. Katie, Alec and I would revisit, with no remaining animosity, well-worn fights over ornament ownership. We would eat my Gram’s cookies and Babci’s pierogis. We would joke about the year that dad gave us all snow shovels – which turned out not to be a gag gift, but an unsubtle hint that we would all be helping to clear the driveway that winter.

Those Christmases seem simple. And this year seems so hectic; still filled with joy and blessings, but lacking peace. That then is my dedication for Green Goddess Dressing? Here’s to a time when an avocado and fresh tarragon were exotic and celebratory. Let’s unapologetically toast crudités served with a mayonnaise-based dip. Happy holidays indeed!

Green Goddess Dip

Green Goddess was created at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in tribute to a play of the same name. Pipe this rich, fresh, beautifully-balanced creation in an endive leaf, or serve with blanched cauliflower and broccoli florets.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup crème fraîche
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 avocado
  • 1/2 tsp anchovy paste*
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 3 tbs cup chopped tarragon
  • 2 tbs minced chives
  • 1 tsp champagne vinegar
  • lemon juice
*You are thinking seriously right now about not using the anchovy paste, aren’t you? You’re worried that it tastes gross and fishy. Well, you can stop worrying. You won’t even know it is there. Anchovy paste adds depth of flavor without being distinctly noticeable.

Directions:

  • Place mayonnaise, crème fraîche, garlic, avocado and anchovy paste in food processor. Pulse to blend.
  • Stir in herbs.
  • Season to taste with vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
  • Serve with crudités, over fish or use in place of mayonnaise for a chicken salad.

Give generously. Look fabulous doing it.

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I really hate shopping for gifts.

Don’t get me wrong, I love buying things for people. At the mere mention of something meaningful I will spend hours chasing down a childhood book, favorite food or memoir of a home town. But the thought of just having to buy something is torture.

Over the years I have learned an important lesson. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you give, but that a special someone has something to unwrap on the big day; on Christmas morning, you can hand them a brightly wrapped gift and say, “I love you. Enjoy.” Upon opening, the recipient can hug you saying, “thanks.” Sometimes, it is not the gift that counts, but the giving.

Holiday entertaining is the same. Sometimes holiday get-togethers are more about fellowship than food. That, however, is no reason not to impress.

There is a generosity in offering your guests the gift of  luxury, in letting them spend a few hours living finely and fabulously. However, it is a gift doesn’t need to work your last frazzled, holiday nerve, nor does it need to be the last straw on a stretched budget.

Learn simple dishes that taste divine. Work with inexpensive ingredients and layer them with flavor: onions caramelized in butter, hand-whisked mayonnaise with bright herbs served alongside fresh, local crudités. Take a minute to think through the garniture for each one. Pipe a little sauce on top, arrange a whole parsley leaf, and crack some fresh black pepper. Light plenty of candles, buy inexpensive, fresh flowers and mass them in large vases, and play Bing Crosby’s classic holiday album.

Or try this. A favorite every time. Pretty, delicious, and easy. You’ll feel relaxed, have plenty of time to do your hair before your guests arrive, and they’ll think you had the evening catered.

Tapenade

Nothing out of a jar compares to the flavor of fresh parsley and garlic. No matter how much you think you hate anchovy paste, please go ahead and use it. You’ll never taste the anchovy and it does incredible things for the flavor of this spread.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup whole pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbs chopped basil
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan
  • 1 tbs capers
  • 1/8 tsp anchovy paste
  • 2 tbs olive oil – the good stuff!
  • Red wine vinegar

Directions:

  • Place olives, garlic, herbs, cheese, capers and anchovy paste in a food processor. Pulse 3-4 times for a rough chop.
  • With processor running, drizzle in olive oil. Process to bind.
  • Scrape tapenade into bowl and season to taste with vinegar and black pepper.
  • Serve with crostini.
  • Dress it up! Spread a tablespoon on crostini, top with a slice of buffalo mozzarella*. Broil for 1-2 min. to soften cheese. Top with a basil leaf.
*Buffalo mozzarella comes packaged in a plastic container in brine. You will either find it at the deli or in the cheese case.

Crostini

There is no excuse for not making your own! Grab a baguette and slice on the bias into 1/4″ thick slices. Brush with olive oil and bake in a pre-heated 400 degree oven until golden. Let cool and store in a ziplock bag for up to 5 days.