December 16th, 2009 § § permalink
As soon as Thanksgiving breezes by, I start obsessing about Christmas and all the celebrations — and preparations — that the holiday season brings. Each year I vow to make my life easier by hosting smaller parties and concocting simpler menus. Yet, each year I invariably end up sweating over a steaming stockpot of coq au vin for 16 or frantically whisking together 20 individual mocha pot de cremes on Christmas Eve. So much for easy.
In 2009 I swear to halve my stress level by following four basic rules: Keep the appetizers easy. Offer only one entree. Don’t turn down offers from guests of appetizers or side dishes. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, don’t go wild with new, complicated, or made-to-order desserts.
Gone are the days when I offer hot-out-of-the-oven mini red pepper quiches and steamy Gruyere mushroom puffs as two of a dozen homemade hors d’ouevres. This year friends and family will nosh on such quick, uncomplicated appetizers as “apricot medallions,” smoked salmon pate, spiced nuts and olives. And, if time slips away from me, I will have no qualms about plunking wedges of Manchego and cana de cabra cheeses onto a wooden cutting board, spooning honey and store-bought tamarind or mango chutney into small bowls and serving both alongside slices of apple and baguette. If anyone grumbles, I’ll claim that we’re celebrating Christmas the Spanish way with tapas.
I likewise intend to give up those complicated, highly decorated desserts. This includes the adorable but panic attack-inducing “Santa Bear,” painstakingly hand-rolled raspberry truffles and made-to-order chocolate souffles. Instead I will whip up such painless offerings as chocolate cupcakes and white chocolate-almond cake. Topped with juicy pomegranate seeds and a dusting of powdered sugar, the latter is a particularly festive yet undemanding sweet.
4 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
2 teaspoons skim milk
40 large, dried Turkish apricots
handful of walnuts, cut into 40 small chunks
1/8 to 1/4 cup honey, for drizzling
In a small bowl mix together the goat cheese and milk until the cheese is smooth and spreadable. Using a knife, spread equal amounts of goat cheese on top of each apricot slice. Top each apricot with a walnut piece and place on the platter or plate. Drizzle honey over each and then serve.
WHITE CHOCOLATE-ALMOND CAKE FOR EIGHT
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “Forever Summer” (Hyperion, 2003)
10 ounces white chocolate
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 large eggs, separated
1½ cups ground, blanched almonds
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon almond extract
powdered sugar, for dusting the cake
2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and line a 9-inch springform pan.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave or in a double boiler. Stir together until well-blended and then set the chocolate aside to cool.
Using an electric stand or hand mixer, beat the butter until very soft. Add the sugar and cream the two together. Still beating, add the egg yolks, one at a time, waiting until each one is incorporated before adding the next.
Slowly scrape in the cooled chocolate, beating firmly. Once the chocolate is incorporated, add the ground almonds and extract, beating again to mix.
In a separate bowl with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites till peaks begin to form. Once this occurs, slowly add the remaining sugar and beat until the egg whites are glossy and firm.
Add a dollop of egg whites to the cake batter and stir well. Fold the rest of the egg whites into the mixture in 3 or 4 parts. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes until cooked through, checking at around 30 minutes to make sure that the cake is not burning on top. You may need to cover loosely with a piece of foil after 30 minutes. Note that a cake tester is not a good indicator of “doneness” as this is a moist cake. When the cake begins to separate from the sides of the pan, it should be finished baking.
Remove from the oven and place the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before inverting and removing from the pan. Allow to cool completely. Before serving, sprinkle the top with a generous amount of powdered sugar and then tumble the pomegranate seeds, followed by more sugar, over the surface.
December 10th, 2009 § § permalink
Whether sweet, sour, spicy or a tad salty, condiments have added flavor and flare to food for countless centuries. While the most familiar – ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise – still bring pleasure to the palate, something more unusual, such as chutney, can add much needed excitement to your dinner plate.
From the East Indian word “chatni” comes chutney, a tangy condiment featuring minced herbs, fruits, vegetables and spices. Freshly prepared for each meal, chutney appears alongside curries, as a spread for bread, as a topping for cheese and as a flavor enhancer for milder dishes such as rice and dals.
The ingredients in this sauce vary according to region and personal taste. In Southern India creamy coconut is all the rage while in Western India spicy herb reigns supreme. Whether from ripe or green tomatoes, tomato chutney is a hit across the country as is the silky, piquant tamarind chutney.
Of the myriad of chutneys produced and consumed, only one has become an international sensation – the sweetly tart and chunky mango chutney. Made from green mangoes, ginger, raisins, vinegar and an assortment of spices, this condiment was initially served fresh in India. However, once British colonists became smitten with it, Indian cooks began to preserve, can, and ship this ambrosial, jam-like relish to Great Britain.
The mango craze spread throughout the United Kingdom and then infiltrated farther shores. Walk down the ethnic food aisle of any grocery store and you’re bound to see at least three different brands of mango chutney. It’s delectable and everywhere.
FRESH GREEN MANGO CHUTNEY
Makes 2 cups
As this fruit chutney is uncooked, it should be consumed within a day or two.
1 pound green, unripe mangoes, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
¼ cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Combine all the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Serve as a topping for grilled fish or chicken, with cheese or as a spread for sandwiches.
December 2nd, 2009 § § permalink
As a child, I could think of no words more terrifying at dinnertime than “Brussels sprouts.” Invariably overcooked and, as a result, smelling of rotten eggs, these nutritious, cruciferous vegetables became the bane of family meals.
As my dread grew so did my deceptive eating habits. When my parents’ gazes were averted, I slipped individual sprouts beneath the table to a dog that would, and did, eat anything. When the dog had reached her limit, I tucked the offending vegetables into my napkin or hid them beneath an untouched slice of buttered bread. Whatever I could I did to avoid eating that night’s veg.
Twenty years later I am pleased to report that my fear of Brussels sprouts has come to a happy end. I owe this breakthrough to learning how to select, store, and prepare these vitamin C-rich plants.
In Belgium Brussels sprouts dominate the produce stands. Resembling tiny, green cabbages clinging to tall, thick stalks, they are uniquely Belgian. Although scholars debate the date of their emergence, placing this anywhere from the 12th to the 18th century, their name points to the place of cultivation – the capital of Belgium, Brussels.
Prized for their sweet nuttiness and petite form, Brussels sprouts are tenderest and most flavorful when 1 to 1 ½ inches in diameter. Similar to cabbage, they prosper in cold weather and develop their delicate taste after the first frost.
When shopping for Brussels sprouts, I look for small, firm, bright green heads and compact leaves. I avoid large, soft, or yellow ones as they tend to be old and bitter. If I happen upon sprouts still attached to their stalk, I opt for the smallest stalk. It will contain the youngest and best tasting sprouts.
Unwashed, individual sprouts will keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper for up to three days. Those on the stalk can be plucked off and stored the same way.
In terms of flavor affinities Brussels sprouts make good partners for smoked or salted meats, root vegetables, apples, chestnuts, and such flavorings as vinegar, lemon, sage, thyme, nutmeg and juniper berries. Similar to their larger brethren, the cabbage, sprouts do not fare well when overcooked; overcooking releases sulfur compounds, which produce that pungent, rotten egg aroma. To avoid this odor, I boil them until just tender, about 6 to 12 minutes for whole ones and 4 to 7 minutes for those halved from top to bottom. I also apply the cook-until-tender rule when steaming, roasting and sautéing.
ROASTED GARLIC, CHESTNUTS AND BRUSSELS SPROUTS
2 pounds fresh or frozen Brussels sprouts, halved from top to bottom
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup roasted chestnuts, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Place the Brussels sprouts, garlic, olive oil, chestnuts, salt and pepper in a large baking dish. Toss the ingredients together, spread them in a single layer and bake until tender, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.