Know Your Chicken.

This is a tale of two chickens.

Both chickens are sweet and savory, both chickens spent some time in a 400° oven, and both chickens were devoured with relish.  One chicken Keith really loved, and one chicken I just couldn’t stop eating.  Truly.  Nonstop eating.  By me.

Chicken w. Roasted Grapes + ShallotsKeith’s chicken — roasted with grapes and shallots and rosemary and thyme — reminded me of something my mother made once or twice when I was growing up.  That too was a chicken with grapes, and in my memory that chicken was mostly sweet and bathed in a honey-colored broth.  Its grapes were not as deeply baked as Keith’s chicken, whose grapes were roasted until unctuous and almost jammy.

This chicken was meant to be made with thyme and thyme alone, but I had a little pinch bowl of minced rosemary leftover from another dinner, so I figured, Why not, and threw it in the mix too.  I think Keith’s chicken was the better for it, especially since the evergreen-ness of the rosemary paired so well with both the shallots and the grapes.

Once last thing about those grapes: the burnt ones were best — crispy, crunchy, juicy and buttery-smooth.

Roast Chicken w. Potatoes + Butternut Squash

My chicken, the chicken of the nonstop eating, was earthier than Keith’s and a bit sweeter, probably because of all of the butternut squash that got roasted alongside it.  The red potatoes took on some of the sweetness as well, which was actually pretty awesome when you think about it — crispy-on-the-outside candy-coated carb wedges.

Something else that was actually pretty awesome about my chicken was that its recipe called for dried rubbed sage and minced garlic, and the fact that the recipe was leagues better when I subbed in a combination of fresh sage and thyme for the dried and a garlic paste for the minced.  In the oven, all the flavors beneath the chicken’s skin came together in a rich and satisfying way.  I normally find fresh sage to be a bit bitter and wood-ish; in my mind, it only pairs well with strong profiles that can really stand up to it.  When roasted with the thyme and garlic paste, the sage became almost like a sauce under the skin.

But this isn’t a chicken competition; it’s all about preferences, mine and Keith’s.  I suggest buying two birds and giving both recipes a whirl.  That way, no one loses and everyone wins.

Chicken with Roasted Grapes + Shallots, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

1 ¼ pounds assorted seedless grapes, cut into small clusters
6 large shallots, peeled, halved through root end
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme plus 6 large sprigs (I used a mixture of rosemary and thyme.)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 4-to 4 ½-pound chicken, excess fat removed from cavity

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Gently toss grape clusters, shallots, chopped thyme, and 1 tablespoon olive oil in large bowl to coat. Rub chicken with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil; sprinkle inside and out with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place thyme sprigs in cavity. Place chicken in large roasting pan; arrange grape mixture around chicken. Roast until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of chicken thigh registers 165° and grapes are shriveled, about 1 hour 10 minutes.
  2. Transfer chicken to platter; let rest 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, arrange grapes and shallots around chicken. Transfer pan juices to small pitcher; spoon fat from surface of juices and discard. Serve chicken with pan juices alongside.

Roast Chicken with Potatoes + Butternut Squash, from Cooking Light
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons minced garlic, divided (I made a garlic paste instead.)
1 teaspoon salt, divided
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
½ teaspoon dried rubbed sage (I used a mixture of fresh sage and thyme.)
1 3 ½-pound roasting chicken
Cooking spray
12 ounces red potatoes, cut into wedges
1 ½ cups cubed peeled butternut squash
2 tablespoons butter, melted

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Combine 1 ½ tablespoons garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and sage in a small bowl. Remove and discard giblets and neck from chicken. Starting at neck cavity, loosen skin from breast and drumsticks by inserting fingers, gently pushing between skin and meat. Lift wing tips up and over back; tuck under chicken. Rub garlic mixture under loosened skin. Place chicken, breast side up, on rack of a broiler pan coated with cooking spray. Place rack in broiler pan.
  2. Combine potatoes, squash, butter, 1 ½ teaspoons garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Arrange vegetable mixture around chicken. Bake at 400° for 1 hour or until a thermometer inserted into meaty part of thigh registers 165°. Let stand 10 minutes. Discard skin.
Know Your Chicken” by Cibo Matto.
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Hate It or Love It.

When I started this blog, I was determined to stick to my three topics: food, books and travel.  The world is simply too full of too many topics, and I wanted to stay focused.

I’m breaking my rules here, people.

Why oh why is Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover of Bon Appétit?  The magazine is supposed to be about food, not the celebrities who write books and cookbooks about it.  When I received my copy in the mail today (along with Allure and Esquire), it took me a moment to realize that the magazine I held in my hands was indeed Bon Appétit.  Where was the tantalizing photo of towering layer cakes, of burnished gold chickens, of luscious bowls of pasta?

I understand why images of celebrities and other famous folk oftentimes are emblazoned across and throughout publications — put Angelina Jolie on the cover of Vanity Fair and you’ll sell millions of copies; ditto Lady Gaga and Vogue.  The difference is that Vanity Fair is a magazine about politics and pop culture and Vogue is unabashedly about fashion and style.  Bon Appétit, on the other hand, is about — or is purportedly about — food, drink and entertaining.

Honestly, I have nothing against Ms. Paltrow; I read GOOP, I watch Glee, I liked her in the Iron Mans, I’ll probably borrow My Father’s Daughter from the library and if I like it I’ll likely buy it.  In the magazine, Ms. Paltrow is quoted as saying “Maldon sea salt, olive oil and lemon can make anything great,” something I myself have said several times before; last night’s quickie dinner even put that philosophy to work.

What upsets me is this: I can’t help but think that somehow the integrity of Bon Appétit has been compromised.  Of course Ms. Paltrow’s cover will sell magazines and in the industry’s troubling times profits are more important than ever. I understand this.

I’m still disappointed.

Hate It or Love It” by The Game.

A Hot Dinner.

I’m one of those people who can’t stand the heat.  In fact, the other day when Keith and I were talking about  a trip to Machu Picchu, he looked and me and said, “I don’t know if Machu Picchu would be a good vacation for you.”

“Why,” I asked, “because I’m not fit?”

“No.”

“Because I’d have to dip myself in DEET?”

“You hate being hot,” Keith said.

It’s true.  Though the temperatures have dropped by twenty degrees yesterday, the past few days here in Boston have been scorchers, and I’ve spent every free second sitting irritably in front of a fan, moving as little as I can get away with.  Of course, the last thing I wanted to do Wednesday night was cook.  I wanted a dinner that took as little effort as possible, which is why I decided to roast a chicken.

I know it sounds crazy, jacking up the temperature in the kitchen with the heat from the oven, but as long as you hang out in another room with a fan and a cold drink while the meal cooks, it’s fine.  You won’t even notice the few extra degrees, and when you pull this bird out of the oven and take a look at its crispy gorgeous, there’s a chance you might forget about the sweat collecting in the small of your back.  And once you take a bite of the tender meat, you’ll see that there was nothing to complain about at all.

Oh, and I’m sorry for the picturelessness of this post.  The heat makes me hungry too.

Five-Spice Roast Chicken, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

4 garlic cloves, pressed
2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder*
1 cut-up chicken (8 pieces; about 3 ½ pounds)
1 large onion, peeled, cut into 16 wedges

  1. Combine garlic, salt, olive oil, and Chinese five-spice powder in large bowl. Add chicken pieces; turn to coat. Cover and chill at least 1 hour or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 425°. Arrange onion wedges in 13x9x2-inch roasting pan. Arrange chicken, skin side up, atop onions. Roast until chicken is cooked through, basting occasionally with pan juices, about 50 minutes. Remove chicken from oven and let rest 10 minutes. Arrange chicken and onions on platter and serve.

On Chicken.

I don’t know why chicken sometimes gets the short end of the stick.  Is it not as “exciting” a protein as beef?  I mean, I love a nice rare steak, but few things are as comforting as chicken pot pie, as versatile as a chicken breast or as pretty as a burnished roast bird straight out of the oven.  The golden crispy skin, the promising plump meat, the fun of eating a drumstick with your hands…  There isn’t a beef equivalent of that.

So, now that I’ve gone on a bit about the culinary virtues of poultry, you’d think that I’d be cutting up chicken left, right and center (and saving the bones for stock, of course).  The sad truth is this: I’ve never even roasted a whole bird.

I know, I know.  Shameful.  I haven’t a good excuse either.  You know what else I haven’t done, now that I’m in a confessional sort of mood and am listing all of my shortcomings? Deboned a chicken.  I swear, I am not scared of chicken — you know I would tell you if I were.

When I saw that this recipe called for a boned bird, I decided to not take the easy road, buying breasts and thighs.  I was going to disassemble a chicken, dammit.

If you haven’t yet taken apart a bird, please take two pieces of advice: get your hands on a sharp knife, and don’t try to figure this out on your own.

The whole procedure is really quite simple, but only if you follow some instructions.  I propped open my copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall‘s excellent River Cottage Meat Book to use as my guide; not only does Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall clearly explain each step, there are also helpful photographs as well.  Also, the kitchn has got a great post and accompanying video that will take you through the entire process.  Personally, I prefer the book method, not because I am a technophobe (how can I be? I have a blog, I tweet and carry around an iPhone) but because I’m kinda grossed out at using my raw-chickeny fingers to constantly pause the video while I catch up.  And, oh yes, you will have raw-chickeny fingers.  You’re going to have raw-chickeny hands, so you may as well embrace it.  Just don’t embrace anyone or anything until you’ve washed.

There are so many things that you can make from your freshly broken-down chicken, and it’s far more economical to buy whole birds and take them apart than to purchase the pieces.  If you’re really on top of things, and I oftentimes am not, you could buy birds and freeze the parts you don’t use for another date.

Or you could just make this recipe, which is even simpler than deboning a chicken and far more appetizing.  I’ve made this both for a crowd and for just Keith and me; I think it’s safe to say that you’ll satisfy pretty much anyone.

Another plus: the flavors are so big that anyone will think the meal was a lot of effort, rather than child’s play (though with that sharp knife, maybe another phrase would be best).  The bulk of the work is done by a yogurt-based marinade and your oven.  All you have to do is chop some cilantro, slice a couple onions, mince a bit of garlic, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.  The most strenuous part of this meal is scrubbing your hands after finishing prep.  Oh, and fighting over who gets first dibs on the pieces.

Easy Chicken Masala, from Bon Appétit
Makes six portions

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon garam masala
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1 large garlic clove, pressed (I mince)
1 4- to 4 ½-pound roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces, backbone removed
2 small onions, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices

  1. Mix yogurt, chopped cilantro, olive oil, garam masala, salt, and garlic in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Add chicken to marinade, 1 piece at a time, coating all sides. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 2 hours. Note: Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep refrigerated.
  2. Position racks in top third and bottom third of oven; preheat to 400°. Arrange onions in thin layer on large rimmed baking sheet to form bed for chicken. Top with chicken pieces in single layer, spacing apart for even roasting (chicken will still be coated with marinade). Discard remaining marinade.
  3. Roast chicken on top rack until cooked through and juices run clear when thickest portion of thigh is pierced with knife, about 1 hour. Serve chicken atop onion slices. Spoon pan juices around.

Birthdays, Car Crashes + Pizza.

Hello all, after what seems like a million years of not writing here.  I wasn’t lying when I wrote that I’d be back soon.  So here I am, feeling refreshed and eager to share some delicious pizza recipes for you. First, though, let me set the scene…

It was Keith’s birthday not too long ago; to celebrate, he and I went to Craigie on Main for the ten-course tasting menu — something I’m truly distressed to say I struggled to eat.  This may have been because I’m still not feeling well, and was certainly not a result of the food, which was as creative and flavorful as always.

Our night out wasn’t all we had planned for Keith’s birthday.  He had invited friends over to watch some fights on Pay-Per-View that Saturday night, so I offered to make whatever dinner and dessert that he wanted.  And what he wanted was pizza.

I happen to love making pizza.  I know what some of you may be thinking: But aren’t you scared of yeast?  Well, my answer to that is YesYes, I am.  I am also determined to conquer yeast, and when I do I will find the perfect pizza dough recipe to share with you.  In the meantime, I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you that I kind of really love Pillsbury‘s found-in-the-refrigerated-section-and-rolled-up-in-a-pressurized-tube pizza dough.  I’m not kidding about the pressurized tube thing, by the way.  These suckers are constructed to explode in your hand once you open them, allowing you to unfurl your dough onto your baking sheet.  If you prebake it, you’ll end up with a nicely browned and crunchy crust — and for me to say this is a big deal, as I’m one of those pizza eaters who often tosses her crusts to the side… or, more often than not, slips them discreetly onto Keith’s plate.  I always prebake my dough — 425° for about ten minutes, rotating the sheet at the halfway point — while I’m assembling my toppings, and my pizzas are always the better for it.  Give it a shot.

Since there was going to be five of us watching the fights, and because I wasn’t making any sides or appetizers, I decided to make four pizzas.  I wanted to have some variety as well as something more interesting than plain old pepperoni or just cheese.  I’d made a fantastic pizza before with sausage, mushroom, rosemary and Piave, which Keith requested; the other three were all my call.  Even though we weren’t having any vegetarians over, I included two meatless pizzas — a white pizza with rainbow chard, and a potato-asparagus pizza.  My one concession to “normal” pizzas was one topped with pesto, tomatoes and chicken sausage.

I wasn’t able to start my prep as early as I had wanted — which is what happens when you spend five hours at the car dealership signing papers on your new car* — but I wasn’t nearly as stressed out at being behind schedule as I normally would be, since I knew our friends wouldn’t mind.  Just as I was about to slide my pizzas into the oven, something completely unforeseen happened that delayed our meal even further.  And that something was a loud, earth-shattering CRASH! that  came from the street in front of the apartment… because a passing driver had swerved to miss a cat… thus crashing into and totaling one of our friend’s cars.  The impact caused the totaled car to leap onto the sidewalk and tear the bumper off of another friend’s car.  One car’s entire side had been sheared off, exposing the gas tank, and a cigarette-smoking onlooker made me so nervous I had to retreat back into the apartment.

After everyone dealt with the paramedics, police and panic, we finally were able to have dinner — at eleven-thirty.  I like eating late, and tend to do so, but even this was a bit much for me, especially as Keith and I hadn’t the chance to eat a proper meal all day… which is probably why we scarfed down the pizzas with a speed that was, frankly, both startling and disgusting.  The fact that everything came out perfectly may have had something to do with it, but that’s questionable.

Though Keith will tell you that the sausage and Piave pizza I mentioned before was his favorite, I’m sure he’ll also mention how the scallions sprinkled underneath the asparagus-potato pie gave the entire pizza a surprisingly fresh and altogether spring-y feeling.  Since I had used baby purple potatoes, it was also the prettiest of the four — though I happened to love the rustic aesthetic of my pesto pizza, which I had gussied up with baby heirloom tomatoes (I know they’re not in season, but I couldn’t resist their fat little jewel-like bodies).  My white pizza was by far the most subtle, but I think that’s a good thing, particularly after a rich pesto, a spicy sausage and zingy bits of scallion.

Of course, the key to any good pizza — in my mind, anyway — is the cheese, and I used no less than seven on these pies: chèvre, Parmesan, Piave, ricotta, a smoked fontina and a mixed-milk whose name eludes me because I was too flustered to write it down.  The recipes below didn’t call for much beyond mozzarella, chèvre, Piave and Parmesan, but I, cheese-aholic that I am, required more.  Feel free to use less cheese, if you wish.  Unless you have me over for dinner.  Then take what a “normal” person would consider sufficient, and multiply it by nine.

A few notes:

  • Each recipe makes one pizza.
  • I’ve omitted the key ingredient of dough; as you now know, I like Pillsbury, but any dough — store-bought or home-made — is more than fine.
  • I bake my pizzas in a 425° oven for about fifteen to twenty minutes, rotating at the halfway point, or until the crust has taken on a nice golden brown color.
  • If you don’t have any pesto from the summer stored in your freezer like I do and don’t want to make your own, store-bought will do.
  • I roll my dough out on the backs of oiled, parchment-papered 9 ½ x 13 inch rimmed sheet pans.  The oil and parchment paper  are both critical, as your pizzas will otherwise absolutely adhere themselves to their baking surfaces.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • When cool enough to handle without cursing and burning yourself, carefully slide your pizzas onto a cutting board to slice.  Then arrange your pieces onto a serving platter — which, in my case, are two oversized cookie sheets.
  • Pizza wheels are the devil.  They’ll just drag your nicely-arranged toppings across the entire pie and you’ll end up with a ridiculous mess.  Just use a nice, sharp chef’s knife.

Asparagus, Fingerling Potato + Goat Cheese Pizza, adapted from Bon Appétit

5 ounces fingerling potatoes (I used baby purple potatoes)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
4 scallions, thinly sliced, divided
1 1/3 cups grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese (about 6 ounces)
4 ounces soft fresh chèvre, crumbled
8 ounces asparagus, trimmed, each spear cut in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 2- to 3-inch pieces
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. Place potatoes in small saucepan. Add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Sprinkle with salt. Bring to boil and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Cool. Cut potatoes into thin slices.
  2. Mix 1 tablespoon olive oil and garlic in small bowl. Brush garlic oil over pre-baked pizza dough. Sprinkle ¾ of scallions over the top,  followed by the mozzarella; leave a ½-inch plain border. Top with potato slices and goat cheese. Toss asparagus and 1 tablespoon oil in medium bowl. Arrange asparagus over pizza. Sprinkle with Parmesan, then lightly with salt and generously with pepper.
  3. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown and asparagus is tender, about 18 minutes. Transfer to cutting board. Sprinkle with remaining scallions.

Pizza Bianca with Greens, adapted from Bon Appétit

for the seasoned oil:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
¼ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

for the topping:
1 bunch rainbow chard, ribs cut away
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced

8 ounces whole-milk mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated
4 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
¼ cup smoked fontina, grated
¼ cup Parmesan, grated
½ cup ricotta
fresh minced herbs such as rosemary and thyme (which I used, since that’s what I had)
1 large garlic clove, minced

  1. Prepare seasoned oil.  Mix oil, garlic, and red pepper in small bowl. Let stand 1 hour, ideally on a warm surface like the top of your stove.
  2. Cook chard in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain. Rinse under cold water; drain. Squeeze dry, then coarsely chop. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and stir 30 seconds. Add chard and stir 1 minute. Season to taste with salt.
  3. Take your rolled-out-onto-an-oiled-and-parchment-papered-pan dough and brush the surface with most of your infused oil.  Sprinkle mozzarella over dough, leaving ½-inch plain border.  Spread chard over mozzarella; top with goat cheese, fontina and Parmesan.
  4. In a small bowl, combine ricotta, herbs and garlic.  Strategically dollop over chard and cheeses.  Brush crust edge with the seasoned oil, saving 2 tablespoons to drizzle over pizza.
  5. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown, about 15 minutes.  Serve with crushed red pepper.

Pizza with Pesto, Chicken Sausage, Heirloom Tomatoes + Two Cheeses

1 cup grated fresh mozzarella
½ cup mixed-milk cheese, grated
a good selection of baby heirloom tomatoes, or grape tomatoes, sliced
5 tablespoons basil pesto
2-3 links sweet chicken sausage, casings removed and chopped

  1. Spread pesto over prebaked dough, leaving a ½-inch plain border and sprinkle with mozzarella. Arrange tomato slices over mozzarella, then scatter sausage over mozzarella.  Finish by sprinkling mixed-milk cheese over the top.
  2. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Sausage, Red Onion + Wild Mushroom Pizza, adapted from Bon Appétit

2/3 cup finely grated Piave or Parmesan cheese
2 ¼  teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary, divided
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
Coarse kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 ½ hot Italian sausages, casings removed
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
7 ounces fresh wild mushrooms, thickly sliced (I use a mix of shiitake, cremini, portobello and oyster.)
1 ¾ cups coarsely grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese, divided
Chopped fresh parsley

  1. Sprinkle prepared dough with 1/3 cup Piave cheese, ¾ teaspoon rosemary, and ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper; sprinkle with coarse salt.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage. Sauté until brown, breaking into ½-inch pieces with back of spoon, about 5 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer sausage to bowl. Add onion to skillet. Sauté until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes; transfer to plate. Add remaining ½ tablespoon oil to skillet. Add mushrooms and remaining ¾ teaspoon rosemary; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until brown, about 5 minutes. Leaving ½-inch plain border, top dough with ¾ cup mozzarella, remaining Piave, then onion, sausage, and mushrooms.
  3. Bake pizza until crust is golden brown, about 20 minutes total. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.
* Yes, I’m now behind the wheel.  Hold on to your hats.

A Rainy Day Dinner.

It’s been raining a lot lately here in Massachusetts, and I hate it.  You would think that instead of bemoaning the torrential and nonstop downpour, I’d at least be celebrating the fact that most of this winter’s precipitation has come in the form of rain rather than snow — sorry, DC — but we know the truth: I’d be grumpy with snow, too.

I am just not a cold weather person.  Then again, I’m not a warm weather person either.  I hate humidity and perspiring and feeling sticky with sweat.  Ugh, I’m getting irritable just thinking about it.  If it were possible, I’d live somewhere with only spring and fall so I could have both new leaves budding above my head in the trees and old leaves crumpling under my feet in the street.

Since that’s not possible anywhere but in my dreams, I’ll begrudgingly accept winter.  We’ll never be friends or anything; I’ll firmly shut the door in her face whenever she comes around, and if she somehow still manages to get into the apartment, I’ll chase her right back out again with a dinner such as this — and maybe a degree or two increase on the thermostat.

The key to this dish is the idea of the do-ahead.  If you’re one of those well-organized, put-together people who apparently really do exist in this world, then you’ll make the soup one day and the dumplings the next (or vice versa).  Don’t get me wrong — this is an easy meal to make.  It’s just a bit messy and uses a lot of pots and pans and skillets, and I personally try to avoid dealing with a whole boatload of things to clean after preparing a meal.  I like to clean as much as I can as I go; this recipe, unfortunately, won’t really let you do that, particularly if you do what I did and make the dumplings while the mushrooms browned and the leeks gave up their opacity.

No matter what route you take, the do-ahead or the do-while, the results will be the same: delicious.  And they might just make you forget about the weather.  Maybe.

Mushroom + Leek Soup with Parsley Dumplings, from Bon Appétit
Makes six to eight portions

for the soup
2 cups water
¾ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
Fine sea salt
3 tablespoons dry Sherry
1 ½ cups chopped onion
3 cups thinly sliced leeks, white and pale green parts only, from about 2 large leeks
8 cups vegetable broth (I used chicken stock)
Pinch of cayenne pepper

for the dumplings
¾ scant cup low-fat cottage cheese
6 tablespoons butter, room temperature, divided
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Pinch of ground nutmeg
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

for the soup

  1. Bring 2 cups water and porcini mushrooms to boil in small saucepan. Remove from heat, cover, and soak 20 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer mushrooms to work surface; slice thinly. Reserve cooking liquid.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic; stir 30 seconds. Add crimini mushrooms and thyme; sprinkle with sea salt and sauté until mushrooms are browned, stirring often, about 12 minutes. Add Sherry; stir until liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Set mushroom mixture aside.
  3. Heat 1 ½ tablespoons oil in another heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook until translucent and beginning to brown, stirring often, about 6 minutes. Add leeks; reduce heat to medium, sprinkle with sea salt, and sauté until vegetables are soft and golden, stirring often, about 15 minutes.
  4. Bring broth to simmer in large pot over medium-high heat. Pour in reserved mushroom cooking liquid, leaving sediment behind. Add all mushrooms, onion mixture, and cayenne. Simmer 1 minute to heat through. Season to taste with salt. (Do ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, cover, and chill.)

for the dumplings

  1. Purée cottage cheese in mini processor until smooth. Using electric mixer, beat 3 tablespoons butter and eggs in medium bowl. Add cottage cheese, ½ cup flour, 1 teaspoon sea salt, and nutmeg; beat on low speed just to blend. Stir in ½ cup flour, cheese, and parsley.
  2. Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Using teaspoon, scoop piece of dough about size of cherry. Holding spoon just above boiling water, use second spoon to push dough into water. Working quickly, repeat about 10 more times. When dumplings rise to surface, simmer until cooked through, 2 ½ to 3 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer dumplings to large plate. Repeat with remaining dough. (Do ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
  3. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium heat. Working in 2 batches, add dumplings to skillet. Cook until brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes per side.
  4. Bring soup to simmer. Divide dumplings among wide shallow bowls. Divide soup among bowls and serve.

A Post-Christmas Post.

Well, I survived Christmas Eve, you might be happy to hear.  Making dinner for eleven (plus one toddler, one newborn and one dog) wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be — and I promise you I’m not saying this in some sort of sad attempt to show you how cool and “together” I am, because had you seen me that morning, shrilly demanding that Keith vacuum and sweep*, you would know exactly how uncool and not “together” I am.

I’ll discuss what we served in a bit, but first I just want to say that a big part of why dinner was so successful is because Stephanie suggested I borrow a crockpot and because Marcella reminded me of an excellent baked fish recipe.  See, I knew I wanted to have a soup course but was worried about stove-space — at one point, I did in fact have all four burners going at once — which is why the crockpot was so helpful.  I just poured my soup in there earlier in the afternoon and plugged it in to keep warm.  And since I was concerned about what I would be able to cook on the stove, an oven-roasted fish was perfect.  And so stress-relieving; once I slid its tray in the oven, I was free to walk away, drink a glass of wine and have a little chat with guests.

So here’s what we had for dinner, from the top:  purée of onion soup (not pictured), potato galette, holiday rice (which my mother made for Keith specifically), salmon roasted in crème fraîche, beef tenderloin with basil-curry mayonnaise (in the ramekins), cream-braised Brussels sprouts and more holiday rice.

For dessert, which I did not photograph, I made an apple galette, chocolate mousse and two different types of caramels (more about these another day).  I also emptied a box of clementines into a bowl, though I can’t take credit for making them.

Now, here’s why preparing this dinner was so easy: almost everything could be done ahead of time. Honestly.  It’s as simple as that.

The caramels I had made a few days earlier, and sat hardening in my fridge until it was time for dessert.  The night before, I not only cleaned and split my Brussels sprouts but also made pâte brisée.  On Christmas Eve morning I sliced potatoes and apples for my savory and sweet galettes, which then went straight into the oven; they’re served at room temperature, so baking them and getting them out of the way was perfect.  As the soup’s onions sweated in a covered pan, I made and refrigerated the mousse.  After I puréed the onions with some vegetable stock and a splash of cream, it all went into the crockpot, leaving me plenty of time to make the rub and the mayonnaise for the beef tenderloin, as well as braise my sprouts.  I purposely waited until the last minute to stick the beef in the oven; everyone snacked from Keith’s cheese plate while it roasted and, as the tenderloin rested, the salmon had its turn in the oven.  And then we sat down to eat.

I’ve got to say, cooking for this crowd went much more smoothly than I could have ever hoped, mostly because I tried to choose recipes that could be made prior to dinner.  Something else that helped was preparing simple recipes that had high-impact results, like the salmon, beef, Brussels sprouts and soup.

Before I get to the recipes, here’s a shot of my parents’ fifteen-year-old English setter Winston partaking in his culture’s Christmas tradition: wearing the crown from a Christmas cracker.  Adorable, no?

Potato Galette, from Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin by Jacques Pépin
Makes eight to twelve portions

½ recipe pâte brisée
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into very thin slices, washed and dried
½ cup heavy cream

  1. Roll out dough 1/8 to 1/16 thick, in a shape that fits roughly a cookie sheet — approximately 16 x 14 inches.  If the dough is not thin enough after you lay it on the cookie sheet, roll it some more, directly on the sheet.
  2. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the oil.  Add the potato slices and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes on high until the slices start to look transparent and a few are slightly browned.  Let cool a few minutes and spread the potatoes on the dough.  Bring up the border of the dough and fold it over the potatoes.
  3. Bake in a 400° oven for approximately 45 minutes, until it’s lightly browned.  Spread the cream on top and bake for another 15 minutes.  Serve lukewarm in wedges.

Purée of Onion Soup, from Think Like a Chef by Tom Colicchio
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons peanut oil
6 onions, peeled and sliced (about 12 cups)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 cup chicken stock (I used vegetable, as one of our guests is a pescatarian)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until it slides easily across the pan.  Add the onions, garlic, salt and pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, about 20 minutes.
  2. Add the stock and 1 cup water and simmer for 10 minutes more.  Purée the soup, then press it through a fine strainer.
  3. Just before serving, reheat the soup, whisk in the butter and adjust seasoning.

Crème Fraîche-Roasted Salmon, from Molly Wizenberg for Bon Appétit
Makes four to six portions

1 2-pound center-cut wild salmon fillet with skin, about 1 ¼ inches thick
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup crème fraîche

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Line rimmed baking sheet with foil.
  2. Place salmon, skin side down, on baking sheet; sprinkle with salt and pepper. (I also sprinkled it with chopped chives, then zested a lemon over it all.)  Spread crème fraîche over salmon.
  3. Roast salmon until opaque in center, about 12 to 14 minutes. To test for doneness, cut small slit in thickest part of fillet; all but center of fillet should be opaque (salmon will continue to cook after fillet is removed from oven).
  4. Using spatula, transfer to platter.  (I served mine on the baking sheet.)

Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Basil-Curry Mayonnaise, from Giada De Laurentiis
Makes six to eight portions

for the beef:
Vegetable oil cooking spray
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
3 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus 2 teaspoons
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (3 ½ to 4-pound) beef tenderloin, trimmed

for the mayonnaise:
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature (I used cream cheese, since I had it)
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Arrange an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°. Spray a heavy baking sheet with vegetable oil cooking spray. Set aside.
  2. In a mortar and pestle, or spice grinder, finely grind the cumin seeds and coriander seeds. Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the spices and cook for a few seconds until aromatic and toasted. Put the spices in a small bowl. Chop the garlic on a cutting board and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt. Holding a chef’s knife at a 45 degrees angle, scrape the garlic and salt together to form a paste. Add the garlic paste to the bowl with the spices. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, black pepper, and oil and stir until smooth.  (I did all of this in my mini food processor.  It came out just fine.)  Put the meat on the prepared baking sheet and rub with the spice mixture. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 125°, for medium-rare. Remove from the oven and transfer the meat to a cutting board. Cover the meat loosely with foil and let rest for 20 minutes.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mascarpone cheese, basil, curry powder, and paprika until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

To serve: Slice the meat into ¼-inch thick slices and arrange on a platter. Spoon the mayonnaise mixture into a small serving bowl and serve alongside the sliced meat.