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.

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CSA 2008, Week Twenty.

The deeper we get into fall, the more our CSA box begins to consist more and more of items that have to be rooted out from within the earth.  Even thought this week’s haul included a few leafy items, I’m getting the feeling that they’re going to slowly disappear, replaced with more and more root vegetables.  This week’s box held the following:

  • Beets
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Celeriac
  • Garlic
  • Kale
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Pie pumpkin
  • Potatoes
  • Rutabagas
  • Spinach
  • Turnips

potato-leek-soup1Potato and leek is a fantastic combination, and one I decided to put to work in a soup.  Keith is particularly fond of soups, and they’re something I make very infrequently, so I started thumbing through my cookbooks for a recipe.  Tom Colicchio‘s Think Like A Chef has a straightforward one for a diced potato-leek soup; the recipe calls for a quarter-pound of slab bacon, and I can stress enough how important it is to get a nice piece from your butcher.  (In fact, I would even encourage increasing the amount of bacon maybe to three-quarters of a pound, but that might just be my bacon addiction talking.)  I had purchased a fat piece of Niman Ranch bacon from Formaggio Kitchen, so I was really looking forward to tossing it into the soup.

Something else to think about: Colicchio’s recipe calls for chicken stock, which I didn’t have on hand.  I’m with Michael Rulman on this; if you don’t have homemade stock, opt for using water rather than canned or boxed, both of which are basically salty, chicken-themed water.  Chicken stock is easy enough to make if you’ve enough time and bones, but if you don’t, just use water.  I wanted to richen things up a bit, so I used one and a half cups of milk (1%, since that was what was in the fridge) and one and a half cups of water instead of three cups of stock.

Diced Potato-Leek Soup, from Think Like a Chef
Makes four to six portions.

4 leeks, white part only, washed well and trimmed
¼ pound slab bacon
4 Idaho or other starchy potatoes (3 to 4 pounds), peeled
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

  1. Split the leeks lengthwise, then slice into thin semi-circles.  Cut the bacon and potatoes into a small dice.
  2. Heat the oil in  large pot over medium heat until it slides easily across the bottom.  Add the bacon and cook until it is rendered but not yet crispy, about two minutes.  Add the leeks, salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks just begin to soften, about three minutes.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the potatoes.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the potatoes soften slightly, three to five minutes more.
  3. Add enough stock to moisten the vegetables, about half a cup.  Bring soup to a simmer, then add another half cup.  Continue gradually adding the stock, half a cup at a time, until it has all been added.  Gently simmer the soup until the potatoes are tender (about ten minutes from the time you began adding stock), then stir in the butter and chives.  Add salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Art Versus Craft.

Last week, I sent my friend Ben in LA a box of cookies. I had baked a ridiculous amount of several different types: chocolate cherry chip, madeleines, hazelnut-anise, olive oil and, of course, Medz Mama’s cookies. Since I knew Ben wouldn’t mind eating my leftovers, I packed up a sampler and headed to the post office. When he got the cookies, Ben phoned to say thanks and we had a nice little chat, so I was surprised to get another call a few days later, after he had tried each one.

“Krikey,” he said, “you could sell these.”

When I heard that, I felt a thrill; what a nice compliment! Once I had thought about it more, however, my excitement quickly faded. After all, I hadn’t invented the cookie recipes, nor had I put my own twist on them. With the exception of Medz Mama’s cookies, I had pulled my miscellaneous cookbooks out of their cupboard (and in the cases of the olive oil cookies and the madeleines, I had gone to Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson respectively) and dutifully followed the instructions to the letter. The result was an abundance of homemade cookies, to be sure. But should I have truly received the credit for making them?

(A quick deviation from the plot: I’ve made mention of my love for Top Chef in the past; what I failed to bring up is my love for Tom Colicchio. Perhaps love is a strong word; obviously I don’t know the man, only his television persona. Regardless, he is my favorite judge on the show. I appreciate his no-nonsense, straightforward demeanor, and I like how that mentality comes through in his cookbook Think Like A Chef.)

In this month’s issue of GQ, there is a short piece with Colicchio, done in Q+A format (my favorite). In it, he says the following:

If you just follow recipes, you’re not teaching yourself how to cook. Once you understand technique — how to roast something, how to braise, how to sauté properly — you won’t need recipes anymore. You can start cooking your own food.

Is Colicchio right? Can you not learn how to cook by reading and trying recipes? Obviously, you need a basic sort of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals, and I know I can thank my mother for teaching me that. That said, is what Colicchio is describing the craft of cooking, or the art?

To me, running alongside a recipe shows the understanding of the craft, while inventing a unique recipe is the sign of art. When it comes to cooking, I most certainly lack the artistry. I’ve never claimed to be a good cook; if anything, I’ve claimed to be able to follow a recipe really well. This past Easter, I served two entrées and four side dishes that I had never made before, as well as a whole string of desserts whose recipes seemed interesting; I’m pleased to report that everything ended up tasting exactly as intended. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t items that cause me to lose culinary confidence, because I’m nervous about roasting a whole bird and I find the idea of using yeast a bit terrifying. (At least I’m not alone.) But does this mean I don’t know how to cook?

This past Sunday I had book club over for brunch; at the last minute I decided to bake scones, which I hadn’t ever done before. Since I didn’t have my cookbooks handy when I made up my mind, I turned to Google and found a recipe. The result was so lovely that I baked a second batch immediately after my friends had left. Here’s a photo of the wet ingredients meeting the dry, which I snapped because the cranberries simply looked so pretty, with the white cream puddling in their little crinkly wrinkles.

If the delicious product I turned out of this bowl means that I can’t cook (or bake), then that’s fine by me.