Light. This is the challenge, this time of year.
Daily, my work alternates from the kitchen to my home office perch; each space has walls of windows to keep me in tune with the rhythm of the day. Lately I’ve been caught off guard, absorbed by testing recipes, cooking meals, or writing articles, only to look up and find myself shrouded in darkness. The hours move so rapidly, yet I think I’m keeping up.
Suddenly, the curtain drops. Night is here. At 4:45!
Some days I fret at my missed opportunities of sunlight, the better photographs, the lifted spirits. I tell myself–tomorrow, tomorrow—although we know, headed into winter, that each tomorrow means even less.
Moving deeper into the season, I have to capture that light in other ways.
Some mornings Bill and I rise very early, drive to Warner Park, and hike the 2 1/2 mile trail that loops around the wooded hills. Wearing headlamps, we begin in pre-dawn darkness, and find our way along the craggy path. Sometimes I’ll hear the who-who of owls call, or the rustle of a wild turkey flock on its own forest trek. Sometimes I’ll see a set of headlamps on the trail ahead of me, only to realize that it is a set of glowing eyes. A deer!
After thirty minutes of so, we turn off our headlamps. The world is dim, almost colorless, but visible. And then, sunrise.
Ah! Surrounded by hickory and beech trees, their leaves already yellow, we become enveloped in shimmering gold light.
Light and Balance. We need these in the food we eat too.
Today I am sharing two light and leafy recipes–one is a salad, the other cooked greens. Both autumn dishes help to balance out the heavy, hearty fare that defines the approaching holiday season.
I have been relishing fennel, its crunch and lively anise flavor enmeshed in a salad of Honeycrisp apples and clementines. My new favorite! This is a salad of fresh contrasts, melding sweet, peppery, citric, licorice and pungent tastes, with no cooking required. Just skilled prep—apples cut into thin batons, clementines peeled, sectioned and sliced, fennel and red onion almost shaved. Liberally season with salt and black pepper, which will help each element release its juices. Add salted Marcona almonds and your choice of a salty blue (gorgonzola, maytag, danish…)
The dressing is basic. Use a good olive oil—this beauty is from my friends’ biodynamic farm in Tuscany near the Tyrrhennian Sea—and a shake of white balsamic vinegar. As I have learned from Rachel in measuring this, use the Italian sensibility: “q.b.” quanto basto-–what is enough—in other words, use your good judgment.
A member of the chicory family, escarole is a beautiful and mildly bitter green that resembles leafy lettuce. Its core leaves, small and delicate, are ideal in a salad. But the whole head, sliced into ribbons, yields to heat readily, collapsing into a great delectable sopping mound. It makes a sumptuous side dish on its own, or can be spooned over rice or pasta. Served with beans or cornbread, it becomes an Italian dish that has migrated to the South.
In this pot, reds complement the greens. Red onion, red wine vinegar, and a handful of currants to bring pops of sweetness to the dish. You may use golden raisins in place of the currants; either dried fruit will gain a jewel-like glisten in the saute.
I could tell you, “Be grateful for your greens!”–because I am really reminding myself of the same.
Enjoy them chilled crisp in the salad bowl, or braised supple in the Dutch oven.
Enjoy your time with loved ones.
In this season of indulgence, enjoy some time of light and balance.
HONEYCRISP APPLE-CLEMENTINE-FENNEL SALAD
1 Honeycrisp apple, cut into small batons
3-4 clementines, peeled, sectioned, and cut into pieces
1 fennel bulb , shaved or sliced thinly
1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup Marcona almonds
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 pound mixed leaf lettuces
Place the prepared apples, clementines, fennel, and red onion into a large chilled bowl. Add the almonds and blue cheese crumbles.
Sprinkle the salt and black pepper over the salad ingredients, followed by the olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. Top with mixed lettuces.
Toss the salad gently but thoroughly, so that the myriad ingredients are well-dispersed and the lightly coated with the oil and vinegar. Taste and adjust for seasonings.
Makes 8-10 servings
WILTED ESCAROLE WITH RED ONION, GARLIC, AND CURRANTS adapted from Cooking Light
5-6 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sliced red onion
3 cloves minced garlic
2-3 dried red chiles
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3-1/2 cup dried currants
1 large head of escarole, leaves washed and sliced into 1/2 ” thick ribbons
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Place a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Stir in the red onion, garlic, and dried red peppers. Season with salt and saute the mixture for 2 minutes. The red onion will become translucent. Add the dried currants and saute for another minute.
Add the escarole ribbons. Stir and fold them in the red onion mixture. The heat will cause the escarole leaves to collapse and wilt. Add the red wine vinegar. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Allow the escarole to braise for 5 minutes.
Makes 8 servings
Isn’t it wonderful, when you find out that something
you were convinced
would be terribly difficult,
was, in fact,
a breeze, a lark,
That was my pretzel-making experience.
When Jessi brought her pretzels to potluck a few years ago, we all went crazy for them. Who makes pretzels? We rewarmed the soft salty twists in the oven. A dunk into a crock of spicy mustard, we greedily devoured them.
As I was compiling our recipes for the cookbook, I had no doubt.
The pretzels had to be represented.
Jessi readily accommodated, sending me her method, with tips.
Seeking to recreate the same distinctive taste that she and her husband had enjoyed in Bavaria, she had done extensive research and experimentation. The outcome–a straightforward, authentic, and easy-to-make recipe.
The dough is basic. It does not require lengthy rise time or punching down. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you can whip it up in short order, let the machine do the 10 minute kneading process, while you do something else. Hand-rolling the dough into long strands and looping them into the pretzel shape is quite fun.
But there is one piece to the process that was news to me. What Jessi learned—call it the secret, or the trick to making perfect pretzels—-is that you dip the dough knot into a diluted lye solution before baking.
Lye? Isn’t that the stuff Paulie put into Bed-Bug Eddie’s coffee in The Pope of Greenwich Village?
The idea of working with this caustic substance, well, freaked me out, at first. But Jessi, our resident soap maker, and no stranger to the product, assured me that there was nothing to fear. “Just Be Prudent.” (I’ve listed her prudent tips below, with the recipe.)
Food-grade lye is an intrinsic component of curing olives, and making hominy, In the case of the pretzels, there is amazing science here–the interaction of sodium hydroxide with the oven heat produces that characteristic browning and taste before it vanishes.
And, it was not a problem to use. Really!
I made a batch of pretzels for one of the cookbook’s photo shoot days. I was so elated with how splendid they turned out that I made them again when visiting my bread-baking friend Maggie.
For sure, they are delicious right out of the oven. But you can rewarm them the next day with terrific results. That outer brown sheen only gets crunchier—but there is still that soft chewy pretzel interior.
Many recipes use a combination of baking soda–which is another alkali– and water. And I am happy to send you to Cooking Light for their recipe, if you are not comfortable using the food-grade lye dip. It will make a good pretzel—but not a great one.
Here’s the link to my homemade mustards, if you want to go all-out. The coarse-grain stout mustard is made for pretzel-dunking.
JESSI’S DELICIOUS GERMAN-STYLE PRETZELS
1 1/2 teaspoons dry active yeast
2 cups warm water, divided
5 cups bread flour
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup food grade lye*
10 cups water
Coarse sea salt to taste
Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water.
Place the bread flour into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add the salt, softened butter, activated yeast, and remaining water. Mix until combined. Knead the ingredients until the dough is elastic, about 10 minutes.
Cover with a towel and let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
Cut into 12 equal pieces and form into balls. Let rest for 5 minutes.
Roll each ball into a thin rope (about 18 inches long). Make into an upside-down U, and twist the ends around each other to create the distinctive pretzel shape.
Place each one on parchment paper–lined baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for a minimum of 2 hours up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a stainless-steel bowl, dissolve the lye in the water. Dip each side of the pretzels into the lye mixture for 15 seconds and remove to the baking sheet.
Sprinkle each pretzel with coarse salt.
Bake for about 17 minutes. Immediately remove the pretzels from the parchment onto wire rack to cool.
• You can find food grade lye at a number of online sources. I ordered mine from http://www.essentialdepot.com/servlet/Categories.
• Only use stainless-steel pots, bowls, and utensils when working with lye. No plastic. No wood. It is wise to wear gloves when dipping the pretzels into the diluted lye solution.
• Don’t be afraid of the lye mixture—just be prudent. It’s pretty diluted and really the key to making the outside of the pretzel firm and browned evenly.
• You can also make pretzel rolls. Snip or score the top of the rolled ball after dipping in the lye solution.
Hail Cantharellus cibarius!
Yes, it is that time of year again, when chanterelles, those golden hued beauties of the forest make their appearance at the market. I’ve been keeping a watchful eye out for them–their beguiling apricot color and scent, curious funnel-shaped stems, and soft gill-like ridges that stretch up to frilled caps. Trumpets of delectability!
So infrequently do I cook with them, that I want make the most of the occasion. Because of their nature, their keen readiness to yield into a silken umami state when sauteed in butter–I don’t want to do too much.
In the past, I’ve paired them nicely with caramelized onions in this tart, and made them the foundation and star of this spoon-creamy risotto. Today, I’ve folded them with cubed bread, eggs, cheeses, and an herb-infused milk, baked into a sumptuous Chanterelle Bread Pudding.
A pile of chanterelles looks formidable at purchase, but reduces quickly in the skillet, so be sure to indulge in a full pound of them.
They’ll retain their meatiness and won’t get lost in the mix. Cleaning them can be a bit of a chore however most necessary; click here for Cooking Light’s foolproof guide to a proper prep. The cleaning may be the most time-consuming part of the recipe!
For the rest of the process, it moves along simply, with simple ingredients. Likely you already have them in your pantry. Stale crusts of bread, eggs, some nutlike cheeses, a little onion and carrot to chop into a mirepoix to add to the base.
What makes this pudding exceptional—besides the grand chanterelles, of course— is the warmed half-and-half, with its plunge of fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage. That trio muddles in the rich milk, infusing it with woodsy herbal notes.
I saute the chopped chanterelle stems with carrot and onion in a nob of Kerrygold butter. After a few minutes, I toss in the mushroom caps, which I prefer to tear into pieces, rather than attack with a knife. In no time, they release their essence–both peppery and fruity– and become lustrous as they simmer. You could add a splash of white wine or sherry at this point—-chanterelles like a nip of the grape—-but it is not essential.
Once they are cooked, the rest is basically a mixing thing. Add your herbed-up half-and-half, shredded cheese (a combination of parmesan and gruyere is quite nice) beaten eggs and cubed bread.
I keep a bag of leftover bread–nubs, scraps, and pieces—in my freezer. Recipes like this one make me glad that I do.
The pudding puffs as it bakes. The interior sides and rumpled top become wonderfully brown and crusty, while the interior maintains its rich creaminess. Tasting the dish–which made a great meal with a green salad—reminded me of big holiday feasts on the horizon. And I realized that this would make an elegant side dish, or dressing. Some of my friends always make Oyster Dressing for Thanksgiving. I think this Chanterelle Bread Pudding rivals that.
CHANTERELLE BREAD PUDDING
1 pound chanterelle mushrooms, carefully cleaned
2 cups half-and-half
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
4-5 sage leaves
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
6 cups cubed sturdy stale bread
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese–combination of Parmesan and Gruyere
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1- 8 cup baking or souffle dish, coated with butter
Cut the stems from the chanterelles, setting aside the caps to work with later. Finely chop the stems.
Pour the half-and-half into a small saucepan. Add fresh herbs and place on medium low heat. When bubbles begin to form on the pan’s edge of the liquid, remove from heat. Let the mixture cool as the herbs infuse the half-and-half.
Melt the butter in a large skillet or pot placed on medium heat. Add the chopped chanterelle stems, carrots, and onions. Season with salt and black pepper. Saute for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Chop, or tear by hand, the chanterelle caps into bite sized pieces. Add to the vegetable mixture. Stir gently as the mushroom caps soften and collapse in the saute. This should take about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Discard the herbs and pour the infused half-and-half into the pot with the mushrooms. Stir in the bread cubes and cheese.
Finally–and quickly—stir in the beaten eggs. When all of the ingredients are well-combined, pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. You may place a sprig of rosemary ( or sage, or thyme) on the top.
Allow the bread pudding to sit for at least an hour (or several hours—you may cover and refrigerate this overnight and bake the following day.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the casserole on the middle oven shelf and bake for 35 minutes.
Almost an entire month has past since I last visited with you here at Good Food Matters, but be assured that I’ve been busy-busy, hands-on: making good—and beautiful—-food for the cookbook. In addition to the book cover shoot, we’ve had 4 separate photo sessions, working to capture the bounty of produce in this transitional season and the waning light. We’ve garnered over 60 stunning images that I can’t wait to share with you. And the dishes! Passion fruit Pavlova, German-style Pretzels with stout mustard, figs in syrup, figs on flatbread, Cornbread Panzanella, gazpacho with spiced grilled shrimp, ricotta gnocchi with arugula-three herb pesto, lofty strawberry sponge cake…
Patience, patience. It shall happen, in due time.
Meanwhile, what has transpired since I’ve been relegated to the kitchen and studio? I look up from my work and see that fall is upon us. The weather has shifted mightily. Days move apace, with dry, crisp chill in the air. Tomatoes have just about played out in our gardens, and the basil plants are looking rather ragged. No matter. Now the markets brim with all manner of greens, hardy squashes, leeks, onions, and peppers. Now I am ready to prepare dishes using them, aren’t you?
And now, I like to cook with sage.
I should use it in my cooking all year long–but for whatever reason, the grey-green leaf with its musty, woodsy taste, (I think of a forest floor, slightly damp) its paradoxical tough-velvet touch, finds its way into my fall and winter recipes: Larded with garlic into juicy pork roast, scenting cornbread stuffing for turkey, sizzled in brown butter sauce napped over pumpkin ravioli.
There’s nothing faint about my praise for the herb and today’s recipe uses it with vigor. Chicken breasts cut and pounded into thin scallops pick up the sage leaves first in the dredging. (For a great description of how to easily pound the cutlets, check this on Cooking Light’s website.)
I saute the chicken in a meld of butter and olive oil–the best of both!—which gives the coating a golden burnish, as delectable brown bits form in the pan. To this, I add minced garlic and More sage, before I scrape and swirl in the white wine and light cream. The sage is distinct, assertive–for me, pleasingly so. If that concerns you, don’t let it. The wine-cream reduction muffles it, blanketing the chicken.
Serve it with this orzo dish, which is more vegetable than it is pasta. Poblanos, leeks, and butternut squash make a harmony of fall colors, roasted to smoky sweetness. I think you’ll enjoy the undercurrent of mild heat imparted by the peppers.
CHICKEN SCALLOPINE WITH SAGE CREAM SAUCE
2 pounds boneless chicken breasts, cut into thin pieces and pounded
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
12 sage leaves, finely chopped
3 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup white wine
3/4 cup half-and-half
Slice through the length of each chicken breast into halves or thirds. Using wax paper or plastic wrap, pound them to an even thinness, using a mallet or small skillet.
Mix the flour, salt, pepper, and finely chopped sage together.
Place a large skillet on medium heat. Melt the butter and olive oil together.
Dredge the chicken in the flour mixture; dust off the excess, and place into the hot skillet. Brown the chicken, sauteing the pieces for 3-4 minutes on one side, before flipping. Remove the pieces from the skillet as they are finished, placing them into a baking dish. Keep them warm.
After you have browned and removed all the chicken, add the garlic and sage to the skillet. Saute for a minute, then pour in the white wine. Let it bubble and reduce by half as you stir it in the skillet, scraping up the browned bits. Reduce the heat to low and pour in the half-and-half. Stir well. The sauce should thicken nicely. Taste for seasonings. Pour hot sauce over warm chicken scallopine and serve.
Makes 6-8 servings
ORZO WITH ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH, LEEKS, AND POBLANOS
1 large butternut squash, peeled, deseeded, and cut into bite-sized cubes
2 large leeks, carefully washed, dried and chopped (discard tough dark green leaves)
2 poblano peppers, seeded and chopped
3+tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound orzo
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place the butternut squash cubes onto a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and black pepper, and toss well to coat all the pieces.
Place chopped leeks and poblanos onto a separate baking sheet. Drizzle with oil, season with salt and black pepper, and toss well to coat the vegetables.
Place both baking sheets into the oven. Roast the butternuts for 15-18 minutes, roast the leeks and poblanos for 12-15 minutes. Rotate the pans about halfway through the cooking time.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil on medium high heat. Add the orzo and cook according to package directions (about 9-10 minutes.)
Drain the orzo and return it to the pot.
Remove the roasted vegetables from the oven. Scrape the butternuts in their roasting oil, and the poblano-leeks in their oil into the pot with the orzo. Toss the mixture well.
Makes 6-8 servings
Here’s a glimpse!
A leftover shank of baked ham and looming potluck dinner: this was my dilemma, my quandary, my challenge last week.
Surely the two could intersect–one should be able to be used in some fashion to satisfy the need of other.
But, what to make?
Deviled Ham Salad? Big Ham Biscuits? A creamy ham and mac-cheese casserole?
None of those seemed very exciting.
What would you make? I asked a friend.
A shrug, and
What was I doing with a big leftover bone-in baked ham anyway,
was her response.
I would have to try another method.
Sometimes you have to plant the notion or request in your mind and let it go. Wait and see what might come up to inspire you.
It took about a day, but for whatever reason while on an errand driving across town, a pleasant memory from almost 10 years ago bubbled up:
I was with Bill and my daughter in Paris. We had strolled the Luxembourg Gardens early one morning and were ravenous. Our meander led us down a narrow street with a row of vendors—Look, Crepes!
We watched greedily as the creperie chef combed the batter over the special griddle, deftly flipping the great thin round when the edges became golden and crispy, then splashing it with melted citrus butter, a rapid fold and shower of powdered sugar, and Voila!
Madeleine got one with fresh bananas. Bill’s had egg and cheese. And mine….
There, it is called a complete–a buckwheat flour crepe filled with ham, gruyere, and egg. Absolutely luscious, and substantial enough to sate a powerful hunger.
My potluck plan was set in motion.
The versatility—and ease—-of crepes is what makes them so appealing. The batter can be whipped up in minutes. The impossibly thin pancakes can be swirled and flipped in a small skillet–and stacked until ready to fill. And the fillings?
All manner of savory and sweet.
With sweet crepes, I’ll put a little sugar into the batter. With savory crepes, a combination of flours–all-purpose and buckwheat is nice. I didn’t have any buckwheat flour, but today’s crepe batter uses buttermilk to give it distinctive tang.
I made the batter early in the morning. In the afternoon, I began The Cook. It didn’t take long to pour, swirl, and flip. The crepes were thin and elastic, yet golden. Filling them with ham, cheese, and spinach-artichoke was like assembly-line work–a nice rhythm or repetition.
I decided to make a mornay sauce to bake onto the crepes in the casserole dish. This would add an enriching element, while keeping the crepes moist in the oven.
For other splendid crepe ideas and recipes, check out Cooking Light’s page here:
Oh, and here’s Why I had that big leftover Ham.
The Cookbook Cover! We are now at the stage of shooting the images for the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook.
On our first day, we (I say we, because I helped the team–photographer, food stylist, art director, editor—by making the dishes) shot the cover–a cool overhead of a potluck feast–along with 8 interiors. We have many more to go. I will keep you posted as the process unfolds—and I have something to show you.
BUTTERMILK CREPE BATTER
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons melted butter combined with
1 tablespoon olive oil
You can make the batter in a blender or food processor. I have found that this is the simplest way to achieve that smooth-smooth mixture that resembles heavy cream. The batter also should be made up ahead of time and allowed to rest–at least an hour, and up to overnight, covered and refrigerated.
I used a 6″ stainless steel skillet—easy to handle. I like the small size of the crepes for filling and serving. I think you will, too.
Place the flour, eggs, buttermilk, water, and salt into the blender or processor. Mix until well-combined, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. Pour in melted and slightly cooled butter and continue to process. The mixture will be thinner than traditional pancake batter–but will coat the back of a spoon like cream. Cover and let the mixture rest for a minimum of an hour.
Heat the skillet on medium. Brush it with the butter-oil mixture. Pour approximately 2 tablespoons of batter into the skillet, tilting and swirling the skillet to move the batter as it covers the surface. In a minute, the edges of the crepe will become golden–time to flip. The other side cooks–browns–in half the time of the first side. Remove the crepe to a plate or platter, and continue the process.
You don’t need to brush the skillet with the butter-oil mixture each time—every 2-3 times works fine.
Makes 16-20 6″ crepes
1 tablespoon soft butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 lb. fresh spinach
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces quartered artichoke hearts, chopped
pinch of salt and cayenne
1 lb. thinly sliced ham
1/4 cup coarse grain mustard
1 cup shredded parmesan
1 cup shredded gruyere
Coat a baking dish or casserole with butter.
Place a large skillet on medium heat. Add the olive oil. Then, mound the spinach into the skillet. Stir, as the leaves collapse. Sprinkle in the minced garlic pieces and cook for a minute. Add the artichoke hearts and stir-fry them into the spinach mixture. Season with a pinch or two of salt and cayenne. Remove from heat.
Lay the crepe rounds out onto the work counter in rows. Cover half of the crepe with slices of ham, dab of mustard, tablespoon or 2 of spianch-artichoke mixture, and a sprinkle of the cheeses. Beginning with the ham side, roll the crepes and place them into the casserole dish(es).
When you are ready to bake and serve them, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour the Gruyere Mornay sauce over the crepes. Sprinkle extra cheese, if you like, or dot the surface with strips of sundried tomatoes or sage leaves.
Place in the oven and bake until bubbly–25-30 minutes. Serve
GRUYERE MORNAY SAUCE
3 tablespoons butter
1 bunch green onions, chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded Gruyere
sundried tomatoes or fresh sage leaves (optional)
Place a 2 quart saucepan on medium heat. Melt the butter, then stir in the green onions, cooking to soften–about 1 minute. Stir in the flour, allowing it to coat the green onions, absorb the butter, and make a light roux. Stir constantly, and don’t let the flour brown.
Pour in the milk. Stir-stir-stir! Over the next 10 minutes, the mixture will thicken. When it comes to a simmer, stir in the cheese and remove from heat. Stir until the cheese is melted throughout and incorporated into the sauce. Season with salt and white pepper.
Food-stylist Teresa Blackburn at work on set at photographer Mark Boughton’s studio. At this time, we were working on placement of dishes to fit within the format of the book.
This does little justice to the final image that Mark captured–but gives a peek at the process.
White Cheddar Gougeres stuffed with Herbed Chicken Salad
Open Face Cucumber-Boursin and Tomato-Bacon-Basil Aioli Finger Sandwiches
Plum Spiced Shortbread Bars
A chunk of my adult life was spent as a caterer, and from time to time I can be coaxed to put that catering hat back on. My friend Gigi is a milliner and hatter; her amazing HATWRKS store here in Nashville offers not only an extensive selection of hats for men and women from the country’s best known hatters, but stunning custom hats that are Gigi’s own design and creation. She had an in-store event recently and asked me to prepare a few light bites and tea.
While working on it, I realized that it would be a good opportunity to share some catering tips: a few tricks of the trade that will ensure success with relative ease.
When planning to make appetizers for a party, here are some things to keep in mind:
I’ve talked about this here, but you want your guest to be able to eat the appetizer in one (or two) tidy bites, without fear of shattering crumbs allover the floor, or dripping sauce down her blouse.
Hors d’oeuvres means “outside the main work.” They are designed to spark appetite, but not sate. Remember that they are the prelude to something else. As such, here’s a good rule of thumb: You’ll want to offer 2-3 different appetizers, and figure on 2-3 pieces per person of each.
I consider the group when designing a menu and strive to offer:
Mostly savory, with something sweet. Mostly vegetarian with something meaty. I like to use seasonal produce, and have appealing colors.
4. Intriguing Element
Often what separates a mediocre hors d’oeuvres from a terrific one can be found in one defining element of the recipe. I look for that one special aspect that truly elevates—has that “wow” factor. I like for it also to possess versatility. The economy of excellence, so to speak. For instance, if a cranberry-pear chutney is astonishing in one recipe, it likely can lend the same pizzazz to others.
The three light bites highlighted in this post satisfy my criteria. For your pleasure, I’ve posted the recipes for each one’s defining element to make your own.
The recipe for gougeres, French-styled cheese puffs, is a great one to have in your catering repertoire. Originally made with Gruyere cheese and a pinch of nutmeg, they can take on other cheeses and herbs or spices with aplomb. (Check out these, made with chevre and chives.)
The white cheddar gougeres make delectable bites on their own. But you can fill them with anything you like–your favorite chicken salad recipe, or smoked salmon, or deviled ham, or roasted red pepper mousse…you get the idea. People always delight in eating them.
WHITE CHEDDAR GOUGERES
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons ) butter, cut into pieces
2 pinches salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Line baking sheets with parchment.
Place the water, milk, butter, and salt into a medium saucepan set on medium high heat. Stir and bring to a simmer, melting the butter. Pour in the flour and stir rapidly, cooking the mixture into a mass. When the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan, remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for a minute or two.
Using a wooden spoon, beat in the eggs, one at a time—beating each egg so that it is well incorporated into the flour before adding the next one. You want to work quickly so that the eggs will not cook or curdle in the mixture. This will give you a real upper arm workout–well worth it! The mass will become smooth, golden in color.
Fold in the shredded cheese.
Place gourgere mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe little (3/4-1 inch) mounds in rows on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Check on the pans at the halfway mark, and rotate them in the oven.
When the gougeres are browned and have a hollow crisp to them, remove the pans from the oven and let the gougeres cool on a wire rack.
Makes 5 dozen gougeres.
Boursin. We’ve all seen the small packages of this soft, airy French cheese at the market. But, did you know that It is very easy to make your own? It might be more delicious. It certainly is fresher, and more cost effective.
Spread onto petite rounds of sunflower seed bread, this herbed butter-cream cheese blend is what makes the open-face cucumber sandwich exceptional. You’ll also enjoy the boursin paired with roast beef, or slathered onto tortillas lined with shredded vegetables, rolled and sliced into pretty mosaics, or simply garnished in a bowl, as a smear for bagels, flatbreads, or crackers. Salut!
8 ounces cream cheese, softened, cut into pieces
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened, cut into pieces
juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
In a medium bowl, cream the softened cream cheese and butter together with wooden spoon. Stir in the lemon juice, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. Blend well. Cover and refrigerate to allow the flavors to develop and meld. Let the boursin stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes so that it will be easily spreadable.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
For the Cucumber-Boursin Finger Sandwiches
1 loaf sliced sunflower or whole grain wheat bread
1 recipe boursin
2 medium-sized cucumbers, cut into 1/4 inch thick coins
a few sprigs of fresh dill
Using a biscuit cutter, or rim of a juice glass, cut the bread slices into rounds.
Liberally spread the boursin over the rounds and arrange onto a platter.
Place cucumber coin onto each round. Sprinkle with a little coarse-ground black pepper.
Garnish each round with fresh dill.
Makes over 4 dozen
Finally, the spiced shortbread crust , with its nuance of cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, is crisp and buttery…and couldn’t be simpler to make. It makes a wonderful foundation and topping, sandwiching either your choice of preserves or fresh fruit. It cuts beautifully into bars, squares, or triangles! The recipe, adapted from The Cilantropist, was originally made with sliced fresh plums. But, it was the perfect vehicle for my plum preserves (I still have many jars from last year’s bounty.)
I think that you could make the recipe and highlight other stone fruits–peaches, apricots–or layer it with fig preserves or applesauce.
PLUM SPICED SHORTBREAD BARS (adapted from The Cilantropist)
3/4 cup turbinado sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
12-16 ounces plum preserves (you may use fresh plums–about 8, pitted and sliced, instead)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with butter or pan spray.
Place both sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, spices, and chilled butter pieces into a food processor fitted with the pastry blade. Pulse quickly, processing the butter into the flour mixture. Add the egg and pulse until it is incorporated. The mixture will be crumbly.
Place 3/4 of the mixture into the bottom of the baking pan, evenly distributed. Press firmly.
Spread the plum preserves over the shortbread crust layer.
Cover the preserves with the remaining shortbread mixture.
Place the pan in the oven and bake for approximately 30 minutes. The top will become browned and the preserves will be bubbly. It will also feel set.
Cool completely on a wire rack. You can cover and refrigerate the bars overnight before cutting them into squares, if you prefer.
Makes approximately 3 dozen small bars.
Heading into the fall, with holidays soon to follow, you might like to check out Cooking Light’s creative light bites here for other recipes and inspiration. They suggest an appetizer swap party–a variation on the cookie-swap theme, which appeals more to me that all those sweets! It sounds like a fun way to share good ideas and savory bites. Wild mushroom-chevre cups, apricot-blue cheese-walnut in puff pastry….yum.
How has your summer been?
It’s hard for me to accept that September is almost here, and the moments of leisure, like dips in the pool, are vanishing.
As August wanes, I’m reminded that soon we will be transitioning. Daylight hours will visibly shorten; leaves will begin to turn; sweaters will be pulled out from the back of the closet; and heartier foods will be prepared in the kitchen.
Already, the bounty of the garden is shifting, as heirloom tomatoes dwindle, and winter squashes–acorn, butternut–appear ready to harvest.
You might find, as I did, a handful of summer stragglers. An ear of corn or two, a big red bell pepper, a few squashes, a fistful of green beans.
Each, on its own, is not enough to make much of a meal.
But combined, have the ability to make something great.
Inspired by the summer stragglers, this vegetarian pot pie fits right into this time of transition. Pot pies–in their best form–embody comfort and offer one-dish ease. We often think of chicken or beef as being the central ingredient, but roasted vegetables can make a rich and satisfying filling on their own.
Roasting, of course, brings out all the caramel sweetness of the veggies. The other key is making a rich veloute for the filling. For a vegetarian version, I started with a saute of onions and garlic, and made a simple roux. Lightly browning the flour-butter mixture helps to bring a deeper layer of flavor to the sauce. Vegetable stock (store-bought is fine) heightened with a splash of white wine makes a fine base, especially enhanced with the onion-garlic roux. I finish the sauce with some fresh thyme leaves.
The other important element is the pot pie topping. Crust or biscuits–which do you prefer? I like both, but the biscuit topped pie ( made with chicken) that I saw in the September issue of Cooking Light really appealed this time.
In the time it takes for the veggies to roast, you can put together the biscuit dough. Here’s a couple of biscuit-making tips:
Start with very cold butter, cut into small cubes, to blend into the flour-soda mixture. If you don’t have a pastry blender, use two knives. You can also rub the butter into the flour by hand. It should resemble coarse meal.
After you add the buttermilk, work quickly. The dough will start out being sticky, but soon will come together into a ball.
You want a light touch, rolling out the dough, and cutting out the biscuit shapes. Overworked dough toughens–beware!
The buttermilk biscuit recipe is very easy to put together, roll out and shape.
The biscuits puff and brown beautifully, encasing the savory vegetable filling. As you scoop up a serving, you’ll notice how the veloute has baked into the bottoms of the biscuits. Mercy.
SUMMER VEGETABLE POT PIE
2 yellow squashes, diced
2 zucchini, diced
1 red bell pepper, large dice
1 jalapeno or cayenne pepper, small dice
1/2 pound green snap beans or pole beans, cut into 1/2 pieces
1-2 ears corn, cut off the cob
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup white wine (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place chopped vegetables on a baking sheet and toss in olive oil. Lightly sprinkle with sea salt and place in the oven to roast for about 12 minutes. Remove from oven.
In a 2 quart saucepan set on medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and saute for 2 minutes, then add the garlic and continue to saute for 2 more minutes.
Stir in the flour, coating the onions and garlic. Continue stirring, cooking the flour to make a light roux. Pour in the vegetable broth and wine, stirring all the while. The mixture will begin to thicken. When it looks like it has nice sheen, remove from heat.
Coat a 2 quart casserole round with butter or pan spray. Add the roasted vegetables, and then pour the sauce over them. Stir to coat all the vegetables.
Make the biscuits (recipe follows).
Arrange the biscuits over the top of the casserole. Dot with butter and sprinkle with paprika, if you like.
Place into the oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes–until the biscuit tops are browned and the filling is bubbly.
BISCUITS FOR POT PIE TOPPING from Cooking Light
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into cubes
1/3 cup buttermilk
Place a level cup of flour (4.5 ounces, by weight) into a medium bowl. Mix in the baking soda and salt.
Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles a coarse meal.
Stir in the buttermilk.
Form a doughball and gently knead 5-6 times. It is important to NOT overwork the dough.
Roll into a circle–about 9 inches round. Use a 2 inch biscuit cutter, ( or a flour-dusted glass of approximate size) and cut the biscuits.
Arrange them over the top of the pot pie.
The unpredictability of harvests causes me to marvel at the steadfast dedication of farmers. One season to the next, they never know how well or poorly a crop will do, despite all care and meticulous planning. And, under the same weather conditions, one planting will thrive, while another fizzles.
In 2010, Gigi had a bumper crop of figs. In the two years that followed, her trees bore meager fruit. It had us worried—was 2010 a fluke? Last week, that notion was dispelled when Gigi called me with this report:
“We need to pick figs. Now!”
Her trees were–and still are—covered. Plump ripe knobs, some royal purple, others streaked greenish-brown, are ready to be plucked and relished. The next morning, I met Gigi at the garden. We picked a fast 100, and two days later, I returned to gather another basketful.
Joy. The figs are back, with the promise of so many more to come. Time to enjoy them now, and preserve them for the future.
My plan was two-fold. I could envision delectable figs roasted to sweetness, tucked in lettuce leaves with goat cheese, chives, and bacon for a summer meal. (almonds for my vegetarians!) What I didn’t use in the salad, I’d put up in mason jars. Roasted Figs in Syrup!
I began by halving the figs and arranging them on a baking sheet scattered with thin lemon wedges. After I dusted them with sugar and a spritz of white balsamic vinegar, I placed them into the hot oven.
I had forgotten how effective and deeply delicious this method is. Very quickly the sugar melts as the figs release their juices. The lemon and vinegar meld into the mix, enhancing the figgy taste, while balancing the sweetness. A gorgeous caramel-ruby syrup results, glazing the fruit in the pan. And that tangy syrup becomes the perfect medium to drizzle into the lettuce cups, the salad’s dressing really.
As for the rest, well, I have a few ideas. I love them baked on flatbread with prosciutto, leeks, and soft gorgonzola. The figs in syrup are sublime with mascarpone on a slice of crusty toasted baguette. Check out Cooking Light’s Guide to Figs for other tips and recipes. I am always open to new recipes with this ancient, treasured fruit, and would love to have your recommendations, too.
Of course, we fig lovers know that there is nothing quite like that one, sun-warmed and ripe right off the tree, sticky to the touch and honeyed to the bite.
ROASTED FIG-GOAT CHEESE-BUTTER LETTUCE CUPS
25 leaves butter (or Boston) lettuce, washed and spun dry
1 11 ounce log plain goat cheese
8-10 strips thick slab cut bacon cooked crisp and crumbled -OR-
1/2 cup sliced toasted almonds
1 1/2 cups roasted figs in syrup (recipe follows)
coarse ground black pepper
Arrange butter lettuce leaves on a platter. Cut the goat cheese log into small slices or pieces, placing a piece into each lettuce cup.
Sprinkle the goat cheese with chives.
Sprinkle cooked bacon or toasted almonds into the cups.
Place a fig half over the goat cheese.
Drizzle with figgy syrup and season with coarse ground black pepper.
Makes 25 appetizers or 10-12 mains.
ROASTED FIGS IN SYRUP
15 ripe figs, washed, dried and cut in half lengthwise
1 lemon, sliced into 10 wedges
1/4 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place the fig halves on a baking sheet. Scatter the lemon wedges around the figs.
Sprinkle the sugar over the figs. Sprinkle the vinegar over the sugared figs.
Place into the oven and roast for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan after the halfway (5-6 minutes) mark.
Cook until the figs become puffed and release their juices.
The juices will meld with the melted sugar and vinegar to make a luscious syrup.
Remove from the oven and cool. Place the fig and lemon pieces into a medium bowl or 12 ounce jar. Scrape the accumulated juices-syrup from the pan over the figs.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Note: You may double the batch and preserve the figs and syrup in 3-8 ounce jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.
Today’s post combines the exotic and the familiar: artisanal chocolate from Ecuador with a Southern staple, chess pie.
Do you know about chess pie? I was first introduced to it after I moved to Nashville many years ago. The tangy-sweet (sometimes teeth-achingly sweet!) egg custard pie is one of the defining desserts of the South that has somewhat of an undefined history.
It was reportedly brought from England to the colonies. It took hold in Virginia, and became a mainstay in kitchens below the Mason-Dixon line. The name “chess” is curious: some say it is called that because pies of this sort were kept in the pie chest–a specific piece of furniture for pie storage. Others assert that it has more to do with the content of the pie itself–a bake of eggs, sugar, butter, and vinegar—so that it’s a play on words, as in, it’s “just pie”, or, in the vernacular, “jest pie.”
In any case, the pie’s neutral palette has lent itself to numerous variations, such as buttermilk chess, lemon chess, and chocolate chess.
When the kind people at Kallari asked me to sample their specialty chocolates (who could resist such a request?) I was more than happy to accept the offer. I was curious to taste the sustainably produced confection in varying strengths: 70%, 75%, and 85%. But I was really interested in using it in a recipe. Chocolate chess pie seemed like a good place to start.
I was also intrigued by the story behind this chocolate.
Over 900 families of the Kichwa, an indigenous people of Ecuadorian Amazon, belong to the Kallari collective. Using sustainable organic practices, they grow, tend, harvest, and ferment the heirloom cacao beans. They make the chocolate in a factory that is four hours away from their cooperative center. This proximity–and hands-on approach– further distinguishes Kallari, as most cacao growers do not fabricate the chocolate. Few have ever tasted really good chocolate. Most beans are shipped to factories in Europe and North America to be roasted, and processed into bars.
Kallari has 2 meanings in the Kichwa language: “To Begin” and “The Early Times”. This is fitting, as the work of the Kallari collective has meant a new start for the growers, while harkening to the heritage of the crops. As a collective, the Kichwa completely own the company, and therefore reap greater earnings for their harvest than if they sold their beans to another company for fair trade pay. Three varieties of cacao beans that flourish on the Kichwa lands go into making the chocolate, each contributing to the complexity of the bars.
The result is astonishing, swoon-worthy. Eaten out of hand, the 70% chocolate has such creamy mouthfeel, very like milk chocolate, except that it is dark, with notes of caramel and berry. The 75% is richer still, yet silken, with nuances of tropical fruits, and a little peppery bite.
The 85% has firm snap, earthy almost smoky richness with an undercurrent of fruit–a bit bitter and dry to eat out of hand, but an ideal chocolate to bake into my pie.
Much loved for its taste, a chess pie is well-appreciated for its easy-as-pie method. Chocolate chess follows suit. Likely I spent more time making the pie crust than on the filling…
…which gets a kickstart in the microwave, melting the chocolate, butter, and sugars together. Whisk in the eggs, vanilla, a splash of bourbon–you can do this all by hand in a blink.
In no time, you could be pouring this lush filling into the pie shell. Thirty minutes later, you could be having a cup of coffee and a slice of chocolate chess pie. (add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, slices of ripe peach, fresh blackberry puree–ah, sublime!)
Make it with Kallari chocolate, and you are doing good, while feasting well. You can order it from them or check at Whole Foods–many of them carry it.)
CHOCOLATE BOURBON CHESS PIE
2.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup raw sugar, such as Demerara or Turbinado
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
unbaked pie shell
Into a large microwaveable bowl, place chocolate, chopped or broken into pieces, along with butter, and both sugars. Microwave for about a minute to melt the butter and chocolate. Stir and microwave for another 30 seconds, to make sure that all the chocolate and butter is melted.
Whisk in the vanilla and bourbon, until the mixture is smooth. Beat in eggs (using the same whisk) one at a time–adding the second egg after the first is incorporated.
Beat in flour and salt.
Pour into a prepared, unbaked pie shell.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25 minutes.
Remove and cool on a pie/cake rack.
Serve warm or at room temperature with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“This sauce, is it cherry?” Wendy asked.
“It has a dark cherry color,” Paulette said, dabbing a little on her tongue. “But I don’t know,” her voice trailed off.
” I bet it’s a mixture of berries,” said Marty, spooning the garnet glaze over the meat.
I smiled and shook my head.
“Plum, perhaps?” asked Rick.
No one at potluck was able to identify the fruit at the heart of this sauce.
But when I informed them that it was pomegranate, there was a collective nod and murmur, “Ahhhhh.”
Bottled pomegranate juice arrived on the food scene as the new darling almost a decade ago. Antioxidant-rich, packed with vitamins A, C, and E, the tart claret juice is now beyond a trend, and well-established in the culinary world.
Still, I had cooked with it on rare occasions. Had our roles been reversed, I doubt that I would have correctly identified the fruit either.
Wanting to cook a turkey breast for our potluck, I did a little on-line research to find some new method or preparation. Of all the recipes I pored over, this one leapt out.
Smoke-roasted turkey breast with pomegranate-thyme glaze was one of five holiday bird recipes, but it’s silly to wait until Thanksgiving for such a dish. For its versatility and taste, turkey should be welcome any time of year. It is especially good for potlucks and the like–even a plump breast of turkey can ably feed a crowd.
And, in summer, having your main cooking source placed outside makes good sense.
Garlic, shallots and fresh thyme ground with olive oil and a splash of POM make a delectable seasoning rub for the bird.
The recipe is appealing, too, for its laissez-faire nature. I could put the breast on my smoker grill (I have a Big Green Egg) and then go about my business. The smoker works its magic for hours out in the heat of the day, while I am inside,
Adding soaked wood chips to those smoldering coals imparts another sweet layer of flavor. If you don’t have a smoker, you can slow-roast the turkey in your oven. You won’t get that smoky taste or distinctive pink-tinged ring permeating the meat. But the herbs and tart fruitiness will still bring intriguing tastes that partner well with turkey, but are a step out of the usual.
The glaze takes up where the pesto rub leaves off. Pomegranate’s inherent tang is both bolstered and balanced with brown sugar and vinegar. You can make it while the turkey is cooking along.
It has its own laissez-faire way. At a simmer, it reduces over the course of half an hour. Or so.
You just need to give it an occasional stir.
Even so, it is not a thick glaze–to its benefit. The thin syrup glosses over the breast, staining the skin and meat with a beautiful red violet color. Both look and taste hint at fall.
I suspect the glaze would be just as delicious brushed onto chicken or duck. Pork too!
adapted from Cooking Light
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot or 1/3 cup white onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 1/2 cups pomegranate juice
1/4 cup brown sugar (I used Demerara)
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
pinch or two red pepper flakes
Warm olive oil in a deep skillet. Saute garlic and shallots for 1-2 minutes, until softened. Stir in thyme leaves, pomegranate juice, brown sugar and vinegar. Season with salt, black pepper, and a sprinkle or two red pepper flakes. Allow the mixture to cook on low for at about thirty minutes, until it reduces by half, to a thin syrup.
SMOKED TURKEY BREAST
1 6 lb turkey breast
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons pomegranate juice
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided
paprika–to sprinkle over turkey breast
2 cups wood chips, soaked (applewood, cherrywood, hickory, mesquite–your choice)
Rinse and dry turkey breast.
Place olive oil, thyme leaves, garlic, pomegranate juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper into a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients become a kind of rough pesto.
Lift the skin of the turkey and liberally rub the thyme mixture onto the flesh.
Sprinkle the exterior of the bird with remaining salt, black pepper, and a light dusting of paprika.
Prepare grill, adding soaked wood chips to the coals. When the temperature gauge reaches 200 degrees, place the turkey breast on the grill. Cover and allow it to smoke for about 3 hours. At that point, brush on some glaze and let the breast finish for another 30 minutes. Check the internal temperature of the bird–it should register 165 degrees to be done.
Remove from the smoker grill. As the turkey cools, continue brushing with more glaze.
Cut into nice 1/4″ slices and arrange on a platter, drizzling glaze over the slices.
Serve with remaining glaze in a bowl on the side. Serves 10