Category — Entertaining

Re: Memorial Day Weekend

As much as we would have liked to get away last weekend for Memorial Day, it just didn’t seem worth the price of gas to book it down to the beach.  Given the fantastic, utterly perfect weather, we maximized our long weekend at home by picking up some perennials and planting them into the flower bed in front of the house.

Oh yes, there was something else, involving pork.

On Saturday, my neighbor held a small Memorial Day weekend gathering to inaugurate his new grill.  Seeing the opportunity to smoke some ribs without the production of having a lot of people over at our own place, I offered to bring barbecue.  The offer was gladly received, and on Friday we picked up about four racks of spareribs.

Here’s the thing about true barbecue – you need time and heat, and the actual mechanics of the process are more art than science.

Last summer, I treated myself to the only smoker that I will ever need to buy – a 200lb behemoth of welded steel, with an offset firebox and enough cooking area to feed a large party.  At the start of spring, I went and picked up a couple of boxes of hickory, and a recent Costco run yielded a nice double-pack of charcoal.  To say that I was ready for barbecue season would be an understatement.

On Friday, I filled a contractor’s bucket with water from my garden hose, and sunk about 8 logs of hickory into it.  For barbecue, it’s important to soak your wood before you begin, because if the wood is too dry, it will burst into flames instead of smoldering gently, which is what you need it to do in order to get a decent smoke going on.  I also whipped together a double batch of my rub, which is a mixture of cane sugar, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and a few other things which I am conveniently forgetting to list here.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and took the spareribs out of the fridge to let them rest on the kitchen counter (you don’t want to put cold meat into a hot smoker, because there’s a chance that creosote, a black tar-like substance, will condense onto your meat).  I took some time to clean out the smoker from the last session, emptying it of ash, and lit a bunch of charcoal in my chimney starter.  When the charcoal was ready, I dumped it into the firebox, opened up all of the vents, and let the smoker come up to about 225 degrees.

While the smoker was warming up, I cut the sparerib racks into manageable pieces (I would prefer to leave them whole, but with so many ribs, I had to use rib racks to hold the smaller pieces upright).  A heavy dusting of rub on both sides, and they were ready.  I carefully moved them into position in the smoker and closed the lid with a thud.

The best part of barbecue is the first addition of wood to produce smoke.  I fished out a nice-sized piece of hickory from the water bucket and put it on top of the charcoal in the firebox.  Within moments, faint wisps of blue smoke started piping from the smoker’s stack.

Put simply, smoking barbecue meat requires a sustained temperature of 180 to 220 degrees, fired by wood and charcoal, for several hours.  It’s a nice day spent at home, that’s for sure.  So, for most of the day on Saturday, I tended to the smoker, adding charcoal when the temperature got too low and wood when the smoke subsided.

By the time we delivered the final product next door, the ribs had gone for about seven hours, and were so tender you could pull the bone out with a gentle tug.

In case you are wondering about the picture, another thing that benefits barbecue is a good baste, or mop.  This time, I decided to make a mop of cider vinegar, onion, garlic, and Victory Hop Devil beer.  Good times.

May 29, 2008   Comments

The Big Finish

So, I had mentioned that I spent part of the morning on Friday making dessert. While I knew that one of our distinguished guests was bringing a homemade cake (completely from scratch), I also knew that, in said cake, there would be no chocolate. That was my in.

I decided to augment the dessert selection by making a chocolate pots de creme, which is really just a fancy way of saying “melted chocolate held together by egg yolks”. Really, it is.

At first, I had the hardest time finding which cookbook had held the recipe that I used earlier. I grabbed one book, but the pots de creme recipe didn’t look familiar (also, it called for a dozen egg yolks, and I’m fairly positive I would have remembered that). Finally, I grabbed my copy of Williams Sonoma Paris: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World, and found a recipe whose page was splattered with bits of chocolate and stained with cocoa. Pretty sure that was it.

So, here’s the magic formula, with the ingredients straight out of that book and the procedure based on the book but adjusted somewhat for my tastes:

Pots de Creme au Chocolat

1.5 C whole milk

1 C heavy cream

1 C powdered sugar

8oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger, 72% if I remember correctly), chopped up

2 T unsweetened cocoa

pinch of salt

1 large egg, whole, plus 6 egg yolks

1/2 t vanilla extract

These things are incredibly easy to make, which is probably why they are my go-to recipe for chocolate desserts. First things first, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Some preparatory steps – take eight 6oz or 8oz ramekins (they are cheap and widely available, about a buck and a half each if you shop around) and put them into an ovenproof dish that will fit them (a Corningware casserole is good for this). Take a saucepan of cold water and pour it into the dish until the water level reaches about a third of the way up each ramekin. Take out the ramekins and pour the water back into the saucepan. Set the saucepan of water aside, or pour the water into something that you can heat up in the microwave. As long as the water is hot when you put the dish into the oven, it doesn’t matter how it got that way.

You know what you just did? You just made the preliminary measurements for a bain marie, or water bath. It’s an important part of custard making – by cooking the custards, covered, in water, it maintains a nice, steady temperature which cooks them evenly. You’ve now measured the proper amount of water needed to cover the ramekins halfway (and before you quibble that I specified a third of the way – Archimedes Principle. That is all).

Onwards to the recipe. Take another saucepan and set it over medium heat, then throw your milk, cream, and sugar into it. Give that a good stir to dissolve the sugar, and heat it up until you see some simmering action going on along the edges. Turn the heat off.

Toss in your chopped chocolate, cocoa, and salt and stir until everything melts together. Turn the heat back on and heat until you see small bubbles at the edge, then turn the heat off again. Set this pot aside to cool for a bit while you go get the eggs.

In a large measuring cup (I mean large, like 8 cups or so) or large bowl, whisk the whole egg and the egg yolks together until blended. While stirring with one hand, ladle a little bit (like, half a ladle) of the warm chocolate mixture into the yolks, then a little more (you do it this way to avoid cooking the eggs with the hot chocolate – this brings the temperature of the eggs up slowly). Slowly incorporate the rest of the chocolate in a slow stream (don’t stop stirring). Add your vanilla.

At this point, the book suggests running the mix through a sieve. Seeing that I am lazy, and I don’t mind lumps in my food if they are lumps of chocolate, I generally skip this step.

Assembly. If you haven’t already, bring that reserved pot of water to a simmer, or microwave it in a microwave-safe thingy until it just boils. Either pour or ladle the chocolate mixture into the ramekins, then set the ramekins into the oven-safe dish (leave out one so you have a space to pour the hot water). Pour the hot water into the dish until the water level reaches the halfway mark of the ramekins, then put the last ramekin in. Cover the dish, either with a lid or with foil.

Carefully place the dish into the oven for 25 minutes. Take it out, uncover it, and with great care because you will most certainly burn yourself if you aren’t careful, remove the ramekins and place them on a kitchen towel to cool. When they have cooled to room temp, cover each one with plastic wrap and throw them into the fridge until you’re ready to attack them.

I just realized that the picture here has a sprig of rosemary sitting in the chocolate, and I haven’t mentioned it before. One thing about this recipe, once you get the hang of it, is that you can infuse the chocolate mixture with any number of other flavors, just by simmering an extra element (such as rosemary) in the milk-cream-sugar solution prior to adding the chocolate. Here, I chose rosemary, but you can also go with lavender or anything else you can imagine. Just pick out the flavoring element, or sieve it, before you add the chocolate.

The pots de creme ended up being the perfect counterpart to the strawberry cake that was brought to the party. The cake, which was so light it felt like a prop when I lifted it, was a white cake with fresh whipped cream, and strawberries in the shape of hearts (which is great, because I don’t shape my food often enough), was the exact opposite of the chocolate custards, which were very dark and very dense.

So, to keep things fair, I ate both.

Pictures of each, below:

May 1, 2008   Comments

The Main Event – A Springtime Dinner Party in Three Courses

Man, I’m a little tired.  But it’s a good kind of tired.  Three courses, ten people, and everything turned out alright.  I have to apologize for not having more pictures – I was too busy running around the kitchen and forgot to grab the camera until, as you can see, the aftermath.

I spent part of Thursday and all day Friday putting together as many things as I could ahead of time.  On Thursday, I made the duck ragu and a batch of chicken stock.  On Friday morning, I made a chocolate pot de creme, stuck that in the refrigerator, and spent some time chopping the asparagus and mushrooms for the soup.

That being said, we were still a little late getting dinner rolling, but that turned out fine because we had the most compatible group of guests that I think we’ve ever had for a party.  The very best parties are the ones where you can disappear from the conversation into the kitchen and the guests carry on for themselves.

The culprit in my tardiness turned out to be the pasta.  I had forgotten that, despite the fact that the dough is really easy to put together, the rolling and cutting of the pasta sheets by hand takes a bit of time.  I had gotten through three-quarters of the mound of dough when I realized that I only had a half hour before go time – so we decided not to roll and cut the last bit of dough.  I took a few minutes to get some cheese out, prepared the one “made” appetizer – goat cheese marinated in olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper, parsley, and chive – and cut the last sheet of pasta into ribbons before running upstairs into the shower.

Guests started arriving at around 7:15, and between the beer, wine, the conversation and the appetizers, we all found a sweet spot where time just slowed down.  I had the asparagus soup ready by around 8pm, and we ushered everyone into the dining room, which my wife had bedecked with a lovely centerpiece of candles and glasses.  I ran out of soup and tried to extend it with some stock – so, for a fact, I know that three of us had overly thin asparagus soup.  I motored through my bowl and headed back into the kitchen for the pasta course.

Having set a pot of water to boil well beforehand, the pasta course was the easiest of the three to prepare.  The duck ragu, having been made earlier, needed only to be heated, and the ribbons of pasta had had a good long time to dry a bit in a colander, which contributed considerably to their texture in the final dish.  One minute and thirty seconds after entering the kitchen, the second course was ready to send out.

This is the point in the evening where I was entering unknown territory.  The one dish that I had not had time to do a dry run for – grilled shrimp over risotto – was going to take a bit more time to prepare.  I had peeled the shrimp when guests first started arriving, and thrown them into a ziploc bag with some white wine, garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.  As I started the risotto, we drafted one of our guests to skewer the shrimp for us, which was a real timesaver.  I started a chimney of charcoal on the grill and came back to the risotto.

Here’s the thing about risotto – it takes 18 minutes.  No more, and no less.  But it also requires constant attention, stirring and adding stock constantly for nearly all of those 18 minutes.  The great thing is, hearing the conversation carry itself in the next room, I was actually quite fine with standing at the stove.

The risotto deserves its own entry, but I’ll summarize here now:

Roasted Tomato Risotto

6 C chicken stock, simmering
1.5 C arborio rice
1/2 onion, chopped

A few roasted tomatoes (I need to tell you about these later, too)
Shallot, chopped
White wine
Saffron, pinch
1/4 C light cream

In one saucepan, combine chopped roasted tomatoes, the shallot, about 1/2 C white wine, and the saffron and bring to a hard simmer.  When that’s reduced by about half, stir in the light cream, bring back to a simmer for about five minutes, and turn off the heat.  You’re done with that for now and can back-burner it.

Take a pot with high sides and melt some butter in it.  When it’s good and hot, toss in your chopped onion and saute that for a couple of minutes, then add your rice, stirring that up to coat all of the grains with butter.  Add 1/2 C of white wine and stir it in, letting the grains of rice absorb it, and then start adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb each 1/2 cup before adding more.  At around 15 minutes, bite into a grain to check for doneness.  It should be ready at 18 minutes.  Turn off the heat and stir the tomato cream mixture into it, and add salt to taste.

Grilling the shrimp took no time at all.  I dumped the coals into my grill, set the skewers of shrimp on, and grilled them for about five or six minutes per side.  There was enough risotto to grant everyone a fairly large serving, with four shrimp each.

I’ll talk about dessert in the next episode.  Everyone had a wonderful time, and that’s not even mentioning the beer-fueled Rock Band extravaganza that lasted until 2:45am, which certainly had a lot to do with it.

April 29, 2008   Comments

The Dry Run – Asparagus Soup with Mushroom Custard

After deciding that I wanted to serve a soup course, I went through a number of my cookbooks with the general theme of “Spring” in mind. Whatever recipe I ended up with, I wanted it to be a celebration of spring and something light to usher in the evening. I gravitated towards green soups, so peas and spinach and a number of other vegetable soups were considered. In the end, I decided on this recipe for asparagus soup that appears in Tom Colicchio’s book Think Like a Chef.

The prospect of combining two hallmarks of spring, asparagus and mushrooms, appealed to me, and the soup is very straightforward, which would allow me the time to get on with preparing the rest of the meal. The custard seemed to be a nice touch, as it’s something that you don’t see in home cooking too often, but it seemed easy enough to do.

When we went shopping for ingredients, I noticed that 1) I don’t have access to fresh morels, and 2) dried morels are super expensive (around $8.99 for two ounces). I settled on shittake mushrooms instead, which were available fresh – if you were to make this dish, you could probably substitute any mix of mushrooms that are available to you and discover new combinations fairly easily. Also, Colicchio’s original recipe calls for ramps, which are wild onions, and which also weren’t available, so I substituted scallions instead. That’s the great thing about soup – you can always play around with the ingredients quite a bit and still come out looking good.

I won’t list the straight recipe here, since you can find it in the cookbook (and also you can just Google it), but you take 2.5 pounds (or so) of asparagus, chop them in half, and simmer the chopped stems in 2.25 C chicken stock, and reserve the chopped upper halves (the part with the pointy bits). As the stock simmers, gathering asparagus flavor from the stems, you saute the chopped upper halves with some shallot, salt, pepper, and ramps or scallions. Strain the stock, throw away the stems, and pour the stock into your sauteed mix, simmering for five minutes more. Dump the whole thing into a blender and puree. Soup’s done, unless you’re a stickler for running it through a sieve.

As for the custard, set aside about 45 minutes for it. Chop up the mushrooms (1/4 pound), and saute them (along with some scallion or ramps) in a little bit of oil for about five minutes. Throw in a cup of heavy cream, bring to a simmer, turn off the heat, and let that mushroomy goodness steep throughout the cream for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, or whenever you get around to it again. Strain the mix (keep the mushrooms, keep the cream), let the cream cool a little, and then whisk in one egg + one yolk. Divide among eight three ounce ramekins (buttered or spritzed with Pam), stir a little of your mushroom mush into each, and bake in a water bath at 325 degrees for 25 minutes. When they are done, take them out and let them cool on the counter a bit.

When you are ready to assemble, run a knife around the edge of each custard and invert into your serving bowl. If your butter/Pam karma is good, they should just plop out. If not, you may be screwed.

Ladle a little bit of the hot soup around the custard, tilting the bowl to fill in any spaces, and serve. Well, taste for salt first (it will probably need some), and then serve.

April 26, 2008   Comments

The Dry Run – Fresh Pasta with Duck Ragu

While I’d like to say that I’ve never attempted to make fresh pasta before, I know I’d be lying. I just can’t remember when I would have done it, though.

Here’s the deal – I have had, in our apartment before we moved, and now, in the basement, an Atlas brand manual pasta maker. It’s the kind that clamps to the side of a table and has a hand crank. I don’t remember ever using it, but the box has still got the price tag from Fortunoff on it, and when I opened it, inside was a yellowed, crunchy newspaper clipping about making your own pasta.

The clipping is dated from 1990.

So, eighteen years ago, I bought this pasta maker, probably tried it once, and then put it away. But now, I’m older, wiser, and more nimble with my kitchen skillz.

It’s time to give it another shot.

As you may remember, we have a dinner party coming up, and in fact, it’s been moved up to this Friday evening. I’ve already tried a short rib recipe, which I concluded was too heavy for this time of year. I finally did decide on a soup course, a pasta course, and then a main course, which, at this point, will probably be shrimp.

This is my dry run for the pasta course. The recipe for the pasta dough comes out of a recent issue of Saveur, and the duck ragu is from last month’s issue of Gourmet, which I normally would not have picked up except I was stuck in Houston airport and needed reading material.

As it turns out, making fresh pasta is really easy. It’s just flour (3 C), eggs (3, plus one yolk), a little bit of salt, and some water (1 T) and olive oil (1 T). Using a large plastic sheet that is designed for rolling out pie dough, I mound the flour in the middle, make a little space in the center, and throw everything else in there. Take a fork, whisk the eggs to break them up, and then incorporate the flour a little bit at a time, until your arm starts getting tired because the dough is getting stiff. Switch to your hands, knead the dough for about ten minutes, then wrap the ball in plastic wrap and leave it alone for 30 minutes. This would be the time where you clamp the pasta maker to your kitchen counter, and set out a number of sheets of parchment paper, which will serve as your resting areas for your pasta sheets. You can probably start the sauce at this point.

Every pasta recipe I’ve seen seems to follow the same pattern. Take your dough ball, cut it into four pieces, taking one and leaving the others wrapped, and form it into a rough, flat rectangle with your hands. With the rollers set to the widest setting, feed the dough through the rollers, fold into thirds like you were dropping it into the mail, and run it through again. Do this four or five times.

Set the rollers to their next thinnest setting, and run your dough through again. You don’t need to fold it anymore. Keep reducing the width of the rollers and running the dough through until you’re at the last, and thinnest, setting. Around three-quarters of the way through, you will wish that you had set aside more counter space for this project, since the pasta sheet will get progressively longer as it gets thinner – I keep a knife nearby and like to cut the sheet in half (remember what setting you were on when you did this) to keep things more manageable.

If the sheet is a little tacky, dust it with some flour – don’t worry about drying it out, the extra flour will come out in the cooking water. As you are done with each sheet, dust it on both sides with flour and, draping it over your forearms, set it down on parchment while you roll out the rest of the dough. I find the act of rolling pasta very relaxing and therapeutic, especially feeling the cool pasta sheets against my arms, and the cutting.

Oh yes, the cutting. Once you are done making all of your pasta sheets, take your first sheet (which will have dried a bit) and roll it up loosely, so you have something akin to a canneloni or egg roll. Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into ribbons (keep in mind that when you boil them, these noodles will get wider, so try for thin cuts). Sprinkle flour over the ribbons and work your fingers into them to separate them into noodles. Repeat with the other sheets, forming a loose pile of flour-dusted noodles on your parchment. This is a task that can easily be delegated to others, so if you are in a hurry you can get your sheets turned into noodles faster by aggregating the work.

I suppose this is the right time to talk about the duck ragu. You can find the recipe in Gourmet, but, in a nutshell, you take a duck breast and saute it, skin down, in butter and olive oil for six minutes, then two minutes on the other side. Set that aside, throw in some garlic, onion, half of a cup of red wine, rosemary, chicken stock, and chopped canned tomatoes. Stir it all up, put the duck breast back in, set the heat on low, covered, and get back to your noodles. After an hour, you take the duck breast out, chop up the whole thing, defat and reduce the sauce, and put the meat back in. It’s really easy and amazingly good.

Time to put it all together. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil – and realize that it will take about 3000% longer to boil the water than it will to actually use it to cook the noodles. Seriously. Once your water is boiling, throw some salt in there, and put your pile of noodles into a colander, and set the timer for one minute, thirty seconds. Really. One minute. Thirty seconds. Put your noodles into the water and start your timer – use something to stir the noodles so that they don’t stick to one another.

You now have exactly one minute and thirty seconds to put a small amount of hot duck ragu at the bottom of a bowl. There’s a story behind this, actually – the first time I had tried this recipe, my noodles stuck together as soon as I drained them (also, I cooked them for three minutes, so that may have had something to do with it) and when I put the ragu on top, it kind of sat there on top of a block of noodles (which is, actually, the picture that you see here). My neighbor recommended draining the noodles, but then immediately tossing them with the sauce, which helps to separate the noodles.

So, that’s what we’re doing here. When your timer gets close to the end, drain the noodles in a colander and immediately mix them with some of the duck ragu. The fat in the sauce will coat the noodles and keep them (mostly) separate. That’s it, you’re done.

Because of its simplicity and the ability to make the sauce ahead of time, this dish is most definitely going to comprise the pasta course for Friday night. Running it through two dry runs has enabled me to tweak the cooking time for the noodles, as well as learning the trick about tossing it with the sauce.

April 21, 2008   Comments