Posts tagged appetizers

Shrimp and the Future

The BP oil spill has been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for about a month now, with no end in sight. As oil and chemicals drift towards the Louisiana coast, it’s easy to imagine the destruction being inflicted on these fishing grounds and the people who make their livings from them. This article from the New York Times addresses the issues straight-on, explaining how the majority of our domestic seafood comes from either Louisiana or Alaska, and how this spill will likely cause seafood shortages from the Gulf. It makes me wonder, between E-coli laced meat and toxic seafood, what will be left for us to eat?

One of the many reasons why I feel so sad about the BP situation is because in the past few years, I had recently renewed my love for shrimp. It all started with my first trip to Disneyworld as a child—whenever I think about it, I don’t remember the exhilarating curves and dips of Space Mountain or the sentimental sweetness of the It’s a Small World ride. No, my most vivid memory is of sitting at a white-clothed table with my parents and younger sister in front of a tall, narrow glass filled with my first shrimp cocktail. After my initial bites of those cold boiled shrimp dipped in their deliciously zesty tarter sauce, I couldn’t get enough, and I think I had a shrimp cocktail every night for the rest of that week. Mickey Mouse and Goofy just couldn’t compete.

But something changed in my early twenties, and for a long while I couldn’t stand the sight of shrimp. It had something to do with the texture, and I didn’t touch them for years. But in an effort to partake of their health benefits, I started eating and enjoying them again a few years ago. Their mild flavor works well in a variety of recipes, from Italian to Asian and everything else in between.

Currently my favorite shrimp dish is this recipe from the New York Times, published over a year ago. From the moment it appeared, these roasted, lemon-infused shrimp and smoky, cumin- and coriander-accented broccoli took the blogging world by storm, and with good reason. Served with brown or white rice, they form an easy and healthy meal, packed with a unique and addictive combination of flavors. I’ve been making it at least once a month for the past year, and I haven’t tired of it yet.

Jim and I recently tried a Thai-inspired recipe from Food & Wine as well, an intriguing mix of grilled shrimp, garlic, cilantro, shallots, red pepper, and soba noodles, mixed with various Asian seasonings. Jim loved the spicy combination of flavors with the buckwheat noodles, and I expect this recipe to enter our regular dinner rotation as well. We slurped up every bite in one sitting.

I don’t mean to minimize the oil spill in the Gulf with petty talk about my favorite shrimp recipes; there are so many huge ramifications of this catastrophic event that it depresses me just to read about them. But talking about the impact of this spill on my daily life in Brooklyn, miles away from where it is actually happening, reminds me that I’m really not so distant from it at all. These disasters, both natural and man-made, impact us all in one way or another. Shrimp dinners are just the beginning.

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Dinner at Avec

sardines2

Yay, Top Chef is back! Last year I watched the entire season from start to finish, and I was totally hooked. So I found it appropriate that the weekend before the newest round of this culinary competition was set to begin, Jim and I took a quick trip to Chicago, where last season was filmed. We even had dinner at Avec, Chef Koren Grieveson’s Mediterranean-inspired wine bar and the more casual cousin of neighboring restaurant Blackbird. Chef Grieveson was a guest judge on Top Chef last year. (See, I told you I was hooked.)

I have to admit, I hadn’t read much about the restaurant before we jumped in a cab and sped over from our hotel. But once I started recognizing some of the faces behind the bar and made the Top Chef connection, I was even more excited about our newest dining adventure. We started with a drink at the long, stainless steel bar while waiting for seats at one of the restaurant’s communal tables. (Avec does not take reservations.) After ordering from the lengthy wine list, we observed the bustling scene and listened in astonishment to the noise emitted from the room. Top Chef notoriety aside, Avec hosted one of the most festive—and loud—crowds in town. 

After about half an hour, Jim and I were led through the narrow, blond-wood dining room to a table near the back of the restaurant, close to a glinting wall of green wine bottles. As our neighbors settled in around us, we perused the menu, which was divided into “small” and “large” plates. I suddenly understood the use of the word avec—which means with in French—as the name of the restaurant: As the menu made clear, this was food to be shared and experienced with other people. 

lemonsausage

We ordered some meaty house-marinated olives to start our meal ($5). Next, piles of deliciously oily, house-pickled sardines with shaved apples, red onion, radish sprouts, and fresh parsley tumbled over thick slices of buttery bread ($12). The contrasting interplay of crisp fruits and vegetables with the tender, salty fish created a dish that Jim is still raving about. Without a doubt, it would have won any Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef.

But the preserved lemon sausage with fresh kidney beans, one of Avec’s daily specials, was also a strong contender that evening ($8). Lemony bits of crumbled meat were gently tempered by the smooth beans, and Jim and I scooped spoonfuls onto our plates, enjoying the textural jumble of flavors. Perhaps the ultimate champion of the night was the “deluxe” focaccia, a closed pizza-like dish oozing with warm taleggio cheese, fresh herbs, and musky truffle oil ($14.50). Chef Grieveson would never lose an Elimination Challenge, not with this decadent focaccia.

focaccia

As Jim and I ate our meal, we noticed our neighbors striking up a conversation with each other. Soon these once-separate parties were sharing dishes such as the chorizo-stuffed dates and buying each other shots of limoncello. The jovial spirit of Avec is infectious, and makes friends out of strangers. Jim and I were so stuffed, we didn’t have room for dessert, but we left feeling thrilled with our dining experience. I can’t wait to return and try more dishes from the menu, as those chorizo-stuffed dates and the house-cured salumi are still calling to me. I’m certain that a second visit to Avec would never feel like a repeat of Top Chef—or any other show for that matter.

Avec, 615 West Randolph Street, Chicago 60661 T: 312-377-2002

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Cold Stuffed Grape Leaves (and an Engagement)

I know, I know. I thought I was back on the path to blogging regularly, but somehow two weeks have gone by without a new post. Between worrying about the election and traveling many miles on the weekends for various family commitments, I’ve been pressed for both time and energy. But in the midst of all the craziness, I have some good news: My sister Melissa and her boyfriend Nedim are engaged! You may remember these wacky kids from several restaurant adventures I’ve written about, as well as an exhausting ravioli dinner last year. Needless to say, I am thrilled for the happy couple.

Last weekend my parents threw a party to celebrate the engagement, and my mother asked Jim and I to contribute an appetizer. After some thought, Jim suggested that we make a dish inspired by Nedim’s Turkish heritage. I immediately agreed, so we pulled out Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food and started flipping through the pages.

We had a few criteria for our appetizer, beyond its necessary Turkish roots. First of all, Jim and I knew that my mother would be busy preparing the rest of the party food in the oven, and we wanted to stay out of her way. We needed to stay out of her way. (Trust me.) Our appetizer had to travel well, as we would be transporting it from our home in Brooklyn, and it had to be unobtrusive in my mother’s kitchen. We decided that a cold dish would be best.

We quickly settled on making Roden’s cold stuffed grape leaves, which she also calls dolma. The word dolma actually refers to any stuffed vegetable dish of Middle Eastern origin, but grape leaves are one of the best known. Meat dolma are hot, while vegetarian dolma are usually served cold or at room temperature. After buying some preserved grape leaves at Sahadi’s, Jim and I settled in for an exciting Friday night at home, rolling and stuffing about 70 leaves with a fragrant mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice.

While the process of preparing the grape leaves was time-consuming, it actually wasn’t stressful or exhausting. Jim and I had fun methodically stuffing and rolling the cigar-shaped tubes as the evening wore on. Once rolled, the leaves were cooked in a bath of olive oil and lemon juice, resulting in the glistening surface and smooth texture typical of this traditional mezze. Jim and I tasted one that night, biting through the delicate layers of supple, slightly briny leaves to the cool, silky rice and Middle Eastern spices within. While the coating of olive oil, lemon juice, and sugar imparted a luxurious sweetness to the rolls, the secret to this recipe was the mint; it infused the leaves with a zesty lightness that I adored.

I’m pretty sure that everyone at the party enjoyed our contribution to the appetizers, including my sister and her fiancé. I was surprised by how many people referred to the leaves as dolma, as I had never heard the term before reading the recipe. My cousin’s Greek husband even said they were the best he ever tasted. So, welcome to the family, Nedim. I hope you liked them as well!

Recipe for Cold Stuffed Grape Leaves (adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) This recipe makes about 70 grape leaves, perfect for a big party or celebration.

For the filling:

  • 2 1/2 cups Carolina long-grain rice
  • 6 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 very large white onion, finely diced
  • 4 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 tablespoons dried mint
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper

For the pans/cooking time:

  • 2 or 3 plum tomatoes (sliced)
  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • Juice of 2 lemons

Bring a full kettle of water to a boil. Place the preserved grapes leaves in a large bowl, and try to separate the leaves as much as possible. Pour the boiling water over the leaves, making sure that the water reaches between the layers of leaves. Let the leaves soak for 20 minutes. Drain. Using fresh, cold water, change the water twice. Set aside.

Put another kettle of water on the stove to boil. In another large bowl, pour the boiling water over the rice. Stir well, then rinse the rice under cold water. Add the tomatoes, onion, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice to the rice. Stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

At this point, you are ready to stuff the grape leaves. Remove a leaf from the bowl and place it on a flat surface, vein side up. Blot it dry with a paper towel if it seems too wet. Place about 1 1/2 small spoonfuls of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf, near the stem end at the base of the leaf. Fold the stem end over the filling. Fold the sides of the leaf in towards the middle, and the roll the leaf upwards. Make sure the sides of the leaf continue to fold inward as you roll the leaf upwards. Repeat with the rest of the leaves. Set aside.

Mix the olive oil with 1 1/2 cups of water. Add the sugar and fresh lemon juice. Stir. Set aside.

Line the bottom of 2 large, high-sided sauté pans or one Dutch oven with the sliced tomatoes. Tightly pack the grape leaves into one layer, on top of the tomatoes. You can create a second layer of leaves if you need to. Slip the garlic cloves in between the rolls if desired.

Stir the olive oil/lemon juice mixture, and pour it over the leaves, evenly dividing the liquid between the pans if using more than one. Place a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from possibly unwinding. Cover the pans, set the heat to low, and simmer gently for about an hour. Roden’s book suggests adding small cups of water if the pans run out of liquid, but I did not have this problem. Cool the leaves in the pans before removing the rolls. Once completely cooled, you can refrigerate the rolls. Serve cold or at room temperature. Enjoy!

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Dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

 

If you’ve read other descriptions of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, you might already be familiar with the photograph above. “Oh no,” you probably just groaned. “Not another post raving about this place and its raw vegetables on sticks.” Well, brace yourself: Last week I finally ate at Stone Barns, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful and creative meals I’ve ever had. And those vegetables on sticks? Through their farm-to-table freshness and the artistry of their arrangement, they encompass all that was wonderful about the experience.

Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, and headed by chef Dan Barber (also of Blue Hill in Manhattan), Blue Hill at Stone Barns is more than just a restaurant. It’s a farm, an ideal, and an artistic adventure. Every effort is made to prepare and produce food culled from its own land, which is situated on a vast Rockefeller Estate. (While most ingredients used in the restaurant are produced on the farm, not all of them are. For example, Blue Hill does not farm its own fish.) Along with our friends Keith and Gabriella, Jim and I explored the farm on Saturday afternoon, intrigued by its greenhouses, herb gardens, and pastures of sheep and turkeys.

We returned later that night for dinner, and were immediately embraced by the soaring, wood-beamed ceilings and golden lighting of the main dining room, located in a sprawling stone dairy barn. As we perused the tasting menu, we realized that it was simply a list of the ingredients available to Chef Barber that evening. Beyond this list, our group had no idea what lay in store in store for us. We threw up our hands and surrendered to the experience, although we were encouraged to tell the wait staff a bit about our food personalities and preferences so that Chef Barber could personalize our tasting.

After a few nervous shrugs and glances between us, Jim declared that we were an adventurous group of eaters. On the evening of our visit, the ingredients ranged from concord grapes, bok choi, and chanterelle mushrooms to Berkshire pork, wahoo fish, and grass-fed veal, among many others. We decided to indulge in the seven-course farmers’ feast tasting ($125 each). In response to our waiter’s inquiry regarding ingredients we preferred or disliked, Jim described his love for arugula, asking to see what Chef Barber could do with his favorite green apart from serving it raw in a salad. I added that I didn’t feel like eating soft-boiled eggs, and Gabriella said she was willing to eat less meat. The adventure had begun.

Then the amuse-bouche started to arrive, as exciting in their presentation as their flavors. Those raw vegetables elegantly perched on steel spikes were crisp, fresh, and simply touched with lemon. Tiny beet burgers, skewers of eggplant coated with pancetta and sesame seeds, bread with fresh butter, lard, and soft, smooth ricotta, were placed on the table in unending parade of farm freshness. And I can’t forget the face bacon, served to us with other Stone Barns cured meats. 

No, you didn’t read that incorrectly, I wrote face bacon. Made from the farm’s own pigs’ jowls, these small, crunchy bits of meat enthralled us to no end. We raised our wine glasses when ingredients were described as being “from the farm,” creating our own amusing drinking game in the midst of the abundance. Arugula quickly made its first appearance with the appetizers, infused into a cup of salt served with our bread. I should note now that Chef Barber conquered Jim’s arugula challenge throughout our meal, mixing this peppery green into grain salads and serving it wilted on the side of our entrées.

After being successfully lured in by the appetizers, the main dishes began. One after another, each dish was a visual and edible surprise. Delicate pieces of barely seared bluefin and wahoo fish started our feast. A vegetable called celtuse, its wide, ribbon-like strands mimicking fresh pasta in a sauce of pine nut butter and yogurt, was a favorite of the night.

I didn’t know what to expect in response to my soft-boiled egg request, but I soon found out: For one entrée, while everyone else enjoyed a farm-fresh (raise your wine glass now) egg dish, I received my own small serving of eggplant parmigiana with zucchini flowers sprinkled across the top. Later in the evening, Gabriella also received a personalized dish as a substitute for one of the two meat  entrées of Berkshire pig and chicken. Now that’s what I call personal attention.

The desserts were delivered in a continuous stream, including baked plums with crispy emmer; a dessert composed from juicy concord grapes; and a curious fruit called the paw paw. Just when I thought I’d had enough, our waiter wheeled out a cart overflowing with herbs and a glass teapot. He called it a tisane, and brewed us a soothing pot of lemon verbena and sage tea on the spot. It was one of the most beautiful displays of greenery I had ever seen.

At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, art and food intersect to create an enthralling and unique experience. I know it may sound pretentious to describe a meal in these terms, but for me, it was true. Every detail, from the beautiful porcelain plates decorated with plant and animal life, to the rustic candle holders, dark wood accents, and overflowing plant arrangements in the dining room coordinated perfectly with our abundant and beautifully plated farmers’ feast. Combined with Stone Barns’s practice of cultivating as much food as possible on their own land, everything came together to offer an extremely personal and artistic meal. That’s how those vegetables on sticks represent the Blue Hill at Stone Barns experience: fresh, honest, and creative.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, 630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, New York 10591  T: 914-366-9600. A five-course tasting is also offered for $95, and on Sundays there is a four-course tasting lunch for $68. Make your reservations one to two months in advance.

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Farmers’ Market Find: Zucchini Flowers

August celebrates the apex of summer and its abundance of fruits and vegetables. Corn, tomatoes, sweet peaches and plums, they’re all in season right now. And zucchini. How can we forget about the zucchini?

It’s everywhere these days. For the past few weeks I’ve been sautéing it and tossing it with pasta, grilling long, thin strips of it in my stovetop grill pan, and baking it into bread. I didn’t think there was anything left for me to do with it, but then I came across a box of zucchini flowers at my local farmers’ market.

These delicate, yellow-orange blossoms were too tempting to leave behind. They can be cooked in a variety of ways, but I was most familiar with two Italian preparations for fiori di zucca: They can be fried, which is how my mother makes them, or they can be stuffed with a cheese filling and fried, as Jim and I recently saw on Jamie Oliver’s wonderful cooking show, Jamie at Home.

(If you can’t already tell, there’s no escaping the frying involved with this project. Just go with it.)

Zucchini blossoms are not hard to work with, but they should be cooked right away and they need to be handled gently. Interestingly, they come in female and male versions, with the females attached directly to the zucchini and the males growing on a separate stem. 

After watching Oliver’s program for guidance, we stuffed the blossoms with a filling of fresh ricotta, basil, and lemon zest. Similar to the versatile stuffed chard leaves I made a few weeks ago, a variety of cheese-based fillings could work in this recipe. Next we dipped the flowers and zucchini into our Oliver-inspired batter, threw them into a batch of hot olive oil, and fried away.

Jim and I wound up with too many fried zucchini flowers for just the two of us, but no matter. We did our best, crunching our way through the hot, browned batter to the creamy, lemony ricotta filling hiding within. The flower petals added a fresh sweetness in the midst of the crisp coating and lush cheese center. I wonder what August will bring us next. And more importantly, can it be fried?

Recipe for Fried Zucchini Flowers Stuffed with Lemon Basil Ricotta (adapted from the television program Jamie at Home)

  • 8 zucchini flowers and any attached zucchini
  • 1/2 lb of fresh ricotta (do not use packaged supermarket ricotta)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped basil
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
  • 1/2 bottle white wine
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • pepper

Prepare the flowers: Gently rinse the zucchini flowers. Spread the petals open to reveal the bulbous pistil or stamen inside, at the base of each blossom. Remove it from each flower with a paring knife.

Prepare the filling: Combine the ricotta, basil, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Mix thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Fill the flowers: Take a plastic freezer bag and scoop the filling into it. Cut off one of the bottom corners of the bag to create a type of pastry bag. Open each blossom, spread the petals back gently, and squeeze a small amount of the ricotta filling inside—you should be able to fit a couple of tablespoons of filling inside each flower. Fold the petals over each other to seal the filling in the flowers. Don’t worry if they look messy or don’t seal perfectly.

Make the batter: Be sure to make this batter after you prep the flowers. You don’t want to the batter to sit around and start to thicken. Combine the flour, baking powder, and 3/4 teaspoon of salt in a mixing bowl. Slowly add the white wine while mixing your dry ingredients. The batter is ready when it resembles a thick, liquidy pancake batter.

Fry the flowers: In a large, high-sided skillet or Dutch oven, heat your olive oil. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of your pan and the flowers. 

When the oil is hot and shimmering, dip the flowers in the batter, let the excess batter drip back into the bowl, and add them to pan. They should sizzle quickly and start to brown. When deeply browned on all sides, remove the flowers from the oil and set them on a plate lined with paper towels to drain.

Serve immediately. Recipe serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer. Enjoy! 

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Lessons from the Dinner Club

Jamie Oliver\'s Stuffed Leg of Lamb

With everyone leading such busy lives, I’ve found that months can go by without seeing certain friends. So, in an effort to maintain our ties to each other, Jim and I and 7 of our close friends decided to meet once a month to enjoy a home-cooked meal together. Jim and I hosted the inaugural dinner club gathering this past Saturday night.

I had never cooked a meal for such a large group of people before. As I expected, I learned many things from the experience. Here’s a rundown of the night:

Appetizers: We started with a loaf of No-Knead Bread, some soft, briny olives, and taleggio cheese, accompanied by fruity olive oil from my mother’s hometown in Italy. Jim’s fizzy Pomegranate-Champagne cocktail helped get the night off to a festive start.

What I learned: People love homemade bread. And fizzy drinks.

First course: Because of our previous success with Cook’s Illustrated’s Ricotta Gnocchi Jim and I thought they would be a perfect first course for the party. We made them a week earlier and froze them. An hour before cooking them, I took the gnocchi out of the freezer to rest at room temperature, as per the recipe. But when I finally added the gnocchi to the boiling water, the delicate squares of cheese disintegrated, their breadcrumbs trickling to the surface of the water.

As Jim and I stared at our melted, soggy gnocchi, we were faced with a Top Chef-like decision: Did we dare serve them? Since Padma wasn’t around to expel us from our own kitchen, we did. We were among friends, after all, and we all shared a laugh over the still-tasty, herb-infused cheese topped with a simple tomato sauce.

What I learned: When you have the oven going at full blast, plus 2 burners aflame on the stovetop, do not defrost ricotta gnocchi at room temperature. The kitchen was too warm to let the little guys rest on the counter, and they were doomed from the start.

Second course: We all know who I turn to in times of food-related need: Jamie Oliver. This time we went with his rustic leg of lamb from Jamie’s Italy, stuffing it with green olives, anchovies, bread, pine nuts, and an amazing amount of fresh herbs. We roasted it over potatoes, sweet parsnips, and fennel for two hours, pausing every so often to baste the meat with red wine. While Jim carved the lamb, I quickly sautéed some fresh brussels sprouts leaves with garlic and olive oil. Far more successful than our ricotta gnocchi, this second course saved the night for us. Jim even hit a home run with the wine pairing, serving a lovely, rich Bandol that we all enjoyed.

What I learned: As I had heard in the past, anchovies don’t taste fishy when mixed with other foodstuffs. They simply add a salty depth that you can’t achieve with regular salt.

Dessert: After a few rousing rounds of Guitar Hero (yes, we’re all in our 30s), we returned to the table for panna cotta with wild berry coulis. Luckily I still had a photograph from the first time I made this sweet, creamy delight of a dish, back during my struggles with homemade ravioli.

What I learned: When 6 of the desserts are served in regular glassware, and 4 in heart-shaped ramekins, everyone wants to know why they didn’t get a heart-shaped ramekin.

A few other things I learned from the evening:

  • If you are hosting a dinner party, don’t plan to take carefully-composed photos of the food. It’s just not going to happen.
  • Meals can indeed be enjoyed while sitting in a rocking chair.
  • I stink at Guitar Hero.
  • If you don’t have a table large enough for 10 people, borrow a portable card table from a friend. Thanks, Diego! If not for you we would have been sitting in a circle on the floor.

So our first dinner party was a total success. We ate, laughed, and relaxed. And I even learned a few culinary lessons. That’s what I call a good night, and I can’t wait until the next meeting of our Dinner Club.

The only recipe I modified from the original was for the panna cotta with wild berry coulis. I doubled the recipe to serve 10, but I’ll provide you with the basic recipe for 6 (generous) servings.

Recipe for Panna Cotta with Wild Berry Coulis (adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook and the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook):

For the Panna Cotta:

  • 2 3/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, scored down the middle, seeds scraped from the pod
  • a drop of vanilla extract

In a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over the water, and let it stand until it softens, at least 1 minute. Combine cream, half-and-half, and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until all of the sugar is dissolved. Once the cream mixture starts to boil, remove it from heat. Stir 1 cup of the cream mixture into gelatin mixture, then stir the cream and gelatin mixture back into the cream. Stir in the vanilla bean seeds, as well as a small drop of vanilla extract.

Pour an equal amount of the cream mixture into 6 glasses of your choice. Cool to room temperature for 30 minutes. Cover each glass with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before you plan to serve them.

For the Wild Berry Coulis:

  • 10 ounces frozen mixed wild berries (1 bag of frozen fruit)
  • 1/4 cup sugar (adjust according to your preference)
  • 1 squeeze of lemon juice
  • a pinch of salt

While your panna cotta sets in the refrigerator, turn your attention to the wild berry coulis. Place the frozen berries in a saucepan. Cover. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir often for 10 to 12 minutes. Add sugar, turn heat to high, and boil for 2 minutes.

Strain berries through a strainer, using a spoon or spatula to push the berries through into a bowl. Discard the berry seeds that are left in the strainer. Add lemon juice and salt. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

When you are ready to serve your panna cotta, top each one with a generous serving of the berry coulis. Serves 6. Enjoy!

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Holiday Appetizers

Three-Cheese Mini Macs from Food & Wine magazine 

On Saturday night Jim and I threw our annual holiday get-together. We made most of the food ourselves, from a mix of new recipes and old favorites. As always, the night had its share of winners and disappointments:

Three-Cheese Mini Macs from Food & Wine, December 2007
These small starbursts of elbow macaroni and cheddar, American, and parmesan cheeses were the hit of the evening, and were picked off their Pittsburgh Steelers tray faster than I could make them. Most of the labor was done ahead of time, as I prepared the pasta and cheese mixture on Saturday morning, then filled my mini muffin tin and placed it in the fridge until guests started to arrive. After 10 minutes in the oven, then 5 more on the cooling rack, they were ready to go. And I was easily able to cook more of these comfort-food favorites as the night wore on.

Goat Cheese Crostini with Blood Orange and Black Pepper Marmalade, from Bon Appétit, December 2007
For these labor-intensive crostini I spent Friday afternoon painstakingly peeling blood orange sections from their papery membranes. But the result was worth it: a tangy yet sweet jam that perfectly complemented the creamy goat cheese spread. Unfortunately I made a grave error regarding the bread. In the past I have sliced and toasted my bread an hour or so before the guests arrived and then frantically assembled the crostini. I feel silly even writing this, but this year I prepared my bread the afternoon before and sealed it in an airtight container. Of course it didn’t work. The crostini were too hard and crunchy on the night of the party.

Mark Bittman’s Polpetti from the New York Times, November 29, 2006
In this week’s New York Times Dining section, Mark Bittman provides ideas for 101 simple appetizers; where was he when I needed him last week? In any case, for two years in a row I have made his fantastic polpetti (little meatballs) to tons of acclaim. Last year I used ground beef and pork; this year I used ground veal and pork. I doubled the recipe and made them a few hours before party time, then quickly warmed them up in the oven. The veal-based polpetti didn’t brown as much as I expected, but the taste was gentler and more subtle than last year’s beef version. On Saturday night they disappeared so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to take a photo of them.

White Bean Puree from Time Out New York, March 4-11, 1999
I have made this bean dip for the past eight years. For previous parties I used canned white beans as the base for the puree. But last week I bought a bag of dried white beans and soaked those little guys for 8 hours. After another hour or so of simmering on the stove with an onion and some garlic, then a swirl in the food processor with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil, my bean dip had a fresher taste and lusher texture than ever before. A 15-minute infusion of fresh rosemary completed the task, and added a kick of natural herb flavor.

Holiday Table with Appetizers

We also made some fresh mozzarella, basil, and sundried tomato skewers from Giada’s Family Dinners, a second round of pizzelles, and brownies. And we can’t forget Jim’s awesome homemade egg nog. Just to be sure we had enough food, we also ordered a fresh vegetable plate and some wraps from the gourmet grocery down the block. Interestingly, no one touched the wraps, but the rest of the food was gone by 11 pm. Since the best evidence of a successful party is the absence of leftovers, I’d have to say that things went very well.

Now, what should we make next year?

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