Wednesday, March 28, 2007

My epiphany in hosting...

One of my father’s most alluring characteristics is his ability to entertain. All of my favorite memories exist with him as host. Whether it be dinner at one of his restaurants or a party at our own home, the best of times are always had when dad takes over. Actually that’s not quite right, oftentimes even when he is not “the host,” you can find him serving up drinks and checking in to ensure that everyone is having a good time.

To me, a good host is someone who knows what a guest wants without them having to ask. It’s the ability to make people feel comfortable and at ease. In addition to those things, a good host makes an effort to do something special. His or her guests see a unique touch or special addition that was made just for them. A good host prepares a meal that is suited to their guest’s tastes, they may make a beautiful dessert. If they've thought ahead, they use fancy plateware and cloth napkins.

Recently, Alex and I were invited over to a friend's for dinner. The couple are newlyweds and therefore swimming in household items from their wedding registry. It was the first time I'd been to their home and I was quite excited to see how it looked. Alex had helped them build furniture and we were both anxious for a tour. When we arrived, I immediatly knew they put effort and time into planning and preparing our evening. Their dining room table was set beautifully with precisly matched plateware and utensils. Candles were lit, and they had pre-prepared all the food so they were able to spend time with us, not just in the kitchen. It was the first time I'd experienced such thoughtfulness and it was truly wonderful.

Normally when Alex and I have people over, my major goal is to prepare a meal that everyone will enjoy. I believe that that's the marking of a sucessful dinner parties. However, afer our evening with friends, I now realize that there are other gestures that create lasting memories and can show, just as well as food, that you care.

Last weekend Alex invited several couples over for dinner. I was excited to have something to work on and plan as work has been pretty slow the past few weeks. However, as things unfolded it seemed only one couple would be able to attend. While I didn't have much to coordinate it turned out to be a good thing as I realized we only have four matching plate sets.

Alex requested chinese food and I thought it would be fun for us to make summer rolls. I assumed that they would be difficult but actually were simple. We bought pre-cut carrots and cabbage so there was hardly any work at all. Rolling the ingredients was my favorite part of preperation, and the reason I'll likely make them again. It was great to have an activity that kept Alex in the kitchen with me, and the healthy results were an added bonus.

The meal started with spicy shrimp and chilli-garlic sauce. For dinner I made chicken lo-mein to serve with the spring rolls. Dessert was rum cake and carrot cake, courtesy of our guests. All in all it was a wonderful evening and we can't wait to host again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Seriously Delicious Pasta

We experienced our first winter storm the day before Saint Patrick's day. It wasn't a horrible blizzard but it was cold and windy and we'd gotten used to leaving our scarfs, gloves and boots in the closet. Needless to say we weren't eager to walk around Boston, pushing our way through the crowds in an attempt to get to the bar.

Instead, we thought about going out to dinner, feeling a bit pathetic that at 21 and 22 years old we'd celebrate with blockbuster and takeout. Eventually though, we decided that the later was exactly what we wanted to do. So, after picking up
The Holiday (I enjoyed it even if the reviews are poor) and The Departed (One of the Top Five Best Movies I've ever seen) at Blockbuster, we started discussing Chinese, Thai, and Indian food. Thankfully, I remembered all the spectacular ingredients I had sitting in our fridge and we instead enjoyed a truly hearty and comforting pasta dish.

Initially I was planning on making a sausage and spinach soup so I had purchased beautiful Italian sausages from wholefoods and a gigantic bag of spinach. I also had creme fraiche left over from the
spinach pancakes and some basil and Romano cheese. The end result was honestly one of the best pasta dishes I've ever made (and I make a lot) and as Alex was a fan as well, I know I'll be making it again. I think the biggest success / contributor to this dish is the creme / lemon sauce creation, so if you have different meat or vegetables handy I'm sure they'd taste just as good.

Saint Patrick's Day Pasta

1/4 cup creme fraiche
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 cup basil
2 tbsp. chicken broth
salt & pepper

Sausage-Spinach-Sun Dried Tomatoes- Pasta:
2 large Italian sausages (could use spicy / sweet - i used regular)
1 large bag of spinach
4 tbsp. garlic, diced
1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes soaked in olive oil- diced
1 box dried wheat pasta (I used spirals)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Romano cheese for sprinkling

1.) SAUCE: Place all sauce ingredients into the food processor and blend until creamy, adding more chicken broth if consistency is too thick.
2.) PASTA:

Prepare pasta following box directions.
Slice sausage into bite size pieces (remove casing)
Heat oil in pan and add garlic once hot
After sauteing garlic for 3-4 minutes add sausage and sun dried tomatoes
Once sausage is cooked through add 1/2 a bag of spinach
Cook for five minutes
Drain pasta and add it to the sausage / tomatoes & spinach
Pour food processor sauce over the ingredients
Serve Immediately with cheese and fresh basil


Thursday, March 8, 2007

Sloppy Joes

The name too often brings to mind hair nets and old women but I swear that anyone willing to give it another try will change their tune. Sloppy Joe's are delicious. They are my favorite sandwich by far and I'm convinced that if you brush aside your doubt and fire up the skillet you'll find that you like them too. Just make sure you have lots of napkins on hand, the sloppy part is no joke.

Sloppy Joe's:

1 1/2 lbs 85% lean ground beef
1 Yellow Onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups tomato ketchup
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2-3 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp prepared yellow mustard
4 burger buns, toasted

Brown the beef in a nonstick skillet over medium heat, 5-7 minutes. Add onions and bell pepper and season with salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables soften, about 7 minutes. Add ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, sugar and mustard. Stir to combine. Simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Spoon over split hamburger buns.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Grilled Corn, Onion & Herb Pizza

My beloved Cooking Light features several pizza recipes. Every one that I’ve tried has been delicious and so when I came across a package of Trader Joe’s herbed pizza dough in my freezer I knew just where to turn.

The recipe that I chose turned out delicious. It’s really light and a wonderful reminder of summer in this dreary weather. The scattering of scallions and lime zest after the pizza bakes is a must. It really helps to extenuate the smokey taste of the mozzarella and the sweet onions. Also, you can’t go wrong with grilled corn.

Corn and Smoked Mozzarella Pizza

2 ears shucked corn
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoons crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded smoked mozzarella cheese
1 cup very thinly sliced red onion
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lime rind
package of prepared pizza dough (I used Trader Joe's Herbed Pizza Dough)
(Makes 2, 9 inch pizzas)

1. Prepared grill or broiler
2. Place corn on grill rack or broiler pan coated with cooking spray; cook ten minutes, turning occasionally. Cool. Cut kernals from corn to measure 1 cup; set aside.
3. Place 1 tablespoon oil and red pepper in a small bowl; microwave on HIGH 30 seconds. Stir in garlic; set aside.
4. Preheat oven to 500 degrees
5. Roll out prepared pizza dough into a 9-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Working with one portion at a time, place dough on a pizza pan or baking sheet coated with cooking spray and sprinkled with 1 tablespoon cornmeal. Crimp edges of dough with fingers to form a rim.
6. Brush dough with oil mixture; sprinkle with cheese. Top with 1/2 cup cheese. Top with 1/2 cup corn and 1/2 cup onion. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Bake at 500 degrees for 8 minutes or until golden. Sprinkle pizza with 1 tablespoon chives and 3/4 teaspoon lime rind. Cut into wedges. Enjoy!

Monday, March 5, 2007

Fork need not apply- Savory Pancakes

Thursday was unusually warm for New England March and I returned home from work, in a noticeably better mood then usual (it’s amazing what a little sunshine can do for you.) Alex suggested that Friday evening we go to his friend’s for a barbeque and that sounded just about perfect to me. What a wonderful way to usher in what must be early spring.

Before I get too far into this story I have to explain barbeque as there seems to be some confusion over the word. I grew up believing whole heartedly that the term barbeque referred to anything marinated in barbeque sauce prior to grilling. To me, the best kind of barbeque was always chicken drumsticks. However I’ve since learned that many people use the term to describe grilling and far too often (at least in my opinion) it refers to steaks and other beefs. My beloved spicy tart sauce is no where to be found. Alex is one of those people who describe grilling outside as barbequing and I therefore knew to assume that this cook out would result in a pile of steaks. While this realization was quite a let down the first few times when I anticipated messy chicken, it’s now helpful because I know what expect. I also know what to bring that will pair well with steak and that I definitely do need to bring a dish if I want a full meal. (Like I said before I don’t enjoy steak all that much, if at all.)

Being that I spent Saturday of last weekend browsing through cookbooks, I had plenty of recipes in mind that would work for such an occasion but one stuck out, Spinach Pancakes. This hand held appetizer could be served before or during the meal depending on what else they had, and I assumed it was something everyone would like. It’s not spicy, it’s relatively plain, and it’s identifiable. I could explain and compare it to scallion pancakes and I was relatively certain they’d be gobbled up with a comparison like that. (While these are characteristics I usually ignore, I’ve learned that they are important if I want other people to eat what I bring.) So, I set off to Whole Foods to buy the ingredients and decided I’d throw it together right before we left so they’d still be warm.

Friday morning I awoke to a screaming alarm clock and room so dark I swore it couldn’t be six. Rain pelted the windows and I wanted nothing more then to stay in bed and forget all about my promise to go to the gym. That’s exactly what I did, but when I woke up at a leisurely 8:00, I thought of our dear outdoor barbeque and wondered if we’d be going after all.

The rain stopped at 3:00 and the barbeque survived. The host even stuck to his promise of grilling outdoors although with a little less excitement, as it was freezing. However, everything was delicious and these pancakes were a hit.

Next time I’d make them thinner and use less filling. These were more like quesadillas which are good but I think they’d be tastier if they were lighter. Alex liked them as is so it’s just a preference thing.
Whether you go thin or filling, make sure to try this recipe out. It’s versatile and would be good with other fillings as well. I was thinking of trying olive, tomato, and feta next time…..
Pancakes with Spinach and Cheese:
4 eggs - salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup carbonated mineral water
10 ounces leaf spinach (frozen)
1 onion - 1 garlic clove
4 ounces hard cheese
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup creme fraiche
freshly ground pepper
freshly ground nutmeg
butter for the pan
1. For the pancakes, put the eggs, a pinch of salt, the flour, milk and mineral water into a small bowl and mix into a smooth batter with a hand mixer. Cover and let stand for about 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile allow the spinach to defrost. Peel the onion and garlic and dice finely. Grate the cheese finely. Melt the butter in a pan and cook the diced onion and garlic until translucent. Add the spinach and fry briefly.
3. Stir in the cheese and creme fraiche, then season the spinach-cheese mixture to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
4. Melt a little butter in a non-stick pan. Fill in a little of the batter, spread over the pan and make a pancake. Make 8 pancakes this way. Spread a little spinach-cheese mix on each pancake, fold the pancakes together, press the sides together firmly and cut into pieces.

Friday, March 2, 2007

So Simple Chicken Wings

Alex battles acid-reflux and has been told to stay away from spicy foods. Still, every time we go out to a casual restaurant I can count on him ordering Buffalo wings. He loves them and swears he could “eat them every day.” I wish I had thought to take a picture of the bones once he’s through because it’s miraculous how clean they are. I’ve never seen anyone eat wings like he does. He’s actually had a waitress point out his talent proclaiming she’s never seen anyone “eat ALL the chicken wing.” I can always count on having an empty plate if we share them as an appetizer because he steals my bones when I’m through and gnaws them clean.

I’ve tried to make him Buffalo wings before, but with no success. It was one of those things I’d given up on, believing they’d have to remain his restaurant indulgence. With this recipe that’s no longer necessary. Honestly, these wings are just as good if not better then those at restaurants. Also, they were SO simple to make that it’s just as easy to whip them up at home and serve double the amount for the same cost.

I feel a bit ridiculous posting this because there are so few ingredients but I will. I’m sure there are others out there who’ve tried and given up on wings but I have faith that this will bring you back around.

Chicken Wings:
2 1/2 pounds chicken wings, split and tips discarded
1/2 cup Franks RedHot Cayenne Pepper Sauce (or more to taste)
1/3 cup butter, melted

1. BAKE: wings for 45 minutes at 425 degrees until fully cooked and crispy, turning halfway.
2. TOSS: wings in Frank's RedHot Sauce and butter to coat completely and serve.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Better make more next time.....

I came across this recipe for cabbage in The Boston Globe Magazine. I happen to love cabbage and when I read the ingredient list it sounded too good to pass up. In fact I made it that very same night and had a heaping plateful for my dinner. There were no leftovers and I think for cabbage that says enough:

Red Cabbage with Caraway and Green Apples:
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium red cabbage, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
14 cup chicken stock or water
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch of crushed red pepper
salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet over medium heat, toast the caraway seeds, shaking the pan constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes or until they turn fragrant. Set them aside.In the same skillet, heat the oil. Add the shallots and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring often, or until they soften. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds more. Stir in the cabbage. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add the caraway seeds, stock or water, apples, vinegar, sugar, red pepper, salt, and black pepper. Stir Well. Cover the pan and cook the cabbage over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes, or until the cabbage softens. During the last 15 minutes, remove the lid and let the liquid bubble until it nearly evaporates. Taste for seasoning and ad more salt or red pepper if you like.