Friday, February 24, 2006

a grown-up dinner

Most of the dinner parties that Ed and I throw are for friends or family--people our age or people who have known us since we were itsy-bitsy (like our nephew, Carl--did I mention that he's wonderful and adorable?). Tomorrow night, though, we're hosting eight colleagues from the French section of the department, most of whom are our parents' age. I'm not nervous, per se--but I am realizing that I'm trying harder with this dinner than I might for another group. We're even going to break out the wedding china for the very first time! The more I think about it, though, the more tempted I am to chuck the classical music I had planned and elegant table settings and just treat it like any other potluck. (All the guests have offered to bring food to share, and since that's what we've done at past dinners at their homes, I gratefully accepted.)

Here's the Provence-inspired menu: spinach balls and tarragon-marinated mushrooms for appetizers; peach kir as an aperitif; low-fat butternut squash bisque (okay, that's not French, but it's really good and we have a group of extremely healthy vegetarians coming); Nicois pasta with shallots, red wine, goat cheese, olives, and green beans; plus a donated salad and desserts and red wine.

I'll let you know how it turns out and whether or not we decided to break out the paper plates for appetizers and the "Happy Schapps Combo" or the "Yodeling the Classics" albums (we tend to share those whimsies the first time people come to our house) or if we stick with Vivaldi and china after all.

Friday, February 17, 2006

a fabulous radio food program

Santa Monica's NPR station, KCRW, has a food show called, simply enough, "Good Food" that I've become addicted to. I think it's got an energy to it that "The Splendid Table" doesn't have (honestly, I find TST's host a wee bit insufferable). As a newly minted quasi-Angeleno, I'm learning so much about where to eat in LA. It also has a regular segment called the Market Report where a correspondent goes out and finds out what's in season at the farmer's market. But it's not strictly a local show: there are tons of really interesting interviews (one episode had the Kitchen Sisters, creators of NPR's "Hidden Kitchens" series; the Valentine's Day edition has someone talking about aphrodisiacs; also a man who suddenly began cooking at the age of 81 and wrote a cookbook).

I subscribe to the podcast, and you can also listen online. Good stuff.

chocolate macadamia macaroons

Mad props to the Amateur Gourmet for calling attention to a fabulous Epicurious recipe (and appropriating one of my favorite Beatles songs to do it).

I made these yesterday and took them to work. A horde of hungry editors devoured them and ordered me to bake more often. Then, because I only got one out of the whole batch, I made more that night when I got home. This is a recipe you really should double, because they're almost too good to give away.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go have a macaroon and listen to the White Album.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

necklace soup

This is what my niece and I ate for dinner last night. It was delicious, but very difficult to prepare.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Too many aphrodisiacs?

Mr. Tart and I recently had another themed potluck dinner with Cynde, Todd, Katie, and Aaron (and their urchins, Atley and Noah). In honor of Valentine's Day, this month's theme ingredient was "aphrodisiacs." Here's what we came up with:

Cynde's appetizer: Dried figs stuffed with bleu cheese, some wrapped in prosciutto. (Todd called them, inelegantly, "crammed figs," but seeing the speed with which they were crammed into people's mouths, perhaps he ended up more descriptive than he anticipated!)

Salads: "Love apples" with red onion and homemade croutons (from Cynde, recipe courtesy of her brother, a chef in Hawaii and also a member of Mr. Tart's Boy Scout troop in high school) and "The World's Sexiest Salad" with mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and prosciutto (Katie).

Katie's main course: Grilled chicken marinated in white wine and fruit nectar (apricot?), served on top of baby spinach with grilled figs caramelized with demarra sugar and a reduced nectar-wine sauce. And yes, it was as good as it looks. (Well, it's Valentine's Day! Of course you're going to get food porn on this blog!)

My dessert: Peach and raspberry crepes with lavender in orange syrup (you've read about this disastrous recipe already). That's Noah helping me garnish. Katie and Aaron provided Godiva white chocolate liqueur to sip with it.

So do these reputed aphrodisiacs live up to their notoriety, or is it just a bunch of hooey? Well, I'm not one to kiss and tell! Too many aphrodisiacs at one meal? Never!

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

fennel risotto

I don't have much to say about this risotto other than it's fabulous and I feel fabulous for having made it. When I first moved back to Salt Lake, I took a cooking class from Tony Caputo, local purveyor of italian cheese and meat (among other things). I'm not sure how beneficial the class was in terms of learning new cooking techniques, but I did get to eat a lot of good food. This fennel risotto was one of the dishes he prepared. I tried to make it just after the class, but I failed. It was ok, but not really the way risotto should be, too mushy, too clumpy, too something. I haven't made risotto since, but I decided to try this again and it was perfect. I guess I've become a better cook in the last three years. I love fennel--in every possible preparation. I can't really think of a better vegetable.

And, on an unrelated topic, I got a letter yesterday from my CSA farmer. It's time to sign up for the new season. I know the market doesn't start until June, but just knowing that plans are being made helped me sleep a little better last night. I can already taste the garlic scapes.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

gourmet is in the attitude

Once, while talking to my brother on the phone he kept interrupting our conversation to give his wife cooking directions. "How long has it been boiling?" "MJ, check those." "You don't want to overcook it." Since my brother is an excellent cook I figured he had been whipping up some gourmet meal when I called. So I asked him was they were making. "Uh," he starts laughing. "Kraft macaroni and cheese." Kraft? He was fussing over boxed macaroni. I, of course, started making fun of him, but then he had an elaborate explanation of how kraft mac and cheese is only good when the noodles have been cooked for exactly the right amount of time and with the right amount of salt--and if you get it right, the stuff is delicious.

The conversation reminded me that anything can be gourmet. It's not so much about the quality of the food--it's about the fuss.

Take as another example Peeps, those marshmallow treats that used to only be available at Easter but are now in the store year round. Most people hate Peeps. I, however, love Peeps. Love, love, love them. But here's the thing about people who love Peeps: they love them a certain way. No one loves Peeps straight out of the package. You have to age them. It's true. Ask anyone who likes them. To age a Peep effectively, you open the plastic packaging and you let them sit. Eventually, the sugary coating will get stiff and slightly crunchy. The interior marshmallow will remain slightly soft with a bit of chew. Trust me, they're delicious. This week, my fabulous sister gave me a package of heart-shaped peeps with a tube of red CakeMate icing. Yes, that's right--decorating Peeps. (The good thing, by the way, is that if you like Peeps, your friends and family will supply them for you because they think it's so gross that you like them and they are cheap. I haven't bought myself a package of Peeps in years, but I always seem to have them.) Here is my decorated Peep heart:

Clearly, I need to work on my decorating skills and I'm not to sure what I think about this decorating gimmick. But the Peep itself has been aging for about a week and it's just about ready to eat.

For more thoughts on unexpectedly gourmet foods, see lisa b's recent posting on SPAM.

Monday, February 06, 2006

a farmers market gem

Ask me how I feel about life in Southern California most days, and I'll grumble about urban sprawl, traffic, and the fact that something like 18% of the residents of my county can afford the median-priced home. Don't get me started.

But oh, how I love the fact that I can go to a farmers market in February and experience citrus season in all its glory. Grapefruit, pummelos, Meyer lemons (they're amazing -- sweeter, with an almost floral scent; you don't often find them in grocery stores because they're too delicate), blood oranges, tangerines, all amazing. I'd never experienced anything but supermarket citrus before I moved here.

But yesterday I found something I'd truly never had before: the cherimoya. It tastes like sort of an amalgam of all the good tropical fruits: banana, mango, coconut, pineapple, etc. It looks like this:

And inside, it has sort of a pear-like texture with big black seeds:

Unfortunately, I cut into this one too early. It's not ripe at all. Such is the danger of buying a fruit you know nothing about. Too bad I didn't just Google it first. Oh well -- I won't make the same mistake with the other one I bought, and according to this, they'll be in season in California until May.

brunch suggestions?

I'm making brunch for eight on Sunday, and it needs to be vegetarian-friendly. Any menu suggestions, anyone? I was thinking maybe crepes, maybe latkes (on Christmas Eve I used a recipe that called for both russets and sweet potatoes, and I was happy with how they turned out). Maybe both so there's some savory and some sweet? That's the beauty of brunch, after all. And then maybe some fruit (I have some beautiful blood oranges I got at the farmers market), coffee/tea and mimosas.

Got any brunchy recipes/ideas you swear by? Let me know!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

a disastrous recipe

A firm believer in the power of the written word, with great faith in the efficacy of editors and proofreaders, I tend to trust recipes that have been published in books. Last night, that trust eroded significantly.

I was making a crepes-stuffed-with-peaches dessert that had five steps. Step one: Make the crepe batter (I used my mom's recipe for that since I know it works and I know how many it serves). Step two: Melt sugar into water and poach orange zest in it to flavor it. Step three: Make honey sauce by reducing grapefruit juice mixed with honey. Step four: Saute peeled peach cubes in butter with brown sugar and lavender (I substituted raspberries for one of the peaches). Step five: Assemble the crepes by filling them with peach sauce, pouring honey sauce over them, and sprinkling with mint, more lavender, and strawberry slices.

Sounds luscious and decadent, doesn't it? But it was a disaster!

The honey sauce was bitter and not very thick, tasting exactly like strong grapefruit juice with some honey in it. The peach cubes got mushy in their sauce, which the lavender blossoms gave an odd texture to (and they tended to get caught between your teeth). And that step two, the orange-flavored sugar syrup? The recipe didn't say what to do with it! And Mr. Tart and I couldn't figure it out. The peach sauce's consistency was fine--if I had added a cup of sugar syrup it would have ended up extremely watery and not good for stuffing crepes with. It also didn't seem a good idea to add it to the honey sauce, because that was so thin (and yucky) to begin with. And I couldn't use it in the crepe batter because I'd already prepared a double batch of that.

As we were expected soon at a dinner party, I dumped the bitter honey sauce and decided to use the syrup as a sauce over the crepes. I hoped the lavender would soften up in the peach sauce and opted not to garnish further with it. While the dish did turn out okay--no one turned up their noses at it--it did seem like an awful lot of trouble for a recipe that perhaps no one had ever cooked before! Next time I'm just going to take peaches and raspberries and throw them in a crepe with a little whipped cream and be done with it. If we feel like a sauce, well, there's always maple syrup and Hershey's syrup in the fridge.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bonjour, neveu!

The Boulder Community Foothills Hospital has a cafe (not a "cafeteria"), but they close at 7:00 pm (reopening at midnight for the people coming off their shift), so I wasn't able to try out the food there. I was hoping to have a food-related excuse to post about my visit there this evening, but oh well, I'll just post off-topic tonight with good news: My sister-in-law just had a baby! I am an aunt for the very first time! Mr. Tart and I went to visit young Carl Edward this evening. He's calm and healthy and has just about the softest little head possible.

Oh! I know how to bring this message back to food! My brother-in-law has his own pet name for infants: because they are round and pink and don't do a whole lot at first, he calls them "bologna loafs."

Carl is the most beautiful bologna loaf ever!