Sunday, February 25, 2007

the budding gourmand

My nephew Carl recently turned one year old. His birthday cake was actually gingerbread cupcakes which Elizabeth adapted from a Cook's Illustrated recipe; he wolfed two of them down and chased them with ice cream and laughed.

Why gingerbread? Well, a neighbor had given their family a plate of various cookies just before Christmas, so Carl's parents fed him a soft gingerbread cookie. When it was gone, he sobbed and cried real tears. They held up the plate to show that the gingerbread was all gone, and he continued to wail. So they handed him the plate to make it clear that no more cookies were left. And what did Carl do? He started licking the plate!

Here he is with the cupcakes:

Can't you tell that he love gingerbread? His other favorites include bananas (he can even say "nana" when he sees one!) and ice cream and carrots and apple juice.

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wine touring in Virginia

On Saturday, Mark and I went on a Virginia winery bus tour sponsored by the Washington Wine Academy. It was, well, a lot of time on a bus (thanks to a bus driver who, relying solely on his GPS device, managed to drive right past 4 out of 4 stops, at one point even taking us on an unnecessary half-hour loop through the countryside). But it got us out of the city for a while, and we learned about some grapes we'd never heard of.

At Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., we sampled wine made from Norton grapes. Thought to be the best (maybe the only?) truly native North American grape for winemaking, Norton grows best in Virginia and Missouri. I liked what we tasted -- it was dry, a little spicy, and fruity (but without any weird "grape jelly" quality, which they say a lot of other wines made from native North American grape varieties can have).

Later, at Unicorn Winery, we sampled Chambourcin, a French/American hybrid grape. It was really, really deeply colored -- purple, really, like petite sirah. Yet Unicorn's website describes it as having "light tannins." And that seems true -- it didn't have that mouth-drying effect that petite sirah sometimes does, and it had a nice, jammy fig flavor going on. But now I'm confused about tannins. I thought tannins were imparted by the grapeskins, and like I said, this wine is downright purple, suggesting lots of contact with the skins, so ... wine expert I'm not. But I know it was tasty!

So it was a long day, but we learned a lot. Tour participants were also allowed to drink on the bus, which means there were some pretty sloshed people on board by the time we rolled back into D.C. I hadn't witnessed a bus singalong since high school, but I'm here to say that you haven't lived until you've heard grown adults segue straight from "Baby Got Back" into "Hey Jude."


Saturday, February 17, 2007

the teen movie nerd-turned-hottie of vegetables

When you fall into the rut of weeknight cooking -- coming home hungry, realizing it's 7 pm and your fridge has tofu, a sweet potato and leftover rice pudding -- you look forward to a lazy weekend where you have time to kick back and make a meal worth eating. Or at least I do. And I don't know if it's the winter blahs or what, but I feel like lately I make the same stuff all the time, so I dug out some new recipes and tried some new stuff. On the menu tonight: swiss chard with beets, goat cheese and raisins; corn cakes with pepper jelly; and Mexican chocolate mousse with burnt rum and spicy candied pumpkin seeds. We had a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand with it that we really liked (Spy Valley '05, found at World Market, if anybody cares).

It struck me that I've never really cooked with beets before. I have bad childhood memories of slimy canned beets. Mark says the same. But in recent years, they've gotten an image boost. I've had them in restaurants, all dressed up in fresh, interesting preparations. Beets are the '80s teen movie nerd-turned-hot-chick of vegetables. They are Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. Wait, no. That's not quite right. I always thought she looked weird at the end after Molly Ringwald gives her a makeover. I liked her better when she was scowling and eating her potato-chip sandwich. Anyway, I digress.

Anyway, I will now be roasting beets at home all the time. Such dramatic color, so much flavor! And such easy prep: you can just wrap them in foil, roast for a hour at 400 degrees, let them cool a bit, and their skins peel right off. So anyway, the dish -- it's chard, beets, goat cheese, raisins, pumpkin seeds, and tomatoes -- I thought tomatoes and beets in the same dish wouldn't work, but I'm glad I gave it a try. I think the acid in the tomatoes balanced the sweetness from the beets. Anyway, delicious, healthy and beautiful on the plate. And, oddly, it was better at room temperature than it was when it was hot. When the flavors had had a chance to blend, it really came together.

The corn cakes were the one dish that wasn't new in my repertoire. We like them with goat cheese and pepper jelly:

On to dessert. The mousse uses Ibarra, a cinnamon-spiked, sort of gritty-textured Mexican chocolate used mostly for hot chocolate. The really fun part: after melting your chocolate, you get to flambe the rum! You can't see the flames in this photo, really, but you can sort of see my trepidation:

I used a recipe for the mousse (and what a luscious mousse!), but the pumpkin seeds were my addition. See, I love spicy chocolate things, and I was tempted to put cayenne in the mousse (see my post on Jacques Torres Wicked Hot Chocolate), but thought better of it, deciding that chili-infused chocolate is the sort of thing that loses its whimsy when you do it all the time. So I practiced restraint -- that is, until I realized that what the mousse needed was something crunchy to go with it. (The recipe had called for topping the mousse with whipped cream, which sounded redundant to me.) And I liked the idea of said crunchy thing also being sweet, spicy and just a little salty (taking a cue from the genius of salt caramel). So I toasted pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet, glazed them with a mixture of sugar, water and cayenne (just poured it over the toasted seeds in the skillet and let it turn syrupy, then spread the mixture out on foil to dry), and sprinkled a little kosher salt over them. Perfect -- the mousse got its spicy counterpoint after all! This would be the perfect dinner-party dessert, as you can do it all ahead of time.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

egg on our face

Okay, so this is embarassing to admit: this post refers to a Supper Club dinner party from ten months ago. And I'm not going to try to cover it up, because it was an egg-themed potluck at Easter time and here's the bunny we saw outside the hosts' house and took a picture of because it seemed like a good omen for the meal! So here we go.
Cynde and Atley (Katie and Aaron's daughter, who was docile and not walking then, but is now a drama queen toddler) think happy thoughts about the cholesterol-filled repast awaiting them:

We all went overboard on the appetizers this time. Katie made garlic-stuffed olives wrapped in pastry dough (they're egg-shaped, see?) while my contribution was a plethora of international eggy hors-d'oeuvres. For example, we had several types of deviled eggs: Indian (pierced with pieces of pappadam and served with tamarind sauce), Mexican (flavored with jalapenos and cumin and decorated with tortilla chips), and plain old American.

Then I made mini-quiches with broccoli (French) and Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in a sausage-bread crumb mixture and deep fried).

Unfortunately, none of us can remember the main dish in any detail, other than it was a kind of egg casserole. Oh well! Dessert also exploited eggs to their fullest, in Katie's sweet, custardy "Bob and Andy pie" from an Amish cookbook.
Full tummies, happy friends--yet another successful themed potluck dinner party!

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

cooking with kids

I've been tutoring a four-year-old, a five-year-old, and their mom in French for a semester now. One night a week we have a "cooking class" in French, where I teach them the necessary vocabulary and they follow my directions to prepare something simple and sweet that they can eat right away. (We meet after dinner, so it's supposed to be a dessert.) And I'm running out of ideas! Here's a list of what we've done so far (that I can remember); can anyone else suggestion other hands-on, kid-friendly desserts? (They don't actually have to be French.)

"bananes royales" (banana splits)
palmiers (rolled-up puff pastry sliced into cookies)
croissants (refrigerated crescent rolls that they rolled up themselves)
crepes (I made those and the girls added the toppings)
French toast
spider crackers
parfaits (with yogurt, granola, and fruit)
strawberry shortcake
cookies (from a refrigerator tube, which we decorated with icing after slicing and baking them--baking cookies from scratch with two preschoolers would take up all the time we had for lessons!)
cinnamon toast
ants on a log
fruit dipped in chocolate

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

so much more than Swedish meatballs!

Meet Tucker, Cynde and Todd's baby, born last summer. This was his first dinner party with us and Katie and Aaron (our three-couple Supper Club)! He's making a face because he doesn't approve of the hors-d'oeuvres at our Scandinavian-themed potluck.

But who can blame him when confronted with caviar in a tube?

Fortunately, the other appetizers were more appetizing: Danish blue cheese and home-smoked salmon (Todd's first attempt with his in-laws' smoker turned out quite well!).

And while Katie's canned goodies included quite a few jalapenos (she's a Spanish teacher, after all), she correctly pointed out that Scandinavians are all about pickling. (I liked her pickled green beans the best.)

Side dishes included rye bread (from Schmidt's Bakery and Deli in Loveland--geniuses with flour) and lingonberry jam,

plus potatoes swimming in cream and more pickled veggies (beets this time).

The main dish--whose name I can't recall--was like a big ol' Swedish meatball in a pastry crust. After all that good food, we were ready for a long winter's nap, but wait! There's still dessert!

We concluded the meal with the creaminess of rice pudding and the crunchiness of Swedish rosettes, which I fried in hot oil on our deck just like my mother used to do every Christmas. (Now I understand why she stopped--they're really time-consuming and don't last till the following morning! That's a lot of work for something so delicate and ephemeral.)

Other than the grody caviar, it was another delicious and inventive dinner! We try to get together like this every two months or so, sometimes with their kids, sometimes just us grown-ups. We always pledge to experiment with new recipes (and we always go overboard and end up with way more food than we can actually eat). We used to do Iron Chef-style meals, where we all had to prepare dishes using the theme ingredient (eg squash, tomatoes, fondue, aphrodisiacs), but now we're moving into regional cuisine instead. Stay tuned for an egg dinner post followed by Indian food! I'll try to get caught up before our next dinner: raclette in March.

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