A Year and a Day

What did we eat for lunch on June 23rd last year?

This:

Reception Spread 1
Reception Spread 2
Homemade bread, compound butter, big salads of farmer’s market greens with raspberry-mustard vinaigrette, big bowls of berries, three kinds of cheese (including Gruyere, an aged goat and a tangy Brie-like cheese), a smoked salmon-pink peppercorn tart in an almond crust, and a three-layer fritatta, with a roasted red pepper layer, a spinach layer and a cheese layer.

And for dessert?
Wedding cake

Wedding Cake.

Wedding cake and lemon cheesecake

Specifically, an almond cake filled with mixed fresh berries and frosted with vanilla bean whipped cream and decorated with red currants and a lemon cheesecake topped with lemon curd and black currants.

And what did we have for lunch on June 23rd this year?
Anniversary lunch

Sea scallops wrapped in radicchio and pancetta, then grilled and served with a red lettuce salad from the farmer’s market.

The scallop recipe was beyond simple–sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper, wrap each one in a radicchio leaf, and then wrap the leaves with a slice of pancetta. My slices were inexpertly wrapped at the butchers, and thus had unraveled. I ended up just wrapping it around and around and around each little radicchio bundle and securing the ends with toothpicks.

Who am I kidding–I used about 3 toothpicks per bundle. I am not good at food-skewering.

The grill caramelized the radicchio and infused the flavor of both the pancetta and radicchio into each scallop. In spite of the fiddly eating required by all the toothpicks, it was delicious, especially from our unaccustomed seats under our lawn umbrella (which we haven’t set up, sadly, since our wedding reception). Teacherman poured an Alsatian wine to drink alongside the meal–it reminded him perfectly of the wines from our honeymoon.

Lunch was wonderful, yes, but what did we eat for dinner? Last year, we didn’t eat anything for dinner. Our reception was still going on, and due to the enticements of the lunch board, we’d eaten too much of everything.

This year, though, lunch was elegant and austere. And so, for dinner:

Anniversary dinner

Chocolate-peanut butter cookies and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. What’s the point of being a grown-up if you can’t do this sort of thing every now and then?

(I have to admit, though, that I don’t feel remotely like a grown-up. Even though I’m nearly 30, and even though I’m married, I still have to remind myself that I’m not a kid. Thus, of course, the ideal dinner of cookies and ice cream).

If you’ll forgive my sentimentality (and if there’s one day a year when one is allowed to be sappy, one’s wedding anniversary ought to be it): Here’s hoping that we always feel this ridiculously young, and that each anniversary is as lovely–and delicious–as this one.

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Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Oh Dear

I admit, it does sound weird, but you have to give it a chance! 

Last night was our upstairs neighbor/best friend’s 40th birthday, and his girlfriend threw him a fabulous party.  (How fabulous?  I actually stayed for five hours, even though I usually overdose on partydom by an hour in).  Said girlfriend laid on a bounteous spread of delectables, but since most of my non-Christmas gift-giving tends to be food-related, I still brought a few things. 

Of all the foods our friend loves, bacon is foremost among them.  The love is so great that it’s become a joke among his massive, world-wide group of friends.  “ANYTHING is better with bacon!”  I try not to serve him unending courses of bacon-related goodies, but this party seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a few of the more unusual bacon recipes I’ve been saving. 

A few months ago I checked The Bacon Cookbook by James Villas out of the library.  It’s a nearly 300 page cookbook where every recipe, even the ones for sweets, contains bacon.  One those recipes–chocolate coated peanut butter bacon truffles–was impossible to ignore. 

All right, yes, I know.  Bacon in a dessert is just bizarre.  Bacon is made of meat, and it’s been roughly 600 years since meat and sugar were regular recipe companions, at least in the Western world.  But consider this: maple-glazed bacon.  People eat that all the time!  Also, my mother has been known to eat the occasional peanut butter-bacon sandwich.  I only ever ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches, but it isn’t SUCH a stretch to elide the two.

So I made the truffles.  I cooked 4 slices of bacon until crisp, let them cool completely and then broke the strips into haphazard pieces and put them into my food processor.  I added 4 oz of roasted peanuts, 1 Tbsp of sugar, and then ground all three together until they had amalgamated into a coarse powder.  I tasted–it was good!, but it needed another Tbsp of sugar and a pinch of salt, which I added, along with the stipulated 1/4 cup of smooth peanut butter.  I pulsed the new ingredients in until the mixture had come together and formed a ball. 

I scraped the peanut butter filling into a bowl, and stuck it in the fridge for half an hour to set up.  When the time came, I rolled the paste into small balls, froze them for 15 minutes, and then dipped them in melted bittersweet chocolate and rolled them in unsweetened cocoa powder.  Voila–chocolate peanut butter bacon truffles. 

I let them chill thoroughly before I tasted them.  In fact, I put them in the freezer for a couple of days, and then let them defrost in the fridge for an hour right before the party.  As I arranged them on the pretty platter, I popped one in my mouth–in spite of the positive tastes I’d had while making the filling, I was still a little dubious about the combination of bacon and chocolate. 

Wow.  They were like peanut butter cups, but enhanced.  The sort of food that the adjective “extreme” should be reserved for.  The bacon didn’t add a meaty flavor, or any textural component at all, it just added an extra salty, lightly smokey background to the peanut butter, making it taste more like itself.  The chocolate coating was shatteringly crisp, and the bitterness and purity of the chocolate contrasted perfectly with the richness and complexity of the filling. 

I went hurtling up to the party and thrust the platter at Teacherman and our upstairs neighbors.  They each took one, slightly hesitantly.  A pause, then three swoons: the reactions were ecstatic.  BUT.  After salving the birthday boy with his bacon ration, I offerred the platter to the rest of the guests.  Not one single one of them thought they were good.  Not one SINGLE one!  About ten people refused to try them at all, so they don’t really count, but the other fifteen tried them and thought they were terrible

I tried a second truffle.  Still nutty and salty and chocolatey.  Still the ur-peanut butter cup.  Still delicious.  Other people, though, were making faces of horrified disgust, some even went so far as to make gagging noises.  Everyone ate up their entire truffle, but they roundly declared them to be hideous. 

This is definitely one of the most confusing experiences I’ve ever had.  If it was just me that liked the truffles, I’d think that my dull tastebuds were to blame, but Teacherman, who has a very sensitive palate, and our upstairs neighbors, who aren’t vastly adventurous eaters, loved them, too.  We all had seconds, and enjoyed them just as much as the first. 

I can only conclude that the rest of our guests were too repulsed by the idea of bacon in a dessert to pay attention to the taste in their mouth.  I hate to dismiss an entire group of people outright, but I can’t figure out any other way to account for what happened.

In any case, and in spite of the reactions of the party-goers, I heartily recommend the recipe.  I know that I’ll be making it again, but this time I just won’t share. 

Published in: on January 13, 2008 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Crepe-tastic

I have been on a bit of a crepe kick recently.  At least one morning of every recent weekend has found me whipping up a batter, forming myriad paper-thin rounds of sweetness and filling them with whatever my latest passion is. 

First, I made pear crepes.

I flavored the crepes themselves with vanilla, filling the tender circles with cardamom-caramelized pears.

Next, it was apple-black currant crepes, made with the last of the farmer’s market apples and a handful of the black currants from the freezer.  The currants turned the filling a deep purple and brough an almost woodsy, piney flavor to the meal.

I got a little crazy with the cinnamon.  Both the filling and the crepes were flavored with it, and it was, as you can see, dusted liberally over the top. 

My last crepe experiment, though, was defintely the most elaborate.  A few weeks ago I was reading a novel that mentioned a particular Austrian dessert–crepes layered with apricot jam, toasted ground pecans, and grated chocolate.  This idea wedged itself firmly into my mind and would NOT dislodge.  After weeks of dealing with apricot-pecan-chocolate daydreams, I gave up and made the thing.  And, given that I’ve never seen a recipe for anything like it, made it up, as well.  (That is, I certainly don’t believe that I made up the recipe or the idea, but I made up what I was doing as I went along).  Also, I made it for breakfast. 

I arrayed my ingredients next to the stove: 1. a food processor bowl full of my thinnest crepe batter.  2. a jar of my apricot jam, lightly sweetened (my jam is essentially just concentrated apricot puree, so it needs a little additional sweetener sometimes).  3. a bowl of toasted pulverized pecans (which I could not keep from eating with a spoon as I progressed).  4. a small bag of cacao nibs.  Yes, I could have used grated chocolate, but the idea of the nubbly, bitter cacao nibs lodged itself in my mind right next to the original recipe, and they merged almost without my knowing it.  To make up for the extremely dark flavor of the nibs (and the intensity of the apricot puree), I sweetened the crepe batter much more than I usually do. 

The assembly began.  A crepe.  A smear of jam.  A sprinkling of nuts, then nibs.  Repeat.  Repeat ten times.  Repeat until there is a cake-sized edifice of lacy crepes and gooey filling, waiting to be eaten. 

Eaten it was.  I took the picture after I cut the whole cake in half, the better to see the innards.

It was delicious.  The light sweetness of the crepes was a perfect foil for the tartness of the jam, the toastiness of the pecans and the bitterness of the cacao nibs.  Every bite tasted buttery, even though I’d used no butter in its making.

We ate it all, instantly and eagerly, in spite of the fact that it was so rich and intense that we almost couldn’t stand it.  It was truly a confluence of disparate factors creating a harmonious whole. 

Published in: on November 7, 2007 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Celeriac Waldorf

I think I encountered Waldorf salad for the first time when I was 17.  Oddly, given that the dish is traditionally American, this encounter took place in Scotland, where I was visiting a friend.  Helen had a potluck party for me, and one of her friends (really the friend’s mother) contributed Waldorf salad, since of COURSE an American would want American food when abroad! 

I’d never eaten Waldorf salad before, and I must admit that I was horrified at the idea.  It’s only within the last several years that I’ve cottoned to the idea of fruit in savory dishes, and only a few years  before that did I finally accept that celery was a food and not a stringy, bitter poison.  (A lot of that had to do with discovering good celery, but I’m still not the biggest fan thereof).

I loved apples and walnuts, but the addition of celery took it beyond the pale, and mayonnaise?  With APPLES?  My gorge rose at the very thought.  I had, however, been Raised Right, and so I ate a portion, smiled and said thank you.  (I still horrified all of Helen’s friends, much to my sorrow, with my bizarre American manners, and inability to remember that in Britain, the word ‘pants’ does not mean ‘trousers,’ but ‘underwear’).  I don’t think that anyone ate more than a bite of that salad, and the next morning Helen surreptitiously tossed the leftovers in the garbage.

That one encounter catapaulted Waldorf Salad into my mind’s Revulsion Hall of Fame.  Every time I saw a recipe for it, I shuddered.  I blame its infamy for the length of time it took me to finally enjoy fruit in salads. 

Sometime, in these last eleven years, I discovered celeriac (also known as celery root).  I don’t know what possessed me to buy it for the first time–it’s so craggy and gnarled that it could almost be mummified, and on top of that, it has the word CELERY in its name. 

In any case, I did buy it, and, surprisingly, loved it.  Celeriac does taste like celery, but milder, sweeter, and with none of the stringy, hard texture that I found so objectionable in the latter.  I ate it in every possible way–mashed, steamed, made in hash browns, into gratins, and, most traditionally, into celeriac remoulade, wherein raw, grated celery root is mixed into a mixture of highly seasoned, usually homemade mayonnaise and a little cream, then eaten as a salad.

Last week, however, I was reading a new vegetable cookbook and noticed a title in the table of contents: Celeriac Waldorf Salad.  First I was shocked, and then I was intrigued.  The idea wasn’t as bizarre as my reaction had indicated.  As aforementioned, celery root DOES taste like celery.  And celeriac remoulade dresses the vegetable with mayonnaise.  And once I think I made that mayonnaise with walnut oil.  Hmm. 

After some considerable contemplation, I overcame my prejudices and made the recipe.  I peeled and grated a medium-sized celery root.  I peeled an apple (one of the Wealthies that I brought back from Wisconsin).  I tossed the shreds of both items with lemon juice, then salt and pepper, then mayonniase, some herbs, a little white wine vinegar.  I spooned the salad into a bowl and topped it with some dark-toasted walnuts. 

Huh.  It was pretty fabulous.  The mild sweetness of the celery root and the tartness of the apple contrasted nicely, and the lemon perked them both up (as lemon usually does).  The background was full of the grassiness of the herbs and the deep warmth of the nuts, while the creaminess of the mayonnaise tied everything together.

I do not think this alchemy could have been achieved in a Waldorf made with regular celery.  Aside from the aggressiveness of the flavor, in a Waldorf salad, both the celery and the apples are cut into cubes, making it almost impossible for the flavors to blend, and rendering the experience a bit like trying to eat a mouthful of pebbles.

Unlike most lunches, which I eat at lightning speed, so as to be off doing more pressing things, this one I savored, enjoying each nuanced bite. 

Published in: on September 23, 2007 at 6:37 pm  Comments (1)  

Dinner for Breakfast

Teacherman and I spent Saturday up in Madison, WI, attending their absolutely amazing farmer’s market.  We have a tradition of going up once a year, in the fall, and stocking up on every variety of apple that appeals to us.  There are lovely apple varieties available down here, but there’s a particular orchard that sends produce to the Madison market, and for the most part we can’t get their exciting, antique varieties anywhere else.   As you can see, we bought quite a few varieties (Wealthy, Hudson, Russian Raspberry, Cox’s Orange Pippin [my favorite] and one that I can’t remember the name of).

Our trip was fruitful (har har), and we came back home with two big coolers full of produce, cheese and meat.  We usually forgo meat at the farmer’s market (we’d love to buy it, but the price is a little steep for our budget, even though we realize that it’s just) but we found two farms selling beautiful, free-range, natural meats for prices that were well within our range.  We bought beef and pork and chicken and rabbit, and would have bought more if we’d had the cash on hand. 

Of course, Madison being the capital of Wisconsin, there was cheese available, and since we’re us, we brought home more cheese than we did meat.  Though we concentrated mostly on varieties of cheddar, we also found a producer making delicious blue cheese.  It was hard to decide between the four available varieties, but in the end we went with Tilston Point, the most medium of the four–it wasn’t overly pungent, but it wasn’t too creamy and mild, either. 

We didn’t purchase the cheese with any use in mind, but when later in the morning I bought a big basket of Concord grapes and a tiny bag of black walnuts, the three items locked together in my mind and I knew I had a meal. 

One might expect that we ate those lovely things for a light dinner (especially since we ended up eating our dinner in a park, preparatory to watching a free opera benefit concert), but in fact we ate it for breakfast the following morning.  I sometimes find blue cheese too intense on the palate that early in the morning, but in this case I was too excited about trying the combination of flavors to pay it much mind. 

I toasted the walnuts while Teacherman made coffee, then arranged equal portions of the grapes, nuts and cheese on each plate. 

The combination of flavors really was wonderful.  Some might not care for Concord grapes as a table grape, having been overexposed to fake, Concord-esque grape juices as a child.  I don’t think I’ve had grape juice of any variety for 15 years, though, and I don’t find the Concords unpleasant at all.  They are very sweet, but I find that syrupy fruitiness contrasts well with the bitter walnut skins and the butteriness of the cheese–exactly why grapes, nuts and blue cheese are such a classic combination. 

Published in: on September 14, 2007 at 7:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Fresh and Strange

Well, I suppose I can’t really call it fresh.  The peas are frozen, after all.  But it definitely strange.  And it’s even more definitely good

The other week I checked a new cookbook called The Breakaway Chef out of the library.  Some of the recipes were a little too esoteric for me, but I marked several and those thus far tried have produced good results. 

I took note of one recipe in particular–Baked Peas with Yogurt, Tarragon and Pistachios.  I grow oodles of herbs every summer, and I never use as much of them as I would like, mostly because very few recipes are ever written for the more unusual ones, like tarragon.  (I can’t eat tarragon-chicken-salad EVERY day, and it turns out that I don’t really like tarragon in devilled eggs, and it kind of gets lost as part of a salad).  In any case, this recipe calls for mixing frozen (thawed) peas with chopped tarragon, scallions, salted pistachios, olive oil and a little Greek yogurt, then baking it at a very high temperature for 15 minutes, until the top of the mixture starts to brown.  I couldn’t really taste the imaginary result, but the use of tarragon made me remember it.

I planned to make the peas for dinner some night, as a side dish, but today I found myself alone for lunch, with an unexpectedly small meal planned.  Greek yogurt and scallions are staples in this house, and frozen peas can usually be found lurking in one of the freezers, so I kludged together a much reduced version of the original recipe and threw it in the oven while I worked on something else.

It was really very tasty.  I can’t describe the finished dish evocatively because it isn’t like anything else.  BUT: the sweetness of the peas and the pistachios went very well together, with the salt on the pistachios making them seem almost sweeter.  The yogurt made the dish creamy without making it rich, and the scallions and tarragon provided a subtle, grassy layer next to the falvors of the peas and nuts. 

It was nice; I wish I’d made it for more people than just me.  (And hopefully Richard Wilbur will forgive me for quoting his wonderful poem in the title of an essay about frozen peas).

Published in: on September 2, 2007 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Because He Insists

Teacherman insists that I write this post. “Best Salad In The World!” he said, looking at me with almost stern conviction. “Best. Salad. IN THE WORLD.” Ooookay, for the sake of peace in the home. . . .

Tonight there was more fun with non-scary meat–we grilled an enormous sirloin steak, cut into four filet-mignon-sized pieces. Each piece was rubbed with chipotle powder, paprika, powdered bay leaves and cumin (and salt and pepper of course), grilled to about medium, and topped with a creamy blue cheese, roughly crumbled. This crispy, juicy, melting and oozing entree was phenomenally good, but not what Teacherman is jumping up and down telling me to write about.

I love vegetable side dishes almost more than I like anything else. The different flavor possibilities are infinitely exciting, and because of this, my portions sizes are usually gargantuan. Concerning steak, though, I’m always a little stymied. The traditional steak sides are broccoli and/or some preparation of potatoes, and due to allergies and food intolerances ranging across the two of us, neither of these things can grace our dinner table. (Don’t think we’re deprived, though: when we eat alone, Teacherman and I are wont to snarf down the very foods that the other cannot eat).

Since it’s ostensibly spring (not that one would know it from the sub-zero temperatures), my thoughts veered towards a salad of baby greens. I threw mustard, balsamic vinegar and olive oil in a bowl, forked them about a bit, then tossed in an entire bag of baby greens. (I believe that the contents of these bags are supposed to serve 4-6. Not in my house). This mixture was scooped onto two dinner plates, nearly completely covering them with the glistening leaves.

To continue the blue cheese theme, I crumbled the remaining ounce or so over the greens, added a handful of sliced, brilliantly red strawberries from the two-pound flat in the fridge, and another handful of extremely toasted pecans. In my opinion, the reason that the salad was so good was the fact that I almost ruined the last component.

I threw the handful of nuts into the toaster oven at 350, set the timer, then forgot about them. In a real oven, toasting nuts takes about 10 minutes. In a toaster oven, one never really knows–sometimes it takes 15 minutes, sometimes it takes 3 or 4. This time it took 3, maybe. I slid the the tray into the toaster oven, ran outside to turn on the grill, and by the time I got back inside the pecans were almost black. They were not, luckily, burnt, and I frantically tipped them onto a room-temperature plate to stop the cooking. In spite of the fact that they were simply raw pecans when I took them out of the bag, the over-toasting transformed them into something almost spiced; the oils in the nut had bubbled to the surface and caramelized, lending them the same moreish quality as buttered popcorn.

There are innumerable recipes for mesclun salads with strawberries, various cheeses and various nuts. I thought the salad I made would be a simple, tasty, non-extraordinary accompaniment to the excellent, Teacherman-grilled steak. Instead, the confluence of flavors made the salad what we lingered over, finishing the entree first, to savor the salad without distraction.

Published in: on April 6, 2007 at 7:16 pm  Leave a Comment