Monday, December 20, 2010

Deck the Tables

We decked the halls and the tables for a holiday party with friends, proving that celebrating this time of year doesn't have to be all frozen appetizers and bad Christmas sweaters. Here are my holiday party must-haves to ensure that your bash will be a royal success:
  • Fresh finger foods: the best party appetizers are those you can eat with your hands (or on the festive snowman napkins I got), and to help your guests avoid the holidays belly bulge, put out something light and healthy. We went with veggie crostinis, sauteed vegetables served on whole grain bread, and fresh and easy bruschetta. The real hit was the crostinis topped with artichoke spread, wild mushrooms, and sauteed leeks. Both healthy and delicious, these are simple to make ahead and set out for guests.

  • Seasonal drinks: it's best to have options for your guests to choose from, so in addition to wine and beer, we had eggnog with rum (buy the light kind!), peppermint schnapps for hot chocolate, classic mulled wine (just simmer red wine in a saucepan on low with seasonal spices like cloves and nutmeg with a cinnamon stick and orange peel), and my "poinsettia cocktails" - cranberry juice, champagne, and a splash of vodka - the more drinks, the more merry!

  • Something sweet: it's not the holidays without sweets, so I had to indulge a little here. I placed plates of chocolate cookies, homemade peppermint bark (this couldn't be easier to make - just melt white chocolate over a double boiler and add crumbled candy canes and pour over parchment paper to cool), and bowls of festive chocolate candies and candy canes scattered around. It's especially great to have something baking as guests arrive so the whole house smells like Christmas :)

  • Decorations: combine good food with festive decor and you've got yourself a party. I of course had to get a Christmas tree and adorn with ornaments:

string a plethora of holiday lights throughout the apartment, using extra ornaments to make table pieces:

 hang stockings with care (find creative places if you lack a fireplace as we do):

light candles and create centerpieces with fresh cranberries and pine:

and of course hang mistletoe!

~ Happy holidays from Princess Peach's Kitchen ~

Sunday, December 19, 2010

French Food at Home

Last night I made Coq au Vin for dinner, showing that gourmet French food doesn't have to be intimidating - it can be done simply at home.  Here's the recipe for my version of a classic chicken dish:

Coq au Vin Recipe

3 bacon slices

20 pearl onions, peeled

1 1/2 lbs chicken thighs, excess fat trimmed, skin ON

6 garlic cloves, peeled

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups chicken stock (I use homemade stock I make ahead and freeze for later use; infused with white pepper)

1 cup red wine (burgundy works well)

1 bay leaf

Several fresh thyme sprigs

A brunch fresh parsley sprigs

1/2 cup button mushrooms, sliced (I used some dried porcini as well)

Carrots, sliced (quantity to taste - this is my addition)

Splash of Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp butter

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

1  Brown bacon on medium high heat in a dutch oven big enough to hold the chicken, about 10 minutes. Remove the cooked bacon, set aside. Keep the bacon fat in the pan. Working in batches if necessary, add chicken, skin side down. Season with salt and pepper. (Note: it is best to add salt while cooking, not just at the very end. It brings out the flavor of the chicken.)

2  Brown the chicken well, on all sides, about 10 minutes. Halfway through the browning, add the onions and garlic and then sliced carrots. 

3  Add the chicken stock, wine, and herbs. Add back the bacon, crumbled. Lower heat to a simmer, slow-cooking for 45 minutes to an hour, until chicken is tender and cooked through. Add mushrooms to the remaining liquid and bring to a boil. 

4  Boil quickly and reduce the liquid until it becomes thick and saucy. Remove the bay leaves, herb sprigs, garlic, and discard. Lower the heat, stir in the butter. 

5  Remove the broth and heat in small saucepan on high heat, whisking in flour and Worcestershire sauce to create a gravy. (This was G's idea.) Pour thickened gravy the pan to reheat and coat chicken. Adjust seasoning. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve.

Serves 4. Serve with potatoes or over egg noodles. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Betty Crocker Days

It's been a while since I've reviewed a cookbook, and this one is truly amazing - equally a historical relic from a long-ago cooking era as it is a source for recipes. I found this aging copy of Better Homes and Gardens Salad Book in my grandmother's apartment; the print date is 1957. The pages contain recipes from the classic American late 50s-early 60s period, a time of Jackie Kennedy fashion, anti-Communism, and the "Leave It to Beaver" culture - the apron-clad mother in the kitchen, cooking meatloaf and potatoes for her husband and children. Suffice to say, the level of culinary exploration in the average American kitchen during this time was minimal. The typical diet was dominated by staples like tuna noodle casserole, (actually all casseroles in general), frozen vegetables, and of course the infamous spam.

So what were the recipes for "salads" in this cookbook like? Hysterical, frankly. The majority of salads from that time apparently included either mayonnaise, jello, mini marshmallows, or all three. The selection of jello molds is expansive, and apparently appropriate for both sweet fruit salads and savory dishes. Apparently calorie-counting was not the objective, as Ranch-dressing smothered (defrosted frozen) vegetable salads clearly deemphasize nutritional value, and heavy cream is a key ingredient throughout the book. The most appalling were the corned-beef salad mold (with tomato jello) and the tangy tuna mousse squares - jello, mayo, and heavy cream with seafood.  Yum.

Throwing a kitchy cocktail party, I knew I'd need to start with punch and martini glasses, riddling the apartment with over-the-top decorations. Platters of appetizers, fun finger foods, and of course a few recipes from Grandmother's cookbook would make it really festive. I chose the cherry log, basically a cream cheese-mayonaise log with maraschino cherries and mini marshmallows - pretty much obscene:

To my shock people began eating it. Could my Grandmas have known something that my generation has overlooked? You got it. Apparently people love mayonnaise.

Of course I had to make a jello mold, filled with canned fruit (I used pineapple, peaches and mandarin oranges) which I filled swirly large muffin tins with, envisioning I'd unmold them and create an epic jello tower, along the lines of:

Not so much. My fridge is super cold so the jello came out as ice, which promptly melted to mush in the instant I submerged the pan in warm water (okay, it was probably too hot,) so I got ... jello soup! Again, it got eaten. (What can I say? I kind of like jello.)

To top it all off, I had to get the look, with a flowery cocktail dress and trusty apron:

Betty Crocker with cocktail in hand :)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Meatballs

Making Swedish meatballs is a three-part process: note the bowl of raw ground meat mixed with milk-soaked breadcrumbs and seasoning; the meatballs frying in the skillet, and draining before added to the sauce.  *My secret to making extra delicious meatballs: add copious amounts of white pepper and Worcestershire sauce, and even mix in some spicy Italian sausage with the traditional ground pork or beef to give it extra flavor.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Santa Lucia

Today is Santa Lucia day, a festival of lights celebrating Saint Lucia typically in Scandinavia. I experienced my first Swedish Lucia ten years ago when I visited Stockholm over December 13, traditionally the darkest day of the year, where they honor the winter solstice and go all out decorating with candles and of course, food. In Sweden the traditional celebration has a girl selected as the Santa Lucia to lead a candlelit procession wearing a wreath adorned with lit candles on her head (fire hazard, I know) bringing a tray of sweets and goodies. In Swedish homes this is the oldest daughter who brings coffee and sweet buns to her parents, wearing a white robe and singing a Lucia song. Nowadays they have public processions in the city as well, where they hand out steaming hot glogg, spiced holiday wine, and pepparkarkor, gingerbread. Nothing says the holidays to me like candles, singing, and sweets, so naturally I love to replicate the Swedish traditions back here in the States.

First I began by making mulled wine on Friday night, adding cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to a deep red wine in a simmer pot on low, stirring in a clementine peel for an orange-zest infusion. Though real Nordic glogg can be tricky to find in the States, it's available if you know where to look - other than the food mart at Ikea (believe it or not, those products are authentic!) you can find glogg at European speciality shops in most major cities. My personal favorite is Cardullo's in Harvard Square. They also have classic Swedish food staples such as ligonberry jam and Marabou milk chocolate ... oh joy.

Next I baked a loaf of gingerbread last night (*my trick to making the best gingerbread: cook it two minutes less than the suggested cook time. Turn off the oven and leave the bread inside - with the center still uncooked - to finish baking slowly. The result is super moist gingerbread that's dense and rich and delicious.) This morning's Santa Lucia breakfast of fudgy gingerbread slices and hot coffee can't be beat! Next year I'll make sticky buns, too.

Tonight I will make the timeless favorite Swedish meatballs, which my mother taught me how to do right. The trick is to first soak breadcrumbs in milk and saute onions in butter, mixing with an egg and ground pork and/or beef into plump nuggets that you fry up and create a creamy, meaty sauce in the pan, serving over egg noodles. Swedish meatballs equal the holidays for me, a tradition that I will surely pass along just as my mother shared her heritage with me. Trevlig helg! (Happy holidays!)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sinfully Delicious Triple-Chocolate Cookies

In preparation for the onslaught of holiday parties in the upcoming weeks I knew it's that time of year again: cookie baking season. I started with easy homemade peppermint bark and began considering cookies to compliment - would I go for the classic sugar cookie this year? I think not. I wanted something with a little more panache.

So when I saw the segment of Nigella Lawson featuring her recipe for "Totally Chocolate Cookies," I knew I had found my winner. The premise of the clip is that Nigella makes these intense chocolate cookies for friends who have suffered bad break-ups, calling attention to the wondrous healing powers of chocolate. And these cookies layer it on, with melted dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and chocolate chips to reach a higher level of chocolatey goodness. I went about procuring the recipe for these over-the-top indulgent morsels and found, of course, the ingredient amounts listed in European measurements (I must point out that Nigella's British and not using the absurd English measures system so what's wrong with America, really?) so I set off converting the grams to cups, a new skill to add to my cooking ability repertoire. Then I made my own tweaks, substituting dark brown sugar for light, using a little less white sugar than called for, choosing a dark chocolate truffle bar (you can find this at Trader Joe's) for melting, and a mix of both semisweet and milk chocolate chips for fun. I doubled the recipe and baked about two thirds of the batter this way, and added white chocolate chips and tart dried Monterey cherries to the mixture, and cut down on the bake time by three minutes for this alternate version. The verdict? These cookies are to die for. As always, Nigella you are my supreme domestic goddess.

Here's the original recipe:

*Note the batter becomes increasingly thicker as you scoop it, appearing surprisingly dry and gummy but coming out chewy and soft when baked, don't you worry. Use an ice cream scoop for sure. You'll need milk!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On Recipes

"I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with variation." - Madame Benoit

Festival of Latkes

For Hannukah this year I decided to do a new twist on the staple food of the holiday: latkes. Here's the recipe I created for my interpretation of the tried-and-true potato pancakes:

6 (or so) "baby" red potatoes
1/2 large yellow onion
1 zucchini
3 baby carrots
1 egg
a few tablespoons flour
5+ tablespoons smoked Hungarian paprika
salt and pepper to taste

sour cream
applesauce topped with cinnamon

1) Peel and grate potatoes and zucchini into large bowl, using paper towels to soak up the excess moisture. Dice the onion and grate the carrots, adding to the bowl. I added a few tablespoons of sour cream for extra binding.
2) Add flour and egg (lightly beaten), stirring with wooden spoon to distribute evenly. Season generously with salt and pepper and paprika to taste - I added a lot to spice up this otherwise typically bland-flavored dish - and let sit 10-15 minutes at room temperature so flavors meld.
3) Heat vegetable or peanut oil in a large skillet on medium high heat, forming mixture into small patties and adding to hot pan. Fry a few minutes on each side, when starting to crust golden brown, in batches until you have used all the filling. Drain hot latkes on paper towel-covered plates and serve warm with sour cream and apple sauce. *I added more paprika to the sour cream.
Makes three plates of latkes.

This version of the classic potato pancakes incorporates more vegetables for nutritional value, and the zucchini and carrots add an extra sweetness to the otherwise starchy potato. Next year I'll go wild and try even more different vegetables, such as turnips and parsnips!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cafe Deluxe

Of all the restaurants that the culinary hub Bethesda has to offer, why would you go to Cafe Deluxe? In my opinion it is the "classic American cuisine" option lost in a sea of more tantalizing options. Within a three block radius of an Indian restaurant, Lebanese tavern, Irish pub, French bistro and Spanish tapas bar, Cafe Deluxe seems lackluster at best. It has an unimaginative menu to match its charming yet nondescript interior, with your run-of-the-mill dishes: soups, salads, sandwiches and pizza; the expected entree selection of steak, salmon, lamb and pasta. By now I've been trained to never even dream of getting pizza or pasta at an American restaurant. Blasphemy, to the Italian Boy.

So not surprisingly, I chose the salad with roasted beets, goat cheese, walnut and a blood orange vinaigrette - a nice flavor combination (though with me a dish really can't go wrong when there's beets involved.) My major complaint was that the beets were diced too small for my taste, losing the effect of the roasted veggie's fantastic texture. And I have to say that the vinaigrette, though tasty, could hardly be classified as "blood orange" - again, my inner elitist warns when not in Italy ...

The appetizers, including spring rolls and spinach and artichoke dip, were tasty but forgettable, but the pepper crusted rare Ahi tuna with frisee was excellent - good quality fish with excellent preparation somewhat unexpectedly at a place you wouldn't think of doing sashimi. This was the best dish of the night by far, followed by the distant second choice of the lump crab cake with corn and asparagus saute and sweet mustard cream; in the "when in Rome" mentality of course we had to order the crab cakes in Maryland, and enjoyed the refreshing take on this Chesapeake area staple. A true testament, though, to the uninspiring food at Cafe Deluxe was that no one was interested in seeing what desserts they had to offer, figuring nothing could wow us there. Nothing was outright bad, but nothing was truly exceptional, and though I don't expect an epic romance, I at least want an experience with my meal. So if you're going out to dine in Bethesda, I say go elsewhere.

3/5 stars.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bourbon-Brined Turkey

Here's the recipe from The Washington Post that we used for our Thanksgiving turkey this year:

Bourbon-Brined (Smoked) Turkey


  • One 15-pound turkey (giblets removed)
  • For the brine

    • 14 cups water
    • 4 cups apple juice, preferably unsweetened and unfiltered
    • 1 cup bourbon
    • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
    • 1 1/4 cups salt
    • 4 bay leaves
    • 12 whole black peppercorns
    • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
    • 4 medium cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
    • 4 strips lemon peel (little or no pith)
    For the rub
    • 2 tablespoons ground sage
    • 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
    • 2 tablespoons dried thyme
    • 2 tablespoons salt
    • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper


    For the brine: Line a large mixing bowl or clean bucket with a 2-gallon resealable plastic food storage bag or a large brining bag; add the water, apple juice, bourbon, brown sugar, salt, bay leaves, peppercorns, onion, garlic and strips of lemon peel, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Place the turkey in the brine and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Refrigerate for 12 to 20 hours, repositioning the turkey halfway through as needed to make sure the bird is evenly brined.

    Rinse the turkey and pat it dry; discard the brine.

    For the rub: Combine the sage, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper in a small bowl. 

    Coat the cavity and skin of the turkey with butter. Coat the cavity with 2 tablespoons of the rub, then use the remainder of the rub to coat the buttered skin of the bird. Place desired vegetables or stuffing in the cavity. 

    *Note: The original recipe has the turkey smoked over applewood chips on a charcoal grill, but we roasted the turkey in traditional fashion in the oven, which took about four and a half hours for a 19-lb bird.

    This was the moistest, most succulent turkey meat I have ever eaten, with the sweet apple cider-bourbon flavor infused into the meat over night to leave it soft and flavorful - the best Thanksgiving turkey I've ever had!

    A Menu to be Thankful For

    Our Thanksgiving Menu:

    Spinach balls (a family favorite)
    Vegetable platter with homemade roasted red pepper dip
    Puffed pastry pinwheels with pesto and sundried tomatoes
    Dates stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon
    Fried pumpkin "french fries" served with cranberry salsa - made to order with a deep fryer ... oh America

    Cocktails (because it's not a holiday without a drink)
    Apple cider punch: with cranberry juice, champagne, apple liqueur and fresh lemon juice
    Pear bubbly: brandy-infused pear nectar simple syrup topped with Prosecco and Pelligrino
    "Dirty Shirley": Shirley Temples with vodka - my new guilty pleasure :)

    Bourbon-brined turkey (recipe follows)
    Homemade gravy: secret ingredient - splash of Worchestershire sauce
    Stuffing: My Mama's style with bread crumbs, celery and dried cranberries; both stuffed into turkey and served dry on the side
    Cranberry sauce: authentic, no cans in my kitchen! - I made with spices, fresh grated ginger, orange juice and zest, and golden raisins
    Mashed potatoes: whipped and without the skins, the way I like it, thank you
    Southern green beans: tossed with caramelized red onion, crumbled bacon, walnuts, red wine vinegar and mushrooms
    Butternut squash casserole: sweet, topped with brown sugar and pecans
    Yellow squash casserole: savory, with salty cracker crumbs mixed in and topped with cheese
    Rolls: made from the same classic dinner rolls recipe my mother has used for 20 years

    Pumpkin pie: classic. Naturally I made two.
    Pumpkin chiffon pie: fluffy in gingerbread graham cracker crust, topped with whipped cream
    Pear cranberry crisp: served warm with vanilla ice cream
    Caramel pecan cake: surprisingly moist considering my aunt made it with rice crackers to be gluten-free
    Flourless chocolate bars: because my sister believes there should be a chocolate dessert option at every holiday
    Homemade cinnamon ice cream

    Secret family recipes available upon request.