Tuesday, December 9, 2008

cocktail parties and an evening at craft

December- time for the cooking extravaganza. I've cooked more the past week and a half than I've ever done in one sweep. Please join me in my recent journey of culinary hits (and misses).

The journey started on a recipe-testing kick I went on. I tested personal recipes and tried some holiday delicacies from Food and Wine, Gourmet and Bon Appetit. Here were some of my favorites:

Meyer lemon and shrimp fritto misto with a blackberry horseradish

First, I made a tempura batter for the lemon and shrimp. I mixed equal parts of sparkling water and flour then added more water until I had a good consistency (less than a pancake batter).

For the lemons, I chose Meyer lemons (sweeter than regular) and sliced them as thin as possible. Then, I made the blackberry horseradish. Puree a pint of blackberries with a touch of sugar. Strain to remove seeds. Mix with horseradish and a touch of plain mayonnaise or yogurt. Season with salt and a touch of lemon juice.

Next, heat your frying oil to about 150 degrees. Dredge the shrimp and lemon slices in flour then add to tempura batter. Fry for a couple minutes until shrimp is pink then drain. Garnish with blackberry horseradish and cilantro.

Skirt steak salad with orange and fennel (December Food and Wine)

This recipe was shown as a uniform salad, I used the same ingredientss and preparation, just served it as a deconstructed salad with oranges, radishes, fennel, Israeli couscous (they used Fregola, a Sardinian pasta), an olive oil and Meyer lemon vinaigrette, grilled red onions, grilled skirt steak and a prepared olive tapenade.

Strawberry pistachio "Bon Bons" with a strawberry coulis

I saw a similar recipe for this in Rachael Ray's magazine a while ago and tried to re-create it. First, arrange Nilla wafers upside down on a plate. Top with a small scoop of strawberry ice cream on each wafer. Freeze to harden. Meanwhile, I melted dark chocolate and milk in a double boiler to make a chocolate sauce. Dunk each ice cream wafer into the chocolate then cover with chopped pistachios. Freeze again to harden.

These little desserts are festive and easy to prepare- there are also countless combinations. I'm going to make them with coffee ice cream and chopped hazelnuts for our Christmas Eve Party.

For breakfast the next morning, I tested my crepe-making skills and cleaned the fridge all in one sweep. I made crepes stuffed with pepper turkey and Swiss and topped it with the strawberry balsamic coulis I served with the bon bons.

This past week we had our "Mystery Basket " class at culinary school. In our groups of three, we were given a basket of goodies and required to make 5+ dishes.
Our basket contained:
Bone-in, skin-on chicken breast
Pork tenderloin
Purple potatoes
Wild rice
Bok choy
Red pears

Our dishes were:
Pan-fried cod with a romesco sauce
Zucchini ribbons sauteed with lemon and garlic

Spiced pork tenderloin atop fried plantain chips with a pear and currant chutney

Deconstructed Asian shrimp salad with bok choy

Baked chicken with a wild rice stuffing

Eggs Benedict trio with a traditional hollandaise and asparagus

Radish salad with cilantro, scallions, queso fresco and a spicy lime vinaigrette

I crafted the cod dish with romesco and zucchini ribbons, pork and chutney with the plantain chips, the Asian shrimp salad and the radish salad. The class was really fun for me because I would rather be given a blank palette to work with than a recipe any day.

Two nights later, my chef business partner and I had two personal cheffing events- two cocktail parties back to back (one for 100, one for 45).

The menu for the first event for 100 was:
Salmon mousse on crostini with chive

Skirt steak quesadillas with red onions, brie and a chimichurri

Spiced chicken kabobs with a romesco sauce

Assorted melons wrapped in prosciutto with a balsamic glaze

Vegetable spring rolls with a peanut siracha sauce and a wasabi aioli

Polenta with a tomato jam and fontina

The menu was delicious and so much fun to make. The spring rolls, in particular, were my favorite and are great vegetarian hors d'eouvres. For spring-roll-making first timers, the first few are the worst. Once you get a rhythm going, they are actually quite easy to make. Below is the recipes for my spring rolls.

Before beginning, have an assembly line ready with paper towels, veggies and spices to stuff the rice paper with. I chose julienned carrots, red cabbage, zucchini, blanched asparagus spears, a healthy dose of chopped cilantro, salt and red pepper flakes- that's it.

To get the hard rice paper pliable, soak it in hot water for a couple minutes then delicately dry between paper towels and lay flat. Arrange veggies, cilantro, salt and pepper flakes on the side closest to you. Then, carefully roll the end over the veggies, tuck the edges in like a burrito, then keep rolling to get the spring roll shape. The rice paper will seal itself.

Now, for the sauces...wasabi aioli and peanut siracha- so simple and flavorful. For the wasabi mayonnaise I mixed half a tube of wasabi paste (I like it hot), mayonnaise, a bit of olive oil, salt and chopped cilantro. For the peanut sauce....peanut butter, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, siracha, olive oil and soy sauce.

For our second cocktail party, we kept a few ideas from the night before, but most of our dishes were different. The menu was:

Salmon mousse atop cucumber rounds with chive

Roasted pork tenderloin with a pear mango chutney

Turkey croquettes with a cranberry jalapeno salsa

Pulled chicken and brie phyllo with a balsamic glaze

Vegetable spring rolls with a wasabi aioli

Prosciutto wrapped asparagus with a lemon mint vinaigrette

Profiteroles with a strawberry coulis

Chocolate fondue with cayenne and cinnamon

Both parties were so much fun and all guests were pleased- another Christmas party this Saturday!

Last week I also spent a night in Dallas dining at Craft in the W and staying the night with a group at Hotel Zaza. Craft was overall pretty delicious and the service was impeccable.

I started off with a dirty Belvedere martini and the braised octopus with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette and white beans. The octopus was so tender- it cut like butter and the vinaigrette was a perfect accompaniment with the creamy white beans.

Next, we ordered the shaved fennel and blood orange salad with a chive vinaigrette. For me, there was too much fennel, not enough blood oranges and the vinaigrette lacked salt. I love fennel though so I didn't really care.

For the proteins, we went with the roasted rack of lamb and braised lamb shoulder and the Wagyu skirt steak. The braised shoulder was perfection and definitely trumped the roasted rack (too fatty) and Wagyu steak (flavorful, but not medium-rare as we requested).
For our sides, we leaned toward the starches and carbs but it was well worth it. We shared the handmade gnocchi, chestnut ravioli with orange zest and the spaghetti squash gratin.

The gnocchi was so light an airy, it melted in my mouth and the cream sauce was perfectly seasoned. The chestnut ravioli wasn't very warm but had a light and citrusy aftertaste that I loved. The spaghetti squash gratin needed salt but had simple flavors and the squash really shined through.

We finished with some vintage port, hot chocolate with homemade spiced marshmallows and some gingerbread muffins to go- a perfect ending.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

turkey day and tikka masala

Thanksgiving weekend in Austin- a foodie's heaven.

The weekend started off Wednesday evening at 34th street Cafe with my lovely mother. We began with the mini lamb burgers with a mint pesto and feta. The lamb was nicely cooked and juicy and the pesto added the delicious mint element that everyone loves with lamb.

My mom ordered the maytag (bleu cheese) and tomato soup that was tangy and full-bodied. Finally, we ended with the Osso Bucco, mushroom risotto, haricot verts and a pan jus. The sauce was lacking but the pork was buttery and tender. The haricot verts were perfectly al dente with a delicious garlicky shallot glaze. The risotto was a bit gummy and heavy with the pork so I pushed it aside. Too full to finish even a third, we took the rest home to Dad.

Moonshine was the next dinner of the weekend with a group of my crazy girlfriends from high school. Underestimating the power of moonshine, we started with moonshine shots (they hit you where it hurts) and ruby slipper martinis (vodka, grapefruit juice, champagne float). We started with the "corn dog" shrimp with honey mustard and a blueberry swirl. It was ok...somewhat boring and not much flavor in the batter.

Adrienne and I then split the chile cured pork chop with bourbon apple sauce, a vegetable succotash and baked macaroni with pimento and bacon gratin. The pork and apples were a home run- perfectly cooked with a satisfying combination of sweet and heat. The macaroni was comforting and completely worth the addition to my slowly expanding waistline.

Thanksgiving dinner was a grand one- this year we had about 50 people. The menu was:

Roasted turkey and gravy
Becca's (my grandmother) famous cornbread dressing
Cranberry relish
Cranberry sauce
Squash casserole with bacon
Sweet potatoes with orange and ginger
Sweet potato casserole with brown sugar and pecans
Garlic mashed potatoes
Green bean casserole
Roasted butternut squash with sage and cayenne
Sweet corn spoon bread
Sauteed brussel sprouts with orange and pecan butter
Waldorf salad
Fresh rolls
I made the butternut squash and the brussel sprouts and my mom made the sweet potatoes with orange and ginger. All three dishes are simple with bold flavors.

Butternut squash with sage and cayenne
Dice the inards of the squash into uniform pieces. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, a bit of brown sugar and several good pinches of cayenne. Toss to coat evenly on a baking sheet. Roast on 350 for about 40 minutes (add minced sage halfway through cooking time). Garnish with leftover sage.

Brussel sprouts with orange and a pecan butter
Blanch brussel sprouts for 3 minutes then toss in an ice bath to stop cooking and maintain emerald color. Slice in half vertically. Meanwhile, chop and toast pecans in a saute pan. Add butter, fresh orange juice and sliced brussel sprouts. Saute until tender. Garnish with toasted pecans and orange zest. Viola! Fall sides in a flash.

My last dinner in Austin was spent at the Clay Pit for some contemporary Indian cuisine- it certainly did not disappoint. I ordered way too much food in an effort to submerge my palette into as many new tastes as I could at once.

We started with an order of samosas with a trio of sauces- a mint chutney, a tomato salsa and a tamarind sauce (my favorite). The fried delights were filled with softly curried vegetables and had a beautiful golden brown hue. I then inhaled the fresh-out-of-the-tandoori naan bread with garlic and basil. To me, there is nothing sexier than the aroma of garlic first hitting heat...the bread smelled sinful.

For out entrees, I wanted a taste of everything so I ordered the mixed grill complete with tandoori chicken (moist, dark meat on the bone), another skewer with white meat chicken in a creamy garlic sauce, a lamb kabob with herbs and yogurt and a sirloin kabob with ginger and spices. All skewers came with the infamous tikka masala curry sauce for dipping and were atop coconut scented steamed rice.

To my dismay, I was without criticism for this dinner. All proteins were cooked well and tender, the spices were robust and the traditional sauces were integral to all elements of my meal. We finished with the chai tea creme brulee (light and not over "chai-ed") and a wish to return quickly.