Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Perils of Inviting a Writer to Dinner
What’s cooking? Cinnamon Celebration Dessert

Ever since I started this blog, my friends have been suggesting topics or recipes I should post. It’s great that they’re interested, and I love not only the suggestions but their willingness to share recipes with me. Needless to say, I’m also flattered that they’ve stuck with me all this time. Usually, though, they have no idea what they’re letting themselves in for when they say something.

Take the other night, for instance. My husband and I were at a dinner party in a neighbor’s house, and the hostess served a dessert that truly looked like delicious artwork. Think Jackson Pollock Does Strawberries. Amid the oohs and aahs, someone piped in with, “Lee, you should put this on your blog.”

The hostess seemed willing, and I liked the idea, but first I needed a photo. And I didn’t have my camera or my cellphone. So before anyone could have a bite, I vaulted into action. “Wait a minute – I have to look at them all for the best presentation. Who here has a cellphone?”

One guy whipped out his iPhone, and snapped a photo before I could stop him. “No, no, no,” I said, waving my hands at him. “Not that one. Take this one. And we have to stage it.”

He thought it was pretty simple – you know, point at the food and shoot. Not so fast, buddy.

But orchestrating the shot wasn’t easy from my seat on the other side of the table, so we had a few excruciating minutes of, “Here, take this napkin – don’t unfold it – and put it next to the bowl with a spoon. Wait – not that one. Use this spoon. And put it at sort of an angle. No, closer to the bowl, and put the spoon on the napkin. Can you try for a bit more of an angle?” This guy is an artist, so I had hoped for more sensitivity on the composition, but I guess not everyone thinks so much about that sort of thing.

At some point, I realized the rest of the guests were starting to regret the original suggestion. And I never did get exactly the shot I was looking for. Ah, well. I got the recipe, though, and it’s quite good.

Lynne’s Cinnamon Celebration

2 cans Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
2 cups sugar (divided)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese (Lynne uses one regular and one light)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 stick of butter, softened
½-¾ stick butter, melted
cooking spray (Pam) or cooking oil for greasing the pan

Roll out one can of crescent rolls (pinching perforations together) into a greased, 9"x13" Pyrex dish.

Whip together 1½ cups sugar with the vanilla, the cream cheese, and the stick of butter. Spread over the crescent rolls.

Roll out the second can of crescent rolls (again, pinching together the perforations) and lay it on top of the first.

Combine the remaining ½ cup sugar with the cinnamon. Melt and pour the remaining butter over rolls. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350º for 30 min. Cut into squares and serve warm or cold.

Top with any or all of the following: whipped cream, sliced strawberries, caramel sauce, chocolate sauce, pecans toasted and chopped.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Words & Images
What’s cooking? Paella Fina

In my commercial writing days, I worked for years in partnership with a wonderfully talented graphic designer named Barbara Fina. It’s a great gift to be able to enjoy your work, and I truly believe the flow of ideas back and forth inspired each of us in ways that would not have been possible on our own. I learned a lot from Barbara about typefaces and visual balance, about the value of white space, and the nuance of tiny differences in line or color.

And even as I much prefer essay writing to the commercial stuff, I miss those days. True collaboration – where each person feels equally valuable – is such magic. And the thrill of reaching beyond what you thought you could do is a high that feels like soaring.

Barbara has moved in a different direction as well, now in interior design. Which allowed us to collaborate one more time, on my condo in Jersey City. And her firm, Fina Design, was recently featured in Westchester Home.

One thing we still have in common is that we’re both foodies. She’s a little more aggressive than I am in terms of creating her own recipes. According to Barbara, “I built this recipe after traveling around Spain for two months, from Bilbao to San Sabastian to Barcelona and from Sevilla to Marbella and Granada, eating paella wherever I went.” Maybe it’s the artist in her needing a blank canvas.

Barbara’s Paella Fina
Serves 4-6.

3 tbsp olive oil
½ cup finely diced white onion
2-3 links chorizo sausage, sliced thinly in disks
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into finger-sized slices
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole red bell pepper, medium diced or finely julienned (it’s a look)
2 cups Arborio or Valencia rice
3 cups dry or semi-dry white wine
3-4 cups good quality chicken stock
1 cup diced whole tomatoes (San Marzano or other good quality canned)
2 bay leaves
2 Tablespoons saffron threads
1 Tablespoon paprika
salt and freshly ground pepper

12 small- to medium-sized cleaned mussels
12 littleneck clams
1 pound jumbo shrimp (20-25/lb), cleaned and deveined, tails left on
1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, quartered
1 cup frozen peas (these go in at the very end when the shellfish go in)
optional: 1 whole zucchini, shredded coarsely
4 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

small lemon wedges or slices for garnish

In a large, flat paella pan or sauté pan, sauté onions in 2 Tbl of the olive oil over medium heat until lightly caramelized (about 7 mins). Add half the garlic and all of the chorizo. Sauté for 2 minutes more, then remove from pan and set aside in a large bowl.

To the same pan, add the remaining 1 Tbl olive oil and the chicken. Sauté without turning for 2 minutes on medium, then turn the pieces over, add the other half of the garlic, and sauté until just cooked, probably another 2 minutes. Add red pepper and cook for 30 seconds. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove contents of pan to join onions and chorizo in bowl.

Deglaze the pan with the wine, and add the tomatoes, bay leaves, paprika and rice, stirring until all are mixed. Bring the mixture to simmer.

Once the rice has absorbed the wine, begin adding the chicken stock a cup at a time, stirring often, and allowing each cup to be absorbed before adding the next, until the rice is tender but still firm to the bite, about 20 minutes. Toward the end of this process, add the saffron (I put it in toward the end to get the most of its flavor). Check mixture for salt and pepper.

Kitchen Goddess note: If you want to prepare part of the dish ahead, cook to this point and finish just before serving. The rest of the ingredients can overcook easily, so it’s important to get the rice nearly done before adding them.

When the rice is ready, add back the chicken/chorizo mix. Stir thoroughly and add artichokes, zucchini (optional), peas, shrimp, and clams. Stir the entire mixture to incorporate flavors. Cover and let cook for 2 minutes. Then add the mussels and parsley. Cover again and cook just until all shellfish have opened, about 3 minutes. Discard any shellfish that do not open. Do not overcook. Stir again to incorporate flavors. Let the paella rest off the burner for 2 minutes. If you need to, you can cover it and let it sit for half an hour.

When ready to serve, arrange a few of the shellfish attractively on top of the rice mixture. Arrange lemon as garnish on top and serve.

Serve with a green salad and nice crusty bread.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hearts (Spades, Diamonds, and Clubs) and Chocolates
What’s cooking? Goat Cheese & Hazelnut Truffles

My husband and I are bridge players. In that serious, competitive, obsessive way. The kind of people who go on vacation to a tournament and play the game for 6-7 days in a row. I know, it sounds crazy; but there’s a whole subculture of people who do this for entertainment.

Bridge and golf have a lot in common, in the sense that couples who play either game together walk a fine line in order to remain happily married at the same time. I don’t play golf – I figure it’s tough enough to survive one couples game, and besides, sitting at a card table suits my physical skill set a lot better. But I love bridge, and I love playing with my husband as my partner.

We get along at the table because we pay strict adherence to two basic rules. Rule Number One: He has to smile. He’s much better than I am, and I can’t concentrate on making the right bid or play if he’s across the table scowling. I start worrying about what I might have done wrong, and in an instant, my whole game goes down the toilet.

On the other hand, there’s Rule Number Two: He’s always right. Okay, okay, so it’s mostly true. Which doesn’t mean I always feel like saying so. Nevertheless, at the end of a hand, if he has some piece of advice, my job is to nod and say, “You’re right.” Even if – hard to imagine – he’s actually wrong, there’s no discussion, and we can move on to the next hand. The analysis goes a lot better when it’s later, over a glass of wine.

We’ve played a lot together recently, and he’s been swell – smiling almost the whole time. So for Valentine’s Day, I’ve made the most delicious chocolate truffles you ever swooned over. In fact, I served them last night for dessert and his only comment was, “Oh, wow....”

These were originally served to me at a delightful restaurant called Elsewhere, in NYC. Unfortunately, not all really good restaurants make it in NYC, and such was the case with Elsewhere. But – and this is truly great news – the same fabulous Pastry Chef from Elsewhere has relocated to another restaurant under the same management: Casellula Cheese & Wine Café, at 401 West 52nd Street, in NYC.

The Pastry Chef’s name is Leigh Friend (I like her already because our names are homonyms), and her creations are amazing. I was at Elsewhere last summer for lunch with two friends, and we weren’t going to have dessert, but decided what the heck. Oh my goodness. I had grapefruit sorbet, one friend had orange mint sorbet, and the other had a Pavlova made with coconut ice cream and passionfruit purée. The sorbets were smooth and completely perfect – the mintiness in the orange mint was like a drink of cold spring water, and the grapefruit was the exact right balance of sweet yet not sweet. But my friend with the Pavlova was so overwhelmed she refused to share and insisted that we order another for the experience. We did, and the creaminess of the coconut ice cream topped with the just-tart passionfruit purée over a perfectly crunchy meringue was hands down better than any I’ve had before. I just hope it’s on the menu at Casellula.

Chef Friend was kind enough to give me the recipe for her truffles. You may blanch at the ingredients (goat cheese and Nutella – really? yes, really), but the result is a truffle that’s mysteriously delicious and not overwhelmingly sweet. And while the process isn’t short, it’s far easier than you’d guess.

Leigh Friend’s Goat Cheese & Hazelnut Truffles

First, here’s the recipe as emailed to me by Chef Friend:

In a KitchenAid mixer with a paddle, combine equal parts goat cheese (chèvre – any mild-flavored brand will do) and Nutella. Mix until smooth, making sure to scrape down the sides. Transfer the mix to a piping bag and pipe out the truffles to the size you would like. Chill in the fridge until firm. Once firm, shape into uniform balls. Dip the truffles in chocolate once to get a good thick shell on the outside. Have toasted chopped hazelnuts in a bowl mixed with a bit of salt (I use Maldon) aside. After coating all the truffles once, dip them a second time and before the chocolate can harden, toss them in the hazelnuts.

So now that you get the general idea, here are a few Kitchen Goddess notes that should help:

(1) As to quantities of the ingredients, here’s what I used, so you can gauge what you’ll need for a specific number of truffles. These quantities produced 32-34 truffles. (I might have consumed 1-2 in the tasting process.)
4 oz goat cheese (chèvre – any mild-flavored brand)
4 oz Nutella
5-6 oz toasted, chopped hazelnuts
large pinch of finishing salt (Maldon or other flaky sea salt)
11.5-oz bag of Ghirardelli Bittersweet Chocolate Chips (You might make do with 2 of the 4-oz bars; I just think the chips are easier to deal with, and it never hurts to have leftover melted chocolate.)

(2) I’m as handy with a piping bag as I am with, oh, say, a coping saw, so I chilled the cheese/Nutella “batter” in a bowl in the refrigerator until firm, then used a teaspoon and my fingers to form the truffles into balls about ¾ inch in diameter. It’s less elegant, technique-wise, but once you’ve covered the little darlings with a couple of rounds of chocolate and the nuts, there’s precious little difference in the final product.

(3) If, like me, you can only find whole hazelnuts with skins on, by far the best way to remove the skins is to boil them 3-4 mins in a quart of water with 4 Tbl of baking soda, then rinse them in a colander under cold water. Most of the skins will peel off on their own; the rest will come off easily with a little rubbing. Chop the nuts and toast them 10-20 mins in a 350º oven.

The above photo is of Friend’s truffles; the photo here is of mine. You can see that she allows the nuts to be more chunky, which is a bit artier than my version. I plan to do less chopping of the nuts next time.

(4) For the chocolate, if you use bars, first chop them into small pieces. Melt it slowly, using either a double boiler (do not let the pan with the chocolate touch the water), or a microwave. For microwave melting, use a bowl that will not overheat as you work, and heat the chocolate at 50% power in bursts of 30 seconds to a minute. Stir well between bursts.

(5) Most important note: the whole process goes best if you freeze or chill well the balls in between stages – e.g., mix the chèvre, chill, form into balls, chill, dip in chocolate, chill, dip in chocolate/nuts, chill. And I stored the leftovers in the freezer. Worked great.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

New Love for Old Green Beans
What’s cooking? Roasted Sesame Green Beans

It’s 76 degrees outside. OMG. What a day, and on February 1. Guess that means it’s time to take down the Christmas decorations.

At this time of year, my husband always reminds me of when we first started dating. I was living in a studio in Manhattan, a perfectly adorable space with a tiny separate kitchen and a brick wall (you have to live in NYC for a time before you understand the excitement of having a separate kitchen and a brick wall inside your apartment). In any case, it was February, nearing Valentine’s Day, and I asked if he could do me a favor.