Sunday, June 28, 2015

8 Ideas for Happier Hosting in the Summertime
What’s cooking? Strawberry Shortcake


I know that today is not the first day of summer. The Kitchen Goddess does not live in a cave. But the first day of summer was also Father’s Day, and dads tend to get short shrift as it is. It didn’t seem fair. So maybe we can just now celebrate the onset of summer without this year tying it to a particular day.

Summer is such a great season for entertaining. Inside or outside, at the beach or in your backyard. It’s more casual than in the other seasons, and more flexible by adding the grill to our toolbox of available techniques.

And in the fun-loving spirit that is the hallmark of this blog, the Kitchen Goddess has pulled together a few suggestions that’ll she hopes will help your warm-weather entertaining be even more inspired than usual:

1. Keep appetizers light – use slices of cucumber or red bell pepper to serve dips and spreads instead of crackers or bread.

Note the finger bowl at top left.
2. When you’re serving finger food, add a small plate with a damp cloth (washcloth or napkin) at each setting, so guests aren’t wiping barbecue sauce on your good napkins.

3. Chill your salad plates before serving – it keeps the greens fresh longer.

4. Set the table with large (20”x30”), colorful dishtowels –  half the towel goes under the plate to serve as a placemat, the other half drapes into your lap as a napkin. Dishtowels are a lot less expensive than linen napkins, and they come in a wide range of bright colors for a festive table.

5. Consider cacti or other succulents to decorate your table instead of flowers. They won’t wilt in the heat, they’re relatively cheap, and some of them even have blossoms.

6. Haul out the Christmas lights – the tiny twinkly ones that come with batteries. Instead of candles in lanterns, fill a fishbowl-type container, or even a gallon-sized jar, with those little lights. The look is of a bunch of fireflies – a magical effect on your table. In the photo here, I layered in some Easter basket grass to further the illusion.

7. If you’re serving a punch or iced tea, use ice cubes made from the drink itself. Then as the cubes melt, they won’t dilute the drink.

8. When the weather is warm, even your red wine can do with a short stint in the fridge. Reds lose flavor when they’re too warm, and will fare much better after 20 minutes or so in the fridge before serving.

One of the best signs of summer is the appearance of strawberries at the farmers’ market. I know, you can get strawberries all year long at the supermarket, but really, folks – we all know those supermarket berries are nothing compared to the red lusciousness of the fresh, in-season fruit. And there’s hardly a better way to enjoy them than when they’re lightly macerated in a little sugar and lemon juice, then spooned over shortbread with whipped cream.

Now before we get started, the Kitchen Goddess wants to show you the most wonderful way to hull strawberries. In fact, it’s so much fun, you’ll want to keep at it long after you have enough strawberries. It’s a great way to get your children or grandchildren to help.

The equipment: a plastic straw.
Step 1: Mise en place.

Step 2: Insert the straw in the base of the strawberry.

Step 3: Keeping a firm but gentle hold on the berry, push the straw up through the center of the stem.

Step 4: Remove the hull from the straw and move on to the next strawberry. Now, wasn’t that fun?!

Today’s recipe for shortbread cakes is adapted from Martha Stewart, and it’s amazingly easy, as you can make the dough in your food processor, and there’s no rolling (!) involved. It’ll take less than an hour starting from the moment you take the lid off your canister of flour until you’re pulling those puppies out of the oven.

I’ve referred to this dish as Strawberry Shortcake, but of course, the same dish made with raspberries or blueberries or blackberries – or any combination thereof – is equally easy and delicious. The key is the shortbread, which is the best I’ve found.

Strawberry Shortcake

Adapted from Martha Stewart online (

Serves 6.

For the berries:
2 pints strawberries (or whatever berries you choose), hulled and sliced in half
1 teaspoon lemon juice and finely grated zest of 1 lemon (the zest is optional, but the KG likes it; if you prefer, you can mix some of the zest into the whipped cream)
¼ cup sugar

For the shortcake biscuits:
2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch dice and kept chilled
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream, separated
1 egg (any size)

For the whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Prepare the berries:
In a large bowl and using a wooden spoon, stir the berries gently with the lemon and sugar. Cover and refrigerate for an hour before serving.

Make the shortbread biscuits:
[Special equipment note: you’ll need a biscuit cutter that’s 2-2½ inches across, or a glass about that size. If you use a glass, be sure the flour the edge.]

Preheat the oven to 350º.

In the bowl of a food processor, add the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Pulse the processor 4-5 times to thoroughly mix the dry ingredients.

Add the butter and pulse 12-15 times, until the bits of butter are no larger than a small pea.

It's about ready when the dough starts forming a large clump.
Pour in 1 cup of the cream, and continue to pulse – in bursts of about 2 seconds each – until the dough begins to form a ball (10-12 pulses). Give it another few pulses, and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured piece of wax paper. It’ll be a bit sticky, but you can pat a little flour onto the outside to make it easier to manipulate.

Turns out my wine glass was just the right size.
NO ROLLING. Just pat the ball of dough into a rectangle that’s about ¾ of an inch thick – it should be large enough that you can cut out 6 biscuits. Place the raw biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with baker’s parchment. Then gather up the remaining dough, reform it into a slab ¾ inch thick, which should be large enough to cut another 2 biscuits. And if you’re compulsive like the Kitchen Goddess, you’ll take those remaining pieces of dough and cut one last biscuit. I even took what was left after that and rolled it into a few cigar-shaped tea biscuits.

Ready for the oven.

Whisk together the egg and the remaining 1 tablespoon of cream, and brush it on top of the biscuits to help give them a glossy, golden brown finish.

Bake 25 minutes (rotating the baking sheet at the halfway point), or until that glossy, golden brown finish develops.

Whip the cream:
Combine the cream, sugar, and vanilla in a bowl and whip at high speed until soft peaks form.

Slice the biscuits in half, placing a bottom half on each plate. Mound strawberries with juice on the bottoms, then add the tops and whipped cream. Drizzle juice on the whipped cream and scatter remaining berries around the plates.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ahead of His Time in the Kitchen
What’s cooking? Charred Carrot Hummus

He wasn’t a big man, but he was a man of large gestures. The ultimate salesman, my dad greeted everyone as a long lost friend. “Niiiiiice ta seeeeeeya,” he’d say, as he pumped your hand up and down. My husband always claimed it wore his hand out waiting for Dad’s opening line to finish.

Born in New York City and raised on the shores of Long Island and Connecticut, Dad nevertheless embraced Texas life and Texas culture upon marrying my mother. He was as gracious a host and as generous a friend as anyone I ever met.

He made only big fires in the fireplace. Where he’d grown up in Connecticut, the word “cold” really meant something, and he never completely adjusted to South Texas winters.  I can still hear him warning us, “You kids stand back!” as he struck the match. The resulting fire would be so hot, we always had to leave the room.

And when it came time to grill a few steaks, he used nearly a full can of lighter fluid to get the coals started. My mother would turn to guests and say, “I hope you like your steak charred.” But she was happy that someone else was cooking, so she never actually complained. His barbecued chicken always came with a healthy – or unhealthy – helping of blackened skin.

So I was thrilled to find that Dad’s penchant for darkly crispy has at last come into vogue. The May-June issue of Plate magazine (one of my new favorite sources of inspiration) is entirely devoted to “burnt food.” Apparently, chefs from Boston and New York City, from Charleston to New Orleans and on to L.A., have all decided to embrace the concept of actually burning food to achieve the ultimate in rustic, earthy flavors.

It’s true. They’re taking charred vegetable scraps and making them into sauces, overtoasting bread to serve with ricotta and jam for breakfast, infusing olive oil with onion ash, and making chili from the burnt ends of meat. Then at a spice store in New York this week, I was introduced to omani lemons – Persian limes that have been brined and dried into small, blackened orbs that nevertheless add an amazing citrus flavor to spice mixtures or thrown whole into soups. They’re not charred – they just look it. Who knew?

The Kitchen Goddess figures she can burn with the best of them. So I have for you today a terrific appetizer for your Father’s Day celebration – a wonderful new hummus, made with charred carrots. It’s ridiculously easy, and offers a complex, smoky and very carroty flavor. The chef who came up with the original concept says he serves it as a dip with raw carrots, but I loved spreading it on toasted pita. Am thinking it would also be great with red bell peppers, celery, or English cucumbers.

Kitchen Goddess note: Tahini is a paste made from toasted sesame seeds, and is essential to Middle Eastern cooking. You can buy it in a grocery store or make your own in a food processor. The Kitchen Goddess, being unschooled in the ways of tahini, bought hers. But it seems easy enough to make – toast a cup of sesame seeds, then purée them with ¼ cup of a neutral oil like grapeseed or a mild olive oil – and you won’t have as much left over as I did. If you buy some, be sure to stir it up well, as the oil has a tendency to separate from the paste during its stay on the grocery store shelf. But the taste of this hummus is magic, and it’s so easy, you’ll want to make it again, so the purchase isn’t a terrible idea. The KG plans to make her own tahini next time – she bets the homemade stuff will taste even better.

Charred Carrot Hummus

Adapted from a recipe by Chef Moosah Reaume at Soho House Chicago, from Plate Magazine, May/June 2015

Makes 3-4 cups.

Stage 1: cut into 3-4" pieces
1 pound carrots, peeled, halved, and cut into 3-4-inch pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil, separated
¾ teaspoon ground coriander
1¼ teaspoon ground cumin
15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), with liquid
2 heaping tablespoons tahini
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¾ teaspoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, separated

Preheat oven to 500º.

Stage 2: tossed in spice rub

Combine the coriander and cumin with 1 tablespoon olive oil to make a paste. Toss the carrots in the paste until well covered. Spread the carrots on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, checking periodically to make sure they don’t get overburnt. If at the end of the 30 minutes, the carrots are tender but not as charred as you’d like, run them under the broiler for 1-2 minutes.

Stage 3: roasted to a char

Purée the carrots in a food processor with ¾ teaspoon of salt, 3 tablespoons of water, and the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil. Adjust salt to taste. Add the garbanzo beans with their liquid to the processor, along with the tahini, lemon juice, and remaining 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Process to a relatively smooth consistency.

Serve as a spread on toasted pita, or as a dip with raw carrots, celery, red bell pepper, or English cucumber slices.

And have a wonderful Father’s Day lunch!

Tamales, a green salad, tahini on pita, and fresh cherries for dessert. Yum!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

It’s the Season of Salads
What’s cooking? Caribbean Fruit Salad with Cilantro-Citrus Dressing

Summertime is here, and the Kitchen Goddess has flown north. The view from my desk in Jersey City is decidedly urban – a far cry from the view in Austin. And as I sat here putting words on a screen, a Carnival Cruise ship floated past the window. Which seemed like a great segue into the Caribbean salad I have for you today.

The trip north wasn’t exactly a flight – it was a 27-hour drive. And my hubby was slaving away at a golf course in South Carolina, so I was on my own with the car. Two things saved me: NPR and friends in Nashville.

As an NPR geek, I had stored up an enormous number of podcasts on my phone, and it turns out that if you hit the right button on today’s in-car stereo systems, you can plug your phone in and listen to all those podcasts while you drive. So I entertained myself with hours of Science Friday, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, The TED Radio Hour, This American Life, and The Splendid Table. It was such fun I can hardly wait for the return trip.

I also took a break in Nashville – the halfway point in my journey and home to three of my college friends. It occurred to me that I could reward myself (and give my fanny a rest) after a day of driving with dinner at a place I’ve read wonderful things about. So I petitioned those Music City friends, and they humored me by sharing an evening at The Catbird Seat.

Friends, if you are ever in or even near Nashville and feel like treating yourself, you must try The Catbird Seat. This tiny restaurant near the downtown area hosts about 20 customers at a time – two seatings per evening – in a format that truly lives up to its name, which Webster defines as “a position of great prominence or advantage.” The serving area resembles a large picture frame, with guests seated around the outside, while 6-7 chefs in the center prepare the most amazing food right in front of you. So there is no bad seat, you get to chat with the cute chefs, and the fourteen courses are mostly small, but each a delectable gem. A feast for the eyes and the palate. Needless to say, the Kitchen Goddess was in her element. And in the relaxed atmosphere that is becoming quintessentially Nashville, much of the food is eaten with your fingers. I cannot remember having more pure fun at a restaurant.

* * *

One of the best aspects of summer weather is the prominent role salads take on in meals. Before leaving Texas, the KG and her hubby participated in a gourmet dinner with a Caribbean theme, and our assignment was the salad course. In putting this one together, I learned that “salad greens” in the Caribbean tends to mean heartier fare than lettuce. Think arugula, raw spinach, or watercress, instead of Bibb, Boston, or butter lettuce.

For the dinner party, I fried plantain chips and gave each person dipping sauce. But the plantain chips were a lot of trouble and didn't stay crisp, so I won't be doing that again. The salad, on the other hand, was terrific.

Kitchen Goddess note: It’s not really Caribbean to roast the pineapple, but I loved the extra dimension this gave the flavor, to say nothing of the added beauty. Roasting is soooo easy, and takes a bit of that pucker away from the pineapple. I tossed only the avocado and hearts of palm with the vinaigrette because the pineapple was so pretty I just wanted to sprinkle it plain over the rest of the salad. The leftover vinaigrette will keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks, and is wonderful on any salad.

Caribbean Salad with Cilantro-Citrus Vinaigrette

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, January 1995

Serves 8.

For the vinaigrette:
heaping ½ cup cilantro, large stems removed
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad:
3 large avocados, peeled and cut into ¾-inch dice
1 can/jar (about 14 ounces) hearts of palm, sliced in ½-inch pieces
3 cups fresh pineapple, cut in wedges
2 bunches watercress or arugula, thick stems removed
optional: thin-sliced red onion
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

To make the vinaigrette:
Load all ingredients but the olive oil into a food processor, and process until chunky. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow stream. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and pulse for a few seconds more season with additional salt to taste. Remove to a jar and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the salad:
If you’re not buying cored pineapple, check out this video: How to Core a Pineapple
Once you have the outer skin and eyes removed, and have cut out the fibrous core, start with slices 1 inch thick, and cut the pieces into segments that are about ¾-inch around and 1 inch deep.

Set the oven to broil. Place the pineapple pieces in a bowl and toss with a teaspoon of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Line a sheet pan with baker’s parchment and spread the pineapple out on the paper. Broil about 4 inches from the heat for about 5 minutes, or until you start to see browning marks. Use tongs or a fork to turn the pineapple pieces over and return to the oven for 2-3 minutes more, or until the other sides begin to brown. Remove pineapple pieces to a bowl and set aside.

Toss the avocado and hearts of palm with ½ cup dressing. Arrange the greens on plates and spoon avocado and hearts of palm on top. Sprinkle roasted pineapple around the top. Garnish with red onion, if desired. Season to taste and serve with extra dressing.

Wine Note: We served our salad with a 2014 ARA Single Estate Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, NZ. Like the citrus in the dressing, the citrus notes in the wine were a good balance with the creamy avocado and the sweetness of the pineapple.