Sunday, August 22, 2010

Happiness in a Bowl

Albert Einstein said, ''A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?''  I mostly agree with that.  There's a lot of happiness in a bowl of fruit.  What is better than a bowl of fresh sliced golden orange Elberta peaches?  Or a dish of cold, juicy watermelon?  What is more quenching and cleansing after a bout of naughty eating than a dozen pink, glistening segments of grapefruit?  What would a pie be without apples?  Or shortcake with out strawberries?  Is there anything sweeter or more romantic than a gorgeous cherry clafoutis?  Well maybe, especially if your name is Bananas Foster?  Speaking of bananas,  I go bananas for perfect honeydew, something so rare I'm almost more likely to be hit by lightening.  Sweet, crisp, plumpy red grapes?  

Did you know fruit is one of the best ways to start your morning?  Eaten on an empty stomach it quickly travels through (we're talking half an hour folks!) and serves to clean out your intestines?  It doesn't even really digest.  It cleans.  It cleanses.  It also hydrates your thirsty and restful body after a nights sleep.  It's best to eat first thing because if you combine it with other food it will get caught up in the stomach for about three or four hours and will putrefy instead of giving you it's true goodness...  I know, kind of gross and scientific, not at all what I go for with this blog, but, I find it important that you know that.  I was doing really great at eating a big bowl of fruit every morning before consuming anything else.  I felt so good!  So light.  So clean.  Try it.  It works.  It's like starting the day with a giant bowl of happiness.  In the words of my beloved Ina Garten, ''Who wouldn't love that?''

In fact, at this moment I can smell peach cobbler starting to do it's thing in the oven.  My fingers smell like butter.  Many of you bakers are very familiar with this occurrence I know.  You can wash your hands with water, but the aroma and essence of butter remains!  Okay, back to fruit.  And, I have an introduction to make.  I've never introduced you to my husband.  Maybe it's this adorable picture of him just as he is starting to whistle that's inspired me?  My whistler's name is Ethan.  We're coming up on our 3rd anniversary in a couple days and I thought, why not?  You should know of the man who eats my peach cobblers, picks me blackberries to make pie, and tells me my cooking is better than any restaurant...  We've had our struggles lately, I hear it's somewhat common in the beginning of this crazy thing we call marriage.  Anyway, if you could sends us floating hearts and stars, in the way of warm thoughts and wishes we could use them!  We're going to make it, no worries!  He's starting to think about making me dinner once a week.  I'll keep you posted.  

Okay.  Fruit.  One morning I got the impulse to make a very flavorful fruit salad.  We've all heard of the salt and watermelon connection.  Or the sweet, citrus-y syrup concoction.  Perhaps you've seen those cups of fresh fruit spears sprinkled with chili powder often served from taco trucks?  Well, I kind of combined all of those together to make a syrup from turbinado, honey, cayenne, lemon and lime juices and zests, and a good hearty pinch of salt of two.  It was sweet, sour, tart, salty, earthy... it was alive!  It was almost too much!  I couldn't decide if I loved or hated it?  But I had to have more.  Talk about a wake up to the tongue.  The cool thing is that it can really be adjusted to taste of course.  Add some water to dilute.  Just make it as you wish.  It's not scientific, and, you can combine any old combination of flavors you like.  A drizzle of honey and a oven-dried lime zest sugar dusting is delightful.  When I'm feeling nostalgic about fruit, I always recall a layered fruit salad my mother used to make with melons, grapes, strawberries, and a luscious yogurt and cream cheese mixture.  I could practically jump in that trifle bowl and set up shop.  If I was miniaturized of course.  

As summer draws to a close, I'm already missing the massive variety of fresh fruit we've come to expect and love.  I'm also already pining for sunny, sparkly days at the lake.  A place where I enjoyed many delightful dips.  One was at midnight, the night enchanted and magical, a skinny dipping adventure on my best friend Mo's birthday.  Imagine: Perseid meteor showers shooting golden streamers here and there, silky smooth black water, more than a handful of kindred spirits, a big wide sky lit with thousands of bright stars, American cheese and bologna sandwiches on 88 cent white bread, champagne, gourmet cupcakes, floating firewood housing dainty tea lights?  I mean isn't that right out of a dream or novel?  To me, that's summer.  Friends, fruit, skinny dipping, living.  It's cool outside, and I can feel fall in the air.  It might be a few weeks away still, but it's coming.  And I'm okay with that.  I love fall.  Maybe even more than summer.   But, man.  It's been a good summer.  Okay, I have to go.  The cobbler calls.  Oh, one more thing...

I'm feeling a bit needy.  Needy for comments!  I'm wondering if you all would mind helping to make this the most commented on post of all time!  I know there are readers in Canada, France, and Italy and lots of other places!  Who are you?  And all of you crazy Americans... say hi!  I'd love it dearly.  Almost as much as skinny dipping.  xx

Best Potato Salad Ever

I am a crazy, crazy fan of potato salad.  Not just any potato salad, good potato salad.  We all know there are a lot and too many very mediocre, even poor potato salads out there.  You've had them, I've had them, we've all had them!  Bland, commercial ones that taste like plastic and preservatives, potatoes too firm, not enough sauce, too much sauce, under-salted, uninspired, and the worst, plain old forgettable.  Potato salad should be such a delectable side dish that you know you shouldn't eat too much of it because there is a main star to save room for, but yet you just can't help eating way more of it than you should because it's so irresistibly delicious!  It should scream summer and picnics.  You should look forward to potato salad not just put up with it!  Heck, I turn it into the main dish.  With a fresh, side salad?  Yes!  So, being the potato salad lover that I am, I've done quite a lot of reading up on the dish.  Since first researching, I think I've learned quite a lot and know the ways around making an utterly magical potato salad.  And... I think I've created the perfect classic potato salad.  Wanna hear about it?

To me, the perfect potato salad has all the right textures and flavors.  I've made lots of recipes, one from the Pioneer Lady that called for mashing all of the potatoes.  Another that requires dousing the drained, hot spuds in a tangy vinaigrette.  And somehow, after combining the secrets and techniques of all these great recipes, I've put them all together and this is what I've come up with.  

To get the right texture, some strategic care must be given to the potatoes.  I prefer using waxy, smooth Yukon golds.  The bigger the better.  I dice them all up into about 1'' cubes and and cover with cold water and some salt.  Then after bringing them to a boil and letting them simmer, I take out about quarter of them when al dente, then half of what's left when they are creamy but still a firm.  Then, I cook the remainder until they are very, very soft in order to mash them. All the while draining each batch, and sprinkling them while still hot with a vegetable oil-based vinaigrette with cider and white wine vinegar, paprika, minced garlic, sugar, parsley, and of course salt and pepper.  This way, the potatoes soak up all of the wonderful spices and flavors and result in a potato salad with much more depth and character.


You're going to have to bare with me, here.  We're just getting started.  If you love potato salad like I do though, it will be worth your time I promise!  I should have mentioned that before you even get your potatoes on the stove you should very thinly slice one or two large onions depending on yield you're going for.  You will be caramelizing them in a half or whole stick of butter until they are as brown as they can get and reduce to a piddly little ball of what I like to call, onion jam.  Onion jam is loaded and loaded with sweet, robust flavor and will take this potato salad into galaxies it only dreamed of!  Now, I love potato salads with just a vinaigrette, but, in order to create the perfect potato salad with all the right elements, there just has to be a creamy factor as well.  So,in addition to the vinaigrette, we'll be combining a less than usual amount of mayonnaise and sour cream.  This will add the creaminess we are looking for, it's really just combining the two styles which I think go very well hand in hand.

Then, to finish you've gotta have boiled eggs.  Three to six depending on the size of the salad, or, however many you prefer.  My perfect potato salad also has to have pickles.  And I want them crunchy.  To add sure crunch and a bit of class, I go with cornichons.  They are dainty, flavorful, and crunchy as can be.  They are perfect.  I slice them into little disks.  A good amount of them.  And for some freshness, celery.  The key is to mince the celery very well.  It's there for flavor and crunch, but shouldn't overwhelm or stand out too much.  Also, I don't care for raw white onions in a potato salad and sometimes scallions can get slimy, so tah-dah... chives, and dried are just fine.  This may seem like a lot of work, and truthfully, it kind of is.  It's definitely a bit time consuming of a process, but oh-so-worth-it.  IT'S INCREDIBLE.  

I'm a little leery giving you a recipe and here is why.  I've only made this version a couple times and haven't jotted down the exact measurements yet.  The next time I make it, I'll jot it all down and share it with you.  I can tell you though that you can do it!  It's much more about intuition than anything else.  I would say if you used about 3 and a half pounds of potatoes, you would want to make about a half cup or a bit more of the vinaigrette, standard 2/3 to 1/3 oil-vinegar ratio.  I use vegetable oil because it allows the other flavors to stand out as they should, use olive oil if you prefer.  I prefer Wessons.  Add minced garlic to taste, a few pinches of sugar or honey, a good amount of paprika, you want the liquid to be a medium orange color, it adds a nice color to the potato salad.  Dried parsley, salt and pepper finish it out.  For the mayonnaise and sour cream mixture, maybe another 1/2 cup?  Add some whole grain mustard as well, maybe a tablespoon.  Caramelize one large onion and add the melted butter that comes with it.  Then slice up a stalk or two of celery, and then the right amount of cornichons, the chives and celery add necessary freshness.  It's also best at room temperature or slightly warm.  Due to the fats, and I know, there's a lot of them, eating it straight from the fridge isn't recommended.  

I enjoyed some time at Barnes and Noble today and made my way through the latest issue of Fine Cooking.  And, to my glee, there was a whole spread of potato salad.  It was actually pretty genius.  It broke potato salad down into all the elements.  Based on three and a half pounds of potatoes, it told you how to cook them (not my method), then to choose a creamy dressing or vinaigrette which they offered recipes for, then lists of enhancements.  Check it out if you can.  They also suggest making the creamy dressing with 1 part mayo and another part either sour cream, yogurt, creme fraiche, or buttermilk.  Then you can select up to six of the following to aromatics and flavor-boosters to enhance your dressing: anchovies, chipotle in adobo, horseradish, ginger, lemon or lime zest, turbinado sugar or honey, garlic, or orange zest.  There are many more you could think up as well.  Then, you get to pick your mix-ins, up to six again, and no more than four cups total:  artichoke hearts, bell peppers, dried apricots, peas, chickpeas, red onion or shallot, celery, radicchio or endive, granny smiths, sugar snap peas, mushrooms, fennel, raisins, green beans, sweet corn, scallions, tomatoes.  Again, you can probably think of many more mix-ins!  Also: pine nuts, almonds, or walnuts.  Don't forget proteins: bacon, eggs, smoked salmon or trout, turkey, chicken, pancetta, shrimp.  Can't leave out cheese: cheddar, feta, blue!  And then for real flavor: capers, cornichons, pepperoncini, fresh herbs, olives, jalapenos, etc!  There really are so many options.  Some of their favorite combos that I thought looked good were:

-Corn, Bell Pepper, and Cheddar: creamy dressing with lime, garlic, oregano, and cumin. Fresh corn, red bell peppers, cheddar cheese, scallions, and cilantro (I would never use cilantro, parsley instead and also a few jalapenos!)
-Bacon, Pickle, and Caraway: vinaigrette dressing with grainy mustard and caraway seeds, then sweet onion, bacon, dill, and parsley.
- Shrimp, Tarragon, and Celery: creamy dressing with lemon and tarragon, shrimp, celery, and chives.
- Pancetta, Peas, and Mixed Herbs: creamy with buttermilk and lemon juice, peas, sugar snaps, pancetta, mint, basil, and chives.

I think a creamy based version with curry powder, green beans, raisins, and peas would be interesting?

Sorry for the long potato salad article here, it's just that potato salad calls for such verbosity, doesn't it?  I really hope I've opened your eyes to the possibilities and perfection that can be in potato salad. If you wouldn't mind, tell me about your favorite version of the dish?  I've love to hear about them!

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Best Kind of Evenings

Sometimes you just get really lucky on a Sunday evening, that's what happened to me here. Don't you just love dinner parties where you get to show up, sip, relax, indulge, marvel, and generally just enjoy a really special moment? Those moments where you realize you are probably taking part in the most enchanting meal happening in your entire town at the moment? And all you have to do is sit and take it all in? Those moments always require a great host or hostess. My friend Mallory is pretty much the queen of hostessing delightful dinners. She takes such pleasure in it and is also very good at it. This is where I get lucky being her friend. I wanted to post some of the moments from this Sunday Evening Dinner to inspire you and get you reminded or turned on to the greatness that is the Dinner Party.

To create a truly special dinner, styling and decorating your table especially is really key in my opinion. Mallory is passionate about tablescapes like none other I know. These extra touches and really add atmosphere and charm! Don't you just love the moss runner?

No soiree is complete without a good drink. Even it's virgin, there are a lot of dazzling beverages out there that don't involve alcohol. I make them at home quite often actually. But when socializing, I happen to be a fan of the slightly amped-up options. This was a lemon and berry concoction of some kind. I go absolutely nuts for straws with polka dots. They make drinking a beverage oh-so-fun.

A little bite to start things off is certainly a good idea. In this instance, Mo fried up some cornichon and served them with a mustard sauce. These came with mixed reviews but as you will soon see, I loved them.

The fancy little cornichon were very crunchy to begin with, but when you dredge them in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs they develop this irresistible crispy coating. Salty, briny, oh my.

The main course can be ultra fancy and complicated, or as simple and perfect as slow-roasted pork shoulder which we all know usually turns into succulent, saucy BBQ pulled pork, which Mallory heaped a homemade burger bun. She picked them up from a local, gourmet burger joint Fiamma Burger downtown, they make them fresh daily. She also made a fabulous slaw to accompany them along with store-bought extra-salted sweet potato fries. Ina Garten always emphasizes the importance of not making every single thing from scratch when entertaining and after plenty of rebellion of my own to that theory, I've wizened up and heeded those words. You never want to be so exhausted and sick of being in the kitchen by the time your guests arrive! They will feel it!

I wasn't able to nab a shot of the the dessert fully plated but I did get a picture of the little homemade shortbread numbers Mallory made to go with fresh fruit, ice cream, and vanilla whipped cream! I'm a major sucker for scones and these little biscuits were like scones, sugar cookies, biscuits, and shortbread all rolled into one heavenly vessel. I know that Mallory has the recipe on her blog and referred to it recently.

Here is our adorable hostess in all of her charming glory!

Ending the evening around a fire doesn't hurt either...
Thanks, Mo! xx

Happy summer entertaining and eating, friends...