Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dinner parties -- a sure-fire cure for beating back the winter blahs

Last weekend I attended a pot luck dinner party where every dish was a winner.  The host made a savory chicken stew, almost a soup really, in his crock pot.  Although I know that crock pot meals are amongst the easiest things in the world to make, they're sometimes short on flavor.  Not this chicken stew!  Absolutely delicious and hearty, too.  In my 'umble view, though, the most surprisingly tasty entry at dinner that night was the basil panna cotta with macerated berries.  The panna cotta was a very pale green, gracefully wiggling as scoops were placed in dessert bowls.  Silence descended as everyone at table bent over to taste it.  And then a collected contented sigh emerged.  Followed shortly by "wherever did you find this recipe??"  Turns out it came from none other than Jim Gop, our local boy made good as chef for Guido's.  And, for recipe vultures, available online! 

I was so taken by the panna cotta that I planned a dinner party for this weekend so I would have an excuse to make it.  And while I was at it, I decided to insure that most of the  preparations for the dinner be dishes I'd never made before.  Luckily, all but one of the dishes worked really well, and one of them sparkled and gleamed, bringing ooohs and ahhhs around the table.

Appetizers included bacon jam (see recipe on Feb 14 entry) on toast points (see recipe for Pullman bread on Dec 18), and potted mushrooms.  I'm usually a sucker for any appetizer with mushrooms, so when I read this one on, I knew I'd have to make it.  The next time I do, though, I'd up the ante a little, like substituting shitakes for the buttom mushrooms, and Marsala instead of sherry. 

The Caesar style swordfish, highlight of the main course, was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. And although I'm a worrier, always sure that I'll screw things up, this was a "not to worry" situation.  Like perhaps every recipe in every Ina Garten cookbook, this is simple...and simply delicious.  Served along with the swordfish were roasted potatoes (always a hit), sauteed Brussels sprouts topped with fried capers, a lackluster broccoli and scallion puree (I think the problem here is that I had made it ahead of time and that when I reheated it, it lost the punch of the freshly made puree), and, in lieu of a quiet dinner bread, cranberry-cornmeal quick bread (yum).

Through the generosity of my dinner guests, I had a nice selection of red wines to accompany the meal.  Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the food, maybe it was simply the deliciousness of the wines, but eight of us polished off four bottles.  Not excessive...just appreciative.

And then came the dramatic denouement--the basil panna cotta with macerated berries.  For years now I've stressed the importance of buying local food and eating seasonally.  And for the most part, that's how I eat.  So it's with no little embarrasment that I'm bragging about such an out-of-season dessert.  But wow!  It was well worth breaking rules just to taste it. 

I'm told  one can substitute mint for the basil, which I think I'll try the next time I make it (in season, to be sure) but the basil is so subtle and disarming that I'm a bit reluctant to muck with the recipe.  Best of all, it couldn't be easier to make.  A big hat tip to Jim Gop!

If you're interested....

Caesar Style Swordfish (Ina Garten "How Easy Is That")

Preheat oven to 500.  Ina Garten advises that your oven be very clean.
Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil.

For the Caesar sauce, place garlic, parsley, anchovy paste, and mustard in bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade and pulse until garlic is minced. Add mayo, lemon zest, lemon juice, 1 t salt and ½ t pepper and pulse to make a smooth sauce.

Place sword fish steaks on pan and sprinkle both sides generously w/salt and pepper. Set aside ⅓ of sauce to serve with cooked fish. Spread fish on one side with half of remaining sauce, turn fish and spread remaining sauce on second side. Sprinkle with scallions and allow to stand for 10 minues.

Roast the fish for 10-12 minutes, until the center is just barely cooked. Cover fish w/aluminum foil to rest on the pan for 10 minutes.Meanwhile, heat oil in small sauté pan until ver hot, add capers, and cook for 30-60 seconds, until they start to pop and are a little scrip. Serve swordfish hot with lemon wedges, frizzled capers, and reserved Caesar sauce.

This recipe serves 6.  I had 8 over so I added a pound of swordfish, but the proportions for the sauce worked just fine.

Basil Panna Cotta with macerated berries (Jim Gop, online at Guido's website)

Serves: 4
½pt. (about 1 c.) strawberries, washed and hulled
½pt. raspberries, blackberries or blueberries, washed
zest of 1 lemon (optional)
juice of half lemon
¼c. honey
pinch fresh cracked black pepper
3tbs. cold water
1packet powdered gelatin
1c. basil leaves, washed well, chopped and tightly packed
1pt. (2 c.) heavy cream
¼c. sugar
1tsp. vanilla
Combine all ingredients into a medium size mixing bowl. Lightly mash berries. Place in refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes.
Place water in a small, shallow bowl and sprinkle with gelatin. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, add basil, cream and sugar to a medium sauepan. Slowly bring to a simmer over medium low heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat. Let cool slightly for a few minutes. Transfer cream mixture to a blender or food processor and pour in gelatin and vanilla. Blend until smooth.
Using a fine strainer or sieve, strain mixture into a bowl. Ladle into ramekins or small cups. Let panna cotta chill until it's firm, about 1½ to 2 hours.
To serve, run a knife around the ramekin and invert onto a plate, spooning berries over the top. Alternatively, serve in ramekins and spoon berries on top.

This recipe serves 4.  I doubled it in all regards save the amount of gelation.  Instead of using two packets, I used 1 1/3.  I was told that if I used two packets, the panna cotta wouldn't wiggle...and what's a panna cotta without a little movement?

Cranberry-Cornmeal Quick Bread

1cup unbleached all purpose flour
1cup whole wheat white flour or regular whole wheat flour
1cup cornmeal
½cup granulated sugar
1-½teaspoons salt
1-½teaspoons baking powder
1-¼cups buttermilk
½cup unsalted butter, melted
½cup pure maple syrup
2large eggs
½teaspoon maple extract
¾cup chopped pecans plus more halves for garnish
¾cup dried cranberries (about 4 ounces)

In a large bowl whisk together both flours, cornmeal, sugar, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together buttermilk, butter, maple syrup, eggs and maple extract. Add this mixture to the flour mixture; stir just until blended. Stir in chopped pecans and dried cranberries.

Spoon batter into a 9 × 5 loaf pan that has been sprayed with nonstick spray or lined with parchment paper.

Arrange pecan halves in row down center of batter.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 60-70 minutes until the top is golden brown and a pairing knife inserted into center of bread comes out clean. Tent bread loosely with foil if browning too quickly.

Cool in pan on rack for 20 minutes. Turn out onto rack to cool further.

I lined up pecans across the top of the bread as the recipe requested, but I'm not sure they added anything to the presentation.

This recipe comes from a newly-discovered cooking blog, Noble Pig (, written by a women who owns a vineyard in Oregon and who REALLY likes to cook.

Potted Mushrooms (another find from

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, separated
8 oz button mushrooms, stems removed (use shitake instead)
8 oz cremini mushrooms
1/4 c thinly sliced shallots, separated
1/4 c thinly sliced leeks (white part only), separated
4 t fresh thyme leaves, separated
4 T dry sherry, separated
1 T lemon juice

1.  Finely chop shitakes (or button, if you must), half the shallots, and half the leeks in a food processor.  Scoop into a lint-free kitchen towel, roll it up, and twist tightly over the sink to squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

2.  Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat, then add 2 tablespoons butter. Swirl to melt and add chopped mushrooms, sprinkle with salt, and add a few grinds of black pepper. Stir to coat with butter. Increase heat to medium high. Cook until the mushrooms on the bottom begin to brown – about 2 minutes – stir and repeat three more times.

3.  Add ½ thyme and 2 tablespoons of sherry and cook until sherry evaporates. Scoop into a medium mixing bowl.

Repeat steps 1 – 3 with creminis and add to first batch. Mix in lemon juice.

Melt remaining butter and pour it into mushrooms. Stir with a fork to mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Refrigerate at least 4 hours to let flavors meld. Allow to warm for 1 to 2 hours before serving on crackers or slices of thin toast.

This will keep three to four weeks refrigerated and can be frozen. Eat with thin slices of toast or crackers.



Thursday, February 17, 2011

Peruvian Chicken Soup

It's hard to write anything original about chicken soup.  Everyone loves it, it's the basis for an uncountable number of other recipes, thousands (millions?) of books have been written about it, and its variations are countless.  Have you noticed that almost every general cookbook, and many other specialized ones, provide a recipe for chicken stock?  They're all pretty much the same, save for differences in vegetables depending on the cuisine, so it seems like there is an insatiable urge for cooks to tell you how they prepare chicken stock. 

Well, I'm not getting into that trap today.  Suffice it to say that when one has a 6-qt slow cooker, one can make chicken stock even while one is sleeping...and awaken to a delectable aroma, too. 

This is all by way of setting the stage for one of the most delicious hearty soups I've eaten.  A little Peruvian restaurant in Lee, Alpamayo, makes the best -- really the best -- chicken soup around.  It's thick and filling, and full of vegetables...and chicken.  I do gyrotonics with Megan Reisel, whose studio is two doors from Alpamayo, and now I try to time my sessions there so I can pick up the soup for lunch or dinner after the workout. 

After a while, though, I wondered how to make it for myself.  All I did was type in "Peruvian chicken soup" into the google search box, and immediately found a recipe that's easy and delicous.  What with all this ice and dreary colored snow lining the roads, surely this is the time of year to enjoy the comforting heartiness of this delicious soup.  Here's how you can make it for yourself.

Arcadian Take on Peruvian Chicken Soup
2 whole chicken breasts or the equivalent in chicken thighs*
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1 c chopped onion
3 T chopped chile pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 large bunch of cilantro, washed and dried with leaves stripped from stems
5-6 c chicken stock
1 medium bag frozen peas
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4" pieces
1 1/2 c raw rice to be cooked
S&P to taste
Cilantro for garnish

Place the cilantro in a blender or food processor with ½ cup of the chicken broth and process until smooth. Set aside.

Cut each chicken breast half into 3-4 pieces. Season chicken with salt and pepper.

Melt the butter and oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sauté chicken pieces just until lightly browned on all sides. Remove chicken to a plate, slice into bite-size pieces, and set aside.

Add the chopped onion, chile pepper, and minced garlic to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat until soft and translucent.

Add the processed cilantro and at least 4 c of the chicken stock. Add the carrots and simmer until just tender.

Cook raw rice with sufficient water, when done, add to soup.

Add the chicken pieces and the peas and simmer. Check the chicken pieces for doneness. At this point, may need to add rest of chicken stock. When chicken is done, remove soup pan from heat.

Garnish with fresh cilantro.

P.S.  The recipe I copied called for diced potatoes.  I didn't want them, but if you do, throw 'em in. The soup at Alpamayo sports green beans, which I choose not to include.  I guess the idea is to use the vegetables you like.  Seems sensible.
*After posting this recipe, two excellent cooks--Joyce Bernstein and John Cheek--advocated chicken thighs on the grounds that they're juicier and tastier than chicken breasts.  Agreed.  So now you know.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Keeping up with the bacon fad -- Bacon Jam

I've been an inveterate reader all of my life.  I can gobble down a dozen or more books on a trip, although the  books I take while traveling tend to be easy-to-digest mysteries or novels.  The first time I was unable to read at all was during my husband's illness when I was simply too distracted to concentrate.  The first book I read after his death was Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," which hooked me in the first paragraph.  I'm forever grateful to Franzen for steering me back to reading. I'm a HUGE fan of "Freedom," too.

But the distraction I encountered 10 years ago occasionally afflicts me even now, so there are times when I just don't have the concentration to read.  It's at such times that I devour cookbooks and cooking blogs, salivating over recipes that look delicious, and undoubtedly are, but that I probably will never make.  I feverishly copy them to my electronic files, where most of them will rot in time.  But some of the recipes look too wonderful to pass up.  Sometimes they're a colossal failure.  More often, though, they're delicious. 

One such recipe came along a few weeks ago, intriguing me with its label "Bacon Jam."  I've been a bacon fan since I was 18 (that's when I first lived away from a kosher home and was able to check out bacon for myself).  And "jam" as a concept, when aligned with bacon, was too intriguing to resist.  So I wrote the grocery list, headed to Guido's, came home and made the bacon jam.  It couldn't be easier, nor could it be more delicious. 

I've used it as a topping for cheese and crackers (Brie, chevre, cheddar), as part of a grilled cheese sandwich, and mixed in with scrambled eggs.  I gave my friend Amy a container of it, and she reported that  used as a condiment in a stir fry of spinach and other winter greens it was fabu.  Said it put the dish over the top.  I'm sure you can figure out many more ways to make this part of your repertoire. 

So I'm offering this sensational recipe as my Valentine's Day gift to loyal readers. 

Bacon Jam
1-½ lb sliced center cut hickory-smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1/2 c cider vinegar
1/2 c packed brown sugar
1/4 c maple syrup
3/4 c strong brewed coffee
Line a sheet pan with paper towels.  Fry bacon in large Dutch oven over med-high heat, stirring occasionally, until bacon is brown, about 20 minutes.  Remove bacon with slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels.
Pour off all but 1 T bacon fat.  Add onions and garlic, and cook until onions are translucent, 5-6 minutes.  Add vinegar, sugar, maple syrup, and coffee, bring to a boil, scraping up bacon bits from bottom of pan.  After 2 minutes, add baon and stir to combine.

Reduce heat to simmer and cook, uncovered, for 1 hours, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is burning.  If jam seems to be cooking too fast, add 1/4 c water every now and then.  When the liquid is syrupy, remove pot from heat.  let it sit for 5 minutes, then transfer contents to a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped.  Let jam cool, then refrigerate in an airtight container.  It can last for up to 1 month in the refrigerator.