Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cranberries and Kale

I just signed up for another year of CSA produce from Fertile Crescent Farm, and I'm even more impatient for spring having done so.  Realistically, there are several months to go before I should even think about all of the fresh zucchini, tomatoes, greens, ad other delicious vegetables we'll be getting.  For now, I'll have to work with what's in season - kale and cranberries (not combined).  

For our New Year's Eve party, we served one cocktail in addition to beer, wine, and champagne.  The Vodka Cranberry Cooler, from Real Simple, was easy to make ahead of time.  I used 4 8-ounce bags of frozen cranberries, omitted the cream soda, and used seltzer instead of tonic to make the drink less sweet.  The recipe also yielded a surplus of prepared cranberries, which I didn't have the heart to discard after I'd strained the syrup out of them.  A few were used as a festive garnish in each drink, but I saved the rest without really knowing what I was going to do with them.

An opportunity soon presented itself in the form of a breakfast gathering at work, and I happened to find this recipe while casually perusing a new blog.  I had to battle a faulty springform cake pan throughout the process, which wanted to release all of the liquid in the topping and batter.  I caught a lot of it with foil while it was in the oven, but I had the memory in the form of a lovely burned sugar smell for several days.

I also didn't have whole milk at home, and didn't make a special trip for that or the orange bitters, or pecans, or apricot jelly.  I substituted 2% milk, Campari, walnuts, and raspberry preserves.  Mine (pictured below) is a little less impressive than the one in the photos from Vanilla Garlic, but the taste certainly did not suffer.  This cake has a pretty, sparkly appearance, once it's flipped out of the pan, and the crust has a crumbly texture that is also sturdy enough to hold the tart, crunchy topping.  It's not chocolate, but it has the advantage of being extremely versatile, and I will certainly hold on to this recipe.

Kale lasts forever.  Maybe not forever, but compared to almost every other green, it is significantly less perishable.  I had a bunch in my produce drawer from Christmas weekend that I wasn't able to get to for a few weeks.  It was still perfectly green and unwilted when I decided to make this stew.  I've made several soups with a very similar building block of ingredients, but the shallots and the wine really took the combination to a different level of flavor.  It's not fancy, but it is warming and healthy, and provides reliable leftovers.  I'm not asking for much more right now...unless you can get my CSA to come faster.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Firsts: Bechamel Sauce and White Pizza

As I mentioned in my last post, I didn't make any resolutions to be healthier in 2011, or try new things in the kitchen.  December is predictably busy and full of celebration, but January can bring almost anything.  This year, it's been more packed with events and dinners than in the past, which has given me the opportunity to experiment with food.

Davy decided we should use the fresh mozzarella and basil we had leftover from our party to make a white pizza (pictured).  I'm a huge fan of red sauce, and have never attempted my own white pizza, but still thought his idea was promising.   

We started by making flavored olive oil with a few pieces of wild boar sausage and garlic, and spread it over the crust.  Some of the garlic made it in with the oil, but we removed the sausage.  Then we layered sliced tomatoes, the mozzarella, torn basil leaves, and red pepper flakes.  

I would happily add this, or a variation of it, to my pizza rotation.  One major difference I noticed between this pizza and our standard, red pizzas was that the crust of the white pizza soaked up the flavors of its toppings a lot more.  The spicy, garlicky oil was infused into the crust after a few days, and the flavor was more pronounced when we ate the second half of the pizza.

My other kitchen first was a Greek macaroni and cheese dish with bechamel.  Normally when I make macaroni and cheese, it's more of a baked casserole, and much lighter than the versions served in restaurants or mixed with a bechamel sauce.  I can't remember where I got the recipe, but it was first published in Saveur.  

Ultimately, my dish ended up being a little less Greek than the original, but it was still decadent and interesting.  I decided to omit the bread crumbs to eliminate some of the butter, and used Pecorino Romano in the bechamel, because I didn't have time to hunt down the Greek cheeses in the recipe.  Davy isn't a fan of dill, and I don't always enjoy it either, so I decided to leave that out as well.  Otherwise, I followed the instructions closely and was very pleased with the results.  The velvety bechamel sauce was subtly sweet and spicy because of the cinnamon and nutmeg, the browned feta on top made each bite a little tangy, and there was enough spinach to add freshness.  

I probably won't go out of my way to try other macaroni and cheeses with bechamel, but I would definitely make the Greek Mac and Cheese again.  The leftovers were delicious for several days, and, just as with the pizza, I was able to add another new method to my kitchen repertoire.   

Greek Mac and Cheese

6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
Kosher salt, to taste
8 oz. hollow pasta, preferably elbow macaroni 
1/4 cup flour
3 cups milk
4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 12 oz.)
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
8 large shallots, finely chopped
16 oz. baby spinach
8 scallions cut into 1/4"-thick rounds
1 3/4 cups crumbled feta (about 8 oz.)

1. Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until cooked halfway through, about 3 minutes. Drain pasta, rinse with cold water, and set aside. 

2. Heat remaining butter in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Still whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in milk and cook until sauce has thickened and coats the back of a spoon, 10–15 minutes. Remove pan from heat. Stir in pecorino, cinnamon, and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper; set b├ęchamel sauce aside. 

3. Heat oven to 350°. Heat oil in a 5-qt. pot over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until soft, 3–4 minutes. Add spinach and scallions and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in the reserved b├ęchamel sauce and the reserved pasta and transfer mixture to a 9" x 13" baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with the feta. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

SERVES 8–10 (or more)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Party Food Fit for a New Year

 During the holidays, all the food blogs and websites feature recipes and ideas that are "festive," and special enough for gatherings and parties.  Immediately following New Year's Eve, they all switch back to healthy, easy dishes designed to help people adhere to their resolutions.  

Why does there have to be such a significant divide?  New Year's is just another day, and there's plenty of food that's not overly indulgent yet still worthy of a holiday celebration.  For my New Year's Eve menu, I also wanted to make sure that everything could sit out for a few hours without sacrificing taste and sanitation.  

I should have gone to River City Cellars for my olives and cheese, but I was short on time and needed to go to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods for a few other items.  The Whole Foods olive bar is extensive, and they have a wide variety of cheeses to choose from.  I got a baby swiss, a Spanish cheese similar to Manchego, and drunken goat, along with a mix of olives (pictures courtesy of Shannon Lentz).  

Our Christmas ham, purchased in Central Pennsylvania, was eighteen and a half pounds, so we had plenty of leftovers to use for ham biscuits.  I got potato rolls, sliced the ham, and assembled several sandwiches (half with mustard and half without).  

Most of the recipes I made were past successes, but one was brand new.  I'm consistently drawn to Ina Garten's recipes, but they're often too decadent for every day meals.  Her Orzo with Roasted Vegetables appealed to me as a hearty, vegetarian option.  I omitted the eggplant - big surprise, I know - and doubled the amount of peppers and orzo.  I could tell by looking at the amounts that there would be too much of the dressing if I doubled it, so I used three lemons and about 1/2 cup of olive oil.  

Ina called for 3/4 pounds feta, which would have been 1 1/2 pounds doubled, so I bought the full amount but only used a pound.  No one would have tasted anything besides feta if I'd added all of it.  The roasted peppers and onions softened the tangy flavors of lemon and cheese, and the pine nuts gave every bite the perfect crunch.  This dish, which is a type of pasta salad, would be appropriate at any time of the year and for a wide range of events.

Jezebel Sauce, one of my mom's favorite party recipes, also made an appearance on my New Year's Eve table.  The version I made has just five ingredients, which are combined in a food processer.  

1/3 cup prepared horseradish
1/4 cup dry mustard
10 oz. apple jelly
10 oz. pineapple preserves
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

It's a spicy and sweet dip served over a cooling block of cream cheese, and if you like horseradish, it's very hard to ignore.  

This White Bean Dip is always one of the first things I think of for a party because it's easy to put together and is fun to eat.  Another popular finger food is zucchini bites stuffed with mozzarella, which are breaded and baked, not fried, so they're moderately good for you.  If you live in Richmond I've probably made them for you before, but feel free to ask for the recipe.  

Some of the the ham went into Baked Chicken Meatballs, which are unexpectedly flavorful.  Mine aren't as pretty as the ones pictured on Smitten Kitchen, but I imagine they taste just as savory and hearty.  

Normally my favorite part of a meal is dessert, and I love baking, but I decided to take advantage of the occasion and get a chocolate layer cake from Costco.  It may not be healthy, but I couldn't not have something sweet.  After all, we were celebrating.  Happy 2011!