Sunday, January 2, 2011

Menu for a Last Minute Dinner Party

A few days ago, we made some last minute plans with a dear, dear friend and her beau--in town for just a few days--to come over to our place for dinner. I had about four hours to gather menu inspiration, shop, and cook, which turned out to be the perfect amount of time for the task; it was challenging, but still enjoyable.

One of my favorite aspects of planning a menu, after all, is that it can be like doing a puzzle. What can you make with four hours, one quick shopping trip, and all the random ingredients in the kitchen? Luckily, there are many solutions to this puzzle, so I just had to find the one that sounded most delicious on this particular winter's evening.

With a leftover pate sablee in the freezer (from that maple pecan pie, mmm), why not start the planning with dessert? I browsed through one of my favorite seasonally-arranged cookbooks, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, for ideas that wouldn't involve milk or cream or more than two eggs (a trip to TJs was not going to happen). Lo and behold, a brown butter date tart on page 226. Check. Next, the dates gave me the idea of some kind of Mediterranean-esque chicken dish that would use up some lovely dried cherries I had sitting around. Also leftover from Thanksgiving: a bottle of Port, just the ticket for a luscious reduction sauce. And for a grain? Why, here was a baggy of Israeli couscous, freshly cleared out of the pantry of a friend who's moving away. Nice! Now we just needed a salad. Winter puts me in the mood for bright, colorful citrus, so I riffed off another Sunday Suppers recipe and did an orange, grapefruit, avocado and arugula salad tossed in citrus vinaigrette. The dressing actually uses the fresh juice that you capture while slicing the citrus, which is simple and ingenious and simply ingenious. Our guests brought a rich, velvety Santa Barbara Syrah, and we followed it with the unbeatable, unbelievable, all-around best wine ever, Je Suis Petite Sirah.Yuh-um.

Satisfaction, slight inebriation, lively conversation. Success! P.S. I love you Jody. Come back soon.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cookbook Love: Heart of the Artichoke

Several years ago, I had an...interesting internship in the Office of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse (scathing memoir forthcoming) where I was treated as both printer slave and beloved visitor. Which is to say that the best part of my day and the only thing that kept me from tossing the abundant table linens (and myself) into the middle of busy Shattuck Avenue was the kindness of the kitchen staff, including, of course, staff lunch.

Oh, the unbounded joy of braised cardoons and duck confit on a dreary afternoon! Lunch was a delight, as were the cooks who, though far busier than the office staff, were always much nicer to me. While I was there, I was lucky enough to spend some timing sitting near David Tanis. (Of course I was never really introduced to anyone who came through the office, which was terribly awkward.) But even from a distance, he gave me the impression of having exactly the right attitude about food and cooking. He exuded a down to earth reverence for flavor, seasonality and the rituals of eating, all of which shine through in his latest book, Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys.

I spotted the book in a store the other day, the sexy green-yellow-purple of an artichoke jumping out at me from the cover, and started leafing through. Well, it turns out that the cookbook is full of beautiful menus, beautiful recipes, beautiful writing, beautiful photos.... everything beautiful. In fact, the book itself probably tastes wonderful, hardcovers, book jacket, and all. I was being a cheapo, so I didn't buy it, but now of course I have no reference for this posting and nothing to help me write any kind of useful menu review. Until I get my hands on a copy again, you'll just have to believe me that David Tanis deserves the life of wonder that he leads (half time running a supper club in France and whatnot) and that the man knows a thing or two about menus.

What I did buy recently was my very own copy of the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. Long overdue. It's very quaint and the fact that it was written so long ago makes it easier to read because when I'm in it, I can pretend that I haven't heard ALW preaching about "a lone, perfect peach" or whatever for 40 years. I'll blog more about it later, as thinking about that internship makes me pretty bitter on the Chez Panisse front, and the CPMCookbook deserves more sweetness.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Menu Review: Pizzaiolo, Oakland

Pizzaiolo is one of my favorite places to eat in Oaktown because of its consistently delicious food, kind service, and, elevating the experience, wonderful ambiance. As you step inside, the glow of the pizza oven, the golden lighting, and the hum of lively conversation wrap you in an embrace of hipster warmth. Somehow, everyone--emo twenty-somethings to retired hippies--looks cool inside Pizzaiolo's intentionally-worn post-industrial brick walls. It's a good feeling, as I'm sure Jake Gyllenhaal agrees. (He was at a nearby table when I dined there once. Not that I actually saw him; I was busy with my chanterelle pizza.)

But we're here to talk about the menu, aren't we? In the grand tradition of Italian ristoranti, the menu is organized by course: Antipasti (apps), Primi (pasta), Secondi (fish and meat), Pizze (obvi), Contorni (veggie sides). Ergo, confusion ensues. When one is actually nell'Italia, this structure makes more sense. We linger over food, one course at a time, relishing il dolce far niente. In America, where we need to move the car, stat, or catch the newest episode of Glee after dinner, it's not usually practical (in the temporal, financial, or stomachal sense) to order five courses per person. Luckily, it is perfectly acceptable to mix and match, to eat pasta but no meat, to order two antipasti and a contorno, or to simply devour a pizza. Also, I think there is something lovely about ordering your side dishes separately from the main course. The menu is all about opportunity, do-it-yourself meal building. And that's a heckuva lot more exciting than choosing between a house salad and steak fries, right? Furthermore, the choose your own adventure menu works exceedingly well in a place like Pizzaiolo, where every single dish has been thoughtfully fitted to the list so that there can be no bad combination.
It's quite liberating, really.

OK, so at my last visit, on a Tuesday evening, the shorter-than-usual wait for a table was almost ruined by the fact that we (a party of three), were seated at possibly the worst table in the place. It was closest to the door, placing us in the middle of some intense traffic flow and a chilly breeze. But with good company, it doesn't really matter, so I just kept my scarf on. We decided to order two pizzas and a contorno to share, which is a great way to go if you're with a small group and you want to taste a variety of dishes and not spend a bundle. Indeed, my main gripe with the place (and that Italian-style menu) is that it gets expensive to put together a diverse meal. In the past, I've had selections from all parts of the menu and have found the best choices to be the ones cooked in the brick oven--like last Tuesday's Swiss chard gratin--but the antipasti add a shot of freshness to an otherwise warm and hearty menu.Very smart.

The menu changes daily, with the exception of perennial favorites, and features seasonal produce. Local producers get a mention here and there but aren't shoved in your face. Overall, descriptions are very simple, usually just lists of ingredients, and there are fewer obscure pasta names/shapes to translate than at, say, Oliveto. Not that that's a negative, necessarily. It's just nice to be able to imagine your food without help. The beverages and wine list are delightful, and I was pleased to discover Pellegrino Sanbitter there, which is like Campari but tastier and non-alcoholic. It likewise comes in an adorable tiny glass bottle, which I insisted on taking home. Pretty sure the waiter thought I was a nut for that, but now I have a darling little bottle to hold flowers. Or a flower.

Summary: Pizzaiolo's menu is well-crafted, thematic but elegant, and consistent in its quality. I suggest including some lower priced primi and secondi or a prix-fixe menu for those of us who can't yet afford to order everything we want. And perhaps lowering the price on antipasti that I'm sure don't cost very much to produce. Then again, they're not hurting for business. Not even mine.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thanksgiving Menu

The most menulicious holiday of all is in two weeks. Nice. I'm hosting a party of six for Thanksgiving dinner, which means I get creative control over food and decor... just how I like it. That does make me sound like Dictator Hostess, doesn't it? Mwa ha ha. You must eat what I serve you, feasting minions!! Actually, I'm really very nice. I swear. Needless to say, I started planning the menu a month ago, but I think I'm just about at the final iteration. Turkey Day can be a tricky one, menu-wise, because you have to find the right balance of creativity and traditional flavors. I'm not into bringing Asian fusion (a la miso-basted turkey) or over-the-top gluttony (a la bacon-wrapped turducken) to the table, and I require all the classics, but I like to try to refresh every dish with something special.

This year, I am shocked to note that there will be a majority vegetarian party at the, um, party. Also, it seems as though the smallest turkey available is in the 6- to 8-pound range. So, three meat-eaters at one pound of poultry each means... Leftovers, here we come! Good thing leftovers are maybe the best part of Thanksgiving.

I haven't worked up a design menu for the feast---can't decide if I want to do printed ones---so I'll just list it all out in the text here. However, for your visual satisfaction, I'll share a sneak peek of a design project I've been working on. It's one page from a pop-culture book about toast, my most favorite food of all. Look for it at the bottom of the post. Without further ado:

I use Gourmet's high heat method, which has never failed to produce the most juicy, crisp-skinned bird in less than two hours. Do it.
Hard Cider Gravy
 I am a huge gravy fan, so I'm excited to taste this one, deglazed with chicken broth and cider. Our cider is still fermenting, so I'll have to use store-bought. We'll probably buy a vegetarian mushroom gravy for the veg-heads, too. Whole Foods does a tasty one.
 One of the guests kindly volunteered to bring over a hydrolized soy protein "poultry" loaf for the vegetarians. I tried fauxfurkey once. That was enough.
Call me crazy, but I love packaged stuffing. And it is so quick to prepare! I'm going to doctor it with some beautiful chestnuts that I've been holding on to for just such an occasion. And maybe some dried cranberries, too.
Ginger Cranberry Sauce
 A friend of mine gave me this recipe, adapted from one of Ming Tsai's. Fresh ginger and oranges juice give the sauce interest without making it taste overly exotic.
Canned Cranberry Sauce  
Yup, I love that jiggly wiggly goodness. In our house, we always required it served whole, lying on a plate, can lines still visible. It's like a sweet-tart jelly sandcastle. Yum.
Brown Butter and Sage Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Hazelnuts
Brussels sprouts are easy and tasty. The brown butter adds rich nuttiness, and the hazelnuts provide textural contrast.
Creme Fraiche and Chive Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots
I don't love eating mashed potatoes, but I do like to cook them. Here the creme fraiche, chives, and shallots break up the richness of the puree with tartness, pungency, and sweetness, and they add nice color, as well.
Salad and Rolls
 Another guest will bring these. Sometimes delegation is a cook's best friend.
Maple Pecan Tart with a Crumbly Pate Sablee Crust
This year, I'm going to try pecan pie in one of my favorite tart shells, instead of a flaky pie crust. The maple syrup should add just a little bit of sophistication to a classic filling.
Molasses Pumpkin Pie
 I found this baby on Epicurious. I think it has the potential to become my go-to pumpkin pie. We shall see. I'm going to bake it in cream cheese pastry, which I prefer to the usual pate brisee (flaky pie dough). It is less temperamental, more flavorful, and ridiculously easy to make. Booyah. (Any extra dough shall become apple turnovers, methinks.)
Pear Caramel Ice Cream
Thank you David Lebovitz for never failing to have an exquisite recipe for the exact ice cream that I desire.
Sparkling Wine, Red & White Wine, Maybe Beer, Sweet Wine for Dessert

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lunch Menus for a Week of Pastry Class

Last week, I was asked to assist in the Be a Pastry Chef for a Week class at Tante Marie's, which was enormously fun. Ironically, as a new graduate of the pastry program, I spent the first half of each day preparing lunch for the group of 14+. (I found it strange to leave the school with my hands smelling of garlic, rather than butter and sugar.) It was hard work, but I was most surprised by the amount of time it took to put together such large meals. Everything, from boiling water to washing lettuce, takes much longer than for two, four, even six diners. I should have known that, but I guess I've never really single-handedly cooked a meal for that many people before. But, it was wonderful to come in and for a few hours focus solely on making food. It also gave me some great meal planning ideas for home -- and everything I made, luckily, is scalable. I'm going to list all of the ingredients in each main dish so that a.) you can try to recreate them if you like and b.) I can try to remember them.

P.S. I ordered a pair of shoes and they arrived today looking even more gorgeous in person. So in honor of my new heeled friends and their Art Deco-inspired design, I'm going to use the Riesling font for my menu. It seems fitting.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Recipe for Hard Apple Cider

I know, I know, I just can't resist the diy boozies. This time, we're doing it without any help from Crushpad, thank you very much, and it is entirely a labor of love. Oren built a magnificent cider press using his bare manly man hands and we picked up some brewing equipment (awesome jugs, brewer's yeast, and little doodads that that the Hubby-O found way cooler than I did) from the local home-brew store. Then it was off to Berkeley Bowl for 20 pounds of apples plus some crunchy sesame stick snack mix from the bulk section, to fortify the breweress, clearly.
We let the apples sit out on the dining room table for about a week to soften and let the sugars develop. This made the entire house smell like apples. Lovely! Then on Thursday last, we cored the fruit, put it all through my (beloved) food processor, pressed it in the homemade press, heated the icky bacteria out of the juice, added some brown sugar (how come you taste so good), funneled the juice into the super cool jug, added yeast, mixed well, topped with airlock, done.

Now our gallon of cider-to-be is fermenting away on top of the fridge. Not going to lie: We spend a good amount of time watching the gas bubbles pop in the airlock. You would too, and you know it. So the next tasks are to make a couple more batches (we want to experiment with different apples and change around some other variables) and to come up with an appropriately tasty name, to be printed on a beauteous label. My finest thought thus far: Isn't It Brewmantic? I know, it's punniliciously amazing. Anyone else want to throw out an idea?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pastry School Final Project Pics

Graduation day was bittersweet, filled with amazing pastry accomplishments and sad goodbyes. As promised, here are some photos of my Herb Garden project. I'm so pleased with the way everything turned out. The flavors, presentation, and display were all exactly as I'd pictured. It was just as much fun designing my little plot of countertop as it was baking all these treats, so I'll have to find an excuse to design a tablescape again soon.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Menu for a Pastry School Final Project

My pastry school graduation is on Sunday and I cannot believe how quickly this course has gone by. I am now officially an expert in the art of baking. Also, having absorbed at least two pounds of it through the skin on my hands and arms, alone (not counting in the traditional way), I can also proudly say that my body now operates to a great extent on the power of butter. Unsalted, of course. Bring on the toast!

For our final projects/graduation, we all had to come up with a theme around which to build a menu and pastry display. I chose Herb Garden as my theme. It has been ridiculously fun to experiment with flavor combinations, and there's something satisfying about picking the leaves off of and chopping the herbs, alone. I highly recommend introducing fresh herbs into your own pastry world. They enliven all manner of sweet things in an amazing way.

I've pasted my menu below and I'll post some photos of the display after the big event.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Recipe for Blackberry Preserves

I've waxed poetic before on the joys of blackberry picking, so this time I'll get straight to the kitchen, where it smells like sweet fruit and little spots of fuschia dot the counter, floor, and walls like spurts of blood (in a nice way.) I've just turned my two Nalgenes-full of wild berries into homemade blackberry jam. Blackberry jam is wonderful. Particularly on my most favorite food of all (most of the time), toast. I used Nalgenes because we don't have any large Tupperware, so if you are concerned with the BPA and BPB and BPA-to-Z leaking into your preserves, don't eat any of mine. I didn't offer you any, anyway.

I've written down the recipe, so you can give it a shot if you have some blackberries growing nearby, too. Weird blackberry picking almost-ruining moment: There's a horse riding place right near (but about 20 feet above and across the street from) the bushes where I'm picking, and this horse trainer lady comes out and yells to me that I need to move down the road because "you guys" scare the horses when you pick blackberries and there's a beginner class riding right now and that's a problem. Huh. So you're telling me that the horses are more scared of me than they are of the motorcycles growling by every 2 minutes? OK, lady. You're totally nuts. Not wanting to be a jerk, I moved---to a much better spot anyway, thank you very much---but of course proceeded to have a nasty conversation with Evil Horse Lady in my head for the rest of the berry picking excursion. So that's something to watch out for next time you're picking.

Anyway, on to the recipe. Next time I'll add some more liquor, or maybe herbs or spices... ooh, and maybe some apricots to make the flavor a little more complex.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Not a menu, unless you like to eat canvas goats.

I really enjoyed I Love You, Man, with Paul Rudd (whom, incidentally, I also really enjoy), because it actually made me laugh out loud with its Jell-O dialogue (hilariously awkward, a little wobbly, fun, but inexplicably real). For about a year after I saw the movie, "totes magoats" was my response to pretty much, well, everything. It's just so much dern fun to say! Nerdy wordie that I am, I simply could not leave a pun unpenned. And so, for carrying your groceries around after you have planned the perfect menu, may I suggest this tremendously cool Totes M'goats Bag that I designed? It's super awesome, if I may state the obvious. Also, if you buy one, you will be super awesome, which is even more obvious. The question becomes: Can you afford not to have this bag? Find it at my CafePress store.