Goat Cheese Puffs and Kir Royale

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We live in an age where convenience is king and attention spans have diminished to focus on a steady stream of 140-character sound bites and grab-and-go eats. Taking time to enjoy a meal or having a lengthy, real life conversation that extends beyond a thumbs up “like” on a Facebook post are going the way of the dinosaurs. A sit down meal, which used to mark a dinner with the family or close friends, is now a rare occasion involving copious amounts of preplanning and synchronization between the technologies and timeframes of various people all operating within distinctly individualized schedules. In an extreme backlash against all of this twenty-first century behavior, I am committed to make the moments that I eat actually mean something. And not something in the special way of birthdays or anniversary occasions, but special in the way that reminds me that life is in the ordinary hours. Life is right now.

The one time a week when I cook for the Cute Gardener and myself is a time when I can slow down for a moment and reflect on what I want to convey with my efforts. I am not merely making a meal or a dish but crafting an experience that bubbles up from someplace inside of me first, borne of a feeling, and then crafted outward. It is not about flipping through a list of recipes but rather culling from an internal well, something conjured that tantalizes all the senses, rather than just the tongue.

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Recently, I finished reading An Extravagant Hunger by my ex-Stanford writing class teacher Anne Zimmerman. The book was a biography of the famous food writer MFK Fisher and something that rang true throughout Fisher’s life was her absolute commitment to enjoying food and drink, even if eating solo or making a simple lunch at home. It also made me recall all the meals I had read Fisher describe in her books that were accompanied at the end by Crème de Cassis, the dark red liqueur made from black currants, which had always given me a tinge of romantic fantasy in the gut but which I had never yet tried. I researched and discovered an elegant drink, the Kir Royale, which is made from floating fine French Champagne atop a few tablespoons of the liqueur and decided to build an appetizer course around this drink; one that would equally fulfill my many deep hungers that had been percolating in my mind regarding the making and sharing of food.

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Dorie Greenspan’s goat cheese mini puffs were the perfect solution. Made from her exquisite choux dough recipe and accentuated with a whipped goat cheese filling, the resulting clouds of herb-spiked goodness added a light and airy bite between sips of the heavier, sweet cocktail. I served the drinks in fine stemless  flutes on our everyday, ordinary coffee table as we came together at the end of a regular old workday, shoving unread stacks of newspaper aside to partake in our ongoing obsession with Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition of classy bites with our regular scheduled television programming made our evening special, with nothing more to celebrate other than our lust for life and enjoying the present moment with each other—and that in this day and age is becoming ever so priceless.

Singing Chicken Riesling

IMG_7607I re-stumbled upon the writer Joyce Maynard recently when she popped up in the middle of the movie Salinger. Because I recalled reading a few things of hers while growing up which I liked, I was inspired to look her up to refresh my memory of her voice. I found a hilariously pert essay about her attempts at cooking Julia Child’s “Chicken Melon” – an affair that required her blowing of the skin off a chicken through its behind that left me in stitches.

It reminded me why I like making complicated recipes, because I never know what kind of adventure will ensue in the process. I’ll never forget making gnudi from scratch with my good friend Charlotte one afternoon as her daughter was potty training and continued to present us with “packages” she was proud of in her plastic baby toilet. Her tiny little poos looking just like the ricotta pasta we were painstakingly trying to extrude from mushy lumps of dough and a pastry bag. I know it’s taboo to talk about bodily functions alongside making dinner but that occasion made it clear to me that even if the meal doesn’t pull itself off for serving, the comedy alone can make it all worthwhile.

Of course now that I actually live with someone I have to be a little more considerate of my risks in the kitchen. While making dinner for me, I am also making dinner for two, so I can’t just go off on a whim without some kind of notion that the end result is going to be satisfactory to all.

I’ve talked a bit about the fact that I am now banned from certain recipe resources online due to an overactive zeal towards making any old recipe that looked good to me, as was my habit of the past. This rule keeps me from making things that are off proportionately or come from places I shouldn’t fully trust. There are a lot of people out there making things they might like but that I do not. Although I enjoy reading many eclectic food blogs such as David Lebovitz, Foodie Underground, Christy Majors, Food and Think from the Smithsonian, Tastespotting (for the visual food porn alone), Nouveau Raw, Linnet Moss, and Kansas City Gravy Company, I am more prone to frequent them for the personalities of the writers and stories of the food rather than to find something to put in the oven. I have also become such a discerning foodie over the past year that when I do cook I want to make sure that it will at least taste good so the tried and true of Cook’s Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Gourmet’s archives, Dorrie Greenspan’s and Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks are to what I turn.

Food and Wine online continues to be a trusted source, which is where I recently ran across a Coq Au Riesling made with the sweeter wine and crème fraiche.  Chicken oftentimes plays center stage in our household and I’d wanted to develop a signature poultry dish that I could call my own and make time and again as a classic. The Cute Gardener has a miraculous fried chicken, a homey shredded Asian-style on rice and a tangy Mediterranean tomato and olives version so I was looking for a French or Italian rendition. In true Unorthodox Foodie fashion, this one brought out all of my usual culinary attributes like taking more than an hour and more than a handful of pots, pans, plates, utensils and equipment to prepare and cook. Much to the Cute Gardener’s simultaneous curiosity, fear, dread and delight; that’s typically the sign that I am in the kitchen.

COQ AU REISLING
from Food and Wine

4 pounds chicken legs, split
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 1/2 cups dry Riesling
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
4 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound mixed mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup crème fraîche
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Finely chopped tarragon, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 300°. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large, enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. Add half of the chicken and cook over moderately high heat, turning, until browned, 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Cook the remaining chicken, then pour off the fat and wipe out the casserole.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola oil in the casserole. Add the onion, carrot, celery and shallots and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 1 minute, scraping up the browned bits from the pot. Add the chicken stock and thyme and bring to a boil.

Nestle the chicken in the casserole; cover and braise in the oven for 1 hour, until tender.

Meanwhile, in a very large skillet, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook over high heat, without stirring, until well browned, 5 minutes. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes; transfer to a plate.

Transfer the chicken to a plate. Strain the braising liquid through a fine sieve into a heatproof bowl, pressing on the solids; skim off the fat. Return the braising liquid to the casserole and boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in the crème fraîche and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and chicken to the sauce and simmer for 3 minutes. Garnish with tarragon and serve.

IMG_7609I made Dorie Greenspan’s French gougeres and a pile of sautéed mustard greens to go alongside the meat. The greens added a perfect juxtaposing tart bitterness to the addictive Riesling sauce and the earthy mushrooms.

At the end the CG asked if I thought the Riesling really made it better than one of his quick pressure cooker one pots of chicken steeped in pure broth. Although his versions are certainly every bit as soft, savory and delicious as mine was, I still answered that it was worth doing. Because every once in a while when trying various recipes, you actually stumble upon one that makes you proud, makes you not think twice about the hours it took to cook, and makes you want to make it for many different people in your lifetime because you’ve found another signature dish in the realm of comfort food. This was one of mine.

Thelonious Monk and Hens That Overdose on Olives

IMG_7323There’s something really special about cooking for my man. And no, I don’t mean the “barefoot in the kitchen” version of sublimated, antiquated femininity. I mean the, “gee, he cooks exquisite dinners from his exquisite garden on his exquisite collection of cast iron pans ninety percent of the time for me so when I get a chance (which isn’t often) to return the favor, I pull out all the stops with something extra special in his honor” version. And it’s usually French.

Last night I got the urge to roast some Cornish game hens for his supper. You see, the Cute Gardener has a thing for birds and will ravish them from wing to bone with nary a scrap of waste so I figured I would give him a whole one on a plate.

Along with some inspiration from my favorite cook of all things French — Dorie Greenspan — I decided to dress the birds with homemade olive tapenade and serve with a fresh salad and some buttered radishes. The beauty of this meal was that it was done in 30 minutes – almost unbelievable for a bird, yet producing perfect, tender, juicy and flavorful meat.

The entire dish manifested without a wrinkle and I am convinced a big part of it included: my accompanying Thelonious Monk cooking soundtrack; the decision to make a pilaf out of basmati steamed in bay leaf and olive oil simmered minced onion; the fresh arugula from the window planter that went into the spinach, walnut and pomegranate vinaigrette salad; and the way I put my heart and soul into the rare occasion ultimately arriving with something sublimely beautiful and beyond the ordinary.

IMG_7321Dorrie Greenspan’s Olive-Olive Cornish Hens

2 Cornish hens at room temperature
2 teaspoons black olive tapenade (*recipe included at end of blog)
Olive oil
Fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Oil a shallow roasting pan.

Working with one hen at a time, using a chef’s knife, cut down along both sides of the backbone to remove it. (The CG used the bones to make stock on the stove after dinner.) Turn the bird breast side up and press on the breastbone to crack it so the birds lie more flat. Gently loosen the skin from the flesh just enough to push the olive tapenade up between the skin and the flesh of the breast and the chubby thigh. Transfer the hens to the roasting pan, skin side up and give the skin a rubdown with some olive oil. Sprinkle over with some lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and put into the oven.

Roast the hens undisturbed for 25-30 minutes (mine took exactly 26) until the skin is deeply golden and crisp and the juices run clear when you prick the thighs.

*Black Olive Tapenade

½ cup pitted, oil cured black olives, chopped (I couldn’t find oil cured so used the regular can of olives in water and it worked fine)
1 anchovy, drained
Grated zest and juice of ¼ lemon
Pinch of rosemary
Pinch of thyme
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Put all of the ingredients in a food processor and process until pureed to your taste consistency wise. (I kept mine a little chunky.)

Bursting Momotaros Provencal

IMG_6936This is the time of year I take various breaks from my writing during the day to look out my office window and down into the verdant garden where I am blessed with a view of vines bursting with tomatoes. Widely pregnant orange and yellow Cherokees, slim, ovular San Marzanos, perfectly globe-shaped red Momotaros and tiny, thick-skinned grapelettes all waiting to be plucked and transformed into a variety of spreads, salsas, and dishes. The Cute Gardener spends many hours in the kitchen creating jars of sauce to freeze for a year of pastas and enjoys bringing paper bags of the luscious fruits to friends and family when the overflowing bounty grows too much for one household.  Many get sliced at room temperature for avocado and cucumber sandwiches, diced as a cooling accompaniment to hatch green chile soft tacos, added to lazy Sunday BLTs or popped straight into the mouth offering up a beautiful summertime ratio of soft flesh to juice.

IMG_6908The challenge at this point then becomes the discovery of new ways to enjoy the constant parade. Although a facet of French cuisine lies in the realm of heavy butter, cream and pastry, I oftentimes, especially in the warm season, prefer its more rustic shadows where vegetables are given a pedestal to shine upon in their most simple form. For this reason, I chose a Tomatoes Provencal to use up a batch of Momotaros that were dying for the spotlight. Instead of using this as a traditional side dish, we spooned the roasted tomato halves on top of pasta and as we dug into them with our forks, the juice and pulp that ran from their steaming interiors became a nice, fresh spaghetti sauce perfectly light for the warm weather.

TOMATOES PROVENCAL

Heat an oven to 375 degrees. (We used a toaster oven.)
Grease a nine-inch round baking dish by swirling a tablespoon of olive oil.
Cut six tomatoes in half crosswise through their midsections and place the halves in the baking dish.
Sprinkle a mixture of three to five herbs across the tops of each tomato half. We used a blend of oregano, rosemary and thyme straight from the garden.
Drizzle a thin stream of olive oil lightly across the whole batch.
Cook in the oven for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve!

Dreams of Becoming a Baton Girl

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I wanted to become a baton girl. Not the leotard wearing spangled hair ribbon type from the marching band, but the uber-chic bearer of the ultimate appetizer amongst my foodie friends. It all started when I bought The Cute Gardener a copy of Dorie Greenspan’s “Around My French Table” for Christmas two years ago. My grand plan was to cook a French meal for him every so often from the book and become adept at the laissez-fare dish that begs copious amounts of wine on a lazy afternoon with bread. Upon first glance at the book, a recipe called Mustard Batons instantly struck me.

Mustard Batons are the French version of Italian breadsticks only fluffier and hinting at a savory bite from an internal swath of Dijon. Stuffed into a tall clear glass on a table with or without a meal, they are the perfect wands of carbs to go with various types of wine. I had immediate visions of serving them at dinner parties or when I would invite one of my many girlfriends over for a morning chat with tea or an afternoon gabfest with good wine.

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 Making them couldn’t be simpler. The full recipe is here but the concept is remarkably easy. Take puff pastry. Roll it out thin.

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Spread a thin layer of good Dijon mustard, grainy or smooth, across the lower half.

IMG_4707Fold the top half over the bottom and cut into one-inch strips. Brush the top with egg wash and sprinkle on some poppy seeds then bake for less than twenty minutes.

IMG_2030What comes out is the perfect bite for many occasions, looking remarkably complex for such little effort. It becomes a beautiful objet d’art, golden and dense, with flaky layers and a soft inside fancied up by the sting of mustard in the middle.

I also discovered that they are extremely versatile. I have served them in their original form to my family with a meal of chicken mushroom Marsala with leftovers in the fridge that got eaten up cold overnight by the snacking Cute Gardener. I have included them in a French dinner party with my supper club before a luscious beef Bourgogne with St. Germain and Champagne cocktails.

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I brought them to a farewell party for a girlfriend wit a bunch of Parisian gypsy themed entrees like French onion soup and we floated them on top of the broth with broiled gruyere on the top.

Recently, I decided to shake things up and experimented with some different ingredients for a lovely tea visit at my home with an artist friend.

IMG_4695I made a few with rose jelly and butter in the middle and sprinkled with French thyme on top that came out savory and strikingly good.

IMG_4697The second batch was strung on the inside with strands of sea salt caramel and drizzled honey with a topping of crushed coriander that became a sweet bite that would be great for dessert. Now I am obsessed with thinking of the endless possibilities ahead. Olive tapenade, pesto, cheese, caramelized onions, and crushed nuts … the ideas go on and on.

Now it is customary when I receive social invitations to hear, “Can you please bring those baton things to our party?”

I guess my dream of becoming a baton girl has manifested beautifully.

IMG_4711P.S. I hate to waste food and so every time I whip up an egg to brush the top of the dough while making batons, I end up with leftover egg. In typical French fashion, I throw it in a small tin into the oven, still hot from the baking, and let it set for a few minutes creating a beautiful little omelet. That becomes my after cooking treat topped with a sweet little pile of whatever I have handy in the fridge, in this case a dollop of roasted red pepper sauce.