Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Zero to Two: Pondering meat quantity

Meat is not something I really love - I can take it or leave it. But I have a really hard time getting excited about anything that bills itself as vegan or vegetarian. A friend recently cooked and served a vegan chili for a meeting I was attending and before I even tried it I felt sorry for myself for having to eat it. I assumed it was going to be loaded with some weird fake meat. It turned out to be a Rick Bayless recipe, one I enjoyed immensely, have cooked myself and passed along. There's no fake meat - it's really a rice and beans dish. I cooked it for a crowd of over 100 for a catering event, along with the usual suspects (chopped fresh cilantro and red onion, jalapeno rounds, hot sauce, sour cream and shredded Jack) and had zero left over. Being a RB recipe the chili is really healthy, though you can throw it all off kilter with the addition of dairy. I like my chili flourished with a burst of cilantro and red onion.

On the other end of the vegan-carnivore spectrum is the two-meat-feast that has become our modus operandi for holiday entertaining.  It's decadent, to be sure, and extraordinary, in the truest sense of the word. This year our Thanksgiving buffet included the traditional turkey but also a  beef tenderloin. My good friend Robin counseled me through my first beef tenderloin this summer. It's really quite simple. The hardest thing for me was overcoming my fear or ruining an expensive piece of meat. But if you follow Ina Garten's straightforward method you can't go wrong. Well, you can if you cut it poorly. I had a helper at a party this summer who cut the gorgeous filet  in very thin slices reducing it to a deli platter of roast beef. That was unfortunate. My husband did the honors at Thanksgiving, and set out of gorgeous platter of nearly one-inch thick slices, plated in an overlapping line on a long platter.

And somewhere in the middle are the smaller portions of animal protein we eat most nights. Four ounces of that beef filet has just under 3 grams of saturated fat. I generally serve 4 to five-ounce portions of lean animal protein, including fish and skinless chicken breasts. That amount suits our bodies and never weighs us down. My portions are always challenged by the butcher or fishmonger, though. I guessing it's a combination of them trying to drive sales and me purchasing smaller portions than most. What size portions do you serve at home?

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Monday, November 28, 2011

On the Menu This Week

Every once in awhile a market trip yields so many great ideas for dinner. Everything looked great today. I need to use the gorgeous arugula I picked up last week and forgot to use while we had family in town. The salmon looked particularly great at Whole Foods, so tonight we had Pan-fried Salmon on Arugula along with a side of Tomato Basil Soup. It's been a soupy few days - we're still enjoying Turkey and Rice soup. Our Thanksgiving turkey was particularly lean and flavorful this year. The stock is just wonderful.

Speaking of the Great Bird, the Wishbone Breaking Event of 2011 merits mention on account of its unprecedented conclusion. My children were competing for a serving of caramel-cheese mixed popcorn which promised a certain amount of doe-eyed begging on the part of the loser. I had anticipated some drama but needn't have: the wishbone split down the middle. Popcorn all around!

Anyway, I picked up some ground lamb for Lamb Burgers later in the week and am also really looking forward to Gyoza and Pad Thai, which we haven't had for awhile.

Have a great week.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pinch's 2011 Thanksgiving Menu

Fruit Salad
Rosemary Raisin Toast with Apricot Jam
Scrambled Eggs with Gruyere
Eggnog Lattes

Amuse Bouche
Bacon-Wrapped Medjool Date

Butternut Squash Demitasse with Spiced Pepitas

Mixed Greens with Pomegranate Seeds, Candied Pecans, and Prairie Fruits Farm Chevre

Cranberry Granita

Roast Turkey with Gravy
Beef Filet with Assorted Sauces - Bearnaise, Stilton or Horseradish
Mashed Yukon Potatoes
Vegetarian Stuffing
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Leek and Pancetta
Grand Marnier-spiked Cranberry Sauce
Some Sweet Potato Concoction
Golden Pillow Dinner Rolls

Pumpkin Pie
Pecan Pie
Chocolate Pound Cake with Chocolate Glaze
Frozen Peanut Butter Pie

Liquid Assets
Blood Orange Soda
Pinot Noir or Prosecco

A menu should speak for itself so here are a few notes:

I always plan breakfast. It needs to be satisfying enough to hold one over until dinner, yet simple since there's much cooking to do. I picked up a fragrant pineapple (determined by smelling the bottom of tens of pineapples. Does everyone know this is how to pick a melon or pineapple?), a Tuscan melon, some grapes, strawberries and blackberries.

I got these great ceramic appetizer spoons at World Market for the Amuse Bouche and some white ceramic sake cups for the Butternut Squash Soup. The petite sake cup will be just right for less intrepid diners.

The Intermezzo is a shout out to a Thanksgiving of yesteryear, celebrated here. Could anyone spend even one night in a cozy A-frame buried in the snow and not fall in love with mountain living? Sigh. An intermezzo serves to cleanse the palate between courses, in this case I'll bring it out after the salad. It's hardly sweet, just enough sugar to balance the tart market cranberries (you should see the size of these things, procured Wednesday at the Green City Market!), and has just a hint of orange.

The main event needs little explanation, just the basics with a new tweaks from year to year. I'm tired of green beans, so the Brussels Sprouts will be new, assuming I get my act together. It's after midnight, the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, and it's just occurred to me that I forgot to get Brussels sprouts at the market today.

Dessert is fixing up to be a whole buffet of sweets: Pecan and Pumpkin pies, baked in the thin French tart pans I like so much. My skilled daughter will contribute her Chocolate Pound Cake which is rich and delicious with chocolate glaze on top. And now that I finally sourced the elusive Famous Chocolate Wafer at Apple Market I am going to make a frozen peanut butter pie, also for old time's sake. We used to eat FPBP whenever we went to Paul's Pasta in Groton, Connecticut. I'm going to improvise that recipe, but will essentially conjure a peanut butter mousse using peanut butter, cream cheese and whipped cream, freeze it in a chocolate crust, then top it with a thin layer of chocolate glaze and whipped cream. It's totally unsophisticated but sure to a hit among those less than thrilled with traditional Thanksgiving pies.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Thursday, November 17, 2011


Thanksgiving is nigh and I am bound for the nuthouse. Nuts are a fabulous snack. Throughout the winter we keep a supply of in-shell nuts in a pewter bowl, along with a small fleet of nutcrackers. I'm still a little twitchy about the hand-pinching metal nutcrackers that tormented me during my youth. The perennial favorite remains the olive wood screw-type model I tucked in my younger daughter's stocking one year.

The nuthouse is, in this case, Treasure Island or Whole foods, where I can purchase in-shell nuts in bulk bins, not bags. Bulk is preferable to bags because I like to control the number of Brazil nuts that go into the mix. Brazil nuts are cool to look at but they are super fatty and really hard to crack. They taste a lot like an over-sized macadamia nut. They actually have less total fat than the macadamia but the breakdown of fats is less favorable in the Brazil. Where 3.5 ounces of macadamias have 74 total fat grams, 10 of those grams are saturated, 60 are monounsaturated and 4 are polyunsaturated. The same weight of Brazil nuts has 66 grams of fat, about 17 of which are saturated, 27 of which are monounsaturated and 22 are polyunsaturated.

I mention fat math because sometimes people think that just because something grows on a tree it's a good idea to shovel it down the gullet. 10 grams of saturated fat is the very low end of a daily limit for many people, so macadamias are probably sort of a health hazard, even with their glorious ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat. The thing with nuts is to not go overboard. Really. Keep it to a few at a time. This is why the in-shell variety is so great - all that cracking and hand-pinching slows you down.

In-shell nuts are a winter tradition I'll never break. For parties or gatherings where a cocktail assortment is just the thing I have a new recipe.  I made bowls of roasted nuts for a party this summer and stashed them around like a 50s housewife would stash ashtrays. They were an enormous hit. I adapted a recipe from the ever-reliable Martha Stewart's Hors D'oevres Handbook. This is what I did:

Cocktail Roasted Nuts
Makes 3 cups

1 cup each raw almonds, cashews and pecan halves
2 t canola oil
2 t kosher salt
1 T packed brown sugar, or maple sugar
1/8  t cayenne

Preheat oven to 350. Place nuts in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast for 6-8 minutes or until fragrant.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the remaining ingredients. When the nuts are done roasting, add them the bowl and toss to coat. Allow to cool briefly before adding to serving bowls. They are great warm. Reheat if you like for about 5 minutes at 300.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

As the Bundt Breaks

The bundt cake is challenging the lemon pudding cake as my sworn enemy. Back when I worked at Campagne there was one cake that I never mastered. That's not to say I always got it wrong. But I never knew if I had gotten it right until it did its time in the oven. Had I mastered it I would have been able to recognize success or failure just on the appearance of the batter. The lemon pudding cake was a very delicate cake that required a very exact temperature and combining of ingredients. I got it wrong 60% of the time, and then I had to throw the all away (they were individuals) wash the forms myself (gasp!), and start all over.

In a sign that my pastry skills are suffering from underuse, I now find myself in the position of having lost mastery of the very simple bundt cake. I have a 12-cup heavy-weight, nonstick NordicWare bundt pan that has been reliable for years. And now, nearly every other time I make a pound cake it gets stuck in there the only way to get it out is to break it up. Drives me crazy that I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Luckily, should I ever really need to be in possession of a chocolate pound cake I can turn to my well trained grasshopper. My oldest makes this cake P-E-R-F-E-C-T-L-Y.

Anyhoo, I made one this morning and knew I had beat too much air in it when it quickly deflated after it was done baking. The writing was on the wall. I tried to remove it anyway, but it was solidly stuck. Very quickly we had a huge cake mess, with half the cake turned out on a plate and half still stubbornly clinging to the pan. My kids were off school today, so it was sort of perfect. The little one has been very eager to make cake balls ever since her babysitter told them what they were (she has since eaten them at Starbucks). I was not about to let all that Valrhona cocoa go to waste, so we mixed up some ganache, crumbled up the cake, and rolled up our sleeves.

It was fun (and useful as I needed to bring a dessert to my girls' school today) but I would definitely not make cake balls again. For one, it was a huge time sink - we easily spent an hour and half mixing, forming, coating and covering those stinkers. And two, the amount of chocolate that went into this things was sort of obscene. We made 50 cake balls (the whole bundt would have make another dozen but we ran out of ganache). We used about 10 ounces of chocolate to make both the ganache and chocolate glaze. The end result: for the serious chocoholic only. They were deemed too rich for my daughter's taste. Hope the teachers liked them, as that's where they went. It was report card pickup today and parents take turns providing treats for the teachers during the conferences. If I did do it again, I would make sure to first pick up lollipop sticks, sold at Jo-Ann Fabrics or a retailer with a good baking or candy-making section. If you do choose to make them, you really must have something to cover the chocolate coating because they look too rough otherwise. Nuts looked great, as did the coconut. Ice cream sprinkles looked fab, too.

That's all.

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