Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ana Sortun's "Spice"

Sorry it has taken me so long to write this! Let me just begin by saying that, if you cook and do not own this book, you MUST buy it. Now. Go right over to your local bookstore and get it!

(Before I get into the specifics of this dinner, let me also note that last night Zora made the roasted eggplant with sherry vinegar recipe and it was dynamite!)

This meal was an excellent lesson/reminder of what happens when you get overexcited and cook too many dishes. Enthusiasm is a great motivator -- admirable, perhaps, and certainly contagious, but in hindsight I can see that if I had parceled out some of that enthusiasm (i.e. NOT made everything I was dying to make on the first go around,) people might have not been so ridiculously stuffed.

Huh. Learn from my mistakes, people!

Another excellent lesson I learned on this one was to READ THE ENTIRE RECIPE BEFORE YOU BEGIN. I know, it seems remedial, doesn't it? I think (in my arrogance) I sometimes skip critical steps like this, and well... that is how you find yourself about to cook a "Potato Risotto" assuming that the recipe will involve both potatoes AND risotto only to discover that the recipe calls for the potatoes to BE the risotto. Oh yes, and this was while people were eating the 3rd course in the other room! And you wonder why I kick people out of my kitchen!

Another valuable lesson I learned is that making Potato Risotto (which I improvised, using both Arborio Rice and Potatoes, as it turned out) for 22 people is less than advisable. It seems like a great idea, right? A self-contained dish, in one pot, (well, two in this case,) stirring for 20 minutes or so...


NO fucking way. Don't do it. Don't do it because you cannot walk away from the fucking pan for at minimum, a half hour. It is an enormous amount of rice to control (keep it from sticking, keep it moving, balance the moisture, etc). You will invariably misjudge the amount of chicken stock you will need, and be unable to easily put your hands on more.

At one point I started to feel like a Navy cook on a submarine...... It started to look like a big vat of gruel. Before you give up on me, understand that the dish ultimately tasted divine...

...but by the time it was served, no one could really appreciate it because they were so STUFFED from all of the other courses!

Oh, and another "learn from my mistake" is to BALANCE YOUR STARCHES.

Maybe, if you are serving a Potato Risotto with Saffron, Walnuts and Green Olives (the saffron was my touch - it just seemed like a good idea, and, frankly, how could it not be?) don't serve it at the same time as Israeli Cous Cous and Red Lentils with Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette, particularly if you have preceded THAT with Cranberry Beans Stewed with Tomatoes and Cinnamon...

Again, I direct your attention to Exhibit A: My unbridled enthusiasm for an incredibly beautiful cookbook. I suppose there are worse crimes, huh?

We started with some Istanbul Style Artichokes. I have made artichokes many ways over the years, but never like this.

Outer leaves pulled off, remaining artichoke cut into quarters and placed into acidulated water until you are ready to use them. They were roasted with lots of garlic, white wine, lemon and honey. I thought the honey would be too sweet and overpowering, but no no-- truly delicious!

The honey mellows when cooked with the wine and lemon and is more aromatic than sweet. Very complimentary to the "green," nutty flavor of artichokes.

There was a Fatoush Salad, which was loads of cucumbers, radishes, watercress and arugula, fennel sliced thinly, and toasted pita bread broken into shards with two dressings: a red wine/pomegranate molasses vinaigrette and a tahini/greek yoghurt mix.

Ingenious. Creamy and bright and tart... like everything you ever wanted in a dressing!

Guest salad chef Amy busts out the Fatoush Salad...

There were some Mussels with Leeks, Smoked Paprika and Aleppo Pepper that I just HAD to make with some Chorizo... mostly because it seemed like it was BEGGING for it.

Smoky, spicy and a little bit of sweet with the addition of the leeks, the chorizo, the salty brine of the mussels... a marriage made in heaven. It's making me hungry just thinking about it again!

Fresh cranberry beans stewed with tomatoes (I canned some last summer, but you can use whole canned stewed tomatoes too), garlic and cinnamon. Yup, cinnamon. Deliriously aromatic and not nearly as aggressive as it sounds. The tomato tempers the cinnamon I think, and the garlic rounds it out.

Swiss Chard was chiffonaded and sauteed with olive oil, raisins, pine nuts and good sherry (and a touch of sherry vinegar.) That dish was one of mine, not Ana's, and it seemed to be a hit. I even had someone request the recipe, the following week!

It's a great way to eat chard, and is slightly more interesting than the standard olive oil/garlic treatment. I also usually reserve the stems, toss them in olive oil and salt, roast at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, or so, and serve separately. It breaks them down, and brings out their nutty flavor, not to mention it's GOOD for you!

There was Israeli Cous Cous and Red Lentils with a Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette. I roasted red peppers on the stove top,

partially peeled and chopped them and soaked them with cider vinegar, shallots, salt, pepper, and olive oil for the majority of the afternoon. When the lentils and cous cous were finished cooking, I just poured the vinaigrette over the whole thing.

Zora served something like this recently with chopped chard also... that is where I got the idea. A great way to have a starch with zest.

When I thought people's palates were broken, (and they practically were-- the eating had definitely ground to a screeching, grinding halt,) I suggested that we skip the Fried Haloumi with Spiced Dates course. HA! There was nearly rioting at the front table! SO, off I went -- Karl had made the spiced dates earlier that day (thank Christ) with cumin, coriander, cardamom, brown sugar and lemon... all I had to do was fry a little haloumi which was relatively painless.

I cut the haloumi into strips (tiny ones, so as not to completely annihilate my dinner guests' digestive systems) and placed it in a hot, nonstick frying pan. The oil in the cheese acts as the fat to "fry" in, so no oil was needed. When they got brown and crisp on the outside and melty inside, they were plated with spiced dates and served.

Another genius use of fried cheese!

To round it all off there was a Fresh Ricotta Lemon Tart with Lemon Cream from another chef whose work I adore, Suzanne Goin.

Fresh Ricotta mixed with lemon zest, almond extract, vanilla, and eggs spread onto puff pastry and baked. Lemon curd and lemon cream topped it and we served it up with some home made jams we had been given recently (thank you Katie and Bodicker!!).

All in all, it was an excellent learning experience, humbling and a ridiculously delicious gut buster. And, thank God, I didn't have to go through the entire meal without pork. (Chorizo to the rescue!!)

Oh, and have I mentioned you should run out and buy Ana Sortun's "Spice?..."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Edna Lewis!

Happy Birthday Dear Edna...

I know it has all been said before, but I am eternally grateful to the woman who wrote the recipe (among many others) called Baked Tomatoes.

Butter a casserole pan, line it with stale bread, dot butter on that, pour stewed tomatoes over that, sprinkle a couple of pinches each of sugar and salt, layer on more bread, dot the new layer with butter, some more tomatoes, give the whole thing a generous helping of freshly ground black pepper, and park it in a 375 degree oven for about 35 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Your friends will kiss you, and I mean that literally.

There is great beauty in simplicity. Praise God for Miss Edna.