Sunday, May 29, 2011

Appetizers for Dinner: Better Living Through Small Bites

I'm a great date, really. Take me out to a restaurant, any restaurant, and I'll regale you with sparkling, witty conversation, periodically punctuated with thoughtful, good-listener pauses. I know how to use a napkin, and I'm reasonably confident which fork is which. Really. I'm a great date.

What I am also, though, is a terrible orderer. I linger over menus, frozen with indecision, as unsure over which entree to select as though it were a life-and-death decision. Too small in stature for most multi-course meals (the phrase I often heard in childhood was 'eyes bigger than your stomach,' which sadly couldn't be more true. Huge eyes, teeny stomach. Unless you've got six hours to spend with me, the nine-course tasting menu is out), the choice does become kind of crucial. It can make or break an evening! Most often I end up liking what's on my plate, but loving whatever it is that my husband's ordered, and thus spending most of the night conducting sneaky, behind-enemy-lines raids on his plate with a dive-bombing fork. Which is fine until your dining partner finally catches on and begins defending himself with his steak knife, as mine will inevitably do.

The better option is to go for what I really want, which is many, many tiny bites of a variety of good things. You know. The tapas bar, the dim sum joint, even the humble office potluck--I love them all. I could, and have in fact been known to, make an entire meal out of appetizers when dining out. At home when we can't think of anything inventive to throw on the dinner table (which happens with disturbing frequency considering we're a foodie household, but hey, we're also employed full time.......and, y'know, human), we turn to two meals we call 'Bruschetta' (stuff on garlic-rubbed toasts) and 'Veggie Tapas' (sometimes this actually includes meats, but more often it's things like crispy paprika chickpeas, chilled cucumber salad, whole steamed artichokes, or Mike's Turkish roasted peppers with garlic yogurt dipping sauce). But occasionally, we raise the bar on 'Appetizer Evenings' to include some more ambitious small bites. Here's a roundup of some recent standouts.

All-phyllo extravaganza: Crispy 'Cigars' of Spinach & Feta, Caramelized Onions & Feta, and Black Forest Ham-Wrapped Asparagus Spears. Also, Phyllo 'Purses' of Mushroom Duxelles with Drunken Goat Cheese.

Crispy 'Cigars' of Spinach & Feta

Phyllo sheets
olive oil
2 cups of baby spinach, chopped
1/2 cup feta
1 tsp. minced garlic

Thaw phyllo according to package instructions. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make filling: saute spinach in a small amount of olive oil until spinach is soft and most of the moisture has evaporated. Add minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice, saute for 30 seconds, then remove pan from heat. Add feta, stir until throughly mixed. Set aside to cool.

Cut sheets of phyllo into 1/4 sheets. Take 1/4 sheet and brush one side with olive oil. Place about a tablespoon of cooled filling at one end, squoosh with fingers into a long line of filling. Roll phyllo sheet into cigar shape, brush outside with olive oil, place on baking sheet. Repeat until filling is gone. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until outside is golden brown and crispy. Makes about 8 'cigars.'

Crispy 'Cigars' of Black Forest Ham-Wrapped Asparagus Spears

Phyllo sheets
olive oil
8 asparagus spears
4 slices of Black Forest (or other) ham

Follow instructions above regarding thawing & preheating. Wash & trim asparagus spears, then saute in a small amount of olive oil until about halfway cooked (this gives wonderful flavor but helps to eliminate overcooking), they should still be very crunchy but slightly browned on the outside. Let cool.

Cut sheets of phyllo into 1/4 sheets. Take 1/4 sheet and brush one side with olive oil. Cut slices of thin, deli-sliced Black Forest ham (prosciutto would also be good here, you know, if you're fancy) in half. Roll one asparagus spear in one half-slice of ham, then place on phyllo sheet and roll into cigar shape, brush outside with olive oil, place on baking sheet. Repeat until filling is gone. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until outside is golden brown and crispy. Makes 8 'cigars.'

Phyllo 'Purses' of Mushroom Duxelles with Drunken Goat Cheese

Phyllo sheets
olive oil
1 cup finely diced mushrooms (plain white button or crimini mushrooms work well)
3 T. grated cheese (I had a leftover chunk of my favorite 'Drunken Goat' cheese, so that's what I used. Heaven.)
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, chopped a little
1 tsp. cornstarch, mixed with 1 tsp. water
2 chives or scallion greens, for presentation (not necessary, but cute)

Follow instructions above regarding thawing & preheating. Saute in butter until soft and lightly browned. Add cornstarch mixture, continue cooking & stirring for about 60 seconds longer, then remove from heat. Add fresh thyme & grated goat cheese, stir to mix throughly. Let cool.

Cut sheets of phyllo into 1/4 sheets. Take 3 of the 1/4 sheets and layer evenly, brushing one side with olive oil in between layers. Divide filling in half, shape into a ball, and place in the middle of phyllo stack. Bring edges up around filling and twist slightly to form 'purse' shape. Brush outside all over lightly with olive oil. Repeat with other half of filling. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until outside is golden brown and crispy. Let the outside cool slightly, then loosely tie chives or scallion greens in a single knot. Makes 2 'purses.'

Coconut Shrimp 'Lollipops' with Dipping Sauce

1 lb. shrimp (you should have about 20)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
fresh ground pepper
pinch of flour (about 1 T.)
2 eggs, beaten
1 T. soy sauce
Sriracha sauce
1 T. honey
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
vegetable oil
bamboo skewers (one per shrimp)

Peel & devein shrimp if necessary, set aside in large bowl. Mix together salt, sugar, pepper and flour, then sprinkle over shrimp and toss to coat evenly. Mix together beaten eggs, soy sauce, honey, and sriracha (to your preferred level of spiciness--this is highly personal. I used about 1/2 tsp.). Curl each shrimp into a tight 'C' shape, then insert skewer through to form 'lollipops.' Dip each skewered shrimp in egg mixture, then in shredded coconut, pressing on coconut with your fingers or a fork to make sure it sticks.

Heat about 2" of oil in a deep skillet over medium high heat. Once oil is hot enough (test with shreds of coconut) place lollipops in oil (skewers will rest on the side of the pan. Be very careful of these if you're cooking over open flame! I use an electric burner stove), a few at a time. Cook until golden brown on either side, flipping once during cooking. Allow to drain on paper towels as you cook the rest in batches. Lollipops can be kept warm in a low oven if necessary, but are at their crispy-outside, tender-inside best when eaten immediately after cooking. Make & serve immediately if you can!

Serve with dipping sauce of choice--something sweet & sticky is preferable. Storebought Asian sweet chili sauce is perfect for this; plum sauce, hoisin, or apricot jam with a glug of sriracha mixed in would also be splendid. Sauce pictured above is a homemade concoction of soy sauce, honey & spicy mustard which was also amazing but for which I took no recipe notes whatsoever. Experiment away!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Photo Blog Challenge: What's in YOUR Fridge?

What's in a Foodie's Fridge?

1. Eggs. Staple.

2. Fresh blackberries. My favorite, and they were on sale this week!

3. Leftover roulade of chicken breast with morel mushroom stuffing (hard to see in the glare of the fridge light, not much to look at anyway, but it's a knockout, flavor-wise)

4. 2 leftover egg yolks in an airtight container. I needed 2 egg whites recently, and couldn't bear to lose these. Suggestions?

5. Plain yogurt. Staple.

6. Half-used red onion. We always seem to have one of these going. I don't think there's much that either of us cooks that doesn't involve a lot of onion, which is one of many reasons I keep a toothbrush at work and brush after every lunch. My coworkers are no doubt grateful.

7. Sun-dried tomatoes. We are fancy.

8.Parmigiano-reggiano, the indisputed king of all cheeses.


10. Ever-present salad greens, this time it's arugula and baby spinach.

11. Mayo. Staple.

12. Forgotten container of crudités from last week's lunches. Whoops. Those may be past their prime.

13. Pitcher of filtered water, also ever-present. You do NOT want to drink the tap water of our fair city, it will make you grow a dorsal fin and sprout a third eyeball. True facts.

14. Neglected bottle of cola from my birthday party (three weeks ago!), which has languished because neither of us really drinks soda, but survived because I keep thinking that (even flat) I can use it as a marinade ingredient or something? Suggestions?

15. Various juices (apple, cran-raspberry).

16. Soy sauce. Staple.

17. Arizona Gunslinger, a local product and my #2 favorite hot sauce in the world. It's fiery, but less vinegary than Tabasco, and with delicious, almost smoky undertones. You can order it online. Let it rock your world.

18. Pickles, without which my husband could not survive (sort of like myself and coffee).

19. Backup bottle of soy sauce (I am serious about that 'Staple' thing).

20. Homemade strawberry-blackberry jam, made by my sweet friend and fellow blogger, the Splendidly Imperfect Miss M.! Her jam-making skills are legend. :)

21. Finally, my #1 favorite hot sauce for everything from dim sum to schnitzel......Sriracha! We're never without it.

All right, now quick, join me! Grab your camera. Open the fridge. Don't stop to arrange things prettily or wipe that sticky shelf clean, don't wait until you've stocked up on 'interesting' foodie-street-cred items like quail's eggs or reindeer testicles, don't move that shameful package of Kraft Singles an inch. Just snap a photo and show us what you've got. It's an interesting window into the daily lives of eaters, and inquiring minds really do want to know. Ready, set.......go!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cooking on the Ice Planet Hoth with Darth Vader & the Gang: The French Laundry's Roulade of Duck with Creamed Sweet Corn and Morel Mushroom Sauce

My husband walked in right as I, kneeling subserviently on the floor, was bowing to touch my forehead reverently to the cover of the book.

'What is thy bidding, my master?' I rasped.

'What the hell are you doing?' he asked, his head tilted slightly. 'Is it yoga?'

'Ssshhhhhhhh,' I hissed in a tiny voice, swatting him away. 'Get out of here!' I resumed my forehead-bowing.

'He will join us or die, my master,' I solemnly intoned.

My name is Laurel Morley, and I do the bidding of Thomas Keller. That's famed American chef, restaurateur, multiple James Beard Award winner, and perhaps most importantly, cookbook writer Thomas Keller. And the book that I was so lovingly touching my forehead to? The French Laundry Cookbook. Chef Keller is undoubtedly the evil Emperor to my humble Darth Vader, and if he commands me to do it, it will be done. Make a delicate ice cream out of red beets? Pair beef cheeks with veal tongue? Reduce fresh herbs to an oily essence and vegetables to a fine powder? Poach a roulade of Savoy cabbage-wrapped duck breast, slice, and perch it on a bed of fresh creamed corn, topped with sautéed morels? As my man Vader would say, 'All too easy.'

This recipe begins with one of my favorite bright green, ruffly vegetables. A few individual leaves are lightly blanched to heighten their color and pliability, then chilled.

The next step involves trimming your duck breast (whole, boneless, about 12 oz.) into a neat and perfect rectangle, if you're Chef Keller, or into something approximating a trapezoid and involving some jigsaw-puzzling together, if you're me. Oh well. It's all going to roll together in the end, right?

Arrange the, perfect rectangle on the blanched cabbage leaves, which are resting on a large piece of plastic wrap. Roll up the duck in the leaves, then roll up the whole package in the plastic, twisting the ends tightly to secure. You then place this in the refrigerator while moving on to the next crucial step, pouring yourself a glass of wine and congratulating yourself on having wrapped expensive meat in delicate, damp leaves without tearing anything. Then you prepare the creamed corn.

'Creamed corn' is something that I have to stop right here and admit that I'd never so much as even tried in my lifetime. Don't get me wrong, I love corn in all its forms and preparations, but there's something about the phrase 'creamed corn' that screamed 'junior high cafeteria lunch in the 1950s' to me, something that would occupy a spot on the plate next to creamed chipped beef on toast, sloppy joes, or Jell-o fruit salad. Something dairy-laden, pasty and stodgy that I'd never eat, much less enjoy. And then the hologram of Chef Keller flickered to life before my very eyes.

'Soon you will see the power of my creamed corn,' he croaked from beneath his hood. 'My creamed corn is fresh and delicate, flavored only with butter, salt, pepper, and the simple starchy sweetness of corn itself. There isn't even a drop of cream in it. You will love this creamed corn. Search your feelings, you know it to be true....'

'Yes, my lord,' I mumbled, while getting out the food processor. The thing is, though,, Chef Keller was one hundred percent right. This isn't your mama's 1950s creamed cafeteria corn, it's a light, yet somehow buttery, kind of a corn porridge, even when made with frozen corn (as mine was, since fresh corn wasn't yet in season a few weeks ago).

You take most of the corn and whizz it in the blender until pulpy (reserving the rest to be blanched then added back into the mix later to provide some much-needed textural contrast and chew), then pass it through a sieve to extract what Keller calls 'corn juice.' This substance is then heated gently and whisked until it thickens (because it's full of corn starch, get it? It's science!), then butter, salt & pepper, and the remaining corn kernels are added to the mixture, which has miraculously become a rich, silken thing, full of sweetness and deep corn flavor. It's the humblest-sounding part of the entire dish, what with those luscious (duck) breasts and sexy, earthy morels competing for your attention, but I honestly have to say it might have been my favorite part. It binds everything together perfectly, although I could have eaten a bowl of it just on its own. Certainly we'll be making it again, to accompany just about anything.

After it has refrigerated for awhile, slide your duck roulade into a nice warm bath of 190-degree water and poach for around 8 minutes. While this is cooking, chop and sauté some morels* in butter. At this point, the recipe calls for you to add some finely minced parsley and vegetables, and a dash of the French Laundry's 'Quick' Duck Sauce. 'Quick.' Ha. I improvised**. We had half a box of chicken stock kicking around in the fridge, and some cubes of frozen demiglace in the freezer (which my husband, who is a superhuman hyper-foodie, makes on a regular basis, thank goodness), which I combined and reduced over heat and which tasted amazing in the end, duck sauce or no duck sauce.

* Second confession of the entry here, I did not use the fresh morels called for in the recipe, although I'm sure they would have been delicious. Why, you ask? Because instead of living in lush, cool Northern California, I live in the middle of the desert, and fresh morels are something we just cannot do. I used rehydrated dried morels, and they were wonderful, just don't tell Chef Keller.

** Aaaaannnd, now for my third shameful confession, I did not use the French Laundry's 'Quick' Duck Sauce, or any kind of duck sauce, for that matter. Why, you ask? Because as much as I love and live to serve him, Chef Keller sometimes speaks a language of his own making in which words have their opposite meaning. 'Quick' duck sauce, translates roughly into 'Start with your recipe on p. 172, find out you need duck sauce (turn to p. 228) which is neither quick nor simple and requires you to have procured duck bones (although the meat called for in the recipe is a boneless breast, and so that's what you bought, dammit) and made, far ahead of time, a reduced stock-based sauce (the stock for which, by the way, is veal stock (turn to p. 222), and which he also expects you to have made even further in advance somehow).' In fact, a lot of the recipes in the French Laundry cookbook read like those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books I remember from when I was a kid, the ones that had you constantly turning to some new page further and further along in the book, chasing the labyrinthine plot down deeper and deeper rabbit holes. Anyway, this is getting to be a hellishly long footnote and, what am I, David Foster Wallace?? The point is, it's a bit hard to cook this way. Even for a Jedi.

To assemble, remove poached roulade from its plastic wrapping and slice, using a very sharp knife or light saber. Place a spoonful of leftover duck sauce (or demiglace reduction) in the center of the plate, then place a large spoonful of creamed corn on top of this. Nestle a slice of duck roulade in the center of this, then top with sautéed morel sauce.

Gaze upon it in wonder.

As the flickering image of a hooded, sinister Thomas Keller would agree, 'It is your destiny.'