Adventures in the Kitchen Around the Holidays

So, this past week has very busy, indeed.  It all started with a gourmet Xmas party with our gourmet club. Our friend, Jo, puts together a schedule and we abide by it.  The schedule lists each host couple and three other couples that the host invites for the party.  Further, the format is designed so that the host couple prepares the main dish and the other couples volunteer to bring whatever the host needs.  Usually this translates into appetizers, veggie and/or salad, dessert. The framework is extremely flexible.  All rules may be broken…however, the aren’t usually. As a matter of history, this group has been doing this for several years.  And we’ve had some great parties.

I digress.  Okay, so we had the party to schedule.  It went something like this:  I emailed all the couples and we settled on a date.  Then about 4 or 5 days before the party, one of the couples cancelled.  Had to go south for some medical tests. So, I called a substitute (the group has a sub list of one).  They agreed to come.  Then a few days later, the second couple cancelled because her stepdad had died.  So, I invited one of the regulars off the list.  The a day later, the third original couple called with regrets because a relative was going to be in town that day.  EEEEEEEKKKKK.

In our years of doing this, this has never happened. Okay. Life happens.  Roll with the punches.  So, I invited another regular couple from the dinner group.  Then on the day before the party, I was returning from yoga and called home only to talk with Ray (my husband) and found out the subs cancelled because he had a cold!  Holy moley.  At this point,it was hilarious.

Now, you probably wonder why I didn’t cancel.  Well, first, I like a good party.  And secondly, I had already bought the standing rib roast of pork and had it “curing” in the frig.  So, I called around and couldn’t find anyone so I called a couple from my other gourmet group and they agreed to come.  Since it was so late (the night before), I didn’t ask them to bring anything but wine and I made the dessert, which turned out to be a fabulous apple galette.  However, I’m getting ahead of myself…again.

So, the party was held and it was a fabulous one according to the participants.  Here’s the menu: Butternut squash soup with creme freiche and fried onions, salad of winter greens, standing rib roast of pork, braised fennel, and apple galette. Yummy.

Okay, so one of the things I struggle with is remembering where I get recipes. In this case, and one reason I decided to journal my escapades is to record the origins of the things I cooked.  So, I gleamed the rib roast recipe from Zuni Cafe cookbook by Judy Rodgers. This is a cookbook every serious cook should have in their library.  It is fabulous.  In this case she instructed me to buy the roast way ahead and salt it (1 tsp. per pound of meat).  Then rub it with garlic and fennel and coriander.  It was the best pork roast I have ever cooked.  Hands down.

The braised fennel was just okay so I’m not recording it because it’s not a keeper.

The apple galette, I’ve done before.  It is delicious and easy to make.  Jacques Pepin, from his cookbook Everyday Cooking.

Only mistake I made was warming the bread and forgetting to serve it.  Oh, well.

The next great adventure was a dessert I made to take to a dinner, not a sanctioned gourmet group dinner, just a few friends getting together.  As luck would have it, the L.A. Times did an article about a French dessert that looked fabulous.  It was called a Croustade with apples and prunes in Armagnac.  It appeared in the Dec. 12 food section.  So, I made it.  What a hoot.  As experienced as I am in the kitchen, I have had limited exposure to filo.  The recipe calls for filo.  You buy it in the frozen food section of your market.  The recipe specified the size which I could not find but I did find something slightly smaller.  Also, the recipe did not mention the dough should be thawed!!!  All this with an additional complication of time made for a frantic frenzy in the kitchen.  You see, we were invited to an open house the same day of the dinner party.  So, my plan was to prepare the apples and prunes in advance, go to the open house, and return home to compose the dessert and bake it.  Which I did.  Except the dough was frozen and when I tried to use it, it shattered into pieces.  In a complete panic, I read the side panel of the filo package and deduced that it should have been thawed.  So I nuked it for a few seconds and then proceeded.  My creation was an ugly duckling (compared to the picture in the L.A. Times) but man, was it delicious.  An overall success and another definite keeper.

So, tonight we go to a wine tasting groups’ annual Xmas party.  I was given salad as an assignment.  So, I’m going to bring a warm cabbage salad with chestnuts.  I’ll report back on the results.

The results were great.  The salad was a hit.  The recipe came from Alice Waters Vegetables cookbook.  It was red cabbage with chestnuts.  Simple  Elegant.  Easy to cook.  Easy to transport if you have a bowl that fits inside a carrier that can accommodate a space age device that you put in the microwave to warm up.  Sounds complex but these contraptions are on the market.  I think my was made by Pyrex.  Very handy to have if you attend parties away from home.  Now, I must admit that I didn’tthink the dish was good.  However, it sparkled with the barbecued turkey.  It is amazing how important it is to pair things appropriately.

Which leads me to my next thought.  Last night we cooked with friends.  Beet and tangerine salad, rack of lamb, roasted raddiccho, flageolet gratin (French green kidney beans),  and a gateau cake with cream and prunes.  All these recipes reside in the cookbook, Lacques by Suzanne Goin.  The dishes were so right together.  And sharing the cooking made this ambitious menu doable.  The bean gratin was the hit of the party.  I way over bought on the meat.  Most only had three small chops.  A criticism of this book is that it is written for 6 diners.  My experience is that it could feed 10-12.  The portions are enormous.

To digress, we had Christmas eve dinner and went back to my tride and true  recipe of spicy baked crab ala Alice Waters.  paper/plastic crab bibs were provided, the table was set with newspaper and all was great.  Oh, except for my bagettes.  I made them from scratch using an old recipe and they just didn’t cut the mustard.  I let them rise  3 times and followed the directions…but to no avail.  Guess I’ll have to try them again. They were rising too fast so I put the dough in the refrigeration for a couple of hours.  Perhaps that caused the problem. Oh,well.  Oh, and did a new cake…a brown butter hazelnut cake with sauteed pears.  Yummy.  From Suzanne Goin again.  My only criticism of the meal is that it had too much butter.  Way too rich for me.  Each part was great but the cummulative effect was…just too much of a good thing.

Well, we’re well on our way in 2008.  It’s January 9th and I’m almost fully recovered from a nasty cold that attacked my nasal passages and throat.  Ugh.  Couldn’t taste much which is fate worse than death for a foodie such as myself.

Anyway,  I did cook a shrimp dish off the back cover of the latest Fine Cooking magazine.  Ray reports that he was good.  How would I know?  with a taster on the fritz.

So, I have a rack of lamb which I salted last evening waiting for the marinate that I intend to use on it today.  Then we’ll barbecue it tonite if the weather holds.  It’s sunny at the moment but clouds are appearing over the hills south east of us.  The lamb recipe is from John Ash’s book, Cooking One on One.  I made a rub for the meat and will apply it this a.m.  Should be yummy.  I intend to serve it with broccoli and some steamed red potatoes.

Now I’m also busy planning the next dinner party.  I’ve decided on paella.  I’m still developing the menu.  That is something that is very important.  It takes hours of planning to pull together a good menu.  And this is also what I struggle with…what goes with what.  For instance, broccoli may not be the best veggie to serve, however, I bought some good looking stuff at farmer’s market and I need to use it.  So.  I will.

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