My Gnocchi Does Not Suck!

For my Top Chef meal, I had one goal in mind: gnocchi.  I’ve tried to many times before.  Potato ricotta gnocchi.  Goat cheese gnocchi.  Beet gnocchi.  Each time it hasn’t quite worked.  Too mealy.  Too goopy.  Too mushy.  Too firm.  So this time I decided to go back to an old issue of Cook’s Illustrated and put their “no fail” gnocchi to the test.

salad

I started off the meal with a light winter citrus salad with arugula.  Although my knife skills didn’t produce perfect skinless slices of the blood orange, the mixture of the tart vinaigrette with the sweetness of the almonds and the spicy arugula hit a lot of notes for such a light simple salad.

Gnocchi time!  With as much direction-following focus I could muster I succeeded in making gnocchi that did not suck!  Victory!!!!!  I’m not saying it was melt in your mouth perfect texture.  Each dumpling did not have a perfect sear.  But it was not mealy, goopy, mushy, or firm.  They were actually pretty good.  Once again Cook’s Illustrated came through.  I paired the gnocchi with a mushroom broth, roasted shiitakes, and Parmesan. It was a satisfying and hearty bowl of winter comfort.
photo2

To end the meal, I decided to go all Minnesota-Christmas-spirit and make some desert bars.  I followed a recipe in Bon Appetit this time and made chocolate bars topped with either spiced nuts or sea salt popcorn.  Served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.  I have to admit, these were the first bars I’d ever made that did not involve Rice Crispies or Corn Flakes and marshmallows.  Owen shivers in disgust every time he sees me devour those neon green Christmas wreath cookies, but I have to indulge my low-brow Minnesota roots upon occasion.

photo3I was so pleased with my first successful gnocchi that I did a mental happy-dance at the end of the meal.  Had I indulged in a little more wine, I’m sure there would have been a physical manifestation of my “My Gnocchi Does Not Suck” interpretive dance.  Maybe next week…?…

The Case of the Disappearing Squash Tart

I wasn’t having any great brainstorms about what to cook for my top chef night last week. Then the October Bon Appetit came to the rescue and supplied my entire menu! I still have several butternut squash from the garden, so as soon as I saw the butternut squash tart recipe, I knew that would be the starter. I happened to have some homemade puff pastry dough in the freezer, so it was pretty easy to put together, and quite pretty, with overlapping thin circles of squash, topped with fried sage and parmesan. The honey with hot pepper drizzle over the top at the end was the perfect touch. Sadly, our guests didn’t have too much of a chance to enjoy it, as my husband (coming home a little worse for wear after a football game and bout of karaoke)  proceeded to gobble down half the tart before the rest of us had a chance to take a breath. It was truly a case of impressive speed eating. Luckily, he proceeded to the living room floor to take a nap after those exertions, so the rest of the dinner proceeded without too much incident.

It’s good that the starter came together so easily because the main course, a roasted vegetable shepherd’s pie, drove me a bit crazy. I thought it was going to be simple. Fast forward to three hours later just for the sauce, and I realized my mistake. Thanks to Owen’s help wrangling with the potatoes and ricer, eventually everything did get put together and in the oven. I guess that the three hours paid off because the sauce was really fantastic -it called for caramelizing tomato paste with sauteed onions, two separate reductions, and had a wonderful umami flavor from reconstituted black trumpet and porcini mushrooms. Another discovery in the course of the dinner was that neither Owen nor I care much for turnips. Luckily there were enough other vegetables that I could concentrate on different flavors.

Prior to the pie, we had a very rustic salad of large chunks of roasted onion and peppers with blue cheese over frisee. The overall consensus was that the vinaigrette – which was just the cooking juices with some vinegar, needed some refining.

For dessert, there were apple croustades with brown sugar bourbon ice cream. This is – hands down – the best ice cream I’ve ever made. As a decided plus, it also behaved beautifully. It is definitely a base recipe worth returning to for other flavors – but this one was pretty darn good!

In attendance:

Alayne – top chef

Catherine

Owen

Pax (asleep)

Peter (mostly asleep)

Confessions of a Top Chef Stress Monkey

Typically when I cook for Top Chef I try and prepare as much as I can in the day (or two) before I cook.  The fact that I’m not able to get my serious cooking pants on until the baby is in bed, limits my ability to cook things up 100% on any one night.  But last week I thought I’d have all day Saturday to prep my meal, so I didn’t worry about doing much on Friday.  I’m not sure where I went wrong, but I found myself starting cooking at 7.45pm without a single dish even remotely complete.  Eeek!

Although I did finish the starter of a roasted tomatillo salsa and chips relatively early in the cooking frenzy, I was warry to put them on the table right away as I knew it could be an hour or two before the next course would be ready.  I feared that as soon as the roasted sweet and salty goodness hit the table, people would just keeping eating it non-stop until more food came out.  I was wise.  It was delicious.  It was like crack on the dinner table.  (We aren’t sure exactly why it turned out pink.  Maybe because of the habanero?)

The next course was a roasted red pepper soup with Parmesan twirls.  I love the technique of baking shredded Parmesan and then cutting, forming, and hardening it into shapes.  In this case it made a toasted savory garnish to a very sweet and spicy soup.

After I took a 30 second break to eat my soup, I jumped back up to start working desperately on a butternut squash and kale lasagna recipe that I got from Bon Appetit.  I subbed kale for the broccoli rabe in the recipe as kale and Swiss chard are the only things still alive in my garden right now.  The lasagna was savory, sweet, cheesy goodness.  Despite the fact that some of the cheese was ricotta (I’ve been scarred by too many lunchroom ricotta lasagna’s of my youth), the mozzarella and the Parmesan save it from tasting anything remotely like Jr. High.

After I devoured the lasagna, I took a breath and then charged back into the kitchen for my final course: a skillet apple crisp recipe from America’s Test Kitchen.  Luckily at this point Alayne stepped in to help as I was already running on empty to get the first three dishes on the table. ( Just for the record, everyone else had offered to help earlier and I had foolishly refused.)  I didn’t realize how overworked I was until my body unwillingly collapsed in child’s pose midway through an apple pealing.  Thankfully Alayne’s Top Chef tag-team skills were the shot of adrenaline to the heart that I needed to get the job done.  The crisp was crispy and apple-y and yuuuummmyyy.  And it tasted even better knowing that I was done cooking and could finally exhale.

As it was all said and done, my dinner wasn’t actually that delayed by Top Chef standards.  I believe the desert hit the table before 11pm.   Which means my service speed was probably pretty average for our dinners.  So why was I such a crazy stress-monkey about the whole thing?  Because I am a crazy stress monkey.  That’s why.

In Attendance:

Cat (aka Stress Monkey Extraordinaire)

Owen

Pax (sleepy boy, who LOVED the apple crisp the next day)

Alayne

Peter (photographer)

Jim (brother to Peter and Top Chef Night virgin)

Chard and Tomatoes and Zucchini, Oh My!

Everything I’ve cooked lately has involved an item from the garden bounty of zucchini, swiss chard or tomatoes – or some Imagecombination of all three at once! So, of course, Top Chef was going to be no different. Peter and I were relaxing on a Saturday morning a couple weeks ago in front of the cooking shows on tpt (Jacques Pepin and Lydia Bastianich are the favs, probably with a shout out to Rick Bayless), and we watched Lydia make an amazing homemade pasta with a ton of zucchini. I’ve had it in the back of my mind for this menu since then. I was also thinking a lot lately of an amazing stuffed squid dish we ate last summer in Greece, and at the same time, I remember some great combinations of squid and swiss chard from Croatia. Thusly…A dish was born with a sauteed onion, swiss chard, tomato, feta and herb filling. For the vegetarian in our midst, I hollowed out some small zucchini, baked and stuffed them, and then finished it off on the grill.

ImageNow I just needed a starter and dessert. I’ve been doing a lot of combinations of roasted tomatoes for sauces and pastas, so I devised a bruschetta with the wonderful goat cheese from Grassroots Gourmet, topped with roasted cherry tomatoes, serrano peppers, garlic and thyme. Pretty tasty. For dessert I found a recipe to use all the lovely plums I’ve been seeing in the market – a rustic plum tart. There were a few roadblocks on the way to dinner, starting with an error at the grocery store – I ended up with a white whole wheat flour, instead of an unbleached white flour, so it added a definite heartiness to the pasta and the tart crust. Not bad, actually kind of a nutty flavor, but it threw Imageme a little. As did the terrible traffic and the amount of time it took me to go shopping at four different places, so I started much later than I wanted. I think it was well after 8 pm by the time I got the first dish out, and then had some issues with sticky sheets of pasta and had to re-roll nearly all of it. Lydia’s trick if you don’t have a chitarra (a cool pasta cutting tool) is to slice it by hand and then unfurl the sheets on the back of knife. Needless to say, it went much more quickly when she did it! The zucchini pasta was finished with tempered egg and cheese, and was really good, albeit heavy. The thick cut noodles meant that the leftovers actually held their shape the next day when I heated it up, so that was nice.

Owen kindly started the grill way back when I was on schedule (hah!) so by the time I finally got the squid on, they didn’t get as much of a char as I wanted, but they still tasted good – especially after the addition of some lemon (which I had completely forgotten – thanks Owen!). We were all completely stuffed by then, but still had the plum tart to go! Luckily those of us with a separate dessert stomach were okay.

In attendance:

Alayne (top chef)

Peter

Cat

Owen

Mr. Pax

Creamy, Cheesy Summer

We’re back!  After a hiatus to accommodate Alayne’s and my crazy rehearsal/ performance schedule*, we were finally able to get together for an informal happy birthday Owen and Alayne Top Chef Night.  Knowing that I’d have to do the majority of the cooking after 7.30pm (Pax’s bedtime), I kept myself to a modest three-course menu of summer fare.  

ImageThe meal opened with a salad mostly of my own invention: butter lettuce, pear, and blue cheese with a ginger balsamic dressing and ginger “chips”.  I liked the idea of the flavor combo of the sweet lettuce and pears with the savory of a the blue cheese and the sharpness of the ginger.  The ginger chips were slivers of deep fried ginger that I thought would provide a little crunch to augment the softer textures.  But sadly they lost most of their crunchy texture amidst the think dressing.  I think if’ I’d dressed it first and then sprinkled the chips on top they might have held up a little better.  However the flavors were really fun together and the dressing recipe is a great way to spice up your average balsamic.

Image

I’d just roasted a batch of garden tomatoes and wanted to incorporate those into the main course.  Since I live and die by Chef Colicchio’s roasted tomato recipe (this is Top Chef Night, after all), I used his Think Like A Chef book to inspire a roasted tomato and garlic risotto.  Because I’m no dummy, I added twice the recommended Parmesan cheese and added white wine and roasted zucchini to the recipe.  It tasted like creamy, cheesy summer.

 

ImageFor desert I’d promised Alayne I’d do her a culinary thank-you for all the amazing deserts she’s made for our birthdays and bake up her favorite – strawberry shortcake.  It was one of those situations where I hadn’t actually read the entire recipe before I started and thus was ambushed by several “wait 30 minutes” moments in the directions.  However I managed to get it on the table just before 10:30pm, so going by typical Top Chef Night timing it really wasn’t too egregious.  The Grand Marnier in the strawberries was an added kick to both our palates and our heads.

Overall I think the three dishes complemented each other nicely in that they were very distinct in flavor, but similar in a relaxed, comfort foodie style.  Not bad for three hours of cooking.  🙂

In Attendance:

Cat

Pax

Owen

Alayne

Peter

 

*Come see our show! www.darkstormy.org

Back to the Garden

ImageOkay. This dinner was a while ago, but faint memories of a lovely June evening with friends, flatbread and stuffed peppers remain. We started off with the cocktail of the summer – shout out to Marcella Goff for the idea – the St. Germaine classic cocktail: a delicious concoction of sparkling wine, club soda and St. Germaine liqueur.

I was hoping to have an entirely grilled dinner, and found a terrific wheat flour flatbread recipe in a recent Bon Appetit magazine. The dough handled really well, and the toppings were made ahead of time: a cilantro pepper charmoula and roasted peppers, with an ancho chile oil. (as a side note, we used the leftover dough the next day and it also turned out really well on a cast-iron skillet).

I was searching around for a veggie main and decided to adapt a couple of stuffed pepper recipes. I ended up with a mushroom goat cheese filling in poblanos with a thick red chile sauce. The recipe initially called for Anaheim chiles, but I didn’t see any at the market, so I went with the thinner skinned poblanos. That led to a bit of a frustrating time trying to peel them – not my culinary forte! Peter and Catherine pitched in to help save the sanity of the chef, thankfully. There was some creative toothpick action, and the peppers managed Imageto stay mostly together on their improvised tin foil grill pans. Being able to have the peppers directly on the grill might have added a bit to the flavor, but all in all, things turned out pretty well. There may have been a salad to the side, but I really can’t remember!

My dessert idea was initially going to be on the grill as well, but since we ran out of charcoal and were augmenting with firewood – and since it was getting pretty dark – we headed inside to enjoy roasted rhubarb and strawberries with star anise. They were garnished with either ice cream or frozen yogurt (have to admit a preference for the ice cream, myself!).

In attendance:

Alayne (top chef)
Peter
Cat
Owen
Pax (asleep)

First Garden Dinner of the Summer

My goal for the meal was simple – I wanted to eat outdoors.  Little Pax and I have been very busy getting the garden presentable and this early summer weather has been lulling me with its siren song.

In addition to the heat of the evening, the meal was spiced up by a feisty discussion on the science of mosquitoes: Are they attracted to some people more than others?  If you can resist scratching them does that mean you’re stronger willed, or just less sensitive to the venom?  If you fear the bites more, does your fear alone intensify the physical response?  Food for thought…

Speaking of food!

The first course was a beet salad with greens fresh from the garden, spiced walnuts, blue cheese, and an orange balsamic dressing.  Not too innovative in conception, as I admit it’s a pretty classic flavor combo.  But it’s a classic for a reason.  It’s damn tasty.

The next course was my made-up version of a portobello parmesan.  I marinated mushroom caps with thyme, garlic, balsamic, and oil, grilled them with layers of tomatoes and cheeses, and topped them with fresh basil.  The result was beautiful to look at and oh so pretty to eat.  The savory of the mushrooms and cheeses harmonized well with the sweet of the tomato and basil – creating a deeply satisfying and delicious course.

For desert I prepared grilled peaches marinated in rum and butter, served hot over vanilla ice cream.  Initially I thought I would make my own ice cream, but I actually couldn’t find a recipe that inspired me.  All the ones I looked at seemed further along the french vanilla spectrum than I wanted to travel.  What I wanted was a soft and creamy white vanilla – so I played it safe and called on Ben and Jerry to help me out.

By the end of the evening we did not come to any firm conclusions on on the physics/ metaphysics of mosquitoes.  Perhaps the passion with which we argued our points kept the bugs away, as despite all the controversy the evening was fresh and pleasant with nary a bug to bite us.  Hopefully this is just the beginning of a long summer filled with warm nights, good food, fabulous friends, and no mosquito bites.

In Attendance:

Cat

Pax (asleep – but ever present on the monitor which we discovered works just fine outside)

Owen

Alayne

Peter