As I look back on the past twelve months, I can’t help but wonder what the hell I was thinking. I mean, I crammed an AWFUL lot of action into one year. I got promoted. I ran two half-marathons. I completed two triathlons. I traveled a LOT. My cat was deathly ill, then miraculously recovered. I got married. My husband got laid off and then started his own business. We moved to the suburbs. Whew.
Food wise, it’s also been quite a year…
I started the year in DC, eating my way through the city and making cheap and delicious food with Miss Lemmonex, and then I came home to be interviewed by the AJC. In February, I perfected roasted chicken and granola, and Tom Colicchio redeemed himself to me. In March, I finally wrote about the life-changing experience that was my dinner at The French Laundry, and I made grapefruit cake with Lexa after binging on burgers. April found me turning the tables and interviewing John Kessler, and since my triathlon training was in full swing in May, that month brought some fantastic healthy recipes (in addition to another fascinating interview). June was a wash, but in July I mastered pesto and made some great seafood dishes. In August, I started recapping Top Chef, but my biggest hit was this non-traditional take on tiramisu. September’s highlights included my wedding (duh) and my bachelorette party meal at Tomo. October was a big month: first and most importantly, I challenged myself (and my husband) to eat and drink on $60 for an entire week, and it was an incredibly eye-opening experience that I hope to try again in the coming year. Also in October? I met Kevin Gillespie and discovered the beauty of the perfect pancake. I made bread for the first time in November, and in December, after a really cool interview, comfort food was the name of the game.
I find it cathartic that I will end 2009 where I (sort of) started it – in Washington, DC. Yes, my husband and I leave tomorrow for our belated honeymoon in the nation’s capital, which happens to be where we met. We’re going to see some dear friends, ring in 2010 at a James Bond-themed party, eat and drink at some of our favorite haunts, see some shows and museums, and gear up to start another incredible year together. I hope to have lots of interesting nuggets to share about the DC dining scene when I return!
This will be my last post until early 2010, so I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! As far as resolutions, I only have one – to have as much fun with this blog in 2010 as I did in 2009.
See you next year!
Okay, one more cocktail party recipe before we wrap up 2009 here at TWT…
This dish started out being troublesome. First off, my husband had to drive halfway across the state to find miso paste, despite the fact that we live in an area that has probably the highest Asian population in metro Atlanta (I would have substituted something if I knew what would work – any ideas, as a side note?). Second, while I thought I already had ginger in the house, I realized only AFTER returning from shopping that it was no longer fresh. Grrrr…
I made the orange miso sauce ahead of time and put it in the fridge. However, I basically forgot about this dish until a few hours into the party, until I went into the chill chest to open a new bottle of white wine. I stared at the salmon, torn over whether to present another appetizer or simply save the fish for a weeknight dinner.
“So…what are you going to make with that?” asked one of my guests.
“Eh, I was going to make a sesame salmon dish, but I’m not sure it’s even worth it at this point,” I replied. “It looks like folks are slowing down, and that maybe we don’t need any more food.” She stared at me incredulously, then narrowed her eyes and focused in on me.
“Seriously, what do I have to do to get you to make that fish???”
I laughed out loud – that was all I needed to hear. I quickly prepped and cooked the salmon, and I arranged the skewered pieces on a platter with the sauce. As it turns out, I am incredibly glad that I served this salmon. It was light, tasty, easy to throw together, and a complete and utter hit. I thought the fish was so flavorful on its own that it didn’t even need the sauce, but I was definitely in the minority there – people were grabbing stray bread and crackers just to sop up the nutty, citrusy goodness.
Moms, if you need a way to coax your kids to eat fish, this might just be the ticket.
Whisk first 6 ingredients in medium bowl to blend well. Season orange-miso sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
Line large baking sheet with foil. Place salmon and vegetable oil in large bowl; toss to coat. Sprinkle salmon with salt and pepper. Place sesame seeds on small plate. Coat 1 surface of each salmon piece with sesame seeds. Arrange salmon, sesame-coated side up, in single layer on prepared baking sheet.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Bake salmon uncovered until just cooked through, about 5 minutes; transfer to platter. Skewer each piece with toothpick. Serve warm, passing orange-miso sauce.
While most of my cocktail party prep/cooking went off without a hitch, I did have one pretty major hiccup with an egg roll dish involving phyllo dough. That stuff is HARD to work with, by gosh. I just didn’t leave myself enough time, and phyllo is NOT the kind of ingredient that cooperates in high-stress situations. So, the chorizo-goat cheese-chive filling ended up making some darn fine omelets the following morning, and I resigned myself to master phyllo dough some other day.
Thank goodness refrigerated pie crusts are more friendly and forgiving, as I really wanted to have at least one “filled pastry” kind of dish. These empanadas were relatively straightforward to make (the filling in particular was quite simple, and it definitely made the kitchen smell yummy), and even though they required a little time and concentration to fill and shape, the oohs and ahhhs and “you MADE those?!?!” comments definitely made the extra effort worthwhile. They really were delicious, and everyone had fun guessing what made them just a touch sweet (it’s the cinnamon).
A couple of notes: 1) You have to find your own happy zen place in terms of how thin to roll the pie crusts. You want them to be thick enough to hold in the stuffing, but you don’t want them so thick that the dough overpowers every bite. I think after making one or two, you can easily figure out what works and what doesn’t. 2) If you don’t have cookie cutters, just use the open end of a water glass. 3) Yay, you can put these together ahead of time and then freeze them until you’re ready to bake! Just assemble them, freeze them flat on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and then transfer them to a Ziploc bag once they are firm. When you bake them from frozen, just adjust the time to more like 30-45 minutes.
Heat oven to 375º F. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the beef and cook, breaking it up with a spoon, until no longer pink, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the raisins, ketchup, cinnamon, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Using a 2½-inch round cookie cutter, cut out circles from the piecrusts. Divide the beef mixture among the circles, brush the edges with water, fold in half, and press with a fork to seal. Transfer to a baking sheet and brush with the egg. Bake until golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Put the sour cream in a small bowl and sprinkle with the lime zest. Serve with the empanadas.
Whew, sorry to leave y’all hangin’ there…life kind of got in the way of blogging for a hot minute, but I do want to continue sharing my cocktail party recipes and stories. Here goes!
Since my first couple of cocktail party “courses” consisted of nuts and dips, I wanted to bring something out next that was a bit more complex, both texturally and flavor-wise. These crostini were incredibly easy to prepare, but they had great visual appeal, and their salty-acidic crunch was a refreshing counterpart to the rich and creamy dips.
I am normally wary of fennel, finding its anise flavor a little off-putting (mostly since I don’t care for licorice). However, this slaw was nicely balanced, largely due to the citrusy notes of the lemon and the parsley. It really only took me a few minutes to put this platter together, and the dish did a good job of refreshing everyone’s palates.
Do-ahead note: You can toast the baguette slices in advance and then store them in an airtight container for probably a day or two. Same goes for the slaw, but make sure you refrigerate that. :-)
Heat oven to 375º F. Place the baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Toast until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the fennel, parsley, lemon juice, the remaining tablespoon of oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Divide the prosciutto evenly among the toasted baguette slices and top with the slaw.
If the caramelized onion dip was the shining star of the cocktail party show, then this hummus was the unassuming supporting actor who’s a dark horse to win an Oscar (sorry, it’s the best analogy that came to mind). It had a spicy, smoky kick that was the perfect foil to the sweetness of the onions in the other dish. The bonus? Hummus doesn’t even require any real cooking! Just throw all of the ingredients in a food processor, pulse, and voila.
Don’t skimp on the lemon juice or the cilantro, as the acidic and herby notes are pretty necessary for balance in this dish. The recipe makes a LOT of hummus, but no worries - the leftovers make a great bagel-topper or sandwich spread!
Blend garbanzo beans and next 7 ingredients in processor until smooth. Add pimientos; process, using on/off turns, until pimientos are coarsely chopped. Transfer hummus to medium bowl. Stir in cilantro. Season hummus to taste with salt and pepper. Accompany with bagel chips.
After the spiced almonds, I put out a couple of dips in order to pacify the crowd while cocktails were poured and guests filtered in. This one was by far the most successful dish of the night, which is shocking considering how easy it is. In order to save time, I caramelized the onions earlier in the day (adding a couple of tablespoons of butter to the pan), and then I refrigerated them and reheated them quickly when I was ready to serve the dip.
The thyme gives this dish a lovely “something extra,” and the Tabasco and Worcestershire serve to counteract the sweetness of the onions. You could certainly use full-fat dairy products if you have an aversion to anything “light,” but I assure you that the dip was wonderfully rich and creamy, even though the recipe came from Cooking Light magazine. I served it with slices of crusty French bread, and it was the first bowl to empty (and pretty quickly at that – thus the lack of a photo). I highly recommend this dish for your next get-together. And if you’re somehow lucky enough to have leftovers, it would be great as a bagel spread or sandwich dressing!
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, swirling to coat pan. Add chopped onion and thyme to pan; sauté 10 minutes or until golden brown. Reduce heat to low; cook 20 minutes or until onions are deep golden brown, stirring occasionally. Remove onion mixture from heat. Add sour cream and the remaining ingredients, stirring until blended and cheese melts.
While I consider myself a pretty talented home cook, I’m definitely not Speedy Gonzales in the kitchen. I’m also not always the greatest time manager, though I’m improving my ability to simultaneously manage multiple components. That said, in preparation for last weekend’s cocktail party, I wanted to make sure the guests had SOMETHING to nibble on in the event that other dishes weren’t quite ready (or that I would be doing last-minute primping, which actually happened).
Enter these spiced nuts, from Cooking Light magazine. These almonds were super impressive (no one believed that they were homemade) and super easy. Other than a little stirring during baking (to keep them from sticking together and forming clumps), I was largely able to ignore this dish and work on the more labor-intensive items on my menu. The flavors were great, with just the right mix of sweet and salt and spice. Don’t be concerned by the seemingly large amount of sugar in the recipe – the strength of the spices (particularly the cumin) is more than enough to break through and give your mouth a little “Hey, how ya doin’?”
Preheat oven to 300°.
Combine 1 tablespoon water and egg white in a large bowl; stir with a whisk until foamy. Add almonds; toss well to coat. Place almonds in a colander, and drain 5 minutes.
Combine almonds, sugar, and next 5 ingredients (through chili powder) in a large bowl; toss to coat. Spread almond mixture in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 300° for 15 minutes. Stir almond mixture; reduce oven temperature to 275°. Bake an additional 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Remove from oven; cool 5 minutes. Break apart any clusters. Cool completely.
When we lived in the condo in Atlanta, we found entertaining to be very challenging, as we had neither the kitchen space nor the square footage to accomodate more than about 4-6 people. We were able to host a couple of intimate dinners, but we never had a true party. So, once we were settled in our bigger Lawrenceville digs, we decided to host a little holiday gathering. Rather than doing a sit-down dinner, I opted to serve heavy appetizers and have guests bring whatever desserts and beverages they preferred.
Of course, a hostess at my very core, I had to provide SOME sort of tasty concoction for folks to sip as they mingled. Luckily, inspiration came from the December issue of Cooking Light, which featured cocktails that both tasted good AND provided some nutritional benefits. So, as guests arrived, I prepared a batch each of the Rosemary Lemon Drop and the Sparkling Pomegranate Cocktail.
Rosemary Lemon Drop – This drink was absolutely delicious, and well worth the effort of preparing the simple syrup. There was a fantastic balance between sweet and sour, and the rosemary provided an earthy, herbacious note that was really unique. An added bonus? This cocktail gives you 20% of your daily recommended vitamin C.
Bring first 3 ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring just until sugar dissolves. Cover and remove from heat; let stand for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve over a bowl, reserving liquid; discard solids. Cover and chill. Combine chilled syrup, vodka, and juice. Pour over ice in a martini shaker; shake to combine. Strain into 6 martini glasses; garnish with rosemary, if desired.
Sparkling Pomegranate Cocktail – This cocktail was very festive, to the point that everyone who saw one in a flute just had to have one. I also loved the look (and crunch) of the seeds, and not just because I got to take my holiday frustration out on the pomegranate as I whacked it. And thanks to the attributes of the dark red fruit, this drink packs an antioxidant punch.
Combine pomegranate juice and 1/4 cup grenadine in a 2-cup glass measure. Divide the juice mixture evenly among 6 Champagne flutes or wineglasses. Top each serving evenly with wine, and garnish each serving with lime slices and seeds, if desired.
I wish I had photos of the finished products, but I was too busy drinking to take pictures. My camera also pooped out, but luckily for me, I have fabulous friends who took photos of the food. As soon as I get them, I’ll start posting some delicious h’ors d’oeuvres recipes that might come in handy as you cook for the holidays. To be continued!
First things first, congratulations to the winner of Top Chef, Michael Voltaggio. He may not have been my favorite contestant, but he’s clearly a talented chef and a hard worker. And I will definitely be interested in where his career goes from here.
The two-part finale pitted four excellent chefs against each other, and depending on the day, any one of them could have taken the top prize. While that is GREAT for those of us who love the food first and foremost, we have to remember that Top Chef is, at its core, a reality television competition. A finale with no conflict, no surprises, no gasp-worthy moments? That’s not good (reality) TV. So there may have been some creative editing and some production slight-of-hand that made the decision seem more dramatic, but it is clear from Tom’s blog at least that the judges truly felt that Michael presented the superior meal.
I really liked the final challenge. The first course, where they had to create a dish inspired by their childhoods, really plugged into the fact that many of our strongest memories center around food and eating. Not to mention, it allowed the audience to see the contestants’ mothers AND adorable family photos. The “mystery box” course, despite being a BLATANT Chopped ripoff, really challenged the chefs, since the ingredients were difficult AND they all had to use the same ones. I enjoyed that the third course was totally unrestricted, and I appreciated that dessert was on the table (so to speak) from the get-go, rather than being a cheap surprise twist. It also avoided the inevitable chefly monologues regarding “Do I make a dessert, or don’t I?” That internal dialogue gets old.
Overall, this season was really enjoyable; it will be really tough to top the caliber of chefs that competed this time around. While you’re waiting for the next go-round to start, head on over to John Kessler’s blog and read an interview with Chef Kevin Gillespie, our hometown hero here in Atlanta. He may not have taken home the title, but he’s in the running for “Fan Favorite” (tune into next week’s reunion show to see if he nabs the cash), and I know a lot of folks who can’t wait to dine at his restaurant and congratulate him on his fine showing.
Have a great weekend, everyone. New recipes to come next week!
Edited to add: Here’s another interview with Kevin, this time from Creative Loafing.
* I should not commit to recapping Top Chef when I often find myself unable to actually stay up and watch it at its scheduled time. Cut me some slack, I get up at 5 AM. Anyway, I will write up some closing thoughts once I actually watch the finale, and I will try to keep my bitterness regarding spoilers (come on, major newspapers, can you PLEASE not announce the results on your websites’ front pages????) in check.
* Relatedly, I had a happy little dream last night involving BOTH of the Voltaggio brothers. I think that is because I read this hilarious and brilliant post yesterday, and I also tuned in to this WaPo chat. Both are definitely worth checking out.
* I don’t think I could justify an entire post on Little Barn, the first truly local joint we’ve tried in our new Gwinnett County surroundings. However, here are some initial thoughts: first off, it really is a little barn, with inside seating for about 20 (ish) and a drive-through window (definitely the more popular choice, while we were there at least). The biscuits, which are highly lauded and the reason I wanted to visit, are as big as my head and very, very good. I ordered a chicken biscuit ($2.29) and a sausage biscuit ($1.79), and I couldn’t finish them. The meats on my biscuits were just “meh.” Jason ordered a breakfast platter, which included scrambled eggs, a biscuit, gravy, and country ham, all for $4.59. The gravy was delicious–great texture, and incredibly flavorful. The country ham was awesome, too. Counter service was quick and friendly, and prices are definitely reasonable (I think our breakfast for two, with OJ and TONS of food, was about $13). I think that once you figure out what you really like on the menu, Little Barn is a great alternative to fast food or chain breakfast places.
* My hubs and I are hosting a little housewarming/holiday get-together on Saturday night. I am serving heavy appetizers, and I think I’m pretty set on the menu, but I’m always up for suggestions. Does anyone have just a KILLER h’ors d’oeuvres recipe that they’d like to share? Leave it in the comments!