Archive for the ‘Menu Planning’ Category

Polenta… and I Mean Quick!

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Finished Polenta with Olive Oil and Parmesan Cheese

Soft and Creamy Polenta with Parmesan Cheese and Olive Oil

Someone asked me the other day what I put in my brown rice to make it moist. It got me thinking about grains – specifically brown rice and polenta. They are two of my “go-to” grains, for similar reasons, but not for the same meal! They both have satisfying texture and taste, they’re warm and filling, they’re healthful and easy. Count me in!

Polenta is corn meal, Italian-style. It can be served soft and creamy or firm and crispy. I usually serve it soft and creamy with a little parmesan cheese – it makes a perfect pair with something like Beef Bourguignon because the juices from the stew play so nicely with the taste and texture of the polenta. You can buy corn meal for polenta in the bulk section of supermarkets or in a pre-packaged bag labeled “Polenta”, which is just bulk corn meal in a bag labeled “Polenta”! I buy it in the bag because it has the recipe I like on the back, and the bag itself is thick and sturdy for storage. Plus, it’s a good looking bag! By my count, that’s at least two solid practical reasons to buy the bag. The third reason is just the kind of thing that probably makes my husband a little crazy sometimes…

Bag of Polenta

See? That's a Good Looking Bag!

The basic recipe is to bring 4 cups of water to boil, add 1 teaspoon salt, slowly whisk in 1 cup of polenta and keep whisking until it’s done. I find this takes about 5 – 10 minutes over medium heat. When it gets to the consistency I like, similar to porridge, I add 2 tablespoons butter and about ½ – ¾ cup of parmesan cheese (freshly grated – don’t even think about the green can kind). The recipe says to use a double boiler, which I never do; and it says it will take 25 minutes, which it never does. I use to wonder why my polenta cooks up so much faster than the stated 25 minutes, but I decided it must be because I serve mine soft and creamy. If I cooked it for the full 25 minutes, it would set up very sturdily and be perfect for slicing and then browning in a skillet. Mostly I don’t wonder about my polenta, though – I just eat it (and so does my husband, by the way).

And what about that moist brown rice? Talk about a simple, healthy and satisfying side dish… and it cooks itself! Add 1 part brown rice (not fast cooking, not par-boiled, not from a box with seasonings… just whole grain brown rice out of a bag, and I’m sure you can buy this in bulk, too!) to 2 parts low sodium chicken broth. I happen to use a coffee cup to measure (so 1 coffee cup of brown rice and 2 coffee cups of broth), but you can use a measuring cup if you’re feeling conventional ; ). Cover and simmer over the lowest heat possible. It needs to gently simmer, not boil. This lets the rice absorb the broth, rather than the broth just boiling off and leaving crunchy uncooked rice behind.

Check the rice after about 20 minutes to be sure the broth hasn’t completely evaporated. If it’s drying up, add a little more broth. Basically, cook it for about 30 minutes total, checking to be sure it hasn’t dried up and tasting it towards the end for tenderness. Once it’s tender take it off the heat, making sure there is still a little bit of broth in the pan – this is what keeps it moist and it will absorb as the rice sits. Add a little salt to taste (we have to make up for the low sodium broth!) and stir. The texture is al dente, like properly cooked pasta, and the flavor is mildly nutty. Start the rice first and it will be done just when the rest of your meal is ready.

Just one more note about Polenta with Beef Bourguignon. My favorite Beef Bourguignon recipe is from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. I was given this cookbook in 1991, when I got married, and later acquired The Silver Palate Cookbook by the same authors. I wanted to give my readers a link to this Beef Bourguignon recipe, but there doesn’t seem to be one available. In “Googling” for the recipe, I came across the news that Sheila Lukins, one of the authors, had passed away last summer. I was surprised and wanted to mention it here as my small tribute to someone I never met but from whom I learned to cook many fine meals.

Cook a great meal tonight for someone you love!

Cathy

Strawberries Romanoff… mmmm

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Strawberries Romanoff

Strawberries Romanoff - Ready for Strawberry Season


Happy belated Valentine’s Day! While this recipe is a little too late for Valentine’s Day – I decided to write this post as I was making Strawberries Romanoff for our Valentine’s Day dessert last night – it’s in plenty of time for strawberry season. Strawberries Romanoff is a simple dessert, quick and easy, with big results. It’s made with fresh strawberries, orange juice, orange liqueur, sugar and cream, and its origins are uncertain – maybe it was created by French chef extraordinaire Marie Antoine Careme (1784 – 1833), or perhaps it was French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846 – 1935). I’m just glad one of them thought of it, and that I learned about it during my Australia cheffing days. I don’t have exact measurements for this “recipe” – it’s really up to you and your tastebuds, and how many people you are serving. There are three simple steps – first, marinate the strawberries; second, whip the cream; and finally, assemble – oh, then take the credit!

1. Marinate the Strawberries: quarter some strawberries into a bowl and add a little sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries. Add a few splashes of orange liqueur (I use Grand Marnier), and then enough orange juice to almost cover the berries. Taste the mixture and make adjustments – if there is too much liqueur, add more orange juice, etc. Let the berries marinate for an hour or two.

2. Whip the cream: when it’s time to serve, add a little sugar and vanilla to heavy cream and whip to very soft peaks – in fact, they’re not even really peaks, they’re sort of pillowy, rolling hills. This step can be done at the same time the berries are cut to marinate – just keep the cream in the refrigerator until service and, if necessary, give it a few whisks right before using it.

3. Assemble: add a little of the cream to the bottom of a serving dish, top with strawberries and a little of the marinating liquid, then top with more of the cream and finish with strawberries and a little more marinating liquid.

This is a delicate, light (in taste and texture!) dessert that finishes off a meal with elegance.

I think all of February is the month of love, so make Strawberries Romanoff even if it’s not Valentine’s Day, and enjoy!

Cathy

I Ate It…

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake


I wanted to take a picture of the last remaining piece of the Triple Chocolate Mousse cake I made to show you but, well… I ate it. So, I’m showing you the cover of the new 2010 America’s Test Kitchen cookbook that recently showed up in the mail and inspired me to make this not-too-original but oh-so-good mousse cake. Mine looked very similar (really!), but I garnished with chocolate marbles instead of chocolate shavings because that’s what I had around from my Chocolate Mousse Kit.

I made this dessert for the second – and final (yippee!) – auction dinner of the year. My last post – lo those many weeks ago – was about the first auction dinner this year. The most recent auction dinner was a study in good menu planning – all tranquility and calm in the kitchen during service – and I don’t think it was just because I was drinking port this time! I did a lot of cooking in advance, which I typically do but it paid off extra well for this dinner.

For appetizers, I served Italian sausage stuffed mushrooms (The Silver Palate Cookbook), brie-en-croute (America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook) and smoked salmon mousse on endive (and crackers – those endive don’t have as many leaves on them as you might think! Also from America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook). The day before the dinner, I made the mushroom filling and stuffed the mushrooms; wrapped the brie in puff pastry and refrigerated; and made the smoked salmon mousse. A note about the mushroom stuffing – the recipe called for 1/3 cup Bechamel sauce and some chopped black olives. I didn’t bother making the Bechamel sauce, instead I just added a little cream and reduced it down in the filling. I also omitted the olives because they didn’t appeal to me with the Italian sausage. For service, I just got the brie and mushrooms in the oven at the right times and spread the mousse on endive and crackers, and appetizers were done.

For the first course, I served shrimp cocktail (from Sara’s Secrets/Food Network) and a green salad with baked goat cheese rounds (The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2010). The day before, I made the shrimp cocktail sauce, the vinaigrette for the salad and the goat cheese rounds. The morning of the dinner, I brined and cooked the shrimp and put them in the refrigerator until service. One note about the shrimp cocktail sauce – don’t buy the Thai Hot Chili Sauce like I inadvertently did, just get a “normal” chili sauce and your ears won’t catch fire once the wasabi is added. My second batch was much better! For the baked goat cheese rounds, I didn’t add the herbs to the goat cheese as the recipe called for – I felt there were enough flavors going on with the vinaigrette, shrimp and cocktail sauce, so I just wanted the plain goat cheese flavor coming through. Plating this course was easy, and we had it on the table when the guests came in for dinner.

The main course was New York steak with herb butter (The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2008), scalloped potatoes (The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2008), peas and fennel braised with white wine and garlic (Jamie Oliver/Return of the Naked Chef). I made the scalloped potatoes and herb butter the day before. The morning of the dinner, I trimmed the steaks, and cut the fennel and put it in a casserole dish so everything was ready to go at service. A note about the steaks – I decided to do New York steak because it’s a steak’s steak – it doesn’t need a lot to go with it to bring out that rich steak flavor. I bought USDA Prime grade steaks. I could have done perfectly well with USDA Choice grade – the most common grade in the supermarkets – for half the price, but my meat consultant (aka my husband, Terry) was in a meeting and couldn’t be reached at decision time. They were beautiful steaks, though!

With everything prepped, it was a matter of following my time schedule – written out in advance – and executing the plan. Easy-peasy, as Jamie Oliver likes to say. You know, for the most part.

You already know about dessert – Triple Chocolate Mousse cake that I made the day before. Once the main course went out, I cut, plated and garnished the cake, and it was at a nice temperature and ready to go at dessert time.

While I was serving dessert, one guest asked incredulously, “So, you made this cake?!” Yes, yes I did – now, your turn.

Happy cooking (and eating)!

Cathy

Auction Dinner Review and… Lemon Tart?

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Lovely Lemon Tart in Chartres, France

Lovely Lemon Tart in Chartres, France

This post isn’t really about the lemon tart I had in Chartres, France – but I don’t have any pictures showing what this post is really about, and I do mention lemon tart later. Let me start at the beginning…

I’ve written before about the annual auction and festival at our parish school that raises funds to offset the cost of tuition. “Dinner with the Pastor” is one of the auction items – the winning bidder brings up to six people to the parish house for a special dinner with the pastor and priests that live at the parish house, and our pastoral associate. Two of these dinners are auctioned off each year, and the first one was held last Saturday for nine people. Yours truly was the cook, and when all was over I had some reflections about menu planning and execution that I thought my readers might find useful as well.

First, no matter how much advance planning and preparation is done, there’s always a crunch time – that’s just the nature of fancy dinner parties, especially ones that aren’t given in your own kitchen! The best way to handle crunch time is to roll with it and keep focused on each step that needs doing, and to remember that eventually it will all pass! Some things can be done to minimize crunch time, and I neglected to do at least one of them . . . planning the stove top time and space.

I served a first course of French onion soup gratinee from Tyler Florence’s book Tyler’s Ultimate, and Coquillles St. Jacques (sea scallops in a mushroom cream sauce) from a Buena Vista Winery recipe. I made the soup the day before and re-heated it on the stove while the scallops were in progress. Much to my very helpful (and long suffering?) husband’s surprise, he was given the task of making the scallops while I scurried around on other things. I had prepped all the ingredients and knew he could do it – and I was right, the scallops were perfect.

So far, so good… the problem was that the one stove was taken over with making the soup and scallops, so the main course couldn’t be started until the first course was served and the leftover pans shuttled out of the way. My take-away… consider chilled dishes for the first course so the main course isn’t held up because the first course hogged the stove. Next time (in October), I’m thinking shrimp cocktail (I have a lovely recipe for cocktail sauce, and I’ll cook some beautiful shrimp in advance) along with an iceberg lettuce wedge, housemade blue cheese dressing and a few toasted spiced nuts. These dishes are kind of retro – I’d call them classics – and they’re also “in” right now. Besides, any dish that is made well is always “in”!

Some things that worked well with this first course were presentation, portion size and “user-friendliness”! I served the French onion soup in a small ramekin on the same plate as the scallops, which were served in a shell, and added a little flower for color. Instead of a solid slice of toasted bread and cheese on top of the soup, I made croutons covered with Gruyere which made eating the soup out of the smaller ramekins more manageable. I did small portions of everything so guests could enjoy a variety of dishes without exploding in overstuffed pain.

The main course was bacon-wrapped filet mignon served with a red wine reduction from the Michael Mina cookbook; scalloped potatoes from The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2008 (they’re called smokey scalloped potatoes and call for smoked Gouda, which I can never find, so I just use regular Gouda – and they are great potatoes); roasted carrots; and tomato salad (cherry tomatoes and pear tomatoes halved and served with a little salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic vinegar). This is where the stove top planning issue raised its ugly head – I first seared the bacon that was wrapped around the filets, and then seared each side of the filets – tapping my fingers on the counter, waiting for the electric stove top to do its thing to all 12 of my filets (I could count how many sides of bacon and filet searing that adds up to, but why?). Starting the searing 10 minutes earlier would have made the timing between the first and main courses better – but, those darn scallops and that blasted soup pot!

Surely, some things worked well with the main course? Yes – the red wine reduction was made the day before and then re-heated on the stove top, the scalloped potatoes were made the day before so they just had to heat up in the oven, the tomato salad was tossed an hour or so in advance and the roasted carrots took care of themselves in the oven as they roasted. In other words, these were basically “passive” cooking dishes – no one had to stand over them and baby sit them the whole time – and they could be prepped well in advance. We just had to remember at what time to put dishes in and take them out of the oven! That left us to focus on getting the filets seared on the stove top and then finished in the oven, while also clearing first course dishes and getting ready to plate the main course!

Once the main course was on the table, we could breathe for one minute before getting the coffee and tea going, and plating the dessert. Finally – the lemon tart I mentioned earlier! I served individual lemon tarts (The World’s Best Lemon Tart from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts) with a dollop of whipped cream, along with two-bite sized dark chocolate truffles from The Truffle Kit (of course!). While I was glaring at the filets and waiting for them to develop a beautiful seared outside, I should have thought to take the lemon tarts and truffles out of the refrigerator to give them a little more time at room temperature. Plating them was a cinch, and we were basically home free.

One last thing I usually do is to make a timeline for everything that has to happen during “service”. That way, nothing gets fogotten in the heat of battle and you won’t reach to serve the hot potatoes that never actually made it into the oven an hour before!

The final good news – I don’t think the guests noticed or minded that we lagged a little between the first and main courses. They were enjoying good wine and good company, and seemed to think the food was worth the wait.

Bon Appetit!
Cathy