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Monday, December 28, 2009

A Christmas Wine Gift

We pride ourselves on finding really good wine for less than $10 a bottle. Sometimes it's difficult, especially when it comes to some varietals, such as Chardonnay. But we manage to find enough to drink quality wine for dinner nightly without breaking the bank.

So on the Christmas holiday we reward ourselves by drinking really good wine—and to hell with the $10 limit. But when you're eating at home, really top-notch bottles of wine still cost less than a mediocre bottle in a restaurant.

One more reason to eat well and eat cheap at home.

For Christmas Day, we decided that we would drink no wine rated less than 90 by a major rating agency.

We started with Champagne to go with our very creamy brie. Montaudon Brut (no vintage), to be exact, rated 90 and $30 a bottle at the local store. The bottle was a gift, but we'd have happily paid the freight on this one. "Bright and intense, exhibiting candied berry, preserved citrus and elderflower flavors," says Wine Spectator in its 90 rating writeup. "It's backed by a firm structure and stays persistent through the lingering aftertaste of ginger and vanilla."

Next, a Chardonnay to twin with the simple salad and our roasted red pepper timbales. We're partial to somewhat rich Chardonnays from Carneros, but they tend to be pretty pricey. We found a 2006 Patz & Hall Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chard rated 92. This was the best white wine we've had all year, with not-strong oakiness and undertones of lemon and golden raisins. "Fruit-driven and focused, with green and yellow apple and honeydew melon at the core," says Wine Spectator. "Medium- to full-bodied, with subtle hints of hazelnut-tinged oak on the finish."

When the pheasant pie and the morel-and-shiitake pie arrived at the table, it was time to pour our first red of the day, a 2007 Landmark Grand Detour Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. We'd have preferred something older or, if 2007, something from Oregon. But as good as the local wine store is, it didn't have much of a selection from this area. Robert Parker gave this wine a 90.

"The 2007 Pinot Noir Grand Detour exhibits a dark ruby color as well as a foresty, black cherry, and meaty-scented, Cote de Nuits-like nose," Parker says. "Spicy, round, and generously endowed with a velvety texture, this is a seductive style of Pinot to enjoy over the next 3-4 years." We chose it because it was meaty for a pinot, and we wanted something to stand up to the wild pheasant we were eating.

But we saved the best for last. After the main course we turned the traditional French cheese-then-dessert routine on its head. First, we had our dessert of pear-date crisp, along with a 2006 Sauternes dessert wine from Chateau Luduiraut. The wine was rated 95, perhaps the highest-rated wine we've ever drunk. While it was extraordinarily expensive given our wine budget, we saved by buying the 375 ml bottle, which rang up at $39.

This is a dessert wine to be swirled, sniffed, sipped, swished, and savored. "Shows dried pineapple, honey, pear, caramel and piecrust aromas," Wine Spectator said. "Full-bodied and very sweet, with spice, coconut, tropical fruit and apple tart flavors. Long and dense, yet lively."

We thought we'd hit the peak of a very good meal, until we preceded the next mouthful of wine with a bit of Valdeon, a Spanish blue cheese. Each ingredient was world class in its own right, but together they were astonishing: the best caramel we'd ever tasted. Absolutely worth the foolish expenditure and the gluttony of it all.

It will go down as one of the best tasting moments of our lives. And the day will go down as one of our most relaxed, enjoyable and fun holidays. We just might have started a holiday wine tradition: deny yourself a bit during the year (wine-wise), and reward yourself with a minor blowout on the holiday.

How to Make Dinner for Twelve

The very idea of preparing dinner for a large group is so intimidating that most of us never try it, preferring to invite friends and family in smaller groups. But a big dinner party can be fun for everyone once the shopping and chopping are done—more conversation, more laughter, more tall tales, more compliments for the cook.

Guest blogger David Wray has come up with a menu, shopping list, and plan of attack that break this fearsome prospect down into manageable parts:

Menu for Twelve

Chicken with two or three sauces (mushroom, chimichurri, balsamic reduction)
Green salad
Corn salad (summer)
Roast potatoes (rest of the year)


Three or four packages of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. Each package should have three breasts. I look for packages weighing 1.25 to 1.5 pounds, so a total of four to six pounds of chicken (depending on the size of your guests and of their appetites)

Two pounds of green beans or broccoli

Salad fixings: a couple of types of lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, avocado, red pepper, and whatever else you like in your salad

Ten ears cooked corn or eight medium-size potatoes

For the sauces:

One bunch parsley
Small amount of fresh rosemary
One package of three portobello mushroom caps
Four large shallots
Three or four cloves of garlic
Red wine
Balsamic vinegar
Worcestershire sauce
One lemon
Red wine vinegar
Olive oil
Cube or two of chicken bouillon
Bleu cheese
Half pint heavy cream
Garlic powder
Salt and pepper

It takes one person an hour and a half to two hours of pretty steady work to prepare the meal, so the advance work should come long before. The chicken can be trimmed and paillarded the night or afternoon before dinner, and the mushroom sauce can also be made whenever it's convenient, since it will be zapped in the microwave before it's served. Then on the evening of the dinner I start with the things that don't involve the stove. I make the chimichurri first so the flavors will blend, then the corn salad for the same reason before preparing the vegetable, which can then sit in its pot until the last minute when it gets steamed.

My friends' daughter always asks me what time we'll have dinner. I always say 8:00. That's a running joke, because I never quite make it, usually getting stuff to the table 10 or 15 minutes late. But nobody complains.

What scares people about making a big meal is that they don't realize there is a margin of error. You don't want to undercook the chicken or the potatoes, but it doesn't matter if either is a little overcooked. The sauces provide moisture for the chicken, and the potatoes will just be a little crisper.

Advance Preparation

Mushroom sauce:

1. Cut the portobello caps into a half-inch dice and coarsely chop one of the shallots.
2. Sauté together in a smallish frying pan with two or three tablespoons of butter.
3. When the shallot is translucent and the mushrooms have darkened and are giving up their juice, add one third to half a cup red wine, a dash or four of Worcestershire sauce, juice from half a lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Simmer until most of the liquid has disappeared.
5. Put in a bowl and cover until dinner time, then microwave to reheat.

Chimichurri sauce:

1. Mince garlic and put in a bowl with three tablespoons of olive oil.
2. Mince parsley and add to bowl.
3. Add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar or juice from other half of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Stir ingredients together. Sauce should be a sort of slurry—liquid but not too much so. Taste and add olive oil or vinegar as needed.
5. Cover and refrigerate, but bring sauce out several hours before dinner so it can return to room temperature.

You can also paillard the chicken in advance. Trim off any remaining fat or cartilage from the chicken breasts. Then holding each breast firmly against a cutting board, run your knife parallel to the board to cut the breast in half, yielding two thinner pieces of meat. The advantage of this is twofold: the meat cooks more quickly, and guests with smaller appetites can help themselves to a single piece while the trenchermen in the crowd can go for more. No one has to look around from someone to share a too-large piece with.

Corn Salad (summer)
1. Hold the cooked ears of corn vertically and cut the kernels off, then scrape the edge of your knife along the cobs to get the remaining milk and corn germ and place in serving bowl.
2. Add four tomatoes cut into small pieces, half a diced red onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Do not refrigerate. You're done.

Roast Potatoes (rest of year)
Scrub the potatoes and cut into bite-size pieces. Cover in water in a pot that will hold them, and bring to a boil. Cook until just tender, seven or eight minutes, then drain and set aside uncovered.

Enlist a guest to prepare the green beans or broccoli for steaming, but don't turn on the burner. I like beans cut into bite-size pieces so I don't drag butter across my chin when I eat them. Not an issue with broccoli because you can cut it as you eat it.

Once You're Ready to Really Get Cooking . . .

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. To the pot of potatoes add two tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary (if you like—I find the flavor a tad too pronounced and turpentiney). Stir to coat potatoes in oil, then spread them on a baking sheet and place in oven. You want to roast them at high heat for only about 20 minutes. They've already been boiled. The objective—which can be achieved—is a potato that is crunchy on the outside, but tender on the inside. That can be lost if the potatoes are in the oven for too long. They'll still be tasty and edible but . . .

Sauté the chicken in batches in butter in a large frying pan over medium heat, adding butter as necessary. You can train yourself to tell doneness by touch: when the chicken is raw, it feels flabby. As it cooks, it firms up. The chicken is done when there is just a little bit of spring left to the touch. As each batch of chicken is done, remove to a warm platter and cover. Meanwhile, chop remaining three shallots.
When you start your last batch of chicken, turn on the burner under the pot containing the steamer and the green beans or broccoli. Turn the burner off a minute or two after you see steam coming from the pot. The vegetable will continue to cook. Check now and again to see if the vegetable is done. Beans and broccoli are both finished when easily pierced with the point of a knife. Don't overcook. When either is done, uncover the pot. It doesn't matter if the vegetable cools off a bit, because the broccoli will be served with a warm sauce and the beans will be reheated.

If you are serving the broccoli, put the half pint of heavy cream in a small saucepan and add two tablespoons of bleu cheese, two tablespoons of coarsely chopped walnuts and a few grinds of pepper. Simmer, taste, and add more cheese or walnuts as you see fit. The sauce should be thick but still liquid.

When all the chicken is cooked, sautee the diced shallots in the frying pan until translucent, then add half a cup of water to the pan to deglaze. Throw in a bouillon cube or two, grind in some fresh pepper and add two or three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and any juices that have accumulated on the platter of cooked chicken. Do not add salt. My box of bouillon cubes says that each serving provides 53 percent of your daily sodium requirement. Reduce until much but not
all of the liquid is gone, and put the sauce in bowl.

If you are serving green beans, quickly rinse out and dry the frying pan. Add three tablespoons butter, the beans, salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Stir or shake to coat and reheat the beans.

Enlist a guest to make the green salad with whatever ingredients you have on hand. The dressing is up to you.

Put everything in serving dishes, sit down, and dig in. Pass the sauces separately. The bleu cheese and walnut is for the broccoli; the mushroom, chimichurri, and balsamic reduction are for the chicken.

Dessert? I'm not a baker, so I hope one of the guests has offered to bring something. If not, they get store-bought ice cream and cookies.

All this may sound complicated, but I usually do most of it by myself in two hours or less (someone always volunteers to make the green salad). If there is leftover cooked chicken, I've discovered that it freezes quite well for a week or so. If you wrap the individual pieces in tinfoil, they can be popped into a toaster oven and reheated in 15 or 20 minutes at 375 degrees. Then shred for chicken salad or chicken tacos or whatever you like. Or serve whole with or without one of the sauces.

(Between the sauces and the side dishes, this menu contains plenty of options and protein for vegetarians. We plan to try it soon, grateful that David has already figured out the details for us.— R & T)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sunflower Snappers

Guest blogger Jim Randall offers this healthy snack recipe for the holidays:

When we want a salad topper, something healthy and satisfying to eat out-of-hand, or a snack for a holiday party, we make Sunflower Snappers, which deserve their name. Prepared properly, they "snap" in the pan. Use all organic ingredients whenever possible for the best taste and nutrition. I like using low-sodium soy sauce and adding my own unrefined salt (Himalayan, Celtic Grey, or plain sea salt).

Sunflower Snappers

1 T. organic virgin coconut oil
2 cups raw sunflower seeds
8 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 t. unrefined salt (or more) to taste
1 T. low-sodium soy sauce

1. Heat the oil in a large heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil just starts to smoke, immediately add the sunflower seeds and garlic. Stir constantly until the oil and garlic are well mixed with the sunflower seeds.

2. When a couple of the seeds start to turn golden, reduce heat to medium. Continue stirring as needed to "fry" the seeds in the oil. There should be occasional snapping. Stop cooking when about half of the seeds are golden and the garlic bits are well browned. Remove from heat and add the salt. Stir well.

3. After five more minutes, add soy sauce and stir well. Store in a jar with a tight lid—but they may not last long enough to store them.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wild Rice and Pecan Salad

After gorging on Thai food for what seems like weeks, we wanted something different last night—something dark, earthy, and festive, in honor of the winter solstice.

We remembered one of our favorite recipes from the Greens cookbook—a recipe that we freely adapt, depending on what we have on hand. Sometimes we use hazelnuts; sometimes pecans. Sometimes we use lots of citrus; sometimes we rely on rice vinegar for the acid. But whatever we use, it's always good.

This recipe is great for a holiday dinner that includes vegetarians, as the grains and nuts provide complete protein. It also makes an excellent side dish.

Wild Rice and Pecan Salad

1 cup wild rice
1/2 cup pecans
1 tart apple
1 small fennel bulb


juice and zest from one large orange
1 T. rice vinegar
3 scallions, minced
1/2 t. fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar or with the back of a spoon
2 T. chopped parsley
1/4 cup walnut oil

1. Boil the wild rice to desired doneness, about 30 minutes. (We like it a little chewy.)
2. Toast the pecans in a frying pan; if you like, you can add a little bit of olive oil to speed up the process.
3. Cut the fennel bulb and apple into dice—slightly smaller than 1/2-inch dice works well, though you can see from the photo that we're not that picky about it.
4. Prepare dressing.
5. When rice is done, mix with pecans, fennel, and apple. Add dressing while the rice is still hot.

Serves four as a side dish.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Snowstorm Means Comfort Food

We know that a good percentage of you were caught in the same big blizzard over the weekend, but we thought we'd share a few photos from Virginia, where we hunkered down, shoveled, heated leftovers, shoveled, watched movies, and shoveled some more. We got about 20 inches.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tip: Making Your Salad Mix Last

Those one-pound clamshell packages of mixed greens can be a good deal if they're fresh when you buy them. Before you throw them in your cart, make sure to inspect the bottom of the package for signs of spoiling greens; if you can see yellow leaves or, worse, brown rot, don't buy it.

One problem with these packages is that the lettuce is crammed in, hastening the spoilage. And some of the greens in the mix—mizuna and baby spinach, in particular—spoil more quickly than the others, ruining the whole batch for anyone disinclined to spend a lot of time picking out the slimy offenders.

Fortunately, there's a way to extend the life of your salad mix. After you've taken some out to

make a salad, shake up the package to give the remaining leaves some air. If you diligently do this every time you create a little more room, your salad mix will stay fresh for up to two weeks.

Our local grocery is now selling a one-pound package of salad mix for $6.99, which we consider a bargain, compared with the unavoidable waste involved with head lettuce. Sometimes, though, the premixed packages are way overpriced—those five-ounce bags are particularly egregious. At these times, head lettuce is a better deal. If you find run-of-the-mill romaine and red-leaf too boring, you can liven them up by adding arugula and sliced radicchio.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Martha Washington's Great Cake

We suspect that "great" refers to the cholesterol level rather than to the taste, but, courtesy of the nice ladies who hosted Mount Vernon's Christmas tour (which really was great, complete with period costumes, a camel named Aladdin, and plenty of lusty "Hear ye, hear ye"s):

"Take 40 eggs divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream & put the whites of the eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work'd then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manners then put it in the Youlks of eggs & 5 pounds of flower & 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it add to it half an ounce of mace & nutmeg half a pint of wine and some frensh brandy."

The transcriber of Martha's recipe may have sipped a bit too much frensh brandy before she sat down to work.

Cakes like this typically were served on Twelfth Night (January 6, the last day of Christmas, and George and Martha Washington's wedding anniversary. Here's the same recipe adapted for the 21st century, also courtesy of Mount Vernon:

10 eggs
1 pound butter
1 pound sugar
1 1/4 pounds flour
1 1/4 ounces assorted fruit and nuts*
2 1/2 t. ground mace
2 1/2 t. ground nutmeg
2 ounces wine
2 ounces French brandy

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Separate eggs whites from yolks, and set yolks aside. Beat the whites to a soft peak.

3. Cream the butter. Slowly add the beaten egg whites, one spoonful at a time, to the butter.

4. Slowly add the sugar, one spoonful at a time, to the egg whites and butter.

5. Add egg yolks.

6. Add flour slowly.

7. Add fruit.

8. Add mace, nutmeg, wine, and brandy.

9. Lightly grease and flour a 10-inch springfrom cake pan. Pour batter into pan and bake about 75 minutes. Let cool before icing.

* The following items are suggested based on what would have been available to Mrs. Washington, either fresh or dried. Nuts would have been considered fruit:

5 ounces pear, peeled, cored, and diced
9 1/2 ounces apple, peeled, cored, and diced
3 1/2 ounces raisins
2 ounces sliced almonds

Adaptation of an 18-Century Icing

1. Beat three egg whites and two tablespoons powdered sugar. Repeat additions of sugar until you have used one and a half cups of sugar.

2. Add one teaspoon grated lemon peel and two tablespoons orange-flower water. Beat until the icing is stiff enough to stay parted when a knife cuts through it.

3. Smooth it onto the cake.

4 Let it dry and harden in a 200-degree oven for one hour. (Note: Icing will be brittle when cut with a knife.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto

Note: Sorry for the lack of food photos, but our camera is still waiting to be unpacked.

When we moved to Virginia from Connecticut, we expected to enjoy a nice mild winter, but one week into our new southern life we got hit with a storm that dumped four inches of snow and ice upon us. We could have reacted to this cosmic joke with bitterness, but instead we decided to celebrate the onset of winter by using up part of our butternut squash collection (among the last offerings from the past summer's CSA box).
We got this recipe years ago from our friend Ed Lempinen, and it has served us well whenever we crave cold-weather comfort food.

Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto

1 medium butternut squash
1 largish but not gigantic onion
2 hefty cloves garlic
1 T. olive oil
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 T chopped fresh sage (more if you love sage)
5 T. grated parmesan cheese
salt, pepper to taste

1. Halve, peel, and seed the squash. Cut into half-inch cubes, scatter them on an oiled baking sheet, and roast them in a 425-degree oven until they are soft—about half an hour. When they're done, turn off the oven, but leave the pan in the oven so the cubes can caramelize while you prepare the risotto.

2. Bring the stock to a simmer and leave it simmering throughout the preparation of the risotto.

3. While the stock is heating, finely chop the onion and garlic. Heat the olive oil in a good-size heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven.

4. Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil. When they are soft and beginning to brown, add the rice, and stir it in the oil and vegetables for a couple of minutes.

5. Add one cup of the hot stock, and stir until it is almost absorbed by the rice. Then add one-half cup of stock and stir until that is almost incorporated. Keep adding stock in half-cup increments. stirring constantly but gently, until the rice is cooked to your satisfaction. This should take almost all of the stock and 15 to 20 minutes of stirring. You want the rice cooked but not overcooked and gummy.

6. When you are satisfied that the rice is done, add the chopped sage and parmesan. Taste and add salt and pepper—a hearty grinding of pepper is good, but the salt will be determined by the cheese and stock you use.

7. When the cheese is melted into the risotto, stir in the roasted squash cubes and serve, with extra grated parmesan on the side.

This dish goes wonderfully with any wine, but a crisp Chardonnay is especially delicious.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Green-Bean-Casserole-Flavored Beans

Growing up in middle America—in Tim's case, literally the middle of America—we never questioned the goodness of certain things: Saturday morning cartoons, Mattel toys, Kool-Aid, Velveeta, and Green Bean Casserole, to name a few.

We cherished the casserole (a salty mush of canned beans, mushroom soup, and fried onions, but does anybody really need an explanation?) because it was only served at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Only now does it occur to us to wonder why our mothers only made it for those holidays. It can't have been because it was expensive, or difficult to prepare. Maybe it was because the Durkee French Fried Onions were an exotic ingredient for our mothers—cautious cooks who we doubt ever used an entire clove of garlic at one time.

The crunchy, pungent fried onions, of course, were what we loved about the casserole. So imagine our delight when we discovered that Asian markets carry a less-greasy version of the Durkee onions called, sensibly enough, Fried Onions. They make a wonderful garnish for soups and stir fries, and have allowed us to develop a version of Green Bean Casserole that keeps the flavors and eliminates the mush:

Green-Bean-Casserole-Flavored Beans

1 pound green beans
1 T. olive oil
1 t. (or more to taste) Bragg Liquid Aminos*
1/4 cup, plus 1 T. fried onions (or more to taste)

1. Trim the beans and cut them in half.

2. Heat oil in frying pan, then toss in the beans. (This recipe results in fairly crunchy beans; if you like your beans softer, you can boil them for just a few minutes before frying them.)

3. When the beans are almost ready, add the Bragg, one tablespoon of the fried onions, and pepper to taste.

4. Garnish with the fried onions before serving, at any time of the year.

* If you don't have Bragg, you can substitute soy sauce, but use a light hand to avoid oversalting the dish.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Switching Kitchens: The Final Chapter

First, an apology. We haven't posted for a week because after months of planning, hand-wringing, and packing, we are finally in the new house. The downside: this 25-year-old house was built when women were returning to the workforce and Mom was no longer around to spend the afternoon making dinner. Hence the small cupboards and minimal counter space. We'll be spending the next few weekends hanging pot racks and putting up shelves.

The upside: Northern Virginia is rich in ethnic markets and restaurants. Yesterday Ruth visited an Asian store as big as her old Connecticut supermarket and walked around like Gomer Pyle with her mouth hanging open as she beheld row upon row of mysterious, delectable-looking ingredients. Despite her vow not to buy anything until she had assessed the size of her pantry, she walked out with a big bundle of rice vermicelli (for our favorite Vietnamese soup) and a big box of seasoned seaweed, with no specific ideas for using it.

We'll keep you posted. In the meantime, thanks for bearing with us during this crazy period.