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Apples, Apples, Apples

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’re probably already addicted to our dear friend Keely’s Lollygag Blog. (If not, what are you waiting for? There is comedy, fantastic writing, and so much adorable kid-ness! Go.) And you probably already know that there is a very recent addition to their family. Last night, we got to meet three-week-old Susannah (Suzy or Zuzu for short) and hang out with the whole family for a few hours, which rocked, because they are awesome, and every time we hang out with them, we think, “yeah, we could do this kid thing and still be cool – after all, they’re doing it!”

Anyway, we thought it might be nice if they could eat dinner without having to cook it, so we put together a very fall* meal. Theme: Apples. It was two courses – Apple and Acorn Squash Soup followed by an Apple, Bacon, and Rosemary Tart. (In our fantasy world, there was Apple Crisp for dessert, but there is only so much you can do in 3 hours.)

So – the soup is a bit labor intense. Acorn squash is not easy to cut. But, it’s tasty and worth the effort. The tart is super easy, especially if you follow the instructions and use a store-bought pie crust (we don’t, duh) and it is delicious. Rumor on the twitters has it that you all might want these recipes, so here goes.

Apple & Acorn Squash Soup

What You Need:
1 large onion, diced
5-6 large shallots, diced
2 T. safflower oil (or other vegetable oil)
1 large acorn squash (about 3 lbs.)
6-8 apples, peeled, cored, and diced (enough for 3 cups)
1 T. fresh ginger, minced
4 cups vegetable stock
2 cups apple juice
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper (preferably white)
1/4 t. nutmeg
1 cup cream

How to Make It:
1. Heat safflower oil in a large stock pot and sauté onion and shallots until soft, about 5 minutes.
2. Add acorn squash, apples, and ginger. Sauté 5 minutes more.
3. Add vegetable stock, apple juice, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until squash is tender.
4. Using an immersion blender (please, do yourself a favor and get one if you don’t already have one), puree until smooth and creamy.
5. Stir in cream and adjust seasonings if needed.

Recipe adapted from and image courtesy of Serious Eats.

Apple, Bacon, & Rosemary Tart

What You Need:
1 pie crust (you can buy it or make it; I use the Free Form Tart dough from Baking Illustrated)
3 apples, sliced into 1/4 thick wedges
1/2 lb of bacon, cooked, drained and chopped into small pieces
2 T. fresh rosemary, chopped
2 T. butter, cut into pea-sized pieces
1 T. sugar

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Then do all the chopping and slicing while it warms up.
2. Roll out the piecrust. I put mine on a piece of parchment paper so it doesn’t stick to anything, but it really should be fine on a cookie sheet or pizza pan.
3. Spread the bacon around the crust, leaving about two inches around the edge free of bacon. Sprinkle with with rosemary.
4. Arrange the apples in a pretty spiral (see the picture above), starting from the outside and working towards the center.
5. Dab with butter and sprinkle sugar evenly over the apples. Fold the outside edge of the crust over the apples to enclose it. (Alternately, you can do this whole thing in a tart pan, like the picture, but who has one of those?)
6. Bake for 40 minutes, until crust is golden brown.

Open mouth, insert yum. Enjoy!

*Naturally, we were there on the one fall day where it was 75 degrees and sunny out. That’s Chicago for you.

I Made Another Cake

It was TWELVE LAYERS. I’ll spare you knowledge of exactly how many pounds of butter, cups of sugar, and dozens (yes) of eggs I went through to make this sucker. (Hint: more than any other cake I can recall making, except maybe my wedding cake. Which was for many more people.)

Yellow Sponge Cake Chocolate Soufflé

Yellow Sponge Cake.
Mocha Buttercream.
Hazelnut Meringue.
Coffee Buttercream.
Chocolate Soufflé Cake.
Mocha Buttercream.
Repeat.
Shave Good Dark Chocolate on top.
Serve.

What can I say? It was my birthday. I went overboard.*

Close up.
Finished Cake

I made a whole bunch of other food too. I know you’re interested, because you love food as much as I do (don’t you? Isn’t that why you’re here?) so here’s a round up of the party menu. I decided to keep it classy with fancy, bite-sized apps and none of the usual chip-and-dip business. Also, I attempted to maintain a balance of hot and cold things and to make sure my vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free/kosher friends all had options. Here’s what I made, in no particular order:

  • Bacon-Wrapped Dates (hot) – a time-tested standby, it is hard to go wrong with these. Plus, Julia and I had them on our first date, and so they are special. Plus, you know, really freakin’ tasty.
  • Caprese Skewers (cold, vegetarian) – my play on the classic Italian salad. I put a cherry tomato, a small basil leaf, and one of those tiny (3/4″ diameter or so) mozzarella balls from the deli onto each stick, arranged them on a plate, and then drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  • Brie with Apricot Preserves & Almonds (hot, vegetarian) –  I make this a lot at parties because it is quick and easy but also fancy and delicious. All you do is top a wedge of brie with a few spoonfuls of preserves, warm it for about a minute in the microwave, sprinkle it with nuts, and serve with crackers. The amount of effort involved is nearly zero, and compared to the usual grabbing of chips & dip on the way to the potluck… WIN. Seriously, do this instead.
  • Chilled Cucumber & Dill Soup (cold, vegetarian, gluten-free) – This was a new recipe I tried. I tasted it while I was cooking it, and truthfully, I liked it better warm. Still, it was pretty good. I served it in 1oz shot glasses. FYI, I subbed vegetable stock for the chicken called for in the recipe to keep it as a meat-free option.
  • Red Wine Poached Figs (hot, vegan, gluten-free) – Holy crap, these were good. Unfortunately, they came out of the oven right after we decided to bust out the cake, so they were largely overlooked by the guests. Too bad for them. If you like figs, you should make these sometime. Soon, because as I mentioned, they are almost out of season.
  • Cucumber Chickpea Bruschetta (cold, vegan, gluten-free) – We made these once before, at our vegan/gluten-free dinner party, and they were as good as we remembered. Yum.
  • Shrimp Cocktail (cold) – Let’s just say we started with two pounds of shrimp and leave it at that.
  • Lemon-Parsley Gougeres – I’ve been wanting to make these for a while. Glad I finally got around to it – they were heavenly little flaky pastry puffs with a zesty lemon bite. They did not last long.

Of course, there was also wine a plenty along with champagne and some non-alcoholic punch, which turned out to be so good that I ended up drinking quite a bit of it.

In summary: delicious food + wine + the most excellent people = one awesome 30th birthday!

*I spent the better part of my actual birthday on Saturday prepping for this party. There were spreadsheets involved. Because, you know, I needed a schedule and a list of prep times and to make sure I had enough vegetarian, gluten-free, & kid-friendly things as well as a balance of hot & cold; sweet & savory. And also I just like spreadsheets. Yeah, I’m a major geek. But you knew that.

Not on the Menu: Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup

Remember in my meal planning post how I said you have to leave some room for flexibility, and sometimes you don’t stick to your plan entirely? Here’s an example of how that happens.

On Wednesday when I got to work, the baby had a very runny nose. On Thursday, both of her parents and I woke up with sore throats, and the poor little kiddo was all congested and cranky. I knew I needed to stop in the grocery store on the way home to get stuff for the lasagna I plan to make at some point over the weekend, and on a whim I also decided soup would be a good idea to combat this cold. Also, the other day Julia and were talking about how I’d somehow gotten to through nearly thirty years of life without ever having the classic grilled cheese and tomato soup combo. So I did a quick search on Epicurious and got this tomato soup recipe before I shopped, and last night we had a pretty tasty (and easy) dinner.

I followed a recipe without making too many adjustments, and, well, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. [I added an extra can of tomatoes and extra celery.] It was a yummy soup, but it was lacking in pure tomato flavor. If I make it again, I might try a different recipe all together, or leave out the cloves and the extra celery and possibly the milk.

The grilled cheese, on the other hand? Stellar. I used seedless rye bread and sharp cheddar cheese, and in an effort to sort of recreate the amazing one we had at Sprout, I added thinly sliced granny smith apple and caramelized shallots. It was superb, if I do say so myself. [And clearly I do, because here I am, saying it.]

Happy weekend, please go grill some cheese of your own.

Sprout!

– OR – 
An Appropriate Day* on Which to Remember This Blog Exists
(and Therefore Write Something)

So. It has come to my attention multiple times and from multiple sources this week that, oh yeah, this blog exists. And also? I’ve written nothing in it since October. I could give you excuses, but who cares? The point is, here we are, and I have some food to share with you. And I’m thinking, in the future, I will be sharing other things that I make. Like, clothes and stuff. And maybe some posts just about life, where no stuff is even made at all. [Travesty!] Plus, I don’t believe in guilt.
Five years ago, my hair was short and long enough to be an appropriate length for a Louis XIV-era pageboy. Which is what I was dressed as for schlepping the scenery around Remy Bumppo’s production of Power. Julia had worked on their previous show, and so she decided to come to the opening night to support her friends in the production. At the party which followed the performance that night, our eyes met across the crowd, and we’ve basically been inseparable ever since.**
Anyway…. Julia surprised me with a super fancy dinner at Dale Levitski’s (of Top Chef fame) restaurant, Sprout. Which was AWESOME. Their deal is you get your choice of dishes for an appetizer, entree, and dessert course, and the chef decides on a soup/salad and cheese course for you. Total of five courses, if you’re counting. They also have a wine pairing option, and I have to say – it was phenomenal. I don’t remember exactly what I drank, but I do remember that the food made the wine taste better and vice versa. Here’s the rundown:
To start off, we were presented with a delicious baguette and white bean butter. It was reminiscent of hummus and rather tasty.
For the first course, I had smoked duck breast with foie gras foam, cornbread, and sour cherry sauce served with greens, cucumber, and pickled ramps. Overall, it was excellent, though I did not really care for the foam. It was very… foamy… and not very foie gras-y. Julia had a seared scallop with salmon, pineapple, soy beans and mixed greens. The bite I stole was fantastic.

   

As you can tell, we enjoyed it, because we both cleaned our plates before it occurred to me that I wanted to take a picture.

Before I tell you about the second course, there’s something you should know about me: I HATE PICKLES. Hate, hate, hate them… a LOT. [Except for that one time a few months ago when I was suddenly craving pickles and so I ate about 5 of them and they were really good. And before you ask – no, I wasn’t pregnant.] You can ask my wife, my sister, my best friend, or anyone else who knows me well, and they will tell you that whenever I’m served something that comes with pickles… I am offering it to them for eating. Because I will not have that.
So, the second course was a soup (Chef’s choice) – a play on Borscht, with a twist – instead of the customary red beets, they used golden beets and it was topped with…

 
a pickled pickle!

Well, guess what, friends? I ate that pickled pickle and it was delicious. The soup itself was also wonderful, and I am pretty sure I said something to the effect of, “I may like this better than the really awesome duck I just ate.”
Oh, but then there was this:

That’s rabbit with truffle gnocchi, pistachios, peas, a super-thin sliver of cheese (something hard, maybe Parmesan?) and arugula over some kind of wonderful, creamy sauce. It was rich and wonderful, and I couldn’t stop eating it. Except that I had to take a break about halfway through because it was also quite filling. I wondered if I’d be able to finish it all. And then I contemplated – out loud – the possibility that I might not have room for dessert. Um…. what?? That is unheard of.
While I was having these dilemmas, Julia was enjoying a seaweed and mussel dish with beef sashimi and sesame broth. As he poured the steaming sesame-chili broth into the bowl, our delightful waiter informed us that the reason it was poured table side was so that it would cook the beef ever-so-slightly as it sat in front of us. Neat. Julia thought the dish was amazing.
Next we had the other Chef’s choice, a cheese course. I was expecting a small assortment of exotic cheeses, but what came out was the fanciest grilled cheese I’ve ever seen. It was made with an organic, aged Cheddar from Canada, coupled with apple slices and caramelized onions. Next to it on the plate was a bit of raisin-mustard to spread on it. I failed to take a picture, but despite my full belly, I finished it in short order.
And then, it was on to dessert. (Now, remember earlier, how I was so full I thought I wouldn’t have room? I definitely didn’t. But that didn’t stop me from trying.) Lately I have been eyeing the rhubarb as it’s started to show up in the grocery stores, so when I saw it paired with strawberries and goat cheese gelato in the dessert choices, I had to have it. In case you weren’t paying attention, I just said goat cheese gelato. Wow. It was a giant plate of yummy.
Which I COULD NOT FINISH. Because I was TOO FULL.

Luckily, Julia was there, and after she finished her dessert, she took care of mine too.*** And by the way – she has a serious aversion to goat cheese. So she really took one for the team this time.

Lillet. It was very good, but more citrus-y than I like my desserts.
After we finished our dessert, the waiter came back – and not with the check! Instead, he was carrying two glasses of champagne, on the house, to help us celebrate five years together. Which, he declared, was a really, really long time in gay years, and therefore worthy of their best bubbles.

– The End –
(of the first five years)
Oh, wait! I almost forgot: once the meal was over, we headed to a theatre because Julia had some costume fittings to do for an upcoming show. It just so happened to be the very theatre whose lobby we’d met in five years prior. So, we had a chance to revisit the night we meant in a very literal sense, and Julia snuck in a card, some chocolate mousse truffle things (which I was still too full to eat) and a strawberry plant. Because a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I saw them outside the grocery store and almost bought them because I desperately want to grow berries and veggies, but didn’t because we only have a porch, not a yard, but then after that, the parents of the girl I nanny offered their yard up for anything I felt like growing… so it was really sweet. 
Here are some really terrible cell phone camera pictures of us attempting to look cute in said theatre lobby:

*well, it would have been appropriate if I had actually written or posted this on that day. But I digress…

**yeah, so there was that whole thing where Julia dated another girl for two months while I pursued her relentlessly, but eventually she realized she felt the same way about me as I did about her, and that’s what really matters. [If you want the full story, ask and I will write a post about it for you.]

***Because that’s what married people do – take care of each other(‘s unfinished food.)

What a Vegan, Gluten-Free Dinner Party Looks Like

Just the right number of (smokin’ hot) cooks in the kitchen.
(I swear we were all in the kitchen until it was time to eat…)

Our second fabulous dinner party was a serious group effort. Although I did the menu planning, everyone pitched in to get all the ingredients together, and then everyone just took a dish and ran with it. I tend to be somewhat controlling (ok, I’ll admit it – I’m a complete control freak!) so I was mildly apprehensive about letting people help. But, as I am discovering over and over again lately, doing things together totally rocks.

It was, in a word, AWESOME, to share my kitchen with these fabulous women.

Here’s what we made:

Appetizers
Watermelon Salad with Mint and Lime (recipe)
Cucumber “Bruschetta” (recipe)


First Course
Plum, Raspberry, and Tarragon Soup (recipe)


Second Course
Zucchini Tagliatelle with Cucumber, Mint, and Lemon (recipe)
Zucchini Pasta with Pesto (recipe)
Yellow Potatoes with Swiss Chard, Garlic, and Rosemary (recipe)

[Imagine we did not eat it so fast, and there is a picture here.]

Dessert
Coconut Curry Ice Cream (recipe)

Comfort Food: New England Clam Chowder

When we went on our legal wedding/honeymoon in Boston last month, one of the first things we did was stop in a restaurant that Julia remembered for its excellent, authentic New England Clam Chowder. It was the first time I ever tried it – in my entire life! – and it was delicious. Also, as good as Julia remembered it being. While we were savoring it, we discussed how we really should find a recipe and make it at home, since previous efforts to find one up to Julia’s standards in Chicago restaurants had failed miserably. So a week or two ago, I scoured the net, and pulled a couple of recipes that seemed promising, based on Julia’s knowledge of what should and should not be in clam chowder. During the grocery trip last week, I bought all the ingredients as a surprise to her.
Then, at the end of last week, I was running a low-grade fever and feeling under the weather. Historically, I’m not much of a soup eater – probably because when I was growing up, “making soup” meant microwaving a can of Campbell’s and tossing in some oyster crackers – but Julia has managed to win me over with soups that consist of fresh ingredients, and simmered in a big pot for a while – no cans or microwaves allowed. What a difference real food makes. So, we decided to give the clam chowder a try, and, um AMAZING. We could not stop eating it… except that it is pretty rich, so you get to a point where you *have* to stop, even though you really, really *want* to keep eating it.

Here is the recipe, if you want to test it out on your own:
(I wish I could give credit, but it is a combo of a few recipes, an anonymous comment on a random food blog, and our addition of dill, which was specific to the restaurant in Boston, and happens to be a wonderful touch.)

1 yellow onion, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
32 ounces canned clams, chopped and/or minced (we used about half and half)
3 cups whole milk
3 cups heavy cream
3 large Yukon gold potatoes, diced
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper, to taste
¼ cup fresh dill, chopped

Saute onion in butter. Sprinkle in flour and cook until almost light brown. Pour in juice from clams and add bay leaf; simmer until thick. Pour in milk and cream; simmer again, adding potatoes and reserved clams. Cook until potatoes are tender but still firm. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir in dill.

Makes 8-10 servings, depending on how much you can eat in one sitting!