Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sangria Season!

Oh Sangria, my dear, dear friend- is there no situation that you can’t make better with your presence? I want to thank you for hanging out this past weekend and making not only my Friday night post-work decompression time all the more relaxing, but also staying over to share your festive spirit with our dinner soiree guests, it was much appreciated!

Sangria is such a versatile cocktail, and it lends itself well to a lot of different flavor combinations, and meal pairings. It is the perfect way to get some extra mileage out of less expensive wine, and a great way to showcase fresh seasonal fruits. I personally find it a lot of fun to fish bits of Triple Sec laced fruit out of a glass while sitting around and relaxing with friends. Last summer I had a group of friends who would get together for weekly summers and without fail, my friend Alyssa and I would whip up a big batch of white or red Sangria for the gang. The options are really endless for making Sangria, and as a result each person’s approach is a bit different, but the results are almost always fun!

The vast majority of times, I find most restaurant versions to be overly sweet, with too much emphasis on fruit juice, and not enough on the wine and actual fresh fruit (the exception being Salvation Café, a fabulous Newport spot that makes is perfectly!). I prefer my Sangria a little less on the sweet side, with lots of fresh citrus for a refreshing finish. Too much added sugar can leave you with the “mouth coat” feel, which is not appealing when the mercury starts to rise. When making Sangria for a party or get together, I usually start it a few hours in advance, leaving ample time for the fruit to infuse the mixture and absorb some of the Triple Sec- the extra time gives the finished Sangria a bit more cohesion, and gives the ingredients a better chance to come together. A few years ago I started adding fresh herbs to cut a little of the sweetness of the Triple Sec, and the end result was a well balanced, porch sipping Sangria that is perfect for the upcoming holiday weekend.

Red Sangria with Fresh Fruit & Herbs

- 1 .75ml (standard) bottle of Pinot Noir
- ¾ Cup Grand Mariner or other Triple Sec
- 1 Lime, halved & sliced thinly
- 1 Star or Ruby Red grapefruit, halved & sliced thinly
- 2 White peaches, sliced
- 3 Plums, sliced
- ½ Cup fresh Basil leaves, torn
- ¼ Cup fresh Mint leaves, torn
- 6-8oz. Seltzer water- I prefer using Pomegranate or any other flavored seltzer

Combine fruit, herbs & Triple Sec in a large, wide bottomed pitcher. Using a wooden spoon, begin lightly bruising fruit & herbs against the bottom and sides of the pitcher, releasing some of the juice into the mixture. Set aside for at least 30 minutes. Give mixture a good stir and add in wine. Cover & place in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes, or even overnight if time allows. Just before serving, remove from refrigerator, add in seltzer and stir well. Serve over ice.

Note: Any fresh seasonal fruits are a perfect addition to Sangria- other recommendations would be blueberries, strawberries, black raspberries, star fruit, clementines, apples, etc.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Friday Night Sandwich Fix

Friday night, just after walking in the door from work, is one of my favorite moments of the week. No matter how strenuous your work week, no matter how many frustrating phone calls were made, packages were lost, or clients were disgruntled, you’re HOME. And the whole weekend stretches out in front of you with a warm smile. For me, Friday night is like a mini birthday every week, in which you can treat yourself to that extra glass of wine, slip into something comfortable and tell the world of commerce you’ll check back in 72 hours.

This past Friday was an especially stressful day in my little world, and when I came home, there was nothing I wanted to do more than relax- and I proceeded to do just that! I had all good intentions on starting preparations for a small dinner party we were having on Saturday, but I passed on that and went directly to making a pitcher of Sangria (recipe to follow soon) and pulling together an easy dinner. The weather has been hot & muggy in Newport, and the last thing I was interested in was standing in front of a hot stove for an extensive period of time, especially when that stove has no hood vent. I had been playing out an idea for a meal-worthy sandwich in my head for a few days, comprised wholly of items already in my kitchen, and knew it would fit the bill to a “T”. Prep involved just enough work so that I felt productive (and what better way to get out some work frustrations then smashing a couple of cloves of garlic?), and assembly and cleanup were a snap.

I’m sure there are those out there that might scoff at a mere sandwich recipe, but for me there is something really wonderful about layering flavors together into a delicious handheld meal. Scoff if you must, but I am beyond satisfied with the end sandwich product (is there really nothing the sandwich can’t do???), and more importantly, so was my husband. ;-)

Tuscan Chicken Sandwich for Two
- ½ Loaf of crusty Italian bread, whole wheat or white
- ½ Medium vine ripened tomato, sliced
- ¼ Sweet Vidalia onion, sliced thin
- 1 Grilled chicken breast, sliced
- ¼- ½ Cup good shredded Parmesan cheese
- 4-6 Pitted Kalamata olives, sliced
- 6 Basil leaves
- Lemon-Garlic mayonnaise (recipe follows)
- Handful of salad greens
- Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper

Lemon-Garlic Mayonnaise
- 3 Tblspns good quality mayonnaise
- 1 Large or 2 small cloves of garlic, peeled
- Zest from ¼ of a lemon
- Juice from ¼ of a lemon
-1 Tbspn fresh Italian parsley, chopped
-Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper

For Mayonnaise: Crack garlic cloves and rough chop. Sprinkle garlic with sea salt, and using the side of the knife, work the garlic into a smooth paste by running over a few times until proper consistency is reached (add more salt accordingly to help break down garlic & soften flavor). Combine all ingredients in a bowl and combine well. Set aside while assembling rest of sandwich.

To Assemble Sandwich: Preheat oven broiler to low. Split bread length-wise and place on a baking sheet, cut side up. Place under broiler, approx four to six inches below broiler plate and toast bread (I would advise keeping an eye on the toasting, as bread can go from brown to black in a flash!). Remove bread from broiler. Coat the “bottom” side of the bread with Lemon-Garlic mayonnaise and top with tomatoes, olives, and sliced chicken. Coat the “top” with mayonnaise, onions and basil leaves. Sprinkle both sides with parmesan cheese and season with salt & pepper to taste. Place sandwich back under broiler for another 4-6 minutes, or until cheese is melted and browned. Remove sandwich from oven, top “bottom” with salad greens & cover with “top”. Slice in half & serve with favorite sandwich sides.

Curried Eggplant Delight

As we are now officially into the summer season, my menu planning takes a turn to lighter, more refreshing meals. I get a lot of daily recipe and cooking emails, and one such recent email fit the bill perfectly for using fresh summer produce, and employing fresh herbs from my windowsill. Real Simple is hands down one of my favorite magazines (I’ve been an avid reader and subscriber for the past two years), and a lot of their recipes ascribe to my cooking philosophy of keeping it simple (no surprise there!) in order to showcase the natural flavors of the ingredients. When the recipe for Curried Eggplant & Tomatoes with Basil popped up in my inbox, I knew it would be a smash success, and it was! I used the original recipe as a guide a tweaked for my own taste. My husband and I both really enjoyed it- the combination of eggplant and chickpeas made for a substantial vegetarian meal that left us both really satisfied. I used just a bit of light yogurt to add a little richness to the sauce, and the basil and curry played off of each other really well. Instead of serving it over rice (as suggested in RS’s recipe), we opted to use cauliflower mash, which cut out some of that heavy carb feeling and upped the veggie intake. I actually had the leftovers the next day for lunch, and the curry flavor was more saturated after a night in the fridge. It’s an easy weeknight meal to pull together, and I would even recommend serving it at a casual dinner party- it would be great for a homestyle dinner where large dishes are passed, and would go well with homemade pita chips on the side. All in all, a wildly tasty dish!

Curried Eggplant with Tomatoes and Basil
(Adapted from Real Simple, Cauliflower recipe my own)

For the Cauliflower Mash:
-1 Medium head of fresh cauliflower, broken into florets
-2 Tbspns salted butter (optional)
-2 Tbspns low fat Greek yogurt
-Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper

Steam cauliflower florets over boiling water in a vegetable steamer until fork tender. Remove from heat & transfer florets to a large bowl heatproof bowl. Add in butter & yogurt and mash using a handheld masher, stick blender or hand beaters until smooth. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Mash can be kept warm over a low simmering pot of water for up to 30 minutes. Give mash a good stir before plating.

For the Eggplant Curry:
-1 Large eggplant, about 1-1 ½ lbs. cut in 1 inch pieces
-1 Pint cherry tomatoes, halved
-1 Medium onion chopped (I recommend a sweet onion, such as Vidalia)
-3 Medium cloves of garlic, minced
-1 15.5-16oz Can of chickpeas, rinsed & drained
-3+ Tblspns good curry powder (I used Spice Island’s Spicy Curry Powder for a little extra kick)
-Good handful of fresh basil, chopped
- ¼ - ½ Cup of low fat Greek yogurt
-Olive oil
-Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper
-Red pepper flakes (optional)
- Couple tspns fresh cilantro, minced (optional)
-Crumbled goat cheese (optional)

In a large sauté pan or wok, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until slightly translucent- about 3 minutes. Add in tomatoes and continue cooking for a few minutes, seasoning with salt & pepper. Add in eggplant, and cook until it begins to soften slightly about 5-7 minutes. Stir in garlic, curry powder and red pepper (if using), and cook another few minutes until fragrant (adjust curry powder to your personal taste, I tend to be a bit heavy handed personally). Add in chickpeas and about 1- 1 ½ cups of water and stir to combine all ingredients well. Simmer, stirring occasionally until vegetables are tender and chickpeas are heated through, about 15 minutes or so. Turn off heat, add in basil and yogurt and stir to combine well. Adjust salt & pepper seasoning to taste. Serve over cauliflower mash with chopped cilantro and goat cheese sprinkled on top.

Note: This dish would also be wonderful over brown rice, Israeli (or regular) couscous or any other hearty grain.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Champagne, Sherry and Happy Anniversary!

This is not really a new recipe post, but more of a re-test of a sauce I already posted on, and I wanted to bring its deliciousness to the forefront again! As some may know, last Monday was our 2nd wedding anniversary, and I was under the impression that my husband was not going to be home until Tuesday, as he has been down in the Gulf working with the oil spill relief project. Low and behold that sneaky fella actually booked a flight home for the actual night of our anniversary! Needless to say, I was very surprised (and in the midst of painting my toenails in my pajamas) when he came through the door, but beyond thrilled to see him. We relaxed Monday night, and Tuesday I cooked him a big anniversary dinner and we relaxed all night with champagne, tasty food and each other.

 I first made this Garlic Sherry Brown Butter Sauce when I did pan seared lamb chops when my mother was visiting and absolutely loved it, as did she! I had purchased some fabulous filet mignons at the store and had a good feeling about the pairing. Not to toot my own horn, but it was wonderful! The delicate & buttery texture of the filet with the warm Brown Butter Sauce were a perfect pairing, and Sherry played beautifully off of both the champagne and the mushroom risotto served on the side (which also acted as a great vessel for sopping up any remaining sauce!). After making this sauce a few times, I am confident I will make it again and again- it is elegant, simple and comes together quickly for a lovely accompaniment to any good cut of meat, be it filet of beef, lamb, veal, buffalo or even a meaty fish such as swordfish or halibut!

Garlic Sherry Brown Butter Sauce
(follow same directions recommended for lamb for cooking any red meat)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cocktail Party Season!

One of my favorite things about warmer weather is entertaining outside. Whether it’s throwing a couple of steaks or chicken breasts on the grill on a weeknight, or an all out backyard soiree, eating al fresco seems to make things a bit more special. In the past couple of months, we’ve hosted a couple of small cocktail parties at our house during the week, and it’s been a blast. One of my favorite parts about cocktail parties (whether hosted indoors or out) is putting together a simple spread of bite sized food with a little something for everyone. I always put out a couple of cheeses with crackers, a cured or dried meat, nuts, crudités, a bowl of marinated olives and a couple of spreads or dips. Most of the components are pre-made, so throwing together a great looking appetizer table is easy, and really only requires a little arranging and tweaking. Time permitting, I like to put out at least two “from scratch” elements to add a little personal flavor to the scene, and it’s even more enjoyable if you encourage guests to bring a snack to share.

In warmer weather, my go to choices are most often seafood based, as it is satisfying without weighing you down, and pairs well with summer white wines, lighter beers and clear spirits. For a while now I have been making a smoked salmon spread that has made appearances at cocktail and porch parties from Annapolis to Maine. It is very simple to pull together, and is great when served with cucumber slices, water crackers or pumpernickel toast. I’ve also used this as a stuffing for hollowed out peproncini- the kick of the pepper plays well off of the coolness of the spread. I would recommend making the spread in advance, so the flavors have time to come together while chilling overnight.

If you end up with any leftover (a rarity!) it is also great with toasted bagels in the morning. I have rarely actually given the recipe out for the spread, but I think it’s time to bite the bullet and share, so long as I get credit at your next porch party! ;-)

Smoked Salmon Party Spread

-16oz Package regular cream cheese- room temp
-16oz Package whipped cream cheese
-2 to 3 Tblspns sour cream/mayo/plain yogurt (optional)
-16oz Wild caught smoked salmon (I usually use the pre sliced Scottish style in the cryovac’d package for easy preparation)
-8oz. Capers, chopped fine, brining liquid reserved
-1/2 to 1/4 Red onion, minced fine
-Good bunch of fresh dill, minced (adjust to suit personal taste)
-Juice from ¼ lemon
-Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper
-Couple shakes of hot sauce (optional)

In a good size bowl, combine first three ingredients and mix until well blended. Remove salmon from packaging, mince finely and add into cream cheese mixture. Add in capers, onion, dill and lemon juice, and mix until well combined. If spread is a bit thick, add in a small amount of brining liquid from capers to loosen and mix well. Season with salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. Cover well with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Remove from refrigerator an hour or so before serving to let soften a bit.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fresh From the Sill

I want to start off by acknowledging that I have been massively behind in my updating and posting, apologies all around! It has been an extremely busy season around our little home in the past month or so (details of the adventures over on The Humble Home soon!), but I am now starting to feel a bit caught up, and ready to kick into summer into full swing!

One responsibility that most certainly went unattended would be my container garden. While I kept up with watering and daily maintenance, it really wasn’t not getting the care it deserved, and I began to feel the guilties. As a result, I spent all afternoon this past Sunday giving my containers so much needed TLC- trimming, cutting back, re-potting, feeding, the whole rigamaroll! One look at my lovely basil plant, and I knew it was time to use up a good amount to make way for fresh growth, and the easiest way to accomplish this is making pesto.

I have been making pesto for at least the past 10 years, when my friend from college began requesting it as often as possible. My mother-in-law makes a fabulous pesto with a couple different variations, and I remember her handing us a cooler stocked to the brim with fresh sauce before our move to Annapolis a few years back, it was much appreciated! It is such a simple and beautiful sauce that not only uses up a large surplus of fresh basil, but is also quite economical if you grow your own. It can be applied to just about and scenario (pasta, dressings, pizza, over grilled meat or fish, sandwich spread, etc.) and freezes well- a trait I greatly appreciate! It abides by one of my favorite cooking rules of taking simple, fresh ingredients and working them together so that each element is still acknowledged and highlighted by the other components.

Much like a red tomato sauce, pesto sauces come in a wide range of variations, and each chef touts theirs as the best. Another parallel to red sauce would be the execution- for me it’s predominantly eyeballing the ingredients and adjusting as I go each time, so stick with your instincts. For this latest evolution, I was practicing the “use what you have” mantra, and set out to only incorporate what I had on hand. Absentmindedly, I had tossed the last of my pine nuts into my lunch salad, and only after finishing my lunch did I realize that maybe I should have had a little forethought. So I turned to plan “B”. I had a big bag of raw almonds in my pantry, toasted them up, and threw them in- what a fabulous addition! Almonds have less calories and a lower fat content per serving, which gives you a slight nutritional edge as well.

I’ve been eating my Almond Pesto for two days now (currently as I type, mixed with mashed cauliflower and a little lemon zest for lunch!), and it still is just as bright and fresh. If anything, I find it best after it has been refrigerated overnight- it gives the flavor more time to come together.

There is a certain sense of pride one feels when you are able to not only make something completely from scratch, but also be able to create a dish or element out of something you have personally cultivated from the ground up. Homegrown always tastes the sweetest!

Toasted Almond Pesto Sauce

-2 Good sized bunches (handfuls) of fresh basil leaves, stemmed
-4 Cloves of garlic, peeled & smashed (easier to blend)
-1/2 to 2/3 Cup of fresh grated Parmesan cheese
-2/3 Cup raw almonds
-1/2 to 3/4 Cup good olive oil
-Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper, to taste

Heat a dry sauté pan over medium heat and add in almonds. Occasionally shake pan to toss almonds to toast uniformly, about 7-10 minutes. Remove almonds from heat & cool. In a blender/food processor, pulse almonds until roughly chopped. Scrape down sides, add in garlic, basil, parmesan and a little oil and pulse. Scrape down sides, and continue adding oil until proper consistency is reached (I like my pesto to be a bit chunky, so I try not to over process). Season with salt & pepper to taste, transfer to a dish and cover tightly with plastic wrap if storing in the refrigerator, or use immediately.

Excellent additions include: fresh lemon zest, sun dried or oven dried tomatoes, black olives, flat leaf parsely (if you are stretching your basil a bit), marinated mushrooms, balsamic reduction, etc.