A Birthday Dinner for Friends

There are few things more satisfying to me, than to cook a meal for loved ones. To celebrate my birthday and the birthday of a friend, I took over another friend’s kitchen and we cooked a dinner for 13 people. It was a nice feast and an even nicer group of people.

IMG_3387The menu was full but not too ambitious. I was trying to do something in an autumnal theme, although a few ingredients like figs were not available so did not remain on the menu.

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The most ambitious item was the individual lemon soufflés. I did not have enough ramekins, so made a morning visit to the Chatuchak weekend market to buy a set of 20, along with a set of matching individual pitchers, perfect for serving sauces in.

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A salad of mixed greens including butter leaf lettuce, sunflower sprouts, and radicchio, with persimmon, pears, and pumpkin seeds. Served with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

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The side vegetable was a roasted saffron cauliflower, a Mediterranean-style dish from the cookbook “Plenty” by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. The combination of red onions, raisins, and green olives is fantastic.

IMG_3356The main course was a salt and herb-crusted pork loin with new potatoes. This dish, a mash-up from this recipe and another from Jamie Oliver, went okay but I didn’t have quite enough salt to make a full crust. As a result, the meat was just a tad dryer and the potatoes a tad undercooked. But still, very flavorful.

IMG_3364The finished product. I will play more with this means of cooking. The salt crust locks in moisture and adds seasoning.

IMG_3368To accompany the pork, I cooked an apple and onion chutney, based loosely on this recipe. I am not always good about following recipes.

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I think it made for a nice plate and reasonably healthful, too!

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Dessert was very ambitious. I had prepared the lemon cardamom base, which is essentially a choux pasty (milk, cream, flour, cornstarch, and egg yolks). I then added whipped egg whites. Sixteen of them, in fact.

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Top: as I put them in the oven (not quite as filled as they should be – I quintupled the recipe but only had enough for 13 instead of the expected 16). Bottom: just before taking them out. Since I did not smooth the tops, I didn’t get the typical “high hat” look.

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The end result was perfectly fine, though. Served with a side of raspberry coulis, the soufflés were a show-stopper. Recipe here.

I’m glad I could spend the night before my birthday celebrating with friends in the way I enjoy best: cooking for them.

Waffles and Fried Chicken

This past Saturday my friend Chow and I decided to tackle a combination I have heard a lot about but eaten only twice: fried chicken and waffles.

A classic of Southern US regional cuisine, the two go together better than I imagined. The waffles were light and tangy thanks to buttermilk and egg whites, which are folded in just before cooking.

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To give the chicken an extra layer of flavor, Chow whipped up a sauce of hot green chilies, cilantro, lime, vinegar, and honey. The kick cut through the richness of the meal.

We also prepared a slaw of cabbage, beets, daikon, and carrots plus a salad of cucumbers, sour cream, and dill. All in all, a tasty Saturday night feast.

An Umami Birthday Dinner

Trying to catch everyone up on my recent activities, in November I celebrated my birthday by cooking a dinner for some of my friends. One friend had recently remodeled his condo and was itching to have a dinner party to show off the new open-format kitchen. Never shy about messing up, err… cooking in someone else’s kitchen, I accepted his offer and started planning a meal around the theme of umami.

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Umami is the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). A Japanese word, it describes the “savory,” “meaty,” or “fulfilling” quality. Umami is tasted through glutamates, a type of amino acid that is found in foods such as mushrooms, anchovies, fish sauce, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and MSG.

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The appetizer course featured three umami-rich items: a Parmesan and wild mushroom custard, miso and bacon glazed eggplant, and whole grain toasts with avocado and soy-sauce dressed sardines. This was probably a wee bit ambitious as there ended up being so much food that this course was almost a meal in itself.

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The “soup” course was a bit clever, if I say so myself. I borrowed a friend’s ice cream maker and turned a roasted tomato soup into a granita and served it with Parmesan sorbet on top. It really had all the flavors of a tomato soup (plus a little spicy as I added dried chilies) with cheese sprinkled on top, but it was frozen.

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The main course was balsamic vinegar marinated roast chicken with green olives. This excellent choice of a marinade makes for rich, flavorful, and moist meat. Will definitely repeat this recipe.

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Accompanying the main corse were garlic and black truffle infused mashed potatoes with more Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

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We concluded the meal with a salad course, a Caesar salad with homemade dressing. This is the first time I’ve made Caesar dressing from scratch and it is incredibly easy and really much better than from a bottle. Served with homemade croutons with truffle salt.

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For dessert, I served an interesting Sicilian orange olive oil cake with homemade cardamom ice cream. The cake was interesting because it is made by quartering and boiling oranges (unpeeled) in three changes of water and then pureeing the oranges, rind and all, and incorporating it into the batter. The result is a moist, intensely flavored cake. The cardamom ice cream was an excellent compliment to the cake.

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While there were some friends who weren’t present, the dinner itself was a success. I was very happy with the dishes and while I would probably not be as ambitious next time, I think many of the recipes are worth visiting again.

 

Homemade Cavatelli

With friends visiting recently from the US, I asked if they would carry over a cavatelli roller I ordered online. When they arrived, I treated them to a meal of homemade cavatelli with homemade pesto sauce and chorizo.

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Cavatelli is a type of pasta. Roughly translated as “little cave” or “little cavity,” the pasta looks like miniature hot dog buns or, less favorably, maggots. But the shape is ideal for capturing sauce and being freshly made, they have a nice chewiness that you can’t find from dried pasta.

P1270639One classic version of cavatelli is made with ricotta cheese. That’s the version I tried and the resulting pasta is light and yet rich-tasting. After mixing the flour, ricotta, and one egg, you can still see flecks of the cheese in the dough.

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The dough is given a short kneading, but not nearly as much as most rolled out pasta. It is important that the dough be allowed to rest before you roll it out and cut it. It is also important that this dough be very dry. (Since you’ll ask, I was wearing gloves because I nicked my hand with a knife. Decided to wear gloves on both hands just to avoid the Michael Jackson look.)

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After the dough has rested, you cut it into strips about one inch wide. You must liberally flour the strips so it does not gum up the cavatelli roller. That’s a mess that is hard to clean up so best not to mess it up to begin with.

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The final step is to hand-crank the strips of dough through the machine. It is a clever little contraption that cuts off a length of dough, squishes it through two wooden rollers, presses it around a curve (adding the ridges at the same time) and then knocks the pasta off. This first attempt, the pasta was a little too moist and the pieces kept sticking requiring me to manually knock them off the last bar. The next attempt, I made the dough drier.

The end result was fantastic: hearty and toothy and very satisfying. Sure, there was a cloud of flour in the kitchen that required cleaning up, but that’s part of the fun.

Baking Double Crust Stuffed Pizza Pie

Between clients and visiting guests, these have been busy days. Still, I manage to find some time to get into the kitchen and cook. This evening it was an attempt at double-crust stuffed pizza pie.

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Unlike “deep dish” pizzas, which are single-crust pizzas with a very thick layer of toppings, a double crust stuffed pizza has the first layer of crust topped with all the normal pizza toppings minus the sauce, wrapped with a second layer of crust. The sauce, a bit drier and chunkier than normal, is put over the top crust and then the pie is baked. I first tried this style of pizza in the San Francisco Bay Area at Zachary’s and Little Star.

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In addition to making my own crust, using Tipo 00 flour from Italy and some rosemary from my garden, I made my own sauce, cooked some spinach, and cooked some mushrooms, draining them so there wouldn’t be too much extra liquid.

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After placing the bottom layer of dough in a cake tin, I added alternating layers of the ingredients: cheese, spinach, mushrooms, and pepperoni.

This video shows me adding the second crust, tucking it in, and adding the sauce. The only part of the pizza that was a problem was too much crust along the sides. In the future, I think I would cut the top dough to fit and just pinch the seams closed instead of having an overlap and folding the pieces together.

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The end result was beautiful. The crusts were crisp, the interior ingredients were a cheesy mass, and the slightly spicy sauce cut through the richness of the fillings.

 

Sunday Brunch

Last Sunday we had four couples over for brunch. It had been about two months since I last had guests over and was missing the sounds of a full house. Normally, because of our small dining table, we limit guests to four. However, you don’t get the opportunities to introduce groups of friends who have never met when you have so few guests, so I invited a larger crowd.

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In a moment of OCD, I actually printed the menu and tied it above the kitchen counter so guests could see what they were serving themselves. (Buffet style service today.) To save your eyesight, here’s the menu:

  • “Make Your Own” Parfait Bar – Fresh tropical fruits, homemade almond maple granola, local whole milk yoghurt, and Northern Thai honey.
  • Crostini – Made from Maison Jean Philippe baguettes drizzled with annatto seed and garlic infused extra virgin olive oil, served with fromage blanc from Yogi.
  • Salad – Imported black quinoa and chickpeas mixed with bell peppers, rocket, capers, raisins, and toasted almonds, dressed with black sesame tahini, lemon juice, and honey.
  • Main – Baked organic eggs Mediterranean style with spinach, Kalmatta olives, onions, feta and mozzarella cheese, and green onions. Drizzled with annatto seed and garlic infused extra virgin olive oil.
  • Bread – Whole wheat, toasted oat, walnut, and date muffins served with Swedish whipped honey.
  • Dessert – Choice of American cherry tart or American blackberry tart, served with Disaronno infused whipped cream and nutmeg garnish.

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Main counter with the parfait bar, crostini, muffins, and tarts from left to right.

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Second counter with the quinoa and chickpea salad and baked egg dishes. I had originally bought aluminum tins (tacky, I know, but easy clean-up) but didn’t look at the package count so had to cave in and use ramekins anyhow.

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The quinoa and chickpea salad. The market was out of regular tahini so I had to use an organic black sesame spread (think peanut butter made from sesame seeds) which required a lot of lemon juice to overcome the sweetness of the honey in the spread. The result was tasty, though, and very healthful.

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The muffins, although a little stunted, were tasty. With mostly whole wheat flour and lots of toasted oats, they were fairly healthful. Plenty of chopped dates added minerals, nutrients, and fiber. Oh, and a little sprinkle of sugar on top? Well, who can resist?

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One of the two tarts. One of my guests had not so subtly suggested I bake a cherry pie for dessert so I took him up on it. Decided to do a tart, though, so I could use puff pastry from the store. Unfortunately, while it looks impressive, the brand of pastry uses shortening instead of butter so I found it a bit tough. Looks nice, though!

The conversation was wonderful and some friends who had never met each other before finally had a chance to connect. Of course, some who did not know each other, knew of each other. It is a small world here, even smaller when you are in my condo!

Nut-Crusted Chicken Cutlets

One of my little pleasures in life is watching America’s Test Kitchen. While goofy and geeky (perhaps that’s why I like it), the team behind the show delivers interesting and informative recipes that make it easy to improve your cooking. Recently, I tried recreating their recipe for nut-crusted chicken cutlets and was very happy with the results.

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The recipe tackles the common pitfalls of nut-crusted chicken: flavorless chicken and bland, burnt, soggy, or oily crust. There are several tricks they suggest. One of the most interesting is to use panko (Japanese style breadcrumbs) which do a better job of remaining crisp. They also suggest browning the butter in a skillet and then toasting the nuts and breadcrumbs so they begin to caramelize before you ever bread the chicken cutlets.

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They further suggest salting the chicken and letting it rest for about thirty minutes before preparing the dish. This creates a dry brine, sealing in the chicken’s moisture. Finally, instead of frying in oil, you bake the breaded cutlets on a wire rack set above a baking sheet. This allows hot air to circulate, cooking and crisping the chicken on all sides without adding any more oil to the dish.

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The end result was fantastic – one of the first times I’ve had a breaded chicken cutlet that was actually moist and flavorful. The crust was crisp and buttery but not greasy or heavy. Definitely a good technique and one I will repeat!

The show is produced by the publishers of Cooks Illustrated magazine. They don’t accept advertising so all their evaluations of recipes, ingredients, and equipment are made based on quality alone. Their approach to recipes is to figure out how to achieve great results consistently, eliminating the pitfalls that plague some dishes.

The thing I like best about the show is that it is one of the few cooking shows on television that is actually about cooking. So much of what we see these days is about food and eating but not that much about the technique of preparing the food. It is a refreshing return to how cooking shows started out.