Dinner for Two

Thanksgiving has never been a normal holiday for me. The tradition of tradition never fully formed, rather my tradition is to do something new almost every year. Scotland thanksgiving in a dorm kitchen. Late night turkey dinners in the outskirts of Florence. Drives into the Adirondacks to pseudo-log cabins to an almost frozen lake. Army supplied turkey in a studio apartment high above the Seoul streets. Turkey with family and friends. It really never looks the same.

This year, yet again, my plans began to unravel as my schedule made me work a late night Thanksgiving eve and an early morning the day after. So, with around 24 hours to spare to myself, I had to decide, what would I do? Stay home in Brooklyn and essentially take up what would become the most typical American Thanksgiving ever – sleep in, eat, drink, nap, watch too much T.V., pass out, wake up to eat more pie, finally sleep until morning – or go home to do much of the same, just surrounded by family and animals?

When I woke up at 10:30am, I knew my decision had been made: lazy America here I come.

I, however, couldn’t be overly lazy. Who am I to wake up and never leave the house? My daily agenda has run, write, bike to work, work, and clean on it almost daily. So to erase all of that just down to “eat” would be a little drastic and insensitive. With a quick personal Turkey trot out of the way, and a wonderful meeting of friends from years past (see: I ate Thanksgiving with her in Italy) on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, I set off to the grocery store.

Granted, the day before I luckily carried money with me on a run in the morning and ran into a pop-up pre-Thanksgiving farmers market right by Prospect Park. It was, dare I say, almost magical. I loaded up with twenty dollars of produce (see: a bag of root vegetables, Brussels Sprouts, Kale, Apples (I was hungry for the now, too)). I also snagged an apple cider donut. The vendor asked “sugar or cake” “Sugar, please.” “That’s right, because sugar is so good for you after a run, right?” “Stop judging me, I want sugar.”

I still can’t believe I told him to stop judging me. He chuckled, I think.

At the grocery store, I must have lost consciousness or had a momentary bout of amnesia because I walked out with six bags of groceries and plans for six or seven dishes. On a normal Thanksgiving, that wouldn’t be too awfully crazy and hedonistic, but I was cooking for two, or three.

It was no later than two when I got home, unloaded groceries, put away the dried dishes, and started to chop my first onion. As opposed to my past dinner parties of flurry and fury and frantic last minute bouts of flash roasting – this was incredibly sustained, contained, and almost routine. With a Radiolab podcast teaching me about Patient Zeros (Typhoid Mary was a cook, didn’t you know?), I went through a pound of butter, five onions, a pound of Brussels Sprouts, a box of chicken stock, and made the house smell incredible for just three of us.

Come 5:30, I was ready. The oven kicked down from 350 to 200, and I anxiously awaited the doorbell.

Alas, by 6:45, it was two of us. My other companion had been held up by other turkeys and more mashed potatoes in bowls and on plates somewhere much north of me near to the infamous hipsterville. No matter, every Thanksgiving has a new tradition, and this one was simply to sit, take a deep breath of calm, sip on new wine, and strategically maneuver through too much food.

With Brussles Sprouts braised in Mustard, a White Bean Gratin, String Beans with Panko and Baby Portabellas, Roasted Spicy Fennel, Root Mash, Familial Stuffing, and two Spiced Pumpkin Maple Pies on the table, there was a lot to be thankful for and a lot of lying down after to do. Complaining or second guessing was no where to be found.

Here is my Thanksgiving menu. I hope you enjoyed yours, despite the cold or the traffic or the relatives that just wouldn’t stop pestering you about your new job or the one you can’t find anymore – there is too much to be Thankful for to ruin such a good day of food and relaxation.

Roasted Fennel (Salt, Red Pepper Flake, Olive Oil)

White Bean Gratin (White Beans, Onion, Kale, Garlic, Lemon, Salt, Pepper, Herbs de Provence, Cayenne, Panko, Olive Oil)

Stuffing (Bag-O-Crutons, Breakfast sausage, onions, butter, celery, carrots, Kale, Pepper, Chicken Stock, Red Wine)

Root Mash (Carrots, Rutabaga, Fingerlings, Russets, Parsnips, Milk, Butter, Salt, Pepper, Garlic)

Green Beans (Baby Portabellas, Green Onion, Oil, Salt, Pepper, Cayenne, Butter, Panko)

French Brussels (Brussels Sprouts, Onion, Garlic, Chicken Stock, Rice Wine Vinegar, Salt, Dijon)

Spiced Pumpkin Pie (Pumpkin, Milk, Maple Syrup, Nutmeg, Cloves, Cardamom, Salt, Ginger, Ginger Snaps, Butter, Salt)

Eggnog

Beaujolais Nouveau 2012

Malbec Mendoza 2011

 

White Bean Gratin (quick and easy way)

2 cans of white beans (Northern Beans)

1 Onion (chopped)

3 Cloves of Garlic (diced)

Six or so leaves of Tuscan Kale (flat leaves)

½ Lemon (the juice is what you’re looking for)

Rice Wine Vinegar

Two Dashes of Cayenne

Four Dashes of Herbs de Provence

Panko

Olive Oil

 

Pre-heat the oven to 350.

On medium-high heat, sautee the chopped onion and diced garlic until the onions start to loose their color. Add the Kale, and let it them wilt. Mix together the beans, cayenne, and Herbs in a separate bowl with the Kale is weeping. When the Kale has lost almost a quarter of their size (water weight), add the bean mixture. Let sautee for a few minutes and add the acids (lemon juice and vinegar – don’t use other vinegars. If you don’t have rice wine, it’s all good). Salt this mixture. I like salt, so I make it rain. If you don’t, don’t add as much.

Transfer this all to a casserole dish or something safe to head into the oven. In that bowl you mixed the beans and Herbs together in, empty about ¾ cup of Panko Bread Crumbs and 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil. Throw these on top of the bean-kale fiasco, and bake if off for about 30-45 minutes (let that top get crusty and golden brown.  Serve immediately.

Cut Brussels Sprouts And Simmering Soup

Ah, just got out work. What should I do? Hop on my bike and bike around the island? Eh. Go to the gym and hang out with some free weights? That could be fun. Grab some overly priced kale salad from that delicious little spot in SoHo? I would love to, but that spot in Brooklyn is so much better. Sigh. Go to the grocery store to pick up the start of food for twenty people to come over tomorrow. Getting better. Go to the farmers market down the street with a thirty pound bag of groceries to pick up discounted vegetables because it’s tens minutes until close? Hi, winter, I laugh in your face. Cook a soup to feed an army, start Brenda’s favourite thing in the world, cut about two hundred fifty Brussels Sprouts, and clean four heads of garlic and ten onions? Yes. Please.

Part of the magic you see in restaurants is, in a large way, because of those dedicated preparation cooks coming in at 7am to clean garlic, dice tomatoes, blanch everything green you would ever see on your plate (that isn’t raw) and essentially set up all of the mise-en-place [meez- uhn- pla-se). That is to say, when you come in, get your water – no ice – slice of lemon, appetizer, middle, and entrée, all of that is possible because most of those julienned, chopped, pickled things are set right next to cook’s massive cutting boards and sharpened knives.  When you try to do something that fancy at home, there is no way to match the speed of restaurants.

I was planning on cooking a dinner for twenty. If I had been a catering system, it would have taken me maybe three hours to get this set, and plated. Instead, it took me two days.

Two days ago, I hit up the grocery store after work to find all of my bulk items. Vinegar, oils, garlic, onions, squashes, grains, you know – those things that are necessary for a dinner party – supper club – to really take shape. Equipped with all of those in one bag (Trader Joe’s people really know how to pack a paper bag) I walked those six busy blocks to what was possibly the most sparse Green Market I’ve seen in New York history. I stopped for a second to really reflect on why that was – the storm approaching, Hurricane Sandy that just took a huge toll on people in the neighboring areas (please do your part helping those areas most affected…). It was four stands touting honey, two stands dedicated to baked breads, and one stand lacking most of those winter vegetables you love. No beets. No sunchokes. No potatoes larger than a fingerling. Only four bags of parsnips. No mushrooms. And for cry out loud: NO COLLARDS. It was shocking enough for me to alter my menu a bit. No more sunchoke puree. The beet dish had to chill a bit – I had no hopes of making it my main. And collard greens had to change to another tough cooking green. It was okay, because bacon makes everything better.

Once home, I felt invigorated. Here I was with all of this produce and ingredients in general, and a clean kitchen. I had sharpened knives, and three huge cutting boards. Let the games begin.

Earlier, on my train ride to the first food stop, I had mapped out what needed to happen that night, and what could happen the next day – that is: I was a Chef de Cuisine mapping out what I would tell myself as my own prep cook. Roast beets. Make soup. Start Brenda’s favourite. Cut Brussels. Create Mirepoix.

Three hours, I had gotten so far – the soup was pureed a la my first Brooklyn restaurant job’s amuse-bouche. The spiced carrot cake was sitting, aluminum foiled on my fridge. The back of my top shelf were lined with small bowls of split Brussels Sprouts. And with all of the dishes cleaned, I stood over my parsnip – butternut squash soup made with onion, garlic, celery, carrots, salt, pepper, and rice wine vinegar and enjoyed the soothing smooth taste. The squash had gotten enough direct heat to release its wonderfully autumnal sweetness with the parsnips balancing it out, brining nutty qualities and the mirepoix founding it in good, hearty, French style. With truffle oil on its way tomorrow, I was ready to go hard the next day. Little did I know I would have to trek through blizzard conditions to find Chinese bowls, French Bread, and Italian oils. Messenger, Delivery boy, Prep Cook, Sous, and CDC – you know, this is exactly why I love cooking supper clubs.

Thanksgiving: The Day Cooks Love (Or Fear)

Text: “How was your fantastic food holiday”

Message: “I’ve been waiting for your post.”

Question: “So, what’d you eat on Thanksgiving?”

It might be just the American thing to do: ask about that holiday where we gorge ourselves and delight and laugh at the fullness we feel, let alone and sometimes separate from the satiation that is ubiquitous throughout homes warmed by ovens cooking turkey at 350 for 3-6 hours. Or, it might be the fact that I think about, talk about, write about, take pictures of food twentyfourseven. Whatever.

To answer those questions: My fantastic food holiday was splendid. It was wonderful and full of family (not all of my family, unfortunately, since we’re all spread out across the country trying to take over, but of course!) and friends and going to the grocery store and stocking up, and writing down lists and trying to time the cooking procedures just right and working well with Nancy in the kitchen and the oven not working the night before and making ice cream that might not be ice cream rather just frozen milk fats surrounding brandy… it was ridiculous.

Thanksgiving is such a strange holiday for me. It’s one of those days that I feel drawn to the home so that I can really flex my culinary muscles – it’s a day that centers around my passion, so why wouldn’t I love every second of it? I get to go to the grocery store, fight through the hoards of people in line for a turkey, go to the wine shop to pick out a nice red to couple well with those few sides that people may or may not focus on, then come home, blast the oven, turn on the open flame, and zone out to the sizzling, whispering, steaming food in front of me.

It’s also the holiday that I feel most comfortable being away from home, strangely enough. In the past 8 years, I’ve spent 4 of them abroad or away from the home. It’s a nice challenge, it’s a nice reminder of home, when it’s so far away.

But this year. THIS year. This YEAR! I’m home. I’m on the path to turning my kitchen official. I’m making money so that I can splurge on that nice cheese to make the squash casserole just that much deeper, that much better. This year was great.

On the menu, dear readers all anxiously awaiting:

Turkey Prepared according to Saveur’s recommendation (including letting the bird sit in the refrigerator for two days, to “dry out” the skin to create oh-so-moist meat)

Grandma Slappin’ Good Stuffing (non-vegetarian, folks)

Homemade, not-so-bitter Cranberry Sauce

Butternut Squash Bake (or casserole, whatever nomenclature you prefer)

Mashed Potatoes (mmm Half n’ Half abound!)

Not Slimey, Not Bitter, Not disgusting Collard Greens

Brussels Sprouts cooked in a Wok. Who knew?

Braised Carrots

Gravy (please pass the water glass, it’s that good)

No Biscuits… sad face emoticon

Rye Whiskey Ice Cream

Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust

Spicy Pumpkin Pie

Since the Recipes would take up another four pages, let me choose some of the favorites:

Nancy’s Stuffing:

It’s a secret, how annoying.

 

Collard Greens (that won’t make you run to the garbage)

In order of appearance

6 Strips of bacon

Cook these strips, cut in half, for about 5 minutes over medium-high heat

Olive Oil – a splash(ish)

2 big ol’ handfuls of Collards (they’ll cook down)

Salt  (to taste)

Pepper (enough so that you can see it on the collards)

1 package of chestnuts

1 White (or red) onion, chopped (or diced, whatever floats your life-vest)

Add all of this to the bacon, and let it cook together, over medium-low heat, for about 45 minutes. It won’t get too soggy, I promise (there’s no real liquid in there, remember)

Add a couple swigs of maple syrup 10 minutes before you’re done cooking the greens. More if you like them sweet, less if you like them not as sweet.

Total, the flame should be kissing the bottom of your cast iron (or other pan) for about an hour and five to an hour and ten minutes.

If you let them cool, and save some for tomorrow, then they’ll be even sweeter and more tender. Just sayin, they go quite nicely on a “next day sandwich.”

Fall Is In The Air

Fall brings out some pretty corporeal desires in people. It makes people want to be indoors with large mugs of coffee. Kids want to play in big piles of leaves. Cinnamon is a welcomed scent wafting through any home. Rich dishes full of hearty, earthy flavors start to grace the plates of many. Scarves come out. The bundling in preparation for the winter starts to take shape. Coffee shops are fuller, and parks are empty in the chilly evenings. Pumpkins come out for Halloween, and apples come down from the trees. Hiking is in its peak season, and so is running. Flannel takes a place in the closet. Pajamas are a legitimate style option until noon on the weekends. Fruits find their way into cobblers instead of fresh on breakfast plates. Fall is a wonderfully enriching and restorative time.

People do, though, get a little funny about fall foods. They stop liking local vegetables simply because the vegetables go underground or get thick skinned. That is to say, carrots, beets, turnips, brussels sprouts, onions, rutabaga, squash, and pumpkin take center stage. Cucumbers get turned into pickles, and tomatoes are nothing but sauce. Unless, you out source from a warmer climate. But these days, when we all have such opportunity to eat locally and sustainably, why not?

Also why not take those unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcome vegetables and make them something new. Something you might enjoy. Whoever said that beets could only be pickled? Why not boil beets, cut them up then sauté them with a bit of butter, salt, pepper, and a touch of vinegar? Carrots don’t have to be raw or baked – why not braise them for a semi-soft carrot that’ll be memorable for days to come? Brussels sprouts are not only for cartoon artists to use as a food no kid likes, they are available to be made delicious – try sautéing them with browned butter, caramelized onions, kosher salt, and a pinch of sugar. Toss them with bacon and maple syrup. Add some chorizo for the meat loves. Broil with olive oil to caramelize.

And pumpkin is by no means only destined for pie or your porch, carved. That goes for squash, too. These wonderful gourds are packed solid with depth of flavor and density. They are solid, so they can stand up for almost any cooking technique. I personally love to bake them, to bring out the natural sugars.

This past weekend, I took advantage of the seemingly endless beautiful weather and had a picnic in Prospect Park. Enticed by the opportunity to cook and pack a picnic, and revved up by the seasonal and local produce, I had tons of ideas. What I settled on was, by many people’s standards, unconventional. Roasted pumpkin served with couscous, Macon apples, sautéed fennel, and green onion. I did go a little traditional with crackers, hummus, and grapes, just to not overstate anything, though.

Savory course covered with half of my pumpkin, I took to the sweet side of life with the other half to make a quick bread topped with a sour cream icing. The quick bread was amazingly moist because to utilize the pumpkin, I roasted it, then made a puree with the insides. Almost acting like an applesauce cake, this quick bread was dense, moist, but not heavy. I also cut back on sugar, so the bread itself was semi-sweet, then topped with the icing. Normally I go for a cream cheese frosting, in honor of Brianna, but I wanted a slight twang in this one. Sour cream acted well to counter-balance the over-sweetness of the confectionary sugar.

The results? The pumpkin, couscous, apple, fennel mixture was gone by the next morning. The quick bread didn’t even make it that far, finished off with licking the container.

Obsessed

Currently, I have three obsessions. Just three things that I constantly think about and have to hold myself back. Restrain myself from partaking in each and every day, every meal. And seeing as it’s a Friday, hopefully you, too, can go off into the weekend thinking about these things too…

Dough Donuts.

I would consider myself a healthy person. I run daily. I eat my fruits and veggies. I steer clear of over-indulgence. I have a glass of wine or beer occasionally. I hardly ever get too crazy with sugars (except for when I’m fresh off a run… I for some reason crave sugar like it’s my job. Cake? 9am? Back from a run? You bet your bottom dollar I’m there). I don’t get into really fatty foods cause they just made me feel all weighed down and lethargic. But, folks, I’ll put all of that on hold for a Dough donut.

Back in high school, I’d go crazy over Krispy Kremes. Then I grew up, and so did my taste buds. They’re good, but nothing to throw in the healthy towel for. I actually have this weakness for really good donuts, so if it’s an option, I’ll try a new one. I can resist those that I know (see: Krispy Kreme, Dunkin, anything from a box in a grocery store), but new ones I have to try. Have to. So at the farmers markets, I’m the one with a bag full of fennel and an apple cider donut, just for kicks.

Dough Donuts are something above all other donuts. I don’t care if I’ve tried each and every flavor, I will go back for more. I am completely obsessed. And the best part is, there are so many flavors. And we’re not talking just glazed and chocolate. No. We’re taking Hibiscus, Blood Orange with candied rinds, Dulce de Leche with slivered Almonds, Lemon Poppy Seed, Toasted Coconut, Chocolate Earl Grey, Chocolate with chocolate nibs, Cinnamon Sugar, Café au Lait, Berry Glazed… the list goes on a changes frequently.

And these donuts are simply on another level. They are large and yeasty with pockets of air built into their pillowy soft circular frame with slightly crispy barriers that aren’t too sweet so that the icing, the flavors can come through and pop. The dough itself is simultaneously a medium for the flavor, as well as an extravagant flavor in itself. Beautifully obsessed.

Consider: Brunch.

Of all things to be obsessed with, brunch seems like one of the last things to be all stir crazy over. I mean, it’s a meal. Anything can happen. But in New York, they take their brunches seriously. All you can drink mimosas and bloody mary’s to entice you in. Prix Fixe menus to excite the lavish diners. Tables that can be reserved for three hours as you wine and dine in the middle of the day because, well, you can. It’s Saturday. Or Sunday. Or any day of the week, seemingly for some New Yorkers.

Last Sunday I met up with a really dear friend, Mary, to catch up over a prix fixe menu at The Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights. We each got different things, save the Dew Drop drink of grapefruit juice and prosecco. Beignets came out first, followed by a savory crepe of a light fish topped with dill crème sauce and a soft poached egg. To the side, cottage fries. Mary had an egg dish akin to Eggs Benedict,that was out of this world good with a cheesy Hollandaise-like sauce worth telling others about.

But it wasn’t this restaurant that got me all hot and bothered, rather just the idea of relaxing with friends eating good food sitting in perfect weather with light plans throughout the day, living the life of an affluent person, if not just for three hours.

I’m obsessed.

The last person I’m obsessed with: this girl. I saw her at a concert, and fell in love. I wish you could have seen her. She had an amazingly cute voice and played the ukelele.

Try them out. Dough Donuts. Brunch. And find this girl. She’ll brighten your day.

Please Sign the Guest Book. There’s Complimentary Cake.

Yes, I had a great and wonderful and absolutely amazing time with my mom and Emily.  Then, one day after their departure, another friend from home, who has been passing the last year in France, came to visit the illustrious city of Seoul. During her stay, yet another friend – this time from College – came from Beijing to visit. So for the past 22 days, my apartment usually fully of smells and dirty dishes and new experiments sitting on plates waiting to be photographed was, instead, full of people.

I’ve learned a few things from this month of playing the host.

One, it really is true about what they say, or what I’ve heard: You start to appreciate your city when you show it around. As I showed Mom, Emily, Laurel, and Drew around the palaces, temples, markets, restaurants, and late night venues, I started to realize, yet again, how amazing this city is. Ever feel like you’re stuck in your own town? Try showing someone around it – you’ll get strangely proud of the place.

Two, cooking at home connects me to my food, and makes me enjoy it that much more. In my hosting-days, I only cooked two nights – all of those other nights were spent running around the city trying to find the best restaurant to show off one kind of cuisine or another. Barbeque, bibimbap, kimchi jjigae, vegan, burgers, buffet, street food – I’ve had it all in the past month. Now, it’s back to the kitchen.

Three, the air mattress I borrowed was actually… a pool float. How did I exactly determine this? See the following:

This is not a life saving device. Always provide the supervision necessary for the continued safety of your child. Never allow diving into this product… There are risks using this product as a water craft.

For that, I apologize to all of my visitors. Similarly, you now have a great story to tell: “When I was in Seoul, the only thing I could find to sleep on was a floaty…”

Four, I have plenty to catch up on with this blog. The last thing I cooked, to usher in a good visit for my mom and Emily was a green tea cake.

I have to admit that this cake actually wasn’t for them. Rather, it was for one of my coworkers that wrote on a little sticky note “Green Tea Cake for Anne… Soon.” Many of my coworkers found out that I have a knack for baking, and appreciate any and every time I wander into the office with a full plate of cookies, breads, or cakes. On the day of my first visitor’s arrival, I was a flutter with excitement and unusable energy. I wanted to go for three runs and do yoga for four hours, but I had to keep myself calm so that I could meet them with all the energy in the world. So, productivity be dammed, I baked.

Green Tea cake is actually very easy, considering you have the special ingredient: Macha. Macha is green tea powder (Garu-Nokcha in Korean), that they say Monks use to concentrate during long meditation session. Or I just made that up, it’s hard to say with blogs, eh?

This cake was also the first time I used yogurt in a cake. It turned out to be ingenious given that the extra moisture in the cake was due to the yogurt.

All in all, after the green monster of a batter, and the anxious minutes in the oven, out cake beautifully toasted green cakes that were both spongey and fluffy. Sweet but mellowed out by the strong green tea flavor. Dessert like, but also a nice accompaniment to morning coffee.

Although my mom and Emily were appreciative of the baked goods upon their arrival, it was my coworker, Anne, who got the biggest kick out of the green tea cake. Placing a full cupcake on her desk, she squealed with excitement and told me that she had to save it so that her husband could try it too.

The next day, before her compulsory anyeonghasaeyo, she told me “My husband thought it was the best he’d ever had.”

That’s a compliment, if I’ve ever had one.

In the next week, expect more stories from hosting, some from work and even more from explorations as of late.

Also, if you’re a Simon and Garfunkel fan, check out this mix tape. It’s on repeat right now as I whip through batters and stir-frys and roasted vegetables.