Oscar Night 2012 (In photos)

We have a semi-weekly tradition with some friends of ours that goes something like this: we gather at their house; eat a lovely dinner, which they have prepared; bend our elbows; and treat ourselves to a dessert prepared by yours truly.  This sort of activity usually revolves around watching whatever HBO drama we’re currently obsessed with; however, getting together to eat, drink, and be merry is reason enough for us!

In addition to this routine, we also make a point to spend Oscar night together.  We keep it simple with tapas-style finger foods to allow for maximum Oscar-viewing.  This year was no exception.  Despite my heavy class load this semester, I made room in my agenda for cooking – seeing as how this was a special occasion.

On the menu:

Courtesy of Pat and Holly:

Salmon tartare with crème fraiche and chives, barbequed chicken wings, and crudité with homemade blue cheese dip. 

From my kitchen:

Spicy cheddar cheese straws, lamb meatballs with tzatziki, cucumber/dill/tomato/red onion salad, and a French chocolate tart. 

A rundown of what I made (in pictures) –

These were so incredible.  And so easy. 

It was sort of like a cross between a cake and a brownie.  Chocolate is the answer to all of life’s problems.

The trick with lamb meatballs is to evenly brown them and finish them in the oven – there is less chance of them drying out this way.

We had a great time, the food was delicious, and a bottle of Prosecco topped off the evening.  Who needs the Oscars when we have great company?

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Easy As Pie (or Tart)

There are a number of vegetables that can most usually be found hanging out in our refrigerator here at home.  At any given time, you will probably find broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, celery, carrots, and brussels sprouts.  With these vegetables, come the usual preparations: roasting, rolling in prosciutto, sauteing in bacon fat, etc.  Yes, those are all great ways to prepare pretty much any vegetable, but last night I was hoping for something more.  Something different.

I have quite a large stockpile of Bon Appetit magazines taking up valuable real estate in my kitchen, so I grabbed an issue and started flipping around.  I’ll agree that it’s often easier to take inspiration from websites and the like (because it’s faster), but there is something leisurely about turning the pages of a magazine that I will always enjoy.  As I flipped through, I came across an article about savory tarts.  I love tarts of all kinds (sweet and savory) and I love making them, so this seemed like an obvious choice for dinner.

The thing about savory tarts is that they are so flexible and so forgiving.  All you really need is a good tart shell (store-bought if you’re not inclined to make your own), some delicious ingredients for the filling, and a couple of eggs.  For this one, I used cauliflower, asparagus, and caramelized onions.

I rushed home from class yesterday and began in on my tart shell.  I’ve experimented with several different versions of savory tart shells; some that require par-baking and others that do not.  It’s really up to you, honestly.  If you can’t be bothered to make your own, just pick up a pie crust from the market.  Keep a few in your own freezer at home for future use.  However, I will say that this tart shell was relatively easy and didn’t require any par-baking.

Because my pile of homework never appears to get any smaller, I wanted to do as much ahead of time as I could.  So, I popped the cauliflower and asparagus into the oven and let it do most of the work.  After thinly slicing a red onion, I added it to a skillet and patiently waited as the house began to fill with the lovely sweet smell given off in the caramelizing process.  Before I knew it, I had all of my components ready and “dinnertime” was still about 2 hours away!  Everything kept well in the fridge while I returned to Great Expectations.


This is just what I love about savory tarts.  In no time, the components are ready for assembly, and life as I know it doesn’t have to stop in order to prepare a delicious dish.

Cauliflower, Asparagus, and Caramelized Onion Tart
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2007

For the tart dough:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon, plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes, chilled
1 egg, beaten

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, cornstarch and salt.  Add butter and pulse until mixture is broken down into small, floured bits.  Add the beaten egg and pulse until a dough forms.  It may be necessary to remove dough from bowl of food processor and knead on a lightly floured work surface.  This dough is tough; don’t give up on it.  Roll out dough into a 12-inch circle and place it in a 9-inch pie plate or tart pan and press to remove air bubbles.  Crimp edges and place in fridge for at least 30 minutes.  No par-baking necessary.

For tart filling:

1 small head of cauliflower (~ 1 pound), cut into 1-inch florets
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
pinch of truffle salt (or 1 tablespoon truffle oil) (optional)
1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup whole milk (or cream)
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
pinch of ground nutmeg
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese (Swiss or Comté are fine, as well)

Method:

Pre-heat oven to 425ºF.  Toss cauliflower with 2 tablespoons olive oil in large bowl.  Spread on rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with kosher salt and black pepper and let roast for 15 minutes.  Add asparagus pieces to cauliflower, give it all a good stir, and let roast for an additional 10- 15 minutes until brown and tender.  Cool the mixture slightly and give the cauliflower pieces a rough chop.  Sprinkle with truffle salt or drizzle with truffle oil, if using.

Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF.

Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Add onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook until onion is a deep golden brown, stirring occasionally – roughly 30 minutes.  Cool slightly.

Set the tart on a rimmed baking sheet.  Spread the bottom and sides of crust with mustard.  Spread onion over mustard.  Arrange cauliflower and asparagus mixture over the onion.  Whisk eggs, sour cream, ricotta, milk, pepper, and nutmeg in a medium bowl.  Stir in cheese.  Pour mixture over vegetables and bake until tart is golden and the center is set, about 40 minutes.  Transfer to rack and cool 15 minutes before serving.


Loving this!


Beer and Bread

Ever since I started taking food and cooking seriously (about 8 years ago) I have always tried to adapt recipes to suit me or whatever ingredients I happened to have on hand.  I would scour cookbooks (old and new), browse blog after blog, and question interrogate friends, family member, and sometimes strangers, in order to formulate a recipe that suited my tastes.  I was never afraid of trying new things, and luckily, that fear has remained at a distance. 

Sometimes, though, a recipe comes along that needs no alteration.  The ingredients and process are so thoughtful and perfect that it would be a crime to make any drastic changes.  The recipe I offer to you in this post is exactly that.  And it comes from one of my most favorite food bloggers, Deb at Smitten Kitchen.  I’ve been reading her blog since 2007, and have adapted many a recipe in whatever small apartment kitchen I had at the time.  Now, I share a house with my lovely fiancé, Scott, and although our kitchen is not large by any means, it is more workable than the broom closets of my past.

The other night, Scott and I attended a birthday/poker party at the house of a lovely couple we’ve known for awhile.  The charge was to bring “finger foods” and oddly enough, I had just read her post about Beer, Mustard, and Cheddar Pull-Apart Bread.  Truthfully, I needed no occasion to make this bread, but a birthday/poker party was the perfect “excuse.” 

For the last two or three years, I’ve really gotten into baking; everything from brioche, to cakes, to pies, to tortes, to the occasional cupcake.  Baking gives me comfort and when I saw this recipe on Deb’s site, I absolutely could not pass it up.  There’s something so satisfying about the smell of bread baking away in the oven.  And who could say no to anything with beer and mustard in it??  And cheese??

If you don’t already know about Smitten Kitchen, you should.  Please.  Visit her blog, marvel at her gorgeous photographs, and be grateful for her thorough instructions.  When I consult with Smitten Kitchen, I feel like I’m talking with a friend, and when I adapt her recipes, or in this case, bake by the book, I really feel like she’s here in my kitchen, cheering me on. 

So, thank you Deb, for being my go-to mentor in my time of need.  Thank you for the inspiration I need when I feel my life is just too busy and I can’t be bothered to switch on the oven.  We share an affinity for bourbon in food, conquering culinary obstacles like homemade pasta, and indulging whatever our current craving might be.  In my book, that’s as good as gold.  Cheers to you, Deb.

You can find this recipe for Cheddar, Beer, and Mustard Pull-Apart Bread, here.  While you’re there, stay awhile and look around.  You won’t be sorry.


Gulasch Nacht

Last weekend, after a long spell of suspiciously nice weather, we finally received what the Midwest does best during the winter: snow.  To me, it was a welcome sight; it was Saturday, I had no errands to run, so I stayed inside to cook and bake.  It’s now later in the week, the snow is still on the ground and the temperatures are, at long last, reflecting the season.  For whatever reason, last night felt like a “goulash night” (you know how I love my designated food nights). 

Growing up, my mom would prepare goulash several times a year, usually in the winter months.  It was full of ground beef, stewed tomatoes, bell peppers, and elbow macaroni.  I always loved it, but never really realized that what I was eating wasn’t exactly authentic.  It was a Midwest version of a Hungarian staple, sometimes referred to as “American Chop Suey.”  

I wanted to go as authentic as I could last night, so I decided to omit the ground beef, stewed tomatoes, bell peppers, and elbow macaroni.  So, what’s left, you ask?  I kept beef, but chose to go with cubes of sirloin rather than ground.  I packed it full of yellow onions, paprika (both sweet and smoked), and I decided to go with dumplings in lieu of potatoes or noodles.

From what I learned after researching goulash, the key to a rich and tasty dish are the onions.  You may be thinking the defining ingredient should be the paprika, and yes, that’s important as well.  But the onions, oh the onions.  Slice them as thin as you can – we used the mandoline at 1/8” setting – and let them sweat down slow and low.  By allowing the onions to hang out at a medium-low temperature, you’re enabling the natural sugars to come through.  Trust me, your dish will thank you for it.

After I started adding all the herbs and spices (toasted and ground caraway seeds, paprika, fresh thyme and oregano, bay leaf) the house started smelling incredible.  I was in heaven as I absolutely love the smell of caraway.  It was difficult, but we let the mixture simmer for about an hour in order to allow the flavors to come together and the meat to become tender.

I also threw in a few non-traditional ingredients I felt might enhance the flavor and give the dish a more silky texture.  Goulash is forgiving in that respect – take out what you don’t want and add what you do.  I went mostly traditional with a few substitutions and you know, it turned out to be the perfect cold weather dish on a night that finally felt like winter.

Hungarian Goulash
Adapted from weareneverfull.com

Ingredients:

2 large onions, sliced very thin (use a mandoline if you have one)
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, toasted and ground
3 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon hot (or smoked) paprika
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups beef stock
2 pounds beef stew meat (sirloin or chuck), cut into 2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon vinegar (balsamic, red/white, or champagne)
1.5 ounces veal/beef demi-glace (can be found at WFM, Sur la Table, etc)
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
dumplings (recipe to follow)

Method:

In a large dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-low heat and add onions.  Sprinkle sugar over and allow to slowly cook until translucent – about 30 minutes.  Stir occasionally and don’t allow them to take on any color. 

Add beef and stir, allowing to sear for a little while.

Stir in the garlic and ground caraway seeds and cook for a minute or two. 

Add both paprikas, the oregano, thyme, and bay leaf and saute for a minute or two.

Stir in tomato paste and vinegar and cook for a bit, then add beef stock, and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Mix in demi-glace.

Allow this to come to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for an hour.

After 30 minutes of simmering, prepare your dumpling ingredients.

Dumplings:

2 eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Crack eggs into a bowl and sprinkle with salt.  Add flour and mix well.  Let stand for final 30 minutes of simmering to allow flour to mellow.  Drop by teaspoonful into goulash.  Cover and simmer 5 minutes after dumplings rise to surface.

Check goulash for seasoning and adjust if necessary.  Ladle into bowls and serve with a dollop of sour cream, if desired.


Back of the House

This blog, in its inception, wasn’t meant to include design, fashion, or home improvement.  However, the latter happened to take place within my kitchen, and as a result, a post was born!

(The swinging door on the left blocks the view a bit.)

When we purchased this house in 2008, the kitchen was outfitted with a nook of sorts.  A step up to what could only be considered as, the tiniest of stages.  When I first saw it, I thought, “What a cute place to sit and have coffee in the morning or breakfast on Sundays!”  What I didn’t know then was how infrequently this nook would be utilized.  I’m sure there is a space much like this in all of our homes – an area destined for good intentions, but instead, becomes “lost,” with no sensible function.  This nook of ours held one of my prized pieces of furniture.  A vintage red and white Benjamin Crysteel spring-leaf table I’ve had for years.  But instead sitting at this table and enjoying our bacon and eggs on a Sunday morning, we ended up using it as either a storage space for my collection of All-Clad pans, or a landing pad for our recyclables. Not cool.

So, over the course of 2011, we talked seriously about what we might want to do with our little stage in the kitchen. Having a breakfast nook was of no interest to either one of us andI knew for sure I wanted more counter space and storage.  The wheels in Scott’s head immediately started spinning.  He was going to build for me a prep table.  He was creating, planning, and sketching, all in his head.  He asked me questions regarding wood preference for the frame and what sort of top I’d want.  How high do I want it?  How many shelves?  Should it fill the space or just be another small counter top addition to our kitchen?

Before I knew it, demo day had arrived. 

With the stage on its last legs, Scott began how he usually begins before building things.  He measured, measured again, and measured a few more times.  Then, one day he showed me this:

It was a computer-designed rendition of my future prep table!  He seriously amazes me sometimes!  What I was looking at on his computer was exactly what my table was going to look like, complete with the stainless steel top.  I was so excited!  Over the course of several weeks, our garaged morphed into a woodworking studio, and he made many trips to the lumber yard and home improvement stores.  Things were coming together as he made some final measurements and found an amazing stainless steel shop here in Omaha called Hempel Sheet Metal.  They generally do large industrial or commercial jobs, but seemed excited to help Scott with the final puzzle piece.  Sure enough, in less than a week and for only $35/square foot, we had our stainless steel top!

Assembling it with just the two of us was really tough, as the table was custom-made to slide right into the space. 

So, simply moving it out of the way wasn’t an option.  There was a lot of crawling through to the other side and acts of contortion taking place in order to put it together. 

(Couldn’t you just crawl into the bottom bunk and take a nap?)

And from that, we go to this:

There it is.  It’s beautiful, right?  I love it so much.  By having this incredible prep table in our kitchen, our counter space increased by 86% and I have so much more storage!  This once neglected nook is now a fully-functioning work space.  Now I can spread out, make a huge mess, and with a quick flick of a cloth, it’s clean! 

This prep table is the best thing to happen to my favorite room in the house since I bought my KitchenAid stand mixer. 


I’m totally doing this!!

food-fix:

Black Forest and Coffee Truffles (by elsa407)