It began with a mysterious email from James last week titled “secret dinner”. Someone in Detroit was throwing a dîner en blanc- did we know about it? Were we going? Not yet, and absolutely. James’s invite had come in the mail* from an unknown source, instructing him to invite 10 people who could also each invite 10 people. White linens, real tableware and formal all-white dress were specified. We were instructed to arrive on Belle Isle at 5pm; a Champagne toast would be provided at 6:30. We were not to discuss the event with anyone other than invited guests.
*Update 8/22/11: I picked up mail from my old house today, and can you guess what was in the pile? My very own printed invitation to the event. Still no clue who sent it, but that eliminates any close friends/ acquaintances since whomever sent it didn’t know I moved 6 months ago!
We began organizing in earnest, coordinating who would bring what food, chairs, tables, etc. Due to the last minute nature of the invitation, many of our friends were out of town or otherwise engaged. However, when our contingent assembled at Supino in the Eastern Market to make our way toward Belle Isle, we were a respectable 15 strong. The earliest to arrive sipped Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza and Domaine de la Pepière Muscadet from paper cups while we awaited the other guests. The anticipation mounted as the pizzeria became a hive of activity- James slicing up his home-cured coppa; Christina baking bread and grabbing jars of Detroit Zymology Guild’s pickled asparagus from the basement. We chatted and checked out each other’s all-white outfits, a rather strange sight in this group. We weren’t all in formal wear by a long shot (the guys actually outdid the women in this department, with three or four natty suits in the group), but our ensembles respected the spirit if not the letter of the invitation. We gazed upward at the drizzling sky, hoping the rain would abate but thankful for no thunderstorms and determined to have a party regardless.
Once all were present, our merry caravan made its way east with tables, chairs, linens and what seemed like several metric tons of food and wine. As we approached the western tip of the island, we were surprised to find that we were forced to park a good quarter mile from the site, and marveled over the number of other white-garbed picnickers (none of whom we knew) heading in the same direction. Upon arrival, a festive tableau awaited- rows of tables outfitted with white tablecloths, floral arrangements and fine china, with diners of all (adult) ages decked out in pale finery.
We began to set up our tables only to quickly discover that we had brought far too much food to be able to actually sit down and eat at the table, let alone have proper place settings. I felt a bit let down at having failed at this part of the instructions, but the feeling quickly subsided as I surveyed our generous spread. I remarked to the others that our group might be the scrappiest, eating standing up, several of us in thrift store attire, but there was no question we had the best food. It didn’t hurt that we had two of the city’s top chefs, a restaurant owner and several small food biz entrepreneurs in our gang. Continue reading
A few weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted something about how she “doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving”. I replied asking why on earth one would abstain from Thanksgiving- it has all the fun aspects of Christmas (family, food, leisure, more food…) with none of the frantic, harried running around. I don’t think I’ve ever had to set foot in a mall to buy anything for Thanksgiving. And it’s always a four-day weekend… not even Christmas can guarantee that!
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the gift-giving tradition of the Christmas holiday, but sometimes it seems to eclipse everything else. As long as I can nave a nice meal and a lot of lazing around afterward, I’m pretty content. This Thanksgiving was exactly that- outstanding culinary contributions from the whole family (I really think it gets better every year), great company, and a little Dance Dance Revolution after our food had settled and everyone had had enough wine not to care if they looked silly.
My mom surprised me with an early birthday cake and gift since she won’t be here on my birthday. She made a scrapbook with tons of old childhood photos, all with clever captions that must have taken her many, many hours to put together. Looking through it, and looking around me, I couldn’t help but be a bit melancholy that this would probably be one of the last holidays we’d all celebrate with the entire family. With siblings getting married and being pulled in different directions, we’ll have to start taking turns with what in-laws to visit and inevitably not everyone will be able to come to each gathering. I know it’s just a fact of growing older but for a close knit family like ours, it will be a difficult transition.
That said, I am ready to embrace life’s changes rather than dwell on what has passed. Marvin and I will be moving into our new home in the next month if all goes according to plan, and we hope to host next year’s Thanksgiving celebration (or maybe even Easter, who knows!). Although change can be stressful at times, I look forward to all the new joys and challenges that will come with combining our households.
One thing I definitely look forward to with having our new house is not having to travel for every get-together if we get to host! This year, I had to work Wednesday and get up early Thanksgiving day to drive, so in lieu of cooking something I made a big fancy salad. I combined wintry flavors of radicchio and pear, with pistachios to give extra color and crunch. Like any composed salad, I think it looks prettiest and is easiest to serve on a platter so that you can distribute the ingredients more equitably and don’t end up with, say, all the nuts at the bottom of the bowl.
I stuffed myself silly on homemade bacon-wrapped “poppers” (see below) for an appetizer, mac and cheese, the best collard greens I’ve ever tasted, and the usual suspects like stuffing, potatoes, turkey and gravy. I know I’m forgetting some items but it’s been two weeks already (when you read my next couple posts you’ll understand why it’s taken me that long to finish this)! To top it all off, my brother made a pecan pie, a pear and almond galette, and pumpkin empanadas. My mom also made a pineapple upside down cake, which was a childhood favorite of mine, for my birthday.
If you feel full just reading that, this salad makes a nice light supper to help balance out any holiday indulgences.
Note: First two photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Winter Salad with Pears & Pistachios
1 head red leaf lettuce
1 large shallot
½ a head of radicchio
2 Seckel pears or 1 ripe Bosc or Anjou pear
⅓ cup unsalted pistachios
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs Champagne vinegar or quality white wine vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Notes: I prefer Seckel pears because they slice into perfect bite sized pieces, but feel free to substitute another pear variety. Because many people expect a cheese in their composed salads, I did serve some crumbled blue cheese on the sde, but the salad has a nice character without it.
Slice the shallots, not too thin. Soak them in a bowl of ice water while you prep other ingredients- this will make them nice and crunchy while also removing a bit of their sting. Wash and dry the lettuce. Toast the pistachios over medium-low heat in a dry skillet, shaking occasionally, until fragrant; set aside to cool. Remove the core from the radicchio and slice into thin shreds. Core and slice the pears. If doing this in advance of serving, toss the pears with a little of the vinegar you are using so they don’t turn brown.
In a bowl large enough to hold the lettuce, make the dressing: Add the olive oil, then the mustard, and whisk until incorporated; then add the vinegar (you may want more or less to taste) and whisk again until emulsified. If the quantity of dressing looks too small for the amount of lettuce you have, tweak it by adding proportional amounts of oil and vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste- don’t be shy with the salt, as you are effectively salting the whole salad, not just the dressing. Toss the lettuce in the dressing to coat.
Transfer the dressed lettuce to a platter and scatter over the radicchio, pears, shallots (drained), and pistachios. Serve immediately.
I was talking to my mom
a couple weeks ago and she mentioned that she wanted to send my blog link to a friend, but it had been “so long” since I had last posted, that she didn’t have the link anymore (she gets the feed through email). Yikes! I’m certainly far from the days where I used to post two or even three times a week, but I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad.
The silver lining is that I’ve been occupied with other new and exciting projects, including some freelance writing for these publications, making jam and other treats for my fledgling company Beau Bien Fine Foods, organizing the first-ever (and I hope annual) Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar, and rehearsing and playing shows with Scarlet Oaks. Are you tired just reading that? Combined with house-hunting (we found one! More on this later…) and a full social calendar, I have barely had time to cook lately let alone photograph it or write about it.
When my good friend and Beau Bien business partner Molly organized a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at her place, I was determined not to let the opportunity pass since I had to cook a dish to bring anyway. I had some peeled, roasted chestnuts from the shipment of goodies that Oh! Nuts sent me a few months back and I knew I wanted to incorporate those. I recalled a recipe in Nigella Lawson’s Feast with brussels sprouts and chestnuts and used that as a guideline. The combination of pancetta and brussels sprouts was not new for me, but the addition of chestnuts, marsala and a generous amount of parsley intrigued me.
I got up nice and early (8am) to make sure I had plenty of time to run errands, cook, take pictures, get ready, etc, but was foiled by Michigan’s now-overturned law that you can’t purchase alcohol before noon on Sundays… ugh. That’s not the first time I’ve needed alcohol for Sunday cooking only to have to wait (I never said I was a good planner). I ended up being about an hour late to the party due to the rushing around, but my stress was soon soothed with a delicious glass of bourbon milk punch made by my friend Todd. If you’ve never had a milk punch, think eggnog-ish, but less cloying. As an added bonus, the milk was a delicious raw milk from a local cow share.
Dinner was a mix of old and new foods and friends. Molly’s sister and brother-in-law brought a turkey they smoked in their “egg”, with a subtly smoky flavor that didn’t overwhelm the other foods. The stuffing was made from wild rice and sausage, there was a green salad with fennel and orange, a fresh cranberry relish, and a great roasted cauliflower dish with capers and vinaigrette that, I’m sad to say, completely upstaged my slightly overcooked sprouts. I’m totally cribbing that for the next potluck I attend (don’t worry Evan, Ill give you your due credit!). For dessert, our friends Noah and Liz made sweet potato pie and apple pie. Where I found room for those I’ll never know, but I do know that if I ever make sweet potato pie I’m making it with graham cracker crust. Another idea to appropriate.
After dinner we walked across Lafayette Park (erm, there may have been a bit of stumbling along with the walking- see above) in the unseasonable 65°weather over to Supino’s in Eastern Market, where some friends had broken down a pig and were having a party of sorts. I’m regretting not taking the camera for that portion of the evening, and also regretting not having a second or third stomach to sample some of the treats that were being passed around (slices of pig kidney, anyone?). Hopefully they will feel the experience bears repeating at a later date. I still want to make blood sausage darnit! For now, though, you’ll have to settle for these brussels sprouts… (hey, at least there’s pancetta in there.)
Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts & Pancetta (adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson)
2 lbs brussels sprouts
8 oz peeled roasted chestnuts
about 6 oz pancetta, diced (three medium-thick slices should yield this)
¼ cup marsala
large handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
a couple Tbs olive oil or butter
Notes: The original recipe stipulates boiling the brussels sprouts whole and then adding them to the pan for a quick sauté, but my sprouts were a little on the mature side so I opted for the “shredded” version. If you have smaller, tighter sprouts, I’d maybe go with the original version as it looks a bit prettier. However, the shredded version does have a more homey, comfort-food appeal to it.
Wash and trim the brussels sprouts. Cut in half lengthwise and cut a small notch to remove the toughest part of the stem. Chop each half crosswise into three or four sections to “shred” them.
In a large skillet, sauté the pancetta over medium heat with the olive oil or butter. (The pancetta will render some fat, but the additional fat emulsifies with the marsala later to become a “sauce” of sorts.) When the meat is starting to brown but before it dries out, add the brussels sprouts. They will release some moisture which will enable you to deglaze the pan.
Sauté, stirring frequently, until the thickest parts of the brussels sprouts are al dente. Stir in the chestnuts, breaking them up with your spoon or spatula. Raise the heat a little and add the marsala, stirring well. As soon as it bubbles away, remove from the heat. Stir in the parsley, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Although I’m a busy gal, I try my best to find time to do a little something special for my friends on their birthdays. My best friend recently turned *ahem* 23, and although I didn’t get to make her a cake or dinner, I offered to have her for brunch and then go shopping. Everything was rather last-minute, but I managed to throw together a decent little spread with what I had on hand. However, I felt like a birthday merited something a bit more special than your run-of-the-mill omelette. Rooting in the fridge, I had a burst of inspiration when I came across some Meyer lemons I’d impulse-purchased the week before- I’d make lemon curd. But what to pair it with? She was coming at 11:00 and time was of the essence. Then it hit me. Crêpes! I could throw the batter in the blender and they’d only take seconds to cook up. The lemon curd would be used to fill the crêpes.
Fabulous idea, but by the time we had eaten our omelettes (and consumed generous amounts of mimosas), we were too full to think about eating anything else. I figured maybe we’d have the crêpes as a post-shopping snack, but we ran short on time. Over the next several days I guiltily ate my way through them, feeling bad that my friend had been deprived of her rightful birthday treat. But even after finishing them off, I still had a fair amount of lemon curd left over. The wheels started churning again… lemon curd, plus the egg whites left over from making the curd, plus graham cracker dough in the freezer from this Daring Bakers challenge= lemon meringue tarts! Better yet, I was meeting up with my friend again that weekend, so I got to deliver her a tart as a belated birthday surprise. I had enough dough and curd to make three individual tarts, so one went to her, one went to another birthday friend (lots of Aries in my crowd!) and the third was eaten greedily by myself and Marvin.
A few cooking notes: The graham cracker dough worked beautifully as pie crust. It was slightly challenging to roll out because of the high amount of butter, but I ended up just pressing in into the pans and it was fine. I actually preferred it as pie crust rather than eating it straight as a graham cracker because it’s so rich. The lemon curd I had made was too thin to be pie filling as-is, so I just warmed it on the stove, adding a bit of cornstarch (dissolved first in cold water) to thicken it, and it was perfect. For the crêpes I just smeared it on, throwing in some shredded coconut I had on hand. I’m not going to print a tart recipe here because I kind of pieced together three different recipes and ad-libbed things, but the graham cracker dough recipe can be found in the aforementioned Daring Bakers post. If you want a recipe for lemon meringue pie, my fellow MLFB pal Mom of Mother’s Kitchen just posted one that looks good.
A lemon tangent: I’m still not convinced Meyer lemons are so superior in cooked dishes such as lemon curd, especially given the price difference, but that’s what I had on hand. I will say, though, that they seem to yield a higher amount of juice than Eurekas so you can use less of them. Also, as another update to last year’s lemon post, my preserved lemons turned out great, I still have a supply in the fridge that I’ve been working my way through slowly. I’m glad I didn’t use Meyers for those as some recipes suggest, because the part you use is the skin, and the skin on Meyer lemons is so thin that you wouldn’t end up with much of anything to use.
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/3 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbs sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbs rum, brandy, or other flavored liqueur that pairs well with your filling (optional)
2 Tbs butter, melted, plus 2-3 tsp for coating the pan
1 recipe lemon curd (see below)
sweetened shredded and/or toasted coconut, optional
Put all the crêpe ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth, about 5-10 seconds. Scrape down the sides if necessary and pulse 1-2 more times. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour (2 is preferable) or up to 24 hours. (Note: I made crêpes from the same batch of batter over the course of several days and they were fine.)
Heat a nonstick crêpe pan* or skillet over medium-high heat. Gently stir the batter (it likely will have separated). When hot, lightly butter the pan (the best method I”ve found is to quickly go over the surface with a stick of butter). Lift the pan a few inches off the burner and pour just enough batter to coat the pan, quickly tilting and rotating it to distribute the batter. The volume of batter will obviously depend on the size of your pan but try to use the least amount possible while still coating the pan. (This recipe recommends ¼ cup for a 9-10″ pan.) If there are “holes” around the edges you can dribble a little more batter in those spots with a spoon. Cook until the crêpe is just set (about 1 minute), then flip and cook until golden- this should only take another 15-30 seconds. I use my fingers to grab the edge of the crepe and flip it, I find it much easier than trying to use a spatula, but if you’re doing this just be careful not to burn yourself! Set the crêpes aside on a cookie sheet s you go, keeping them covered with a tea towel or piece of foil. When assembling, you want the crêpes to be warm but not so hot that they melt the lemon curd and make it too runny.
Spread a thin layer of lemon curd over half of each crêpe and fold it in half. Spread another layer of curd, again over half the surface, followed by a sprinkling of coconut if using. Fold in half again. Spread one last bit of curd over half the crêpe and do a final fold, this time bringing the edge of the crêpe only halfway over (see photos). Sprinkle on more coconut and finish with a light dusting of powdered sugar. (You can obviously put the curd on however you like and it will taste the same, but I like all the layers this creates.)
*I own this crêpe pan and I like it. I also use it to make omelettes; the low sides make it really easy to flip / roll the omelette.
Place all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Use a whisk to break up the eggs and moisten the sugar. Put the pan over medium-low heat and stir constantly until the mixture thickens (Dorie says 4-6 minutes but mine always seem to take longer). The curd is done when you can run your finger down a spoon or spatula and the curd doesn’t run into the track you’ve created. Don’t worry if it looks thin, it will firm up as it cools. Place plastic wrap on the surface of the curd and refrigerate. The curd will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 months. Makes about 1 ½ cups.
When it comes to indulgences, I prefer to blow my “calorie budget” on an exquisite piece of cheese*, a succulent slice of fat-studded saucisson, or a glistening leg of duck confit (with accompanying duck-fat-roasted potatoes, of course). In fact, I’ll usually forgo the dessert course altogether, having sated myself on one or more of the above. But I was making Marvin a Valentine’s supper, and the menu didn’t feel complete without dessert. Things were going in a somewhat Italian direction (rabbit braised in red wine; polenta with roasted garlic & honey; broccoli raab sautéed with anchovy & red pepper) so I thought of an olive oil cake- not too rich, just a subtly sweet ending.
The recipe I chose was a plain, unadorned sponge cake, enlivened with the zest of a lemon and an orange, a slug of late-harvest dessert wine, and some finely chopped rosemary. This simple, clean flavor combination struck me as the perfect ending to a rich meal. (If it sounds a bit too austere, don’t forget that you’ll have that open bottle of dessert wine to sip along with your cake!)
This cake was especially appropriate for Valentine’s Day (or an anniversary for that matter) because rosemary symbolizes “remembrance and fidelity”. It’s often used in weddings for this very reason- in fact, I attended one wedding where rosemary plants were given out as favors for the guests to take home. I like to think that remembrance is meant not just in terms of looking back on something in the past, but rather in the sense that we should always keep our partner in our thoughts on a daily basis, remembering why we chose them and not taking them for granted. Fidelity has the obvious connotation of sexual fidelity, but it also refers to being loyal to your partner- letting them feel secure in the knowledge that you’ve got their back no matter what.
I can’t say that either of us were thinking any of these deep thoughts while eating our cake, but it was interesting to look up the meaning of rosemary and to know that it had a symbolic connection with what is supposed to be a day of celebrating romance. Although Valentine’s Day may be behind us for this year, I urge you to make this cake anytime you want to honor remembrance and fidelity, or anytime you want a simple, uncomplicated ending to a rich meal.
(*This cheese is pretty amazing with dessert wine too if you’re ever looking for something really special- it’s an artisan blue cheese wrapped in grape leaves that have been macerated in pear brandy. It’s pricey, but no more pricey per pound than really good chocolate- for 4 bucks I bought a small piece that we didn’t even finish.)
5 eggs, separated
2/3 cup sugar
2 packed tsps rosemary leaves, very finely minced
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange
4 oz. fresh, whole milk ricotta
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Moscato, vin Santo, or other late-harvest white wine
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
3/4 tsp sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375. Prepare a 9″ or 10″ springform pan by buttering the sides and lining the bottom with a parchment circle. Beat the yolks and sugar until pale. Stir in the citrus zest and rosemary.
In another bowl, stir together the ricotta, salt, olive oil and wine until combined. Add the ricotta mixture and the flour to the yolks, a third at a time, alternating the two.
Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold them into the batter. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and bake an additional 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Be careful not to overcook, as this is a cake that can quickly go from perfectly done to dry.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then unmold onto a plate and allow to finish cooling. DeBlasi suggests serving a few roasted nuts alongside the cake, as well as the dessert wine you used in the cake. If you like, you can decorate the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar as pictured. My favorite way to do this is to put the sugar in a mesh tea strainer and lightly tap it over the surface of the cake (use a cardboard cut-out for a “stencil”).