Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Midweek Food Musings: Watermelon, Feta, and Baby Arugula Salad

"I just never thought I would like this combination!" exclaimed one of my Sunday dinner guests. This, my friends, is always music to my ears. Part of my personal mission is to try different flavor combinations, and of course sharing them with family and friends, and having them be well received, is a gift!

Funny but I remember so vividly the first time I ever really thought about the magic of the pairing of flavors. It was many moons ago, in Manhattan. I was in one of my dear friend's restaurants (Rafael Palomino, the restaurateur and chef for whom I've scribed 4 cookbooks!) and his general manager came into the kitchen (where I was trying to keep track of the chef's actions so I could correctly write down a recipe!). I remember that John--manager--had a small glass with a deep maroon liquid in one hand, and a plate with sunshiney-golden and smooth cake in the other. The glass held port (always one of my favorites!) and the plate a piece of one of Chef Rafael's signature desserts: dulce de leche cheesecake.

John instructed me, "Okay--take a bite of this cheesecake, and then a sip of the port!" He watched anxiously as I shuffled my clipboard around so that I could follow his directions. I closed my eyes (helps me taste better) bit, and sipped. And then, I sighed. The velvety deep flavors of the port were the perfect follow-up complement to the silky sweet--but not too sweet--flavors of the cheese cake. "You see!" John proudly proclaimed. Yes, I had seen.

Since then, I've always enjoyed creating, and savoring, the pairing of flavors--be it in the same dish or in separate ones. And oh, to my sommelier friends, my hat is so off to you; what you do when you combine a wine with a dish is pure magic!

So, well, getting back to my dinner, it was a lovely 15 year-old girl who made the statement about my Sunday salad.

Serves about 12
(By the way, you can easily halve this for 6 guests)

2 bunches baby arugula (you can also use 2 of the 7-ounce bags that Trader Joe's sells)
3/4 cup fresh seedless watermelon, cut into bite-sized chunks
1/2 cup (or to taste) feta cheese
Juice from 1 lime
Extra virgin olive oil
White balsamic vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the arugula in a large salad bowl. Add the watermelon and feta cheese and toss (I do this pretty close to serving time). Add the lime, oil, and vinegar (typically twice as much oil to vinegar--but you can also combine this separately before adding to the salad). Taste, and season. Enjoy!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sunday Dinners: Cous-Cous Topped with Eggplant, Red Onion, Zucchini, Tomato, and Toasted Pine Nuts

Actually, this wasn't the main dish for Sunday's dinner; it was a side--but it could so be a main dish!
That's the beauty of small plates: they can also plan starring roles. This Sunday's dinner came about from our garden produce (eggplant and basil), the market (gorgeous tomatoes, zucchini, red onions, red leaf lettuce, corn, and watermelon), and our guests' preferences.

So here was the menu:

Mango-Peach Champagne Cocktail

Brazilian cheese puffs
Guacamole with Grapes and Nuts, with Fresh Corn-Tortilla Chips 
Manchego Cheese (and crackers) 
Havarti and Dill Cheese (and crackers) 

Seth’s Famous Grilled Ribs (my husband makes the best ribs ever...)
Grilled Pesto-Chicken
Cous-Cous topped with Eggplant, Red Onion, Zucchini, Tomato, and Toasted Pine Nuts
Baby Arugula with Watermelon and Feta Cheese Salad topped with a Light Vinaigrette
Red Leaf Lettuce with Roasted Corn Salad topped with a Light Vinaigrette


Today I'm going to share the Cous-Cous dish; on Wed the watermelon salad (and one of these days, Seth's ribs!) 

Cous-Cous Topped with Sautéed Eggplant, Red Onion, Zucchini, Tomato, and Toasted Pine Nuts
(Ah--you could serve this vegetable mixture on top of rice, or pasta--or just on its own!)

Serves about 10 as a main dish, and about 5 as a side

Olive oil 
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 red onions, coarsely chopped
1 large eggplant, diced into bite-sized chunks
8 to 10 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
White wine 
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 zucchini (medium size) sliced into rounds and then halves or quarters
1 tablespoon butter (or oil)
1 shallot
8 ounces of cous-cous (I used Israeli) 
2 cups chicken broth 
Toasted pine nuts (about 1/2 cup)
Fresh basil or parsley for garnish (optional!) 

Heat the oil in a medium-size sauté pan. Add the garlic, and then one of the red onions (or about half of the whole quantity of chopped ones!). Add the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally. When the eggplant and onions have started to soften, add the tomatoes. Then add a splash or two of white wine and let it cook off. Taste, add salt, and continue cooking until the eggplant reaches the tenderness you enjoy! Remove the mixture from the heat and transfer into a bowl. 

Heat a bit more oil. Add the remaining onions, and then the zucchini. Again, cook until the desired tenderness is reached. Add wine if desired (I always like to add a splash or two; it adds flavor and liquid!). Once it's ready, just set aside. 

Heat the butter (or oil) in a pan with a top. Add the shallot and stir. Add the cous-cous and, over medium heat and while stirring occasionally, cook until it starts to brown. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and then cover and lower the heat. Let the cous-cous simmer until the broth is absorbed, and the cous-cous is tender (about 10 minutes). 

Just before serving, add the eggplant mixture to the zucchini mixture and stir to combine. Taste and season. Blanket the cous-cous on the bottom of a dish. Top with the vegetable mixture. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top, and add the fresh herbs if desired. Serve hot or at room temperature. Enjoy! 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Midweek Food Musings: Cucumber, Fresh Radish and Cilantro Salad

Cool, crisp--and calm. I think I've always loved cucumbers. There's a cleanliness about their flavor--when they're just right--that marries well with so many dishes (and yes, some alcohols, too!).

Last week's farmer's market bounty included a nice bunch of cucumbers, radishes and cilantro.
I couldn't resist combining them with a light vinaigrette. This salad is an excellent complement to any dish--but especially a grain or pasta, a nice grilled fish...or pesto chicken dinner. Here I am also suggesting a white balsamic vinaigrette (actually you will have more than enough vinaigrette with this recipe!) to serve with it, though oil and your favorite vinegar are fine as well.

Serves 8 to 10

6 to 8  medium-size cucumbers, peeled and sliced into rounds
6 medium radishes, sliced
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
Juice from 1 lime 
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons honey (or to taste--and totally optional!) 
Coarse salt and freshly pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves 

Combine the cucumber and radishes in a bowl.  Whisk together the vinegar and lime, and then the oil. Taste and stir in honey as desired. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour desired amount on top of the cucumbers (you don't want them to swim!). Let sit for at least 15 minutes. Add cilantro just before serving. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday Dinner: Farmer's Market Squash, Tomato, and Red Onion Sauté

I confess that this was not this past Sunday's dinner. In fact, as you read this, I'm on the road back from Montreal...where Seth and I will leave Sofia to finish her last year at McGill (insert happy mixed with frowny face---for bittersweet!). Ah...but it is really more sweet than bitter.

This dish is one that Sofia really enjoyed. It combines the colors (wow, dazzling or what?!),  flavors, and textures of the season.
Actually I made it twice: once to try it out and once to serve to many. With the try-out version (!), Sofia decided to make a wrap (I think she added some cheese to a flour tortilla and rolled it all up). It could also be a pasta/rice topping. Or, as we had it, it could be a side dish. In a side or starring role, this dish is simple, tasty, and gorgeous! It's also easy to vary/adjust--and note that I like my vegetables more on the less-cooked side.

Serves about 12 (as a side dish)

Olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 large red onion, coarsely chopped
8 to 10 medium-size yellow (and/or green) squash, sliced and quartered
15 to 20 red cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh basil leaves, coarsely torn

Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and read onion and stir. Add the squash, and cook, stirring from time to time. Once the squash and onions soften, about 7 minutes, add the tomatoes and cook for another few minutes (you can lower the heat and let it simmer for a bit with the fresh tomato juices. Sometimes I also add a splash of white wine). Taste, and add salt and fresh pepper.

When you're ready to serve this beautiful dish, add a sprinkle of fresh basil leaves. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Midweek Food Musings: Luscious Local Tomatoes Topped with Toasted Pine Nuts and More!

When it comes to tomatoes, the sky's the limit. These days--as last Wednesday's New York Times pointed out--it's tomatoes all around! Embracing this local bounty has been a welcome opportunity for inspiration; when I saw the cover shot of last week's Dining Section, I said to myself, "I've got to make this!" And so I did!

It's great to use recipes we find as inspiration. Though I tell people that the first time they prepare something, it's good to follow the recipe, I often sway from my rule. Actually, you have to--depending on availability of ingredients and, of course, what you like!

So I created this platter, inspired by Melissa Clark's recipe , but changed it because of what I bought, saw, and had on hand! My friends, I encourage you to do the same. By the way, I typically plate my Sunday dinners (in other words, I serve all the dishes and then place them on the table), but this platter I placed directly on the table so all could enjoy with their eyes, before their palates. (This worked well!)

Serves about 12 (as a side dish)

8 assorted ripe tomatoes (I used larger red/ yellow beefsteak), sliced
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
6 fresh figs (I used green), cut into quarters
2 tablespoons blue cheese
Balsamic glaze (or dark balsamic vinegar)

Arrange the tomatoes on a large platter. Scatter the figs on top. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts on top. Also sprinkle the blue cheese. Add a drizzle of balsamic glaze (or vinegar), and serve!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sunday Dinners: Pesto-Marinated Grilled Chicken Topped with Fresh Mustard-KissedTomatoes

Though my love for pesto is never ending, and I like to use basil in other ways, I did want to combine pesto with something other than pasta…and have been grill-inspired since, well, forever! But I confess that this is the first time I used pesto as a kind of marinade. The topping with the tomatoes came from another recipe I had seen. Well, my friends, it was a hit; seemed like my family and friends are now big fans of this dish.  I’m sharing the menu here with you, and more recipes to come. Oh—you may notice this is a bit tomato heavy… Well, if you’ve been to a local farmer’s market this week, you’ll know why: THIS is their season… They are just gorgeous. Enjoy!

Sunday Dinner  Menu:
Appetizer: Mango-peach and avocado salsa (more on that to come!) and fresh chips

Sliced Tomatoes with Figs, Toasted Pine Nuts, and Blue Cheese (inspired by Wednesday’s New York Times Dining Section—pics /recipe to come!)
Sautéed Yellow and Green Zucchini, with Red Onions, Tomato and Basil (Will share soon!)
Leafy green salad with light balsamic vinaigrette
Fresh Bronx-baked  seeded-Italian bread

Dessert: Apple-Raspberry Crumb-Topped Pie (Thanks, Lisa!)
Assorted Sorbets (Thanks, Susan!)

Grilled Pesto-Marinated Chicken with Fresh Mustard-Kissed Tomatoes 

Serves 10 to 12 

24 to 30 skinless, boneless chicken thighs and/or breast halves
Juice from 2 lemons (about 1/4 cup)
20 cherry tomatoes or an assortment of your favorite garden or farmer’s-market fresh tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
1/2 teaspoon honey Dijon mustard
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil 

Combine the pesto with the lemon juice. Rub the mixture over the chicken, cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 3 hours. Start your grill (we use charcoal, but if you use gas, turn it to medium high).

Meanwhile, cut each tomato in half or into bite-size chunks and place them in a bowl. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustards, salt and pepper. Pour the mixture over the tomatoes, stir, cover and refrigerate.

Then cook the chicken. Remove the excess marinade and grill the chicken, turning at least once, until golden brown and cooked through, about 7 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked chicken to a serving platter. Serve hot, or at room temperature, with the tomato mixture spooned on top, along with fresh basil leaves.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Midweek Food Musings: From the garden to the kitchen

Ode to the eggplant...
How gorgeous is this versatile vegetable? With dark purple silky smooth skin, not to mention the fact that it's wow, just outside my kitchen door, I find it irresistible! And though I'm a huge fan of eggplant (in its many different types) prepared in a variety of ways, when it comes to the fruit of my garden, I'm a minimalist.

Funny, but I'm reminded of a woman I met in the Dominican Republic about 7 years ago. Juanita, who taught me to prepare several of the recipes in Calypso Coolers, talked about her "del mar al caldero" (from the sea to the pan) philosophy with fish; well, I'm definitely into the garden to the kitchen way of thinking...and delighted to enjoy the fruits (hah!) of my son and husband's labor. (They are the ones planting/tilling...I'm much better in the kitchen...)

So back to the minimalist thing, here's what I mean: fresh vegetables, like fresh fruit, don't require much. So in this case, I heated up a bit of oil (and meant to add garlic, but forgot!), and sautéed the eggplant over high heat for several minutes until browned, topped with a bit of coarse salt and fresh basil leaves, and voilà: a great dish was in front of me!

So my friends, take a visit to your garden if you're so lucky--or to your local market--and remember that as far as prep is concerned, less can be so much more....

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sunday Dinner's Dessert: Arlen's Brownies

No, I'm not usually a person who talks about myself or my creations in the third person, but this name has been coined by many that know me. Truth be told, and my dear friends will be the first to tell you, I've been making brownies for a looooooooooooong time! After having two different versions published in a couple of cookbooks, I'm still playing with my recipe (just like I say, "play with your food,"--you know that I always do!).

Brownies--and desserts--are a lovely part of life. Actually these days--aside from making 'em--I use the dessert analogy a lot in my writing classes. I ask my students, "What's the job of a good dessert?" Usually they respond with something like, "to leave guests with a sweet taste in their mouths." Exactly. Now you may be wondering how I use that analogy in writing class. Well, I equate desserts with a good conclusion for an essay. As I tell them, the job of the conclusion is like that of a sweet at the end of a meal: you want to leave your "audience" with something to remember.

Back to the brownies, my first rule in baking is ask guests if they like--or can--eat nuts. Often I make two batches of brownies: one with nuts and one without.

Arlen’s Toasted Pecan Brownies

(Adapted from From Viva La Vida, Rafael Palomino and Arlen Gargagliano, Chronicle Books © 2002)

Makes 16 2-inch brownies
1/2 cup pecans (whole or chopped) 
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate--or dark chocolate
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, cut into chunks  
2 eggs
1 cup white granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (the quality of the vanilla is very important; I recommend  pure Dominican vanilla--or Mexican vanilla)
3/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Spread the pecans in a jelly-roll pan and toast in the oven for 5 to 8 minutes, or until fragrant. Pour the nuts into a bowl, leaving the oven on.

 In a medium size saucepan over a low flame, melt the chocolate with the butter. Stir until smooth, and remove from heat. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the eggs, sugar and vanilla and mix just to combine. Add  the flour and nuts and mix just to blend.     Scrape into greased baking sheet and spread well. Evenly scatter the chocolate morsels over the top. 

Bake the brownies for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center comes out practically clean. Let cool for 20 to 30 minutes prior to serving.  Serve plain or with ice cream on top.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Midweek Food Musings: Play with your Fruit!

Summertime fruit is extra colorful and luscious. Between the peaches, the cherries, the watermelon—and so much more, this season is a delightfully fruit-laden one here in New York. All these choices  offer so many opportunities for playing. These days,  everything from my cocktails, to my salads, to my desserts fruit-kissed creations.

So, my friends, if you’re not doing so already, it’s time you played with your fruit!

Dasha Wright-photographer-From
Mambo Mixers, 2005 
As I mentioned on Monday, I made a fresh baby arugula and watermelon salad (great with some feta cheese—if you’re so inclined—and a light vinaigrette…). Last Friday--in my Latin Twist Blog--I shared my Watermelon Margarita recipe. (This is a GREAT treat for your summertime barbecues!)
And now, as I write this, I’m drinking a cool glass of Prosecco, filled with small chunks of watermelon and topped off with watermelon juice. Have I ever made it before? No. Will I make it again? Definitely! 

The point is, it’s fun to play with your fruit…

Here I’m sharing a photo of part of my breakfast, arranged by the very talented and  lovely in Costa Rica’s Academia Guaitil (where I had the pleasure of teaching a cooking class two years ago!).   

Here, as you’ll see, they topped fresh slices of papaya, pineapple, and watermelon (their local fruit!) with fresh-toasted coconut.

Would love to hear about your fruit-inspired creations!