Tuesday, December 25, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life


I hope you and your family are having an awesome Retro Christmas! If by chance you find little hands that are in need of an activity, and a gingerbread house is too ambitious, make a sugar castle instead! Buy a couple packages of sugar cubes and a container of white frosting. Fill some sandwich bags with some of the frosting, snip off a tip and let them build! A candle in the center makes a creative centerpiece! This castle is complete with snowmen from past school art projects, (notice the French snowman on the right, complete with a beret! Ha! Ha!), what could be better???

Thank you to everyone who takes the time to read my blog, and I hope you and yours the merriest Christmas of all!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Love-Sick Boy and Moldy Cheese!

Roquefort cheese, a sheep milk blue cheese from the south of France, is considered one of the world's finest cheeses. Roquefort was first mentioned by Pliny the Elder (Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher) in 79 A.D., and is made exclusively from the milk of the red Lacaune, the Manech and the Basco-Bearnaise breeds of sheep that graze on the plateau of Rouergue, Causses in the Aveyron. By European law, the cheese must be aged in the natural Combalou caves of Rouquefort-sur-Soulzon. Legend has it that the cheese was discovered by a love-sick boy, who abandoned his lunch of bread and cheese in the caves, to meet a beautiful girl he saw in the distance. After returning to the caves a few months later, he found his plain cheese had transformed into Roquefort. Of course it would be a boy who would taste moldy cheese after months of rotting in a cave!

Roquefort is wonderful paired with fruit, nuts, and honey. Try this "Roasted Pear Salad," from My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking, by John Besh. This spectacular salad made with roasted pears, blue cheese, endive, honey, and pecans is my new winter favorite! It is so delicious, everyone goes crazy for it! This salad will definitely be gracing my Christmas table!

Roasted Pear Salad

Serves 8

For the pears
4 ripe pears, halved and cored
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons sugar

For the vinaigrette
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup pecan oil (walnut oil works well, too!)
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Creole mustard (I use regular mustard, e.g., Grey Poupon.)
1 shallot, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salad
5 heads Belgian endive, cored and leaves separated
2 large handfuls mixed bitter green leaves
2 cups blue cheese, crumbled into chunks (I prefer Roquefort!)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted (walnuts would work well, too.)

For the pears
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a bowl, drizzle the pears with the olive oil, sprinkle with the sugar and salt, and toss to coat well. Transfer the pears to a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. (It took my pears 20 minutes.) Allow the pears to cool. Set aside.

For the vinaigrette
Whisk together the olive oil, pecan oil, vinegar, honey, mustard, and shallots in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

For the salad
Combine the endive leaves and bitter greens in a large serving bowl. Add the vinaigrette and toss to coat well. Wait until just before serving to top with the pears, blue cheese, and pecans.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" and an Outstanding Coffee Cake!

Don't ask me why, but every time I make this "Cranberry Pear Coffee Cake," it always makes me think of "a partridge in a pear tree," from "The Twelve Days of Christmas." I read an interesting article by a man simply known as Chuck, who apparently did a lot of research regarding the origins and meaning of the song. I'll try to simplify what I read: "The Twelve Days of Christmas" evolved out of the popular culture of the Middle Ages and Tudor England, and is believed to be of French origin. It was sung and altered for over two centuries before finally being published to the version we know now. There is some belief that the song is littered with Christian symbolism (e.g., the partridge in a pear tree symbolic to Christ on the cross) to secretly teach children the faith when Catholicism was illegal in England. However, during the holiday season, beginning on Christmas Day, elaborate feasts, dancing, music, and partying were a big part of the holiday. Birds in particular were the preferred entree at that time, explaining why the first seven stanzas of the song involve different types of birds. I'll break down the song now:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree. - partridges and pears common in England during the holidays, popular main course;
On the second day...., two turtle doves, - symbol for love and peace, given to be pets and show admiration;
On the third day...., three French hens, - reference to three main varieties of French chickens at the time (remember French origin), the Crevecoeur, Houdans, and the La Fleche, I'm sure all quite tasty;
On the fourth day...., four calling birds, - reference to "colly" or "collie" birds, (aka., blackbirds) which were plentiful and common food at the time;
On the fifth day...., five golden rings, - reference to ring-necked pheasants, (aka., golden birds) usually served to nobility at that time;
On the sixth day...., six geese a-laying, - common barnyard fowl at the time, kept to slaughter or collect eggs, and is still a traditional Christmas entree;
On the seventh day...., seven swans a-swimming, - associated with royalty and even eaten by royalty, in fact, by law (The Act of Swans, passed in 1482) any unmarked swans (nicks in the bill) were automatically property of the crown;
On the eighth day...., eight maids a-milking, - basically, code for "a roll in the hay" with an unmarried  maiden. They had to find a husband somehow!;
On the ninth day...., nine ladies dancing, - reference to noble ladies tearing up the dance floor;
On the tenth day...., ten lords a-leaping, - reference to leaping dancers (called morris dancers) who performed leaping dances between courses;
On the eleventh day...., eleven pipers piping, - common professional musicians at the time, not only in Scotland, but in England and France as well; and finally,
On the twelfth day...., twelve drummers drumming, - on the last day of the Christmas celebrations, known as the Twelfth Night, drummers were used in combination with trumpets, to announce the serving of the next course, especially the final dessert of "Kings' Cake," still made for Mardi Gras in the US.

So, now you can sing the song and actually know what it means while you make this exceptional coffee cake, loaded with tangy cranberries, sweet pear, and finished with a brown sugar topping! Perfect for early holiday mornings (kids!!!) along a nice strong cup of coffee!

Cranberry Pear Coffee Cake

Serves 6-8, *You will need a food processor for this recipe!

For the topping
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
1 firm ripe pear, cored

For the cake
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a 8 or 9" round cake pan.

For the topping
Process the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and butter in a food processor until crumbly, about 10 seconds. Set aside. Using a slicing disc, slice the pear (may have to cut to fit in the feed tube, don't worry, it won't matter what the slices look like!). Set aside.

For the cake
Remove the slicing disc and insert the multipurpose blade. Add the sour cream, butter, sugar, and egg. Process to mix well, about 20 seconds, scraping down the sides of the bowl after 10 seconds, if necessary. Add four, baking powder and soda. Process until just combined, about 10 seconds. Add the cranberries. Pulse 10 times, about 1 second each time, until coarsely chopped.

Spread the batter in the baking pan. Arrange the pear slices over the batter. Sprinkle the topping over the pears. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

*You can make this coffee cake the night before, cover, refrigerate, and rewarm, uncovered, in a warm oven the next morning!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Get Your Kids Cooking with Tom Colicchio

Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know who Tom Colicchio is, from his Craft and Colicchio and Sons restaurants to Bravo's Top Chef, just to name a few. Not only has Tom received five James Beard medals for his high-class comfort food, he makes exquisite "Pan-Roasted Carrots!" This unbelievably simple recipe, which came from the New York Times, is a standard on my holiday table. Long thin carrots, slowly roasted with fleur de sel and pepper until tender and golden brown, then enhanced with aromatic rosemary, honey, and a pat of butter! Delicious!!! 

If you can't find sweet thin carrots and have to use larger ones, cut them into quarters lengthwise. In addition, if you don't have fleur de sel (which I highly recommend), sea salt will work just fine. Not only are these a wonderful addition to any meal, my oldest kid loves to make these, something any parent likes to see! Thanks Tom!

Tom Colicchio's Pan-Roasted Carrots

Serves 4


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
16 long, thin carrots, peeled and trimmed (leave a little of the green tops, so cute!)
Fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper
4 rosemary sprigs
4 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon butter


In a large saute pan, heat the oil over low heat. Add the carrots and fleur de sel and pepper to taste. Cook, turning the carrots occasionally, until tender and golden brown on all sides, 15-20 minutes.

Add the rosemary during the last 5 minutes of cooking. Just before serving, add the honey and butter and mix well. Serve hot with an additional pinch of fleur de sel.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Tres Delicieux!

With the holidays upon us, we all need some stellar recipes that are fool-proof, delicious, and perfect for friends and family! One of my absolute favorites is "Coq au Riesling!" (My husband goes crazy for this!) This fantastic dish comes from the Alsace region of France and is similar to Coq au Vin, but made with Riesling rather than red wine. As I've talked about before, braising is an excellent technique for cooking chicken, see "Lacquered Chicken" and "Braised Paprika Chicken." Not only does the chicken remain incredibly moist, it makes the most addictive creamy sauce! Coq au Riesling is traditionally served with buttered egg noodles, but I like it just as it is with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the sauce. Add a salad and a bottle of Riesling, and you'll have a meal that is chic and sophisticated! 

Coq au Reisling

Serves 4


6 chicken legs, split at the joint (I usually make this with 8 chicken thighs instead, with great success!)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 shallots, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons Cognac (I like Camus VS.)
1 cup dry or off-dry Riesling (I like Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington state.)
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered
1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream (I actually prefer Mexican crema, specifically "Salvadorian" variety, if available, which I think is more flavorful than readily available American creme fraiche from Vermont, or the "Mexican" variety crema.) 
A squeeze of lemon juice (optional, but I like it!)
Chopped fresh parsley or tarragon, for garnish


*Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Season the chicken legs with salt and pepper. Melt half the butter with the oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat, and brown the chicken on all sides, working in batches. As the chicken browns, remove it to a plate. Add the shallots and garlic to the pan, and saute for 1 minute. Pour over the Cognac to deglaze. Put the chicken back in. Pour over the wine and stock, and simmer* until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes, turning once. (To check if the chicken is done, cut a little slit underneath next to the bone. *No need if you finish it in the oven!)

*My preferred technique is to place the (oven-proof) pan in a pre-heated 350 degree oven, uncovered, for 45 minutes. This method is easier and creates a more crispy skin. The thighs are always fully cooked and the pan sauce perfectly reduced.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a frying pan over medium heat, and cook the mushrooms until golden. When the chicken is cooked, remove it to a serving platter, and cover with foil to keep warm. Boil the cooking liquid down to sauce consistency. Stir in the creme fraiche and the mushrooms. When hot, taste, and correct the seasonings, adding a squeeze of lemon if you think it needs it. Pour the sauce over the chicken, scatter over the parsley, and serve. Mmmmmm!

Recipe adapted from French Taste: Elegant Everyday Eating, by Laura Calder.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ancient Chinese Secret!

Braising, from the French word "braiser," is a combination of dry heat cooking (searing to create a flavorful crust and appealing color) and moist heat (by adding liquid, covering, and cooking gently over low heat). Usually, the resulting liquid is then boiled down to create a luxurious sauce. It is one of the best techniques to create delicious moist meat. Braising is especially well suited for pieces of chicken, which can be difficult to cook without drying out.

This recipe for "Lacquered Chicken" is a fabulous example! The chicken is marinated in a combination of Chinese five-spice powder and soy sauce, then seared and braised. Finally, a combination of honey, sugar, and balsamic vinegar is added to create a syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce that is unique and delicious! Chinese five-spice powder is usually a blend of ground fennel seeds, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and Szechuan pepper corns, although other variations may include ginger, nutmeg, white pepper, and turmeric. Chinese five-spice powder compliments the five principal tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty) and is designed to provide the perfect balance of yin and yang. After endless research, I was unable to pinpoint any history regarding the creation of this wonder powder, so for now, it remains a mystery. 

Lacquered Chicken

Serves 4


8 chicken thighs, excess skin trimmed
6 tablespoons soy sauce, preferably low sodium
2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 plus 1/4 cup water
2 sliced scallions, for garnish


Place the chicken thighs in a dish large enough to hold them snugly. Combine the soy sauce and five-spice powder and pour over the chicken, turning to evenly coat. Leave to marinate on the counter for 30 minutes to an hour, turning occasionally.

Heat the oil over high heat in a large saute pan with a lid. Brown the chicken thighs on all sides. Pour over the 1/2 cup water, cover, lower the heat to low, and braise, turning often, until the meat is tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar and honey in the 1/4 cup water. Uncover the pan and pour it over the chicken thighs. Raise the temperature to high and boil, without the lid, to reduce the sauce to a syrupy consistency, turning the chicken to lacquer them in the sauce. Add the balsamic vinegar, mixing well. Serve with white rice, garnished with the scallions, and extra sauce on the side. Yum! 

Recipe adapted from French Food at Home, by Laura Calder.