I was born and raised in Kansas and learned to cook alongside my mother. Now, along with my wonderful husband, I have taken the plunge into the city life in New York. These are my food adventures: in my own tiny kitchen, and in the many restaurants of the city.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Curried Lamb Couscous and Notes on Braising

A few years ago I didn't know what braising meant and had never used the technique in the kitchen. Now it is one of my favorite ways to prepare meat and I use it more that just about any other cooking method. The best part about braising is that it can take an inexpensive, tough cut of meat and turn it meltingly tender and rich. Plus it is exceptionally easy as long as you have a little patience.

To braise a cut of meat, begin by seasoning it (with salt and pepper at least, or a spice rub if you so choose) and allowing it to rest at room temperature for at least 15-20 minutes before cooking. This allows the meat to be cooked more evenly (and makes it more tender in my opinion). Then heat 1-2 TB of oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat on the stove. Sear the meat on all sides (usually about 1-2 minutes per side is sufficient) making sure they are nice and brown. You can skip this step if you like, but it does give a more rich, intense flavor to the final dish if you do it.

At this point you have a couple of options. You can remove the meat to a plate and add mirepoix before returning the meat and the liquid or you can move right on the the addition of the liquid. Again, I think that adding mirepoix (a combination of chopped carrots, celery and onion) makes for more complex flavors. After removing the seared meat to a plate I will turn down the heat significantly (to keep from burning the vegetables), add the mirepoix and cook until tender (usually around 7-8 minutes).

Next return the meat to the pan and add in the liquid. The liquid can really be anything, but stock, red or white wine or beer are all great options. The liquid should come about 1/3-1/2 way up the side of the cut of meat. Bring the liquid to a boil and then cover the dutch oven with the lid (or foil). You can either turn the heat down on the stove to allow the liquid to simmer, or place the whole pot into a preheated oven (around 425 degrees). The time you cook will vary greatly depending on cut of meat and size, but this is where you need to show patience--cook the meat slowly until it is so tender you can shred it with a fork. Stew meat can be done in around 1 hour, but larger cuts (shoulders, roasts) could take up to 3 or more. Now you can shred the meat and serve it in the braising liquids, or you can strain the braising liquid and reduce it or make a gravy out of it to drizzle over the meat. The result is delicious on its own but also tends to be excellent over pasta or rice or sopped up with really good bread.

Simple and foolproof (and always tender and tasty). Now put go out and put braising to use in the following Curried Lamb Couscous recipe!

Curried Lamb Couscous
5-6 servings
1 lb lamb stew meat
2 TB curry powder
1 t. cumin
1 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
pinch nutmeg 
1/4 t. cardamom
1/8 t. cinnamon
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 TB cooking oil
1/2 c. vermouth
1 1/2-2 c. vegetable stock
1 c. pitted green olives
1/2 c. raisins
1/3 c. toasted almond slivers
1 package Near East Couscous

Mix together the curry powder, cumin, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon. Rub all over the lamb stew meat and then cover and allow to sit at room temperature for about 15-20 minutes.
Heat the cooking oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the lamb stew meat and sear on all sides (will go quickly with the small cuts of meat--give it only about 45 seconds to 1 min. per side). Remove the lamb meat to a plate, turn the heat down on the dutch oven to medium-low, and add in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery. Cook until the veggies are tender, about 8 minutes. Add the vermouth to the pan and stir, making sure to scrape up any bits that are stuck to the bottom (these have a lot of flavor that you don't want to lose!).
Add the meat back to the pan along with the vegetable stock. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Then cover the pan and then reduce the heat so the liquid will stay at a steady simmer. Cook for about 40 minutes, then add in the olives, raisins and almonds. Cover the pan again and cook until the lamb meat is extra tender, about 10-15 minutes longer.
While finishing up the lamb, cook the couscous according to the directions on the box. Once the lamb is tender and ready add the cooked couscous to the lamb and braising liquid and stir it all together to serve.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Oscar Party Menu

In case you want to know what I made for the fabulous event this past Sunday.

**Ruth Reichl's Gougeres (note that the ingredient list leaves out the 1 1/2 c. flour that is needed)
**Marcella Hazan's Bagna Cauda with Endive and Watermelon Radishes
**Popcorn with lemon zest, smoked salt and extra virgin olive oil
**Serious Eats' French Onion Dip (please make this soon--heavenly!!)
**"Black Swan" Pudding (chocolate pudding layered with vanilla pudding)

**Chive Deviled Eggs with Salmon Roe
makes 24 deviled eggs
 12 hard boiled eggs, peeled
1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 TB Dijon mustard
juice from 1 lemon
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
3 TB finely chopped chives
1/2 c. salmon roe

Chop the eggs in half. Carefully remove the yolk to a medium bowl and place the whites on a platter. In the bowl with the yolks, mix in the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper and chives. Mix together well and then scoop the mixture back into the centers of the egg whites. Top with a small spoonful of salmon roe to serve.

**Fregola Vegetable Soup
10-12 servings
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 TB olive oil
3 carrots, coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
1 large leek, cleaned and chopped
1 10oz. package frozen spinach, thawed, with the water squeezed out as much as possible
1 1/2-2 quarts vegetable stock (depending on how brothy you want the soup)
3/4 c. fregola
1 can cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and saute until soft, about 4-5 minutes, stirring often. Add the carrots, celery and leeks and continue to cook until these vegetables have softened as well, about 10 minutes. Add the spinach and cook for about 1 minute. Then add the vegetable broth, raise the heat on the stove to high, and bring the soup to a boil. Add the fregola and cook for about 5 minutes. Then add the cannelloni beans and cook until the fregola is al dente and the beans are cooked through, about 6 minutes more. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hosting a Successful Dinner Party

One of my all-time favorite things to do is to host friends and family for a party involving a lot of good food and drinks. I love the planning, choosing the menus, the lists, the shopping, cooking, and the fellowship that is the main event. After hosting many of these gatherings, the most recent being an Oscar party Sunday night, I think I have finally gotten the hang of how to pull it off smoothly (and being able to actually enjoy myself at the party instead of working all the way through it).

The most important aspect of planning a successful dinner party is planning ahead. If you think about the small details in the days or weeks before the event you will not be caught unprepared come the big day. Make lists, spreadsheets, post-it notes around the apartment--whatever you need to help you remember all the things you need to accomplish beforehand.

1. Reason for party. Why are you hosting the event? Is it a holiday? A celebration? Or just a regular Tuesday night? The reason behind the party will help to shape the menu and the vibe. Even if it is only an excuse to hang out with your friends you need to decide what kind of party it will be. Full dinner or just apps? Sit down meal? Decorations or just your apartment as is? Decide the big details first and then you can move on from there.

2. Guests. Who do you want to invite? How many people? How many people can you realistically host? If you are wanting a sit-down dinner party and your table seats only 3 you may be out of line inviting 25. It's true that probably not everyone invited will attend, but do you have the space if they all do? Send out invitations (via mail, email, facebook, text) with enough time for people to be able to make plans to attend and give them time to RSVP if you need to know the guest count. Be sure to include start and end times, address, and if the event will include a full meal, snacks, or no food at all.
Also consider what the guests should bring. People always want to help when they come to a party so allow them to! Do you need side dishes? A dessert? Napkins? I like to have people bring wine/booze since we seem to go through so much at our events.

3. Menu. This is my favorite part. What do you want to make? One thing that I have learned is to create a menu around as many items as possible that can be prepared or prepped beforehand. You do not want to be stuck in the kitchen cooking the whole time your guests are around (unless the purpose of your event is to cook together). Even if you have one or two things that need to be made last minute, it is helpful if the apps and dessert at least are already prepared.
Make a word doc including all of the recipes you plan on preparing. Then go through and make a list of all of the ingredients you will need to shop for (don't forget napkins, plates, utensils, etc. if you don't have enough). Finally go through the recipes and note all of the things that can be done ahead and make a game plan on when you will do what (i.e. 2 days before: make ice cream; 1 day before: prep roast, cover and place in refrigerator, chop veggies for app; day of: cook roast, set out veggies and dip). Remember that even if you can't cook something days before, sometimes you can chop up the ingredients or do bits of the recipe before to save time later. Also make a list of any last minute tasks that your guests can help with if they arrive early or before you are quite finished.

4. Drinks. What would you like to drink at the party? Only wine and champagne? A signature cocktail? Remember to have some non-alcoholic drinks available for those who don't drink as well. Add any of these drinks and ingredients (plus ice and garnishes) to your shopping list.

5. Shop. Don't wait until the day of the event to shop. It will cause you unnecessary stress and not give you time to grab the little things you  may forget. If you live in a place with a car (I'm jealous), go out one day and get all of the shopping done in one go. If, like me, you have to lug everything back to your place with the force of your own arms, break it up over a couple of trips, purchasing the non-perishables first and the things that aren't likely to last long last. Then go over your shopping list and recipes to make sure you haven't forgotten anything.
If you are decorating be sure to pick up the decor on this trip as well.

6. Clean. I like to do a deep clean of my apartment a few days before a party instead of the day before. That way I don't wear myself out getting it all done along with the cooking. Then it is easy to do a quick pass to clean up the little things the day of.
Make sure the kitchen is especially clean since it seems to be where everyone hangs out at every party I've ever been to.

7. Prep. Do everything you can in the days before your gathering, prepping any dish or ingredient that will last, including chopping vegetables. If you've written out a plan beforehand you should know what to do when! Decorate the night before if you are able.

8. Day of: The day of your event you should now be able to finish up the last little details. Set out drinks, plates and serving utensils. Work on finishing cooking and plating the dishes. Put some great music on and as guests arrive take their coats and bags and store somewhere (a bedroom works great if you don't have a coat closet). Point them to the drinks and appetizers and introduce them to other guests they don't know. If you need help in the kitchen to do the last few things, ask! It's a great icebreaker. Now enjoy yourself--you are hosting a fabulous party!