Friday, February 25, 2011

Planning a dinner party

Sneak peek into this weekend's dinner party prep.

There's been some chatter online lately about the demise of the dinner party. As the author of a blog that hopes to encourage people to cook more, suffice to say, I don't agree. To me, a dinner party is any time you have someone over for dinner. It can be one person, it can be 6. The important part isn't the number of guests; it's that you're opening up your home, inviting someone in to share a meal. It doesn't have to be fancy - heck, you don't even have to cook the actual meal (although that would be great, too).

So what's stopping more people from hosting dinner parties? Is it the usual culprits of time, energy and motivation? Well, if you've managed to find those things in order to cook dinner more often, throwing a dinner party isn't much more difficult. In fact, it's only as difficult (or complicated might be a better word) as you want it to be.

Start simple; host a potluck. Tell everyone you'll make the main dish and ask them to help out with the sides. If you've ever hosted a holiday meal, you've probably already figured this one out. Another great idea is to host a soup and (fill in the blank) party. You make a couple types of soup, maybe even this one and then decide if you want to offer a salad and some bread or rolls.

Or, maybe sandwiches instead. Who doesn't love tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches? Sorry Mom, but some of my best childhood food memories are of my sister Aimee making me that exact lunch on half days home from school. Those sandwiches almost cancel out the image of my sister surrounding herself with cereal boxes at breakfast so I couldn't bother see her.

In keeping with the simple/make-ahead theme, another thought is lasagna or any other baked pasta like macaroni and cheese, manicotti or baked ziti. I once hosted a family birthday lunch for 13 and made it easy on myself by making two lasagnas ahead of time, one vegetarian, one meat. The only tricky part was making sure both were thoroughly re-warmed in my oven, but it all worked out. And birthday cake makes everything better, don't you think?

Or go in the complete opposite direction and challenge yourself to try something completely new. That's one of the reasons I host dinner parties; well, in addition to wanting to see our friends. I know, I know, you're never supposed to try out new recipes for the first time when you're having guests. But since I'm only cooking for two on a daily basis, I don't get the opportunity to make a lot of larger things, like roasts, unless we want to eat it for the entire week. I just make sure to use a recipe from an author I trust - and have a back-up plan, in case things don't work out.

Whatever you decide to serve (and I will happily join you for take-out pizza), remember that your friends and family are there to see you, first and foremost. You don't need to have a perfect house or wait til you have the perfect plates. And in the paraphrased words of my beloved Ina Garten, your friends won't have a better time if you spent all day in the kitchen. Just invite them over! I promise you won't regret it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day!

What do you do when you come down with a nasty sinus infection the day before Valentine's Day? Cancel your fancy dinner plans because you can't taste anything anyway? Say who cares because it's a stupid holiday created by Hallmark (it's not)? Or for those of us who actually like an excuse to celebrate love  (or really, anything), postpone your dinner plans til the following week? I choose the last one.

So tonight's menu really isn't anything fancy. It's just fancier than what I make most nights of the week, meaning, a side dish that takes more than 5 minutes to throw together and if everything goes well, a dessert for two. Here goes.

(Belated) Valentine's Day Dinner Menu for Two

Green Salad
Potato Gratin for Two
Steamed Broccoli
Individual Fallen Chocolate Cakes

I'm starting with the dessert because if I don't, it's the one thing most likely to be cut from the menu due to lack of time, energy or interest. Well, not really lack of interest. More like willpower or the realization that Bob and I have both eaten our weight in chocolate this past week. Nope, I'm not one of those people who loses their appetite when they're sick. This dinner was the only part of Valentine's Day that was postponed; the chocolate was most definitely still gifted and received.

And regardless of how much chocolate was received (and sometimes already eaten), Valentine's Day also means chocolate for dessert around these parts. It's what my Valentine wants and it's what he gets - and it's such a simple, yet amazing dessert, I'm sure I'll be finding other excuses to make it throughout the year.

Did I mention how easy this dessert is? It's a variation on the always popular molten/lava cake and unlike other recipes, doesn't involve separating eggs or anything tricky. Not that I think separating eggs is tricky, but it usually involves dirtying more bowls (and whipping the yolks and whites separately) and I'm all for streamlined if the end result tastes this good!

Buttered ramekins, about to be dusted with cocoa.

Final whipped egg/sugar/salt mixture.
The only special technique required in this recipe is folding. And I happen to love folding. If you don't, or don't know what I'm talking about, folding is a method of gently mixing ingredients together so that whatever you're mixing, doesn't get deflated. And the reason you don't want those ingredients (typically eggs) deflated is so they puff up in the oven.

It's always easier to fold ingredients together when your bowl is big, rather than small. You want to have enough room to move the spatula around. See how much room I have in the bowl below?

First step of folding.
Halfway there.
Start by scraping your spatula along the side of the bowl and then continue under the mixture at the bottom, pulling the spatula up through the middle. Give the bowl a quarter-turn and repeat. Continue to gently fold the ingredients together, taking care not to deflate the egg mixture more than necessary. When barely any streaks of flour or egg mixture are visible, you're finished.

Final mixture, completely folded.
The finished cake with a piece of chocolate added for a goofy bit of garnish.
The cake pictures are the only ones that turned out, but I'm including the potato gratin recipe, anyway, because it's just so good. And if you're looking for a foolproof way to cook a steak in the oven, check out the link above or here.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Individual Fallen Chocolate Cakes
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated - Cooking for Two 2010
serves: 2

notes: special equipment needed - two 6-ounce ramekins

If you find yourself at a kitchen supply store with no idea how to determine the capacity of the ramekins staring you in the face, allow me to help. I have Apilco ones from Williams-Sonoma and if you can find them on sale (sometimes they have seasonal colors, like pink), grab them.

According to the W-S site, the ones I have are the large size (3 1/2" wide,  1 1/2" tall) and hold 5.4 ounces. They also have a mark on the bottom, near the edge, that looks like a 7. I haven't been able to determine exactly what it means, but it must have something to do with size as my much larger Apilco souffle dish has a number 6 (or an upside down 9) on the bottom.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for ramekins
cocoa powder, for ramekins
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch salt
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
confectioner's sugar, for dusting (optional)
  1. Set oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter two 6-ounce ramekins and dust with cocoa.
  2. Combine chopped chocolate and butter in microwave-safe bowl and microwave til melted, approximately 1-3 minutes. I suggest using medium power and start with 30 seconds, stir, repeat until melted. Stir in vanilla.
  3. In large mixing bowl, beat egg with whisk attachment on medium-low until foamy, approximately 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and beat egg til soft and foamy, about 1 minute. Slow speed to medium and gradually add sugar and salt; return speed to med-high and continue to beat til egg mixture is very thick and pale yellow, 5- 10 minutes longer. If using a stand mixer, this should only take 5 minutes.
  4. Using a spatula, scrape whipped egg mixture on top of chocolate mixture, then sift flour over top. Gently fold mixtures together until just incorporated and no streaks remain.
  5. Divide batter between prepared ramekins and smooth tops. Note: If you're making these in advance, stop here and chill the filled ramekins by placing them in the refrigerator. When ready to bake, proceed with the following directions.
  6. Place ramekins on baking sheet and bake until cakes have puffed about 1/2" above rim of ramekins and jiggle slightly when shaken, 10-13 minutes.
  7. Run a small knife around edges of cakes. Gently invert each ramekin onto individual plates and let sit til cakes release themselves, about 1 minute. Remove ramekins, dust with confectioner's sugar and serve immediately.
Potato Gratin for Two
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated - Cooking for Two 2009

notes: special equipment needed - a shallow 8 1/2" x 5 1/2" baking dish with sides that are no more than 2 inches high.

Prep and assemble all the ingredients before slicing the potatoes or they will turn brown (don't store the sliced potatoes in water - the starch is needed for the recipe). The 1/8" thickness of the potato slices is crucial for the success of the dish; use a mandoline, a V-slicer or a food processor fitted with an 1/8" thick slicing blade.

1 large russet potato (about 12 ounces), peeled and sliced 1/8" thick
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small shallot, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon minced, fresh thyme - or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese (or Parmesan)

  1. Adjust an oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Coat an 8 1/2" x 5 1/2" baking dish with vegetable oil spray (like Pam). Place the potatoes in a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and salt and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic, thyme, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour and cook until incorporated, about 10 seconds. Whisk in the cream, bring to a simmer and cook until beginning to thicken, about 30 seconds.
  3. Pour the sauce over the potatoes and toss to coat thoroughly. Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish and gently pack the potatoes in an even layer, removing any air pockets. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the potatoes are almost tender, 35-40 minutes.
  4. Remove the foil and sprinkle with the cheese. Continue to bake, uncovered, until the cheese is lightly browned and the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes longer. Let the gratin sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Taking a sick day, or two

While I'm off recouperating from my annual sinus infection, take a minute to check out this great article from on why a recipe might fail. More often than not, it's likely not your fault!

And if you're looking for more guidelines and suggestions for eating healthy, here are some common sense/real world tips.

I finally saw the movie Food Inc. yesterday and I highly recommend it. It was a great reminder to make some more changes in my own diet and the way I shop. If you've already seen it, please share your thoughts!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cooking for one - Fettuccine with Artichokes

Bob's out of town for work again and you know what that means? Lebanese take-out!

Just kidding! Who would want to read about my take out meals? Hmmm...I guess some people might, but that's not why I started this blog. Thanks to you, I'm actually sticking to my resolutions and I'm cooking dinner more often. Still not every night and no, I have no plans to kick my pizza habit, but hey, one meal at a time.

Tonight's dinner is compliments of the wonderful writers at the former Gourmet magazine. Gourmet called it quits over a year ago and I still miss it. True, I didn't cook very much from it at the end. And I often spent a lot of time hunting down exotic ingredients for a recipe that easily took me over 2 hours to cook. But I've yet to find a replacement that gets me as excited about cooking and food as Gourmet. At least not one that I can afford.

Fettuccine with Artichokes is a meal I often make when I'm dining solo. I realize this is my second vegetarian meal and some of you might be wondering what's going on. I haven't stopped eating meat, but I tend to skip it when Bob's out of town. Like I said before, I try to use these occasions as an opportunity to cook things Bob doesn't eat - like artichokes.

So nothing tricky about this recipe. Really basic ingredients, too. The only thing I usually have to pick up from the store is the frozen artichokes. But if you plan ahead (unlike me), you can have them sitting in your freezer, just waiting for an opportunity to be turned into this.

I usually get mine at Trader Joe's because that's the first place I saw them. And of course, at Trader Joe's, they're super cheap. But 'my' store didn't have them so I had to plow on to my usual grocery store. What dedication, huh? Believe me, I was pretty impressed with myself. Missing ingredients is my standard excuse to grab some pizza. But, um, since we had pizza last night, that wasn't an option. At least not for another week.

Fettuccine with Artichokes

serves: one (the original recipe serves 6)

notes: The changes I made were pretty minor. I added a bit more of the artichokes because I really like them. And I held off adding the lemon zest til the end because I think it tastes fresher that way.

Cooking for one can be tricky when it comes to choosing a pan size. The saute pan in this recipe needs to be large enough to hold the cooked pasta at the end, but not too large so that the onion burns. I like the taste of the caramelized (browned) onion, but if you don't, keep the heat on low the entire time.

3-4 ounces frozen artichoke hearts, not thawed (or about 12 hearts)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 of a small onion
kosher salt and black pepper
pinch of red hot pepper flakes
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 ounces dried egg fettuccine
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, grated

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook artichokes til just tender, barely 2 minutes. Do not drain pot - remove artichokes with a slotted spoon and set aside. Return pot to boil.
  2. Chop onion into small or large pieces, whatever you prefer. Heat butter and olive oil in 10" nonstick saute pan over med heat.  When foaming butter subsides, saute onions, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened, about 6 minutes. If onions are getting darker than you like, turn the heat down to low.
  3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in salted, boiling water (the pot from #1) til al dente. My noodle package recommended 8-10 minutes so that's what I used. Fresh fettuccine noodles (sold in the refrigerated section of the grocery store) will take much less time to cook. Again, check the label.
  4. While pasta is cooking, add artichokes to the onions and saute for approximately 3 minutes until warmed through and starting to brown. Stir in lemon juice and remove from heat.
  5. Drain pasta (reserving 1/2 cup pasta water) and add to artichoke mixture. Add 1/4 cup of pasta water to pan, along with lemon zest, parsley and Parmesan and toss to combine.
  6. Taste and season with additional salt if needed. Thin mixture with remaining pasta water if desired and serve with additional cheese on the side.
  7. And don't forget a salad to round out the meal!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Potato Leek Soup

What do you do when you see yet another severe weather alert in the forecast? If you're anything like me, you stay home and make soup. Well, and maybe some cookies (why does falling snow always make me want to bake??), but that's another post.

This is one of my winter standards. It's warm and cozy and exactly what you need on a chilly night, like tonight. But it's also one of my year round favorites.  It's cozy, but not so heavy/hearty/stick-to-your-bones that you can't enjoy it in the spring or summer, too.

And the best part of all? It's so simple that I challenge you to tell me that it's too much work. No special equipment required and only four ingredients that you should be able to find in any grocery store, plus a bay leaf, salt and pepper. OK, and a tiny bit of flour to thicken it ever so slightly.

It doesn't get much easier than that, or healthier. According to my handy-dandy MasterCook software, each serving is only about 250 calories. Even if you add a full-fat homemade Caesar Salad and a small roll, that's a pretty darn healthy meal in my book! I'm not all about the calorie counts, but it's nice to know if we're on the right track. And if you're interested, I'll include the information that I have (with the caveat that I'm clearly not a dietitian or nutritionist).

One last tidbit before we get to the recipe. Have you ever seen the phrase 'sweat the vegetables' in the directions of a recipe and wondered what, exactly, that meant? It's a great technique, especially when you're trying to watch the fat in a dish, but in my experience, most recipe writers get it wrong. When you 'sweat' something, you use a small amount of fat (3 tablespoons butter in this case) combined with low heat. I like to start the heat on medium to give the vegetables a kick and then once they're tossed with the butter or oil, add a pinch of salt, lower the heat and place the lid on the pot.

The pinch of salt helps draw the moisture out of the vegetables and the lid keeps that moisture in the pot. And when you keep the heat on low, checking and stirring every now and then, the butter or oil doesn't burn and the veggies soften like they're supposed to, without browning. I, personally, don't mind if there is some browning, but if you see some brown spots and you start to get worried, add a splash of chicken broth, white wine or even some water to the pot. Just a small amount of liquid will keep whatever you're cooking from browning or even burning.

Chop the leeks.

A lot of leeks.

Toss them with melted butter and sweat them til they're softened.

Chop the potatoes, preferably small enough to fit on your spoon.

The end result.
Potato Leek Soup
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, January 2000

servings: 4-6, generously
yield: 5.5 cups

note: Those Cook's Illustrated people must be hearty eaters. The original recipe made 11 cups and served 8 people. I halved the recipe, but feel free to double it - and hey, freeze the extras!

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds leeks (my store sells leeks in bunches, as in 3 for $1.99 - I use one bunch)
1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth (it's true, homemade is best, but store-bought does the job, too. this is the brand I use)
1 bay leaf
1 pound red potatoes
salt and pepper (I like to use kosher salt because it's easier to grab with my fingers)
  1. Cut off the dark green part of the leeks, leaving only the white and light green parts. Trim the root end. Leeks are usually pretty dirty inside so slice them in half lengthwise and then rinse under cold water. Some recipes will tell you to soak them in a bowl of water, but I think that just makes more dishes to wash. Scrub out the dirt with your fingers and dry the cleaned leeks.
  2. Chop the leeks into small pieces, depending on your preference. The original recipe called for 1-inch pieces, but I like them smaller, as seen in the 2nd and 3rd pictures above.
  3. Heat butter in a Dutch oven (or any heavy, large saucepan) over medium heat til foaming. Add leeks and a pinch of salt, stir everything and cover with a lid. Turn the heat to low and cook (or sweat the vegetables) for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and softened.
  4. Sprinkle flour over leeks and stir to coat, cooking until flour dissolves, about 1-2 minutes. The flour is added to help slightly thicken the soup, by combining with the butter in the pan and in step 5, the broth.
  5. Turn heat to high and slowly add broth, whisking constantly. 
  6. Chop the potatoes into bite-size pieces. Add bay leaf, potatoes and salt and pepper to taste to pot. The amount of salt you'll need will depend on how salty the broth is - definitely look for the low-sodium store bought stuff.
  7. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 5-7  minutes, until potatoes are almost tender. Lower heat, if necessary to keep pot at a simmer (not a boil).
  8. Remove pot from heat and keeping lid on, let sit for 10-15 minutes until potatoes are completely tender. Discard bay leaf, taste and season with additional salt and pepper if needed and serve.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Menu planning, part 2 - more ideas, less crazy

It's hard to describe menu planning with a picture.

Maybe my crazy method of menu planning (see part 1 here) didn't do it for you. Believe me, it doesn't always work for me. Like yesterday, when my husband had to go out of town on a last minute business trip. I have a week's worth of recipes planned and even the groceries to go with them. But my motivation? I'm having a really hard time finding it. So to help myself out when it happens again (and I know it will), I'm adding a back-up plan to my method.

That is the point of all this work, after all. We're doing it to ultimately make our lives easier and hopefully, better, get the idea. There's a never-ending stream of research telling us how important family meals are for our well being and our health. And by family I don't just mean two parents plus two kids. Family is however you define it and dinner for one is just as important as dinner for six.

If you're still not convinced that it's worth the effort, check out this food manifesto by Mark Bittman. He has a bunch of great ideas on how we can improve our food supply, but he also talks about the value of home cooking. Another good source of information is the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that was released this past week. It can be tough to follow the guidelines at a restaurant, but at home you're in control.

In the end, no matter what your motivation, planning meals (and cooking them) will take some time to make it a regular habit. It makes sense to find the method that works best for you and your lifestyle.

Here are a few more ideas to help you get started.
  1. Create theme nights. If you were a kid in the 1970's, you might remember Wednesday as Prince Spaghetti Night. The ad campaign may have been hokey, but the concept still makes sense. Whether it's Pasta Wednesday or Soup and Salad Thursday, a routine makes it easier to plan the menu and to stick to it. Find four pasta recipes, four soups and you're on your way to planning a whole month of dinners.
  2. Plan for leftovers. If you're making a pot of spaghetti sauce, it's not much more work to double the recipe and freeze the extras. Soups and casseroles also freeze well.This is my 'new' back-up plan, by the way. But it only works as long as the dinner gets made in the first place.
  3. Cook ahead of time. Similar to #2, except you're typically only planning a week ahead. Prep and cook meals on the weekends or whenever you can find the time. Plan for the days you know you'll get home late and you'll stop making a side trip to pick up a pizza.
  4. Finally, don't forget to treat yourself. I still love going out to eat at restaurants - who doesn't?  But if healthier eating is your goal, those meals need to be a special occasion, a treat. It's going to be tough, but I promise it will be worth it!
Now let's get cooking!