Archive for the ‘Cocktails’ Category

How’s that spelt?

Spelt Breadsticks

Spelt Breadsticks

My Mom is obsessed with a cinnamon roll.

This is not to be confused with the icky, sticky, cinnamon buns sold in malls. This is more from the old-fashioned breakfast roll school: barely sweet, a little crusty, and fun to pull apart. My use of the word “obsessed” is not a joke; she must have this roll with one of her meals every day. Such a story about someone my Mom’s age—and we won’t deal in the banalities of specific numbers here—brings to mind what they say about the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day: hey they lived this long, they must be doing something right.

If my tone registers with you as being a tad judgmental, it has more to do with what gets paired with the cinnamon roll than the choice of the roll itself. (The cinnamon roll comes from only one specific bakery near where Mom lives.)

Who am I to judge? For if I am to be truthful, I must admit that the little gourmet here is just as apt to do the same thing.

My Mom and I have similar food habits. Although she’s much guiltier of this than me, we can both plead guilty to being able to eat the same thing every day for months. Alas, these obsessions don’t have a happy ending. I can lunch on the same salad or sandwich daily until one day, unannounced, my appetite declares that it simply will not tolerate a repeat performance. While hardly a tragedy, I have been known in these situations to stand on a corner looking this way and that, desperately clueless about what I should have for lunch. (It usually takes a few days of interim foraging before I settle on my newest lazy lunch choice obsession.)

I say it all the time: you can put the most miserable slop in front of me, but if there’s something good in the bread basket I won’t complain. If one man’s feast is truly another man’s famine, then it would seem futile to plan a meal in the hopes of keeping everyone happy.

So, what about – like my Mom’s current bread obsession—designing the whole meal around the bread? Sure, there are sandwiches, but even with sandwiches the calculation is usually filling first, bread second. I think this may be a way to keep everyone happy. Of course, it has to be good bread.

I’ve been down the “bread as utensil” road before, and it can be a bumpy ride, indeed. It works with miraculous Indian breads like chapatti and naan, but then I could make an entire meal of just those. The bumpy ride was a meal from another part of the world where I was left bereft of satisfaction. This failed because neither the bread nor the food being scooped by the bread were satisfactory.

What if we used the bread like a combination utensil, sandwich loaf, and fondue dipper? Prosciutto with melon is a good example of this concept; antipasto, main course, and dessert, all in one slender snack. The problem here is that the melon is a bit slippery. Bread is rarely—if ever—slippery. Clearly the better choice.

People often wrap grissini, the skinny, crunchy breadsticks, with a ghostly shaving of prosciutto. This is promising. You can also make a great dipping dessert with grissini—like the Poky sticks from Japan. But grissini lack the oomph required that could make them meal worthy.

That’s why I’m nominating the hearty-but-deceptively-light Spelt breadsticks for the gig. I had never baked with spelt before. It brings the whole grain flavor and nuttiness to the bread without the weight and grit of whole wheat flour.

Many people used to think that spelt flour was suitable for those folks on gluten-free diets, but this is not true. It does have its benefits though, like the lightness I just mentioned.

The breadsticks themselves are generously proportioned, not unlike a small loaf of bread. Serve these standing like soldiers in drinking glasses surrounded by assorted antipasti ingredients, and perhaps some flavored olive oil for dipping. A nice warm weather meal, yes?

Please don’t mention to my Mom that I compared her to the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day.

She doesn’t smoke.

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Here’s the Spelt Breadstick recipe.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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You’re tweet…

The Hair Dream

Grilled Semolina Flatbread with Onion Yogurt Dip

Grilled Semolina Flatbread with Onion Yogurt Dip

There’s a theatrical legend that tells of a great actor’s ability to milk applause from the audience. (I don’t remember which actor the legend describes.) Supposedly he would appear for his curtain call and milk the applause by slowly pacing from one side of the stage to another, giving his rapt attention and breathless thanks to each section of the audience. As he did this he would make note of which section’s applause seemed to be subsiding, and place his body in front of them “surprised” and “moved” by their adulation.

Overall, a good technique, and perhaps something we should all try to adapt or emulate in our own humble worlds. Why not? It’s a big tough world, and I say take all the applause and adulation you can find, no matter what the source, even for the smallest accomplishments. To that end, I am introducing something never before seen in a blog: the applause sign, something previously seen only by TV studio audiences and next to Donald Trump’s mirrors. As you read the following blog you will occasionally see [APPLAUSE] which is your cue to stop and applaud a particularly pithy thought , or me.

[APPLAUSE]

I’ve been thinking of this recently because this is the time of year when that firm grip so many folks may have had on accomplishing their New Year’s resolutions has begun to slip. Yes, your gym may be more crowded during the month of January, but like the old adage about New England weather, if you don’t like it, give it a minute.

In the meantime give yourself a huge round of applause for anything you may have accomplished since 12:00AM, January 1st. Finally put away your Christmas tree? You are a star! [APPLAUSE]

Me? I reached my first goal of the new year. I’m extremely proud and have been spending far too much time patting myself on the back. Clearly it’s time for a reward.

Oh, uh, what was my goal? My goal was to make a resolution. I’ve never done that before. This is not to say that I don’t consider myself a candidate for self-improvement (far from it). I have simply never before left resolutions for the end of the year. My usual M.O. is to make them throughout the year. Naturally this means I also fail (and succeed) at them throughout the year.

I know, I know: you’re thinking, “Making a resolution to make a resolution is cheating.” Perhaps you are right. But again, I contend that this is a tricky time of year and any and every effort must be rewarded, even if the reward is faint praise. So, thank you! [APPLAUSE] Oh, and you over there? Thank you!

What was my resolution? To grow a full head of hair. I acknowledge from the outset that there are some genetically based barriers standing between me and the successful completion of this goal. Some may say it is impossible, to which I have three replies: 1.) Never say never.  2.) You’ve obviously never had “The Hair Dream.” 3.) I didn’t define a timeline during which this must be accomplished. This includes future lives, if you are so inclined to believe that kind of thing. (Fans of Shirley MacLaine may now applaud.) [APPLAUSE] Oh! Thank you so much! Stop. You may be embarrassing me.

Frivolous? A waste of a resolution? I think not. It is “impossible” for me to grow hair, you say? Then by comparison losing a few pounds will be a piece of cake (pardon the semi-pun.) (Is Louise Hay reading this? Perhaps it will make her get off her unmotivated tush and get moving.)

Wait. You’re asking, “What’s ‘The Hair Dream’”? This is a recurring dream I (and many other bald folks) have where I wake up in the morning, go into the bathroom, and am greeted in the mirror by a reflection of myself with a full, thick, head of hair. What follows is a session of hair styling featuring every style from the last twenty years that I may have missed out on. Contrary to most happy dreams, there is no disappointment when I wake up. And if you can dream it you can do it. Right? [APPLAUSE]

Meanwhile, if your resolutions included eating more healthfully, there’s no need to swear off the kitchen, or even the fun of baking. There’s no magic here, just a little technique, and the correct choice of ingredients.

Yes, portion control is vital, but even more vital is making sure every bite counts. Pack every nibble with flavor and texture, but keep everything healthy. A tall order? Not at all.

Last weekend I spent about an hour in the kitchen and made something I can snack on guiltlessly all week. My little grilled flatbreads owe a debt of gratitude—and a dab of yogurt—to Indian Naan, but could actually come from anywhere. The leavener, baking powder, doesn’t really make the dough rise as much as it relaxes the flour making these flatbreads a snap to roll out, but durable enough to grill (indoors or out).

The small amount of Greek yogurt in the recipe leaves enough in the container to make a respectable amount of dip. No Lipton Onion Soup mix here. My magic ingredient? Spanish anchovies, which perform a bit of umami magic by lending a bit of saltiness and nuttiness to the dip before disappearing and taking any unpleasant fishiness with them as they steal off into the night.

[APPLAUSE]

Oh, stop. You’re spoiling me.

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Click here for the recipe for Grilled Semolina Flatbread with Roasted Onion Yogurt Dip

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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New Year, New Tweets!

Pity the Poor Lightweight

Pity the poor lightweight. You’ve seen us at parties, bars, and all sort of social gatherings. You recognize us by what we’re drinking: club soda, wedge of lime. We figure most folks will assume we’re holding a gin and tonic or vodka and soda, but deep down, we know we’re not fooling anyone. We know what everyone knows: we’re stone cold sober, and often nodding and smiling like we’re having fun, but off in the front corner of our mind we are thinking about the episode of “Summer Wipeout” we’re missing.

This is the opposite of being a wallflower, for there is no discomfort or reticence that causes our abstemiousness, simply a lack of taste buds that enjoy alcohol.

Most of us misbegotten souls find solace in bar snacks. I wish I had a five dollar bill for every time a dish of Japanese Rice Crackers have gotten me through a bar-centric occasion. MSG never tasted so good. (Five dollar bill? Not a nickel? Yeah. Inflation.)

The other day I was in the bar of a very groovy, of-the-moment, downtown restaurant where the sole bar snack was Wasabi Peanuts. There isn’t enough club soda in the universe to douse that flame. Would someone mind explaining to me the fascination the folks who sell bar food have with Japanese snacks? The core Japanese diet may on the whole be healthier than our core diet, but have you ever looked at the list of ingredients in their snack foods? Downright toxic.

Of course there are many examples of bar snacks that reflect thought, sophistication, and a restrained touch. The nuts at Union Square Café come to mind, a lightly salty, slightly sweet roast of nuts, tinted with the evergreen fragrance of rosemary. A meal unto itself, and for us lightweights an oasis of charm in an otherwise greasy sea.

Parties at home are not immune. Imagine your typical backyard barbecue. A cooler with bottles of beer. Have you noticed that beer drinkers are still provided with the charm of hoisting a cold, glass bottle containing their beverage, yet, pity the poor lightweight who must make do with the charm of a plastic cup? Why don’t soft drink companies recognize this and sell more of their product in glass bottles (at least during the summer) so that I can enjoy my backyard beverage the same way? Yes, they make cans of soda, but you are denied the aesthetic pleasure of seeing the fizz and clarity of what you are drinking.

Ah, but we were talking about bar snacks. I should clarify: I’m not asking to be served dinner; Just a little something that will keep me amused.

Cheese and crackers are nice, but interestingly enough, after a bite or two of cheese I tend to gravitate toward the crackers alone. I love cheese, but the crackers call my name. This makes me self-conscious as I feel like I am “stealing” crackers from folks who want to put them to their rightful purpose as cheese carriers. (This, as my Mother would say, should be my biggest regret.)

Last year I wrote about cake salée, the savory cake that has become so popular in France as a “little something” to serve with wine before a meal. These cakes are often flavored with a combination of cheese and cured meat, like gruyere and prosciutto. I like that practice: a few bites of something with a little substance to keep me interested until the fish hits the pan. Cake salée is also self-contained: I won’t drip it on my shirt.

But during the hot weather the menu changes a bit, and along with it, folks’ choice of wine. I was watching TV the other day and saw an entire segment about Rosé wine. Rosé is one of those wines that cycles up and down in popularity. About a dozen years ago when everyone was calling it White Zinfandel purists considered it a step above Kool-Aid. (That’s one great advantage about being a lightweight: you can’t be a wine snob.)

Now they are calling it Rosé, and it seems to have gained the slightest foothold as a legit summer beverage. Perhaps because it is best served chilled, and tends to have a lower price tag? Perhaps.

I was pondering the hypothetical question of what to serve with a chilled glass of wine on a hot summer night. Cake salée came to mind, but while I was hunting the supermarket cheese aisle for inspiration I happened to see a tub of Port Wine Cheese. I may have been in college the last time I had a swipe of Port Wine Cheese on a cracker. If you have forgotten, Port Wine Cheese was a spreadable extra sharp cheddar cheese with “Port Wine” swirled through it. I placed Port Wine in quotation marks because it was unlikely that any actual Port Wine was harmed in the production of the cheese.

But there it is: my inspiration. I could have flavored a cake salée to mimic this, but I thought people might enjoy something with a little crunch: biscotti.

I took my standard biscotti base recipe, subtracted most of the sugar, added a generous wedge of the sharpest cheddar I could find, and used dried cranberries to mimic the port wine sweetness. The result is a mellow, slightly sweet, cheese cracker that will surprise folks expecting something salty. Each slice is somewhat rich, so meager portions will hold even the most ravenous guest until dinner is served.

And yes, that includes lightweights.

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Click here for my recipe for “Port Wine” Cheese Biscotti

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Once More With Feeling

Pancakes Perdu

Pancakes Perdu

There’s something about writing about leftovers. I can’t say I know exactly why it makes me skittish, but it does.

Is it the unspoken question, “Well, if the original meal was so great why was there any left over?” Is it that I’ve grown to feel that leftovers are the food equivalent of “hand-me-downs”? Is it an irrational fear of salmonella? (Q: At what point does a rational fear become irrational? Never mind. I’ll leave that one for the philosophers.)

Is it the ages-old image of leftovers being synonymous with other kitchen drudgery like, say, dish-pan hands? The late manicurist Madge (“You’re soaking in it.”) solved dish-pan hands eons ago, yet there are still leftovers casting passive-aggressive glances my way when I open the refrigerator door.

I happily contradict this feeling when I make a big pot of soup or chili. I hoard that stuff and tend it for several days like a proud prospective penguin parent coddling an egg on its feet. But the thought of reheating anything else leaves me (pardon the pun) cold.

Could part of the reason be that I do not own a microwave oven? This is partially by design (dunno what I’d use it for), and partially because of space limitations (I refuse to cede kitchen space to something I’d likely use only to activate the magic of Orville Redenbacher). I have an open mind: show me something indispensable and irreplaceable that a microwave oven does, and I’ll buy one (they’re cheap enough) but ‘till then, I have baked potatoes, chocolate melting, boiling water, and food reheating covered by other appliances. Popcorn can wait for the movies.

(And then of course there’s its nickname, “Nuke” that fills me with caution. Timely, no?)

My Mother, whose appetite has diminished somewhat, shares my aversion of leftovers. While she rarely finishes a restaurant meal, with few exceptions she also can’t stand the thought of eating it the next day. A true child of the depression (although still in her forties), she has it packed up to go and, once home, gives it to her doorman, therefore unwittingly creating an entirely new subset of leftovers which I call “The Doggy Bag Gift Platter.” One can only speculate about the enthusiasm of the recipients. I suspect she’ll not be garnering much competition from Messrs. Harry and David.

I keep coming back to the word, “reheating.” Maybe that’s my problem. Instead of looking upon leftovers for a repeat performance, I think the answer lies in my looking upon leftovers as mere ingredients to be included in an entirely new meal. Yes, this is easier said than done. Can last night’s meatloaf ever be anything other than meatloaf? My answer is that only certain meals can make this transformation. Meatloaf will always be meatloaf, won’t it? Ever had Wendy’s Chili?

For me the surplus is always vegetables. My eyes are always bigger than my stomach, and the next day the honeymoon is over. I find veggies to be a little on the temperamental side: they must be cooked just right for me to enjoy them. Generally, this means that reheated, they’ll be over-cooked, with the taste and texture washed away. (Or is that me?) Sometimes the question is what to do with extra chopped onion and garlic that didn’t get used.

So instead of reheating I’ll be repurposing. If you’re a French Toast fan, you’ve been doing this for years, for the French name for French Toast is “Pain Perdu” which translates as “forgotten bread.” I’m ripping a page out of that book and making “Pancakes Perdu.”

Savory pancakes are certainly nothing new—Potato Latkes are the best example, and any Chinese food fan has had Scallion Pancakes at one time or another. Pancakes Perdu are just a happy addition to the menu.

Don’t think that you need to confine yourself to left over veggies. These packages are a great way to get veggies into the most veggie-resistant kiddie. Make them small enough, and they are perfect finger food.

Speaking of finger food, confine the veggies to some roasted corn, and plop a bit of Crème Fraiche and a snip of smoked salmon on top and you have an elegant hors d’oeuvre.

I’m a big fan of breakfast for dinner, and every now and then a bowl of cereal just hits the spot for me. But I’ve never been one to waste food, even if that means finding ways of using up food that may no longer be perfectly fresh.

But please rest assured: the writing here is fresh. The best way to test that? Smell the screen. Go ahead: no one’s looking.

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Click here for the recipe for Pancakes Perdu.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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You’ve read the book, now eat the cookie

Hamantaschen

Bad guy / Good hat

Frankly, I don’t know why the movie has never been made. The story has all the hallmarks of a great action film. Not to mention that there’s strong woman at the core of the story who saves the day—a great role for a young(ish) actress. Even the advertising slogan practically writes itself: “Haman. Bad guy. Nice hat.”

What follows is my “treatment” of the story of Purim. Working title, “Book of Esther: the Whole Megilla.”

Please note the following: 1.) this means I can now say that I have a movie in development. 2.) Regrettably, none of the stars mentioned are actually attached to the project—yet. 3.) Also, some events have been condensed, changed, or otherwise fabricated to serve the story arch. (Hey, it’s a movie. I’m allowed a little cinematic license.)

We open at a vast banquet in the ancient Persian capital of Shushan. The action starts with the refusal of Vashti (Megan Fox), the wife of King Ahasuerus (Jude Law) to be seen in front of people—as the King has requested– without her veil. For her refusal she is banished. (Hopefully with a good pre-nup in tow.) The King decides to have a competition to find the new Queen. First, they will spend a year in his harem, all expenses paid, being groomed for the role.

Hadassah, (Anne Hathaway? Natalie Portman? Drew Barrymore?) a Jewish orphan raised by her cousin Mordechai (Mark Ruffalo), is helping a friend (not a starring role) prepare to compete for a chance to be in the King’s harem. While retrieving a piece of forgotten luggage from her friend’s cart, a gust of wind blows the contents of the luggage into the street. The task of retrieving the wind-blown clothes is made easier by the assistance of a handsome, yet intimidating stranger in a three-cornered hat (Leonardo diCaprio.) A protective Mordechai is suspicious of the handsome stranger’s attentions to Hadassah.

Cut to the group of harem-wannabes who have now finished competing. Hadassah stands off to the side, but notices that the people who are in charge of the competition are looking at her and nodding in agreement to something the stranger in the three-cornered hat has told them. Much to her surprise, they announce that Hadassah has been chosen for the harem. She glances at the handsome stranger in the three-cornered hat. He nods at her and smiles. (Please note: I created this “meet-cute” plot device. Hey, it’s a movie.)

Hadassah is reluctant, but Mordecai admonishes her to join the harem yet warns her to conceal her Jewish identity. She assumes the typically Persian name Esther, and enters the harem where the King chooses her as his new Queen.

Soon after, a now somewhat lonely Mordechai is drowning his sorrows at bar not far from the palace gates. He overhears two members of the King’s court planning to assassinate the King. Mordechai relays the information to Esther who tells the King. The plotters are caught and executed.

The King (now suffering from insomnia – no doubt brought on by all that stress) then names a new Prime Minister to his court: the stranger in the three-cornered hat enters and is introduced to the court: Haman. The court bows to the new man in charge.

The King orders a parade in Haman’s honor. As the procession makes its way around Shushan, everyone bows to Haman except Mordechai who insists that as a Jew he bows only to God. Haman is not pleased.

In the meantime the insomniac King is reading court documents in the middle of the night when he comes across records that indicate that Mordechai was the one responsible for uncovering the assassination plot against him. He asks Haman how he should honor a man who has been so loyal to the king. Thinking the king is referring to him, Haman replies that a full dress parade is in order.

When Haman finds out that the parade is for Mordechai he is enraged, and, egged on by Mrs. Haman (Keira Knightly?), makes a monetary deal with the sleep-deprived and unwitting King to kill all the Jews in Persia. He and his wife draw lots (“purim”) to decide the date of the massacre. On that date Persians will be free to kill Jews and steal their property. The Jews will not be allowed to defend themselves.

Mordechai begs Esther to talk to the King about this. Problem: if she tries to speak to the King without being summoned she could be put to death. In a courageous move, she seeks out the King who agrees to see her. She asks if she can have dinner with the King and Haman. The meal is arranged during which Haman’s evil plans are revealed and that Esther is Jewish, and therefore, one of his targets. The King orders Haman’s execution, but he escapes and leads the plot against the Jews, although now the Jews have the King’s permission to defend themselves. Our movie climaxes with Esther defeating Haman in a thrilling sword fight. (Outcome? Esther and the Jews 1, Haman and the bad guys 0. However, we reserve the right to be ambiguous about whether or not Haman meets his maker, leaving the door open for sequels.)

Thrilling, no? A total girl-power flick. And high-concept too. How great is it that we have a head start on the merchandising and tie-ins? For hundreds of years little children have been celebrating Purim by dressing as Queen Esther or Haman, and making loud noises whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. It should not come as a surprise that my favorite part of the celebration was always eating  Hamantaschen, the little pastry shaped to echo Haman’s three-cornered hat. Holiday-themed food seems to have always been my raison d’etre.

Growing up I always found Hamantaschen suspiciously close to Danish pastry; in fact there was one very cakey variety (that I haven’t seen since I was a kid) that would be perfect in the morning with a little coffee. Hamantaschen have traditionally been filled with jams, and prune, or poppy fillings—the latter was always my preference.

As an adult I question the absence of chocolate in this equation. Thousands of years of Purim celebrations and we’re still stuffing our faces with the equivalent of a prune Danish? This is something I must fix.

The result is the crunchy shortbread brim filled with a slightly chewy chocolate crown seen in the photo above. The filling isn’t terribly gooey, so your little Queen Esther won’t get her gown dirty. If you’re like me and believe chocolate goes with everything, these should make you happy.

By the way if you think my story treatment is too heavy, I have a lighter version that might make a good Disney animated musical. (Esther would be the first Jewish princess. Okay, the first Jewish Disney princess.)

Working title?  “I’ll Eat My Hat” Cute, huh?

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Click here for the recipe for Hamantaschen.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Old Lang’s Sign

Potato Pizzettas

Wash down with a bit of bubbly...

Living in a big city like New York is like an immersion course in eavesdropping. You can’t help it: step outside your apartment and you’re in a world of other people’s business. Elevators are the bull’s eye in this conversational target. The image of New Yorkers packed into an elevator staring silently at the changing floor numbers is only partly true; there are enough folks willing to air their dirty laundry in this venue to give reality TV a run for its money. (My brother used to “goose” the crowded elevator reality game by turning to his wife and scolding, “Put that gun away!”)

This was true even BCP (before cell phone); the spice that cell phones have added is that you often have to imagine half of the conversation. (I say “often” because there are enough folks who carry the weight of the whole conversation solo to more than compensate for the absence of person at the other end. Some time ago I was standing in the lobby of a theater during intermission and was treated to a gentleman’s loud and vivid description of his root canal earlier that day. I gave him a look that said, “Really?” so he turned away but kept up his loud play-by-play because, obviously, if he couldn’t see me then I couldn’t hear him. Cell phone logic?)

It should come as no surprise that the eavesdropped conversation of late centers on New Year’s Eve. Everyone is answering the musical question, “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” More often than not the answer is, “Staying home.” (Granted, the frequency of that specific answer rises in direct relation to the age of the respondent.)

No comments about my age, please; I am enthusiastically joining the hordes staying home this year. Friends can stop by if they like, and, not to worry, I can feed them. Staying home on New Year’s Eve means one thing to me: food. But be warned: on New Year’s Eve I feel no obligation to have an entrée and willingly make a meal out of appetizers. This year “Nibbles R Us.”

Naturally any New Year’s Eve nibble must be bubbly compatible. The bubbly of choice this year is Prosecco, the delicately sweet Italian sparkling wine, or Ginger Ale. (Being a lightweight, I’m good for one slug of Prosecco before changing to Ginger Ale. Friends who stop by during their night of revelry will finish the Prosecco for me.)

Making bubbly-compatible nibbles is easy: anything goes with Prosecco (and Ginger Ale.) Cheese and good crackers; Zabar’s Lobster Pâté on skinny toast points; Spiced Pecans are an easy treat: I lightly sauté pecans with a dot of butter, a touch of brown sugar, a little salt, and some crushed, fresh rosemary—not unlike the legendary bar pecans served at Manhattan’s Union Square Café (theirs includes cayenne pepper, good with Ginger Ale, not so great (my opinion) with Prosecco. So I leave it out.)

But I think the star of the show will be little Potato-Rosemary Pizzettas. Making these is as simple as making (or buying) pizza dough, rolling it into small pieces then topping each with a couple of very thinly sliced potato slices, rosemary, pine nuts, and sea salt before baking in a very hot oven. (The hot oven will roast the potato slices, so make sure the slices are thin.) A few of these will make a great dinner. (I like to use an assortment of different color potatoes, but feel free to use your favorite kind.)

These can be re-warmed easily throughout the evening, and I think they are great as is. However, I reserve the right to “gild the lily” at the last minute. If I do, then the slightest dab of crème fraiche and a grain or two (or three) of decent caviar will swaddle baby 2011 in a luxurious blanket.

Don’t think for a second that the whole nibble concept can’t be extended to include dessert. I’ll be making tiny chocolate chip cookies, (a surprisingly adept Prosecco partner), fresh raspberries (created by Mother Nature specifically to be dropped into sparkling wine), and shot glass-sized hot fudge sundaes. The latter will be doing double duty: dessert first, then something sweet to ring in the New Year (I have a superstition whereby the first thing I eat in the New Year should be sweet.) (My short cut for these short sweets? Buy a little good fudge and melt it over a double boiler. The sundaes may be small, but they should be deadly, yes?)

Here’s my New Year’s toast to you: Thank you for reading my blog. Thank you for your support. May the New Year find you happy, healthy, and well fed. For hints on the latter, visit here often. Don’t be a stranger.

Happy New Year!

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Click here for the recipe for my Pizza Dough recipe.(Makes approximately 64 Pizzettas.)

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The Ronald McDonald House of New York is an amazing facility which provides a temporary “home-away-from-home” for pediatric cancer patients and their families. The Ronald McDonald House is supported entirely by private donations. Please read about this amazing place, and keep them in mind when considering your year-end charity donation.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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I Want My Umami

Pissaladière

Pissaladière: umami francaise

Yeah, yeah, I know: you hate anchovies. You think they taste like hairy fish.

This is the point in the conversation when my Mother would chime in, “But that’s the best part!”

While I didn’t share her enthusiasm for certain items that have received that endorsement over the years, when it comes to anchovies I agree with Mom. They’re good. As she would say, “You just haven’t had them prepared properly.”

A while ago I mentioned in this space that I used to have a waitering gig where I prepared Caesar salads tableside. Folks would crow about how much they loved Caesar salads – until they saw the little fish filets waiting to be thrown into the bowl. Like some eager but poorly dressed party-goer, they were not admitted to the disco, the folks at the table turning their collective thumbs down with the certainty of an experienced bouncer.

Little did they know: a Caesar salad without anchovy is like a Twix without the cookie inside. It’s just not the same thing.

I think what I am saying is fairly obvious: no one eats anchovies solo, they are almost always part of a recipe, and the flavor they add is vital. Don’t leave them out (please).

A huge problem is those little tins of anchovies that people buy. Don’t buy those. Perhaps more than with many other ingredients, this is one item where it pays to buy the good stuff, and it costs very little more to do so. Here’s my “blind side-by-side” taste test: Anchovy from the tin tastes like a salt attack. Quality anchovies (usually sold in little glass jars) are somewhat salty, yes, but not hairy, and are much more complex in flavor, adding a certain nutty quality to what you are preparing. They are subtle, and in certain recipes folks will be unable to put their collective finger on what that “other” flavor is. (Even better and less salty – when you can find them – are White Flat Anchovies.)

The Japanese have a word for the other flavor: umami, which translates (albeit loosely) as “good flavor.” Their assertion is that this “savory-ness” is one of the basic tastes your tongue is tuned to receive, along with sweet, and sour. The Japanese have an ingredient they often use to “game” the umami of food: MSG.

Of course, mention MSG to someone and you are likely to get a negative reaction. I’m not here to advocate its use, I avoid the stuff too. If you flip through cookbooks from the fifties and sixties you will see it listed as an ingredient along with salt and pepper. Chances are that Mad Men’s Betty (Draper) Francis has a container of “Accent” meat tenderizer in her cupboard, a product that was comprised mainly of MSG.

Many post-Moo Goo Gai Pan headaches, body aches, and who-knows-how-many-other-physical-maladies-real-or-imagined later, MSG finds itself the subject of the same fear and loathing as saccharine – so much so that most Chinese restaurants post on their menu that they don’t use the stuff.

What’s the big deal? I contend that there is no need for MSG at all; that’s why there are anchovies. As a laboratory for my use of the anchovy as umami ingredient we need go no further than the south of France.

I have a friend who lived in Nice while working for an American computer company. While there, she was turned on to a local specialty called Pissaladière. If you are unfamiliar with Pissaladière, the little slip of paper in your fortune cookie says that this is your lucky day to learn something new.

Quite simply, Pissaladière is an onion tart cross-hatched with anchovies, and dotted with Nicoise olives. Its big buddy is the Pizza. What I love about Pissaladière is that on paper it is a collection of flavors that you and I think of as being fairly aggressive.

But keep in mind that we are talking about food from the Riviera, a resort, a vacation spot, and that is the spirit that pervades the taste of the ingredients: a little laid back compared to their everyday selves. The tone here is harmony.

So while onions are usually spiky, here they have been caramelized to the point of sweet jamminess. The nicoise olives are mere dots that lend their mellow woodiness, and the anchovies are sort of the life of party, lending – yes – their saltiness to counteract the sweetness of the onions, all from the comfy chaise of crunchy pizza dough.

And while the basic ingredients sound simple, this is actually an exercise in blending and layering flavors so that the finished product tastes only like the sum of the parts, yet somehow transformed.

You can find my recipe for Pizza dough here, but caramelized onions are a bit deceptive. It is easy to think of them as just onions, sliced, and sautéed in a pan. Instead, I recommend you think about this less as a vegetable and more as a jam. These onions require a bit of babysitting; the more you stand and stir, the more you will prevent scorching or burning them and the sweeter and suppler they will become. You want silk, not a pile of brown onions. (A teaspoon or two of brown sugar early on – just after the onions have started to look translucent – is a worthy cheat that will yield great results.) Expect to spend about a half hour, perhaps more, “keeping an eye on” the onions.

Pissaladière makes a great hors d’ouevre with a chilled Rosé, or with a salad, as a great main course.

…and it’s a great umami “fix.” Who needs Doritos?

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Bar Mitzvah Bounty

Chicken Walnut Knishes

Chicken Walnut Knishes

I haven’t always been a world famous food blogger. I used to read blogs and food websites during my lunch hour or in the middle of the night just like you. Now that I have literally tens of readers I feel I owe it to them (you) to stay ahead of the curve. So, I’m still cruising the internet as I used to, and one of my old standbys, the “Dining and Wine” section of the New York Times remains a favorite read.

Last week Julia Moskin wrote in the New York Times about a dedicated band of new deli owners who have set out to update what has become a rather dusty fare. I have to make an admission here: as I read the article, I was salivating over the various descriptions of how these folks are changing kosher-style deli into something fresh and new without straying too far from the familiar. Factory produced meat is out, artisanal deli is in. This can only be good news.

Make no mistake: no one is trying to take away your Pastrami. Rather, they are bringing the same “fresh, local, slow-food” sensibility to deli food that chefs in other venues have exercised for a long time. Kosher-style deli food is comfort food – soul food— and it is important that no matter how anyone updates it that the ring of familiarity remains. Just ask anyone (including me) how they feel about Pastrami on Rye (extra mustard) and that sentiment will be confirmed.

I will now proudly age myself by announcing that I grew up in the days before McDonald’s and Burger King became ubiquitous. Yes, they were there, but you had to hunt them down, usually planted like hedgerows near a strip mall, their flashing, spinning signs launched high up in the air, beckoning you from miles away.

Mickey D’s equivalent in my childhood neighborhood was Bernie and Ruby’s Langley Food Shop, which we simply referred to as “The Langley Deli.” My Mom would steal us away to its noisy, air-conditioned, Formica tables ostensibly to treat us to something at the time thought of as good wholesome food (although I assume the treat was really hers.) The Langley was a clangy, hectic, neighborhood place where you could count on running into someone you knew. Facebook with half-sour pickles.

If you have never eaten at a real kosher-style deli, then my best description would be the smell: equal parts air conditioning, mustard, pickle, beef, and black pepper. Throw in a touch of fried potato for good measure and you‘ve got the idea.

The other question, of course, is, “Do you still eat Pastrami?” For me the answer is no. Knowing what I know now about food and health, I won’t touch the stuff. Too much fat and too much salt, the unfortunate cornerstones of any good soul food, no matter what ethnicity. I could eat oatmeal every morning for a thousand years, but I doubt it would clear the childhood Pastrami fat from my veins. I keep praying that scientists will announce some heretofore-undiscovered cholesterol dissolving properties of the Diet Coke that inevitably sat next to my Langley sandwich.

On the other hand, if you tell me that you are hand-roasting Pastrami from organic grass-raised beef, and serving it between slices of artisan rye bread I could be easily tempted. That, it seems, is just what the pioneers of the “new deli” are doing. I just may be taking a field trip to the Mile High Deli in Brooklyn to sample the goods.

In the meantime I was inspired to try my own hand at artisanal deli food. A quick survey of my kitchen revealed that it is, alas, not suited for Pastrami roasting. I decided to try something a bit more humble (read: easy.) How about knishes?

Knishes were traditional party food when I was a kid. The sad thing about them was that no matter where you went, no matter how fancy the party, the same slightly over baked, mystery meat-filled cocktail knishes were passed around. Again, that magic alchemy of fat and salt. Fat little Mikey (that’s me) could toss those back by the dozens.

An Asian friend of mine often makes Chicken Walnut Spring Rolls. I thought the combination would lend itself beautifully to the world of kosher deli, albeit with a touch of complexity provided by the earthy meatiness of Cremini mushrooms, and the caramel sweetness of onions. A kiss of soy sauce would reflect the origin of my inspiration.

The pastry is a classic Pâte Brisée, usually the wrapper for tarts and quiche. Here, sliced into strips and rolled, “pigs-in-a-blanket style” around the filling, it serves up nostalgic flakiness while keeping the knish filling in line and ready for the next Bar Mitzvah. The old cocktail knishes hid their mystery meat under the blanket; this style, open at both ends, is a bit of an exhibitionist.

And best yet, this riff on nouveau kosher-style deli is relatively healthy and guilt free.

Meanwhile, do you think there’s any chance of that cola cholesterol cure coming true?

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Click here for the recipes for Chicken Walnut Knishes.

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In With The New

These are a few of my favorite things...

These are a few of my favorite things...

I’m ending the year with a moment of revelation. I had sidled up to the dessert table at a holiday party, and was licking my chops, surveying the goods. Suddenly I became aware of two women working at the same task and leaned in to hear the whispers between them:

Woman 1: “Everything looks so good!”

Woman 2: (Gasping) “Look at those cookies!”

Woman 1: “Will you share one with me?”

“Will you share one with me?” That’s what caused my moment of revelation—enough that my attention was momentarily diverted from the sugar wafting into my nostrils like a soothing opiate. I realized that this was not the first time I had heard that question while standing before a mountain of sweets. I’ve heard it waiting in line for cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery. I’ve heard it while surveying 31 flavors of ice cream, and then again at the party a few days ago.

This reminds me of a friend who is a playwright. He gets a lot of comments about his work. Comments from the people who help him actually get his plays on stage. Comments from the directors who help him shape the story and bring it alive.  Comments from the actors who speak with a supposed inside knowledge of what their character may or may not really do. Comments from friends like me who make suggestions veiled as silly questions.

I assume though, that his most valuable feedback comes from eavesdropping on audience members in the lobby during intermission. There, he hears truths that people can’t or won’t speak to his face.

That’s what I was doing when I was listening to the two women next to me at the dessert table: eavesdropping, and what I took away was that people want smaller, less intimidating goodies.

Hmmmm. Is this my resolution for 2010? Have I started the “tiny foods” movement? Hardly. But out of respect for a world where people live in a seemingly never ending state of “on-a-diet” I am here to declare that you can have your tiny cake and eat it too.

Here’s my theory: Make everything smaller in size and larger in flavor. Each bite should be a punch in the mouth. A chocolate jab to the right? An upper cut of cheese? Okay, okay, I’m painfully straining the boxing metaphor. Mind you, I’m not counting calories here; this is merely an exercise in taking the intimidation out of the stuff you’ve been told not to eat. I think you get my drift: small bite / big flavor = sated with less.

With New Year’s Eve only minutes away, I propose to use the last night of the aughts and the first morning of the teens as a laboratory to prove my theory.

Ines Rosales and Serrano

Ines Rosales and Serrano Ham

My first choice? Easy. A few months ago I wrote about pairing Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas with Serrano Ham. I’ll be breaking the tortas into bite sized shards and wrapping them with paper thin slices of the ham. The tortas are a touch sweeter and a great deal crunchier than the usual melon that accompanies Serrano ham or Prosciutto, and less slippery too. To remove anything intimidating from the mix I’ll carefully peel the fat from the ham. Heresy to purists, I know, but still delicious.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens? Forget those. Gougères are one of my favorite things. For the uninitiated, Gougères are classic French cheese puffs. I’ve decreased the bass and increased the treble: mine are button sized, and instead of the usual sweet, nutty gruyere cheese I found a Double Gloucester cheddar that is almost unbearably sharp—and bearably inexpensive. The sharpness of the cheese will be muted by the rich, eggy pastry; they’re small but they have big, big mouth feel.

Gougeres

Gougeres

Gougères are made from pate á choux—cream puff pastry. Intimidated? Don’t be. Using a Kitchen Aid stand mixer these are so easy to make it’s silly. The added bonus is that if you don’t add the cheese you can use the same recipe to make your own éclairs, cream puffs, and profiteroles. (Ahhh, profiteroles! Another favorite. Watch for an entire blog posting about those soon.)

Don’t forget dessert! Feel free to make those micro cupcakes, but those won’t tempt me. I need chocolate, and will be filling a large bowl with button sized chocolate chip cookies. I’ll be using the plain old Toll House cookie recipe but to give these minis some added punch, I’ll be adding half again as many chocolate chips as the recipe calls for, and adding a jolt by sprinkling an ever so light dusting of instant espresso powder over the teaspoon-sized cookies just before putting them in the oven.

Asiago Bread and Eggs

Asiago Cocktail Bread and Eggs

If you’re the type who will be staying up to greet the first dawn of the new decade allow me to recommend Asiago Cocktail Bread. Adding this to your repertoire gives you a yeast-less recipe that can work triple-duty tasks. Toast skinny slices of this cheese infused bread, and you end up with biscotti that can be dipped into glasses of red wine. A smear of onion dip (or just caramelized onions) on the biscotti and you have a no stress hors d’oeuvre that can be piled on a tray. Best of all, skip the toasting step and give folks greeting the dawn a little breakfast nibble by topping thin slices of the bread with a bit of scrambled egg. The untoasted slices give the gratifying starchiness of biscuits, minus the heaviness. (These are really good for those who the sunrise may find a bit “over-bubbly-ed.”)

If you’re wondering which bubbly to buy without breaking the bank, don’t overlook Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine. Sweeter than most champagnes but much less expensive, Prosecco is very approachable—more so, I think, than the equally inexpensive but much drier Spanish Cava. That’s just my preference. I’m a lightweight and will spend most of the night drinking a non-alcoholic bubbly so you are allowed to take my opinion with a (very small) grain of salt.

Hey: see you next year!

Santè!

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Click here for the recipe for Gougères and click here for the recipe for Asiago Cocktail Bread.

In case you missed it, read my original posting about Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas. More about this next week…

Write to me at the email address below with any thoughts you may have. I’ll be happy to hear from you.

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Halloween (Part Two)

You want scary? My friends and neighbors the Avatars have invited me to spend Halloween night with them and their adorable twins, Newton and Natick. The invitation came in the form of a favor: would I help with the food and beverage? Turns out they are throwing a Halloween party for the twins’ school mates (including three other sets of twins), their parents, and other assorted adults (of whom I guess I am one.) Boo!

They have dinner taken care of, no more cookies or cakes are needed, and I would not presume to try to one-up Mr. Hershey in the candy department. So what’s left? Adult beverages, of course.

Now, I worry that you’ll think that the Avatars ascribed to me an intimate knowledge of all things alcohol, and have thus asked me to choose a cocktail for the gathering. No, truth be told, I am a rather abstemious guy. The assignment was actually one of responsibility delegated.

Putting on my thinking cap, I pondered my options. What cocktail can I make that will land squarely in that magical intersection where Halloween appropriateness meets palate pleasing refreshment? I’d prefer to avoid drinks that look like blood, body parts, or that use “cutesy” effects like dry ice to reproduce a steaming cauldron effect. I want the cocktail to taste good, quench a thirst borne of an apartment full of screaming sugar-stoked children, and then look holiday appropriate.

As I looked out of my living room window at a big maple tree that had begun to blush with orange foliage I was taken back to another Halloween many, many moons ago.

(If it was that long ago, chances are I still had hair, so I like this story.)

I was bartending in a bustling hotel lobby bar. A blowsy, windswept woman dressed in shoulder-padded assorted animal prints landed on one of my bar stools and said, “Honey, Jeannie needs an Autumn Leaf.” I went with the immediate assumption that she was referring to herself in the third person.

Let me digress quickly to explain that I think all bartenders fall into two categories: those who know their booze from extensive personal experience, and those who know it from extensive study of the “Old Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide.” I fell squarely in the latter group, often with a jarring thud.

So it was that I had to reveal to Jeannie the dirty little secret that I had no idea what an Autumn Leaf was.

Jeannie, clearly a patient, understanding sort, said, “Don’t worry, honey, we’ll use the point system.”

I could feel myself cringe at a suggestion of something called “the point system” as it implied to me a need for some kind of math-on-the-fly. Jeannie, sensing my hesitation, explained that all I needed to do was to get a martini glass ready, and toss some ice into a cocktail shaker. She’d take it from there. I did as I was told as if under some kind of spell.

Once I had complied and had placed glass and shaker in front of her, Jeannie pointed to the ingredients she wanted.

Ah. The Point System. Get it?

And what she pointed to made the drink we have all come to know as a Cosmopolitan but with a dash of orange juice for color. It reminded me of the Cape Codder (or Cape Cawduh as we say up north) which is a Screwdriver with cranberry juice added.

Back to present day (and my current lack of hair. Oh well.) I thought the Autumn Leaf might make a perfect cocktail for the Halloween gathering, but pondered a little update that would lighten its profile: In the intervening years since Jeannie landed on that bar stool, there has been an invention that I think will provide just the change the Autumn Leaf needs. I speak not of the GPS or the cell phone, but of white cranberry juice.

White cranberry juice provides the same slippery coolness as red cranberry juice, but is clear, giving you a blank slate upon which you can paint a cocktail’s palette. If you think that sounds a little highfalutin’ don’t forget that you eat (and drink) with your eyes too. White cranberry juice just lets you make drinks to fit any appealing color-scheme. Want an orange-tinted cocktail for a Halloween party? Bingo!

The dash of fresh orange juice provides a foliage-tinted blush to the White Cranberry juice that actually suits any autumn occasion. Since this is for a party, I’m adding a touch that Jeannie may have found unnecessary: I’m going to sugar the rims of the glasses with orange sanding sugar. The bonus is that the adults can then stick their orange-dyed tongues out at the little ghosts, princesses, and mini-Madoffs scampering around the party.

I always worry that there will never be enough to eat, so I decided to bake a little nosh to accompany the Autumn Leaf—just to tide everyone over ‘till dinner. I’m baking a simple Cheddar Pecan shortbread crisp. They look like cookies, but they have a salty savory crunch that will cut the sugary tang of the cocktails and fill stomachs emptied by wrangling costumed kiddies through chilly city streets to the party.

Now all that’s left for me to do is to figure out a costume. I wonder where I put my Zorro mask?

Click here for my Autumn Leaf and Cheddar Pecan Shortbread Crisp recipes.

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