Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday Cheer with Friends (Recipe: Italian Sausage Meatball with Port-Fig Sauce)

An easy way to entertain during the holiday season is to throw a wine and appetizer party. You are able to expand from a simple gathering to an extravagant soirée. By picking a couple great bottles of wine and assorted hors d'oeuvres, your guests are guaranteed to have a terrific time. It is about having a strategy, so you do not get stuck in the kitchen or become a short order cook. Carefully plan your menu to include assemble ahead appetizers, easy to prepare and match the mood of the occasion.

Plan to have each guest drink a minimum of two glasses of wine and eat 3 to 4 of each appetizer. Keep the menu simple, and don’t be afraid to complement with store bought items. Choose dishes that compliment your chosen wines and pair well together. Speaking of wine, highlight two to three varietals of wine – for example: Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. Have your guests bring a bottle of their favorite varietals that you are serving and you can have a tasting party.

Recently my husband and I hosted a small wine and appetizer get together with our neighbors to celebrate the holidays. The menu included:
  • Zucchini Bisque
  • Mini BLT Sandwiches
  • Italian Sausage Meatballs with Port-Fig Sauce
  • Roasted tomato-pine nut Crostini
  • Baked Brie with Dried Cherries and Fresh Thyme
  • Classic Crème Brulee
Italian Sausage Meatballs with Port-Fig Sauce

Port-Fig Sauce
2 1/4 Cups Port
10 Dried Figs, stemmed and chopped finely
2 Sprigs fresh rosemary
¼ t. Cinnamon
1 T. Honey
2 T. Butter
Salt and pepper

In a medium sauce pan, combine the port, figs, rosemary, cinnamon, and honey. Bring to a boil and stir the honey until dissolved. Reduce heat and gently cook, uncovered, until it reduces to 1 ¼ cup – about 30 minutes. Take the rosemary sprigs out and throw away. Cool the sauce and process in a food processor until
smooth. Return to the pan and add the butter and heat through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Italian Sausage Meatballs
2 oz. Pancetta (6 slices)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 C. Buttermilk
1 T. Olive oil
1 ½ C. Panko Bread crumbs
2 slices of white bread, crust removed and torn into tiny pieces
1 t. Rosemary, finely minced
1 Lb. Sweet Italian Sausage Links, casings removed
1 Garlic clove, minced
½ t. Salt
1 t. Pepper

In a large skillet, cook the pancetta until crispy and then crumble. In a measuring cup add the buttermilk and torn white bread and let soak for 10 minutes. In a large bowl add the buttermilk mixture, panko bread crumbs, egg, rosemary, garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. Mix slightly. Add the sausage and cooked pancetta and mix well.

Shape the into one inch meatballs, which yields about 40 meatballs. Add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and cook half the meatballs first then the second batch. Meatballs cook for about 10 minutes until browned evenly. You can keep the first batch warm in oven at 250 degrees until ready to serve.

Happy Holidays and All The Best in 2010!!!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fondue Party with Friends (Recipe: Classic Cheese Fondue)

Fondue has come back in style with a vengeance. This very popular dish of the 50’s and 60’s has been reintroduced to both old and new generations as a simple yet sophisticated way to entertain. The word fondue comes from the French word fondre – meaning “to melt.” My husband and I like to call it “Fun-do”. Originally this Swiss national dish was made with cheese melted in wine. Endless variations exist which range from classic cheese with wine, cheddar with beer, meat cooked in hot oil or broth to decadent chocolate fondue.

Fondue brings back extremely fond memories from my childhood along with memories from our honeymoon in Europe. We ventured to six countries by various trains, including the Gornergratt Cog Railway to the town of Zermatt in Switzerland. We had a clear view of the Matterhorn from our balcony. We enjoyed authentic Swiss fondue at a small restaurant that was tucked away downstairs with dark wood and low ceilings.

Fondue can be served on celebratory occasions or just as a weekend treat. A fondue party offers many advantages from an entertaining perspective. It is creative, distinctive and can be prepared in advance for the most part. As a host, I cherish the ability to interact with my guests and the clean up is minimal.

For the past several years, we have our dear friends, Phil, Helen and Graydon, over to celebrate the holidays and host a fondue party. We enjoy a three course feast of classic cheese, filet mignon and chicken cooked in hot oil with assorted dipping sauces and finish with a decadent chocolate fondue. Helen makes her famous madelines, which are always a crowd favorite.

Fondue Tips:
  • Prepare the cubes of bread, meat, chicken and/or vegetables in advance.
  • Grate the cheeses and toss with the cornstarch in advance. Typically I will use the microwave to get the cheese fondue started and finish cooking in the pot with the flame.
  • For cooking with oil, the temperature should be between 350 to 375 degrees
  • Chocolate fondue is best served in a smaller fondue vessel with a small candle to keep warm and prevent burning.
  • Make sure electrical cords are placed safely aside, so they can’t be accidentally knocked loose or pulled.
  • Do not overfill with fondue fuel; you can always add more.
  • Protect your table with a large heat proof surface between the fondue pot and your table. Use a wood plank, marble slab, ceramic tiles or heat proof platter.
  • To avoid overcrowding, keep your guests lists to no more than six guests. Use color coded fondue forks for each course.
  • With the meat and chicken course, use separate serving forks to prevent contamination. In addition, make sure the sauces have a distinct section on the plate.
  • If the cheese becomes too thick, thin with a bit of wine or if too thin, add more cheese and cornstarch.
  • For the main course fondue of filet mignon and chicken, cut into one inch cubes and cook individually in the hot oil. Best to use canola or peanut oil. Serve with your favorite dipping sauces. A few suggestions: blue cheese dressing, Thai curry sauce, BBQ sauce and teriyaki sauce.
  • Dessert fondue is always a favorite. It is simply hot cream and chocolate which is melted slowly. You can add grand Marnier, espresso powder or vanilla to flavor. Serve with pound cake, rice crispy treats, strawberries, bananas, macaroons or marshmallows.
Fondue Etiquette:

  • Do not eat from the fondue fork that will be returned to the pot. Provide an extra fork for eating.
  • If you drop your bread into the fondue, traditions says you must kiss your neighbor. Alternatively, you must buy the next round of drinks. If you drop a second time, you must host the next fondue party.
  • With cheese fondue, it is recommended that only one person dips at a time. With an oil fondue, give two forks to each person, so you can cook simultaneously. Electronic fondue pots are ideal for oil fondues since you can maintain consistent temperature.

Classic Cheese Fondue
2 Cloves garlic, minced
1 C. Dry white wine
1 t. Lemon juice
2 C. (8 oz.) shredded Gruyere cheese
2 C. (8 oz.) shredded Emmentaler cheese
2 t. Cornstarch
2 T. Kirsch (Cherry Brandy)
½ t. Nutmeg

In a large bowl, add the shredded cheeses and cornstarch and mix well. Set aside.

Add the minced garlic and white wine into the ceramic pot. Heat in the microwave until hot. Add the lemon juice, nutmeg, pepper and cheese. Heat on high in the microwave for about 2 to 3 minutes or until bubbly. Stir and place onto the ignited fondue pot. Serve with cubes of French bread.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Acorn Squash Soup

Nothing nurishes the soul, like a large bowl of piping hot soup on a cold winter’s night. When roasted, the flavor of acorn squash intensifies along with the rich amber color.  The scent that lingers through the house is amazing and sets the tone for the season.  I had some leftover Challah bread from the weekend’s French toast adventure and decided to make croutons to garnish the top of the soup.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tante Marie Cooking School

Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco has been an iconic landmark for the culinary enthusiasts since 1979. They offer classes for the culinary professional, novice or classic foodie who just loves to cook, talk about food and acquire knowledge. The classes range from professional programs, participation courses, guest chef demonstrations or cooking parties.

Tante Marie is located in the North Beach/Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Helen and I have taken classes at the school in the past and typically arrive early to enjoy a latte and bagel at the local café about a block away. Inside the school, it is divided into essentially two rooms with ample room to prep and cook amazing food. A few simple housekeeping rules exist and there is a wonderful person onsite to clean up all of the dirty dishes. Now how outstanding is that? All of the utensils, accoutrements, pans, knives and assistance are provided.

Recently my good friend Helen and I took “Italian Comfort Food” with Tori Ritchie. Tori’s approach to making wonderful Italian food is both simple and packed full of flavor. The class is designed around one hour of orientation and instruction with the remaining four hours to cook, learn and of course eat. We had a total of eleven students in the class with an aggressive menu of superb classic Italian delights.

Helen and I decided to conquer the Roasted Tomato-Pine Nut Crostini and Arancini. I thoroughly enjoy the process of gaining new knowledge and have always wanted to learn how to make Arancini. They are relatively simple and the secret is making tasty risotto and using panko breadcrumbs to coat them prior to frying.

Each time we attend, we meet such a wonderful group of people who love to learn and cook. Tori’s teaching style is very approachable and always provides such “real world” instruction and knowledge. We always leave learning several new techniques and recipes.

The “Italian Comfort Food” class was just that ….. pure comfort food with spectacular Italian ingredients such as: porcini mushrooms, pine nuts and rich olive oil. During the class we had a “hands-on” demonstration for making pasta from scratch. We made lasagna noodles from the pasta demonstration to use in the Porcini-White Truffle Lasagna with Fresh Mushrooms and Lasagna Bolognese. Once you take the time to make fresh pasta, you will NEVER purchase the dried lasagna noodles again. If you don’t have time to make, high quality food stores such as Whole Foods sell fresh lasagna noodles.

What Italian meal would be complete with out having Minestrone? We made one with large Cannellini beans and when ready to serve, fresh pesto was drizzled over each bowl. The extra punch of the pesto made the soup out of this world. Insalata Mista is the classic salad served with practically every meal. Typically has radicchio, arugula and escarole with some chopped chives added for extra flavor. The key is to dress the salad with lemon juice, great olive oil and salt, then toss with your hands. Taste along the way to ensure the proper allocations of acidity and balance are there. Finish with several grinds of pepper for a perfect salad.

A few other key dishes made in class were: Roasted Squash Risotto with Gorgonzola and Rosemary, Nonni’s Pot Roast or Ragu or Sugo, and Osso Buco Classico. With the pot roast we added a bit of cinnamon to the dish and it gave it a whole new dimension of flavor and served it over freshly made pappardelle noodles.

The finishing touch to any great meal is dessert. We made a Bittersweet Chocolate-Hazelnut Gelato along with a Sacripantina Cake. The Sacripantina is a multilayered cake made with a vanilla sponge cake, zabaglione (a delicate custard made with egg yolks, sweet butter, marsala and sherry wine) cream, and rum. Stella’s Pastry and Café located in the heart of North Beach is the home of the Sacripantina Cake.

What a wonderful day of cooking, friends, learning new things and being in San Francisco. A certified “Foodie” day of perfection!

Tante Marie Cooking School
271 Francisco Street
San Francisco, CA 94133-2010
(415) 788-6699
Tante Marie

Friday, December 11, 2009

Annual Ornament Exchange Party - 2009

The holidays are such a magical time of year! This season is filled with festive parties, great food, celebrations and cheer. (aka: “adult libations”). For the past 15 plus years, a core group of my friends have had our “Annual Ornament Exchange Party”. The location rotates each year and new friends float in and out, but the core remains the same.

It had been about 4 or 5 years since hosted the party. It is so much fun to plan, decorate and host the event. This year, I chose to use Evite invitations, to simplify and track the responses effectively. We had about a dozen close friends attend, which was absolutely perfect - time to really visit and catch up with everyone.

Each person brought an appetizer or dessert plus a nice bottle of wine. We tend to limit the desserts to just a few or the host provides. Each person tries a new appetizer each year and by the end of the evening, we all want to swap multiple recipes.

Put together a champagne bar this year with pomegranate and tangerine juices along with peach nectar to flavor the champagne. Various liquors adorned a tray on the kitchen island, so each person could make their own creation. Provided red and white wine for everyone, along with waters, sodas and beer.

Never want my guests to go hungry – you could call me a certified “food pusher”, so I made multiple appetizers and desserts for everyone to enjoy.

Rosemary-Brown Sugar Cashews
Crostini with fig jam, caramelized onions and blue cheese
Caprese Skewers
Cranberry Cheesecake
Russian Tea Cake Cookies
Surprise English Toffee

Traditionally, we are all pretty competitive during the ornament exchange portion of the event and things get interesting. Couples tend to strategize together, to select the best ornaments, from their point of view. We draw numbers and a gift can be stolen 3 times and then it is “frozen” and off limits to everyone.  Figured out that being a middle number typically pays off.

A wonderful time was had by all and the last person left close to one o’clock in the morning.
Happy Holidays!!!