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Saturday, December 29, 2012


Michael and I tend to take it easy on New Year's Eve. We used to blow it out big time by hitting  the road to celebrate in New York, Chicago, Washington, Louisville, Cincinnati, or Atlanta. Several years ago, we partied our brains out in New York until 4 o'clock in the morning before enjoying a one hour nap and braving the New Jersey Turnpike for the drive home.  Mistake. We lasted 25 miles down that dismal turnpike before checking into a hotel and passing out. Fun. One year, we celebrated the New Year under the glow of a red stoplight as we tried to make a last minute dash to a local gay bar before midnight. Didn't happen. After a brief bawdy rendition of Auld Lang Syne,  we made a u-turn and headed home.

Now, we happily stay home to celebrate New Year's Eve. We piddle around, snack on appetizers, and drink a lot before downing coffee drinks to watch the Times Square Chrystal Ball  slowly descend through the streaming confetti. After cheerful drunken tidings to everything we're grateful for, Michael and I quietly dance to Old Lang Syne  in our old Victorian living room. Bliss.

New Year's Eve snacks. This year, I'm leaning toward miniature welsh rarebits, steamed crab claws with drawn butter, stuffed mussels, shaved beef crostinis, and spiced nuts.

Spiced nuts?


Here's the deal. Our church has several reception teams that provide food and drinks for various occasions and post-service gatherings. Michael and I make up the auxiliary team.  The B team. The bench warmers. We're  the subs who are called in when other teams are sick, out of town, or have scheduling conflicts. This week, we've been tagged to host the much hyped and popular first Sunday after Christmas post service reception. Par-tay!

We love doing the receptions. We do. Really.  Although they're typically low key affairs, we enjoy bumping them up a bit. For our upcoming small-ish gathering,  I'm throwing together a simple cheese tray,  pear chips with cranberry dip, small bowl of spiced nuts. Sweet, savory, and simple.

I decided that while I was in the spiced nut business, I'd make a big batch and save a few for our late night New Year's Eve  armchair revelry.

I poured myself a large flute of leftover holiday champange
and played with my nuts.

Typically, most methods involve tossing mixed nuts with melted butter or beaten egg whites before adding  spices and baking them. I've prepared spiced nuts using  both methods with equal success...kind of.  I tend to  burn stuff.  I burn stuff a lot. Although I'm heroic at burning nuts and bread because distraction gets the best of me, I keep trying. I was well prepared for my usual baked nut stress until I stumbled across a stove-top method from Alton Brown. No oven. Happy nuts.

I used Alton Brown's  stove-top method with ingredients I had on hand.

I mixed 1/4 sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon paprika, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. To add a hint of aromatic freshness, I dusted the snow off my rosemary bush, snipped a few stems, and tossed fresh rosemary leaves into the spice mix.

After cranking a large cast iron skillet over a medium flame, I dry toasted 2 pounds of mixed nuts. When they started to brown, I added 1/2 stick unsalted butter. As the butter foamed and gurgled up through the hot nuts, I added the spice mix, 1 tablespoon of pure maple syrup, and the juice of half an orange. I stirred the sticky mess until it thickened before pouring it out onto a non-stick sil pat. After separating the nuts, I sprinkled them with fresh rosemary and orange zest.

Packed with layers of flavor, the crunchy spiced nuts were salty and sweet. While the ancho chile powder poked slight chocolate smokiness through  the bright zest and piney rosemary, the cayenne pepper added subtle lip-numbing heat.

Perfect with champagne.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sugar And Spice

An intensely tart sweet gastrique can add fantastic zing to both sweet and savory dishes. Basically, a gastrique is a highly concentrated sweet and sour sauce.  Classically, it's prepared by deglazing caramelized sugar with vinegar before adding flavorings.  While it can be used to infuse sweet acidic depth to tomato sauces, it's typically flavored with fruit and used to cut through the richness of cooked meat, seafood, and poultry. Almost anything can be used to prepare a gastrique. Tropical fruits, seasonal summer berries,  and winter citrus are a few examples of the endless possibilities. Right now, it's cranberry season. The inherent  natural tartness of a cranberry gastrique during the holiday season  would pair beautifully with robust salty ham, fatty pork, succulent duck, long roasted turkey, or braised chicken. I used it as a bright counter punch for bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin.

Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Cranberry Gastrique and Spinach Timbales.

Holiday Gastrique.
So, here's the deal.  I'm all about the classics and doing what I'm supposed to do. Although the classic method for making  a gastrique is quite simple, the notion of pouring vinegar into a gurgling vat of molten hot caramelized sugar seemed horrifying. Nope. Not after a few glasses of wine, thank you very much. I used a calmer technique that produced the same result.

I combined equal parts (1 cup each) sugar and rice wine vinegar in a heavy cast iron skillet over a medium flame to melt the sugar into the vinegar.  When the liquid started to boil, I tumbled 2 cups of fresh cranberries into the mix, let it rip until the cranberries exploded, and simmered the crimson bath until it reduced by half.  After straining the gastrique through a fine mesh sieve, I set it aside to cool.

Pig wrapped in pig. I shingled 10 slices of thick-cut smoked bacon on a large cutting board. After brushing the tenderloin with tangy Maille dijon mustard, I showered it with cracked pepper, tossed a few fresh rosemary leaves over the bacon, rolled the tenderloin  into a tightly bound bacon cylinder, placed it (seam side down) into a large skillet, and slid it into a 350 oven to roast for 45 minutes, turning it occasionally in the rendered bacon fat. Yep.

Spinach Timbales.
Frozen spinach would have worked wonderfully for the timbales, but I had several rooted bunches of  gorgeous Shelby County baby curly leaf spinach. I rinsed the spinach, finely chopped it while it was still wet (about 2 cups), and used the residual water  to steam the spinach (covered in plastic wrap) in  the microwave  for 2 minutes before letting it cool and wringing out the moisture in a kitchen towel. After buttering two 4 ounce ramekins, I mixed the chopped spinach with 1 beaten egg, 3/4 cup heavy cream, 2 heaping tablespoons of pecorino romano cheese, fresh nutmeg, salt, and pepper. I poured the creamed spinach into the ramekins, placed them in a water bath, and slid them into the oven to bake alongside the sizzling spitting pork.

When the pork tenderloin  reached 145 degrees, (about 45 minutes)  I pulled it from the oven to rest and let the spinach timbales bake an additional 5 minutes until they were firm.

Using the crisp bronzed bacon shingles as a guide, I sliced the pork into medallions, basted them with the pan drippings, and plated them with the inverted spinach timbales to the side, puddling the cranberry gastrique between the two.

The cranberry gastrique bridged the earthy spinach and sultry pork with sharp sweet acidity. While the tangy dijon mustard seeped  through the fatty bacon and flavored the pan drippings, flecks of rosemary added subtle piney undertones. Unlike most somber sweet and sour sauces, the vibrant gastrique popped. With an intense cranberry essence, it was bright, crisp, and clean.

Sugar and spice.
Jacked up.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Beeting The Odds

The Lexington Indoor Farmers' Market opened last weekend in the atrium of Victorian Square. Tucked around garland-draped railings, Christmas lights, and a towering Christmas tree, the vendors offered a variety of late season produce. Baskets of turnips, beets, baby acorn squash, delicata squash, kohlrabi, turnip greens, kale, and potatoes were peppered with bins of baby curly spinach, hardy Beaujolais spinach, radishes, baked breads, meats, cheeses, scones, and canned goods. It was festive and fantastic.

I've had such crappy luck with beets this year that I was determined to avoid any and all beets at the market. That's me, Mr. determined. Steadfast. Strong. Yep.  Nope.  I succumbed to a few dirty bunches of gnarly golden beets topped with gorgeous yellow-veined greens from Elmwood Stock Farm.  Aside from my notion that golden beets tend to be milder and mellower than their fiercely assertive red counterparts, their perky pretty greens totally sold me

For my umpteenth beet battle, I kept it very simple.

After slicing the lovely tops from the beets (reserved for a quick saute or long simmer), I rubbed the beets with olive oil, seasoned them with salt, wrapped them in aluminum foil, and tossed them into a 350 degree oven to roast for 50 minutes.

When they were fork tender, I pulled the beets from the oven to cool before peeling away their skins with my finger tips. After chilling them for an hour, I sliced the golden beet bulbs into thin discs and overlapped them in a circular pattern on a large serving plate.

Because I didn't want to muck up their tender mellow sweetness, I dressed the beets very lightly with a splash of fresh squeezed orange juice, a splash of apple cider vinegar, and a drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil.  I dusted them with coarse kosher salt and finished the beet salad with tiny arugula micro greens from Long View Organics.

Napped with a slight hint of acidity from the vinaigrette, the fragile golden beet slivers were earthy, sweet, and bright. While the delicate arugula micro leaves added specks of freshness, their tiny tubular stems provided  popping wet crunch. Crazy.

Simple. Fresh. Fabulous.
Across the board.