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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nuts

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?

Rewind.

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.

Spice.
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.





Nuts.
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.



Cheers!






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.

Pork.
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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Lost Boys

New Haven, Connecticut. Christmas Eve, 1981.

After a few fun filled months of living in New Haven, I found myself alone on Christmas Eve. My roommate and my friends had flown home for the holidays. For reasons I can't remember now, I stayed behind. New Haven received 8 inches of snow on Christmas Eve. I stood by the window of our 2nd floor Victorian kitchen  and watched heavy wet snowflakes  drop like leaden bombs. It was the kind of snow children dream about.  Dense, thick, and wet. The piling  snow caused tree limbs to bend  and evergreens to sag. Everything was smothered and covered in masses of white wet snow.  It was beautiful. Christmas in New England. 

Being from Kentucky, I was quite taken with the gloppy menacing snow. Cocooned in my Victorian kitchen snow globe, I felt safe, warm, and content. Let it snow. I had nowhere to be, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. The world was my frozen oyster. Urban Alpine Heidi. 

My romantic idealized notion of a New England  Christmas Eve didn't last long. Nope. Who was I kidding? I was home alone,  21 years old, adventurous, antsy, and full of myself.

The following morning, I slopped through the snow and boarded the Metro North commuter train for the short 2 hour trip into NYC to see my first ever Broadway musical production.

As the train slowly chugged along the ancient tracks,  the conductor chanted each arriving station in song-like fashion, "New Caanan, Danbury, Waterbury, Grand Central Station." "Have your tickets ready, please."

Peter Pan, starring Sandy Duncan, was playing at the Lunt Fontane theatre on 47th Street. Sandy Duncan, Captain Hook, the Darlings, the lost boys, Peter Pan, and me. On Christmas day. After two hours of sword fights, flying imps, crocodiles, precocious children, and gorgeous music, I was mesmerized.  Just when I thought nothing could be more surreal or fabulous, Peter Pan flew over the audience  and showered us with glittering faerie dust.  I was undone. Spent. Wrapped and unwrapped.  Merry Christmas to me.

When the show was over, I meandered a few blocks north back to the train station.  I had some time to kill before my train left for New Haven, so I bellied up to the winding bar of the Grand Central Oyster Bar and ordered a steaming bowl of their iconic oyster pan roast.  Tucked under vaulted tiled ceilings, a chef prepared my oyster pan roast in front of me. He cooked the simple ingredients in an old  silver steam jacket kettle.  When the plump oysters started to curl around the edges, he tilted the pot and carefully poured the creamed oysters into a large white serving bowl. Poetry in motion. It was magnificent.

"The Oyster Bar pan roast -- still being served at the Oyster Bar in the bowels of Grand Central--is a silky concoction, thicker than soup but gentler than stew.  It's made with a half dozen Bluepoints, sweet butter, a dash of secret chile sauce, and flagons of country cream, all poured over a comforting mattress of soggy toast.  In that magisterial, eternally bustling room full of strangers, it tasted exactly the way it did when I ordered it for the first time with my grandfather, a lifelong New Yorker: opulent, mysteriously spicy, and faintly like the sea."
Adam Platt-
Grubstreet

I've never forgotten that taste of Christmas.
I slurped the last oyster from the creamy bowl and ran down an endless concourse to catch my train back to New Haven.

Somewhere between Danbury and Waterbury, the train lost power and slowly glided to a gentle standstill.

I stared through the window at the blue moonlit snow.  It was so quiet, I could almost hear the snow melting as it splashed against the frosted double-paned glass. Silent. Dark. Still. I didn't care. For a brief frozen moment, I was a lost boy dreaming of Neverland.

Within minutes, the train powered up and we were on our way home.

Christmas Oysters.

The Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant Cookbook.
One serving. I doubled it for Michael and me.
I used fresh Bluepoint oysters from the Lexington Seafood Company.

8 Freshly opened oysters
2 Tbsp (1/4 stick) butter
1 tbsp chili sauce
1 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1/4 cup oyster liquor
1/2 tsp paprika
dash celery salt
1/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup cream
1 slice of dry toast

Place all ingredients except cream, toast, and 1 Tbsp of butter in the top of a double broiler over boiling water.  Do not let the top pan of the double broiler touch the water below.

Whisk or stir briskly and constantly for about 1 minute until oyster edges begin to curl, stirring carefully as to not damage the oysters.

Add cream and continue stirring briskly.  Do not boil.

Pour pan roast into a soup plate over the slice of dry toast.

Top with remaining 1 Tbsp butter and sprinkle with paprika.

Serve right away.

Instead of dry toast, I slathered toasted ciabatta crostini with lemon chive butter.  After floating the crostini over the pan roast, I drizzled them with extra virgin olive oil before finishing with snipped Beaujolais spinach stems for crunch.

Let it snow.                                                                                        












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.

Beets.
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.