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Molly Irwin

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The Dinner Party Alternative: Brunch

[Editor’s note: Molly Irwin did a fantastic job as our first dining-specific intern, and this is her last blog post on dinner parties. Thanks, Molly! And by the way, if you’re a student currently enrolled in school and looking for an dining-focused editorial internship, check out the application procedure: www.atlantamagazine.com/internships/editorial.aspx—B.A.]

I hope you don’t mind me making a little detour from dinner parties for my final post, but I have to pay homage to my other favorite way to gather friends around a table: brunch. There is something about this meal that seems satisfyingly self-indulgent. Perhaps it’s the endless combinations of savory and sweet foods, or maybe it’s just the excitement of not having to eat another bowl of cold cereal. In culinary school, we spent two full weeks learning about eggs. Some complained about the onslaught of frittatas, strata, soufflés, crepes and hollandaise sauce. I, on the other hand, relished the ten full days of brunch food.

I’ve made the rounds of brunch hot spots in Atlanta, but whenever I spend $12 on a simple eggs benedict, I can’t help but think about how easy and inexpensive it is to do it at home. You only need a few things to put a good brunch together—an egg dish, something sweet, fresh fruit, and some refreshing mimosas.

When hosting, try to stay away from individual breakfast items or you’ll feel like a short-order cook as you churn out pancakes, waffles and made-to-order omelets. That being said, branch out from traditional breakfast casseroles. Make up a grits bar and set out a creamy pot of grits with individual bowls of toppings such as chopped scallions, grated cheeses, bacon, sautéed shrimp, spinach, or tomatoes. Or, try one of the following recipes, which introduce some new ideas and flavors into the typical brunch repertoire. The truffled egg toast (a dish I first experienced years ago in a tiny Italian trattoria in Greenwich Village) is my personal brunch obsession.

Poached eggs and parmesan over toasted brioche with pistou

Ingredients
1/3 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
1/2 small garlic clove
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 large eggs
¼ lb parmesan (preferably parmigiano reggiano), shaved into thin slices
4 1/2-inch thick slices of brioche or egg bread, toasted

Instructions
Puree basil, garlic, and oil in a mini processor until very smooth. Season pistou to taste with salt and pepper.

Add enough water to medium skillet to measure 1 ¼ inches. Sprinkle salt generously into water. Bring water to simmer over medium heat. Crack eggs one at a time and gently slip into water. Cook until egg whites are just set and egg yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes. Place hot toast on plates. Top each with fresh Parmesan shavings and using slotted spoon, transfer eggs, well drained, to each piece of brioche. Sprinkle eggs with salt and pepper and drizzle with pistou. Serves 4.

Truffled egg toast
Recipe courtesy of Simple Italian Sandwiches: Recipes from America’s Favorite Panini Bar
The runny yolks of the eggs serve as a rich sauce for the bread, cheese, and asparagus. Buy an unsliced loaf of bread and cut thick slices to serve alongside. The bread should be substantial enough to hold up to the weight of the eggs and cheese.

Ingredients
12 asparagus spears, woody stems removed
4 slices of bread, 1 inch thick
8 thin slices of Fontina cheese (about 6 ounces)
8 large eggs
3 tablespoons truffle-infused oil
1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Instructions
Grill asparagus spears for two to three minutes until they appear roasted, but are still crunchy. Transfer to a cutting board and slice thinly on the diagonal. Set aside.

Lightly toast slices of bread in a 350 degree oven for 8 or so minutes. After toasted, use a serrated knife to score a 2-inch square in the center of the toasts. Use the handle of the knife to tamp the squares down, creating indentations to contain the eggs. Cut each Fontina slice into 4 wide strips and form a border around the flattened centers of the bread (there should be no cheese overhang). Crack and separate each egg, sliding 2 yolks into the center of each slice of bread (the whites can be discarded).

Return the baking sheet to the oven and toast until the cheese has melted and begins to bubble, about 3 minutes. (For those who fear an undercooked egg, cook the toasts for an additional 2 minutes until the yolks have set.)

Transfer the toasts to small serving plates, stir the yolks lightly with the tip of the knife (they should be runny), and garnish with asparagus slices. Drizzle a generous amount of truffle oil over each and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Grand Marnier-scented baked french toast
Ingredients
1 loaf Challah bread, in 1 inch slices
3 cups whole milk
4 eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Instructions
Generously grease a 9×13 inch baking dish with butter. Arrange one layer of sliced bread and sprinkle with chopped pecans. Make another layer of sliced bread. If necessary, fill in any gaps with smaller pieces of bread. Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and orange liqueur and pour over the bread.

Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refigerate overnight to allow the bread to absorb all of the milk custard.

Bake at 425° for 30 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Cut into generous squares and serve with maple syrup, fresh fruit, powdered sugar, or all of the above.

Fresh fruit salad with honey-lime dressing

Ingredients
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
pinch nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh lime zest
1 quart fresh fruit of your choice (sliced strawberries, grapes, fresh pineapple sliced into bite-sized chunks, bananas, and melon balls are all good with this dressing)

Instructions
Combine honey, lime juice, nutmeg and lime zest and toss with fresh fruit before serving. Garnish with fresh mint if desired.

Eating Around: Mother’s Day dining

Here are thirteen of our recommended destinations to take Mom on her special day:

RITZ-CARLTON BUCKHEAD
Mother’s Day festivities at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead start on Saturday, May 8 with a mother- daughter afternoon tea. The traditional English tea service will include tea sandwiches, pastries, and a complimentary keepsake photo. Cost is $28 for adults, $21 per child ages 5 to 12. Reservations are required. The following day, the whole family is invited for brunch from 11a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Children can visit the Ritz’s customized flower market and chose a complimentary bouquet of flowers for Mom. Cost is $65 per adult and $40 per child. 

BACCHALANIA
Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison’s destination restaurant will open especially for mid-day Mother’s Day dinner from noon to 4 p.m.

RAY’S RESTAURANTS
Perennial Mother’s Day favorite Ray’s on the River—as well as sister restaurants Ray’s in the City and Ray’s Killer Creek—will offer special brunch buffets from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ($29.95 for adults and $12.95 for kids). Regular dinner menu will be served from 5 to 8 p.m.

MARKET
The restaurant at the W Atlanta Buckhead will offer a special jazz brunch with a la carte menu items from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

4TH AND SWIFT
A three-course brunch will be offered from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for $39 per person. Menu selections include lobster bisque, house-cured King salmon, eggs Benedict, brioche French toast, and chef Jay Swift’s signature “three little pigs” creation.

ECCO
Ecco’s Mother’s Day brunch menu includes a selection of meats and cheeses, chocolate croissants, famous fried goat cheese with honey and black pepper, and crepes with honeyed ricotta, strawberries and pistachios.

THE ELLIS TERRACE

Dine from seven unique food stations at this newly revamped Downtown hotel restaurant. Includes traditional breakfast favorites as well as omelets made to order, a roast pork carving station, a grits bar, and a strawberry shortcake station for dessert. Drink specials include $3 mimosas and $4 bellinis. $40 adults and $12 for kids 12 and under.

PACCI RISTORANTE

Pacci Mother’s Day brunch buffet includes crab fondue, pesto squash casserole, cheese grits, deviled eggs and an assortment of pastries. $22 for adults, $12 for kids 6 to 12. Free for kids under the age of 6.

JCT KITCHEN

JCT’s three-course prix fixe Sunday supper includes biscuits with house-made jams, deviled eggs and country ham, slow cooked rabbit, pan roasted day-boat fish, hickory roasted Berkshire pork rack and Georgia strawberry shortcake with local honey and lavender cream.

HOBNOB
Join Hobnob’s for Mother’s Day brunch and receive a complimentary mimosa for mom.

SHAUN’S

Shaun Doty making Mother’s Day delicious with a special brunch of cheddar waffles with cane syrup, fried chicken, pork tenderloin and more from 11am to 2pm. $40 for adults and $10 for children.

PARISH
Parish will serve Southern favorites from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Mother’s Day. Treat Mom to Eggs Boudreaux shrimp and grits and Bloody Marys.

MURPHY’S
Murphy’s well-known brunch includes buttermilk pancakes, french toast, crab cake benedict and a complimentary rose for Mom.

Dinner Parties 101: Hostess How-To

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At the last dinner party I threw, I faced a severe time crunch. My kitchen was stifling, panic began to set in, curse words were muttered, and the thought of guests arriving before I was ready sent me into a small frenzy. A friend called me mid-freak-out and offered to come over early to help. Without realizing it, I put on a singsong voice that I think I inherited from the generations of Southern women before me and convinced her, and possibly even myself, that I was doing just fine. This denial is what I now refer to as hostess martyrdom—a condition derived partly from pride and stubbornness, and with a touch of control-freak thrown in.

There’s a fine art to hosting that I’m still mastering. But one thing I’m sure of is that a host’s demeanor sets the tone of the entire evening. If the host is tense and anxious, guests will quickly sense it. Luckily, I believe that the attributes of a good hostess, like all things, can be achieved with a little practice and some simple tips.

1) Overcome hostess martyrdom. Graciously swallow your pride and accept a helping hand when needed. Thankfully, my friend didn’t listen to me and came over early anyway. I continued the cooking, but she ended up re-arranging the flowers that I had hastily thrown in a vase, making a party play list on my iPod, pouring me a much-needed glass of wine, grating the parmesan cheese and giving me the moral support that I needed.

2) It’s your job as a hostess to introduce guests who don’t know each other or to find relatable topics among guests. The more engaged people are with each other, the less they’ll notice potential glitches in the meal.

2) Think of little ways to prevent having to get up during the meal. If things such as the water pitcher, wine bottles, and bread basket don’t fit on the table, set up a small TV table next to your seat, cover it with a cloth napkin, and have the items on hand so you don’t have to go back and forth to the kitchen.

3) As much as I admire a fully homemade meal, there’s no pressure to make everything from scratch. Don’t be afraid to pick up a dessert from a good local bakery or some antipasti favorites from the market for an appetizer.

4) Don’t do the dishes while you’re guests are there. It sends your guests one of two signals that you don’t want (most of the time, anyway)—that they need to go home, or that they should be in the kitchen helping you. Clear the table and leave dishes in the sink; no one will know if you don’t do them until the next morning.

The conversation and camaraderie will most likely leave a longer impression on guests than the food that’s being served, so let go of perfection and focus on enjoying the night and the company. Chances are, your guests will do the same.

Dinner Parties 101: The Great Outdoors

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It happens every year. Daylight starts lingering a bit longer, outdoor restaurant patios begin to overflow, and I become obsessed with doing anything and everything outside. My palate also takes a dramatic turn. By the end of March, I never want to see a pot of chili, rich stew, or cream-based soup ever again. Instead, I crave the fresh, simple ingredients of spring and summer, flock to any nearby farmer’s market and have visions of vine ripe tomatoes dancing in my head. It may come as no surprise that my favorite dinner parties are the outdoor ones.

The recipes below are three of my favorites for an outdoor crowd. Each is a substantial meal in itself and only needs simple accompaniments. They taste just as delicious room temperature as they do hot, and can be served family style, which simplifies things immensely.

By August when the Georgia humidity has nearly suffocated me, I may not feel the same way, but as of now I am giddy with anticipation for the first outdoor dinner party of the season.

Spiced mini-burgers with couscous salad

These mini burgers are a fun Mediterranean twist on your typical hamburger. I like to serve them without a bun and with thick pita wedges on the side instead. Ground lamb can also be used as a delicious alternative to the ground beef.

1 10-ounce box couscous (1 1/2 cups)
1 pound ground beef
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
Kosher salt and black pepper
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 scallions, sliced
4 plum tomatoes, quartered
1 seedless cucumber, cut into half-moons
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 8-ounce container hummus (optional)
2 1/2 cups tzatziki sauce (see recipe below)

Place the couscous in a large bowl and pour 1 ½ cups hot water over the top. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes; fluff with a fork.

Sprinkle the beef with the cumin, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper, then form into 12 small ½-inch-thick patties. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the patties and cook to the desired doneness (four minutes per side for medium).

Toss the couscous with the scallions, tomatoes, cucumber, lemon juice, the remaining three tablespoons of oil, 1 ¼ teaspoons salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Serve with the burgers and hummus and tzatziki on the side.

Tzatziki
1 cucumber, diced
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh dill
Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Pat the diced cucumber dry with a paper towel and set aside. Combine oil and lemon juice in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Fold the yogurt in slowly, making sure it mixes completely with the oil. Add the garlic, cucumber, salt, pepper, and dill and stir until evenly distributed. Garnish with a bit of green and serve well chilled. Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Fish tacos with tropical fruit salsa and cilantro crème fraiche
Recipe from Peace Meals: A Book of Recipes for Cooking and Connecting

If you’re a wimp like me when it comes to spiciness, leave the chilies out of the tacos and add a bit of minced red onion instead.

Tropical Fruit Salsa
1 cup peeled, pitted and diced mango (about 1 mango)
1 cup peeled, cored and diced pineapple
2 avocados, pitted, peeled and diced
1/4 cup chopped, fresh cilantro, plus additional for garnish
¼ cup minced red onion
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Tacos
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onions
2 pounds skinless, boneless red snapper fillets, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, finely chopped
3 cups thinly shredded cabbage
16 corn tortillas
Cilantro Crème Fraiche (see recipe below)

Gently mix together the salsa ingredients in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside. Whisk together the lime juice and 3 tablespoons of the oil in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Season the fish with salt and pepper and add to the onions. Saute, stirring frequently, about 3 to 4 minutes or until just cooked through. Remove the pan from heat, add the chilies, and mix gently. Toss the cabbage together with the dressing in a medium bowl. Warm the tortillas in a skillet and fill each with the fish mixture, cabbage, and tropical fruit salsa. Top with cilantro crème fraiche and serve with black beans and rice.

Cilantro Crème Fraiche
½ cup buttermilk
Juice of 2 limes
1 serrano chili, minced
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped (save sprigs for garnish)
3 cups crème fraiche
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

In a blender, puree the buttermilk, lime juice, chilies, and cilantro. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and fold in the crème fraiche and cumin.
Makes 16 tacos.

Spaghetti with Artichokes and Pancetta
Recipe from Food & Wine magazine
Serve this dish with a fresh caprese salad and you’ve got yourself a meal.

1 lemon, halved
8 baby artichokes (about 1 pound)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
one 2-ounce piece of pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
½ cup dry white wine
kosher salt and freshy ground pepper
1 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus even more for serving

Fill a large bowl with water. Squeeze in the juice from the lemon halves, and add the lemon halves to the water. Working with 1 artichoke at a time, peel off the dark green outer leaves. Cut off the top fourth of the artichoke; peel and trim the stem. Slice the artichoke lengthwise 1/8 inch thick and drop into the lemon water. Repeat with the remaining artichokes

In a saucepan, heat the oil. Add the onion, garlic, and pancetta and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain the artichokes and discard lemon. Add the artichokes to the saucepan, cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring, until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Add the white wine, cover and simmer over moderately low heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the spaghetti until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water. Add the pasta and the reserved cooking water to the artichokes and toss over moderate heat for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, stir in the 1/4 cup of cheese and season with salt and pepper. Serve the pasta, passing more grated cheese at the table.  Serves 6.

Eating Around: Food Bloggers Bake Sale, Sweetwater 420 Fest, and more

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Each week, we give you a calendar of upcoming dining events to help you navigate the week’s culinary festivities.

Friday, April 16–Thursday, April 22
FARE FROM FRIULI
La Tavola will host Italian chef Luca Plett for the week as he prepares authentic dishes from his native region of Friuli. Entrees will be inspired by rich culinary traditions of Friuli, known especially for its smoky flavors and use of wild game. The week will end with a five-course dinner on Thursday, April 22 at 6:30 for $65 per person. Reservations are suggested; call 404-873-5430.

Saturday, April 17
FOOD BLOGGERS BAKE SALE
Give back by picking up some sweet treats at the First Annual Food Bloggers Bake Sale. Held from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. at Cabbagetown Market, the fundraiser will feature goods from local bloggers and bakeries in coordination with Share our Strength, the national organization that works to eradicate childhood hunger. (Tami Hardeman of Running With Tweezers is organizing the local branch of this national event.) Parking is available down the block at Agave restaurant, which will also give a $10 off coupon to the restaurant with any bake sale purchase.

SOUTHERN CHEESE TASTING
Join Star Provisions and cheese monger, Tim Gaddis, from noon to 4 p.m. to sample some of the Southeast’s finest cheeses. And while you’re there, explore the store’s other departments for homemade baked goods, charcuterie, and gourmet goodies.

Saturday, April 17–Sunday, April 18
SWEETWATER 420 FEST
The two-day music and arts festival kicks off with a 5K road race and will continue with entertainment from thirteen different live bands, environmental forums, food, and of course, Atlanta’s own Sweetwater beer. Admission is $5 for a wristband to purchase beer and free for those who are under twenty-one or who don’t wish to purchase beer. A portion of all proceeds will be contributed to improvements of Candler Park.

Sunday, April 18
COCHON 555
The touring competition pulls into Atlanta, pitting five Southern chefs (including two Atlantans: Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s Restaurants and Todd Mussman of Muss & Turner’s) against each other as they cook a whole heritage breed pig. A host of judges (farmers, food media, activists) choose their favorites, and the crowds get to sample the results as well as sip wine and sample cheese. The event starts at 5 p.m. at the W Atlanta-Downtown. Tickets start at $125.

Tuesday, April 20
TOP CHEF: THE TOUR
Bravo’s 2010 Top Chef Tour will make a stop at the Westside Urban Market off of Howell Mill Road from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Interact with hometown “chef’testants” Richard Blais and Kevin Gillespie as they present live demonstrations, food tastings and cooking tips. Admission is free, and seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Wednesday, April 21
FLAVORS OF ATLANTA
Twenty-five of the area’s leading chefs come together to benefit the American Liver Foundation at the twelfth annual Flavors of Atlanta gala. The night includes an opening cocktail reception, four-course dinner with wine pairings, and both a silent and live auction. The surprise of the evening is that guests won’t know which chef prepared their meal until they arrive. Tickets can be purchased for $250 by calling 404-633-9169 or by visiting the website. 

Thursday, April 22
EARTH DAY AT PACCI
Continuing its efforts in sustainability, Pacci Ristorante is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day with a special three-course menu at $35 per person. Menu items include local greens salad with candied pecans, Sweet Grass Dairy goat cheese croutons, and a Georgia peach vinaigrette; grilled plantation quail with corn pudding and arugula pesto; peanut-crusted mountain trout; porcini-dusted pork tenderloin; and peanut butter mascarpone cheesecake with Savannah tupelo honey.

Dinner Parties 101: The Challenge, Part Two

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(Click here to read Part I of Molly’s challenge to cook a four-course meal for $100 in her extra-tiny kitchen.)

At 2 p.m., I started my four-hour cooking marathon the way I was taught in school—by assembling my mise en place. The French term for “putting in place” means that you gather all ingredients and cooking tools and assemble them in the order you’ll be using them. This concept worked beautifully when I had sprawling stainless steel countertops and a kitchen equipped with every gadget and cooking tool needed. But when you have three feet of counter space, the majority of which is taken up by the microwave and coffee pot, organization becomes quite the challenge. I utilized every inch of kitchen space as I chopped, grated, and partially cooked all the menu items.

Everything was going as planned until about 5 p.m. when I realized that I needed to make the dessert so that the Key lime pie would have time to set before dinner. I assumed that the dessert would be the easiest thing to prepare on the whole menu. There were only four ingredients involved, and I’ve made the full key-lime pie recipe several times—but never in the individual glasses before. In my initial Dinner Party 101 post, one of my tips was to never serve something at a dinner party that you haven’t made before. I now know that I should have listened to my own advice. I mixed the condensed milk and Key lime juice and then stumbled across my pitfall: raw eggs. I had completely forgotten that the recipe uses two egg yolks and requires fifteen minutes in the oven. I knew I couldn’t put the glasses in the oven but I also didn’t have a graham cracker pie shell lying around and didn’t have time to think of a new dessert.

I’ll admit that I briefly thought of taking my chances with salmonella poisoning and serving the pie without cooking it. It was then the motto of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn echoed in my head: Make it work! I put the Key lime filling in a Teflon coated frying pan, praying that I wouldn’t end up with a Key lime-flavored scrambled egg mixture. I constantly stirred and allowed the mixture to come to a low bubble. I then let it cool slightly and poured it into the glasses. Crisis averted, yes. But I also spent 45 minutes solving a predicament I hadn’t anticipated, leaving me just an hour and 15 fifteen minutes to pull everything together and get dressed.

Regardless, after a furious rush, I felt prepared as I made a final mental checklist. I went through my four courses and set up individual food stations in my kitchen. In each station, I grouped any remaining ingredients I needed, pre-measured and ready to go. I also included any serving utensils and the correct stack of plates. I’ve learned that with everything compartmentalized, it takes all the thinking out of the final preparation and makes tasks flow more efficiently after guests have arrived.

At 7 p.m. as planned, the goat cheese appetizer and wine were set out and guests filtered in. At quarter of eight, I returned to the kitchen to dress and plate the salad (salad dressing should always be left to the last minute, lest your greens be soggy and wilted). With the salad plates on the table and everyone seated, I put both the salmon and asparagus in the oven and chucked my orzo into the already-boiling water. All three took only about 7 minutes to cook, leaving another 7 minutes to assemble it all. With my food stations in place, the timing of the meal ran flawlessly and I was beyond pleased at the course of the night.

My smugness was premature. I didn’t fill my guests in on the dessert predicament and basked as they ohhed and ahhed at how pretty the key-lime filled martini glasses were. By this time, my hostess anxiety was gone and I couldn’t wait for a big bite of graham crackery, Key limey goodness. Instead, I felt a hard-as-rock layer at the bottom of the glass. It seems that the graham cracker crumb mixture fused with the glass when it was chilled.

My advice for when a dish—or the whole meal for that matter—goes terribly wrong? Humility. Laugh at yourself, fess up, and let it go.

Regardless of the botched dessert, my friends were thrilled to receive a home-cooked meal that didn’t come out of a Lean Cuisine box. It was a rare night that we didn’t have to wait for a table, worry about how quickly the bill was adding up, or deal with dividing the check at the end of the night. Overall, the evening was personal, relaxed, and a refreshing alternative to our usual restaurant outings. If only I had a dishwasher at the end of it all.

Recipes from the dinner party:

Herbed goat cheese crostini, drizzled with honey, served with Spiced Walnuts


Herbed goat cheese:

2 teaspoons of finely chopped rosemary
4 ounces plain goat cheese, at room temperature

One French baguette, cut into thin slices, brushed with olive oil and toasted in a 350-degree oven for 8 minutes, or until crisp.

Mix rosemary and goat cheese, either by hand or in a food processor. Mound goat cheese mixture on a sheet of tin foil and roll into log. Chill for minimum of 1 hour. Unroll and bring to room temperature before serving. Drizzle entire log with fresh honey and serve with toasted French bread rounds and spiced walnuts.

Spiced walnuts:
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups raw walnuts

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and coat lightly with cooking spray. Tear another sheet of foil the same size, coat with cooking spray, and set aside for later use. 

Pour walnuts on baking sheet. In a microwave-safe dish, combine honey, 2 tablespoons butter, chili powder and cinnamon. Microwave for 60 to 90 seconds, stirring occasionally, until butter is melted. Pour honey mixture over nuts and stir until all are coated. Bake for 10 minutes, stirring every five minutes. Remove from oven and pour onto reserved piece of foil, spreading nuts into a single layer to cool. 

Balsamic-glazed pear salad with spiced walnuts and fresh Parmesan shavings

Spiced walnuts (see recipe above)
5 oz Parmesan, shaved into this slices with a vegetable peeler and paring knife

Balsamic-glazed pears
2 ripe Bartlette pears
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon honey
   
Core pears and cut into thin slices. In large frying pan, heat vinegar, butter and honey over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until reduced by half, about 2 tablespoons. Add pear slices and continue cooking for 3-4 minutes, turning once.

Balsamic vinaigrette

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard??
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 garlic cloves, finely minced??
1 small shallots, finely minced??
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste??
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together first 7 ingredients until blended. Gradually whisk in olive oil.

Combine mixed greens and vinaigrette and top with sliced pears, chopped walnuts and fresh Parmesan cheese shavings.

Salmon with avocado-cilantro cream sauce and tangy tomato chutney

Because of the nature of avocados, the sauce will turn brown over time. It will last up to two hours in an airtight container, but I still recommend preparing it as close to service time as possible.

Avocado-cilantro cream sauce:

Three ripe avocados
1/4 cup half and half
1 large bunch of fresh cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
Juice from 1/2 fresh lime

Halve avocados and remove the peel. In a food processor combine all ingredients and store sauce in an airtight container until ready to use.

Tangy tomato relish:
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 container of Capri tomatoes (about 20 tomatoes per container)
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt

Chop tomatoes into quarters (or smaller if desired). Mix with red onion, red wine vinegar, olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper and let sit for 1-2 hours. Drain liquid from relish before using with salmon.

Salmon:

6 salmon fillets (about 1/2 pound per person, on average)
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons olive oil

Mix Dijon mustard and olive oil and allow salmon to marinate for a minimum of one hour. Sear fillets on top of the stove in a lightly oiled frying pan (about 2 minutes on each side). Finish in a 350 degrees oven for about 7 minutes (if you have a meat thermometer, the internal temperature should reach 140 degrees).

To plate the entree, place the salmon over a mound of lemon-pepper orzo, drizzle with avocado-cilantro cream, and divide spears of asparagus among the plates.

Lemon-pepper orzo
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
2 cups orzo
2 lemons, juiced
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon zest

In a medium pot, bring the chicken stock and water to a boil. Add orzo and cook for 6-8 minutes until tender. Remove from heat, drain the orzo, and stir in the remaining ingredients. Season with salt and pepper if necessary and serve. Serves 6 to 8.

Simple garlic-roasted asparagus

This is a ridiculously easy dish and has become my vegetable go-to. It’s simple, elegant, and a good accompaniment if your main entree has a lot going on.

1 bunch of fresh asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 clove of finely minced garlic
1 teaspoons salt
1/2  teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Blanch asparagus by putting in a shallow pan of rapidly boiling, salty water. Boil until asparagus are tender but still have a slight crunch, about 3-4 minutes. Remove and refrigerate until ready to use. Just before service, toss the blanched asparagus with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of melted butter, and finely minced garlic. Season with Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook on baking sheet, in a 350 oven, just until warm (about 5 minutes).

Nellie & Joe’s Key Lime Pie

A few years ago I discovered Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice (available at Publix). It’s more expensive than other brands, but the flavor is closer to genuine Key lime and makes for an easy and delicious dessert. Since my individual key lime pies flopped, I’ve included the recipe for the full pie instead.

9″ graham cracker pie crust
14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks (whites not used)
½ cup Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice (or juice squeezed from the more typical Persian limes)

Combine milk, egg yolks and lime juice. Blend until smooth. Pour filling into pie crust and bake at 350º for 15 minutes. Allow to stand 10 minutes before refrigerating. Just before serving, top with freshly whipped cream, or meringue, and garnish with lime slices.

Dinner Parties 101: Color Me Ginger

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My exposure to ginger up until a few years ago consisted of only two things: ginger ale and ginger snaps. Neither were pleasant experiences in my book. Ginger snaps were dry, spicy, and in my opinion, a sad excuse for a cookie. Ginger ale (paired with saltine crackers, of course) was only imbibed as a sick remedy.

It wasn’t until my first year as a lowly young professional that my true love affair with ginger began. I ventured to a take-out Thai restaurant around the corner and chose one of the cheapest things on the menu: a $5 chicken dish called “Ginger Perfect.” And perfect it was: Not only could I squeeze two meals out of it, but this inexpensive Thai dish single handedly helped introduce me to my now-favorite spice.

Ginger is the culinary version of a multi-tasker: It’s lemony, spicy, peppery, and sweet all at the same time. It’s versatile enough to pair with infused drinks, nearly any protein, and certainly desserts. To achieve authentic flavor, always go for the real thing—fresh, as opposed to ground. You can find the misshapen root in the produce section. To freshly grate it, I prefer to chop off some of the awkward “knobs”, leaving me with uniformly shaped pieces. Peel off the outer brown skin with a vegetable peeler or pairing knife and finely mince it by putting it in a food processor, through a garlic press, or by hand with a chef’s knife since it is fairly soft. 

Sometimes planning a dinner party meal in its entirety can be overwhelming, but finding a common ingredient or flavor to tie through each course is one way to simplify the process while having an understated theme. As long as the dishes have enough diversity in the ingredients, your guests won’t tire of the taste of ginger, and hopefully they’ll learn to share my appreciation (i.e. obsession) of it.

Ginger Pear Chutney and Goat Cheese Bruschetta
You can always prepare the pear chutney up to a week ahead of time and keep in the refrigerator. Just make sure to bring to room temperature before serving.

Ingredients
1 loaf French bread
4 large ripe pears
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup dark raisins, chopped
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons peeled, grated fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cloves minced garlic
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 log (10 ounces) mild goat cheese
Flat-leaf parsley leaves

Instructions
Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice bread diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place bread slices on cookie sheet and toast for about ten minutes, turning slices over once.

Meanwhile, prepare pear chutney: Peel and core pears; cut into 1/2-inch pieces. In nonstick skillet, cook pears, sugar, raisins, vinegar, ginger, garlic, cayenne pepper and salt over medium heat 25 to 30 minutes or until all of liquid evaporates and sugar caramelizes, stirring frequently during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Mixture will become very thick and turn dark brown. Cool chutney to room temperature.

Just before serving, assemble bruschetta: Spread about one tablespoon of goat cheese evenly on each toasted bread slice and top each with 1 scant tablespoon of pear chutney and fresh parsley garnish.

Shredded Cabbage Salad with Peanut Ginger Dressing

Ingredients
6 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoon chopped green onions
2 tablespoon natural peanut butter
2 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon fresh ginger
1 head shredded cabbage

In food processor or blender, mix water, rice wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of green onions (reserve remainder for garnish), peanut butter, soy sauce and ginger. Allow dressing to sit in refrigerator between 30 to 60 minutes to fully develop flavor. 

Recipe will produce about 3/4 a cup of dressing. Start by mixing 1/2 cup of the dressing into the shredded cabbage. You can add some of the remaining dressing if you desire a stronger flavor. Top salad with chopped peanuts and 1 tablespoon of the chopped green onions.

Ginger Thai Beef

Instructions
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 pounds beef sirloin, cut into 3/4 inch strips
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemongrass, chopped
¼ cup bamboo shoot, cut into thin strips
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons fish sauce
Juice of half a lime

Heat oil in wok or medium frying pan. When oil is hot, add beef, ginger, garlic, lemon grass, bamboo shoots, red pepper flakes, and fish sauce. Cook 4-5 minutes on high heat, stirring. Remove from heat & add the fresh lime juice.

Ginger glazed salmon with sesame seeds

Ingredients
4 six-ounce salmon fillets
2 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons honey
¼ cup black or white sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Instructions
Prepare marinade by combining soy sauce, ginger, mustard, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper. Allow salmon to marinate for minimum of one hour.

Preheat oven to 425°F. Sear salmon fillet lightly, about 2 minutes per side, just to achieve color. Coat baking dish with cooking spray. Place fillets in baking dish and sprinkle heavily with sesame seeds. Bake for 10-12 minutes for rare salmon (or until internal temperature reaches 140°)

Coconut Panna Cotta with Ginger Mango Coulis

Panna Cotta is a traditional Italian gelatin dessert. I am typically anti-gelatin due to the texture, but panna cotta is so creamy and smooth that I don’t even notice it. If you have a hard time getting the panna cotta out of the molds, let sit in a bowl of warm water for 10-15 seconds to loosen.

For the Coulis:
1 cup Mango-sliced
1/2 cup Sugar
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon minced ginger

Puree and strain mango and ginger. Add sugar and lime juice. Can add more or less juice to acquire desired consistency—it should be liquid enough to pour.

For the Panna Cotta:
1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
1 (15-ounce) can coconut cream (recommended: Coco Loco)
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
2 cups chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

Sprinkle the gelatin evenly over 3 tablespoons of cool water in a small bowl. Set aside to soften.

In a medium saucepan, heat the coconut cream and coconut milk over medium heat until the sides begin to bubble. Lower the heat and allow mixture to let cool slightly before whisking in the softened gelatin, stirring to make sure it is completely dissolved.

Fill a large bowl with cold water. Strain the coconut mixture into a separate bowl that will fit easily into the bowl of water. Set bowl of coconut mixture into the bowl of water to cool, stirring every few minutes with a rubber spatula until the mixture starts to thicken. If the mixture starts to set, remove it immediately.

In a third bowl, stir the cream and confectioners’ sugar together until the sugar is dissolved. Fold into the coconut mixture.

Divide the coconut mixture evenly among six 7- to 8-ounce custard cups or ramekins. Chill until firm, at least 4 hours.

To serve, run a knife around the inside edge of the molds and invert each panna cotta onto a serving plate. Drizzle the coulis over each dessert—enough to spill onto the plate.

Eating Around: St. Patrick’s Day and more

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Each week, we give you a calendar of upcoming dining events to help you navigate the week’s culinary festivities. This week, it’s Irish-time as we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Plus, we’ve got the dish on the inaugural Buckhead Restaurant Week, Inman Park’s equivalent, and the tastiest alternative to beer on St. Paddy’s weekend.

March 6–14
BUCKHEAD RESTAURANT WEEK
The first annual Buckhead Restaurant Week has arrived. Over twenty-five participating restaurants will dish out a prix-fixe, three-course menu including an appetizer, entree and dessert for $25 per person. Menu possibilities include a warm goat cheese custard with pistachios and sweet and sour beets from Market; a sweet potato, mascarpone, and barbeque pecan soup with baked gnocchi and farm chicken confit from Craft; or a Valrhona chocolate cream pie from Aria.

March 8–14

INMAN PARK RESTAURANT WEEK
Thirteen restaurants in Historic Inman Park will participate in this year’s restaurant week to benefit the Believe in Me Foundation, an organization led by Chef Shaun Doty that supports the education of children with autism and other developmental disorders. Enjoy a three-course dinner at restaurants such as Sotto Sotto, Sauced, and, of course, Shaun’s for increments of $15, $25, and $35. And if you’re feeling the luck of the Irish this weekend, purchase a $1 raffle ticket for a chance to win a party of hors d’oeuvres, beer, and wine for you and thirty friends.

March 13–17

ST. PATRICK’S DAY
Put on your green beads and line the streets for the 128th annual Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Downtown. An array of bagpipers, Irish dancers, and Clydesdale horses will kick off at noon on Saturday, March 13, from Peachtree Street at Ralph McGill to Underground Atlanta. After the parade, head to STATS, the official parade headquarters, which will offer $2 pints, Celtic dancers, and live music from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. If you’d rather watch the parade with a pint in hand, Meehan’s Public House on Peachtree is right on the parade route. Also on the route is Max Lager’s Brewery, which will kick off their Shenanigans party with the tapping of Imperial Mocha Oatmeal Stout (or IMOS). For more than just booze, venture to Terrace for some Guinness beef stew. To experience a full Irish meal, join Ellis’s restaurant on Wednesday, March 17, for a special $30 three-course meal of farm-to-table Irish specialties by chef Thomas McKeown. And yes, even Uncle Julio’s is getting in on the St. Paddy’s Day action with “super green” frozen margaritas for $5, Dos Equis green beer for $3.25, and special “Pot of Gold” queso dip for $3.

Sunday, March 14

PI DAY
If you grow weary of leprechauns and green beer this weekend, celebrate a more intellectual holiday: National Pi Day, in honor of the mathematical constant π (3.14 . . . and on and on). Morton’s will offer their popular Key lime pie (regularly $10 per slice) for only $3.14 from 5 to 10 p.m. at both their Downtown and Buckhead locations.

Dinner Parties 101: The Beauty of Braising

The calendar tells me it’s March, and my mind is impatiently anticipating the blooming daffodils and 70-degree temperatures. But the last few days when I’ve stepped outside, Mother Nature seems to taunt me, saying “Eh, eh, eh—not so fast!”

Instead of being bitter about the lingering chilly nights, why not ride out these last few weeks of cold weather with a good braise? The Food Lover’s Companion defines a braise as “a cooking method by which food (usually meat or vegetables) is first browned in fat, then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid for a long period of time.” Along with being ideal comfort food, braised meats are economical and virtually indestructible (think of the culinary version of Corelle dinnerware). They’re almost impossible to under- or over-cook, all preparation can be done in advance, and they utilize less expensive cuts of meat while still producing a hearty, tender, and flavorful dish. 

Tips for a good braise:

1)    Always prepare your meat first by trimming off all exterior fat.
2)    Before braising, sear the meat on high heat in a small amount of oil to give you a nice caramelization that can’t be achieved with braising alone. After searing meat, deglaze the frying pan with either stock or wine, and add this liquid to the braising dish.
3)    Your braising medium (which most of the time is stock, wine, or a combination of the two) should reach half way up the meat before cooking. 
4)    After all ingredients are in your dish, create a tight seal with aluminum foil in order to prevent liquid from evaporating and meat from getting too dry. Secure foil with the pot lid.
5)    Braising can be done one of two ways—on top of the stove on a low simmer, or in the oven at 325 degrees. Either way, the dish should be covered and liquid should never come to a full boil. 
6)    Braising can take anywhere between 1 1/2 to 4 hours, depending on the size and cut of your meat. You know your meat is done when you can insert a skewer with little to no resistance. Generally, a braise should never be pink.

In my opinion, a braised dish is the ideal way to host a low-key, Sunday evening meal.  So this Sunday, invite some old friends over, put on a pot of one of the following two recipes, turn on the Academy Awards, and enjoy ogling your favorite celebrities with a little comfort food in tow. 


Indian Lamb and Spinach Curry

Courtesy of Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast: Slow Cooker

Yes, this curry is technically a braise. For an easy mint pilaf to serve with the curry, bring 3 1/2 cups of water to a boil, add 2 cups of rinsed basmati rice, turn the heat to low, and cook for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Just before serving, add about 3 tablespoons of minced fresh mint. Fluff mint and rice together with a pair of forks.

Ingredients
1/3 cup canola oil
3 yellow onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp ground cumin
1 ½ tsp cayenne pepper (can use less if desired)
1 ½ tsp ground turmeric
2 cups high-quality beef broth
3 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1 inch cubes
Salt to taste
6 cups baby spinach
2 cups plain whole milk (full fat) yogurt

Instructions
In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm oil. Add onions and garlic, and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in ginger, cumin, cayenne, and turmeric and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in broth, raise heat to high, and deglaze the pan, stirring to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom. When broth comes to a boil, remove pan from heat.
Put lamb in a Dutch oven or large oven-proof casserole dish and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon salt. Add contents of frying pan and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Cover with lid and cook in the oven at 325 degrees. Cook until meat can be penetrated easily with knife (about 3 to 4 hours).
 
Return the dish to the stove, add baby spinach to pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until spinach is wilted, about 5 minutes. Just before serving, stir in 1 1/3 cups yogurt. Season to taste with salt. Spoon into shallow bowls and serve, passing remaining yogurt at the table to add as a garnish.
 
Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Braised Citrus Pork

This dish can be served solo, with rice, or with my favorite accompaniment—a thick, piece of country toast drizzled with olive oil. You can also use veal shoulder instead of pork for a delicious variation.

Ingredients
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 ½ pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into cubes
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, halved
Herb bouquet (stalk of celery, bay leaf, sprig of thyme, sprig of parsley, and one well-washed leek, tied with string or in cheesecloth)
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2/3 cup juice from orange
1/4 cup juice from lemon
Zest of 1 medium orange
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon snipped chives
1 teaspoon minced parsley

Instructions
Heat oil in skillet and add a few pieces of pork at a time, browning meat on all sides without cooking the insides. Do not crowd the skillet (brown in batches if necessary).  After all meat is browned, transfer to large Dutch oven or ovenproof casserole dish. Pour out any remaining fat from skillet and deglaze with the white wine. Pour skillet contents in with the meat. Add the stock, onions, garlic, herb bouquet, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.  Cover and simmer on a low stove or in a 325° oven for about 1 ½ hour or until the meat is tender and can be skewered with no resistance. Remove meat from dish and cover to keep moist. Discard the herb bouquet.

Add orange and lemon juices and orange zest to pan juices. Boil liquid down to about two cups. Add the heavy cream, bring to a boil and reduce again until you have a thick sauce (about 1 ½ cups). Readjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.

Add meat to the sauce and garnish with chopped fresh herbs.

Serves 6 to 8

Dinner Parties 101: A Cook’s Canvas

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In culinary school, before being allowed to step foot into the kitchen, there was a lengthy seminar on plating and presentation. The Chef stood before our class, completely deadpan, and held up a powder blue plate. “This is a blue plate.” He made a theatrical pause. “In the culinary field, a blue plate is a cardinal sin. There is no blue food, thus, there will be No. Blue. Plates.” Oops, I thought to myself. My newly engaged sister had just picked out a china pattern that was none other than her favorite color—robin’s egg blue.

He went on to show us two identical plates full of food, one on a white plate and one on the blue. While slightly over-dramatic, Chef Stephan was right. There was something inexplicably less appetizing about the meal on the blue plate. What I had never realized before was that the full dining experience utilizes four out of our five senses—sight being a major factor. Other than the savory smells wafting from the kitchen, the presentation of the meal sets the tone and makes your first big impression.

From that day forward, we learned to play with our food. Our plates were like canvases as we experimented, touched, shaped and resituated everything we served in order to achieve visual texture. As with everything, I learned that timing is key, so it’s crucial to have plating ideas in mind before food is even done. A few other helpful tips I learned:

1) Colorful and patterned china competes with the food for attention. White plates best highlight your meal and give a clean, crisp look to the entire presentation. If you don’t already have a set of white china, several home decor stores such as Pottery Barn and Pier 1 have started carrying “caterer’s boxes” that include 12-piece white dinnerware sets for under $50.

2) While it’s fallen out of favor in restaurant settings, I’ve found a plastic squeeze bottle to be extremely helpful when using sauces and glazes. Adding a vivid green pesto sauce or a rich brown balsamic reduction will help eliminate any negative space and add color and dimension to the dish. The key here is not to get too carried away with elaborate dots, spirals and patterns. Go for the “less is more” approach; use the squeeze bottle to achieve a random drizzle look with more efficiency and less mess. Hint: If your sauce gets too thick and sets in the bottle, stick it in a bowl of hot water for a minute or two.

3) The star of the meal will most likely be your protein. No matter what cut of meat, it should serve as the main height and focus of the dish and shouldn’t be buried under other ingredients or sauces. The sauce should support the meal without overtaking it.

4) While it may seem like common sense, never garnish a meal with something inedible. I once garnished poached apples with cinnamon sticks and the Chef acted as if I put a vial of arsenic right on the plate.

5) And finally, hot food should go on hot plates. Keep your plates heated in a 250 degree oven so your food won’t be lukewarm by the time it reaches your guests.

Happy plating!

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