Thursday, December 30, 2010

Set It & Forget It. The Easiest Risotto Ever!

It’s not often that I get giddy about a recipe. Well, maybe I get giddy about recipes more often than the average person, but it’s not out of control or anything. It's just that I can't help but get enthusiastic when something that seems too good to be true, culinarily speaking, ends up delivering on its promise. This particular bout of giddiness started with a healthy dose of skepticism when presented with the notion of a risotto that could be made entirely in the oven. A sort of set-it-and-forget-it risotto. The last time I was this excited about a recipe it was for Sullivan Street Bakery's 4-ingredient French Boule you make in a Dutch oven that requires absolutely no bread-making skills whatsoever. The one that flew around the internet a couple of years ago faster than Lindsay Lohan’s latest mug shot.

I happened upon this improbable recipe way too early one morning, bleary eyed, as I stumbled around the kitchen trying to make some coffee, the Today Show droning in the background. As I took my first few sips and felt the caffeine starting to course through my veins (a sure sign that I’m coming alive for the day) I noticed Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) on the screen touting recipes from her latest tome, How Easy Is That? I admit I was only half paying attention to her chirpy banter with Matt Lauer until she started talking about a recipe for the “easiest risotto ever!” A risotto that requires “almost no stirring.” A risotto as creamy and delicious as any you’ve ever had. She had me at “no stirring.”

I turned up the TV and paid close attention. She explained to an inquisitive Matt that this was a risotto that didn’t require constant stirring. If you’ve ever made risotto, or been too afraid to attempt it, it’s usually the constant stirring thing that puts people off. She casually poured the Arborio rice into a Dutch oven, along with some simmering chicken stock, homemade of course, because we all have that on hand. She explained that the whole procession would be placed into a 350º oven for a mere forty-five minutes and through the magic of television, produced a steaming pot of pretty unimpressive-looking rice. But then, before our eyes the magic did happen and it had nothing to do with television. I watched intently as she stirred in some more chicken stock, a splash of white wine, a generous handful of Parmesan cheese and of course, a big knob of butter. As she continued to stir vigorously, the rather sad-looking mixture began to pull together into a creamy, glossy and cohesive looking pot of gorgeous risotto. I blinked a few times, assuming I was still half asleep, but there it was on the screen, a risotto as delicious and sumptuous looking as any I’d ever seen and one that defied the very logic of the dish.

Needless to say, I decided I had to try this particular method of making risotto that very night for dinner. The recipe was still fresh in my head, but I couldn't help being a bit skeptical as I gathered my ingredients, all of which I happened to have on hand (with the exception of that fantasy homemade chicken stock). I settled for boxed stock and just hoped the entire notion of a no-stir risotto from the oven wasn’t the biggest fantasy of all.

I tweaked the recipe slightly, adding a minced shallot and a couple of cloves of garlic to bump up the flavor. Other than that, I followed the recipe exactly as Ina had demonstrated it for Matt. Forty-five minutes later I pulled the pot from the oven and began stirring in the remaining ingredients. This is where skepticism slowly gave way to giddiness, because just as it had on the TV screen, with no magic involved, the unimpressive-looking rice really did pull together into a creamy, glossy and downright gorgeous pot of risotto. The texture of the rice was absolutely perfect too, exactly as it would have been if I'd spent the last half hour mindlessly ladling and stirring on the stove top. I wondered where this technique had been all my life. The full-blown giddiness (the kind that induces a little dance) came of course, with the first bite, because this was without a doubt, some of the most delicious risotto I’d ever tasted.

And just as Ina promised Matt, it was the "easiest risotto ever."

Easy Parmesan "Risotto"
(Recipe adapted from Ina Garten)

While not technically a classic Italian risotto, this sure is easy. I found the process for this recipe in a book by Donna Hay, the wonderful cookbook writer from Australia. I make it with my homemade chicken stock, lots of freshly grated Parmesan, and frozen peas. Risotto in the oven? You have to make this to believe it!

Serves 4 to 6

1 ½ cups Arborio rice
1 shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 cups simmering chicken stock, preferably homemade, divided
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup frozen peas

Preheat the oven to 350

Place the rice and 4 cups of the chicken stock in a Dutch oven along with the shallots and garlic. Cover and bake for 45 minutes, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente. Remove from the oven, add the remaining cup of chicken stock, the Parmesan, wine, butter, salt and pepper, and stir vigorously for two to three minutes, until the rice is thick and creamy. Add the peas and stir until heated through. Serve hot.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Christmas Cookie that Google Forgot

I’m not a traditional person, per se. Or at least, I pride myself in railing against tradition in most areas of my life. I guess I’m more of a non-traditional traditionalist, if that makes sense. I don’t decorate for the holidays in red and green. Quite frankly, I think they clash. I don’t eat fruitcake or Yule logs. Ever. I’m far too disorganized to send out cutesy Christmas cards to everyone I know, so I don’t. Although I love getting them, so thanks everyone and keep ‘em coming! I don’t have any Christmas-y family heirlooms I drag out every year, but I’d give anything for that retro aluminum tree from the 60s that my Grandparents once had, the one with the groovy color wheel. Remember those?

That’s not to say I don’t have traditions that I look forward to, especially at holiday time. I do make it a point to watch “Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey” every year. And every year I cry when his Mom dies (my apologies if I've ruined it for you). Sappy, I know. I’d rather listen to Frank, Dean and Ella sing the classics than hear Justin Bieber’s version of Winter Wonderland. And really, wouldn’t you too?? But my favorite, it-just-wouldn’t-be-Christmas-without-it tradition is baking up several batches of a particular cookie I’ve been eating as long as I can remember...

The Swedish Cookie.

It’s my absolute, hands-down favorite holiday cookie and I look forward to the tradition of making them every year because it signifies the real start of the Christmas season for me. No matter where I’ve lived or how busy my life has been, even in the lean years when I couldn’t afford to decorate for Christmas, I always found a way to bake these cookies, because they feel like home.

Now, I must confess that I have no idea if these cookies are actually Swedish. I have no idea why they’re called Swedish cookies. I’ve Googled, I’ve searched, I’ve asked around. No one seems to know. And really, if Google doesn’t know, who does?! Evidently, even my choice of Christmas cookie is non-traditional traditionalist. Or, something like that. I’ve never given these cookies to anyone outside my family, who’s ever had them before. I’ve never seen them anywhere else and they don’t sell them at Ikea. My Grandma made them, my Mom made them, all of my Aunts made them, I just always remember them being there, but no one can remember exactly where these cookies came from - though my Aunt Harriett credits my Aunt Mona with finding the recipe somewhere.

What I do know for sure is these cookies are special. They’ve always wielded some brilliant power over me and everyone I share them with, which is interesting, because they’re quite humble at first glance. They don’t contain any fancy extracts or exotic, rare ingredients. Certainly nothing that screams “Swedish!” In fact they’re made simply from butter, cream cheese, flour, sugar, egg whites and walnuts. You could easily overlook them on a plate at a holiday party and dismiss them as not that interesting. Perhaps even a bit boring. But that’s where you’d be wrong. True, they’re not as glamorous-looking as those fancy cut-out, frosted confections all sprinkled and dragéed. They may not be formed into the shape of a reindeer or a snowman, but those meager ingredients come together magically into a cookie that is bigger than the sum of its parts and when you taste them, well, that’s where the real magic happens. They’re crispy and buttery and nutty and have just the right amount of crumble. The filling gets crackly and the pastry is flaky. They’re delectable, and dare I say, almost transcendent.

Nowadays, one of my favorite holiday traditions has become introducing these magnificent gems to new friends each year. I admit that secretly I hope they’ll love the cookies as much as I do, and perhaps, they’ll become a tradition for them as well. That, and I figure the more people who know about the humble Swedish Cookie, the better the chances of finding it on Google next year.

Swedish Cookies

1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
1 pound cream cheese, room temperature
4 cups all-purpose flour
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting the board

3 large egg whites, lightly beaten
3 cups sugar
3 cups walnuts, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the dough, cream together the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of a free-standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Slowly add the flour, a little at a time and mix on low speed until incorporated and just starting to come together. Turn dough out onto a board dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead a few times, forming into a ball. Divide the dough into four equal parts, flatten into disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator to chill for 1 hour.

While the dough is chilling, set to work on the filling. Whip the egg whites until foamy and able to hold a soft peak. Gently fold in the sugar and the walnuts. The mixture will be thick and dense.

Generously dust a board with confectioners’ sugar. Roll dough into a thin rectangle. I say thin, but not obnoxiously thin. It should be roughly under a quarter of an inch. After all, you are making cookies, not crepes. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into approximately 2 1/2 inch squares. I do this freehand. In other words, don’t worry about making them perfect. Place a teaspoon sized dollop of the filling in the center of each square and pinch the two opposite corners together. The scraps of dough can be gathered up, chilled and re-rolled. Transfer the cookies to a parchment lined sheet pan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown and crisp

Note: The dough is very soft, so work quickly. I’ve found that chilling the cookies on the cookie sheet for about 10 minutes before baking will help keep the corners together.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Old-Fashioned Peanut Brittle the Easy Way!

There are all kinds of methods and theories for making perfect peanut brittle. There are those who insist you cannot make it without a candy thermometer. Some swear by the back of spoon trick, or the water test. Frankly, I find them all daunting and off-putting, even a bit scary. I need things to be easy, so I have always been happy to leave the candy-making to other people. My Aunt Harriett has been making the most delicious peanut brittle during the holidays for as long as I can remember. I just assumed she dragged out all of the same accoutrements everyone else did and stood by nervously staring at a candy thermometer trying to gauge the right temperature. “Not true,” she told me rather matter-of-factly one year. “Grandma never used a candy thermometer to make peanut brittle, so I’ve never used one. I go by the color. Light golden brown is the key.” She also told me she throws the peanuts in at the beginning because “it’s just easier.” Her words were a revelation and just like that, I’ve been undaunted ever since.

Old-Fashioned Peanut Brittle

Yields about 2 pounds

3 cups sugar
3 cups salted, dry roasted peanuts
1 cup Karo syrup
½ cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for buttering pan
1 teaspoon baking soda

Butter the bottom of a large sheet pan; set aside.

Combine peanuts, sugar, corn syrup and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until the mixture is the color of light brown sugar, about 5 minutes. Resist the temptation to push the browning past the point of “light golden brown,” as Aunt Harriett says, or it will undoubtedly take on the taste of burnt sugar, undoubtedly landing you somewhere on the other side of good. Remove saucepan from heat, and stir in the butter and baking soda; stir quickly as the mixture will begin to foam up. Pour onto the prepared sheet pan. Use a wooden spoon to stretch the brittle as thinly as possible over the sheet pan. Allow the brittle to cool completely, about 45 minutes, then break into bite-size shards. Brittle can be stored in an air-tight container for up to 2 weeks.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

“Where’s the BFF?” & Sutter Home Gift Basket Giveaway

“Where’s the BFF?” Okay, I admit it’s a bit of a stretch harkening back to that famous Wendy’s commercial from the early 80s, but you’ll forgive the reach when you hear what I have to offer you. Tailgating season is here and I've teamed up with Sutter Home Winery and - you know, the people behind the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner” campaign - to bring you an exciting way to kick-start the tailgating season with party tips, easy beef grilling recipes and an awesome giveaway!

Forking Delicious Blog will be giving away two tailgating gift baskets, each valued at $190 and jam-packed with swag and entertaining inspiration for the football season.

Each tailgating gift basket includes a cutting board set with knife, fork, bottle closure and corkscrew, dish towels, olive oil, vinegar, dipping sauce, garlic Parmesan sauce, an assortment of salt and pepper, as well as an “I Heart Beef” apron, bumper sticker, pin and a Healthy Beef Cookbook.

Now, here’s the fun part and where your BFFs come in: To enter the contest and be eligible to win a kick-ass tailgating gift basket, all you have to do is get your BFFs to “Like” the Chef David Lawrence Facebook page. Each time your BFFs “Like” the page, tell them to leave a wall post letting me know they joined, who sent them and why Beef is What’s For Dinner in their house. The two people who refer the most BFFs win! It’s that easy. The contest will run for two weeks, starting today and ending Friday, October 22nd at midnight, EST. The winners will be announced here and on Facebook on Saturday, October 23rd.

So, Where’s Your BFF? Spread the word. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. Tell your BFF’s BFF! And tell your BFFs that Beef is What's For Dinner! Post the contest on your own Facebook and Twitter pages, your blogs, etc. The more people you refer, the better your chances of winning.

Happy Tailgating!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Endless Summer – One Last Hurrah

There is a moment every September when I look up and realize that summer is officially over. That’s precisely the moment that I find myself scrambling to hold on to my favorite time of year before the balmy evenings give way to crisp and eventually chilly nights that force me inside for the winter. Don’t get me wrong, I love a hearty, comforting meal inside by the fire, but what I really love is standing over the fire, grilling dinner for myself and friends.

Some sand from the hardware store and a bit of creativity turn my table into a night at the beach.

It’s my need for the proverbial “endless summer” and the realization that I didn’t make it to the beach even once this year that inspired this last hurrah. I figured that if I couldn’t find the time to make it to the beach, I’d bring the beach to my own backyard with a decidedly summery menu and a beach-inspired table design.

Grilled Asian Skirt Steak

This recipe plays on my love of cinnamon paired with red meat. It adds a subtle background note that mingles nicely with the ginger, garlic and sherry in the marinade. I like to marinate this steak as long as possible, but I’ve also made it when it’s only had an hour in the marinade and it was delicious. So, foresight recommended, but not required.

Serves 4

1 six-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
4 teaspoons dark-brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 cinnamon sticks
½ cup good dry sherry
6 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 small skirt steaks (about 1 pound each)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish

In a medium bowl combine the sliced ginger, garlic, brown sugar, ground cinnamon, cinnamon sticks, dry sherry and soy sauce. Whisk in the olive oil and pour marinade over the flank steak in a heavy gallon sized Ziplock bag, which in my opinion is the easiest and best way to marinate meat. Marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, or even better for several hours in the refrigerator. The longer the meat swims in the marinade the more flavorful it will be.

Preheat the grill to high.

Remove the flank steak from the marinade and brush off any slices of garlic and ginger, as they’ll just burn and char on the grill. Place the meat on a layer of several paper towels and blot off as much of the liquid as possible. This is an important step because if the meat is too wet it won’t sear, it will steam which is the surest way I know of to end up with gray steak! Season both sides generously with salt and pepper.

Grill the steak without moving it around or poking it so it has a chance to sear and get those beautiful grill marks, about 4 minutes per side for medium rare. Transfer steak to a cutting board and allow it to rest loosely tented under aluminum foil for at least 5 minutes before slicing into thin strips and scattering with a shower of chopped cilantro for garnish.

Herb Marinated Grilled Shrimp

Patience may be a virtue, but not when it comes to my dinner. I tend to favor bold flavors I can get on the table quickly. These shrimp never disappoint.

Serves 4

2 cups of fresh herbs, such as basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, etc.
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
12 jumbo shrimp, about 1½ pounds

Combine chopped herbs, garlic and olive oil in a medium bowl or gallon size Ziplock bag, which in my opinion is the easiest and best way to marinate anything. Season with salt and pepper and add shrimp. Shake the bag to evenly coat shrimp. Place in the refrigerator and marinate for 45 minutes to an hour.

Preheat the grill to medium-high.

Remove shrimp from marinade and shake off the excess oil. Grill the shrimp, turning once, just until they curl in on themselves and turn an opaque pink color and are firm to the touch. Serve immediately.

Note: This recipe can also be done in a 400 degree oven. Depending on the size of the shrimp, 10 to 12 minutes should be about all they need.

Mango Salsa

The fresh flavors of this salsa pair beautifully with both the shrimp and the skirt steak.

Serves 4

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups diced red onion
2 teaspoons peeled, minced fresh ginger
1½ teaspoons minced garlic
2 ripe mangos, peeled, seeded, and small diced
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
2 teaspoons fresh mint leaves, chopped

Saute the olive oil, onions, and ginger in a large saute pan over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, or until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the mangos, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 more minutes. Add the orange juice, brown sugar, salt, black pepper, and jalapeno; cook for 10 more minutes, until orange juice is reduced, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and add the mint. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

(Recipe adapted from Ina Garten.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Getting a Jump on Fig Season

I came to appreciate figs relatively late in life. To be honest, I didn’t even know what a fresh fig looked like until my mid twenties, and up until then I'm afraid my only exposure to them came in the form of a Newton. I have definitely made up for lost time because I’m obsessed with them now. They're sweet, delicious, sexy and fleeting. So if you spot them in the market, definitely take advantage of their short season. I love the simplicity of this recipe and they can be served as a starter or as an elegant finish to any meal.

Figs with Goat Cheese & Port Syrup

Makes 8

1 cup ruby port

6 tablespoons honey

6 ounces soft goat cheese (Montrachet)

8 ripe figs

½ cup toasted* walnuts, chopped

2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, lightly chopped, for garnish

In a small saucepan, over medium-high heat, bring the port and honey up to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer slowly until reduced by half. Set aside and cool to room temperature, the syrup will thicken considerably upon standing.

Cut the goat cheese into 8 equal pieces, about 2 teaspoons each, and roll each piece into a ball. Place the figs upright on a cutting board and carefully make four cross cuts, slicing each fig into eight sections, being careful not to go all the way through the bottom. Gently separate the figs outward to form a “flower.” Place a ball of goat cheese in the center of each fig and drizzle with the port syrup. Garnish with the walnuts and chopped parsley.

* Place walnuts in a dry sauté pan and push them around over medium heat until they deepen in color and their nutty aroma wafts up under your nose. Once they begin to toast, they go quickly so whatever you do, don’t abandon them. They go from perfectly toasted to “toast” in a matter of seconds.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

John's Coffee Steak

I first heard the idea of coating a big juicy piece of steak with coffee from my friend John. It seemed strange, to say the least, and I must admit, I wasn’t at all sold on the idea. Then I read an article in the newspaper about a restaurant in Seattle that featured something similar and it was all the rage. So reluctantly, I decided to experiment and give it a try. It took a few attempts to get just the right balance of coffee along with the sweet, salty and spicy. My first incarnations were entirely too peppery, leaving my lips numb for hours, like a bee-stung-lipped-model during fashion week! Not a great look for me. But with a few tweaks I finally found the right balance of flavor. The coffee rub forms a beautiful, seared, almost black crust on the outside, and as you cut into the steak it gives way to the tender pink meat inside. One bite and I was hooked! Take my word, however odd coffee on steak may sound, it’s a killer combination.

Thanks, John!

Serves 4


½ cup coarse ground coffee beans, dark roast
¼ cup Kosher salt
¼ cup coarse ground black pepper

¼ cup dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons canola oil

4 (8 ounce) New York or Rib Eye steaks

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

To make the dry rub, place the coffee, salt, pepper and brown sugar in a small bowl and toss gently with a fork to combine. Any leftover rub can be stored in the freezer for another time.

Heat the canola oil in a large heavy oven-proof skillet (preferably cast-iron) over high heat until almost to the smoking point. Pat steaks dry with paper towels and generously and evenly coat all sides with the coffee rub. Sear well to form a good crust, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Don’t panic if the steaks look a little charred, that’s what you’re going for and will ensure lots of flavor.

Transfer the skillet to the hot oven and cook for 5 to 7 minutes for medium rare, or until desired doneness. Let the meat rest, tented under foil for 5 to 10 minutes before devouring.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chip's Fresh Citrus Margaritas

You know you’ve got a true friend when they’ll stand at the counter, practically developing a case of carpal tunnel, squeezing dozens of limes, lemons and oranges for what seems like hours to make fresh citrus margaritas for a party. That’s exactly what my friend Chip did at a summer gathering I had a while back. He made the mistake of telling me about these delicious, fresh margaritas he first had at the bar of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, California, after a long, hot day on the golf course. The bartender bragged that he made the best fresh citrus margaritas, and now, so did Chip. Of course, I had to try these legendary margaritas and a party seemed like the perfect occasion. Well, needless to say, the margaritas lived up to their legend and they were a huge hit. Every time Chip finished making one, an empty glass would be shoved in his direction, ready for a refill. He stood there like a trooper, squeezing and shaking those drinks until the mountain of citrus was gone. When I told him I wanted to include the drink in this blog he looked slightly befuddled. “But it’s not really my recipe,” he said. I disagree. Anyone who will stand there for that long squeezing all that citrus has earned the right to lay claim to the recipe. So, for your enjoyment, by way of the Fairmont Hotel, here are Chip’s Fresh Citrus Margaritas. Oh, and just so you know, the next time he got roped into making these for a party, he came armed with an electric juicer.

Serves 1

Juice of 2 limes

Juice of 1 lemon

Juice of ½ an orange

2 ounces premium silver tequila

2 ounces Cointreau or Triple Sec

1 ounce simple syrup, or to taste depending on sweetness of the fruit

Kosher salt, for rimming glass

Lime wedge, for garnish

Rub the outside rim of a glass with a cut lime and dip lightly into a plate of kosher salt.

Combine the lime juice, lemon juice, orange juice, Tequila, Triple Sec and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Tumble in a handful of ice and shake until icy cold. Serve on the rocks, garnished with a lime wedge.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Plum Idea

Whenever my friends attend parties
I can hardly wait to corner them and find out all about the food that was served. Forget the guest list or the locale. I want to know about the food! If I can’t sample it myself I can always live vicariously, right? A good friend of mine recently attended a very chic wedding in Malibu and couldn’t wait to tell me all about these perfect little bites. Grilled plum with a bit of creamy Gorgonzola slightly melted on top, wrapped up in buttery prosciutto and fastened together with a sprig of rosemary. An elegant, easy starter.
Done and DONE!

Prosciutto Wrapped Grilled Plums with
Gorgonzola & Rosemary

Serves 8

2 purple or black plums, pitted and sliced into eights

Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing plums

8 teaspoons Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled or sliced

8 slices prosciutto

16 small sprigs of fresh rosemary

Preheat a grill pan or outdoor grill over high heat.

Lightly brush the plum slices with the olive oil and place on the hot grill. Turn once to get grill marks on each cut side of the fruit. Remove and cool slightly. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of Gorgonzola on each slice of plum. Cut each slice of prosciutto in half lengthwise. Wrap the prosciutto around each plum slice and skewer with a sprig of rosemary to secure.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Just for the Grill of It! Adding Sizzle to Your Summer Meals

There is a time of year in Los Angeles
(a city not exactly known for its change of seasons) when the mildly warm days of spring give way to the blistering hot days of summer. The days get longer, the whirring sound of central air-conditioners everywhere become a constant hum and the first scent of a neighbor’s grill wafts through the window, signaling the start of grilling season. It’s my favorite time of year! Though admittedly, I don’t limit my love or consumption of grilled food strictly to the summer months. I have long had a sturdy, well-seasoned cast iron grill pan in my kitchen that I use with unapologetic regularity, rain or shine. Sometimes, it’s just more comfortable to grill inside, in the 65° comfort of my own central air-conditioned kitchen, than to be outside sweating over a grill in the heat. The following recipe for Salt Steak however, must be cooked on an outdoor grill, but that’s part of the fun.

Glancing over the recipe, you may find it odd, even alarming that I’ve instructed you to use 1½ cups of kosher salt (no, I haven’t lost it completely and it’s not a typo). It is called Salt Steak after all. This method of grilling the meat, on a bed of coarse salt placed directly on the paper towels, the whole thing over the flame, doesn’t make the meat taste too salty. Instead, it keeps the meat incredibly tender and seasons it perfectly. This method is loosely based on a cooking technique used in both Italy and France for cooking chicken and whole fish encased in salt.

This recipe calls for London Broil, which is inexpensive, feeds an army and goes on sale all summer long. Interestingly, London Broil is a cooking method, NOT a cut of meat. Contrary to its name, it's virtually unknown in London, England. It can be flank steak, but is usually top round roast. If you’ve never dealt with London Broil before, it’s important to remember a few things: for really tender meat, it needs to be cooked to medium-rare, sliced thin on a 45° angle, and always, always cut across the grain.

Happy Grilling!

Salt Steak

I have a weakness for big juicy slabs of red meat, all beautifully seared and crusty on the outside, yet tender and pink on the inside. The following is my idea of red meat perfection and was one of my favorite summer meals as a kid. It still is! The combination of the thin slices of London Broil, cooked medium-rare and laid over garlic butter-soaked bread is mouthwatering. Paired simply with grilled corn on the cob and mushrooms sautéed in garlic, butter and thyme and you have a fantastic and memorable meal.

Serves 6 to 8

2 to 2½ pounds London Broil
1½ cups kosher salt, for grilling

Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

2½ sticks unsalted butter, melted

3 cloves garlic, minced, or to taste

¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 loaf sliced French bread (sandwich-style)

Preheat outdoor grill to high heat.

On a plate, layer 3 white paper towels, one on top of the other, and place the London broil on top of them. Allow the meat to sit for several minutes so the juices soak the towels, leaving behind an impression of the meat. Remove the meat and fill the impression with an even layer of salt, about ½ inch thick. Season the meat generously with plenty of freshly-cracked pepper on both sides and place it on the salt.

Lay the whole thing on the grill and - stick with me here - don’t be alarmed when the dry edges of the paper towel catch fire and burn up almost immediately; the soaked portion of towel will be fine. Grill the meat for about 10 to 12 minutes per side turning it once back onto the paper towel. For medium rare, it’s done when an instant read thermometer registers 130° to 135°. Transfer the meat to a cutting board, tent it loosely with foil and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the garlic and allow the flavors to infuse for a few minutes. Pour the butter into a shallow dish and stir in the chopped parsley.

To serve, slice the London Broil diagonally across the grain into thin strips. Quickly dip one side of the bread into the melted garlic butter and place butter side up on the plate. Lay several slices of meat over the bread and dig in greedily.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Best Chocolate Cream Pie I Ever Ate

"You always had it, Dorothy." It's my favorite moment in the Wizard of Oz when Glinda the Good Witch gives a gentle reminder of what should have been obvious all along. By "it" of course, she is referring to the power to return home, an answer Dorothy spent the entire film searching for. I've always believed she missed it because she was expecting something bigger, something that would hit her over the head, rather than quietly whisper in her ear. It's true that sometimes exactly what we're looking for has been right there all along and it doesn't always hit us over the head.

I got that reminder recently when I was searching high and low for the perfect dessert to serve at a dinner party. I'd been pouring over my favorite cookbooks and websites. For me, it's not really a dinner party without something sweet and homemade to cap off the evening. I was looking for something homey and familiar, not overly fussy, but impressive and delicious enough to make my guests think I'd spent all day preparing it. I wanted them licking their forks and groaning in pleasure with that look that says: "I really want another piece even though I'm stuffed." I live for that look on people's faces.

The answer came in the form of chocolate cream pie. Not just any chocolate cream pie, but the best chocolate cream pie I ever ate, according to my friend Beth. It was a very exuberant endorsement. "You have to make this pie, Dave. You HAVE to. You. Will. Die!" she exclaimed, in a giddy and overly-punctuated tone that drove her point home with laser-like precision. She explained that she'd just made a mile-high cream pie that appeared in the latest issue of Saveur magazine and it was so delicious, so over-the-top, she had to give most of it away because she couldn't stop eating it. I pictured a goldfish that just keeps eating until it explodes. "I don't know Beth...," I hesitated, as images of Jell-O Instant Pudding pushed their way into my head, "I have that magazine and I saw that pie and it looked pretty good, but I need something AH-mazing." The truth was I get so many food magazines every month I sometimes do little more than scan them walking back from the mailbox. I really had seen the recipe; it just didn't seem exciting enough to make me stop on the page. Beth wasn't having it. "You don't understand!" she replied breathlessly. "This pie is beyond amazing, it's RI-diculous! It starts with 9 egg yolks and almost a pound of chocolate! It's sooo good!" She had me at 9 egg yolks. That was all the convincing I needed.

On the way home I stopped by the market and picked up the ingredients I needed to make this Holy Grail of chocolate pies. Standing in the checkout line I flipped through a copy of Saveur, found the recipe and took the time to actually read it. I was immediately hypnotized by the drool-worthy picture of the pie in the magazine and the geniusness of its back-to-basics simplicity. As I read further it became clear this was no ordinary chocolate cream pie. I bought that copy just in case I couldn't find my original at home.

As I made the custard and piled it high into the chocolate shell to chill, I was of course licking the wooden spoon and scraping at the bowl to get every last bit of custard. It was heavenly. It was so dense with rich chocolate flavor and so creamy (undoubtedly from the 9 egg yolks) that I briefly considered skipping dinner all together and going straight to dessert. Needless to say the pie was a huge success at the dinner party. After the first bite, silence fell over the table. After the second bite, one of my guests spoke almost reverently, "OMG! This is the best chocolate cream pie I've ever eaten. This is really good!" I replayed the story of how I wasn't so easily swayed when Beth tried to convince me to make it for dessert. "It just seemed so ordinary," I confessed. Secretly I was a bit embarrassed that I gave her such a hard time. Licking their forks and groaning in pleasure my guests exclaimed, "Are you crazy?! This pie isn't ordinary, it's orgasmic! You HAVE to share this recipe!" Orgasmic indeed.

Turns out the perfect dessert was right there under my nose, it was just buried in a large stack with all my other food magazines and unless that stack toppled over on me, it wasn't about to hit me over the head.

Like Dorothy I just needed a gentle reminder that I'd always had it.

The Best Chocolate Cream Pie I Ever Ate

The title alone should tell you everything you need to know on this one. A crunchy crust and pudding-like filling make this pie a standout. This pie should be well chilled before it’s served.

Serves 8 to 12

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½ -inch cubes and chilled, plus more for pie plate

¼ cup packed dark brown sugar

1 (9 ounce) package Nabisco chocolate wafers, finely ground

3 ½ cups half and half
2⁄3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided

¼ cup cornstarch
9 egg yolks

9 ounces good quality semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

2 ounces good quality unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped

2 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 cups heavy cream

Good quality dark chocolate, shaved, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Grease bottom and sides of a 9-inch glass pie plate with butter; set aside. Heat 8 tablespoons butter and brown sugar in a 1-quart saucepan until sugar dissolves. Transfer butter mixture to a medium bowl; stir in ground wafers. Transfer mixture to pie plate; press into bottom and sides, using the bottom of a measuring cup to compress crust. Refrigerate for 20 minutes. Bake until set, about 15 minutes; let cool.

Heat half and half in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat until it just begins to simmer; remove pan from heat. In a large bowl, whisk together 2⁄3 cup sugar and cornstarch; add egg yolks and whisk until smooth. Drizzle half-and-half into egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly, until smooth. Return mixture to saucepan; heat over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until bubbles rise to the surface and mixture is very thick, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pan from heat and add remaining butter and chocolates in small batches, whisking until smooth; stir in 1½ teaspoons vanilla. Set a sieve over a medium bowl and strain chocolate mixture. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing plastic onto surface to prevent skin from forming; refrigerate until set, about 4 hours.

Remove plastic wrap from chocolate filling and, using a rubber spatula, stir mixture until smooth. Spoon mixture into reserved crust, forming a dome, and smooth surface with the spatula.
In a large bowl, whisk remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, remaining vanilla, and heavy cream until stiff peaks form; spread on top of filling, forming a dome. Using a vegetable peeler, shave some of the dark chocolate onto top of pie. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Orange-Scented Whipped Cream

This cake is something between a soufflé and a dense chocolate brownie.
It's incredibly light and cloud-like. Light in texture mind you, NOT light in calories. In spite of that fact, I've always felt that if you're going to indulge in dessert it should be one that falls somewhere between nirvana and heaven and this cake certainly doesn't disappoint. If indeed there is a heaven, and if I make it there, I want to eat this cake every single day.

Enough said.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Orange-Scented Whipped Cream

Serves 8 to 10

12 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 large eggs, separated
12 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
Zest of an orange, grated
1 large marshmallow, to stabilize* cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line the bottom a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper and set aside. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate and the butter in a double boiler, or even better, in the microwave for about 2 minutes on medium power. Stir until smooth and set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks with 6 tablespoons of the sugar until the mixture is pale yellow and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add vanilla, fold in the melted chocolate and set aside.

Meanwhile, beat the egg whites in another medium bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 6 tablespoons of sugar and beat until medium-firm peaks form. Lighten the chocolate mixture by folding in a third of the eggs whites, then fold the remainder gently into the chocolate mixture, being careful to just incorporate, but not overwork the batter. A few white streaks are okay. Pour into prepared springform pan and bake in the center of the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is puffed and cracked and a tester inserted in the middle comes out with moist crumbs attached. Cool the pan completely on a wire rack, don’t be alarmed when the center sinks in and forms a crater. To release, run a small sharp knife around the the edge of the cake and release the sides of the pan.

To make the orange scented whipped cream, whip the cream and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add the sugar, orange zest and the marshmallow to stabilize. Dollop the cream in the center of the cake and serve in large slices. Pure chocolate bliss!

*To “stabilize” whipped cream, beat as usual and whip in one large marshmallow that has been softened for about 10 seconds in the microwave.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Outrageous Macaroni & Cheese - Aspen Style!

Macaroni and cheese is like pizza. Even when it's not that great, it's still pretty good. But when it's really good, it can be on another level!

My early introduction to macaroni and cheese was humble at best. Like most people, I grew up with the boxed variety that still stocks many a pantry. I honestly didn't know that you could get it any other way. While my Mom made many things from scratch, including bread and cakes, homemade macaroni and cheese just wasn't in her culinary lexicon and I was fine with that. As a kid I hadn't yet learned to appreciate the beauty of quality ingredients made into something from scratch and I certainly wanted nothing to do with macaroni and cheese of the homemade sort. It had to be psychedelic orange powder or nothing! Admittedly in my teen years I experimented with that NASA-like vacuum pack of "cheese sauce" that you squeezed over shell-shaped pasta (don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about!) and it was of great debate between my sister Adrienne and me which was actually the "best" brand of macaroni and cheese. She swore by the NASA-like squeeze packet and I held on stubbornly to the neon Cheeto powder of my childhood. Even at 14-years old I was slightly creeped out by a packet of "cheese sauce" that needed no refrigeration and could undoubtedly outlive me. The expiration date was printed right there on the shiny foil packet and this was at a time when I was still grappling with the incomprehensible idea of partying like it was 1999!

Fast forward to a few years ago on my first visit to Aspen Colorado. I was at Jimmy's Restaurant for the second time that trip and stumbled upon the "Jimmy Mac" on the bar menu. This wasn't just any old macaroni and cheese. This macaroni and cheese had the genius addition of bacon and jalapeño. That was all I needed to read. For me the math is simple: Bacon + Cheese = NIRVANA. I was IN! Needless to say this was some of the best macaroni and cheese I'd ever had the pleasure of eating. Eating? Who am I kidding? More like bowl-licking devouring! It was piping hot, served in a generously sized gratin dish with beautifully browned melted cheese on top and studded with salty bits of crispy bacon and green flecks of jalapeño for kick. The menu lists this delicacy under the category of "Sides to Share." Let me tell you, there wasn't much sharing going on. In fact, I think we ordered more for the table! I literally dreamed about Jimmy Mac that night and returned to Jimmy's a few more times to greedily consume more before my trip was over.

Jimmy shares several of his famous recipes on his restaurant site, including the Jimmy Mac. Before I knew that though, I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen creating my homage to his culinary revelation and I think I've come pretty close. In fact, I think Jimmy would be proud. In a recent Facebook exchange he humbly referred to the Jimmy Mac as a "Reese's Peanut Butter Cup accident that just happened to hit a perfect combo." Perfect indeed, Jimmy.

In fact, it's on another level!

Outrageous Macaroni & Cheese with Bacon & Jalapeno
(My Take on "Jimmy Mac")

Serves 8 to 10

1 pound large elbow macaroni
1 quart whole milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups Gruyere, grated
2 cups extra-sharp aged Cheddar, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2
jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
1 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
Panko Bread Crumbs, for topping

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to package directions. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, being careful not to boil it. Melt the butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Whisk over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to cook out the raw flour taste. While whisking, add the hot milk and bring to a boil, cooking until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, cheddar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in the
jalapeño and bacon and fold in the cooked macaroni. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Top with panko bread crumbs. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is evenly browned on the top.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Baja-Style Fried Fish Tacos

t's threatening to rain again, and weirdly I'm not craving slow cooked stews, or big bowls of chili. All I can think of is summer food, namely Baja-style fried fish tacos. If you've never had a fish taco the way they make them in Baja you don't know what you're missing.

Okay, admittedly I’ve never been to Baja. But taco stands that serve Baja style fish tacos are a staple in Southern California these days. I swear you can almost imagine yourself standing on the beach in San Felipe when you eat these. Served with an icy cold Mexican beer, there is nothing better.

Serves 4


1 cup pale beer

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 pound boned, skinned white fish (cod, catfish, halibut)

24 warm corn tortillas
1/2 head shredded cabbage

Lime wedges


½ cup good mayonnaise
2 tablespoons milk

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder, or to taste

3 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded, finely chopped

1/4 cup small white onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1 jalapeño, seeded, finely chopped

Juice of 2 limes

Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

In a bowl, whisk together flour, salt and cayenne pepper. Whisk in the beer, blending well, making sure there are no lumps. Batter should be the consistency of thick pancake batter. Rinse fish and pat dry. Cut into 2-inch pieces.

Heat a large, heavy bottomed frying pan or Dutch oven with enough vegetable oil to create a 1-inch depth. Heat the oil over high heat to 375 degrees on a deep fry thermometer. Dip fish pieces in beer batter and lift out, draining briefly. Gently slide coated fish into oil, a few pieces at a time. Adjust heat to maintain oil temperature. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Remove fish to a paper towel-lined platter using a slotted spoon or Chinese strainer. Continue until all fish pieces have been fried. To assemble, stack two tortillas in your hand. Add a few pieces of fish, chipotle sauce, pico de gallo and top with shredded cabbage. Spritz with a squeeze of lime, fold in half and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Valentine's Day 101: Heating It Up in the Kitchen! Guys, I'm Talking to You!

Men who cook are like…the new trucker hat!
Remember those? Only, they’re not as likely to go out of style any time soon. So fellas, if you’re the type that follows trends and the only thing you’re used to making for Valentine’s Day dinner is a reservation, pay close attention! I’m only going to say this once. There is nothing sexier than a man who cooks. Did you catch that? There’s no better aphrodisiac than a meal made with your own hands, in your own kitchen for your special someone, or even your sort-of-special-someone. It doesn’t matter if you think you can’t cook. I’ll get to that in a minute with a sort of cooking MapQuest. What you cook doesn’t have to be all fancy-pants and towered high on an oversized white plate with dribbles and dabs of esoteric sauce, garnished with white truffles imported from Italy that cost more than one month’s rent! Don’t be ridiculous. But if you want to score major points in the romance department, get yourself into the sexiest room in the house. No, not that one! The kitchen! You heard me. Now that you’re there, take a look around. You can do more in this room than take a swig from the milk jug or crack open a beer, you know. It’s here that you’ll find everything you need to create the perfect Valentine’s Day dinner.

It’s a well-known fact that no holiday strikes fear into the hearts of men like the one that falls on February 14th. It’s like a romantic landmine. It comes around every year, inevitably, like another birthday you’d like to forget, or tax day. The date seems to leer at you from the calendar, following you like the eyes of a creepy old painting.

Valentine’s Day seems to whip people into a panicked, frenzied search to find love (or at least lust) by the time the bell tolls. Last year, about this time, a female friend called me in a sheer panic. With the 14th fast approaching she was starting to exhibit the signs of delirious desperation. The kind I’d previously seen only in Survivor contestants after 39 days on the island! She was going on and on about not having someone “special” in her life and lamenting that she was going to die all alone. She’s 29. She started wailing on the other end of the line, “Why? Why am I single and everyone else has someone? Why?!” She sounded not unlike Nancy Kerrigan in that infamous knee whacking incident. Clearly this is why caller ID was invented. I think about breaking up with her for a minute and we’re not even dating.

Depending on where you are on the dating/relationship ladder, Valentine’s Day presents a certain conundrum. If you’ve been together for a year or more, you call each other boyfriend/girlfriend or you live together, it’s a no-brainer for you. Skip to the next paragraph. On the other hand, if you’ve only been dating for a few weeks or months, haven’t yet said “I love you,” or still aren’t quite sure how to refer to each other in public, you have to make the perilous decision of exactly what, or what not to do for this expectation filled holiday. Roses are good, albeit a little cliché. If you do opt for roses, do you send the red ones and risk scaring her, or the yellow ones and risk offending her? It’s too much pressure! The answer is simple. Cook her dinner at home! If you think about it, it’s perfect. No pressure to pick the right restaurant or jockeying for a good table. No valet or parking hassles. It’s original, it’s less expensive, it’s more personal, and even if you screw it up completely you’re still a hero because you made the effort. Everyone loves a man who cooks! Worst case scenario: you blow the whole thing, call for take out and crack open that great bottle of wine you were going to serve with dinner.

Now, back to that “but I can’t cook” thing you’ve been telling yourself for so long. Relax! I’m here to help you. If you fall into the majority of the XY-chromosome set, most of your meals probably come in take-out containers or are heated in a microwave. Not the best way to impress your date. There’s a saying: “If you know you’re going to get wet, you may as well go swimming.” Good advice and if you’re with me on this culinary journey so far, you’re gonna have to take the plunge. The first step is deciding on a menu. You’re in luck because I’ve done the work for you. I’m going to walk you through a meal that’s as simple to prepare as it is elegant to serve. It’s an updated riff on classic steak house fare. If your date has a moral issue with red meat, simply remind her of this axiom, “If God didn’t want you to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made them out of meat.” If that doesn’t work, dump her. The second step is making yourself a detailed list before you head off to the grocery store. That way you don’t get distracted and end up falling back on items that require a microwave as their primary cooking method. The third step is to get organized. Set the table in advance, don’t forget those well placed candles, and read the recipes all the way through before you start cooking to make sure you have everything you need. I know this whole cooking thing may be unfamiliar territory, but don’t let that deter you. If you follow this simple game plan and simple recipes, you’ll end up looking like a very sexy, very romantic, culinary rock star. Minus the trucker hat of course.


White Cosmopollitan

Warm Spinach Salad with Red Grapes & Pancetta

Pan Seared Filet Mignon with Blackberry Cabernet Sauce

Mashed Potatoes with Chives

Roasted Asparagus

No-Bake Chocolate Pot de Creme

1 day ahead: Make the Chocolate Pot de Crème and the Blackberry Cabernet Sauce. Clean and trim the asparagus.

2 hours ahead: Prep the ingredients for the spinach salad and have everything ready to go.

1 hour ahead: Make the mashed potatoes. Keep warm in a heat-proof bowl, covered with foil over a pot of gently simmering water. Open bottle of wine.

20 minutes before dinner: Start searing the steaks, drizzle the asparagus with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Start the music. Light the candles. Shake up 2 White Cosmos.

10 minutes before dinner: As the steaks are resting put the asparagus into the oven to roast. Gently reheat the Blackberry Cabernet sauce. Make the warm dressing for the salad.

The moment of truth: Draw the curtains, toast your special somebody and just remember, I told you so. Happy Valentine’s Day!

White Cosmopolitan

This is a fun twist on the Cosmopolitan, or “Cosmo” as the cool people call it. I use Rose’s Sweetened Lime juice in this recipe. If you prefer your drink less sweet and more tart, feel free to use the same amount of fresh

Serves 1

3 ounces good vodka
3 ounces white cranberry juice
1 1/2 ounces Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice
1 1/2 ounces Triple Sec
Fresh raspberries, for garnish

Pour the vodka, cranberry juice, Rose’s lime and the Triple Sec into a cocktail shaker. Tumble in a handful of ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass and float a raspberry on top.

Warm Spinach Salad with Red Grapes & Pancetta

This salad, with its Italian pancetta, pine nuts and red grapes, is perfect for a romantic dinner. The only thing to remember here, and it’s not a big deal, the salad must be tossed with the dressing at the absolute last minute before serving. Having said that, the dressing only takes a few minutes and the ingredients can be prepped well in advance.

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 pound baby spinach leaves, cleaned & drained
1/2 cup pancetta, cubed
1/4 cup raw pine nuts
1/2 cup red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup seedless red grapes, halved
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese shavings

Place the spinach in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, cook the pancetta in a medium saute pan over medium heat until just starting to crisp. Remove the pancetta from the pan and drain on a paper towel. Don’t drain the fat from the pan! Add the pine nuts and cook for about 1 minute, until they begin to toast. Add the onion and the grapes to the pan, cook 1 minute more. Pour the dressing into the pan and bring to the boil for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and pour over the spinach. Toss well, garnish with Parmesan cheese shavings.

Pan-Seared Filet Mignon with Blackberry Cabernet Sauce

There are those who would argue a good steak needs no adornment and I tend to agree. But, this sauce is sophisticated and unexpected. All I can say is, give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.

4 (8ounce) filet mignon steaks
2 tablespoons good olive oil
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2/3 cup beef stock
2/3 Cabernet Sauvignon
3 tablespoons seedless blackberry preserves
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
A handful of fresh blackberries, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Pat the steaks dry with a paper towel and season generously with salt and pepper. In a heavy, ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Sear the steaks, on 1 side only, for 2 minutes until the meat begins to caramelize. Resist the urge to touch or poke at the meat so that caramelization actually has the chance to occur. You want your steaks to have that perfect contrast in texture, seared and crusty on one side, tender and juicy on the other. Without flipping the steak, transfer the pan to the oven and roast for about 7 minutes for medium rare (or when a meat thermometer registers 135 degrees.)

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine beef stock, Cabernet Sauvignon and blackberry preserves. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and allow the mixture to reduce by half. The sauce is ready when it becomes slightly thick and syrupy and can coat the back of a spoon. Season with pepper, but taste before adding any salt because canned stocks and broths tend to be a bit salty. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.

When the steaks are done, remove from the oven and allow them to rest loosely tented under a piece of aluminum foil for about 5 minutes. To serve, drizzle the blackberry cabernet sauce over the steaks, scatter a few blackberries on the plate and unleash the carnivore within.

Mashed Potatoes with Chives

I know it seems weird to give a recipe for mashed potatoes but there are as many ways to make them as there are to peel them. Speaking of which, I don’t peel mine. Partly out of laziness, but mostly because I love the flavor and rustic texture the skins give. I mash these by hand with an old-fashioned potato masher, just like grandma used.

Serves 2

Kosher salt for potato water
4 large Yukon Gold potatoes
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, or to taste
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
¼ cup chopped chives

Scrub the potatoes and cut into rough and tumble chunks. The idea is to cut everything roughly the same size so they cook at the same time. Place in a large stock pot or Dutch oven and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and generously salt the water. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until fork tender. Drain the potatoes and tumble into a large bowl. Add butter, a generous scoop of sour cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Mash the potatoes to desired texture with a potato masher. Stir in the chives and adjust seasonings if necessary.

Roasted Asparagus

If you’ve never tried roasted vegetables here’s your chance. You’ll never want to eat them any other way.

Serves 2

1 bunch of asparagus
Good olive oil, for drizzling
Kosher salt & freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Wash asparagus and pat dry with paper towels. Trim the woody ends and place asparagus in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 8 to 10 minutes until crisp-tender. Serve immediately.

No-Bake Chocolate Pot de Creme

This dessert is as easy as instant pudding, but so much more sophisticated. The recipe makes enough for 4, technically. But then we’re treading dangerously close to “dainty portions” territory. I usually opt for elegant coffee cups, in which case you end up with two reasonably generous portions. I’ll leave it up to you.

Serves 2 (see above)

2/3 cup whole milk
1 egg
Pinch of kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 ounces good quality semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup lightly sweetened whipped cream, for garnish
Fresh raspberries, for garnish

Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until just below boiling. In a blender combine egg, salt, sugar, vanilla and chocolate until smooth. With the blender running, carefully pour in the hot milk and process until smooth. Pour the chocolate mixture into the serving cups, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving. Top with whipped cream and garnish with a few raspberries before serving.