Time for a Party!

My husband and I look forward each spring to celebrating graduation at Amherst College. We host a party for my spouse’s students, and make it a family affair by inviting the moms, dads, siblings, and grandparents of the honorees. This year was a particularly large group with almost fifty people at our home last Saturday for champagne and appetizers.

I set out a buffet that included smoked salmon with lemon crème fraîche, a tray of cheeses garnished with fresh cherries and sage, and roasted asparagus spears with a gribiche sauce (mayo with chopped hard boiled eggs, mustard and chives). Skewers of cantaloupe marinated in Pernod and mint, plus a savory Mexican cheesecake (scented with cumin and chili) served with yellow and blue tortilla chips rounded out the menu. But, it was a simple passed hors d’oeuvre for Manchego, Tomato, and Avocado Toasts that garnered the most attention. Continue reading

That Divine French Sauce, Beurre Blanc, Stars in a Spring Meal

Scallops, Asparagus, Beurre Blanc 2 4032x3024This past week I taught two hands-on classes titled Paris Spring Cooking. The menu included artichoke soup, scallops with asparagus and peas napped with beurre blanc, and as sides a watercress and orange salad, and crispy rice cakes with Comté cheese. By far the technique that interested my students most was that of making the celebrated French sauce known as beurre blanc.

Beurre blanc (or white butter) is one of the simplest of France’s sauces, yet many cooks have never prepared it. It consists of two simple steps. First you add minced shallots, wine, and vinegar to a good sturdy saucepan. Then, cook the mixture until almost all of the liquid has evaporated. For the second step, you whisk in a tablespoon of cream and begin adding small pieces of softened butter while whisking vigorously. The trick is to never let the butter melt completely, but rather keep it at a sauce-like consistency. When all the butter has been incorporated, the sauce can be transferred in its saucepan to a skillet of warm water to keep it from solidifying. Continue reading

A Fabulous Dish for my Vegetarian Friends

Rice with Peas, Mint, and Pecorino 1 4032x3024Far more than in the past, I find myself considering my friends’ eating habits when we entertain. Are you gluten-free? Do you eat sugar? Are you vegetarian? are questions I ask routinely. And the most resounding “ yes” I hear is to the last of these. Always deferential, my vegetable-loving pals respond that they don’t expect a special meal, that they’ll be fine enjoying salad and side dishes at dinner. But what fun is that for them! It’s like being invited to the theatre, and saying I’ll be okay seeing only the 2nd and 3rd acts. So, I am always searching for delicious vegetarian main courses to share with my expanding circle of discriminating guests.

Rice with peas, fresh mint, and Pecorino will not disappoint. Here is a beautiful spring entrée prepared with easy- to-find ingredients that is uncomplicated to assemble. You start by making a quick “pea pesto” pureeing peas (fresh or frozen) with pine nuts, mint, and Pecorino.The intensely flavored mixture is then tossed with warm cooked rice. Continue reading

Spring Salad with a Delicious Za’atar Dressing

Spring Greeens with Za'tar Dressing 1 4032x3024Za’atar refers to a plant whose leaves have been used in cooking since ancient times in the Middle East, but it is also the name for a very popular spice mix used throughout that part of the world. A fragrant blend of dried herbs, often including thyme and oregano, as well as sesame seeds and sumac (a spice with a tangy lemon taste made from ground berries), za’atar adds a robust flavor to many dishes. Rub it on grilled meats or chicken, or sprinkle it over yogurt or hummus. Or use it in a delicious dressing for a spring salad like the one that my friend Joy Howard created.

I first spotted this dressing on Joy’s Instagram feed, and immediately wanted to try it. Instead of using dried herbs she chops fresh thyme and oregano, then combines them with sumac, sesame seeds, and garlic. Mixed with lemon juice and olive oil, the za’atar quickly becomes a dressing. For this salad, soft, tender greens work best. You toss them Continue reading

A Delicious Pizza for Warming Spring Days

This week in the supermarket, I had a eureka moment while standing in front of a display of sleek, slim bundles of asparagus. Why not turn the tempting spears into a topping for pizza instead of using them as a side dish or tossing them with strands of cooked pasta– my usual methods of cooking this spring vegetable.

Within minutes, I had a plan. At the cheese counter I chose a piece of Taleggio, a soft creamy Italian cheese that melts beautifully. A package of those sweet little cippolini onions beckoned as well, especially since they were being sold peeled. To round out the toppings, I decided on brown (cremini) mushrooms. Continue reading

What’s a Cook to Serve in Unpredictable Weather

Spring is officially underway, but New England hasn’t gotten the memo. Temperatures here recently climbed to 70, accompanied by clear, blue skies, and then fell suddenly to the 20s with a daylong snowfall. Each morning this week I’ve checked the weather even before my texts and email (a first!), debating what to wear. And, of course, I wonder what to cook! For a small dinner we hosted for out-of- town friends this weekend, I spent as much time planning the menu as preparing it. In the end the night’s dishes reflected this transitional time of year, satisfying yearnings for both cold and warm weather fare.

Our opener—gnocchi alla romana with roasted asparagus–was a good example.
The gnocchi, assembled Roman style with farina rather than potatoes, are enriched with Parmesan and butter, cut into rounds, and then baked. Served piping hot atop bundles of asparagus, they seemed to welcome spring and acknowledge winter at the same time. Continue reading

Voting for Spatchcocked Roast Chicken for Easter Dinner

My son loves to host our family’s Easter dinner, but he waits until only days before to decide on the menu. Typically, he calls, pondering choices, aloud with me on the phone. Our conversation this year went like this. Should he serve traditional leg of lamb–no, he exclaims the kids (the 11 and 13 year old) and his wife are not big fans! Baked ham–scratch that since we had it last year! Roast beef tenderloin–oops that was our Christmas main course. Finally, I offer a suggestion. What about spatchcocked roast chicken? After a long pause, he requests the recipe!

Earlier this month I taught a cooking class in which students learned to master the simple technique of spatchcocking a whole chicken. You remove the backbone with a pair of kitchen shears and then open the chicken out like a book and press down on the breast to flatten it. Prepared this way, the chicken cooks more quickly and evenly, a big advantage on a day like Easter Sunday. Continue reading

When the Side Dish is the Star

Broccoli Potato Puree from Paris 1 3718x2885When I am eating out, iIt’s not often that I pay more attention to a side dish than to the main course or dessert. But, during our last week in Paris this January that is exactly what happened. At the left bank Café Varenne on rue du Bac, I ordered a roasted bass with a broccoli and potato puree. It was the fish on the menu that had sounded so delicious, but it was the simple vegetable garnish that grabbed my attention.

The light green puree flecked with bits of verdant broccoli was smooth, light, and perfectly seasoned. When our waiter passed by later, I didn’t waste time asking him how it was prepared. He explained that both cooked yellow-fleshed potatoes and broccoli florets were puréed, and then enriched with a modest amount (for the French!) of crème fraîche and butter. Très facile, I thought! Continue reading

Soup and Salad for a Literary Lunch

Last weekend Amherst College hosted a debut literary festival, called LitFest, and invited a roster of notable authors to speak to the college and the community. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies and Angela Flournoy, who wrote Turner House, both 2015 National Book Awards finalists in fiction, discussed how they crafted their books. Stacy Schiff, Putlizer prize- winner, and author most recently of The Witches, and Mark Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down, shared their experiences writing nonfiction. Since Stacy was a good friend, we invited her for a quick Saturday lunch during the festival.

I knew the meal had to be simple and made in advance, so I chose a soup and salad menu. As the centerpiece I decided on a cream of celery root soup paired with an arugula salad with lemon and shallot dressing. A dark chocolate hazelnut torte ended our lunch.

Continue reading

Popcorn Possibilities for Oscar Night!

Oscar Popcorn 1For as long as I can remember (since I was 9 and was allowed to stay up past my bedtime!), I’ve been in front of the television on Oscar night!. And when the 88th Academy Awards Show gets underway this Sunday, I plan to continue the tradition. From the red-carpet segment to the sign-off several hours later, I’ll be glued to the screen and cheering for my favorites. Even though critics seem to be favoring “The Revenant,” either “Spotlight” or “The Big Short” are my choices for best picture.

No Oscar night would be complete without popcorn. Can you imagine watching the awards without a bowl of America’s favorite movie food at your side? If you want to get creative with those popped kernels, here are a few easy and tempting ways to season them.

  1. Melted unsalted butter, finely grated Parmesan, and sea salt
  2. Melted unsalted butter, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper
  3. Olive oil, crushed dried rosemary, and sea salt
  4. Truffle oil (this is a slight extravagance, but so good!) and sea salt

Use as much or as little of the ingredients as you like, tossing the popcorn until you are pleased with the balance of flavors.

If you want a printable ballot to compare your choices to the Academy’s you’ll find one here.