Sunday, November 27, 2005

Cheese Fondue

I remember my mother having a fondue set back in the 70s; I don't actually remember eating fondue, but I'm sure we did. As an adult, I would eat fondue at my Swiss friends' apartment in New York and when I would travel to Switzerland for work (luckily for me, it happened quite often). I haven't had it in a year or so, but for some reason I started thinking about it. It's coming back into vogue here in the States so I must've seen an article somewhere.

But before I could make it, I had to have a pot to make it in. I looked at other food blogs, on the cooking supply web sites and queried my Swiss friends. After some research, I bought a Le Creuset pot. My reasons? I love my Le Creuset cookware; it's never done me wrong. I wanted something that could go from stovetop to burner-top. And I wanted something smaller; it's just my husband and me at home and we don't entertain a lot, so getting a four+ quart fondue pot didn't make much sense.

Next I needed a recipe. I went back to my Swiss friends who supplied me with a recipe and some fondue trivia - whoever loses their bread in the fondue pot has to kiss their table partner, etc. I found a recipe on Epicurious too, the original Gourmet magazine recipe from 1966, plus some helpful hints from the Epicurious readers' comments. I love that feature of the Epicurious site; readers can comment directly to the recipe page (just like a blog), and even better, users can mark which comments they'd like to have printed along with the recipe itself. Very useful. So here's what my recipe ultimately looked like:

1 garlic clove, halved
8 oz Gruyere, grated
8 oz Emmenthaler, grated
1 T cornstarch (maybe a little more)
10 oz dry white wine (not vermouth)
3 oz kirsch
1 t nutmeg
One day-old baguette or other crusty bread, cut into inch cubes. If you only have fresh bread, cut it into cubes, spread the cubes on a cookie sheet and put it in a 200-degree oven to dry out.

Rub the inside of the fondue pot with the garlic halves and leave the garlic in the pot. Grate the cheese, then put it all in a gallon-sized zipper bag along with the cornstarch. Shake it up so the cornstarch is evenly distributed amongst the cheese. Heat the wine in the fondue pot on the stovetop, then add the cheese just before the wine boils. Lower the heat to medium and add the cheese a bit at a time, stirring in a zig-zag motion, not in a circular motion (this apparently keeps the cheese from balling up, a very big fondue faux pas). Once all the cheese is in, keep stirring; the cheese should be bubbling happily along but don't let it get too happy or it will start to burn. Add the kirsch and stir it for another five minutes or so, until it's thick and creamy. Stir in nutmeg.

Light the fondue burner and move the pot from the stove to the fondue stand. Spear a piece of bread with the fondue fork, stick it in the cheese, stir it around, pull it out, eat it. Repeat repeatedly.

This recipe is too much for two (we couldn't eat it all). It might be enough for four if a salad was served ahead of time. Next time, I'll cut the recipe by a third for the two of us.

Some fondue etiquette:
Always stir the cheese when you put your forked bread in the pot; it helps keep the mixture smooth.
Never eat your cheese directly from your fondue fork then stick it back into the cheese - not nice for the other eaters (unless you're all family or friendly enough that no one cares, or unless everyone has had enough wine not to care).
Drink white wine or hot black tea with cheese fondue. One Swiss friend swears you'll go to the hospital if you drink anything else.

Thanksgiving at the Federalist

We have no-travel rules in effect over Thanksgiving and other holiday weekends; the airports are zoos, the trains are so crowded one can hardly breathe and the roads are a nightmare, especially up here in the Northeast corridor. We will drive if it's not too far (say to our niece's or nephew's houses in Maine or New Hampshire), but on Thanksgiving, we've found we like to walk, especially if we are walking to a very nice restaurant to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner someone else has cooked!

Last year and this, we went to the Federalist at the Fifteen Beacon Hotel (the site is pretty but content-starved; I don't know how an independent hotel survives these days without decent website content). There are plenty of reviews of it online, so I won't go on about it. It's a top restaurant in Zagat, and a great one in our opinion.

The restaurant had a three-course prix-fixe menu, including soups and shellfish for appetizers, turkey (of course) and seafood for entrees, and desserts like pumpkin creme brulee and pecan pie. My husband chose the traditional route (sort of), having Maine diver scallops as an appetizer, turkey and trimmings as his entree and the pumpkin creme brulee as his dessert. I chose a truly yummy celery root soup as my appetizer, duck leg confit and roasted breast with root vegetables in a pinot noir sauce as my entree and pecan pie for dessert.

One of my favorite things about this restaurant is the room; dark, rich wooden paneling, high molded ceilings (white with dark wood) and high windows with dark brown wooden blinds. A banquette runs around the room that's well-upholstered and bouncy, and they have the requisite white linen tablecloths and napkins. The effect is one of rich coziness; sitting on the banquette having a glass of champagne on a holiday is the nicest feeling.

Our reservation was for 2:00pm, so we were able to sleep in, have a lazy morning, then get all dressed up (suit and tie, skirt and blouse) to walk over. From our place, it's a quick walk unless one has high-heeled boots on, then it takes a bit longer, especially in the snow. This was not a fast meal; we weren't home until maybe 5ish. And no supper later on, just a movie and a glass of water!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Polenta is Yankee for Grits!

I could eat polenta every day. Really. Especially now when the New England winter is settling in (snow on Thanksgiving!). It's savory and hearty and comforting, especially cooked in milk.

I found a nice baked polenta recipe with tomato sauce that's good with everything from chicken to steak. Heat some milk, salt and butter in a pan. Just when the butter is melted, slowly stir in the cornmeal. I prefer a whisk to quickly distribute the cornmeal so it doesn't clump but I understand there's some cult out there that dictates polenta must be cooked with a wooden spoon. Whatever.

Bring the pot to a simmer, then turn the heat to low (you still need a few bubbles), and stir until it gets nice and thick. Stir in two egg yolks and grated parmesan nice and easy. Tip the polenta into a greased baking pan or a baking pan lined with plastic wrap with extra hanging over the sides. Let it cool, then cover the polenta and refrigerate until the polenta is firm (I usually do this a day or two ahead).

Whenever you're ready to eat it, turn the polenta out of the pan and onto a board. Cut the polenta into squares and put them back into the original baking pan, but overlap them so the squares are leaning on each other (the better to expose more surface to the heat). Brush them with olive oil, sprinkle with some Parmesan and bake until the squares are a nice golden color. You don't have to use the whole recipe in this step; I usually just cut four pieces for the two of us, then wrap up the rest, put it back in the fridge and use a different baking pan. It will keep for several days. Now top the puffy squares with your favorite tomato sauce or even just serve them as is.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Butternut Squash with Red Grapes and Sage

Early winter in New England and we're awash in squash. They're overrunning the produce aisles, not to mention my pantry shelf. Butternut squash is easy enough to cook (peel, seed and chop into cubes, toss with some oil and roast until tender) but a little bland on its own. So I went Googling and found this really interesting combination on Epicurious.

Peel, seed and chop the squash and put it in a big mixing bowl. Add red seedless grapes (nice and firm, no mushy ones), an onion chopped into big pieces and lots of chopped fresh sage. Drizzle with a combination of oil and melted butter, season with lots of salt and pepper and mix it up well. Pour it into a big roasting pan and roast for about a half hour at 425 degrees, stirring once or twice.

Garnish with toasted pine nuts. I was going to omit this, but I had some pine nuts in the pantry and they really added a nice crunchy tangy element to the sweet squash and grapes. I served this with broiled veal rib chops for a very nice dinner.


You might well ask "you live in Boston, what took you so long?" and I don't know what I would answer. Laziness? Hardly, especially since I'm a 10-minute walk from a venerable Boston wholesale/retail seafood establishment, James Hook & Co. Dislike of mussels? Not likely, given how I slurp them down when we order them out. Fear of the unknown? Maybe a little of that. I ate shrimp, crawfish and oysters home in the South; lobsters and mussels were unknown to me.

But it was time, and I found an enticing recipe in the Boston Globe. They don't have the best food section but every now and again they'll have something worth reading. This recipe has a tomato-based broth and it had andouille sausage in it, and I've never met a sausage I didn't like. Chop some onion, press some garlic, cut the andouille into inch-sized pieces, put it all in a Dutch oven and add some canned diced tomatoes, salt, pepper and some olive oil. Mix very well. Roast for 15 minutes at 425, stirring once. Transfer the Dutch oven to the stovetop, and add some wine to make a nice sauce. Bring it to a boil, then add the mussels and cover the pan, shaking it every so often. After six minutes or so, the mussels should be open (you know the rule; throw away any that aren't), then spoon some of the sauce and mussels into bowls and serve with good bread and big wine like a cotes du rhone. What took me so long?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Sausage and Kale Soup courtesy of Williams-Sonoma

Chicken sausage is a recent find of mine, and I'm just enamoured (sp?) of it. I especially like it in soups, and of course I still have some kale to use, so when I saw this recipe in the Williams-Sonoma Christmas catalog, I decided to try it. I love those catalogs; the photography is lovely and they always have interesting-sounding recipes, but I'd never tried one.

So I tried this one, and it wasn't bad. There were the usual suspects - onion, garlic, carrots, celery, leeks, thyme, chicken stock - plus some vermouth reduced by half, kale, chicken sausage and white beans. Chop up the vegetables (except the kale) and soften them up in a Dutch oven. Reduce a cup of wine by half and add to six cups of chicken stock in a large stockpot. Add the beans to the stockpot, then puree the beans. Bring the liquid up to a low simmer while the vegetables are softening. Broil the sausage, then slice it up. Add the liquid to the vegetables and let it simmer for 20 minutes, then add the sausage and kale (cleaned and torn into pieces) and simmer for another 10 minutes. Top with some Parmesan and serve with a nice crusty bread. Pretty good stuff for a catalog.

No More Farm Share

Our farm share is over for the season as of November 1, and I have to say I'm of two minds about it. On one hand, the tyranny of the vegetables is over (not to mention the trip out to the Allston/Cambridge line). I was getting a little sick of having my menus dictated by Mother Nature; I've got one more recipe's worth of kale I've got to do something with, and I've got five bulbs of celeriac in the fridge I have absolutely no idea what to do with.

On the other hand, I went shopping at Whole Foods this weekend and browsed the produce section, just for reorientation purposes. I saw anemic green beans, tired lettuces and pitted peppers. Gone are the vibrant colors and lucious smells of just-from-the-farm veggies. The prices sent me and my cart careening right out of there! Looks like it will be a long and expensive winter.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Best Roasted Potatoes

I give all credit to Nigel Slater for these - they are so, so good. For each person, buy a medium sized waxy potato, like a Yukon Gold. Peel them, then cut them up into two-bite pieces. Put them in a pan of cold water, bring it to a boil, salt it then reduce the heat and let them simmer for five minutes. Drain the water, leaving the potatoes in pan. Then shake-shake-shake the pan, roughing up the potato surfaces. Put them into a roasting pan with a layer of fat (just a skim, not too much) on the bottom - I use olive oil, which I'll augment with meat fat if I have any on hand - and stir the potatoes so they're coated. Cook them in a 395-degree oven for 45 minutes, stirring the potatoes every fifteen minutes. Sprinkle them with salt when they're done, serve and keep your hands out of the way!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fresh Brussel Sprouts - Who Knew?

In our farm share last week and this, we got big stalks of brussel sprouts. Yuck, you may say, and that's what I said too. But I couldn't hide from them forever (plus they were taking up way too much room in the fridge), so I pulled out my vegetable cookbook to see what to do with them.

With a sharp paring knife, I sliced them off the stalk, then I trimmed the ends and got rid of any yucky leaves. It's amazing how much they look like little cabbage heads. Then I rinsed them a couple of times in salt water (to kill any hidden critters) then a couple of times in fresh water (to get rid of the salt). I set some water to boil and once it was at a boil, I added the brussel sprouts. After six minutes, I turned off the heat and drained them.

While they were cooking, I melted two ounces of blue cheese in about a 1/4 cup of heavy cream with a splash of vermouth, and whisked it until it was blended and a little bubbly and reduced a bit.

I read in my cookbook that halving the sprouts would be a good thing if you were going to serve them with a sauce, so my good husband took knife and tongs in hand to cut the little hot sprouts in half. There has to be any easier way, but it seemed to me that if I cut them in half first then cooked them they'd cook really fast and probably lose their shape.

The end result was great! They were sweet and crunchy and just yummy. I know, I know, they had a cheese sauce on them but they weren't swimming in it. I served them with broiled boneless chicken breast (I spooned some of the sauce over them too) and twice baked potatoes with blue cheese in them. Another successful dinner. And quick too. Who knew?