Unfussy Fare

Caviar Spread

caviar-spread

My mother made this caviar spread for special occassions. For me, the taste is laden with memories of holiday parties in my 1970’s childhood. I loved the preparations even more than I loved the parties. There was a flurry of housecleaning. We dusted off of the good glasses and mixed big bowls of spiked punch. We ironed tablecloths. The house sparkled, and the adults were gregarious and cheery. Maybe it was the spiked punch. Regardless, the caviar spread was always a hit. There were many requests for the recipe, which I dutifully wrote out, because we didn’t have home computers in the olden days.

This seventies cocktail-party fare has stood the test of time. I still get requests for this recipe, although now I just email it. Even people squeamish about eating fish eggs come back for seconds, as the caviar is tempered with a grassy hit of parsley, the tang of green onion, and the finger-licking richness of cream cheese, mayonnaise, and chopped egg. I serve it with Triscuits, but that’s just a nod to childhood tradition. Any cracker you fancy would be fine. If you do choose Triscuits, I’d go with the low-salt variety. The caviar has salt enough. Sparkling white wine is the perfect accompaniment.  I guess there’s a reason people serve champagne with caviar. I feel festive just thinking about it.

CAVIAR SPREAD
Makes a 9-inch pie-pan full, which is A LOT. Unless I’m making it for a big party, I make a half recipe in a smaller dish.

11 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
¾ cup mayonnaise
6 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
4 ounces caviar (I wouldn’t besmirch your fine caviar with all this other stuff. The grocery store variety is fine.)
3 hardboiled eggs, chopped
½ cup finely chopped parsley

Blend cream cheese and mayonnaise with food processor or a mixer.

Fold in chopped green onions.

Spread mixture evenly into the bottom of a nine-inch pie plate.

Put the caviar on top of the mayo mixture by the spoonful, then spread the spoonfuls gently with a butter knife to form a thin, even layer of caviar.

Sprinkle chopped eggs evenly over the top of the caviar.

Sprinkle chopped parsley evenly over eggs.

Serve chilled, with crackers.


Chocolate Almond Torte

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I am the edgy one in my family. The moody one. The one most likely to say something caustic and regrettable. Somehow I managed to marry a kind and reasonable man. We went on to have a kind and reasonable son. Even our dog, Edna, is kind and reasonable. In my dark and snarky moments, they all three look at me with good-hearted concern, wondering how they can help. It’s infuriating.

On a good day I like to think I just have a lively temperament. My prickly side is balanced by a sense of humor and boundless loyalty and affection. On a bad day, I think I’m a nasty little troll, profoundly undeserving of the gentle sweetness that surrounds me. Regardless of how I feel about it, it seems I’m stuck with myself.

Fortunately, my family raises the bar on my behavior. Tenderness towards them inspires me, increasingly, to zip my mouth when I’m in a mood. (Um, I haven”t perfected that part just yet…) I’ve also learned that energy gets barbed without an outlet, and I have deep reserviors of energy. Cooking gives that energy something to do with itself. Chopping, washing, stirring, and sifting have a calming effect on me.

We all have to eat. That’s one impetus for cooking. Then there’s my endless fascination with the flavors and textures and colors of food. But the real driving force behind my cooking is love. Obviously, I get to eat the goodies, too. My motives aren’t all altruistic. Still, it”s safe to say that preparing food makes me a nicer person.

Cooking doesn’t make me any less mercurial, but it can be a balm. Each meal is a small, daily gesture of thanks for all the love and forbearance.  Even Edna wins. I offer her little bites, which she takes gently from my hand.

So there you have it. I’m not the sweetest person in the world, or even in my house. But I try to make amends. Can I offer you some cake? This rustic torte is a pure and simple homage to chocolate and almonds. It’s nothing but nuts and chocolate gently held together with sugar, egg whites, and air. It’s nubby, light, and altogether spectacular. The recipe was adapted from one in Pure Dessert, by Alice Medrich.

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CHOCOLATE-ALMOND TORTE
12 servings

1 cup (5 ounces) unsalted, unblanched whole almonds.
7 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, broken into big pieces (no need to chop)
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 large egg whites (about one cup), room temperature

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a nine-inch springform cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Combine the almonds, chocolate, ½ cup of sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse until the almonds and chocolate are very finely chopped but not completely pulverized. Set aside.

Beat egg whites with remaining ¼ cup sugar until stiff peaks form when the beaters are lifted.

Gently fold one third of the nut mixture into the egg whites until just incorporated. Repeat with another third of the nut mixture, then once more with the last third.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, or with just a little melted chocolate, about 30-35 minutes.

Cool cake completely and remove from pan. Cover or wrap tightly, and store for up to 3 days at room temperature. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

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Spiced Nuts

spiced-nuts

Nuts. That’s what I was thinking about last night as I lay with my son in his darkened room, waiting for sleep to overtake him. Specifically, spiced nuts, and how I’d never made them, and what was I waiting for? The mind-chatter went something like this: “What was that recipe I came across recently? Nuts from some restaurant in New York. Times Square nuts? Union Station nuts? There was rosemary involved, I remember that much. Google. I need Google. But first I need to be still for a few more minutes. Just be still. Breathe. He’s falling asleep. He’s close.”

I lie down with our five-year-old every night. It’s sometimes a challenge. Stillness doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s very dark in his room. We squeeze into his twin bed. Above us the ceiling sports glow-in-the-dark star stickers and seven plastic planets dangling from thumbtacks and fishing line. (Some planets have fallen. Jupiter glows under the bed. Mars is downstairs somewhere. Pluto holds fast, though I’m told it’s been downgraded from planetary status.)

We listen to Gregorian chants. (Strange, I know. But it’s been his bedtime music pick since he was old enough to say “monks.”) The music is unearthly and hypnotic. My squirmy, chatty boy grows quiet, and increasingly still. My ceaseless mind-chatter also slows, and sometimes even stops. In time we breathe in gentle unison, holding hands, my cheek to his forehead. I lie still for a while after he drifts off.  I have the sensation of floating in timeless darkness, buoyed by my child’s warmth, and the swell and ebb of the monks’ sublime harmonies. It’s pure. And fleeting.

If I were a yogi, or even just a calmer person, I imagine I would abide in that perfect moment for a good long while each night. But my mind is an unruly jungle, and it doesn’t take long for the tendrils of a thousand distractions to start tugging at my attention. (The dinner dishes aren’t finished. The dog needs a walk. I brought some work home. I should write a blog post. A glass of wine and a TV show would be nice, etc.) And so it went last night. Within minutes of my nightly moment of profound peace, my monkey-mind and I popped up and googled “spiced nuts with rosemary.”

The recipe comes from the Union Square Café in New York. I found them too salty for my money, so the recipe below reflects my personal preference for less salt and more heat. The fragrance of the rosemary makes these a standout. That, and the whole hot/sweet/salt/fat thing, which can’t be beat. Oh, and the unfussiness factor is high, which is another plus. You can make these in under fifteen minutes, start to finish. I recommend making them for parties or gifts, unless you want to consume five thousand calories all by yourself. Go ahead and print off copies of the recipe, because everyone will want it.

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SPICED NUTS

1 pound unsalted nuts (I used hazelnuts, pecans, and almonds.)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
3/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread nuts on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 8-10 minutes, until nuts are starting to brown.

Mix warm nuts with all the other ingredients and stir.


Cranberry Chutney

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Condiments are proof that life is good. They are the unsung heroes that add sparkle and zest, or crunch and color. They can elevate a one-note food to an elegant string quartet. The magical powers of condiments give me enduring hope. After all, the condiment and whatever it enhances add up to more than sum of their parts. Each alone? Not so much. But together? Much! You see?  The potential sits latent in our refrigerators and pantries. All we need to do is break out (or concoct) the right condiment, and we can generate goodness where there was none before. Condiments are like optimism in a bottle.

I come by my love of condiments honestly. My mother carried a bottle of Tabasco around with her always. It nestled with her calendar, wallet, and makeup in the giant Coach bag she was never without. When she was out and about, and ordered food that turned out to be boring, she would dive into that whale-sized bag, come up with the familiar red-capped bottle, give it a few shakes, and sprinkle some life onto her ho-hum fare.

To my way of thinking, lots of foods are pretty much just vehicles for condiments. Consider the hot dog. The corn chip. The Thanksgiving turkey. Gasp! Blasphemy, I know. Don”t get me wrong. Turkey is okay. But it’s the piles of side dishes and splashes of condiment encircling the bird that keep me coming back. Isn’t it really the gravy that makes the turkey worth eating? Or is it the cranberry chutney?

You can make this chutney a week in advance. And hey, Thanksgiving is next week! The chutney gets better the longer it sits. It’s quick. It’s easy. It screams magenta. That’s a lot of fine qualities for a condiment to have, right? Best of all, this chutney packs a three-ring circus of flavor. The cranberries are their shockingly tart red selves. The onions remain unapologetically oniony. But together they are tamed and enriched by a perfect complement of vinegar, sugar, ginger, chili flakes, and garlic.

Cranberry chutney adds some dazzle to pork or poultry. It also makes a festive appetizer dolloped on a cracker with cream cheese. And though I haven’t tested this yet, I suspect it will make an ordinary leftover turkey sandwich into yet another heartening reminder of life’s potential for goodness.

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CRANBERRY CHUTNEY – inspired by this recipe in Gourmet
makes about two cups

1 tablespoon olive oil
5 ounces shallots (about two whole medium-sized shallots), peeled and sliced thinly
½ teaspoon chili flakes
12 ounces fresh cranberries
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 ½ teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan.

Add shallots and chili flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are very soft, about fifteen minutes.

Add all the other ingredients and stir. Reduce heat until the chutney is barely simmering. Simmer for fifteen more minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Chutney can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for a week or more.

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