Sunday, December 26, 2010

Grow your own heirloom tomatoes

Many of my recipes call for heirloom tomatoes because of their superior flavor, texture and lovely appearance. Purchasing them at a grocery store can cost upwards of $5 per pound. However in my research for the book about different varieties of heirlooms, I came across this fantastic web supplier of heirloom seeds: Tomato Bob  They sell dozens of varieties of tomato seeds and until the end of December offer their heirloom seed sampler for half price. Check it out!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Gluhwein Poached Pears

Serves 4
While in Germany over Christmas, Rich and I visited Rothenburg, the oldest walled city in the country. We entered the city and climbed its famous watch tower. After a few hours of walking, our hands were frigid and our spirits sagging. We walked out of the watch tower onto a brick square where a brass band played. I ordered a bratwurst in a Kaiser roll and a cup of gluhwein and sat on the ice-cold steps of the courthouse. Some meals in your life are just the best meals you’ve ever had, not because they were elaborate or fancy, but because it was just good, honest food at a time when you needed. Food has an amazing power like that, to just be magical. Snow melted into my gluhwein and I felt my icy disposition melting too. We listened to the band play, just a little out of tune due to the weather, but somehow that was all part of the magic. These poached pears bring back that day for me.

4 ripe but firm Bosc pears, peeled
1 bottle dry red wine, such as Cabernet
3 tablespoons sugar
1 orange, sliced in thin circles
2 cinnamon sticks
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup egg nog
Whole nutmeg, about ½ teaspoon finely grated
4 store bought shortbread cookies
2 ounces dark chocolate
Peel the pears and cut off a small cylinder from each bottom so they will stand upright.
Heat the wine and sugar in a small sauce pan until the sugar dissolves. Stand the pears up so that the liquid comes up just to each of their tops. They should be somewhat close in the pan to prevent any from floating and bobbing away. Add the cinnamon sticks and orange slices and simmer for 20 minutes uncovered.
While the pears are cooking, melt the chocolate and drizzle over each of the shortbread cookies. Allow to cool and harden slightly.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the heavy cream until thick but not stiff, then fold in the eggnog and nutmeg.
Remove the pears from the heat and place each one on individual serving dishes.
Garnish each pear with the nutmeg cream and a chocolate shortbread cookie.

Side note: Although some of the alcohol burns off during the cooking process this dessert is best saved for adult diners.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Entertaining Tips

Don't Do It All
Especially during the holidays when time is tight. This may surprise those who know how much I love to cook, but I rarely cook everything from scratch when entertaining. If I'm making a labor-intensive lasagna and frozen chocolate mousse, I'll likely purchase fresh bread and a tapenade from the store instead of making my own. Choose the foods you love to cook and the ones that show off your skill in the kitchen. For the life of me, I am not a cake baker or decorator. They always turn out looking like a second grade art project. So I often leave those to the professionals.

Craft a Menu
When planning a menu, I try to create a seasonal balance of flavors, colors and textures. If I'm serving a rich, creamy main course, for example, I'll serve a lighter dessert. I'm a sucker for beautiful food, so I skip the parsley garnish and serve something green instead. Also ask your guests about any dietary restrictions they may have to ensure you cook food they can eat. It can be a hassle to cook a vegan, gluten-free meal, but in forcing you out of your comfort zone, it can also open your palate to new ingredients and amazing new recipes.  

Prepare Ahead
Plan a meal around the nature of the event and the amount of time you wish to spend interacting with your guests so that you can prepare some of the foods ahead of time. For example, if you wish to serve a formal sit-down dinner for eight, you may wish to avoid foods that require last-minute preparation, such as seared fish or meat. A more casual event may lend itself to mingling with guests in the kitchen helping your finish such last-minute dishes. Shop a day or two in advance and prepare anything you can the day before, such as chopping vegetables, cooking soup bases or whisking together salad dressings.

Set the Table
Set the dining table a day in advance of your guests' arrival. Even if you're still bustling around your kitchen at the last minute, a beautiful table communicates to your guests you're anticipating their visit and eager to make the occasion memorable. Add special touches with personal name cards. I attended a brunch in honor of my mother-in-law where the hostess framed each guest's name and a special quote in a small silver frame. A less-expensive but equally charming place card is to make ginger bread cookies in different shapes and write each guest's name on it in white icing.

Decorate Simply
Avoid all of the lovely holiday-scented candles at the dining table as the aromas will compete with the food you've spent time artfully preparing and instead opt for unscented. Decorate with natural materials, such as a bowl of fresh citrus fruit and leaves. Often you can find the fruit with the stems and leaves still attached during the holiday season at specialty markets, or in your yard if you live in a southern state. Depending on the height of your chandelier, also consider hanging attractive glass ornaments from it with ribbon cut at varying lengths.