The Best Croutons and How Best to Eat Them

bowlofcroutons2

Fernand came to the café where I waitressed in sunny CA every Sunday afternoon for the same meal: an omelet, a baguette, and a side of Dijon mustard. He ate his omelet methodically, spreading mustard over each slice of bread first, spooning bits of his creamy eggs overtop next. A mustard-slicked slice of bread accompanied every bite of omelet.

I always thought this mustard routine was a little odd. Slatherings of butter, cheese, and jam made sense to me. Mustard felt foreign. But when I read the description in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook of Madeleine’s omelet, and more specifically of the croutons that lace that omelet, I wondered if Fernand, or the French, were on to something.

Before we get to the croutons, a little background might be helpful: Madeleine is the sister of Jean and Pierre Troisgros, the brothers who ran the restaurant Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, where Judy Rogers spent a year as a young teenager watching, tasting and recording everything that she could. During this year, too, at least twice a week, Rogers would escape to Madeleine’s home kitchen and delight in dinners of scrambled eggs filled with nutty hard cheeses and croutons or with lightly browned potatoes and bacon.

Given the generous amount of Dijon mustard and mustard seeds that dress Madeleine’s croutons, I suspect Fernand would approve of them wholeheartedly. And finding them in an omelet might just send him over the moon. Golden on the outside, chewy on the inside, mustardy throughout, these croutons are irresistible. And while they certainly are not as hard core as straight up mustard bruschetta, I should have known better than to question the eating habits of a French wine purveyor from Burgundy.

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Curried Lamb Burgers with Chutney Mustard & Greek Yogurt

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Observing that the twice-a-week broiled-burger-topped-with-cheddar routine was leaving everyone at my dinner table a little wanting, I decided a change was in order. Lamb burgers seasoned with oregano and feta would do just the job, but when I reached for my favorite recipe (from an August 1990 Gourmet), a different recipe on the same page caught my eye: curried lamb burgers with chutney mustard.

The recipe, which called for deep frying onions and mixing them into the ground lamb, sounded fabulous if a little fussy — deep-frying certainly wasn’t going to happen. And as it turns out, deep frying wasn’t necessary. Caramelized onions, while offering little by way of crunch, provided wonderful flavor and sweetness in addition to keeping the burgers incredibly moist.

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Honey-Soy Chicken Drumsticks, Thighs or Wings

honey-soy chicken drumsticks

In the spirit of old-fashioned, unsubtle, crowd-pleasing recipes, I offer another oldie but goodie from The New New York Times Cookbook (Craig Claiborne, 1979), a recipe my mother pulled out for nearly every cocktail party she hosted and attended for at least two decades. The original recipe calls for wings, which people go gaga over, but the sauce and cooking method work just as well with drumsticks and thighs, if you’re looking for a super-easy dinner adored by children and adults alike.

While the chicken bakes for a fairly long time — an hour to an hour and 15 minutes — in the brief time it takes for your oven to preheat, your chicken can be prepped and smothered with the magic sauce, a mixture of honey, soy sauce, ketchup, garlic and oil, leaving you with an hour of freedom, perhaps to prepare a simple salad or side dish, perhaps to sit down with a good book and a nice cocktail. As with the honey-baked chicken legs, it’s hard not to play caveman while eating these drummies — a fork and knife just can’t get the job done. What can I say? This is not gourmet cooking, and it’s not gourmet eating — you might just want to break out the moist towelettes for this one.

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3 Simple Tartines: Mushroom; Radicchio & Gorgonzola; Fresh Ricotta // Plus A Few More Ideas for Oscar Night

tartines

I have a confession. By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, we had eaten the steaks, devoured the torte and made soup out of the turnips. And then, as it turned out, Ben couldn’t even be home for Valentine’s Day dinner, so we postponed the romantic occasion till the weekend, when my mother would be in town, too, and we could all cozy around the table together and enjoy a meze-style dinner with what remained of the planned Valentine’s Day menu as well as one more addition: a braised radicchio and gorgonzola tartine, another Nancy Silverton creation.

Since discovering the hard-boiled egg toasts with bagna cauda in the Nancy Silverton Sandwich Book, I’ve had my eye on a tartine topped with gorgonzola, radicchio, honey and walnuts, a series of ingredients I have seen in combination before but never with quite so much flair. When made in its entirety, slices of grilled bread are topped with sweet gorgonzola dolce and a drizzling of honey, both of which serve to offset the bitterness of the radicchio braised with balsamic vinegar and rosemary. Spicy candied walnuts provide additional sweetness as well as crunch, a nice contrast to the creaminess of the other ingredients. A few of these components never in fact made it to our table, but even in a simpler incarnation — braised radicchio topped with gorgonzola — the sweetness of the cheese alone was enough to counter the bitterness of the radicchio, and the combination was just so lovely. It was this dish that the three of just couldn’t get enough of during our romantic evening together.

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Pasta with Chicken, Lemon & White Wine — A Meal to Take to a Friend // Also, Spatchcock Chicken

pasta with chicken, lemon & white wine

Do you ever find yourself needing to prepare a meal for a friend? Perhaps a new mom? Or someone on bed rest? Or just someone in need?

As comfortable as I feel in the kitchen, cooking for these sorts of occasions makes me panicky. I never know what to make. I know comfort food is the name of the game, but I worry that my comfort food might not comfort others.

Fortunately, I have friends who thrive in these situations — friends who can throw casseroles together in their sleep; friends whose pantries never fail them at these critical moments; friends whose freezers at any given time are stocked with a half dozen of these sorts of meals already. It was one of these such friends who passed along this recipe after I mentioned I had no idea what I was going to make for my friend who had just returned from the hospital with a new baby girl. I didn’t even have to note that this new mom was avoiding dairy and a few other foods. Amanda knew exactly the recipe I needed.

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Toast with Hard Boiled Eggs & Bagna Cauda // Also, Walnut Bread

hard-boiled eggs on toast with bagna cauda

Over the weekend while looking to employ the half dozen loaves of walnut bread cluttering my countertops, I stumbled upon this little gem of a tartine in Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book. Silverton had apparently prepared this snack — grilled bread topped with hard-boiled eggs bathed in a warm anchovy sauce — for Mario Batali one summer evening when he stopped by the piazza in the Italian town where she had been vacationing. Smitten with the combination, Batali insisted that Silverton include this creation in her nearly completed book celebrating the Thursday-night sandwich tradition at her restaurant, Campanile. And, with the addition of arugula, she did.

It all sounded too idyllic — an Italian piazza, a summer evening, a vacation, a warm anchovy bath — not to try immediately. And so, my introduction to bagna cauda, a classic Italian sauce made with anchovies, garlic, olive oil, butter and lemon juice came by way of an untraditional recipient — hard-boiled eggs — at an unconventional time of day — breakfast — and I am sorry this meeting occurred only because I now have to accept that for 31 years I have been missing out on some serious goodness.

I have no excuse. I have been reading about bagna cauda, which translates to “hot bath,” for years in all of my favorite west coast cafe cookbooks — Zuni, Chez Panisse, TartineContinue reading

Pan-Seared, Oven-Finished New York Strips with Balsamic Caramel

New York Strip

It’s a rare occasion that a New York strip steak needs anything more than a little salt and pepper. That said, in the spirit of special-occasion dining, a good sauce does make a meal feel a wee more special. And when a good sauce mixes with the juices of a good steak and that fusion pools around the edges of a good creamy purée and the dregs of that sauce-infiltrated purée get mopped up by a piece of good bread, well, it just doesn’t get much more special than that.

This balsamic caramel is another three-ingredient sauce that tastes as though much more effort went into its creation than actually did. Like the port wine reduction, the flavor from this sauce is attained by slowly reducing the liquids into a super concentrated syrup: a half cup of madeira reduces to a tablespoon; a cup of balsamic vinegar gets reduced by three quarters. The resulting flavor of this balsamic caramel resembles that of expensive Italian barrel-aged balsamics, fit for drizzling over anything ranging from prosciutto-wrapped figs to vanilla ice cream to pan-seared steaks. This recipe doesn’t yield a lot, but a little goes a long way, and as noted above, there’s no reason to smother a New York strip. Continue reading

Torta Caprese — Flourless Chocolate Almond Torte

chocolate almond torte

On Christmas Eve my mother served this torta caprese — a flourless, chocolate-almond torte originating from the Isle of Capri — for dessert. If this is any indication of how it was received, not a single person sitting at the table, nine in total, turned down seconds. Later that evening, Santa even helped himself to thirds.

I love this class of cakes, those that can stand on their own, that don’t beg for layers of buttercream, pools of crème pâtissière, glazes of chocolate ganache or even dollops of whipped cream. This one, like the orange-and-olive oil cake and the Chez Panisse almond torte, fits into this class.

Containing no flour and leavened only by whipped egg whites, this torte is at once light, rich and moist. Ground almonds give it a wonderful texture throughout, and a splash of Grand Marnier offers a hint of orange. Made with bittersweet chocolate, it is perfectly sweet, and when it bakes, that brownie-like, most-delicious, paper-thin crust forms on the top-most layer. It is every bit elegant the finale of a special occasion should be, Valentine’s Day or otherwise. I hope you find an occasion to celebrate it soon. Continue reading

A Card, and 3 Simple Ways to Begin Your Valentine’s Day Dinner

Parmigiano Love

So often, for me at least, the best part of a dinner out happens shortly after I am seated, when the server sets down a warm roll with a pat of soft butter sprinkled with sea salt or a basket of freshly baked focaccia and a little dish filled with olive oil swirled with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. It’s these simple details that, when done well, distinguish the meal from one prepared at home, when such delights are often absent and when relishing every morsel is not always the order of the hour.

With that in mind, I have a few very simple ideas for beginning a Valentine’s Day dinner at home. If you thrive at arranging delicious things on plates, ideas 1 and 2 are for you. If you like to fuss a little bit more, idea number 3 might interest you more.

But before we get to the food, let’s discuss cards. You have to begin Valentine’s Day with a card, right? I’ve added four Valentine’s Day cards to the print shop, including the above pictured one, Parmigiano Love. Each Valentine’s Day card costs $3 and can be shipped to you for the price of a stamp (45 cents). Continue reading

Arancini Mac & Cheese

arancini macaroni and cheese

On many Sundays during the summer we find ourselves at 2Amys, tired and famished after a long morning at the zoo, trying to keep our two thrashing children from making too much of a disturbance. An order of arancini — deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with cheese — usually does the trick, settling the children (and us) at first bite.

I LOVE arancini, but they’re a total pain to make, not only calling for leftover risotto, but also requiring a lengthy assembly process — shaping, stuffing, breading and deep frying. Crispy on the outside, oozing with cheese on the inside, these “little oranges” are worth their every effort — once I made them at home — but they are not something to whip up every day, better ordered out a place like 2Amys, best (not that I speak from experience) picked up at a vendor parked along a Palermo sidewalk. Continue reading