So it’s barely a week past thanksgiving, you’d think I’d want to turn off the stove, curl up with a good book and sit by the fire. But you’d be wrong, or at least part wrong.
Now I may live in Los Angeles, and you’ve probably bought into that ridiculous rumor…something about California having no distinct seasons. But you’d be wrong.
The holidays also make me want to see friends and family! That means more cooking. And I mean cooking December style!
It may not snow here (at least at sea level). But winter in Southern California can be bright and crisp and cool: and full of inspiration for a good meal. I crave something warm and hearty, yet healthy and flavorful.
What better time than now than to introduce what I am going to call Sippity Suppers!
I get a lot of grief about how I spend my time. I mean that whole work ethic thing is such a bore! So as a way to justify the countless hours I spend looking at magazines, books, blogs, and television shows that focus on (you guessed it) food. I can now call it “research!” Just don’t wake me up if I nod off…that’s the pre-planning part. It’s very important.
Besides how many silly videos can you watch of me in my kitchen acting like a goof ball?
So the idea is simple. I will put together menus from recipes I cull from a variety of sources. It may not be quite how the authors or chefs imagined their work to be enjoyed. But hey, it’s my blog, my rules.
The inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s a blog; sometimes it’s a magazine, or friend’s dinner party. Often I will rely on my collection of cookbooks, new ones or those pilfered over the years from my mother’s extensive collection. I’ll test these menus here and I’ll pass along my thoughts.
Today I am putting together a menu for a fireside dinner for 4 in my living room. This means the recipes need certain parameters. I need lots of make ahead. There are 42 steps from my range through the pantry, the bar, past the dining room, across the living room all the way to the table by the fireplace. How many times can I be expected to make that trip with out completely tanking the dinner party? I mean if you’re having 4 over for an intimate dinner by the fire. You really should not leave the table for very long. After all, you are 25% of that party, which is 1/4 of the conversation. Heck in my case it might even be 3/4’s!
The other thing I really want is aroma. I want something to tantalize the diners. They will also be 42 steps from the kitchen. Their taste buds cannot be piqued visually, because they won’t see the food being made. So when they sit down I want them to know it’s going to be good!
I, of course, want something green and healthy. But I also want something special for dessert. Something we can linger over, maybe with a little cognac. Nothing too sweet or cloying. I won’t want to destroy the quiet ambience with anything that demands too much attention. I imagine, by that part of the evening, things will be pretty focused on the conversation, so I’ll want to slip out quietly and bring a little something to table
Finally, when you are having dinner in your living room, by the fire, there is no “cocktail hour”. No awkward chitchat, drink in hand, wondering should I sit or should I stand? Will we be seated soon, or are more people coming?
Nope, it’s more restaurant style. Come in– say hello– and sit down at the table.
That means, open the wines, let them breath, and have a little something pre-plated, sitting on the table, “ding-dong” and you are ready to go.
Not only does this system make the table look pretty. Because if you choose the right appetizer you won’t even need flowers on the table! But, food is an even better icebreaker than a gin martini…or, well, just as good at least!
So where does that leave me. It leaves me with a decision to make. Or more accurately, 4 decisions!
The first one is easy. I have had plenty of opportunities to enjoy cured meats on my European travels, but Nancy Silverton has shown me that I can have traditional style “salumi” right here in Los Angeles. Now I did not say salami (but salami is part of the group of meats to which I am referring). Really good salumi is a group of cured meats. Artisinally cured meats. Sopressata, Guanciale, Cotecchino, Cotto, Coppa, Pancetta, yes and even Prosciutto. Traditionally only available in Italy these meats are becoming “au currant” right here in America.
So, even if you don’t live in Los Angeles. Even if you can’t go into Osteria Mozza and have Nancy Silverton look across the Mozzarella Bar and pretend to recognize you, you can still get good salumi! So don’t hesitate.
Now of course the meat MUST be top quality. But to me the genius of the act comes in the pairing of that meat. It can be as simple as Lardo atop Fresh Fig. Or try something traditional like Fresh Robiola Wrapped in Mortadella (which at it’s coarsest translation is basically bologna and cheese). If you are ambitious why not make something as comforting yet complex, as molten Scamorza Cheese with Armandino’s (Mr. Batali Sr.) Mole Salame and Spicy Pickled Cherry Peppers.
Now I can’t even begin to hope to recreate Nancy’s spicy salami grilled cheese, and I want something with a bit more panache than the (excellent) Mario Batali mortadella I mentioned. So I have decided to turn to one of my favorite reads "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook".
Judy Rodgers gets it. She pairs meats in a way that is both creative and accessible. I am choosing her Air-Dried Beef (Bresaola) & Fuyu Persimmons with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic. Mostly because it is seasonal and practically makes itself; but also let me tell you, the orange and brown palette is perfect in my living room color scheme of caramel, brown and olive! It’s going to look like the cover of Martha Stewart’s Magazine! If you think this can’t really factor into my decision-making process than you just don’t know me— at all!
Judy suggests serving a few slivers of raw fennel, but I do not think it needs it because it kind of gets in the way of the wine. Which will be a bright, acidic California Sauvignon Blanc. Which does not need to be too expensive to be good in this case.
Next I need something green and healthy, but still seasonal. I am choosing a winter salad of bitter greens (escarole, radicchio, endive, and frisée). These greens are so easy to get this time of year it seems an impeccable choice. I’ll dress it with a limey, citrus vinaigrette and top it with some quickly sautéed, tiny bay scallops.
This salad is perfect, partly because the flavors are a bright contrast to the smoky, salty, earthy, Bresaola and Fuyu; but also because there is no need to change wines. That’s just too fussy for this sort of meal. The Sauvignon Blanc, if well chosen, will do double duty in this course. So relax and sit by the fire a bit longer! Those scallops cool down quickly…
Now part of the challenge of “Sippity Suppers” is to put together menus from recipes I have culled from other sources. The above-mentioned salad recipe I downloaded as a PDF from somebody’s blog. Some somebody or another. So let this be a lesson to all the bloggers out there (including me), if you post recipes on your site put a credit in the PDF. Because I cannot remember which of the bazillion blogs I read first inspired this recipe. So I’m sorry about that! I say this because I always try and credit recipes.
Next, the main course!
All that talk about Salumi made me think of a new cookbook by John Piccetti and Frances Vecchio with Joyce Goldstein called, that’s right…”Salumi”. It’s a nice book with a lot of great info about Salumi in general. Which is what originally drew me to the book.
I am a cookbook reader. I don’t just pull them out when cooking. So I am often drawn to cookbooks with a lot of information. Be it technique, history, or ingredients; I always want to know why a recipe is what is. Julia Child did this to great success in Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. As a result American cooks like my mother started to understand how the French cook, not just reproduce a certain dish. This of course, made their efforts far more satisfying and they returned to the book again and again.
A bonus in this cookbook, "Salumi", is it also has lots of great recipes that are basically authentic Italian classics. As you might guess salumi is incorporated into all the recipes. This is more than just a contrivance to the subject matter at hand too. This is the Mediterranean way of cooking.
I am sure you have heard people talk about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Yet, one of its key ingredients can be pork fat. Well to the American way of thinking pork fat is bad. But in the Mediterranean way of cooking these rich, savory proteins are used fairly sparingly. In small amounts they have an unctuous, pervasive flavor that adds depth to the dish, but doesn’t dominate it; to paraphrase Joyce Goldstein.
It’s like the salumi pairing I mentioned above, the flavors work in conjunction to create something better than each individual ingredient. In many of these recipes 1/4 pound of salumi is used to make 6 large portions.
I have chosen to make Pasta E Fagioli. It’s remarkably easy. It’s a great cool weather comfort food. Perfect for the quiet fireside meal I have planned. It cooks on the stovetop and can fill the whole house with its rich fragrance. You make it ahead of time and if you cook the pasta separate and add it to the hot broth at the last minute then there is practically no “cooking” involved. Which will leave me sitting by the fire, chatting with friends, until we are ready to serve. It’s ideal.
I could serve a good Tuscan Chiantti. It would be excellent. If this was a fancier occasion, and I was serving the “fazool” as a second or pasta course followed by a meaty entree, or even a fish, I probably would have.
But this is my main-course, it’s comforting and cozy so I want to keep it casual. And as I always seem to have several bottles of interesting West Coast Pinots Noirs around (people often show up to the house “pinot in hand”, bless their souls) this is a good time break one out. There are so many, it’s hard to learn about them all. This way, if we happen to slip into a second bottle. Who cares, so what!
Now dessert. I am not really a dessert guy. So this is a chance for me to stretch my wings a little and try something new.
As I said I don’t really want something showy, or complicated to eat or serve. I’d like it to incorporate into the flavors of the meal and not be a stand alone kind of “applause please” moment. I just want to slip into the kitchen bring out a tray and have people simply serve themselves with no break in the conversation.
In the Current Martha Stewart Living (Dec ’08), in her “What’s For Dinner” section. She has a recipe for 4 little individual sized Olive Oil-Anise Bundt Cakes. I think the flavors sound very sophisticated, olive oil, orange and anise. If people feel like a little cognac then the subtle orange in the cake will pair nicely. Also, the anise is a nice way to round out the rest of the meal. Judy Rogers suggested a few slices of fennel with her salumi. I opted out of that, so this is a good way to incorporate that flavor into the meal.
Martha suggests serving these cakes warm. I think this is important and worth the effort. The flavors are subtle, so the texture of the warm cake will be very comforting and a large part of the experience.
Don’t worry, this is not to big a problem. I can make the batter ahead of time. Fill the bundt pans, and leave them sitting out. They only cook 20 mins, and cool 10 mins. So when I serve the Pasta E Fagioli, I’ll slip them into the oven. I have a discrete pocket sized kitchen timer, which I‘ll set and bring with me before I head back to the fire.
Who’s pouring the cognac?
SERIOUS FUN FOOD