Monday, June 25, 2012

Perfect Chicken Salad

"The first rule of Book Club is, you do not talk about Book Club..."


Ok, kidding, but it is wonderful to get together with the ladies for our monthly fight book club. Although officially you can bring the kids if you want, no one does.  We leave the kids and husbands at home, drink wine, eat girly food, and proceed to talk about books for about 15 minutes and then gab another couple hours with stories of kids/men/birthing/family/hair/shoes.

I don't need an incentive to read, but I sometimes get in a routine with the types of books I read.  Aside from cookery, I love the classics, checking Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Dickens novels off a mental list in hopes that questions about these novels will come up in some future session of Trivial Pursuit or a prize-winning appearance on Jeopardy!. I devour those new-agey self-help books that teach you to do things that you never knew you were doing incorrectly in the first place, like breathing, sitting, and clearing your nasal passages (neti pot, anyone?).  I'll occasionally dig into a biography or some history, but with book club, whoever hosts gets to pick the next book, and it is an excellent exercise in opening up my perspective to other worlds of literature.  For example, if it weren't for book club, I would never, ever have voluntarily picked up and read Sophie Kinsella's I've Got Your Number.


Book description from Amazon:

I’ve lost it. :( The only thing in the world I wasn’t supposed to lose. My engagement ring. It’s been in Magnus’s family for three generations. And now the very same day his parents are coming, I’ve lost it. The very same day! Do not hyperventilate, Poppy. Stay positive :) !!
Poppy Wyatt has never felt luckier. She is about to marry her ideal man, Magnus Tavish, but in one afternoon her “happily ever after” begins to fall apart. Not only has she lost her engagement ring in a hotel fire drill but in the panic that follows, her phone is stolen. As she paces shakily around the lobby, she spots an abandoned phone in a trash can. Finders keepers! Now she can leave a number for the hotel to contact her when they find her ring. Perfect!
Well, perfect except that the phone’s owner, businessman Sam Roxton, doesn’t agree. He wants his phone back and doesn’t appreciate Poppy reading his messages and wading into his personal life.
What ensues is a hilarious and unpredictable turn of events as Poppy and Sam increasingly upend each other’s lives through emails and text messages. As Poppy juggles wedding preparations, mysterious phone calls, and hiding her left hand from Magnus and his parents . . . she soon realizes that she is in for the biggest surprise of her life.

I don't think I ever read a novel with quite so many text messaging excerpts in it.  Although I found myself skimming parts to get through it, it was still an enlightening literary experience. People read this stuff.  And like it. And Sophie Kinsella is a millionairess now because of it.  Clearly, I'm focusing my writing energies in the wrong direction.  

However, with the book set in London, it was a good opportunity to add a little British flair to our book club gathering.  The menu:

Eats: Cucumber sandwiches, chicken salad sandwiches, canapes with yogurt dip
Drinks: Chardonnary, Riesling, Perrier and iced tea
Sweets: Fresh raspberries, dark chocolate and shortbread cookies

The chicken salad was a hit, with recipe requests from guests that I usually think of as polite gestures of the "no, I really like this!" kind, but since I typed out the recipe for my book club ladies, I thought perhaps others in Internetlandia might like it as well.  No chick lit reading required.

I heart a good post-party table.  Good times. 

Since I hosted, my pick for the next book: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.  Autobiographical dark humor about a guy and his crazy-cuckoo family.  I'm looking forward to THAT book club meeting next time...

Chicken Salad with Walnuts and Grapes
Adapted from one of my most-loved cookbooks, Gourmet Today

4 cups cubed (1/2 inch) cooked chicken (about 1 1/2 pound)
1 cup walnuts,toasted and chopped
1 cup halved seedless grapes
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbls. Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons drained capers
Salt and pepper to taste

Stir together yogurt, mayo, and mustard in a large bowl. Stir in chicken, grapes, walnuts, and capers, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ricotta Gnocchi

In our house, summertime means meals and food preparation have an altogether different pace.  We eat nearly every meal in the backyard on the patio instead of at our little kitchen table.  Most weekends involve some sort of food harvest and storage, stocking the freezer for the winter.  Our tiny fridge is filled with a constant rotation of bulky fresh greens from our CSA share that get cooked down at most meals to make more room for my kitchen experiments (sour-cherry-and-white-Zinfandel-ade, anyone?).

With the new addition of a huge jar of farm fresh milk to our tiny fridge rotation every other week, I cooked the milk down to ricotta and made this.  Soft, fluffy pillows of ricotta gnocchi.  You eat one of these little gnocchi dumplings and you immediately recognize that this is something you could never, ever procure ready-made in a grocery store and the multitude of tiny, loving steps that brought you to this moment were all suddenly so very worth it.

Try to use a great tomato sauce.  These little dumplings deserve to get dressed up nicely.

Ricotta Gnocchi
From The Splendid Table's How to Eat Weekends. 

1 pound fresh homemade ricotta (about 2 and 1/2 cups), chilled (recipe here)
1/2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling gnocchi
1 egg
1/4 c. freshly grated Parmesan, plus additional for serving
1 Tbls. butter, melted
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. sugar
1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Your favorite tomato or pasta sauce (or try this one)

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together, using your hands to mix and adding more flour as needed until the dough is slightly sticky.  Cover and refrigerate until cold, 1 hour or up to 2 days.

When ready to make the gnocchi, lightly sprinkle flour on a large cutting board and a rimmed large shallow pan. Transfer the dough to the floured board and cut into 4 equal pieces. Using your hands, roll on of the pieces on the board into a long log 1/2" to 3/4" wide. Don't worry if the dough isn't uniformly shaped and take care not to pick up too much additional flour or the gnocchi will be tough.  Use just enough flour to keep them shapeable, but still a little sticky.

Cut the log into 3/4" pieces and toss on floured sheet pan.  Repeast until all dough has been rolled and cut. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook for 3-4 mins or until they rise to the surface and float.

Drain in a colandar or scoop them out with a slotted spoon. Toss gently in the skillet with the sauce until covered. Sprinkle with cheese and serve.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My First Raw Oyster

Last week I happened to have a conference in Baltimore, and my husband happened to come along, and we happened to spend a couple extra days exploring the DC area with some Virginia-based family members.  After a fantastic day at Monticello (more on that later), we went a great little seafood restaurant called Blue Light Grill in downtown Charlottesville, VA.  And it was here that I ate my first raw oyster.

I love fish, but I did not grow up with seafood.  I like shrimp and crab, I can handle scallops, but the squishier side of marine cuisine still eludes my favor.  Squid - ew.  Clams - ew.  Oysters - probably ew, but as I never tried them, there was only one way to find out.

My very first raw oyster was doctored up in Virginia style with some cocktail sauce, a squeeze of lemon, and a dab of horseradish.  I was given instructions on how I can either a) fork it or b) slurp it.  Although slurping sounded much cooler, I grabbed my tiny fork... 

I think this picture explains it all. 

I did eat it, with a healthy sip of Sauv Blanc to wash it down, but I've determined that the briny sliminess of raw oysters must be an acquired taste.  I'm sticking with walleye. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Homemade Ricotta

It's a conspiracy.  How is it possible I didn't know how completely easy it is to make cheese at home?

Completely easy. 

I'm not a cheese snob, nor do I obsess about ricotta, but watching a pot of milk separate into curds and whey on my stovetop was nothing short than miraculous. The only ricotta option in my own supermarket are those plastic tubs of white slop with no flavor and odd grainy texture. Even though I never had "real" ricotta cheese before, my inner turophile ("turophile - noun - a connoisseur of cheese; a cheese fancier") somehow knew there were better options out there. Somewhere.  Out there.  Beneath the pale moonlight.  Any Fivel fans?  Never mind.  

But making my own cheese was a revelation, not only in the fact that I now had a path to decent ricotta, but the pure empowerment of the act in itself.  If I can make cheese, I can probably tackle the perfect omelet.  If I can make cheese, then maybe I can learn to sew.  If I can make cheese, maybe I can actually get my kid potty-trained.  Or finally make my way through Catch-22.  Or retire early, move to San Sebastian and open up a sangria shack.  

A world of possibilities suddenly opened up.  All from a humble pot of curds and whey.  

Want to experience it for yourself?  Get ready for magic. 

Homemade Ricotta
From The Splendid Table's How to Eat Weekends. For ideas on what to do with your awesome ricotta miracle, click here

1 gallon high-quality whole milk
2 tsp. salt
1/3 c. fresh lemon juice (about 1 large lemon - I used a little extra)

Line a large colander with cheesecloth and place it in the sink.  Wet the cheesecloth to hold it firmly in place.

In a large heavy pot, bring the milk and salt to a gentle simmer over medium-high heat. Stir in the lemon juice and continue to simmer gently for 1 to 2 mins, or until curds begin to form and float to the top.  They will first look like spatters of white, then gather into soft, cloudlike clumps. When you see the liquid begin to clear of cloudiness and the curds are firming up but not hard, scoop them out with a slotted spoon or sieve. 

Let the curds drain in the colander. If very soft, press gently to extract a little moisture, but take care not to dry out the cheese. Transfer to a large bowl, cover, and chill for 1-2 hours.  Keeps refrigerated, covered, up to 3 days. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tuesday Morning French Toast

Yes, Tuesday morning French toast.  Workday morning French toast.  Eaten on the patio at 7 am on one of those amazing North Dakota mornings where the sun has already been up for an hour, the birds are chirping, the morning air already feels warm against your skin, and it's all you can do not to shout for joy at the wonderful luck of having woken up from your slumber today to witness such wonderment French toast.  

That wouldn't all fit in the title, though.  So we'll just go with the first option. 

I woke up early today, took a stroll to our local grocery store which had just opened, the smell of fresh coffee percolating on the counter, and picked up some strawberries.  Back at home, I grabbed some of those fab farm eggs and milk out of the fridge, leftover French bread out of the cupboard, and got cookin'.  

It's amazing how quickly you can cook when you don't need to refer to a cookbook.  French toast is one of those easy, simple meals that you know instinctively how to make, yet they glow with an aura of specialness - especially on those brilliant, beautiful Tuesday workday mornings.

Tuesday Morning French Toast
My favorite way to use up excess bread, and nearly as easy as making regular toast if you think about it...

A knob of butter, about 2-3 Tbls.
About 6 eggs
A slug of milk (whole milk, if you've got it)
Bread slices

Melt the butter in a skillet until spattering and sizzling.  While butter is melting, whisk together eggs and milk really well.  Dip the bread in the egg mixture, letting it soak in, then cook on the griddle until browned on both sides (I like mine REALLY browned on both sides).  Serve with cinnamon sugar AND maple syrup for extra goodness. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Happy National Donut Day

The classic cake donut.  That's how I roll.