Monday, March 26, 2012

March 25, 2012 - Italian Night

In an effort to master Italian cooking (we're thinking every month will have a different cultural influence... we may try to master Greek or Spanish in April... hmmm) we created a fabulous feast for our most recent dinner.

Cocktail - Amaretto Sour with Prosecco

Wow.  Don't change a thing.  I joked with Jennifer that the drink reminded me of being underage (cough cough) and not knowing what to order in bars so amaretto sours were always my failsafe.  With an arch of the eyebrow, she promised me and the rest of the group that this was no teeny-bopper amaretto sour - and she was right.  The prosecco was amazing, and I think it was the complete lack of "sour mix" and using fresh fruit and juices that put it over the top.  Hands down one of the best cocktails yet.  (And a fantastic way to use up leftover champagne, prosecco or sparkling wine that may be laying around the house.)

Appetizer - Lobster Ravioli with Crabmeat Cream Sauce

So for this week's Italian themed meal, our friend Mike jumped at the opportunity to combine his cooking passion with ours and even offered up using his pasta maker to make some homemade raviolis.  (Who's going to say no to that?!?!  FYI - Santa, I want a pasta dough maker for Christmas.)  So after two trial runs (lamb ravioli and butternut squash ravioli) Mike knew his machine was ready to create some magic.

And magic it was.  The recipe was followed to the T, and came out absolutely delicious.  The filling, the dough, and the sauce was made in advance and brought over for prep.  Just let the sauce hang out on a stove burner, and start rolling out the dough and boom, you're done.  So good, and so excited to start experimenting with fresh pastas.

Side Dish Necessity - Bread

While I don't have the recipe, Mike (our new official Culinary Sundays baking expert) also brought over some amazing Italian bread that had a hint of rosemary.  So perfect for sopping up that amazing sauce. 

Appetizer Wine - 2009 Cascina Ballarin Langhe Bianco

Wine Spectator - 88/100

This Italian white paired beautifully with the creamy sauce and decadent lobster.  It was initially fruity on the tongue but had a great acidic bite that kept it from being too sweet.  There were tastes of grapefruit and lemon and had a lingering finish.  For those white wine drinkers that prefer a sweeter wine, but not an oaky taste (like a Chardonnay) - this is a good choice for you.

Entree - Veal Chops Stuffed with Mascarpone, Pancetta, and Caramelized Onions

For you critics out there - yes, Emeril is from New Orleans, not Italy.  But you don't get any more Italian than veal, pancetta, and mascarpone... so group vote - this is considered Italian.

Fantastic.  Make the stuffing earlier and let it sit.  (I would highly recommend increasing the pancetta.)  And they are so quick to cook (25 mins), that once we finished our appetizer, we simply just started the cooking process and we were sitting for dinner in 30 minutes.  The only deviation from the recipe was that we used 1/2 veal demi-glace and 1/2 veal stock.  (Not sure if it made a difference, but it was yummy.)  Side note for those of you who cannot find veal stock to save your lives (like myself)... check out the organic/fancy pants section of your grocery store.  Jennifer was able to find in the organic section of a Shop Rite. 

Side Dish - Artichokes with Warm Pancetta Dressing

Fantastic and fresh side dish that complemented the chops beautifully.  However, we used 5 fresh artichokes and it barely produced enough to eat, so we actually added a bottle of jarred artichoke hearts.  (Couldn't taste a difference - save yourself some time and energy.)  Also, one of those recipes you can put together early and just let hang out on a countertop while everything else is going on.

Entree Wine 1 - 2006 Ca' del Baio Barbaresco Pora

Avg. 92 points

This wine started with a fruit taste and continued with lingering tastes of tar and tobacco.  It had an earthy quality to it, but a nice black cherry taste on the tongue.  The finish was long and had an almost chalky taste.

Entree Wine 2 - 2007 Colpetrone Sagrantino di Montefalco

Wine Advocate - 92/100

The great people at Harry's wine have really gotten us on a kick of tasting different wines with our meal so we can learn to see (and taste) the differences and refine our palates.  This full bodied red also had great scents and flavors of strong red berries with hints of spices of vanilla.

The Verdict - Both were good, but most people preferred the Colpetrone.  However, the first wine was notably "young" and still needs some time to mature and really develop its flavors.  Both wines were big and bold, and the Barbaresco paired better with the meat, but the Colpetrone paired just as well and was more drinkable after the meal was over.  However, open the Barbaresco five or ten years from now, and we'll have a completely different story.

Dessert - Limoncello Panna Cotta with Black Cherry Sauce

Okay, this post is already giving me anxiety.  Panna cotta was extremely new to us until we fell upon a little tapas restaurant in Norwalk (La Paella, for this interested) and had a vanilla bean panna cotta that changed my life.  So when we planned on Italian night, we knew we wanted to master this Italian dessert.  However, when its your first time making something completely new, it doesn't always go smoothly.  So let's begin...

The first mistake was not making these early enough.  I cooked them at my house around 11am on Sunday, thinking they'd be solidified by 5pm when I leave for John and Jenn's house.  Not so much.  I'm thinking I didn't let the cream/milk mixture thicken enough on the stove, and I'm thinking these definitely need to made the day before and stay overnight in the fridge.  So after careful driving to their house (and half of the slightly gelatenous dessert all over the front seat of my car - side note: it is impossible to transport martini glasses without spilling) we decided to toss them in the freezer for a hail mary.  We brought them out about 15 minutes before serving and started on the sauce.  Save yourself some time, everyone, and just microwave your favorite fruit jelly/jam/preserves/etc.  We microwaved the black cherry jam, topped it with some kirsch macerated dried cherries and served.  Okay, it looks pretty!  However, our hail mary freezing attempt also kind of froze the dessert so it got rather icy in some spots.

Regardless, the flavor was delicious.  (And the side of limoncello was spot on.)  Future attempts will include cooking the day before, refrigerating overnight, and not serving in stemmed glasses.

Next Week - Steak Frites

Monday, March 19, 2012

March 18, 2012 - Irish

In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, we created a fabulous Irish-themed meal. 

Cocktail - Kiwi Melon Cooler

Regular vodka, Midori, muddled fresh kiwi

Okay, perhaps not the most "Irish" cocktail, but we needed something light and green to start up the evening.  And this cocktail blended very well into the appetizer.  That aside - delicious!  Fresh and just screamed summer.  As I've said in other posts... I see a lot of cocktail and dessert recipes centering around fresh fruit as we continue into warmer months.

Appetizer - Irish Cheese Bites with Chutney

As our cheesemongers raised an eyebrow (ricotta, parmesan, and goat cheese isn't exactly very Irish), they did insist that chutneys are rather prominent in Irish cuisine.  (And the website is called Little Shamrocks!  Therefore, we've officially deemed this Irish food.)  But who cares?  Becuase these were awesome!  Follow the recipe exactly, before stuffing with the cheese mixture, make an indentation in the puff pastry with the back of the spoon, and then broil to finish (not bake).  We baked for 5 minutes, and the bottoms got a little brown and the cheese did not.  These were so amazing and not one person at the table had a bad thing to say!  However - the recipe made about double the amount of cheese needed.  So either use 2 puff pastry sheets or cut your cheese in half.  (1 puff pastry sheet made about 12 bite-size pieces... They were so good, I'd say allow 4-5 pieces/person when serving.)

Appetizer Wine - 2010 Verdejo Protos

Wine Enthusiast Rating - 88/100

This Spanish white was full of fruit flavor (primarily grapefruit) with a slight hint of herbs.  It was rather sweet (like a Riesling) but paired amazingly well with the spicy chutney and the mixture of cheeses.  This would definitely be a "go-to" for any time you're serving a cheese plate.  (Kind of curious how this would have paired up with last week's Thai soup.)

Entree - Beef and Guiness Pie

Think beef stew meets chicken pot pie!  The basic idea is a Guiness-braised beef stew that is then put in a single-serve dish and covered with puff pastry.  This was delicious!  We made no changes to the original stew recipe and thankfully so.  The only difference was after sauteeing everything, we put it in the crock pot for about 4 hours on low.  (Recipe reviews were divided on the idea of adding things like mushrooms, carrots, and potatoes - so we figured we'd make the recipe as stated instead of trying to doctor it up.)  However - we did use store-bought puff pastry.  And instead of freezing it for 15 minutes before baking (not enough freezer space), we tossed the individual ramekins in the fridge for about 30 minutes while prepping the appetizers.  Delicious meal!  Hearty, filling, tasty, and great flavors!

Side Dish - Red Cabbage Salad with Warm Pancetta-Balsamic Dressing

So good!  Perfect side dish and something that we'll make again in the future.  The crunch of the almonds and the tartness of the macerated currants were heavenly.  And the dressing is not overpowering - the cabbage stays crisp and absorbs a night amount of flavor.

Side Dish - Irish Soda Bread

Guest Recipe

Since I forgot J's Red Velvet Cupcakes (see previous post), I made sure not to forget the amazing Irish Soda Bread courtesy of and old family recipe.  Fantastic!

Entree Wine - 2008 Encierra Vineyard Reserve

Rating - Not found

This Chilean red is a strong blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  It has aromas of dark fruits and spices with a lingering finish.  It was nice and heavy with a full body and paired beautifully with the rich meal. 

Entree Beer - O'Hara's Irish Stout

It's St. Paddy's Day!!!  We had to try a beer!  (And not a Guiness.)  So the fabulous people at Harry's Wine recommended O'Hara's Stout (as well as the rest of our wines.)  The beer drinker in the group really enjoyed it, and the non-beer drinkers tried it and thought it was tasty.  Think Guiness but with more smoky flavor.

Dessert - Irish Cream Chocolate Cheesecake Bites

We followed the recipe exactly except making small cupcake size mini-cheesecakes instead of one large one.  (Bake 15 minutes at 350 if you're making minis.)  These were amazing and the perfect end to a perfect meal.

Dessert Apertif - Irish Coffee

Come on!  Did you really think we'd make anything else???

Next Week - Italian


A few weeks ago, we did the Academy Awards party with food designed around each of the nominated movies.  It was brought to my attention that I forgot to include J's Red Velvet Cupcakes!!!  I'm so sorry, J, it was definitely not intentional.  In honor of "The Tree of Life" (aka some movie that Brad Pitt was in but no one saw), J made fabulous southern-style Red Velvet Cupcakes with a fabulous gold dusting!

Monday, March 12, 2012

March 11, 2012 - Thai

Cocktail - Orient Apple Martini

Mixed Absolut's Orient Apple vodka with pear nectar and soda water

Delicious!  Crisp, light (but sneaks up on you), and the ginger in the vodka also gave it a nice little spice.  This is definitely a summer cocktail for the coming season!

Appetizers - Gyoza and Thai Coconut Soup

First let's talk gyoza.  These were amazing.  Little bites of heaven!  We definitely were lax in following the recipe exactly - we excluded the egg, included a couple of splashes of soy sauce and sesame oil, and used a few solid dashes of powdered ginger.  Instead of cutting up cabbage and carrots - we simply used a couple of handfuls of cole slaw blend.  We also used 2 different bottled dipping sauces that were lying around in the fridge - a sesame ginger and a ginger wasabi.  Please note, when cooking - do NOT precook the ground pork or the cabbage mix.  Simply mix it all in a bowl, stuff your wonton wrappers, fry and then steam.  The frying/steaming will cook the ground pork.  (Don't be scared.)  And this mixture makes a TON.  (But that's ok, becuase Tuesday night has been deemed leftover night!)

Now let's talk soup.  As the recipe says... this really IS The Best Thai Coconut Soup.  It was amazingly delicious.  This could be a meal in itself!  The flavors were impeccable and it could not be easier to cook!  However, we feel it could have used a little more heat.  Probably another tablespoon of red curry paste - but I think that depends on the brand of curry paste you buy.  Regardless - home run!

Entree - Thai Beef Noodle Salad

Let's first talk changes we made.  We put it over a bed of fresh lettuce and we added peanuts.  We also used skirt steak instead of flank steak.  (Personal preference.)  Other than that... kept the recipe exactly as is.

Way too spicy.  Sadly, none of us even finished the meal because the heat was overwhelming.  However, we are trying it again on Leftover Tuesday because there is very serious potential in this meal!  I would recommend NOT dressing the salad after plating.  Put all the salad and noodles in a big bowl, drizzle a little dressing, and then toss a lot.  I think by dressing the salad after plating, it soaked into the meal, and therefore was way too spicy.  We also may alter the dressing by adding some honey to sweeten it up and use half a serrano pepper.  So unfortunately, this was not a home run dish - however we'll keep you updated if Tuesday's changes made any improvement.

Dessert - Pear and Mango Crips w/ Pear Whipped Cream

I don't remember where we found this recipe, but like the entree, it was not our favorite.  However, its because it just needs some simple changes.  Based on the recipe, there was simply way too much flour and it left the fruit rather dry.  Secondly, the topping was not a crumbly crispy mixture.  We will try again but using a different "crisp" recipe that includes things like oats, brown sugar, etc. 

However, the whipped cream is a whole other thing.  We pureed a pear, mixed it with some Poire Williams and then folded it into fresh whipped cream.  Now this is what we are talking about!!!  Expect future experimentations with whipped cream and fruit puree.  The whipped cream in itself was its own dessert!

Appetizer Wine - 2007 Selbach-Oster Riesling Kabinett

Wine Spectator - 90/100

We stumped Harry's again with our Thai night because were weren't sure the level of spice we were going to end up with.  To go with our Thai Coconut Soup, they recommended this riesling that is heavy on the honey and green apple flavors.  The wine was a little sweet for our tastes, but I think its becuase our soup was not as spicy as expected.  A riesling goes extremely well with spicy food because the sweetness counters the spice, however we needed to kick up the spice in our meal.  So we'll still give a thumbs up to the recommendation, and make sure next time we do spicy - we make sure we go spicy.

Entree Wine - 2009 Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel

Wine Spectator - 90/100

This zinfandel was heavy in lovely berries with a little spice of black pepper.  We kind of had the same problem we had with the white wine.  We thought our meal would NOT be as spicy as expected, so steered away from the zinfandels that would be suited for a super-spicy meal.  So because of that, the zinfandel actually almost increased the spice factor (we needed some oakiness).  However, after the meal was over, the wine was absolutely delicious just drinking on its own.  (This may have been better suited with the soup and the soup wine better suited with the entree.)  We'll be picking up another bottle just for casual drinking!

Dessert Wine - SakeOne Moonstone Asian Pear Sake

A-ma-zing.  This sake (served cold) has a great pear flavor with a hint of vanilla.  It was super easy to drink, and equally delicious to the sake-lovers and non-sake-lovers alike!  Necessity for all future asian-themed meals.  (And be on the lookout for a possible sake-tini cocktail.)

Next Week - St. Patty's Day (a day late, I know)

Monday, March 5, 2012

March 4, 2012 - French

Welcome to our foray into fine French cuisine!  This was our favorite meal from start to finish, to date!

Cocktail - Bellini
Mixture of peach nectar and champagne

How could you go wrong?

Appetizer - Fried Camembert Cheese with Raspberry Preserves

Insanely amazing.  However, a couple of tips.  First... I would suggest a flour dusting before the egg wash to help the breading stick.  Secondly, we pan fried... bad idea.  Use a deep fryer or at least a tall saucepan with a lot of oil so you don't have to "turn" or "flip" the cheese wedges.  Because once the wedges hit the oil, it started to melt a little, and it was not easy to flip them.  Regardless, it was so delicious.

Appetizer - Escargot a la Bourguignonne

Even if you don't like snails... just try this!  The sauce was amazing and a great crusty bread for dipping is a necessity.  The only changes we made were doubling the garlic to two cloves - and honestly, I think we could have easily used three or four cloves.  (We're garlic lovers.) 

Entree - Duck a l'Orange

Let's start with the cooking method.  We didn't want to make a whole duck, so we found the recipe that used breast and duck leg confit and followed the cooking method exactly.  First off - your duck leg needs more time in the oven.  In fact, we ended up broiling it for an additional five or so minutes to get crispy.  Secondly - the duck breast needs longer as well.  (Perhaps ours were big, our duck breasts were approx. 1 lb each.)  I would say add another 5 or so minutes cook time for med-rare.  Succulent and delicious.

Now let's talk sauce.  We followed the sauce recipe almost exactly.  (Almost being that we didn't have any "duck parts" to make the stock, so we simply did the vegetable stock.)  The sauce was started the day before, and at first, looked a little odd.  It was rather red in color, and smelled a little like tomato soup.  Do not let this scare you!  Once we started cooking the dinner, we put the stock on the stove to reduce and let it simmer for about an hour before adding the rest of the ingredients.  We then added the duck drippings from the roasting pan from the confit and the breast.  After that, we strained the fat, and served.  A-maz-ing.  (And it creates a ton of sauce - we could have halved it and still had enough for 6 people.) 

All in all - one of the best dishes we have eaten... ever.

Side Dish - Velvety Mashed Potatoes

Simple and perfect.  These mashed potatoes are on the "liquid-y" side, so if you're a fan of a thicker, more "chunky" type of mashed potatoes - add less cream.  But flavor was such a perfect backdrop to the luxurious duck.

Side Dish - French String Bean Salad

This one is going in the recipe box!  The flavor was delicate, the prep was simple, and its served room temperature which made it so easy to coincide with the rest of our cooking times!

Dessert - Pistachio Popover Creme Brulee w/ Grand Marnier Syrup

Okay, I'll admit - our popovers didn't "pop".  But we made do, cut off the tops and scooped out the filling.  Then we filled it with what may possibly be the best creme brulee I have ever eaten in my lifetime.  And the sauce - stunning!  Keep in mind... we had this sauce reducing for almost an hour... it will take a while and it still looks a little "runny", but who cares?!  It was just that good!

Appetizer Wine - 2010 Roussette de Savoie

Wine Rating - Not found

Perfection!  Light and smooth with no heavy oakiness.  It matched beautifully with the appetizers and did not overpower!  (Also, oddly enough, brought out the garlic flavors in the escargot!)

Dinner Wine - 2009 Le Nain Violet

Wine Rating - Not found

This grenache had flavors of blackberry and cherry with hints of roasted wild herbs.  It had great flavor and had light oak and medium tannins.  Thanks again to Harry's Wine and especially Christelle who really took on our wine pairing challenge with great finesse!  It was almost exciting to see three of their wine experts consulting on what would work best, and they did not steer us wrong!  This wine went so well with the sweetness and earthiness of the duck!  And Patrick has challenged us to an authentic Italian culinary Sunday... so look out, Patrick - we're going to make it as challenging (and fun!) as possible.

Dessert Wine - Alcyone

No rating

A red dessert wine?  Served room temperature?  From Uraguay?  YES, YES, YES!  This wine is a nice mixture of Barolo quinato, Marsala, and then its fortified with brandy.  And it was simply delicious!

Next Week - Asian