2008 Christmas Eve Dinner

My 2008 Christmas Eve Dinner may very well be my last Christmas dinner for a while. I loved the menu and I loved cooking it and serving it and eating it, but it was a two day affair (three, if you count shopping), and it was exhausting. I also spent more time in the kitchen during the meal than I really wanted to. I’m also not sure that it made sense financially – taking my guests to a relatively nice restaurant would have probably been cheaper. But hey, it was a nice experience and the food was great.
This time dinner included Mike and I, our two daughter, my father & sister, and our friends Lola and Ignatius. Great company.
I started by serving a Mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette. I wanted to use the very expensive balsamic vinegar Mike got me for Xmas last year. The results were very good.
This was followed by Butternut squash soup with cider cream. Apparently my father has not stopped raving to my mother about the soup. Everyone else also said they liked it, and given that Mika (my 6.5 yo) had seconds, I’m inclined to believe them.
The third course consisted of panettini served with Hot artichoke & spinach dip and Mushroom ragout. Everyone loved the dip – I enjoyed the mushrooms. They’re both dishes I might make again (the dip definitely if Kathy, my sister, requests it again) – plus I now have a dish for it.
The fourth course was supposed to be Rost Rack of Lamb with Madeira Peppercon Reduction served with Toasted Israeli Couscous with Pine Nuts and Parsley, Roasted cauliflower and steamed broccoli. Alas, I neglected to trim the lamb, and it took much, much, much longer to cook than I imagined. Alas again, by the time I realized that, I had already served the sides – so the couscous turned out to be the fourth course. Fortunately, it was absolutely delicious.
The cauliflower wasn’t as successful. I’d cooked it in the toaster oven because I didn’t have the main oven was busy with the lamb (and I only have one oven). I removed it when it started to brown, and that apparently was too soon as it was undercooked. I had to throw out most of it.
It took quite a while for the lamb to hit the table, and I did have to cut it in individual chops in order to cook it quicker (which reminds me, I really need a carving knife), but it was absolutely delicious. I would definitely recommend serving it on the rare side of medium-rare (as I did by default). It was moist, tender and incredibly flavorful. I did buy it at a good butcher, Enzo’s Meat & Poultry’s in Rockridge, and at $17lb it was $4-5lb more expensive than the lamb at the supermarket & Costco. But it was domestic, which I wanted, and I think well worth the price. It couldn’t have been better.
The sauce, on the other hand, was a complete failure. On the one hand, it would have been a crime to cover the taste of the lamb with any kind of sauce. Really, I should have thought of that. On the other, the sauce itself wasn’t that good. I didn’t like the briny taste of the peppercorn, and I might have reduced the madeira too much because I thought it was almost bitter. Fortunately, I had the good sense of only putting a little bit on my plate.
Dinner ended with two desserts. I made a Low sugar apple-sauce for my dad, and everyone ended up loving it. It’s made with apple juice concentrate instead of sugar – but apples still have a lot of natural sugars, so it’s still not the best.
I also made Cornmeal cake with buttermilk ice cream. I don’t think this dessert was as popular as the other one, but I personally liked it very much. The cake was sweet and a tad dry, but the ice cream added the moisture it needed. They both definitely compliment each other very much – neither is as good by itself. The buttermilk ice cream was pretty good – it had great consistency, very creamy though dense (and not at all crystally), and its lemony taste is reminiscent of cheesecake. It’s definitely a dessert I’d recommend.
I had planned on serving hot chocolate with speculoos, a Belgian spice cookie I’d made the day before. IMHO, the speculoos were great, and the kids themselves loved them – but Lola didn’t seem to be very impressed. A couple of people ate one, but most of us were too full from dinner. I did leave some for Santa, who ate at least one 🙂
And that was dinner. We had a Treana viognier/marsanne wine with the earlier part of the meal and a Deloach Zinfandel with the latter part. The white was better than the red.-

2008 Hanukkah Dinner

Last night I threw a Hanukkah dinner and invited my friends Desiree and Charlotte along with their families. It went very well, though I did spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing latkes. I’m thinking that next year I may prepare them in advance and keep them warm in the oven – while I love the fresh latkes, it did keep me away from the party for most of the evening.
This time I served my famous Mixed Green Salad with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette, to great acclaim as usual. It really is a wonderful salad.
The latkes were from my usual recipe. As usual they were great. I served them with sour cream and apple sauce (homemade by Desiree).
The main dish was Wine-Braised Brisket of Beef with Caramelized Pearl Onions and Dried Apricots. Quite good, and my guests ate almost all of it (either they were very hungry or they really liked it).
For dessert I wanted to make homemade doughnuts, but this simple recipe was a complete failure. The doughnuts were too crispy on the outside, semi-raw on the inside (I do admit this was probably my mistake, it was hard to keep the oil at a constant temperature), and just not very tasty. I gave up and bought regular donuts and the donut store.

Vietnamese pork & Lambshanks

This week, I’ve made a couple of more dishes from my bible, epicurious.com. I did my usual “I have this ingredient, now let’s find a recipe that uses it”. In this case it was star anise, which I’ve had for a time, and have now used in three recipes in a week 🙂
Monday night I made Vietnamese lemongrass pork. This was a dish similar to the grilled pork served at Vietnamese restaurants. It was quite good, though not really restaurant quality. I think what was missing for me was the grill flavors – I used my George foreman instead. The pork had a subtle lemongrass taste, and the accompanying sauce was very good – but perhaps had one too many tablespoons of fish sauce. I don’t feel compel to make this dish again, but then again, I seldom make a dish more than once.
Last night I had Braised Lamb Shanks with Coriander, Fennel, and Star Anise. Often times recipes are the result of evolution, cooks take a dish passed on by others, modify it somewhat, until with each modification it becomes something else. This lamb dish, however, seems to be the sort of dish that has to be specially created and experimented on by a very creative cook. It uses elements from different cuisines to come up with something original.
It was also quite good. The flavors were really different, the pepper and the fennel stood out, but were mollified by the other spices. I wouldn’t say that I was in love with it, and like the dish above, I probably won’t make it again, but I was definitely glad I made it and ate it, and do look forward to the leftovers. Mika, my 6.5 yo, liked the meat as well.
I served the lamb with an Israeli couscous/orzo/babychickpea mixture from Trader Joe’s, and I think the two went very well together.

A couple of chicken dishes I recently cooked

Chicken with lemongrass sauce from epicurious. Mike liked it, I thought it was OK but I couldn’t really get the lemongrass in very small chunks, even though I have a good food processor. And the little lemongrass stalks were pretty unpleasant to chew. I wouldn’t make it again.
I made this roast chicken w/ rosemary orange butter recipe last night. Perhaps it would have been good with the sauce, but the vegetables burnt (my fault, I forgot to stir them), so I couldn’t make it. Without the sauce the chicken was pretty tasteless. My regular rotisserie chicken is better.
As usual, I’m just recording this so if I come across the recipes again, I will know not to make them.

Pizza & brownies

Today I baked. Mika wanted me to make brownies from scratch, and as I’d never made them, I decided to give it a shot. I used this recipe from epicurious.com, which had gotten great reviews. The recipe was for a 9″-square baking pan – but who has a 9″ baking pan? The two standard ones pyrex ones I have are 8X8 and 9X13. So I decided to use the 8X8 one instead.
I should have used less batter. As it was, the brownies rose a lot and were undercooked – they were pretty crispy on the top but still wet in the middle. They were pretty good, I thought, though I still like Trader Joe’s brownies better. The girls didn’t like them. I’m actually happy about that, as I had no idea just how bad brownies are. They are pretty much sugar and fat. I don’t think I’ll make them again. I should say that these brownies are particularly rich, so you wouldn’t want to eat more than a little bit anyway.

A couple of days ago Mika said she wanted to make pizza – from scratch. I was resistant at first, but I figured, what the heck, I can try it – so I did today. Needless to say that Mika’s enthusiasm for the pizza was all gone, and she didn’t help at all. And as the only topping she likes is cheese, she wasn’t even excited about putting toppings on the pizza.
To make the dough I used this recipe, which had also gotten pretty good reviews. I’d never made pizza dough before – my only experience with pizza had been using the pizza dough you can buy at Trader Joe’s. But, making it from scratch gave me the opportunity to use the hook attachment on my mixer, which had been rather useless until now.
The dough itself wasn’t hard to make, just a matter of mixing the ingredients. I was amazed to see that it actually rose – my aunt used to make pizza when I was a kid, and she often complained that it didn’t rise. But we are in summer, and it’s pretty warm here, so I’m sure that helped.
The problem was working with the dough. It was so hard to get it to not stick to the working surface and my hand. Turning it was impossible, stretching it just as hard. *sigh* These, btw, were the same problems I’d had with TJ’s pizza dough, so my technique may just be terrible.
In any case, I finally sort of stretched it and made the pizza.
For the sauce I used this recipe, also from epicurious.com, which basically consisted of simmering a can of crushed tomatoes with a little olive oil for an hour, and then seasoning with salt. I was surprised at how good it actually was.
But the results – the dough, the sauce, the cheese (I made a mozzarella only pizza) weren’t great. I thought the dough tasted pretty good, but the problem was that the taste of both the dough and the sauce completely overwhelmed the cheese. You couldn’t taste it at all. Now, mozzarella is a very light-tasting cheese, so I understand that, but all pizza-places manage to make mozzarella pizzas that taste much better.
Oh well. I’ve learned my lesson, from now on, I’ll order in.

Balsamic-glazed sirloin steak

A couple of nights ago I made balsamic-glazed sirloin steak from a recipe from epicurious.com. Mike thought it was quite good, but I didn’t like it. I thought it lacked flavor, and it wasn’t very tasty – despite all the good ingredients in the marinade. It was also not as tender as the steak I’d made a couple of nights before, despite being pretty much the same type of steak. I wouldn’t make it again.
So, you ask, why blog about it? Well, it’s so if I come across the recipe again, and I’m tempted by it, I can do a search on my blog and find that I didn’t like it the first time around 🙂

39th Birthday Party: Hawaiian Luau

For the last few years, I have been celebrating my birthday with a Free Form Games murder mystery role-playing game. This year I chose their newest addition, Lei’d to Rest, which takes place during a luau in a Hawaiian beach. There was no question that I’d have to make Hawaiian food for dinner, and fortunately there is no lack of online resources as to what to cook for a home-made luau. The menu consisted of the following – recipes and comments are below:

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Braised Bbq Spareribs

A couple of nights ago I made this recipe for braised bbq spareribs. I thought it was OK – Mike really liked it.
I was happy to find the recipe because it’s winter and I don’t want to have to BBQ outside – most recipes for ribs require a grill. IT was also extremely simple to make.
I cooked them for a little over 1 1/2 hours, they probably needed more time. They weren’t as tender as I would have liked and they were still a little pink. I coated them with E&J’s BBQ sauce which, IMHO, is the most delicious BBQ sauce out there.
In all, I may try to make them again, but I might also look for another recipe.

Braised lamb shanks

I made this recipe for braised lamb shanks today – a dish very similar to oso bucco. It was pretty good, the shanks were succulent and fall-of-the-bone (even though I cooked them under 2 hours, rather than the 2 1/2-3 the recipe called for). The sauce was pretty nice, but nothing outstanding. I’d probably look for a new recipe next time.
I served it with whole wheat couscous and steamed broccoli.

Azorean food

I finished my “A” cuisines several years ago, only to later find out that I had neglected to cook any Azorean food (the Azores are little islands that belong to Portugal). There is a whole website online dedicated to Azorean recipes, but I wasn’t really inspired by them. I did find a very good recipe for chicken with wine, which was all I cooked for my Azorean menu.