Sunday, February 28, 2010

Deep in the heart of Texas!

Everything’s big in Texas..... and the rodeo is no exception.  Each year Houston is hypnotized for four weeks as the rodeo celebration takes over our fair town.  Parties, concerts, cook-offs, even fashions are dedicated to this nod to western traditions. As someone who has never gotten into the rodeo spirit, I use the festivities as a mere indicator that winter is officially over and spring is right around the corner.  So, with the Texas sun shining bright and a slight chill in the air to keep you guessing about pool weather, I’m going to celebrate Go Texan days with a Sunday brunch.  Our menu:
Fresh Blackberry Scones with Lemon Curd
Farmhouse Hash with Venison Sausage and Poached Eggs
Chocolate and Peanut Butter Squares
Time for jeans, boots, and great food...perhaps even a cowboy hat or two.  

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"You mess up the roux, you mess up the whole dang thing." - Little Brother

Roux: a cooked mixture of fat and wheat flour.

Simple enough right? Anyone who has attempted a roux based dish will testify to the deep complexity of oil, flour, and stirring. With two Louisiana natives scheduled to attend party #24 and the determination to not only master the roux but do so in a gluten free version I was more than a bit nervous. But, like most things in life, all it took was a willingness to stir through the burns.

I began Fat Tuesday prep in the early morning hours with the King Cake which I have renamed King Bread. The required time to knead, let rise, punch down, and roll out does tax your patience, but it also makes the house smell like a bakery; take the good with the bad! The entire process took about 4 hours and apparently should have taken about 4.5. I’ll get back to that. Once the cornbread muffins were complete, and the deviled eggs plated and set to chill, it was time to move on to the roux. I put my 2 year old down for a nap, turned off the TV and set in for an intense twenty minutes. Twenty-five minutes later I scrubbed out the pan, measured a new mixture of flour, another cup of oil and rubbed salve on my burned chin and hand. Thankfully, the second attempt gave me the lovely aroma of toasted pecans, and the coveted ‘old penny’ color. Still a bit paranoid of failure I attempted to taste the roux at this stage. Do not try this; hot oil and flour should not be put inside your mouth.

A few hours later, the party kicked off and beads and deviled eggs made the rounds. I was surprised not only by the tangy-not-spicy flavor of these Cajun Spiced Appetizers, but their utter popularity. If done by accident, the flavor profile was a great precursor to our spicy meal and guests enjoyed these morsels one after the other. Once gathered round the dinner table, the gumbo was served and instantly (thankfully) deemed delicious. The GF concoction did not inhibit the flavor or my guests willingness to devour their bowls, as well as what was left in the serving pan. With the gumbo pot empty, and the cornbread plate littered with mere crumbs, it was time to decide who would have a year of good luck with the King Cake.

I passed the cake knife to someone not privy to the baby’s location and slices were passed and admired. One bite of this cake and I tasted the doughy salt of uncooked flour.
“I don’t think this is cooked!” I yelled to my guests.
“That was my thought.” Ava answered.
Yes, my four hour feat resulted in a cake with a beautiful exterior and a raw inside. So, in true Mardi Gras fashion, tops came off... of the King Cake as that was the only part that was suitable for eating. (I did offer two boxes of Thin Mints which were a welcome substitute for those squeamish of eating any part of this disaster.) I was disappointed in my failure, but it did give everyone a fantastic laugh and the freedom to turn up the evening sillies. The night ended with Ava as our lucky baby recipient; perhaps we will celebrate at her house next year. I think it is safe to say that the bar is set low for dessert, but for great company and laughter it would be tough to beat. When it comes to good cake or good friends I’ll take the later. And, is it really Mardi Gras without at least one disaster?

Cooking Notes:
Deviled Eggs: It seems these once tacky buffet additions have a new following. Make some the next time you are stumped for appetizer ideas. With the wide variety of flavor profiles you are bound to find one to compliment your meal.
Cornbread: If you haven't thrown together a batch of cornbread you are truly missing out. It’s easy, it’s complete in under an hour and it is such a great addition to any chili or soup night. I love Martha Stewart’s recipe . This recipe calls for cheddar cheese, however I use any leftover cheese I have on hand. It’s especially good with pepper jack!

The Party in Numbers:
Parties Completed: 24
Weeks Before Deadline: 28
Bottles Consumed: 5, 6 were opened but one was corked and undrinkable!
Justified Purchases: zero!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Let's get fat... it's Tuesday after all!

My first experience with Fat Tuesday was in 1993 when my very strict, all-girls Catholic academy offered a lunch time party with boiled crawfish, cornbread, and extravagant cupcakes.  Add to this the ever so popular Jolly Ranchers served between classes and it was clear that this Tuesday was special. I was fifteen years old and sat at a picnic table with my best friend as she taught me suck the head of these small sea creatures.  The whole experience was both disgusting and exhilarating.  The next day we had ash crosses placed on our foreheads and endured six weeks without sweets.  
As someone who was raised Protestant, spent a few years Agnostic, 4 weeks as a Buddhist, and now a Nondenominational Christian, Lent is somewhat recognized in my house with prayer and a Southerner, Mardi Gras is recognized like the 4th of July.  So, this week I decided to throw my kind of Mardi Gras party; great food, great friends, with a nod to long standing tradition.  The fact that we are celebrating with Jews, Gentiles, Alternatives, and Conservatives alike... that’s just a day in the life. Our menu:
Cajun-Spiced Deviled Eggs
Cheesy Cornbread Muffins
Shrimp and Chorizo Gumbo
King Cake
Chorizo in gumbo?  Little Brother is on the guest list and he is French-Cajun with a mother who makes the best gumbo on this side of the country.  I had to put a spin on this dish for fear I would be asked to order pizza!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ready for football... perhaps not ready to post!

My tardy post is a source of embarrassment yet again.  It appears I can host a party and travel in the same week, however host a party travel and post remains out of my league. Eight days after the Superbowl, two dozen muffins, a dozen scones, three dozen fig newtons and a cross country trip later I am ready to share my Superbowl experience; a wonderful afternoon with both new and old friends and heart-hurting cuisine.  
As guests arrived on Sunday afternoon they were greeted with a hug, a kiss and a homemade pretzel fresh from the oven.  We opened wine and discussed game day favorites as the famous taco dip warmed in the oven. As if the food gods blessed our meal, a new guest arrived with not only a bottle of wine but his famous salsa.  With ten fresh jalapenos and a few tomatoes thrown in for fun, this mind blowing sauce was both deadly and the perfect compliment for our cheesy dip. Guests fanned their mouths before diving in for more, and as Carrie Underwood made her way through the national anthem, wings were placed on the grill and in the fryer.
Of the four wing varieties, favorites were Bobby Flay’s Hot Wings, and Guy Fieri's Tequila Lime.  A surprising second went to Emeril’s Vietnamese Grilled Wings which despite the foul smelling marinade (fish sauce first thing in the morning... not good) were delicious.  (Links to these recipes are posted below.)
On to dessert...everyone has a weak spot... something they just can’t master. For Charlie in Flowers for Algernon it was the word school.  For the Real Housewives of Orange County it’s showing emotion above the cheekbone and for me, it’s caramel. Anytime a recipe instructs me to cook sugar and corn syrup I usually run fast and far.  However, in a time-crunch, I let a friend select the dessert recipe and I scribbled down the ingredients and braved the grocery store without a mere glance at the procedure.  Eight hours before game time I learned that I had a caramel project.  Three attempts and two serious burns later I had what appeared to be a caramel-related frosting. Six hours later this frosting had failed to set and I was left with a caramel glaze.  I poured this thin sauce over my chocolate cupcakes and was thrilled when guests ate them with vigorous excitement.  Perhaps perfection isn’t always a requirement. 
Around 8:00 that night with the Saints named champions and the dishwasher humming through another load, I called the day not only a success but my favorite Superbowl party thus far.  Yes, I watched the fryer and the oven more than the game, but for someone who enjoys the party first and the athletics second, this menu is a winner. 
Cooking Notes:
Cupcakes: My crispy malted cupcakes called for powdered malt milk.  Three grocery store visits and no malt milk to be found. After some quick google searches, I subsituted dry ovaltine and had fantastic results.    
Sauces: The variety of wing flavors were the centerpiece of this party, however if time is not on your side, I think you could have an equally successful party serving one basic wing and several homemade sauces. For your NBA playoff party, or perhaps a simple summer barbeque I hope you throw down some homemade wings; they are so much better than quick-service options and friends both health-conscious and junk food lover alike will love you all the more. 
Napkins: I am always partial to cloth napkins however for this menu we set out two rolls of paper towels and they were both down to the cardboard by the end of the night.  This is a messy meal so keep your white tablecloth in the cabinet and have plenty of wipes! 
The Party in Numbers:
Parties Completed: 23
Weeks before deadline: 28
Bottles Consumed: 6
Justified Purchases: red plastic wing baskets

Sunday, February 7, 2010

From ladies who lunch to men who munch...

Most Superbowl parties are a food lover’s nightmare: frozen chicken tenders, chips with hydrogenated oils, and of course the ever so classy dip.  The worst Superbowl party I ever attended took place at a house with three televisions in one room and no visible books....once I got past that I could not find a buffet, snacks, or any readily available food.  About five minutes into our visit the Hostess arrived with a can of Miller Lite and the following inquiry: “do you need me to make you something to eat?”
Since that nightmare, I have actually enjoyed the Superbowl.  For six years it has been unspoken law at our house that the Superbowl belongs to the Brits.  From small apartments to new houses, new televisions, and lots of wine, we have spent every Superbowl Sunday together to relax, converse and enjoy homemade junk food.  This year as the guest list grows and the tradition remains, old friends and new will munch, cheer, and perhaps share a little wine.  Our Menu:
Mom’s Famous Taco Dip
Spicy Fried Wings
Grilled Vietnamese-Style Chicken Wings
Tequila-Lime Wings
Hot Wings with Blue Cheese Yogurt Sauce 
Sweet Potato French Fries 
Soft Pretzels with Mustard Sauce
Crunchy Chocolate Malt Cupcakes
A few hours of junk food, laughter, and hopefully an exciting football game.  Sounds like the best classless Sunday yet. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Liven up your Tuesday

On a dreary and cold Tuesday afternoon, soup salad and great fashions brought together a lunch bunch... Instant fabulous! 
I lost a bit of sleep the previous night worried that my timing issue would rear its head once more....I made up for this lost sleep by ignoring my alarm for 1+ hours the following morning.  Luckily, Food Intolerance was there as my partner in crime, prep, and place settings. Thirty minutes before the first knock at the door we stood in a spotless kitchen wearing dresses and heels looking at a completely prepared meal.  It appears we are growing.
As people arrived, mocktails served, and wine preferences announced it was evident we all had one thing in common: gratitude for an afternoon together.  Over soup, salad, stories of marriage, and the quest for the perfect dumpling/dipping sauce (apparently it involves two stores) the group came together in an interesting and cohesive manner.  My only disappointment had nothing to do with company and everything to do with sequence. Beginning the meal with the soup course meant that by the time we sashayed to the table, chose our seats and toasted each other, it had lost its piping hot quality... The next luncheon will feature dishes that move from cold to hot. 
Though the entire meal was well received, my favorite piece was the gluten free onion and shallot muffins; they were a fantastic replacement to the expected dinner roll. The next time you serve roasted chicken, or a hearty soup I encourage you to whip up a batch.  I assure you, they are well worth the extra time. 
Around 2 o’clock that afternoon the group dispersed with promises to meet again soon. The spirit of old friends is fantastic and the excitement of new friends has a spirit all its own.  I ended the day a bit inspired by this early party... Who likes breakfast?
Cooking Notes:
Mini Cheesecakes: Not only were these a sweet yet light way to end the meal, the needed chilling time required me to finish them the night before rather than the day of.  Hosting an early party? I highly recommend a dessert like this.  Less to do the day of means more time to sleep through your alarm. 
The Party in Numbers:
Parties Completed: 22
Weeks Before Deadline: 30
Bottles of Wine Consumed: 3
Justified Purchases: zero!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Shall we lunch?

At times, I view lunch as little more than an inconvenience; a mere speed bump to midday productivity.  However, in the South lunch is not just a meal it’s an event.  Fashions, menus, even particular months are dedicated to these treasured afternoon hours when ladies partake in light foods, a bit of gossip, and perhaps some wine.  This week, I have planned the ultimate midday meal: the luncheon.  Friends will don their pearls and tote their wine as we become the ladies who lunch of the high-society-blogosphere.  Our menu:

Grilled Pear Salad with Gorgonzola Cheese
Onion and Shallot Muffins with Venison Summer Sausage
Fragrant Carrot Soup
Marbled Raspberry Cheesecake
Perhaps this will be a more tame event...or perhaps not, Southern Belles tend to ring the loudest!