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Archive for January, 2011

What a world we live in these days! With the advent of list serves, chat rooms, and travel board forums, to say nothing of social networking sites such as Facebook, it’s possible to have real time conversations with people from all over the world on just about any subject you can think of. And is there a more delicious topic to share and swap ideas, information, and opinions about than food?

Tour Eiffel, Paris!

My story really begins 5 years ago when I was doing some dining research for a trip to Paris and found the info packed France forum of the website Chowhound ( http://chowhound.chow.com/boards/49 ) There was so much fantastic discussion and information being shared there and I connected with one of the board’s resident experts, a Parisian food blogger and expert on all French foodie things. Julien was incredibly generous, sharing great advice on the best places to eat in Paris as well as offering to make the reservations for us before we arrived. Eventually, we made a plan to meet in person for lunch at a very popular Paris restaurant. (You can find the link to his great ZeBlog on my blogroll in the sidebar!)

In that bizarre small world way, it turns out that his wife hails from the town next door to ours, in the good old USA, and he asked if I would return the favor of fine food info when they came for their twice yearly visits to the in-laws. Thus began a relationship of meeting up in Paris and in Hartford for fun and food, though as you might imagine, the Paris restaurant meet-ups tend to have a bit of a higher hog involved!

On our trips to Paris over the years, we’ve met and shared great food with a number of Julien’s foodie friends from all over, many of them Chowhound posters with whom I’ve been trading information with for ages but never dreamed I’d meet and have meals with in person! While virtual connections can bring relationships of value into one’s life, nothing beats real face time and meeting the eyes of those you dine with. So this past weekend was a real tribute to how the Internet can forge and foster lasting relationships in ways that were unheard just a short decade ago. Right here in our humble house in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut, we gathered folks from Paris, Philadelphia, and NYC for an outrageous home cooked feast that certainly couldn’t be beaten in any restaurant in this state.

Julien and I shopped and cooked for 2 days as the guests made their way by planes, trains, and automobiles to my doorstep bearing gifts of aged cheese, rare wines, and fancy desserts from NYC’s famous Momofuku. The house smelled intensely of the rich stock I had been reducing for 2 days, as well as the slow roasted lamb shoulder, that was so tender by serving time that it practically fell from the bone. I don’t think the guests want to know how much cream and butter went into the meal and I only hoped that no one dropped of cardiac arrest while still at our house!

steamers, dipping broth, cheeses

hors d’oeuvres

For a pre-dinner snack, we had clams, steamed in my special reduced chicken stock, dipped in a sauce made from that stock, lemon, and heavy cream. Briny and delicious. Along with a super aged asiago and fine St Andre cheese and some fresh bread, we could have made a meal of this alone! Fortunately, there were only enough clams for us to have a few each!

Cream of brocolli and carrot soup

Pasta in lobster cream

Such tender roast lamb!

With nine of us around the table, the dining began in earnest. First, a cream of fresh broccol and julienne of carrot soup, followed by pasta with hunks of lobster swimming in a seafood infused cream. Next came the lamb shoulder, crispy brown on the outside, tender as butter, and rich with the fatty good flavor of a very long, slow roast, served au jus with a classic potato dauphinoise.

After a very brief breather, we were ready for sweets and the dessert course was rich and sugary enough to send the heartiest of us into a diabetic coma. As a homage to one of my favorite French chefs, (Stéphane Jego of Chez L’Ami Jean) I made Riz au lait: creamy rice pudding with home made caramel sauce and nut brittle (recipe below) along with chocolate/coconut/pecan cookies. Our friends from NYC brought a wild assortment of pies from Momofuku, including something called “crack” which is like sugar pie as well as grasshopper, Snickers, and coffeecake pie.

As the gathering came to close with everyone heading back to their own particular corner of the world, we raised our glasses in a final toast to fine food and good friends and I felt deep gratitude for the richness of my life and the connections that were forged and fed by the world wide web but brought into the flesh this day.

Recipe for Riz au lait (Creamy Rice Pudding)

1 vanilla bean                         3 1/2 C. whole milk

1/4 C sugar                               1/3 C arborio or short grain white rice

2 egg yolks, room temp       1 1/3 C heavy cream

Slice vanilla bean in half an scrape seeds into milk in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Drop scraped bean in as well. Bring milk to a simmer and then stir in rice. Simmer rice in the milk, stirring occasonally for 35-40 minutes. Remove bean. Stir in sugar and simmer 2 more minutes. Remove from heat and stir in egg yolks and 1/3 C heavy cream. Pour rice pudding into a glass or ceramic bowl, cover with paper towel and then plastic wrap and let cool. Before serving, whip 1C heavy cream to soft peaks. Beat 1/2C of whipped cream into the pudding and then gently fold in the rest. Serve plain or with caramel sauce.

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It was a fine weekend of feasting for no reason and for good reason. Of course, as you know by now, the simple fact that it’s the weekend will spur me to get cooking and this past weekend was no exception. But we also had the added treat of an overnight in Boston where we would be seeing the eldest daughter off on a much anticipated trip to Israel early Monday morning. I thought it important to load her up with good old American fat and calories before sending her off to the land of our forefathers where hummus and citrus abound! The result was a lovely combo of home cooked goodies and rich restaurant meals which made for a fat packed and scrumptious weekend!

Fresh made tagliatelli. What alot of work!

Now I’ve done a great deal of serious cooking in my time, trying my hand at some pretty complex recipes but I’ve never made home made pasta. Good dried pasta is so readily available and inexpensive that it never seemed worth the effort to produce thin sheets of fresh pasta (and who has room for a pasta machine?!) but for the last couple of weeks I’ve been fantasizing about home made tagliatelle so I bought some fancy semolina Durham wheat flour and I was ready to roll. And roll, and roll, and roll… Now I understand why all those Old Italian ladies have such big arms! What a lot of work! But eventually I had a thin disc of dough that I cut into a small pile of gorgeous, wide yellow ribbons of silky pasta ready to go into the pot. Bathed in a creamy, cheesy spinach sauce and accompanied by golden brown pan fried chicken thighs and simple grilled bread the meal was everything I had dreamed about.

What a delicious dinner!

Now, if only there was something decadent for dessert, I’d feel complete.

But course I had made dessert! It was the weekend after all, when calories don’t count, so let’s live large! I have learned, however, that it’s wise to build in portion control so to ensure I wouldn’t indulge in too much of a good thing, I made a single portion sweets: almond tartlettes in a rich buttery crust with a chocolate ganache topping. Perfect with a scoop of Ben and Jerry’s pistachio pistachio ice cream. The recipe for this tart is at the bottom of this post.

Almond Tartlette

After such a fantastic home cooked meal, any restaurant meals that followed would have to be darn good and I’m happy to report that they were! Sunday brunch was at Stella ( http://www.bostonstella.com/ ) in the North end of Boston, a hip haven for the young and upcoming of the city. The place was loud and bustling and filled with youthful energy and had an excellent, fairly priced brunch menu. The eggs Benedict were quite good with plenty of unctuous, lemony hollandaise. Everyone who had the eggs, wisely substituted French fries for home fries and they were fabulous, crisp and golden brown. I opted for the rich brioche French toast which came piled high with fresh fruit and served with real maple syrup. There was a crisp bruleéd sugar crust on the toast that was fantastic. If only the coffee had been hotter it would have been a perfect brunch but even so, it was a fine repast.

Stella's Brioche French Toast

We left Stella’s fairly well stuffed, barely believing we’d ever want to eat again but of course, we knew that by early evening we’d be hungry so were happy to anticipate our dinner reservation at Rendezvous in Central Square, Cambridge ( http://www.rendezvouscentralsquare.com/ ). This Mediterranean influenced restaurant has a special Sunday night 3 course prix fixe for $38. What an amazing value for a feast of top notch food. The ambiance and service were quite excellent and everything we tried was great but the cassoulet and steak-frites were both over the top.

Cassoulet is only as good as the ingredients used and this one was primo. A fantastic house made veal sausage swam with duck confit and chunks of buttery pork in a ragout of perfectly seasoned white beans and carrot. Such a rich and satisfying winter dish!

Rendezvous' Winter cassoulet

And the steak-frites! A perfectly cooked skirt steak (for me, seared on the outside and bloody rare inside!) was topped with a gigantic pat of garlic herb butter and served with doubled cooked fries which surpassed the morning’s excellent potatoes by a mile. Add a mound of sautéed spinach and it was just too good!

Rendezvous' steak-frites: check out those fries!

 

The desserts we chose were tart, tangy and not too sweet: a lemon buttermilk pudding with huckleberry sauce and a pineapple pomegranate upside-down cake with vanilla bean ice cream. They were so delicious we gobbled most of them down before remembering to take a photo! My apologies to you but no regrets for me! I rolled out of Rendezvous feeling fat but happy, knowing that as I waved good-bye to my daughter at Logan airport early the next morning, I’d be climbing back on the food wagon for another week. It was good to be fully satisfied with my weekend splurges.

She's off to Israel

The final good-bye at Logan

Here’s the recipe to make the almond tartlettes. This makes 2 tartlettes but they’re very rich so each one can be split between 2 people, especially if served with ice cream. You can also double it for one large tart that will serve 8-10 people.

Almond Tartlettes for 2 

For the dough: 

¼ C melted butter                   ½ C flour

½ tsp vanilla                            1TBSP sugar

¼ TBSP hot water                  pinch of salt

Press dough inot two 3 inch tartlette pans with removable bottoms. Place on a baking tray and bake blind in 400˚ oven for 10 minutes. Turn oven down to 350 ˚ Cool shells for 5 minutes

Filling

¼ C sugar                                1 egg

1/3C almonds                          ½ tsp almond extract

3 TBSP soft butter                   ½ TBS flour

In a food processor, process almonds with sugar until fine. Add remaining ingredients and process, stopping once to wipe down the sides of the bowl, until well combined. Divide between the two tartlette shells and bake at 350˚ for 15-20 minutes, until filing is set. Let cool completely and top with ganache

 Ganache

¼ C chopped semi sweet chocolate                   ¼ heavy cream

Heat cream until scalded. Whisk in chocolate until fully melted and smooth. Spread over tops of tartlettes. Cool completely and remove from tart pans and serve with ice cream. Enjoy! And please leave some comments on this post!

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January skies can be so gray!

As I look out at the cold gray skies of early January and think about all the people beginning 2011 with a renewed resolve to lose weight, eat less fat and sugar, and exercise more I feel a deep depression setting in. The kind of depression that’s momentarily lifted by scarfing down the last piece of German chocolate cake, but re-settles directly after swallowing the final bite (and licking the plate!) I know from my work as a therapist and from personal experience, how unlikely folks are to follow through on New Year’s resolutions about food and weight, particularly people who live in colder climates.

It wasn’t so long ago that extra weight at this time of year was desirable and helped us to survive the winters when fresh produce was less plentiful. It was natural to eat the starchy foods of the late autumn harvests and to hunker down in front of the fire for the duration. But that was before electricity created the availability of 24 hours of simulated daylight and before our local grocery stores carried organic lettuce and fresh lemons 365 days a year. Even if we still feel the ancient pull to hibernate with our bellies full of carbs, there’s no excuse not to get to the gym after work and have a salad for dinner. In other words, no excuse for not being thin.

I, like every woman I know, have been battling with food and fat since I was a teenaged girl. I am not a naturally skinny person. If left to its own devices, my body is fairly slender at the waist but spreads generously through the hips and thighs. Not fat by any means, but not the wispy-willow, blown away by a puff of wind, kind of body that I have been brainwashed by the media to believe is most attractive. My natural body has always wanted to be a few pounds heavier than I wanted it to be and I’ve valiantly fought skirmish after skirmish with 2-5 lbs. As I’ve aged and it’s become harder and harder to win these battles, for the last decade, every few years or so I surrender to a couple of pounds but I can’t seem to just give up the fight and accept myself the way I naturally am and simply enjoy my food.

I often wonder what life would be like if our culture didn’t value thinness so highly. If we could be considered lovely in all the various sizes and shapes our bodies naturally are as opposed to being programmed to believe that only wafer thin is truly beautiful. We all know that obesity is a growing problem in the US (pardon the pun!) and I’m certainly not advocating ignoring the health risks of a serious weight issue, but there’s a wide gap (again, pardon the pun!) between a size 0 and a health risking weight problem. And I’m not talking about folks with serious food addiction, eating disorders, or survivors of sexual trauma who gain weight trying become invisible. Those are different categories and I know these are difficult issues to untangle, but here I’m talking about those of us who enjoy food but feel constantly tortured by our culturally skewed body image issues.

Most women do not even come near to today’s standard of beauty naturally. We diet and exercise, and torture ourselves trying to come as close as we can to what we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking is valued and attractive. For many, when failure to achieve the standard norm is inevitable, surrender seems the only choice and then the fat wins. But most of us fight the good fight, at least to some degree, never willing to wave the white flag but also never winning the war. When New Years rolls around (or Monday, or our birthdays, etc.) we take up the banner again and vow to attack the fat with a vengeance, mostly to be defeated by the first offer of something delicious to eat.

This year, I invite you to join me in saying NO to an unreasonable resolution to be thin. Let’s support each other in accepting our bodies’ natural beauty in all the various shapes and sizes. Let’s say NO to thin being in and YES to good health and a deep appreciation for the rich bounty that is available to us. Life is too short to not eat cake! Let’s surrender and finally win this thing!

Yes, I ate the last piece and it was delicious!

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