Sunday, May 31, 2009

give 'em what they want

i love assemble your own dinner,
i used to worry that it was rude:
i invite people over and then
make them work if they actually want
to eat. 
but time has given me 
wisdom and now i realize it's one
of the smartest ways to feed a group
(or one other person who just
happens to live with you).

this way, you've supplied options.
it's up to them to decide
if they realize want the olives
on their personal pizza, or if they'd 
prefer ham. it lets them
monitor the spice level, 
stir extra cheese into their chili 
and avoid
the coconut 
they started worrying about
when they heard you were 
serving tropical sundaes for 

my mom used to do this all the time:
for a dinner party, she'd make large
batches of multiple kinds of soups,
then keep the pots on the stove 
as guests 
ladled their pick into a bowl
and then
sprinkled on scallions,
shredded cheese,
sour cream 
crunchy croutons.
in the summer, my mom
made quesadillas,
which we would design
ourselves after she
grilled a ton of veggies,
set out bowls of 
cheddar cheese,
and more.
once assembled,
she'd add a top tortilla
and bake them 
until golden and crispy.
i love the quesadilla party
so much that i've replicated
it on several occasions.

i've also turned to fish tacos
(and coincidentally, my mom has, too),
in recent years.
i first fell in love with at-home
fish tacos when i was hosting
our (sadly, now defunct) book club
and as the date got closer, the number of
people attending got smaller
and smaller. 
two days before, it was just me,
and two friends: lauren and lauren.
we decided to hold off on the discussion
until the next meeting with everyone and 
instead, just have dinner.
we had grown up together,
gone to camp together and had
somewhat recently reunited.
both of them were married,
i was living with larry and it 
seemed like a great opportunity
to just get together.
between the three of us - 
i don't eat meat, lauren doesn't eat 
cheese, the other lauren, shrimp
or rice - i felt challenged. i also
needed something somewhat stress-free
because they were coming over
after work. 

knowing that we all love
mexican food,
i finally landed on fish tacos and 
an adaptation of this recipe.
the night before, 
i pickled the red onions,
broiled, then blended together the 
tomatillo salsa
stirred lime juice into sour cream
for a crema.
when i got home from work 
the next evening,
i pulled everything out of
the fridge,
marinated the cod,
set out chips and 
a white bean dip that i had made
and waited. 
later, while lauren and lauren
sat at our tiny kitchen table
sipping wine,
i heated up tortillas,
mashed together guacamole,
grilled the fish,
and told them that i had decided to 
go to culinary school. 
i was so not stressed, and really,
what's the point of having
people over if you're 
miserable when your guests are

since then, i've made fish tacos
many times, for many reasons,
including just simply wanting
a delicious dinner.
i've changed it up,
sometimes adding a white crumbly
cheese if i have it in the fridge,
using corn or flour tortillas,
playing with spices, 
using a fresh tomato salsa
or, like i did this time,
using shrimp instead of fish.

but the one thing that i never
leave out are the pickled onions.
because we now love them so much,
i'm embarrassed to say that i never
had a pickled slice before the first
fish taco dinner.
they're very fast and completely addicting.
at this point, i've
made them more times than i can count.
i usually set the 
rice wine vingar,
lime juice,
salt to simmer,
before slicing the bulb.
when hot and extra bubbly,
i pour the brine over the onions,
now set in a bowl,
stir a few times and walk away.
while two hours of marinating is
optimal, i've gotten away with
45 minutes. at this point,
the onions still have crunch,
but they've turned from red
to pink
the sharp onion flavor
has settled considerably.
i love to make extra to serve
over eggs,
to toss into a salad,
place on sandwich or to
nibble on when there aren't
any pickles in the fridge.
usually, i prepare the onions first,
then slide the bowl
to the back of the counter
and work on everything else.

this time, when i made the shrimp,
i was planning to saute,
but at the last minute,
i placed them into a baking dish
that i had sprinkled with
ancho chili powder,
smoked paprika,
lime juice
kosher salt. 
once the shrimp
were in place, i repeated the
sprinkling, drizzled
in a little oil and
roasted until pink, slightly
smoky and tender,
giving me time to mash
the guacamole.
by the time the shrimp came out
of the oven,
the tortillas were warm
and everything was on the table.
i watched as i started with the tomatillo
salsa, then the shrimp, onions,
guacamole and a drizzle of crema.
larry, chose
first guacamole, 
then onions, shrimp, crema, salsa.
it's up you. that's my favorite part.
either way, you're entertaining a ton
of flavors, textures and hot/cold action.
the shrimp, slightly spicy, tender
and piping hot,
play so well off the cool and tangy red onions.
the guacamole adds creaminess,
the salsa, heat, 
and the crema ties it all

yes, there are a lot of bowls,
but really, that's the most
trouble this meal will
give you.
it's so good
and very fresh
and, a winner for 
most crowds.
and look at it this way:
yes, you have to clean the bowls,
but you're otherwise done:
now it's their turn to work. 

shrimp tacos with pickled red onions
adapted from bon appetit
in the same way that guests can assemble these anyway they want, feel free to use whatever you want inside your tortilla - consider this a guideline (which is why i feel ok about not giving exact measurements, below). you can use your favorite fish and grill or saute it. leave the seasonings off the shrimp and simply saute them. forget the guacamole, use sour cream instead or add thinly sliced chopped red cabbage. and if you're in a hurry, buy the condiments, heat up your protein of choice and eat. just don't leave off the onions (unless you really, really hate onions - but, even then, you might be surprised).

tomatilla salsa blended with a bit of chicken broth or water to thin it out slightly
store-bought crema, sour cream or sour cream thinned out with a bit of lime juice

1 bottle (12 ounces) rice wine vinegar
1 large juicy lime, juiced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 large red onion, halved and sliced

in small saucepot, bring rice wine vinegar, lime juice and kosher salt to a boil, stirring until the salt dissolves; let boil 1 minute. meanwhile, place onions in a heatproof bowl. pour boiling vinegar mixture over onions and stir a few times until onions just begin to wilt and are mostly submerged. let sit at least 45 minutes (preferably 1-2 hours). can be made up to one week ahead. cover; refrigerate.

1 juicy lime, halved
20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined (i used 21-25 count)
ancho chili powder
smoked paprika
kosher salt
olive oil

heat oven to 400˚f. squeeze the juice from half a lime into the bottom of 8 x 8 baking dish. sprinkle with chili powder, smoked paprika and a little kosher salt. lay the shrimp in the baking dish, separating slightly. squeeze with remaining lime juice and sprinkle again with the chili powder, smoked paprika and kosher salt. drizzle with a little bit of olive oil. bake 10-12 minutes or until pink, opaque and cooked through. 

corn or flour tortillas
to heat tortiallas you have some options. 
for flour tortillas, i'm very content to wet a paper, wring it out, roll a couple tortillas up inside it and then heat for 30 seconds in the microwave. you can also wrap them (flat) in foil and bake in a 350˚f oven 5-10 minutes or until warm and pliable. 
for corn tortillas, you can warm them in the microwave by using two wet paper towels and placing the tortillas in between. you can also heat them the oven or coat a pan with cooking spray and cook about 30 seconds on each side over medium-high heat.

to serve:
place pickled onions, tomatillo salsa, guacamole, crema or sour cream, lime slices and anything else that you're craving in separate small bowls. place hot shrimp and warm tortillas on the table and let everyone make their own.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

my true definition

when i think barbecues,
i think bar cookies,
ice cream
and maybe 

i don't think:
and yet, after venturing
on one of my notorious
missions for memorial day,
that's exactly what i picked.

not only was it a tart,
but one filled to the brim
with raspberries,
which on a scale of 
pineapples and blueberries
to fennel and celery
(ew, for me),
i would rank as 
mangoes (eh). 
but i'm a big fan of pleasing
the masses and as i've learned,
most people rank
much higher on their list
than i would.
and tarts...i love the idea
of a good tart.
in theory.

have you ever been to
restaurant week in nyc?
picture really expensive,
you'd have to sell your best
shoes plus maybe your first
born kid to go on a normal night,
but a place,
where for two weeks, they drop
their dinner menu down to $35 a person,
for a three course meal.
it's still not cheap (figure no less than $12 a person
for one delicious lychee martini or a very crisp
sauvignon blanc), but it's a great
way to sample a restaurant that you
otherwise most likely would not
consider. we've had amazing meals
and really good dinners at
this way. and we've had some
restaurant week cop outs.

but, there was one restaurant -
which to be fair,
i only visited this one time,
and maybe it was an off night,
so i won't call them out -
that when the bill came,
i was horrified by the $125 printed
across the bottom of the paper.
i was partially to blame.
the first courses were both meat,
so i went with the salad, which was
it was the main meal and the dessert
in which i made a grave error,
twice swayed by the word tart 
in the description. 
(in my defense, you order all three
courses in the beginning. and, 
i think they were worded in such
a way that it wasn't immediately
apparent to me
that i had ordered two tarts.)
the dinner was a vegetable tart
and when it came,
i was more than a little upset
by the second salad of the night,
sitting slightly askew atop
a piece of puff pastry.
this is not a tart,
i said immediately to larry.
but i ate it,
explaining that i'm sure 
somewhere - somewhere fancier than me -
it is acceptable that a tart
is merely something crisp
resting underneath other ingredients,
but to me, a tart has a full base
and sides and serves as a
this is not a tart, i said
over and over.
but the plates were taken
away and it was in the past,
so i attempted to get over it
and enjoy the aforementioned
lychee martini
before dessert.
then the lemon tart came.
do i even need to tell you that 
there was lemon curd laying
aside a thin biscuit?
nowhere in the description
had they said a deconstructed
tart. the menu had read:
lemon curd tart.

i was fed up. and annoyed
that i had been
taken twice,
especially as larry enjoyed
beef carpaccio, 
braised short ribs
steaming hot beignets
that he dipped into a
silky vanilla bean

i wasn't sure who i was more
upset with:
me, for ordering two tarts in one sitting,
the chef, for clearly not thinking out the
vegetarian options,
the management for being so freaking
snobby in the first place (there were
other problems, as well),
or again, the management for adding
a 20% service charge before tip.
we walked out of the restaurant,
past all the people at the bar,
who were in fact, fancy,
into the rain, while my hair
frizzed as we ran to the car, the 
whole time yelling,
those were not tarts,
i'll show them what a tart is.
amused, larry took 
to yelling "tarts!" intermittently 
as we drove home on 
the west side highway.

that was three and a half years ago.
when i think about tarts,
i still have a questionable reaction.
but this dessert was brand new - 
in the most recent bon appetit -
and featured a mix-and-press dough,
that was filled with
a mixture made from brown butter, which
was created, i think, just to make
butter sound special. 
but, boy is brown butter one of the
most heavenly, nutty, fragrant 
things out there. so maybe
it was created for another purpose.
and this fruity confection 
is made to feed large crowd -
who just maybe had just had
barbecued chicken and potato salad.
and did i mention it has sides?

as someone who was always
somewhat afraid of 
rolling out,
and transferring
pie dough
to a dish, i wish
i had started with this recipe.
no food processor or pastry cutter
you just melt butter, stir in 
and salt
and use your fingertips to
press the dough into the 
bake it - 
again, no foil,
weights or dried beans
needed -
let it cool,
then arrange raspberries

brown butter requires
little more than
a saucepot with a pale
bottom, a little patience
and a will to hold your nerve
while the butter goes 
from solid,
to melted,
to foamy and bubbly
and finally to a golden
then, you pull it from
the flame just before
it darkens.

mixed with flour and sugar,
it's poured into the shell,
cozying itself around
the raspberries,
before it heads into
the oven. here, it
puffs and turns golden,
dotted by the now pink berries.

this is baking for the baking
novice, which all of us
trained, experienced or
fresh to the world of
baking can appreciate.
the best part is that the 
small amount of work that
goes into this dessert
is all worth it,
whether it's for a bbq where
people may be expecting
to toast sticky marshmallows or
to follow a gourmet dinner
around a table.

the flaky and deep-flavored
buttery crust surrounds
the rich filling, broken up
only by the softened
still-tart raspberries.
it is one piece, it cuts into beautiful slices 
and to me,
it is a tart. 
brown butter raspberry tart
adapted from bon appetit magazine
just before making this tart i almost changed my mind and used apricots instead. i'm glad that i first made the dessert as it was intended, but next time, i think i will use apricots, which i would halve and place cut-side down in the baked shell. i think blueberries and diced strawberries would be delicious, too. in my oven, set for 375˚f as the recipe instructed, the tart threatened to burn twice: once when just baking the crust and a second time when the filling was setting, so i ended up turning it down to 350˚f after about 15 minutes. you know your oven best - bake accordingly.

7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup, plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
pinch of salt

1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
2 containers (6 ounces each) fresh raspberries

arrange rack in center of oven. heat oven to 375˚f. melt butter; stir together melted butter, sugar, vanilla extract, flour and salt just until it comes together. transfer dough to a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. using fingertips, press dough evenly into bottom and up sides of tart. 

place pan on baking sheet. bake crust 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown. remove from oven; place on rack and let cool completely.

in medium bowl, whisk together sugar, egg, vanilla extract, flour and pinch of salt. cut up butter and place in small saucepot with a pale bottom set over medium-low heat. let butter cook 6 minutes, or until it reaches a golden brown, swirling saucepot occasionally. it will foam and bubble twice before turning - once it turns brown and smells nutty, take it off the heat immediately to prevent burning. 

(the original recipe now instructs you to transfer the browned butter to a glass measuring cup immediately - this is to prevent further browning. i didn't do this, but i also knew that i was inviting disaster if i didn't move quickly. i was fine, but you decide your own comfort level.)

gradually pour browned butter into the sugar mixture, whisking constantly and swiftly. 

arrange raspberries in tart shell. gently pour egg mixture into pie shell. bake (on baking sheet) 40 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown and toothpick inserted in center of tart comes out clean. let cool completely. wrap well and store at room temperature until ready to serve.