Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Tonight is the night the full moon loves most, 
     when ghouls and ghosts and goblins host ...

You too can host an elegant autumn repast to celebrate the holiday.  With the upswing of fall festivals complete with pumpkin picking, cider-sipping and getting lost in corn mazes, the increasingly elaborate haunted house tours and haunted hayrides, and more and more dramatic Halloween decorations popping up on front porches and gardens, everyone is getting into the act these days.  Halloween, it isn't just for children anymore.  While you may no longer pass for that delightfully cute trick-or-treating tot, leave the cheap candies and the bobbing for apples to the kids.  You can still enjoy some tasty treats with a few of your friends to make the holiday special to a grown-up's taste.  Incidentally, a note about the cheap candies: we are all guilty of this so by all means, go ahead, sift your way through the trick-or-treat bowl and fish out the favorites from your own childhood to hoard for yourself!  My guilty pleasures here are Nutrageous, Snickers and peanut or almond M&Ms.

Whether the imagination and creativity of a costume party is your idea of a Halloween celebration of choice, or a sit-down dinner at a festively staged table scape steadfastly remains your comfort zone, preparing a spread worthy of the occasion is as easy as incanting abracadabra over your stove. 

Focus on foods and beverages that reflect the seasonal colors and the flavors of a fall harvest.  Start with some drinks to welcome your guests, the darker in color the better.  A dark malty stout would fit the beer bill perfectly.  A couple of mixed drinks which would be perfect include a dark chocolate-espresso martini - it's as close to black in color as you can get - and the bloody-red pommegranate martini.  For the entree of the meal, I would recommend a roast, such as the pork roast in the recipe below which cooks with fall apples.  Sides can be any of fall's colorful bounty, such as baked acorn squash, roast butternut squash puree, brussels sprouts, purple potatoes, or a combination of roasted root vegetables which will showcase all of the colors of fall.  For dessert, bake up something sinful and decorate it specially for the occasion.  I will be making dark chocolate cupcakes with orange - both in color AND in flavor - frosting; then each will be finished with three candy corns on top.

The setting aids in staging the Halloween mood.  For background sound, sure you could use one of those recordings of scary sound effects, or a mix of Halloween songs; or if you are trying for the more sophisticated gathering I find that the Bach concerto is a perfect accompaniment to the evening.  In areas where guests will tend to congregate, arrange some bowls filled with quality chocolates and good candies in colors of black, orange and white.  A perfect example for this would be the Jelly Belly gourmet jelly beans in the aforementioned colors.  To enhance a mood of eeriness, limit lighting in the dining room and living room to the dancing flames of numerous candles set around.  For the table, I saw a perfect tablecloth in the JC Penney catalog: black with satiny black striping.  I would set out white dishes with that for contrast and elegant flare, and place a white mini pumpkin at each place to follow through the black-and-white theme.  Then for Halloween accent I would top each plate with an orange napkin.  Down the center of the table, try votif candles and pumpkins of varying colors, shapes and sizes.  So easy, lighting, music, table scape and seasonal menu are the makings for a perfect holiday, costumes optional.

Pork Tenderloin with Apples and Fennel
2 pork tenderloins
1/4 cup apple cider
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon salt

3 very firm apples, such as granny smith, cored, cut into thick wedges
2 fennel bulbs, halved, cored, sliced crosswise

Additional extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Fresh cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  In a small bowl combine cider, thyme, 2 tablespoons olive oil, brown sugar, smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, chipotle chili powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Rub mixture all over the pork, then place pork in the center of a large roasting pan.  Mix together the fennel and apple in a large bowl.  Drizzle with additional olive oil, add 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Toss to coat.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Arrange the fennel and apple around the pork in the roasting pan.  Roast for 30-40 minutes.  Serves four.

One redeeming quality about this dish is that it can be prepared in advanced, as could a couple of side dishes which would also roast at the same time in separate pans.  You could potentially take a sip from your drink, disappear into the kitchen, slip the entire meal into the oven, walk out and nod a response to somebody's conversation without missing a beat.  Plan to sit down late, after the visiting ghoulies and goonies have trickled down so that you aren't engaging in an evening cardio workout as you jump up and down to placate the trick-or-treaters who come a-knockin'.  One more tip for a little added fun to your gathering: rent a couple of horror flicks to watch after dinner over dessert and coffee.  My top picks? 'The Exorcist', 'Carrie', 'Dracula' (either the 1931 Tod Browning version starring Bela Lugosi or the 1992 film by Francis Ford Coppola) and George Romero's 1968 'Night of the Living Dead'.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tempted By An Apple

A couple of weeks ago, my husband Brian and I took a short drive east along Long Island's north fork, the fall landscape peppered with signs beckoning visitors to come and 'pick your own' apples.  As with flame-hued pumpkins and jewel-toned mums, apples announce to us all that autumn has arrived on the scene.  Harvest time for apples peaks during the months of September through November.  While the slogan which boasts that an apple a day keeps the doctor away may be a bit too ambitious, apple consumption can only help as they are a good source of vitamins A and C as well as fiber.  So there really is no excuse not to take advantage of picking a peck or two of that not-so-forbidden fruit.

Apples have been cultivated for 3000 years, resulting in hundreds of varieties which treat us to a vast array colors,  from lemony yellow to yellowish-green to the deepest shade of crimson red, textures from tender to sharply crisp, and flavors from tart to sweet.  Some delicious apples for snacking on include galas, honeycrisps, ginger golds and winesaps.  My personal favorite is the Arkansas black, garnet in color and very crisp, tantalizing the taste buds with notes of wine in its complex sweet flavor.  I recently had the good fortune to try a mutsu apple, which was originally cultivated in Japan.  The greenish-yellow specimen rewards with a crisp bite and a tart flavor, and now also heads my list of favorites.  For cooking and baking, granny smiths and macouns are ideal choices since they are firm enough to hold up through the baking process and their flavors orchestrate the right balance of tart and sweet.

Once you have migrated to the nearest apple picking mecca and make your homecoming with all those apples in tow, what can you do with all of them?  Aside from the obvious choice of eating them au natural as a healthy snacking alternative, apples seem to have infinite destinations.  In the fall they are the number one choice for baked goods such as apple pies, crostatas, crisps and muffins.  They can be pressed into apple cider, or fermented into hard cider for your seasonal drinking pleasure; and speaking of imbibing, Calvados - an apple brandy - is something worth adding to your bar goods.  When made into jellies and butters, these can be used to season savory dishes of pork, poultry and salmon.  Apples can even be sliced and cooked right in the pan with pork chops and a fall vegetable such as fennel or acorn squash.  Slices of apple are a perfect pairing on a cheese platter, particularly with cheddars, aged goudas and blues.  They are enjoyed in salads for an added sweetness and crunch.  They can be cooked down with sugar on the stovetop until you have applesauce, and we all remember one traditional Halloween treat: the caramel or candied apple on a stick - the nineteenth century Welsh adage touting an apple a day wards off the doctor, not necessarily the dentist.  Lastly, apples in their various hues make for elegant decor as they fill a basket or a wooden bowl and grace your dining or coffee table.

To store apples, they keep best in a cool, dark place.  The coldest section of your refrigerator will do; or, if you stockpiled in case of a winter-long, blizzard-induced quarantine, keeping them in an unheated part of your basement will work as well.

Oh, so many choices!  I would suggest purchasing one variety with which you are already familiar and that you love, plus one or two new varieties that your taste buds have yet to embark on.  Lastly, pick up some macouns, since granny smiths are obtainable in any supermarket at any time of year, and try this simple recipe for a perfect fall dessert.

Cranberry-Apple and Pear Pie
2 pie crusts
1 ¼ cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg             
1 12-ounce package fresh cranberries
3 apples, cored, peeled and sliced
1 anjou pear, cored, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg white, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Turbinado (raw) sugar crystals

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Mix sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Gently stir in apples, cranberries and pear.  Toss lightly until the fruit is incorporated into the sugar mixture.  Place mixture into one pie crust, then dot with the butter.  Cover with the second crust and cut four or five small slits into the top.  Seal and crimp the edges.  Brush the egg white mixture over the pie crust, then sprinkle with the raw sugar.  Bake for about 50 minutes.

So have you been inspired to take a bite out of your nearest apple orchard?  If there are none in your area, most farm stands and farmers' markets are brimming with a variety of the season's apple bounty.  If you happen to live on Long Island, however, I would highly recommend that during your next trek out to the east for all of its vineyard splendor and farm stands with their wagons overflowing with pumpkins galore, add one more stop to your itinerary. Woodside Orchards has two locations with apple picking opportunities: one in Aquebogue on route 25, and the other located in Jamesport on Manor Lane.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chowder House Rules

Okay all you chowder heads, 'tis the season to begin delving your spoon into a bowl of chowder, or in perfect Yankee slang tradition, 'chow-dah.'  Last night I made a sublime seafood chowder, complete with shrimp, scallops, calamari and crab, plus a homemade stock made from the local clam steamers Brian prepared for dinner the night before - so take note, recycling can be delicious!  To start tonight's dinner spread, I've made a butternut corn chowder, which will be a nice first course to a dinner of assorted grilled sausages, homemade corn bread, a salad of greens with a few fall delicacies and a perfect seasonal pumpkin ale.

Chowder, by definition, is a thick and very chunky soup.  The term 'chowder' is derived from the French term 'chaudiere,' which was the appellation of the cauldron-like pots used by fisherman to prepare seafood stews from their freshly caught bounty.  Thus, traditionally, a chowder was usually made from seafood. One of the most popular chowders enjoyed today is clam chowder, such as the traditional thick, white, creamy New England clam chowder.  We also have the tomato-based Manhattan clam chowder, and now in some local seafood restaurants here, one can order a bowl of Long Island clam chowder, which is actually a combination of the aforementioned two, because we Long Islanders just want it all, don't we?

Seafood is no longer a strict requirement on the shopping list for making chowder.  Again, a chowder is a thick and chunky soup.  There are vegetarian chowders, such as the one I've prepared for this evening, which is made from pureed roasted butternut squash - the thickening ingredient - plus corn and potatoes, the requisite chunks.  Visits to the local farm stand as the autumnal harvests appear on the scene are an inspiration to create steaming pots of chowders as the temperatures begin their descent.  Butternut squash, potatoes and corn are all ideal ingredients for a perfect chowder.

I cannot conclude this piece without a word of warning.  We have all seen those perfectly lined up cans on the supermarket shelves with their picture perfect labels boasting the contents of 'chowder.'  Do yourself, your family and all of your combined states of health a favor: leave them there to continue collecting dust.  If you live on Long Island, take a drive to the sound, go for a swim, imbibe some of the salty sea water.  You'll take in less salt and it will be a lot cheaper.  Or, you could simply make your own chowder.  I made the seafood chowder last night in no time flat.  I melted some butter, added some chopped carrots, onions and celery, plus some corn, sauteed that, added some stock and some potatoes, simmered until the potatoes were starting to get tender, threw in all of the seafood, simmered another few minutes until that was cooked, stirred in some cream and some parsley, and voila!  Nothing to it.  At least you won't experience difficulty with when trying to read those above ingredients.

I leave you now with my recipe for chicken corn chowder.  Most chowders containing meat or seafood can stand alone as a meal with only a simple salad.  This recipe is a great way to utilize some of that leftover roasted or grilled chicken.  My flavor weapon in this is liquid smoke.  You can find liquid smoke in either the spice and seasonings section or in the meat section of a well-stocked supermarket.  For the stock, if you haven't any homemade stock on hand, an acceptable substitute would be a quality all-natural stock from the supermarket.  I like Kitchen Basics, it comes in a perfectly sized four-cup carton, and the ingredients include only what you would use yourself and nothing that you wouldn't if you made your own.

Chicken Corn Chowder
1 pound cooked chicken, coarsely shredded
1/2 pound bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1/4 cup flour
4 cups chicken stock
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke
1/2 cup heavy cream

Fry the bacon in a stock pot over medium heat.  Once the bacon is cooked, remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels, set aside.  In the rendered bacon fat, saute the onions and pepper until the onion is translucent.  Add the flour, cook and stir for about two minutes.  Stir in the stock, then add the potato, corn, thyme, liquid smoke and the chicken.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for fifteen minutes or until the potato is tender.  Return the bacon to the pot, stir in the cream and simmer for another five minutes.  Serves 3.

As you slowly begin to retire your barbecue grill and pull out the stock pots from their summer sojourn in your kitchen cabinets, let your creative juices start simmering as you create your own fall chowders.  Just about any combination can work as long as you choose fresh, quality ingredients and the result is a thick, enticing, steaming potion fully loaded with chunky culinary gems to tantalize your appetite.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Choose It, Mix It, Stuff it!

Oh, just stuff it!  No, I'm not admonishing my readers with an expletive substitute.  I'm talking about squash and a wonderful fall dish I happened to make last week.  The winter squashes are now making their center stage entrance at all the farm stands, taking on those autumnal hues of gold, tan, orange and hunter green.  There are acorn squashes, nice when sliced and roasted with pork chops and apples and onions.  Acorn squash is also nice when halved and roasted with some butter and a little brown sugar.  Butternut squash, once roasted, has so many versatile presentations, from cubed and mixed into risottos or couscous to mashed and served alongside a roast Cornish hen.  Spaghetti squash, now that's a tougher one to figure out.  When halved lengthwise and roasted at 450 for about 30 minutes, you then dig into it with a fork and end up pulling out the flesh in strands which look like, well, spaghetti, hence the name.  What to do with that?  Well you can toss it with some butter, salt and pepper, or with pesto.  Better yet, you know what you can do with that spaghetti squash (come on now, altogether, say it): stuff it!

This is going to be a fun little recipe, in that while some of the ingredients will remain constant, others you get to pick from a couple of lists.  

1 spaghetti squash 

One of the following:
1 pound bulk Italian sausage, sweet or hot or combination of both
1 pound other sausage, such as chicken-apple, chorizo or andouille
1 pound ground beef
1 pound cooked, shredded chicken

1/2 large onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced

One to two of the following:
2 chopped bell peppers, any colors
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 bunch broccoli rabe, chopped
10 ounces fresh baby spinach
1 eggplant, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 cup diced chopped plum tomatoes

2 cups marinara sauce

One of the following:
1/2 cup grated romano, parmesan or asagio cheese
1/2 cup of shredded monterey jack cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheddar

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  Halve the spaghetti squash lengthwise, brush cut sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Place squash halves, cut-side down, into a roasting pan.  Roast for 30 minutes, or until a knife easily pierces through the skin.  Remove and allow to cool.  Once cooled, using a fork, pull out the flesh and put the strands aside.  Reserve the two skins, placed rounded side down now back into the roasting pan and set aside.  Reduce oven temperature to 350-degrees.

In a skillet, fry the meat until it is cooked through.  Add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent.  Add the remaining vegetable(s) of your choice and saute until they are cooked.  Stir in the marinara sauce and the spaghetti squash strands and mix well to combine everything.  Replace this mixture back into the two hollowed out spaghetti squash skins.  Top with the cheese.  Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.  Serves two.

Depending on your choices, you can make this Italian style, Mediterranean style, Southwestern style, really any style you dream up.  This is one of those recipes that isn't really a strict recipe, more like a conceptual guide.  You can add in any seasonings you want, such as some chopped green chilies or chipotles if you choose the chorizo and peppers, or a cup of sliced kalamata olives if you decide on the eggplant and chicken and in that case maybe you'd prefer to use feta for your cheese topping.  You could forego the meat altogether and just choose two or three vegetables that compliment each other.  I made this with sweet Italian sausages, red and green peppers and grated romano - simple but flavorful.  Winter squash is starchy, unlike summer squash, so this is a heavy entree.  You'll need nothing more than a salad and a well-matched beverage.  The joy of this dish is that it's easy to make, you can let your imagination create your winning combination, and it's hearty and satisfying - perfect for a cool weather weekday dinner.  So pick up a spaghetti squash next time you visit your farm stand or supermarket and see what you come up with - and feel free to brag and share some of your prized combinations, I'd love to hear from you.