Thursday, July 2, 2009

To-Do Lists / Fruit, Spice, Party

I am a fan of lists. I make them for just about every slightly-larger-than-small task; sometimes they are even color-coded. This I learned from my mother, and I’d like to think that my list-making skills have a lot to do with how well I did in college. This said, here is my to-do list for you, reader, now that it is July and hot outside.

First, use up that extra fruit and make dessert. There’s something about hot weather that begs for fruity desserts. Don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate, but it’s not quite as satisfying on a 90°-plus evening.

This cherry-peach-almond clafoutis (adapted from, you guessed it, A Platter of Figs) was pretty killer. Almost custard-like in its filling, this confection really highlights the sweetness and texture of the fruit. And you can experiment with different fruit selections – I like to combine like fruits (stone fruit with stone fruit, or berry with berry, but I’m sure anything fresh would work beautifully).

Second, eat spicy food. It may seem counter-intuitive on a hot day to fill your body with capsaicin, but it really is satisfying. I’m not quite sure what it is – there’s got to be a reason why so much spicy food comes from hot parts of the world (Southeast Asia, anyone?). Maybe it’s because if your insides are burning up, the outside temperature doesn’t seem quite so hot.

Or maybe it just tastes good, like this dinner from Woodlands in Charlotte, NC. I went there with my parents, one of my mom’s friends from college, and her husband. Unfortunately there is no picture of the beautiful appetizer plate, but this is what we shared for dinner:

(Starting at the top, going clockwise) Kadai Bhindi (Okra), Palak Paneer (Spinach and Paneer, a yummy Indian cheese), Aloo Gobi (Potatoes and Cauliflower), Baigan Bharta (Eggplant), and Dal Tadka (Yellow lentils). We ate this with the requisite rice, onion naan, and raita. All of it was awesome, all vegetarian, and all spicy. If you’re ever in Charlotte, you should definitely visit (don’t be discouraged by its location in a less-than-picturesque strip-mall neighborhood or its extremely bizarre service).

Third, have a party. And cook a lot of food. It helps to have graduated from college, or to have someone else graduate, or accomplish a similar feat, but having a party just to have a party is great fun too. For my party, I invited 50 or so friends, family, and family friends over to celebrate, drink, and eat what I like to call Italian tapas. I had some help from my family, especially with the set-up (thanks!!), but this was definitely the largest cooking endeavor I had planned and executed largely on my own. It was definitely a rush, and I would definitely do it again (especially since everyone seemed to love the food).

Tomato and Garlic Crostini (from A Platter of Figs)

Charcuterie: Prosciutto di Parma, Coppa, and Salami from the Dekalb Farmer’s Market

(No photo: Olives, Artichoke Hearts I marinated myself, and Roasted Red Peppers)

Asparagus Salad with Basil and assorted fresh Summer Peas

Orzo Salad with Tomatoes and Herbs

Pork Meatballs with a Tomato and White Wine Sauce

I took most of my recipes and ideas from Bon Appetit/Gourmet/, and, since I was cooking so much, I didn’t modify them as much as I usually do. Instead of re-printing recipes, I’ve provided the links for your reference. I did, however, put my own spin on the meatballs. Here’s my version:

Pork Meatballs with Tomato and White Wine Sauce
(Adapted from the A16 Cookbook)

I’ve scaled this back down to the original recipe size. If you are really dying to make about 175 meatballs, feel free to multiply the numbers by three and you’ll end up with about what I made.

For Braising Liquid:
Olive Oil
½ onion, diced
1 garlic clove, finely minced
fresh oregano, chopped
fresh thyme, chopped
dry white wine
28 oz. diced San Marzano tomatoes
chicken stock

For Meatballs:
2½ lb ground pork
kosher salt
about ½ teaspoon dried chile flakes
about ½ tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
4 oz. freshly grated Parmesan (at this point in my day, I was in a hurry, so I gave the cheese a pretty rough grate, but it would probably be better to grate as finely as possible)
1 lb. stale bread, cubed
1 onion, diced
1½ cloves garlic, chopped
½ bunch parsley, chopped
½ lb. ricotta cheese
a few tablespoons milk
4 eggs

I made the braising sauce first, so it could have time to cook and meld flavors. To prepare it, heat a tablespoon or so olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven (you’re going to stick all of your meatballs in here after they’ve browned, so make sure it’s big enough–5-7 qt. should be about the right size). Sweat the onion with a bit of salt. Once it has softened, add the garlic, oregano, and thyme. Sauté for about 30 seconds, or until the herbs are very fragrant. Add about ½ cup of wine and rapidly simmer until it no longer smells like alcohol, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes with their juices and bring back up to a simmer. Cover, lower the heat, and cook for at least 30 minutes, or until all of your meatballs are ready.

To make the meatballs, preheat the oven to 400°. Mix the pork with a generous amount of salt, the chile flakes, oregano, onions, garlic, parsley, and Parmesan. Mix by hand gently, just until uniform. Put the bread cubes in a food processor and chop until you’ve got fine bread crumbs (You can also do this in a plastic bag, with a hammer-like object, but it’s a lot more work). Add the bread crumbs and the ricotta to the meat mixture and mix, adding milk as needed until everything is moist and blended. Add the eggs and mix just until the eggs are incorporated.

Form the mixture into balls, a little smaller than golf balls, and place onto an oiled rack on a roasting pan. You can place them very close together, but make sure that they don’t touch. Roast for about 10-15 minutes, or until browned. I had to do this in about 7 or 8 batches, and I placed the browned meatballs in a bowl until all of them had been browned.

Once the meatballs are browned, add them to the braising liquid in the Dutch oven, stacking gently if needed. If the liquid seems too low, add some chicken stock until the liquid reaches, but doesn’t cover the top layer of meatballs. Bring back to a simmer, cover, and cook over low heat or in a 300° oven for 2-3 hours, or until cooked through and very flavorful.

Allow the meatballs to cool as much as possible in the liquid and remove them to a serving platter. Turn the heat up to high, and bring the braising liquid back to a boil. Cook until the liquid has reduced by half, skimming off fat and residue as you go. Once the liquid is reduced, strain through a fine mesh sieve (Chinois, if you have it), and return the strained liquid to the saucepan. Reheat right before drizzling over the meatballs.

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