Celebrating 2014, The Year of the Horse

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Is it too late to wish you a happy new year?  Not if you follow the Chinese calendar which ushers in the Year of the Horse today or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you are. For most of us, it’s been a new year since January 1st and as usual I began my year with an open house. I’ve been holding an open house on New Year’s Day for so many years, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.  It must be 20 years, at least. And every year I ask myself  “Do you really want to do this or are you doing it only because you’ve always done it?”  So far, I’ve always concluded that I really want to do it. Even for me, a professional cook, it’s a lot of work. Perhaps I should say, especially for me as a professional cook, it is a lot of work–no going to Costco or Whole Foods and buying prepared foods. Having a reputation of sorts to uphold, I figure everything (or almost) must be homemade and cooked from scratch.

There are any number of reasons I continue.  First, I love sharing my home with friends, and January 1st is the only time when friends from various parts of my life come together.  Also, as a caterer I must consider first my clients needs and tastes, and this is one occasion when I am the client and can create a menu solely to please myself (and hopefully, my guests). Therefore, I take it as an opportunity to  try new recipes or revive lost recipes. Too, having invited people over spurs me to complete small projects around the house that I’ve been procrastinating about. And finally, because years pass so quickly, I do find satisfaction in taking special care to celebrate the beginning of each new one.

How do I plan the open house? I begin thinking about a possible menu, weeks and sometimes months ahead.  Sometimes it will have an ethnic theme, other times it’s more a collection of dishes I like which I feel will go together. It would be easier were  my friends of one mind about what to eat.  Alas, that is so not the case. Some are vegan, others probably don’t feel they’ve eaten properly if  they didn’t see a sizable piece of meat on their plate. My menus, unlike so many holiday menus which can be heavy on meat, fat and sugar, lean heavily vegetarian, with only a bit of animal protein and with vegetables in the starring role. Also, as a matter of practicality, I very much favor dishes which can be made a bit ahead and served at room temperature. And although I have chafing dishes, I prefer not to use them.

Once I have a menu in mind, I make a detailed shopping list and head to Berkeley Bowl, where I love to shop because of their unmatched produce department and because I can most likely find everything else I need as well. This year, as he has for several years, my friend Frank Melanson came three days before the party to be my decorator, sous chef, and chief silver polisher. Frank helps with everything that makes a party run smoothly, and slips away before the first guest arrives. This year, my housemate, Mike Rother, also helped with cleaning and tidying, which is saying a lot, because when I cook, I make a mess!

(Find the full menu, descriptions of the dishes, and more photos after the jump).

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Encore: Try This Apple-Matzoh Pudding Cake For Passover

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I first posted this recipe two years ago, and it proved to be a hit, both with readers who saw the recipe on this blog,  and with diners in Palo Alto who actually got a taste.  I’m making it again for our dinner next Monday, as a way of celebrating the Passover holiday. In place of flour, this recipe uses matzohs, the unleavened bread traditional to Passover, ground into a meal. If you decide to try this is recipe I think there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find matzohs for sale at your local supermarket this week. And whether you celebrate Easter or Passover or neither, I wish you a great weekend. Recipe, after the jump.

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Gathering to Celebrate a New Year With Friendship and Good Food

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My friends in the Bay Area have been coming to my home on New Year’s Day for so long, we can scarcely remember a time before this tradition began. My modus operandi is that I try to keep it simple; I set out a buffet of six or seven dishes (plus bread and a dessert or two), most of which can be  prepared ahead and served at room temperature, and everyone helps themselves to food and beverages and then settles in wherever they can find room to enjoy a mellow afternoon of conversation. Sometimes my menus have a theme, and sometimes I just cook dishes I think will go together, and I try to challenge myself by making at least one thing I’ve never made before. This year, my friend Susanne Jensen offered to contribute homemade squash ravioli, and so I dreamt up a more-or-less Italian menu around that (I hope soon to put up a separate blog post on Susanne’s raviolis). So, here in words and photos are five dishes we made for this year’s celebration. For dessert I made the Italian fruit cake, panforte, which I previously posted here. All these dishes could not have been done without the help of my friend, the inimitable Frank Melanson. Frank came three days before the party to help with all aspects of preparation.

Top photo: If a classic summer salad consists of tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, of what would you construct a winter salad? That’s the challenge I faced in creating this dish. I based this salad on vegetables (and some fruit) which, in the Bay Area, are plentiful in farmer’s markets now. The major ingredient is savoy cabbage which we tore into pieces as you would lettuce, then blanched very briefly.  Once drained and cooled, we tossed in radicchio and belgium endive, as well as some fuyu persimmon slices and pomegranate, and some toasted walnut pieces which we lightly-glazed with maple syrup. While for everyday meals I seldom combine vegetables and fruits this way, for this holiday meal I wanted to create an especially colorful and seasonal salad. To dress the salad, I made a creamy vinaigrette dressing in the blender, with apple juice concentrate, lemon juice, umeboshi vinegar, garlic, mustard, salt and pepper and olive oil.

Photo below: Cannellini beans, are not only so Italian, but are also one of my favorites. When cooked just right, they’re rich and tender, and almost meaty. I soaked the beans overnight and then cooked them for about an hour, but I started checking them for doneness after 50 minutes. Cook beans in plenty of water, then the only real trick is in the timing: check them frequently towards the end of the cooking time. Overcooked beans turn mushy, o.k. for soup, but a no, no for salad, and undercooked beans just don’t taste right and can be difficult to digest. Once cooked and drained, I tossed them with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, garlic and parsley. Just before serving, I mixed marinated kale into the beans, and that recipe is here. Kumquats chopped small added an occasional textural and flavor surprise. See three more dishes we made for New Year’s Day, after the jump…

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Elegant and Easy-To-Make, Panforte Is Perfect For Your New Year’s Buffet

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Panforte, literally “strong bread” in Italian, originated in Sienna in the middle ages as a sort of tribute paid to the monks and nuns, or so the story goes. In any case, it’s now a rich, fruit and nut cake made for the holidays and enjoyed all over Italy and a good many other places as well. High end stores sell panforte at steep prices, but you can easily make it at home. This maple syrup-sweetened version goes together quickly and bakes in only about 35 minutes. Serve with coffee or tea.

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A Peek Into The Kitchen: Preparing Our Monday Night Thanksgiving Dinner

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James made this huge pot of cranberry sauce. Is it enough to feed 120, we wondered. Turns out it was. Later, we stirred in sliced kumquats which we'd candied in maple syrup.

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Since I’ve been blogging, my camera has become another of the tools I bring with me wherever I go to cook. Last Monday was no exception, as I hoped to capture a feel for what goes on behind the scenes in preparing our Monday Night Dinner Thanksgiving meal. Our Monday-before-Thanksgiving celebration is likely to be both the meal with the greatest number of dishes and the largest attendance of all the meals in a year. In short, there is the potential for stress! As usual, things started out well, and I got a number of shots of the early stages of prep, which I share with you here.  Later, also as usual, things got more intense, and I had to put away the camera and devote 100 per cent of my attention to cooking.

As you might imagine, a meal like this takes some planning. Two months ahead of time, James Holloway, our other Monday night chef, and I hash out the menu.  A week ahead, we divide up the menu, deciding who will be responsible for purchasing and preparing each dish. I bought the pie ingredients on Friday, and spent most of Sunday preparing the pies and the tofu cream. Monday morning I was up early, left my home shortly after 9 and made it to Berkeley Bowl, which was in full pre-Thanksgiving madhouse mode, to do my half of the shopping.  By noon I was pulling up in front of the First Baptist Church, our dinner venue. James was already on site, and had the cranberry sauce nearly done. Later, Paul Schmitt, who regularly serves as our prep cook and pot washer, joined us. He did a heroic job of frying our croquettes on the griddle, among other tasks. And thankfully, Jeff Coate, who volunteers occasionally, also came by to help out. We put him to work trimming the green beans and making up the croquettes (we welcome kitchen volunteers who are willing to pitch in and do whatever needs to be done). It was a real team effort and by 6:30 everything was done, and only the clean-up remained.  We have been working together so long, we are like that proverbial well-oiled machine.  It’s a lot of work, but because we like each other and get on well, it’s also a pleasure.  I should add, that it really does take a village to put on a community dinner like ours.  It only happens because of the faithful work, year after year, of our volunteers, supervised by dinner manager, Ilona Pollak.  In a future post, I hope to highlight what they all do. In case you missed it, yesterday’s post shows and describes in detail everything we made. All in all, it was a lovely evening.

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James gives the cranberry sauce a final taste (more photos after the jump).

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Menu of the Week: Wild Rice-Tempeh-Pecan Croquettes Star In Our Annual Thanksgiving Celebration

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There is no meal in America as ritualistic as Thanksgiving, with family and friends pretty much expecting the same dishes year after year, and with turkey in the spotlight. I’ve eaten a fair amount of turkey in my lifetime, and to tell the truth, I sometimes enjoy it still.  But in Palo Alto at our Monday Night Dinners, for 24 years we’ve been creating another tradition. In our new tradition, we enjoy the hearty flavors of the season, but the turkey lives to enjoy another day. Some hundred people joined us for our Thanksgiving celebration Monday night, a meal satisfying enough, I doubt if any of them missed the old bird. Our meal centered on a croquette made of short grain rice, wild rice, pecans and tempeh and served with a roasted mushroom gravy.  Side dishes included cranberry sauce, mashed sweet potatoes, green beans with slivered almonds, mixed green salad with pear vinaigrette and cornbread. We began with a French-inspired onion soup and concluded with pumpkin pie topped with tofu cream. What’s not to like about that? After the jump, I describe the dishes in more detail and give links to recipes. Tomorrow, I’ll post a behind-the-scenes look at how the four of us who worked in the kitchen put this meal together.  As for me, I’m grateful that I’m able to do what I love: cook beautiful food for people. I hope your Thanksgiving is as meaningful as mine already has been!

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Best of MacroChef: Six Sweet Recipes To Make For Thanksgiving

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Yesterday, I promised to repost six of my sweet recipes which would be great to make for Thanksgiving, or for any meal this time of year.  So here they are, beginning with cranberry sauce.  Yes, you can buy cranberry sauce, but why would you when it is so easy to make?  You’ll also find recipes for pecan pie made with dates and maple syrup rather than corn syrup and sugar, and for gingerbread cake, another of my favorites (serve with a tasty vegan caramel sauce). This season’s pears are still in the markets, so why not bake a pear spice cake?  And does the pie have to be pumpkin? Sweet potato pie is a swell alternative, or you could use my recipe as a template for your pumpkin pie–if you must! Finally, I’ve included a recipe using that sadly neglected autumn fruit, the persimmon. You really can’t go wrong with persimmon pudding, a dessert which just tastes like autumn. Take a moment to comment, letting MacroChef readers know what you’re cooking up for Thanksgiving! All recipes, as usual, after the jump.

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