Reading Material: Pre-Thanksgiving Edition

Maddie pup in Central Park, New York, NY  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Maddie pup in Central Park, New York, NY | Image: Laura Messersmith

Thanksgiving is everything that’s best about the holidays – there’s a great dinner, no shopping stress, and plenty of time to nap in front of the fire in between movies and board games. One of my all time favorite memories is of Thanksgiving a few years ago when everyone was home at the same time – a rare occurrence now that my siblings and I are married and/or scattered across the country. There was a giant snowstorm prompting a cabin fever initiated sledding party on the giant hill behind the house, which naturally lead to hot chocolate spiked with ancient booze of unknown provenance from the liquor cabinet. Sabra crème de cacao, even if it’s from a dusty bottle, tastes amazing in homemade cocoa.

The one drawback is city traffic insanity – nothing like sitting at a standstill on the West Side Highway to put a damper on the spirit. So, Mike, Maddie, and I will make the great migration “over the river and through the woods” Tuesday night. Cross your fingers that we make good time! I’m on point to help with dinner and after the wonderful Friendsgiving we attended last weekend I’m thinking very seriously of re-creating the menu. The only thing I’m leaving out from the traditional spread is green bean casserole. It might draw some flak from Mike’s direction but I’m hoping with the Winter Greens Gratin on the table he won’t notice….

Whether you’re a host or a guest, I’ve collected some Thanksgiving-appropriate reading material to help you prepare for your own festivities. Happy Thanksgiving!

Reading Material:
I can only imagine the sorrow of the people who lost loved ones or were touched by the terrorist events in Paris last weekend, so it’s heartening to see Parisians fighting back by holding tight to their cultural touchstones. #tousaubistro (via Eater)

If Thanksgiving had a fairy godmother it would clearly be Ina Garten arriving in a swirl of kosher salt and fresh herbs. Hamptons Magazine has the inside scoop on how she prepares. Or you could watch her Food Network special with Bobby Flay…not that I’ve had it on repeat or anything.

Most of us will be grocery shopping this weekend for the great cooking marathon that is Thanksgiving. Food52 has some advice for surviving what is sure to be a hectic day at the store without forgetting a key ingredient.

We’ve all been there: Thanksgiving morning dawns and the bird is still solid as a rock. What to do!? The Kitchn has some wisdom on how to handle frozen turkeys.

Are you spending time with family over the holidays? Probably a good moment to brush up on back issues of Dad Magazine so you’re prepared for the dinner table conversation. Applicable to uncles and fathers-in-law. (via The Toast)

A brief pause during this most American of holidays for another piece from Eater on the Great British Bake Off. I am seriously Jonesing for more GBBO and it is killing me that PBS only has 1.5 seasons. Cruel!

Reading Material: Friendsgiving Edition

Image:  Laura Messersmith

Image: Laura Messersmith

This week was better than last in the Dept. of Getting Stuff Done, fewer Internet rabbit holes ensnared me, the cooking was focused, my props mostly behaved themselves during their time in the limelight, and this weekend we have a Friendsgiving party to attend. Yay!

As you might imagine I’ve been plotting and scheming what to make since we received the invitation with a mental Pinterest board about seventy-five items (25% of which were pies) that would be a-mazing to make. Overkill, much? Probably a good thing our hosts put together a list of assignments or I might have showed up with everything from appetizers and dessert to the bird itself…

With my role clearly defined – two sides (this Herbed Butternut Squash & Apple Mash and a Winter Greens Gratin I can’t wait to share with you) and some assistance with turkey roasting – I did find some time to peruse a few Internet items. Here’s what caught my attention this week.

Reading Material:
A timely and relevant question in all entertaining moments, but particularly in times of high-pressure cooking: what to wear? The New Potato has some thoughts on Friendsgiving outfits.

Am I the only one who mainlined The Great British Bake-off when Netflix released it a few weeks ago and then searched madly for more seasons? GQ has perfectly distilled my thoughts on why the show is so good.

And while we’re at it, The Toast continues to kill it with their list of horrifying desserts on GBBO. Just a small slice of “treacle and desperation tart” for me, thanks.

Cooking TV presenter, Rachel Khoo, who knows what it’s like to cook in a small kitchen first hand, summarized her essential cooking tools. Do you agree with her list? (via Food52)

The New York Times notes that written recipes have evolved over time - as a writer, reader, and follower (sometimes) of recipes it resonated. Do you prefer direct and to the point, or a bit more story along the way?

I haven’t made it to Sadelle’s in Soho yet, but Bon Appétit says it’s like something out of a Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. They had me at “whimsy.”


Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Cocktails and Cookies”

The Set-up: Ina and her friends are shaking up cocktails and baking up cookies today.

The Menu: Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup, Jalapeno Cheddar Crackers, Blood Orange Cosmopolitans, Whole Wheat & Peanut Butter Dog Biscuits

0:44 – We’re chilling with Rob Marshall and John DeLuca again (remember them from this episode?)

1:17 – While the guys are out on the beach walking their dog Gilly, Ina is whipping up some Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup.

2:23 – Ina prepped the ricotta ahead of time since it needs a little while to strain, but we get a re-cap of the process.

3:08 – She’s really not messing around with this breakfast, the ricotta gets a topping of maple syrup toasted almonds, fresh berries, and a slice of brioche.

4:31 – While Ina plates the ricotta she clues us in on how cool and successful Rob and John are – their movies include Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods.

5:44 – Breakfast is served while they scheme their plans for the rest of the day – one of which involves a wicker picnic hamper full of boozy cocktail ingredients. Well played, guys.

8:12 – Time for the cookie part of the show and it turns out that the “cookies” are actually special Whole Wheat & Peanut Butter Dog Biscuits for Gilly. One lucky dog to be sure.

9:25 – Aaannd, here’s why I love Ina. Her favorite descriptor for a messy plate is a ‘dog’s breakfast’ and now she jokes they’re “finally making [one].”

10:40 – Ina takes even dog biscuits seriously and these were overwhelmingly selected by dogs the clear winner in a blind taste test vs. boxed cookies. I guess I should make some for Maddie soon…?

11:37 – Uh-oh, the guys’ dough looks better than Ina’s and she’s getting competitive. Do not try to joke her down on her own show!

12:49 – A pause in the action for a moment to clean up, and I suspect they may have taken a nip of the cocktails already because this is an epic mess and they’re giggling like 14 year old girls. Yeah, I’m jealous too.

13:11 – Seriously, they’re sword-fighting with the rolling pins now. Who else thinks a food fight is about to break out?

14:06 Ina is too crafty, she’s cutting the dough out in bone shapes, egg washing them, and sprinkling the tops with oatmeal.

18:22 – Onward to cookies for human beings in the form of Jalapeno Cheddar Crackers and they actually are almost the same process as the biscuits.

19:50 – Ina explains to Rob and John that jalapeño peppers are very hot, especially if you leave in the seeds and ribs/membranes.

20:43 – John reveals an aptitude for rolling dough into logs and it’s jokingly suggested that he may have been a bread baker in an earlier career.

21:15 – A little Knife Skills 101: saw the blade back and forth to let the edge do the work, rather than just pressing straight down.

22:57 – Prepare yourself for the most adorable taste test ever as Gilly gets a first bite of her dog cookies.

23:14 – Now there are treats for the humans as the crackers come out of the oven They really do look crunchy and golden, mmmm.

26:26 – The booze hamper has been unpacked and Step 1 of Blood Orange Cosmopolitans is to “measure 2 cups of vodka, and you’re done!”

27:43 – Followed by another cup of Cointreau, and after that just 2 cups of blood orange juice and 1/2 cup lime juice. Which means someone is going to nap under a table later.

28:35 – Next Rob whips out the most massive cocktail shaker I’ve ever seen, which Ina immediately claims as the perfect size for the number of cocktails she needs. I bet that thing holds 2 liters, easily.

29:49 – The blood orange cosmos are a gorgeous color, like a Lilly Pulitzer pink went clubbing in neon. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere….

Final Thoughts:
Maddie rarely benefits from my cooking efforts, perhaps a little love of the home-baked variety is in order?

I love the idea of making a pitcher of drinks ahead of time just shake with ice and no need to measure them out one at a time. Brilliant!

Don’t try to tell me that there was no off-camera sampling of those cosmos.

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I’ve made a savory version of Ina’s homemade ricotta cheese before, but I was intrigued by the idea of having a sweeter Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup version for a morning meal. I also couldn’t resist the lure of almonds candied with maple syrup, especially maple syrup crafted by Merle Maple Farms (a company that's been run by family members on my mom's side for more than a century) and so here we are.

Ricotta Cooking – This seems intimidating until you’ve done it a time or two. I’d recommend using a larger pot than you think you’ll need. The milk/cream mixture needs room to bubble up, giving it space to do so means it won’t be all over your stove. Second, milk goes from zero to sixty when it’s coming to a boil, so watch like a hawk as soon as you see the first small bubbles form. Third, after the vinegar is added the mixture does look pretty terrifying, but trust the process – it works!

Ricotta Straining – I’d highly recommend setting-up the cheese cloth, sieve, and straining bowl before you start. Again, use a larger set than you think you’ll need – it’s far better to have extra space.

Maple Syrup & Almonds – As with the boiling milk, the almonds bear watching while they’re toasting in the pan. Mine turned golden brown after about 3 minutes. Something else to note: the maple syrup bubbles up quite a bit when it hits the hot pan (I used the Grade A Medium Amber in case you're curious), not to overflowing but more than I expected!

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, especially because this recipe comes together in stages. For the ricotta I used a large sauce pan (4 quart), large fine-mesh sieve, liquid measuring cup, rubber spatula, large bowl, and cheese cloth. To make the toppings and finish seasoning the ricotta I used a small sauté pan, large bowl, measuring spoons, a small cutting board and a paring knife.

The Verdict:
For me, Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup walks that line between sweet but not too sweet perfectly. The honey and vanilla push the ricotta toward mascarpone in flavor – slightly sweet, but still a hint of mild, creamy cheese – an excellent back drop for bright berries. The true revelation though: those toasty, nutty, rich maple almonds. OMG. Borderline an ice cream topping, but in small doses they’re the perfect note of indulgence. I naturally gravitate toward anything you’d typically put syrup on, but if you’re more of an omelet person like Mike, I’d skip this one.

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Breakfast Ricotta with Berries & Maple Syrup | Image: Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Eat Like a Local”

The Set-up: Ina and Jeffrey are in Napa looking for inspiration from local foods.

The Menu: Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta, Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Thyme Roasted Marcona Almonds, Napa Spritz, Basil Gimlet

0:25 – Ina and Jeffrey are starting off the trip with a visit to the St. Helena Farmer’s Market. How did I miss this when we were there last month?!?

1:13 – Ina appears to be relatively incognito, but I can see my fellow superfans in the background just barely resisting the urge to ruin the shot and dart over for a convo with the Contessa.

2:36 – Ina has a master plan for their market visit: see what’s really fresh and delicious and let that guide their lunch menu.

3:07 – The resulting recipe is Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta, which sounds A-mazing. My stomach is growling already – I should know better than to watch Ina when I’m hungry.

4:18 – Thankfully tomato high-season is just about here, which means I won’t have to wait 6 months to make this…

5:39 – Ina’s combining the cherry tomatoes and dressing, and I just realized this is essentially a milder version of bruschetta topping - red wine vinegar instead of balsamic, shallots instead of red onion. Brilliant.

9:24 – Finishing touches on the crostini – toasted pine nuts and a sprinkle of julienned basil leaves. Now for the taste test verdict from Jeffrey: he deems it “fantastic.”

10:20 – After that ringing endorsement Ina is off to Addendum, where Thomas Keller’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken is available for take out.

11:15 – Ooh, we’re getting a how-to from Chef David Cruz. Step 1: Brine the chicken overnight. Step 2: Double coat the chicken in seasoned flour and buttermilk. Step 3: Fry!

12:59 – This is how you know you’re the Barefoot Contessa: your fried chicken is already to go when you arrive and it’s hand-delivered by the chef. Oooh la la.

13:28 – Ina delivers the Buttermilk Fried Chicken to Jeffrey who declares it “delicious!” Ina tries to trap him by asking if it’s the best chicken he’s ever eaten, but J is too wily for that. He says it is, except for the one she makes. Well played, sir.

17:34 – The Garten’s are shaking things up (I’m so sorry) with a visit from local mixologist Jon Gasparini for their own private cocktail class.

18:45 – The bar he’s setting up is pretty amazing, more than just a folding table with a tablecloth thrown over it.

19:07 – Ina is making herself right at home in their rental house garden – nipping a few figs here and a sprig of thyme there. But let’s be honest, who wouldn’t contribute an herb or two to Ina’s recipes?

20:42 – Onward to the Thyme Roasted Marcona Almonds. I am officially obsessed with Marcona almonds ever since I sat in the backyard at our friends’ place in San Jose with a silver dish of salt & pepper seasoned almonds and a glass of sparkling wine. Perfect.

21:35 – Ina always cooks so simply, but most of her food has an East Coast vibe to it (natch) and these recipes are so Californian. I love the adaptation.

25:46 – Jeffrey, you’ve been working too hard, so I got you a surprise: a stranger slinging cocktails in the backyard!

26:13 – I realize I’ve lost your trust with that pun a few minutes ago, but I was quite prescient because now the Gartens really are shaking up the Napa Spritz!

27:24 – Don’t get me wrong, I love a fancy drink, but gently clapping a piece of organic lavender between your palms to “release the oils” is where I draw the line. You’re on notice Gasparini.

28:07 – Next, the Basil Gimlet, complete with more herb clapping. PS: Jeffrey is adorably precise with his attention to direction. He’s clearly putting all of his focus on doing everything juuuust riiight.

29:50 – Two strong cocktails down and the night is young! Why do I think things are about to pop off at the Garten manse? Cheers to Napa!

Final Thoughts:
I’ve been trying to cook more seasonally, but I still always have a recipe in mind when I shop. I need to push myself to be inspired from the ingredients first!

Cocktails are pretty much the hotness these days, although I think the “mixologist” trend might be waning. Probably time to up my game in that department.

Was any one else trying to resist talking like the Californians as they watched this episode?

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I can’t pretend that Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta requires extensive culinary skills - isn't that part of it's beauty? - but I did learn something from making this recipe.

Balance – I mentioned this before, but there are really minimal ingredients in this recipe, yet the flavor is incredible. I’m sometimes tempted to add more and more to my recipes, but cooking something really simple like this reminds me that the right balance of texture – creamy cheese, crunchy bread – and flavor – fresh tomatoes, salty feta

Knife Skills – The variety of produce and the varied sizes that are ideal in this recipe - minced garlic, small diced shallots, a julienne on the basil leaves – make this a great opportunity to practice your knife cuts.

Read the Recipe – Even with minimal ingredients I still forgot to toast the pine nuts and sprinkle them on top. Thankfully, the pine nuts aren’t as essential as say, baking powder in a cake, but a good reminder to double check everything and make sure nothing is missing! 

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Almost definitely. This recipe hinges mainly on whether you have a food processor. I used a 6 cup food processor, a liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, a medium mixing bowl, chef’s knife, serrated utility knife, and medium cutting board. A large wooden spoon and rubber spatula will also be helpful. I cheated a little and used the toaster for the bread, but if you’re doing more than a few pieces then a baking sheet will be a good addition. 

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith

The Verdict:
OMG. The ingredients are so minimal, yet the flavors in Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta are off the charts delicious not that you’d expect anything less from Ina. Definitely get the best grape or cherry tomatoes you can – they’re the star here – and ably supported by the salty tang of the feta. These little crostini are delicious on their own, but are transformed into an amazing meal with the addition of a poached egg and a crumble of bacon. Trust me on this – you definitely want to make this recipe.

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith