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Baked snails–escargots, as the French call them–is not a dish that many children outside of France recall from their childhood. For my brother and I, escargots conjure up memories of elegant dining rooms with heavy silverware and courteous waiters. Although they were hard-working, middle-class immigrants, my parents liked the good life. They traveled, made their own wine, ate in fine restaurants–and saw no reason to exclude their children from any of that. For this I am forever grateful. Their attitude has had a large part in shaping who I am in a positive way.

As a kid, I always had very firm ideas about what I liked to eat; although I was not as adventurous as my younger brother, I was always willing to try new things. I vividly remember tasting my first escargot, slightly squeamish at first, but ultimately reveling in the strange and unfamiliar texture and the intense flavor of the hot butter and crushed garlic. I would eat the sole of a shoe if it were browned in butter.

Still, I always had trouble connecting escargots to the snails that crawled along the underbrush of lettuce in our garden, much in the way many people fail to connect the perfectly packaged meat in the supermarket to animals in slaughterhouses. Some people can do this really well and become vegetarians. Others, like myself, remain unrepentant carnivores.

Then my mother told me how she had made escargots for our family while she was in Serbia. I was dumbfounded . “But where did you get the snails?” I asked her. I couldn’t imagine you could find cans of snails in Serbian supermarkets. Back then it was difficult to even find feta cheese.

My mother laughed. “Well, the garden, of course.”

“Good thing you didn’t poison anyone,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach. But at least now I got it.

Making snails edible is a lot of work. You have to purge them of toxins, clean them, simmer them, and extract the snails from their shells before you can eat them. No wonder most people buy them already prepared–and still in those attractive shells. For less than a couple of dollars, though, you can buy canned escargots the world over. Rinse them and they’re ready to sauté with parsley and garlic butter. When I confess that I sometimes make escargots for lunch, people look at my as though I’m a lunatic. Or at least extremely self-indulgent. I won’t argue with the latter. But making escargots doesn’t have to take any longer than putting together a sandwich, and eating them can be a lot more exciting.

This recipe is from The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan, my favorite French cookbooks of late. Anne has a whole chapter on snails and frog legs in this beautiful book, and even a write-up on how to catch and prepare your own snails for hard-core escargot enthusiasts.

Bon appetit!

Escargots à la Bourguignonne


Serves 6

Ingredients

one 14-ounce/390-g can large or medium snails

1 shallot

2 or more garlic cloves, to taste

1 cup/250-g  butter, softened

3 tablespoons/45-ml cognac

salt and pepper

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Directions

1) Preheat oven to 425F/220C. Drain and thoroughly rinse the snails. To make the compound butter, combine the shallot and garlic in a food processor or chopper and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the butter and pulse until blended.

2) Work in the cognac, salt, pepper, and then the parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If more garlic is desired, mince it first so it mixes into the compound butter evenly.

3) Add a small dollop of butter to each section of escargots baking dishes. Set the snails over the butter and finish with more butter. Bake until very hot and bubbly, about 5-10  minutes. * The broiler may be turned on for the last few minutes for extra browning.

4) Serve immediately alongside slices of fresh or lightly toasted French baguette.

*Be sure not to overcook or they will become very tough.

I never thought I’d ever say this, but just between you and me, I’m all fooded out.  It’s not just the indulgences of Christmas, but of my birthday, friends’ birthdays, my grandmother’s birthday. It seems like half the people I know were born around Christmas, and the last couple of weeks have been a non-stop party in my mouth. It’s been a good time–a fabulous time. But really. Sometimes too much is too much.

And it’s not over yet. With New Year’s around the corner, a break from the kitchen is still a way off. I know what some of you are thinking. What!? A break from the kitchen! You don’t need a break from the kitchen. Ever. You adore cooking and do it every chance you get. You cannot survive without creating something ravishing in the kitchen on a daily basis. Sorry to say, but I am not of your ilk.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cooking–except when I don’t. I’m not sure why this is. Sometimes I think it’s my terminal aloneness that is to blame. It gets too easy to eat Cheerios for dinner when no one is waiting for you at home (remember Jerry Seinfeld’s cereal boxes?). Sometimes a part of me agrees with my friend G., who once proclaimed, “Cooking for yourself is lame.”

The great thing about food blogging, though, is that every meal is a photo op, an idea for a post. Although only a small fraction of what I cook and eat makes it into this space, I’ve learned to be creative when putting together quick meals and in this puff pastry has been my greatest ally.

I haven’t worked my way up to making puff pastry myself yet, but I often have a roll of the store-bought stuff in the freezer. It’s perfect for whipping up little appetizers or free-form tarts like this one. The leeks, fresh cheese, and dash of herbs give it a touch of elegance. Serve it at a party and your guests will never believe how easy it is to make. I often eat this tart with a salad for a weekend lunch, but it could be cut into bite-sized squares for your next soiree.

Happy New Year!

Quick Leek & Fresh Cheese Tarts

Ingredients:

Makes 4 tarts

2 sheets puff pastry

1 egg

3 large leeks, sliced, white parts only

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons water

herbs de Provence

salt & pepper to taste

1/2 package Boursin cheese *

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 400F.  Cook leeks in butter and water, covered, until the leeks are soft and have abosrbed the liquid, about 20 minutes.

2) Roll out puff pastry. Cut each piece in half. Make borders for the tarts by cutting thin slices of the pastry from the sides of the squares and placing them on top. Brush with egg.

3) Spread pastry squares with leeks. Crumble cheese over top. Sprinkle with herbs and a bit of salt and pepper if necessary.

4) Bake until pastry is golden brown on the edges and cheese is melted, about 20-25 minutes.

* Boursin is a fresh herb cheese with a soft and crumbly texture that is available at most grocery stores and cheese shops. It may be substituted with goat cheese; a herbed cheese tastes best with this tart.

hummus

If you regularly get your hummus in the deli section of your supermarket, I implore you to stop right now. I have a hummus recipe that will knock your socks off. Why should you bother making your own hummus? Because the stuff in the grocery store or your local deli is an inferior product, full of preservatives and bad fats–as is the case with most store-bought dips and spreads. It’s easy to make, and requires just a few ingredients, which you may already have on hand. The only step that takes any time at all is the soaking of the chickpeas, but you simply put them in a pot of water overnight and they’ll be ready for you the next day.

Now I must warn you. An authentic hummus is never presented as pictured here, in a towering mound or plopped in a bowl slapdash and any-old-way. This is a matter of my taking artistic license, so please forgive me. Hummus should actually be spread on a plate and smoothed down from the middle outward, creating a well in the center. Then you sprinkle it with a bit of ground cumin and drizzle it with olive oil and lemon. You can also infuse some olive oil with paprika, strain it, then drizzle it over the hummus, finishing with a thin line around the plate. Authentic and delicious, and pretty impressive for a plate of beans. You’ll be surprised with this hummus; it is substantial, yet light and fluffy at the same time from all that blending. I love to eat it with chunks of really good pita, warmed in the oven, or serve it with a plate of cut-up vegetables and multigrain crackers. A few choice olives wouldn’t hurt, either.

This recipe comes from Paula Wolfert’s amazing book The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, which I intend to review here soon. For now I will just say that if you haven’t cooked from Paula’s fabulous recipes, then I urge you to do so as soon as possible. Paula is often hailed as the preeminent authority on Mediterranean cuisine. Her  books contain recipes from France to Syria and all points in between. She has traveled all over the globe in search of these recipes, which are marvels of authenticity and accessibility. By picking up this one book, I know more about Mediterranean cuisine than I ever thought I would. I highly recommend it.

Paula Wolfert’s Hummus

Makes 2 1/2 cups

hummuspic

Ingredients:

1 cup dried chickpeas (250 ml)

1 small onion, peeled

1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste) (60 ml)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) coarse salt

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or more, to taste (50 ml)

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (15 ml – 30 ml)

ground cumin, paprika, or pomegranate seeds for garnish

Directions:

1) Put the chickpeas in a pot and cover with water. Soak overnight.

2) Drain; rinse and cook with the onion in water to cover until the chickpeas are very soft. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid for the dip. Set aside 1/4 cup of chickpeas for the garnish. Discard the onion.

3) Stir the tahini in its jar until the oil is well blended. Place tahini in the blender or bowl of the food processor. Blend the tahini, garlic, and lemon juice until the mixture “whitens”.

4) With the machine running, add the reserved cooking liquid. Add 1 3/4 cup chickpeas and process until well blended. Correct the seasonings with salt and lemon juice.

5) Allow the dip to mellow at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. If you would like a smoother dip, push it through the fine blade of a food mill and discard the skins of the chickpeas.

6) To serve, spread dip on a shallow serving dish. Use the back of a spoon to make a well in the center. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with ground cumin, paprika, or pomegranate seeds.

oko

Okonomiyaki. It’s a mouthful. A delicious mouthful.

I’d never heard of okonomiyaki until I had it at a local Izakaya, a Japanese type of tapas bar. In fact, I didn’t know the Japanese even had tapas, but once I tried some of these delectable treats it made the average sushi joint seem a little wanting.

Okonomiyaki is popular street food in Japan. Some describe it as “Japanese pizza” but it’s more like a savory pancake filled with a variety of ingredients. Okonomi means “what you like” in Japanese and yaki means “grilled” or “cooked”. Okonomiyaki is largely associated with the Kansai and Hiroshima areas in Japan, but is popular throughout the country. The toppings and batters vary from region to region. In Osaka, Okonomiyaki are often made from a batter of flour, grated yam, and cabbage, and cooked on special hotplates called teppan. They are then topped with a sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes, and pickled ginger.

In Hiroshima, the ingredients are not mixed together but layered, consisting of items such as pork, squid and sometimes cheese. Noodles are also common, and topped with a fried egg. The amount of cabbage used in Hiroshima okonomiyaki is considerably larger than that used in Osaka.

It had been awhile since I had tasted this little pancake, and I was suddenly craving one like crazy. I decided that it was time to figure out how to make it myself; then I could have okonomiyaki anytime I wanted–and I wouldn’t have to share.

I immediately decided that I wouldn’t make them with cabbage, but with zucchini. I don’t always do well with cabbage, and after all, okonomi does mean “what you like”. I decided I liked zucchini.I was going to make them with a batter, and even had one mixed, when I decided to go with a similar method used by Heidi Swanson on her blog 101 Cookbooks and simply combined flour with the zucchini. I wanted my okonomiyaki to be mostly vegetables, without any dough-like flavor or texture. I grated the zucchini and squeezed out the excess water, added a couple of eggs, and some flour and panko breadcrumbs for binding. I also decided to add a lot of green onions (scallions) for what is often referred to as negiyaki, similar to Korean pah jeon or Chinese green onion pancakes. Finally, chopped shrimp was ultimately what gave these such depth of flavor. I don’t know if a Japanese person would consider my concoction truly okonomiyaki, but they did the trick for me.

Now that I have okonomiyaki figured out, I can tell you that they’re going to be a staple at my lunch table. Sprinkle them with bits of nori (Japanese seaweed) and don’t forget to drizzle them with mayonnaise, which makes the more delicious.

Okonomiyaki –  Savory Japanese Pancakes

okono


Makes 6

Ingredients:

3 cups grated zucchini

3-4 green onions, chopped thin

1 cup chopped shrimp or prawns

1 clove garlic, chopped fine

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons nori (seaweed flakes)

2 eggs

1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

2/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

pepper

oil

chopped nori, green onion, and mayo for garnish

Directions:

1) Grate the zucchini and squeeze out extra water by the handful. In a large bowl, combine it with the rest of the items until a dough-like consistency is reached.

2) Heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Scoop large spoonfulls of the mixture into the skillet and press down with a spatula until very thin. They should be as thin as possible without falling apart.

3) Cook for about 4 minutes on each side, until deeply golden brown and carefully slide onto a plate. Garnish with mayonnaise, nori and onions, and serve immediately.

crisps

Looking back on my posts over the last four months, you could definitely say my blog is skewed to the sweet side of things. Taking up baking for the first time since I was a teenager has been a fun adventure and oddly satisfying. I say oddly because the truth is, don’t really have all that much of a sweet tooth. That’s not to say that I don’t love my pastries or indulge in my fair share of chocolate, but given a desert island choice, I would forgo the sweet for the savory.

I adore stick-to-your ribs meals like pork chops and mashed potatoes, hearty stews, pasta dishes smothered in cheese sauce and heaped with even more cheese. With all that comfort food, you would think I need a lot of comforting. My idea of a snack is a plate of cheese and crackers alongside a handful of cornichons. I can eat this every day, and I usually do.

Which brings me to the cracker conundrum. Take a look at most cracker boxes at the supermarket and you’ll find a long list of bad fats and unpronouncable ingredients. Stuff that I’d rather not put in my body on a daily basis. I go for the artisan crackers from time to time, but a box of them–like my favourite Raincoast Crisps–can set you back seven bucks. I can eat half a box of these in one sitting.

Raincoast crisps come in a variety of flavours: rosemary raisin & pecan, fig & olive, salty date & almond. With their slight sweetness and nutty, crispy texture, the crisps are delicious enough on their own. With a smear of pate or a dollop of antipasto, they’re out of this world.

So when I came across this little recipe for a similar crisp in a little book on pates and terrines, I had to make them right away. The one recipe alone was worth the price of the book. You can use any type of nuts you like. I love the taste and look of pistachios, but almonds, pecans, or hazelnuts would also be great choices. You can also experiment with other ingredients, adding a touch of rosemary or a sprinkling of sesame or sunflower seeds. 

It’s important to refrigerate the loaf overnight, as it must be very cold in order to slice thinly. You could pop it into the freezer for a couple of hours if you don’t have the time to spare. Like biscotti, the loaf is baked as a whole and then as individual slices. The original recipe says that they need to be baked for 20-25 minutes but I find this far too long. If they are indeed sliced thinly enough, they will start to burn after ten or fifteen minutes. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t do so.

You can serve these crackers with an endless assortment of accompaniments, but keep in mind that they’re on the sweet side. I like them best with a mild blue cheese like Bresse Bleu, or a lemon or pear Stilton. You could also have them with smoked salmon or a myriad of pates and cheeses. I like to serve them with a bunch of grapes or some figs that have been soaked in Marsala wine.

There’s something about these crisps that seem the height of indulgence. Be sure to have them on offer the next time you have guests over. They’ll surely be impressed, but no more than yourself. For such an elegant cracker, they’re incredibly easy to make.

Twice-Baked Pistachio Crisps

adapted from “Pates and Terrines” by Fiona Smith

makes about 30 crackers

crispsfigs

Ingredients:

3 eggs

1/4 cups sugar

1 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons flour

3/4 cup pistachios

Directions:

1) In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together until well mixed. Fold in the flour and pistachios, taking care not to overblend.

2) Spread the mixture into a 8×4 inch loaf pan lined with parchment paper. Bake for 45 minutes, until lightly browned. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

3) Wrap the loaf in aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.

4) The next day, preheat the oven to 325F. Cut the bread diagonally as thinly as possible with a sharp knife and lay the slices out on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

5) Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until crisps are lightly browned. Keep checking them in the last 5 minutes of baking, as they burn easily. Let cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

watermelI have an idea. Serve these watermelon wedges at your next barbecue or picnic without telling anyone they’ve been soaked in tequila. Your guests won’t know what hit them! What fun. Better, at least, than those silly Jello shots that were popular a few years ago.

When I saw this recipe in the July 2009 issue of Martha Stewart Living I had one of those why didn’t I think of that moments that I often have when I look through this magazine. The naysayers may take issue with Martha’s recipes, but no one can fault her creativity.

Be sure to soak the watermelon for at least an hour. It will become more flavorful the more you soak it. Garnish with coarse sea salt for extra pizazz.

Tequila-Soaked Watermelon Wedges

watermelon

from Martha Stewart Living July 2009

serves 4

Ingredients:

1 small seedless watermelon , quartered and cut into 1-inch wedges

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup water

1/2 cup tequila

1/2 cup Triple Sec

2 limes, cut into wedges

coarse sea salt

Directions:

1) Arrange watermelon in a single layer in two 9×13 baking dishes. Bring sugar, water, tequila, and Triple Sec to a boil in a small saucepan. Cook until sugar dissolves, stirring continuously, about 1 minute. Let cool slightly.

2) Pour syrup over watermelon and refrigerate for an hour. Remove watermelon from syrup and arrange on a platter. Squeeze limes over the melon and season with salt.

guac

I love certain foods I used to hate. Mayonnaise. Cilantro. Avocados. Okay. Maybe love is a strong word. Especially when it comes to cilantro. But I now use these foods often whereas I once disdained them. My mother used to tell me this would happen when I got older–especially when she was serving liver for dinner. For the most part, my mother was right.

I disliked avocados for their texture and bland taste. In fact, I still can’t eat them plain–scooped from their skins and eaten like fruit. An avocado still needs a lot of embellishment–salt, some lemon juice and even a dash of cumin. In fact, guacamole is pretty much a staple in my fridge these days. I eat it with corn chips and Mexican food, of course, but I also like it in wraps, on BLTs or even a scoop of it on my salad.

To make 3 cups of guacamole you need 4 avocados, preferably the Haas avocados from California. Make sure they are ripe; they will just give to the touch when you press them. I find most of the avocados sold in the supermarket hard as rocks, so I put them in a paper bag overnight to accelerate the ripening process.

avocadoes

Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits. Score each half by running a knife vertically several times down the length and then diagonally; this will give you a nice, chunky guacamole. Turn out into a large bowl. Immediately add the juice of one freshly squeezed lemon and toss.

tomatoes

Seed 1 medium-sized tomato and cut into small dice. Cut 1 small red onion into small pieces as well. Add these to the avocados, along with 1 minced garlic clove. Toss with about 1 tablespoon each of salt and pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of cuminpowder. You can also add a few dashes of tabasco sauce if you like.

shcake

If you’re anything like me, your first thought when invited to a party is “wonder what the food will be?”.  I love a good party; putting on the little black dress, mingling with new people, seeing friends I might not have seen in awhile.  But to me, the food is always the glue that holds the whole evening together. If the hors d’oeuvres are bad, I will undoubtedly be disappointed.  If they’re good, I’ll tell everyone how fabulous the party was.

Truth is, there’s a lot of bad party food out there. When you’re in your twenties, it’s acceptable to put out a couple of bowls of chips and pretzels and a plate of sausage rolls.  When you’re in your late thirties, plus … not so much. I know, I know.  My food snobbery is showing.  Or maybe it’s the way I was raised by my European parents. They had their share of parties and when they did they went all out. They prepared for days. My father prepared plate after plate of charcuterie, my mother baked tortes and spent hours hunched over her recipe box, looking at appetizer recipes. BYOB was considered the biggest insult.

A few years ago, when I had a housewarming party at my new condo, I was surprised at how quickly the food was gobbled up.  The guests descended on the food like a flock of hungry eagles. Everyone told me how good it was, but to my mind it was nothing special. With a new mortgage to pay, my budget was tight, and the offerings at my table were not what I would have wanted them to be.  Even so, it seemed I knocked it out of the park that night.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a party. The spread consisted of a large platter of fruit, jumbo shrimp cocktail, and slabs of cheese served up with herbed flatbreads.  It couldn’t have been more simple or more delicious. I went away with the menu for my next party.

Feeding guests at a party doesn’t have to be intimidating. You don’t need to spend hours rifling through Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook or serve mahi mahi.  All it takes is a little creativity and attention to detail. For me, my little mini muffin tins are a boon. The possibilities are endless. You can make miniature polenta cakes, phyllo purses, or–one of my favorites–mini crab cakes.

The recipe here is for shrimp cakes. They’re lovely with either shrimp or crab. Since shrimp is what I usually have on hand, it’s what I ended up using the last time I made these. This recipe is adapted from the April 2009 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

 

Mini Shrimp Cakes

Adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2009

Ingredients:

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

3/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, divided

1 large egg

1/4 cup sour cream

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided

1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

6 ounces fresh shrimp, chopped

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1/4 cup (1/2 sick) unsalted butter, melted

shrimpbowl

Directions:

1) Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer in a medium bowl until smooth. Beat in 1/4 cup parmesan and egg. Add sour cream, lemon peel, 1 1/2 tablespoons chives, and salt. Fold in shrimp.

2) Preheat oven to 350F. Generously grease 2 mini muffin tins or spray with cooking spray. Toss panko, 1/2 cup parmesan, and the rest of the chives in a small bowl. Drizzle with 1/4 cup melted butter and toss with fork until evenly moistened.

3) Press 1 rounded tablespoon panko mixture into bottom of each muffin cup to form a crust. Spoon 1 generous tablespoon shrimp mixture into each cup. Sprinkle rounded teaspoon of panko mixture over each.

4) Bake cakes until golden on top, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans for 5 minutes. Run knife carefully around each cake and lift out of pan. Let cool to room temperature.

shpanclose

These cakes can be made 2 hours ahead. Rewarm at 350F for 6-8 minutes. Arrange shrimp cakes on a serving platter and garnish with a sprinkling of chopped chives or parsley.

 

So tell me … what do you like to make for a party?

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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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