Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Dinner to Please Any Crowd

One major epiphany I had in my university days as I swam languidly in cookbooks, finding my passion for food and cooking, was the magic of something called slow-roasted tomatoes. I don't recall exactly how I came about making them, but I do remember sinking my teeth into one, still warm from the oven. My heart skipped a beat, I couldn’t believe the candy-like juices swirling in my mouth and how the flavor of seemingly innocent everyday tomatoes had increased ten-fold while sunbathing in the oven. It was like my first kiss, that excitement, that rush to do it again, how it wasn't at all like what you expected.

Cooking tomatoes at a low temperature for an unusually long time concentrates its sweetness, turning even butt ugly tomatoes into the white swan of all tomato cookery. You don’t even need a recipe (but I'll give you one anyway), just fresh, meaty tomatoes, the Roma variety will do the trick. All you need to do is halve them, gut out the seeds and juices, brush with minced garlic, sea salt and olive oil, roast at 200°F for at least 5 hours. It will look pretty dull for a while, but soon, its skins will shrivel and the peppery scent of tomatoes will linger as you cook the rest of your dinner.

I served them as crostinis for my friends this weekend as an appetizer. I rubbed garlic onto baguette slices, topped with slabs of the wrinkled tomatoes adorned with basil. There was a loud orchestra of crunching and bread munching across the table, including a mumbling words that sounded vaguely like “Mmm...SOO...good!” If there was a tomato god, I suspect he would approve and feast on these crostinis everyday.

For the main course, I decided on parsley risotto with roasted mushrooms. I don't make risotto often, but I've always been obsessed with its creaminess, its warmth, its comforting goopy texture. I like trying new recipes and wanted to take a swing at Jamie Oliver's risotto for a while, and it did not disappoint. The herb does duo duty with its vibrant pop of color while perfuming the rice with grassy notes, and when it reaches your mouth, it releases its sharp, clean flavors, reminiscent of dashing meadows and sunshine. Button mushrooms enhance its earthiness, adding a slight meaty texture to the otherwise smooth risotto.

But no dinner is complete without a side of vegetables and roasted cauliflower could be your new best friend. They were crispy on the outside, yet still soft to the teeth, caramelized even, and entirely transformed from your old stand-by of raw vegetable sticks. Despite the explosion of miniature white trees descending on the counter, when I chopped them into bite-sized pieces, they charmed me 30 minutes later, sizzling in the pan, fiery hot and seared to golden perfection. 

When the time came for dessert, oohs! and ahhs! chimed from the dining table like a christmas choir as I unfurled the Earl Grey-Infused Chocolate Tart. Then, as if on cue, the salted caramel sandwiched between the chocolate ganache and the pâte sablée (short pastry) oozed out like hot lava, only it wasn't hot, it was a cool, dark liquid, sticking to your fingers the way only good things should.

As I sliced triangles onto mismatched dessert plates, my friends exchanged excited chatter. Sadly, I lost a good amount of the caramel, as evidenced by the pool of copper liquid moving amoeba-like from the pan, to the cutting board, to the granite tabletop.

Armed with forks, we dug in. Though it was more like we hammered in. The pâte sablée was rock solid and stubbornly refused to break apart, but oh dear gawd, was it goood. I could feel every muscle, every ligament, every bone in my body relax. Even my brain shut up.

The ganache was cold to the tongue, but it melted ever so slowly, teasingly, just like Lindt truffles do so well. The caramel cut through the sweetness of the chocolate like a knife, bestowing it with notes of amber and a hint of salt. The buttery crust added a stark contrast to the silkiness of the other layers, its crumbly, sandy, even nutty texture, reminded one friend of the Almond Rocha candies. 

For a few moments, it was quiet. There was only the clinking and clanging of forks scraping empty plates for caramel. There's no denying it, this is a sinfully rich dessert and may leave your friends clamoring for more, but one thing's for sure, I will definitely be making this tart again and again.

But the best part of all was the rhythm of chit-chat, the eruption of giggles, the tension when someone reached the climax of a story, and the undeniable chemistry between my friends was something I haven't felt in a while. At least not in my own home. The last time I hosted a dinner party with friends was nearly two years ago, in Montreal. It was something I loved, bringing friends together made me very happy, very satisfied, solidifying my home. It's taken sometime and a few unexpected turns to get to this point, but I can safely say, that I've settled in Toronto. It feels like home.

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted from Epicurious

These would be pretty friggin' good in a pasta sauce, chopped up in scrambled eggs, on toast, in sandwiches, the possibilties are endless. For appetizers, I've simply rubbed warm baguette slices (about 1 inch thick) with raw garlic just a few times (unless you are a garlic fiend), brushed it with olive oil and topped it with a tomato plus some fresh basil for garnish.

8 medium plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise, seeds and juices removed
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon of sea salt

1. Preheat oven to 200°F. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Lay tomatoes, cut side up on baking sheet. Combine olive oil, garlic and salt in small bowl and brush mixture over tomatoes. Bake in oven for 6-8 hours. Cool tomatoes before serving.

Parsley Risotto with Roasted Mushrooms
Adapted from Jamie's Italy

Reading through Jamie's recipes is like having your best friend next to you, he makes cooking easygoing and fun. I'm also a sucker for his brillant descriptions like, "tasty essence" or "massaging the creamy starch out of the rice" as you will see in this recipe. What stands out from his basic risotto recipe or risotto bianco as he calls it, is the addition of celery in the first step. I've only used onions before and the stalky vegetable lends a beautiful layer of herb-y freshness to each bite, in fact, I think without it, the risotto wouldn't taste as special.

Jamie reckons the recipe is enough to serve 6, but alas, my friends and I weren't able to gobble down that much food, there was plenty leftover. So the yield here is my estimation of how many average-sized bellies it feeds.

Serves 8

7 cups of stock (chicken or vegetable)
1 tablespoon of butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ a head of celery, finely chopped
2 cups of arborio rice
2 wine glasses of dry white wine
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 cups of wild mushrooms, cleaned, roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped 
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small bunch of fresh thyme, leaves picked

one small bunch of flat leaf parsley, washed, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Heat the stock. In a separate pan, heat the olive oil and butter, add the onions, garlic and celery, and fry very slowly for about 15 minutes without colouring. When the vegetables have softened, add the rice and turn up the heat.

2. The rice will now begin to lightly fry, so keep stirring it. After a minute it will look slightly translucent. Add the vermouth or wine and keep stirring. Any harsh alcohol flavours will evaporate and leave the rice with a tasty essence.

3. When the wine has cooked into the rice, add your first ladle of hot stock. Turn down the heat to a simmer so the rice doesn’t cook too quickly on the outside. Keep adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring and almost massaging the creamy starch out of the rice, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding the next. This will take around 20 minutes. Taste the rice, continue adding stock until the rice is soft but has a slight bite. If you run out of stock before the rice is cooked, add hot water.

4. Meanwhile, prepare mushrooms. Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat heavy-bottomed ovenproof frying pan until medium hot and add a splash of olive oil. Fry mushrooms with garlic, butter and thyme in heat until they begin to color, about 2 minutes. Roast in preheated oven for 6 minutes unti cooked through and rich in flavor.

5. Remove from the heat and add half the mushrooms, parsley, lemon juice and Parmesan. Stir well. Place a lid on the pan and allow to sit for 2 minutes. This is the most important part of making the perfect risotto, as this is when it becomes outrageously creamy and oozy like it should be. Garnish with remaining mushroom. Eat it quickly, while the risotto retains its beautiful texture.

Roasted Cauliflower
Adapted from Epicurious

Cauliflower is tricky. It's tightly grown florets make it almost impossible not to make a mess in your kitchen. I find cutting it in half, then tearing smaller bite-sized pieces with my hands helps keep the flurry of creamy white nubs at bay. Besides, it's more fun to use your hands, your knife could use a break.

1 medium head cauliflower, torn into 1 ½ inch florets, rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon of salt

1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 450°F.

2. Toss cauliflower with oil and salt in a large bowl. Spread in 1 layer in a large shallow baking pan (1 inch deep) and roast, stirring and turning over occasionally, until tender and golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes.
Earl Grey-Infused Chocolate Caramel Tart

During my undergrad years, one of my many roomies (I moved 8 times in 4½ years), bought me Clotide's cookbook for my birthday. I read it like a bedtime story, huddled in my warm blanket, decorating a rainbow of post-its to the side, silent reminders of which recipe to tackle first. It's one of my favorite cookbooks, not only for her originality in food (cauliflower and sundried tomato cake?! I've made it, it's genius!) but also for her cordial language.

For dessert, I wanted something that would impress, satisfy and of course, include chocolate. I had dabbled with several ideas, and finally settled on this tart. It's sweet, it's only slightly salty, it's decadent.

It would be wise to use a tart pan in this recipe as Clotide instructs, so the crust will be just the right thickness and you won't have the issue of a rock hard bottom like I did. I didn't have one and resorted to my springform pan which worked fine, but next time, I'd use ¼ less of the pâte sablée to form a thinner crust. You can make the crust in a food processor, which follows the same procedure as you would by hand, except you mix the dough in short pulses, just be careful not to overwork the dough, or it will be too tough and not the buttery crumbly crust that we like.

Pâte Sablée (Short Pastry)
1/3 cup white sugar 
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
Ice cold milk

For the caramel
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon of sea salt

1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the chocolate ganache
10 ounces of bittersweet chocholate, finely chopped
1 cup of heavy cream
2 Earl Grey tea bags

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 10-inch tart or 9-inch springform pan with butter and set aside.

 2.  Prepare the pâte sablée. In the medium bowl, combine the sugar and flour. Add the butter rub into the dry ingredients by hand with the tips of your fingers. Add a tablespoon of milk and mix again, until it is absorbed. The dough should still be crumbly, but it should clump if you gently squeeze a handful in your hand. If it doesn't, add a little more milk -- teaspoon by teaspoon -- and continue rubbing the dough until it reaches the desired consistency.

3. Pour the mixture into the pan. Using the heels of your hands and your fingers, press on the dough gently to form a thin layer, covering the surface of the pan and creating a rim all around. Don't worry if the dough feels a little dry, this is normal. (You can prepare the dough up to a day ahead: cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.) Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly golden. Allow to cool.

4. For the caramel, place sugar and 1 tablespoon water in heavy large saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves, swish the pan around to ensure even melting but avoid stirring. Be careful not to let the sugar burn, or it will leave a bitter taste. As soon as bubbles form on surface, add honey stir until combined. Add salt and cream and stir until blended (mixture will bubble vigorously). Remove from heat, add butter until combined. Pour caramel into prepared crust, tilt pan in circular motions to coat bottom evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge for 40 minutes to set.  

5. For the chocolate ganache, place chocolate in medium bowl. Bring cream and tea bags to a simmer in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, allow tea to steep for 15 minutes until cream turns light brown color. Pour cream over chocolate; let stand 1 minute. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove tart from fridge, pour chocolate over caramel layer. Keep in fridge for at least 1 hour to set. Take out from fridge 15 minutes before serving, garnish with chocolate shavings.
Recipe here!

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