Going Beyond Potential

After a long day at work, going to the grocery store to try and brainstorm recipe ideas is the last thing I want to do. It’s moments like these where I rely wholly on what’s currently stocked in my pantry, hoping there will be just the right mixture of fresh and canned to create somethin. Such was the case when I decided to whip up a few snacks to take over to a friend’s the other night. I wanted dishes that would be quick to prepare (since it would be after said long day at work) and easy to transport. After surveying what I had on hand, I chose to make a Pumpkin Bean Dip as well as a batch of Parmesan & Thyme Crackers.
The thing I love most about dips is their simplicity, where dumping the ingredients into a food processor is often the only step required. This extremely simple appetizer is a different spin on your average bean dip, and perfect for the fall! The pumpkin adds a creamy finish that pairs beautifully with the earthiness of the beans. I doubled the recipe, a decision justified once everyone was reaching for seconds after the first bite – click HERE to make this beautifully simple appetizer!
I’ve spoken about my love for Ina Garten before – this woman is fabulous! She lives in the Hamptons in a gorgeous home, with (of course) a HUGE kitchen that has everything you would ever need/want. She basically spends the majority of her time cooking and socializing – a dream life. Her approach to cooking is relaxed and down-to-earth, creating recipes that are both simple and elegant. These savory crackers were addicting, yet required minimal effort – another Ina success!
For the “pantry” part of this recipe, I just happened to have a very good Romano cheese in my refrigerator. While the recipe calls for Parmesan, the Romano was a beautiful substitute. There are only 6 ingredients total, making these a perfect last-minute snack for gatherings. The thyme adds an earthy tone that really brings these up a notch. Constructing the dough into a log was the only tricky part of this, but the result was certainly worth the effort. These crackers, though seemingly basic, achieve far more than what might be expected – click HERE to see how to make these savory treats!
I’ve always been a sucker for Chopin, and it just so happens that the friend I made these lovely appetizers for was Brian McCarthy – a pianist who plays Chopin beautifully! Knowing that the piece I chose should also reflect the timeliness of these recipes, I chose a work that was short yet filled with color: Chopin’s Étude Op.10 No.1 in C Major. Much the way these dishes reinvented the potential of everyday pantry staples, Chopin took the étude form and created it into something far greater. His etudes exhibit an eloquence and emotional depth that place them on par with performance repertoire. This specific work captures the best of Chopin’s style with the genre. The recording below is with Valentina Lisitsa – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROVy9PC8_8A

Sources Cited:
“Frédéric Chopin,” Wikipedia.com

The Irresistibility of Cheese

While I’m not the biggest fan of a “European” dinner (basically eating later than 8 or 9pm), I find they are becoming more common in my social circles. As a hostess, you can guarantee that at least half of your guests will be craving some type of comestible before then, especially if you are serving wine or beer ahead of time. Enter the saving grace of the hors d’oeuvre: a time-honored tradition that has relieved many a host from rushing to finish a meal. I attended a dinner this weekend and offered to provide the appetizer course. Knowing that there are few who can resist a good cheese dish, I made adorable Caprese Salad Skewers with Saba Dressing and a creamy Brie en Croute.
Let’s start with the skewers (the more innocent of two): caprese salad is a wonderful dish on its own, but what really made this shine was the Saba dressing. My initial intention had been to make a reduced balsamic, yet our host introduced to this gourmet item. Made from the same grape (Must) as balsamic vinegar, Saba is reduced over an open flame in copper kettles to a thick, sweet syrup and is then aged for FOUR years! Reduced balsamic vinegar can easily be substituted, but this stuff is UH-mazing!
These skewers are SO simple, and pack a lot of flavor in one bite! You can get creative with this combination and add other flavors, such as olives for a Mediterranean flair or cheese tortellini for a more filling dish. The dressing can also be modified, from a more subtle red wine vinaigrette to a spicier  lime-pepper glaze. Assemble them as close to serving as possible so the ingredients maintain a fresh, colorful look – click HERE to see how I made these bite-sized delicacies!
Baked brie is undeniably a seductive dish, and I use that word very rarely when it comes to food. The jeweled fillings of jams and dried fruits, combined with a toasted crunch from the almonds, make for a beautiful aesthetic. But it’s when you take that first slice after removing the oven that your guests will “melt” at the sight of the creamy, rich brie. This is also a very easy dish to make, and the flavors (once again) can be changed to your liking (sweet or savory!) – click HERE to learn how to make this irresistible appetizer.
Both of these appetizers are classics, and I wanted to pair them with a classic piece: Mozart’s Clarinet concerto in A major, K. 622. Written in 1791, this work is renowned for showcasing the delicate yet lively character of the clarinet. The interplay between the clarinetist and the orchestra is quite remarkable, acting as more of a conversation rather than just a soloist with accompaniment. This reciprocity beautifully mirrors the above dishes, where every element and part counts in the ultimate taste. The recording I’ve included below is with clarinetist Martin Fröst, and essentially cuts the opening orchestral tutti (which is nearly 60 measures long) to just before the soloist’s entrance – this is personally one of my favorite Mozart concertos, and I hope you enjoy it just as much!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVXFONkLPok&feature=related

Sources Cited:
“Clarinet Concerto (Mozart),” Wikipedia.com

Turning up the Heat!

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but my apartment building is becoming a remake of the Friends sitcom. THREE of the eight apartments are  close friends of mine, meaning I will be spending (most likely) 80% of my time hanging with friends in this very building. For a food blogger, it’s perfect – I have a built-in group of recipe testers who all have eclectic tastes. I decided to throw an impromptu party the other night, and the relentless summer heat merited a night of frozen margaritas. Not wanting to submit to serving only chips and salsa, I decided to also make Baked Stuffed Jalapeños and Potato Skin Bites with Chorizo.
Jalapeños are a tough bunch to work with – when cutting one, you’re fine with a simple paring knife and board. When cutting 20, it is almost crucial to have gloves on if you plan on touching anything for the next several hours. While the seeds and the veins are notably hot, it’s the oils that are the culprit for irritating skin. Trust me, with the cheap price of gloves your hands will be thanking you for it.
These are quick to make, and the result is fabulous! Any number of cheese can be stirred into the cream cheese as well, such as monterey or cheddar, but I chose to go with just the basics. You can also leave in a few of the seeds if you are daring, but I’ll warn you that these little guys pack a punch as is – click HERE to learn how to make these spicy bites!
This second dish was a little bit more complicated. Roasting the potatoes was a synch, but removing the pulp (using a teaspoon worked best for me) was a little trickier. Be sure they are cool enough to handle, otherwise you’ll be playing “hot potato” with the floor (and the floor’s gonna win, it always does).
I hadn’t really worked with chorizo prior to this dish. My friend Brian was given the task of removing the casings, and that turned out to be quite the chore. Slicing the sausages in half and removing it with a paring knife was our discovered shortcut. When browning the chorizo, you really have to break up the pieces with a spoon. You can use bacon in this, but chorizo adds a great taste that is definitely the centerpiece of these little bites – check out this recipe by clicking HERE.
For the pairing, I wanted to turn up to the heat to complement these spicy treats. What better way than with Le Grand Tango, by Ástor Piazzolla. An Argentine composer, Piazzolla is known for tangos that feature elements of jazz and classical. His love for music emerged when, after moving to New York with his family, his father purchased bandoneón for him from a pawn shop. His music is both lively and tragic, and is really fun to perform. This is a great piece, and I hope you enjoy the recording (even though it sadly ends 2 minutes before the end…another setback of YouTube…).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eamRlKTe7rU

Sources Cited:
“Ástor Piazzolla.” Wikipedia.com

Dinner, Without the Rush

While I relish the work of assembling ingredients and preparing a meal, there are some days that I just don’t want to think about it. It’s days like this that the term “make-ahead” becomes one of my favorites. This week, my roomie Jenn and I hosted a “girls’ night.” Weeknight dinners for friends are always tough, since all I normally want to do is veg-out and watch a movie after work. Knowing this would be the case, I planned ahead and made two delicious, healthy dishes that could be prepared ahead of time: Roasted Shrimp Cocktail and Roasted Edamame-Corn Salad.
Truth be told, shrimp cocktail isn’t the most exciting of hors d’oeuvres. The sauce relies on pantry staples (my make-ahead feature), and the shrimp are traditionally boiled with little to no seasoning then served cold. This recipe, on the other hand, takes a new edge by roasting the shrimp. I added a few extra touches to the shrimp itself to really put this one over the top – click HERE to but the flavor back in this hackneyed dish!
I love fresh corn, practically as much as I love edamame – so basically this salad was a match made in heaven for me. It’s simple, packed with flavor and can be made the night before. Its the perfect complement to any summer meal, and is healthy to boot! Flavors are easily adjustable, and it can be made with any variety of fresh vegetables. Click HERE to learn how to make this delicious salad!
For the musical work, I wanted to focus on the relaxing quality afforded by not having to worry about cooking the day-of the occasion. I started referencing dance forms, and came upon the Sarabande. Originally the zarabande, the dance originated in Central America where it was subsequently discovered by Spanish explorers. Though its original context in 16th-century Spain was quite lively (and perceived as obscene), its arrival to the French court in the early 17th century resulted in a form that was much more slow and solemn (countering the overt passion of the original). This triple-metre dance is found throughout the Baroque repertoire, yet several composers of the early-twentieth century were inspired by it as well. Among those was Francis Poulenc (a composer I hope to feature many times on this blog), whose Sarabande for Guitar I chose for this meal – the recording I’ve included is by guitarist Matthew McAllister. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aI6ACJNecE

Sources Cited:
“Sarabande: Description.” ClassicalCat.net

Summer Lovin’

Whether it be a picnic or a movie night, no summertime hang is complete without chips and dips. I’m not talking about those prepackaged salsas you can buy year round at the local corner store – I’m talking about dips that feature the fresh, colorful harvest of this season. Though the former is more convenient, the flavor and depth o the latter is far more enjoyable. I had a group of friends over the other day to watch one of my favorite Pixar films, Toy Story 3, and I decided to make two seasonal favorite of mine: Guacamole Auténtico and Mango Salsa.
The taste, health benefits, and overall aesthetic of the vibrant avocado has made it one of summer’s most beloved fruits. The word avocado comes from the Spanish term aguacate, which had been a simplification by Spanish explorers of the original Aztec name “ahuacatl.” Ancient cultures believed the fruit to be a symbol of fertility and passion (given its suggestive shape). Today, it is still seen as a natural aphrodisiac due to its nutritional benefits and rich taste. Though there are signs of cultivation dating back to 500 B.C., the avocado wasn’t introduced to the states until 1871 in Santa Barbara. California still stands as the number one producer of the nation’s avocados, accounting for 90% of the total crop. Fun Fact: an avocado tree in California can produce as many 500 fruits per year – that’s 200 pounds of avocado!*
This guacamole is a knockout, and I recommend using only the freshest of ingredients for it. The only thing I omit is the hot sauce given that it feels like a slightly less “authentic” ingredient. I also use jalapenos in place of the serranos to tone down the heat for those less predilection towards spicy fare. Although many purists would be furious at the inclusion of cumin, the slightly earthy flavor it provides with a touch of spice is a perfect complement to the avocado (as an added bonus, many Arabic cultures see cumin as a symbol of love**). This is a delicious guacamole, and comes together in no time – click HERE to learn how to make this summer standard.
When most hear the term salsa, they think tomatoes – I imagine very few picture mangoes as part of the equation. The mango, like the avocado, is another pitted fruit. Originating in Southeast Asia, mango comes from the Tamil term “mangkay.” The mango is featured prominently in this region, serving as the national fruit of India, Pakistan and the Philippines. The mango, like the avocado is seen as a symbol of love and fertility.* Hindu culture uses mango leaves as decorations in doorways for weddings and religious ceremonies.^ This salsa is almost a simplified version of another variety I’ve featured on this blog. Like guacamole, the mango is the main ingredient, with a few other flavors and textures to provide body. This was surprisingly addictive, and not terribly spicy due to the mango’s sweetness. Click HERE to learn how to make this twist on salsa!
Given that these are both fruits symbolic of love, I thought it would be appropriate to choose a musical selection to match. I decided to go literal with this one, and chose Franz Liszt’s Liebesträume, or “Dreams of Love.” These three solo piano works are based on love poems Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath: “Hohe Liebe“, “Gestorben war ich,” and “O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst.”Liszt simultaneously composed song equivalents for these three poems, though these (unlike the piano solos) are rarely performed.^ Each piece represents a different type of love: exalted love, erotic love, and unconditional love. The most famous is No.3, which many simply refer to as “Liebesträum” (despite it being the title for the entire set). I have included a recording of this work, performed by Evgeny Kissin. Enjoy!


Sources Cited:
* “California Avocado History” Avocado.org http://www.avocado.org/california-avocado-history/
**”Cumin Seeds.” The World’s Healthiest Foods http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=91
^http://www.allaboutmangoes.com/about_mangoes/about_mangoes.html
^^http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebesträume

A Delicious Departure from Tradition

There is a common belief that egg dishes are meant for breakfast only – this couldn’t be farther from the truth. They are an excellent source of protein, cook in a matter of minutes, and pair beautifully with any possibly meal you can imagine. Perfect example: the ever-versatile frittata. Essentially a giant omelet, the add-in opportunities for this dish can be endless: vegetables, meats, cheeses, herbs, etc. I wanted a dish full of color, so I decided to make a Spinach and Bell Pepper Frittata.
Frittata is derived from the Italian term “fritto,” which means anything that is fried. Originally used to describe any type of egg dish that is cooked in a skillet (like omelettes), the term frittata has evolved over the past five decades to represent the dish we are familiar with today.* Unlike an omelette, it is served in individual pieces or slices, and is “open-faced” rather than folded over. Fun fact: there is a very similar dish to the frittata in Persian cuisine called the Kookoo (which is a cool name, so I had to share it).
So frittatas are meant to be fried in a skillet…you can clearly tell from the photo that I didn’t fry this, much less even use a skillet (except for sautéing the vegetables). The “traditional” way is to cook the eggs in a large skillet, then invert the frittata onto a plate and slide it back into the pan to cook on the other side (or flipped entirely, if it isn’t too large). I DO own a cast iron skillet, so this could’ve been an option. A simpler but still somewhat traditional way is to put the eggs in the oven for the last 3 to 4 minutes of cooking underneath the broiler. My scenario: I was going to a cookout, and didn’t want to worry about slicing and storing and carrying this dish all the way across town. The solution was to bake the entire custard in a Pyrex 9×11 baking dish. I imagine the Italian recipe gods deplore this, but blame my need for an easy, last-minute dish that still could pack a TON of flavor. Regardless of method, this is an awesome dish and super easy to prepare – I modified it from a Gourmet recipe I found a while black. Click HERE to see my detour from the traditional frittata.  
Since I took a culinary detour, why not a musical one? That thought led me instantly to my piece of choice: Julie-O, by Mark Summer. I was introduced to it this past April at a school event, and it’s a cool little piece! Julie-O has become quite popular amongst cellists, and is ideal as an encore or within educational contexts. The work incorporates “non-traditional” techniques, like slapping the string board and left hand pizzicatos, to give it that “jazzy” feel. It also is quite short (under 3 minutes) yet still extremely colorful – “a lot of flavor in a short amount of time.” I’ve included a recording by the composer himself from the Perth international Arts Festival (sorry for the image quality, but such is my beef with YouTube). Though the original version is great, I had to include this second recording to push the “traditional” envelope one step further – this is by Kevin Olusola, who incorporates beatboxing into the piece (and just also happens to be a FANTASTIC cellist).

Summer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DObjvcWvfwk&feature=related
Olusola: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T36A-H8dPhI

Sources Cited:
“Frittata,” Wikipedia.com.

A Taste for Small Gatherings

If there is one true weakness of mine, it is hosting: dinner events, cocktail parties, game nights, the list goes on. There is something inherently gratifying in welcoming others to your place with delicious food and good drink. While these may sound like the musings of a 1930’s housewife, I can guarantee that my hosting addiction has both economic and personal benefits. For those familiar with Boston’s social scene, it is well known that affordable options tend to be an anomaly. Why spend $10 for one hamburger when I could spend that same amount to buy the ground beef it takes to make 6 or 7?? As for the personal benefits, just think of how much more you can hear, see, and experience your friends when you are NOT having to deal with extraneous ambiance (loud music, weak lighting, unruly children, etc). Top that with the hassles of splitting a three-digit bill seven ways, and your night of fun has turned into a night of panic. This isn’t to suggest that I never leave my apartment – Boston certainly has its pick of choice restaurants and bars. Yet for the aspiring cook, at-home functions are the most valuable resource. This past weekend, I had several friends over for a night of Apples to Apples (a game that never gets old). I prepared several of my “famous” hors’doevres for the occasion, with a few new experiments as well. I’ve only included two in this post, but given my weakness I expect hors’doevres to be a recurrent theme – Lemon Chicken Skewers with Satay Dip and Creamy Sage Dip with Crudités.
As aforementioned, the Barefoot Contessa is a huge inspiration to me, with practically all of her recipes producing flawless results. I had made this recipe of hers several times before, and it is always the first dish to go. The original recipe calls for grilling the chicken, but as is the case with city apartments, I am limited to the conventions of indoor cooking. Broiling is an effective substitute – just be sure to soak the wooden skewers for at least 30 minutes (unless you have metal) and to have a window cracked to let out the smoke that will (most likely) result from the broiling. Don’t be afraid about the whole “lemon juice cooks chicken” myth – according to the USDA*, chicken can safely be marinated for up to two days in the refrigerator. The lemon’s acidity breaks up the poultry tissue, creating a more tender meat – but too much time can create a tougher meat. So, I wouldn’t suggest marinating this chicken for more than 4 hours.
The dip, though, is what makes this dish – while its texture may not be as smooth as your standard satays, its flavor is fantastic! I still have the dark sesame oil in my pantry from when I first made this recipe (clearly not a staple in my cooking repertoire). I often omit the sherry from this recipe and substitute more liquid either through water or part oil/part lime juice; so far as I can tell, it’s never been missed. I also use an immersion blender to get a smoother consistency – this is a personal preference of mine. You can find this recipe HERE.This second recipe was one of those “what’s in the fridge?” creations. I had just baked a chocolate cake (coming soon!) that used 1 cup of sour cream, and I wanted to find a dip that could use the rest of the 16 oz. container I was forced to buy. I also still had some fresh sage leaves leftover from the Pan-Roasted Chicken with Olives and Lemon dish that I didn’t want to see go to waste. These ingredients led me to a recipe by Rachel Ray who, even though I can’t stand watching her show on Food Network, manages to provide creative ways for using leftovers. I wasn’t floored by her recipe, but it was definitely a good starting point. I also had 4 ounces of cream cheese left over from the gorgeous cream cheese icing that I paired with that chocolate cake (okay, now I’m just being cruel). All in all, I had the makings for a dip with a twist. While I wouldn’t say this was one of my all-time favorites, this dip provided a subtle, fresh flavor that paired beautifully with the crudités. Daily dose of trivia: crudité is a French term derived from the Latin crudus, meaning “raw.”** You can choose any number of crudités to pair with this dip; I highly suggest green beans, but bell peppers, broccoli florets, or even asparagus spears would be perfect. Check out this leftover creation of mine by clicking HERE. Many affiliate classical music with respectable concert venues, such as Boston’s Symphony Hall or Vienna’s Musikverein. Yet 19th century Europe saw the rise of a far more exclusive setting for classical performance – the “salon.”  While these were by no means a “new” setting, the 19th century saw an increase in households that were capable of supporting such affairs. These salons were gatherings hosted at private residencies for friends and family, and artists were invited as a way to infuse an air of prominence*** (the artists in my “salons” just so happen to be close friends, a fact with which I am blessed). Many prominent composers found support through these musical soirees, including the brilliant Johannes Brahms. A leading composer of the Romantic genre, the music of Brahms is expansive in both technique and spirit. I’ve always been a sucker for minor works, so I have included his Rhapsody in B minor Op.79 No.1 with none other than the illustrious Glenn Gould performing. The passion and precision of this performance is impeccable, a noteworthy pairing for one who loves the intimacy of small gatherings. Enjoy!

*”Chicken from Farm to Table” USDA.gov.
**”Crudités.” Wikipedia.com
***Funk, John. “Early Romantics and the Salons of 19th Century Europe.” Academy of Music Sciences International