A Colorful Plate with a Fiery Bite

As some of you may know, I am a MAJOR fan of spicy food! I’m that crazy one who stacks a spoon wasabi onto each piece of sushi, and uses crushed red pepper flakes in nearly everything! My new favorite spice: chipotles en adobo. I regularly have a can of these stocked in my pantry or fridge. When I invited several friends over this past week for dinner, I found the perfect way to showcase these smoky favorites of mine: Ancho Chicken Thighs with Chipotle Peach Salsa. (Note: this photo was taken with my new lighting set! SO happy to not have to worry about taking late-night photos anymore!!!)
Being from Georgia, you can see why I LOVE this salsa! But really, this is a fantastic topping for any grilled food. It’s the perfect balance of sweet with heat. I used a combination of white and yellow peaches (to add color). The chipotle peppers pair perfectly with the fruit, and a touch of ginger gives it the finishing touch! Coating the chicken in chili powder was optional, but it made for one fantastic meal! Be sure to have plenty of chips on hand for the leftover salsa – it’s truly addictive, and you’ll be licking the bowl clean (not that we did…ahem). Click HERE to learn how to make this fun, spicy entrée!
I wanted my musical pairing to the reflect the firey, colorful aspects of this dish. That led me to one of my favorites YouTube recordings: Danzón No.2, by Arturo Márquez. The personalities of this work, as well as the overall spirit pair beautifully with the fresh, bright flavors of this dish. The particular recording I am referring to is by the world-renowned Venezuela Youth Orchestra. While this work is a definite showstopper, it’s this ensemble that sends this piece over the top. I hope you enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vwZAkfLKK8

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An Angelic Affair

Last weekend, a group of friends decided to devote a Sunday afternoon to watching Angels in America: an HBO mini-series adapted from Tony Kushner’s play of the same name that focuses on the social and political consequences from the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s. Running at a total of 6 hours, we managed to watch only four the of the six chapters (watching the remaining 2 the next night). Seeing as how this 4 hours of material, we thought it could be fun to pair a meal with our viewing. Trying to be clever yet not too campy, we went for the following menu:

◊ Caprese Salad with Balsamic Vinegar
◊ Roasted Cauliflower
◊ Deviled Eggs with Curry and Paprika
◊ Angel Hair Pasta with Leek-Squash Purée
◊ Angel Food Cake with Lemon-Lime Curd and Fresh Fruit Assortment

While I would love to share all of these with you, I am only going to focus on three of the menu items, starting with the cauliflower – I love this recipe! The beauty of Roasted Cauliflower is that while it is utterly simple to do, the result is so addictive you’ll be going back for thirds. We paired it with this event given its “cloud-like” resemblance. Give this heavenly recipe a try by clicking HERE.
This next dish, Angel Hair Pasta with Leek-Squash Purée, will take a little more explanation than the cauliflower – let me start by saying, aside from being “Angel Hair Pasta”, this dish was an attempt to create a vegan pasta that even meatlovers could enjoy. I didn’t want the basic tomato sauce, and tossing the pasta with roasted vegetables also felt uninspiring. Walking through the aisle at my local co-op, I noticed all of the beautiful summer produce. It was then I happened on a thought: pureed vegetables…plus pasta…can it work? The answer is undeniably YES!
I chose a vegetarian warhorse: the leek. When sauteed, these onion-like vegetables take on a sweet, subtle taste with a butter-like texture; making them perfect for a “butter-less” sauce to go with pasta! Sort of sticking to the “angelic” theme, I wanted the second vegetable to also be light, making the summer squash that were buy 1 get 1 free an awesome coincidence! The rest of the recipe was pure improv – it basically was a soup that I added wine to for an extra edge of taste. I used my handy-dandy food processor, but feel free to an immersion or standing blender. Learn how to make this unique vegan pasta dish by clicking HERE.
You knew this last one had to be on the menu – it was too easy. A cake so beautifully white in color, with a texture equally light and fluffy, that is “must be fit for angels.” Angel Food Cake was thus the first pairing I came up with for this dinner. The cake is made with no butter or oil, only sugar, flour, and a TON of egg whites. The history of Angel Food Cake is relatively obscure, but most agree the cake’s origin was a frugal means of using up leftover whites (the yolks having been used for noodles, custards, etc).
Funny thing is, my predicament was the exact opposite. How was I going to use up 12 whole egg yolks?! The other half of this pairing was going to acknowledge the story’s prominent theme of same-sex relationships. Per the suggestion of my friend and CK regular Tim Wilfong, we selected a potpourri of colorful fruit to top the cake. Originally intending to just use whipped cream, I couldn’t shake the idea of wasting 12 whole yolks. The perfect solution was using the logic of its origins: custard. Having just bought a ton of limes and lemons from the store, a lemon-lime curd sounded all too perfect, and it was…almost too perfect…like we couldn’t stop eating the stuff kind of perfect. Click HERE to check out how to make this beautiful cake and custard duo (or to make use of an entire carton of eggs, in case you’re curious).
At first I thought I might pair an external work with these recipes, but then researched the actual soundtrack for the movie. It was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. The soundtrack was both composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Newman’s film repertoire is quite impressive, with titles such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Finding Nemo to his name. When I also saw that Steve Kujala (a jazz/contemporary flutist who I’ve long admired) is one of the performers, I knew I had to use this soundtrack for the musical pairing. Below is the opening title from the miniseries. Again, definitely check out this HBO series when you have the time – it is a beautiful story. Enjoy!

Sources Cited:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_in_America_(TV_miniseries)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Newman#Film_compositions

Some Like it Hot

If there is one truth about the food I love, it is spicy – crushed red peppers and/or tabasco are two items that are always available in my apartment. I don’t always cook elegant fare for myself, but a dash of heat can bring almost any dish to life; there are exceptions, of course (like breakfast cereal – NEVER try this). I was cooking a meal for two of my girlfriends and wanted to put a little extra kick in the meal. It was then I remembered my upstairs neighbor Tim Wilfong had given me a bag full of Thai chilies – perfect. After endless internet queries and comparisons, I decided to make the following dishes: Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps with a side of Spicy Asian Roasted Broccoli & Green Beans
Let’s talk about chili peppers briefly – they are classified as fruit, though are obviously not utilized for their sweetness (the bell pepper is the one exception, and certain spicier cultivars do have a tangible sweetness). That spicy kick we get from peppers comes from the compound Capsaicin – when ingested, capsaicin will cling to our oral pain receptors, thus increasing our heartrate and causing perspiration. The amount of caspaicin present in a pepper is measured in Scoville heat units, or SHU. To give you some context: a bell pepper has 0 SHU, the jalapeño has 2,500 – 5,000 SHU, and the habanero has 300,000 SHU. The Thai chili peppers I used stand at 50,00-100,000 SHU – while it’s no habanero, it still packs some serious heat.*
These lettuce wraps were inspired from the P.F. Chang’s classic – though I adore the original, I wanted something a little less “heavy.” I found FoodNetwork’s “Almost Famous” edition of the wraps, and made a few adjustments to create a slightly healthier version. Of course, I swapped the jalapeño called for with a Thai chili. The stir-fry sauce is simple, yet gives this dish its “authentic” taste. It originally called for a tablespoon of hoisin, but I swapped that with ketchup (not the same I know, but it was the next best thing to get the sweet, tangy factor I wanted); I also used dry sherry in place of the rice wine.
These wraps are quite messy, but I can guarantee you’ll be dredging up every last ounce of it(even if you’re stuck using tiny pieces of lettuce to do so!) I omitted the shiitake mushrooms given their exorbitant cost, and even though I love mushrooms, they were not missed. The water chestnuts, though, are crucial – they are the “texture factor” of this dish. The recipe says it serves four to six, but I’d safely say no more than four given that three small women practically killed the entire thing ourselves. To see how to make these addiciting wraps, click HERE.
This dish…oh my GOD was it good! I mean, these vegetables would have any stickler coming back for seconds. I wouldn’t omit a thing from the recipe (maybe the cilantro, but still). I was caught by surprise on the day of with the miso paste. My initial reaction was to forget it, but I just so happened to have a packet for miso soup mix in my pantry. Granted, that’s miso powder and also has pieces of dried seaweed and scallions; but I figured that a simple sift and addition of water would be a great substitute for the paste; it worked almost perfectly. The Thai chilies are a must, but if you choose to leave them in for color (which I did), then DON’T let your guests eat them…unless they’ve eaten a habanero by itself before, but then I’d question your friend’s sanity. Click HERE to see how to make this showstopping side.   
In considering the Thai pepper, I began to think about pieces that could create the similar affect of increased heartrate and adrenaline. That brought me to the composer who can send any performer’s heartrate soaring: J.S. Bach. Though many consider Baroque to be “old-fashioned”, Bach’s music is in fact some of the most challenging of the classical repertoire. His works require a thorough understanding of the complex harmonies, innate phrasing, and technical demands. Whenever I stood on a stage to perform Bach, you could guarantee my heart was pounding – thus I chose a piece from my own repertoire: the Corrente from Partita in A minor for Flute Solo, BWV 1013. I chose this movement (second of four total) given its adrenaline-like pace; the title literally means “running.” The performer here is Emmanuel Pahud (man of my dreams), and as always it is a stunning performance. Enjoy!

Sources Cited:
*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chili_pepper

Boeuf, It’s What’s for Dinner!

The famous 90’s ad campaign, voiced by Hollywood icon Robert Mitchum, was an endeavor put forth by the Beef Checkoff Program to revive the name of meat. The result: Copland’s Rodeo has become a widely-recognized classical work, and beef has regained its status amongst a health-conscious America. While I’m not your standard “meat and potatoes” kind of gal, beef has certainly made a comeback in my own culinary repertoire. My initial apprehension was by no means exclusive: multiple health trends have eschewed the food group entirely, citing high levels of saturated fats and links to obesity. Yet new research encourages (moderate) incorporation of beef into a healthy diet, commending its high levels of protein and iron.  I, on the other hand, can personally attest to its high level of friend-enticement: the phrase “dinner with steak tonight?” is a temptation very few friends of mine can resist. This meal was one that Mitchum would have been proud to endorse: Pan-Seared Steaks with a Port-Mushroom Sauce, and Roasted Asparagus with a Lemon Vinaigrette.
Can I mention how intimidating it is to pan-fry a steak? Achieving that perfect balance of sear and tenderness is almost as difficult as flying in or out Hartsfield without a delay. You know the old adage “third time’s a charm?” Well, it took me three times to reach my charming steak (hence the hiatus in my blogging duties, but I can also credit that to my busy work/travel schedule). Steak is a fickle thing, and there a number of variables to consider before attempting to prepare it. My (recently created) principles for cooking steak (indoors) are as follows:

  • Cast iron: if you want to achieve a taste comparable to the grill, this is your best bet.
  • Resting period: allowing steak to rest at room temperature for 40 to 60 minutes is imperative to the cooking process (cold steaks will immediately smoke-up if added to a scorching hot pan); additionally, allowing steaks to rest after cooking (10 to 15 minutes, depending on the cut) is crucial to both the flavor and texture of the meat.
  • Size accountability: recipes that only call for pan-seared should use thinner cuts (or be made thinner using a meat mallet) – thicker cuts should be seared on stovetop, then transferred to an oven until desired doneness is reached.
  • Pan sauce: grilling is one thing, but preparing steaks indoors (pan-searing, broiling, etc) will take you much farther if a sauce is added to the pan after the steaks are done (this can be as simple as onions and butter, with salt and pepper to taste).
  • Pacing yourself: don’t overcrowd a pan – if you can’t comfortably fit all the steaks at once with at least an inch of space between them, sear in 2 to 3 batches.

The pan sauce was an amalgam of several recipes (for the sake of citation, I’ll give the most credit to CookingLight magazine). The earthy taste of mushrooms paired with the sweeter notes of Port make for one amazing steak sauce! Though originally calling for rosemary, I have always found thyme to be a more intriguing herb. The lemony intrigue of rosemary is a great pairing with root vegetables and lighter fare (chicken especially), but thyme achieves a whole new level of flavor for dishes that are heartier and more complex. For this wonderful recipe, click HERE.

As I mentioned, I am not your typical meat eater, so the asparagus was the toast of the evening in my eyes. Roasted asparagus on its own is a great presentation, but this (extremely) simple vinaigrette made for one outstanding dish! The trick to roasting asparagus is evenly spacing the spears on one to two baking sheets, with none overlapping – this will ensure uniform roasting, making for crispy tips and tender stalks. Thyme once again finds its true colors in this dish – fresh is best, but dried can easily be substituted (I’d say 1 or 2 tsp dried, depending on how much asparagus you prepare). Check out how to make this awesome side by clicking HERE.

In pairing these two dishes, I had several considerations: the first (and most obvious) selection was Copland’s Rodeo – a work made famous by the original “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” ad campaign. Yet while waiting in Dulles for what evolved into a 3-hour delay, my coworker David recommended An American in Paris, by George Gershwin. Upon further consideration, I realized this was the a truly accurate context for the meal. Steak is certainly a dish that many American households enjoy, yet the preparation (pan-seared instead of grilled) and sauce (shallots and port wine) find stronger relevance within the French traditions. Additionally, the roasted asparagus is dressed in vinaigrette – a dressing derived from the French term vinaigre that is often interpreted as “French dressing.”* Voilà! But let’s talk about the music: this piece, composed in 1928, hopes to captures the spirit of Paris, replete with colorful personalities and breathtaking sights. Gershwin was inspired to write An American in Paris after having spent a short period of time there himself. The work gained its greatest renown nearly 25 years later through the 1951 film adaptation starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.** The video I’ve included here is from the film – it is an excerpt from the dancing duet of Kelly and Caron, dancing through a fountain in Paris to a sultry trumpet solo (by the MGM legend Uan Ransey). For those wanting more than this musical apéritif, feel free to watch the second selection: the New York Philharmonic’s historic performance in North Korea (An American in Pyongyang?) This video is in three parts, and actually transitions into the next piece of the concert in Part 3. This is a must hear work, making the film a must-see as well. Hope you enjoy, and bon appétit!

1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlvzGT1Ta2w
2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUfI6v6SwL4&feature=related

Sources Cited:
*“Vinaigrette.” Wikipedia.com 
**“An American in Paris” Wikipedia.com  

A New Beginning…

“The secret to a rich life is to have more beginnings than endings” (David Weinbaum). There’s nothing quite like a new beginning, and this is one project I’d been hoping to pursue for quite some time. There are two great passions in my life: music and cooking. These two are a match made in heaven, one that I hope to explore through my own musical training and culinary experiences. And so my “breath of fresh air” begins with this blog – The Classical Kitchen. I hosted a dinner party for close friends this past weekend to celebrate the blog launch. The menu was, in theory, Italian – but unique flavors betrayed a cultural diversity:

◊ Arugula Salad with Oranges, Tomatoes & Goat Cheese tossed in a Red Wine Vinaigrette
◊ Roasted Rosemary Potatoes with Crispy Garlic and Lemon Zest
◊ Pan-Roasted Chicken with Shallots, Olives and Sage
◊ Vanilla Creme Fraiche Cheesecake with Blackberries

(It’s okay, you can take a moment to digest…)

This dinner was a FANTASTIC way to launch this new blog, and (as always) a great excuse to spend time with friends. Before diving into the chronicles of these recipes, I want to say how lucky I am to be surrounded by such wonderful friends – cooking has no purpose without good company.

The salad was the contribution of my dear friend Tim Wilfong. A veggie through-and-through, he wanted to bring a side that would complement our main dish as well as his (veggie burgers – nothing too fancy, but he claims it was the perfect match).

So about the potatoes – potatoes in general are an easy sell: mashed, roasted, baked, fried, scalloped, etc. You can almost always guarantee that any crowd will love a potato dish. These, though, exceeded everyone’s expectation! While these beautiful, golden potatoes can stand on their own, the added flavors are what bring this dish up a notch: crispy garlic slivers, freshly crushed rosemary, and zesty lemon. Oh.My.God! My advice? Let these guys cook longer a little than you’d expect (without burning them, of course!) The amount of olive oil used in the recipe will protect the potatoes to a longer heat exposure, so don’t fret.

Some modifications: The end of the recipe calls for tossing the potatoes in the leftover lemon/rosemary vinaigrette – I wouldn’t recommend more than a tablespoon (or two). Trust me, you want to maintain that crunchy goodness, and too much oil will just make a soggy mess. The original recipe also calls for dill, but I went with rosemary. You can view this recipe HERE.

Here’s where our regional fare gets an exotic twist. This method of roasting calls for the chicken to be separated into 8 pieces (a process you can do on your own, though I highly recommend asking your butcher to do this for you), then cooked in a large oven-safe pan. Lemon and sage stay true to our Italian taste, but we journey closer to the Mediterranean with a curveball – brined green olives: a fruit native to the Mediterranean region, appearing in Egyptian chronicles dating back to 17th century B.C. Green olives are unripe and much firmer than the black and brown varieties, so they have to be cured with a lye solution to soften the fruit’s flesh.* This dish packs a LOT of flavor, and is a definite keeper.

A few variations: I placed the chicken directly under the broiler for the final stage of cooking to deepen the flavor and color. I also thickened the sauce slightly at the end to make a quick gravy. To check out this fabulous recipe, click HERE.

Even though I created this blog to expand my cooking repertoire beyond sweets, dessert is still a must at all my dinner parties. This dessert was the PERFECT selection for a launch menu. With a gorgeous texture and depth of flavor, this WILL be my go-to cheesecake recipe from here on out. The original recipe called for a roasted pineapple topping…which probably would have been fantastic if I had the energy to make it, but fresh blackberries were the perfect touch. If there is anything you take away from this lengthy first post, it should be this recipe.

My recipe notes: do NOT overmix the batter, or an unseemly crack will be inevitable, and use real vanilla bean. While vanilla extract is obviously cheaper and easier to manage, this cake would lose half its charm. Finally, don’t substitute sour cream for the crème fraîche – the tangy, light flavor is what makes this recipe! You can get the recipe for this cheesecake HERE.

Given our “twist” in ingredients and method, I feel it only appropriate to take a detour in genre when considering a musical pairing for this menu. I needed a piece that appeared Italian, for all intents and purposes, but contained elements of diversity. My friend Nate Lofton gave the perfect suggestion: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, Op.90 “Italian“. A German-born composer of Jewish descent who studied briefly in France,  Mendelssohn was inspired to write this work following his travels in Italy.** I have included  a recording of the first movement below with The Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela – arguably one of the best up-and-coming professional orchestras today. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWaGq3HIojs

*According to homecooking.about.com.
**According to Wikipedia.com