Cooking for Others

Tis the season of sweets, of cakes, cookies, and puddings. If your belly’s already bulging from holiday parties and gifts, you don’t need me to tell you what season it is.

But you can make cakes and cookies in your sleep–after all, you bake some version of them all year round. With the exception, perhaps, of Valentine’s Day, there’s no better time than December to attack a fourth category of sweets: candy.

I know there are a lot of artisan chocolates and lowbrow candy bars out there, and I totally get if you’ve already ordered pounds of candied yuzu peel or chocolate-covered pretzels and don’t want to make your own.

I, on the other hand, can never resist trying my hand at the impossible.

Cheesy Winter Squash Bake

Posted by on Wednesday Dec 17th, 2014

Look, I dug through all the sugar and found us some vegetables!

One of my favorite tricks to play on myself during seasons of vegetable apathy is to bury greens (or oranges) under melting pats of butter, generous pours of olive oil, or mountains of melted cheese. This is not a sabotage, a cop-out, or a rejection of salads or carrot sticks. It’s just self-imposed bribery.

Of course vegetables aren’t chores and fat isn’t bad, so my bribery is hardly treachery. Really, making a wild thing taste good is probably smart in the long run.

The vegetables involved in this particular production include a whole acorn squash and two carrots. The cheese? It’s Roth Grand Cru, a nutty, aged cheese from Wisconsin that adds tremendous depth to the vegetables in this dish. The cheese, cured in copper vats as the Swiss alpine tradition dictates, melts beautifully on top and within the rice-and-vegetable bake.

As for the dish itself, you’ve seen a version before. Somewhere between a frittata and a soufflé, this baked casserole centers on vegetables (you already heard about those), eggs, rice, and cheese. No one part overwhelms the others, and the resulting wedges present themselves as viable, yet humble breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

The dish is as good at room temperature as hot or cold, and though I got into to talking about this as some way to disguise vegatables with cheese, that’s really not that point. The Cheesy Winter Squash Bake is best understood as an elegant hodgepodge, a nutritious and wholesome way to merge the foods we should eat with the ones we really want to–with the result that we remember how great carrots, squash, and their vegetable brethren are. Almost as good as cheese.

This post is sponsored by Roth Cheese, an alpine-style cheese crafted in Wisconsin. All opinions, as usual, are mine. Thanks for supporting BGSK’s sponsors!

This time of year, holiday parties ferry us out of our apartments and away from our kitchens–at the moment when we need home-cooked food the most, to balance out the frosted cookies and chocolate gelt. It can be wildly fun to be out at restaurants and bars, sipping themed cocktails and standing by the kitchen door in order to capture the first edition of each hors d’oeuvres. But, as a cook, I sometimes wish that some of the festive food came from our pots.

We do turn on the oven, of course, to bake (and there are lots of cookie, candy, and cake coming your way really soon). So far this December, I have been trying to come home to the kitchen when I can, to make chicken stock weekly, to eat some greens, and to pack carrots sticks with lunch. We’ll see how long into cookie season that lasts.

Those aren’t the only two options. Another thing entirely is to host some version of a holiday celebration yourself. This isn’t necessarily competition with the office party or the, er, FriendsMas/Friendsmakkuh fest, but a quieter affair, maybe with a few family members or friends from the neighborhood who can help you put ornaments on your tree. Serve them a garlicky roasted pork loin and a side of seasoned cauliflower that picks up the roast’s simple Italian vibe–and then end things with a contrastingly creamy maple creme brulee, potentially.

Or, keep this for yourself and save remaining portions as leftovers. The double roast–pork and vegetable–is a simple weeknight dinner at heart, even though it has the soul of a holiday meal.

Maitake, Leek & Bacon Dressing

Posted by on Thursday Nov 20th, 2014

If you had told me a year ago if I’d dream of a Thanksgiving stuffing made with mushrooms, I would have called you crazy. I’ve long had a thing against mushrooms (sorry), but that thing changed the moment I threw a handful of weird-looking chopped-up maitake mushrooms to a hot pan for a chicken recipe and smelled that smell. It was rich, nutty, irresistible.

Since I’m not in charge of the Thanksgiving dressing at our party–we make my grandma’s delicious recipe, which has both bread and chestnuts–I haven’t created any stuffings or dressings. Yet once I realized how simple the whole deal was–stuffing is just a delightful carb, meant to offset rich turkey skin and gravy–I had the best time layering rich challah cubes with as much flavor as my pantry and fridge could muster. Though bacon and those elegant maitakes co-star, leeks are a serious contender for best supporting player. Their saucy richness helps tie the bread, vegetables, and meat together.

If you plan to tote this dressing to someone else’s event, you can make it in advance up until the second half of the baking. Contribute it to someone else’s party covered in foil, then have your host reheat it til the top browns–the precise oven temperature and timing are less important than the browning.

I’ll have one more Thanksgiving idea for you on Monday. Stay tuned! (Here’s what we’ve covered so far.)

P.S. If Stove Top is your thing, have I got ideas for you! See them here.

Memorize This Slaw

Posted by on Thursday Nov 13th, 2014

When I opened this series about Thanksgiving foods you could contribute to a dinner you weren’t hosting, I wrote that my family’s own Thanksgiving traditions rarely varied and so the whole series was kind of vicarious. That claim wasn’t entirely true, though: Some years we bake five desserts and some years six. Some years we stick place cards on gourds, some years on cookies.

And some years we make Uncle Brad’s Health Salad and some years we don’t.

First, you should know that health salad has no verifiable link to Uncle Brad. [ed: found the link. Uncle B liked it and asked for the recipe. My mom gave it to him with one modification: the copious measure of sugar was halved. The salad, therefore, was probably not that good.] We always thought he brought it once to our party, decades ago, but last I checked, he had no recollection of this. Anyway, the salad doesn’t seem too much like him: it’s plain, it’s not particularly festive, it’s arguably not worth the stomach space when there are biscuits and turkey skin available. That’s the reason, some years, we don’t make the slaw: we bet no one will eat any.

The reason the slaw appears, when it does, is that a forkful tastes fresh, though you can make the whole salad ahead of time, and the texture has that crunchy-raw bite that’s welcome on a plate of buttery and soft things–both on Thursday itself and through the indulgent long weekend to follow.

If you host or a attend a Thanksgiving dinner where you think such a thing as a salad would get eaten, I have another reason you should make slaw. You can commit this recipe to heart, right now. (It’s not exactly Uncle Brad’s recipe, or my mom’s, but the taste sits right with me.)

All you need to know is a proportion. For each half a cabbage, you want one apple, one carrot, one pepper and one onion. To dress the thing, equal parts: 1/4 cup each of oil, sugar, and vinegar, heated up with a touch of soy sauce and some minced garlic (or garlic powder as I discovered on a recent weekend trip). The hot dressing melts the cabbage in the most delightful way. Vary the flavor with spices or a hot pepper, if you like, but that’s really the whole recipe for a dish that you can shop for and whip up for people even far from your own (garlic powder-free) kitchen comfort zone.

Which is to say, while slaw makes an impact on the holiday table, knowing slaw by heart makes an impact on the people who are watching you cook, and if you care to impress them, well, there’s that.

Read more about Thanksgiving prep here.

Before they were sweet, pies were savory. The dough that bakes up into our beloved flaky crust was, way back when, merely a convenient holder of filling, a means for peripatetic medieval types to wrap up meat or vegetables and take them on the go. Sort of like a pop tart.

Now that a pie usually refers to the kind of double-crusted or meringue-topped thing of dessert beauty (or terror, if dough always seems to stick to your rolling pin), I love the idea of taking the pastry back to its roots in my holiday cooking this year–whether at Thanksgiving or Christmas, or sometime in between.

This is happening in two ways. One, we’re making savory pies, not sweet ones; and two, we’re choosing a rustic presentation over a perfect, fussy one. Put away your rolling pins and deep-dish fluted pie pans. This is going to be simple.

At your pie party, I envision an array of savory pastries, with crust and filling mixed and matched to suit your tastes. To add even more visual fun, play around with shapes, too. There are mini galettes, dough wrapped around filling that’ll disappear in three bites. There are long and skinny galettes containing bright seasonal vegetables; they’re to be cut into manageable squares for serving. Others are more or less round, like, well, pies. We can even pick and choose the name of these savories: galette, crostata, pie, tart, tartlet, pizette. Though some of these have specific meanings and others are sort of made up, a good diverse spread should have good diverse names – don’t you think?

The first recipe here makes a couple of Apple Crostatas. With a whole-wheat crust and a melted brie topping, the cute rounds make an awesome vegetarian lunch (with a green salad) if you’re not having a pie party or looking for a great starter for Thanksgiving.

But that’s not all. There’s a big Sweet Potato-Rosemary Galette with a rustic cornmeal crust that’s punctuated by delicious roquefort. Click over to ArtofCheese.com to get the recipe for these delicious, seasonal gems.

This post is sponsored by Lactalis, who provided cheese and compensation. All opinions, of course, are my own. Thanks for supporting the sponsors that keep BGSK delicious! If you’d like to enter to win $50 worth of your own Président cheese, visit ArtOfCheese.com, where you can download a coupon and enter the Pinterest sweepstakes, plus find more holiday recipes and product information.

Recently, I told my friend Taylor that re-imagining weeknight cooking in terms of formats and formulas, rather than exact recipes, would simplify his daily dinners. Meaning, if you know you love pasta, you should always have pasta and potential sauce ingredients around, the same way if you like to wear pencil skirts and silk blouses, you’ll stock good skirts, tops, and pumps, not go in search of one perfect outfit at the department store.

Once you get the hang of the method, it really is a more fun, more delicious, and less wasteful way to shop, cook, and eat than going nuts with planning Monday breakfast and Tuesday dinner and Wednesday leftovers and then penning perfect shopping lists. (You can read all my advice for Taylor here.)

One of my favorite formats is “the Franny’s vegetable format,” named after Franny’s, the greatest restaurant on Flatbush Avenue. Years before I moved to Brooklyn, the restaurant opened as a neighborhood pizzeria, albeit with a cheffy following. Now that there’s a cookbook and a spin-off, it’s more of a destination, but I live in the neighborhood and so for me, it retains the neighborhood vibe. Anyway, when I go there, I don’t always order pizza. I’d rather veg out on the vegetable appetizers, which are always rich and original because Franny’s unleashes the wood-burning oven on beets, sunchokes, and green beans to exquisite effect, then dresses them with vinaigrette, shredded cheese, and nuts.

And that’s the format, the Franny’s format: roast, dress, cheese, nut.

To bring the format to the Thanksgiving table, I rescued green beans from the casserole dish and threw them on the roasting pan instead. Of course, I don’t have a wood-burning oven, but the home oven does a solid job of blackening and shrinking the green beans until their flavor is condensed and their texture snackable (I can’t totally credit Franny’s for the green bean roasting thing–my immediate family is also obsessed). Cider vinegar anchors the dressing, bringing needed tang, which is balanced yet again with richness–in the form of Parmesan cheese and sunflower seeds.

You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to make this tangle of green beans, but if you’re a guest looking for a signature contribution to someone else’s dinner, this is a good option–not least because it scales well and tastes great at room temperature. And if you want to vary the vegetable, the vinegar, the cheese or the nut, do so: it’s all just a format.