Cooking for Others

Wings are fun. Know what’s not fun? Going back to school. Worse yet is not going back to school at all, the realization that summer is just another passing couple of months of Real Life. Or maybe, real life is better. Summer weather is going to continue for another month or so, and those of us not in school have as much leeway as ever to make the most of it. Right?

A quick stock of the summer reveals that it wasn’t all that grown up. I swam in the Atlantic at two different latitudes; I got sunburnt ten times; I ate fried clams and drank Watermelon Rickeys; I played a lot of frisbee; I checked out Austin, Texas where I ate brisket and breakfast tacos and met Quinn from Scandal (!); I biked miles upon miles; I threw a biergarten party; I went to my first Big Summer Potluck; I launched Cooking Coaches.

Which maybe means I am ready for fall, and which brings us back to wings. These guys, baked til crisp in the oven (remember the oven? the kitchen tool you haven’t thought about since May?), symbolize the best of the season to come: football games and tailgates, indoor fun, dark beer, and red wine. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Cozy cabins in a Vermont countryside bright with foliage (here’s hoping). We might as well embrace it all.

I developed this wing recipe for Pacific Coast Producers, a private-label tomato company in California. It’s a play on buffalo wings, but instead of fried, the chicken gets baked until it’s crispy, then tossed with a homemade sweet-and-sour tomato-ginger chutney that perfectly complements the meat.

The chutney itself comes together surprisingly quickly, given its nuanced flavor. It makes use of sweet onions, spicy ginger, and tangy tomatoes to create an irresistible sauce you’ll find yourself licking from your fingers. Use any leftover sauce to dip bread into as an appetizer or dollop on top of eggs, tacos, or fish.

Since we’re talking parties, I wanted to share with you the details of the anniversary event Alex and I threw for his parents a few weeks back. A theme takes a party to the next level, and taking in all the components–the number of guests, the timing of our travel to Maryland, the likes and dislikes of the crew, and the abundance of summer produce–we choose a Biergarten theme.

We kept the decorations simple: a big Biergarten banner, a few little flags for the cheese plate, a table runner, and some oversized beer steins as vases for flowers. Drinks were bottles of good German beer–naturally!

As for the food! What we liked best about the menu we created is that it mainly featured easy, make-ahead dishes. It was split between items we could order by mail straight to Maryland since we were coming from New York late Friday night (great German sausages, frozen hot pretzels from Lancaster, PA) and a vegetable platter we’d throw together from what we found at the nearby farm stand.

We featured mini potato pancakes and zucchini cakes for the first course, then moved to hot pretzels, which we took from the oven in batches as guests settled in. They were a huge hit! Finally, Alex grilled four kinds of sausages–Weisswurst, Bratwurst, Chicken Bratwurst, and vegetarian sausages–as I put the finishing touches on the three vegetables: a potato salad, a red cabbage slaw, and a big oval plate of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes.

Dessert was a vegan interpretation of a Black Forest Cake, made and served in two single layers. A lot of the party doesn’t eat dairy, so I thought doing the “icing” on the side in the form of hot fudge sauce and ice cream would work, and people assembled their own Black Forest Sundaes. I can’t say enough good things about this cake–it’s sweet, fruity, and fudgy, and you’d never know it’s vegan.

Aside from the party itself, I loved shopping with Alex’s brother and cooking with two of his aunts, and it was a pleasure to be all together in a big kitchen, chatting, listening to music, and cooking loads of food.

**Biergarten Party Menu for 25**

Assorted German Beers

Mini Potato Pancakes with Chive Sour Cream
Bite-Sized Zucchini Cakes with Chive Sour Cream
Cheese Plate

Hot Pretzels
Honey Mustard

Bratwurst, Weisswurst & Chicken Bratwurst from Schaller & Weber
Vegetarian Sausages

Simple German Potato Salad
Sweet Red Cabbage Slaw
Tomatoes & Cucumber Wedges

Vegan Black Forest Cakes
Hot Fudge Sauce – Vanilla Ice Cream – Dairy-Free Chocolate Sorbet

Hello from sunny and cool New York City! We’re having what a friend deemed “August spring,” but we’re all terrified to talk about it, lest the hellish July temperatures return. To me, it’s Maine weather: in the morning, we wear sweatshirts. At night, we sleep without air conditioning. For dinner, I’m once again okay with turning on the oven.

A good tuna melt deserves the broiler, and today I bring you the best tuna melt I’ve ever had. The inspiration for this melt arrived when Mezzetta challenged me to create a sandwich to share with you, using the fantastic jarred olives, peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and spreads that they make. Sandwiches are pretty much the perfect summer meal–easy to assemble, no big deal to tote along to the beach or on other adventures. Of course I had to mix things up by turning on that broiler, but I don’t think summer will think any less of me.

For this sandwich, I mixed my favorite canned tuna (it’s called American Tuna and is low in mercury) with a simple, Italian-style vinaigrette made with basil, minced onion, olive oil, and vinaigrette. There’s no mayo in there, nor is there any on the sandwich. Instead, I spread the bottom half of the sandwich with one of my all-time favorite pestos, made with Mezzetta’s sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and Parm. For the melt aspect, I chose a fontina-like cheese recommended by my neighborhood cheesemonger. Perhaps my favorite move, though, was studding the top of the cheese with Mezzetta’s sliced hot cherry peppers, which are pickled and add great spice and flavor.

Before I go grab a cardigan to bulk up for this August “spring” morning, I wanted to let you know that you can enter to win Mezzetta’s annual “Make That Sandwich” contest. Create a sandwich using two or more Mezzetta products, enter the recipe here, and you could win the grand prize, $25,000! (There are also two runner-up prizes of $1000 apiece.) See tons of sandwich inspiration here, and good luck! I’ll be back later today with a giveaway of some awesome Mezzetta delicacies.

I wrote this sponsored post in partnership with Mezzetta to let you guys know about the chance to win their sandwich contest. Thanks for supporting the sponsors that help inspire BGSK’s content! 

When you cook at home every single morning, for most lunches, and for dinner nearly daily, you become a whiz–and a bit obsessive–at saving money, time, energy, and extra dishes, and at 7:30pm, after work and grocery shopping, you’d have a tough job convincing me to make a meal that uses more than one pan. Sometimes, dinner at home is so humble I don’t bother to mention the toast with eggs and greens, the humungous salads with smoked bluefish, the kitchen-sink pastas to you here.

But back when we first started BGSK, our inexperience led us to delicious cooking adventures we wouldn’t deign to go on now. In fact, the entire introduction of the book is about how by the end of our “sophomore year” in the real world, we’d stopped serving Manchurian Cauliflower–a crispy, sweet-and-sour cauliflower number–because we realized we’d rather be hanging out with friends than deep-frying batches of cruciferous vegetables behind the scenes. Accordingly, I became a scholar of simplicity, make-ahead appetizers, and baking polenta squares.

Though I loved this old recipe for polenta steaks, with its crispy edges from pan-frying, every time I’ve cooked polenta steaks in the last few years, I’ve brushed the steaks with oil and baked them. Not as messy. And not as good!

As I talked to quarter-lifers and put together the recipes for the Cooking Coaching students, I thought a lot about what dishes to put on the teaching menus. I aimed to convey the joy of everyday cooking over cooking show-style flashiness, yet I hesitated over whether that joy could be channeled with black beans and scrambled eggs, no matter how delightful.

Looking at the trajectory of this site, from Manchurian cauliflower to five-minute cabbage slaw, I realized that sometimes you need to pull off a showstopper in order to develop a love of cooking. You need to stand back in wonder and exclaim, “I made that!” long before you’re in the mood to mutter “here’s dinner” over an understated, if triumphant, couscous that you set on the table exactly 24 minutes after you walked in the door.

As soon as tomatoes appear at the farmstand, I rush to make summer pasta salad. Have you ever made it? It’s just chopped heirloom tomatoes marinated with tons of garlic, fragrant basil, a good pour of olive oil, and minced red onion. As the tomatoes sit on the counter, the scents of garlic and fruity tomato waft around the kitchen. Hot pasta hits the “sauce,” which coats each strand with its summery goodness. Then you’re ready to eat.

Ever since we got back from Thailand, I’ve been tweaking a lot of my favorites with Asian flavors. Birdseye chilis. Fish sauce. Sesame oil and sesame seeds. Smoky chili oil.

The summer pasta is no exception, and it presents the perfect palate update for telling you about P.F. Chang’s Flavors of Summer sweepstakes.

I was really excited to hear that the restaurant is playing with some of my favorite ingredients in its seasonal menu this summer. There’s avocado, lime, quinoa. There’s Thai basil, fresh carrots, heirloom tomatoes. There’s green beans, cilantro, fresh mango.

And, there’s a contest going on, so that if you help highlight these delicious ingredients on your pinterest board or create a recipe with them, as I’ve done here, you can win generous gift cards to P.F. Chang’s. Here’s where to read more about the sweepstakes.

The way I cooked with these summer ingredients illustrates a lot for you about the way I like to put meals together right now. I’ll always be a carb-lover, but in summer, carbs become merely the base for my bowl meals, with as many vegetables as possible collected, chopped, and thrown on top.

Yesterday, in an uncharacteristic move, I served a pair of French toast dishes for brunch. I made two pans of baked blueberry and strawberry French toast, both rich with half and half and butter. Then I made a third pan of dairy-free baked French toast, that one rich with peanut butter and flavorful with bites of brown sugar-crusted banana. Surprisingly, the banana-peanut butter combo was the biggest hit, and friends gobbled it up alongside slices of bacon, roasted potatoes with homemade tomato chutney, and bloody Marys.

Though I’ve long advocated baked French toast as a brunch staple, I rarely serve platters of the rich, carby main. This is because I don’t love sweet breakfasts and brunches, and the host has to eat too.

But yesterday’s gloom and a desire for ease saw me running home from the supermarket two hours before friends were due to arrive with loaves of fluffy Portuguese white bread ready to be turned into French toast. I loved serving the two variations, and though my oven suffered from being overstuffed with pans of potatoes, bacon, and the French toast, brunch came together and we had a blast.

Also, I though I’d mention that I had never made my own bloody Marys before yesterday. But I’m one hundred percent stirring them together for all future brunches. (I followed Ina’s recipe.) Do you have a signature bloody Mary ingredient?

Asparagus Chipotle Quesadillas

Posted by on Monday May 6th, 2013

The other Tuesday night I did the thing where I invited friends over before thinking about what I would serve them for dinner. Four and a half years after moving to Brooklyn when everyone I knew lived in Manhattan, and a year after I wrote about these Brie and Red Pepper Crostini as bites I could serve to people stopping by unannounced–except for that never happened–we live in the midst of friends close enough to come over for an impromptu Tuesday night dinner. Lucky!

Only I didn’t have much to serve these friends, and I invited them for about a half hour too early to get deep into cooking anything. As I sprinted home on my bike, I mentally scanned the contents of my fridge and pantry imagining what I could whip up, and fixating on certain ingredients – extra asparagus from these, pre-grated cheese from a taco party, a lot of basil from a filming project we’d been working on over the weekend, and a container of the salad dressing I can’t get enough of. By the time I lugged my bike into the basement, I had a plan.

The centerpiece of dinner, the quesadillas, might not hide very well the fact that they were invented by necessity. The ingredients do appear a little hodgepodge. But as soon as you take a bite you’ll see why I’ve made these repeatedly in the weeks since Tuesday night’s dinner. The creamy chipotle spread brings a kick and a luscious richness. As the cheese melts, it glues the quesadilla together and enrobes the asparagus stalks, which are a nod to the season and balance out a the otherwise indulgent mix of ingredients.