Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Simple Spring Weeknight Dinner

Last week was a week of firsts and lasts. Last week staying at my grandfather's home in Bedford, NY, last week of living near Fairfield County, CT (where I grew up). First week that my grandfather came back North from Florida, first week of amazingly abundant spring produce (Mushrooms! Asparagus! Baby greens! Fiddleheads!). And the first week of multiple nights of homecooked feasts. Oh, definitely not just dinners. Feasts with a couple of courses and many offerings.

First up: Tuesday night's dinner. I went to my favorite local market Table in Bedford Hills and spotted a basket of amazing locally foraged fresh mushrooms. I'm slightly obsessed, so how could I resist not bringing a bunch home?! My selections, clock-wise from top: Hen of the Woods mushrooms (these were chopped in smaller pieces for cooking), Morels, Shittakes, a couple of baby Cremini, and Lionsmane mushrooms.

Here is a close-up some Hen of the Woods, Morels, a couple of Shittakes, and I think some Creminis, too. Yum!

Here they are in the pan, sauteing nicely. The picture is really terrible, my apologies. Proper lighting is key!

So, you ask. Dinner of mushrooms alone? No! We started off with some of Effy's Oatcakes (like wheatmeal biscuits in a way, but butter-ier and flakier and crisper. And Oatier!) with some Monterey Thyme and Olive Oil Chevre and some raw local honey from Cortlandt Manor, NY. Heavenly bites to curb the hunger yet whet the appetite! With this, some had their gin on the rocks, others a bit of chardonnay, and most a Venetian "spritz:" Aperol, Prosecco, a hint of sparkling water, and a twist of lemon. 

I then steamed some fresh asparagus. Now, I grew up always choosing organic produce. But, I've learned over time, that organic asparagus doesn't necessarily mean you are bringing home the best asparagus. What do I look for? Pretty fat stems, which means they are usually more crisp, flavorful, and not too tough. Also, the heads are very tightly compact and intact. If the heads are bumped and bruised, with pieces missing, I'll forgo the vegetable and choose something else. As for origins, if I can get local (which I did the other day from Four Town Farm in Seekonk, MA - it was utterly amazing!), I will choose local. Otherwise, asparagus from California is next on my list. I broke off the stems where they broke naturally near their base with my hands, and plopped them in a saute pan of boiling water, about 1" deep and lightly salted, and cooked them til al dente (how I like them). I then drained and let them sit on paper towels to cool slightly. 

Now, for the secret surprise, which we made especially for my grandfather after our first try at Easter: Easy Hollandaise. I know, I know. Easy hollandaise you might ask? It's like an oxymoron! Yes, hollandaise, made the classic way with a sabayon of egg that is gently cooked over a double boiler and clarified butter is added until properly homogenized, is a very temperature-sensitive nightmare (having made it in a kitchen where the stove is blazing, but the AC is blasting and a step away from the stove results in a 20 degree temperature change, yes...it is a nightmare). Yet, I came across a fool-proof recipe...foolproof as long as you use GOOD butter, as I'll tell you later.

Ina Garten developed this recipe, and it is published in her Barefoot in Paris cookbook. I tweaked it a bit as she uses SO much salt (ironically, my mom who is more salt-sensitive than I am didn't have an issue with the flavor, but I did!). Here is my modified version, below:

12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1.5 sticks)
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tsp salt
Generous pinch of finely ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Place the yolks, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and cayenne into a blender (make sure you have a decent blender...).. Mix on high for 15 seconds. With the blender on low, slowly pour in hot butter (only do this if your blender can keep it from splashing about. Mine couldn't). Blend on high for 30 seconds, or until thick and the mixture is homogenous. Test for seasoning and keep at room temperature.

Now, when I made this over Easter, I used Plugra butter and my Kitchen Aid blender and it was foolproof. I could chill it overnight, reheat it and stir it and it would be just like new. Now, when I made this in Bedford, I used Vermont Butter and Cheese Butter (very good on bread, just not in my hollandaise) and I could not keep the mixture properly emulsified. It kept breaking! I also wondered if it was my blender, some cheap thing that I kept worried was going to break and fall apart. Alas, but it tasted just marvelous with the steamed asparagus. 

I also made a simple green salad with cucumbers, mango, avocado, blue cheese, and toasted walnuts -- a classic combination that my family relies on time and time again. 

Lastly, since my mom had been running errands all day, and I was at the airport, neither of us had time to make the main entree from scratch. Luckily, she was in the city and was able to stop by one of our favorite places (um, some of us used to live upstairs...it was TOO good to be true!!), Eli Zabar's Vinegar Factory. Eli makes SO many delicious foods to take home, including asian salmon, spinach stuffed chicken, chicken parmesan, along with fresh breads, soups, salad bar items, and SO SO SO much more. A family favorite? His turkey meatloaf. She brought home some slices for me to serve with the rest of our meal, along with some family members' favorite: mashed potatoes.

The perfect way to finish off the delicious and VERY healthy dinner we prepared? Make your own cookie sundaes. Mom had picked up some of Eli's flourless chocolate cookies (not as good as Payard's, I think), butterscotch somethings, and coconut macaroons. I picked up some vanilla ice cream and our family's all-time favorite, coffee heath bar crunch (can you tell two of us went to school in VT?!). With some of Laduree's Beurre Sale Caramel and homemade chocolate sauce, it hit my sweet craving on the spot!

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