Is the dinner party dead? Crispy braised chicken for six

Is the dinner party dead? Guy Trebay wrote in the New YorkTimes yesterday that it just may be on the endangered species list.

I have to admit that in years gone by, there was a steadier flow of people at my table than now. So, what gives? Are we too busy? Too tired? Or, as Mr. Trebay suggests: “Increasingly, such gatherings seem outmoded, squeezed out by overcrowded schedules, the phony urgency of affinity sites, restaurants cultism and overall tectonic shifts in how New Yorkers congregate.” Outside of the Big Apple, I’m not sure restaurant cultism is a factor. It may be that collectively we’re in a rut, and cooking for a crowd, once we are out of the habit, seems too daunting. It’s hard to be a part-time cook. If you don’t cook on a regular basis, then inviting six to eight people to your house once in a blue moon is a pretty steep mountain to climb.

I want to get back on the horse, but if I do, I will re-adjust my expectations. A dinner party can (and in these times, maybe should) be an informal affair. Who says spaghetti and meatballs, or even meat loaf is off limits? Better to make something homey and comforting than to contort into a tizzy that leaves you exhausted and cranky by the time your guests arrive.

I usually don’t like to ask guests to bring anything—my feeling is if you are going to give them dinner, give them a night off, too. Buy dessert, or just put a few olives and nuts out before you sit down, and keep your sanity. It’s about the company. Nobody cares whether or not you pull out a homemade chocolate torte. Of course, it’s nice if the food is good, but the whole point is to bring people together. With the holidays looming and so much busy-ness in the air, it might be a good idea to set aside some time to relax with friends. Plan ahead and make a one-dish meal that you can plop on the table with a salad. Spread out the cooking and shopping if you can. Set the table the day before. Read Sara’s post at TheYellow House about making one grand gesture (a roast, for example) and having others bring side dishes if that’s how you want to roll.

Here’s one humble chicken dish idea: If you love dark, tender poultry and crisp skin, start by making braised chicken thighs and turn the technique on its head. Usually, the braising technique consists of browning food, then cooking it slowly in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid. Here, to get the skin crisp, the browned chicken goes into a baking dish with red onions, carrots, white wine, chicken stock, and a touch of honey and vinegar to make a rich sauce. While the vegetables cook in the liquid around the poultry, the exposed chicken skin crisps and browns. The cooking juices make a flavorful sauce. This dish can be prepared several hours ahead and reheated in the oven just before serving. Make some rice or polenta and a salad to serve with it. Dinner is done!

Crispy braised chicken with vegetables

Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

12 to 14 chicken thighs, with skin and bone (about 4  pounds total)

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 red onions, each cut into 8 wedges

8 carrots, cut into 3-inch lengths and halved lengthwise if large

1 cup white wine

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

2 1/2 cups chicken stock

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish

1 Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Have on hand two 9-by13-inch baking dishes.

2. Trim the excess fat from the chicken thighs. Pat them dry with paper towels and season them on both sides with salt and pepper.

3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, skin sides down. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the skin is golden. Turn and cook on the other side for 3 minutes. Transfer the thighs, skin sides up, to each of the 2 baking dishes. Tuck the carrots and onions around them.

4. Pour off the fat from the skillet. Return the pan to the heat and add the wine. Cook and stir for 1 minute to scrape up the brown bits from the bottom. Stir in the vinegar and honey. Pour half of the liquid into each baking dish. Add enough chicken stock to each dish to come halfway up the sides of the chicken (it shouldn’t cover it.) Nestle the thyme sprigs into the dish.

5. Braise, uncovered, in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the meat and vegetables are tender.

6. Transfer the chicken and vegetables to a large platter. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

8. Pour the sauce into a large measuring cup and skim off the fat. Transfer the sauce to a pitcher and serve alongside the chicken.

If you have leftovers, sauté some mushrooms, add spinach, stir in rice and leftover chicken. Dinner is done, again.


Posted on November 29, 2012 and filed under Dinner party, Main dish, Chicken and Poultry.

Waste not, want not, part 2: Creamy cauliflower and tomato soup (without the cream) + Thanksgiving roundup

Before the big blowout, I want to clean out my refrigerator to make room for, you know, everything. I also want to eat simply this week. Too much butter consumption, too many sweets, too much of, you know, everything looms on the horizon.

Cauliflower is delicate and so is this soup. It is not bland, but it calibrates low on the spice meter. It is meant to soothe and cleanse, without too much seasoning, too much butter or cream, or just too much. It is what I would call ‘clean food.’ Food where subtle flavors shine with very little intervention. Your palate will be ready for the onslaught.

This soup also helps me free up refrigerator real estate to make room for next week’s market haul. Cauliflower and random tomatoes (use ‘em or roast ‘em) were on the chopping block. I originally made this soup at the end of the summer with the same clean-out-the-fridge agenda, using a head of cauliflower—I do seem to buy them impulsively and then forget to use them—along with some tomato stock. The tomato stock was a by-product of roasting tomatoes for sauce to stash in the freezer for the winter nights when I want to eat my friend Simona’s uovo col pomodoro. My version was made with thinner sauce and was more like soup than Simona’s, but it is a bowl of comfort on a cold night, not to mention a very nice solitary supper when the occasion arises. The twenty pound box from the farm held the wrong kind of tomatoes for sauce—heirlooms—but I went ahead anyway and saved the excess watery juice for stock. And so it goes. If you give a mouse a cookie….


If you are already in Thanksgiving lock-down, save this recipe for later in the winter, or make it to go with turkey sandwiches, especially if you don’t have to do the lion’s share of cooking on Thursday. I’m including a roundup of turkey day recipes, lest you feel I’m leaving you high and dry. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Creamy cauliflower and tomato soup (hold the cream)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, sliced

4 stalks of celery, sliced

1/4 teaspoon coarsely crushed fennel seeds (or more to taste, but it’s assertive)

2 sprigs rosemary

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 plum (San Marzano)  tomatoes from a can, with juice

1 medium head of cauliflower, broken into florets

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, fennel, and rosemary branches. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the tomatoes and cauliflower and enough water to reach the level of the cauliflower. Bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the cauliflower is cooked through.

4. Puree soup in a blender until smooth. Reheat, if necessary, and serve with chopped parsley and Parmesan toasts.

For the Parmesan toasts:

Sliced bread, preferably from a really good artisanal style loaf

Olive oil

Grated Parmesan

1. Set a rack about 4 inches from the broiler element, and turn on the broiler.

2. Lightly toast the bread on both sides under the broiler. Remove it from the oven and brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with Parmesan and return it to the oven. Toast it until the cheese melts, about 30 seconds. Watch carefully. Slice into smaller toasts if you like and serve with the soup.

A few Thanksgiving recipes from this blog

Turkey Gravy: You'll never stress about it again

All butter pie crust method 2 tutorial

Cranberry relish :Refreshing and super easy 

Maple candied sweet potatoes (marshmallows not included)

Carrots and cranberries: plus knife skill tutorial

Posted on November 15, 2012 and filed under Fall recipes, Winter food, Soups, Vegetarian.

Election Day Cake (Don't forget to vote)

Here it is: the eve of the election. Are you ready for it to be over yet?

I live in Political Junkie Land. College Boy, also known as Ace Reporter, has been covering political events since 2007. (Yes, he was still in high school.) Now that he has an official job as a reporter for a news service while he finishes his final year in college, he proudly displays all his media credentials, and it is hard to stem the tide of clutter of political signs and memorabilia around the house.

Man of the House is no less interested. Our dinner conversations when College Boy is home are lively, sometimes heated, word-flying tournaments. Even now, as I write this post at the eleventh hour, the latest political news is airing on our television.

In order to do my part, I made an .

Yes, Virginia, there is a cake for every occasion. Living in New England has made me curious about all sorts of obscure traditions and I remember noticing a recipe for Election Day Cake in an antique cookbook. Sadly, that book hasn’t surfaced since our last move—maybe it is buried under election paraphernalia—so I did a little research and came up with a recipe for a cake I used to make called barm brack. Barm brack is an old Irish tea cake, traditionally served around Halloween, and ye olde Election Day Cake bears a close resemblance. This genre of cakes dates back to the eighteenth century or earlier. They are made with yeast, lightly sweetened, and packed with dried fruit and “cookie spices.” We would probably serve them with tea or coffee; they are emphatically bread-like, and we would not consider them anything like modern dessert cakes. 

The most famous Election Day Cake was called Hartford (Connecticut) Election Day Cake, and it was reputed to have been served at polling places to bolster the stamina of those waiting in line to vote. Other theories support it being served at church suppers on the eve of an election, or at town meetings. You wouldn’t get much of sugar rush from a slice of this cake, so my guess is the political arguments would remain civil. Marian Burros offers an in-depth run down of some of these speculations.

I have already eaten almost half a cake, slice by slice, here and there throughout the day. Nervous nibbling. Election jitters. However you eat this cake, on election night it should be served with a glass of champagne or a stiff scotch, depending on the outcome. Ever hopeful, I’m keeping the champagne chilled. Toast it for breakfast the morning after, with gratitude that it’s finally over.

Oh, and don’t forget to vote. It’s a privilege we should cherish and act upon. 

p.s. You can find College Boy's recent election photos here if you want to take a peek.

If I haven't warned you enough, consider this more of a bread than a cake. It is based on a traditional old recipe and that's how they rolled back then. I admit it will disappoint you if you’re aiming to satisfy your sweet tooth. I made it with half whole-wheat flour, but if you  use all white flour the cake might be a little lighter than mine was. My cool kitchen and the whole wheat made the dough a bit sluggish, but I toughed it out through two long rises. I think a simple glaze would sweeten enough to nudge it into the cake category, but just barely (thin some confectioner’s sugar with a little milk and vanilla and drizzle it on top.)

Election Day Cake

Makes two 8 /12 by 4 1/2-inch loaves

3 1/2 to 4 cups bread or all-purpose flour (could be half whole wheat)

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon instant-dissolve yeast

3/4 cup milk

3 eggs

1/4 cup honey

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Grated zest of 1 lemon

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 cups of a combination of raisins, cranberries and chopped dried fruit

1/2 cup whole, unblanched almonds

1. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir 2 cups of the flour, salt, and yeast together. Add the milk, 2 eggs, honey, and butter. Beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon zest. Beat again to incorporate them. Switch to the dough hook attachment. Add the enough of the remaining cup of flour to make a soft, slightly sticky dough. Knead for 8 minutes.

2. Pour the vegetable oil into the bottom of a clean bowl. Form the dough into a smooth ball (pull the edges into the center to make a round). Place the dough in the bowl and rotate it to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

[Note, it could take anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 2 1/2 hours to rise, depending on the temperature of the room and the density of the dough—whole wheat flour in the dough will slow things down. If the room is cold, set the oven on low, and when it has warmed turn it off. Place the dough bowl in the oven to rise in the turned off oven.]

3. Transfer the dough to the countertop and press with your fingers to spread it into a large rectangle. Spread the fruit and nuts on top. Roll over them with a rolling pin to press the fruit into the dough. Roll up, jellyroll fashion, to make a cylinder. Knead and squeeze the dough for a few minutes to incorporate the fruit into the dough.

4. Butter two 8 1/2 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pans. Beat the remaining egg with a fork.

5. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a rectangle that is the same length as the loaf pan. Roll up the rectangle to form a cylinder. Pinch the seam and edges to form a compact roll. Place the dough, seam side down, in the loaf pans. Brush with beaten egg. Let rise until the top of the dough domes about 1-inch above the rim of the pan in the center, about 1 hour.

6. About 20 minutes before the dough has risen, set a shelf in the middle of the oven, and heat the oven to 375 degrees F.

7. Brush the loaves a second time with the egg wash. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden and the internal temperature reaches 190 degrees on a probe thermometer placed in the center of a loaf (loaf will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.) Let rest for 5 minutes in the pan and turn out on a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.

Posted on November 5, 2012 and filed under Cakes.

Waste not, want not: a late harvest cake (apples, pears and grapes)

I wanted a plum cake. A plum and almond cake to be exact. But alas, plums are no more. At least, not until next year. What I love about plums in a cake is how juicy and tart and gleefully pink they become when they are baked. Their incarnation as fresh specimens never really measures up to the soft, puckery deliciousness of baked plums. But as the song goes, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

So I turned to apples. I needed to bake a birthday cake for a friend, but it was to be for a breakfast celebration, and gobs of frosting did not call out to me. Anyway, I have veered away from sweet desserts. Maybe it is because of all those past years eating pecan pie or crème caramel for breakfast as an early morning pastry chef, but my hankering for sweets has dwindled over time.

I had a mystery jar of finely chopped almonds with sugar and cinnamon in my cupboard. I had pears that were perfectly ripe and wouldn’t last another day. I had grapes. I had too many apples. That sounded like a cake to me. This was definitely a by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair. I threw it together and crossed my fingers. Success. Then I baked it again for you, just for you. This time I measured everything so you can make it too.

In the end, it is not too sweet. Have it for breakfast even if it’s not your birthday. Or eat it in the afternoon for tea. With whipped cream, it will even suffice for the end of dinner with friends. Who gets to eat homemade cake these days, anyway? It will keep for a day, snugly wrapped in foil. I suggest re-warming it in the oven (300 degrees) for about ten minutes. Oh, and for next time, I have this recipe ready when plums come back to visit. In the meantime, waste not, want not.

Late harvest almond and apple cake

Makes 1 nine-inch cake

1 large apple, peeled and thickly sliced

1 large or 2 small pears, thickly sliced (no need to peel)

1 cup grapes

1 cup all purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup whole, unblanched almonds

3/4 cup organic cane or granulated sugar, divided

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 stick (4 ounces, 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter

3 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F, and arrange a rack in the middle position. Line a 9-inch cake pan with a removable rim with parchment. (No need butter the sides of the pan.) Prepare the fruit.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl.

3. Combine the almonds, 1/4 cup of the cane sugar, and the cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until finely ground.

4. Stir 1/2 cup of the ground almonds into the flour. Reserve the rest for the top of the cake.

5. Beat the butter and the remaining 1/2 cup sugar together in a mixing bowl (with beaters or in a stand mixer on medium speed) for 3 minutes, or until fluffy. On medium speed, beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl between each addition. Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts.

6. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix on low speed until combined. Beat for a few seconds on medium speed until the batter is smooth. Spread evenly in the prepared pan with the back of a spoon. The batter will be thick.

7. Arrange the apples and pears alternately in a circular pattern over the top of the cake. Distribute the grapes over the top. Squeeze the lemon juice over the fruit. Sprinkle with 4 tablespoons of the cinnamon almond mixture. (If you have some leftover, save it for sprinkling on your morning toast.)

8. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick poked into the center of the cake emerges with clean and the top is golden. Let the cake cool on a rack for about 10 minutes. Slide a knife around the edge of the pan. Release the sides and cool for another 10 minutes or so if you want to serve the cake right away. It will keep for at least one more day covered with foil. 

Cooking Lesson: How to make a parchment circle

1. Cut a piece of parchment that will fit over the bottom of the pan (it will probably be a rectangle.)

2. Fold the lower right hand corner up to meet the top edge of the rectangle. Cut along the edge to make a square.

3. Fold the triangle a few times to make a cone shape.

4. Hold the cone over the pan with the point centered in the middle.

5. Cut strait across the cone and open it up. Voila!

Posted on October 28, 2012 and filed under Breakfast, Cakes, Fall recipes, Sweets, Winter food, How To.

Good and good for you: chocolate/vanilla almond granola

In the wee hours of the morning (when I can’t sleep), my mind careens like a drunken butterfly. Sometimes it has Monarch impulses, ranging across continents of thought. Other times it just flits from flower to flower on the willy-nilly train.

Such is the nature of the mind, Grasshopper.

This is how chocolate granola popped into my head and settled for a while. I was thinking about cancer fighting foods. Of course, I immediately googled “cancer fighting foods” because, as everyone knows, the Internet is the mirror image of a mind gone amok. There I found a particularly good Ted Talk on cancer by Dr. William Li. From there I progressed to the website Eat to Defeat, where he recommends eating one cancer fighting food with every meal. Why not start with breakfast?

Ergo: chocolate granola.

I was slightly skeptical about whether this was a good idea, so I came up with an ambivalent, or shall we say, dualistic, recipe for granola, consisting of half chocolate and half vanilla.

(Yes, Grasshopper, as I said, such is the nature of the mind.)

I was hedging my bets. Just in case. Leave it open. Decide later. Of course, they were both better than just edible.

I’ll let you choose. Make all-chocolate granola by doubling the amount of cocoa powder and mixing it into the honey blend, or leave it out entirely. Or do both, and compare. The best cancer-fighting cocoa powder, according to Dr. Li, is natural (not “Dutch-processed”). Olive oil (mild), almonds, and honey are also on his list. Eating this granola is a virtuous way to start the day when you want to stick to the plan but veer off the strait and narrow just a teensy bit, and it makes a good snack, too. Good, and good for you.

Chocolate/vanilla almond granola

Makes about 12 cups

8 cups oats

3/4 cup flax seeds

3/4 cup pumpkin seeds

1 1/2 cups whole almonds

3/4 cup honey

1/3 cup mild olive oil

2 tablespons vanilla

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup unsweetened “natural” cocoa powder

1 cup chopped dried apricots, or dried fruit of your choosing like cherries or cranberries

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment.

2. Mix oats, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds together in a large bowl. Divide the mixture in half and mound each half in the center of each of the baking sheets.

3. Warm the honey, olive oil, vanilla, and salt together in a saucepan over medium heat, or in a Pyrex bowl for about 1 minute in the microwave, just until warm. Pour half the mixture over half the grains on the first baking sheet. Toss with your hands to mix, and spread in an even layer.

4. Stir the cocoa powder into the remaining liquid ingredients until smooth. Pour the chocolate over the grains on the second baking sheet. Mix with your hands until combined (it will be sticky.) Spread on the baking sheet.

5. Bake the granola for 20 minutes. Remove the baking sheets from the oven, and stir. Return them to the oven, rotating the pans (switch the pan from the top rack to the bottom and vice versa). Continue to bake, removing the pans, stirring, and rotating the pans every 7 minutes or so for 10 to 15 more minutes, or until the vanilla granola is golden and toasty. Leave on the baking sheets to cool. Stir in the apricots, and store in airtight containers.

Posted on October 15, 2012 and filed under Breakfast, Food gifts, Beans and Grains.