Monday, July 16, 2012

Undercooked Carrots At A Fancy Eyetalian Dinner

“You’re not the only ones who can cook, you know,” My husband said.  “I can cook, too.”

Every few months, The Michigan Hill Chefs Association (MHCA) hosts a Chefs’ Dinner, a themed sit-down multi-course meal for 12 – 16 friends.  There are four members in the Association: Cbk is the Dessert Sorceress.  CD is the King of Seafood. CS (married to CD) is the Magician.  And then there’s me.  We even have chef’s  jackets embroidered with our names and the MHCA logo to wear during our events.

My husband was feeling left out, I believe.  And I think he was more than a little jealous of the jackets.  But just because he throws a half bottle of Chianti into jarred marinara for his famous turkey spaghetti, that doesn’t mean he’s worthy of a jacket. 

The Chefs and I took pity on him and gave him an assignment for the next dinner.  His task?  Minestrone Soup.  The theme was Northern Italian, so we thought we’d give him something that he couldn’t mess up, basically vegetable soup.  But in order for him to fulfill the task, he needed a little coaching.

A few weeks before the event, we made the soup.  I patiently explained to him the difference between dice, slice, chop and mince.  I showed him how to hold his knife correctly, with his index finger curled over the blade and the rest of his hand firmly gripping the handle.  I told him why the vegetables needed to be cut the same size, saying that it wasn’t just about how the soup looked, but it was also important because the vegetables needed to cook evenly.  He was a very good student and the soup came out perfectly.  It was beautiful.

The next week, we did it again.  This time, he insisted on flying solo.  I was sitting at the kitchen table reading a magazine when I heard it.

Chopchopchopchopchopchop.  Fast.  Too fast.

“What are you doing?” I said, acting all nonchalantly as I walked over to him.  As I got closer, I was horrified to see that he’s wasn’t holding his knife correctly. His other hand, fingers extended, was dangerously close to the chopping action. 

And the vegetables he’s chopping?  A sloppy mess.

Before I know it, I’m yelling at him,  “That’s not how I told you to hold the KNIFE!  You’re chopping too fast!  That’s not a dice!  That’s a mince!  You’re not doing this right!!!  JEESH – YOU’RE GOING TO CUT YOUR FINGER OFF!!!”  I became Gordon Ramsey, minus the profanity  (well, OK, maybe there was a little profanity).

Right in front of my eyes, my wonderful, successful and gorgeous husband became a three year old.

“I can do this MYSELF!!!” 

You can guess how it all turned out.  The soup was visually unappealing.  Some of the veggies were mush.  The carrots, which were supposed to be diced, ended up sliced as big and thick as my thumb and weren’t cooked through at all.  It wasn’t good.

“I think it’s GREAT, “ he said.  “And everyone at the dinner next week is gonna think it’s great, too!” 

This was a problem.  He’d been to previous dinners and he knew the level of quality the chefs provided.  For crying out loud, I was making Poached Egg Ravioli in Truffle Butter Sauce as a starter for this dinner.  What would everyone think once this brown messy soup with giant chunks of uncooked carrot appeared at the table?  I needed help.  I needed the Chefs.

I emailed everyone that night, telling them what happened.

“He’s certainly not ready for a jacket.  That’s for sure,” CD wrote back from his and CS’s home in Texas.  “He just an Assistant Junior Apprentice Sous Chef In Training, y’all.”   

I replied, “AJASCIT!”  We MHCA members love our acronyms.

Cbk wrote back, “When I try to type in AJASCIT into my computer, it keeps auto correcting to ‘Tahiti.’  Sounds kinda good.”  Cbk is a transplanted Mississippi gal living in Florida.  (God, I love the Chefs’ accents.  I can even hear them when I read their emails.)

Clearly the chefs would be no help.  I would just have to suffer the embarrassment of AJASCIT feeding our guests not-so-good soup.

The evening of our Italian dinner, I kept praying that the Fritto Misto, the Poached Egg Ravioli, all of it would make our guests forget the Minestrone Soup.  But AJASCIT would have none of that. 

“Did you know I made the soup?  It took me two hours just to cut the vegetables!  I simmered it for four hours!  Did I tell you I made the soup?”

When the soup was served, he went on and on and on, telling everyone every single small detail of the recipe.  He was throwing around phrases like “mise en place” and bragging about his excellent knife skills.  Everyone said that they loved it – of course.  The Chefs looked down at their bowls and then at me.  I knew what they were thinking:  The damn carrots weren’t cooked.

Next up…  My Poached Egg Ravioli.  I worked for weeks perfecting my homemade pasta and my technique.  This dish was the BOMB.  I served it and they ooohed and ahhhed  and exclaimed it to be one of the most delicious and unusual things they’d ever eaten. 

“But my soup was really amazing, wasn’t it?” AJASCIT wouldn’t shut up about that stupid soup.

Jesus.  I just served a friggin’ POACHED EGG IN A RAVIOLI

After dinner, my husband went up to the chefs to get their compliments, er, I mean opinions.  “It was good, really really good, wasn’t it?” he asked.  CD, an incredibly eloquent man, said in his Texas drawl,

“Just because it’s good, don’t make it right…  And your carrots weren’t cooked.”

Months later, AJASCIT/Tahiti still talks about that soup.  And I still tell him that his carrots were wrong.

Below is a recipe for much easier cheese ravioli using wonton skins in place of homemade pasta.  Yes, cheating doesn’t make it “right.”  But unless you’re a guest chef at a MHCA Chefs’ Dinner, it’s OK to stick with “good.”

Pesto Ravioli with Tomato White Wine Sauce
Serves 8 First Course or 4 Main Course

2 Cups Tomato, seeded, peeled and diced*
1 Cup Dry White Wine
1 Cup Low Sodium Chicken Broth 
1 Package Wonton skins or Egg Roll Wrappers, quartered
1 Cup Fresh Mozzarella, finely diced*
1 Cup Shredded Mozzarella
1/4 Cup Ricotta Cheese
1/4 Cup shredded Parmesan Cheese
3 Tablespoons Pesto
1 egg, beaten
2 Tablespoons coarse cornmeal
¼ Cup Fresh Basil, chopped roughly
Parmesan shavings, optional (see note)
Small bowl of water
Salt & Pepper


  • ·     Combine the tomatoes, wine & broth in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium low.  Reduce by half.  Season with salt & pepper.
  •    Combine the mozzarellas, Ricotta, Parmesan, pesto and egg.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.
  • ·      Line a cookie sheet with foil and sprinkle the cornmeal evenly over the foil.  It will not cover the sheet completely.  This is to keep the ravioli from sticking to the sheet.
  • ·      Set out four wrappers and cover the rest of the package with a towel to prevent them from drying out.  Brush the outer edges with a little water and place one teaspoon of the cheese mixture in the center.  Fold in half to make a triangle, trying to pinch out as much air as possible.  Make sure the ravioli is completely sealed.  Place on the lined sheet.  Repeat.  Do not let the triangles touch.
  • ·      Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a rolling boil.  Place eight to 10 ravioli in the pot.  Stir gently.  Cook 2 minutes or until the ravioli float to the top and the edges are translucent.
  • ·      Carefully remove cooked ravioli with a slotted spoon.  Place three ravioli on a small plate, top with 2 Tablespoons of sauce and garnish with a pinch of chopped basil and a couple of Parmesan shavings. 
  • ·      Repeat with eight to 10 more raviolis.  Sauce & garnish as directed.  Serve.

Tips and Shortcuts

  • ·      * Diced means small cubes.  Not big honking hunks.
  • ·      Use wine you would drink.  For goodness sake, please don’t use “cooking wine.”  If you are uncomfortable using alcohol in your recipe, double the chicken stock.
  • ·      Shave curls of Parmesan using a vegetable peeler and a wedge of fresh Parmesan.
  • ·      Ravioli can be made ahead.  Freeze uncooked ravioli on the cookie sheet.  Once frozen, remove them and place them in a zip lock baggie.  Take out as many as you need and cook as directed.   
  •     If you don't want to peel & seed a tomato (very easy - email me directly for directions), it's OK to use a drained can of diced tomatoes.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Give Beets a Chance

I don’t wanna eat them,” my 5-year-old self said to my mother.

The foul food?  The puckery ends of a hot dog.  Sure, I ate the middle part, but something about the weird ends really bothered me that day.  Apparently, they also bothered our dog, George.  I surreptitiously threw the offensive bits on the floor hoping he would eat the evidence.  Even HE wouldn’t touch them.  George ate garbage and he wouldn’t eat the damn ends of those hot dogs. 

At the end of dinner, my mother discovered them under my chair.  I don’t remember the exact chain of events, but those pieces of hotdog found their way back to my dinner plate.  I certainly hope she rinsed them, considering the garbage-eating dog and everything.

“You ate the middle but you won’t eat the ends?  They’re the same thing!  They taste the same!  If you don’t eat them, no dessert.  And no Lassie,” my horribly unfit and abusive mother said to me. 

I thought I was in the clear here, in spite of my foolhardy attempt to poison the dog with those pieces of unsightly processed meat.  You see, we had a simple food rule in our house:  You Don’t Have To Finish It. You Just Have To Try It.  I figured that since I ate the MIDDLE of the hot dog, that was totally within the “Try” requirements of our family food rule.  But the fact that I had happily and readily eaten entire hot dogs, ends and all for probably as long as I could eat solid food was not lost on my mother. 

My mother silently cleaned up around me.  The rest of the family – Dad, Jen & Kevin, went into the living room and turned on our black & white TV to watch "Lassie" (our second favorite family TV show after “Bonanza”.  

The show was about to start and I was sitting at the kitchen table alone, staring down those two little bites and giving my mean mom the evil eye.  Even George, our dog, had abandoned me, probably pissed off that I had tried to kill him earlier.

When my horrible mother finished cleaning up, she took my plate and wordlessly put me in my room.  What?  No Lassie?  NO ICE CREAM?  As fate would have it, the room I shared with my sister was just off the living room where everyone was watching television.  I could hear every word of the episode I was missing and the sound of every family member's spoon-clink as they scraped up the last bit of vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s syrup from the bottom of their bowls.  It was torture.

After my Lassie-and-ice-cream deprived evening, the next time I faced down a hot dog, I acted the martyr and choked down the ends first. 

Mom was right.  They did taste just like the middle.

Food aversions aren’t always about taste.  Sometimes, it’s just the way it looks.  I have issues with guacamole: something that color shouldn’t be that consistency. My 70-something-year-old uncle has never willingly eaten a mushroom because of the way it feels in his mouth.  My grandfather detested onions because of childhood trauma that had something to do with gathering an untold amount of onions from his parents’ garden as a child.  I have a friend who refuses to eat a sandwich because…  Well…  I’m not really sure why she won’t eat a sandwich, because that’s really weird.

I love beets.  They’re pretty.  They’re delicious.  They’re easy to make.  My husband’s dad was horrified by beets (his words, not mine).  They are a commonly and unnecessarily reviled food. 

But trust me on this recipe.  It’s good.

And as my parents used to say, “You Don’t Have To Finish It.  You Just Have To Try It. “

Roasted Beet Salad with Goat Cheese & Caramelized Walnuts

Makes 6 Servings

1  Large beet (bigger than a baseball) or 2 smaller beets, rinsed but unpeeled

¾ Cup  Whole walnuts
¼ Cup  Brown sugar
¼ Cup  Water

1 teaspoon  Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon  Honey
1 Tablespoon  White wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons  Olive Oil
1 teaspoon  Kosher salt

4 oz   Good quality goat cheese, crumbled

·      Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
·      Wrap beet(s) in tin foil and bake for 1 ½ hours if using a large beet.  Test after 1 hour if using smaller beets.  Peel beets (see note).
    Cut  into wedges and set aside.
·      Combine walnuts and sugar and water  in a sauté pan over medium heat.  Stir frequently until the sugar becomes dark.  Remove walnuts and cool on a piece of foil or parchment paper, being careful to make sure the walnuts aren’t touching.  The nuts will harden upon cooling, so you want to be sure they aren’t in a big clump.
·      Combine Dijon, honey, vinegar, olive oil and Kosher salt for vinaigrette.
·      Arrange beets on a plate, sprinkle walnuts over the top & drizzle vinaigrette and goat cheese.

Tips and Shortcuts
·      Beets are done when a sharp knife easily slides through.  Set aside to cool. 
·      When beets are cool, take a bunch of paper towels and place the cooked beet inside the paper towels and rub vigorously.  This gets rid of the skin and avoids stained hands.  But it’s handy as a lip stain.
·      The whole dish, unassembled, can be made ahead. 
o   Up to one day ahead, roast the beet(s) and cool.  Peel and wrap in plastic wrap or place in a plastic baggie and refrigerate. 
o   The walnuts can be made up to one week ahead and stored in an airtight plastic container at room temperature.
o   Make the vinaigrette the day before to let the flavors meld.