August 29, 2007

What's cookin', good lookin'?

We had friends over for dinner on Monday. They are Indian, which always leaves me in a quandary - do I cook what I normally cook? Since I normally cook Indian, that is pretty boring for an Actual Indian. Sometimes, I will do some Kerala specialties, if the guests aren't actually from Kerala. However, X and I are mighty, mighty tired of my Indian cooking in these days of Budgetary Restraint (Read: I am cooking all the damned time now) and we wanted to do something special. So, ziti it would have to be. I do not know many Western dishes and Average Jane's Baked Ziti saves my ass every single time. With the ziti, I served Caprese salad and crème brûlée. An Australian pinot noir completed the meal.

The lovely thing about the ziti is that it can be tailored for dietary restrictions or heat preference which is why I love serving it to Indian guests. I throw in extra red pepper to make it spicy and add turkey sausage if the guests are not vegetarian. Our guests this time around do not eat meat, so I loaded up on more of the veggies instead.

Here are the recipes for the rest of the meal:

Faux Caprese Salad

I fell in LOVE with Caprese salad on my visit to Rome. Back home, I threw this together one day and we have been hooked ever since - it is one of our summertime staples. As you can see, it will not be getting me any cooking awards because it is just a simple Caprese salad that is not authentic in the least. However, it is yummy and that is what counts here. Everything is pretty much "to taste". In the mood for more tomatoes - then throw more in! Want to go more authentic by slicing the mozzarella and tomatoes instead? Go for it!

8 oz fresh chopped mozzarella cheese, 1 inch cubes
1-2 cups chopped tomato
3-6 tbs balsamic vinaigrette
handful of chopped fresh basil
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper

Mix ingredients well, making sure not to smash or crumble the mozzarella. Do not make this more than 30 minutes before eating - once it sits for too long, everything gets soggy.

Crème brûlée
Hands down, crème brûlée is one of those desserts where you get a lot of bang for your buck. For whatever reason, folks are always impressed although it is actually quite easy to make. Personally, I think it is the kitchen torch which adds the element of fire - caramelizing the sugar coating in front of your guests is always a crowd pleaser. I use 200 ml size ramekins - you can go with a smaller size, you will just need more of them. This dessert can be made the morning of your gathering and kept covered in wrap in the refrigerator. Often, I will double the recipe so that we can have a more the next day as well. I highly recommend having crème brûlée with coffee for breakfast.

A few notes about this recipe. I throw in an extra yolk - I like the consistency better. Also, they recommend using a mixer when you temper the eggs which I do NOT recommend. I have had mixed results with this because the mixer tends to add air - I have had the best luck tempering by hand. I mix the eggs, sugar, and vanilla extract by hand then add cupfuls of the scalded cream little by little until the eggs are heated enough to where they won't curdle. They are correct when they say the middles will still be "nervous". I pull them out when the middles are a little bubbly and jiggly. No worries - they will finish setting in the fridge. Dealing with pans of hot water is precarious work - I prefer to pull the ramekins out by hand with kitchen tongs, then push the pans of water back into the oven to deal with when they have cooled a bit (another advantage of making this earlier in the day when you will not need your oven while they cool). Then I set them on the counter for a little while before transferring to the refrigerator. Again, this is one of those desserts that is well worth working on until you get it right - I have never had anyone complain that I served them this instead of ice cream.

This recipe is from the Parker House Inn of Quechee, VT
2 cups heavy cream
6 Tbs white granulated sugar
5 large egg yolks
1 Tbs pure vanilla extract
granulated sugar

Scald cream in heavy-duty saucepan. Beat yolks, sugar and vanilla with electric mixer until pale and thick. Slowly pour hot cream into egg mixture while beating at the lowest speed. Ladle into 4 custard cups and place in roasting pan. Pour very hot water into pan, to two-thirds up the sides of cups. Bake at 325 degrees for 35-45 minutes. DO NOT OVER BAKE- the middles can still be "nervous".


stephanie said...

Oh man, I eat some version of a Caprese salad ALL summer. I cannot get enough of tomatoes in the summertime when they are so perfect. Sometimes, I make it pretty much just like you do. Other times, for a more substantial meal, I make a panzanella instead, or use the fresh tomato, mozzarella, balsamic, basil mixture in a pasta salad, or stuff it in a pita or wrap. Yum, yum, yum.

Mamma Sarah said...

Mmmmmmmmm. you've just made me hungry!

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

Another nice side salad is roasted cherry tomatoes and baby courgette (even regular zucchini will do), tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and herbs. You could use dried herbes de provence, or some fresh rosemary.

I try to eat light WPF for lunches because it doesn't have quite so florid a smell-am trying to focus on mediterranean offerings.

Anonymous said...

Note to self: don't read Cagey before lunch. NOW where am I gonna find this stuff?

Onlythetruth said...

I LOVE caprese salad and have been getting the Panera version about 2x a week this summer. I am going to try the ziti recipe this weekend it sounds really good and as for the creme brulee - I have always wanted to make this but have always been scared to try - I may try this one.


Carrie said...

I love me some Creme brulee! Have you ever shaved some good dark chocolate and sprinkled into the ramekins (before baking)? It's heaven!

Rozanne said...

Thanks for the detailed notes and suggestions on making creme brulee. I love it but I fear making it. Maybe with this kind of encouragement, I'll try it.