Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pulling a Barbara

We had our lovely dinner party last night and I am happy to say that almost everything turned out as I wanted it to. First of all, the company was terrific. It's always so nice to meet new people and have great conversations with them. Their party of eight became a party of six, so we were able to sit down with all of them and really enjoy the conversation and, oh yeah, the food. Course by course, here we go...

The appetizer (Sizzling Halloumi with Fava Beans and Mint) was as simple and delicious as I remember it from last summer. The peas and beans were tossed with a little olive oil, lemon juice and mint, and then sauteed briefly just to lightly cook. The halloumi is just put in a hot pan until it gets a little crust on the outside and starts to soften. Put the two together and yum!

The soup was Summer Borscht and it hit just the right note since it was so hot yesterday. I really believe there is nothing like cold soup on a hot night. The company seemed to agree.

The salad was Wilted Greens with Roasted Mushrooms. This was a bit of a disappointment for me. The idea is that you toss your greens (spinach and escarole) with previously roasted Portabello mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, mint, and good balsamic vinegar. Then you heat up olive oil in a pan and pour it over the salad which should wilt the greens. Should being the operative word here since my greens did not really wilt and the salad wasn't warm like I wanted it to be. If I made it again, I would saute the greens in the olive oil on the stove and, once wilted, mix in with the other ingredients. Bummer.

For the main course, I made Shitake Mushroom and Gruyere Cheese Souffles with a Farro Salad with Zucchini and Pine Nuts on the side. The farro was good (everyone loved the texture) but the souffles were, I must say, delicious. I made similar ones, without the mushrooms, a few months ago and these were much better. The shitake mushrooms had been sauteed in a little butter with lots of thyme and that wonderful herb really came through in the souffles. Plus, this is a rich dish and the mushrooms cut through the richness a little bit - enough that I had no problem slurping down the entire thing.

And the dessert is where I kind of pulled a Barbara. Barbara is my mom's name and she is a very good cook and baker. Whenever she makes something for company - especially if it is a dessert - she will tell you the 45 things that went wrong with it and how it doesn't look at all like it is supposed to and how it probably won't taste good. So yes, on very rare occasions, there is one crumb out of place, but everything she makes is delicious and once she tastes it herself, she will finally let go of the idea that disaster has struck.

I am not quite as bad, but let's just say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Because I am not a super artistic person, my desserts
don't always look the way I want them to. So I will complain to Randy that my dessert didn't turn out and he will say, "Did it really not turn out, or are you pulling a Barbara?" In which case, I am forced to admit that while yes, there is one crumb out of place... ok fine, it's going to taste great.

This dessert, well, what can I say about Fran Bigelow? Honey, you let me down. Fran is the owner of Fran's Chocolates which is a heavenly store I have been going to since my middle school days. A few years ago, she came out with a cookbook that has some of the most beautiful photographs that I have ever seen of my beloved chocolate. I have made several recipes and marvel at how simple the ingredients, how involved the process, how sublime the results, how worth the cost and effort.

Last night's dessert? Very tasty. Really, how could a tart with a walnut and butter crust (no flour!), a layer of caramel, and a layer of chocolate ganache be anything but delicious? It just didn't come together as it was supposed to. Once assembled, she advises to leave it out at room temperature for up to four days. It was clear that if it was ever going to set up, I was going to have to refrigerate it, which I did figuring I could serve it a room temperature. But that made it so soft that I could barely get the pieces out with out pulling the ganache right off the caramel. I know, the life I lead!! But it is frustrating to have the big ta-da! fall a little flat. Now I don't trust that cookbook which is a bummer because there are lots of other things I want to make from it.

All in all, one disappointing salad, a somewhat mushy dessert, and one burned arm (second-degree from the oven door) were greatly counter-balanced by the other great food, wonderful company and delicious wine. Amy and Mark - can't wait to see you guys again!

Before I give you the recipe for the Halloumi appetizer, let's talk about fava beans. They have kind of an intimidating appearance (what on earth do you do with that giant pod?) but they are easy to use once you know what to do. They are super fresh and in season here in the Pacific NW - you can find them at all the farmer's markets.

In the above photo, the pod on the left is what it will look like whole, the pod next to it is what it will look like once you open it. The first bean is what most will look like - large with kind of a waxy cover. These will need to be peeled so that they look like the second bean -nice and bright green. The last bean is a beautiful small and young bean that does not need to be peeled because it's skin will be nice and soft.

So, first things first. Fava bean pods are tougher than peas, so you will need a paring knife to split it open. Don't cut in too deep or you will cut the beans. Once open, just pull the beans out and discard the pods. Unless you are growing your own fava beans or are picking them yourself on a farm, you will need to remove the skin from most beans. This is because the beans most of us will get are older and tougher, but if you can get young pretty things, well, lucky you! Peeling them can be done by putting them in a pot of boiling water for about one minute. Drain, allow to cool, and then simply squeeze them out of their skin. They do have the annoying habit of sometimes splitting in half when you do this, but don't worry about it. Now your fava beans are ready for use!

Sizzling Halloumi Cheese with Fava Beans and Mint
Serves 6
Adapted from
Bon Appetit Magazine

You can find Halloumi cheese at Whole Foods, Metropolitan Market, and even Safeway. Look for it near the feta cheeses. It costs about $8 for a 8 oz. package, so if you see it for more than that, shop somewhere else (I have seen it for as much as $14). This recipe says you can use frozen peas and frozen fava beans. I have never seen the latter so I would imagine that shelled edamame would be a good substitute.

1 1/2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled

1 1/2 cups shelled English peas

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. fresh mint, plus extra for garnish

grated zest of one lemon

2 8oz. packages Halloumi cheese, each sliced lengthwise in to 6 slices

juice of one lemon

1 lemon, cut in to 6 wedges

Blanch and peel fava beans according to above instructions.

Place fava beans, peas, olive oil, 2 tbsp. mint leaves, and lemon peel in a large skillet. Cook over medium heat until warmed through, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and squeeze lemon juice over. Cover until cheese is ready.

Heat large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add cheese slices and fry until golden, about 2 minutes per side.

Divide vegetable mixture among six plates. Arrange two slices of Halloumi atop vegetables on each plate, and garnish with lemon wedges and a couple of mint leaves. Serve immediately.

(Oh! I almost forgot to mention that I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to serve this wonderful bread from the Fields of Greens cookbook topped with herbed butter, thinly sliced (purple!) radishes, and a sprinkling of sea salt as an hors d'oeuvre. I am not sure where I got this idea but it actually turned out beautifully. Even Randy, who made a face when I described it to him, loved it. So, if you are looking for an easy nibble buy (don't make it like I did) a dark hearty loaf of bread, slice it thinly and spead it with an herb butter which you can buy or make, then top with thinly sliced radishes and a sprinkling of sea salt.)

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