Lobsta Fest Part I: Champagne Lobster Salad

Lobster Salad

Champagne Lobster Salad

My favorite part of New Years has recently become the annual tradition of feasting on lobster, although I should probably credit the grocery store across the street that delightfully has the tradition of putting live lobsters on sale the last week of the year. Lobster isn’t something I cook often and I never order it in restaurants, which is why this once-a-year treat is so special.

This year I went all out with the lobsters, which usually comes out sounding like lobstas. Try saying it out loud like that: lob-stah. Isn’t that more fun than lobster?

Shallot for vinaigrette, before roasting Roasted shallot for vinaigrette

Anyways, I decided to make the day extra special and bought two lobsters, which I then turned into three meals eaten over four days. Of course it took all my restraint not to eat both lobsters at once, but enjoying it in three variations totally paid off.

On New Years day I cooked both lobsters and ate one whole with melted butter and served alongside rice and black eyed peas to symbolize luck in the new year. I cleaned the other lobster and reserved the meat and shells for the remaining two dishes: soup and salad, but not just any soup and salad, these were special.

Grapefruit segments Roasted Shallot Champagne Vinaigrette

The following day I used the shells from both lobsters to make an incredibly rich and fragrant soup (recipe coming soon), and finally an amazing salad, which was a wonderful contrast to the unhealthy and heavy foods I’d eaten during the holidays. The Champagne lobster salad included lobster meat, avocado, grapefruit and a roasted shallot champagne vinaigrette.

I can’t wait to make this salad again next year! In the meantime, I’ll enjoy it with crab meat or shrimp, keeping lobsta a special New Years treat!

Champagne Lobster Salad

Champagne Lobster Salad

Here’s the recipe for Champagne Lobster Salad:

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Happy Holiday (Eating)!

Latkes

Latkes (aka Potato Pancakes)

Wow, I just can’t believe how quickly these last few weeks have flown by. In fact, this whole year has been a bit of a blur. I hope it’s been a good year for you. As for me, let’s just say I’m ending the year in a better place than where I started it and am looking forward to seeing what 2010 will bring.

However, with all the recent activity I’ve sadly neglected my beloved blog. The sad truth remains that it’s been ten days since my last blog post, the longest I’ve ever gone between posts since launching this site more than a year and a half ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been cooking. I have, just not quite as much as usual.

English Toffee and Tornado Cookies

English Toffee and Tornado Cookies

To recap some of my holiday cooking, let’s start with Hanukkah at my parent’s house. I brought the dessert: English toffee and tornado cookies, my family’s holiday favorite. At the house, I helped my mom make latkes from scratch. There’s no recipe here because we adjusted constantly as we went along, using up a small bag of russet potatoes, an onion, two eggs, a little matzo meal, and a large bottle of vegetable oil. Basically, grate the potatoes and onion (and then pulse a few times in a food processor), add the other ingredients, season with salt and pepper, and fry.

Latkes Latkes Latkes

I have wonderful memories of my mom making latkes when I was younger. Back then we hosted the family Hanukkah party and she would make latkes from scratch and making enough for everyone was practically a day-long project (for those of you not familiar, latkes are fried potato pancakes that can be made from shredded potatoes or from a box mix). The problem was that my dad, sister and I would eat the latkes almost as fast as my mom could make them, sneaking latkes every time she turned away. Eventually, my mom would get fed up and send us to go see a movie so she could finish frying in peace.

Latkes - pan frying Latkes

It’s been a long time since we made latkes, and my mom had the “brilliant” idea of deep-frying them, a technique she saw on the Today Show. Despite her good intentions, it turned out not to be the best idea. For starters, she forgot to tell me advance so I could bring my candy thermometer and/or mini deep fryer, so we had a difficult time regulating the temperature of the oil. Secondly, the few latkes we made were too fluffy and lacked the coveted crispy edge. After a few not-so-good attempts, I finally convinced my mom to return to our traditional method of shallow frying the latkes in a skillet, a job my sister happily took over.

Another big event I cooked for was my sister’s annual holiday brunch where she gets together with her high school friends for their traditional Hanukkah gift exchange. I cooked for them last year and apparently the girls liked the food so much that my sister volunteered me to cook for them again. It’s fun for me, I’ve known these girls almost my entire life and I enjoy the opportunity to catch up with them.

While I was thrilled they enjoyed last year’s meal of baked challah French toast and savory frittata so much (a few of them even made the French toast on their own), I was worried I wouldn’t find a way top it. These girls love brunch food, which is a meal I don’t often cook, so I stuck with the general concept of an egg and vegetable dish, along with something starchy, and instructed my sister to provide fresh fruit.

Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls

Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls

The starch was the easiest decision: Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls from my new favorite cookbook, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (see Caramelized Onion and Herb Dinner Rolls). I’m not going to post another recipe from the book because I think everyone should buy it, but I will say that these rolls were amazing with just the right proportion of dough to the sugary sweet topping that seeped its way all around the rolls.

The egg dish was a bit more challenging. I wanted something that could be prepared in advance so I wasn’t cooking to order, and had a nice presentation. Somehow, while searching the Internet for ideas, I came across a number of blogs with posts about Gale Gand’s torta rustica (here’s the post at Pastry Heaven that I based my torta off of), essentially an egg and vegetable layered casserole baked inside puff pastry.

Torta Rustica

Torta Rustica

I didn’t follow the recipe precisely, but did use it as a guide. The most significant changes were adding a layer of halved cherry tomatoes, sauteing shallots with fresh spinach, omitting the ham, and using fontina cheese in place on mozzarella. Although it was a little fussy, the torta succeeded as a delicious showstopper, and you can see that I had some fun decorating the top with a star using pastry scraps (it was a Hanukkah party, after all) but you could easily add whatever decoration you liked.

Marci's Brunch - sticky roll and torta rustica

Marci's Brunch: Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls and Torta Rustica

Those are just a few of the things I’ve been busy cooking these past two weeks and I promise to bring you new recipes soon.

Also, in January I’ll be taking part in the Ten in ’10 Challenge as a way to start eating and living a bit healthier. Not that I’ll be giving up sweets or obsessing about weight loss, but I do want to make more of an effort to eat better and get my butt moving, both challenges for me to do in the winter months. It’s not a New Years resolution (I don’t make those), but rather an idle thoughts whose time has come.

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Lesson Learned: I Can’t Please Everyone

Yellow Cupcakes with Fudge Frosting

Yellow Cupcakes with Fudge Frosting

It’s hard being pulled in different directions; try to please everyone and usually wind up pleasing no one.

This past weekend my family finally celebrated my sister’s birthday (which was back in September) two days after my parents anniversary. Both occasions are ones I typically make a special treat for, but in this case I had to juggle conflicting taste preferences. Of course to explain this correctly I have to go back in time a bit.

Throughout most of my life, my dad and I always preferred rich, chocolaty desserts, while my mom and sister liked ice cream or vanilla-flavored confections. But a few years ago my mom changed her tune (you can figure out why, right?) and now only wants chocolate, the richer the better. My sister, on the other hand, could still live without it.

For family celebrations revolving around parents, chocolate cake-type desserts are typically requested (especially this cake I made for my dad’s birthday and again for father’s day). But this celebration was supposed to focus more on Marci, so I gave her the first choice for the dessert (although she did get banana bread on her actual birthday) and she asked for yellow cupcakes.

Huh? I certainly didn’t have a recipe for yellow cupcakes in my repertoire. After a bit of searching I found a recipe that looked promising. And, to appease my parents, I decided to top the yellow cupcakes with a fudge-like frosting.

In the end, this was not a great cupcake in either category. The cake was a bit dry and had a slightly odd texture. It was certainly edible, but not a dessert on which I wanted to be judged. And the frosting? Well, it was rich but could’ve used some tweaking.

So here I am, posting a story with no recipe to go with it. But I felt it was important to share with you the fact that even professionals don’t always get it right. The truth is that cooking and baking takes a lot of trial and error before finding the combination of flavors that’s just right. And you’ll know it when you get it because that’s when you and all your eager taste-testers swoon and ask for seconds.

So be brave in the kitchen. Be fearless (except with knives of course; a little fear there is a good thing). And have fun with whatever it is you create.

I’ll leave you with this last thought, a quote someone said to me not long ago attributed to Julia Child: “Never apologize for anything you make.”

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Guest Post: A Tale of A First-Time, Non-Foodie Host & A Gross Chicken

Rosh Hashana - beautiful table

Please welcome my sister, Marci, as Foodie Reflections’s first guest blogger! I’m so excited that she’s sharing the experiences of her first-ever “formal” dinner. As someone lucky enough to have scored a seat for that meal, I want you to know that she was a wonderful hostess and we all left with our belly’s full.

Hello Blogging Universe!

My name is Marci and I am Jackie’s sister. I’m an accountant and while I like to think that I’m not a stereotypical dorky accountant with a pocket protector, I am by no means a foodie. But I really like to eat and am decent at following recipe directions, though I often have to call Jackie and ask her basic questions like “what does dicing mean?” or ” what do you mean by mince?” I also like to make sure that no one in my family has any expectations of me as a chef (so as not to disappoint or be required to cook when I don’t want to). So you can just imagine the shock when I suddenly volunteered to host Rosh Hashanah dinner for my husband’s and my families (felt by both families and by me).

Rosh Hashana - Marci, a wonderful host

My reason for offering to host was twofold. The first reason was pure laziness. My mom wanted us to come to her house in the suburbs for dinner on Friday night but I really didn’t want to deal with traffic so I started to think that it would be nice to see Jeff’s (my husband) family for at least one night of the holiday. Thus, it would make sense to have dinner in the city.  Then I realized that if I hosted I could use all my fun wedding gifts for the first time, such as my fine china and a bunch of nice serving pieces (things I never really wanted but now absolutely love). So, based on these reasons I decided to offer my services as a host.

I invited everyone over with promises of amusement at my attempt not to burn down my apartment and began figuring out what to serve. My first step was obviously consulting Jackie’s blog (this blog actually). I told my mom that she had to make her Jell-O mold because I don’t believe in a holiday without it and she also offered to bring my favorite challah bread from a place in Buffalo Grove.

Rosh Hashana - roast chicken and potatoes Rosh Hashana - fruit Jell-o mold Rosh Hashana - plate with chicken, potatoes, sweet potato/apple kugel, jell-o

Over the next day or so I waited to see what Jackie would offer to make in hopes that she would volunteer to take over the cooking, but she decided that since it was my event she was going to try to not be controlling. This was annoying for me since I had obviously counted on her being controlling. Finally I confronted her and came to terms with her bringing her roasted fig salad and a dessert. She ended up making an amazing carrot cake* that I highly recommend. After some careful deliberation with Jackie, my co-workers and friends, I decided to make Jackie’s crispy roasted chicken and fingerling potatoes for the main course and a sweet potato and apple kugel for a side dish (recipe courtesy of my co-worker Laura). I decided not to make a traditional brisket because I knew that we would be having it at my aunt’s house the next night.  My mother-in-law said she would bring an appetizer so now all I had to do was execute my plan.

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Peach Picking Pleasures

Peach Picking0008

The past few years I’ve struggled with a growing desire to reconnect more with nature, specifically gardening. I think it comes from a combination of living 200 feet in the sky, increasing awareness of where food comes from, and a desire to save money. Either way, I don’t have much interest in livestock, but I would love a garden of my own to tend to that would provide with me edible payoff. Sadly, that’s just not possible right now – trust me, I’ve tried!

This summer I made it to the City Farm where I spent an afternoon weeding rows of beets, picking green beans, and preparing a plot for lettuce to grow. I also spent an afternoon at the Common Threads garden where children learn about agriculture by tending to strawberries, corn, squash and so much more.

Jackie at Fruit Orchard Farms Marci at Fruit Orchard Farms

*Yes, we’re wearing the same color shirt and no, that wasn’t on purpose!

The final thing I wanted to accomplish was visiting a u-pick farm where I could walk the fields and fill bushels with local, ripe fruit plucked straight off the tree. Or bush. Or ground. Or whatever it is fruit grows on.

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