Around My Table

“Living well is the best revenge.” That saying kept running through my head Saturday night as I sat in my living room talking with new friends, drinking wine, eating a homemade feast from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. While this wasn’t the original intent when I planned this dinner weeks ago, at least to the seven of us sitting there, it was the best possible response to Friday’s horrific news from Paris.

The coincidences surrounding this dinner made it feel like fate. It started with two articles: the first from Serious Eats about cookbook clubs (a combination potluck and book club with everyone bringing a dish from a chosen cookbook), the second a New York Times claim about the “death of the party,” blaming its demise on everything from the Internet (…huh?) and helicopter parenting to the real estate market and craft beer.

Around the table

I’ve been looking for more excuses to play hostess and am always looking for a reason to try new recipes (especially from my ever-expanding cookbook collection that gets neglected in favor of whatever’s popped up on the Internet lately) . So I left a comment on the cookbook club article saying I’d love to start one in Chicago and for anyone interested to email me.

Inviting strangers into my home with a vague hope that we’d all have some common interest in food–not something my normally introverted self would take on. But I didn’t want to leave it to chance that someone else would start a group and hope they’d invite me. Between the half-dozen people who emailed me and several other food-loving friends, I gathered about 15 people who were equally excited about the idea.

Sharing wine

I chose Around My French Table as the inaugural selection for the “Cooking the Books” club since it had a huge variety of recipes and Dorie Greenspan’s recipes are almost always fool-proof (and, of course, I’ve become a bit of a Francophile over the past year). I found out one of the people who emailed me from Serious Eats was from France and that the date I picked, November 14, coincided with the first French Restaurant Week in Chicago. Fate, I thought.

Then I heard the news on Friday and my heart broke.

Suddenly this dinner was so much more important than just meeting new friends and eating delicious homemade food–or maybe it was so important for exactly those reasons. The attack in Paris targeted those simply enjoying life with friends and loved ones–a dinner out, a concert, a soccer match. If there’s one thing I can do in response, I thought, it’s this: I can bring a handful of people together to share a meal.

So I braised short ribs, set out candles, found good party music, chilled bottles of wine–not to avoid what had happened, but to control the one thing I could when everything on the news seemed determined to show how little control we have.


The dinner itself was everything I hoped for. Every dish was outstanding (I think that speaks both to everyone’s cooking skills and the recipes) but more importantly a group of near complete strangers with such varied backgrounds turned almost immediately into a dinner of dear friends, laughing, eating, and drinking like we’ve known each other for years. Of course the conversation revolved around food–what tweaks we made to the recipes, what inspired us to make a particular dish, what else we want to try. There’s something to be said for a group of people that can collectively nerd out over the kind of butter used in a dish.

Dinner is served
Pumpkin flans
Short ribs

Every bite was delicious
Credit to Sarah for this picture! Her plate looked much tidier than mine.

Sarah, our resident Frenchwoman, made a comment at the end of the evening that meant everything to me, though: after spending the better part of the past 24 hours on the phone with her family and friends, she was glad to have this dinner to look forward to. This was what she would be doing with her friends on a Saturday night in Paris.

Cheese plate
I still can’t watch the news. It’s all too much–the posturing, blame, and misplaced anger, the sights and sounds and overwhelming pain–and too similar to so many, too many, other stories lately. But I can find and share food and comfort with friends. It might be a small thing, but when the world seems hellbent on making us afraid of enjoying life (and of welcoming strangers into our lives), it’s the least I can do.

Good people and good stories

Heavy thoughts aside, this dinner was incredibly fun and I can’t wait to do it again (Smitten Kitchen cookbook is on the docket for January!). Here’s what we made and a few thoughts on each dish:

Continue reading

Browned Butter Vanilla Ice Cream

Every year on November 1, the Internet collectively explodes in a shower of “new/favorite/best make-ahead pumpkin-apple-cranberry-turkey-roasted-vegetable-mashed-potatoes-oh-and-don’t-forget-the-cocktails” recipes. And almost every year, I’m about three weeks late on sharing anything for the holiday, but not this time! This time, I have ice cream. Ice cream…with butter in it. You’re welcome.

Browned butter ice cream

This is not just any ice cream, but my new favorite best ice cream that’s perfect alongside a slice of warm apple pie. And yes, you can make it ahead, though I can’t guarantee you won’t need to make a second batch before Thanksgiving. In fact, best be safe and plan on making two batches.

All you need for amazing ice cream

Can I confess something? As crazy as everyone goes over salted butter caramel, I wish it wasn’t so sweet. And was maybe a little more salty. And a smidge more buttery. This ice cream is all that. It’s that toasty, nutty, caramelized flavor I love from the butter (incidentally, the same flavor that makes these my favorite chocolate chip cookies and these my favorite brownies) but without the toothache. And with just a little bit of vanilla? Perfection.

Browned butter
Vanilla bean innards

And while I’m stirring the proverbial hornet’s nest, I’ll argue that this is better than even the best vanilla ice cream alongside apple (or any) pie. Vanilla ice cream is so often the default with dessert because the flavor is somewhat neutral and doesn’t compete with the pie for center stage; here, the browned butter actually complements and elevates the flavor of a perfectly browned pie crust and juicy, cinnamon-y apples (or pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato–whichever is your pie of choice come November 26).

When it comes to styles of ice cream, I prefer just milk, sugar, cream, and flavorings (aka Philadelphia-style, aka the style that Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream has made so popular) instead of the more common egg-based custard. This allows the flavor of really good milk and cream (and, in this case, really good butter) to stand out. Plus I don’t end up trying to uncurdle half a dozen egg yolks (vanilla scrambled eggs are decidedly un-tasty) or trying to figure out what to do with the half-dozen leftover egg whites.

Cream cheese

By the way, once you’ve melted the three sticks of butter and used the one tablespoon of butter solids in the ice cream, for the love of god and all that is holy, save the rest of the butter. It’s clarified butter (though with a slightly toastier flavor than what you’ll get in a jar at the store) and is spectacular in so many things. Like, oh, say, apple pie filling. Or a pan of roasting vegetables, or stirred into mashed potatoes. Or for basting your turkey. As if the ice cream itself wasn’t reason enough to make this, you have a great ingredient for the rest of your dinner too. You can thank me later.

Love this ice cream container
Perfect scoop
Browned butter ice cream

Browned Butter Vanilla Ice Cream Continue reading

End-of-Season Garden Update

I’m overdue for sharing an update on my garden. While most of the fall seeds I planted didn’t sprout, or sprouted a bit too late for me to do much with (or something sprouted, but I can’t tell if it’s a weed or something I did on purpose), there’s still been plenty to harvest. I even found some surprise fennel in a corner of my garden!

September garden
One lone poblano

My peppers got a second wind, as did all of my herbs (who wants a boatload of chives?). I’ve loved seeing how the 3 little radishes I didn’t pick in spring have become these giant plants with their pretty white flowers and spiky little seed pods. I’ve also picked a ton of green tomatoes that are destined for a pickle jar.

Radish seeds, before the birds got to them
Parsley needs a haircut
More chives

For my second year of gardening, I think it was pretty successful, despite some bizarre weather. Next year I’ll plan to do more soil amending/fertilizing before I plant anything and fertilize more throughout the season. I liked and ate most everything I planted (the exception being ground cherries, which I just can’t get into, black tomatoes, which had zero flavor, and beans, which the bunnies got to first). Lemon verbena was my favorite new thing this year.

Gardens close in a few weeks, and I still have a bit of harvesting and cleaning up to do. I’m planning to dump some lettuce seeds and see if I can get them to sprout like last year, which will be quite a nice surprise come next spring. Until then, rest up little garden! You earned it.

Easiest Tomato Sauce

I feel like stock trader yelling “Buy, buy, buy!!!”, but it’s the tail end of tomato season and I just figured out the best-tasting, easiest sauce I’ve ever made. And good thing, too, after I indulged my “but it’s on sale!” tendencies and bought 63 pounds of tomatoes (in my defense, I thought it was only 40, but nope, 63).

End of tomato season

Since I first tried canning tomatoes based on the National Center for Home Food Preservation process, I’ve been trying to find ways to streamline things. This year was no exception and resulted in the easiest, least messy, most hands-off method yet. So easy that I honestly don’t know why I’d ever do it any other way ever again. Here’s how it works:

Wash tomatoes, quarter, roast, peel, roast some more

Congratulations, you’re done. Once the tomatoes are cooked, you can put them through a food mill or a blender, leave them in chunks, freeze or can them or eat them with a spoon.

Start to finish

The basic difference between this and the NCHFP method, which most every canning or preservation book or website use: oven versus stovetop. And that makes all the difference. I’m talking about one pan, almost no mess, and minimal waste versus multiple simmering pots and pans, bowls of ice water, a mess across my counter, piles of tomato scraps, and hours of splattering and stirring.

Quartered and cored

Yes, I sound a little like that infomercial with the guy who can’t eat a bowl of popcorn and hold a soda at the same time, but I swear, this really is so much easier. This method eliminates the three things I hated most about the traditional method of processing tomatoes:

  • The boiling water/ice water peeling step. It inevitably makes a mess (they never peel easily for me and coring and cutting that little X in whole tomatoes is a pain), takes more time and attention, and means more stuff to clean. I hate cleaning.
  • Less watery sauce in less time. Getting 20 pounds of tomatoes to a good sauce consistency takes a solid half a day on my stove and makes a righteous mess. See above re. cleaning.
  • Constantly being at the stove. Granted, the oven method isn’t totally hands-off, but it requires much less babysitting than a simmering pot. Heck, when I made these last night I put them in the oven then read a book. OMG.

Easy peel

This also tasted better than any other tomato sauce I’ve made. Combining the large surface area of a roasting pan with dry heat of the oven (if you have a convection oven, so much the better) means the water in the tomatoes evaporates faster and more effectively than in a pot simmering on a stove. And that means much more concentrated tomato flavor in less time than it would take on a stove. Plus, especially if you use a large sheet pan like the dark one above, the sugars start to caramelize around the edges as the water cooks off, adding incredible depth, richness, and sweetness to the sauce.

The best, easiest tomato sauce

I’ve already eaten this on pasta, as a base for baked eggs, and finished off that little bowl standing at the counter with a spoon. I cant wait to use this in chili, to make tomato soup with grilled cheese, spaghetti and meatballs….Do you think it would be totally crazy if I bought more tomatoes this weekend?

Easy Tomato Sauce
Continue reading

Peach-Plum Pie + Extra Flaky Pie Crust

Out of all the season transitions, summer-to-fall seems to bring the most incongruous pairings at the market: peaches and pumpkins, corn and apples, blueberries and plums. But when I have a bunch of end-of-season peaches languishing in the fridge from the market two weeks ago and come home with a 30-pound bag of plums because, well, I’m me, I need to figure something out PDQ. It’s a good thing peaches and plums share common ground with all the good fall spices–cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, brandy–in one of my favorite pies.

I love these colors
Peach-Plum pie

Any discussion of pie also has to include my new favorite pie crust. If there was a graph to measure the likelihood of pie based on “How badly I want pie” and “How much energy I want to spend” (…I had a whole witty thing here but it started to involve terms like “inverse proportionality” and “negative slope” and then I was looking for graph paper and made a literal pie chart in Excel and started debating if it was more appropriate as a bell curve and getting high school math class flashbacks. Let’s just pretend this paragraph was as infinitely clever as it was in my head. But I’m still including the pie chart.)

Pie chart

In any case, sometimes I’m just too lazy to get out eggs and vinegar and baking soda and ice and pastry cutter and a bowl, and then I don’t have pie (and for those who say “food processor!”, I hate cleaning the thing more than I like using it). And no pie on account of laziness is sad. This recipe is flour, butter, salt, water, a pastry board, and my hands and feels like markedly less effort. Less effort required=more pie.

Butter, lard, flour, water, salt
Butter, lard, flour
Flattened fats

The method is somewhere between traditional pie dough (cutting the butter into the flour until it’s in small bits that turn into small layers in the dough when it’s rolled out; also known as a short dough) and puff pastry dough (many, many thin layers of butter are created through many, many rounds of careful rolling, folding, and chilling; a.k.a. laminated dough).

Fraisage/short dough
Crumbles of butter, flour, and lard

In this process, big chunks of butter get mashed into the flour with your hand, creating large flakes (a variation on a technique called fraisage–my French lesson for the day) followed by a few rounds of rolling/folding to create more flaky layers. It’s even easy to work with as an all-butter crust, which has always given me trouble because the butter gets soft so quickly. I still like using a bit of lard in place of some of the butter for flavor, though.

Nice big butter piece

The beauty of this method is that it’s nearly impossible to overwork, rolls out beautifully, and creates the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever had, a delicious, edible lovechild of traditional pie crust and puff pastry. Which is to say, it’s really, really good.

As for the filling, it’s is based on one of my favorites from a few years ago. Peaches were such an obvious addition that I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner. As much as they’re a sign of summer, peaches are also the perfect fruit to transition to fall as they work so well with all the flavors associated with the season: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, brown sugar, brandy. This recipe has them all, plus streusel. Everything is better with streusel.

This smells so good
Sweet, spiced chutney to thicken the pie

For whatever reason, peaches and plums aren’t a fruit combination I see much, but it’s a shame as they work so well together. It’s definitely a pairing I’ll be using more often.

Pretty fall colors
This is going to be good
Peach-plum pie

(And as for that 30 pounds of plums? There’s been plum gin (of course), plum-vanilla vodka, Chinese plum sauce, pickled plums, plum jam, plum cake (more on that next week), and, of course, pie.)

Extra Flaky Pie Crust and Peach-Plum Pie Continue reading

Damson Plum Gin

It’s easy to like ripe, red strawberries, peaches that leave your hands and face sticky with juice, watermelon that tastes like a bite of pure summer. They don’t need anything but a sunny day for perfection. The fun ones for me, though, are the fruits that are unassuming, that don’t look or taste like much at first; the ones that need a little coaxing, maybe a bit of fuss, to really shine. But, oh, when they do, their flavor is enough to rival the most perfect of strawberries. And, in this case, they have the added bonus of a cocktail at the end.

Ready for sipping

Damson plums, like my other favorite stonefruit, sour cherries, fall into the “unassuming” category. Barely bigger than a large cherry with dusty deep blueish-purple skin, Damsons have hardly any flavor when eaten raw. Pop one in your mouth and all you’ll taste is sour, but give them some time and attention and you’ll be rewarded with the most plum-y tasting plum you’ve ever had, rich with flavor and deliciously, mouth-wateringly tart. It doesn’t hurt that their skins impart the most gorgeous color to anything you make with them.

Plums, sugar, gin

I mentioned this recipe off-hand last fall, but it was so good it really deserved its own post. It was a happy discovery to learn that Damson plums are related to sloes (as in sloe gin), which is as simple as combining gin, sugar, and fruit and waiting a few months. For the longest time, gin was not something I was a fan of. Someone once described it to me as “like drinking a pine tree;” considering one of the essential elements in gin is juniper berries, that’s not too far off. Happily, this woodsy flavor is actually a perfect complement to the plums.

Pretty purple infusion

What I’ve discovered about gin, too, is how widely the flavors can vary beyond the juniper base. Hendricks is known for flavors of rose and cucumber; Few, a local Chicago brand, has vanilla and citrus; I’m intrigued by the mix of herbs and spices in St. George’s “botanivore” gin. And honestly, this is good even if you only shell out for the low-shelf stuff.

Handy place to keep your recipe

Since the flavors of gin vary so widely, this is a fun recipe to make a few small batches and compare them come winter. Last year I particularly liked the rose flavor of Hendricks with the plum, and I have another two gins I’m giving a try this year. When it’s ready right around holiday time, this makes a gorgeous and delicious cocktail when you mix a bit of the gin with sparkling wine. Make more than you think you’ll need now, it’ll disappear faster than you realize.

Damson plum gin

Now if anyone has some ideas for what to do with a whole bunch of gin-soaked plums, I’m all ears!

Damson Plum Gin
Continue reading

Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Almost Thanksgiving!

Just over a week to Thanksgiving! It’s tied with the 4th of July as my favorite food/friends/family holiday. While I don’t have any turkey (or mashed potato or stuffing) recipes to suggest for anyone’s feast, I thought it would be fun to see what I could contribute to the Thanksgiving table.

Let’s start with dessert (as all meals should, really). Might I suggest something slightly different along side the apple and pumpkin pie? How about a plum pie spiced with orange, brandy, ginger, cinnamon and a crunchy, crumbly, nutty topping? Yum.

Plum crumble pie

Cranberries? I have two options, both of which can be done in advance. Option one is equally good accompanying a perfect slice of turkey as it is stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold morning–a fantastic conserve of cranberries and oranges, nuts and apricots. You can water-bath process it if you feel like it, or just store in the fridge.


Option two is for the slightly more adventurous: pickled spiced cranberries. The berries themselves are delicious, sweet and tart and an excellent complement to the richness of a Thanksgiving meal, but the syrup is equally amazing mixed with some seltzer (…and possibly a little vodka or gin).

Pickled cranberries

Need something to nibble on with said drink? These spiced candied nuts work nicely and conveniently are also delicious (with the pickled cranberries) on a post-Thanksgiving salad with leftover sweet potatoes and goat cheese.

Candied spiced walnuts

And finally, since I feel no meal is complete without bread in some way, shape, or form, cornmeal biscuits with green onion and black pepper. If these are a bit too casual for your dinner table, they do make for a particularly delicious turkey sandwich.

Flaky biscuits, topped with salt and pepper

What are you planning for your Thanksgiving meal (or the leftovers, which are obviously the second best part of the holiday)?


Recipes with roots

The more I discover about food, the more I find that the dishes I’m drawn to are the ones with history, with deep roots in the land and the people who live on it. Usually these are not particularly complicated recipes, nor do they call for particularly fancy ingredients or preparations. I love the infinite variety that comes from the simplest ingredients–flour, sugar, butter, eggs, salt, lemon, yeast–and how each family, town, country, culture can make something that is completely and uniquely theirs.

Golden brown and delicious

Of the (many) food-related souvenirs I brought home from Paris, the absolutely beautiful–in picture and word–cookbook A Kitchen in France may be one of my favorites. I stumbled on Mimi Thorisson’s blog, Manger, a few years ago but somehow managed to forget about it until I was flipping through her newly published first book in a tiny cramped aisle of Shakespeare & Co. The pictures of her food, home, and the Medoc countryside are stunning; the stories are the stuff of my daydreams. Most important of all, though, are the recipes.

Six basic ingredients
Butter, sugar, egg, lemon

The recipes in this book are everything I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They’re recipes with roots; roots either in a particular area of France, in Mimi’s family or her neighbors’ history, in a unique local ingredient, in a particular season. Some are incredibly simple, like the recipe below, some with a few more steps, like the bouillabaisse, but what I love about all of them is that it’s easy to feel their history.

Add flour
Sticky dough

I don’t think it was coincidence that flipping through this book over the course of a week, it kept falling open to this particular recipe. I took it as a sign and as soon as I started mixing the ingredients together, I had an immediate feeling of being home. I knew this smell, the rich combination of butter, sugar, lemon, yeast. I don’t even know exactly what recipe this reminded me of (maybe my grandma’s lemon cream cheese swirls?), but it struck something deep and nostalgic.

There’s nothing particularly local or seasonal about this recipe–it is, after all, only six of the most basic ingredients in baking–but it’s easy to feel the history in it, from when butter and sugar were special treats because they were rare (according to the cookbook, this is a medieval recipe from the town of Pérouges) to when butter and sugar are special treats because they’re a welcome break from multi-syllabic preservatives.

Beyond that, it’s easy and just tastes really, really good–it’s hard to go wrong with warm lemony, buttery brioche dough topped with melted butter and slightly crunchy caramelized sugar. It’s impossible to go wrong actually, which is why you should make this immediately.

Pinch up the edges
One delicious slice

Galette Pérougienne (Lemon Sugar Bread) Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cooking Inspiration (and a Theatrical Interlude)

I won’t bury the lede here: last weekend I met Dorie Greenspan and now I have a new cooking hero.

One of the great things about having a passion is constantly discovering how much more there is to learn. In my research on Paris (…at some point I will talk about something else, I promise) I realized how much I really don’t know about French cooking. As much as I adore Julia Child, firmly believe cheese is a food group, and really don’t think a meal is complete without bread of some kind, French cuisine has just never been something I’ve made a conscious effort to learn about. Needless to say, that’s changed.

I discovered one of my favorite shops, The Spice House, was doing a booksigning with Dorie Greenspan to promote her new cookbook on French baking, Baking Chez Moi, the weekend after my Paris trip. I knew very little about her, really, but the timing was too perfect, I had to go. The signing was great fun, not least because there was champagne and delicious little treats made by the students at the French Pastry School.

Baking Chez Moi

As soon as she started speaking, I knew it was fate–I had just finished my last macaron and she said this was the first of her 11 cookbooks in which she was finally convinced by her editor to include a recipe for the Parisian sweet (or is it American now? though I categorically object to framing it as “macarons are the new cupcake”). I anticipate a baking project…

More importantly, Dorie was everything I always hope cookbook authors will be: obviously passionate about the topic, incredibly knowledgeable, and imminently kind. To give you a clue exactly how kind, I bought two of her (not insubstantial) cookbooks before the event in hopes she’d be willing to sign both. Not only was she happy to do that (and wrote the sweetest custom inscription when I told her I just got back from my first trip to Paris, which always earns extra points in my mind), she actually apologized for making me hold both cookbooks while I waited in line. And she was happy to take a picture with me (I need a do-over on that one).


Dorie Greenspan

And on a totally different subject (not food- or Paris-related for a change), I went to the opening night of Drury Lane Theater’s production of Camelot last week. I love musicals and it was a nice way to stretch my “on vacation” feeling a little bit longer. The show was great fun and well sung and acted; Lancelot was a cutie; the theater was small enough that everyone had a really good view of the stage (always my struggle when buying theater tickets in downtown Chicago without cringing at the price). If you’re in the Chicago suburbs looking to see a show, check it out. (The theater comped my tickets but my thoughts on the show are my own.)


Next post, a new recipe: a simple, beautiful French dessert!