Thursday, April 23, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers: Croque Monsieur

Thank you Kathy for choosing this sinfully delicious dish! I don't normally eat cheese sauce. Not that I don't want to. It's just that my metabolism moves at a snail's pace. Nonetheless, I think I got a little carried away with my "slathering" of the cheese sauce and poured too much of it on those previously, semi-nutritional sandwiches. It was a total loss of self control. The whole time I was "slathering" I kept thinking, enough already! I know how the 'French Women Don't Get Fat' and believe me, they're not eating Croque Monsieur with an inch-thick layer of cheese sauce on top. Could you imagine Madame Guiliano pairing her leek soup with Croque Monsieur and then washing it down with a little Veuve Clicquot?

Despite my gluttony and guilt, my husband and I loved it! And why not? Who doesn't love hangover food? Better yet, my husband and I left for Paris on April 20th, so it was the perfect way for me to create a little pre-travel excitement.

Normally, my husband is not a big fan of my quasi-French Provincial cooking. (See my How Not To Make A Strawberry Tart post below.) We’ve had many debates about his loathing of thyme and my desire to use it in almost every dish. Our food debate looks something like this: I tell him we're having steak tonight and he envisions a steak and baked potato. What he is actually served, is steak au poivre (or some attempt at a sauce) with haricot vert and herb-roasted new potatoes. After dinner, I'll ask how he liked it and he'll reply, it was "okay." You can imagine how well that goes over.

Croque Monsieur however, is a different story. We can agree that the “slathering” of a ridiculously good cheese sauce over a cheese and ham sandwich, is paradise. I'm just hoping that enough "bar food" in Paris will convert him into a Francophile yet!

I decided to try the Contessa’s Croque Monsieur three different ways: (1) with Virginia Ham and Gruyère as stated in the recipe; (2) Prosciutto and Gruyère; and (3) Aged Cheddar, Virginia Ham and Granny Smith apple slices. My husband said he liked it all three ways. Personally, I thought the Contessa’s recipe was the best. In the second version, I found that substituting the ham for Prosciutto made it too salty and in the third version, the flavor of the apples was completely lost on the Aged Cheddar with the Gruyère cheese sauce. Note: I have made a delicious grilled-cheese sandwich using brie and apple slices so I thought I would try it here.

I paired the sandwiches with my own version of the strawberry-arugula salad posted by one of our Barefoot Blogger hostesses, Rebecca, on her blog Ezra Pound Cake. (The only healthy thing on the plate.) Thank you Rebecca, this salad is delicious and beautiful!

Croque Monsieur
Adapted (only slightly) from Ina Garten’s Croque Monsieur
Serves 2-3

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups of hot milk
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg
pinch of cayenne pepper
3 cups of Gruyère Cheese
½ cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices of French bread
Dijon mustard
4 thick slices of Virginia ham

Preheat oven to 400

Melt butter over low heat in small saucepan and add the flour slowly, stirring constantly with wooden spoon. Slowly pour the hot milk into the butter-flour mixture and cook, whisking constantly, until sauce is thickened. (Could take 5-10 minutes.) Once thickened, take off heat and add, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, 1/2 cup of grated Gruyère, and the Parmesan and set aside.

Toast bread in oven for 5 minutes. Turn over and bake another 2 minutes, until toasted.

Assemble the sandwiches by adding a light amount of mustard to one slice of bread, add a slice of ham, and sprinkle Gruyère cheese. Top with another piece of toasted bread and put 2 (maybe 3 but that's pushing it) tablespoons of the cheese sauce over the tops of the sandwiches. Bake for 3-5 minutes. Turn on broiler and broil for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the top is bubbly and lightly browned. Serve hot.

Bon appétit!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Heirloom Tomato, Avocado and Goat Cheese Salad

There are many things I dread about Summer. As you can probably guess, the heat is complaint number one. I know that living in Southern California doesn’t give me the right to complain too much, but let me just put to rest any mistaken notions that we maintain a constant 75-80 degrees. In my area of Los Angeles County we spend much of June, July and August in the upper 90’s and many days (sometimes weeks) above 100.

The other thing I dread about Summer are large spiders. I’m no stranger to critters. We live in a fairly rural area, so they're certainly expected. I can tolerate the rats and lizards. What I do mind are the creatures with too many legs. Particularly where they would be in the same weight class as a tarantula or small rodent. It doesn’t seem to matter how often we spray, you can bet I’ll have one of those suckers in my bathroom two to three nights a week during Summer and early Fall.

Not too long ago I had a particularly devastating arachnid experience when I walked into our bathroom and found a very large, redish, hairy guy crawling across the bathroom counter. It was so large that I couldn't even bring myself to use a shoe or tissue to kill it. I did the only thing I knew how: I grabbed a large object to push the spider into the sink. I then reached for the faucet (being fully aware that in doing so my hand was within inches of the beast) and turned the water on for a good minute hoping to drown it. After I turned the water off, I watched the drain for a few seconds to make sure it was gone. No such luck. That spider came climbing up and out of the drain like it was nothing. Panicking, I turned the water back on, forced the spider back down the drain and poured nail polish remover down the drain. (My insect spray was out of reach and I wasn’t willing to leave the bathroom to go get some for fear that the spider would get away!) Despite the acetone bath, I was shocked when I saw that spider crawling back out of the sink. I realized then that I was no match for this spider. I turned the water back on, forced him down the drain again and put a heavy glass over the entrance to the drain. I then called my husband into the room to put it out of its misery - and mine too.

You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about Summer in mid-April. Well, despite my few complaints, there are many things about this warm season that I wait anxiously for all year. Among those are stone fruits and heirloom tomatoes.

Two Wednesdays ago, I was completely overjoyed to discover that one of the vendors at my local Farmer’s Market was selling heirloom tomatoes. The first of April no less! Despite the fact that they were on the small side, I was assured that they were packed with flavor. He wasn’t kidding. This presented the first opportunity of the year to prepare my favorite salad, consisting of locally grown ingredients: Heirloom Tomatoes and Avocados. I could eat this salad several times a week! Every bite is just a reminder of California goodness. To be able to enjoy it in 70 degree weather is just icing on the cake!

Heirloom Tomato, Avocado and Goat Cheese Salad

3-4 heirloom tomatoes (thinly sliced)
1 avocado (Sliced into thin wedges)
3 scallions (white parts only)
¼ cup of crumbled goat cheese
2-3 tablespoons of “good” olive oil
1-2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 tablespoon of basil (Chiffonade)
1 tablespoon of pine nuts

Place sliced tomatoes evenly on plate. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Kosher salt. Scatter sliced avocado wedges on top of tomatoes. Drizzle with fresh lemon juice. Top with goat cheese, scallions, basil and pine nuts and fresh ground pepper.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers: Chinese Chicken Salad

I’m really into salads, so for my first Barefoot Bloggers’ recipe, this dish was right up my alley. Believe it or not, the Parties! Cookbook is one of only two Barefoot Contessa books that I previously did not own. What a perfect excuse to purchase another! As I’m sure my new blogging friends will appreciate, buying a new Barefoot Contessa cookbook is like that first bite of a rich goat cheese…pure decadence! (I didn’t use a chocolate analogy because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.) Never mind making the recipes, I simply love reading these inspiring and creative books.

While I love salads, I initially thought that a Chinese Chicken Salad was a little passé. I think in Los Angeles, we’ve been doing Chinese Chicken Salads since about the opening of California Pizza Kitchen in the early 90s. Notwithstanding my reticence, I was excited to begin cooking as a proud new member of the Barefoot Bloggers.

This recipe was fantastic! The dressing is so flavorful and delicious; it turned an old boring menu item into a modern tangy dish. I was thinking the name itself, Chinese Chicken Salad, is such an understated name for this delicious salad. Maybe “Zesty Chinese Chicken Salad…”?

I did make a few changes to the recipe. First, I reduced the salad portion in half since there are only two of us. Second, I added ½ head of chopped cabbage to give my dish more of a “salad” feel.

As for the dressing, I made the whole amount, but used a little less than ½ of it on the salad. Also, I took one look at the amount of salt called for in the dressing and thought there was “NO WAY.” Glad my instincts were on. I cut the salt in half and used a low sodium soy sauce and still thought the dressing was slightly over salted!

Finally, I substituted rice wine vinegar for apple cider vinegar. There is only one reason for this substitution: I went to use my apple cider vinegar and saw that the expiration date was June of 06! Not joking. The worst part about this is that I USED the same apple cider vinegar last week in my vegetable cole slaw! Thinking back, something did seem a little off at the time. You can tell I have a highly trained palate! No matter. The dressing was absolutely delicious with the rice wine vinegar.

Tangy Chinese Chicken Salad
Adaptation of Ina Garten’s Chinese Chicken Salad:

4 split chicken breasts (bone in, skin on)
Good Olive Oil
Kosher Salt
Ground Pepper
3/4 pound of asparagus
1/2 head of cabbage
1 red bell pepper
5 scallions (white and green parts), sliced diagonally.
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, toasted

For the dressing:

1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup of rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup of soy sauce
3 tablespoons dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon honey
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 teaspoons of minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1/3 cup of peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon of Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon of black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the chicken breasts on a sheet pan and rub the skin with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Set aside until cool. Once cool, remove the meat from the bones, discard skin and shred the chicken into bite-size pieces.

Blanch the asparagus in pot of boiling water for 3 minutes. Immediately plunge into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and cut into strips. Cut the peppers into strips (same size as asparagus) Chop the cabbage in a food processor, using a thick blade attachment.

Combine the chicken, asparagus, peppers and cabbage into large bowl.

Whisk ingredients for dressing and pour over salad. Add scallions and sesame seeds.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Florence Nightingale

Either I have the word “SUCKER” written across my forehead or the veterinary business is a bit of a racket these days. It wasn’t always this way. I don’t remember my parents taking our family dogs for dental cleanings and yearly check ups throughout the 70s and 80s. Rather, they took our dog to the vet when there was a problem or when they needed to be spayed or neutered or vaccinated.

My dogs on the other hand, visit the vet more than I see a doctor. There are teeth cleanings, vaccinations, thyroid monitoring, anal gland excretions, and nail clippings, grooming for two out of my three dogs and most recently, cryosurgery. This one took the cake. (Not to mention it also took much of my anticipated SEP IRA contribution!)

I don’t have children. So, my dogs are my “babies.” When something is wrong, I take them in. I once took Smitty (our wire fox terrier) into the vet because of two dark freckles that mysteriously appeared inside his mouth. I think that visit signaled to my vet that I am easy target….

On Monday, my super-sized (43lbs) Cocker Spaniel had cryosurgery to remove the little hairs on his eyelids called Distichia; a common condition with American Bulldogs and Spaniels. I was sent to a veterinary eye specialist to obtain a consultation. The first office visit alone was over $500, which included one oral and one topical medication. This wasn’t a good sign, but I elected for the surgery nonetheless.

For three days now, I have been “nursing” Riley back to health. You would not believe the amount of post-op medications I was instructed to give him: three topical ointments, including eye drops and a gel that I am required to apply 3-4 times a day and three oral medications including an antibiotic, a steroid and a pain killer.

The two-page post-op discharge sheet was so complicated that I had to create a flowchart to make sure that that I would give Riley the right medication at the right time of day. I’m wondering if the vet has some back-end deal with Pfizer?

Maybe I don’t have “SUCKER” written across my forehead, but there is no doubt in my mind that I exude “CRAZY DOG LADY.”