Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Special dinner

There are simple, inexpensive ways to make every day elegant and special. Candles are a must in my house. Sometimes just doing something different makes the house or the evening feel special. Use the good dishes on a tablecloth with real napkins. Float the blossom of a flower, even fake, in a wineglass of water. Light a couple of inexpensive candles and you've got instant ambience without spending extra money. Same goes for the food if you choose out-of-the-ordinary recipes that can be made with pantry staples.

Weather conditions on Valentine's Day this year were blizzardlike so it was good we hadn't planned to go out. Instead we ate my favorite dinner [right now anyway], spaghetti aglio-olio. And I know I mixed cultures but because I had some Manchego to use up, I made a starter of julienned Granny Smith apples and the Spanish sheep's milk cheese. Chunks of mild, nutty/salty, "crunchy" Manchego are great topped with membrillo aka quince paste, too. I've found quince paste in the fancy deli condiments near the specialty cheese case at Giant Eagle. For dessert, I made chocolate-covered strawberries. I didn't plan this. I bought some strawberries in the course of regular grocery-shopping (I know, too early in the season.) I realized I had a bag of chocolate chunks and thought "Why not?"

Chocolate-covered strawberries

Chocolate-covered strawberries look decadent and someone will think you went to a lot of trouble but they're really quite easy to make. Thoroughly wash and dry the strawberries. The tiniest bit of water left on a berry will cause your chocolate to seize [clump.] Leave the caps/stems in place. Stick a toothpick about halfway in the stem end.

In the top of a double boiler melt chocolate chips or chunks and vegetable shortening. I used half a 10-ounce bag of Nestle Chocolatier 53 percent cacao premium baking chocolate chunks and 1 tablespoon of Crisco because I had slightly less than a pound of strawberries. Don't let the double boiler scare you. If you don't have one, it's nothing more than two saucepans stacked together with some water in the bottom one. It's used [for one thing] to melt chocolate with indirect heat. Take care not to get water in the chocolate. There are also directions on the package for melting chocolate using the microwave.

Once your chocolate is melted and you've incorporated the shortening, turn off the heat. Grasp a toothpick and dip the berry in the chocolate, turning to coat. Let the chocolate drip off a little and then you can either stick the toothpick in a piece of Styrofoam [like florist foam] or put it on wax paper to set. Yes this means when you peel it off that one side will be flat. If it's a casual meal, I don't let this bother me and I drizzle all sides with white chocolate once the dark chocolate has set so that kind of camouflages it anyway. If the chocolate starts to harden while you're coating the berries -- as mine did when I had to stop to perform some toddler triage, just turn the heat back on and stir until everything is smooth again.

To get the white chocolate drizzle, I put maybe a quarter cup of white chocolate chips and a half tablespoon of shortening [just eyeball it] in a zipper-seal bag. Don't seal it. Microwave for 15 seconds at a time until the chocolate melts. Mush the bag up to mix the shortening and chocolate. Snip a tiny piece off one bottom corner and, holding the bag several inches above the berries, gently squeeze while moving your hand back and forth. The farther from the berries the bag is, the thinner the drizzle of chocolate will be. Let dry completely, then carefully turn to do the other side.

Spaghetti con Aglio e Olio
[Slightly modified from Rachael Ray's "365: No Repeats"]
Coarse salt
1 pound spaghetti [I use wholegrain -- it's good!]
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) (about 5 times around the pan)
8 garlic cloves, chopped [give or take :-)]
1/2-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
8-10 flat anchovy fillets or one big gob of anchovy paste
2 fistfuls of fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. Salt the water and cook the pasta until al dente, 6-7 minutes or so.

While the pasta cooks, place a large, deep, nonstick heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-low heat. When the pan is warm, add the 1/3 cup EVOO, the garlic, red pepper flakes and anchovies.

A word about this: Stir the garlic around. Watch it. You'll want to remove the pan from the heat when the garlic is just soft. It will continue to cook in the hot oil. If you wait till it's browned to take it off the heat, then it will overcook and be bitter. You'll get better at this with practice; listen to your intuition, which I'm still learning to trust. I have had my garlic end up "crispy" and it wasn't bad and after it sits overnight, it's soft again. Still it's better if you don't overcook it.

Finely chop the parsley and set aside.

Drain the spaghetti really well but do not rinse it; rinsing will wash off the starch, and the starch helps the oil stick to the pasta. Pour the hot spaghetti into the skillet. Add the parsley and toss the pasta together with the anchovies, garlic and oil to coat evenly. Season the completed dish liberally with salt and pepper.

4 servings. [Even better the next day as leftovers for lunch at work.]

Apples & Manchego
[From Chef Joe Resick, Harrigan's Cafe & Wine Deck, Johnstown, Pa.]
3 Granny Smith apples
6 ounces Manchego cheese [now available in the specialty cheese case at Kroger and Giant Eagle]
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Julienne apples and cheese, matchstick size. [Here's where it's handy to have a mandoline, a slicing tool with interchangeable blades to help you smoothly and safely and quickly grate, julienne, slice, etc. cheese and vegetables. No need to spend $80 on the one from Pampered Chef. The chef who gave me this recipe said the $30 models from Bed Bath & Beyond -- like I got last Christmas -- will work just fine. When the blades dull, it's cheap enough to replace the whole thing. Hey, if it's good enough for a professional chef, it's good enough for me.]

Toss the apples and cheese in a bowl with the oil, vinegar and seasonings. Marinate 2 hours in the refrigerator. Serve chilled.

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