Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ten Things I Learned Cooking for Nine Weekend Guests

Saturday dinner. Clockwise from upper left, cornbread with grilled onion, honey, cinnamon and cilantro. The peach salad discussed below. Christina's baby potatoes and red and purple carrots from the farmer's market. Grilled lamb with garlic and herbs over minted couscous.

If you leave the butter out, the butter will get soft and the butter will get eaten.

You will use all the knives. If a new knife set has arrived to replace the sword whose tip broke off on the Thanksgiving turkey breastbone, don't set aside the old ones. You will use all the knives.

Need to defrost puff pastry in a hurry? Place it in a cast iron skillet. (Actually, I didn't learn this last weekend, just used it. We first saw this tip years ago on Alton Brown's cooking-science show. Works great for frozen meat, too.) Takes out the cold faster than on a counter top or plate.

Mayonnaise from scratch is super easy! It's just whipped oil and egg yolk. And some lemon and salt. Virginia said she has made some delicious with horseradish. But if all you have is a blender instead of the food processor with its nice attachment in the top for adding the stream of oil into the whipping fluff and if you have to take off the blender lid to add the oil, get ready to used the lid as a kind of shield for the oily, yolky splatters. Don't worry; it's part of the fun.

The raw bite of onion for a crab salad (made with the homemade mayo, chopped celery and dill) can be made less harsh by chopping, then rinsing, then freezing. Who knew?

If you're debating whole trout in foil packets on the grill vs. whole trout tied in kitchen twine and fried in a cast iron pan on the grill: Cast iron, baby! The foil packet with its herbs and baby tomatoes and lemon slices will be fragrant and delicious, but the results were a little limp and wet for my taste. I loved the crispiness and shiny color from the cast iron pan! Just be careful when flipping - the flesh is delicate and Fishy's little head may fall off. Which, bright side, does open the door to certain guest's childhood memories of sibling fights over who got to eat the eyeballs.

Three ingredient salads, just cucumbers, pineapple and basil, or say, just peaches, red onion and basil again, can make beautiful music. Oh, but here's the rub - the little differences that make a big impact. Use the small pickling cukes (more flavor, less likely to be waxed) and slice them thin on the diagonal. And grill that pineapple to a smoky sweetness. And dress either salad in the best olive oil you've got, with some fresh cracked pepper. Fabulous, baby.

Don't believe Martha when she says bake the puff pastry for 30 minutes on the top rack. Check it every ten. Be grateful Dufour gives you a second chance slab in their 14 oz. package.

Marshmallows roasted over a fire, then dipped in a chocolate fondue and squished between graham crackers must be the most perfect way to make a s'more. No cold, waxy chunks of Hershey's. Use hot cream poured over chopped Icelandic bittersweet chocolate. Let sit for five minute, then whisk smooth. Vanilla or liquor optional.

Chinese five spice is a revelation. Spicy, sour, sweet, salty, amazing. Try it, as Martha suggests, in a blackberry-plum pie, with some cracked black pepper for good measure. Complex and luscious.

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