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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Happy Quarter-Century, Colin! A Birthday Feast.

Editors note: In a change of pace (as if anything associated with this blog had "pace"), this post is by Annie, for reasons that will shortly become clear.

In the nearly three years we've been dating, Colin and I have cooked together a lot. We've tried out new recipes, modified existing ones, and cobbled together new ones from scratch. I've served as Colin's sous chef plenty of times, and once or twice he's been mine. And of course, he's cooked some of his favorite dishes for me. But I realized not long ago that there was a glaring omission from the list of culinary adventures we've had together: I had never cooked a whole meal, start to finish, for Colin.

(All right, that isn't strictly true. One time we had planned to make a squash tagine, but Colin was running late and I ended up making the whole thing, with a bit of prep help from Ken, before he got home. But that time, he helped pick out the recipe and get the ingredients. For the sake of drama and narrative, consider this the first meal I've ever cooked for Colin.)

Naturally, with Colin's twenty-fifth birthday coming up, I saw my perfect opportunity to cook Colin an unforgettable birthday dinner. But what do you make for a guy who could go on Chopped, find a cardboard box in the ingredient basket, dip it in savory egg batter, and still make it to the next round? I put a lot of thought into this. Pad Thai? No, we've made it a few times before. Eggplant Parmesan? While my Italian relatives would certainly be proud, I decided I wanted to serve him something truly unique - something with a variety of influences tied together with an improvisational spirit, just like Colin's usual mode of cooking. Anything that needed to be served hot was right out, since I knew I was going to work a late shift and I wanted to have everything prepared in advance. Eventually, I came up with a menu of cold dishes united by a couple of common elements, which I could easily make the day before (which, fortunately, was my day off) and bring over for final preparation on the big night.

The Salad Course
The idea of this salad began with the candied walnuts. I reasoned that I could prepare them in advance and assemble the salad on the spot. The flavor profile was inspired by a similar idea I've seen Colin apply to brussels sprouts and preserved lemons: hot red pepper and fish sauce, plus enough sugar to get a bit of caramelization on the outside. I glanced at this basic candied walnut recipe- which essentially just outlines the principle of how to candy walnuts- and used it as the base for my improvisation. Feel free to mess with the spices - but do try this particular combination. If you want it to be vegetarian, swap the fish sauce for soy sauce. If you like, you could use Worcestershire instead to give it a different spin, flavor-wise. All the amounts here are pretty approximate.

Green salad with Spiced Candied Walnuts.

Spiced Candied Walnuts
2 Tbsp butter
2 cups walnuts
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp ground red (hot) pepper
1 tsp turmeric
1 Tbsp fish sauce

Heat the butter in a nonstick pan of sufficient size to hold all the walnuts. Add the hot pepper and turmeric, and cook for 1 minute or so. Add the walnuts and sugar and stir until the walnuts are coated in a thick caramel. Watch carefully to prevent browning. Once the caramel has formed, spread the walnuts onto waxed paper. Be sure to distribute them evenly over the paper if you want individual walnut pieces; if you want walnut brittle, spread them in a thick layer. Serve over salad or for snacking.

I have been making variations on fruity salad dressings since I was a kid. I distinctly remember my mother having a Pampered Chef cookbook that used apricot jam in just such a dressing, although I don't remember if that version included mustard as well. Tonight, I ad-libbed this dressing and served it on a store-bought spring greens mix, topped with Spiced Candied Walnuts and some crumbled Danish Blue cheese which I had on hand because of its role in the main course (described below).

Mustard Dressing
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp raspberry jam (or other jam of your choosing)
1 Tbsp stone ground mustard
1 Tbsp prepared dijon mustard
Black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients, whisking to blend. Serve over green salad. I don't really eat meat, but I think this would go just fine with a meat dish as well.
Salad, dressing, extra walnuts, and a white wine I brought to go with it.

The Main Course
Some time ago, I mentioned to Colin that my family enjoys making a recipe called Scottish Oat Bites: a savory, oaty cracker made with a crumbly, veined cheese of the chef's choosing. Ever since I mentioned this, Colin has reminded me from time to time that I ought to make them so he can experience the cheesy goodness for himself. But, no matter how much I might have wished it as a kid, cheesy crackers aren't really a dinner food on their own. To turn them into - well, if not a main course exactly, then at least a suitably tapas-esque item, I had to get creative with the toppings. Colin got me hooked on smoked salmon only recently, and it definitely shines when served on a warm bagel slathered with cream cheese. So I decided to move the fish-bread-dairy combo from the breakfast table to the dinner table.

The serving setup for the crostini.

Smoked Salmon Crostini with Dill-Sumac Creme Fraiche
1 recipe Scottish Oat Bites (see below)
8 oz sliced smoked salmon
8 oz creme fraiche
2 sprigs fresh dill, chopped fine
1 Tbsp sumac
Black pepper to taste

Combine creme fraiche, dill, sumac and pepper. Chill the sauce until crostini are ready to serve. Cut the salmon into approximately two-inch squares. If oat bites have been made in advance, warm them in the oven for 4-5 minutes. Serve warm oat bites alongside platter of salmon and bowl of sauce. Alternatively, you could prepare the individual crostini in advance by topping each cracker with the cream and a slice of salmon before serving, but a) if left out for a while, the crackers might lose some of their crisp, and b) it's fun to help yourself from the serving platters. Serves 3-6, depending on how hungry you are.
Assembling the crostini.

When I texted my mother to inquire as to the origins of Scottish Oat Bites, she replied, "I can't remember." I think I first encountered them when my aunt made them for Christmas, but I'll need to do some more sleuthing. In any case, this was the first time I ever made a batch entirely on my own, and I was pleasantly surprised by how easy they were to make. I ended up having to make do with a vinegar bottle in lieu of a rolling pin, and a chopper like this instead of a pastry blender, and they still came out just fine.

Scottish Oat Bites
1 cup oats (quick or regular; just don't use flavored oatmeal and you'll be fine)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 Tbsp toasted wheat germ or wheat bran
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup cold butter, cut up
3/4 cup crumbled stilton or other blue veined cheese (about 3 oz.)
1/3 cup milk
1 Tbsp honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease baking sheets; set aside.
1. Place oats in blender, food processor, or spice grinder and grind to a mealy texture.
2. In a large bowl, combine ground oats and all dry ingredients (both flours, wheat germ or bran, salt, and baking powder).
3. Using a pastry blender, cut in butter and cheese until pieces are pea sized. In a small bowl, combine milk and honey. Stir until honey is dissolved.
4. Drizzle honey mixture over flour mixture. Toss together with a fork. Gently work mixture with fingers until dough clings together. If dough is too dry, add milk. If too wet, add flour. Turn dough out onto waxed paper or lightly floured surface. Knead for 2-3 turns or until dough is smooth. Divide dough in half.
5. Roll one dough half into about 1/8-inch thickness. Cut out shapes or squares. Arrange dough pieces on prepared baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough, rerolling as needed. (If your work space is limited, roll 1/4 of the dough at a time instead.)
6. Bake 12 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Transfer to plate or wire rack to cool. Makes 48 crackers.
Scottish Oat Bites!

The Dessert Course
I had initially considered making a birthday cake of some sort, but ultimately decided I didn't want to pair two vaguely bready dishes together. I also wanted to avoid buying too many ingredients - particularly things I wasn't likely to use up. And of course, I needed something that could be prepared in advance. Thank goodness I live in the 21st century- I googled something like "desserts to make in advance" and was rewarded with this deceptively simple, delightfully tasty one-pot recipe. The only modification I made was to add a cup of coffee at the stage when milk is being whisked into the caramel; I think I also reduced the amount of milk, but as the liquid gets cooked down, I don't think it really mattered much. The coffee flavor was very mild. If you want anything more than just a little hint of coffee, use espresso or stir in some instant coffee.

Colin preparing to make a wish on his birthday pudding.
All told, I think it was quite the success. I'll definitely be making the pudding again the next time I need an easy and impressive dessert. And the salad and crostini are going on my list of meal combinations. Colin certainly enjoyed it. I guess I'll have to start planning recipes now for the next milestone birthday. 

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