The Birthday Brisket

When I began to plan my Mom’s surprise 60th birthday party menu, I had trouble keeping the list short. “What about pulled pork sandwiches?” I asked my roommates. “Dulce de leche cupcakes….shrimp romesco….oh no, these look good, too…what about chickpea fritters with honey greek yogurt tzatziki sauce?”

I tossed ideas back and forth for two weeks. It takes a lot to plan a party from the ground up; it’s an added challenge when you have to keep it all a secret. I had to iron out the menu – without it, I had no equipment list, no table set up, no cooking times, and well, no party.

I eventually settled on serving “bites” throughout the night. This avoided a sit down meal and allowed guests to eat and mingle, and eat and mingle some more. I’ve written out the menu below:

Starters

  • Cheese platter: Great Hill Blue, Brie and Bucherón Goat
  • Artichoke dip with multigrain pita chips
  • Genoa salami, grapes, green olives
  • Iggy’s crostini
  • Candied pecans

First round

  • Spanish tortilla w/saffron aioli
  • Turkey empanadas w/avocado dipping sauce
  • Salmon rolls with baby arugula

Second round

  • Maple glazed pork tenderloin medallions w/whole grain mustard dipping sauce
  • Barbecued mango brisket sliders with pickled onions
  • Pizza’s: Pesto with mozzarella and cracked black pepper, Classic Margherita with fresh basil

Dessert

  • Mini Red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting
  • Pineapple, canteloupe and strawberries
  • Peppermint bark with bittersweet and milk chocolate

As per every Rovner party, there were multiple open bottles of wine and beer. Favorites, however, were the El Coto Rioja, Valle Reale Vigne Nuove, and Chateau Ste Michelle Chardonnay.

Despite assisting at Thanksgiving, at Hannukah parties and dinner at my parents’ house over the last few years, this was my first real catering gig. I’ve worked behind the scenes at Firefly’s and at several work events, but this was different. The whole concept of cooking whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to start, was new to me. Dad was the only one I had to convince – a job that wasn’t too tough after I told him I scored a 4# brisket from work.

I neglected to mention here that I spent several nights researching recipes. I filtered through our (ever-growing )collection of ATK cookbooks at the apartment, scanned Serious Eats links and Adam Reid articles in Boston Globe Magazine. I wanted a menu that wouldn’t kill me to pull off, but at the same time, combined a degree of difficulty with a bit of ease. Spanish tortilla and salmon rolls provided little challenge, but doughs and brisket? I’d finally found the balance I was looking for. 

The brisket turned out to be my labor of love. I had read two recipes, both that called for slowcooking the brisket. Yet I didn’t have the time or the energy to haul a slowcooker home from the office – plus, that seemed like a bit of a cop out for my debut surprise dinner. I mentioned my angst to my friend Christie at the kitchen, who suggested I just use a large disposable aluminum roasting pan instead. That was the perfect idea – I could brown the brisket in a skillet, transfer it over to the roasting pan, add aromatics and spices, and let it do it’s thing in the oven.

The first slowcooker recipe suggested pureeing chile in adobo and freshly chopped mango in blender, an idea I liked since mangoes are a staple fruit in our house. But I was worried about drowning out the mango flavor with too much heat and spice (an idea I might try in the future would be to concentrate mango juice beforehand). To balance out the flavors, I added the pureed chile/mango mixture along with 1 sliced onion, 1 can of whole plum tomatoes with juice (I crushed them with my hands before adding), 1 cup water, large pinch of cumin, coriander, and cinnamon to the roasting pan. I poked the brisket with a fork and covered the pan with aluminum foil.

After 4 hours at 350, the brisket was not at the fork-tender status I wanted. It had also released a lot of juices into the pan, so I pulled the fork back out and poked holes into the top of the foil to allow some of the liquid to evaporate. I also placed a baking sheet under the pan in case liquid spilled out in the process. —-[I should note that the “barbecued” piece of this recipe turned out to be a bit of a misnomer as all the liquid ended up braising it.]

By midnight, the smells had permeated my apartment and I went in for one last check, hoping that this was finally it. As soon as I uncovered the meat, I breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction. “Yes…” I said to myself, “I did it.” I drained the liquid from the pan (about 2 cups worth) into a fat separator, poured the good stuff back into a saucepan, brought it to a boil and let it simmer for 2-3 hours. The 2 am result: a perfectly thick, sweet and smoky sauce – exactly what I wanted to accompany my babied brisket.

I seem to have gone off on a brisket tangent, but I think it explains how I felt about the entire night. Just as I was shocked I pulled off this menu, my Mom was shocked by the friends that came to surprise her. Dad was proud, Cleo’s tail never ceased to wag, and the crowd made it through the night without singing karaoke at the piano. In my book, it was a great success – one that neither our hearts nor our taste buds will be forgetting any time soon.

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My Culinary Guru

It must be nice to live like Ina Garten –  study cuisine in France like Julia Child, marry the Dean of Dartmouth, build a kitchen and home of your dreams in the Hamptons – I mean, what could be better than that?

Lately, I can’t get enough of the Barefoot Contessa. I watched her make a fresh arugula salad the other day with toasted walnuts, plum tomatoes and granny smith apples and practically salivated all over myself. I wanted a salad so badly afterward, that I made my own. And although my bright green spinach,  diced avocado, Fuji apple and strawberry version was without the luxury of farm stand freshness, I can bet my salad was just as good.

The thing I love about Ina is that she truly loves food. If she had an hour to talk about the graffiti eggplant in her farm basket she would have – especially if it meant dining outside over a drink with Jeffrey. You can imagine how jealous I was two seasons ago when Food Network Star contestants were invited to dinner at Ina’s Hampton palace – but between her walk-in pantry and giant garden fortress, I may have passed out before the hors d’oeuvres. After all, Ina is my culinary guru.

Watching Ina can be confusing though. One day I’ll watch Back to Basics and convince myself that I should own a bakery. Other times, I decide no – I’m going to move out West, join my cousins, and build a life working on their farm in Illinois. The whole moving to Paris to go to cooking school seems just a wee bit out of the question.

I think of Ina as a modern day Julia. Even with the deep pockets of Jeffrey’s dress coat, Ina has built an admirable career for herself, beginning with a tiny bakery in East Hampton called (as we all know) the Barefoot Contessa. Food Network found her, gave her a cooking show, and now, her products can be found at every specialty foods shop across the U.S. And like Julia, butter is not an ingredient Ina uses lightly – her boxed Outrageous Brownie mix sells for $6.95 a box and calls for 1 lb. of unsalted butter. Not that bad for 20 servings, but clearly, you are going to eat way more than one brownie.

I find that everything Ina makes I want to eat – immediately. Roast chicken, stewed tomatoes, watermelon salad, chicken curry salad…I’d have to multiply myself times three just to eat an entire serving. Ina’s excessive cooking – she dropped about a pound of cubed feta in that watermelon salad – is a bit much for me sometimes. But what I do love is her simplicity, and ability to turn a dish that appears on every Italian menu like Caesar salad, and make it gourmet and delicious.

Although I think Julia nailed it with her high-pitched, “Don’t be ahfraiiid,” Ina has a similar method of modesty in the kitchen. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t make what Ina made, or that because I don’t have a farm basket delivered to my door every week that I can’t use plain old grocery store produce. I wish of course, that I had heirloom tomatoes at the tips of my fingertips and expensive California olive oil in my pantry, but Ina convinces me that I’ll be just fine with what I’ve got.

And to me, that’s what good cooking is all about.

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Blackberry French Toast

My obsession with developing the perfect french toast recipe began about two weeks ago.  I’d begun experimenting with fruit sauces and had exhausted one too many containers of Purely Decadent’s new cookie dough ice cream.

The problem was that the sauces could not be eaten by themselves; they simply had to be served on top of something. With yogurt and ricotta checked off my list, soy ice cream was my only choice. Trader Joes’ quality vanilla soy ice cream was about the only thing that could save what was becoming a caloric catastrophe.

Then it dawned on me: french toast. Whole wheat bread, non-fat milk, and fresh fruit? This eggy bread was about to meet its healthy adversary.

Known as gypsy toast in England, french toast is found anywhere from casual diners to upscale, 5-star restaurants, both for breakfast and dessert. My sauce was going to take a turn for the better, and become a morning special. While a stay-at-home dessert might skimp out on a garnish or toasted nut finish, a breakfast dish had to be perfect, and complete. Waking up to soggy toast on Saturday morning doesn’t sound fun to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my future, and what I want for myself in the coming years. I don’t think I want to own a restaurant, or have the guts to head back to school right now. But I realized that – even though I try to limit my splurging – my real passion is for sweets.

Growing up only an hour from my grandparents meant weekends in Ipswich and Sunday trips to the local donut shop.  My grandfather loved the chocolate crullers and was a regular customer – so much so, that by the time I was 10 we practically had two seats with our names engraved on them. I can’t remember leaving my stool once before I had at least two of their warm, cinnamon sugar donuts.

Not to brag, but my grandfather, Ray Broekel, turns out to be quite a character in the candy world – something I didn’t realize until he passed away a few years ago.  His collection of over 20,000 candy wrappers sits in a glass case at the American Museum of Candy History in Maryland and hundreds of books on candy history mark him as one of the few serious authorities on candy in the world. Google him – he’s all over the place.

Needless to say, I know exactly where my sweet tooth comes from. I know why I see myself opening a bakery in the coming years and why my first goal will be to develop the perfect cinnamon sugar donut. It’s no surprise I left the ice cream behind for the french toast; they’re practically cousins.

I haven’t yet perfected the technique for my blackberry french toast – but I suppose I can let you in on a few secrets so far: stick to day-old bread, quick custard soaking, and a hot non-stick skillet. For the sauce, use a mixture of fresh and frozen berries, sugar and cornstarch.

Even if you find different ways to get there, I think that like me, you’ll be quite happy with the end result.

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A Fest of Pumpkins

Caramel AppleEvery year, there is a Pumpkin festival in Keene, NH. A tradition of carving, costume wearing and early bar hopping, it is also a hub for local restaurants and chefs to exhibit their favorite New England foods. With only one day to meander the leafy streets and navigate through the mobs of hungry tourists and natives, I sunk my teeth into as much grub as I could. Lucky for me this task was as easy as a slice of pumpkin pie – I had friends. Hungry ones.

I should start by saying that I live for events like this.  Not only are they the perfect way to acquaint yourself with local specialties, but they are a place for area companies, organizations and clubs to gather – whether its to encourage community activity or bring awareness to town events. Surrounded by hundreds of hand-carved pumpkins, Main Street is a place for friendly locals and eager visitors to connect and have fun.

Walking through Keene you’ll find it is a special place. Tiny jewelry shops, homey book stores, and an old-fashioned movie theater are just some of the comforting spots lining its streets. If you search a little farther, you’ll come across sweet potato and black bean quesadillas, fresh $5 sushi rolls and a hot mug of peppermint tea. Yet on this crisp October day, I knew there was something even better in the air.

On Pumpkin Fest, which falls in mid October each year, you’ll see firefighters watching the smokers and young kids at the cash register, excited to take your order for hand-cut french fries and freshly popped kettle corn. Many participants bake off their pumpkin pie – an obvious contender given its name. Each Pumpkin Fest encourages new chefs and home-cooks to bring out their own styles and flavors, but there is always stiff competition for Keene’s favorites: chili, sausage, and caramel apples.

Last year’s chili bowl – presented by Keene State College’s Habitat for Humanity was full of deep-flavor. Dark chili powder and hearty beans had little chance of losing its title for best chili this time around and unfortunately, I turned out to be right. It could have been better, especially with the $4.50 charge. The grilled sausage was however, on target. Topped with grilled onions and green peppers, my friends fought over who got the next bite. One of them stared at me for so long while I was eating it that I thought her eyes might just eat it for me. Was it possible for dessert to take first place?

Earlier in the day I walked by a stand where a group of women were selling candied and caramel apples. Despite the $4 price tag, I knew that I had to have one. One thing I have a hard time resisting is a crisp MacIntosh apple, especially one hand-picked from Alyson’s Orchard, a known location for fall New England weddings and beautiful blossoms. It was a wise decision, and one quickly recognized by my comrades. Oddly the thick caramel coating and chocolate jimmies weren’t even the best part – it was the apple all on its own. So juicy it dripped down our chins, it was the perfect end to our pumpkin-filled day.

Next year’s line-up is already in place: pumpkin butter, pumpkin whoopie pies and a nice glass of pumpkin ale.

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My Grandmother’s Chicken Soup

In these last weeks, there have been a lot of firsts for me: breaking down my first chicken, mastering the double broiler, and tackling the charcoal grill. Outside of the culinary classroom, I took my first Capoeria class (Brazilian martial arts), started a new book (that is not about Spain, Jewish history, or food) and began a fine dining catering job. But let’s be serious – would you rather talk about Columbus or clams? That’s what I thought.

The more I learn about the different ways to work with food, from developing a recipe in the kitchen to the best method of hoisting a tray of plates onto your shoulder to carry out to a dining room full of guests, the more I realize what it is about food that makes me tick.

I keep bouncing back and forth with the culinary school idea in my head. My issue is that I’ve never seen myself working on a line, or polishing off plates as the head chef in the kitchen. Yet I have always envisioned my early twenties in Boston, studying my way through grad school, and juggling various culinary jobs on the side…the goal being to keep my foot in as many pots as possible.

So far, a few of those hopes are in progress. I’m near Boston, I feel like I’m in school (since my days at ATK are full of tasks, lessons and of course, successes and failures – like the array of cupcakes I made today), and I’m in the midst of a few other food-related positions on the side. From the outside, you might say I’m off to a good start.

The thing about these jobs is that I still find myself going back to the beginning: ingredients.

I love learning how to use new ingredients. Whether it’s blanching hari covert or steaming clams, I’m into it, especially if it means I get to pick them up at the farm where they are grown, or uncover them in the sand at the beach.  (To all the boys out there who my father convinced me would be lined up outside the door by now, armed and ready to whisk me away – sorry, I had to – if you read closely you’ll find the key to my heart is a very simple one).

My point is that the majority of my culinary education has come from watching other people cook. And for that reason, I wish more than anything that I could have met my father’s mother.

My grandmother was a wonderful cook. On holidays, my father makes her chicken soup – a rustic medley of chicken (bones, and all), celery, carrots, onions and broth – accompanied by noodles, kashi, and squash. Think Spanish puchero, Jew style. It’s heavenly. Literally. It tastes like you’re walking on a cloud…of chicken soup.

I grew up with this soup – in cold winter months it was the perfect remedy to the sharp chill outside. For me, it is a way to feel connected to her. That simple feeling – of connectedness – is the reason why I love food. It isn’t about how fast 270 people can be fed at a wedding, or if you’ve found the key to assembling the perfect trifle. It’s about the story. I’d rather have a meal that was generations old, than one that was ordered out as one of three hundred at a busy restaurant.

And that’s why you chose clams instead of Columbus.

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The Best Thing I Ever Ate

Morocco (13)Pigeon Pie.

Yesterday I was watching a show on the Food Network with Jeff Corwin. Jeff was wandering the rocky hillsides of Morocco exploring native cuisines that hadn’t changed in hundreds of years – cooking lamb in man made underground ovens sealed by mud, various tagine stews and of course, Pigeon Pie.

Two years ago, I traveled to Tangier, Morocco on a trip with some friends from a program in Sevilla, Spain. We stopped at a restaurant on our way to a mosque on the Northern coast of Africa. It had been a tipsy ferry ride over from Gibraltar, but our stomachs grumbled in anticipation of the meal ahead.

I sat on the left side of the restaurant, positioned in a perfect view of the Moroccan coastline outside. It was a windy and ugly day but the atmosphere was bubbly and warm. We were eager to begin our 6-day excursion, and the servers bussled around us placing large loaves of bread and bottled waters on the tables.

A large, round phyllo dough looking thing was soon plopped on the plate in front of me. I quickly identified that it was dusted with powdered sugar and rows of cinnamon but along with my companions, I joined in on the mystery of what was on the inside. Was it chicken? Shredded beef? It was too sweet to be pork, or lamb, and it probably wasn’t beef. It was light in color and mixed with an assortment of traditional Moroccan staples – almonds and yellow raisins as well as spices like cumin and saffron (an unaffordable spice here in the US, it is abundant in Morocco and the spice of choice for many of their dishes). It was the best thing I have ever eaten.

I concluded that it was indeed chicken, and devoured the entire thing. If this was just the first of our Moroccan meals, I couldn’t imagine what was next. Throughout the days that followed, we ate a Berber feast (a native people that has occupied the area for over 4,000 years), learned how to make Moroccan flatbread (“Khobz” in Arabic), and sipped sweet mint tea. But it was the Pigeon Pie that lingered on my mind.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I discovered it wasn’t chicken layered inside that flaky dough. It was pigeon. Why was it that I hadn’t considered that the name corresponded with the dish? Pigeon Pie is made with pigeon meat…duh.

In the United States, pigeon meat has gone largely unnoticed. We figure they carry diseases and are overall, dirty, pesky creatures. Or maybe, we have considered them and because there is little meat to be taken from one bird, it would require a large number to be a wise restaurant choice. Yet in other parts of the world, pigeon is a common ingredient. Its unique flavor and texture are reminiscent of chicken, but it is sweeter, less chewy and light – far away from the gamy duck, or tough beef that we cook on a regular basis.

I’m not saying today’s chefs should reconsider replacing steak tips or roast chicken on the menu. But I’d be pleasantly surprised if pigeon showed up in the near future.

(P.S. I recognize pigeon is commonly referred to as “squab” on many fine dining menus. I am merely suggesting that in order to avoid confusing the average consumer – who might not recognize squab as a nickname for pigeon – that these definitions might deserve their own special categories. Either that or street pigeons in Morocco do not spend their time scouring public streets and parks.)

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If Only Brisket Gobbled

Rosh Hashanah is like Thanksgiving for Jews. From juicy apples and honey to fall-off the bone brisket, it is impossible to leave the dinner table anything but stuffed. This year, the meal was sinfully delicious.

Similar to turkey day, the first in the series of Jewish holidays this Fall is an open invitation for lots of family, stories and of course, eating. It is a similar sort of familial gathering – but one where the cooking is dealt out evenly amongst guests. One person brings the protein while another brings dessert. It is a method that avoids placing all of the preparation on one person and instead allows everyone the chance to contribute.

Jewish holidays in our family involve a lot of home-cooking and dedication. Lena prepared the traditional hors d’ourves – hand-chopped liver and white crackers, and sliced apples with honey. She makes the challah and horseradish. As we continue to greet each other, we nibble to curb the hunger for what we know is about to come.

Soon we’re told to take our seat at the table. We pour the wine, say the prayers and share a few laughs. The brave few raise their hands for gefilte fish (poached carp) and horseradish (which is definitely an acquired taste) and the rest make toasts in preparation for their first course: matzoh ball soup.

Matzoh ball soup is a serious matter. It is a carefully guarded secret that only the eldest woman in every Jewish family knows. It is her choice who learns the recipe and who doesn’t – and for this reason, it is all but ordinary. Large matzoh balls most evidently grace a clear broth of carrots and celery, but we all know there is much more that meets the eye. It is a fast and a lovely preview of what is to come.

This year, my mom was delegated to the role of vegetable and dessert. Consulting me for advice, she came up with a recipe in an old Jewish cookbook that was given to her as a gift several years ago. She chose two dishes that would maximize three particular ingredients – chickpeas (the Jewish symbol for plenty – due to their round shape – and thus, the blessing for a well-rounded New Year), spinach (newness), and pomegranate seeds (for righteousness). A stew of onions, chickpeas, spinach and cherry tomatoes, the plate gave a unique nod to common ingredients by addressing the religious heritage we were gathering to celebrate. I made an angel food cake (thanks to the practice I’m getting at ATK) and made a pomegranate syrup with sugar, strawberries and blueberries. I had learned in Israel that fresh pomegranate juice is hard to compare with anything else and knew it to be the perfect, personal touch to the classic white cake.

Along with the brisket and chickpea medley, we also enjoyed skillet green beans with toasted walnuts and golden raisins, roast turkey breast  infused with rosemary, zucchini au gratin (a tribute to Julia Child), kashi varnishkes (made with the kashi grain, onions, and bow tie pasta), tzimmes (a stew of acorn squash, prunes, carrots, parsnip and sweet potatoes), and kugel (a noodle casserole with eggs, cream cheese, sour cream, and cornflakes).

It is important, like at Thanksgiving, to pace yourself with this meal making sure to portion out small amounts of each dish to ensure that you get it all. Given my milk allergy, I passed on the kugel and zucchini with more room for the perfectly cooked brisket and crunchy green beans. How on earth was I going to make it through dessert?

Lucky for me, everyone was stuffed and needed a bit to wind down. We took turns clearing the plates and dirty dishes from the table, brewed some coffee (for the old timers – no offense, Steve) and wiped the kitchen clean. We told more stories and played with the dog (shout out to you, Sammy).

Dessert is a bit less extravagant, but only by a hair. The angel food cake meets its competitor – home-made ice cream from Kimball Farm in Carlisle. The flavors are decadent enough on their own – Red Raspberry Chip, Pumpkin, Ginger, Coffee Oreo, Cookies and Cream, Black Raspberry, Chocolate Chip and Mocha Almond Assault.

There’s nothing better than a meal like this. Good thing Yom Kippur is right around the corner.

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