Christmas Dinner, 2009: An Embarassment of Riches (with Recipes!)

This year, for the first time in my young life, no one cooked Christmas dinner.  Rather than travel to Missouri for the holidays, Mr. Luz and I stayed home in D.C., video Skyped with our loved ones, and ate leftovers--partially to recover from our Christmas Eve feast at Bistrot Lepic, and partially to mentally and physically prepare for the Christmas dinner we cooked for our friends the next day.

Yep...Mr. Luz and I cooked our very first Christmas dinner this weekend.  I'm no Julia, we were able to dig into our Favorite Flavors Repository and come up with a satisfying and kind-of-almost-healthy-ish meal to share with friends by the glow of the Christmas tree.

And for once, I didn't have even the tiniest of meltdowns. Mr. Luz and I worked together and managed to feed 12 people out of a kitchen the size of a refrigerator box without any injuries, tears, or low-blood sugar freak outs. And as everyone squeezed into our living room, and the volume got  louder and smiles got brighter throughout the evening, I felt blessed-like the richest woman in the world.  I'm really proud of our beautiful meal.  And Mr. Luz, thanks for being my calm, dedicated co-Chef this Christmas. I love you.

Christmas Dinner Menu for 12 (recipes below):

Assorted Appetizers

Smoked Turkey
Baked Acorn Squash with Butter and Cinnamon
Gremolata Greenbeans
Smoked Oyster New Orleans Style Stuffing

The Best Apple Pie In The World (recipe pending in future post)

Smoked Turkey RecipeSee this link to a previous post

Baked Acorn Squash with Butter and Brown Sugar Recipe:
This recipe is elegant, simple, and traditional.  If you don't want to serve the squash pieces individually, simply halve the squash, and after baking spoon out the squash and mash it to a puree for serving.

3-4 large Acorn Squash, seeds and strings removed
3 Tbs. butter
6 Tbs. brown sugar
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Quarter the squash, and arrange on a rimmed baking sheet, skin side down. Add a few Tbs. of water to the baking sheet to steam squash and keep skins from burning.

Spoon pieces of butter and brown sugar into the concave part of the squash. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 45 min. to an hour, until the squash is soft all the way through and browned a bit on top.  Serve.

Gremolata Green beans Recipe:
This dish serves as the perfect bright, garlicky foil to a traditional rich, sweet holiday menu and it's so versatile.  Make it ahead of time and serve it at room temperature.  These green beans are so tasty, we eat them like dessert...a few bites at a time, all day long.  We acquired the recipe after a friend brought them to Thanksgiving this year, so I can't take credit, but they were too good not to pass along.

2 pounds green beans
4 Tbs. minced garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Zest of 8 lemons (yellow part only)
2 bunches Italian parsley, leaves only, chopped
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste

Blanch the green beans in a pot of boiling salted water for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes; drain and plunge into ice water. Drain well. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Saute the garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat for 2 minutes or just until the garlic turns white. Do not let it brown. Pour over the beans and toss to combine.

Combine the lemon zest, parsley, cheese, salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the beans, and toss. Add the lemon juice, toss again, and taste. Adjust seasonings with salt, pepper and more lemon juice, to taste.

NOTE: Mr. Luz likes to throw the topping ingredients, raw garlic, cheese and all, into the food processer and then toss the blanched greenbeans, olive oil, lemon juice, and food processed topping all together before serving.  To him, flash cooking the garlic takes some of the fun out of the dish, and electronics are more fun than chopping.

Smoked Oyster French Bread Stuffing
I love a sweet, salty, umami-tasting oyster with just about everything, but especially when it adds unexpected elegance and subtlety to a holiday stuffing/dressing. I've been eating this stuff for breakfast since Saturday.

2 large loaves stale French bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups fresh oysters in their own liquor
1 1/2 cups smoked oysters, rinsed and coarse chopped
1 bunch fresh parsley leaves, chopped
2 bunches green onions, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, diced
1 large onion, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbs. bacon grease
1 cup butter
2 Tbs. of your favorite fresh savory herb(s), chopped (thyme, sage, rosemary)
Salt and red pepper to taste
2 cups chicken stock
Dry the bread cubes on a baking sheet all day, or in a 200 degree oven, until crispy.

Melt 1/2 cup butter and bacon grease over medium heat in a large pan.  Add the bell pepper, onion, celery and saute until translucent.  Add the garlic, green onion, and parsley and saute 2 more minutes.

Combine the sauteed vegetables, bread cubes, smoked and fresh oysters, with their liquor, savory herbs, salt and red pepper and chicken stock in a large bowl and mix well. Spoon the dressing into a baking dish. Dot with the remaining 1/2 cup butter.  Bake at 350 until brown and bubbly--approximately 35-45  minutes.

How to Smoke a Turkey on a Weber Kettle Grill

OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGodohmyGod, Look What I Did!! Seriously, I did that. And I maybe cried a few happy tears when I saw that bronze lacquered skin, and heard the meat thermometer beep as it reached 160 degrees.

This post should be called "The Smoked Turkey Experiment," because I essentially read a few vague web pages, threw this big boy in the Weber kettle, chugged a few glasses of wine to take the edge off my fretting, and hoped that instinct and the aforementioned meat thermometer would see me through. (The thermometer is amazing, FYI--it has a pager that goes off when the desired temp. is reached. Drunk grilling just got a whole lot easier.) Hypothesis: If you can start a charcoal grill, you can smoke a turkey. Conclusion: Affirmed.

Let the record show, I have never even roasted a turkey. I've never really roasted anything--when your parents keep your spoiled ass set up with kitchen gadgets like a countertop rotisserie, you don't roast, you rotisserize. If I can pull this off, anyone can, and should.

The smoked turkey had a beautiful, flavorful skin and the meat had a juicy texture that was tender, not chewy. Mr. Luz carved the bird, and he kept sort of giggling and mumbling " tender...falling off the bone..." And it was so smooth, rich, and smokey in flavor. Later, after a few bottles of wine, Mr. Luz called it 1.) the best turkey he'd ever tasted and 2.) in the top 5 best tasting meats he'd ever had. (When asked to do impressions, a wine-soaked Mr. Luz did: Mama BaCon--"I got you some tupperware, and it fits the whole universe." Papa BaCon--"The Hunley is a magnificent watercraft, simply stunning." Me: "F*** you, you f****** b****." He doesn't remember doing them, but they were pretty accurate.)


1. If using a brine, thaw your turkey at least 32 hours before you cook it. Once thawed, prepare the brine and soak your turkey for 24 hours plus. This Serious Eats Food Lab article is the best I've read on how and why you brine a turkey. Before smoking, thoroughly rinse your turkey in cold water. *NOTE: I didn't get the turkey in time to brine it, and it was still fantastic, but brining would take it to the next level. *

2. If not brining, thaw your turkey in the fridge for two days, or use the cold-water method just before smoking. (Soak in cold water, in the packaging, changing the water ever 30 minutes. It takes approximately 30 minutes per pound.)

3. Soak 3-4 handfuls of mesquite wood chips in water. 1 hour minimum for chips, 4+ hours for large knots of wood.

3. Once the turkey has thawed, remove giblets/neck from turkey and rinse inside and out. Pat dry. If your turkey is 16+ lbs. you might want to cut the entire turkey in half at this time. Yes, this is the cheater way to do it, but you'll avoid black turkey skin, and you won't fret/gulp wine for 8+ hours, wondering if the damned thing is even cooking.

4. Prepare 1 chimney of hot charcoal. Place a pan of liquid on the center of your bottom grate (water, wine, beer, broth, ect.) and spread the hot coals around it. Add 5-7 cold coals to the hot coals. Put the 3/4 of the soaked wood chips on top of the hot coals, open the bottom and top vents on the grill, and close the lid.

5. Cover your turkey inside and out with olive oil/melted butter and salt, pepper, dried thyme, and cayenne pepper. Put the turkey on the grill grate, breast side up, placing the turkey directly over the liquid-filled drip pan. (If you cut your turkey in half, put the meat facing up and the bones facing down.)

6. Every hour, quickly check your coals and baste your bird with more butter/olive oil. Halfway through smoking, prepare another chimney of hot coals and add it to your Weber grill, along with the last 1/4 of the wood chips. Your bird will generally need 30 minutes per pound to cook, and if you cut it in half then count the time based on the weight of 1/2 the turkey. Every time you open the lid, you increase your cooking time so do it sparingly. Trust me, it's cooking.

7. When a meat thermometer inserted in the breast but not touching the bone (ESSENTIAL) reaches 160 degrees, your bird is done and safe to eat. Carefully remove it from the grill, let it rest at least 15 minutes, carve, and

Merry Christmas To All, with Snickerdoodles

Ok, really, Merry Christmas this time.

It's 1pm on Christmas Eve, and I'm just about to leave work to go watch Harry Potter, eat snickerdoodles, and sleep on my couch until Mr. Luz gets home.

After that, we will get gussied up and go eat lots of confit'ed meats and cheese at Bistrot Lepic's Christmas Eve dinner. I supremely hope that the restaurant is decorated with pine garlands, red velvet bows, and candles. I don't know...that's just how I picture a romantic, grown-up Christmas dinner, just me and my man. (In my head, I'm also wearing the most amazing mile-high purple stilettos amidst the pine garland. Just so you get a complete picture.)

Also, because I know you're wondering, here's the etymology of "gussied up": it's a fairly modern term, and "Gussy" or "Gussie" was originally applied to an effeminate or weak person. British or Australian in origin.

I'm very, very excited for our grown-up Christmas. How will you celebrate the holidays this year?

Snickerdoodle Recipe, from

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. white sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cream together butter, shortening, 1 1/2 cups sugar, the eggs and the vanilla. Blend in the flour, cream of tartar, soda and salt.

Shape dough by rounded spoonfuls into balls. Mix the 2 tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon. Roll balls of dough in mixture.

Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 8 minutes, or until barely set. Let cool a bit, then remove from cookie sheets to cool

Gingerbread Rowhouses & A Very Daring Bakers Christmas

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Joyous New Year to you, dear readers and ravenous eaters!

Mr. Luz and I are having our very first grownup Christmas, just the two of us and Foxy, this year. I'm so very excited that I'm not getting on a plane and leaving my Christmas tree behind this December! And as we're snuggling on the couch by the glow of our tree this Christmas, I will be thinking of you guys, and I'll feeling very thankful for all of the friends I've come to know or gotten closer to thanks to the blog.

This month's Daring Bakers challenge was, of course, a gingerbread house! I made a gingerbread version of our row house and our neighbors, Val and Lauren's, rowhouse. The whole process was really fun and not as difficult as I was expecting. Apparently, royal icing fixes a multitude of sins.

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

Anna's Recipe: Spicy Gingerbread Dough (from Good Housekeeping)

2 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream or whipping cream
1 1/4 cups molasses
9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbs. baking soda
1 Tbs. ground ginger

1. In very large bowl, with wire whisk (or with an electric mixer), beat brown sugar, cream, and molasses until sugar lumps dissolve and mixture is smooth. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and ginger. With spoon, stir flour mixture into cream mixture in 3 additions until dough is too stiff to stir, then knead with hands until flour is incorporated and dough is smooth.*At this time, the dough was a little dry. I added more milk Tbs. by Tbs. until it held together.*

2. Divide dough into 4 equal portions; flatten each into a disk to speed chilling. Wrap each disk well with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, until dough is firm enough to roll.

3. Grease and flour large cookie sheets (17-inch by 14-inch/43x36cm)

4. Roll out dough, 1 disk at a time on each cookie sheet to about 3/16-inch thickness. (Placing 3/16-inch dowels or rulers on either side of dough to use as a guide will help roll dough to uniform thickness.) *Rolling out gingerbread dough is a Great workout, FYI*

Cutting out my template, using a book from my Feminist Theory class in undergrad so I can conceptualize my lil' rowhouses AND get some education at the same time.

5. Trim excess dough from cookie sheet; wrap and reserve in refrigerator. Chill rolled dough on cookie sheet in refrigerator or freezer at least 10 minutes or until firm enough to cut easily.

6. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

7. Use chilled rolled dough, floured poster board patterns, and sharp paring knife to cut all house pieces on cookie sheet, making sure to leave at least 1 1/4 inches between pieces because dough will expand slightly during baking. Wrap and reserve trimmings in refrigerator. Combine and use trimmings as necessary to complete house and other decorative pieces. Cut and bake large pieces and small pieces separately.

8. Chill for 10 minutes before baking if the dough seems really soft after you cut it. This will discourage too much spreading/warping.

9. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until pieces are firm to the touch. Do not overbake.

Complete template & obligatory DB glass(es) of wine (with extra roof for 3rd rowhouse I gave up on after baking for 4 hours)

10. Remove cookie sheet from oven. While house pieces are still warm, place poster-board patterns on top and use them as guides to trim shapes to match if necessary. Cool pieces completely before attempting to assemble the house.

Assembling the House:

Decorate your pieces with piped and painted royal icing and edible decorations--Recipe Below--before assembling your house.

To "paint" your gingerbread like I did, put a moderate amount of royal icing in a small bowl, add 1 Tbs. of water and add food coloring to get the desired color. Paint on with a paintbrush.

To create caramel windows, put your gingerbread pieces with the windows cut out on a silpat or parchment paper covered with non-stick cooking spray. Mix 1 cup of sugar and 1 Tbs. of water in a heavy-bottomed pan. Bring sugar mixture to medium-high heat and as sugar begins to melt, slowly stir unmelted sugar into the melted sugar. Once it's mostly incorporated, stop stirring and instead gently shake the pan to even out the heat distribution and stir the mixture. (If you stir it, you'll get little bubbles throughout your caramel mixture and your windows will be too opaque.)

When a small bit of caramel dropped into a glass of water forms a "hard ball" you're ready to pour your mixture into your window cutouts. Let the caramel cool until it's hard and easily releases from the parchment paper/silpat. *Note: If you choose to light your gingerbread house with corded vs. battery operated Christmas lights, tape them to your base to keep them from knocking your gingerbread walls around, and cut a small notch in your gingerbread piece to accommodate the wire.*

Once your decorated pieces have dried, carefully assemble them using tension and various household items to keep them standing while they dry. IF you make a dual or triple row house, be sure to include an inside wall between the rowhouses so that your roof doesn't collapse.

My house with supplies in the background. I read that the 100 calorie pack Oreo snacks made great shingles, and they did! Adorable, and a fun shape to work with.
Complete Gingerbread Rowhouses, with Happy Holidays cookie-message on top.
Royal Icing Recipe:

3 egg whites
1/2 Tbs. cream of tartar
4 cups powdered sugar

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar till fluffy. Add powdered sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until incorporated. Your mixture should be stiff and slightly cement-like. Use immediately and cover any unused portions with a damp cloth until you're ready to work with it.

Foxy, looking frightened of the GIANT bag of flour I had to buy for this challenge

Snowed In! Famous Barr's French Onion Soup Recipe

Famous Barr's french onion soup is renowned in St. Louis, and for good reason. My parents' generation would line up at the old department store's restaurant just to get a bowl after a day of window shopping. My generation has grown up hearing about the soup, and I was lucky enough to have a mom with the recipe and the patience to make it. Mama BaCon sent me this recipe years ago, and I love making it as much as I love eating it--your house smells so amazing as the onions simmer in pure sweet butter for 1 1/2 hours (yeeessss!!!).

My craving for Famous Barr's french onion soup was so strong this weekend that Mr. Luz went out in 17 inches of snow to pick up the necessities for the recipe. (Truth be told, we were out of beer and wine and the Saints were playing that night, so he had to go out anyway.) After he'd dug the truck out of the alley and mentally prepared to slide his way to the Safeway, Mr. Luz peeked his head in the front door and asked "What do you need for the recipe?" My reply-"Cheese, bread, 5 lbs. of onions, and 7 large cans of beef stock." This is truly the stuff of dreams, people.

I'll post the recipe exactly as it was originally published, with my tips and comments at the end (I've read that the St. Louis Post Dispatch published the recipe some time ago, but Mama BaCon got a copy when she bought these adorable Scandinavian-inspired soup crocks from the department store before it closed.)

This is what 5 lbs. of onions, peeled & sliced, looks like before the 90 minute saute in butter
This is what 5 lbs. of onions looks like after a 90 minute saute in butter. Nom. Nom. Nom.
Famous Barr's French Onion Soup Recipe:

5 lbs onions, unpeeled
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbs. paprika
1 bay leaf
7 (16 oz.) cans beef broth, divided
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour or instant flour
Caramel coloring (optional) or Kitchen Bouquet (optional)
2 tsp. salt
French baguettes (optional)
Swiss cheese (optional) or gruyere cheese (optional)

1. Peel onions and slice 1/8 inch thick, preferably in a food processor.
2. Melt butter in a 6-quart (or larger) stockpot. Add onions; cook, uncovered, over low heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
3. Stir in pepper, paprika and bay leaf; saute over low heat 10 minutes more, stirring frequently. 4. Pour in 6 cans broth and wine. Increase heat and bring to a boil.
5. Dissolve flour in remaining 1 can broth.
6. Stir into boiling soup.
7. Reduce heat and simmer slowly for 2 hours.
8. Adjust color to a rich brown with caramel coloring, season with salt. Refrigerate overnight. To serve, heat soup in microwave or on stove top.
9. If desired, pour into ovenproof crocks or bowls.
10. Top with a slice of bread and a sprinkling of grated cheese. Heat under the broiler until cheese melts and bubbles, about 5 minutes.
11. Leftover soup can be frozen.This recipe makes about 1 gallon of soup.

Tips and Tricks:
  • I have to split my recipe into two pots to add the correct amount of broth. After the 2 hour simmer, I can usually put them back together.
  • I increase the salt a bit, and add some cayenne pepper and extra black pepper for the tiniest bit of zip.
  • Don't skip or skimp on the paprika. Besides the caramelized onions, it's what makes this recipe.
  • This recipe says that the cheese and bread are optional. They are NOT optional.
  • Rather than putting the whole bowl of soup under the broiler, I make cheese toast in the broiler or toaster oven to float on top. No burnt paws that way.
  • I also slice the edges of the french bread pieces so that you can easily separate one bite of cheese bread with your spoon. If you don't slice the edges, you can sit there hacking away at the chewy french bread crust with an ineffectual lil' spoon forever.
  • "Kitchen Bouquet"...tee hee.

Spicy Cioppino Recipe with Fennel and Herbs

Two weeks ago, Mr. Luz and I had the pleasure of cozying up for the weekend in beautiful Berkeley Springs, West Virginia with two of our favorite people.

We laughed alot, ate alot, and didn't change out of our pajamas at all on Saturday. It was preeettty fantastic, and just what we needed.

Whenever we go to WV, I like to cook something super-tasty as a "Thank You" to Rick and Kate, our hosts, for inviting us to their perfect get-a-way.

This time I decided to make cioppino, a tomato-based seafood stew, because it's tangy, rich, and so filling. My favorite part of the cioppino is the fennel--it adds a freshness to every bite and nicely complements the the tomato and seafood flavors without overpowering the dish.

I especially like this recipe because blending the base adds flavor while letting the seafood really steal the show-presentation-wise. And you can make the base ahead of time and then throw in the seafood right before you serve it for maximum freshness. It seems like a daunting list of ingredients and steps, but everything cooks quickly and provides great flavor. To speed up the process, you can skip the blending step and just let your cioppino be chunky, and you throw the fish into the pot to cook with the rest of the seafood, but it will fall apart once you start stirring it up with those mussel shells.

Requisite Cute Foxy Shot.....
Cioppino--Tomato and Fennel Seafood Stew Recipe

3 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 cans of diced tomatoes in juice
1 bunch fresh basil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 large fresh parsley sprigs
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 cups shrimp stock
1 cup clam stock

1 lb. mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 lb. large uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 1/2 lb. firm fish, cut into 2 inch chunks
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 large fennel bulb, thin sliced
2 cups white wine
3 Tbs. flour
2 Tbs. butter
Salt and Pepper to taste

To make the base:

Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onion and garlic and saute until cooked. Stir in tomato paste and saute, stirring frequently, until slightly browned. Add the tomatoes, herbs, and shrimp and clam stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour, uncovered.

Allow the base to slightly cool. Remove bay leaf and any remaining thyme and parsley ribs. Add the base to a blender and blend to a thick, slightly chunky soup.

To make the stew:

Bring the blended base to a simmer. Add the wine, chopped parsley, and fennel and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.

Rinse and pat dry the fish cubes. Dredge the fish in flour with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a large, shallow pan over medium heat. Add the fish to the pan and cook, stirring gently, until browned.

Add mussels and shrimp to the stew base, cover, and cook until the mussels are open and the shrimp are done. 5-7 minutes. To serve, put the fish in the bottom of a bowl and cover with the stew.

Mr. Luz doesn't hold back with his handmade Sourdough breadbowl...

Louisiana in Two Parts: What's Happiness All About?

Two conclusions from recent studies strike me as...well...interesting.

Conclusion #1: Louisiana ranks as the worst state in the U.S. for overall quality of life.
Conclusion #2: Louisiana ranks as the "Happiest State" in the U.S.

Methodology aside, both conclusions have merit. Louisiana is a corrupt state, sometimes unabashedly and unapologetically so. That leads to insufficient infrastructure--poor schools, a lack of funds for important government programs as money gets shoveled to cronies and cousins rather than to the public where it belongs, and businesses left to fend for themselves in a state with few exports. People talk trash about New Orleans, but the corruption is everywhere. Just do a quick google search of the scandals surrounding the Louisiana Public Service Commission, and you'll see that in Baton Rouge "who you know" means so much more than "what you know."

But Louisiana is also a state where people have fought to maintain a highly satisfying way of life that's counter to the fast-paced, million-dollar-paycheck culture we've come to accept in the rest of the U.S. In Louisiana, food, family, and community are generally prioritized over money and prestige (unless you're in govt., of course). People look out for and genuinely enjoy one another, and the hours are marked by Abita beers consumed, stories told, and the number of friends who stop by. It's a place where you're well-regarded so long as you're just being yourself--the local heroes are the folks who are the kookiest and also the most comfortable with their eccentricities. (See Granny Cart Lady to the left. She attended Tulane classes...and got kicked out of Tulane classes...on and off and would show up at many a Mardi Gras parade. R.I.P. GCL)

It's impossible to be alone in New Orleans...even and especially after a Category 5 hurricane comes knocking down your door. Everyone is your friend, and every day is a special occasion to be celebrated.

I can come up with a handful of hypothesis that explain these seemingly incongruous conclusions, but each of them would oversimplify the deep memory and collective soul of a place as diverse and storied as New Orleans. Instead, I'll just think about the following: Residents of New Orleans and the inhabitants of Louisiana in general largely came to the state with their own unique culture and history, and settled there as a place of last resort. Over time they have struggled together to thrive, rather than just survive, in an inhospitable place prone to swampy conditions, hurricanes, and the rampant abuses of the oldest Good Ole' Boy network in the U.S. And together, they have come to conclude--among many, many other things--that every day is a gift to be shared with loved ones and enjoyed, rather than wasted on 15-hour work days and superficial pursuits. They have created their own happiness out dire circumstances. In sum, we could all learn something about happiness from the bunch of drunken, garrulous 'yats that I'm proud to call my

Christmas Memories

The first thing that my mom ever sat me down and taught me was how to decorate a Christmas tree.

She went through, step by step, and told me how to add the lights without showing too much of the wire, and how to make sure that the tree was evenly lit. She spread out all of the ornaments on the coffee table, and we chose where each one would go. Some were large, and needed alot of space to hang. Some looked best hung in front or behind a light bulb. And of course, the smallest and lightest ones go on top. Together we stepped back from the tree to see if there were any blank spots in need of an ornament, a candle, or some ribbon. Decorating the tree was a process, a project, and when we were done I was so proud of our creation, and felt so lucky that she trusted me with our beautiful family tree.

I miss you Mama BaCon. Thanks for all of the wonderful memories, and for teaching me about the important things in life.

Wild Mushroom Risotto Recipe and Eff-You, 2009

Like most food bloggers, I've been a total slacker this holiday season. I've continued cooking and baking like a mad woman, but I've fallen off on blogging, mainly because of what I'll call The Macro Effect.

The Macro Effect is the term I came up with to describe the hyper-styled, "perfection in a food photo" approach that magazines, cookbooks, and now food blogs take to recipe sharing (and named after the setting on my camera that conveniently allows me to zoom in on the pristine image of the food and shut out all of the dusty crap and empty wine bottles in my dining room). If I'm being honest, my blogging declines when I'm busy thanks to the Macro Effect, because I don't have enough light/time/creativity to take the food photos that I want to for my posts. Sure, I dream of book deals, but I blog to express myself and connect with people who share my passions, so I shouldn't let the Macro Effect keep me from posting. (Also, I wouldn't trade places with Julie Powell for a second. Nora Ephron and Amy Adams?! Are you kidding me?!)

Folks who write about these things hypothesize that the Macro Effect has caused food blogs to become more commercial to their detriment. The argument is that we get enough glossy perfection every time we turn on the TV. Food blogs should allow people to connect on a real and personal level about real life and real food, rather than simply tossing around recipes and cutesy, sterilized anecdotes while painting a reality where people eat on adorable china with a fresh-picked bunch of yellow daisies "casually tossed" next to their tomato bisque every day. Food bloggers keep a majority of their stresses--illness, heartbreak, or just run-of-the-mill disappointment--out of their blogs. The internal reasoning goes something like this: Journalists don't talk about their messy divorce in an article on seasonal preparations of spaghetti squash, so I should keep my personal life private as well. But again, the argument goes, food bloggers shouldn't hide behind their commercial aims because part of what they "sell" is the experience of being human, and all the emotions and difficulties that go along with that.

I can understand their criticism, though I'm not entirely ready to give up my cutesy anecdotes and my serving plates sourced from Salvation Armys far and wide. However, as penance for me letting the Macro Effect keep me from posting, and posting honestly, I will: post an ugly photo (see above) for my Wild Mushroom Risotto with Manchego Cheese recipe (see below) and tell you, readers, that it has been sort of a shit year, emotionally, here at BaCon. In the grand scheme of things, I am very blessed. I have a close, happy family that is made up of some of my favorite people on the planet, a great job, and an understanding and deeply passionate partner who loves me for all of my imperfections rather than in spite of them. I have also lost two very close friends in the past 4 months--they haven't passed away, there has just been a decision to "part ways," and it's been very difficult for me. I know it seems silly, but here are 2 people who know me better than anyone, and in the past 120 days they've both decided after years of friendship to give me up in one way or another. And although I'm very blessed, all of that doesn't keep me from feeling sad, hurt, and sometimes angry about how everything has worked out.

I'm hoping reconciliation is possible with one of them. But I didn't want to just write about the reconciliation, citing peace and the magic of forgiveness and all that, after the fact and without the mess. Because that would just be soo Macro Effect, wouldn't it? So, here's the mess. I'm a lucky, lucky girl who sometimes feels very lost, and who maybe has done something to drive her two best friends away in completely separate instances. Or maybe they weren't really my best friends. Or maybe they were, and relationships just change. And maybe I can be close with one of them again, some day.

And for bearing with me through all of this, here's a yummy, creamy and rich (vegetarian!) Mushroom Risotto recipe for you. Thanks for listening.

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Manchego and Parsley:

8 cups mushroom or vegetable broth
1 oz. dried wild mushrooms, reconstituted with 1 cup hot water & chopped
1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 lb. portabella mushrooms, gills removed and chopped small (or 1lb. baby bellas, chopped)
2 bay leaves
2 Tbs. fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 tsp. Cinnamon
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup Manchego cheese, chopped

Bring broth to a simmer. In a deep skillet or heavy bottomed pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent. Add the portabellas and cinnamon, salt and pepper, and saute until browned. Add rice and reconstituted mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Don't let the rice brown. Pour in wine and cook until almost completely absorbed.

Add about 3 cups of warmed broth into rice and cook, stirring often and vigorously, until it's all absorbed. Add 2 cups and repeat. Add fresh herbs. Repeat broth/stirring steps, adding 1 cup of broth at a time until rice is tender and the sauce is very creamy. (This takes awhile. Grab a glass of wine and call me to talk about what's stressing YOU out. I owe you.)

Stir in cheese and continue cooking until melted. Serve

Pure Hedonism: Bistrot Du Coin's Beaujolais Nouveau Release 2009

I pulled on my gold lamé top, wiggled into my black tights, and asked Mr. Luz, "are the heels on these shoes too high for a night of drinking and dancing?" on a typical Wednesday night, just like any other in D.C. Ok, if you insert "red velour tracksuit" for the gold top and tights, and change the quote to "How many Top Chef episodes do we have to watch to catch up before tonight's show?," then that would be the case. In reality, I was preparing to celebrate the most glorious of holidays in D.C....Beaujolais Nouveau Release Day.

On the third Thursday of November, France releases its most recent Beaujolais Nouveau wine vintage, (made from Gamay grapes grown and handpicked in the Beaujolais region of France) creating a festival-like atmosphere around the release and a virtual "race" to be the first to enjoy that year's harvest. It is rumored that by the time all of the Beaujolais Release events around the world have handed out their last bottle and swept their last revelers out the door, over half of the region's annual production (65 million bottles, ya'll) has been imbibed.

Of course, this is just a bit of brilliant marketing on behalf of the wily French. Except for exceptional vintages, Beaujolais Nouveau is not meant to be aged. It's a fruity, floral, light-bodied wine for quaffing within 9 months of bottling, so the French create a stir around the release to promote the early enjoyment of its baby wine. I'm happy to say that I enjoyed this year's Beaujolais Nouveau early and often at this year's Release Party at Bistrot Du Coin in D.C. You're welcome, France.

My hedonistic pursuits on the night of the Beaujolais Release Party did not stop with the black ankle strap 4 inch heels and plasticy metallic apparel. From there it snowballed into a cholesterol-laden feast, with Bistrot Du Coin's velvety chicken livers, luscious veal sweetbreads and cream sauce in a puff pastry, brothy mussels, crispy frites, and a big skillet of dark and rich lamb stew. After dinner and because we could only squeeze our party of 10 into the 7pm seating, we were forced to drink too much champagne and be merry until the actual Release at midnight. (Reservations for BdC's Beaujolais Release Party are slim, and good luck trying to get in as a mere drinker/dancer after the restaurant hits its fire-code capacity.) With the champagne came the dancing as diners cleared the floor, waiters cleared their tables to the far edges of a previously quaint restaurant, and the disco ball and club lights came up. And finally, as the bartenders began handing out plastic cups and free bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau at midnight, with the wine came dancing on the bar and (don't you wish you knew what was in this parenthesis?)

So maybe I'm not going to spill all my secrets, but suffice it to say that no one escaped BdC's Beaujolais Nouveau Release Party without doing something embarrassing, wearing purple wine-stained clothes, and giggling into a plastic cup of Beaujolais Nouveau. And I'm already counting down the days till the next third Thursday in November. France, you are

In Other News...

I'm right smack in the middle of our Holiday/Wedding Travel Marathon (On the agenda: VA-MO-WV-KY-CA-WV-FL-LA-MO-LA in 6 months). That means that we're indulging in alot of fast/frozen food. And cooking, when it happens, has become a bit of a resentment as it's sandwiched between packing, cleaning, and crying into Foxy's sweet, sweet fur as I say goodbye for the 30th road trip. I promise that over Christmas, while I'm cozied up in my apartment with Mr. Luz and Fwaf and not going anywhere, I will post more wintry soups, casseroles, and braised meats than you can even imagine. You'll hate me come March when it's time to diet, I promise.

In the meantime, here are some Food News Headlines from this week with a little BaCon twist.

Critics Say UN Food Summit Wasteful, Ineffective
Quote from the International Committee of Concerned Mothers: “There are starving children in China who would kill for those caucuses”

Food Fight: Sarah Palin Ticks Off Vegetarians and Vegans in her New Book, 'Going Rogue'
Handlers say that now the only people who are not pissed off at the idiocy of Sarah Palin are Rush Limbaugh and...Sarah Palin.

Burger King Franchisees: Management's Ideas 'Ill-conceived'
Franchisees say that new burger promotions vomit cash, cause major headaches, and make future agreements hard to swallow.

And in other Burger King news.....

Whoppers Tame Tigers for 2nd Win
Tigers say they are vegetarians. And pissed off at Sarah

Celebrate Halloween With a Spooky Good Menu!

Yes, I'm lame. I had a huge table full of food at our Halloween shindig, and I took nary a picture. BUT I have a good excuse. There was a keg of really, really good beer (Magic Hat #9) on ice in our backyard. And when the question is: Food blogging or Yummy Beer, well, you can guess which one wins every time.

But I am posting the menu, sans photos, with the recipes I have. I'll solicit the remaining recipes as we go:

BBQ Pulled Pork Sliders
Jen K's Famous Empanadas (need recipe)
WJLauren's Goat Cheese Stuffed Dates (need recipe)
Apple Cider Doughnuts
Val's Spiderweb Cupcakes
Jen K's Chocolate Coconut Cookies (need recipe)
Butterscotch & Dark Chocolate Dipped Candy-Coated Pretzels

Celebrate Friends & Fall w/this Halloween Menu:

BBQ Pulled Pork Sliders
Have your guests build their own, so you don't have to! Serves approx. 25-30 "sliders"

1 recipe of BBQ Pulled Pork
30 dinner rolls of your choice, sliced like small hamburger buns
1 jar of small, round-cut Pickles, drained
1 Onion, thin sliced
3 Cups creamy coleslaw

Put the pulled pork in a crockpot set on warm with a small serving spoon or tongs. Set the buns, pickles, coleslaw, and onion around the crockpot and let your guests put together their own pulled pork sliders.

Apple Cider Doughnuts from Real Mom Kitchen & A Bowl of Mush
These cakey doughnuts are a huge hit in the Northeast, especially during apple-picking season. The cider is subtle and yummy, and I add a little nutmeg to the cinnamon sugar dusting for some extra zing.

1 Cup apple cider
1 Cup sugar
1/4 Cup of butter (softened)
2 large eggs
1/2 Cup buttermilk
3 1/2 Cups unbleached white flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
oil for frying
1 cup cinnamon-sugar (pinch of nutmeg) for coating fried doughnuts

Boil cider until it reduces to 1/4 cup, allow it to cool completely.

Mix 3 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg in a bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, and mix until blended. Add buttermilk and reduced cider, blend until incorporated. Add flour mixture gradually, until just incorporated. Turn dough out on a well floured board, knead it a few times to make sure ingredients are well-mixed.

Pat or roll into a 1/2 inch thick circle. Using a 3" round cutter (or doughnut cutter), cut as many circles as you can. Cut smaller hole in center. Set aside centers to make doughnut holes, or collect them along with dough around the larger circles, form a ball, flatten to 1/2 inch and repeat the cutting of doughnuts. Heat appox 3 inches of oil in a high-sided pan or dutch oven. When oil is hot, place as many doughnuts/holes as will fit into pan without crowding them. Allow the doughnuts to brown, then turn them over and brown the other side. Remove them from the oil and set them on a paper towel. When all of the doughnuts are fried but still warm, coat them in the cinnamon sugar mixture and serve.

Simple, Spooky Spiderweb Cupcakes
The trick to these cupcakes is in the decorating. Simply make your favorite cupcakes, top with chocolate fudge icing and follow these simple directions for a cool, graphic cupcake design:
  • Fill a re-sealable plastic bag with a couple of heaping spoonfuls of white frosting and snip a tiny hole out of the bottom of one corner.
  • Pipe on three circles of white frosting for each cookie. Start in the middle with the smallest circle and work your way out.
  • Take a toothpick and beginning in the center, drag it lightly through each circle. Repeat all the way around the cookie.

Dark Chocolate & Butterscotch Dipped Candy-Coated Pretzels

I maybe only made these because I was craving butterscotch, but they were fun to make and everyone thought I bought them at a specialty candy store. Get yourself some extra Martha Stewart points and make some for your next party.

1 regular bag of the large pretzel rods
1 small bag of dark chocolate chips
1 small bag of butterscotch chips
Chocolate sprinkles
1 box of Reese's Pieces, crushed-the dustier the better, actually

For chocolate dipped pretzels: Fill a tall pint-sized water glass halfway with chocolate chips. Melt in the microwave for 40 seconds, then stir. Continue microwaving for 20 seconds and stirring until everything is melted. Swirl the pretzel rod in the chocolate, up and down the sides of the glass, until half of the pretzel is coated in a thin layer of chocolate.

Over a separate plate, sprinkle the crushed candies over the chocolate. Prop the finished pretzels in a deep baking dish on the ledge so that only the very bottom of the chocolate-dipped-side touches the baking dish and the undipped side is resting on the ledge. Freeze until firm and serve.

For butterscotch dipped pretzels: Use the same technique as above, but sprinkle with chocolate sprinkles instead of candies. (The butterscotch will be very sweet, so it doesn't need more candy added to it)

A Villain & A Victim: Halloween 2009

Mr. Luz and I hosted our First Annual K Street Halloween Party this weekend, and we had the absolute best time. Last Halloween was our first big night out in D.C. after we moved here, and it's really amazing how different things are one year later. We've found a fun-loving, supportive gaggle of friends, and it was great to get all of them together to mingle and celebrate Halloween.

Mr. Luz and I spent some time and creative energy on our costumes, so I thought I'd post them here. (NOTE: Mr. Luz has a tendency to be somewhat shocking on Halloween--it takes the party to a whole new level, and I love it. That said, his costume may be a bit....shocking.)

Here's what we were going for:
Poison Ivy from Batman and Lady Gaga (pop singer/spectacle extraordinaire. She's fantastic)

Here's where we ended up...10 hours of costume-making and one trip to Michaels later. My cape was awesome, but also inconvenient in a crowded party
Here's where it gets shocking--Lady Gaga at the Video Music Awards and....
....Mr. Luz at the dance club. The resemblance is uncanny, no? I love this man.

Annual Pop-Culture Reference Straight Ahead

Yes, I love pop culture....I fell in love in law school because I didn't want to be challenged by non-law school things like music, literature, and TV. And it's just soooo easy and cozy that I've had a hard time getting back into any sort of media with actual educational value. Lucky for you, dear readers, I've avoided making pop culture references on the blog until today. It's Halloween, and in DC that means everything is about dead stuff, bats, politics, and pop culture until November 1st. So I feel justified in saying:

1. Kevin's total dominance on Top Chef reinforces I've been saying all along...never underestimate the power or pork fat.

2. This Halloween is going to be the best yet. I'm going as Poison Ivy from the Batman comic books/movies/animated series. Mr. Luz is going as Lady Gaga at the MTV Video Music Awards, and I'm making a double batch of BBQ pulled pork. All is right with the world.

Daring Bakers: Doubting My Status Over French Macarons

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

The Daring Baker's challenge this month, French Macarons, caused me to question myself, given the semantics of our fancy lil' baking/blogger group. "Daring"--okay, that one's fairly obvious. Are you daring? Do you want to be daring? I'm in the latter group. It's the second part I'm having a problem with. "Baker." This month's challenge made it all to clear that daring as I may be, I am no baker.

Normally I can fudge it, but these fussy little sugar bombs require about 20 minutes of real work, and (in my non-baker experience) about 5 hours of waiting, cussing, and general crabbiness. Along with patience, I also lack: a kitchen larger than a bathroom; more than one cookie sheet, an oven that cooks at the temperature you set it at. None of this matters when I'm cooking, but it makes all the difference when you're making cookies that are more temperamental than my sister, BaCon Bit, in her teenage years. I'm no baker and these cookies spent 5 hours and 20 minutes reminding me of that fact on one dark and stormy Sunday.

That said, they are freaking adorable. And they are crispy, and chewy, and versatile enough to make in all of your favorite flavor combinations. I chose to do a simple lemon cookie (adding lemon zest I'd dried in the oven to the almond flour when I ground it with my Salvation Army food processor) and a goat cheese buttercream (that I made in my Salvation Army Kitchenaid stand mixer). I'd make batches and batches to share if I could get more than 10 cookies off of the "non-stick" silicon mat I bought for this challenge--which cost as much as the SalVay food processor--without them completely disintegrating. Alas, I am no baker.

An adaptation of Claudia Fleming’s Macaron Recipe

2 ¼ cups (225 g, 8 oz.) Icing/Confectioner's/Powdered Sugar
2 cups (190 g, 6.7 oz.) Almond Flour (ground in your food processor to make your cookies silky)
2 Tbs. (25 g , .88 oz.) Granulated Sugar (I added 1/2 Tbs. since I heard it stabilizes the egg whites)
5 Egg Whites at room temperature (Google "aging egg whites" and use those if possible)


1. Preheat the oven to 200°F (93°C). Combine the confectioners’ sugar and almond flour in a medium bowl. If grinding your own nuts, combine nuts and a cup of confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor and grind until nuts are very fine and powdery.

2. Beat the egg whites in the clean dry bowl of a stand mixer until they hold soft peaks. Slowly add the granulated sugar and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks.

3. Sift a third of the almond flour mixture into the meringue and fold gently to combine. (40-50 strokes total!! Make your first two or three strokes "fast" but not "hard" to combine the flour). If you are planning on adding zest or other flavorings to the batter, now is the time. Sift in the remaining almond flour in two batches. Be gentle! Don’t overfold, but fully incorporate your ingredients.

4. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain half-inch tip. (HATE the pastry bag!!) You can also use a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off. It’s easiest to fill your bag if you stand it up in a tall glass and fold the top down before spooning in the batter.

5. Pipe one-inch-sized (2.5 cm) mounds of batter onto baking sheets lined with nonstick liners or parchment paper. (Pipe as if you were doing a "dollop." Just put the tip close to the cookie sheet and pipe a sphere, don't make a circle and then "fill it in" or your cookies will be all air.)

6. Bake the macaroon for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and raise the temperature to 375°F (190°C). (This is to dry your macarons so they puff up to create the highly coveted "feet". I have a crappy oven so I just dried them on the counter for 40 min before baking.) Once the oven is up to temperature, put the pans back in the oven and bake for an additional 7 to 8 minutes, or lightly colored.

7. Cool on a rack before filling.

Yield: 4 dozen.

Happiness Is...Bacon Bloody Marys

Sticky Rice on H Street SE in D.C. will serve you your very own pitcher of bloody marys if you're lucky enough to catch their brunch menu.

And if you ask nicely, they'll throw in 3 pieces of crispy, crunchy bacon that you can eat right away (tempting) OR you can sink them in your gallon of bloody mary so it becomes little slabs of chewy-spicy-tomato-porky-insanity.

NOTE: I grew up in the Midwest where I was a waitress/college student. I spent the past 3 years dealing with law-school-stress and bar-exam-stress in New Orleans, and now I'm a lawyer. In sum, I can drink. This pitcher o' love put me under. Luckily, I enjoyed mine during the H Street Festival, where dancing in the streets was encouraged. Good luck with yours and don't say I didn't warn

Happiness is....Zingerman's Bacon Bread!

I'm willing to speculate that law school, and all of its attendant procrastination and stress eating, made me the food blogger that I am today. (Thanks, Tulane almost makes up for all 3,456 of the panic attacks you gave me.)

I cooked for friends in law school partly because we were reduced to such a sad existence. My cooking looked amazing when compared to the vending machine options at Weinmann Hall. And when you're terribly miserable, anything given in the spirit of generosity--even an overcooked hamburger--is like a gift from the heavens. People often returned the favor with wine and cookie donations, but no one appreciates my cooking like our good friend, Mr. Jacoby.

During law school, Mr. Jacoby loaded me up with baked goods that he made from fresh and exotic ingredients. I still dream about a loaf of blueberry bread that he brough me--it probably had at least 3 sticks of butter in it, it was so rich! MMmsnorglemmmm. Mr. Jacoby is in Texas now, a mere 1000-something miles from D.C. Even so, he managed to deliver some tasty baked goods recently in the form of Zingerman's Pepper Bacon Farmhouse bread! Zingerman's has a Deli and Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, MI and its full-service bar restaurant, The Roadhouse, has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. They do a booming "mail order" business, which is how I came to experience the glory that is Zingerman's thanks to Mr. Jacoby. (On my Christmas list, their "Guide to Better Bacon" has a bacon fat mayonnaise recipe!) And in my opinion, they make the best bread in the country. What's so special about it?

Short answer: Everything.

The crust is rich and crackling, the inside is dense and chewy. And the black pepper applewood smoked bacon flavor? Aacckkk((09danl;iwer*!!!!! I maybe had it for dinner one night covered in goat cheese. It was so smoky, and salty, and spicy. I mean, its meat bread. How can you go wrong? (FYI, we also had another loaf jam-packed with huge raisins and walnuts, but I ate it before I could take any pictures.) And so, Mr. Jacoby, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you, for being a wonderful friend and my culinary co-counsel, and especially for sending me meat bread. You are my favorite.

Beer Cheese Soup Recipe

It's Autumn in D.C., which means I'm thinking about 3 things...Halloween, comfort food, and watching Saints games in NOLA every Sunday with a bucket of Popeye's chicken. (Ok, 4 things--I'm also thinking about how much I hate the onset of winter in D.C., but it's a bit early to start whining about that now.)

And if you're anything like me, this beer cheese soup recipe will easily satisfy your craving for great comfort/football food. You can serve it with sandwiches and chips at your next NFL-related get together because, duh, it's beer and cheese. It also works as a light dinner with some crusty bread or microwavable soft pretzels and a side salad. The malty beer adds some sweetness and depth to the sharp, tangy cheese, and leeks and carrots are just awesome in general.

And unlike alot of other flavorful soups, this one doesn't have to simmer for hours, so go ahead and make a batch between trips to the store to replenish the Halloween candy that keeps mysteriously disappearing.

Beer Cheese Yummy Recipe

2 Medium Leeks (well rinsed, white and pale green parts only) chopped
3 Medium Carrots, chopped
2 Celery Ribs, chopped
2 tsp. chopped Garlic
2 Bay Leaves
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) Unsalted Butter
1/3 cup Flour
2 cups Whole Milk
2 cups Chicken Broth
2 bottles Sam Adams Red Ale or other malty ale
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Black pepper, cayenne pepper, salt to taste
12 oz. extra-sharp Cheddar
Soft Pretzels (optional)

Melt butter over medium heat in a heavy bottomed soup pot. Cook leeks, carrots, celery, garlic, and bay leaf in butter, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften.
Reduce heat to low and sprinkle flour over vegetables, then cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Add milk, broth, and beer whisking continuously, then simmer, whisking occasionally, 5 minutes but do NOT boil. Stir in Worcestershire sauce, mustard, salt, and pepper.
Remove bay leaf, and carefully blend with either a handheld blender or a counter-top blender until the vegetables are in small pieces and the soup is mostly smooth. Add cheese by handfuls, stirring constantly, and cook until melted, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve hot garnished with sliced green leeks or warm soft pretzels.

St.Louis Good Eats: Acero Restaurant in Maplewood

Bon appetite magazine's September 2008 feature, The Best Italian Food in America, welcomes readers to the "Italian-American renaissance" by highlighting recipes from restaurants across the U.S. that the editors would include on their Italian-American "fantasy menu."

Bon appetite's fantasy menu celebrates the fresh but sophisticated approach that Italian chefs are taking to invigorate rustic old-world flavors for today's more adventurous diners, and lists St. Louis' Acero Restaurant among the best. If national recognition isn't enough to convince you to try Acero's new old-world cuisine, consider their $25 four course tasting menu and the fact that their talented Executive Chef, Adam Gnau, is also great eye candy. (I'm pretty sure Mama and Papa BaCon would bring me to Acero every time I come home, in hopes that Chef Gnau and I would find true love over a plate of Tuscan Anchovies, if they didn't love Mr. Luz so much.)

Acero is part of the Jim Fiala family of restaurants (see also Liluma and The Crossing) and Fiala keeps Acero's food simple yet stunning with the best ingredients and thoughtful flavor combinations. With every bite, I couldn't help but think "This is exactly how this food, each element of this dish, is supposed to taste." Chefs Fiala and Gnau manage to tease the most flavor out of each component of each dish with just a little heat, oils, acids, and seasoning, and the overall effect as enjoyable as it is surprising.

My antipasti of chicken liver mousse on crostini was rich, and buttery, and the crostini was brioche-like in taste and texture--sweet, and dense. I also tried the bruschetta with caramelized onion, blue cheese, and honey and was surprised by how balanced the dish was given all of the sweeter elements. The blue cheese was perfectly acidic, and the onions were more piquant and creamy than sweet.

I ordered one of the specials for my primi, a ricotta and parmesan gnudi with a simple tomato sauce and guanciale, or cured pork cheek. One of my favorite foods of all time is the swiss chard malfatti at Al Di La in Brooklyn, NY, also a gnudi dish, and I'm always on the hunt for something to satisfy my herb and cheese craving when I can't get to NY. Acero's gnudi did not disappoint. The guanciale added a salty savoriness to an otherwise sweet and delicate dish. It's safe to say that I've found my Midwest malfatti. I also tried Acero's Egg Raviolo--a large, thin ravioli filled with herbs, spinach, and soft cheeses, and topped with a farm fresh egg yolk. The pure opaque richness of the soft-boiled egg yolk essentially served as a sauce for the light, sweet pasta and delicately herbed cheeses. If Acero's Egg Raviolo was my last meal on earth (hopefully paired with a dry aged steak and a SuperTuscan of Glenn Bardgett's choosing), I could certainly die happy.

Between courses, Chef Gnau brought us a few fun and interesting dishes as a little lagniappe to our already amazing meal. (Perhaps he was attempting to wooing me with briny and fried things, Mama BaCon?) First, we had white anchovies with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and lemon. I have recently fallen in love with all things anchovy, I'm addicted to their mild sweet, salty funkiness, and this little taste was a nice combination of anchovy with some bright, fresh Summer flavors.
Next came what Chef Gnau jokingly described as meat doughnuts (Wooohoooo!) The simple presentation of thinly shaved prosciutto, deep fried bread beignets, a ripe and golden olive oil, and biting red lava salt was seriously heavenly and appealed to all of the senses at once.
The parade of riches at Acero continued when my secondi course arrived--seared sea scallops with heirloom beans and oyster mushrooms. Acero may take the prize for the perfectly cooked scallop (though I'll take offers for a challenger)--the outside was so crispy, and evenly caramelized while the inside was perfectly succulent and not overcooked. The heirloom beans and mushrooms added grassy, earthy flavors wholly distinct from, but also complementary to, the scallops.

Like all of Jim Fiala's restaurants, Acero is unassuming and friendly despite its superstar status and the utterly confident talent and innovation that characterizes its kitchen. As if I were in an old friend's kitchen after a long and successful dinner party, I finished my meal at Acero with a glass of port, their simple dessert of vanilla gelato covered with a shot of espresso, and happy, drowsy conversation that drifted off as we each got lost in our thoughts, remembering our favorite parts of our meal. And no, Chef Gnau didn't send out his personal phone number with my tawny port, but there's always next time.

Roast Duck & Smoky Mushroom Vols-au-Vent with Sweet Potato Hash

The most important question I asked myself this month went something like this: What does one do with 729 layers of butter wrapped in crispy puff pastry? My answer went something like this: Serve it with Bacon. Because sometimes the best answers are also the most obvious.

More precisely, I served my vols-au-vent filled with roasted duck and wild mushrooms with bacon, and I finished that with a little red wine. To make things even more festive, I also made a roasted sweet potato and butternut squash hash with rosemary--really because I was craving some holiday fare and the flavors were a nice light, sweet complement to the earthy richness of the buttery, smokey duck entree.

The best part about these components is that you can serve them so many ways. Next time I'll serve the duck breast with the skin on, and finely shred the rest of the duck and chop the bacon and mushrooms smaller for a more refined, less rustic dinner. And the sweet potato hash is great paired with a gamefish like a meaty swordfish for a simple yet flavorful meal.

Sweet Potato & Butternut Squash Hash w/Rosemary:

1/2 large butternut squash
3 large sweet potatoes
3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. kosher salt (sounds like alot, but it keeps the dish savory instead of too sweet)
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
4 Tbs. fine chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tbs. pumpkin pie spice
2 tsp. ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the skin from the sweet potatoes and the butternut squash. (It's easiest if you pull towards you on the squash, since it's skin is more like a rind and doesn't peel easily.) Cut them into 1-inch cubes and place them in high-sided baking dish.

Toss the remaining ingredients with the chopped squash and sweet potatoes, and bake on the top rack of the oven, uncovered, for 35 minutes or until the vegetables are easily pierced with a fork and slightly browned.
Roasted Duck & Smoky Mushroom Vols-au-Vent:

4 large puff pastry vols-au-vent
1 4-5 lb. whole duck
3 large garlic cloves
3 sprigs rosemary
2 medium-sized white onions
5 strips of uncooked, smoked bacon
4 cups oyster and sliced cremini mushrooms, washed
2 cups red wine
1 oz cold, unsalted butter
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Gratuitous oyster mushroom closeup
Remove the gizzards, liver, ect. from the duck and rinse inside and out. Pat dry and season the inside of the duck with salt and pepper. Smash the garlic cloves and add them and the rosemary sprigs to the inside of the duck. Place 1/2 of an onion in the opening to "block" it and keep the seasonings in. Tie the duck's legs and wings if necessary.

Prick the duck skin all over with a sharp knife, cutting through the fat but not the meat and season with salt and pepper. Roast the duck in an oven at 375 and according to these directions, or rotisserie the duck for 1 hour. (Thanks Mama and Papa BaCon for my awesome rotisserie!) If you use your rotisserie, your skin will be less crispy, but you'll have an easier go.

When the duck is finished, let it rest for at least 15 minutes before carving.
Place bacon strips in an oven proof saute pan, and render at 500 degrees until bacon is crisp but not burnt. (Approx. 10 minutes). Remove the bacon and crumble when cool.
Add 1 onion, coarse chopped, and the mushrooms to the saute pan, stir to make sure that everything is covered in bacon drippings, and bake at 500 degrees covered for 5 minutes and uncovered for 10. The onion and mushrooms should be slightly browned and cooked through.

Remove the mushrooms and onions, and drain any remaining bacon fat. Add red wine to the saute pan and simmer over medium-low heat, scraping up any browned bits in the bottom of the pan, until the red wine is reduced to 3/4 cup. Only add salt and pepper after the wine has reduced, to ensure that you don't over-season. Add bacon, mushrooms, and onions to the red wine reduction and toss to coat. Serve in vol-au-vent shells with the duck and the sweet potato hash on the side.

729 Layers of Butter: The Daring Bakers make Puff Pastry Vols-au-Vents

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
I loved this challenge, and I'll likely become a puff-pastry-making fool after this. Don't be surprised if you stop by for some Project Runway and a pizza and I bring you a slice in a giant puff pastry. And don't think you can get out of it by simply coming over for drinks. Mr. Luz's martinis can be served in puff pastry vols-au-vent--what do you think I had for dinner last night?

Maybe it was the fact that I took four sticks of butter and beat them with a rolling pin into an inch-thick, 1 lb. slab of creamy fat. Maybe I just like the term "laminated dough." (Laminated documents are kind of sexy. They're all glossy and crisp.) But I think that I really loved this challenge because I created a dish with 729 layers of butter. That's effing crazy, right?!

Before I get to the challenge recipe, I have a few comments and tips for anyone trying to recreate it. First, I used bleached flour and cheapish butter and the results tasted great but weren't as pretty or puffy as they could have been. Next time, I'm getting fancy, fatty butter and unbleached flour so everything comes out golden and crispy. Also, I made square pastries first, and the dough seemed to like the straight cuts better. There was more definition between the layers, BUT I applied 4 strips of dough to the bottom layer to make the puffed walls of the vols-au-vent, and they came out wonky. Next time I'll cut two squares of the same size, and then cut an inner square out of the center of the top layer so the walls are all one piece.

Also, do a little research on puff pastry so you get the directions stated a few different ways. This Julia Child video on making puff pastry is educational and enjoyable, so grab a glass of wine and start your project with a little Julia.

And just to prove that I did not throw my DB challenge on the floor this go round, here's a pic of it, dough-free.

Michel Richard’s Puff Pastry Dough
From: Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan

Puff pastry is in the "laminated dough” family, along with Danish dough and croissant dough. A laminated dough consists of a large block of butter, the “beurrage," enclosed in dough, called the “détrempe”. This dough/butter packet is called a “paton,” and is rolled and folded repeatedly to create the crisp, flaky, parallel layers you see when baked. Puff pastry dough contains no yeast in the détrempe, and relies solely aeration to achieve its high rise. The turning process creates hundreds of layers of butter and dough, with air trapped between each one. In the hot oven, water in the dough and the melting butter creates steam, which expands in the trapped air pockets, forcing the pastry to rise.

2 1/2 Cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 Cups cake flour
1 Tbsp. salt
1 1/4 Cups ice water
1 lb. very cold unsalted butter
Plus extra flour for dusting work surface

Mixing the Dough:

Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will feel like Play-Doh.

Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, and slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.

Place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that's about 1" thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

Incorporating the Butter:

Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10" square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with "ears," or flaps.
Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. You should now have a package that is 8" square.

To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. If your room is warm, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it .

Making the Turns:

Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24" (don't worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24", everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.
Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24" and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.
Chilling the Dough:

If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

Steph’s extra tips:
-Many puff pastry recipes use a teaspoon or two of white vinegar or lemon juice, added to the ice water, in the détrempe dough. This adds acidity, which relaxes the gluten in the dough by breaking down the proteins, making rolling easier.
-If you chill your paton longer than the recommended time between turns, the butter can firm up too much. If this seems to be the case, let it sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to give it a chance to soften before proceeding to roll. You want the butter to roll evenly, in a continuous layer.
-Roll the puff pastry gently but firmly, and don’t roll your pin over the edges, which will prevent them from rising properly.
-Try to keep “neat” edges and corners during the rolling and turning process, so the layers are properly aligned.
-Brush off excess flour before turning dough and after rolling.

Forming and Baking the Vols-au-Vent

Well-chilled puff pastry dough
Egg wash (1 egg or yolk beaten with a small amount of water)
Your filling of choice

Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Using a knife or metal bench scraper, divided your chilled puff pastry dough into three equal pieces. Work with one piece of the dough, and leave the rest wrapped and chilled. (See the layers? MMMMmmmmbutter encased dough layers....)

On a lightly floured surface, roll the piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate for about 10 minutes before proceeding with the cutting.

For larger sized vols-au-vent, fit for a main course or dessert, use a 4” cutter to cut out about 4 circles. Make clean, sharp cuts and try not to twist your cutters (or your sharp knife, for squares) back and forth or drag your knife through the dough. Half of these rounds will be for the bases, and the other half will be for the sides. (Save any scrap by stacking—not wadding up—the pieces…they can be re-rolled and used if you need extra dough. If you do need to re-roll scrap to get enough disks, be sure to use any rounds cut from it for the bases, not the ring-shaped sides.)

Using a 2- to 2.5-inch round cutter, cut centers from half of the rounds to make rings. These rings will become the sides of the vols-au-vent, while the solid disks will be the bottoms.

Dock the solid bottom rounds with a fork (prick them lightly, making sure not to go all the way through the pastry) and lightly brush them with egg wash. Place the rings directly on top of the bottom rounds and very lightly press them to adhere. Brush the top rings lightly with egg wash, trying not to drip any down the sides (which may inhibit rise).

Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent on the lined baking sheet while you pre-heat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Once the oven is heated, remove the sheet from the refrigerator and place a silicon baking mat (preferred because of its weight) or another sheet of parchment over top of the shells. This will help them rise evenly. Bake the shells until they have risen and begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes depending on their size. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF (180ºC), and remove the silicon mat or parchment sheet from the top of the vols-au-vent. If the centers have risen up inside the vols-au-vent, you can gently press them down. Continue baking (with no sheet on top) until the layers are golden, about 15-20 minutes more.

Remove to a rack to cool. Cool to room temperature for cold fillings or to warm for hot fillings.
Fill and serve.