Archive for the ‘Christmas’Category

Commander’s Palace lives up to the legend

Dining room at Commander's Palace in New Orleans
Enjoying a leisurely four-course Reveillon dinner (see previous post) is probably the best way to revel in the holiday spirit in New Orleans. But a fine meal is by no means limited to dinner—or to the historic French Quarter.

St. Charles streetcar in New OrleansFor office parties and ladies who lunch, many restaurants also offer midday holiday menus. Among them is Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Ave., 504-899-8221, commanderspalace.com). This dining institution is housed in a bright blue building in the Garden District, where American interlopers shunned by French Creole society built their own grand mansions in the 19th century. The St. Charles streetcar carries passengers from the edge of the French Quarter to the Garden District in trolleys decked with garlands.

Emile Commander opened Commander’s Palace in the 1880s. It was already a landmark when the Brennan family acquired it in 1969. In truth, it’s nearly impossible not to eat in a Brennan restaurant in New Orleans. The extended family has bred great restaurateurs the way the Bourbon family bred kings and queens. I’ll admit, though, that trying to decipher the family tree and follow the twists and turns of family disagreements could give anyone dyspepsia.

“This is a holiday lunch at Commander’s Palace,” the maitre d’ told me as he led me through a maze of dining rooms. “We can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.”

Dining at a grande dame


servers at Commander's Palace in New Orleans

Actually, they can guarantee a fine meal, which should start with a glass of Commander’s Palace Cuvée Brut Blanc de Noir. It’s made for the restaurant by Iron Horse Vineyard, a sparkling wine specialist in Sonoma’s Green Valley. The Christmas Celebration lunch starts with turtle soup, followed by Sugarcane Lacquered South Texas Quail. I opted instead for the soup of the day. I figured that roasted pumpkin soup with whiskey and toasted pumpkin seeds seemed like a pot I could try to recreate back home in New England.

Some of New Orleans’ most famous chefs have honed their skills in Commander’s kitchen. Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse both served as executive chef during the 1970s and 1980s. Prudhomme created the Creole Bread Pudding Souffle that remains the restaurant’s signature dessert (available à la carte or with the Christmas Celebration Lunch). For a dramatic end, it’s finished tableside with warm whiskey cream.

ROASTED PUMPKIN WHISKEY SOUP

roasted pumpkin soupThis isn’t the restaurant’s recipe, but it tastes very much the same. Any of the winter squashes can be substituted for pumpkin, though a nice sugar pie pumpkin makes a sweet, rich soup. Butternut squash also works well, and tends to be available all winter. I’ve given the directions here to make your own roasted pumpkin seeds, but snack jar pepitas are a lot less trouble.

Serves 8 as a soup course

Ingredients

3 pound pumpkin or butternut squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt
1/4 pound butter (1 stick)
2 leeks, washed, trimmed, and sliced into thin rounds
1 onion, roughly chopped
8 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons whiskey
1 cup buttermilk
black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced parsley

Directions

Set oven at 375°F.

Trim off the stem and base of the squash or pumpkin. Cut top to bottom into six pieces. Remove seeds and reserve. Paint the flesh with olive oil and place on a roasting pan. Roast in oven 15-20 minutes or until flesh is tender and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and set aside. Turn oven down to 300°F.

To prepare pumpkin seeds, rinse thoroughly to remove all pulp, then place in pan with water to cover. Bring to boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain well and pat dry. Toss with remaining olive oil and spread in single layer on a baking sheet. Salt generously. Roast in about 45 minutes until crisp and brown. Reserve.

In large soup pot, melt half the butter. Add leeks and onion and sprinkle with pinch of salt. Cover pot and sweat leeks and onion over low heat about 20 minutes. Add a little water if needed to keep them from sticking to pan.

Scoop roasted pumpkin flesh away from skin and add to leeks and onion. Pour in the stock, season and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, then let the soup cool. Add whiskey, buttermilk, and remaining butter and stir to dissolve. Purée in a blender and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. Reheat for serving.

Serve sprinkled with a few roasted pumpkin seeds and minced parsley.

Eat, drink, and be merry in New Orleans at the holidays

New Orleans is always ready for the holidays
As a New Englander, I always secretly pitied people who had to celebrate Christmas in a warm climate. But after one day in New Orleans, I realized the error of my ways. Even in December, potted trees and ferns flourish on wrought iron balconies and poinsettias and camellias bloom profusely. All it takes are a few red bows and some twinkling white lights to deck the city for the holidays.

With decorating out of the way, New Orleanians can spend more time at the table. Great food is a city birthright and I can’t think of another place where you can eat better—or at a more reasonable price—than New Orleans at Christmas.

Until the Civil War, Creole families enjoyed lavish feasts after Mass on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve. Today’s chefs have improved on that tradition. Now more than 50 restaurants—including many of the city’s best—offer four-course, fixed-price Reveillon menus throughout the holiday season. (See holiday.neworleansonline.com for a full list.) The term “Reveillon” refers to a late night meal. But today’s diners don’t have to wait until after midnight to feast. Moreover, they can choose between contemporary cooking or the city’s signature Creole cuisine, which blends French technique, African tradition, and Spanish spices. Reveillon menus are almost evenly divided between the two.

Tujague's is the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans

Celebrate at venerable Tujague’s

For tradition, it’s hard to beat Tujague’s (823 Decatur Street, 504-525-8676, www.tujaguesrestaurant.com). Founded in 1856 by immigrants from Bordeaux, Tujague’s is the second oldest restaurant in the city. The long wooden bar in the front room was brought from France that same year. The bar is a lively place for a drink, but the dining room with historic photos on the walls is a better choice for a leisurely meal. The Reveillon menu hits on many of the city’s classics. Fresh local seafood finds its way into bacon-wrapped oysters en brochette or crawfish and goat cheese crepes. One of the entree choices is Chicken Pontalba, a city favorite featuring a chicken breast on a bed of crunchy fried potato cubes, ham, and mushrooms—all topped with Béarnaise sauce, that piquant daughter of Hollandaise.

Making Café Brûlot at Arnaud's

Drink to the season at Arnaud’s

Tujague’s was into its seventh decade when Arnaud’s (813 Bienville Street, 504-523-5433, www.arnaudsrestaurant.com) was founded in 1918 by a French wine salesman. An attention to fine libations has always been part of the Arnaud’s experience. The best way to start a Reveillon dinner is with a French 75 cocktail: cognac and lemon juice topped with champagne. Menu choices usually include a version of Arnaud’s signature dish of shrimp in remoulade sauce. (Made with mayonnaise, Creole mustard, paprika, chopped pickle, and a slew of spices, Arnaud’s remoulade is the standard by which all Creole versions of the French sauce are measured.) The most satisfying and dramatic way to end a meal is with a cup of Café Brûlot. The mix of black coffee, lemon and orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, and orange Curaçao is prepared tableside and flamed with brandy (above).

Filet Wellington at Broussard's

Broussard’s strikes French pose

Broussard’s (819 Conti Street, 504-581-3866, broussards.com) was founded in 1920 by chef Joseph Broussard, who merged his classical Parisian training with the flavors and flair of Creole cuisine. Still located in a mansion owned by his wife’s family, Broussard’s is formal enough to make a meal feel special and casual enough to make diners relax. The Reveillon menu includes such classics as Creole Turtle Soup—a rich, almost gumbo-like soup always topped with sherry—and such celebratory dishes as Filet Wellington accompanied by blue cheese puff pastry and wild mushrooms. Broussard’s also served my favorite dessert of my Reveillon dining: peppermint stick panna cotta topped with chocolate ganache, a few raspberries and a dab of whipped cream. (Next post will have a recipe!)

appetizer sampler at Tableau

Tableau makes holiday stage set

The latest venture from Dickie Brennan (a scion of New Orleans’ dominant restaurant family) is Tableau (616 St. Peter Street, 504-934-3463, www.tableaufrenchquarter.com). Brennan purchased part of the Jackson Square property of the historic Le Petit Theatre (www.lepetittheatre.com), renovated the building and created a contemporary restaurant with an open kitchen in the main dining room. The renovated theater space presents all manner of performing events. Tableau is a great spot for a pre-theater dinner or for dining on a balcony overlooking Jackson Square on a warm evening. It’s also a perfect place to enjoy a contemporary interpretation of time-honored Creole cuisine.

Chef John Martin makes the most of local products. His rich Gulf Oyster Stew, which gets a sassy anise hit from Pernod, comes topped with a Southern black pepper biscuit. His mixed grill of Gulf pompano and Gulf shrimp (with a side of roasted root vegetables) pops to life on a base of citrus gastrique and satsuma gazpacho.

The inventive pairings certainly give diners a lot to talk about. In fact, wherever you choose to eat, expect to be drawn into conversation with diners at neighboring tables. The holiday season only enhances New Orleanians’ gregarious nature and the Reveillon menus are such a good deal that many locals dine out as often as possible in December.

Find homey holiday tastes in these New England stores

Sid Wainer kitchen at holidays
As the Eating Season approaches, we start craving certain flavors that we associate with the winter holidays spent with family. We want the taste of home—whether that’s a cuisine from the country where our ancestors originated or something forged by Norman Rockwell and Betty Crocker. Truth is, we love to forage for festive foodstuffs. As a service to our New England readers, here are five essential shops around the region where we find special holiday foods. This post is adapted from a piece we wrote last year in the Boston Globe travel section.

BRITISH AISLES


Tea at British Aisles at the holidays Denise and Gerry Pressinger founded British Aisles more than two decades ago so that ex-pats like themselves could get everyday British foods such as HP Sauce and the pickled onions found in every London fish-and-chips shop. Primarily selling wholesale and online, British Aisles has a retail operation in a small room on the side of a big warehouse a few minutes from downtown Portsmouth. They are ready for the holidays with tins of “biscuits” (cookies), tubs of chocolates, tinned plum pudding, jars of mincemeat, Christmas fruitcakes, and crocks of rum butter, and brandy butter.

Brits come by for pouches of mushy peas and Bisto gravy powder to dress up the Christmas roast. Of course, if all you need is a humble pork pie, a package of Smoky Bacon Crisps, and some Walker’s Shortbread, British Aisles carries those as well. “These things have been around so long that they are nostalgia,” says daughter Stephanie Malone. “I grew up with these foods. This is what my grandmother ate.” 1634 Greenland Rd., Greenland, N.H. 603-431-5075; www.jollygrub.com.

SID WAINER & SON


cheese at SId Wainer at the holidaysIt’s gift basket season at Sid Wainer & Son Gourmet Outlet in New Bedford, where the retail shop carries many of the luxury and ethnic items that the specialty foods importer provides to restaurants and gourmet stores. Shoppers can customize baskets with such treats as truffled artichoke pesto, Italian baby fig compote, chestnut honey, and—for big spenders—colorful tins holding an entire ounce of saffron.

Sid Wainer is also the spot to score the goodies for an impressive but easy cocktail party. That might include serrano ham from Spain, prosciutto di Parma from Italy, and such cheeses as English cheddar and Wensleydale, ripe Camembert, and little ash-rolled pyramids of goat cheese. That’s not to mention ready-to-serve-and-take-credit-for deli items such as vegetable spring rolls, artichoke and herb fritters, wild mushrooms in filo, and even New England crab cakes. Should you need inspiration, the sampling table always has a few items—such as roasted fingerling potatoes with duck confit—designed to showcase Sid Wainer products. 2301 Purchase St., New Bedford, Mass. 508-999-3665; sidwainer.com.

POLMART DELIKATESY


Polmart shoppers at the holidays Billing itself as “your doorway to Europe,” Polmart Delikatesy has become one of the largest sellers of Polish foods on the East Coast since immigrants Andrew and Margaret Mazur opened just over a decade ago. Polmart always sells a lot of imported hams, complexly spiced kielbasas, and freshly made pierogis and golobkis (stuffed cabbage rolls), but at the holidays eastern Europeans flock in to pick up smoked mackerel and cold-smoked salmon and Wawel cocoa and chocolate products. Throughout the year, Polmart also sells a lot of organic herbal teas that have become all the rage in contemporary Poland.

“Polish food is getting much more healthy with less fat,” Andrew Mazur observes. But there are always exceptions at the holidays. “We sell a lot of candies. People give candies all the time as gifts.” Polmart has multiple bins of wrapped Polish chocolates sold by weight. Among the most popular are the cream-filled chocolates called adwocat, which are lightly alcoholic, and the luscious chocolate-covered prunes known as sliwka naleczowska. 123 Broad St., New Britain, Conn. 860-223-7055; www.polmartusa.com.

PORTUGALIA MARKETPLACE


olive oil in Portugalia at the holidaysNow entering its fourth holiday season, this market celebrates the bounty of southeastern Massachusetts by selling great local products next to imports from Portugal. That means that delicate Hannahbell cheese thimbles from Shy Brothers farm in Westport are displayed next to wheels of buttery Casteloes cheese from Portugal, or that the fish section has both New Bedford scallops and big bags of frozen octopus. The huge selection of wines focuses principally on Portugal, and includes many table wines from regions that are hard to find in the U.S. Portugalia also carries a wide array of Madeiras and ports from both famous (Sandeman) and boutique (Quinta de la Rosa) producers.

It is said that Portuguese cuisine has 365 bacalhau dishes, one for each day of the year, so it’s no surprise that one end of the store is glassed off to display the pungent salt cod. As in Portugal, most of it comes from Canada or Norway, and it is available in a size to fit every recipe from small chips to 3-foot-long spread-eagled codfish. 489 Bedford St., Fall River, Mass. 508-617-9820; portugaliamarketplace.com.

THE BAKER’S STORE


King Arthur Bakers Store at the holidaysThis gleaming emporium at the corporate headquarters of King Arthur Flour is a perfect stop at the holiday season. Just as all the toys come alive in “The Nutcracker,” the flat pages of the King Arthur catalog spring to life on the shelves of this vast space. Whether it’s fruit stollen, gingerbread men, Swedish crumb cake, rugelach, or Christmas cookies, every family bakes some favorite treats at the holidays.

The Baker’s Store has the ingredients, tools, and hardware to fill the house with the baking aromas of the season. It carries all the pans from Madeleine molds to quarter sheet pans that fit the ovens in small apartment stoves, as well as parchment paper and silicone pan liners to keep the cookies from sticking. For fancy holiday treats, you’ll find all kinds of decorations from every color in the rainbow of crystal sugar to special non-melting topping sugar to dust your warm doughnuts. FYI, the gorgeous photo of the store in the snow is courtesy of King Arthur Flour. 135 Route 5 South, Norwich, Vt. 802-649-3361; kingarthurflour.com.

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11 2016

And the winning Champagne is…

Barons de Rothschild blanc de blancs with raspberry tart

What was our best bubbly of 2015? We’ve been fortunate this year to enjoy some spectacular sparkling wines, from a range of proseccos to an elegant pink Franciacorta to several cavas and crémants that we simply drank without taking notes or photographs. (Even wine and food writers are entitled to a day off.)

Barons de Rothschild brut But the champagnes of Barons de Rothschild (www.champagne-bdr.com) really took us through the seasons. We started off in warm weather with the non-vintage brut, which is the company’s anchor champagne. It’s blended with 60 percent chardonnay (mainly grand crus in the Côte des Blancs) and 40 percent pinot noir (principally from the villages of Verzenay, Ay, Mareuil-sur-Ay, and Bouzy). It has a Rumpelstiltskin straw-gold color, a faintly yeasty aroma, and fine and persistent bubbles, The full mouth feel and abundant acidity make it an excellent food wine, even with something as complex and spicy as mole amarillo. (Mexico did have a French emperor for a while, after all.) The BDR brut retails around $80.

BDR rose Come fall, we moved along to the non-vintage rosé, which might be our favorite sipping champagne of BDR’s non-vintage portfolio. It is produced from 85 percent chardonnay (again, mainly grand crus in the Côte des Blancs) and 15 percent pinot noir from the Montagne de Reims. Some of that pinot noir juice goes in with the chardonnay at first fermentation, and some is fermented as a red wine before being blended together. The blend marries in the cellar for at least three years before dosage, then another six to nine months after disgorgement. The result is a wine with strong fruit and floral characteristics, with undertones of raspberry, rose petals, and sweet-tart wild strawberries. The color is a salmon pink, which accentuates the spiral of bubbles from the bottom of the glass to the top. We like watching the dance of the bubbles. How long do they last? They’re still prickling the tongue when we empty the last glass. The BDR rosé retails for around $105.

For our money (about $115), the blanc de blancs is the most elegant of BDR’s non-vintage champagnes and the perfect wine for the winter holidays. It is crafted entirely from chardonnay grown in the signature Champagne crus of Avize, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, and Vertus. It is a little paler than the brut, slightly more acidic, and infinitely more sophisticated. Although it has a citrus-like freshness, some of the flavor notes include raw almonds and white peaches. The bubble profile can only be called creamy. It’s great by itself, but we think it’s the perfect pairing with a fresh raspberry tart (as shown above), since the bubbles cut through the unctuousness of the butter crust and pastry cream, while the acidity and mineral notes accentuate the flavor of the raspberries.

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12 2015

Spanish orange & almond tart for Christmas

Holiday tart of almond, saffron, and Seville orange
Last year for the holiday season we made saffron shortbread cookies, and we were feeling bad that we didn’t have a new holiday cookie this year. We got to thinking about winter sweets and some of our all-time favorite flavors, and the two sort of came together.

Some of the quintessential tastes of Spain are almonds, saffron, and bitter oranges. Why not adapt our standard linzer tart recipe to reflect that different range of flavors? Instead of hazelnuts in the dough, we could use almonds. Instead of vanilla, we could use saffron. And in place of raspberry jam, we could use Seville orange marmalade. (OK, we know that the marmalade is more a Scottish than Spanish flavor, but it does use the bitter oranges of Andalucía.)

Our first thought was to make almond meal using toasted Marcona almonds since they are the classic snack almond of southern Spain. We did that, but by losing the skin of the almond, we also lost a lot of the taste. Moreover, toasted blanched almonds ground up into too fine a flour. The result was a perfectly edible tart, but one with a more crumbly crust and less pronounced flavor than we were looking for.

Back to the drawing board. In the end, it turned out that the much less expensive California almonds gave the best flavor and were the easiest to work with. We toasted them in a dry pan in the oven at 400°F for about 10 minutes, then ground them into fine meal in a food processor after they had cooled. This technique gives a good toasted almond flavor, and also makes the saffron flavor more pronounced. The strength of saffron will depend on what kind you are using. It’s not very Spanish, but we got the best results with “Baby Saffron” from Kashmir, using four blisters of the single-serving packs.

Slices of the finished tart go well with espresso or a flute of cava.

ANDALUCÍAN CHRISTMAS TART slice of holiday tart

Makes one 7 1/2-inch (19 cm) fluted tart (serves 6-8)

Ingredients

1/3 cup (66 grams) granulated sugar
1 generous pinch saffron (0.2 gram)
1/4 teaspoon (1.5 grams) salt
1/2 cup (1 stick, 114 grams) butter, softened
1 egg
2/3 cup (96 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) baking powder
1 cup raw almonds (150 grams), lightly toasted
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (200 grams) Seville orange marmalade

Directions

In coffee or spice grinder, mix sugar, saffron, and salt. Grind briefly. Empty into medium bowl. Add butter and beat until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat to mix well.

In another medium bowl, place flour and baking powder. Whisk to blend. Grind almonds to fine meal in food processor. Whisk nuts into flour mixture. Add nut-flour mixture to butter mixture. Mix on low speed until all ingredients are incorporated.

piping lattice onto tart Pat 2/3 cup of the dough into bottom of 7 1/2 inch (19 cm) fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Place remainder of dough into cookie press or pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch fluted tip. Pipe around the edges to make side crust. Place orange marmalade into shell and smooth out until even. Pipe a lattice over top of tart.

Refrigerate tart for 30 minutes while preheating oven to 350°F. Bake tart until preserves just begin to bubble – about 35 minutes. Transfer to rack on counter to cool. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream to balance the bitterness of the orange.

12

12 2014

Pimento Cheese for holiday South in your mouth

Pimento cheese
Chef Matthew Bell hails from Montana, but after about a decade in the South, he felt confident to head the kitchen at South on Main restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s a collaboration with the Oxford American, the magazine that chronicles the literary and cultural life of the South and is often called the ”New Yorker of the South.”

”We are taking our cue from the magazine and keying in on the cuisine from all regions,” Bell told a gathering of writers who previewed the restaurant and performance place while it was still under construction. ”Arkansas cuisine is a microcosm of the whole South with influence from the Ozarks and the Smokies,” he said. ”We have a long growing season and close access to the Gulf for seafood.”

Now open for business, Bell is offering updated versions of classic dishes, such as a starter of pork cheeks with gnocchi, parmesan, and a fried egg, or a main course of catfish with fried brussels sprouts, hushpuppies, and rémoulade. But for my small group he proved his chops with a masterful version of the Southern staple Pimento Cheese. I like to serve the colorful dip during the holidays — all you need are some celery sticks and a few crackers.

PIMENTO CHEESE

To add heat, chef Matthew Bell favors Frank’s Red Hot Sauce or Crystal Louisiana’s Pure Hot Sauce. Since I had neither on hand, I used traditional red Tabasco from Louisiana’s McIlhenny Company.

Ingredients

1/2 roasted red pepper, peeled and seeded and finely chopped
1/2 pound grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon finely grated garlic
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons pickle brine from your favorite dill pickles
3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
pinch of salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Using a strong wooden spoon and a bowl, combine all ingredients in order, stirring well after each addition. Pack into small bowl or ramekin and serve with celery sticks or crackers.