Cooking Club Newsletter

Editor in Chief Dana Cowin dishes the details on the first meeting of her F&W Cooking Club.
Welcome to my first cooking club newsletter and photo gallery.

Each month I get together with a few friends (Dave Arnold, Jee Park, Melissa Clark and Emi Macuaga) to experiment, eat and learn. (You can read about them if you want.) We held our first meeting at the home of Tina Ujlaki, F&W's Executive Food Editor. We agreed to invite two of our favorite people in the food world to instruct us: Rolando Beramendi, owner of a fantastic Italian import company, Manicaretti (www.manicaretti.com), as well as the owner of an Italian restaurant, Bellavitae (www.bellavitae.com), in the West Village. Our second guest was Claudia Fleming, Gramercy Tavern's one-time pastry chef who is now creating a restaurant and B&B in Southhold, Long Island (The Northfork Restaurant and Inn, 57225 Main Road, 631.765.0177) with her handsome, talented chef husband Gerry Hayden.

Tina and I chatted a lot (and I mean A LOT) about how the club would work. We knew that all the recipes would be make-ahead, chosen from the magazine, for the same number of people. Tina graciously volunteered to make the main course of Cider-Braised Chicken Legs with Onion-Raisin Sauce for 12. I magnanimously agreed to make Swiss Chard Gratin. I was less magnanimous when I told Tina three days ahead of the event that I had taken a closer look at the recipe and decided it would take me two hours to just clean the Swiss chard, and offered to make another dish. I made a super easy appetizer: Lemon Mascarpone-Stuffed Dates.

We bought some cheese, crackers, olives and chorizo (a highly seasoned, often air-dried and coarsely ground pork sausage flavored with garlic, chili powder, and other spices) so no one would starve while we put out the food brought by the Clubbies. Tina bought two types of Tomme cheese (Tomme refers to small to medium sized wheels of cheese that are produced throughout France from any cow, goat or ewe's miilk remaining after the larger volumes of milk have been shipped to the cheese factories) at Formaggio Kitchen (www.formaggiokitchen.com) in Boston. I got an aged Mimolette, which is orange and rock solid and tastes like caramel, an Epoisse, which is a rich and creamy cow's milk cheese from Burgundy, and a Monte Enebro, which is a tangy Spanish goat cheese. We both bought the same wildly creamy sheep's milk cheese, Tabor, from Israel. We'd never seen it before and were curious to try it. The Epoisse was past its prime--it had an unpleasant ammonia taste. I was ready to toss it, but Dave stepped in and suggested we just peel back the top and scoop out the inside. A brilliant recommendation as it greatly reduced the stinkiness of the cheese.

We also both picked up some other items we'd never seen before that we wanted everyone to taste. Tina's choice: Italian puffed fava beans. Mine: Tiny mozzarella balls from Fairway (www.fairwaymarket.com) that were literally the size of pearls that you'd string on a necklace. They were fun to eat, but quite bland. Perfect for a kid food banquet when you serve mini everything. We decided that this Stump Your Guests game would have to be part of every club meeting.

Emi served bright orange Fiery Carrot Dip that was topped with chopped black olives and creamy white feta in the most exquisite Japanese black ceramic bowl made by her father in Tokyo. Style note: If you make this at home, try to find yourself a black bowl. It's an incredibly beautiful way to present this simple dish. The recipe is very simple, basically carrots, olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic, honey, Harissa (a fiery hot Tunisian sauce made with hot chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway, and olive oil)--turns out she had a lot of chiles around the house! (Shopping for carrots at the market, she was tempted by the unusual yellow carrots, but decided to stick with the more humdrum but colorful orange ones.) The dish was a success, but we all agreed that it was a little too vinegary, and a bit salty since each ingredient brought salt along for the ride.

David was assigned Creamed Mussels on the Half Shell from Tom Douglas, the Seattle restaurateur and chef best known for Dahlia Lounge. Dave has never followed a recipe precisely in his life, but he figured if Tina and I gave him a recipe, we must have had a reason. Well, our reason was that we think this mussel dish is one of the best hors d'oeuvres recipes we've ever published...Dave came with his mussels all neatly arranged facing the same direction on a simple rectangle tray designed by his wife, Jennifer Carpenter from Truck Product Architecture (www.the-truck.com). The mussels were small and perfect, topped with crunchy breadcrumbs.

I made Lemon Mascarpone-Stuffed Dates. I got two different long, elegant Israeli Medjool dates, both of which had pits that needed to be removed. One of the varieties was a bit squishy (this can also depend on how the dates were stored or how dry or old they were), so I chose the firmer, more robust ones because the pits came out easily. I combined the mascarpone (a soft, buttery cow's milk cream cheese from Italy) and the honey, dropped a dollop in the date, then wrapped them in thinly sliced prosciutto and pan-fried them. We all agreed that the dates were very sweet and could have done without the honey.

Melissa got one of the most challenging assignments: we asked her to make Alain Ducasse's classic Gougères (gruyere-flavored choux pastry, which is piped or spooned into small mounds and served hot or cold as a snack). What's so hard about that? Well, Melissa herself has developed some EXCELLENT gougère recipes, and we were asking her to do something classic. That proved to be completely impossible. Melissa reinvented the gougère: she pureed some garlic, anchovy and rosemary with the milk and used cheddar instead of Gruyère.

Jee took on the Rustic Chicken Liver Mousse, which she said was a "good thing since I've never made chicken livers in my life." For that reason, she stayed pretty close to the recipe, except she didn't mince or chop the liver before putting it into the food processor. Tina kept some of the leftover mousse and thought it was much better--tastier and creamier--the next day, and it was delicious for over a week!

We stood around sampling the hors d'oeuvres, critiquing, suggesting alternatives. And then Rolando brought out amazing fresh olive oil from the 2005 harvest Verde from Sicily and Capezzana from Tuscany (www.manicaretti.com). He drowned a piece of Sullivan Street bread (www.sullivanstreetbakery.com) in this spicy green oil and sprinkled a little Trapani sea salt from Sicily on top. We were ready for our lesson.

In the next newsletter, I'll write about what we learned about green olive oil from Rolando and chocolate-caramel tarts from Claudia.

Dana Cowin
Editor in Chief, Food & Wine
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