Friday, November 9, 2012

Part Deux of Lily's Fall Dinner Party Menu & How Alexandra Came to Cook

So I hear SoCal is finally having some fall weather and I rushed to my laptop to upload the remainder of Lily's scrumptious fall dinner party menu (below:  onion dip made from real onions; salad with toasted hazelnut vinaigrette; brussels sprouts with bacon and kale sautéed with red onions...don't they sound so deliciously wholesome and perfect for fall??!).  I can use the word 'scrumptious' with integrity because I recently tried out the Butternut Squash Lasagna recipe.  Here is how it came about that I actually cooked for someone.

Let me start off by saying I am a terrible cook.  I say that without any false modesty, only candid self-awareness.  Heaven knows I have made the effort once in a while.  My generation is re-vamping the whole domestic diva concept and so I have tried to jump into that foray especially as I kinda like keeping house overseeing a well-run home.  In my domesticated future, I envision myself as the type who is the CEO of household affairs (amongst other roles).  I just wouldn't be a regular cook. I am all about nutrition and healthful eating, but that is completely different from being an awesome cook who amazes guests with creative and delicious menus.  I think it's because I didn't cook at all growing up and so I don't know the fundamentals.  A lot of moms use cooking or baking as a type of "affectional bonding"  with their daughters; my first-generation Asian immigrant parents instead used education, classical music and church services.  I don't, therefore, experience any feelings of nostalgia or home comfort when cooking; that also means I don't use it as a means of showing affection to friends or more-than-friends...instead I show it through other ways. *Shrugs*  One style of affectional bonding is not better than the other, just different.

Another problem is that I try to "healthify" recipes which results in tasting hell as I don't have enough knowledge or experience to determine what and how much to substitute (case in point:  my flourless GMO-free pancakes made with lentils and oatmeal...doesn't just the thought make you want to dry-heave?? Not to mention they turned out completely deformed and shaped like footballs.  Needless to say, my follow-up gluten-free chocolate-chip cookies made with ground garbanzo beans never made it to the table).  Bottom line, even my dad - who adores me - gags on my food.

How did it come about, then, that I attempted the rather time-intensive Butternut Squash Lasagna and how did it turn out?  I've met a wonderful friend here in Paris who has turned out to be a walking blessing-for-Alexandra more times than I can count.  He's treated me to countless dinners at beautiful restaurants (I've *tried* to pay even just once and he swears he wouldn't be able to show his face at home if I did...ahhhh, French chivalry), escorted me to glossy nightclubs and boutiques, whisked me away to his family's chateau in Aix-en-Provence, and even put me up for a week at the gorgeous Crillon hotel when I was in between apartments and quite distraught about it (if you ever get the chance to stay there you must! It is an experience in and of itself).  Just recently when I was super sick, he took care of me on a daily basis.  He is my guardian angel! I've had so much fun shopping for thank-you gifts for him by the way - unlike Southern California, there are *many* men's boutiques here filled with every imaginable beautiful accoutrement for men, in fact, I would say that 1 out of every 3 clothing store in Paris is exclusively for men.  He is also so very handsome, funny, smart and worldly-wise...just gorgeous....I think the world of him as you can tell!...but he's 24 and doesn't understand why I don't see a future for us.  But there, this blog isn't about my love life...

His one request?  That I cook him something from scratch.  I gave him adequate warning and assured him with complete sincerity that my feelings would not be hurt in the slightest if he couldn't go further than the first bite and we ordered out instead.  I then showed him Lily's recipe for the lasagna and salad with toasted hazelnut vinaigrette (found below people, skip ahead, skip ahead!).  He wanted me to cook him KOREAN food for some reason (why do guys always request this).  I told him 'tough patooties' and that we had to go grocery shopping for butternut squash lasagna and salad.  I then had to explain, at great length, what 'tough patooties' meant.

Fast forward two hours later after shopping for groceries at the delightful Bon Marche market ...

The Bon Marche Epicerie.  Do a day of high-end shopping at the Bon Marche department store followed by gourmand grocery shopping or prepared food galore (they have a huge dim sum/Asian foods section that was very well done) at the attached Epicerie.  They have every delicacy from around the world (Srirarcha!  I found Srirarcha!!).  The bakery section is unbelievable as are their chocolates and other assorted treats.

Out of necessity, I had to use a lot of substitutes from the menu.  I used spinach instead of rappini, rather than half-and-half, I used something that's called crème legère, and I prayed that the small dark orange squash-like gourds I picked up were the exact French counterparts to the U.S. butternut squash.  I was so focused on making a success out of this cooking story that I forgot to take pictures :-(  I'm particularly sad because it turned out DELICIOUS.  I made more of the white sauce than required by the recipe just in case the oven temperatures here were different and the lasagna turned out dry, the death knell for any lasagna.  The extra sauce I prepared was helpful, the finished product turned out moist with the bechamel sauce dripping to the bottom, just the way it should.  It was SO GOOD.  My dear friend tucked away two huge portions while grinning and giving me a thumbs up...and I finally felt that feeling of affection cooks must feel when they have appreciative guests.   

There is nothing exceptional about this cooking story other than the result was delicious which in my books is a victory that I can relish for many months to come.  I just had to write about it.  I hope you were able to try it too...I love butternut squash, it is so sweet and healthy and the lasagna recipe is unique and well worth the effort.  

Here is the remainder of Lily's fall feast menu...I hope you have a successful dinner party with lots of good memories with friends and family you love.  

Dinner Party Menu:

Onion dip
Salad with toasted hazelnut vinaigrette
Butternut squash lasagna
Brussels sprouts with bacon
Kale sautéed with red onions
Dessert: (make a guest bring a lemon tart!)

Onion Dip

This is an updated, homemade version of grandma’s secret recipe.  Takes a bit of time, but quite simple to do, and will impress everyone if brought to a party.


2 pounds brown onions, thinly sliced
2 large shallots, thinly sliced
10 generous sprigs of fresh thyme
¼ cup olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1c white cooking wine
2T Sherry vinegar
2c sour cream
¼ c minced fresh chives
¼ c plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
2t onion powder

Preheat onion to 425F.  Mix onions, shallots, oil and thyme in a large roasting pan, then season with salt and pepper.  

Roast for 45-60 minutes, mixing every 10 minutes, scraping up browned bits on the bottom of the pan.  The onions should be soft and browned.  Remove thyme sprigs and discard.  Add wine and vinegar and scrape bottom of pan again while mixing.  Continue roasting until completely caramelized, 15-20 minutes longer.  Let mixture cool on a baking sheet. 

 Once cooled, chop mixture and transfer to a mixing bowl.  Add sour cream and yogurt, then chives and onion powder.   Season once more with salt and pepper, and chill.  Serve with fresh veggies and salted pita chips.

(Sorry, no final picture here…it was gobbled right up!)

Salad with toasted hazelnut vinaigrette

1 head Romaine lettuce
1c skinned hazelnuts
1/3 c olive oil
½ c hazelnut oil (almond oil is easier to find and can be substituted)
½ c Sherry vinegar
2T sugar
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
½ c freshly grated parmesan

Preheat oven to 400F.  Spread whole hazelnuts on baking sheet and toast for 8-10 minutes, do not burn!  Let cool, then chop hazelnuts and put in a medium-sized mixing bowl. 

Add oils, vinegar and sugar, and whisk.  Season with salt and pepper.  Meanwhile, hand-tear the lettuce leaves after washing.   Add desired amount of vinaigrette to salad and toss well. 

Mix half the cheese and toss again.  Serve into bowls, then sprinkle coarsely ground salt and remaining parmesan on top, and serve.
Brussels sprouts with bacon

I know what you’re thinking – “I just can’t eat brussels sprouts!”  Don’t you know yet that bacon makes everything better?

4 pieces thick-cut bacon, chopped into ½ inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 large shallots, sliced
2T extra virgin olive oil
1 pound brussels sprouts, washed and halved
3T white wine vinegar
3T water
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
¼ c chopped walnuts

Who knew brussel sprouts came this way?  So adorable!
Cook bacon pieces in a skillet over medium heat with garlic and shallots, approximately 5-7 minutes, until browning but not crisp. 

Add halved brussel sprouts, and cover. 

Stir every couple minutes, add olive oil if necessary (depending on how much fat the bacon produced).  Once the brussels sprouts are beginning to brown nicely, about 8-10 minutes, add the vinegar to reduce, and scrape up browned bits. 

Add water as necessary to keep moist and continue cooking uncovered until tender to the bite.  Season with salt and pepper, and stir in walnuts before serving, if desired.

Kale sautéed with red onions

Kale is another great fall vegetable, if you just can’t stomach the brussels sprouts – or if you just like to have a variety of sides J  This version is a little spicy, which pairs nicely with the sweetness of the lasagna, above.  It’s also quick!  Leftover idea: add to sautéed mushrooms reduced in white wine, then toss with a vegetable penne pasta and top with parmesan.  Tasty and easy for a quick mid-week dinner.

2 pounds kale, rinsed and tough stems removed
4T extra virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, halved then thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1t dried hot red pepper flakes
2T red wine vinegar
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. 

Saute the onion until soft, about 5-7 minutes.  Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for another minute.  Reduce heat to medium and add kale (you will probably have to do this in batches). 

Cook down for another 8-10 minutes, until kale is slightly chewy, but not soggy. 

Remove from heat, then add the vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Let me know if you tried any of these recipes and how they turned out!!

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