The most alluring and satisfying reasons for cooking is the audience. No matter how spectacular the meal one prepares for oneself, if there is no audience, weâ€™re in tree falling in the forest territory. I mean, who cares? Of course you do, but really whatâ€™s better than the compliments of a satisfied friend, family or lover?
I get so overtaken with the idea of creating the perfect evening, brunch, luncheon, or whatever for my audience that my fantasy even extends to the shopping trip itself. I love menu planning, even down to the grocery list. (Yes, I actually look at that grocery list website, donâ€™t tell me Iâ€™m not in too deep.) Not only am I a nerd, but Iâ€™m a grocery list nerd. Wow.
But anyway, the perfect entertaining experience must start with a well-organized and efficient trip to the grocery store. On this occasion, I was cooking for a date. Iâ€™d just started hanging out with this guy and I really liked him and wanted to make a meal that was quick and casual enough for a week night (for me this means an hour or under) but three courses so that it seems like a special and intimate event. The fact that this guy cooked for me before I cooked for him was unusual and sexy to say the least. So after this, I definitely wanted to impress.
The menu was Mediterranean leaning â€“ first course: chopped Salad with feta; second course: roasted chicken with garlic and thyme, green beans with tomato, curried rice, and tzatziki; dessert: a spiced chocolate sundae with candied orange rind and walnuts. Granted, the Mediterranean bent was a little risky, itâ€™s heavy on the onions and garlic. But donâ€™t they say â€˜two garlics makes it right?â€™
The chopped salad is a recipe that I learned from an Arab friend. I hadnâ€™t made it in years but was reminded of it when I visited a college buddy a few weeks ago. She called it the â€˜signature Nichelle saladâ€™ because it was my go-to veggie for most of undergrad. For some reason I canâ€™t name, the salad will stay crisp in the fridge for up to a week. I can attest to this because I grazed on it until Saturday morning after making it on a Tuesday. The salad is an almost perfect starter, itâ€™s dressed really simply with just olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. The secret ingredient is a bag of peppermint tea sprinkled on the salad before dressing which gives it a savory freshness that truly whets the appetite.
The main course is comprised of a few standby dishes that I come back to over and over again. The chicken is a modification of my favorite barbecue marinade made quick and easy for the oven. For the grill, I will marinate chicken in lemon, olive oil, thyme and onion over night. For the oven, Iâ€™ve lost the onion and just garnish the chicken with lemon after roasting. I frequently come back to this recipe because Iâ€™m one of those people who likes the fat on the steak and the skin on the chicken. In this recipe, the chicken skin is wonderfully crisp and perfect.
I used to crisp the skin in olive oil on top of the stove for 10 minutes before the oven but while watching Martha Stewart the other day, I discovered a faster way of achieving the same results. Just heat a pan as hot as possible on top of the stove, put in the chicken skin side down, literally toss in garlic and thyme stems and roast for 15-20 minutes. This is the method Iâ€™ve included in the recipe here.
The green beans are a recipe I lifted from Lidia Bastianich. Itâ€™s great for those bigger denser winter green beans that arenâ€™t the cute little haricot verts and require a bit more stove time.
This tzatziki recipe is another one of my favorites. Iâ€™m definitely a fan of Fage and this is as good a use for it as any. Itâ€™s actually a great breakfast for me as Iâ€™m not really into candy sweet yogurt or sweet breakfasts for that matter. In this context, it becomes an all purpose sauce I slather onto everything else. Iâ€™m a little extreme with it, but I find it particularly good on the chicken and green beans.
I was definitely a little ambitious with doing this menu in under an hour. That night, a meeting ran late and I got home at the appointed hour of the date and had to do all of the cooking with an audience of one. I usually like to get 90% done before anyone arrives so I can actually talk to my guests, but oh well. Everything came together and my date was duly impressed â€“ and asked for seconds.
– 1 head of romaine lettuce
– Â½ red pepper
– Â½ yellow pepper
– Â½ red onion
– Â½ English cucumber
– juice of 1 lemon
– 1/3 c olive oil
– 1 packet peppermint tea
– salt and pepper to taste
– 4 oz feta cheese (optional)
Chop the romaine into 1 inch squares and dice the rest of the veggies into Â¼ inch cubes. Toss all of the veggies, lettuce and mint with the lemon juice so that it seeps into the ingredients (if you put the oil onn first, the lemon slips off of the salad and never really gets in there). Drizzle the olive oil over everything and season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish the salad with feta if you like.
– 17.6 oz. container of greek yogurt (I used Fage 2%, it has most of the silkiness of the whole yogurt with 80% less Fat)
– Â½ English cucumber grated
– juice of 1 lemon
– 2 tbl mayonnaise
– contents of one bag of mint tea (I used Celestial Seasonings)
– salt and pepper to taste (I generally use Â½ t of each)
Combine the yogurt, grated cucumber, lemon juice, mayo, contents of the mint tea bag (you can also use a tablespoon or two of fresh chopped mint) salt and pepper. Mix well and check for seasoning. This is also great made the night before, that way the mint really permeates the yogurt.
Chicken with Thyme and Garlic:
– 1 whole chicken cut up
– 8 sprigs thyme
– 10 garlic cloves
– Â¼ cup olive oil
– salt and pepper to taste
– Â½ lemon
Preheat oven to 425Â°. Season chicken with salt and pepper until well coated on both sides. Heat a large braising pot or frying pan until very hot and add olive oil. Add chicken skin side down. Let brown for 2 minutes or so. Toss in thyme and garlic, coat with olive oil. Put pan in oven and roast chicken for 15-20 minutes, until cooked through. Squeeze lemon juice over cooked chicken.
– 1 C Jasmine rice
– 1 medium yellow onion diced
– Â½ t curry powder
– Â¼ t cumin
– Â¼ t salt
– 2 T olive oil
– 1 Â¾ C water
– 2 tsp butter
– 1 cracked garlic clove
Add olive oil, salt and onion to medium sauce pan. Saute onions until translucent and golden brown, approx 10 minutes. Add butter to pan. Add curry powder and cumin to oil, butter and onion mixture. Saute the spices in oil for 1 minute. Add rice to pot and coat in oil and spice mix. Add water and garlic clove and bring to a boil on high heat. Once the water boils, immediately cover and turn down to a low simmer. Steam for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand covered for 10 minutes. Fluff before serving.
Green Beans with Tomato:
– 1 large yellow onion diced
– 6 cloves garlic cracked
– 14 oz can diced tomatoes
– 1 Â½ lbs green beans with stem removed
– Â¼ c olive oil
– juice of one lemon
– salt and pepper to taste
Saute the onion in olive oil with a sprinkling of salt. Once the onions are translucent, add garlic cloves and sautÃ© for 1 minute. Be careful not to burn the garlic or it will turn bitter. Add the green beans and coat in the oil and onions. Add the tomatoes and lemon juice. Let the beans simmer for 10 minutes then stir. Let simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes until the beans are soft and the tomato sauce is reduced. Check for seasoning before serving add additional salt and pepper as necessary.
Spiced Chocolate Sundaes with Candied Orange and Walnuts:
– Spiced Chocolate Sauce (recipe below)
– 1 pint good vanilla ice cream (I used Ciao Bella Vaniglia, Hagen Dazs Vanilla is also great)
– Candied orange chopped finely (recipe below)
– Â¼ C chopped walnuts
Liberally scoop ice cream into dishes, top with chocolate sauce. Garnish sundae with slivers of candied orange and walnuts.
Spiced Chocolate Sauce:
– 8 oz good 60% cacao dark chocolate
– 6 oz heavy cream
– Â¼ t cardamom
– Â¼ t cinnamon
– Â¼ t ground ginger
– Â¼ t nutmeg
Combine chocolate and cream in a microwave safe container and microwave on high for 30 seconds. Stir and see if it is melting. If not, microwave for 15 second increments until chocolate is melting. When it is ready, stir cream and chocolate together into a smooth sauce. Add the spices and stir.
Candied Orange Rind:
– 4 pieces of orange peel
– 3/4 c sugar
– Â½ c water
Peel 4 3-inch strips of orange rind from an orange. Be careful not to take any of the white pith or it will make the candy bitter. Combine the orange rind, water and Â½ cup of the sugar in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil and let the orange rind boil in the syrup for 10 minutes. Remove orange rind from the syrup and coat in the remaining sugar. Let stand 1 hour or overnight. Remove from sugar, shake off excess, chop as finely as possible.
Enjoy and tell me how yours turns out!
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