Thursday, December 24, 2009

on december 23rd and frisee aux lardons.

So every Christmas Eve since we’ve been together, the boy and I have crab cakes. We’ve also been eating Caesar salad as a side, but this year I think I’m over that. I’m kind of over Caesar salad in general, and I cant pinpoint as to why, but that’s beside the point. I just don’t want to eat it anymore. So I spent some time this week worrying about what side would be good enough for our crab cakes. The boy suggested frites but as we’re having potatoes cooked in duck fat on Christmas Day, I wasn’t keen on that idea either. The other night we were playing the Who Game and I paused the cartoon (you've got to be nuts to play the Who Game along to the movie version) in order to gleefully announce to the boy that I had it! I knew what we were going to eat with those crab cakes on Christmas Eve! And that would be frisée aux lardons. And then I remembered a story about one December 23rd when I was a kid and had frisée aux lardons for the first time. Although it’s not really a story. It’s just one of those memories I have and I’ll open up that window for a bit to let you look at it.

When I was a little kid, we lived on Boulevard d’Argenson in the very upscale but extremely vanilla Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The apartment had a tremendous amount of light and if you leaned out of the living room windows, you could see the top of the Arc de Triomphe. The elderly woman who lived in the apartment before us died in the living room. Why I remember that, I ‘ve no idea. And what does that have to do with a salad? Nothing. Anyways.

I’m not quite sure how old I was, maybe 9? But it was December 23rd, and my mom’s friend Odette came over with her son, who was a couple of years older than I was (and whose name escapes me at the moment). Incidentally, it was thanks to him that I developed an interest in Tintin comic books, as he had the entire collection (I only had two, and I wish I knew where those copies were now, probably festering in a box in my parents basement). I don’t know why I remember the date of this particular visit, other than I spent the evening with my mom’s friend’s son jumping up and down on my parents bed, which is something that I was never allowed to do EVER – what kid is, really? But my mom was being uncharacteristically lenient that night, so we spent probably the better half of two hours jumping up and down on the bed and having a great time. And I remember what we ate for dinner that night, only because it was the first time I’d ever been introduced to this particular dish. My mom made frisée aux lardons. Frisée is one of those bitter lettuces that looks like it’s had a perm. I love it, but it’s one of those acquired taste lettuces, because of its bitterness. And I remember being thrown off by the fact that the dressing was hot – hot bacon vinaigrette to be exact – and holy cow was it good.

I spent another notable night in Pittsburgh making frisée aux lardons for my friend Caprice, while we danced around her kitchen to En Vogue’s Never Gonna Get It playing at full blast volume. But that was in October 2004, not Christmastime, and what does that have to do with right now? Nothing. Just reminiscing here. Play along with me.

Our friend Charles, he who sends the odd gifts, sent us a hunk of slab bacon and a Virginia ham for Hanukkah (we are not Jewish and he gets a kick out of oddball things like sending us a ham for Hanukkah – don’t ask, I don’t get it either). We’ll be using some of that slab bacon for tomorrow’s salad.

This is one of those recipes I have not a single measurement for. Except for the bacon, and that amount is really up to you. I haven’t made this in a while, and I’m doing it from memory so here goes:

Frisée aux lardons, for two

¼ to 1/3 rd a cup of diced up slab bacon (you can use regular bacon if you like, try to get thick cut if possible)
Red wine vinegar
Dijon mustard
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
A few handfuls of washed and dried frisée leaves, or other bitter greens, or another kind of lettuce that will stand up to heat and not wilt immediately (this is not the time for baby spring mix)

Put leaves in a salad bowl. Put however many leaves you want in there.

In a large skillet set over medium heat, sauté up the bacon bits until golden all over. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate to drain slightly, set aside. Keep pan on the burner but turn the heat off from under it.

If you have a ton of bacon grease left in the pan, discard some of it. You’re making the dressing out of this. You can add a bit of olive oil to the pan if you want – this is purely up to you. I prefer my dressings to be a bit more acidic than the average person, but normally the ratio is something like a couple of tablespoons of acid (whether it’s vinegar or lemon juice) to 1/3rd cup of oil. I think.

Splash in some red wine vinegar, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, and a dollop of good Dijon mustard (by “good”, I don’t mean store brand, I mean get your mitts on some Maille or Amora brand, or even some Grey Poupon), and whisk together with the fat/oil (this may steam up or smoke a bit; who cares, keep whisking). Pour this over the greens, toss in the bacon bits, toss it all together and serve.
I’ve seen this with a poached egg on top and that would be totally grand as a meal in itself, but as a side dish to the boy’s Maryland style crab cakes (the only kind of crab cake worth having), without poached egg is the way to go.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Friday, December 11, 2009

it's that time of year again

The boy hitches a ride to work every day with our friend Ken. Sometimes Ken has to leave early or go in late or whatever, which takes some creative scrambling on our part to get the boy around. Yesterday, Ken was leaving work early to go to his kid’s school play, so the boy bribed his boss into letting him leave early as well (it was either that or walk home from Stone Mountain, and I don’t know if you guys who are not living in the ATL know, but Stone Mountain is pretty far away from Alpharetta, where we live). So the boy calls me as they’re driving home to tell me that I need to make a candy apple later that night. And I’m all, DUDE.

You’re probably wondering what the big deal is, since I make these every single Christmas to give away to the Chosen Few (see here, here, and here). But this year I haven’t even begun to think about them yet. I mean, it’s only December 10th for crying out loud. Give me a week or so and I’ll get on it. plus, those things take a fair amount of shopping and mise en place. First, one must pick out The Right Apple. Secondly, one must scour the baking aisles of the grocery stores trying to find a good deal on quality ingredients. I’ve entertained the idea of making my own caramel for these things, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet; I normally buy bags of individually wrapped caramels and use those. But all that planning and shopping and assessing my chocolate stash takes time and effort. Plus I had already been to the grocery store yesterday and didn’t feel like going back out.

Fortunately, while assessing my baking goods stash (sitting on the kitchen floor digging through the right hand side cabinet of the kitchen island) I found three bags of caramel left over from last year. I always have a fair amount of chocolate on hand, as you never know when a batch of chocolate mousse or cookies need to be whipped up. I had a couple of Granny Smiths in the fruit bowl, so when the boy got home, I put him to work peeling the wrappers off of caramels and helping with melting the chocolate in a double boiler on the stove.

An overview of what you’ll need to do in order to produce a fancified candy apple:

1. Wash apple. This is a necessary step or the initial coating of caramel will just slip right off and pool at the bottom, and then you’ll be pissed. Wash with Veggie Wash or rub with a mixture of baking soda and water; rinse; let air dry.

2. Melt caramels in a saucepan with a tablespoon or so of water. Stir often. Do this on low heat and do not walk away. Trust me on this.

3. Those bags of caramels come with popsicle sticks, so use one of those to stick into the top of your apple. Making your own caramel and no popsicle stick? Improvise. Bamboo skewer (a sturdy one) or fork will do. Plunge it into the top of your apple securely. Dip apple into melted caramel mixture, using a spoon or rubber spatula to coat the apple evenly.

4. Place apple on a cookie sheet or plate or whatever flat dish you have that you’ve put a bit of parchment or silpat on. You want that apple to come back off in order to get to the next coating, so the parchment or silpat is crucial. Store in a cool place for a few minutes (fridge, outside, garage).

For this round, since I was only supposed to make the one apple, I double coated it by coating it once in caramel, letting that set in the fridge for a few minutes, then coating it again. Each bag of caramels should evenly coat 4 small apples, unless you’re double dipping. You don’t have to double dip them, but I had the extra, so I did.

5. Put apples back in the fridge/cool place for about an hour to ensure that final coat of caramel stays put.

6. After it’s rested, melt some chocolate chips in a double boiler (pyrex bowl over an inch of simmering water in a saucepan). You don’t necessarily have to use chocolate chips. I found a quarter bag of peanut butter chips lurking in my baking stash, so I melted some of those too in a separate bowl. In order to make the chocolate smooth, you may have to add just a teensy bit of canola or vegetable oil and stir with a rubber spatula. When melted, remove apple from fridge and dip it in the chocolate, coating with a rubber spatula or spoon. You could put the melted chocolate in a squeeze bottle and spray it on the apple that way. I’ve done all kinds of methods. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look pretty to you, because whoever is the recipient of this apple will think you’re the next coming of Martha Stewart and be totally freaked out by your craftiness.

7. Anyway, once you’ve coated the apple with whatever melted mixture you have, place it back on the flat dish and put into the fridge again until ready to bag and use. At this point, you can also roll the apple in chopped nuts or cover in M & Ms or chopped up candy. I happened to have some silver dragées lying around that I found for cheap at Fresh Market last year (I know! “cheap” is not usually associated with Fresh Market. I was lucky). So I coated the top of the apple with those.

A note about the bags to use. If you go to Party City or Joann’s or Michael’s to purchase the bags, do ensure you pick up the larger size. The regular sized bags that are labeled “treat bags” are too small to fit the apples in. Sometimes these larger bags take a bit of hunting down to acquire. I’ve bought them from the Container Store before, but only as a last resort when I couldn’t find them anywhere else – they are not cheap there. I found some colorful stripey larger treat bags at Joann’s a while back and bought all they had. Once you’ve gently stuck your apple in the bag, set bag upright and tie closed with some decorative ribbon or with the twisty tie that comes with it. keep in a cool place until ready to give.

I ended up making two apples last night since I had so much melted caramel that needed to be used up. One is for the boy’s boss, and the other is going to my friend Ryan who I’m going to see tonight (hi Ryan!) who didn’t know until now that she’s getting one today. She’ll get another later on when I end up making the 18 apples (plus or minus a few) that I originally planned on making sometime next week or the week after. Ryan and I are supposed to write a book together, and we will if I can ever get off my lazy ass and go see her.

above photo is fuzzy cos it was taken with my phone and then i messed with it in Photogene and probably made it too bright.