Sunday, September 25, 2011

Foodbuzz 24x24: Cook What You've Got - Improv Food & Wine Pairing Party

Special ingredients, a week's worth of salary for groceries, untested recipes to impress guests and weeks of planning.  It's a Dinner Party, right? 


Let me simplify it for you:

Cook What You've Got!

It's how I manage to spend less on a month's worth of groceries for four - two hungry, growing boys included - than most singles or couples do (without "couponing"! Extreme or otherwise.).

With no income for three months in 2009, it was how I was able to feed my family fresh, delicious and balanced meals that did not include the processed foods which make up the majority of meals for low-income families.(Which ultimately led to the development of this concept.)

What does it mean?

"Use local, seasonal produce and what's already in your kitchen to create fabulous meals on a budget."

When Foodbuzz put out the challenge to create a budget-friendly dinner party using only what's on hand for the monthly virtual feast they call 24 x 24*, I knew it was time to put my philosophy to the ultimate test.  It's easy to throw something together for your family; but to WOW guests, it's tempting to go all out and break your budget and then be too stressed to enjoy your guests.

I wanted to prove to my regular readers and the entire Foodbuzz community that it's possible to do an awesome dinner party using the Cook What You've Got philosophy so I begged them to let me have one of the coveted spots.(I had just been featured in the "Over the Top Dinner Party" 24 x 24 in August so I wasn't sure it would happen.) 

We took the challenge further and asked each guest to bring a bottle of wine so we could use the characteristics of the various wines as well as our ingredients on hand to create our impromptu menu.  Needless to say, the generous people at Foodbuzz chose my proposal.  Thanks, guys!

My planning process for dinner parties:
  1. Look on counter and in fridge - what fruits and veggies do I have?  These are the stars of my menu and will allow me to cook without recipes since they are super fresh and require little to make them shine.  
  2. Look in my freezer for meat, poultry, fish or pre-cooked beans, pesto, tapenades
  3. Look in pantry for fillers:  grains, potatoes, pasta, canned tuna or tomatoes, onions, garlic, etc.
  4. Match everything up to make a complete meal.

Here's how it played out with for our dinner at about 5 o'clock when the first guests arrived last night:

Heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, chard, melons, onions, zucchini and green beans from my Riverdog Farm veggie box.  Tiny heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers my son picked from his school's garden as well as Tokyo turnips and eggplant that were still in the fridge from my veggie box a week before. A couple of our guests shared veggies they had picked including cherry peppers, serranoes, more baby tomatoes and lemon cucumbers.  Then in my own "garden" (wine barrels) there was sage, rosemary, lavender, basil and mint.

Armed with a variety of beautiful veggies, I looked in my pantry and fridge to see what I could come up with:  two kinds of olives, preserved lemons, caponata (an Sicilian eggplant based relish I had made two days before), smoked tomato butter (also made ahead), balsamic vinegar, feta and parmesan cheeses, butter, chicken breasts (only 3 for 10 people), bacon (1/2 of a 12 oz pkg), super dark and semi-sweet chocolate, two kinds of nuts, cream, half & half, cold espresso from a stovetop brew that nobody drank, and bread dough I keep in a large bowl in my fridge almost all the time. 

Fortified with munchies to get the creative juices flowing -  Lavender Almonds and Olive Oil Popcorn with Brown Butter, Sage & Parmesan - we went on to create the rest of the meal.

Our wines with which we were pairing the meal were a French rosé; two tempranillos, one from Spain and one from Winters, CA a lesser known area near Napa; a Pinot Noir and Cabernet from Napa.  The red-heavy wine selections steered us away from my original thought of a Morrocan feast utilizing the preserved lemons and olives to a more spice and smoke driven menu all tied together with grilled bread.

Here's what we finally developed (wine pairing notes in bold):
NOTE:  I am including recipes for the more complicated items, but if it's just a few ingredients, I've broken it down in the list.
  • Meze platter:
    • Herb Marinated Olives (olives, olive oil, dried herb blend in spice drawer) French rosé with the Mediterranean flavors was a natural.
    • Balsamic Syrup (inexpensive store-brand reduced to 1/4 the amount) & Rosemary Infused Olive Oil (olive oil with a branch of rosemary brought up to simmer and turned off to sit for 30 minutes) The intensity of the syrup begged more for the reds than the French rosé which was surprising to me.  California rosés love vinegary preparations, but not the French.
    • Smoked Tomato Butter (use another flavored butter unless you have a stove-top smoker then peel, seed and slice a tomato before smoking for 30 minutes over any type of wood chips) Put it on anything, a shoe even, and it would go with the red wines.
    • Caponata (recipe below) - The sweet and sour nature of this dish didn't work by itself but along with the chicken it was perfect with the Tempranillos.
  • Quick Pickled Cherry Peppers and Tokyo Turnips (1/2 cup apple cider vinegar with 2 bay leaves, 2 tbsp brown sugar, large pinch of salt and about a lb of mixed whole baby vegetables.  Cover with water and boil until just barely tender. ) The cherry peppers killed the wine, but the turnips were sweet and almost worked with the rosé, again, it would have very much worked with a California style.
  • Heirloom tomatoes with olive oil, sea salt, fresh basil and lots of freshly cracked black pepper (just what it says) The French rosé was a classic pairing with the simplicity of this dish.
  • Lemon cucumber salad with feta, yogurt, dill and fresh mint (again, just what it says)  Pinot Noir was a surprising perfect pairing with the briny and herbal notes. 
  • Spiced rubbed and bacon-wrapped chicken Pinot Noir again (the workhorse wine of the evening) and the Cabernet were especially good with the spices and smoke.
  • Grilled Flatbread (basic Artisan Bread in 5 minutes A Day boule recipe.  See my Pesto Piadini post for the how-to's) - Bread and wine, what else can I say.
  • Double Chocolate Gluten-Free Brownies with Quick Vanilla Ice Cream and Espresso Syrup  The most unexpected pairing of the night...dessert with Tempranillo.
Everyone set about creating the menu and an hour later we sat down to a feast which finally ended around 11:30.  It never ceases to amaze me how food and wine cause people to forget about time and just enjoy life!

(Okay, I'm admitting up front, this is poor photography, please don't judge. ;) I wanted to capture the spirit of the night without flash and with a simple camera, so this is what you get.)

Here are the recipes, but I encourage you to simply use this as inspiration.  The whole idea of CWYG is to make cooking as enjoyable and flexible as it should be.

As a special gift for my readers, subscribe for RSS feed or as a follower and email me with "Send Me The List" in the subject line and I'll send you a code to download my list for FREE.  Keep it on your fridge and slowly gather the ingredients on the list. Once you do, you will be able to easily make hundreds of meals without worrying about anything but fresh items.


Olive Oil Popcorn with Brown Butter, Sage and Parmesan
Leave out the sage if you don't have it.  Substitute other hearty herbs like rosemary or thyme or just use lots of black pepper.

1 stick butter
20 or so sage leaves
olive oil
black pepper

In a small skillet over medium high heat, melt one stick of butter along with several fresh sage leaves.  Once the sage has become a little lighter in color and slightly brown around the edges, remove the leaves to a paper towel and let them drain.  Reduce heat and let the butter continue cooking over medium low heat until it is brown and has a very nutty fragrance.  Watch carefully because it will go from the perfect point to black and burnt in a few seconds.

Once the butter is ready, eyeball enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a large pot followed by enough popcorn to cover the oil.  Cover the top with a lid offset or if you have a steamer insert for your pot, turn it upside down over the top so the popcorn won't come out, but the holes will allow steam to escape.  Cook over medium high heat, shaking once the popping starts, until all the kernels have popped and the popping really slows down. Dump the popped corn into a large bowl and toss with the brown butter.  Add a generous handful of grated parmesan, lots of freshly ground black pepper and the sage leaves.  Toss again and serve.

Lavender (or Rosemary) Almonds
Toast 2 cups of raw almonds in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until fragrant.  Meanwhile, measure 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium glass or metal bowl.  In a ramekin, stir together 1 tbsp sugar, 2 tsps salt, and 2 tsp lavender buds or rosemary leaves, slightly crushed or chopped.  When almonds are fragrant remove them and toss with the oil until the nuts have almost completely absorbed it.  Sprinkle on the sugar mixture and toss well.  Let cool then serve.

1 medium eggplant
1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped carrots
4 cloves garlic, minced
large pinch red pepper flakes
1 lb tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped (or substitute a 14 oz can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped)
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp capers
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts, optional (very expensive ingredient, so feel free to leave out.)

Cut ends off of eggplant.  Cut into large 1/2" thick planks lengthwise then cut into 1/2" wide sticks.  Cut across to make 1/2" cubes. Sprinkle heavily with salt and place in a strainer over the sink to drain.  Using a paper towel, pat the eggplant pieces to remove excess water.

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet.  Transfer the eggplant into the oil and cook until brown on all sides.  Remove and add the remaining olive oil and immediately saute the onion, celery and carrots until softened.  Add the garlic and saute until fragrant.  Add the eggplant back in along with the remaining ingredients.  Cook together until all the vegetables are soft and the tomatoes, brown sugar and vinegar have almost been absorbed.  It will be a very thick relish-like mixture.  Can be served cold, hot or room temperature. Very good with grilled, meaty fish such as tuna, salmon or swordfish.

Spice Rubbed and Bacon Wrapped Chicken
I only had 3 chicken breasts to serve 10 people so we cut the chicken breasts in half horizontally to make thin filets.  We then cut the filets into three pieces each to make about 20 small pieces.  Using half strips of bacon worked perfectly.  They were perfect appetizer portions but you can simply use chicken breasts and wrap them with whole bacon slices.  This was awesome with the Tempranillos.

1 tsp each fennel seeds, ancho chile powder, and paprika
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
large pinch of kosher salt
1 lb chicken breasts (about 3 chicken breasts)
1/2 lb bacon

In a clean spice grinder, blend up all the spices and salt.  Coat the chicken in the seasonings and wrap in bacon.  Place on a baking sheet and broil on the middle rack of oven on both sides until cooked through and the bacon is crisp.

Double Chocolate Gluten Free Brownies
Adapted from Great Gluten-Free Baking by Louise Blair

4 1/2 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

11 tbsps butter
1 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsps vanilla extract
3/4 cup ground almonds
3 tbsps rice flour
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 oz chopped very dark chocolate (I used Ghirardelli 86% dark chocolate because that's what I had)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray a 9 x 13 pan with cooking spray or grease with butter.

In a large bowl, microwave the semi-sweet chocolate and butter on high for 1 minute.  Stir well until chocolate is totally melted into butter.  Add remaining ingredients except walnuts and dark chocolate.  Fold in walnuts and chopped chocolate.  Spread into pan.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the top is shiny.  Cool completely and cut into squares.

Quick Vanilla Ice Cream
Requires a countertop or other ice cream maker.  Just serve the brownies with whipped cream if you don't have an ice cream maker.

1 cup heavy cream
2 cups half & half (light cream)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Whisk the ingredients together until sugar dissolves.  Pour into ice cream maker and process until the ice cream is like soft-serve.  Freeze in coldest part of freezer until ready to serve.

Espresso Syrup
1 cup brewed espresso or double strength coffee
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup cream
Cook the espresso and sugar together over medium high until it is reduced by 2/3 and syrupy.  Stir in the cream and let cool completely.

*Fascinating and fun to read, 24 x 24 is twenty four bloggers from all over the world hosting dinner parties then blogging about them on the same day.

Copyright 2011 Christi Flaherty, TablaVie Cooking Classes

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on the 24x24! Looks like you had a great time. :)


Welcome. I value your comments. If you think you would like to use my site for your personal advertising purposes, I would appreciate you emailing and asking me first. I've had a recent outbreak of SPAM, so I'm a little cautious. But legit conversations are always welcome.

Thanks, Christi

Copyright 2012 TablaVie Personal Chef Service

All photos and recipes may not be used without express permission from Christi Flaherty, owner and creator of Cook What You've Got Concept and blog.
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