Monthly Archives: April 2012

Release the Pressure

Perhaps, the idea of using a pressure cooker scares you, as it once did me.

I’d heard all the horror stories of dried rubber gaskets resulting in pressure cooker explosions, which either caused serious bodily injury or at the very least made an awful mess.

Nevertheless, these days a pressure cooker is one of my favorite pieces of cooking equipment. (Albeit, mine is an electric one that I bought as a gift for my mother-in-law, a lifelong pressure-cooker enthusiast, whose diminishing eyesight was making it impossible for her to operate her manual one, but whose miniscule counter space couldn’t accommodate such a large machine.)

Almost every day during the colder months, I’m grateful to the pressure cooker for the speed with which it lets me throw together a cozy weeknight stew or pot roast. Yet, it wasn’t until just the other day-with weekend guests imminent-that I thought what a perfect tool it would be for producing company dinners for weekend visitors.

The thought occurred to me while I was making a last-minute Wednesday night meal of short ribs in the pressure cooker. I did it, more or less according to Mark Bittman’s recipe, by browning the meat in the pressure cooker in a little olive oil, putting it aside, discarding most of the oil, and sautéing a few chopped yellow onions and a minced clove of garlic in what remained. Then, I returned the meat to the pot, added some chicken stock and red wine, and a few tablespoons of Dijon mustard, some large chunks of carrots, small red-skinned potatoes, and fresh string beans, and programmed the machine for 40 minutes at high pressure. When it was finished, I had a complete meal in one pot.

With the help of the pressure cooker, I can spend the day entertaining my guests, and produce a home-cooked meal while they’re having cocktails. Of course, I could make the meal in advance instead, but there isn’t always time. Or, I could broil or pan-fry, but those time-critical techniques are easy to mess up, while you’re chatting with guests in your kitchen.

A bit of preliminary browning may be required when you’re using the pressure cooker, but once everything is in the pot and you’ve set the cooking time, you’re free to turn your full attention back to your guests. The pressure, so to speak, is off.

Clean Up Your Act

“Vacuum first, then dust” was one reader’s response to “This Month’s Question,” beginning on page 31 of the May 2012 issue of Real Simple magazine (www.realsimple.com): “What ingenious cleaning trick did you learn from your mom?” That reader’s reply got me wondering if instead of following my usual habit of ending with the vacuuming, I should start there.

Vacuuming “stirs up dust,” so you have to duplicate the dusting afterward, or so that reader’s mother convinced her. My logic has always been that when you’re dusting, some of the dirt lands on the floor. If you vacuum last, you eliminate it.

I’ve never noticed if vacuuming deposits dust on my clean furniture. But, a few hours after I’ve put away the vacuum, and sometimes (horrors!) just after my guests leave, I often start to notice “dust bunnies,” which apparently were unearthed by the vacuum.

Which way makes the most sense? I’d love to hear what you think…and what you do.

Caterer’s Cocktail Party Do’s and Dont’s

Last winter, I was fortunate to be on hand at a tasting catered by On the Marc Events (www.onthemarcevents.com) at the Classic Car Club in downtown Manhattan, where I was treated to a magnificent menu of classic dishes creatively reinterpreted as single bites: Among them, mini Maine lobster rolls; braised beef short ribs on roasted fingerling potato with horseradish sauce, Ahi tuna tacos with avocado aioli, and “made-on-site” warm cinnamon donuts to die for. Amazingly, these delights emanated from a tiny makeshift kitchen, cordoned off from the mammoth main event space and were passed on trays. How can you pull off an impressive spring or summer cocktail party at home without an executive chef and a serving staff? For some answers, I turned to a master, Chef Marc Weber (pictured below), owner of On the Marc Events, who served up the savvy suggestions summarized here:

Chef Marc Weber

Make the Menu Manageable-Good menu planning is the “secret to successful catering,” and that’s even truer for the home cook. So consider the equipment, space, and timing at your disposal and plan accordingly. For instance, if you don’t have a big enough kitchen, if you don’t have a big oven, don’t bake everything. Come up with some different ideas and build your menu around them.

Time It Right- Timing is a critical factor, so schedule carefully. Don’t forget that some items take a lot of time and others take five minutes, so they can’t all be cooked simultaneously. Make life easier by diversifying your menu, too, so there aren’t too many hot hors d’oeuvres, which inevitably end up cold.

Be Cool- Consider dispensing with hot items altogether. Just because your parents served hot hors d’oeuvres, doesn’t mean that’s the rule. From April to October, a menu of room temperature food is “a beautiful way to entertain.” Two good options are gazpacho (see recipe below) and bruschetta, which is pretty much anything on a crostini–seasonal vegetables, fruits, cheeses.

Chill Out-If you’re serving cold dishes that must stay cold for safety’s sake (some fish dishes, for example), create an instant outdoor frig by nesting the food bowl in another bowl filled with crushed ice. It’s easily obtainable from your fish monger. Bring a cooler along to transport it. But room temperature is the more relaxing, better bet, and there are all kinds of good possibilities. Two On the Marc favorites are Thai chicken salad (made with coconut milk, ginger, scallions, basil, cilantro, peppers, cucumbers, and carrots), served on a bar with lettuce cups so people can make their own wraps; and a play on steak frites, made by searing small portions of filet mignon until medium-rare, slicing them, and serving them with compound butter and goat cheese.

Top Yourself– Once you’re comfortable cooking, you can pair almost any ingredients together and make it taste good…within reason. The only limitations are outside factors (kitchen, staff, and season). You could take asparagus, interesting spring mushrooms, make a corn puree, and add sugar snaps. Cook them individually, chop them up, toss them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper, and you’ve created a fun, different kind of bruschetta. It’s “pretty much a frig cleaner,” so even if all you find in the store is red peppers and leeks, you have the makings of a tasty topping.

Seek Help-It’s a mistake to cut out the “staff component,” as so many people do. Even if you handle all the cooking yourself, think about hiring someone just to expedite the food. It’s the best $100 you’re ever going to spend, because having help will allow you to spend more time with your guests. One good source of staff is a cooking school, where you can solicit the help of a young chef ($20/hr. is a reasonable rate for someone from a cooking school). Get to know that person and use him or her for all your entertaining. Or hire a caterer…like me.

Go Interactive-People enjoy serving themselves, so let them do it. Instead of being in the kitchen making 30 smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres on crackers, set out a bowl of the mixture and put out the crackers or potato chips beside. Not only does it relieve you of the labor, but it’s a fresher approach. If someone walks in 45 minutes after the party starts, the chips or crackers aren’t soggy. On the Marc does all sorts of serve-yourself bars and so can you: bruschetta, smoked salmon, ceviche, even gazpacho. Set out two or three kinds with shot glasses, and let people pour their own gazpacho shooters.

Try Intoxicating Combos-Tying in beverages with the food is another “fun and hip” idea that people really like. For instance, if an event offers a sushi bar, we might accompany it with sake shots and Sapporo, the Japanese beer, so “people can kind of get the whole experience.” The same concept works with Mexican food, where you could serve tequila shots or Coronas and margaritas.

Gazpacho (recipe courtesy of On the Marc Events)

Ingredients:

8 plum tomatoes

1 English cucumber, peeled

2 red bell peppers

1/8 -1/4 red onion (depending on size)

1 clove of garlic

2 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoon sugar

20 leaves of basil

Preparation:

Chop the tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, and onion into 1-inch cubes and put in food processor or blender, along with remaining ingredients. Pulse to preferred consistency.

Optional Add-ins:

Peppers, onions, tomatoes, basil, scallions, cucumbers, sour cream, shrimp, crabmeat, or croutons. And if your guests are up for a little spicier flavor – add a little raw garlic, jalapeno pepper or Sriracha (Asian hot sauce!)

Garlic croutons preparation:

Toast slices of baguette that have been brushed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. When they come out of the oven, rub with a raw garlic clove.

Crabmeat Salad – buy cooked crabmeat, mix lemon and oil and add directly to the gazpacho.