Monday, November 9, 2009

Romantic celebration brunch (just add champagne)

Giridhar and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary last week. We dined at Oyamel, a trendy restaurant that serves what might possibly be the most sophisticated Mexican food I've ever had. Delectable small plates such as black-bean-stuffed plaintain fritters, wild mushroom quesadillas, brussels sprouts in a pumpkin-seed sauce and melt-in-the-mouth corn tamal, just to name a few. We had a wonderful time, but, as always, we felt we could do with another celebration! I was keen to make it a champagne brunch over the weekend, but Giridhar seemed to prefer the idea of a Saturday morning lie-in and (rather cunningly, I thought) pointed out that the food at all of these brunch places was beginning to taste the same to him. Not wanting to be cheated of my brunch-with-bubbly, I went out and bought a bottle of Prosecco and set out to create a fall-themed menu that would be easy to put together without featuring any of the standard brunch items.

For our first course, I decided on a butternut squash soup - simple and comforting. I got the soup base ready while cooking dinner the previous evening; that meant our first course would come together with minimal fuss and I wouldn't have to sacrifice my lie-in! Roasting the vegetables in the oven intensifies their flavor and cuts prep time, since there is no peeling and dicing involved. All I then had to do was heat it up, season it and fry up the purple potato croutons - a last-minute inspiration for a garnish.

Our main course was a mixed mushroom risotto with a side of crusty pan-fried brussels sprouts. I used dried porcini mushrooms in addition to fresh shiitake and cremini mushrooms for an extra flavor boost. It's true that making risotto requires the cook to not stray too far from the stove top; that said, though, I find I can do plenty of other stuff, such as trimming sprouts and grating cheese, while giving it an occasional stir. I kept it warm on the lowest setting while we ate our soup; returning to finish it off with the grated cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil in between courses.

Before embarking on the main course, I had already got dessert going in the oven. I chose a tarte tatin for two, made using Clotilde's time-saving method. She recommends cutting the apples into eighths instead of quarters so that they cook completely under the pastry crust, eliminating the need to simmer them in the caramel on the stove top first. I cheated on the crust, though, using some of the puff pastry I'd saved up in the freezer from my first Daring Bakers' Challenge instead of making one from scratch just for this. It would be even easier with store-bought puff pastry, though it would have to be all-butter (In the US, Dufour is the only such brand I know of)

This was a really fun and easy meal to cook (and eat!), yet one stylish enough for a celebration. The warm tones of the spices complemented the roasted butternut squash in the soup beautifully, and the purple potato croutons added a pleasant visual and textural contrast. The crunchy, fresh-tasting brussels sprouts were a good foil for the earthy creaminess of the risotto. The tarte was the perfect fall dessert, all buttery and caramelly goodness that looks like it took far more effort than it actually did! Washed down with several glasses of bubbly, this made for a relaxed and leisurely midday meal. I'm already looking forward to my next project - creating a festive, seasonal and vegetarian meal for Thanksgiving!
Curried butternut squash soup (Serves 2, with some leftovers)
1/2 of a medium-size butternut squash
1 large onion
1 fat clove garlic
4 cups vegetable stock or water
1 tsp each ground ginger, cumin and coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
To serve (optional): Sour cream, purple potato croutons
Cut the butternut squash at the neck, and then cut each piece lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds. Peel and cut the onion into quarters, leaving the root intact. Place the squash, onion and garlic on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season and roast in a 400F(200C) oven for 40 minutes. When cool, squeeze out the garlic from the skin, scoop out the flesh of half of the squash (reserve the rest for another use), and cut out the root of the onion. Place all of these in a blender with the stock and blend to a smooth puree. To serve, heat until very warm but not boiling. Dilute with more stock till desired consistency is reached. Stir in the spice powders and season to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with a swirl of sour cream and purple potato croutons.
To make the purple potato croutons (this works with other potatoes too), cut the potatoes into a fine dice and blot off any moisture with a paper towel. Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a skillet, toss in the potatoes and fry them, shaking the skillet occasionally, till the potatoes are golden brown. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt.
Mushroom risotto (serves 2-3)
3/4 cup arborio rice
5-6 pieces dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in boiling water to rehydrate
1 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups hot vegetable stock (plus more if needed)
1/4 cup dry white wine (I used sherry instead)
Two small knobs of butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tbsp truffle oil (optional)
In a skillet on medium heat, place one knob of butter and drizzle in a little olive oil. Add half of the onion and the garlic and saute till softened but not colored. Drain the dried mushrooms, reserving their liquid, and chop them fine. Add the fresh and dried mushrooms to the skillet, turn up the heat to medium-high and saute them until cooked. Remove fto a bowl and drizzle in the truffle oil if using.
In the same skillet, add the other knob of butter, a little more olive oil, and the rest of the onion. Saute till softened but not colored, then add the rice and stir around till the grains are evenly coated. Deglaze the pan with the wine or sherry and cook till it evaporates. Next, add the mushroom soaking liquid, strained to remove any dirt. This is full of concentrated mushroom flavor. Now add the vegetable stock, ladle by ladle, and stir till absorbed before adding some more. The rice is done when it is cooked through, but is still firm to the bite - it should not fall apart or be mushy. Stir in the mushroom mixture and the grated cheese, season to taste and serve immediately with an extra dusting of cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil over the top.
Brussels sprouts with almonds (Serves 2 as a side)
18 small brussels sprouts
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp slivered almonds
2 tsp lemon zest
2 tbsp grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sea salt to taste
Wash and trim the brussels sprouts and discard any tough outer leaves. Cut in half lengthwise. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and place the sprouts in, cut side down. Sprinkle with a little salt, cover and cook for about three minutes, then turn the heat up and let the sprouts get browned and crusty, another 2-3 minutes. Toss in the lemon zest, slivered almonds and grated cheese and shake the skillet around so that everything mixes well. Serve immediately.
Tarte Tatin (from Chocolate and Zucchini)
I reduced the ingredients to fit a small cast-iron skillet, base diameter 4 1/2". I used 2 Gala apples, eyeballed the caramel quantity, and used a round of all-butter puff pastry large enough to cover the apples on top. I pricked the pastry round all over with a fork and baked the tarte at 350F(180C) for around 35 minutes. Next time I might try it with Golden Delicious apples instead.

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