Updated: Feb 23
December in the year of Covid, 2020. The holiday season was upon us. Faithfully following CDC guidelines, we hadn’t seen each other since March, except for our Zoom meetings. Michele, the soul of sociability, who loves people and parties, suggested that, if we couldn’t party together as usual, we could try to do one on Zoom. We chose the cocktail hour and each prepared an appetizer to be shared by all three households. We all live within three minutes of each other so passing each appetizer to all was not a problem. Further equipped with our favorite wine or cocktail, we toasted each other, wishing for health and better times to come. It was wonderful. We had a lot of laughs and great conversation that ranged from viruses and vaccines to politics and people. We had such a great time that we had to do it again and decided on New Year’s Day. That one turned out just as enjoyable so we decided to do it on a monthly basis until the day of normal social contact returns. Half a loaf is way better than none!
The December Zoom Party
All ready for Zoom Cocktail Party.
Fun with Kataifi
A new product to play with! Met, my favorite super market, is a small place with friendly people and an amazing number of non-run-of-the-mill items. Surprisingly, Met did not have the phyllo cups I was looking for. What they did have was frozen kataifi, a very thin phyllo dough that looks like shredded wheat and has a marvelous crunch as you bite into it. Typically used for Near Eastern pastries, I was intrigued. Could kataifi be used as we use crackers for appetizers?
Never having worked with kataifi before, I had a bit of learning to do. To make a cracker-like base, nonstick muffin tins were perfect. The package directions said to carefully separate long strands and shape them as desired. I tried and wound up with a lot of smaller pieces as well as long strands. So, I tried two ways, using only long strands or mostly the smaller pieces. I spread the strands on the bottom of each muffin cup (no greasing needed) to make a layer about 1/8-inch thick and then pressed them just a bit up the sides to form a very shallow cup. Both baked beautifully to a golden brown, slid nicely out of the muffin cup and held together as I built the topping and placed them on serving plates. However, when bitten, the ones made from smaller shreds crumbled more so I recommend using the long strands as much as possible. Don’t worry about the crumbling. Inevitably, even when kataifi pastries are made by experts, crumbling will occur. It’s part of the fun.
To top the kataifi, I made a mixture of three cheeses in equal amounts. Feta and goat cheeses, used widely in the Near East, were combined with cream cheese to make a pliable blend. For color and design, I topped the cheese mixture with three jewel-like pomegranate seeds. The verdict? Pretty and pretty delicious!
Our first Zoom cocktail party called for an impressive appetizer, but hopefully one that would not be too time-consuming. Something baked in puff pastry sounded apt. There are two recipes for individual mushroom tarts that I love, one by the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the other by the Chef Tom Colicchio. Not able to decide between the two, I combined elements from each. and ended up making them with caramelized shallots, anchovy paste, and mushrooms baked in ramekins with pastry on top. After baking, they were flipped over on plates to form little pastry dishes filled with mushrooms - pretty, tasty and easy.
Sriracha and Wasabi Deviled Eggs
For our first Zoom cocktail swap, I found myself at a loss for what to make. After all, for the last nine months while in quarantine all I’ve done was cook, bake and eat. So I decided to surf, not the waves, but the Internet. I found an interesting recipe for deviled eggs. Ahh….not just any deviled eggs, these eggs were really special. What made them special was the hints of wasabi and Chinese five-spice powder, as well as the unique egg marinating process.
For plating, I used a Villeroy & Boch dish with a scene from Noah’s Ark. I thought it symbolic to gather my eggs on this plate, just as Noah had gathered his animals on his ark. Just a little levity during this challenging time!
Below is the link along with my thanks to Joanne Chang for posting such an interesting recipe.
The Zoom Party on New Year's Day
Ya gotta party on this day!
What a day! January 1, 2021. EVERYONE is ecstatic! We can turn the page on 2020!! We must celebrate together! But we still can’t get together in person, so back we went to Zoom. Each of us made an appetizer to be shared.
The first kataifi exploit worked so I reprised its use as appetizer base. This appetizer was more complex. I wanted a set of flavors that would be distinctive but complement each other and provide vibrant color.
I topped each kataifi “cracker” with three layers. The bottom layer was caramelized onion flavored with fennel: 2 pounds of yellow onion cooked with one tablespoon of olive oil, one tablespoon of butter, a teaspoon of sugar, two teaspoons of a good balsamic vinegar and, in the last minutes of cooking, one teaspoon of freshly ground and toasted fennel seed. On top of that was a mixture of goat cheese and chopped arugula. For the final layer I mashed blood orange sections*, sauteéd them in just enough butter to coat the pan, and then added a small amount of Grand Marnier. The result? Yum!
*The easiest way to get the flesh devoid of pith is to halve the orange. With a thin, serrated knife, cut alongside the white pith to free the orange sections, in the same way people prepare grapefruit for easy eating.
Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps Filled with Goat Cheese Mousse
These came from a recipe in the French Laundry Cookbook by chef Thomas Keller. The goat cheese mousse is excellent, easy to make, and can be prepared 2-3 days in advance. The crisps are somewhat tricky because one needs to work quickly to form them into tulip shapes before they cool and harden. Even though my crisps did not come out perfect, the mousse covered the flaws.
Roasted Garlic and Eggplant Custard with Red Pepper Dressing
Given I have so much time on my hands these days, I began to look through my dozens of cookbooks. (Remember them?) I found the recipe along with a beautiful photo of the finished product in an old appetizer cookbook. It was attractive to me given it was a warm appetizer for these cold winter days. I made it along with its many steps from roasting garlic to grilling peppers. It was time consuming and the end result was okay but did not meet my expectations for a dazzling appetizer. We’ve all had this experience - lots of work for a result less than wonderful. Still, the custard had good, if not fabulous, taste and it was, visually, lovely to look at.
The Zoom Party on Inauguration Day
January 20, 2021
Choosing a day in January for our monthly Zoom party was a no-brainer. Cause for celebration? Inauguration Day!
Patriotic Fruit and Cheese
How to suggest the meaning of the day in an appetizer? Just like glue, red, white and blue stuck in my mind. And the sweetness of relief! Can I combine our patriotic colors with ingredients that are sweet? White cheese springs to mind. But is there one that is sweet? Yes. Mascarpone is often labeled sweet. It’s made with heavy cream and is less acidic than cream cheese, ricotta and similar cheeses. The fruit, I thought, should be sweet but have a distinct tang to complement the sweet cheese. A no brainer - raspberries and blueberries.
I made crostini with a nice crusty baguette, smeared each generously with mascarpone and topped the cheese with the berries. Certainly simple to prepare and pretty enough, but what about taste? A bit on the bland side, we all agreed. To bump up the taste, I would try the addition of some sweet spices such as cinnamon or cloves or allspice. Later, I toasted ground allspice and added it to the mascarpone. Definitely more character.
For our Inauguration Day Zoom cocktail party, I made Eggplant Caponata, and topped it with fresh ricotta seasoned with black pepper and a grate of fresh nutmeg. I chose a fluted glass to show off the appetizer and rimmed the glass in chopped basil and parsley. Placed on a blue and white plate, I topped appetizer with a puff pastry star.
Caponata in Iceberg Lettuce Cups
I wanted an appetizer that could benefit from being made a day in advance and that did not need to be heated up. Caponata fit the bill. I had made Epicurious' Classic Caponata before and thought the taste was excellent. The only change I made to the recipe was to add 1/4 cup of golden raisins.
But, I also had to make the presentation dazzling. I remembered reading the French Chef Jacques Pepin's book, where he mentioned that he likes to serve appetizers in neat little iceberg lettuce cups. That sounded like a good look.
However, it turned out to be harder than I thought to separate the lettuce leaves into individual cups. Almost all tore and presented a very jagged appearance. But, after filling them up and taking some photos, I decided that I liked the way they looked. Judge for yourself.
The Valentine's Day Party on Zoom
Could we let this day go by without celebration? Of course not, we answered. In fact, let’s make this Zoom party extra special. Let’s do a full dinner and invite Billa’s brother and sister-in-law, Eli and Elaine Reiss. We assigned one course to each household. Distributing four courses to four households was a bit more difficult logistically than dealing with just three dishes and three households. But it all went smoothly.
I usually key the dishes I make to the occasion and season. Not this time. I’m not sure why, but my imagination would not generate ideas to represent Valentine’s Day. Rather, I thought about what the guests in our party would enjoy. The result - a kind of opposition of flavors from Northern and Southern climes.
Mushroom Paté Wrapped in Smoked Salmon
Perhaps the Arctic weather of recent days inspired this combination of food associated with Northern climates. The mushroom paté was a take on that yummy Northern European combination of mushrooms sautéed with shallots (or onion), white wine, sour cream and dill. I wrapped a slice of smoked salmon around a teaspoon of paté and skewered the packet with a frilly red toothpick.
Sauteéd Peach with Basil on Kataifi
While the Salomons and Rubensteins have had their fill (that’s a pun) of kataifi in previous Zoom cocktail parties, Eli and Elaine were not yet acquainted. To contrast with the Northern appetizer, or perhaps to evoke the warmth of summer weather, a combination of sweet peach and spicy basil should do the trick. I sauteéd slices of fresh peach in a bit of butter until the edges were just beginning to brown and then finished the peaches by caramelizing them with a couple of splashes of Worcestershire sauce. Roughly chopped, the peaches were combined with chopped basil to top kataifi “crackers” (described previously).
Tomato Bisque with Fresh goat cheese Croutons
So far, it’s been a gray, cold, icy and snowy February here. To cheer and warm us, I was happy to volunteer to make a nice warming soup.
Valentine’s Day calls for a red soup. That presents three options - beet, red pepper, and tomato. We have an excellent beet soup in the Valentine’s Day chapter of our soon-to-be-published book, The Dish on Dazzling Dinners, I wanted to do something different. Red pepper soup is not universally liked, so that left tomato. Specifically, a favorite recipe that was printed in the New York Times a few years ago that garnered 5 stars from over 300 reviews. “Tomato Bisque with Fresh Goat Cheese” was likely to please everyone.
The only thing I wanted to change about the recipe was to reduce the amount of salt. Craig Claiborne, a former food critic of the NY Times, once said that he substituted fresh lemon juice for salt with good results. So, I did the same.
To play up the Valentine’s Day theme, I decided to float heart-shaped sourdough croutons in the soup. The croutons were tasty, but brown, a color one does not associate with Valentine’s Day and one that does not “pop” in a red soup. A smear with goat cheese made them white. Much better!
For the Valentine’s Day entrée, I wanted to make boeuf bourguignon given that once in containers it would travel well to my guests and reheat easily on the stove top. In my search for the best recipe, I came across an article in The Washington Post that featured Anthony Bourdain’s boeuf bourguignon. The article noted that it was one of their most popular recipes ever! Hence without haste, I embarked on replicating his recipe, with my own addition of mushrooms sauteed in butter. To accompany the dish, I made Yukon Gold mashed potatoes to soak up the rich gravy, which was enhanced by beef demi-glace as recommended by Mr. Bourdain. By the way, the dish was made a day before giving the flavors a chance to meld. The photo speaks for itself!
By Eli and Elaine
Pastry Cups Stuffed with White Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry Sauce
Eli and Elaine are wonderful cooks and absolute masters of gorgeous, delicious desserts. Their contribution to our Zoom party was right in line. They made a perfect, very delicate, golden-brown pastry cup, as crisp as crisp can be. Each bite made a delightful CRUNCH! Mounded high in the pastry cup - a mountain of heavenly, fluffy, white chocolate mousse. Topped with fresh raspberries and raspberry sauce, it was the perfect dessert for Valentine’s Day.