Saturday, September 17, 2011

Weeknight Entertaining


I love to entertain. For years I would to put on elaborate weekend dinner parties, spending all week planning the menu and organizing then all day Saturday making a multi-course feast for four. My husband and I were an adept team. We'd set the ambiance with lighting and music. We took time to pair our wines to the flavors of the meal. Now that we have a toddler, I keep things simple by inviting friends over for special weeknight dinners. I usually just make two courses, but it's still a treat to get together and have a home cooked meal -- especially for my busier friends. Here is a wonderful dinner that can be made ahead, even if you work.

This chili recipe has been in my family for around 30 years. It became known as "Nicole's Favorite Chili" because at a young age, I became the resident stirrer. Most Saturdays there would be a pot of this or some other soup or stew simmering. I would practice my dance moves in our kitchen, equipped with a wooden spoon. Over the years I made this many different ways. I used red or yellow peppers, threw in corn, jalapeƱos, cilantro, substituted the beef for ground turkey, but this week I went back to my mother's standard recipe. It felt like slipping on an old comfy sweater at the start of Fall and relaxing on the couch.


And of course I would never send my guests away without dessert. If the chili was like a warm fuzzy sweater, this dessert is like putting on a sexy cocktail dress: all-dolled up with diamond studs, hair swept back. Enter Nigella Lawson's Budino di Cioccolato. It's rich, utterly satisfying, and an elegant way to wrap up the meal. I am finding great joy in these mini-dinner parties. It's less work than I may have put into this type of event in the past, but it's a reminder to find balance in my life, stay connected to good people, and most importantly, to share what I love: food.

Nicole's Favorite Chili
I like to make this a day before I plan on serving it, because it requires such a long cook-time, and to let the flavors deepen overnight.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onion, minced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, chopped
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
3 cans (16 ounces each) beans (I use two cans of kidney beans and one can pinto beans.)
3 cans (16 ounces each) canned chopped tomatoes
1 can (12 ounces) tomato paste
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
3 good shakes Worchestershire sauce
3 to 4 tablespoons chili powder (more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon cumin

1. Heat oil in soup pot. Add onion, garlic and green pepper. Saute until crisp-tender. Push this mixture to the side and add the ground beef. Cook until well browned. Stir frequently and break up the meat with a wooden spoon as it browns. (Optional, remove fat with a turkey baster, but I usually skip this.)

2. Add the beans which you have drained and rinsed, the tomatoes and tomato paste, water, salt, worcestershire sauce, chili powder and cumin. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer over low heat for 3 to 4 hours. Stir frequently to prevent burning. Taste after two hours and season with additional chili, salt and pepper to taste.

Corn bread muffins
From Jane Brody's Good Food Book
Every chili needs a good corn bread. This one has hearty texture from the whole-meal cornmeal, and the pleasant addition of corn. I adapted her recipe slightly, using half whole wheat flour and half all-purpose, instead of only whole wheat.

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow corn-meal (preferably whole meal)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk (I used 2 %)
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup corn (You can use cream-style corn, or fresh corn but then add 1/4 cup milk and a pinch of baking soda.)

1. In a large bowl, combine the flours, corn meal, baking powder, salt and sugar.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, milk, butter and corn.
Add this mixture to the flour mixture, stirring just until the dry ingredients are moistened.

3. Spoon the batter into 12 greased muffin cups. Bake the muffins in a preheated 425 degree oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are golden.

Budino di Cioccolato
From Nigella Lawson's Nigella Express
Nigella's dessert recipes are always spot on. They offer a lot of bang for the buck, minimal effort and rich flavor.

1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch
1/3 cup cocoa
2 tablespoons boiling water
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 oz dark chocolate (finely chopped, or use chocolate chips)

1. Put the kettle on to boil water and warm the milk and cream together in a saucepan.

2. Put the sugar and cornstarch into another saucepan and site in the cocoa. Add the 2 tablespoons boiling water and whisk to a paste.

3. Then whisk in the egg yolks, one and at a time, followed by the warmed milk and cream and the vanilla extract.

4. Scrape down the sides of your pan and put it on the heat, cooking and whisking for about 3-4 minutes (this took me 9 minutes) until the mixture thickens.

5. Take off the heat and whisk in the finely chopped chocolate before pouring into four small cups or glasses.

6. Cover the tops of the cups with plastic wrap, laying it directly on top of the pudding to stop a skin from forming, and then refrigerate once they are cooler. Make sure they are not fridge-cold when you serve them. You can add a blob of cream, as Nigella does, or top with a few berries like I did.


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