Monthly Archives: February 2007

Music and Murder

Picked up two movies from a discount bin a couple of weekends ago. Totally different types of films too.

Mad Hot Ballroom is a charming if light documentary about a program that incorporates ballroom dancing into elementary schools. It’s a neat idea in and of itself. The filmmakers follow three different schools as they prepare for a final citywide competition. A lot of the reviews were critical about the focus on the competition in lieu of focus on the children. I can see the point. This is not a hard-hitting documentary and I have to wonder if the filmmakers made a conscious choice to go this way. It probably was more marketable if only because it had a recognizable/Hollywoodesque plot. It is still worth seeing, however.

On the other end of the spectrum was Capote. The focus of the film is on Truman Capote’s research into the Clutter murders (two ex-cons broke into a Kansas farm house in the erroneous belief there was money and brutally murdered an entire family) that eventually became his “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. Capote is masterfully portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which seems like weird casting. Hoffman is a stocky 5’9′; Capote was 5’3.” But he nails it. Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee and in a throwaway role, Chris Cooper is the local state police chief.

It’s a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing movie. Capote feels drawn to one of the killers (Clifton Collins Jr.) whose life has marked parallels to his own. Nonetheless as he pours literally years into writing the book, he comes to realize that for a successful ending, he needs the killers to die.

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Notes on a Scandal

Had the chance to see Notes on a Scandal last weekend, which I’ve been anxiously anticipating since I first saw the preview. Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, the incomparable Bill Nighy: it’s an instant recipe for success. I was not disappointed.

Dench plays Barbara Covett, a rather embittered spinster schoolteacher who becomes fascinated by Blanchett’s Sheba Hart. The “Notes” of the title refers to Barbara’s diaries. Ostensibly about Sheba, we nonetheless learn an awful lot about Barbara, who is less than psychologically stable. Actually when I think about it, both women are not too stable (Sheba has an affair with a 15-year-old–iffy ground there) and they are certainly both rather unhappy. Anyhow, Barbara learns about the affair and by revealing this to Sheba, manages to insinuate herself into Sheba’s life to an uncomfortable degree.

Notes on a Scandal is very much a character-driven film and it’s a very good one. The screenplay, the direction, the acting–all of it is superb. The Oscar nods are very well deserved.

Perfect for a snowy day

This was in the New York Times last week. Amanda Hesser shared a recipe from an early 20th century cookbook (1907) for Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée. It doesn’t call for any broth and ends up being more of a casserole. A really delicious casserole.

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Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

1 baguette, cute into 1/2″ slices, about 25 to 30
9 TBL softened butter
9 ounces of Emmental cheese, finely grated
8 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 8 cups)
1 TBL kosher salt, more to taste
1 cup tomato puree

1. Toast the baguette slices and let them cool. Spread a generous layer of butter on each slice (about 5 TBL), then lay the slices close together on a baking sheet and top with all but 1/2 cup of cheese.

2. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining 4 TBL of butter over medium heat. Add the onions, season with salt and saute, stirring occasionally, until very soft and golden, about 15 minutes.

3. In a 5-quart casserole, arrange a layer of bread slices, (about 1/3 of them). Spread 1/3 of the onions on top, followed by 1/3 of the tomato puree. Repeat for 2 more layers. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. To avoid boiling over, the casserole must not be more than 2/3 full.

4. In a saucepan, bring 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil. Add the salt. Very slowly pour the salted water into the casserole, near the edge, so that the liquid rises just to the top layer of cheese without covering it. Depending on the size of your casserole, you may need more or less water.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the casserole on the stove and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, then transfer to the oven and bake uncovered for 1 hour. The soup is ready when the surface looks like a crusty, golden cake and the inside is unctuous and so well blended that it is impossible to discern either cheese or onion. Each person is served some of the baked crust and some of the inside, which should be thick but not completely without liquid.

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I didn’t find this at all difficult to make. I got the baguette sliced at the bakery. The most onerous tasks were slicing the onions and grating the cheese. One thing I might try differently is to use a technique from this recipe and fry the baguette slices. At the very least, I would have spread the bread with the butter and the cheese sooner rather than later. I also cooked the onions for about a half hour. I think you get more depth if you cook them longer. It’s not as good the second day and this recipe does make a lot.

What you end up with (I don’t have a digital camera so you’ll just have to Google for images yourself)  is more casserole like than soup like. The layers of bread soak up the salted water and blend with the butter, cheese, and tomato puree and puff up. The flavors are amazing and comforting. Everyone waxes eloquently about the crust–and justifiably so–this is the food of the gods.

Worth the effort

I had Monday off so I spent the day cooking (my way of relaxing). Got this from the new issue of Bon Appetit, but it’s also online here. It’s a little involved, but really really tasty.

1 small head of cauliflower (about 1 pound), cored, cut into 1-inch florets
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon truffle oil

1 refrigerated pie crust
1 large onion, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 large eggs
1 (7- to 8-ounce) container mascarpone cheese (Italian cream cheese)*
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 425°F. Toss cauliflower with 1 tablespoon olive oil in large bowl. Spread on large rimmed baking sheet, spacing apart. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast 15 minutes; turn florets over. Continue roasting until tender, about 25 minutes longer. Cool cauliflower, then thinly slice. Drizzle with truffle oil; toss. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.
Press pie crust onto bottom and up sides of 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Line pie crust with foil; fill with pie weights. Bake crust 20 minutes. Remove foil and pie weights; bake until crust is golden, about 5 minutes, pressing crust with back of fork if bubbles form. Cool crust. Maintain oven temperature.

Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onion; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until onion is deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly.

Brush bottom and sides of crust with mustard. Spread onion in crust. Arrange cauliflower evenly over. Set tart on rimmed baking sheet. Whisk eggs and next 4 ingredients in medium bowl. Stir in Gruyère. Pour mixture over filling in tart pan; sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake until tart is golden and center is set, about 40 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool 15 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 servings.
Bon Appétit
March 2007

I would recommend blindbaking the crust while you prep the cauliflower, but that’s just me. The whole recipe makes for a very flaky, light, luscious quiche.

And that roasted cauliflower? Yummy. Really good on its own.

Chicken and dumplings

I made an old favorite the other day: chicken and dumplings. Classic comfort food and perfect for wintertime. On a practical note, it makes for great leftovers and freezes pretty well too.

I’m a big fan of the recipe I got from a Cooking Live episode, well actually it was a Gourmet recipe that they did on Cooking Live. Anyone remember Cooking Live? Sara Moulton hosted back in the day when culinary training and experience were not seen as a weaknes. About once a week they did a show where someone would cook the same meal in their own kitchen and check in periodically with her.

Anyhow, here’s Gourmet’s original recipe and here’s the FN version, apart from the amounts of chicken broth and chicken, they’re pretty much the same. I’ve made some adaptions which I’ll note below.

1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into parts
1 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 leeks (white and pale green parts only,) sliced thin crosswise and washed thoroughly
(about 1 1/2 cups)
4 shallots, sliced thin (about 3/4 cup)
4 carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced
2 celery ribs with leaves, sliced
1 small bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
3 cups low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup apple cider or juiceFor dumplings:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons half-and-half

Dredge chicken parts in seasoned flour, shaking off excess, and put on a rack. In a large heavy kettle melt butter with oil over moderately high heat until foam subsides and brown chicken in batches (do not crowd,) transferring it to a plate as done, about 5 minutes on each side. Stir in leeks and shallots and cook 3 minutes, scraping the bottom and stirring occasionally. Stir in carrots, celery, bay leaf, and thyme and cook 3 minutes. Stir in broth, cider, and chicken and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered partially, until chicken is cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes. For the dumplings, in a bowl sift together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt and stir in dill. With a fork stir in half-and-half until dough is just blended. With a large soup spoon scoop out 12 dumplings and arrange over chicken mixture. Simmer chicken and dumplings, covered, 12 minutes. (Dumplings are done when a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.) Discard bay leaf.

Cooking Live/Gourmet

I’ve substituted regular onions and frankly, I prefer them to the leeks in this recipe.  The cider adds a lot to the sauce, but it also makes for a sweeter dish. Plus there are carrots. Add in the leeks and it’s a little too sweet for me.

Browning the chicken is the key for this. You don’t want to skimp on the amount of time that takes. Full five minutes on each side of the chicken pieces.

Even with the reduced amount of chicken broth, this make a lot of liquid. I reduced it even further so that I had 1 1/2  cups of broth and 1/2 cup of apple cider; I had some white wine in the fridge and used about a 1/2 cup of that. Gave the whole thing a little something. Anyhow, I ended up with just 3 cups.

I love the dumplings, but they take longer then the prescribed amount of time so allow for that. I’ve substituted whole or low fat milk and had little change. I also used dried dill.

You end up with a dish that has some complexity and texture to it. Before this my dumplings had always looked and tasted a lot like library paste. These are flavorful. I highly recommend trying this recipe.