Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Birthday

There comes a time in many peoples’ lives when heading to the bar is no longer very entertaining for the birthday. When I was in college at NYU, my good friends had a weekly beer spot. We were around 19-20 and found a dive bar in the East Village that did not card us. We loved that we were the youngest ones in there (or so we thought), we loved the faint smell of urine and puke, covered up by cigarettes (or so we thought). The found art objects installed on the wall were good conversation topics during the lax in our card games (we met for a round of Rummy 500 with a 1 pitcher purchase per person ruling). It was soon time for someone’s 21st birthday and we ordered a round of shots when our bartender, Rudy, came over to wish his congratulations: “How old are ye now?!” “21!” “But… you’ve been coming here for years?” “Thanks Rudy!”

2 years ago I paid $200 for an open beer bar for 2 hours. A great deal. There were so many beers stationed around the room one could leave a pint in one area, speak with a friend in another corner, and find beer interspersed throughout the trek for the taking.

But now, I like to be at least semi-conscious at the end of the night. I do not like waking up in the morning unable to do anything but mope. Yes, it is great fun to have a free night at the bar while your friend’s buy you drinks (really just seeing how drunk they can get you before you collapse into unconsciousness), but D and I both agree, a new kind of birthday should be celebrated this time around.

This past Saturday was D’s birthday. He called for a birthday dinner with his nearest and dearest. In his overzealous birthday glee, D set the hours of the night from 5pm to 4am—whether to come before one’s big night out, or end it at our place, was one’s prerogative. (Guests began arriving at 6pm and our last guest left around 3:30am.) Because of this time frame, I thought it best to provide the birthday goers with small nibbles of food to chat and eat the night away (and whoever would be there for the pumpkin cheesecake birthday cake would get to indulge). With this, we could also prepare just over half the food initially, and as others come, prepare the remainder. Without further ado, the menu for the curious:

• CHEESE PLATTER. Key to any gathering. Since there would be a lot of other food I only bought 3 varietals: one creamy and nutty cow’s milk (I think it was Thom), one salty cow’s milk (I forget the name, something like Paeve), and one super-aged, creamy, delicious goat’s milk (Humbolt Fog). Spectacular. Served with grapes.

• JALEPEÑO CHEESE POPPERS. These were on the initial menu I posted. They are really good and easy to make: egg whites, parmesan and jalapeños. They are best eaten warm, right off the oil. We decided to forgo these for…

• BRIE BITES. I originally called this dish Brie Bombs, but have changed it for sensitivity purposes. These tiny morsels are so rich and gooey. The last “Halloween” or “Autumnal” party we had I made one giant brie-spinach-flaky pastry bake. It was gone in seconds. I decided this time to make individual “brie bites”:
Makes about 18 pastries.
1 Medium wedge of brie, enough for 18 bite-sized pieces.
1 large handful (or 1 bunch) of fresh spinach, washed, drained and sautéed.
1 pre-made croissant dough roll.
1) Preheat the oven to 350F. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, sauté the spinach 2-3 min until wilted. While the spinach is going, cut the brie into about 20 bite-sized pieces.
2) The pre-made dough should be perforated into triangles. Pull apart the triangles carefully and tear or cut each triangle into two smaller triangles. Place each half-triangle into a mini cupcake liner or mini cupcake pan.
3) Place a small dollop of spinach onto the dough, then a chunk of brie. Assemble all bites. Using the tips of your fingers, gently pull the dough around the spinach and brie and pinch off at the top to close. They should look like dumplings.
4) Bake for about 15 min until tops are golden and brie begins to ooze out of the bites. Serve up hot (though people will eat them when they are cooled too).
NOTE: You can assemble the bites ahead of time and refrigerate. Bake them as guests start to arrive.

• VEGETARIAN THAI SPRING ROLLS. My mother recently sent me a package of rice noodle spring roll dough. I figured I would use them up for the party and whipped up a batch of spring rolls. Not so easy. These are fairly labor intensive, but everyone really enjoyed them, especially the peanut sauce accompaniment. I bought what I thought to be spring roll filling and combined ingredients that I thought would work for the sauce. It took a few trials to get these to hold together and work properly. Trial and error for the first time dish…
Makes 6-8 depending on your damage control
2 carrots, sliced julien (make these as thin as possible so as not to poke through the roll)
1 handful of Asian sprouts (the white-clear varietal)
1 large handful shiitake mushrooms, sliced julien
½ cucumber, sliced julien
1-2 Tbl soy sauce, depending on taste
2 Tbl sesame oil
1) In a saucepan, sauté all ingredients except for the cucumber about 5 min.
2) In luke-warm water, place the spring roll shells and allow to get soft and pliable.
3) Place a small helping of filling onto the center of the shell and add some cucumber strips, fold 2 opposite ends onto center, then roll dough tightly into a thick finger shape. Continue until all spring rolls are filled.
4) CAREFUL: In hot oil (I used vegetable), fry the spring rolls until shell hardens and hold together. This is where I had some casualties. Once done, place on a paper napkin to absorb some oil.

1/3 cup peanut butter (I used chunky)
1/3 cup soy sauce
4 Tbl sesame oil
2 tsp curry powder
1) Mix all ingredients well. I added more soy sauce or oil depending on the thickness to thin this sauce out so I stopped measuring.

• AVOCADO WRAPPED IN PROSCIUTTO. Thinking about these makes my mouth water. They are too easy to make and are so rich and decadent. I finished them off with a splash of lime juice. Everyone thought this a perfect hint of flavor to compliment and separate the flavors of the prosciutto from the avocado.
Makes 32 pieces.
2 avocados
½ lb prosciutto (I bought a fairly inexpensive variety I found at my local supermarket instead of the Italian deli)
½ lime, juiced
1) Slice avocadoes in half lengthwise and remove pit. Slice each half into 4 long spears, then each spear in half
2) Cut each sliced piece of prosciutto into half. Wrap around avocado and secure with a toothpick
3) Sprinkle with lime juice. (The lime juice also helps the avocado from aging and turning brown)

• MINI LATKES. It is just about Hanukah and for some reason I was craving latkes. I never really liked them growing up. It was the song I learned at temple: “Fry them in oil, wrap them in foil! L-l-l-l- latkes, golden brown! L-l-l-l latkes eat ‘um down…” Anyway, I could never eat them after that song—which I’m sure was created to help us young Jews remember tradition and food and eat it all down (and frying in oil allows us to remember the oil burning bright for the 8 long nights of Hanukah). I remember eating latkes that were slightly mushy (more like fried mashed potatoes). I think they are best fried crisp and flaky, or as D said, “why are we making flat, flaky fires?” These were tasty morsels. I really wanted to prepare them with some fresh chunky cranberry sauce, but I ran out of time (and had no cranberries). So if you make them, do the cranberry sauce and let me know how they turn out. I got this recipe from my newest gifted cookbook Jewish Cooking In America.
Makes Makes about 2 dozen latkes
2 lbs russet (or Yukon Gold) potatoes, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, grated
½ cup chopped scallions
1 large egg, beaten
salt/ fresh ground pepper to taste
1) Peel potatoes and put them in cold water. Using a grater, grate potatoes and onion. Place in a fine-mesh strainer or tea towel and squeeze out all the water over a bowl. The potato starch will settle to the bottom; reserve that after carefully pouring out water.
2) Mix potato and onion with the potato starch. Add scallions, eggs, and salt and pepper.
3) Heat a griddle or non-stick pan and coat with a thin film of vegetable oil. Take about 2 Tbl of the potato mixture in the palm of your hand and flatten [this is easily done by squeezing the potato mixture tightly between your two palms]. Place the potato mixture on the griddle, flatten with a large spatula, and fry for a few minutes until golden. Flip the pancake over and brown the other side. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve immediately.

• WHITE BEAN BRUSCHETTA. This was my favorite. Salty, rosemary good. They were also tremendously easy to prepare. People were initially afraid of them. Yes, they do look slightly strange. But wow, delicious and savory. I had leftover anchovies from my anchovy garlic bread and thought to put it to use as a base for this bruschetta. The result was perfect.
Makes about 20 pieces
1 loaf good French or Italian bread, sliced thin and at an angle
4-6 anchovies, drained of oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
5 Tbl olive oil
1 Tbl butter
1 can white (Northern) beans, drained
1 Tbl rosemary
1) Preheat oven to 325F. Slice the bread and place on a baking sheet.
2) In a small sauce pan, combine 3 Tbl olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies. Smash the anchovies with a fork or spoon and swirl, creating a paste. Cook for 2-3 min. Using a cooking brush, spread the anchovy paste onto the bread. Bake for 8-10 min until bread dries out and turns slightly golden.
3) While bread is baking, prepare the beans: combine beans, 2 Tbl olive oil and the rosemary. Using a handheld blender (my old safety) or a food processor, pulse the mixture (like hummus), leaving slight chunks, but a mostly creamy consistency.
4) Top each piece of anchovy dusted bread with beans and sprinkle some rosemary on top.

• SOUR CREAM DIP W/ VEGETABLES. Very simple. This was a last minute thought as a quick and dirty dip for guests to munch on while things were cooking. No need for a real recipe: 1 packet dry soup mix (like an onion soup mix), 1 12-oz container of sour cream. Mix, refrigerate for 1-2 hours, serve with sliced veggies. It is very good and people will be amazed how easy it is.

• MINI CRAB CAKES. These were okay. In our pressed time chunk crab meat could not be found—go figure. So canned crab, which looked more like pink tuna was bought. They were also a little spicy (which some really enjoyed)—compliments of chef D and his zeal for Tabasco. This recipe is from the Joy of Cooking, 1975 ed.
Makes about 12 2-inch cakes
1 2 Tbl butter
2 Tbl onion, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup cream
½ cup bread crumbs
2 cups lump crab meat, chopped
½ cup celery, finely chopped
½ tsp dry mustard
2 Tbl parsley, chopped
½ tsp salt
½ tsp paprika
1) In skillet over medium heat warm butter. Sauté onions in the butter, about 5 min.
2) In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine all ingredients (including the onion- butter mixture). Refrigerate for 1 hour.
3) Warm a skillet over medium heat with 1 Tbl butter. Form small patties and brown both sides, about 5 min each side.

• PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE. I know this recipe keeps coming up. It must be my recipe of the year. It is tremendously delicious, creamy, pumpkiny and good. I topped this off with a drizzle of maple syrup and walnuts. Recipe does not need repeating, it can be found here.

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