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Happy Christmas 2015!

After our Feast of the Seven Fishes last night, we don’t have room in our tummies for much more.  But it’s Christmas, and there IS much more!

Here are some goodies we couldn’t do without at the holidays:

Cookies: D. and I made a ton of cookies this holiday: chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, vegan chocolate chip cookies, shortbread, and cut-out sugar cookies.

These are the newest cut-out sugar cookies from my collection, made from a reindeer cookie cutter from Pentik (gift from my friend, T.).  Pentik is an international interior design retailer based in Finland.  Pentik is the equivalent of Crate and Barrel in the US.

Pentik reindeer cookie cutter

Pentik reindeer cookies

As American as apple pie … This year, there was a pie crust malfunction so the apple pie became an apple crisp instead.  E. says. ,to all you pie makers out there, do not use Trader Joe’s AP unbleached flour for making your pie crusts!  Judging by the pie dough, Trader Joe’s flour lacks the gluten needed to hold a pie dough together.  But hey, an apple crisp is good too!

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GrannySmith and Golden delicious

Bûche de Noël: And, last but not least, my favorite thing to make at Christmas is the yule log!  Last year, I hinted that I had a new idea for the bûche de Noël.  Let me present to you, the Stump de Noël!  What do you think?

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I was lazy this year and made the forest “mushrooms” from white fondant instead of meringue.  Like previous years, I used matcha powder for the moss.

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I love this new version of bûche de Noël because I can use my favorite cake and frosting recipe!  It’s also very forgiving because the messier it is, the more authentic it looks. :) No more finicky sponge cakes!

Happy Christmas and bon appetit!

Feast of the Seven Fishes

After my sister remarked that our Thanksgiving table looked the same every year, we decided to do away with the turkey and do something different for our Christmas dinner this year.  She mentioned that she had been dying to try Thomas Keller’s recipe for Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde for a while and felt that Christmas would be the perfect opportunity to indulge in something special.  How about a potluck style seafood and vegetarian dinner, with everyone contributing at least one dish? :)

As we started planning the dinner, we realized that we didn’t want to do our shopping too far in advance because we wanted our seafood as fresh as possible.  My sister suggested doing the dinner on Christmas Eve so we could shop on the 23rd without worrying about certain stores being closed on Christmas Eve.  When I mentioned our Christmas Eve dinner plans to my friend, N., she remarked, “Oh, that’s what the Italians do!  Feast of the seven fishes!  And the dinner is held on Christmas Eve.”  And there I thought we had hatched a new original Christmas dinner tradition! ;) Thank you, Italy!

Feast of the seven fishes

Our Feast of the Seven Fishes

In a nutshell, the Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa dei sette pesci) also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia) is an Italian celebration of Christmas Eve with a meal consisting of 7 different seafood dishes.  The tradition originates from Southern Italy and celebrates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.  The Catholic tradition of abstinence (no eating meat, though fish is allowed) on certain holy days is the inspiration behind the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Salmon chowder

1st course: Salmon chowder by Henni

In hindsight, a chowder was too heavy for a 1st course.  I will have to keep that in mind for next year, if we decide to do this again!

Salmon chowder
From Gourmet magazine, June 2007

1/2 pound red potatoes, diced
1/2 pound sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 cups chopped scallions (from 2 bunches)
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic (3 cloves)
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes
3 cups whole milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 (1 1/2-pound) piece salmon fillet (preferably wild), skin discarded and fish cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt (I found this to be optional)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

  1. Cut potatoes into 1/2-inch cubes, then cook in a 1- to 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan of boiling salted water until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside.
  2. Cook bacon in a 5-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pot, then cook scallions, corn, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and red-pepper flakes in fat in pot over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until scallions are tender, about 5 minutes. Add milk and cream and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat to moderately low, then add potatoes, salmon, bacon, salt, and pepper and cook, gently stirring occasionally, until salmon is just cooked through and begins to break up as you stir, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Discard bay leaf before serving.
D.'s special roast potatoes with secret seasoning, garlic, and Parmesan

2nd course: D.’s roast potatoes

D.’s roast potatoes with secret seasoning, garlic, and Parmesan are famous in our household.  I’m not allowed to post the recipe here but you can always try to ask him nicely for the recipe.  However, I don’t make any guarantees that he will comply with your request! :-p

E.'s stir fried kale

3rd course: E.’s stir fried kale

‘Tis the season for kale!  Stir fried kale with a bit of broth, garlic, and red pepper flakes.  It’s a good accompaniment for seafood.

L.'s lemonade israeli couscous

4th course: Lemonade’s Israeli couscous by L.

This was a great side dish/carb with lots of yummy mushrooms (L. used shitake and cremini)!  Instead of Israeli couscous (aka pearl couscous), you can also use fergola (a Sardinian pasta) or grain such as farro or wheat berries.

Israeli Couscous with Lemon-Truffle Vinaigrette
(From The Lemonade Cookbook)

3/4 pound assorted wild mushrooms, such as crimini, shiitake and oyster, wiped of grit, stemmed and sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Israeli couscous
1 cup vegetable broth or water
1/4 cup Lemon-Truffle Vinaigrette (See recipe below)
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Put the mushrooms on a large baking pan, drizzle with the oil, toss to coat, and spread out in a single layer. Season generously with salt and pepper. Roast, shaking the pan from time to time, until the mushrooms lose their moisture, shrink, and begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a mixing bowl, and set aside to cool. The mushrooms can easily be prepared in advance, covered and refrigerated.

3. To prepare the couscous, place a large dry skillet over medium-low heat. Toast the couscous, stirring frequently, until it smells nutty and is golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Pour in the broth, cover, and simmer until the couscous is just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Set the couscous aside to cool. The couscous can easily be prepared in advance, covered and refrigerated.

4. When ready to prepare the dish, in a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked, cooled mushrooms, couscous, vinaigrette, cheese and parsley. Season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Makes 4 cups.

Lemon-Truffle Vinaigrette

Simply omit the truffle oil for an all-purpose Lemon Vinaigrette.

Juice of 2 lemons
3/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon white truffle oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1. In a small mixing bowl or Mason jar, combine the lemon juice, canola, olive and truffle oils; season with salt and pepper. Whisk or shake to blend.

2. Keep any leftover vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes 1 cup.

My Dad's salmon cakes

5th course: Salmon cakes by my Mom and Dad

My parents made 2 types of salmon cakes: OG and Chinese black bean and garlic.  The OG (original) style salmon cakes were from a recipe originally inspired by Bobby Flay.  The Chinese black bean and garlic version is based on the Bobby Flay recipe.  My Dad and sister kept talking about THE OG salmon recipe and I had no idea what they were talking about!  Apparently my family started making salmon cakes when I went away to college and it became part of our family recipe repertoire.  I won’t tell you how long I’ve been out of college but I’ve never eaten these OG salmon cakes before!  Then I remembered that I did not acquire a taste for salmon until after college so that probably explains why it was never on the table whenever I visited home. :)  In any case, these were very good!  I know that my friend, N. would heartily approve! ;)

    6th course: Mussels with Saffron and Mustard (Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde) made by E.  Recipe from Bouchon

6th course: Mussels with Saffron and Mustard (Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde) made by E. Recipe from Bouchon

Of course, you can’t have moules without frites!  Here are D.’s famous oven baked frites, which are so good that they are a meal in themselves:

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6th course continued: D.’s oven baked frites

Spicy fish in chili oil

7th course: Sichuan water boiled fish in chili oil (tilapia) by Henni

Dessert: Cranberry, caramel, and almond tart by L.

Dessert: Cranberry, caramel, and almond tart by L.

When I asked L. the inspiration behind her choice for such a festive dessert, she replied that she wanted to use up the frozen cranberries she had left over from Thanksgiving! :-D  Well, this “afterthought” was a tart with cranberries and slivered almonds swimming in an ocean of caramel in a pate sucrée crust (similar to shortbread).  Topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this tart turned out to be the all-in-one dessert that had it all: sweet, tart, crunchy, gooey, cookie, and pie rolled into one!

Cranberry, caramel, and almond tart
(From the LA Times)

Standard tart dough

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Let the butter sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, until malleable.

2. Place the powdered sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer or a large free-standing bowl. Add the pieces of butter and toss to coat. Using a paddle attachment with a standing mixer, combine the sugar and butter at medium speed, until the sugar is no longer visible.

3. Add the egg yolk and combine until no longer visible.

4. Scrape down the butter off the sides of the bowl. Add half of the flour, then begin mixing again until the dough is crumbly. Add the remaining flour and then the cream and mix until the dough forms a somewhat sticky mass.

5. Flatten the dough into a thick pancake, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours before preparing to roll out the dough.

6. Lightly butter a 9-inch pastry ring or fluted tart pan and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a nonstick Silpat pad.

7. Once the dough has thoroughly chilled, cut it in half, then cut each piece in half lengthwise. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat, until you have 16 equal pieces. Sprinkle your work surface with a thin layer of flour. Knead the pieces of dough together until it forms one new mass and shape it into a flattened ball. Flour a rolling pin and sprinkle flour again on the work surface underneath the dough. Roll out the dough into a circle one-eighth-inch thick.

8. Dock the dough with a pastry docker or prick the dough all over with a fork. Transfer the dough into the ring or tart pan by rolling about a third of it around your rolling pin, lifting it and placing it into the ring. Gently pat the dough onto the bottom and up the sides of the ring. Trim the edges so that they are flush with the top. Put the baking sheet with the ring into the freezer for one hour. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature before filling.

Filling and assembly

1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into eight pieces
1 cup granulated sugar
1 3/4 cup frozen cranberries
2 cups unblanched sliced almonds

1. Measure the cream and butter into a saucepan and heat it over low heat. When the butter has melted completely, turn off the heat.

2. To make the caramel, spread the sugar evenly in a perfectly dry 10-inch deep skillet and place it over medium-low heat.

3. The sugar should turn straw-colored, then gold and then a nutty-brown caramel after about 10 minutes. (If the caramel cooks unevenly, gently tilt or swirl the pan so that the sugar is evenly distributed.) Remove it from the heat and slowly whisk in the cream and butter. Be extremely careful about the sugar, which can splatter as the cream is added (long sleeves are a good precaution). If the caramel seizes, return it to the heat and continue to stir until it is smooth and creamy. Strain the caramel into a bowl and cool it for 30 minutes.

4. Stir the frozen cranberries and the almonds into the caramel and mix until all the fruit and nuts are coated. Spoon the filling into the partially baked tart dough mounding toward the center.

5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until juices and the caramel are bubbling slowly around the edges. Remove from the oven and let stand for one hour, then gently lift the tart ring off the pastry.

6. Carefully transfer the tart to a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Overall, I think we did very well and made way too much food (yes, a real feast!).  We didn’t quite have 7 seafood dishes but we did manage to create 7 courses plus dessert, including some Italian influenced dishes!  We wanted our dishes to be a bit of a surprise so we didn’t do much group planning and ended up with 2 salmon dishes.  We might want to plan a little better next year so we don’t end up with 7 shrimp dishes! ;)  I really enjoyed this dinner because I had so many ideas.  In fact, I had to save a few of my ideas for next year.

I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday!  Buon Natale!  Happy Christmas!

Disclaimer: I am a member of Amazon Associates.  This post contains links to Amazon.com and if you click on the link and purchase something, I get a few coins tossed my way.

Thanksgiving 2015

My sister commented that our Thanksgiving table looks the same every year.  That was news to me so I decided to look up our past Thanksgiving dinners.  To my amusement, she was right!  Though the season ends up dictating my choice of veggies for the side dishes, I like to try new recipes or add a little something different to them.  For example, I made my usual scalloped potatoes but added nutritional yeast to give the dish a salty, cheesy flavor without added salt or cheese.

ust right I made my usual scalloped potatoes but added a special ingredient: nutritional yeast

This year, I dressed the table with napkin folded “turkeys” to match the dishes

We always roast a turkey at Thanksgiving but, to our chagrin, it’s difficult to roast a turkey properly due to its size and varying oven properties.  This year, we roasted a 22 lb. bird (pretty big!) at 425 F for 1 hour, breast side down, and then breast side up at 325 F degrees convection for 3 hours.  The legs were cooked too well on top and undercooked on the undersides.  The white meat was cooked just right.  Last year, we roasted the turkey at 300 F degrees convection for 4 hours.  Again, there were parts done just right (dark meat) and others overcooked (white meat).  The quest for the perfectly roasted turkey continues, but perhaps we just need to do away with the turkey altogether and make a turkey cake instead! ;)  The author of the blog, How to cake it, was kind enough to give me permission to link to her how-to video here so check it out!  What do you think?  … Wouldn’t it be a great opportunity to wow your guests with your cake making skills and save the planet at the same time?  A turkey cake not only looks better than the real thing but also tastes delicious and can be made to please both carnivores and vegetarians alike.  And you will be able to shoot 2 birds with one stone (pun intended) since this turkey cake will take care of both the turkey and dessert courses! ;) Pretty cool, huh?  It’s certainly something to think about, especially if you can’t roast a turkey properly (I know I can’t!) and your Thanksgiving table seems incomplete without the presence of the iconic roast turkey that is synonymous with American Thanksgiving.

Or maybe try something completely different, like our friends JL and JC who made a biryani stuffed pumpkin!

Biryani stuffed pumpkin (photo by JC)

Isn’t it gorgeous?  Biryani stuffed pumpkin (Photo by JC)

Photo by JC

Slicing into the stuffed pumpkin–as good as cake!  :) (Photo by JC)

I really wanted to serve Brussels sprouts this year but I had a difficult time locating a good source.  I decided to go with root vegetables (again! but heck, we have them only once a year!) and spaghetti squash.

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Asian style spaghetti squash with sauteed garlic, onion, red chili flakes, soy sauce, sesame oil, and fried onions!

We really like the root vegetable slaw because it keeps well in the fridge for several days (even after dressed) and it’s the ideal filling for leftover turkey banh mi sandwiches.

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Root vegetable slaw (shredded rutabaga, turnip, butternut squash, cabbage, cilantro, green onions) with warm maple Dijon dressing

Warm maple Dijon dressing
(Adapted from Eating Well)

1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. maple syrup
1Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 thyme leaves (optional)
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Whisk ingredients together and warm in a saucepan.  For best flavor, make ahead the night before and re-warm it before serving.

Like my scalloped potatoes, my Dad’s cranberry sauce is an essential part of our Thanksgiving table.  He makes subtle changes to it every year.  In the past, he had added ginger, cilantro, or mandarin oranges.  This year, he added fresh cranberries instead of canned ones which imparted a tart zing which I really liked.

For dessert, E. made 3 pies …

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Pecan pie: It’s one of those pies that I’m not sure whether I like or not.  I’ve had good ones and bad ones.  This one was the best I’ve had.  It had a strong caramel flavor and the texture was almost right.  I liked the sticky caramelized edges near the crust.

Apple pies with granny Smith and golden delicious apples (the combination was very apple-y), and another with Braeburn and pippin (this combination is very floral and little tart). I really liked them both.

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Hope that you and your families had a happy Thanksgiving!

New taco salad

I live on salads during the summer because it’s too hot to cook.  I’m also always on the lookout for something new.

I remember taco salads being very popular when I was a kid but I don’t see them much anymore.  The best part of the taco salad was the big edible fried tortilla bowl … but let’s not forget the lettuce greens, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, taco meat, and salsa too.  ;)  I was recently inspired to bring the concept of the taco salad back to our table after catering a taco bar lunch for 80 people and because D. often orders the California Bowl at Rubio’s (a plastic bowl containing rice, black beans, guacamole, salsa, lettuce, and a choice of protein: chicken, shrimp, or fish).  It’s such an easy concept–I can’t believe I didn’t think of making my own to-go lunch version!  It’s so versatile that I can have a different version everyday: Make it vegan, carb-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, or with meat, there’s a version for every mood and diet!  Move over Rubio’s, here comes something leaner (and better)!  ;)

My version of the California Bowl starts with this:

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Henni’s taco seasoning

(adapted from Alton Brown’s Taco Potion #19)

2 Tbsp. chili powder
2 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 1/2 tsp. hot smoked paprika or paprika
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. chipotle pepper powder
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. oregano

Mix together and store in an airtight container up to 1 month.

To use, add 1 cup chopped onion, 1 Tbsp. taco seasoning, and 1/2 to 1 tsp. kosher salt (or to taste) to one pound of protein (e.g., beans, tofu, mushrooms, ground beef, ground turkey, chicken breast, etc.) when cooking.

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Henni’s California bowl
(inspired by D.’s cravings)

Recreating this California bowl (the new taco salad) for lunch to-go requires 2 containers (one small and one big) but it’s well worth the effort.  This can be prepared the night before.

In the big container, add any or all of the following, in this order (basically, add all wet ingredients to the bottom of your container and build delicate ingredients on top.  This way, the greens don’t get soggy):

Large container (salad)

Salsa
Sour cream or plain yogurt
Diced tomatoes
Corn kernels (frozen, canned, or fresh)
Diced green bell peppers
Chopped lettuce, spinach, and/or cabbage
Diced avocado or prepared guacamole
Sliced olives
Chopped red onion
Shredded cheese
Chopped cilantro
Lime wedge (optional)

Small container (rice and protein)

Your choice of rice (white, brown, plain, flavored, etc.)
Your choice of beans (black beans, refried beans, chickpeas, etc.)Your choice of protein seasoned with taco seasoning (recipe above) (chicken, ground turkey, ground beef, tofu)

You will heat up the small container of rice and protein at work.  If you are using something like grilled chicken, you can add it to the salad container if you prefer to eat it cold.  Add the heated rice and beans/protein to your salad.  Mix the salad to incorporate the wet ingredients at the bottom of your container, watch the cheese melt into your rice, and enjoy!  Add a squeeze of lime, if you like!  For a treat, pack some tortilla chips to go with your salad.

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Bon appetit!

Happy 4th of July!

Happy 4th of July!  Hope you had a nice BBQ and celebrated with fireworks, family, and friends.

Fattoush salad with kale

Fattoush salad with kale

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Grilled potatoes seasoned with merquen

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Grilled sweet corn (white corn with blue kernels, heirloom variety?–from a co-worker’s garden)

Mushrooms

Grilled mini trumpet mushrooms and green bell peppers

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Korean style spicy baby back ribs

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Teriyaki chicken wings

Bon appetit!

The May garden 2015

As I walked through the May garden this morning, a song from nursery school popped into my head.  See if you can guess the song …

Red

Red

Yellow

Yellow

Pink

Pink

Green

Green

Purple

Purple

Orange

Orange

Blue

Blue

I can sing a rainbow,” was the inspiration for this post.  The song pops into my head every once in awhile, always at the oddest times, and always when I see an actual rainbow, but I realized I didn’t know anything about its origins.  Did kids in other schools learn the song too?  Do kids still learn the song today?  I looked it up and was surprised to learn not only was it very popular in the UK during the 60s and 70s but there are many more lyrics to the song.  I only ever learned the first few lines and always thought it was just a nursery rhyme!  :)

“Red and Yellow and Pink and Green,
Purple and Orange and Blue.
I can sing a rainbow
sing a rainbow
You can sing a rainbow too …”

And in case you were wondering how we got such colors in our garden, this is how it happened:  ;)

20150220_165656 (Small)I  hope that everyone has a rainbow in their May garden too!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  Welcome to our 9th annual Feast of all potatoes!  For the first time in the history of the Feast of all potatoes, I am sharing the feast with you *on* St. Patrick’s Day (a feat that will probably never be repeated)!

This year, our Feast of all potatoes was extra special because we had to travel all the way to Belgium in order to make it happen!

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Lasne, outside Brussels

When JL and L moved to Belgium last year, we were very sad because in addition to being our good friends, we also sowed and shared certain traditions together over the past 15 years that had become an integral part of our weekend ritual, which we miss very much.  Good traditions need to be kept alive so last month we traveled to Belgium to see our friends and to honor one of our favorite culinary traditions, the Feast of all potatoes!

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Feast of all potatoes 2015

Also, for the first time in the history of the Feast, Iron Chefs JL and Henni had to share Kitchen Stadium!  It was an unprecedented scene in Kitchen Stadium with 4 sous chefs (including knife-wielding 9 yr. old), potato peels flying everywhere, pots and pans sizzling away on all the stove burners, kitchen appliances being deployed in other parts of the house, and hungry pheasants in the backyard knocking on the windows!

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No, these guys were not on the menu!

By popular demand, I. and E. requested boxty potato pancakes.  The pancake batter involves liquefying the potatoes but due to electrical challenges, we did not have access to a food processor or a high power blender.  As a result, things got tense in Kitchen Stadium and I was ready to throw in the towel when Sous chef L. came up an ingenious idea to finely grate the potatoes before subjecting them to a handheld immersion blender.  Good thinking, L.!  :)

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These pancakes were a labor of love, requiring the assistance of 4 cooks!

As our tradition dictates, we enjoyed the pancakes with smoked salmon.  Happy birthday, L.! ;)

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In Europe, there are some cool kitchen gadgets that we don’t have, such as an electric soup maker. The closest thing I could find here was the Soyajoy G4 Soy Milk Maker and Soup Maker.  I might have to get me one of these toys!  To make this potato leek soup, Sous chef L. put water, chopped potatoes, and sliced leeks into something that looked like an electric kettle with built-in chopping blades.  She turned on the “kettle” and the soup cooked and blended itself in about a 1/2 hour!  Note: It took longer to render the pancetta and fry the leek toppings for the soup!

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Potato leek soup with pancetta and fried leeks

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Special croquettes from the local farmer’s market: Parmesan and truffle

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WINNER!  Herbed braised pork chops with sliced potatoes by Chef JL

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After dinner cheese board

As usual, it was a delicious feast and we marveled at how much food we could create for one meal.  But the thanks and accolades go to Iron Chef JL who actually did most of the cooking for this feast.  Thank you JL and L for making this happen for it was a very special feast indeed.  :)

Bon appetit and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Disclaimer: I am a member of Amazon Associates.  This post contains links to Amazon.com and if you click on the link and purchase something, I get a few coins tossed my way.

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