A Meal Fit for Company

Today I bring you a full menu rather than one dish.  This meal is simple, delicious, quick and relatively healthy.  It can be multiplied to serve a crowd without much more effort or additional funds, and thus it is also a recent addition to my running list of “dinners fit for company costing less than $20.”

I thank Whole Foods, as much as anybody, for the idea.  I had been given the opportunity to shop there due to an overnight stay in Cambridge, MA and I was awed at the prospect.  For a girl that lives way, way up on the North Shore, the visit to this shopping Mecca where the peppers are never bruised and you can choose from 8 flavors of wood-smoked salmon was a treat indeed.  Thus, it took me about an hour and a half (no joke) to get through all the aisles.  There was a lot of internal dialogue involved, wherein I argued my need for fancy organic granola (“it has currants! Not raisins, currants! And coconut flakes!”) against the persistent reality of my checking account balance (“no you do not need Plugra butter”).  Plus, I had to decide what form of protein I was least likely to get at my home grocery, either because they don’t carry it or my husband won’t eat it.

I finally settled on a balanced, colorful meal of panko-crusted flounder, creamy Spinach, and roasted butternut squash with cranberries.  As the outline of the menu unfolds below, you may initially cringe at some of the flavor combos but let me tell you, these dishes really did work well together.  I would make this meal again in a heartbeat – or at least in 24 hours, if you promise me a ride to Whole Foods.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Cranberries

1 large butternut squash, peeled and scraped of seeds
3/4 c. to 1 c. fresh cranberries

Olive Oil
Maple Syrup

Preheat oven to 400˚F.   Cut butternut squash into medium-sized chunks, approximately 1 1/2 inches square.  Add them to a large mixing bowl toss with olive oil to coat.  Spread squash in a baking dish large enough to fit the squash in a single layer, not overlapping but not inches apart either.  Next, pour the cranberries (as much as you like, really) into the mixing bowl and coat with another tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Scatter the cranberries in and around the butternut squash pieces.  Sprinkle the whole pan with salt to taste, and then lightly drizzle with maple syrup, making sure that every bite of squash gets at least a couple drops.  Roast for about 1 hour – test the squash by stabbing a piece with a fork.  If you pull the fork back the squash should easily slip off the tines.   If it wants to follow with the fork, return the squash to the oven and roast for another 10 minutes before checking again.  When done, some of the cranberries will be blackened and shriveled – I think they’re yummy like this.  If you prefer your cranberries all to be juicy and full, add them halfway through the cooking rather than with the squash at the beginning.

Creamy Spinach and Mushrooms (sauce adapted from the Joy of Cooking)
3/4 c. milk
1/4 onion or 1 clove crushed garlic
bay leaf
pinch of nutmeg
3 Tbs. butter, divided
2 Tbs flour
4 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 lb. spinach or baby spinach
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1/4 c. grated cheese (gruyere, Jarlsberg, parmesan or some combination)

First simmer the milk with the onion (or garlic), bay leaf and nutmeg in a small pot for about 15 minutes.  Remove the solids (onion or garlic and bay leaf) and then set aside.  In a separate saucepan, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter, then whisk in the flour over low heat until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Slowly whisk in the milk mixture and return to low heat.  Simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened to a soup-like consistency (as you can see from the picture, I didn’t wait long enough…).  In the meantime, melt the final tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the cremini mushrooms and cook until lightly browned.  Add the spinach and stir gently until the spinach is cooked down.  To the milk sauce, add the mustard, followed by the grated cheese, stirring to blend.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Drain any excess liquid from the mushroom and spinach mixture.  Add the sauce to the cooked spinach gradually until you reach the creaminess level you are comfortable with.  For some, a touch of the sauce is plenty, others want the whole mess of it.

Sun-dried Tomato Panko-Crusted Flounder
3 filets of flounder (or 1 per person)
2 eggs
2 cups of Sun-dried Tomato Panko flakes (mine were courtesy of Whole foods, but feel free to make your own with chopped parsley, minced sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh breadcrumbs)

Here’s a simple one – pat the fish filets dry with paper towel.  Beat the eggs together in a shallow bowl or platter.  Dip the fish filets, one by one, in the egg to coat.  Let the excess egg drip back into the bowl, then dredge the filets in the breadcrumbs, turning to coat.  Over medium-high heat, melt a tablespoon of butter in a nonstick pan.  Lay the filets in the pan and cook about 3 minutes on one side, then flip to cook the other side for about a minute and a half.  Check for doneness – the fish should be opaque, not translucent – then transfer to dinner plates.

Sunday Morning Crepes

Mmm…Sunday Mornings: usually the one time of the week when I can sleep in for a couple hours, then drowsily rise to eat a leisurely full breakfast from my couch with a full mug of tea and a warm blanket draped over my lap. 

Recently, however, various trips and family obligations have kept me from this decadent routine.  This past weekend, I stayed at a friend’s house on Saturday night, and while I knew that the sleeping-in part would not be a problem, the breakfast was up in the air.

Most everyone who loves food and eating has some sort of routine that they hold sacred.  I have my Sunday Mornings, others have “Roast Chicken Thursdays” or make their salad the same way for every lunch.  Caroline, the friend with whom I was staying this weekend, has a breakfast routine of her own.  She pours cereal – usually mixing two or three different brands – into a pasta bowl and douses it with about a quart of milk, leaving it to sit for a bit before sitting down to the table with a carton of fresh berries and diluted O.J.  Far be it from me to cast aspersions on her breakfast – everyone has their own comforting food traditions – but I was craving my own form of Sunday Morning catharsis.

As we wandered into the kitchen that morning, she went into the pantry to grab her cereals, and I went into her closet to grab the Joy of Cooking.  She shook her head at me with a smile and we went our separate ways.  As she got out a bowl and a spoon, I took down her food processor from the shelf; as she grabbed berries and milk from the fridge, I withdrew eggs, lemons and apple cider.

Eventually, my friend’s husband wandered into the kitchen and I think I lured him to my side of the battlefield, because soon he was flipping crepes alongside me.  When all was said and done, however, and I took my seat at the breakfast table, Caroline passed me a big mug of steaming hot tea and all was right with the world.

Crepes with Apple Cider Syrup, adapted from the Joy of Cooking

For the Crepes:
2 eggs
1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. lukewarm water
2 Tbs. melted butter
2 tsp. sugar

For the syrup:
1 1/4 c. Apple Cider
1 Tbs. Light Corn Syrup
2 Tbs. Brown Sugar
Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Add all of the ingredients for the crepes into the bowl of a food processor or the pitcher of a blender.  Mix until fully blended and a bit frothy at the top.  If using a food processor, pour mixture into a pitcher – or leave it in the blender pitcher – and let sit for 30 minutes so that the liquids absorb the flour.

In the meantime, pour all of the ingredients for the syrup into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and stir until blended.  Turn the burner on medium until the mixture comes to a boil, then turn down the heat to maintain a rapid simmer.  Reduce until mixture reaches a syrupy consistency.

When the syrup is where you like it, warm a nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Wrap a tablespoon of butter in one sheet of paper towel, and rub the bundle over the pan to grease it.

Pour some batter into the pan (1/4 cup should be plenty, but it depends on the size of your pan) and immediately tilt the pan around in a circle to spread the batter across the surface.  If you have a wooden crepe-spreader-thingy, all the better. 

Cook for about 1 minute or until the edges of the crepe easily separate from the pan when you pass a thin metal spatula around the perimeter of the skillet.  Flip the crepe and briefly cook it on the other side.  The crepe should be lightly browned.

Remove the crepe to a plate and drizzle with the apple cider syrup and (if you like the crunch) some demerara sugar.  Other winning toppings: lemon juice and sugar; jam of preference; and sweetened cream cheese with cinnamon or finely zested orange peel.  Then, what I like to do is fold the crepe in half and then in half again so it looks like a triangle.  Top it with some berries or whipped cream and voilà – the perfect Sunday Morning!

The Collection

This blog begins today as a motivating force.  Its existence is a motivation to address the ever-increasing stockpile of never-before-tried recipes I have in my pantry, a motivation to open the creative floodgates (or at least turn on the faucet), and a motivation to get my butt in the kitchen every day – something I love to do but often forget or dismiss.  With this blog I hope to share my love of food, cooking, and learning. 

Those who know me have asked me why, since I love cooking so much, I don’t open a restaurant or a catering business.  Believe me, I’ve thought about it.  But it is the spontaneity and the chance elements of home cooking that keep me interested.  If I had to recreate the same dish night after night, or make 1,000 mini tartlets rather than 4, I’d be bored out of my mind, not to mention cranky.

So thank you for coming to my site and joining me on my journey through the mountain of cookbooks, magazines, and cut-outs I’ve gathered along the way.  I hope we both learn a few things in the process!