Sunday, April 08, 2012
It's no secret that holiday dinners are quite often anchored in ritual. There's something comforting about anticipating your favorite dishes every year, and I also enjoy trying holiday foods traditional to other families. I have never forgotten the Thanksgiving Eve I spent shelling Brazil nuts with my brother and new sister-in-law (they were going into the turkey stuffing, which was one of her traditional family recipes; it was delicious). The magazine articles that appear every November, urging new Thanksgiving menus on us, I always find pointless. Nobody wants to change the foods they remember from childhood - unless it's something they really couldn't stand. If you ever find yourself at a holiday gathering with a bunch of people you don't know and need to break the ice, try asking about the foods they hated; everyone has one. Remind me to tell you about my aunt's creamed chestnuts sometime.
But one of the things I like about Easter in our family is our total lack of any Easter dinner tradition. When I was a kid we went to the local country club for Easter brunch after church, where the buffet held all the scrambled eggs and bacon we could eat and there was an Easter egg hunt afterward: perfect for a kid. Unfortunately I am not seven years old any more and I have been known to entertain guests for Easter dinner on occasion. What to fix?
You might think: Lamb. But no. Since my father doesn't really like it, we never had it when I was growing up and it never really occurred to me to try cooking it. Ham, another tradition, simply scares me as I have never baked one. Besides, they're huge and the thought of coping with leftovers for weeks was enough to put me off. Asparagus? Too much of a cliche. While there's nothing wrong with a dinner of baked ham or lamb, asparagus and scalloped potatoes, something in me rebelled at the entire concept.
When in doubt, research. I went to my trusty cookbook collection and found the idea for my first real Easter dinner in the Silver Palate Cookbook: an aioli platter. Aioli is a mayonnaise made with garlic. It is easy to make in a food processor, can be made in advance, is delicious and impresses the hell out of your guests. The cookbook suggested serving it with cod and carpaccio, but I was not about to serve raw meat; instead I roasted an eye of round and served it with a variety of steamed vegetables. Cauliflower, artichoke hearts, new potatoes, asparagus (all right, we had asparagus, but there is nothing that goes better with aioli). It was an absolute smash hit and even the lone vegetarian in the group was happy. If red meat is not your thing, I think a large poached salmon filet would do just as well. This would probably have become my Easter dinner tradition if I entertained more often and if my father and I weren't on diets, at least in theory.
This year I needed something low-cal and low-carb. Letting my mind wander between patients one day last week, I brainstormed baked chicken breasts, green beans, mashed cauliflower and fruit salad for dessert. The dinner was more adventuresome than it may sound, as I had never tried mashed cauliflower. I had read about it many times as it has been a mainstay for those on low-carb diets for years. The green beans broke new boundaries for me, too: I microwaved them. The only veggies I'd ever cooked in the microwave until today were frozen peas. It worked remarkably well, which is encouraging me to try to expand my use of the microwave beyond reheating leftovers and cooking frozen dinners.
For the green beans: trim and cut two cups of green beans into one-inch pieces. Place in a covered microwavable dish with 1/2 cup water. Nuke for four to five minutes on high.
Silver Palate aioli recipe:
8 to 10 garlic cloves, peeled (I often use less, as this is a LOT.)
2 egg yolks at room temp
salt and white pepper
juice of one lemon
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cups oil (half olive, half peanut) at room temp. Note: if peanut allergies are an issue, substitute good quality canola or safflower oil. What you are trying to do is cut the strong olive oil taste.
Puree the garlic in a food processor or blender. Add egg yolks, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper (I'd go easy on the salt). Process to a smooth paste. Then with the machine running, add the oil slowly - almost drop by drop at first. As the mixture forms an emulsion you can slightly increase the pouring speed, but don't dump it in. When all the oil has been added, transfer to a bowl, cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate. It will last a few days.
Mashed califlower: steam until soft, drain and return it to the hot pan with a few tablespoons of milk. If you have a stick blender, use it to puree the cauliflower - otherwise you may have to do it in the food processor. Add a couple tablespoons of Parmesan, salt and pepper. It doesn't taste like mashed potatoes, but it's pretty good.