- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Back in January when the year was still shiny and new, I made a resolution. Forget dieting. Forget jogging three mornings a week. This year, I was going to master the dinner party.

You see, I love to cook, but I fall apart when it comes to playing hostess. I envy my foodie friends who can gracefully pull off a four-course meal while sipping merlot and catching up on the gossip. No, you’ll find me in the kitchen, nervously baby-sitting a dish that should have been done an hour ago and wondering if I have enough clean forks left in the drawer.

I’ve decided that the key to overcoming my dinner-party anxieties is threefold. First, I need to relax. After all, these are friends. Second, I need to plan dishes that are easily made ahead and don’t rely on precise timing. Third, I need a theme.

Themes are good. They can be as simple as a single ingredient worked into every dish or as fantastical as a Wild West party. Either way, themes give nervous, perfectionist cooks like myself something to work with. They also tie the dinner together and give it a sense of continuity.

I wanted to keep things lighthearted for my first post-resolution dinner party, so I told guests to get dolled up for a “sweet and sassy” theme and designed the menu to match. The sweet flavors of honey and cinnamon appeared throughout the meal, with a good helping of citrus to add some sass. From the salad to the short ribs, all the dishes were made well in advance and finished off at the last minute - with a glass of merlot in hand, of course.

Honey citrus salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 oranges, grapefruits, tangerines or other citrus

1 red onion, sliced thinly

2 cups cider vinegar

1/2 cup honey

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 to 4 tablespoons good quality extra-virgin olive oil

Fresh salad greens for 6 people

Prepare the citrus by cutting off the top and bottom of the fruit. Slice off the skin while following the curve of the fruit. Cut out each segment by cutting toward the center core along the membranes.

Place all the fruit in a medium bowl. Combine with the red onion.

Combine the vinegar and honey in a microwave-safe bowl and heat in the microwave for 30 seconds. Add the cinnamon and whisk to combine. Pour over the citrus and onions. Let this marinate for at least half an hour or up to several hours, stirring every so often.

When ready to serve, scoop out 1/4 cup of the marinade and drain the citrus. Whisk the reserved marinade with two tablespoons of olive oil. Taste and add more olive oil if desired. Use this to dress the greens.

Arrange the greens on individual plates. Pile the citrus and onions on top, dividing the mixture evenly between all the plates.

Honey-cinnamon braised short ribs with polenta

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

5 pounds beef short ribs

1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder

3 teaspoons salt, divided

1 orange, zested with the fruit cut into quarters

1 to 3 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 onions, sliced thinly

3 stalks celery, chopped fine

4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup honey

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon dry mustard

3 cups beef broth

2 whole cinnamon sticks, broken in half

2 bay leaves

2 cups broth (any kind)

1 1/2 cup cornmeal

2 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Trim visible fat from the top of each rib, but leave the tissue connecting the bone to the meat. Combine the five-spice powder, salt and orange zest in a small bowl. Pat the ribs dry and then rub this mixture over the ribs. Refrigerate ribs in a shallow, covered baking dish for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Place the oven rack in lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees.

Heat 1 teaspoon of oil in a 5- or 6-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Remove the ribs from the refrigerator and pat them dry without rubbing off too much of the spice mixture. When the oil is hot, add to the pan as many ribs as will fit without crowding. Do not move the meat for at least two minutes. When the meat lifts easily from the pan without sticking, turn the meat and continue searing on all sides. Transfer to a platter and repeat with the remaining ribs. Add more oil, if necessary.

When all the ribs have been seared, lower the heat to medium and add the onions along with one teaspoon of salt. Cook the onions until they are just beginning to brown, then add the celery. Cook until the celery has softened. Add the garlic and cook until the garlic is fragrant.

Pour the vinegar into the pan. While it bubbles, scrape the bottom of the pan to lift off any caramelized bits. Stir in the honey, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and one cup of the broth. Add the ribs back into the pan, nestling them down into the vegetables. Pour in the remaining broth until the ribs are three-quarters submerged. Add the orange quarters, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves.

Cover and cook the short ribs for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Check the braise every 45 minutes and add more broth as needed so the ribs remain three-quarters submerged. If the liquid is boiling, reduce the oven temperature to 300-degrees. The short ribs are done when you feel no resistance when inserting a fork into the thickest part of the meat.

Transfer the short ribs to a clean platter and tent with foil. Remove and discard the cinnamon sticks, orange rinds and bay leaves. Allow the braising liquid to cool slightly, then skim the fat off the surface. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium heat and reduce to a syrupy consistency. Stir occasionally to be sure the bottom doesn’t burn. Taste for seasoning. If it tastes bitter, add a teaspoon of salt. If it tastes flat, add a tablespoon of cider vinegar.

While the sauce is reducing, prepare the polenta. Combine the broth, water, and 1 teaspoon of salt in a medium-sized pot. Bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat and then whisk in the cornmeal. Continue stirring for 10 to 15 minutes until the polenta is thick and creamy. Stir in the Parmesan.

Serve the polenta and short ribs on plates. Mound the polenta in the middle of the plate and arrange a few spare ribs on top. Spoon the sauce over everything and serve.

Miniature chocolate-dipped snickerdoodles

Makes about 75 minicookies.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

1 cup sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

3 tablespoons of sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (separated)

4 tablespoons heavy cream (separated)

Position two racks in the middle of the oven and heat oven to 400 degrees. Combine the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Cream together the sugar, butter and shortening in a medium-sized mixing bowl until well-blended and the mixture has turned a light yellow color. Blend in the egg and vanilla until mixture is smooth.

Using a wooden spoon, gently stir the flour mixture into the sugar-egg mixture. Stir just until all the flour has been incorporated.

Chill for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine 3 tablespoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon in a shallow dish.

Scooping out a tiny bits of batter and roll them between your hands into marble-sized balls. Toss the balls in the cinnamon-sugar mixture and place them on the cookie sheet spaced 2 inches apart.

Bake for 5 to 7 minutes until cookies are still puffed in the middle and just beginning to set on the edges. They will not turn golden. Remove from oven and let cool on the cookie sheet for 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a cooling rack. Repeat with the remainder of the batter.

When the cookies are completely cool, combine 1/2 cup of chocolate chips with two tablespoons of heavy cream in a small ramekin or other microwave-safe bowl. Heat in the microwave on high in 20-second bursts, stirring between bursts, until the chocolate has melted into a smooth sauce.

Dip the cookies one at a time in the sauce and set them on a piece of parchment paper to dry. When you run out of sauce, prepare another batch ( 1/2 cup chips plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream).

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