24 June 2011

Playing House and Herb and Chocolate Cheese Balls

As children pretty much everyone plays house - or some version of it. In France, kids call it "playing Daddy and Mommy" (jouer au papa et à la maman), but it's the same idea: re-creating the domestic environment and trying out new roles or old roles with new names and new personalities. The funny thing is, as we get older, we may stop playing pretend but we still try on new roles and discard old ones as we go through different phases of life: student/adventurer/apprentice/first apartment/first serious relationship/mom/dad/mentor/etc. The list goes on and is different for each of us.

Still, I think our childhood fantasies come along with us. The excitement of little things, of shiny objects, of new toys. For me, that comes out in the kitchen. I was fluttering like a 5-year-old when I unwrapped my new fancy milk and sugar bowls and these romantic cognac glasses bought with the last of our wedding money (which went quite a bit further than it was supposed to because there was a sale when we went to first pick our gifts up and we got them all for a lot less than we thought, so we had money let over to spoil ourselves with both useful and pretty things).

And speaking of childhood delights, in my last post, I made Olive Oil and Parmesan Mashed Potatoes with Parma Ham from this recipe book: Des recettes régressives pour gourmets notstalgiques (Regressive Recipes for Nostalgic Gourmets) and I've continued to experiment, with a culminating trial last week when we invited a friend over for an all-chocolate dinner! It started because I knew I wanted to make a chicken mole inspired recipe from the book and D. wanted to make a white chocolate mousse. It was clear that the theme was chocolate, but now how could I incorporate it into the appetizer?

I'd been wanting to try these herbed cheese ball appetizers and I thought, "why not try them with chocolate!" It was a resounding success.

For 24 balls

240g (about 8.5oz) cream cheese (The recipe calls for Kiri and that's what I used. In the US cream cheese would be perfect.)
24 raisins

Whatever toppings you want; I used:

sesame seeds
curry powder
unsweetened cocoa

Form 24 balls of cheese around the 24 raisins. Roll in the toppings of your choice and serve!
Our favorite toppings were (in order) chives, cocoa, sesame, cumin. The curry powder and paprika were both a bit overpowering, but if you like strong/spicy tastes then you could give them a try. Next time I'd try more fresh herbs and sweet spices (ie coriander or garam masala).

10 June 2011

Olive Oil and Parmesan Mashed Potatoes with Parma Ham

Early in the week I was going through one of those sick-of-the-world crisis, you know, where you see the bad side of everything and the good hardly seems to balance it out, much less triumph. The weight of thousands of years of oppression seemed to be dragging me down and the black cloud of deep-rooted prejudice was obscuring my usual optimism. In the depths of the social justice doldrums, a sudden ray of light burst through and that ray of light said, "I want to make cookies!" All right, all right, it's no Book of Revelations but still... I tried to reason it away - I'm on a diet! - but it was a very insistent insight. "Fine, fine," I grumbled, "cookies."

And in midst of vigorously creaming together the butter and the sugar - the old-fashioned way, no machines - to the rhythm some of favorite cooking music, the black clouds started to slink away. By the time the smell of cookies was wafting through the apartment, I was full-out dancing in the living room and the world seemed brighter. I may not be able to eradicate prejudice or stupidity but, dammit, I can make cookies and that's gotta count for something.

Sometimes it's important to get back to basics: the recipes you've known all your life, the ones your mother made, the ones you discovered when you first started cooking, the ones that are too easy for "real chefs", or made with silly ingredients, the ones that make you feel good, that have too much butter and more than one kind of sugar, because maybe those are the recipes that change the world - or at least YOUR world - and that's about all you can hope to change anyway.

Long philosophical digressions aside, let's get to the recipe. It comes from a book the mom of one of the girls I babysit for gave to me called De recettes régressives pour gourmets notstalgiques (Regressive Recipes for Nostalgic Gourmets) - the only picture I found was of a later edition (above) but that's the idea. It revisits exactly the kind of foods I'm talking about - the fun foods you ate as a kid - and playfully adapts them for adult taste buds. I've already tried a couple of the recipes and have marked a bunch more. They're simple and sophisticated, like these Olive Oil and Parmesan Mashed Potatoes with Parma Ham.

for 4 people

1kg (2.2 lbs) potatoes
20 leaves basil (optional)
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices Parma ham (or Bayonne, or other similar)
6-8 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt

Peel potatoes and cut into chunks. Cook in salted boiling water for 15-20 minutes, until soft. Drain water, put potatoes back in the pot with the olive oil and mash (with a potato masher or fork). Mince all but 4 basil leaves (if using) and add to the puree along with the Parmesan cheese. Reheat the puree on low heat mixing in the ingredients.

Lay two slices of ham on each plate, ladle the puree on top and fold up the sides of the ham. Garnish with the left-over basil leaves and Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately and enjoy!