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A Lesson Learned
John Tullock

Food writers, in particular those who actually spend time in the kitchen themselves, seldom tell their readers about the inevitable failures. As though Barbara Kafka had never overcooked a roast, nor had David Rosengarten chosen an inappropriate wine. Cooks, however, can profit as much from other's mistakes as from their triumphs. That is why I'm sharing my latest little disaster with you.

Recently, I hosted a cocktail party for fifteen people. While thinking about plans for the buffet, the idea came to substitute a cheese fondue for the trite (so I thought) cold cheese dishes I usually prepare. Checking several cookbooks for ideas, I quickly learned that a cheese fondue is basically a Mornay sauce, with white wine substituting for stock, and cornstarch (most of the time) for the roux. None of the recipes, however, provided the information that would have helped me avoid problems with serving this dish to a roomful of guests.

Blame, however, for the events that followed, is mostly mine, not the cookbooks'. For one thing, I broke a cardinal rule in selecting ingredients. Cutting corners, I chose an American made "Swiss" instead of the imported Gruyere, Appenzeller and Emmenthaler that kept cropping up in the traditional recipes.

Second, I failed to realize that the classic fondue is not party food, despite the fact that this is the use to which it has most frequently been placed in the American home since the Fifties. In reality, this dish is family food, to be enjoyed by folks gathered around the dinner table. How did I arrive at this conclusion? In the family dinner scenario, the cook can keep an eye on what's going on above the Sterno®, such careful attention being essential, in my view, for success with this dish.

What went wrong with my fondue? First, the processed cheese, rather than remaining evenly and smoothly blended into the sauce, soon coalesced into a lump. This led one of my guests, an experienced cook, to inquire about the "dumpling" in the fondue. At least this person had the tact to pretend it was supposed to be there.

The other problem had to do with the lack of attention the fondue received from me during the course of the evening. Cooking over Sterno® is a lot like cooking over an open fire. One must constantly evaluate the situation a make adjustments, or the food is likely to suffer. Since I was preoccupied with my guests, the fondue dumpling had the opportunity to form a thick, brown crust on the bottom of the pot. One of my cookbooks reports that Swiss children often argue over who gets to eat the cheese crust that is supposed to form, apparently, in a traditional fondue. If this be the case, these kids should be studied to determine how their teeth can cope. For that matter, the cheese crust that formed in my fondue should be studied by NASA. I have never encountered anything that was so difficult to remove from the cookware, like a combination of concrete, epoxy and fiberglass.

For the next party, I plan to keep the fondue pot in the cupboard. Instead of recipe research, I shall read up on cheese. Then I'm going shopping, searching for the most delectable varieties to include on the menu. I plan to enjoy the next party.

Another "trite" cocktail party perennial is the crudite platter. A variety of fresh vegetables with a dip of some sort. It is worth remembering that one reason this and other dishes are old standards is that they are virtually always successful.

John's Easy Cocktail Party Menu

1. Crudite Platter with Garlic Dill Dip

I created this dip for vegetables to satisfy both the vegetarians and the weight watchers among my guests.

Combine in a storage container 2 cups fat-free sour cream, 1/2 cup soy mayonaise, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill, salt and a few grinds of white pepper. Mix well and allow to stand, covered and refrigerated, overnight.

Serve this dip with an assortment of vegetables. Crudites will keep best, in many cases, if the vegetables are lightly blanched. I prefer to blanch cauliflower, broccoli, snow peas, snap peas, green beans, artichokes, asparagus tips and carrots. Cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, bak choy, napa, cucumbers, summer squash, celery sticks, mushrooms and radishes are best without blanching. Look for various colors and shapes of cherry tomatoes. Baby vegetables lend themselves especially well to the crudite platter, or larger specimens can be carved into shapes to add interest. Experienced cooks will also appreciate that having an assortment of prepared vegetables in the refrigerator means that the party leftovers can be used up over the following few days. Vegetables for crudites can be prepared the day before the party and stored individually in plastic containers in the refrigerator. Store cherry tomatoes, however, uncovered at room temperature after washing and carefully drying them. With a stock of vegetables ready in the fridge, one can set out two trays for serving. When the first tray begins to look bedraggled, replace it with the second tray. Rrefurbish the first tray with veggies and repeat the process as needed.

2. Goat Cheese With Tomato Preserves

One of my favorite cheeses, fresh goat cheese or "chevre," can be dressed up for a party, provided you plan well ahead. This recipe's sweet component pairs well with the crudites and the Brie dish described next.

Currant or Cherry Tomato Preserves

The rarer, sweeter currant tomatoes make the best preserves. If they are unavailable, select the smallest cherry tomatoes you can find. Weigh the tomatoes. With a fork or skewer, prick individually the skins of all the tomatoes in a basket or two, transferring them to a bowl. Add an amount of sugar equivalent by weight to the amount of tomatoes you have prepared. Combine by tossing gently, and place the tomatoes in the refrigerator overnight.

Transfer the contents of the bowl to a large saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved in the tomato juice. Cook uncovered at a brisk simmer, without stirring, for 15 minutes.

While the preserves are cooking, sterilize clean half pint canning jars and lids according to the manufacturer's directions.

Remove the preserves from the heat and transfer to jars. Seal, and process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

To serve, place a 6 - 8 ounce log of fresh goat cheese on a platter. Top with a half pint of preserves. Accompany the dish with crackers or toasts.

3. Brie with Sun Dried Tomatoes

The ubiquitous Brie gets an unusual treatment in this recipe, which has been a hit with my guests for years.

From a wedge of Brie the size of a slice of pizza (about 1 pound), remove the top layer of rind. This will be easier if the cheese is chilled. Combine in a bowl 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmgiano-Reggiano, 4 oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, well drained and minced, 1 tablespoon of the oil from the tomatoes, 6 cloves garlic, minced, and 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil. Cover and refrigerate separately if making ahead. Bring to room temperature about an hour before serving. Spread the tomato mixture evenly over the top of the Brie. Garnish with a few springs of fresh herbs and a tomato skin rose or two.

Don't know how to make a tomato rose? Simple. Peel a tomato as if it were an apple, using a very sharp paring knife. With practice, you can easily remove the peel in a single long strip. Roll this up, skin side in, to produce a quite acceptable faux rose.

These three simple but elegant dishes combine subtle flavor notes that go well with drinks. They are also united by the flavor of tomatoes in varied forms. For the host or hostess, they offer multiple attractions. Not only is prior preparation simple, these dishes also hold up well on the buffet table at room temperature. And each has homemade touches to make them a special treat for your special guests.

John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. Now a full-time freelance writer and author of six books, Tullock also co-owns "Gardener and Gourmet," a retail business that specializes in rare plants and fine food products.

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