In my humble opinion, a home-cooked meal is one of the finest gifts you can receive. The giver has to plan out the menu in accordance with the recipient's likes and dislikes; they have to shop for the ingredients; and, finally, they must cook and serve the meal. A lot of thought goes into this process, and who in this world doesn't appreciate it when someone else thinks of them? And don't think that the gift-giver doesn't get something out of the deal, too. For someone, like me, who loves to cook, preparing a meal for someone else is great fun. I can't just shoot from the hip, as it were, riffing on the contents of my refrigerator and throwing together something that satisfies my tastes alone. I have to put myself in someone else's shoes, I must imagine what kind of meal someone else likes to sit down to, and that often means using a recipe or technique that I don't often employ on my own. It's good practice, and it's a good time.
There were a number of factors to take into account when planning the menu for my mom's birthday dinner. First and foremost, she is a very healthy eater; she likes to eat whole grains and hearty, nutritious items such as beans, squash, and sweet potatoes. She eats and enjoys red meat, but only infrequently; usually, she prefers lighter proteins such as fish and poultry. Finally--and most importantly--my mother is a chocoholic in the truest sense of the word. It's she who taught me to appreciate the virtues of a dark, bitter piece of chocolate--an item she eats on a daily basis. There was no question that, whatever the meal, the grand finale would have to exalt chocolate.
And so, without further ado, here is what I made. To start, we ate Warm Squash Salad with Candied Pepitas, a recipe I adapted from one I found on epicurious.com. In this salad, still-warm pieces of roasted butternut squash are piled on top of bitter arugula and topped with shaved parmesan and sweet spiced pumpkin seeds:
For the main dish, I made Stuffed Squid Braised in Aromatic Tomato Sauce. Again, I adapted this recipe from epicurious. This dish is somewhat laborious but really fun to make. First, you finely chop the squid tentacles and saute them in olive oil. Once cooled, they provide the base for the stuffing, which also includes fresh bread crumbs, chopped herbs, grated parmesan and lemon zest. The filling gets spooned into the hollow squid bodies, which are the perfect vessels for stuffing. They're then browned in olive oil and finally allowed to braise in a bright, simple tomato sauce until the filling has expanded and they're perfectly tender. I served them over orzo:
The insides of these guys looked really cool flecked with green from the herbs and purple from the tentacles. Here's a cross-section:
I might be calling the squid the main course, but for my mother the main event was dessert. I made her a deep, rich, crisp-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside chocolate torte--regally named the Queen of Sheba--from a wonderful cookbook called Bittersweet written by a wonderful author named Alice Medrich. The torte consists, basically, of chocolate, butter, eggs and sugar; a scant two tablespoons of flour provide some solidity to this souffle-like confection:
I served the slices with a little bit of barely-sweetened whipped cream:
Happy birthday, Mom!
Warm Squash Salad with Candied Pepitas
Adapted from epicurious.com
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup raw green (hulled) pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1 tbsp. cranberry juice cocktail
2 tsp. Sherry vinegar
1 tbsp. minced shallot
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2" thick slices
1 small piece Parmesan cheese
1 bunch arugula, trimmed, washed, and dried
1. Roast the squash: preheat the oven to 450°. Toss squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt and pepper to taste in a shallow baking pan and arrange slices in 1 layer. Roast in the middle of the oven until just tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, then cover with tin foil to keep warm.
2. Make the candied pepitas: melt butter in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Stir in the sugar, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, then cook, without stirring, until caramelized. Add the pumpkin seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until seeds are puffed and golden. Transfer to a plate to cool. When seeds have hardened, break up any clumps with your fingers.
3. Make the dressing: whisk together the cranberry juice, vinegar, and shallot and let stand 5 minutes. Whisk in 3 tablespoons oil, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste.
4. Assemble the salad: shave 12 strips from the cheese with a vegetable peeler. Place a large handful of arugula on each of 4 salad plates, then top with a few pieces of squash. Divide dressing evenly among 4 plates. Top each salad with 3 cheese shavings and a generous sprinkling of pumpkin seeds.
Stuffed Squid Braised in Aromatic Tomato Sauce
Adapted from epicurious.com
2 lbs. cleaned squid with tentacles, rinsed
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 (14- to 15-oz) cans diced tomatoes, puréed in a blender or food processor until smooth
5 fresh basil leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 cup finely grated aged Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
1 cup finely ground fresh bread crumbs (from an Italian loaf)
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 garlic cloves, minced
Zest of one lemon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1. In a food processor, finely chop tentacles. Heat 3 tbsp. oil in a wide 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat and sauté tentacles, stirring, until just cooked through, about 1 minute. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl and cool.
2. Stir tomatoes into oil in pot along with basil, salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. While sauce simmers, stir together Pecorino, bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, lemon zest, eggs, sautéed tentacles, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Gently stuff each squid body with a slightly rounded tablespoon of filling and pat squid to distribute filling evenly. Weave a wooden pick horizontally across wide opening of each squid to seal. (During cooking, stuffing will expand and squid will shrink, forming a rounded, well-stuffed squid. Do not overstuff!)
3. Heat remaining 3 tbsp. oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat and sauté squid, turning over once, until browned and any liquid given off is evaporated, about 6 minutes total. Add squid to tomato sauce and simmer, covered, until squid is tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard picks and serve squid, about 4 per person, with sauce over cooked orzo. Garnish with chopped parsley.
"Queen of Sheba" Chocolate Torte
Adapted from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich
Makes one 9" cake
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
10 tbsp. (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 tbsp. brandy or whiskey
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup unblanched (skin on) whole almonds
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
Very lightly sweetened whipped cream
1. Position rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat to 375°. Prepare a 9" round springform pan by placing a round of wax paper on the bottom.
2. Place the chocolate and butter in a medium heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in brandy, vanilla and salt. Set aside.
3. Meanwhile, pulse the flour and the almonds in a food processor until finely ground. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar until thick and well blended. Stir in the chocolate mixture a little at a time.
5. In a clean dry bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and beat at high speed until the peaks are stiff and glossy but not dry. Scoop one quarter of the egg whites and all of the nut mixture on top of the chocolate batter and carefully fold them in using a large rubber spatula. Fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it level if necessary.
6. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the edge comes out dry but a toothpick inserted in the center comes out moist and gooey. Set the pan on a rack to cool.
7. To serve, slide a slim knife around the inside of the pan to loosen cake. Remove the pan sides and invert the cake onto a plate, remove the wax paper, and invert again onto a platter or cake stand. Cut cake into wedges and serve each slice with a little whipped cream on top.