Monday, March 20, 2006

Sweet Sixteen’s all grown up!

Wow! A birthday on the first day of spring! (Not mine. I’m that dark, mysterious Scorpio. It's my daughter’s.)

Especially in SoCal. Where spring is usually nicer than most summers elsewhere. Flowers are already out. Bird’s, migrating north, are here making a racket early in the morning. Trees are bursting with new leaves. Despite the occasional deluge of rain, causing flooding and canceled soccer games, the weather is a generally perfect 65ºF and sunny, with cool nights.

Not like where I grew up. Spring was always a messy affair. Mud, slushy snow remnants, cold and windy, drab cloudy skies, no birds or flowers for another month or two. Trees dead as matchsticks. But that’s all far away now.

It used to be that birthdays were easy. Balloons. Ice cream. Pizza. Lots of tiny kids laughing and crying. After the initial 5 minutes of fun wore off, knowing that the other parents would be back shortly to pack up their offspring. Knowing that if they didn’t, I had legal recourse for child abandonment – so they were going, one way or the other. Soon.

(No, this is not me at birthday parties, well, not always. More on this later. )

But in retrospect, at a lower decibel level and without so many tiny tyrannical visitors underfoot, the birthdays were good.

Now, they’re a bit harder. Food has to be selected carefully. Figures and complexions are what it’s all about. Cake – forget it (Sugar? White flour? Pimple city, baby!). Pizza? “What, are you nuts? How am I going to fit into those new ‘Rock & Republic’ falling-off-my-butt jeans?” (Maybe that was the idea?). Thank God chocolate has anti-oxidants.

Not to mention what to do, or not do, and with whom. I just stay out of the frenzy and support as best as I can. Need a ride? Need some cash? Need help getting stuff ready? I should hide in the back so as not to embarrass anyone? No problem! My iPod’s charged – I’m good.

And diets have to be respected.

I’m all for healthy diets. I can hardly believe that cheeseburgers and fries have been traded in for fruit, massive amounts of fresh vegetables, whole grains, and a sort of war on sugar and white flour (salt, in moderation, is apparently still OK). I’m all for it. It just forces me to think beyond the preconceptions I have somehow built up as to what constitutes a birthday.

Beyond all this, the birthday party – of sorts – is now divorced from the actual birthday – for planning and social purposes. Since I’m not directly involved in it, it doesn’t really matter. But a special dinner on the actual birthday is still nice. With the focus on fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat seafood.

So here’s the fairly healthy, low-ish in fat birthday menu:
• Garlic-roasted Fresh Crab Salad
• Roasted Eggplant, Tomato and Mozzarella Napoleons with Balsamic Vinaigrette
• Fresh Apple Galette with Crème Fraiche

taught me, indirectly, how to make a real Pate Brisee style pastry. Crucial steps include using ice water (cooled in the freezer until an ice sheet forms on top), minimal mixing with the fingers, and ensuring large enough butter lumps remain in the dough after mixing. I cut the butter into paper thin slices, and mix with my fingers just until all the lumps are well coated. When I roll the dough out, I can see pretty big lumps of pure butter getting rolled out. Apparently, the lumps of butter in the final dough are what create the layers of flake in the final crust. Plus baking the Galette in a hot oven. I have a baking stone in my oven, and I place the Galette directly on the stone at 400ºF for 60+ minutes.

The fresh crab salad is wonderful. Roasting the crab together with the garlic is a simple way to achieve fantastic results. Aside from removing the meat from the crab shells, really not much work involved.

And the Napoleon – well it just combines some really great roasted flavors – again with great results for the amount of effort.

Plus a fresh apple Galette – what could be better? Where’s that bottle of Calvados, anyways?!

Garlic-roasted Fresh Crab Salad

1 large fresh, live crab for 2 people as appetizer or 1 per person as main dish
½ lemon per crab
bay leaves
salt (1 cup per gallon water)
Arugula salad, cleaned
2 cloves garlic per crab, minced
2 tbsp butter per crab
Parmesan cheese shavings for garnish
Lemon wedges for garnish

Pour sufficient water into a large pot to completely cover all crabs. Add lemon halves, bay leaves and salt. Bring water to a rolling boil. Place crabs in pot and submerge completely. Return to a boil. Cook at low rolling boil for 15 minutes. Place in sink of cold water to stop cooking.

When cooled, remove all legs. Turn on back, face away from you, and pry center body out of shell with your thumbs. Remove gills and long boney white ‘fingers’ from body. Remove all meat to a plate and reserve. Crack legs and claws and reserve.

Heat 2 tbsp butter in a roasting pan per crab in a 450ºF oven. When melted, add garlic and stir. Roast until the garlic just begins to color – don’t let it burn! Add crab meat and stir to coat. Roast, stirring every few minutes, until crab just begins to color, but has not dried out. Remove to a plate to cool. Add legs and claws to pan. Stir to coat, and roast until just heated through.

Arrange arugula on plates. Arrange roasted carbon top. Arrange legs and claws on side. Garnish with parmesan shavings and lemon wedges. Serve. Enjoy!

Roasted Eggplant, Tomato and Mozzarella Napoleons with Balsamic Vinaigrette

4 small Italian eggplants
4 Roma tomatoes
1 lb fresh Buffa Mozzarella cheese
Olive Oil
Fresh Thyme
4 cloves garlic
Salt, pepper
¼ cup Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
½ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

Slice each eggplant the long way into three even slices. Sprinkle the slices with salt, and let drain for an hour in a calendar set over paper towels. Place the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the slices lightly on both sides with olive oil. Bake the slices until well browned but not burned – 20 to 40 minutes.

Core the tomatoes and slice each tomato the long way into four slices. Place the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with olive oil, fresh thyme leaves, and the minced garlic. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn the slices to coat both sides well. Bake the slices for 30 to 40 minutes.

Slice the mozzarella into 16 thin pieces.

Whisk together the balsamic vinegar and the mustard. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the Napoleons on individual plates by layering one eggplant slice, two mozzarella slices, two tomato slices, one eggplant slice, two mozzarella slices, two tomato slices, and topping it with one eggplant slice. Each Napoleon uses one complete eggplant. Drizzle the salads with the balsamic vinaigrette.

Fresh Apple Galette with Crème Fraiche

1 ½ cups all purpose flour, plus more for rolling out
½ cup butter – very cold – cut into thin shavings
½ tsp salt
1/3 to ½ cup VERY cold water
6 Gala apples
1 lemon
¼ cup sugar
1-2 tbsp apple butter, apple preserves or honey – if desired
1 tbsp Calvados – if desired
Crème Fraiche – if desired

Mix flour, salt and butter together very lightly, so that the pieces of butter remain visible in the flour. Add just enough ice cold water to form a dough. Mix very fast with your hands just enough so that the dough comes together. Pieces of butter should still be visible. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, flatten slightly, and set in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Peel and core the apples. Slice them into not-too think of wedges. Sprinkle them lightly with lemon juice so they don’t color.

Heat the oven to 450ºF.

Roll out the dough to 1/8” to 1/16” thickness on a floured board. Arrange apple wedges in an overlapping manner, starting with a ring about 1 ½ inches from the edge of the dough, and ending in the center of the dough. Make sure the entire inner area of the dough is covered with apple slices. You can layer the apples slices more than one layer high if desired.

Fold the sides of the dough up over the apples towards the center. Make sure there are no holes on the sides of the dough or all the juice will run out (makes a big mess). Sprinkle the apples with the sugar. Place the Galette in the oven, and bake for 65 to 70 minutes, or until it is really well browned and crispy.

Remove the Galatte to a board to cool. If using the Calvados, heat it together with the apple butter, preserves or honey in the microwave for a minute, stir till combined, and brush onto the hot apples.

Serve in wedges with a dollop of Crème Fraiche. Enjoy!

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Blogger ilva said...

Pity you didn't come around to cook my birthday dinner! Great dinner and great piece of writing!

12:33 AM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

Thanks for the comment, Ilva! It was a fun dinner to make, and crab is always an adventure to eat! I would love to make you a birthday dinner - as long as I could do it in Tuscany! I'll just need a month or two in advance to prepare - maybe there's a nice cafe in the Piazza del Duomo?

10:17 AM  
Blogger MM said...

Wow, I wish my dad cooked for me on my birthdays! As it was he only cooked twice for me ... and he was a chef! You're a good dad, you are. The food looked amazing and so was the love you out into it.

6:03 AM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

mm - thanks for the comment! Maybe I'll find out in 20 years if you are right!

11:23 PM  
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