A Menu for December (Parsnip Soup, Beef and Mushroom Stew, Ginger Cake)

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We got a tree, a Christmas tree, and it’s my first one–Rabbi Schlomo, plug your ears–and it’s making our apartment seem so festive. Somehow I thought getting a tree would be a big ordeal: with the lights and the stand and the balls and the baubles. But, actually, it was a totally easy process. On the advice of my friend John, we went to the Target in Eagle Rock where we stocked up on all the tree necessities (a tree skirt, to attract male trees; lights, balls, etc.) and then we bought a tree right outside at a pop-up tree farm. The tree came on a stand so we just carried it through the door, stood it up, and started wiring the lights. Voila. Now all we had to do was to have people over to enjoy the tree, which is why I spent some time figuring out the perfect December menu.

One of my favorite things to do, when planning a dinner party, is to carry a bunch of cookbooks into bed with me and to thumb through them right before falling asleep. On this particular night (last Thursday), I brought Dana Cowin’s wonderful new Mastering my Mistakes in the Kitchen and Renee Ericsson’s soulful A Boat, A Whale & A Walrus. From those two books, I started concocting a menu using the notes application on my phone. The menu looked like this:

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You know, the further along I get with this food thing, the more I’m realizing that menu planning is a real art. The first person to really hammer this home for me was Naomi Pomeroy at Beast in Portland who I cooked with for my cookbook and she said things to me like, “If you’re serving a creamy soup for a first course, you don’t serve a creamy dessert later on” and pointed out how each course should complement the previous course, play against it. So with this menu I figured spicy nuts from Dana’s book would be nice snack while everyone showed up (with some sparkling wine), then parsnip soup from Renee’s book would be an elegant harbinger of the meal to come (5 points for using the word “harbinger”), then a Beef and Mushroom stew from Dana’s book, perfect on a chilly night, and we’d end it all with David Lebovitz’s famous Fresh Ginger Cake from Ready for Dessert.

The nuts were such a cinch, you should all memorize this formula: 1/4 cup pure maple syrup, 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons minced rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon kosher salt all tossed with 6 cups of mixed raw nuts–pecans, almonds, cashews, and walnuts–then placed on a cookie sheet and roasted at 350 for 20 minutes, stirring after 10, until toasted and brown and fragrant. See:

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The parsnip soup is also a breeze: Sauté 3 sliced leeks (make sure to clean them well first by slicing vertically and running under water; only use the white parts and the light green parts) in 6 tablespoons of butter with a pinch of salt until softened.

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Then add 3 roughly chopped Honeycrisp apples (peeled), 2 pounds of parsnips (also peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces), and 2 fist-sized white potatoes (peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces) and toss around with some salt:

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Add 2 quarts chicken broth, bring to a simmer, and cook until you can smash a parsnip easily against the side of the pot (about 30 minutes). Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth; return to the pot and stir in 1 cup heavy cream, seasoning to taste with salt.

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That’s such a comforting taste, with the sweet parsnips and the tart apples, so great for December.

Now on to the main event: the beef and mushroom stew. I’ll formally enter the recipe below, but this one’s a real keeper–mainly because it’s all about the beef and all about the mushrooms. To wit: you brown stew beef in olive oil and when it’s good and golden brown, you remove it and then sauté lots of mushrooms (cremini and shiitake) picking up all of those beefy brown bits and everything takes on such a deep taste. At the end you doctor the stew with soy sauce and Dijon mustard (this was a recipe Dana Cowin learned from Daniel Boulud and it shows). Who wouldn’t want this?

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Serve on buttered egg noodles and you’re all set.

Finally, there’s David Lebvotiz’s famous fresh ginger cake (recipe here). This is such a refreshing, festive end to a holiday meal. It has deep, dark flavor from all the molasses, but then a spiciness and vibrancy from all the fresh ginger. You’ll need 4 ounces of it (look how OCD I am, measured after peeling of course):

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And a cup of molasses:

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(Tip: measure the boiling water in the same glass measuring cup you use to measure the molasses and you’ll pick up all the remaining bits.)

The finished cake is simple and stunning:

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To make the meal more interactive, do what I did: put a metal bowl and a whisk in the freezer before everyone arrives. Then, at dessert time, remove it and pour in a cup of cream and add a tablespoon of sugar. Pass the bowl and the whisk around the table and make everyone hand whip the cream that you’ll then spoon on to the dessert (that’s what you see my friends Sasie and Luke doing in the lead photo of this post). Everyone will feel involved and then look how pretty:

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That’s a December dinner that’d do any Christmas tree proud.

Recipe: Mushroom & Beef Stew

Summary: From Dana Cowin’s new “Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen.”

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 pounds trimmed flatiron steak or beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch pieces and patted dry with paper towels
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 pounds mushrooms (a mix of cremini and shiitake is great), stemmed, caps halved or quartered if large
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 bottle dry red wine, such as Merlot or Cotes du Rhone
  • 2 dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
  • Egg noodles, potatoes, or rice, for serving

Instructions

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Season the beef liberally with salt and pepper. Add half of the beef to the pot and cook, turning occasionally, until well browned, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to a plate. Repeat with the remaining beef, and transfer it to the plate.
  2. Pour off all the fat from the pot. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and half of the fresh mushrooms to the pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid, the liquid evaporates, and the mushrooms brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to their own plate. Repeat with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and remaining mushrooms; add to the plate.
  3. Add the onions and a pinch each of salt and pepper to the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and beginning to brown, about 8 minutes; then add the garlic and sauté a minute more.
  4. Add the flour and tomato paste and cook, stirring, until the pot is quite dry, about 2 minutes. Add the wine, turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.
  5. Lower the heat to a simmer, return the beef to the pot and add the dried mushrooms. Cover the pot and simmer the stew, giving it a stir occasionally, until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove and discard the dried mushrooms.
  6. Stir the reserved sautéed mushrooms, the mustard and the soy sauce into the stew and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Mix together the parsley and lemon zest in a small bowl. Serve the stew with egg noodles, potatoes or rice, sprinkling each portion with a little of the parsley mixture.

Quick notes

As Dana points out in the headnote, the most crucial thing here is to brown the meat well; and that won’t happen if you crowd the pan or if the meat is too wet (dry it really well with paper towels beforehand). Take your time on the browning step, and the results will be huge.

Preparation time: 1 hour(s)

Cooking time: 1 hour(s) 30 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 6

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