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Cajun Cooking Adds Heat to Cold Nights

It seems people rarely get together at each other’s houses for a meal these days. People still love to eat and socialize they just seem to prefer to do it at a restaurant. And that’s a shame.

Don’t get me wrong, I love eating out (to the detriment of my waistline). But people tend to linger longer at home. Conversations are less guarded and often less PC. Loud laughter is not discouraged and wine flows more plentifully when you BYO (often across our tablecloth which is why I buy in threes).

So why aren’t people throwing more dinner parties? The common complaint I hear is the time involved and not knowing how to plan a meal. So I thought I would share one of my favorite easy dinner party menus. The theme is Cajun – perfect on a cold night and of course, for Mardi Gras celebrations. You can even make it a voodoo inspired Halloween party, which is what I did when the neighbors came over last weekend.

Low-lighting, candles, a spiderweb table dressing & skull from Target plus mini-pumpkins from Trader Joe's give a Halloween air to the table

Low-lighting, candles, a spiderweb table dressing & skull from Target plus mini-pumpkins from Trader Joe’s give a Halloween air to the table

First things first, wine. I chose a McCrea Mouvedre to welcome my neighbors and sip with apps. For dinner I wanted something with a little spice and chose Dunham Cellars Trutina although a tempranillo would also work well. We also dipped into two more bottles the neighbors brought over because that’s how these nights go…

For appetizers I turned to a favorite cookbook – Kathy Casey’s Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers. Although not Cajun, I chose her simple and simply addictive Croque Monsieur Puffs (scroll down the link, recipe is toward the bottom).

This appetizer works for literally every occasion, brunch, lunch you name it - and people cannot get enough!

This appetizer works for literally every occasion, brunch, lunch you name it – and people cannot get enough!

My sister, a serious cheese addict, was visiting so we picked up a wedge of triple cream brie topped it with orange marmalade (apricot jam works well too) and chopped pecans and warmed it in a 350 degree oven for ten minutes (basically until the topping is gooey and running down the sides). We served it with sweet cranberry & pumpkin spice thins and savory pita crackers (both from Trader Joe’s but pretty much any kind of cracker would work well).

Marmalade & Pecan Topped Brie & Creole Crab Cupcakes

Marmalade & Pecan Topped Brie & Creole Crab Cupcakes

Since my sister was helping in the kitchen we added one more app – Kathy Casey’s Creole Crab Cupcakes. This meal has more than enough food without a third app (our guests were a little too full before the entree), but if you can get lump crab meat fairly easily (for those in Seattle, my husband picked up ours at Mutual Fish) it’s a delicious recipe that looks stunning and is fast and easy to make (FYI: you do need a mini muffin pan).

The star of the night, however, is Slow Cooker Jambalaya. You can save some time the day of by cutting up your ingredients the night before and buying peeled, deveined, cooked frozen shrimp from Trader Joe’s or elsewhere. Toss your ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, set to low, and seven hours later your house will have a whiff of creole kitchen about it. (If you’re in a hurry, set to high and let cook for three hours). About half an hour before serving, throw some rice and chicken broth (or water) in rice cooker or pot (covered on stove). Put a little rice in each of your guest’s bowls – or do as I do and ask them to serve themselves – and top with the jambalaya.

The only side you need is a little cornbread. To save time use the Marie Calendar’s mix (just add water), which is pretty unbeatable. You can make squares or muffins. Squares are faster as you can bake an entire pan at once. If I have time, though I like the look of muffins. And no I don’t ever feel obligated to make cornbread from scratch, Marie has it down.

If you’re feeling like you need a little more, add some braised kale. I like this recipe from Emeril Lagasse. And no, you do not have to make you’re own chicken stock.

For dessert we went with a pumpkin spice cake which we ate too quickly to photograph. But I think red velvet cake (or cupcakes) would work especially well. If you are celebrating Mardi Gras, then a King Cake is the way to go.

To provide the perfect background music, put on some New Orleans jazz (we favor Kermit Ruffins & Rebirth), just keep it low enough to allow the conversation to flow.



Thin Crust Pizza Quest

The Ultimate Thin Crust Pizza: Chicken Sausage, Olives, Sundried Tomatoes, Goat Cheese

Chicken Sausage, Olives, Sundried Tomatoes, Goat Cheese

I really need to stop taking photos with the iPhone and bust out the real camera, I know.  I just have issues doing that at restaurants, but my photos really suffer from it.  I really had no excuse for forgetting the camera Saturday night when Jim and I headed over to Marjorie and Tim’s for part 3 of our pizza quest, but of course, I did.  So I apologize profusely for the poor quality of the photos – but surely you’re used to that by now, right?

A few months ago, for no apparent reason, Tim and Marjorie and Jim and I decided to take on the challenge of sampling all of the thin crust pizza options in Seattle (and there are many) and try to pick a “best.”  On our self-imposed quest we’ve been to Serious Pie and Via Tribunali.  Tutta Bella and Delancey are in our sights, but it was Tim and Marjorie’s house that became the third stop on the pizza quest.  And while it’s too early to know for sure, we may have already found our thin crust winner.

The Crust: Superbly thin.  Tim made a sourdough/whole wheat crust using a sourdough starter he created with flour, water and good ole Seattle environmental yeast over a year ago.  The crust involved a several night preparation found in the NY Times and it was sooo worth it.

The Method: On a pizza stone on the grill. 

The Flavors: There were four pizzas to try.  Seriously. Four.

Pizza No. 1: We started with a unpictured classic, Marguerita pizza with basil fresh from the basil plant in the window.  It was everything a Marguerita pizza should be – fresh juicy tomatoes, tangy basil, mellow mozzarella on that amazing super thin crust just brushed with olive oil. 

Pizza No. 2: The second offering was a unpictured salami and mushroom.  As you all know, Jim is a mushroom hater but he not only ate the mushrooms on the salami, when they fell off, he added them back on and ate them just on the crustWonders never cease.  The trick, Marjorie told me, is to saute the mushrooms before adding them to the pizza thereby guaranteeing the right texture and flavor.

Pizza No. 3: Third up, that tasty chicken sausage, tomato and olive pizza pictured up top.  The olives added a perfect zingy contrast to the sweetness of the sun-dried tomatoes and the savory chicken sausage (this was Jim’s favorite of the four pizzas).

Pizza No 4: Our final pizza offering was almost dessert like: the sweetness of carmelized onions, complemented by slightly salty pine nuts and tangy Laura Chenel goat cheese and sprinkled with fresh rosemary.  I had 2 slices of this one and it tied the salami for best pizza for me.

Carmelized Onion Pizza

Carmelized Onion Pizza

To complement our pizza we had a vertical tasting of McCrea Cellars Syrah (2002 and 2003 Vintages).  While both vintages were bold, balanced and flavorful, Tim and I preferred the earthiness of the 2002 while Jim and Marjorie favored the cherry of the 2003.

Already stuffed with food and wine, we still couldn’t resist dessert.  Marjorie opted to leave the sugary glaze off of the beautiful strawberry and blueberry tart she had made and it was definitely the right call as it let us focus on the natural sweetness of the berries, the savory crust and the tangy lemon in the filling. 

Strawberry and Blueberry Tart

Hooray for Berry Season

Out of our three pizza experiences on our quest thus far, Marjorie and Tim won hands down.  Their pizza was super flavorful and complex without any of the grease or heaviness usually associated with pizza.  They really showcased what home cooks can do given passion, time and let’s face it, talent.

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