Archive for January, 2007

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Sombreros, the Super Bowl, and Sugar and Lard: the Road to Chicken Flautas!

January 30, 2007

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There are so many reasons to love Mexican/Southwestern food. The generous portions. The fact that refried beans come standard. The toppings: fresh salsa, sour cream, cheese. Guacamole (a reason unto itself). Pulled and stewed meats, cheese sauces, hot spices and fried things. The list goes on…

So when my husband declared that he was going to make flautas — my go-to order at all Mexican/Southwestern restaurants, I pulled on my sombrero, tucked in my napkin and readied my utensils.

Flautas are delicious. They combine the best of so many cooking methods: Slow cooked, pulled meat nestled inside a crispy, crunchy deep fried tortilla. You get that satisfying crunch and then a moist mouthful of well-cooked, juicy, shredded meat. Heaven. I like my flautas mounded with fresh ingredients like homemade salsa and guacamole, sour cream and cheese. All those fresh veggies have to make the fried object they’re obscuring healthy, right? Of course I’m right.

But could my husband pull this off? Were his culinary skills up to the task? My sombrero and I waited in breathless anticipation.

Not to worry… the flautas were more than edible; they were delicious. The technique is a bit tricky, only because the hot oil can easily dry the meat that you’ve worked so hard to season and stew. (I should know, being a flauta connisseur.) But after a few flauta soldiers perished (being merciful, I helped to finish them off), golden and delicious flautas began exiting the cook top.

Yes, you can have good Mexican food at home… now all that’s missing is the refried beans.

Click here to download the recipe for Chicken Flautas.

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It’s paradise, mon: Seared scallops with meyer lemon vinaigrette

January 29, 2007

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Afraid of seafood, perhaps? Leery of a fishy smell and a strange, spongy texture? Fear not, friends. This scallop dish is here to seduce you.

Just as The Perfect Storm might have turned you off from seafaring, seared scallops with meyer lemon vinaigrette is the postcard from the Caribbean that will lure you back. It’s delicate and sweet. It tastes fresh and green and citrus-y… a surprising breath of spring in the midst of 20 degree weather here. Ahhh.

Tempting, right? Can’t you just picture curling up your toes in that white sand as warm blue waters lap at your feet? Don’t you just want to fork that scallop in?

This dish is successful for its alluring simplicity: It’s beautiful, and there isn’t much to it. A nest of fresh greens, sprinkled lightly with a lemony, zesty vinaigrette. One or two simply seared scallops, sweet and tender — perfectly seasoned — resting on top. There aren’t flavors at war or strong tastes to assault your mouth… it all tastes natural, fresh and delicious.

Come on now. Open wide. I’ll strike up the calypso band.

Click here to download the recipe for Seared Scallops w/ Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette.

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Top Chef Week Twelve: Welcome to Hawaii, come to a luau, and ‘aloha’ means hello and goodbye to two contestants.

January 25, 2007

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One episode down, one to go. Two contestants down, one to go. That’s right, kids. Top Chef is coming to its culinary conclusion at long last… and the cooking is good.

Our repeated complaints that too little of the actual food and cooking talents have been on display must have gotten through to the producers. That, or the fact that four contestants (and an hour and fifteen minute show!) means that you are forced to show more food whether you want to or not.

But before all that cooking took place, we viewers had to have at least a dose of the requisite reality show flashbacks and “profiles” — and, of course, some product placement ads. The show caught up with the contestants at the conclusion of the two month filming hiatus. So which of the four contestants had been practicing most in anticipation of this grand finale? The answer, it seems, was Marcel — who had formed some sort of “gastronic” mad scientist society with his friends. In his suitcase: Xantham gum and other chemicals to create 21st century culinary bliss. Sam also impressed by taking the two months to learn to bake at the foot of a former Tom Colicchio pastry chef. Elia had been working at her restaurant job and reading a few books, and Ilan, similarly, was back in the swing of Spanish cooking at the restaurant where he works, Cafe Mono in NYC, and reading a few books himself.

They all reunited, awkwardly, in first class on a plane bound for Hawaii and the grand finale. Had the two month hiatus doused the flames of Marcel hatred? Not to worry. Everyone still despised the kid. (Voiceover Ilan, smiling insincerely at Marcel and drinking champagne: “I find him as annoying as ever.” Or something like that.)

(Hold the drama for a quick tourist video for Hawaii. The four contestants take a helicopter ride over the big island’s blue waters and lush greenery. Really, Top Chef, you couldn’t find 15 minutes to cut to make the episode a mere hour?)

Upon touchdown, the four contestants greeted our three judges and Hawaiian guest judge Chef Wong. There they, and we viewers, were treated to an educational lunch (which we got to watch them eat) of traditional Hawaiian luau fare. But this was no mere product placement, folks — at the end of the meal Padma dropped the words “Elimination round,” and you could tell our intrepid cooks felt like ralphing up that Hawaiian poi. The next day, that casual lunch took on more significance when the chefs heard the challenge: They’d have to re-create two dishes of a traditional Hawaiian luau, but while putting their own twist on things. (In other words, “Hope you were listening to the lecture yesterday, kids.”) They had three hours to prepare to serve 30 guests at Chef Wong’s birthday celebration.

Cue dramatic Top Chef music (and the shots of the outdoor KENMORE PRO kitchen).

Aside from minor drama with Marcel (natch) making a stupid joke when Ilan’s pot caught fire (still don’t know what happened there) and moving Elia’s steamer off a burner, the prep work was interesting and uneventful. The menu? Sam made marscapone mousse with hawaiian salted coconut milk and citrus twirl; and opakapaka poke, acid cooked in uzu with seabeans. (Translation: Coconut dessert and ceviche.) Elia made snapper steamed in tea leaves with peas, peppers and carrots; and ahi poke (raw tuna) with olives, capers and lemon confit. Marcel made hamachi poke with pineapple poi (using xantham gum instead of traditional taro root); and salmon lomi lomi with tomato foam, scallion oil, chili oil and lotus root chip. And Ilan made morcilla (a homemade Spanish sausage) and squid lau lau in taro root leaf; and a saffron haupia fritter (coconut milk donut). It all sounds fancy, no? Well, if it’s it’s indecipherable here, it was pretty impressive on TV. Basically, Sam — a seeming generalist — went with more traditional flavors and techniques. Elia fell back on her Mediterranean know-how. Ilan, of course, put a Spanish twist on things. And Marcel deconstructed stuff and unleashed molecular gastronomy on traditional Hawaiian fare.

The results? The judges were duly impressed, and perhaps for the first time did not have to pretend to agonize over who would go home: It was actually a hard decision. Nonetheless, two would “pack their knives and go.”….

…. Wait. Hold it, hold it. First, Elia and Ilan would try to get one more shot in at Marcel with some lame and purposeless fingerpointing and muttering about him “cheating.” Examples? Well.. (Foot shuffle, foot shuffle.) He moved a steamer off a burner (which may or may not have been lit). Anything else? Well… (Awkward silence and muttering.) OK. Then we’re going to announce the losers, OK, if you’re finished. (Tom Colicchio rolls his eyes and tells Elia he doesn’t care about what goes on in the kitchen.) Only Sam looks like a class act here, as usual.

All this served only to delay the inevitable: Sam and Elia are sent packing. Apparently the judges thought Marcel was a lock for his beautiful dishes and Elia, who strayed too far from Hawaiian tastes, was finished for sure. They were only seesawing between sending Sam or Ilan home… in the end, the Samauri chef (who had — Samsom-like — chopped his bun), was sent home. Sniff. At least he may find the $10,000 prize for being the fan favorite some consolation.

Finally, we’re left with bizarre footage of our two finalists, Marcel and Ilan, “smack talking” to each other in hushed, girl-like tones while avoiding eye contact. Can’t wait for next week, can you?

What did you think of the three-hour luau elimination challenge?

Husband: At first, I was rather horrified by the whole idea. I was hoping to see all the contestants cooking without constraints. I wanted to see what it meant to eat what Elia made versus what Ilan made. However, after seeing how they uniquely stamped each dish with their own flavors, I think I was wrong. I think the biggest problem would have been design and execution in three hours for thirty diners. It required brutal efficiency by them, and I was really wowed by the variation in dishes and their performances. So in the end, I was wrong, the challenge seemed like a good one.

Wife: It was a good challenge because it drew out the chef’s cooking personalities and talents. The Hawaiian fare — while completely foreign to me — offered them a base where they could show off their particular areas of strength and expertise. The three hour time limit was also pretty impressive: Two dishes for 30 people in three hours seemed like a difficult challenge that they all mastered. And the primer on the Hawaiian food earlier in the show actually helped viewers understand what the contestants were making — sort of. At least they tried to explain what words like poke and poi and lomi lomi meant, even if addled viewers like me forgot anyway.

Are you surprised who went home?

H: Absolutely. While I have chosen a half dozen people over the weeks to win, I really thought Sam was going to be there winning the whole thing. I think if he went off for ‘not cooking’ as Tom Colicchio criticized, I’m not sure that is a great reason. Now because I didn’t taste any food, I couldn’t tell you if I agree or not. But if that was the deciding factor, then it means the world’s greatest sushi chef could never win this title. In the end, I think Sam impressed me with other qualities. The facts, that he’s now learning pastry, that even when he had personal beefs he helped out Marcel, and that he seems to get the idea of leading means focusing on the task at hand, have made me think he’s the only one of the group I’d actually trust to run my kitchen if I owned a restaurant. Unfortunately for Sam, all that matters is the food and he didn’t seem to carry the day.

As for Elia, I think her actions in regards to Marcel, her panic when her dessert wasn’t perfect last week, and her dishes over the last couple week prepared me for the result. It seemed on a number of occasions she stumbled into something and was just a bit off. I think more than anything it has to do with age and experience then pure talent. I would hardly be shocked to see her extremely successful down the road.

W: I’m mourning the loss of Sam. It seemed clear from the judge’s comments that Elia’s offerings were the weakest, although I had grown to like her spunk and confidence more. But Sam’s dishes seemed to be well executed and tasty; to be honest, I was hoping they’d axe Ilan instead. Why, you might ask? Of the personalities, Sam was the one I felt I could root for. He resisted (at least with more success than others) the childish lure of using Marcel as punching bag, and he seemed to be a nice guy and talented chef. Last season, I thought they made a bigger deal about who was a leader in the kitchen and who other contestants would want to work for. Had those been criteria this year, I think Sam would have been the champion. Judging from the final two contestants, Marcel and Ilan, both more odious and immature with each episode, leadership skills and likeability are no longer requirements to be Top Chef. And that’s a shame. Now, sigh, I have no idea who to root for.

Our final prognistication: Who is the next Top Chef?

H: I’m rooting for the villain. Call me a contrarians or just a man on a mission to see evil win one, but I’m thinking Marcel might spank Ilan. I suggested a few weeks back that the producers recasting of Marcel as sympathetic (and rightly so after the uncomfortable Cliff moment) might be a preparation to see him as ‘Top Chef.’ Also, it appeared that when Marcel was given a chance to do what he enjoys, molecular gastronomy, with his own tools that it pays off. Finally, Chris, from Insane Thoughts and Insane Ramblings dropped me this little link, which I very much appreciated. Apparently, Marcel had a rough week when attacked with a beer bottle in a club (It’s one line in the last paragraph). So, I’m having a tough time not rooting for him. With that said, I wouldn’t be shocked if rich and flavorful Spanish dishes by Ilan win the day, but part of me has never been a huge fan of the cuisine so I’m left a bit cold by it. So I’m predicting an unpopular champion, Marcel.

W: I feel I have no dog in this fight. I don’t like either of them that much, despite my initial prediction (see the first post about Top Chef!) that Ilan would win. But his immature rivalry with Marcel has soured me on him. I have a feeling from the track record of judge’s remarks that it will be a close battle, despite producers’ desire to stoke still more hatred of Marcel. If Marcel can impress the cavalcade of celebrity judges in next week’s preview, it won’t matter that he’s a squirrely, awkward kid that nobody liked. He just may win.

The only questions that matters: Who do you think will win Top Chef?

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What time is it? It’s pecan chocolate chip cookie time.

January 22, 2007

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The ingredients may be humble: Flour, sugar, butter, egg, chocolate and pecans. But the results are extraordinary.

It may seem silly to lavish praise on cookies; after all, don’t most cookies taste pretty good? Doesn’t everybody have a go-to cookie recipe from which they can conjure a satisfying snack or dessert? True, I suppose. But every now and then you come across a cookie that stands crumb and chip above the rest… A cookie that rises above the tepid praise “it tastes pretty good” to the indecipherable and higher praise of satisfied eaters mumbling and nodding vigorously as they stuff portions down their gullet.

This is one such cookie.

Now, I am biased, because I get to eat these piping hot and straight from the oven — when the cookie is perfectly moist and steaming and the chocolate is oozing a bit from the seams of the crumbly mound of goodness. Yes, cookies do taste better warm. But I think these boys will also stand to scrutiny after sitting in Tupperware for a few days, too. The thing that distinguishes them from an ordinary — though good — chocolate chip cookie is the addition of pecans. The cookie itself is the perfect combination of not-too-chewy and moist, with the right balance of sweetness and butteryness, and the chocolate weaves its spell as expected… but the nuts add delightful depth and a subtle crunch; there’s just something about pecans and dessert. Am I right?

Well, there’s only way to find out. Fire up the oven, kids. It’s cookie time.

Click here to download the recipe for Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookies.

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Wanna see your guests drool? Pancetta-Ricotta Crostini.

January 19, 2007

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Bacon, cheese, bread…. drool. Wait, don’t add drool.

But, honestly, it will be hard not to salivate over these particular hors d’ouerves. Just looking at images of these beauties is causing me to have to mop up my keyboard. One of the hazards of blogging about food, I guess.

It is a truism among all non-vegetarians that bacon — or in this case, pancetta — makes everything better. (Sort of like butter.) If that were a “theory” in science terms, this particular experiment would elevate it to a “law.” Like gravity.

I think these simple, bite-sized little offerings will be a hit at any party. They have a terrific crunch from the parmesan-seasoned toast points (or crostini), a tang from the bit of ricotta and basil filling, a sweetness from a carmelized onion and, of course, that unmistakable crispy, salty goodness of pancetta. Even guests with unfortunate overbites (such as myself), who normally avoid the embarrassment of attempting to chomp two-bite hors d’ouerves, will hazard taking discrete — oh, six or seven — helpings of this pancetta-ricotta crostini. (The trick? Try to jam the whole thing in at once and avoid conversation for the 30 seconds you’re noshing it. Feign fascination with the host’s house plants and photographs, and avoid all eye contact while your squirrel-like cheeks are filled with food. Works nearly every time. If interrupted, hold your hand up over your giant mouth and look apologetic. Repeat.)

The other great thing about these crostini? They make your house smell like good cooking… Come on: first caramelized onions and then frying bacon? Your guests will only have to be careful they don’t slip on their own drool. (Which really is the only drawback to this recipe.)

Enjoy!

Click here to download the recipe for these Pancetta-Ricotta Crostini.

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Top Chef Week Eleven: Chocolate, Romance and… You have to be kidding me.

January 18, 2007

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Last week’s scintillating, scandalous-looking teaser had us kind of keen to tune in to Top Chef this week. (Well done, you wily producers. Like we don’t watch every week anyway.) Would all the hype and speculation pay off with drama actually worth watching? You tell us, loyal fans.

The show started off routinely enough. Between a blizzard of product placements in the KENMORE! kitchen featuring CALPHALON! products, the now five remaining contestants were asked to concoct dishes using “one of two flavors” of NESTLE CHOCOLATIER! brand chocolate. Presiding over the chocolate feast were, of course, Padma the hostess (does her voice get more nasally and irritating each week?) and a silver-haired, gentlemanly-looking French chef who had the contestants swooning in their admiration: Chef Eric Ripert of the famed Le Bernadin restaurant in New York. (Is it painfully ironic that one of the more dignified and renowned guest judges wound up on this particularly ridiculous episode?)

The QuickFire seemed more important when the judgments were intoned in a thick, le-sexy French accent: Elia just missed winning by making two dishes — a chocolate chicken (“It looks like a mistake, like chocolate sauce dripped onto chicken in the refrigerator.” Oh, snap. And in heavily accented English, no less.) and an apparently delicious chocolate dessert. Ilan also missed the boat by making a revolting sounding combination of chocolate ganache and chicken liver (“It is not something that should be served, say, in a restaurant.” Or ever.) Winning praise were Cliff for his traditional chocolate mole sauce over chicken, Marcel for his innovative potato cannolis stuffed with coffee and chocolate, and Sam for some kind of “well-balanced” seafood with spicy chocolate sauce.

Dramatic pause. Sam won.

And with victory, Sam earned the privilege of picking which course and proteins he’d serve for the Elimination Challenge. Aside from a thinly veiled advertisement to VISIT ROMANTIC SANTA BARBARA!, that challenge was to cook a romantic five course meal for 30 people. No other restrictions were given, besides having to work together in a small restaurant kitchen. Yawn.

Sam determined to cook a first course using lobster and scallops (which disappointed Marcel, who wanted to use lobster or scallops) and beets (which disappointed Marcel, who was also using beets) with plum sauce (Marcel had no comment on the plum sauce). Second course was Ilan, who went to his wheelhouse of Spanish cuisine to cook a delicious clam concoction with noodles. Third course was Marcel, who made salmon with cutesy little hearts down the seam and served with beets (naturally). Fourth course was Cliff, who made, in the words of Chef Ripert, mundane “hotel food” of beef with purreed lentils and “useless” greens. And finally, Elia served “The Kiss,” a chocolate and mint concoction that was, apparently, quite good, but caused her to have a minor meltdown when her chocolate hearts wouldn’t come out from their molds. Tearfully declaring, “I quit,” she looked mournfully at the near-perfect plates exiting the kitchen. The all-male remaining contestants quickly rallied around their distraught heroine; Sam encouraged her, Ilan comforted her and perhaps Marcel squeezed her arm (that part we may have made up). Frankly, this kind of camaraderie has been sorely lacking on the show. Sometimes it helps to be female and good looking, no?

But wait, there was more “camaraderie” yet to come… hours after the meal. This is where the drama occurs, folks.

Asking for a camera (the producers must be thanking their lucky stars) and imbibing mass quantities of alcohol, Sam, Ilan, Cliff and Elia decide to act out the old TV-land trope that good television equals drunken reality show stars filming their escalating antics. First, they decided to shave their heads. Well, Ilan shaved his head when Elia said she would shave her head. Then Elia did shave her head. (For added drama, the producers had her wearing a remarkable “Elia” wig during her post-shave interview recap, which she pulled off with a flourish to reveal… a nicely shaped shaved head. Frankly, she looks pretty good bald.) Sam and Cliff, apparently, declined to undergo the clippers. But with all this head-shaving going on, thoughts naturally turned to the most impressive head of tresses on the show: Marcel. The poor kid was innocently sleeping, excluded from all this drunken grooming, when he was rudely awakened by Cliff, who intended to execute a hair-brained (pun alert!) scheme to shave Marcel’s head. Now, Cliff is probably, oh, three times the size of Marcel — perhaps 12 inches taller and 100 pounds heavier. So, after being jolted awake, a struggling and confused Marcel was easily pinned down as Cliff fruitlessly called for the clippers and the other drunken contestants looked on — half amused, but apparently not as serious as Cliff about actually shaving Marcel’s head. At last, Marcel struggled free — impressive locks still intact — and ran to the bathroom to sleep on the floor.

Good television? Or a re-enactment of seventh-grade sleepaway camp? (And isn’t it really astonishing that they chose to film it all? The producers must be living right.)

Anyway, since this synopsis has become exhausting, let’s sum up: Tom Colicchio, looking stern, arrived the next hangover-laden day to say that Cliff is off the show for “touching another contestant in an aggressive manner.” The other contestants say nothing. Cliff is duly remorseful, and Marcel gamely gives him a “man hug” as he departs.

Oh yes, and there was also a judges’ table. The four remaining contestants undergo a tongue lashing of sorts, mostly from Padma, after they march in Cliff-less and half bald. Our French guest judge wisely says nothing and somehow manages to remain dignified. Who, oh who, would go to Hawaii after all that? Well, all of them. Sam and Ilan were given their Hawaii tickets, and the only drama came from Padma’s rather painful line, “Elia and Ilan, pack your knives… and go to Hawaii!” Oh, boy!

Let’s just cut to the chase: What do you think of the prank and tonight’s episode?

Husband: Cringe worthy. The whole episode was an example of why not to drink. I mean talk about becoming the newest poster-child for teetotaling. At no point was that not just painful to watch. You can tell from the very beginning, it all looked like a good idea through beer goggles. Yet, I can’t imagine something more humiliating when you are standing in front of two of the most successful people in your industry (Tom Collicchio and Eric Ripert) and have to explain yourself. I can’t imagine Elia felt so grand about her smooth skull then.

Wife: Every time the show might focus on the food these “talented” chefs are preparing, Top Chef manages to swerve back into reality-TV land. Which I loathe. The prank was, of course, incredibly juvenile. I shudder to think of the consequences if they had actually shaved poor Marcel’s head. As it was, I thought the kid was pretty calm about the whole thing. The more astonishing part is that those clowns filmed the whole thing… Was it really them and not a Machiavellian producer? Well, then, if not cooking, they may have a future in creating C- level reality shows.

The judges agreed that the cooking on the show was actually the contestants’ best. Whose dish would you want to try or were you most impressed by?

H: Wait, there was food? Oh, yeah, there was some food… Hmm, I guess my feeling is that Ilan had the dish I could least imagine what it tasted like. However, it’s not like we know what it was or how it was prepared. Actually, we know that at the end he took up 10 burners and torqued Marcel off, so at least we know the important thing. NOTE: Please read that previous sentence with even more sarcasm then you thought previously possible.

W: I’d want to taste Ilan’s — which didn’t look that pretty to me, but went over huge with the judges — and Elia’s. Really, though, I’d try any of their cooking. It’s become so hard to judge whether they are actually talented cooks or can just arrange food nicely on a plate. Maybe this is because the show has taken the emphasis off of the food. Because the ingredients whiz by and the preparation is not shown in favor of footage of the contestants bumping elbows in the kitchen, I have no idea what anything might taste like — except when I see the judges react after forking it in. That kind of sucks. Hint, hint, Top Chef.

Favorites? Next off?

H: Sam is hands down my favorite to win. He appears to be the leader and creative. I think he’s a full step ahead. However, I’m excited to see what Marcel might bring to the table with a bit of a break. Part of me wishes they’d ditch the forced scenarios and have a straight cookoff so we can really see who is the best, and know who’s the best under the circumstances. As for next off, I’m going to choose Marcel. While I think Marcel could bring the big game, I’m well aware that he’s not hit a home run this far and it could tank him.

W: Sam will win. And I no longer are what order the other contestants are booted in.

Who is your favorite? Do you think Elia’s looks good bald or is that a quick to grow back scarlet letter? Did you finish watching the episode or were you tempted to change the channel like we were?

Disclaimer: All “quotes” from the show are approximate. We weren’t taking notes. 🙂

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Potstickers: Crowd-pleasers, hunger-appeasers

January 17, 2007

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Like my husband, my parents love to cook. (Hence my, ahem, well-fed appearance.) And my parents love to cook for their parties. Nearly all of their dishes are a success, but there are, of course, a few standouts. Potstickers are one of them. Inevitably as the partygoers would wend their way around the buffet table, a bottleneck would result in front of the plate of delicious, artfully-wrapped beauties.

The result? More manual (and dirt cheap) labor on the part of my siblings and I to produce still more potstickers to satiate our ravenous guests.

My dear husband was a fixture at these parties, and could often be seen planted in front of the potstickers on the buffet table. He’d skillfully take a polite and restrained number of the delicious meat dumplings … and then swoop back in for seconds. Or thirds. Or fourths.

It was only a matter of time before the potsticker-lover (and soon to be family member) was drafted into the process of making them, too. Being an impassioned cook and eater, he quickly caught on and adapted the family recipe as his own. And now that he’s taken command of the kitchen, I’ve been released from my duties as potsticker wench (though I can still make a mean decorative ruffle in that wrapper). But one thing that hasn’t changed: The unabashed success of beef potstickers at parties. Or, frankly, their success at any event where satisfying hunger is the order of the day.

So, if you have a party — or just an empty belly — consider potstickers. They’re guaranteed to satisfy.

Click here to download the recipe for Potstickers.

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