Wednesday, February 2, 2011
We knew we liked Michelle Obama, but when we saw her menu for last week's state dinner, we nearly swooned. Finally, we can say we have something in common with our first lady. Her menu of rib eye, twice-baked potatoes, creamed spinach and a nice apple dessert is almost exactly our go-to menu for special guests. Of course our portions of steak are a little smaller, not to mention the size of our kitchen staff, but it is a start. Besides, who knows where this could lead - we can feel our arms toning right up as we write this column.
We'd also like a crack at her closet. We have a first lady who knows how to mix Jason Wu and J Crew and we are jealous. Not that we don't love living and shopping in Concord, but it is hard to cultivate a look of eclectic elegance when the two biggest women's clothing stores are owned by the same company and everyone you know shops there. Of course, even if we could get our greedy hands on an Alexander McQueen gown, we'd have to wrap up in a pashmina to shield our back fat from the cameras.
Oh to entertain with such ease. Michelle always appears so cool and calm we suspect she doesn't spend the last 20 minutes before the doorbell chimes fighting with her husband and stuffing clutter into anything that closes. Either of our husbands could be the leader of the free world - we'd still have to send him out for more ice and upstairs to change his shoes.
We do have one small thing over Michelle - living in the White House means she will never know the joy of opening a cupboard and discovering a missing math book, the dog's leash and that reminder postcard from the dentist for appointments that miraculously are tomorrow and not yesterday.
The White House must have an amazing mud room - and the Obamas' guests must know to use the front door when they are coming to a party, because we did not see a giant plastic tub of sporting equipment in any of the photos of arriving guests. Neither Anna Wintour nor Barbara Streisand had to maneuver around four lacrosse sticks, a full set of hockey goalie pads and the two pairs of slalom skis that Malia promised some boy she would tune and wax before morning. Of course, someone probably shovels and sands the front walk at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., so the mudroom door isn't the only one that is passable from December through March, but still.
We try to keep that bin out of sight but it always seems to creep out in the open, looking like a cross between the dumpster behind the Goodwill and a very small parade float depicting boys' sports.
President Obama keeps telling us to put aside our petty differences and celebrate the things we have in common. We have created a frugal feast based on the meal served to Hu Jintao last week, and we are going to try our hardest to not be jealous of Michelle Obama. She is a working mom, trying to raise her children well in a difficult world, just like us.
We can't afford rib eye, but we do love a steak called beef chuck eye steak, first cut boneless. It comes from the smaller end of the rib eye and is always less than $4 a pound. Keep the portions small, add a lot of veggies and you won't break the budget. We typically get about 3 small servings per pound, so for six people we would buy about 2¼ pounds.
This time of year we like to cook these on top of the stove in a ridge grill pan. Season with salt and pepper before throwing them on the preheated pan that has been spritzed with some Pam. Grill for about 4 minutes per side for medium rare, longer if you prefer.
Twice Baked Potatoes
7 baking potatoes, scrubbed, pricked with a fork and baked at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, until dry and crackly on the outside and soft on the inside.
1 cup shredded cheddar
4 scallions, roughly chopped
½ cup light cream or whole milk,
½ teaspoon salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Use a paring knife to carefully cut a large oval opening in the top of six of the baked potatoes to make sort of a boat shape. Carefully scrape the insides out of each of the opened potatoes into a large mixing bowl, leaving about a half inch of potato attached to the skin for stability. Season the potato shells with salt and pepper and set aside.
Peel the seventh potato and add it to the bowl of scraped potatoes. Mash with a fork and add the cheese, scallions and milk or cream. Mix well. Taste and add more salt, if needed. Carefully spoon potatoes into shells and smooth tops.
These can be wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. When ready to serve, reheat in a 300-degree oven until hot and puffy.
Serve garnished with additional chopped scallions. Makes 6 potatoes.
2 pounds fresh spinach, washed and with tough stems removed (see note)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup finely chopped shallots or onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup heavy cream
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the fresh spinach and cook for 2 minutes. Drain well, pressing with a slotted spoon to release as much water as possible. Finely chop the spinach and set aside.
Melt the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until limp and glossy, about 2 minutes. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or two, stirring well. Add the heavy cream, salt and pepper and let simmer until the cream is reduced by about half. Serve immediately.
Note: Feel free to use two 8-ounce packages of frozen chopped spinach in place of fresh.
Thaw, drain well and proceed with the second part of the recipe.
6 Cortland or Granny Smith apples
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
1 large slice lemon peel
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped walnuts
whipped cream or ice cream
Combine the brown sugar, water, lemon peel and raisins in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 5 or 6 minutes, until the syrup begins to thicken and the raisins are plump.
Remove from the heat, cover and let sit while you prepare the apples.
Core each apple, but leave the bottom skin intact. A pairing knife and a melon baller are perfect for doing this properly: Cut a circular wedge out of the top of the apple around the stem and then use the melon baller to remove the rest of the core. Slowly work your way down to about a half inch from the bottom.
Place the cored apples in a shallow baking dish. Use a slotted spoon to fill the cored holes with the raisins and then pour the sugar syrup over all the apples. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, basting once or twice with the syrup, until the apples are soft and slightly wrinkled.
Let cool to warm room temperature and serve, garnished with the nuts and whipped cream or ice cream.