Little Neck Clams with White Wine Cream Sauce

Here is an elegant meal or appetizer, that takes not more than minutes to whip up.  Warm, rich and creamy, it is a great recipe to keep in mind for winter holidays.  Serve it with crusty bread for soaking up the outrageously good sauce left behind, or serve the whole thing over pasta for a more substantial dish.

Little Neck Clams with White Wine Cream Sauce
by Catie Schwalb

Makes four appetizers, or two main courses, or four main courses if served on pasta.

3 dozen little neck clams, cleaned (see information on how to clean clams here)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 shallots, minced
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup heavy cream, reduced slightly
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon zest
-no salt- (the clams should be plenty salty)

Heat butter and oil together in large, lidded, heavy bottomed pot.  Add garlic and shallots and saute until fragrant over medium-high heat.  Gently add clams and white wine, and cover.  Allow the clams to cook in the wine mixture, in the covered pot, until opened, about five minutes.

When all, or the majority, of the clams have opened, carefully remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and cover them to keep warm.  Discard any clams that have remained closed.

Add the reduced cream to the wine clam broth in the pot, and continue to reduce a bit for a couple of minutes, over medium-low heat, if the sauce feels to thin.  Return the clams to the pot and gently mix to evenly cover with the sauce.  Sprinkle with fresh parsley and lemon zest.

Serve immediately, either with bread or add cooked pasta to the pot and portion out dishes.

Espresso Chocolate Cookies

The Christmas season in my paternal grandparents' house, when I was growing up, was always marked by tins of the exact same assortment of homemade cookies, painstakingly baked in legions by Grandma Baumer.  There were wreath spritz cookies, apricot or mincemeat oatmeal bars, buttery vienna crescents, and then, the espresso chocolate balls.

The latter were not easy to love as a kid.  They didn't have the crunchy green colored sugar of the wreaths, or the gooey pie-like interior of the bars, nor the melt-in-your-mouth heavenly almondness of the crescents.  They were small, brown, unadorned, a little bitter, and crumbled in your mouth, crying for a glass of milk (which I wasn't a big fan of either).  And yet, year after year, I tried to like them.  I knew there was something challenging and grownup about them, and I'd give it another go each time they were the only remaining variety in the tin.

I recently came across the recipe again, in my grandmother's handwriting, among some of her belongings.  The inkling about them being a grown-up cookie was correct.  They are a deep bitter espresso, with a wave of dark cocoa, finishing just at the end with a flicker of salt.  They are also the quickest and easiest holiday cookie I have made yet.

These are subtle and elegant, and would be a charming finish to a winter dinner, alongside coffee, port or dessert wine.  Or try them as a late sunday afternoon snack with a glass of medium-bodied red wine.  I did.  With a toast to Marie.

Marie Baumer's Espresso Chocolate Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspooons vanilla
1 tablespoon instant espresso or instant coffee granules
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 2/3 cup flour, unsifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
confectioner's sugar, optional

Heat oven to 325 degrees F.

Cream butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffy. Add coffee granules, cocoa, flour and salt, and blend well.

Shape dough into 1 inch balls (if the dough is warm or sticky, chill for a few minutes). Place on lightly greased baking sheet, or parchment or silpat, 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake at 325 degress for about 15 minutes, until done. Cool completely. Roll in confectioner's sugar if desired. Store in an airtight container or freeze.

Last minute gifts: Recipe Kits
The Kitchn.com recently had a great piece with a bunch of ideas for gift kits that include everything to make a new recipe or culinary project.  From kimchi to ricotta to granola, the article suggests groupings of ingredients, instructions and any special container or tool.

I've done similar things for gifts through the years, and while usually a big hit, I also love giving a gift that gets my friend to learn, try or taste something new.  But even better, what is so great about this gift idea is not that it is filled with expensive or hard to find items, but that you've simply done all of the organization and planning for them.  Most of the items are right on the shelves of your food store, and can be easily obtained...even at this late date!  And if you're not ordering it, or shipping it, you can be a little more liberal with perishable items, leaving the playing field wide open.  Throw in a recipe card, cookbook, or utensil and you are a gift givin' fool.

So here are a few of my own "kits" and ideas.  Feel free to steal them.  And please let me hear any ideas of your own in the comments.

Vinaigrette Kit:  Hazelnut Oil + Sherry Vinegar.  I just gave this as a gift this weekend!  This is one of my very favorite combinations for a vinaigrette, and I love introducing friends to it.  Make your own combination.  Throw in a snazzy pair of salad tongs.

Risotto Kit:  arborio rice + generous hunk of great parmesan + organic onions + dried porcini mushrooms + wooden spoon or dry white wine.  For that special someone, splurge on a risotto pan.

Regional Kit:  Head to a spice shop or ethnic grocer, particularly if you're in an urban area, and stock up on an intoxicating array of spices from one region or country or cuisine.  Print out a few recipes or throw in a cookbook.  If you're in New York City, check out Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights or online, and Kalustyan's in Manhattan and online.

Oyster Kit:  oyster knife + protective gloves + ingredients for mignonette sauce (black peppercorns, shallots, and Champagne, Red or White Wine Vinegar).  And maybe an ice crusher?

Chocolate Covered Grape Kit:  Gorgeous seedless grapes + unsweetened cocoa + great dark chocolate + this amazing recipe from Michel Richard

Date in a Box! I just gave this as a first anniversary present!!  A great bottle of champagne + fresh cherries + baguette + couple of great cheese + some charcuterie or fixin's for Shrimp Cocktail + chocolates.

Or pick out your favorite recipe, sweet or savory, print up the recipe on a eye-catching card, gather up all easily transportable ingredients, stick a bow on it and voila!

Give the gift of cooking.
Here are a few of my favorite cookbooks ever.  And more than that, they are also my favorite cookbooks to give as gifts.  Each are beautiful to just read and admire the artwork and photos, but also offer unique information, recipes, instruction or skills, that sets them apart from the dozens and dozens and dozens I have on my shelves.

Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best, by Darina Allen.  Head of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork, Ireland, Allen, with completely charming text and gorgeous photos, walks you through a multitude of "wait, I can do that at home?!?" culinary projects in more than 700 recipes.  From how to make butter, pluck a chicken, cure bacon, or whip up homemade limoncello, this book has not left my bedside since I first received it and is by far one of my very favorite finds ever.  Perfect for so many, from locavore homesteader to DIY hipster to grandma, and everyone in between.

Stir by Barbara Lunch.  A stunning book from James Beard-award winning, Boston chef Barbara Lynch.  Just flipping through this book in the store made me go directly to the market to find ingredients just to experiment with.  Both incredibly inspirational and accessible, this collection of recipes are a total pleasure to read, but also ones that will have you cooking again and again.

Inspired by Ingredients, by Bill Telepan.  One of my favorite books for years now, by one of my favorite chefs, and school lunch champion, in New York.  Set up by seasons and menus, this book is a beautiful locavore cooking class, highlighting the best the markets, or our gardens, have to offer at that place and time.  I'm drooling thinking of the beet greens pierogi, pea pancakes, and lavender crepes with blueberries.  Also, the introduction is so thoughtfully written and full of incredible culinary wisdom, that it was the first time I had considered writing a food fan letter, when I read it 5 years ago.  I had the honor of getting to work with Bill later on, so got thank him in person instead.

The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.  Containing an unimaginable amount of work and research, this ingredient dictionary of sorts, catalogues almost any food or flavor you can think of, with a long list of flavors and ingredients that it naturally pairs with.  I picked this book up while in culinary school, as I was starting to develop my own recipes, but wish I had had it years earlier, for those evenings of excavating the fridge, and the "now how am I going to make dinner out of this?" moments.  It also lays out the flavor and spice profiles of most international cuisines.  FYI cauliflower has a natural affinity for achovies, apple, bread crumbs, brown butter, capers, cardamom, cheese (emmental, goat, gruyere), chile peppers, chives, cream, currants, dill, leeks, lemon, mint, mussels, dijon mustard, nutmeg, olives, orange, pine nuts, poppy seeds, saffron, scallops, white truffles, watercress and yogurt.

The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine, from the French Culinary Institute. This 496 page gorgeous resource, from one of the top professional culinary schools in the country, is an excellent choice for a any cook who wants to expand their knowledge of basic culinary techniques.  From stocks, to pastry dough, to braising and filleting, all the fundamental building blocks are broken down in incredibly thorough description and photographs.  I received my chef degree from the FCI, and return to this book all the time, as it is step by step, exactly what we learned, from recipes to plating, in the first of six levels of the professional program.  Filled with accessible recipes, and teaching technique along the way, it offers guidance, recipes and instruction from our legendary culinary deans Jacques Pepin, Andre Soltner, and Alain Sailhac.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg MD and Zoe Francois.  This book is currently covered in flour and has not been returned to my bookshelf since it arrived.  I love bread baking, and bread bakers, and have taken some incredibly inspiring classes full of slow rising and yeasty starters.  However, as life grows increasingly more complicated, I just couldn't find a full day to devote to kneading, rising and punching down as frequently as I craved to.  A super talented friend brought a crusty-chewy loaf of magic to a dinner party and my bread days were changed.  This book offers a new bread method, with a short cut that allows you to have fresh, crusty, artisan bread any day of the week with about an hour's notice and no schmancy skill needed.  I have given this book as a gift more than any other this year, and it has made dinner time very warm and happy at my house.

Edible Gift Series: Make Your Own Cookie Cutters
I just saw this great tutorial on Instuctables.com on how to make your own cookie cutters.

[caption id="attachment_928" align="alignnone" width="560" caption="photo by j_l_larson, on instructables.com"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_929" align="alignnone" width="560" caption="photo by j_l_larson, on instuctables.com"][/caption]

Genius idea.  Particularly for hard-to-shop-for-relatives-with-quirky-interests (you know who you are...).  Make a cutter that suits them, whip up a batch of cookies, bundle up said cookies, and tie their custom cutter on top with a big shiny bow for their own future batches.  Maybe even include a cookie recipe card if you are feeling particularly jolly.  Thanks j_l_larson and instructables.com!

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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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