Tartines with Herb Cheese and Smoked Salmon

Toasts with Herb Cream Cheese and Smoked Salmon

A stellar, top notch brunch doesn’t need to take hours to prepare. These Tartines (toasts) with Herb Cream Cheese and Smoked Salmon and Salmon Roe take only 15 minutes!

I’ve mentioned before that, though my mother is a fantastic cook, both my grandmothers were truly, ridiculously bad in the kitchen. Vegetables were boiled until they begged for mercy. Meats were blasted in the oven until they were unrecognizable. Even bread somehow managed to become disks of solid brick. (And I’m not talking about homemade bread. Store-bought. And this in the heyday of Wonder bread). It was grim.

So my brother and I always breathed a sigh of relief when our parents stopped at Zabar’s before the family trip to Queens (where we assumed every grandparent in America lived). Zabar’s, to those who are unfamiliar, is an Upper West Side institution. Open since 1934, it’s one of those places that’s almost impossible to describe. It’s a gourmet store but only because it sells things that are now considered “gourmet” but used to just be “food”, albeit for immigrants. Smoked fish, cheese, baked goods like bagels and babka. Items that turned my German-Austrian grandparents positively verklempt.

Herb Cream cheese with Cucumbers, Radishes and Salmon Roe
Herb Cream Cheese with Cucumbers, Radishes and Salmon Roe

So we would pick up some smoked salmon, a little sable. Some whitefish salad. Pickled herring that no one ever seemed to touch. Along with cream cheese and a dozen bagels (from the dearly departed H&H, of course), off we drove to the outer boroughs where we’d set everything out on my Nana’s dining table and eat off of styrofoam plates. Even I, a known fish-hater and infamously grumpy child, would schmear a bagel with cheese and lay on a slice of nova.

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Xi’an-style Smashed Cumin Lamb Burgers with Creamy Herb Sauce

Xi’an-style Smashed Cumin Lamb Burgers with Creamy Herb Sauce

If delicious Szechuan-style lamb burgers weren’t enough, we also present to you in this post Simon Adebisi’s tiny hat. No extra charge!

I’m aware that there’s a very good chance you’re thinking, ‘Okay, fine. That’s a decent looking burger but what the bloody hell is this ‘Xi’an-style-smashed-cumin’ business all about? Can’t anything just be normal anymore? And I want to drink out of a GLASS, not a damn jelly jar, dangit!’

I’m not sure why I’m imagining you as a crotchety old man but let’s just roll with it, Grampa. I know this burger might sound a little … fancy-pants but honestly, it’s really just plain, old tasty.

For a little background, Xi’an is the capital city of Shaanxi province in northwestern China and dishes called ‘Xi’an-style’ are usually lamb-based and heavily seasoned with cumin and other spices. A few years ago, one of the most popular dishes in New York City was the Cumin Lamb with Noodles from a  restaurant called Xi’an Famous Foods in Flushing, Queens. I never had a chance to try it so when I saw this recipe for lamb burgers by Peter Meehan from Lucky Peach in the New York Times, I knew I wanted to make a version of it.

I changed the recipe just a little, adding a bit of mustard and brown sugar to give a bit of extra savoriness and added a fresh, bright herb sauce to go on top. In the burger, the main flavor components are what you’ll find in just about all Xi’an-style recipes, whether it’s a stir fry, noodle dish or burger: ground cumin, Sichuan peppercorns and dried chili.

Sichuan peppercorns, Cumin and Red Chili Flakes
Sichuan Peppercorns, cumin and red chili flakes add tons of flavor and a little heat.

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Grilled Buffalo Shrimp and Avocado Sandwiches with Blue Cheese Sauce

Grilled Buffalo Shrimp and Avocado Sandwiches with Blue Cheese Sauce

The fact that Matt grew up in a rural English village and I grew up in New York City means that, every so often, we have absolutely no idea what the other person is talking about.

For example, here’s an exchange that may (or may not) have occurred recently (it did not, but work with me here).

Emily: Less hit the bodega for a ’40 and stoop it till we mad toasted. You know you down, don’t front.

Matt: What’cha talking abaht, yer daft bint? Put yer knickers on and make me a cup of tea.

Then there was the time I convinced Matt that in New York City, it’s very common for dogs to wear prescription glasses. “Really?” he said, and then I laughed until I got a cramp.

Then he tried to convince me that in Scotland, there are huge, orange cows with hipster haircuts that look exactly like the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. No way, buddy. Like I’m going to believe that.

So you can imagine the fun I had trying to describe what ‘buffalo sauce’ is. I’m not sure how we’re still married.

Anyway, on to our sangwich. Let me start by saying that I would be quite happy if buffalo sauce & blue cheese dip were on pretty much everything I ate for the rest of the summer. These are the kind of bright, zingy flavors I just go crazy for.

Add to that perfectly grilled shrimp, creamy avocado and crisp lettuce and you’ve got yourself a seriously delicious sammich.

Shrimp without titles

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Crostini with Blue Cheese and Roasted Grapes

Crostini with Cambozola Cheese and Roasted Grapes

Crostini is just a fancy word for a a tiny toasty with delicious toppings. They’re an easy, versatile and crowd-pleasing party snack. And shouting “Crostini!” makes you sound like a Jawa from Star Wars.

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve discovered something about myself. I have tunnel vision. I get an idea in my head and I become obsessed with it (for example; that fun little blog that we were supposed to update every once in a while only when something interesting happened). Sometimes it’s a television show, sometimes a book, or a place.

When we’re going to throw a dinner party, it’s usually one particular dish that hooks me. In one sense it’s great because I love researching recipes and techniques, figuring out flavor combinations and the best ways to prepare a specific thing. The problem is that I can get so obsessed with that one thing, that everything else falls by the wayside and becomes an afterthought (or on more than one occasion, a never-thought). Oh, you wanted something other than just a huge slab of ribs at the party? 

This is especially true for me when it comes to appetizers (or ‘starters’, as Matt calls them in an oh-so-adorably-English way). I usually forget all about them and then, once hungry people are already in my house, I rummage to see if there are any non-moldy cheeses in the fridge I can pull out.

So recently, being a much better host than I, Matt politely suggested that we think about and actually prepare a “first course” for the dinner we were planning with our wonderful friends, Larry and Catherine. I know, he’s so weird. 

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Pulled-Pork Sandwich with Pickled Onions and Radishes

Pulled-Pork Sandwich with Pickled Onions and Radishes

I’m not going to tell you that slow-roasting a pork shoulder is the quickest path to dinner – far from it – but, for a weekend cooking project, it definitely pays off in spades. 

There are actually two different cuts that get called pork shoulder: “Boston butt” and “picnic shoulder.” Either is fine for this, but do get bone-in and if possible, pasture-raised. Boston butt is easier to find but I tend to look for picnic because it’s usually sold skin-on and I like to make crackling.

True, there is a bit of planning involved here but most of the time is inactive and the end result is so worth it. It’s perfect for a relaxed kind of party (the best kind, in my opinion) where people don’t mind getting messy or sparring over bits of crunchy pork skin. 

I combined two recipes here, one is Momofuko-style with a sweet/tart glaze from Bon Appétit (I love the flavors but it didn’t include crackling). The other is a Jamie Oliver recipe which I used mainly as a technique to get crispy skin. 

What you wind up with is a huge pile of delicious pulled pork with a tart vinegary glaze and a sheet of crackling that you can cut up and distribute as you like (or eat by yourself when no one’s looking). This would be perfect on its own or in tacos, quesadillas, grilled-cheese sandwiches (try one with bleu cheese!).  I definitely recommend making something pickled to go along-side (we made both Quick-Pickled Red Onions and Sweet & Sour Pickled Radishes). We also made a version of this Asian Cabbage Salad, but without fennel since we didn’t have any. 

We meant to take a picture of the pork coming out of the oven, but Game of Thrones Season 4 Episode 1 was just starting and … well, there are some things you just don’t trust your DVR with.

We also meant to take a picture of the crackling … but we ate it. 

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Pork Belly Bánh mì Sliders

Pork Belly Bánh mì SlidersWhat to do with leftover pork belly: Make Bánh mì sliders!

I’ve mentioned before that I occasionally do a very shameful thing when I buy too many vegetables.  Since I’m already over-sharing, I might as well admit to another terrible habit. I really enjoy cooking for dinner parties and family get-togethers, but way too often I’ll wrap whatever protein is left over in foil and throw it in the freezer where it will stay for months, gathering frost and becoming less appetizing by the hour (I’m looking at you Easter ham).

I know, I know. There are so many great things to make with leftovers. Soups, stews, salads, casseroles, and honestly I do make these things but the sad truth is the thrill is usually gone and I’m doing it to not be wasteful, as opposed to being actually inspired. So you can see why I was nervous as I wrapped the remains of the Crispy Pork Belly with Soy Honey Glaze in its foil coffin (I’m feeling dramatic today) and tossed it in the freezer. “You were so good”, I said to it mournfully, “but it’s been two nights and I’m ready for a salad”.

Several weeks went by and every few days I would guiltily toss the little frozen pork belly package to the side as I looked for dinner options. Then it hit me; Pork belly Bánh mì sliders. As it happens, we were going to have a few friends over for a Halloween/birthday get-together and it would be nice to have something a bit more substantial than dips. Turns out they were good. Like, really good.

This is now officially my favorite use of pork belly. The sweet, vinegary pickled carrots and daikon really cut through the richness of the pork. The crisp cucumber and bright cilantro make it light and fresh. Seriously, not kidding, make the pork belly just so you can make these sliders.Pork Belly Bánh mì Sliders

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