Category Archives: Appetizers

Cheese plate


A Cheese plate is one of my favorite things to serve at at party or before dinner.  Why? A few reasons: 1) I can assemble it before everyone arrives and they can munch away and chat while I finish cooking, 2) the only work on my part is to buy things from the grocery store and arrange them, and 3) almost everyone loves cheese, not everyone loves things like chicken liver pate (until they try it).  I’m pretty sure that having everything (or at least almost everything) planned out and in place before your guests arrive makes them think that you are some kind of domestic deity (or that you are a hyperanal freak show of a host).  

I am lucky enough to have several specialty stores with tons of cheese to choose from at my disposal.  If you don’t have a cheesemonger around, try your grocery store, several smaller regional grocery chains I’ve been in have nice selections of high quality cheeses.  Target even has a few nice cheeses in its grocery section.  If all else fails check out some online retailers.

Here are a few of my rules for putting together a cheese plate

1) No more than three kinds of cheese (for a small group anyway).  Three varieties of cheese is enough to have an interesting mixture of cheeses; I find that more can be overwhelming.

2) Try to have some kind of theme or progression.  For example: pick three cheese from Spain such as Manchego (probably the most famous cheese from Spain), Cabrales (a blue cheese), and Garrotxa (a goat cheese).  A selection of different goat cheeses of varying texture could also be cool.  When in doubt, pick something soft, something hard (or semi-hard), and something blue.  The axiom is: something old, something new, something stinky, and something blue.

3) Make it really good cheese.  Please don’t serve your guests slices from a block of Kraft swiss cheese.  Not only will they hate you, they will talk about you behind your back once they leave (if they were raised right; if they weren’t they might tell you to your face)

4) Have some tasty accompaniments.  Good french bread is a must.  Don’t use any bread that is too highly flavored, it will compete with the cheese.  Olives, cured meats, nuts, and fresh fruit are all good choices.  If you are really good, whip up (or buy) some membrillo, a sweet paste made from quince.  

5) Make it pretty.  No one wants to eat ugly food.  Arrange the cheese on a slate cheese board or a pretty wood cutting board.  An attractive plate or tray would work too.  Make sure that all of the cheese are easy to access so your guests can cut off pieces without struggling.  Also make sure that there are enough utensils to cut the cheeses.

6) Throw away the wrapper your cheese came in.  As convenient as they lovely sheet of plastic wrap is for your grocer, your cheese doesn’t love it.  Rewrap your cheese in parchment paper and throw it in your crisper for storage.

7) Feel free to break all of these rules.  You’ll notice that in the photo I have brie, ricotta salata, and emmenthaler.  It may be a slightly odd combination, but I pulled it out of my fridge in about 5 minutes before some people came over.  Note the domestic deity/hyperanal freak comment above.


Next up on Chez Travie: Christmas candy (I think)







Filed under Appetizers, Basics

Holiday Party Part 1: Chicken Liver Pate

Since I am the only food blogger on the planet not to give any Thanksgiving suggestions I thought I would give you some really good stuff for Christmas.  The menu I’ve come up with would make an elegant Christmas dinner for family or a really special dinner party for friends.  I’ve also designed it so that the work can be spread out over several days if needed.  Even more importantly, none of the recipes force you to run around at the last minute, right before your guests arrive.  As an added bonus all of the recipes can be scaled up or down to accommodate groups of different sizes (except for the dessert; for big groups just make, or better yet buy, a second).  So here is the menu and game plan:

Appetizer – Chicken liver pate – make two days ahead

Main course:  Standing rib roast – make day of party

Sides: Gratin Dauphinoise (think fancy scalloped potatoes), roasted vegetables – make while meat is roasting

Dessert: Meyer lemon tart  – make one day ahead

So today I’ll show you how to make the chicken liver pate, tomorrow I’ll give the instructions for the lemon tart , tuesday I’ll post the instructions for the potato gratin, and the finale will be the roast on wednesday.  So let’s get started!

Chicken Liver Pate

Think of this like foie gras for the rest of us (or for those who don’t like the idea of force feeding to make a fat/liver emulsion inside a living goose).  If you want to be really pretentious (this isn’t ALWAYS a bad thing, just keep it in moderation) you can call this ‘pate de foie de volaille au cognac’.  To come up with this recipe I read a bunch of pate recipes both online and in the various cookbooks I own and took the best aspects of each one.  The biggest influences are here and here.


1 lb. chicken livers


8 T butter

1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

2 cloves minced garlic

2 bay leaves

1 t thyme (or more, to taste)

1/2 t salt

1/2 t pepper

1/4 cup brandy or cognac


ingredients (it gets prettier, I promise)

ingredients (it gets prettier, I promise)




1.  Soak the chicken livers in enough milk to cover them for about 2 hours.  Drain thoroughly.

2.  Melt 1/2 of the butter (4 tablespoons) over medium-high heat, add the onions and saute until soft.  Add garlic and cook for a few seconds, just enough to get rid of the raw taste.

3. Add the livers, bay leaves, thyme, salt, and pepper.  Saute until the livers are browned outside and just pink inside; 5 minutes or so. 

not pretty yet, but it smells good

4.  Add the brandy/cognac and cook until most of the liquid is evaporated and the livers are cooked.  Please don’t overcook the livers, I think we all have the childhood experience of eating a grey piece of liver with the consistency of shoe leather.

5.  Cool the mixture for a bit, remove the bay leaves, and transfer to a food processor.  Process until very smooth.  Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of cold butter and process until the incorporated.

6.  Pack the mixture into a container or containers; ramekins (like you would use for creme brulee) work well for this.  A small, flat bowl or loaf pan would work too.  Refrigerate until set.

6b. (optional)  To be very traditional, and also to protect the pate, you can pour a thin layer of melted butter over the pate once it is inside its storage container (the bowl or ramekin from the previous step).  The butter will harden and seal the pate.

7. Serve!

I am not a huge fan of liver, but I can eat this pate like candy.  The richness and ‘liveryness’ is tempered by all the butter, the taste of the cognac, and the herbal flavors from the bay and thyme.  If you’ve never had pate you really should try it.  Even if you don’t try it, make it – your friends will be impressed and think you slaved away for hours.  I like to serve pate with slices of baguette (toasted or not; crackers would work too), coarse mustard, and cornichons (little French pickles).  You could get really fancy and make this one part of a charcuterie platter, along with some other meat products.  Add some nice cheese and a few bottles of wine for a ready made cocktail party.  It can also make a nice lunch or light dinner when paired with a simple green salad.  

Next up: Meyer lemon tart


Filed under Appetizers

Duck Part Two: Duck Confit

That’s right folks, today we’re cooking pieces of duck in a pool of duck fat. At this point you are either revolted or salivating, either way take a moment to regain your composure before proceeding. Just in case anyone was revolted, cooking duck (or other meats) like this does have a (historical) purpose. Before the advent of refrigeration, people would use a process similar to what I’ll show below to preserve meats. First the meat would be salted to extract much of the water, it would then be slowly cooked in fat, and finally stored totally submerged in the fat to protect it from spoilage. If properly made and stored in a cool place, duck confit can be stored like this for months; I’m not sure I am brave enough to test that part out for myself…

Duck Confit

adapted from “Bouchon” by Thomas Keller


1/4 c kosher salt

2 T parsley

1 T thyme

1 bay leaf, crumbled

a few black peppercorns

duck legs

duck fat 


1.  Place the salt, thyme, bay leaf, parsley, and peppercorns in a coffee/spice mill, food process, or mortar and process/grind until the herbs are incorporated.





2)  Coat the duck legs with about 1 tablespoon of green salt per pound of duck.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 18-24 hours (if you go more than this the duck will be overly salty).


3) Heat your oven to 180 F.  Completely rinse the salt and herb mixture off the duck legs, pat dry, and place the duck legs in a small ovenproof container.  Cover the legs completely with melted duck fat.  Cook the legs, submerged in the fat, for 6-10 hours, until the duck is meltingly tender.

they should be completely submerged, oops

they should be completely submerged, oops


after 8 hours

4)  When the duck is done cooking allow it to cool to room temperature in the fat, transfer the legs to a storage container, strain any meat juices from the fat (they will settle to the bottom of the cooking container), cover the duck legs in the fat, and refrigerate.

Ok, so now we have some duck legs packed away under fat in the fridge.  What do you do with them?  There are lots of potential uses (google is your friend here); here is one example from the Bouchon cookbook.  I won’t go over it in exhaustive detail (I think this post is long enough and there is already an excellent blog post about this recipe at The Paupered Chef), so I’ll just tell you that I plucked the confit from the fat (scraping off any extra that clung on), heated a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, and placed the confit skin side down for about 7 minutes to crisp the skin.  The idea here is to contrast the crispy skin with the very tender meat…confit-cooking

 After that I boiled some brussels sprouts, whipped up a sauce of shallots, thyme, garlic, chicken stock, dijon mustard, and creme fraiche (you can use sour cream in a pinch; remind me to write a post on how to make your own creme fraiche sometime), and served it like this:


Next up:  Warm duck breast salad…


Filed under Appetizers, Basics, Main courses

Scary foods #3: Mussels

I firmly believe that any food able to stick out its tongue in search of a meal while sitting in a bowl on my kitchen counter is de facto scary.  Scary and tasty…  Perhaps they aren’t as scary as brussels sprouts or artichokes, but they certainly aren’t benign.  However, I can’t help but notice the delicious irony of tiny invertebrates searching for a meal moments before I cook them.  I suspect that many people avoid these tasty critters because they aren’t sure how to handle them or how to cook them.  They are actually one of the easiest and fastest foods to prepare that I can think of.  

Before the recipe, a few general tips:

1) Buy the mussels the same day you cook them.  You will lose fewer before cooking time this way (you want them alive when they go into the pan).  Fresh seafood = tasty (and safe) seafood.

2) When you get the mussels home, place them on a tray in your refrigerator covered with a moist cloth/paper towel until cooking time.

3) Clean and sort them just before cooking.  Rinse them under cool running water to remove any debris.  Pull off any beard (the stringy stuff on the side opposite the opening); farm raised mussels are generally quite clean and beardless, but no one wants sand in their food.  If any mussels are open, flick or tap their shell with your finger and they should close (perhaps very slowly if they are still cold).  If they don’t open back up after cooking, throw them away.

Frank here didn't know how to keep his mouth shut...

One good smack and he shut his mouth.

One good smack and he shut his mouth.

Alrighty, now that the basics are out of the way, on to the recipe!  Since I used an unaltered recipe from Bouchon, by Thomas Keller, (“Mussels with Saffron and Mustard”, p. 166 for those that have the book)  I won’t post it here (sorry folks).  However, you can easily eyeball the ingredients and make a delicious dish, this isn’t a particularly fussy recipe (I suspect that Chef Keller might disagree, perfectionist that he is).

To begin, I melted some butter in a large pan, cooked some minced shallots, confited garlic cloves, thyme, salt and pepper for a few minutes, until the shallots were a bit soft and everything smelled yummy.


Delicious broth or Inquisition style invertebrate torture ?

Delicious broth or Inquisition style invertebrate torture ?

 I then added a bit of mustard and a few good glugs of white wine and cooked for a couple of minutes more.  At this point, I removed the pan from the heat, added a few nice pinches of saffron (yum!) and put a lid on the pan.  


Imagine being the person who has to pull these from the crocuses!!

Imagine being the person who has to pull these from the crocuses!!


This recipe is great for guests because you can do everything up to this point, cover the pan, and let it sit until you are ready to cook the mussels.  When you are ready, bring the broth back to a boil, place the mussels in the pan (cleaned and sorted), cover the pan, and cook for about 2 minutes.  When the mussels are done they will be opened (if any do not open, toss them out).  I then garnished the tasty filter feeders with some parsley and served them with a big hunk of bread.




Amazing!  They smelled like the ocean, a bit of mustard, wine, and saffron; they tasted even better!  There are hundreds of variations on this dish.  One of the most common is to omit the mustard and saffron (leaving shallots, garlic, thyme, white wine, and parsley).  Use your imagination!

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Filed under Appetizers, Main courses


Just imagine them with tiny legs and arms...

Mmmm...tasty tasty apples...

Along with all the ‘gourdy fun‘ this weekend (thanks for coining the phrase Christine)  we also stopped at a nearby orchard.  We didn’t pick our own apples since we tired from our fabulous day in the country.  Well, the myriad insects were decidedly less than fabulous, but I suppose they provided wonderful opportunities for interpersonal bonding via nit picking (think chimps, minus the eating).  I’m assuming there aren’t many exotic diseases spread by the various flying and biting critters of central IL.  Anywho… after careful deliberation I purchased a 1/2 peck of Jonathan apples.  A normal person’s thought process might have gone something like this:

‘Goodness this is rather a large bag of apples…how does one eat this many apples…mayhap I should purchase fewer….why yes, that seems quite right indeed.’

My thought process was more like:

‘Wow!  Apples!!  Yum!! Apples are good!  I like apples!!  Hmmm….I can’t carry a whole peck…oh look….I can totally carry the 1/2’

This is how I came to be the proud owner of roughly 784 ± 1.3 apples.  What does one do with this many apples? Eat them?  Drink them?  Use them as props in denture adhesive commercials?  What if they grow tiny arms and legs and go on the attack before you can use them all (a la Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)?!  Clearly this threat had to be neutralized; I was not about to die an ignominious death at the hands (stems? fangs?!) of  4.404884 L of apples.  Hence the big batch of applesauce I made last week (take that pomaceous terrorists).


About 3 lb. apples

1 c water

about 1/4 c brown sugar (feel free to adjust the amount to your taste)

1/2 t cinnamon


  1. Clean, peel, and core the apples, then cut them into approx. 1/2 inch pieces
  2. Add the apples, water, and brown sugar to a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  3. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer the apple mixture for 20 minutes, or until the apples are tender.
  4. Remove the cover and simmer the mixture until most of the liquid is evaporated (feel free to crank the heat up here, just be careful to stir frequently if you do so).
  5. Remove from heat and the add cinnamon.
  6. After the mixture is partly cooled either a) for a chunky texture: mash the apples with a fork or potato masher or b) for a smooth texture: puree the apple mixture in a food processor.

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the finished product, so I’ll leave you with this final shot…

PA few of my tasty apples.

Just imagine them with tiny arms, legs, and fangs...


Filed under Appetizers, Basics