inspiration: the populist's cauliflower + pear soup with help from Food52

Ladies night boils down to this: great food, wonderful conversation, a few drinks and good friends. It's absolutely essential to my mental well-being and I'm quite certain that it makes me a better mother. I return home feeling refreshed and renewed and I should probably do it more often...

Back in November my friend Jo Ellen and I went to The Populist, one of Denver's best restaurants according to pretty much everyone. Now The Populist isn't cheap and ladies night isn't always this high-brow. Most of the time I opt for hole-in-the-wall type places that serve hummus platters, tacos, pho or Ethiopian food. But this get-together was special since my friend gave birth to her third child and this was our first time out together since mid-summer. We also really wanted to try the restaurant and the post-baby celebration gave us good cover. So on a chilly November night we went out on the town, got to the restaurant and sat down at our table shortly after we finished our first round at the bar (and yes, the cocktails were excellent). 

Now here's the thing about the meal: I'm still thinking about it. It was stellar. Exceptional! We ordered a bowl of cauliflower + pear soup, the butternut squash salad, curried chick peas and for my entree I chose the huitlacoche ("the Mexican truffle") agnolotti. Now I'm more of what you'd call a home cook and I thought the agnolotti was above my chef grade. But I'm really comfortable in the soup realm and so I though I'd take a stab at the cauliflower + pear. 

I scoured the internet for a recipe and found this one from the Food52 Community. It got great reviews and sounded like it would work really well. It was simple, straightforward and could be made using a cutting board and one pot (a.k.a. not much to clean). I loved the flavor of the pear and the sherry made it pop. Was it similar to The Populist's version? Not really. It was missing the dehydrated pear, which really adds a lot of texture, and it wasn't quite as smooth. But it was very good and the boys ate it by the bowlful. And in my book that's a success story. Next time I might serve it alongside some grilled cheese sandwiches. 

In case you were wondering how we finished off our ladies night...we concluded the meal with an excellent slice of lemon ice box cake that was lip-smacking good. I can't wait to go back to The Populist again and sit in their outdoor patio (that's covered with vines) once winter passes...

In the meantime, keep warm and enjoy the soup.

Cauliflower and Pear Soup (Adapted only slightly from Food52)
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter (you can make this vegan by omitting the butter and adding another tablespoon of olive oil)
1 large leek, white and light green parts, chopped
1 small shallot, chopped
1 head cauliflower, green leaves and trunk removed, florets chopped
2 small yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 medium sized pears, peeled, cored, and chopped
5 leaves fresh sage (or about 2 teaspoons chopped)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
5 cups homemade vegetable stock or good quality store-bought
kosher salt + freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 teaspoons sherry vinegar, or to taste (champagne vinegar also works)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives, for serving (optional)

Heat the oil and butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the leek and the shallot, and cook until they are soft, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.

Add the cauliflower, potato, pear, sage, and thyme, stirring to thoroughly coat them with the oil and butter. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until lightly browned, stirring frequently, another 8 to 10 minutes. You're aiming for a little caramelization around the edges for depth of flavor.

Add 5 cups of vegetable stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, lower the heat to just maintain the simmer, and cook until all of the ingredients are very tender, about 30 minutes.

With an immersion blender or regular blender, puree the soup until it’s smooth. If you're using a blender, you may need to do this step in batches, then return the soup to the pot. You're looking for a smooth, velvety texture, so take your time to blend thoroughly. Thin with more chicken stock, if needed, until you reach desired consistency.

Season to taste with vinegar and salt and pepper (this is key!). Serve the soup in heated bowls, garnished with chives...or with large pieces of french baguette (I picked up mine from Babette's at The Source). 

Euclid Hall Inspiration, Grilled Cheese: Camembert with Pear Puree (And A Walk Through LoDo)

It was 5:30 in the afternoon (or should I say early evening) and the babysitter had arrived. We had a quick review of instructions/suggestions, said goodbye to the boys (in a very undramatic way) and we were out the door- very, very happy to spend a night out on the town. It is a rare occasion. 
We met two other couples for drinks at Peak's Lounge, a bar near the top of the Hyatt Hotel, which is known for its spectacular views of the city and the mountains. After a round, or was it two (?), it was time to head out for dinner, located about 8 blocks away. The restaurant, Euclid Hall, is one of three Jennifer Jasinski joints on or near Larimer Street. I was excited to try it. We didn't have reservations so the wait was pretty long. Not to worry though, we hit the bar. And as best as I can recollect, the drinks were excellent. I got the "Rosita"- Republic Blanco tequila, Campari, sweet vermouth, lavender simple syrup and lemon juice. It was an a** kicker...and very good.  
Euclid Hall is definitely not what I would call a vegetarian haven (it's motto is "Crafted, Not Cranked Out" and that refers to their sausage), but it had quite a few options for yours truly. I shared a mushroom poutine and the gingered spring vegetable were excellent. For my main I had a delicious sandwich-- "Griddled Camembert and Pear Preserve Sandwich" which was served with a red grape and basil salad, topped with a sherry vinaigrette.
When I got home I knew I was going to make something like it for lunch. The pairing of Camembert and pear is a really nice alternative to classic grilled cheese. And with the Denver Bread Company a short walk from my house, I can get fresh (amazing) artisanal bread in a snap!  
As for the cheese, I picked up a really delicious Camembert from my local cheese shop, St. Killian's. The people who work there are so incredibly nice.
I found a recipe for pear puree on Epicurious and went with it. It takes about an hour to cook the pears down, but there's very little hands-on time, and it can be made up to 2 days in advance. 
I made these sandwiches on Saturday, the day we were supposed to do an early morning walk of  Lower Downtown (LoDo) Historic District. (Our walk was postponed until later in the afternoon because the Colorado Rockies were playing a game on Saturday and the stadium is located at the end of LoDo....I didn't know the game was going on during our initial descent from the Highlands). 
I've found that LoDo is relatively quiet during the weekend compared to the weekdays when it's pretty crowded. But baseball season has started and the fans were out. Available parking was pretty much non-existent, so we drove back home, walked to our local playground, napped and then ventured back out to LoDo once the crowds died down. We walked around for about an hour and a half, and it was a really nice way to spend the late-afternoon.
If I had to think of someplace that is comparable to LoDo, I think I would probably say the Warehouse District in New Orleans. In fact, I think the two are pretty similar. 
LoDo has some great loft spaces, excellent restaurants, lively bars and some breweries (Wynkoop Brewing Company) too. There's Union Station, which is under repair, and The Tattered Cover-- an amazing independently-run book store. I took a few shots of the neighborhood to give you a sense of our walking tour, but the area is much larger than what I was able to cover on foot yesterday... enjoy! 
Oh, if you want more information on the District, you can take a Denver Microbrew Tour!
Not the best picture of said sandwich...but by the time I uploaded the photos, the grilled cheese was already a re-shoot was not an option!
Roasted Pear Puree (Courtesy of Epicurious)
(I had enough puree for 4 sandwiches)
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter, melted
  • 8 Bosc pears, peeled, quartered, cored
Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine honey, lemon juice, and melted butter in large bowl. Add pears; toss to coat. Arrange pears in single layer on large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast pears 30 minutes. Turn pears to coat with juices and roast until very tender, about 35 minutes longer. Transfer pears and caramelized liquids to food processor; blend until smooth. (Pear puree can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
1. Cut two slices of bread, each about 1/2 inch thick.
2. Put a generous amount of pear puree on each sandwich (1/4 of the puree for each sandwich).
3. Add three thin slices of Camembert per sandwich (Camembert has a very rich and intense flavor, so you don't need to use a lot.)
4. Close sandwich and brush olive oil on each side.
5. Heat in a panini press/sandwich maker until the bread is golden brown and the cheese has melted.
6. Eat! 
This really is a very nice alternative to classic grilled cheese. Thanks Euclid Hall for the inspiration. I'll be back soon to see what else you've got! 
* * *
I had a good deal of bread left over the next day, so I made these Parmesan-Pesto Grilled Cheese Sandwiches . And, after that, I still had bread left over. (It was a loaf of considerable size!) So I made some fresh pea crostinis and turned the rest of the bread into croutons for Cauliflower Soup with Mustard Croutons
* * * 
Art installation

Walking Denver (Part III) and a Winter Pear Salad with Walnuts and Mustard Vinaigrette

The Front Range and Foothills got a whole lot of snow last week. I think the totals were somewhere around a foot. But as I've mentioned in previous posts, the snow is welcomed here in Colorado and the city of Denver looks beautiful. The temperature usually shoots back into the 40's and 50's within a day or two after a storm, so that helps with melting and because of that you don't feel like you're living in a place with an unmanageable winter.  
I decided it was time to go on another historic walking tour, one that would take us through a different part of town. We drove over to see some of the larger homes and mansions in the Country Club section of the city. The neighborhood, which was established around 1905, has some impressive residences with architectural influences that include French Chateau, Georgian, Colonial, 1920's Tudor, Victorians, 'Denver Squares' and Santa Fe. (I also spotted a great mid-century modern home which I tried to look into, but things got awkward when the people inside saw me on my tippy-toes, two kids in tow, trying to get a glimpse of their interior furnishings.) Unfortunately for me I was going on this walking tour with a broken toe. 
My poor little toe, the fourth one on my right foot (I'll call it my ring toe) got stubbed on the baby's bouncer. It hurt like hell and I knew immediately it was broken. Adding insult to injury, the lovely denizens of Country Club aren't too fond of shoveling their sidewalks and some parts of the neighborhood are without sidewalks all together. That meant that I could only take Otis and Theo on a few well-shoveled streets- which was too bad because I felt like we missed a ton of great architecture. I guess that just means we will have to head back that way again once things melt a bit more.
Anyway, Otis had a great time and Theo slept through most of the tour. 
When I got home I whisked up a wonderful vinaigrette and drizzled it on top of a tasty winter pear salad. It was easy and delicious, which makes it my kind of salad. 
Enjoy and Happy holidays! 
* * *
I saw a few variations of this pear salad, so I made a hybrid of sorts by using posts from dishingthedivine and drizzleanddip. This salad is über-simple to make and it's really tasty. There's bitter-goodness from the arugula, sweetness from the pear, a creamy tang from the cheese, and a mustard-ness (is that a word?) from the vinaigrette. Basically, the perfect balance of savory and sweet. You could caramelize the nuts, but since I wanted to keep the prep time and clean-up to a minimum, I skipped that step for now...but it certainly would be a way to jazz this up for a holiday dinner party. 
Winter Pear Salad with Walnuts and Mustard Vinaigrette Dressing (Adapted from Drizzle & Dip and Dishing the Divine)
several cups of arugula 
1 pear, thinly sliced (I went with Red Anjou)
2 ounces crumbly cheese (gorgonzola, blue cheese)
1/2 cup walnuts
4 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon of maple syrup
a big pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
Place the baby greens in a large, flat bowl. Top with pear slices, walnuts and cheese.
For the dressing, blend oil, vinegar, mustard, maple syrup, salt, and pepper.
Drizzle the dressing over the salad (you will likely have some left over).  Mix. Eat! 
The salad dressing is very similar to Mollie Katzen's "Sweet & Tart Mustard Dressing" in The New Moosewood Cookbook. That recipe is as follows:
6 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons of honey or maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste
Whisk everything together. Cover and chill. This dressing is especially good on chilled cooked vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or broccoli.