In case you missed it, last night was the winter solstice. Celebrating the return of ever more increasing light that proceeds this night with a cozy fire, a hearty winter meal and good does of winter ale and red wine seemed a good idea. Some good friends joined us to share a meal of hearty lentil soup, warm brie with crusty bread, and a salad of fresh greens, apple, roasted fennel, roasted walnuts, and fresh shavings of Parmesan. For dessert I made what turned out to be my best ever batch of baked apples.
This meal, requiring very little last minute preparation, is perfect for allowing the cook to spend time relaxing with friends rather than rushing around the kitchen. The Soup, made up ahead of time, was ready to be served whenever we were ready to eat. I baked the brie in an open baking dish that could go strait to the table. I cooked it for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees along side the foil wrapped baguette and the baking apples. In addition to the food I made I also had on hand plenty of homemade confections I'd received as gifts from friends, neighbors and coworkers. One of the nice things about entertaining at this time of year is that you can put those yummy gifts to good work saving yourself time spent in the kitchen, and giving yourself a chance to sample all of them without eating entire jars of cheese spread, and whole pound cakes all on your own.
For the lentil soup I followed The Barefoot Contessa's recipe which calls for green lentils, carrots, onions, leeks, garlic, cumin, tomato paste, thyme, salt and fresh ground pepper. To this I added a couple of finely chopped, medium potatoes. I also used an extra 1/2 tsp. cumin and thyme, replaced the celery with fennel stalks, and the chicken stock with vegetable broth. It was great with some 'Flur de Sel' and fresh ground pepper added at the table. For the salad I made a simple dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, course salt and fresh ground pepper.
Sadly my usual recipe free technique of 'tossing and tasting' means that I'll probably never be able to exactly replicate the deliciousness of those baked apples. They were just sweet enough with a nice tang from the ginger and the apples themselves. Here's what I can tell you... I used 6 large apples in a mix of Empire, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith. I pealed and sliced them into 1/4 inch slices. I mixed these with a relatively small amount of brown sugar and honey then seasoned with perhaps a tsp. of powdered ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and spread slices of butter (about 1/3 stick) across the top. Cover and bake for about 1. 5 hours... this cook time is based on my very old gas oven.
Fleur de sel is hand raked (harvested) sea salt. Penzey's spices on Cary street used to carry a couple different versions of this and French grey sea salt. This past December I discovered that they no longer carry these salts at the shop or on-line. I also checked Sur la Table and found only flavored salts (ie. black truffle) for more money than I wanted to spend. Finally by accident I discovered a good sized jar of Fleur de sel at Trader Joe's containing twice the amount at perhaps half the price of the Penzey's hand raked Fleur de sel.
For more information on different salt's to use in your cooking or at the table check out this 9 salt taste test review in Slate.