We all entertain for different reasons, and a few days ago my husband and I hosted a small dinner for a very special purpose. Our guest of honor was one of my spouse's college students whose help we desperately needed. As the proud new owners of a flat-screen high-definition television (my spouse's belated Christmas gift), we found ourselves totally in the dark about how this slick, space-age set functioned. Even after a visit from the cable guy and several hours spent poring over the manufacturer's manual, we still couldn't get all the buttons to work. That's when we thought of Nick -- a twentysomething, tech-savvy student, who we hoped could straighten out the mess of cords behind the shiny black screen. A deal was agreed upon -- a home-cooked meal in exchange for a consultation.
It was a cold, blustery night, so I decided to make a big pot of ribollita, the Tuscan minestrone that is served over slices of toasted bread. Our young guest had spend a semester studying in Rome, where he had fallen in love with Italian food, so this seemed like a good choice. Along with bowls of the steaming zuppa, I served a salad of mixed greens tossed in a red wine dressing and warm vanilla-poached apricots.
The latter made a perfect yet simple finale. I poached dried apricots in water along with a split vanilla bean. Halving the bean allowed the minuscule seeds to escape into the poaching liquid, adding a distinctive flavor to the fruit.
The warm apricots can be served in martini or wine glasses, and are delectable topped with mascarpone whipped cream and chopped hazelnuts. The fruit can be poached and the cream whipped ahead so that at serving time all that is necessary is to reheat the apricots and assemble the dessert.
Our evening was a success. Nick ate with abandon, delighted to be avoiding the dreaded dining hall fare, and in only a few minutes time he had our HDTV up and working!
Betty Rosbottom writes for Tribune Media Services.
Vanilla-poached Apricots Topped with Mascarpone Whipped Cream
12 ounces dried apricots
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
2 tablespoons honey
Mascarpone Whipped Cream (recipe follows)
1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (see Note)
Place apricots in a medium, heavy saucepan. Add vanilla bean halves and 1 cup water. Bring mixture to a boil over high heat. Then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, cover pan, and cook until apricots are tender and water has evaporated, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir the apricots a couple of times, while they are simmering, and if water evaporates before the apricots are tender, add up to 1/2 cup or more extra water.
Remove pan from heat and stir in the honey. (Apricots can be prepared 1 day ahead; cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat in saucepan over low heat, stirring, until warm.)
To serve, divide the warm apricots among 4 martini or wine glasses. Garnish each serving with a generous dollop of Mascarpone Whipped Cream and a tablespoon of hazelnuts. Pass any extra cream in a small bowl.
Note: To toast hazelnuts, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in preheated 350-degree oven until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Watch carefully so they do not burn. Remove, and when cool enough to handle, put a few nuts at a time in a clean kitchen towel, and rub to remove any excess skins. Repeat until all the nuts have been rubbed.
Per serving (assuming all cream is used): 517 calories, 7 grams protein, 29 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat, 67 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber, 76 milligrams cholesterol, 35 milligrams sodium.
Recipe analysis provided by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.
Mascarpone Whipped Cream
1/2 cup heavy or whipping cream
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
With an electric mixer on medium high speed, whip the cream until it just starts to thicken. Lower speed and whip in the mascarpone and sugar. Continue beating until just firm. (Mascarpone cream can be made 4 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
Mixed-green salad with red wine dressing
Vanilla-Poached Apricots with Mascarpone Whipped Cream