Last year at her Christmas party, Mary Stec served chips and dip and grilled some steaks. There were brownies for dessert.
OK, so the chips were hand-cut tortillas, freshly fried. The dip was a salsa of charred tomatoes. The steak was a filet grilled over mesquite and served with a sauce of dried cherries and chipotle chiles with a garnish of creamed pine nuts. The brownies? Her special moist espresso brownies spiced with a tinge of cayenne.
There were also totopos --dollar-sized corn tortillas fried crisp and topped with black beans, smoked barbecue duck, pickled red cabbage and crumbled ranchero cheese. And a trilevel avocado torte. And shellfish sausages with mango- habanero sauce and green chile pesto. And jalapeno corn chowder. And chiles en nogada. And Chilean sea bass wrapped in hoja santa leaves she'd had Fed-Exed in from Texas.
And that's just the start. All told, there were 25 dishes--plus a few surprises--served from four stations scattered around her Agoura Hills home.
"I'm just nuts about cooking," says Stec. "When my husband comes home from work, he'll sometimes find four little bowls on the table--one sauce done four ways. When my kids were little, we would go around the world in a week in the kitchen. Each night we would cook from a different country. One night it would be France, then Italy, then Thailand or India or China. When my son was 7 he could name all the triple- creme cheeses in the market."
It's no surprise then that Stec was nominated, not once but twice, as a Times Great Home Cook.
"Mary is one of those people that must dream food," wrote her friend Nancy Zaslavsky. "She goes on crusades to prepare the world's best whatever, and a few months later, family satiated, she not only has the world's best dish but whole new groups of food friends she met on her quest."
A former school teacher, Stec got a job several years ago printing cue cards for the "Newlywed Game." She parlayed that into her own company and now supervises other printers. That, she says, leaves her plenty of time to cook.
"Cooking fascinates me," she says. "My favorite thing is to take a recipe, strip it down to basics and then build it back up into what I want it to be."
Take Mexican cooking. "My husband likes traditional Mexican food," says Stec, "but I don't like that heavily sauced, heavily larded style." So Stec works at reorganizing the food. "I try to push it into a lighter place."
Stec's husband, Richard Clark, is a food photographer. He shot John Sedlar's "Modern Southwest Cooking" and Michael McCarty's "Michael's Cookbook," so she's spent time around sophisticated chefs. She's also taken a lot of cooking classes; at Let's Get Cookin' in Westlake Village, she came under the influence of Stephen Pyles, chef at Dallas' Routh St. Cafe.
"He's the most creative genius I know," she says. "He combines really strong French basics with his own Southwestern influences. And that's the kind of cooking I like best."
It's just the kind of cooking Stec produced for her big Southwestern-flavored Christmas bash last year, which she started preparing three weeks before the party.
How does she do it?
* "First, cook and freeze the things that won't lose more than 5% of their quality, for example the jalapeno corn chowder," she says. "Syrups and sweet sauces keep well; do those well in advance too."
* "Then put a day aside close to the date and do all the cooked sauces. Bow to the Ziploc god and keep everything carefully marked. When I do the major shopping, I separate the ingredients for each recipe and put each recipe and its ingredients in separate plastic boxes--dry ingredients in plastic bags, already measured out."
* "Plan every day carefully. Start with things that go in the oven so other things can be done while baked goods are cooling. This also gives the kitchen a chance to cool."
* "Do your table two or three days in advance. Plan out the presentation and mark each platter, bowl and serving utensil with the name of the dish it goes to. This also keeps you from forgetting a dish--that can happen."
* "Then hire many, many people to help. I tried for too long to do it all by myself, then I decided to have fun at my party. I have a Salvadoran friend in Oxnard and she loves to cook with me. She brought six friends last year and we just set up an assembly line."
Stec says she's learned some of her best dishes from the people she's hired. "The women who work for me, when they see my enthusiasm and see that I really want to know what their grandmothers cooked and what their moms made, they love to cook with me," she says.
"Last year I made some Nicaraguan bunuelos that started with an idea one of the cooks came up with at 2 p.m. on the day of the party. She asked if we had any yuca, and we did, so we combined that with some sweetened cotija cheese and fried it. I thought it still needed a little something, so we served it with an ancho chile syrup. My motto is: 'When in doubt, do something sweet and hot.' People went crazy for them."
Which brings up the last item on Stec's production checklist:
"Try to enjoy yourself when you're complimented," she says. "Don't say, 'Oh, it was nothing.' "
TRILEVEL AVOCADO TORTE
4 ears fresh corn, kernels removed
1/4 cup sugar, optional, if corn is not sweet
1 tablespoon butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon salt
5 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
Warm tortilla chips
Place corn kernels in saucepan and add water to cover. Add sugar if needed, then cook 5 minutes or until tender. Drain and pat dry on paper towels.
Melt butter in skillet and saute garlic until tender but not browned. Peel and seed avocados. Combine avocados, garlic, lemon juice, mayonnaise, salt and white pepper to taste in food processor. Puree until smooth.
Place 9- or 10-inch-wide bottomless 3-inch-deep cake collar (or make collar out of foil) on serving plate. Place corn on bottom, spread tomatoes over and top with layer of avocado puree. Smooth top and chill until ready to serve, at least 3 hours. Remove collar and decorate top if desired. Serve with warm tortilla chips. Makes 16 appetizer servings.
Each serving contains about:
110 calories; 179 mg sodium; 3 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.07 grams fiber.
JALAPENO CORN CHOWDER
8 cups heavy whipping cream, or 4 cups cream plus 4 cups milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium Maui onion, thinly sliced
2 medium to large cloves garlic
1 to 2 jalapeno chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
6 medium ears corn, kernels removed
1/4 cup or less sugar, optional, if corn is not sweet
1 medium sweet red pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
1 medium sweet yellow pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons Spicy Red Chile Sauce
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons sour cream, optional
6 sprigs cilantro
Bring whipping cream to boil in medium saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer briskly until reduced by 1/4, about 10 minutes.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over moderate heat. Add onion and garlic and saute just until tender, about 5 minutes. Add jalapeno and 2/3 of corn kernels. Continue sauteing until kernels are al dente, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in sugar if needed.
Combine reduced cream and corn mixture in food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Press soup through fine-mesh sieve and return to saucepan.
In skillet, melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add and saute remaining corn kernels until tender but firm. Stir into soup with roasted red and yellow peppers. Add Spicy Red Chile Sauce and heat soup through over low to medium heat. Stir in lime juice.
Ladle into individual heated bowls and garnish each with dollop of sour cream and sprig of cilantro. Makes 10 servings.
Each serving, made with only cream, contains about:
749 calories; 82 mg sodium; 270 mg cholesterol; 75 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.62 gram fiber.
Spicy Red Chile Sauce
4 ounces whole dried New Mexico red chiles
2 ounces whole dried ancho chiles
2 ounces whole dried cascabel chiles
2 dried or canned chipotles in adobo sauce, with 1 teaspoon sauce
2 quarts water, about
1 pound Roma tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped white onion
5 large cloves garlic, roasted, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon roasted ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons roasted ground Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons peanut oil
Remove stems and seeds from all chiles. With comal or black iron skillet, dry-roast dried chiles 3 to 4 minutes, or place in 350-degree oven 1 minute. Do not allow to blacken.
Place in saucepan and add enough water to cover. Cover and simmer over very low heat 20 minutes until tender. Drain chiles, reserving liquid. Cool chiles.
Blacken tomatoes in hot cast-iron skillet or under broiler, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Heat olive oil in skillet and saute onion over low heat until golden. Place in blender with cooked chiles, blackened tomatoes, garlic, cumin, oregano and salt. Add 1 cup reserved chile liquid (or use water or chicken stock if liquid is bitter). Puree mixture to fine paste, adding more liquid if necessary.
Place peanut oil in high-sided pan. Heat to almost smoking. Fry sauce 3 to 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Do not allow sauce to get too thick. Add water if necessary. Makes little more than 1 quart.
Note: Sauce may also be used on Trilevel Avocado Torte and in any recipe that calls for basic red chile sauce.
FILET MIGNON WITH DRIED CHERRY-CHIPOTLE SAUCE AND CREAMED PINE NUTS
1/4 cup clarified butter or vegetable oil
4 (4-ounce) filet mignon steaks
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup dried tart cherries
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup Port
2 cups rich reduced veal stock or beef stock
1 tablespoon Chipotle Chile Puree
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
Creamed Pine Nuts
1 tablespoon snipped chives
Heat clarified butter in large skillet over medium heat. Season steaks to taste with salt and pepper. Saute about 3 minutes per side. Remove from pan and keep warm while making sauce.
Pour out all but 1 tablespoon butter in skillet. Add shallots and garlic and cook 20 seconds. Add sugar and 1/2 cup dried cherries. Cook 1 minute longer.
Deglaze with red wine and Port and reduce by 3/4 over high heat. Pour mixture into blender and puree. Strain puree back into cleaned skillet and add veal stock. Add remaining 1/2 cup cherries and reduce by 1/3. Stir in Chipotle Chile Puree, basil and sage. Swirl in 2 tablespoons butter. Season to taste with salt.
Ladle cherry sauce on warm platter and place filets on top of sauce. Pour some of Creamed Pine Nuts on top of each steak. Sprinkle chives on top. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
826 calories; 707 mg sodium; 178 mg cholesterol; 64 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 34 grams protein; 0.53 gram fiber.
Chipotle Chile Puree
1 dried chipotle chile
Roast chile 1 minute at 375 degrees, or with tongs, pass through flame on gas burner. Be careful not to blacken. Soak in hot water until tender. Drain and remove seeds from chile. In blender, puree pulp with just enough water to make smooth, thick consistency.
Creamed Pine Nuts
1 cup heavy whipping cream
4 ounces cambozola cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
Bring cream to light boil and whisk in cambozola. When cheese is melted, add pine nuts and reduce mixture slightly.
Note: Cambozola is triple-creme blue cheese originally from Germany. Bavarian blue or blue Castello may be used instead. If these aren't available, combine equal parts blue and Brie.
SHELLFISH SAUSAGE WITH MANGO-HABANERO SAUCE AND GREEN CHILE PESTO
1/2 pound salmon fillets
1/2 pound whole rock shrimp or medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 pound fresh bay scallops
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 cup minced cilantro
2 yards sausage casing, well-rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Green Chile Pesto
Cut salmon and shrimp into pieces same size as scallops.
Combine salmon, shrimp, scallops, salt, white pepper and cilantro in bowl. Mix well. Stuff mixture into casing, pushing carefully into casing. (If you do not have type of sausage stuffer that pushes mixture through without grinding it up, use funnel. Push casing onto small end of funnel and carefully feed mixture, using fingers, into casing.)
When casing is filled, pinch off lengths of sausage and twist tightly. When all sausages are done, pierce each 2 times with wood pick (this keeps them from filling with water). Place in wide skillet filled with water and let simmer 5 minutes. Drain sausages and pat dry.
When ready to serve, saute in olive oil until golden. Serve with Mango-Habanero Sauce and Green Chile Pesto. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
346 calories; 581 mg sodium; 85 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 1.26 grams fiber.
1 medium mango, peeled, seeded and pureed
1/4-inch piece habanero chile, preferably fresh, or dried, or jalapeno chile, minced finely
Heat mango in small saucepan and strain. Add chile to taste and mix well. Makes about 2/3 cup.
Green Chile Pesto
6 tablespoons pine nuts
6 medium poblano chiles, roasted and peeled
1 small clove garlic
4 to 6 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 bunch cilantro, leaves only
Juice of 1 to 2 Mexican limes
1 large sweet red pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
Place pine nuts on baking sheet and lightly roast in 350-degree oven. Let cool. Place in food processor with chiles, garlic, olive oil and cilantro. Pulse machine until mixture turns into rough paste. Add sea salt and lime juice to taste. Stir in diced sweet red pepper. Pesto should be slightly thick. Makes 2 cups.
ESPRESSO BROWNIES WITH CAYENNE
9 ounces unsalted butter
1 pound bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup espresso coffee powder
Scant 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
8 ounces white chocolate chips
Melt together butter and bittersweet chocolate in top of double boiler over simmering water. Remove from heat and let cool.
Beat together eggs, vanilla and sugar until fluffy and white.
Mix flour, espresso and cayenne and fold into egg mixture. Fold in melted chocolate, then white chocolate chips.
Turn into lightly buttered 13x9-inch baking pan and bake at 350 degrees 25 minutes. Cool slightly then cut into bars. Brownies will be very moist and may appear underdone. Makes 12 servings.
Each serving contains about: 629 calories; 56 mg sodium; 156 mg cholesterol; 41 grams fat; 65 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.72 gram fiber.