Sunday, September 23, 2007

"What Indian Summer?" Dinner

It was going to be a lovely al fresco dinner at the home of Mr. Tarte Tatin and the Pajama Queen. You know, glasses of wine sparkling in the golden sunlight as we casually grilled pork tenderloin and laughingly passed plates laden with food in the breezy warmth of our famous Bay Area Indian Summer...

Well, summer ended with a drippy finality on Saturday. But undaunted, we moved (all the furniture) into the cozy warmth of their dining room instead and thanks to the manful efforts of Mr. Tatin and My Omnivore, who stood stalwart in the damp dark evening air keeping the coals aflame, we still had wonderfully grilled meat.

No sacrifice is too great in the service of dinner.

As always, we're more than thrilled to bust out of the Itsy Bitsy Cooking station we call the Four Square Kitchen, and head over to, in this case, the Pajama Queen's surgically clean venue. It's so clean you could very well eat off the floors. No need for "five second rule" questions here. It could sit on the floor for five minutes or five hours -- there's not a bacterium in sight on that linoleum.

On the menu:
  • Figs wrapped with Prosciutto, courtesy of the Pajama Queen
  • Assorted Olives
  • Grilled Balsamic Pork Tenderloin with Lemon Shallot sauce and grilled grapes
  • Polenta, Rosemary and Walnut Diamonds
  • Roasted Beets
  • Walnut Arugula Salad (PJ Queen)
The very fine cheese course came courtesy of the PJ Queen's friend, Mme. Maya and her consort Mr. Flickr, who made the pilgrimage to the Cowgirls at the Ferry Building to obtain:
  • Pear Tarte Tatin with Pear Caramel ice cream

It all sounds quite fancy, and I think wound up being quite a tasty meal, but in actuality, each dish was pretty simple to make. And as I pre-prepped a lot of the stuff, I was reminded again of the chef vs. cook debate. I might not be a chef per se, but we can certainly cook when called upon. Especially if you give me good stuff to start with.

The pork tenderloin? It comes courtesy of Cuisine Magazine but the recipe is a simple marinade of balsamic vinegar and mustard. Really, that's it. I salted the tenderloins a bit, popped them in a ziploc bag with the marinade overnight and then my Omnivore threw them on the grill. We tossed the grapes with a little olive oil and grilled. That was that.

Lemon Shallot sauce? Chopped shallots sauteed in butter. Throw in a little white wine, a sprig of rosemary and deglaze. Add about a cup on chicken broth and reduce, reduce, reduce. Throw out the rosemary, add the juice of a lemon and whatever was left at the bottom of my honey jar (maybe a teaspoon?).

Beets are so delicious right now. I trimmed the red and golden beets, rubbed them with some olive oil, wrapped them in tinfoil (keeping the red and golden ones separate because the red ones bleed so much) and roasted them in th oven at 350 for 40 minutes. Cool, peel (I advise wearing at least one rubber glove for the red beets) and cut into wedges. Serve with dollops of Laura Chenel's goat cheese on top.

The polenta was a variation on a dish we made for Ms. Food Snoot's wedding. I like it a lot because it's quick to make, and is one of those "make-ahead, then heat-on-the-day-of" kind of deals:

Polenta with Rosemary & Walnuts

2 1/2 cups chicken broth
2/3 cups polenta
3/4 cup grated Parmagiano cheese
4 Tablespoons butter
1/3 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste

Butter a square nine-inch glass dish -- you can also use a pie dish or mini-tartlets pans if you like.

Bring the broth to a boil in a heavy medium saucepan and very gradually whisk in polenta. Reduce the heat to medium and whisk constantly until the mixture thickens, about 6 minutes. Don't leave the polenta -- it has a tendency to burn and or clump, so whisking really improves the texture and helps draw out the starch.

Remove the pan from the heat and add in the cheese with 1-1/2 tablespoons of the butter, stirring until the cheese melts. Mix in the chopped walnuts and rosemary. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer the polenta to the prepared dish, or tartlet pans. Using a buttered knife or rubber spatula, spread the polenta out evenly. Cool until the polenta is firm, at least 1 hour.

Line a baking sheet with foil. Cut the polenta into diamonds, or if the polenta is in a pie dish, cut it into 8 wedges or unmold from the mini-tartlet pans. Transfer these to the baking sheet, dot with 1 1/2 Tablespoons of butter.

All this can be made one day ahead. Cover and chill.

In a medium skillet, melt 1 Tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Gently place the polenta cakes into the skillet and heat through -- allowing it to brown slightly on each side.

You can also finish the polenta in the oven. Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake the polenta until it's heated through, about 12 minutes.

Serve immediately.

Oh, and the Pear Tarte Tatin.

"What's wrong with apples?" inquired my Omnivore suspiciously. "Why do we have to do pears?"

"Because I want to do something different," I whined.

It was a hard sell to him and Mr. Tarte Tatin, who are really classicists at heart. But I used the standard recipe replacing the apples with Bartlett pears, which had a lovely aroma and kept shape very nicely through the cooking process. Paired with David Lebovitz's Pear Caramel ice cream, I think I won them over.

"Yeah, alright, the pears are okay..."

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