Sunday, February 01, 2009

Ah, Wilderness! Dinner

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Ah, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"
-- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

It's been a long weekend. Actually a long week. But check this out: we cooked, I think, our most elaborate dinner to date, and have lived to tell.

Can I tell you a few things that we learned?
1) We are not Thomas Keller. Two people do not equal Thomas Keller, Three or more, probably do not equal Thomas Keller. He's weird--like supernatural weird. So before you go trying to cook some recipe out of his French Laundry cookbook, think. Carefully. That's all I'm gonna say.

2) Martha Stewart is on your side. I don't care what kind of a person she is in real life. I don't care if she scares small children or freaks you out with her individually stuffed peas. She knows her food. She knows how to set you up for a fancy party. Trust me.

3) It truly takes a village to complete one of these shindigs. None of us, NONE of us has all that you need to pull this off -- lean on your friends. Heavily.

Okay, so on we go. Here's our fridge--woefully inadequate as it is, but pressed into service again for our multi-course dinner in honor of our Russian friends, including three of our terrific local choreographers, and the lovely Lady Di, a ballerina from the Kirov and Bolshoi. Joining the guest list, Ms. Devushka and one of our gorgeous Bay Area dancers, whom I'll call La Muse.

As regular readers of this blog know, we've been prepping this for a few days, making stock bases, testing dishes.

With our schedules packed to brim with work, we needed a battle plan for the whole week. I won't put up the picture of our sauce-stained schedule but it went from Sunday all the way through a minute to minute schedule on the day of cooking. Good thing too, around course four, when the stress gets to be overwhelming, there's a comfort in just looking at the plan and, in an almost zombie-like fashion, following orders.

We check everything off the check list, pack it up into boxes and cooler and bags, stuff it into the car and away we gooo...

Here's the usual printed menu-- you might notice that what started out as simple printed recipe cards has gotten progressively more elaborate...

The Menu:
  • "Borscht," Fried Red Beet Chip with Creme Fraiche and Dill
  • Sformato of Celeriac with Duck Confit, Green Apple and Parsley Vinaigrette
  • Cream of Cepes with Chervil Cream and Crispy Croutons
  • Paupiette of Sablefish on a Bed of Melted Leeks with Syrah Sauce
  • Herb Sorbet
  • Venison with Pan-Roasted Butternut Squash, Braised Shallots and Wild Rice
  • Montbriac Blue Cheese with Comice Pear Poached in Nebbiolo d’Alba & Toasted Walnuts
  • Petit Fours and Rosemary Shortbreads

Ms. Five-and-a-Half, as always, arranged a spectacular table, with a beautiful centerpiece designed by her friend Tom Bastianon at Trillium Flowers in Petaluma.

Our theme was "Ah, Wilderness," so the final assembly had everything from forsythia to little wild mushrooms. Honestly, this is something I could never even visualize, much less execute. Thank goodness there are talented people out there!

So as I said, it takes a village to do one of these things. We busily borrowed from all sorts of kind folks who were actually extraordinarily generous with their kitchen goods.

Ms. Food Snoot loaned us her mandoline -- ours is horrible and just doesn't cut anything. But having used this all week, I have to say, I am so springing for one of these things. Brunoise, slices of beets--it slices, it dices, it even juliennes.

From Ms. Five-and-a-Half's friend Wayne, came these elegant ruffled crystal plates, which we used for dessert -- so delicate I barely wanted to even pick them up (Have I mentioned that I've had a little problem um, holding anything lately. Especially if it's expensive?)

Wayne's an artist (Check out his website to see some of his work.) and he gamely joined in the planning fun, also loaning these gorgeous Faberge candlestick holders and this beautifully bound copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from the 1920s.

No pressure.

So as usual, we descended on Ms. Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen's kitchen and took over pretty much every exposed surface.

When we began planning, Ms. Five-and-a-Half left me a message, "Okay, start thinking of a menu that doesn't have borscht or pierogies."

It's a sort of sense of inborn perversity then that My Omnivore suggested we do an amuse of beet chips with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkle of dill, and call it "Borscht."

Beet chips actually cook down A LOT when you fry them. I knew that already from past experience, so I bought the biggest beet you've ever seen in your life -- really, the size of a small child's head. Honestly. Like six inches in diameter.

They cooked down to about and inch and a half in diameter.

It was quite a process -- and let me say how grateful I was for the mandoline in this case.

But the efforts were woth it. The flavor of the beet was intensified and the bit of creme fraiche and dill just gave you that fleeting image of borscht in your head.

By the way, I have to say I love my new little plates. It's utterly silly, but I love them.

Okay, the first course was based on a terrific starter I had at Babbo's in New York. The hardest part of this one is making the celeriac puree. By the way, it's worth the trouble to run the celeriac through a food mill and then also blenderize it with a stick blender to get it super creamy. The texture of the resulting sformato will be ungodly creamy.

Sformato of Celeriac

• 2 cups bechamel sauce, recipe follows
• 1 pound celeriac
• 1-2 cups milk
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 pinch freshly ground nutmeg, or to taste
• 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
• 2 eggs and 2 yolks
• 2 ounces butter
• 1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs, lightly toasted under broiler
• 1 stick unsalted butter
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 4 cups hot milk
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Cut the celeriac into 2-inch cubes and put into a medium pot. Cover with milk and bring to a simmer (do not allow to boil). Cook until the celeriac is tender (about 30 minutes) then remove celeriac with a slotted spoon and puree in a blender or food processor. If the mixture is too thick, add a little of the milk. Set aside to cool.

Make the béchamel sauce as follows:
Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan until frothing. Remove from heat and stir in flour with a whisk. Cook over low heat for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1/2 of the hot milk and whisk until smooth. Add remaining milk and whisk until smooth. Bring to boil, add nutmeg, lower heat and simmer 10 minutes. Can be used hot or cold.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl, mix the pureed celeriac, the bechamel, salt, nutmeg, Parmesan, eggs and yolks. Stir until thoroughly combined.

Butter 12 1-cup oven-proof dessert cups for individual servings and coat with bread crumbs. Divide the celeriac mixture into the each cup-- each one should be about 2/3 to 3/4 full. Fill a 12-inch baking pan 2/3 filled with hot water.

Place the cups on the baking pan, so that they are standing in the hot water. Carefully place the baking pan into the oven. Bake until the top of the sformatos are golden brown and a dipped toothpick comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. Remove and allow to cool 15 minutes.

To serve: Turn the sformatos out onto plates and serve.

We served them the way I had them at Babbo's, with a little salad, shredded duck confit and julienned tart green apple.

This next is a recipe out of Martha Stewart. You can make it up to three days ahead and then just heat it up to serve when you're ready-- it was the easiest course to put together the whole evening and it was one of the best. This is why I love Martha. By the way, spring for the Italian porcinis, they're way more fragrant than the American ones we tried. And feel free to increase the amount liberally.

Porcini Mushroom Soup

• 3/4 cup dried Polish or porcini mushrooms (about 3/4 ounce)
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 3 medium leeks (about 1 pound), white and pale-green parts only, finely chopped and rinsed well
• 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 3/4 cup medium sherry, such as amontillado
• 5 cups homemade or low-sodium chicken stock
• 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
• 2 pounds assorted fresh mushrooms, such as cremini
• Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1 cup whole milk

Cover dried mushrooms with 2 cups boiling water in a heatproof bowl; let stand until soft, about 30 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer mushrooms to a cutting board, and finely chop; set aside. Strain soaking liquid; set aside.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks; cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in flour; cook 2 minutes. Add sherry; whisk until smooth. Whisk in stock, thyme, and reserved soaking liquid; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 5 minutes. Stir in dried and fresh mushrooms. Remove from heat.

Pour into a large bowl. Working in 3 batches, puree soup in a food processor, making sure there are no remaining mushroom pieces; return to pan. Bring to a simmer; cook, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Stir in cream; bring just to a simmer. Season with salt. Stir in milk; cook until just heated through. Serve immediately, or refrigerate, covered, up to 3 days; reheat before serving.

Ah the Paupiette of Sea Bass. Our bugaboo. If you're observant you'll note that the potato wrapping is not on the fish. That's because it all slid off in the cooking process.

We worked hard to not freak out as this is the THIRD time this damnable, DAMNABLE dish has thwarted us.

As they started coming apart in the pan in the flipping of the fish we conferenced on what to do. "Take them off." I barked angrily. If I could have wrung Daniel Boulud's neck, I would have.

But then I'm torn-- should I wring Boulud's neck first or Thomas Keller's?

This stuff takes nerves of steel, and ours are more or less at the stage of aluminum foil by this point and we have our biggest high-wire act to come. The Thomas Keller Venison Chop with Pan-Roasted Butternut Squash and Braised Shallots. We added wild rice to this mix because it could be cooked and quietly sit on its own.

I won't reprint the recipe or process here because this is the dish which we started preparing on Sunday (veal stock), continued on Monday (remouillage of veal bones), went on in the wee hours of Tuesday (veal reduction), and Thursday (Veal "Quick" Sauce). My Omnivore handled the venison famously, I must say, searing the chops--which we got at my new favorite meat supplier, Polarica--minute and a half on each side, and then a little rest in Beurre Monte.

The venison was perfect, although if I'm being honest, I think the butternut squashes needed more attention-- they were pretty, but underdone. Still, altogether it was a lovely dish-- but just complex enough to make your stress level rise.

Our pièce de résistance though is the cheese course. We've done this one before and it was crazy good: Montbriac cheese with Toasted Walnuts and a Comice Pear poached in Nebbiolo d'Alba. Here's the thing: when we made this years ago, we threw this course together based on a rumor of a Thomas Keller (there's that name again) pairing, and got a wine recommendation from someone at the SF Wine Club, or someplace...we couldn't remember. We also couldn't remember what the !#$^** wine was, because I didn't blog it. We knew that it was an inexpensive Italian, we knew it was red, and we knew it went together perfectly with the Montbriac. That's all. Let that be a lesson to me. Must blog everything so there's a record...

So this course became our Great White Whale. Long--LONG-- did we seek the answer to our simple question -- a red wine to poach a pear in so it would go with the cheese. You wouldn't believe how much resistance we ran into. We went from wine shops to wine bars, toting along pieces of Comice pear, toasted walnuts and little wedges of Montbriac (a creamy cow's milk blue from the Auvergne region) for people to try. But the most frustrating thing was how many folks would listen to our expanation of what we wanted, and then say, "But what you really want is a white wine, a sweet wine, Champagne, a dessert wine, try this Eiswein, you don't put red wine with blue cheese, horrors--Mon Dieu, Quelle Horreur!"

I became quite uncharacteristically testy, I must say. Some guy in a wine store would start saying, "But I just can't help thinking that this little white would be..."

And I would cut them off. "We want red. RED! Yes, we know all about white wine and blue cheese, but we're asking for RED. What part of "RED" don't you understand?"

What was ultimately educational about this whole exercise, I guess, is that we learned which wine stores to go to where they'll actually listen to you, who you can ask a challenging question of, who is willing to think outside the box. And I'm gonna name names: one I mentioned above, the guys at Wine Club and Guilhaume Gerard at Terroir.

Terroir is a great place to sit and chat with some really knowledgeable folks about wine, especially organic, biodynamic wines. But I will say this: Dagan, you're a great guy, but when you kept pushing the whites, when you said, "Well, now this white is what I'M talking about...," I knew you were NOT PAYING ATTENTION. Guilhaume, on the other hand, quietly took a nibble of Montbriac, walnuts and pear and thought about it. And every so often he'd come back with a thought. Ultimately we didn't use any of his red suggestions, but he totally won me over.

"You guys are rebels aren't you? You're outside the box," he observed.

Anyway, long story short, Italian red wine for poached Comice pears, budgetricious-- Nebbiolo d'Alba. Extra-special points to Floribeth at the Jug Shop for correctly surmising that it must be a wine from the Piedmont, because a Barolo or a Barbaresco would have been her choice. Nebbiolo d'Alba is made from the same grape, but far more in our budget range. Victory, at last! By the way, I've mentioned the name Nebbiolo d'Alba about fifty times here because I never want to forget it!!!

Comice Pear Poached in Nebbiolo d’Alba

• 4 Comice Pears
• ¾ cup sugar
• 1-1/2 cups dry red wine such as Nebbiolo d’Alba
• 1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
• pinch of salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the sugar, wine, lemon juice and a pinch of salt in a saucepan and bring just to the boiling point, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower the heat, and let simmer for 5 minutes.

Peel the pears, cut them into quarters and remove the cores.

Add the pears to the hot syrup, cover and cook gently for 20-25 minutes or until the pears are tender. Do not allow to boil.

Stir in the vanilla extract. Cool the pears in the syrup then chill in the refrigerator.

Serve with ripe Montbriac cheese and walnuts blanched in milk and then toasted.

Oh, so spectacular and so satisfying. I love Montbriac. And I love that we prevailed and served a RED wine with BLUE cheese.

And as promised, here is the recipe for those Rosemary Shortbreads. They were a last minute thing I threw together, but they're super easy to make on short notice.

Rosemary Shortbread
2-1/2 cups AP flour
2 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1-2 tsp chopped rosemary
1-2 Tbsp granulated white sugar

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl, mixing until combined. It will be dry and crumbly, but keep kneading until the lumps are out.

Press the dough into a 9x 13 pan and score "cookie lines" and prick the tops. Sprinkle granulated sugar across the top

Bake at 300°F for 30 min.

Some good links:


Randy said...

Now that I have heard this story twice I think you two are even more crazy. And amazing. You're like Ironman triathletes of professional home cooking.

Mary Ellen Hunt said...

LOL, every so often when we do this kind of thing, we have to stop and ask if we are, indeed, insane...

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm floored at your talent! What fun, (especially for your guests), and what devotion! You both are incredible people; I'm proud to be related:<)