Thursday, December 10, 2009

Winter Dinner with Friends

Because waiting 12 months for my next birthday before having friends over for a dinner party thingy again seemed crazy, I decided to have a few friends over for a winter dinner this year as well. Just like last time, this would have been nearly impossible without Lisa. It's nice when people are not only kick-ass friends, but kick-ass co-chefs. I was more laid-up with back issues than I had hoped when I first scheduled this, which meant leaning on Lisa more than I would have liked (since she should have been relaxing and enjoying herself as my guest). All in all, I think everything turned out really well, though, and (it seemed) a good time was had by all. I'll post recipes for this stuff over on my recipe blog in the next few days, but for now I'll just summarize the food. Appetizers all involved seafood.
There were Prosciutto-Wrapped Shrimp with a Garlicky Dipping Sauce (painstakingly wrapped by R and grilled to perfection by Joe while Lisa was on Blini duty and I was on the fryer). There was a basil leaf underneath the prosciutto around each shrimp that I pondered omitting because I couldn't quite picture it (and there's no basil in the version I usually make), but that bright herbal bite is pretty much what made the dish. (Sorry the picture's a bit blurry. We were in the weeds.)The second appetizer was also one of my favorites to make at this time of year (which is nominally easy, once you master the art of the blini, as Lisa did...): Buckwheat Blini with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraîche. The buckwheat adds a nice sweetness to the blini, which works really well with the crème fraîche, salmon, and herbs:
Finally was Parmesan-Crusted Calamari with Garlic Aioli. This was something I started making in Melbourne and hadn't made since coming back to the States. Lisa is an amazing aioli-maker, and having this again reminded me that I should make it more often (now that I've found a good source for the nice big calamari that I like to use).
For the soup course I went with a Curried Butternut Squash and Cauliflower Soup with Roasted Garlic Flatbread. I'd made the soup a few years back, but had never tried the flatbread before. (I was basically making it just because I had all of the ingredients on hand...) The dough was... weird. I prepped the dough on Friday, and Lisa worked it for a while on Saturday. The proportions were odd and the dough was super-sticky... but the end result was tasty.
The secret to the soup is using freshly grated cinnamon rather than that per-ground stuff. I dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkle of chives finish it. I love squash soups in winter, and this is a nice change of pace from the one I make for Christmas Eve. It also paired pretty perfectly with the Sokol Blosser Evolution that we poured with it.
The salad course was based on my desire to make a warm goat cheese salad at some point in my life. We played with the dressing a bit and came up with the right balance of red wine vinegar (the choice of red wine vinegar out of all the vinegars in my pantry was Lisa's brilliant idea, but knowing that I should ask Lisa which vinegar to use was my brilliant idea, so I think we can share credit for the end result...), shallot, dijon, and olive oil. The trial version I'd made involved baking breaded rounds of cheese sliced from a log of chevre. The plan for this course was to make smaller rounds (because you basically need three for aesthetic reasons, and that's a lot of cheese) - which were easier to engineer than we expected - crusted in a mix of panko, black pepper, and fresh thyme, then deep-fried rather than baked. We dropped the test-round into the fryer, and immediately the bread crumbs went flying off in every direction and the cheese shrank as it melted into the oil. Oops. The oven was already on to warm the main course, so we quickly cranked it up and threw the cheese in on a silpat to bake, and they came out perfectly. Also featured in the salad were cranberries and toasted pine nuts. The pairing of a Papapietro Perry 2004 Peter's Vineyard Pinot Noir with this was sort of ridiculously awesome, and not just because they're my favorite winery on the planet for Pinot.
The main course was Braised Oxtail with Red Wine Reduction and Celery Root Mash. This is a hearty, simple dish that gets great texture from the bones and from a couple pigs' feet. It's one of my favorite winter meals, and honestly the desire to have a few portions in the freezer for cold winter nights was 90% of my motivation for having people over for dinner (thus giving me an excuse to make it). Props to H-Mart here, who not only provided me with gorgeous oxtail, pigs' feet, and the kick-ass calamari above, but had a stock of beautiful celery root when everywhere else in town was sold out.
R was awesome enough to bring a cheese course. I've already mentioned countless times my love for Russo's, but she gave me yet another to love them by telling me about her interaction with the cheese guy. As she was looking for the perfect set of cheeses and he started to recommend a blue, she told him that she's not a huge fan of blue cheese. He smiled and told her that this would be the cheese to change her mind, and thus she ended up bringing my favorite cheese in the world, Saint Agur Blue. (Seriously, if you haven't tried it before, go get some right now. You can thank me later.) Even better, he recommended a wine that pairs perfectly with it (Chamarré Tradition Jurançon 2003), which is something I've been in search of for years... Yay! The other two cheese were really good, too, as well as the black cherry jam to go along with one of them, but I can't read their names in the picture I took, so I'll have to inquire with R and report back.
Because it was now 1am and people needed to get going, we rushed out dessert at the same time. This was Chocolate Caramel Hazelnut Tart, and is one of my very favorite winter desserts. It's super-rich, but not too sweet and really really really delicious. It's easy to make, too, which is key for me since I'm more of a cook than a baker.
In summary, it was a fun night of good food with some awesome people, and reminded me that I should come up with excuses to hang out with these guys more often.

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