First off, we have a special guest for this post. Our friends Jean
are both great photographers, and we had them and another couple, Reza and James, over for dinner. When Dan mentioned he had brought gear to take photos if we wanted, Melissa and I had no problem saying that, oh yes, we wanted. He had special lenses, a tripod, and of course a great eye. So the pictures are a little bigger than normal to showcase his great work.
|Yogurt, oil, zatar spice.|
We started our dinner with individual plates of oil with zatar spice and greek yogurt. We got this idea from Crossroads Market in Hayward, an unexpectedly great source for interesting ethnic products. The dinner had a guest photographer, and this dish featured a guest plater. None other than Melissa, who also made the long trek down to Hayward to get supplies. She took charge of the appetizer, which we served with slices of freshly baked pita bread (also from Crossroads) and small cube dishes with almonds in them.
We did a smaller appetizer than normal because I did two amuse-bouches. The first was a cauliflower panna cotta with a layer of black truffles (as with Valentine's Day, "Black Truffle Sauce" ). I think I've hit a new level of cooking; I took a recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook and made it more work than the original. Whether this represents a step up or a step down I leave for you to decide. Chef Keller's recipe has the panna cotta topped with oysters. My version required me to make half the batch of panna cotta, let it set, add the truffles and make the other half of the panna cotta to put on top and then let that set before serving. The flavors worked very nicely, though I had hoped the sandwiched truffles would infuse the panna cotta more. I served them in clear glasses so people could see the truffle layer.
The second amuse was mini-wontons. I brunoised some carrots and ginger, and wrapped them in a wonton wrapper to make a little roll. I wet the outside of the wrapper and then dipped that in ground up almonds, which didn't coat the wontons but adhered sporadically, making a nice random pattern. When the guests arrived, I heated up some oil and dropped in the wontons. The carrot and ginger cooked, the wrappers browned nicely, and they made a nice little present to bring out to the guests (I just carried a plate and let people take one each).
If you're serving a wide variety of dishes like this, a good bet for the wine is Champagne, which is very food-friendly. Plus it gets people in the mood for an evening of fun. We used a Cuvée 1997 from René Geoffroy à Cumières.
|Believe it or not, there's fish on that plate.|
The opener was a roasted striped bass fillet with a pomelo fennel salsa, garnished with mint powder. We started getting a produce box from a farm, and our first shipment included a pomelo, which is essentially a sweeter grapefruit. I know you're all shocked that I used fennel in a dinner party; more likely you're shocked it's not in every dish. But it pairs well with grapefruit, so adding in some onions, chile, and vodka made a flavorful salsa which complemented the fish nicely. I made the mint powder by mincing some fresh mint and microwaving it on low power for twenty minutes (another technique from The French Laundry Cookbook). The mint powder was more subtle than I would have liked. And though it looked pretty, I'm not fond of garnishes that add nothing to the dish. Perhaps I dried it out too much in the microwave.
To choose the wine, I used a tactic known as "bridging" where you find some flavor in a wine and pair it with a dish that has that ingredient. This can be (and often is) overused, with chefs monotonously pairing every dish with some wine that has many of the same flavors, but it works well when applied judiciously. I prefer to use it when the target flavor in the wine is subtle. In this case, I used a Griffin Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. My tasting notes listed a subtle grapefruit aroma, so I figured that it would work well with the dish, especially since the acidity would hold up to the salsa.
|Turkey with mole|
Seeing our friends was an important part of the dinner party. But we also wanted to share with them some heritage turkey, specifically the one we had left over from Thanksgiving. And I had in mind that I wanted to try a mole sauce. I did a trial run of the sauce with Melissa's parents a couple weeks ago (they're so sweet; letting me cook for them on short notice), and there were definitely some issues with it, which, happily, I was able to correct for the party. For the sauce I used some of my "smoked turkey stock", and let the sauce simmer for a couple hours, replenishing the stock as needed. This made for a really nice, complex flavor with a warmth and depth that surprised me. Reza complimented me on the fact that the chocolate and spice were so well integrated. The turkey's dark meat came out rare; very rare. So I only served my guests the breast meat, which made for smaller portions then I would have liked for the main course. But Melissa and I have been enjoying the dark meat, with some extra cooking time, over the last few days (and of course I'm saving the bones for stock).
For side dishes, I wilted some spinach and garnished it with green garlic. I also made a chestnut fritter, which consisted of puréeing chestnuts, seasoning and flouring the mix (the flour was to make the puré more like a dough), dipping dough balls in beaten egg and panko bread crumbs, and frying. I always say you can't go wrong frying, and this dish was no exception.
The wine was easy. Roasted poultry with a subtly spicy chocolate sauce? It practically begged to be served with a Zinfandel, and I didn't want to disappoint it. We served one of our favorite Zins, the Ridge 2001 Sonoma Station.
|The Cheese Course|
I've mentioned before that I'm trying to do more composed cheese courses, and I continued the trend with this dinner. I made a dacquoise (a baked mixture of butter, nuts, egg whites and flour) which I cut into squares. On top of that, I placed a slab of Pont L'Eveque cheese. To honor that cheese's Normandy roots, I diced some apples and sautéed them in duck fat. Not normal duck fat, but the fat I had scraped off a foie gras terrine (which I made with the other half of the foie gras that got turned into a torchon for Valentine's Day). On top of that assembly, I put a dollop of Cindy's Raisin Butter, which I discovered at the Fancy Food Show a few weeks back. A really simple but pure raisin flavor, in a spreadable package. I don't often use jarred food for dinner parties, but this was an easy exception to make. Finally, I garnished the whole thing with chopped rosemary. This was probably the course I was happiest with.
Jean and Dan had generously offered to bring some wine, and so I suggested they bring some to go with the cheese course. They gave me a couple options, and I voted for the Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel. Imagine. Me having two Sonoma Zinfandels on the same night. You're all scandalized, I know it. Seghesio, like Ridge, is a reliable producer of Zinfandel, and this wine was quite nice.
|Chocolate Mousse with a tarragon creme anglaise|
This dessert started as something else entirely, and how it evolved is probably a giant post in its own right! But it ended up being very simple, which in the end I think worked best. I've been a fan of tarragon and chocolate ever since trying the combination years ago at Rococo's in London, but this may be the first time I've used the combination in one of my own creations. I piped a small mound of mousse onto a plate, and then made a puddle of the creme anglaise around it. I infused the milk for the creme anglaise with chopped up tarragon, and strained it all out when I plated. The tarragon flavor was nice, though I might have liked it to be less subtle. It wasn't as subtle as the mint, but nor was it as pronounced as I was hoping. Dan was very keen on it, though. The dish was fairly simple to assemble; one has to make the mousse in advance, and I made all the components of the sauce ahead of time so they could be assembled and cooked at the last minute.
For this course, I chose a Domaine de la Tour Vielle Banyuls. I consider Banyuls to be an underappreciated dessert wine, and it pairs very nicely with simple chocolate desserts (it is akin to port).
By now our guests had eaten (and drunk!) a fair amount, but we wanted to close with a simple little mignardise course. I took the peel from the pomelo (which featured in the opener) and candied it. You'll notice that the peel is very thick. I also made mandarin orange madeleines. I plated them as best they'd fit, but against our star-covered table, it looks like some celestial being winging its way through the firmament. The stars, incidentally, are metal stars which Melissa's sister gave her. She scatters them about the table for a nice effect.
Overall, I was pretty happy with the dinner. Things went wrong, and I thought a lot of things fell a little short of my expectations. But, as Melissa will tell you with a roll of her eyes, this is par for the course. Still, I have to grudgingly admit the meal turned out pretty darn well. And those pictures!