Post #3 for Project Food Blog: Luxury Dinner Party – A Fall symphony
|October 2, 2010||Posted by ameliaps under "Project Food Blog”, autumn, challenge, dinner, fall, menus|
This post is about celebrating life, food, fall, friends, advancing to the 3rd challenge of Project Food Blog, and YOU, my readers and voters
The challenge prompt is to “create a luxury dinner party for friends to celebrate and share new flavors.” There are a few key words here: “luxury,” “celebrate,” and “new flavors.” I believe they are all tied together. Luxury can be a tricky one; you might initially be thinking of caviar, lobster, oyster and foie gras. But for me, luxury is about the now (the season) and the here (the place I am in, the locale). Celebrate brings to mind getting together with great friends, hanging out in the kitchen (always my favorite place to entertain) sharing stories, drinking a good glass, and eating a bite – why not – with your hands! And new flavors means fresh, in-season, and surprising tastes. As I was thinking about the challenge, walking through the backyard, the yellow leaves and a few small mushrooms sprouting from the ground after the rain caught my attention. It’s fall! There is change in the air. There are many new flavors and nature’s bounty is at its best this time of the year! All this started to come together very clearly in my mind: I would celebrate the new season with exceptionally “luxurious” local and fresh ingredients.
I vividly remember my excitement as a child at each season’s change. We never ate anything out of season. The trees in my parents’ garden would produce wonders at each solstice and equinox. Towards the end of the summer we would patiently wait for autumn’s gifts: persimmons, figs, muscat grapes, quince, pears, tangerines and black walnuts (walnut husks, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg would be the ingredients for my mother’s nocino, a strong digestive).
“A good seasonal menu has a catch-of-the-day appeal, expresses an awareness of time and place, and the urgency of the moment. There are few things worse than being served pallid tomatoes in dead winter.” ~ Alice Waters
After looking through some of my favorite go-to menu inspiration books (especially Culinary Artistry and Chez Panisse Cooking), I decided that a trip to the market would help me get started. Wild mushrooms! Quail! Pomegranate! Pears! Golden beets! Squash! Quinces! Muscadine grapes! It was an explosion of colors, and now I was really getting excited about the menu. I would have to carefully look for a thread to connect all these flavors and create a menu that was also luxurious in its preparation. But I would do most of my work ahead of time so that when friends came I could enjoy their company and, of course, the food! Creating a menu is a bit like playing a symphony: you want your culinary “music” to start with an exciting prologue that will lead into the main act without dominating it and, finally, end in a sweet epilogue – dessert. While you are in the main act you might hear a chorus accenting the ingredients, singing along – the side dishes. A menu is so much more than just the individual notes (the single dishes), it is a holistic experience (the whole meal) that the music director (me, the cook) should conduct (create and prepare) with passion and share with her audience (the guests).
“Marrying the elements of a meal correctly so as to achieve that elusive equilibrium requires an understanding of each separate course and its importance within the overall structure of the menu” ~ Alice Waters
Let me share my menu (procedures more than recipes) and comments with you:
Muscadine and vanilla martini – I started by infusing a scraped vanilla bean and some poked muscadine grapes in vodka for a few days. The martini came together with a ratio of 3 oz of the infused vodka to 1 oz. muscadine juice. For a touch of whimsy, I filled the glasses with three muscadine grapes to simulate the traditional olives.
Butternut squash squares with maple syrup, sage and sea salt – I cubed the butternut squash (reserving the uneven ends for the next day’s soup), then mixed with olive oil, salt, pepper, maple syrup and fresh sage from my garden; baked until tender but not mushy, then served topped with a baked squash seed.
Parmesan cheese and quince-jam bites – This appetizer could not be easier to make, but the combination of flavors is very sophisticated and bursts in your mouth; the sweet aroma of the quince balances the salty, aged flavor of the Parmesan.
Potato and wild mushroom napoleons with vegetable-butter sauce and a drop of truffle oil – This was the most elaborate stage of the menu’s preparation. First I squared off the potatoes; then sliced them thin with the mandolin. Then I baked them, after seasoning with salt and pepper, between pieces of buttered parchment paper. Meanwhile, I sautéed the mushrooms in butter, olive oil and garlic, then topped with chopped parsley. Finally I layered the potato slices with the mushrooms and topped with a simple sauce made with vegetable stock and butter. Truffle oil was passed around to the guests. According to the guests, this was their favorite dish of the evening!
Stuffed quail with pomegranate molasses, orange and port – First, I set the quail to marinate overnight in olive oil, fresh orange juice and orange zest. Next I stuffed the quails (they are so small!) with bread, cream, sautéed onions and mushrooms, and an egg to bind. The quails were then baked, brushed with pomegranate molasses, and drizzled with an orange-port reduction. When I shared the menu with my mother, she suggested I serve it with a Médoc wine, which is a Bordeaux with hints of berries – soft, almost sensual.
Slow-roasted golden beets, pears and carrots – There is nothing sweeter than slow-roasted vegetables! Just drizzle with olive oil, a dash of balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with butter, salt and pepper.
Roasted cipolline onions with balsamic vinegar – The cipolline are quickly boiled to remove any bitterness, then sautéed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, with a dash of sugar to help caramelization.
Individual quince and apple tarte-Tatins served with a shot of muscadine juice (I had originally also considered an Armagnac, a delicious brandy from southern France) – I poached the quince for an hour in a syrup of sugar, water and lemon peel. The caramel was a simple 1:4 ratio of water to sugar. I used muffin tins to make my small Tatins: first the sugar syrup, then a dash of butter, then the sliced apples and diced quinces and, finally, a round of puff pastry. Baked at 400F until puffed and golden.
Candied apples rolled in chopped roasted peanuts (for the children) – learn how-to here.
The evening was wonderful. We had eight adults (including me and my husband) and a few children. I set an autumnal table, full of gourds, wheat, corn and candles.
While the kids played, we first enjoyed our muscadine martinis with appetizers, then dinner with wine.
There were laughs shared, stories told and, in the process, we became closer with our friends. There was a mild autumnal chill in the air but the atmosphere kept us warm.
The challenge also asks us to share some hosting secrets. While I can’t tell you exactly what my magic formula is for bringing people together, I can share a few tips:
• When I cook for a crowd, I try to do my homework ahead of time. No matter how well I plan, there is always more to do…so I do all of the prepping, and most of the cooking, the day before.
• When I’m planning a menu (as you may have sensed from this post) I start with in-season ingredients, which seems to always lead me to the best flavor combinations. Nature knows.
• In my menus, I usually include a mix of dishes that I am very comfortable with together with a couple of new ones. That way I know I will have “some” success and my creative cravings are satisfied!
• I try not to involve my guests in the cooking. I want them to come into a clean kitchen with only a few small tasks remaining. Guests who may be eager to assist can feel helpful if they are asked to slice lemons for drinks, to pull the main course (which has been timed for dinner) from the oven, or to help carry the water to the table.
• When it comes to choosing wine, I will take my menu to the local wine store and have them suggest a good pairing. Each time, I become more knowledgeable about wine, but I have still a long road ahead of me, so I leave it to the experts!
• I put a lot of thinking into the dessert, because it is the last thing people will eat. The perfect dessert makes the evening that much more memorable
• Another thing that helps create a great atmosphere is having a theme, be it a season, a color, a style, a decade, an accessory, or a regional menu. It helps to create the right décor.
• Lighting is also key. I love candles; they add softness, warmth, and a feeling of bygone times.
• One thing to remember when planning a party is to know your guests well. Matching the right people is similar to pairing food and wine. I always like to mix it up and have a variety of styles, often adding an odd element, an unusual person, different walks of life and views, various nationalities… it all makes for a much more interesting conversation!
• Towards the end of the evening, I pull out a liqueur (oftentimes my homemade lemoncello) and gather my guests around a fire pit. This is when the good times start rolling and we tell stories (more stories), sing songs, read poetry and make memories.