Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dinner party for fourteen!

I haven't been cooking as much since the CSA ended. I'm planning to join again for next season, but I've definitely fallen back into my usual cereal-or-takeout dinner routine. Ugh.

But... I did cook an awesome five course dinner for a bunch of my friends last weekend! Fourteen of them, to be precise. I was planning on taking pictures so I could finally update this blog. Unfortunately, my camera wasn't fully charged, so after a couple of introductory pictures, it completely crapped out. Boo! But I still think the meal was worth writing about... and so, here it is!

"Sous chef" Jenny in the foreground and "chef de cuisine" me in the purple sweater, making the parsnip soup.

After a round of Dark and Stormys to start the evening off, Jenny and I got down to business and started making the first course: parsnip soup with a mushroom "mousse." The parsnip soup was out of control. I peeled, chopped and sauteed ten parsnips and a shallot in half a stick of butter until they started to caramelize, then added five cups of vegetable stock and a bit of sea salt and blended it all up with an immersion blender. Once it was nice and smooth, I whisked in another stick of butter and a cup of heavy cream. (I know, I know... saturated fat city, but we only served a quarter-cup portion to each person. The next time I make this soup for an actual meal, I'm definitely gonna cut down on the dairy fat. But for an amuse-bouche sized portion, it was delish.)

Zach approves of the heavy-cream loaded refrigerator.

The mushroom mousse was a total improvisation. I wanted to have something mushroom-y and creamy that would get all nice and melty on top of the warm soup, but all of the recipes I was finding called for gelatin and chilling and molding and I was just not feeling it. Instead, I sauteed a few handfuls of finely chopped oyster, shiitake and portobello mushrooms, mixed them with a bit of marscarpone and then added the mixture to about a cup of freshly whipped cream. It worked out beautifully - the fluffy, creamy mushroom mixture slowly melted into the soup and gave it just a touch of earthy flavor.

The second course was a salad and cheese course: baby arugula, tossed with olive oil and smoked sea salt, piled on top of sliced beets and sprinkled with pulverized pistachios. On the side: a crostini topped with truffled ricotta cheese - white truffle oil whisked into incredibly fresh ricotta - and topped with a drizzle of honey. Simple, easy, delicious. My guests thumb-wrestled for the extra crostini.

(Note: I'd never had truffled ricotta cheese - never even contemplated it, in fact - until visiting Woodwork BK a few weeks before this dinner party. Their truffled ricotta is spectacular, especially when accompanied by a jar of their pickled cherry tomatoes. It was so good that I flagged down the bartender and was like, "I am totally stealing this for my dinner party next week!" My crostini were dope, but their entire menu is doper than dope. If you live in New York City, get thee to Woodwork post-haste!)

The third course was probably the most labor-intensive, and thus the most impressive. It was developed as an homage to (or total rip-off of) Eleven Madison Park's incredible Knoll Crest farm egg dish. I'd started this course the night before, following the Momofuku cookbook's instructions for slow-poaching fourteen eggs in their shells. (Actually, I guess I technically started it on Wednesday morning, when I woke up at an obscenely early hour to trek into Manhattan and purchase two dozen eggs at the Knoll Crest greenmarket booth. Their eggs are just incredible. Oh man, that runny orange yolk...)

I also wanted to add a foam component, as the parmesan foam on EMP's eggy masterpiece is a perfect example of how culinary foams can really make sense in the gestalt of a dish, rather than just be a superfluous and showy addition to it. I didn't really want to shell out the bucks for a whipped cream charger, though, so I figured my egg would have to go foam-less... until I found a recipe for a culinary foam stablized with lecithin and created with an immersion blender. Whoo hoo! One short trip to GNC later, I was making lecithin foam like a pro. Well, not exactly a pro. I'm sure that professionals don't show their pound of lecithin granules to everyone who enters their office for a week while screeching "LOOK AT ME, I'M GONNA MAKE FOAM!"

So anyway: course three was an assemblage of mushroom, asparagus and tarragon topped with a beautiful runny egg, two spears of asparagus, a parmesan foam and a parmesan tuile. It didn't even approach the level of unctuous perfection that Chef Daniel Humm plates at Eleven Madison, but it was pretty freakin good, nevertheless.

Fourth course was "peas and carrots" - penne pasta with a simple sauce of peas and shallots sauteed with butter and blended with cream and topped with strips of proscuitto, and a carrot and saffron risotto with a bit of marscapone topped with shrimp. Matt loved it so much, he proclaimed it "the best goddamn plate of food he'd ever had" and went back for seconds. Yeah, it was pretty good.

And for dessert? Tyler Florence's cracked chocolate earth cake, served with Ciao Bella's unbelievable blackberry-cabernet sorbet, served on a little bit of "chocolate dirt" - really, just a bunch of chocolate animal crackers crushed up in a Ziplock bag. A bunch of us took turns beating up the bag of animal crackers. Participatory dinner wins!

The whole dinner, in fact, was a lovely participatory event. Pulling off a dinner party for fourteen is no joke, and I couldn't have done it without everyone else's contributions. Dan brought extra chairs, Matt brought the table, Nicole was our bartender, Jenny and Danielle helped with all of the cooking and cleaning. (And there was plenty of dish washing, believe me.) Every single person who attended did something to help, and by the end of the evening, we were all drunk, happy and duly rewarded with a belly full of delicious food.

I can't wait for our next dinner party! But next time, I'm gonna charge the camera battery first.

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