Dinner party: February 4, 2012

Every now and then, I like to push myself a bit and cook food on a slightly grander scale than my everyday meals. It gives me a chance to test – and expand – my skills, and an opportunity to cook some of the more interesting and challenging dishes from all the cookbooks I collect. What’s the point of owning them if you don’t cook from them, right?

This past Saturday was one such event. I had 5 friends over, plus my husband, and cooked a 6-course meal (with a couple of extras) for them. I’m lucky that I have friends who are indulgent and let me spend the whole evening in the kitchen, which is its own kind of fun, but isn’t the same as spending time with them in the dining room! I’m also lucky that I have friends who are adventurous, appreciative eaters.

For this menu, I made most of the stocks and sauce bases well in advance and froze them, as well as a couple of other items (like brioche bread crumbs). Then in the evenings of the week leading up to the dinner, I prepped components that would hold well. Finally, I took Friday off of work and spent all that day and all day Saturday doing the rest of the prep.

I’ll offer a general rundown of the meal here, and then give a more detailed breakdown of some of the dishes and components over the next few posts. There’s a lot of technique that goes into a meal like this, and it’s worth examining it. Sadly, cooking a meal like this also takes a lot of time, space and focus, so I didn’t have the chance to do extensive photography. Sorry for the poorly lit cell phone pics…

We started with a cocktail: the el Bulli Americano, consisting of a small glass of blood orange juice topped with a foam made of sweet red vermouth, Campari and gelatin, dispensed from my iSi Thermo Whip.

The first course was a carrot flan, from Rick Tramonto’s Amuse-bouche. Instead of molding it in a sheet pan and cutting out shapes, though, I molded it in cannoli tubes lined with acetate. They proved somewhat difficult to unmold, getting the meal off to a bit of a rocky start, but a pair of tweezers helped a lot. The recipe says the gelatin-based carrot “custard” can be brûléed, but when I tried, it melted before the sugar caramelized, so I skipped that step. The garnishes were reduced blood orange juice and a couple of leaves of tarragon.

Next was Pulpo alla Gallega, Buttered Popcorn, Piquillo Paper from VOLT ink. When I got this book at Christmas, I immediately knew this was the first dish I wanted to make out of it, because it uses some of my favourite tools (pressure cooker, dehydrator and Vitamix), and because it looked and sounded delicious. Turns out, it was!

The third course was Roast Duck Breast and Burdock Root and Duck Leg Confit Crêpe with Spiced Caramelized Chestnuts and Goat Cheese, from Susur: A Culinary Life. This was by far the most challenging dish of the night for me, and it took too long to serve it. But it met with rave reviews.

To buy myself some time, I inserted a little palate cleanser at this point in the meal, my bianco vermouth sorbet (I’ve increased the water content a bit from my previous recipe, to help it hold its shape better) with a salted yuzu jelly.

The main course was a dish from Eleven Madison Park, one of the ones that really caught my eye when I first browsed through the cookbook, and the one I made the veal stock for: Beef with Bone Marrow Crust, Swiss Chard and Chanterelles. Unfortunately, I have no source nearby for chanterelles, so I substituted maitake. I also discovered, when I went to serve the dish, that it would need more burners than my stove has! Some quick thinking (and knowledge of heat transfer) saved the day, though.

As a pre-dessert, I served Almond Milk Granité with Cherry Compote, Sherry Gelée and Toasted Almond, from Francisco Migoya’s Frozen Desserts. A pretty straightforward, light dish after the richness of the previous two courses, and a chance for me to catch my breath.

Dessert was Apple Softcake with Dark Chocolate Cinnamon Soup, from Dominique and Cindy Duby’s book Wild Sweets: Exotic Dessert and Wine Pairings. (Pictured at the top of this post.) Other elements of the dish were a white chocolate plaque with dried citrus zest, and a roasted sweet potato sorbet, violating my husband’s rule of “no vegetables for dessert”.

Finally, just to cap things off, I served vanilla macarons with raspberry buttercream, and a selection of chocolates prepared recently by my husband, who’s the more dedicated chocolatier than me. I hadn’t made macarons in a while, and it took me three batches before I got them right!

Every time I do one of these meals, it gives me an enormous amount of appreciation for what the professionals do day in, day out. I spent two days in a row preparing this, cooked the meal once for only 6 guests – and forgiving guests, at that, since they’re friends – and still spent the next day sore and exhausted. There were elements I know could have been improved, but nothing failed outright, so I was pretty satisfied. And I learned a lot, so the next time I do something similarly adventurous, it should be better still!

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