Monday, December 29, 2014

Birthday Mini Big Dinner

Introductory Note:

So. I've always known I'm a little crazy when it comes to event meal planning. Nothing proved that to me more than the dinner I put together for Michele in celebration of her birthday. Why crazy? Please read on.

Introductory Note Ends.

Michele's birthday was in July and we had a get together dinner at a Malaysian restaurant, Nyonya, downtown. It was a lovely gathering of old and new friends and delicious food. Though she received many gifts that day, mine was not among them. The reason for this was I really couldn't figure out anything tangible to give her because my mind had already settled on the dinner party. Actually, it was more that the irrational, thrill-seeking part of my brain won the battle with my practical, level-headed part of my brain. It went something like this: "Yes, yes, yes

I wanted to give her something special, something that only I would be crazy enough to attempt: a multiple-course dinner, which I would plan, shop for, prep, cook and serve on my own – for us and a group of friends. I've mentioned in this blog that I've done similar dinners before in my past. The seven-course "Big Dinner" was a yearly event for almost a decade, and I arranged a five-course meal for Michele's 50th birthday, which turned into our engagement dinner (and was held on my mother's birthday – quite auspicious). She was four-square for it so I was off to the races.

The guest list went from six to ten and finally settled at eight (including Michele and me). That wasn't going to be the biggest challenge for me, though. The biggest challenge was going to be preparing and serving this meal in our apartment. The kitchen is a bit small and we really have to go through some gyrations to seat that many people. With the help of one of our guests, we came up with enough seats for people, and I figured out my staging for the prep, plating and serving, setups.

Actually, I take that back. The biggest challenge was going to be deciding on a menu. I always obsess over menus but this one needed to be extra-special. First because it was for Michele and second because all of our guests were foodies of one flavor or another (see what I did there?), and several of them are excellent cooks. No pressure. Right? No! It took me two months to decide on a menu...and only three days (right before the dinner) to rip it to shreds and make a new one.

Crazy as that seems, I've learned over many, many years of doing these kinds of dinners that I should trust my instincts. I may not be the most creative culinary chef, but I can plan a menu in which the courses compliment and foreshadow each other so that everything, no matter how odd, creates an experience of tastes and aromas that will leave my guests sated and pleased.

A Word About My Culinary Experience: I follow a recipe pretty danged well, and can even make subtle changes on the fly, but I'm not a "throw a bunch of stuff together and create a delicious meal" kind of cook. I'm "re-creative" as opposed to "creative" when it comes to non-dessert cooking and I don't consider that a negative. I have fun with what I'm doing, feed people good food, and end up happy at the end of the night. What more could I ask for?

A Word About My Culinary Experience ends. 

So here's the menu that I ended up shopping for and cooking. I'll post links to the recipes whenever I can.

Appetizer Course Part 1 - Rosemary and Thyme Bread Sticks

Homemade Sticks of Bread
I got the recipe for these from an amazing book gifted by by a friend who works for Penguin books. In Search Of The Perfect Loaf - A Home Baker's Odyssey, by Samuel Fromartz, has been inspiring me to roll up my sleeves and get back to baking bread. It's given me a historical perspective, and a deeper appreciation, of bread baking and its importance to the development of human society. I highly recommend it. I've never made bread sticks before and these could have done with a bit more trial and error testing but they weren't bad for a first time.

Appetizer Course Part 2 - Smoked Trout Fish Cakes with Horseradish Cream 

Fish cakes ahoy!

They look even better up-close.
I'm not usually a fan of trout, or river fish in general. Not quite sure why that is but I just have more of a taste for salt water fish. Shrug. What about salmon, you ask? I only like it half the time. That being said, when I saw this recipe while searching for an appetizer, I just couldn't get it out of my head. I knew the horseradish would provide a link to the meat course I had planned. This turned out to be a wise choice because they were delicious! They certainly beat the salmon croquettes (which were actually made with mackerel) our high school cafeteria served on Fridays.

First Main Course - Individual Turkey Pot Pies

One pie to serve them all.
I love chicken pot pies and thought since I have a bunch of little ramekins, it would be great to fill them with said pot pies! The only snag in that plan was that Michele prefers turkey over chicken. Not only that but she loves dark meat turkey most of all. Guess what is impossible to find in a skinless, boneless form. If you said "dark meat turkey", you get the No-Prize! Guess who was skinning and de-boning several pounds of dark meat turkey parts the day before the dinner. If you guessed it was me, then I commend you for paying attention. Dammit, Jim! I'm a baker, not a butcher! It wasn't easy but I muddled through and got enough meat for the pies. Well-worth the effort, though, or so our guests, and my Guest of Honor, said.

I made a savory version of my pie crust, adding a little bit of curry and some rosemary and thyme to give the whole dish an interesting aromatic flair. And, yes, the pies were double-crusts because no chicken pot pie is truly a pie if it just has a top crust. That's a chicken pot cobbler in my book. And that just doesn't sound right.

Second Main Course - Garlic-Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Sauteed Asparagus

Still Life with Tenderloin and Asparagus

I don't cook beef very often. I enjoy chicken and pork more but when I saw this recipe in "Cook's Illustrated," I just couldn't resist it. The horseradish, I knew, would go over well with all the guests (having been foreshadowed by the fish cakes sauce), and the garlic crust would bowl them over. I decided I'd take the chance and stretch my cooking skills more than

There was only one place I trusted to buy the meat, though: Schaller & Weber, the same place I get my lard. One of the butchers showed me what they already had available but it didn't meet my weight requirement. He told me to wait for a bit and disappeared into their gigantic refrigerator room. About ten minutes later, he returned with an amazing tenderloin cut. I love having an excellent butcher in my neighborhood again!

An Aside Regarding The Neighborhood Butcher: When I was a kid growing up on the East Side of San Antonio, TX, we lived one door down from a little grocery store, East Lawn Food Center. It was owned by a German, Mr. Ulrich, a friendly barrel-bodied man with a good smile, thinning gray hair and a touch of a German accent. The back of the store was where the meat counter was and he employed a couple of butchers. I'd watch from time to time as they ground up the beef for hamburger meat and made perfectly cut port chops, among other things. Never a bad cut or an "off" selection came from his meat counter. Compared to the memory of that little store (which, sadly no longer exists), even the finest grocery store in New York City pales. 

Except for Schaller & Weber. I feel as though I've come home every time I shop there.

An Aside Regarding The Neighborhood Butcher ends. 

This was the course that required the most prep. The garlic crust is done with panko bread crumbs and shredded, fried potatoes. There's work with gelatin as well. Then there was our recalcitrant oven, which made cooking this a little difficult but the guests assured me it was good. I'll definitely make it again at some point in the future, though, to get it 100% right. And maybe I'll use a with pork loin. Or not.

Salad Course - Mixed Greens Salad with Broccoli and Plums

Palette-cleanser with bits of summer.
When I began cooking these Big Dinners, I decided to go with serving salad as the last course before dessert because it's a perfect way to prepare the taste buds for the show stopper. Since the stone fruit was so good this summer, the plums I got were still amazing and added just the right touch. And now that there are affordable pre-packaged lettuces, it's easier to prepare. Sometimes I love the modern life!

Dessert Course - Triple-Chocolate Mousse Cake


Still needs some work but it's amazing!
This is another recipe from "Cooks Illustrated." One issue of provided recipes for two courses. Actually, I shouldn't be surprised because that same issue has provided me with no fewer than four amazing recipes. Perhaps I should consider a subscription.

Uh...gone!
Despite the bottom layer not setting up quite right, it was a hit. I've made this before but I still need to work on that bottom layer; it's pulling away from the sides of the pan as it cools I think I need to change the kind of chocolate I use for it. Still, the mousse is light and airy and served as a perfect ending to what was a wonderful afternoon-into-night.

Antique samovars at work!
Also? I made the coffee in two of my antique percolators (samovars). They've never let me down! I know a lot of coffee loves eschew percolated coffee but I don't really care. I adore the taste, the aroma, and the process of percolated coffee. And when it's served from such cool appliances, what's not to like?

I prepped, cooked and served each course but I was also able to sit and eat with the guests. I always try to set things up so that I have almost all of my prep work done before the guests arrive and each dish just needs some some minimal work before I cook it, so there isn't a lot of "down time" between each course. It would be less fun for me if I couldn't join in on the conversation and enjoy the fruits of my labors.

That being said, I would like to pull a Babette's Feast sometime, and stay in the kitchen preparing, arranging, and sending out each course to the expectant guests. That would actually require me to have "staff", who could serve and clear (and eavesdrop) for me. Hard to come by for such an intimate gathering. One day....

Currently listening to: B-Complex - Beautiful Lies VIP

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