Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Years Eve Feast

New Years Eve was finally upon us. After four days of preparation, planning, and patience, we sat down to eat what was sure to be one of the most ambitious meals I have ever seen come out of a home kitchen. Every dish, except the main, was plated and served à l'assiette meaning individually composed and served from the kitchen. The courses were intended to follow a progression from cold to hot, gradually increasing in richness before finishing on a sweet note with a round of desserts. It is a tradition in France to have a trou normand or palate cleanser to wash away the residual fat and savory flavors before moving onto the sweet. We had a champagne sorbet which I unfortunately forgot to photograph that was a perfect cleanser, sweet and effervescent with a slight alcoholic kick. The dinner lasted about three hours, as it always should, full of laughter and good conversation fueled by fantastic vintages from around France. The highlight was a 1986 Carruades de Lafite Rothschild from Pauillac in the Bordeaux region; an elegant wine with solid tannins and robust flavor that paired wonderfully with the truffles in the salad and the spiced pork dish.

Jean-Claude and I were in charge of the first three courses, the cold appetizer, soup, and salad. The first course was a Franco-Japanese fusion dish of raw fish; four different species with four unique sauces to accompany them. The first (clockwise from the small bowl) was a sea scallop carpaccio with fresh mandarin. Jean-Claude and I marinated the raw scallops in fresh squeezed mandarin juice and olive oil for about a half hour before serving. We also candied long strips of the zest and made a syrup of the juice and a bit of sugar. Jean-Claude and I chose to present to dish by using the fresh mandarins in multiple ways. We spooned a bit of mandarin flesh into each bowl before adding four thin slices of scallop topped with a mandarin segment, a few drops of the syrup, and a strip of zest. This was far and away the highlight of the first course and perhaps the highlight of the meal though it is a stretch to be so reductionist this early in the description and I readily admit a personal bias because I helped make it. The second fish was a thick slice of tuna coated with a ginger, sesame oil, and wasabi glaze. It was a classic combination borrowed from the sushi tradition of Japan and the slight bite of the wasabi was an interesting counterpoint to the fattiness of the tuna. The third fish was a gorgeous piece of salmon caught off the coast of Scotland which I marinated briefly in a blend of raspberry vinegar and aged balsamic. The final raw fish to complete the first course was a thin slice of Mediterranean Sea bass that I basted with Spanish olive oil, fresh thyme, and red peppercorns. The four fishes were of excellent quality and came from the fishmonger at Le Dome, arguably the best in Paris and Jean-Claude and I tried to avoid augmenting their natural flavor with too many additional ingredients.

The second course was Jean-Claude’s famous beef and vegetable consommé that takes five days to prepare. It is a bit to long and complicated to detail every step in the process but simply put, you make a stock with beef meat, bones, vegetables, and herbs. After an initial stage of lengthy simmering and straining, you chill the broth and skim the fat which rises to the surface. Then you make a second stock from the existing broth with the same ingredients, deepening the color and flavor as you add to it. On the third day you add roasted marrowbones, and chopped vegetables instead of whole ones and continue to reduce, strain, and skim the broth. The fourth day is the most complicated and I have already described the process of using egg whites to purify and concentrate the stock, removing any impurities and fat that have lingered. Jean-Claude served the soup in clear bowls to highlight the beautiful golden color and topped it simply with chopped chervil. The consommé is literally one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted, a paragon of the interplay between complexity and simplicity.

The third course was a carpaccio of two types of beet with mache lettuce and black truffle. We roasted white and red beets in the oven with a bit of olive oil and salt until tender but not completely cooked to reserve a bit of crunch. Jean-Claude sliced them paper thin on a mandolin and I placed them in a circle on each plate. We piled a bit of mache in the middle, added a few slices of black truffle, and a vinaigrette of walnut oil, olive oil, Jerez vinegar, and minced truffle. The earthy flavors of the beet and truffle complimented each other nicely and the crispness of the mache rounded out the dish. Mache and truffle is a common combination in French cooking and we simply updated the classic by adding beets.

My father prepared the fourth and main course of the meal, an ancient Roman pork dish. Apicius is the title of a collection of Roman recipes compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century by a renown chef, arguably the first cookbook ever committed to reproduction. My father has long been intrigued by this anthology of ancient recipes compiled by one of the earliest gourmets. The dish is made with Roman ingredients like dried fruit, wine, honey, and dill cooked with pork and stock for hours until the flavors marry. The sweetness of the apricots and raisins added a rich depth of flavor to the stewed chunks of fork-tender pork. My father made two separate purees to be served alongside one another and accompany the pork; one of flageolet and the other of turnips and parsnips. Flageolet beans are immature kidney beans that are a delicacy in France but are very hard to find in the US. He simply boiled the beans in a bit of salted water before passing them through a mixer with a bit of butter and olive oil. The turnip and parsnip puree followed much the same method except he steamed the cubed vegetables before blending. The champagne sorbet followed this highly aromatic pork dish and refreshed or palates after the savory onslaught of the first half of the meal.

I rarely make desserts and was never very good at baking therefore I have nothing but the utmost respect for those engaged in the world of sweets. The desserts served last night were nothing short of remarkable, marked by the elegant juxtaposition of fruit and chocolate. The first dessert was a pineapple ravioli with mango-pepper sorbet and a blueberry, raspberry, and thyme coulis. Two of my father’s friends cleverly enveloped a passion fruit and cilantro mousse in two paper thin slices of pineapple caramelized in sugar syrup to create a fruit ravioli. The sorbet consisted of fresh mangoes pureed with a touch of lime juice and three different types of peppercorns crushed into a powder with a mortar and pestle. The sweetness of the fruit was accentuated by the bite of the pepper and paired well with the tanginess of the ravioli. They topped the dish with a pineapple juice reduction and the bright red coulis to add contrasting color. It was absolutely amazing and thoroughly raised the bar on the art of pastry making at home. A close family friend who has been the designated pastry chef for the past several years who specializes in cakes, ice creams, and chocolate made the second dessert. He prepared a small tuile filled with a tiny flourless chocolate cake and a chestnut mousse. The small chocolate/chestnut structure was served next to a couple of slices of moist pumpkin spice bread and a chocolate sauce infused with fresh ginger. The fruit ravioli was a tough act to follow though he held his own and it was nice to have a bit of chocolate to end the meal.

I would say the night was a big success and that the days of preparation were well worth the trouble. Our guests had a great time and we started the year off on a delicious note; basking in the company of others and praising the dishes we had cooked. It will be hard to top this year’s indulgence though we do have a whole year to think about it. Thank you all for your support and I wish only the very best to you and yours. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

1 comment:

Victoria said...

Sarah Rogers sent me the link to your blog a few weeks ago, and I have been enjoying it ever since - so much that I have it on my Google Reader.

This looks - and I'm sure it all tasted - amazing. I am drooling, particularly over the beef consommé.

Turnip and parsnip puree is a favorite of mine. I serve it often in the winter with a crisp (crisp, crisp) roast chicken (accompanied by lingonberries), braised red cabbage, and some kind of composed salad.

Happy New Year.