Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Martinis And Marshmallows

The other night I hosted a dinner party for my good friend Matt and his girlfriend Bess who was visiting for the Valentine’s Day weekend. Matt and I grew up together in Los Angeles and seldom get the chance to hang out; sporadically meeting here or there depending on our respective travels and schedules. He recently moved to the city so hopefully we will get the chance to see each other more often. Matt, Bess, and I have a budding tradition of drinking martinis when in each other’s company and last Sunday was no exception. They arrived promptly at 8 o’clock and mixed up a round of ice cold gin martinis with two olives a piece, just the way I like them. I prepared a three course meal which turned into five with the unexpected addition of cheese courtesy of Bess and smore fixings care of Valerie. The first course was a bruschetta con zucca or butternut squash bruschetta. This was inspired by a dish I had on my sister’s birthday at Barbuto, Jonathan Waxman’s lovely restaurant in the west village. Their version is a crusty piece of bread topped with goat cheese, parmesan, and a coarse puree of squash, toasted almonds, and chives. I adapted the recipe by roasting butternut squash cubes in the oven with a little honey, chopped hazelnuts, chili flakes, cider vinegar, and sea salt for about 25 minutes on 400. I toasted thick slices of a crusty country loaf spread liberally with goat cheese and topped with the warm squash mixture. The sweet, spicy, and nutty flavor of the squash paired well with the warm bread and goat cheese, melting elegantly on the plate.

The second course, a seafood dish served in between the appetizer and main course in classic Italian or French fashion, was pan roasted sea scallops with corn and shrimp risotto. Mike and I had shrimp the night before and made a rich stock with the leftover shells along with onions, garlic, carrots, celery, lemon, and a bay leaf. I used the homemade stock as a base for the corn risotto, which was one of the best I have ever made. Homemade ingredients make such a difference and in this case it made the dish infinitely better by imparting a subtle shrimp flavor to the rice. I bought the sea scallops at my local fishmonger whose praises I have sung all to often but this time they let me down. The scallops were just not that good and had a sharp almost metallic after taste which all but ruined the course. I pan roasted the scallops on a cast iron pan and finished them in the oven before topping each one with a basil and shallot pesto. Thankfully the risotto came out well and the pesto added a bright herbal high note that made the dish sufferable. My guests were friendly and a little drunk at this point, sparing me any negative criticisms.

The third dish was my favorite and I feel like it came out the best. I was inspired by a Nigella Lawson recipe from one of her cookbooks, duck with pomegranate and fresh mint. She recommends the usage of fresh herbs to top roasted meats and insists that mint and duck go well together, an idea that freaked me out at first. I seared a Muscovy duck breast skin side down to render some of the fat, turned it, and threw it in a 425 degree oven for about 15 minutes. The duck came out nicely browned with crisp skin and tender pink meat, just the way they cook it in France. I prepared a bed of watercress salad on a large circular platter and arranged the thinly sliced duck breast. I topped the duck with reconstituted blueberries soaked in English Breakfast tea and shredded fresh mint per Nigella’s suggestion. The duck was excellently cooked and the sweetness of the berries, herbal flavor of the mint, and spicy crunch of the watercress worked wonderfully in concert. I think this was the hit of the night and we managed to eat it all up in minutes flat before preparing another round of martinis.

It seems ridiculously dangerous and more than a little reckless in retrospect but after dinner and a few minutes of clean up we gathered around the stove to roast marshmallows. That’s right. After three rounds of martinis and four courses, our bellies full and minds a little hazy, we lit sugary clouds on fire at close proximity to an open flame. I must admit that despite the blatant fire hazard the smores were exceptionally good. The smoky, chocolaty, indescribable flavor reminiscent of naïve youth and playground-skinned knees was fully encapsulated by the smores. It was great to see Matt and Bess, especially over an opulent meal. The five of us got along smashingly and the conversation flowed like the gin over one too many rounds of martinis and roasted marshmallows. I hope to do it again soon and will certainly suggest that we incorporate smores into our burgeoning martini night tradition. Cheers to that. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!


Anonymous said...

Oh man! What a party. I don't care what you say the scallops tasted like - the picture made me drool.


Victoria said...

I like to drink gibsons made with Plymouth Gin (always Plymouth) and Tipsy Onions. Three onions to a glass. The gibsons shaken, not stirred, until they are ice, ice baby cold.

I've also taken to making Scotch sours as Saturday night's cocktail. Just one to a customer - they go down too easily not to regulate unless you want your guests to be asleep at the dinner table. 2 shots blended Scotch, 1 shot fresh Meyer lemon juice, 1 shot homemade simple syrup. (I don't add egg white.) Shake ingredients together without ice first, then add ice and shake again. Pour into a glass and add a Silver Palate maraschino cherry. If you know where to get really gorgeous cocktail cherries, let me know.

This sounds like a drink for a litle old lady, but it really is a classic cocktail - very delicious. I guess rye is usually used for the drink, but I tried it first with blended Scotch and liked it, so I haven't switched.

Anonymous said...

Seems like a delectable time in every way. While the food appears to be have been prepared with impressive attention to flavor layering and texture variation, it seems that your presence as a gracious host bolsters the culinary experience to a truly special, impossible-to-teach level.
Salut, Jackson!
I hope we can all share in that spirit at your restaurant some day.

Matt said...

Our chef for the night cooked one hell of a meal. Moreover, he took his time. Allowing us to yearn for the next course before presenting it, pre-plated, on our cozy dinner table.

Our host forgot to mention that our Martinis were rather adventurous. Bess bought sweet vermouth, let's say by accident, and we mixed a little salt into the shaker to make up for the mild olives. Like nothing I've had before. By the end of the night it tasted like honey.