Monday, May 25, 2009

Knock The Rust Off Dinner Party

I am jokingly titling this post “knock the rust off dinner” because it seems like ages since I last cooked for a decent sized group. I have stretches were I host people a couple times a week if I get into a serious cooking rhythm rife with inspiration. Even when a few weeks elapse without entertaining I try to not go more than a week without cooking; it is simply too much fun and I find that I often eat better at home without running the risk of spending too much money in this gastronomic metropolis. A few friends of mine from Los Angeles and I gathered last weekend to watch a Lakers game and I invited them over for dinner afterwards. The first course was a recreation of a pasta dish my Uncle prepared a few days prior and I really wanted to see what I could do to jazz it up. I had a small bag of the ramps we had foraged outside a cemetery and used them in the sauce. I sautéed sliced baby leeks, ramps, and garlic in a pan and then added a couple spoonfuls of fresh ricotta, parmesan, and residual pasta water. I tossed cooked cavatelli in the pan with the sauce to make a creamy, oniony pasta served in small bowls. I think my Uncle Hitch’s pasta was still better but at least my guests liked it.

The second course was a chickpea dish that I make quite often because it is simple enough to make and requires very little prep. I have the recipe listed in my cookbook archive at right though I dressed this particular incarnation up with a few extra ingredients. I tossed some chickpeas and Italian tuna in olive oil, well drained of their liquid, in a large bowl with minced roasted red peppers, Meyer lemon, capers, and green olives. To continue with the Mediterranean vibe I dressed the colorful salad with a little lemon juice and Greek olive oil to give it a peppery bite and some richness. I served the chickpea salad with a side of micro greens dressed with olive oil and sea salt to mellow out the flavor packed beans. So far I was batting two for two and decided to end the savory part of the meal with a cheese course.

There is no better way to close a meal than a slab, slice, spoonful, or wedge of good fromage. Whenever my father comes to visit from France he brings me a package from my favorite cheese shop in Paris, Marie-Anne Cantain. His recent trip was no exception and my fridge has been packed with stinky gems ever since which I very graciously shared with my friends. The first cheese, the orange one at the top, is Mimolette, a relative of cheddar that is soaked in dark beer and aged for several months. The second one, moving clockwise, was aged Comté which is similar to Gruyere. It has a strong grass or hay flavor with a high salt content, pale yellow pâte, and nutty aroma. It is one of my standby cheeses that I try to always have on hand because it is versatile and absolutely delicious. The third cheese, the flat and round blue, is Fourme D’Ambert, a lesser-known French cheese typically served alongside fresh or dry fruit. It has a zesty flavor and very pungent aroma though it is deceptively mild for a creamy blue with tons of moldy patches. I think my friends enjoyed this one the most, even those who typically shy away from blues particularly the stinky ones. The final cheese is select Roquefort produced solely for the Cantain boutique in Paris. Everyone at this point is familiar with Roquefort and there are even Vermont cheese makers that have begun experimenting with it in the States so I will spare you a description of this supremely tasty cheese.

I rarely make desserts because I have no talent or patience for them but when I do they are usually thrown together on a whim and a prayer. It is fun to buy already made ingredients and then dress them up individually for guests, bringing a touch of elegance to otherwise banal desserts like pie and ice cream. I made each diner a little spread of multiple sweet treats including coffee-beer float. Sounds weird but it was actually pretty darn good. I tossed a scoop of coffee ice cream into each cup and topped it with a dark beer called Rare Vos from the Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown. The other three elements on the plate were purchased from the farmer’s market and bakery. The first was a slice of sweet potato pie, the second of key lime, and the third was a black and white cookie from my local cafe. The dessert course was mediocre at best though thankfully people were preoccupied by a raging religious debate sparked at the end of the cheese course. Someone launched an attack against Mormonism and the rest felt the need to respond being intelligent college graduates or doctoral candidates. At least we had a little drama and heated conversation to conclude the meal, getting everyone involved and making for a pretty raucous debate which carried into the midnight hours. The dinner party was a hit overall and the food was pretty good, allowing me to shed some rust and get back into the swing of entertaining and feeding others. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

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