Posts tagged appetizers

Lessons from the Dinner Club

Jamie Oliver\'s Stuffed Leg of Lamb

With everyone leading such busy lives, I’ve found that months can go by without seeing certain friends. So, in an effort to maintain our ties to each other, Jim and I and 7 of our close friends decided to meet once a month to enjoy a home-cooked meal together. Jim and I hosted the inaugural dinner club gathering this past Saturday night.

I had never cooked a meal for such a large group of people before. As I expected, I learned many things from the experience. Here’s a rundown of the night:

Appetizers: We started with a loaf of No-Knead Bread, some soft, briny olives, and taleggio cheese, accompanied by fruity olive oil from my mother’s hometown in Italy. Jim’s fizzy Pomegranate-Champagne cocktail helped get the night off to a festive start.

What I learned: People love homemade bread. And fizzy drinks.

First course: Because of our previous success with Cook’s Illustrated’s Ricotta Gnocchi Jim and I thought they would be a perfect first course for the party. We made them a week earlier and froze them. An hour before cooking them, I took the gnocchi out of the freezer to rest at room temperature, as per the recipe. But when I finally added the gnocchi to the boiling water, the delicate squares of cheese disintegrated, their breadcrumbs trickling to the surface of the water.

As Jim and I stared at our melted, soggy gnocchi, we were faced with a Top Chef-like decision: Did we dare serve them? Since Padma wasn’t around to expel us from our own kitchen, we did. We were among friends, after all, and we all shared a laugh over the still-tasty, herb-infused cheese topped with a simple tomato sauce.

What I learned: When you have the oven going at full blast, plus 2 burners aflame on the stovetop, do not defrost ricotta gnocchi at room temperature. The kitchen was too warm to let the little guys rest on the counter, and they were doomed from the start.

Second course: We all know who I turn to in times of food-related need: Jamie Oliver. This time we went with his rustic leg of lamb from Jamie’s Italy, stuffing it with green olives, anchovies, bread, pine nuts, and an amazing amount of fresh herbs. We roasted it over potatoes, sweet parsnips, and fennel for two hours, pausing every so often to baste the meat with red wine. While Jim carved the lamb, I quickly sautéed some fresh brussels sprouts leaves with garlic and olive oil. Far more successful than our ricotta gnocchi, this second course saved the night for us. Jim even hit a home run with the wine pairing, serving a lovely, rich Bandol that we all enjoyed.

What I learned: As I had heard in the past, anchovies don’t taste fishy when mixed with other foodstuffs. They simply add a salty depth that you can’t achieve with regular salt.

Dessert: After a few rousing rounds of Guitar Hero (yes, we’re all in our 30s), we returned to the table for panna cotta with wild berry coulis. Luckily I still had a photograph from the first time I made this sweet, creamy delight of a dish, back during my struggles with homemade ravioli.

What I learned: When 6 of the desserts are served in regular glassware, and 4 in heart-shaped ramekins, everyone wants to know why they didn’t get a heart-shaped ramekin.

A few other things I learned from the evening:

  • If you are hosting a dinner party, don’t plan to take carefully-composed photos of the food. It’s just not going to happen.
  • Meals can indeed be enjoyed while sitting in a rocking chair.
  • I stink at Guitar Hero.
  • If you don’t have a table large enough for 10 people, borrow a portable card table from a friend. Thanks, Diego! If not for you we would have been sitting in a circle on the floor.

So our first dinner party was a total success. We ate, laughed, and relaxed. And I even learned a few culinary lessons. That’s what I call a good night, and I can’t wait until the next meeting of our Dinner Club.

The only recipe I modified from the original was for the panna cotta with wild berry coulis. I doubled the recipe to serve 10, but I’ll provide you with the basic recipe for 6 (generous) servings.

Recipe for Panna Cotta with Wild Berry Coulis (adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook and the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook):

For the Panna Cotta:

  • 2 3/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, scored down the middle, seeds scraped from the pod
  • a drop of vanilla extract

In a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over the water, and let it stand until it softens, at least 1 minute. Combine cream, half-and-half, and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until all of the sugar is dissolved. Once the cream mixture starts to boil, remove it from heat. Stir 1 cup of the cream mixture into gelatin mixture, then stir the cream and gelatin mixture back into the cream. Stir in the vanilla bean seeds, as well as a small drop of vanilla extract.

Pour an equal amount of the cream mixture into 6 glasses of your choice. Cool to room temperature for 30 minutes. Cover each glass with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before you plan to serve them.

For the Wild Berry Coulis:

  • 10 ounces frozen mixed wild berries (1 bag of frozen fruit)
  • 1/4 cup sugar (adjust according to your preference)
  • 1 squeeze of lemon juice
  • a pinch of salt

While your panna cotta sets in the refrigerator, turn your attention to the wild berry coulis. Place the frozen berries in a saucepan. Cover. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir often for 10 to 12 minutes. Add sugar, turn heat to high, and boil for 2 minutes.

Strain berries through a strainer, using a spoon or spatula to push the berries through into a bowl. Discard the berry seeds that are left in the strainer. Add lemon juice and salt. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

When you are ready to serve your panna cotta, top each one with a generous serving of the berry coulis. Serves 6. Enjoy!

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Holiday Appetizers

Three-Cheese Mini Macs from Food & Wine magazine 

On Saturday night Jim and I threw our annual holiday get-together. We made most of the food ourselves, from a mix of new recipes and old favorites. As always, the night had its share of winners and disappointments:

Three-Cheese Mini Macs from Food & Wine, December 2007
These small starbursts of elbow macaroni and cheddar, American, and parmesan cheeses were the hit of the evening, and were picked off their Pittsburgh Steelers tray faster than I could make them. Most of the labor was done ahead of time, as I prepared the pasta and cheese mixture on Saturday morning, then filled my mini muffin tin and placed it in the fridge until guests started to arrive. After 10 minutes in the oven, then 5 more on the cooling rack, they were ready to go. And I was easily able to cook more of these comfort-food favorites as the night wore on.

Goat Cheese Crostini with Blood Orange and Black Pepper Marmalade, from Bon Appétit, December 2007
For these labor-intensive crostini I spent Friday afternoon painstakingly peeling blood orange sections from their papery membranes. But the result was worth it: a tangy yet sweet jam that perfectly complemented the creamy goat cheese spread. Unfortunately I made a grave error regarding the bread. In the past I have sliced and toasted my bread an hour or so before the guests arrived and then frantically assembled the crostini. I feel silly even writing this, but this year I prepared my bread the afternoon before and sealed it in an airtight container. Of course it didn’t work. The crostini were too hard and crunchy on the night of the party.

Mark Bittman’s Polpetti from the New York Times, November 29, 2006
In this week’s New York Times Dining section, Mark Bittman provides ideas for 101 simple appetizers; where was he when I needed him last week? In any case, for two years in a row I have made his fantastic polpetti (little meatballs) to tons of acclaim. Last year I used ground beef and pork; this year I used ground veal and pork. I doubled the recipe and made them a few hours before party time, then quickly warmed them up in the oven. The veal-based polpetti didn’t brown as much as I expected, but the taste was gentler and more subtle than last year’s beef version. On Saturday night they disappeared so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to take a photo of them.

White Bean Puree from Time Out New York, March 4-11, 1999
I have made this bean dip for the past eight years. For previous parties I used canned white beans as the base for the puree. But last week I bought a bag of dried white beans and soaked those little guys for 8 hours. After another hour or so of simmering on the stove with an onion and some garlic, then a swirl in the food processor with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil, my bean dip had a fresher taste and lusher texture than ever before. A 15-minute infusion of fresh rosemary completed the task, and added a kick of natural herb flavor.

Holiday Table with Appetizers

We also made some fresh mozzarella, basil, and sundried tomato skewers from Giada’s Family Dinners, a second round of pizzelles, and brownies. And we can’t forget Jim’s awesome homemade egg nog. Just to be sure we had enough food, we also ordered a fresh vegetable plate and some wraps from the gourmet grocery down the block. Interestingly, no one touched the wraps, but the rest of the food was gone by 11 pm. Since the best evidence of a successful party is the absence of leftovers, I’d have to say that things went very well.

Now, what should we make next year?

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