Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dinner for Eight

Sometimes things just fall into place.

As my dear Chickens know, Charming Suitor and I had a seemingly endless process of purging and merging and painting and organizing that took us off the hosting circuit for the better part of eight months.  And you know how your Polymath hates to not be hosting.

But now that CS and I are a mere 2 months (from today!) from our 1 year anniversary as Old Marrieds, I am delighted to report that our comeback has been a raring success.  We've had some small evenings with just one other couple, and bigger festivities with a dozen pals.  But for us, the ideal evening is eight people around one table eating and drinking and making merry.

Because CS is a massive wine geek (in the best possible way), many of my new besties are also oenophiles (read:winos).  And there is nothing more fun than people who know their juice and their vittles spending an evening reveling together.

For starters, I am insanely proud of this table.  Discovered an amazing chalkboard oilcloth (yes the plastic wipe-able tablecloth of your youthful kitchen table) to cover the table.  In Chicago you can get it from my fabulous cousins at Vogue Fabrics, but if you are not local to me, you can buy by the yard online at Bell'occhio

I put down a white cloth first, and then custom cut the oilcloth to fit the top.  For some reason I was desperate for large oval chophouse style plates...because we know one thing I need is MORE PLATES.  But once I get a vision, forget it.  Lucky for me Krasny restaurant supply is five minutes from our house, and accomodated me for only about $6 a plate, so not an insane investment. 

And chalkboard tablecloth means you can mark everyone's place easily, and provide for some entertainment!

CS and I bought some fun and funky screen-printed napkins when we were in Montreal for my 40th, that added a pop of color.  And I finally decided to get serious about dealing with my floral arranging problem by taking the leap and hitting Kennicott wholesale florist on Ashland for some stems that didn't cost an arm and a leg.  And I am totally chuffed with the result!

The containers were very affordable, and they gave me some oasis, that green foam stuff, which actually made arranging very easy.  I stuck with a two-tone color palette of lime green and lavender/purple, put down a tight base of both (spider mums, some cool green berries and deep purple fuzzy stuff, green hydrangeas) to fill the containers and then stuck the more special flowers (orchids and calla lilies and some sort of spiky thing) here and there, being sure to keep looking at them from all sides so there were no holes.

I am awfully proud of me, and after a week, they are still alive and vibrant!  Whee!

But mostly, we need to talk about the dinner.  Because if ever a menu turned out just the way one wants...this was it.

After pre-dinner nibbles of little smoky cocktail sausages and a 13 year old cheddar and some crudites to soak up our Negronis, we tucked into a feast of epic proportions.
Mmmm.  Served with grainy mustard and a spicy ginger dipping sauce.

We started with Michelle Bernstein's White Gazpacho, which is in her wonderful cookbook Cuisine a Latina.  I know gazpacho sounds like a weird choice for a winter dinner, but actually it is the perfect thing.  A mouthful of Spring, and a light start to a meal.

The main attraction was this Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder which filled the house all day with the most amazing smells.  The meat was sticky and moist, the skin turned into salty lacquered cracklings, and the veggies and wine and pan juices made for a savory gravy.

To accompany, we turned to our favorite potato side dish, a recipe which CS originally got from Chef David Bouley who credits his grandmother.  Essentially it is your basic potatoes Dauphinois (baked in cream) with the addition of a layer of chopped prunes in the middle, which sounds weird but is totally delish.  Our adaptation is to replace a third of the potatoes with sliced parsnips, both because it helps reduce the carb bomb aspect, and the bittersweet nature of this undervalued veg is a terrific addition.

After nearly two years of being haunted by Stephanie Izard's green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews from Girl and the Goat, she finally gave up the recipe, and we have made them three times since then.  Addictive!  You can get the recipe HERE.

And for both color and bright freshness, I invented this gorgeous salad, in tones of red and purple, with a couple dashes of white and green. 

Now THIS is a plate!

Dessert was a riff on another Michelle Bernstein fave, her insanely good Baked Alaska.  The recipe for which is only in restaurant quantities, but is essentially a light pistachio cake (use any nut cake recipe you love, would work with hazelnut or almond beautifully) with dulce de leche gelato, covered in Italian meringue, bruleed with a torch and accompanied with a mango passionfruit salsa.  Since I am not skilled in piping, and do not have the patience to do individual plated desserts like this piece of gorgeous...

I instead made the cake in my 10 inch springform, cut in in half, filled it with a kilo of caramel gelato from the incomparable Caffe Gelato on Division, and put it back in the freezer. I made the Italian meringue earlier in the day (the stuff will hold forever at room temp) and frosted the cake just before serving.  I torched it with my handy kitchen blowtorch (nothing more fun, and the house smells like toasted marshmallows) and sliced it to serve.  The salsa I made with a cup of diced mango, a cup of diced banana and (lacking a source for passionfruit puree) a half cup of melted passionfruit sorbet, which worked like a charm.  I garnished with fresh lime zest, and people scraped plates. 

After dessert we reitred to the living room for post-prandial drinks and some super dark chocolate and candied orange and lemon zest and more laughs.

And even better, at the end of the night, CS and I got to see these little gifts that our friends had left for us...

The best sign of a good dish...

nothing left but the bone!

Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder
adapted from Jamie Oliver

2 tablespoons fennel seeds, toasted
2 tablespoon kosher salt
1 t espelette pepper (or red pepper flakes if you must, but you can buy espelette here)
½ t ground grains of paradise or black pepper
2 fennel bulbs, in 1 inch chunks
6 medium carrots, peeled and in 1 inch chunks
3 onions, roughly chopped
1 bunch fresh thyme, tied with cotton twine
1 10- to 13-pound pork shoulder on the bone, skin scored in diamond or square pattern
Olive oil
1 bottle wine (if you want to drink white with the dish, use white, same for red)
1 pint chicken stock

 Preheat your oven to 500.

Smash the fennel seeds, salt and peppers in pestle and mortar or pulse in a food processor until you have a coarse powder.

Put all of the chopped vegetables and thyme sprigs into a large roasting pan.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Pat the pork shoulder with olive oil and place on top of the vegetables. Now get the spice rub massaged into the skin of the pork, getting it into all of the scores.

Roast for 30 minutes, then turn the heat down to 250 degrees, and cook for 9 to 12 hours.  The meat should be soft and yielding and you can pull it apart easily with a fork or tongs.

Pour all the wine into the roasting tray an hour before the pork is done. 

Once the pork is out of the oven, let it rest for half an hour before removing it to a large board.   Pull off the cracklings, and scrape extra fat from the underside of the cracklings and remove large pieces of unrendered fat from the surface of the meat.  You can either pull the meat apart into large pieces, or serve whole with a tongs and a large fork for your guests to pull apart themselves.  If you are pulling the pork yourself, serve the cracklings on the side, if you are serving whole, simply place the cracklings back on top of the roast once you have de-fatted.  Hold in a 200 degree oven until you want to serve.

Remove the thyme sprigs from the pan, and use a slotted spoon to put all of the vegetables in a medium saucepan.  De-fat the pan juices and add to saucepan.  For a chunky sauce, use a potato masher, for smooth, an immersion blender, and add enough stock to achieve the consistency you want.  If your sauce needs brightness, try adding a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bouley Grandmere Potatoes and Prunes
adapted from David Bouley

3.5 lbs starchy potatoes, peeled and sliced thin on mandolin
1.5 lb parsnips, peeled and sliced thin on mandolin
2 c half and half
2 c cream 
1 clove garlic
2 leeks, cleaned and white and pale green parts chopped
4 scallions, cleaned and white and pale green parts chopped
¼ c chopped flat leaf parsley
Salt and Pepper
1 c prunes, halved or quartered
½  stick butter

Preheat oven to 350
Rub gratin dish with the cut side of the clove of garlic.  Butter the dish liberally.  Saute leeks and onions in 2 T butter until soft, season with salt and pepper.  Put potatoes and parsnips in pot and add half and half and cream, the garlic clove, and a good grating of nutmeg, and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Bring to a simmer, and cook 5 minutes until slightly thickened.  Ladle half of the potato parsnip mixture into the gratin dish, removing the garlic clove if you can find it, and sprinkle the leek mixture, the parsley, and the prunes evenly over the top. Add the rest of the potatoes and parsnips.  Dot the top of the dish with butter and bake 40 minutes to an hour till well browned and softened all the way through.  Should be creamy, but thick and not soupy.

Red Salad

1 head radicchio
1 package baby red romaine leaves
4 sliced roasted beets
1 pink grapefruit, peeled and sliced into rounds
2 blood oranges, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 c pomegranate seeds
5 large pink radishes, sliced thin on mandoline
2 c steamed broccoflower or romanesco broccoli florets
½ c pickled red onions (recipe to follow)
½ c crumbled goat cheese
1/2 c pitted kalamata olives
½ c toasted pinenuts

Arrange all of the salad elements in a large shallow bowl and sprinkle with sea salt and ground pepper.  Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar of your choice, I used Persian Lime Olive Oil and White Balsamic with Oregano from Old Town Oil on Wells.

Pickled Red Onions

1 ½  cup white vinegar
6 tablespoons sugar
½ t salt
2 bay leaves
10 allspice berries
10 whole cloves
½  t red pepper flakes
2 large red onions, peeled, and thinly sliced into rings

In a small, non-reactive saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar, salt, seasonings and chile until boiling.
Add the onion slices and lower heat, then simmer gently for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and let cool completely.  Transfer the onions and the liquid into a jar then refrigerate until ready to use.
For the salad, I used my new favorite product, Love Beets!  These ready to eat beets come in both plain roasted, and in gorgeous marinated flavors like honey ginger and sweetfire.  I have used the honey ginger ones for antipasto, skewering them with fresh mozzarella and sprinkling with chopped tarragon and black lava salt, and the roasted ones are amazing in salads.  The sweetfire have just enough heat to be a very cool twist on the usual olive or onion in your next martini, or sliced and layered over goat cheese on a crostini.

And the Love Beets people love us they have sent me a snazzy T-Shirt and 10 coupons to share with you.  The best beet recipe in the comments section will get the T-shirt and a coupon, and the other nine coupons will go to comments chosen at random.  So let the class know how you love your beets!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath


  1. Happy almost anniversary.. wow, time flies.. it seems like yesterday I read your post about you and CS getting engaged. I am so making that salad.. yum!

  2. I love everything about this blog, thanks for sharing. P.S. Anxiously waiting the release of your next novel! Or maybe impatiently waiting...when is the release date?

    1. Off the Menu will be in bookstores July 3, and is available for pre-order now!

  3. I hope you have an amazing anniversary!

    As for the beet recipe - I didn't realize they could be made into recipes!! I have loved them since I was a little tiny human. I love them so much I sometimes don't even let them cool before eating them all. YUM... my favorite way to prepare them is to slice them really thin spritz some olive oil on them and bake them to toast them like chips. Then sprinkle with salt when they are done. So delicious

  4. Happy Anniversary, true love gives me such hope!

    i'm a simpleton when it comes to most food, beets are no exception. I wrap my beets in foil and bake them, peel, cube and put them on an arugula salad with goat cheese and some toasted nuts. Simple and addictive!

  5. Happy Anniversary to you and CS!

    My husband hates feta and goat cheeses. Both of which I think pairs beautifully with beets. Alas, we keep it simple...

    Roast, cool, peel and slice beets. Reduce 1/2 cup of balsamic vinegar with juice of one orange. Toss to coat beets. Zest the orange, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with or without orange slices.


  6. whenever we grill, we throw some beets on to roast, and then (sometime later that week), we have a pretty salad with fresh greens and chèvre from our friends who sell fresh veggies and goat cheese at the farmers' market.
    My FAVORITE beet dish was at a pub in Uppsala, where they made rosti filled with chèvre, and served it over root veggies (beets, carrots, etc.) The combination was divine, and I've been trying to figure out how to replicate that since.

  7. oh - and the dinner looks amazing and inspiring!
    And Happy Anniversary in advance!

  8. Love the chalk art! The food looks amazing as always. Thank you for posting the recipes too.

    Looking forward to your next book, great question lolaroxy!

  9. Salty lacquered cracklings. My God, how I want this now. I have to learn not to read your blog before dinner.

  10. best beet recipe - a bed of baby spinach - cut up beets, a good, firm blue cheese crumbled and a handful of candied walnuts - if i'm feeling in the mood for a dressing, I'll add a little balsamic vinaigrette to the mix and give it a nice, healthy toss. So easy and it feels gourmet without being a headache.

  11. I love beets and have been successful growing them in my back yard garden. They can be shredded fresh in a salad, baked in the oven with a little salt and olive oil or steamed/blanched on the stove top. JillFay

    1. Oh and welcome back - congrats on your anniversary, new book and thanks for sharing your dinner party story and recipes. Jill Fay

  12. OMG! If I lived in Chicago instead of Colorado, I would beg you for cooking classes. You are a genius.

    And love the floral arrangement, I thought you'd had it delivered.

    I can't wait to try these recipes!


    1. BTW, I'm turning 50 this weekend.....and will be making the potato gratin for my birthday dinner party for 12. I may even adapt the salad...we're cooking steaks out on the grill. I think my guests will be very happy. Thanks!

  13. I'm a lover of anything beets. I typically eat them pickled or roasted, but have made a Beet Roesti a few times, which is divine!

    Beet Roesti

    1 pound beets
    1 tsp rosemary, chopped fine
    1 tsp salt
    1/4 cup flour
    2 tbsp butter

    Trim beets and peel. Grate with food processor or box grater. Toss the beets with rosemary and salt, add about half of the flour. Mix well, then add the rest of the flour, and combine.

    Brown butter, and add beet mixture to the butter, spreading into a thin circle, pressing down with a spatula. Keep on medium high heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the bottom of the roesti is crisp, 6 to 8 minutes.

    If possible, flip with spatula, or slide on to plate, invert onto second plate and slide back into pan. Cook for an additional 6 to 8 minutes, until second side is crisp.

    Cut into wedges, and top with a bit of sour cream and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Fantastic!!!

  14. Yum! Flowers even look delish!
    Beet salad:
    chopped cucumbers, chopped beets, tons of fresh chopped parsley (tons), lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, a glop of goat cheese. Beautiful. Easy. Yummm.

  15. SHUT UP! A chalboard tablecloth that looks THAT cool? I need one. :) Definitely scoping out my area this weekend. Beautiful table, amazing looking food...looks like a wonderful time.