Sunday, May 1, 2011

Al fresco dinner

Recently, I hosted a dinner for friends who love wine and food.  It was early April, a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon and temperate.  The back yard was near-paradise (thanks to my landscaping and architect genius husband) and the sound of water soothed and softened everything.  Roses bloomed, leaves rustled, and the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle wafted elusively around us.  The vision for this dinner had evolved over several days and with solid input from my food and wine-loving friends: we would dine outdoors in a natural setting, Barefoot Contessa style, with a lovely table, flowers everywhere, soft lighting, plentiful, wonderful food, well-matched wines and most importantly, good company and good conversation.  All this came to fruition and more.  The unexpected bonus came in the form of gale-force winds (which blew clumps of catkins, debris and leaves everywhere from the oak trees), what seemed like hundreds of green worms rappelling from the trees and swinging wildly in the wind, and of course, a profusion of bird droppings.  In other words, the Scourge of the Central Texas Spring Pestilences.

I had set the table earlier in the afternoon, being challenged by the wind and flying debris at every turn.  Worms would drop suddenly out of nowhere and then plop, stunned, on the table cloth.  I could only hope the damned things had died from severe head trauma or internal hemmorhaging after their unexpected and very abrupt encounter with the tabletop, thanks to Mr. Gravity and the exponential potentiation of Snell's Law.  My apologies to Sierra Club members and naturalists everywhere, but REALLY

I kept up a steady stream of muttering and cursing, and brushed eveything off as I went.  I overturned all the glasses to keep them clean and covered the entire table with white tulle.  I weighted it down three times.  It looked like a mummy on her wedding day.  My husband asked several times (gently) why we couldn't eat inside.  "Because this is an al fresco dinner," I replied, my jaw tight.  "Al Franken's coming to dinner???" he asked incredulously.  I rolled my eyes (the universal sign of marital contempt) and sighed.  "No, al frescoIt means we're eating outdoors.  It's a nice day.  I want to have an al fresco dinner."  This last statement was delivered rather petulantly.  My husband has learned not to debate these things with me when I use that tone.  Wise man.

I managed to get everything prepped and to even get myself ready 30 minutes before ETA.  I am unaccustomed to having this much time before parties, usually engaged in some last-minute frenzy as guests are streaming in the front door.  But I was amazingly relaxed and totally in the moment, worms, catkins and all.  Everyone arrived.  Promptly.  Smiling and bearing food and wine.  We decided on what wine to open first, a deliberation among foodies and wine lovers not unlike a mild-mannered congressional debate.  We all migrated outside to sun, water, flowers.  And A Plenty of Pestilences.  One of my friends complimented me on the table and when I apologized for all the debris a bit anxiously, he told me not to worry, that people in Italy deal with these things all the time.  It felt a bit better to pretend we would all have dinner in Italy, since Italian flying worms and catkins had to be much more sophisticated and much more bellisimo than the Texas varieties.  I held my head a little higher.  I imagined how graceful flying worms would be in Italy--magnifico!  I envisioned Italian catkins dancing in the light, arid breeze--demurely and oh so allegretto!

Although I really had no idea what challenges al fresco dining might bring in Italy, I was certain they could never match Central Texas.  And although I am not squeamish about ingesting additional organic matter (live or otherwise) with my outdoor meal--thanks to years of intensive desensitization treatment after the infamous BLT sandwich event of my childhood (tune in later for a blow-by-blow description of the psychological trauma I endured), I knew that my husband was squeamish.  And furthermore, he had voiced his squeamishness.  Several times.  But I had planned low lighting (theory: what you can't see won't hurt you) and had advised everyone to blow off their plates and serving ware (see Mirriam-Webster and for a full definition of caveat emptor).  So I called on the only other resource I had at that point: my Higher Power.  I prayed.  I prayed hard.  I prayed the wind would die down when it was time to eat, and it did. 

Everyone was having a good time--one of us a biology teacher and able to give genus and species identification to all the airborne debris--and my friends good-naturedly helped cover the food with paper towels once appetizers and wine started flowing.  And then we--uh, I--promptly forgot about all the minor unpleasantness.  We started with Codorniu Reserva Reventos (Spain), one of the most elegant cavas (I think) on the market.  It has very creamy, fine bubbles and is soft, faintly peppery, with a hint of sweet almond.  It's always a great ending with pastry or cake, but we thoroughly enjoyed it as an aperitif.  Vindaloo's Number One Rule of Party-Making: always start and end with bubbles!

From here on out, Vindaloo must admit that things became a bit of a blur.  We tasted several wines and paired them with several hors d'oeuvres (recipes follow), notably:  Dry Creek Fume Blanc 2009 (Sonoma County, California), predominantly crisp, refreshing citrus/grapefruit--all the reasons we love a good Sauvignon Blanc--with Smoked Salmon and Caper Salad,  Kestrel Pure Platinum (Yakima Valley, Washington), a fabulously peach/peach blossom white wine blend made from Gewurtztraminer and Viognier grapes with Scallop, Shrimp, Jalapeno and Bacon Skewers, ia Garnacha 2009 (Spain), full of fruit, spice and a lot of cherry, with Manchego, Membrillo and Mint and Cep d'Or 2009 (France), a lovely pale salmon-colored rose that is crisply refreshing and light, hinting at grapefruit and herbs with Goat Cheese Tower with Artichoke and Olive Insalata.

Vindaloo also served an amuse bouche (literally translated: amuse the mouth) of chilled coconut milk pureed with Thai green curry paste, tiny spring peas, caramelized scallops and Thai basil that succeeded in both surprising and delighting her guests.  One friend asked for seconds, then thirds (and eventually secured the rest of the puree for his own uses!), while another closed his eyes and, after a few non-verbal reactions stated (and I quote), "Now, that's sex in a glass."  Guess Vindaloo hit the jackpot on that little number, huh?

It was eventually time to rustle up dinner.  You'd think that with so many people in one place who cook that dinner might just miraculously materialize out of sheer combined metaphysical energy.  Vindaloo can assure you that it did not, and it took a lot longer to get things organized and in full swing than she had envisioned.  But Readers, do remember that wine was flowing freely (like the River Rhine), which tends to make things a lot more chatty (like Monday night Bunco) and laissez faire (literally translated: deliberate abstention from intervention but not alcohol) and a lot less industrious and goal-driven (like time has no meaning).  Or haven't you had this experience while imbibing?

Our dinner menu was as follows: Make Your Own Fish Grilled in Banana Leaves (three of us chose Asian flavors, two of us Yucatan Peninsula), Grilled Vegetables with Garlic and EVOO, Lemon Infused Rice and Orange-Basil Infused Rice.  The wines we drank with dinner (or rather, the wines that Vindaloo can recall that she drank with dinner) were Trimbach Riesling 2008 (Alsace, France), a bone-dry, citrusy Riesling with lots of green apple and a good acid content.  Also, Sauvion Vouvray 2009 (Loire Valley, France) reviewed previously , a perfect match with spicy Southeast Asian cuisine.

We talked and lingered over dinner, and the wind blessedly died down.  We could talk across the table without shouting (or without accidental ingestion of worms or other organic matter).  We discussed our astrological signs.  We debated whether it was more dangerous to fly or to stand in a fixed spot on the earth when meteorites enter the earth's atmosphere.  We discussed the possibility that alien life was truly among us--perhaps at this very table!  And then it was time for dessert, a coconut milk panna cotta with cardamom and rose water, finished with a flambeed mango sauce.  And to drink?  Segura Viudas Aria Estate Extra Dry Cava (Spain).  This lovely cava is full of honey, pineapple and citrus.  An elegant ending to a memorable evening.  Recipes follow.

My Wine Guy’s Jalapeno, Bacon and Shrimp Skewers
This recipe is exerpted from an email exchange (and I had to pry this recipe from my friend because he's pretty humble)...

"The shrimp skewer is pretty simple - butterfly your shrimp, insert a spear of jalapeno in the butterfly cut.
Wrap with bacon which was slow cooked on low heat so it doesn't get crispy (I recommend not fully cooking the bacon to insure it remains flexible. Salt, pepper, paprika...Skewer!  Grill until it's happy!  I think garlic powder would be a nice touch too, though I didn't add it to those I brought to your house.

Another riff on this would be to take a JUMBO shrimp, half of a jalapeno stuffed with cream cheese and then bacon wrapped.  Or stuff the jalapeno with a crab meat mixture like this one."

**Note** The skewers we had at the dinner party also included bay scallops, so there's another version. 

Smoked Salmon and Caper Salad

1  8 oz. fillet of salmon, smoked with your choice of wood chips on your grill.
1/4 cup minced shallot
1/4 cup nonpareil capers, drained
1 tsp. dried dill
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4-1/2 cup mayonnaise
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
liquid smoke seasoning (optional)

1.  Remove charred skin from salmon.  Debone and flake with your fingers into a medium-sized bowl.
2.  Add shallot, capers and dill and season to your taste with salt and pepper.  Blend well.
3.  Mix together mayonnaise, lemon juice, garlic powder and liquid smoke seasoning (optional).
4.  Add mayonnaise mixture to salmon mixture and blend well. 
5.  Taste and correct for seasonings, adding more mayonnaise if necessary.
6.  Chill and serve with melba toast or crackers.  Makes about 2 cups.

Goat Cheese Tower

1 8 oz. pyramid-style chevre (or substitute 2 4 oz. logs)
1 12 oz. jar marinated artichokes or marinated artichoke salad, drained
2  roasted poquillo peppers (I use jarred peppers), drained and slivered
1 cup assorted gourmet olives (I use DeLallo brand from the olive bar at my supermarket), drained
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 scallions, sliced thin
cracked black pepper

1.  Place pyramid chevre on serving platter.  If using chevre logs, cut each log in half.  Place 3 halves together (like a clover shape) on serving platter and one half centered on top.
2.  Combine drained, marinated artichoke salad, roasted peppers, olives, garlic and scallions in medium-size bowl.  Drizzle with plenty of EVOO.  Stir to combine.
3.  Arrange artichoke and olive salad over cheese in a pile.
4.  Drizzle with more EVOO if desired.
5.  Season generously with cracked black pepper.  Serve with ciabatta toasts or crackers.  Serves 4.

Manchego, Membrillo and Mint

1 4 to 6 oz. wedge manchego cheese
1 15 oz. pkg. membrillo, such as Goya (quince paste, which you can find in the Hispanic foods section)
Fresh mint leaves

1.  Trim rind from cheese and cut into triangles approximately 1/4" thick, following natural shape of wedge.
2.  Cut quince paste into triangles slightly smaller than cheese triangles and place on top of cheese.
3.  Garnish each triangle with a fresh mint leaf and serve on a beautiful silver platter or black plate.

Thai Sex in a Glass  

1 10 to 12 oz. pkg. petit pois
3 oz. green curry paste (find this at M & T Supermarket or Fiest Market)
1 13.5 oz. can coconut milk
1 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. canola oil
2 oz. bay scallops
1 pinch sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Holy basil leaves (about 6 large leaves)

1.  Steam peas gently (about 2 minutes) in microwave and drain.  They need to stay bright green.  Empty into workbowl of food processor. 
2.  Process peas and add curry paste, blending well. 
3.  With motor running, add coconut milk in a steady stream.  Process until very smooth.  Chill well.
4.  Heat butter and oil in small saute pan until rippling.  Saute scallops with a pinch of sugar to help brown them for about 1 minute.  Do not overcook.  Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
5.  When scallops have cooled, thinly slice crosswise.
6.  Stack basil leaves together, roll into a cigar shape and slice thinly into chiffonade.
7.  To serve, pour puree into tall shot glasses or stemmed cordials.  Garnish with slices of caramelized scallops and the holy basil chiffonade.  Makes about 12 appetizers.

Halibut Grilled in Banana Leaves

Banana leaves
Firm white fish, such as halibut, cut into serving-size pieces (4 to 8 oz. each)
Your choice of seasonings (the sky's the limit here)

1.  If using fresh banana leaves, wash and separate into long sections along the rib.  If using frozen banana leaves, gently and carefully wipe dry.
2.  For fresh banana leaves only, use this procedure to soften the leaves enough to fold:  Toast on a comal, in the oven directly on the baking rack, or on a flat top range.  Banana leaves are pliable when their color transforms to an emerald green.  If you don't toast them, they will split when being folded.
3.  For each piece of fish, use about 1 foot of banana leaf.  Place fish in center of banana leaf.
4.  Season as desired.  Use a little fat, like butter or oil for moistness.
5.  Fold banana leaf around fish like a package and secure with small skewers or toothpicks.
6.  Grill or bake at 425 degrees for 14-17 minutes, or until fish is done.
7.  To serve, remove skewer/toothpick and unwrap.  Discard banana leaf.

Citrus-Infused Rice

2 cups rice (I used jasmine because it's not gummy)
4 cups water or chicken broth
2 Tbs. butter
Citrus ingredients such as zest and juice of one lemon, zest and juice of one orange)
Salt to taste
garlic powder, onion powder, fresh chopped herbs (optional)

1.  Combine rice and water or chicken broth in medium-sized saucepan.
2.  Add butter, citrus ingredients and salt.
3.  Add dried ingredients such as garlic or onion powder or dried herbs, if using.  If using fresh herbs, stir these in just before serving.
3.  Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and let cook for approximately 17 minutes.  Serves 6.

Cardamom Panna Cotta with Jubilee of Mangoes, Muscovado Sugar and Rum

For the panna cotta:

2 cups canned coconut milk
22 green cardamom pods
¼ cup sugar
1 ¼ teaspoons rose water
1 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin, such as Knox

1.  Crush the cardamom in a mortar and pestle or with the back of a large spoon and microwave on full power for 1 minute.
2.  Pour the coconut milk into a small pan, and add the cardamom. 
3.  Heat mixture on low heat until steam rises from the surface and small bubbles begin form on the edge. 
4.  Add rose water and sugar.  Stir to dissolve and bring back to a simmer.
5.  Meantime, add a quarter cup of water to the gelatin, stirring briskly.  Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes, until gelatin has bloomed.
6.  Remove the coconut mixture from the heat and strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove the small cardamom seeds. 
7.  Using a whisk, stir hot coconut mixture into the gelatin and stir quickly, making sure there are no lumps. 
8.  Pour into 4 stemmed goblets, fluted dishes or ramekins.
9.  Chill for 2 hours or until softly set.  Can be made up to a day ahead. 

For the mango jubilee:

1 Atulfo mango, peeled, pitted and diced
1 Kent mango, peeled, pitted and diced
Juice of ½ lime
2 to 4 Tbs. muscovado sugar (substitute dark brown sugar if you can’t find muscovado)
Pinch of salt
¼ cup vanilla or dark rum
Additional rum for serving

  1. Combine mangoes, lime juice, muscovado sugar and salt in a small saucepan. 
  2. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until ingredients are melded, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Taste and adjust sugar and lime juice as necessary.
  3. Stir in rum and cool.  You can prepare the sauce up to this point and chill until ready to serve, if you wish.
  4. To serve, reheat sauce, if chilled, and transfer to a shallow flameproof container. 
  5. In a small vessel, such as a demitasse cup or juice glass, heat about ¼ cup rum for about 20 minutes in microwave.
  6. Pour rum over mango sauce and ignite.  Spoon flaming sauce over panna cotta.  Serves 4. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the dinner was fabulous, the rappelling caterpillars were more of a pre-dinner show than a nuisance, and the wine - well, I have not had THAT much wine in one sitting in a very, very long time. I paid the price the next day, but gladly so. I look forward to our next al fresco evening.