Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Voluptuous Table goes beyond virtual reality

This past Saturday night, something very special happened.  I experienced the realization of a long-time dream.  I launched The Voluptuous Table as a prix fixe dinner venture with a premier event featuring a dinner buffet of rustic French cuisine for 30 people.

It was a perfect day, weather-wise.  The house looked great, the back yard looked stupendous (thanks to my husband), and the menu was full of rich, fall flavors.  Wine flowed like the river Loire.  And there were charming tables and seating areas everywhere, both inside and out.  Candles twinkled, Edith Piaf warbled, incredible aromas emanated from the kitchen.  I was running a French bistro for the night!  Where were the black-turtlenecked existentialists with their sour looks?  They must have stayed in Paris.

There were many memorable moments and I enjoyed my guests--many familiar to me and several not.  One of the highlights of the evening was that some friends of mine have a lovely 14 year old daughter who sang for us beautifully in Italian, French and English.  She brought the house down with her rendition of "The Lady is a Tramp."  End-of-the-evening entertainment is always one of those little surprises that I like to arrange for specific gatherings and my guests were both surprised and delighted.

If the appetites of my guests are any indication, I'm going to have a very successful business.  They ate almost everything.  Every toast point (with plenty of pate and handmade goat cheese loaded on top), every spoonful of rich, silky cassoulet, every slice of the five pounds (and five varieties) of artisanal breads I baked, most of the homemade butter, practically all of the two salads served and every last dainty slice of the banana cake with caramel frosting.  All washed down with countless glasses of wine and pots of coffee.   Bon appetit!

Wines served: Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone 2010 (France), a lemony, floral, medium-bodied white suggested to accompany the goat cheese appetizer; Domaine Sarcin Cotes du Rhone 2009 (France), a medium-bodied red with earthy herbal notes, dark red fruit and wild strawberry suggested to accompany the pate; Chateau Tuilerie Pages Bordeaux 2007 (France), with mild tannins and good, firmly structured red fruit to accompany the main course of cassoulet, artisanal breads and salads.

Here's what I cooked and the recipes:

Lemon Goat Cheese with Lemon Oil, Herbes de Provence and Nicoise Olives

For the cheese:
Follow procedure for making homemade goat cheese here, or purchase 16 oz. chevre or montrachet.  Whether you make your own or buy it, knead in about 1 tsp. fresh lemon zest.  Form into a ball and chill until ready to serve.

For the lemon oil:
Heat one cup of the lightest olive oil you can find slowly and gently.  Add the zest of one lemon and steep for at least one hour.  Strain, cool and set aside until ready to use.

To present the cheese:
Place cheese on serving plate.  Drizzle generously with lemon oil.  Sprinkle with about 1 tsp. herbes de Provence.  Scatter about 1/2 cup pitted nicoise olives around the cheese.  Garnish with Prince Edward pansies, violets or other small flowers and small sprigs of parsley.  Serve with toast points.  Serves 12. 

Rustic Pate
This pate recipe sets up into a creamy and rich finished product.  Don't be alarmed by how loose it is before it chills down.  Superb flavor and beautiful on the plate with the pistachio garnish.   Adapted from

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
8 oz chicken livers, chopped
1 tsp chopped fresh sage
1/4 cup marsala (or sherry or Madeira)
2 anchovy filets, drained and coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp capers, drained
1/4 cup shelled pistachios plus 2 Tbsp chopped for garnish
Freshly ground pepper
  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the celery and garlic and cook two minutes.
  2. Turn the flame up to high and add the chicken livers. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the livers are crisp outside but still a bit pink inside, about 3 minutes.
  3. Stir in the sage and deglaze briefly with the marsala. Transfer all to the bowl of your food processor.
  4. Add the anchovies, capers and whole pistachios. Process until fairly smooth, but not puréed. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The anchovies are salty enough that you should not need to add more salt.
  5. Transfer to your serving dish and serve warm or at room temperature.  You can also chill this pate in a mold and serve it slightly cold.  It is highly seasoned enough for the flavors to come through.  Serve with thin slices of toasted baguette or dress it up by using it to fill individual endive leaves. Garnish with the chopped pistachios and strands of fresh chives.  Serves 12.

Artisanal Breads

I've run this recipe before under my first blog entry in February of this year.  You can do it as you like and add chopped scallions, herbs, raisins, orange peel, chopped olives or anything you like.  It's great bread and very versatile.  This recipe made five one-pound loaves.

Homemade Compound Butter

Homemade butter is ridiculously easy if you have the right equipment.  Pour a quart of heavy cream and about 2 tsp. kosher salt into the bowl of your food processor, blender or stand mixer.  Turn on the machine and let 'er rip.  Let it go beyond the proper stage for whipped cream and when the whey splatters out of the bowl, it's done.  Squeeze all the whey out with your hands and form into balls.  At this stage, you can flavor your butter with fresh herbs, garlic, spices, etc.  Press into ramekins or form into logs wrapped in parchment paper or plastic wrap.  Chill until ready to serve.  Makes about 2 cups.

Peppery Green Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Mustard Vinaigrette

Combine 12 cups mixed greens such as arugula, watercress endive, spinach and/or romaine in a large salad bowl.  Toss with several tablespoons of Mustard Vinaigrette (recipe below) until leaves are coated lightly.  Do not overdress!  Scatter with about 1/2 cup toasted walnut pieces.  Serves 12.

An Excellent Mustard Vinaigrette

¾ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and emulsify.  Makes about 1 cup.  This is wonderful on bitter greens with toasted walnuts, bleu cheese and pickled onions.  Yummm!  Enjoy…

Note: I like to experiment with different vinegars (like tarragon and champagne vinegar) and also like to use white Worcestershire instead of the regular kind for variety.

Celery, Fennel and Apple Salad with Tarragon Vinaigrette

Cassoulet Toulousain 

This cassoulet recipe (affectionately and forevermore known as French Beanie Weenies in my circle of friends) has enough richness, meat, pork fat and duck fat to, as one of my friends says, give a small child a coronary after the first bite.  It is, by far, the best cassoulet I have ever made in my cooking career.  I will warn you: the preparation is very labor intensive and long and if you don't like to cook, then get a plate of cassoulet at Justine's instead.  But if you do like to cook, if you covet the aromas of the French countryside in your kitchen and if you're looking for good, hearty peasant fare on a blustery day, then do make the effort and try this dish.

You can take a shortcut and purchase rendered duck fat and prepared duck confit, but it is very expensive to do so.  It was almost as expensive to buy a pound tub of rendered duck fat and a fresh duck, but I thought it a very satisfying venture to make my own.  You can see an excellent procedure for making duck confit here.  Start this procedure at least 7 days before you plan to make the cassoulet.  Duck confit and duck fat keeps for up to 2 months.  And since you can use the duck fat to again confit another duck (or to make duck fat-roasted potatoes or duck fat fries), it is truly the gift that keeps on giving. can use duck confit in so many other ways...

Gateau de Banane with Caramel and Toasted Pecans

This banana sheet cake is exceptionally moist and is delectable with the caramel icing and toasted pecans.  I literally cannot make this anymore without seriously overeating it.  It is beautiful when you cut it into diamonds before serving on large, frilly pastry papers (I got mine at Hobby Lobby).  Serves 20 to 24.

Banana Cake recipe.  Use butter, not margarine--it really does make a difference.  Cool the cake until ready to frost.

Caramel Frosting recipe.   I use half and half in place of the milk for a creamier, richer frosting.  Use frosting while it's still quite warm; it will be easier to spread.

Garnish with toasted pecans if desired.

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