Ever since I was a toddler, I've enjoyed breaking the rules. Just give my mother a call--she can tell you about all the times I pushed, tested and defied her. She can tell you that I was definitely not the little girl she dreamed of getting, all prissified in starched crinolines, lace ankle socks, patent leather Mary Janes and banana curls that would make Shirley Temple throw a temper tantrum of titanic proportions. I was a pip (still am). And I loved breaking the rules (still do). Right, Mom?
So you shouldn't be surprised to hear that I broke the rules at a recent dinner party. "Never, never try new techniques and new recipes for the first time at a dinner party." That is the solid, conservative advice you will hear from most experienced dinner-party-throwers (and chefs). But I am confident (maybe overly so) and a little fearless (maybe overly so). Never mind that for most of my dinner parties, I defy the rules and try new recipes and techniques because I usually cook for groups of very willing, very happy and very hungry guinea pigs. Now, I am not maligning guinea pigs, I am merely repeating what my guests often call themselves when they are seated around my table. And this party was a Voluptuous Table event, so the stakes were a little higher and the guests a little more expectant. So I was actually cooking for very willing, very happy and very hungry cerdo iberico.
The menu wasn't something I would normally have come up with by myself. You see, I have help. I have lots of help in the form of my wine guys, who are always throwing suggestions at me for menus because of the wines they like to drink. And that kind of help is good for me, since it makes me think about food in a different way. Not just, "What wine goes with this food?" But, "What food goes with this wine?" This kind of thinking pushes my creativity in ways that it cannot be pushed in any other way. So thank you, wine guys.
We started out the evening of traditional and rustic Italian cuisine with some solid and dependable appetizers: rosemary and orange roasted olives and basil-tomato bruschetta. The appetizers were served with a bracing cocktail, Negroni Sbagliato (recipe below). A negroni is typically sweet, bitter and herbal from its classic components of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. In a Negroni Sbagliato (literally, wrong negroni), the gin is replaced by asti spumante, which both lightens and softens the Campari. Served with thin slices of blood orange and in a stylish glass on the rocks, it's a great start to a meal.
We followed appetizers and cocktails with a simple chicken broth enhanced with bay leaf, garlic, white wine and mini-farfalle pasta. A handful of escarole, dandelion greens, arugula and spinach chiffonade floated in the aromatic broth and a generous sprinkling of Parmesano Reggiano made a simple peasant soup heavenly and rich.
Following the soup, a lovely warm grilled shrimp and grapefruit salad (which, incidentally, I broiled because it was just too darn cold outside to fire up the grill). This salad was gorgeous on the plate (find the recipe below), and as a complement, I served Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (New Zealand), an extremely crisp, light wine that is full of citrus--notably grapefruit, Meyer lemon and key lime. This wine is very affordable and can be found for about $10 a bottle.
The main course was an exquisite spinach and toasted walnut pesto (recipe below), which also formed the base for the spinach-walnut pesto cream sauce on which the pork, veal and mortadella meatballs (recipe below) were served, along with garlic-roasted Campari tomatoes. Marramiero "Dama" Montipulciano d'Abruzzo 2009 (Italy) had enough acid to balance the richness, yet was silky, rich and ruby in the glass. A rustic, robust wine that has been aged in oak for over 12 months, it echoed the richness and earthiness of the pesto and meatballs, but formed a lovely acidic counterpoint. This wine is about $15 a bottle.
Dessert was very light and wonderfully refreshing on the palate after rich foods. Macerated Oranges with Red Moro Oranges and Basil Syrup (recipe below) provides a stunning visual presentation and a contrast of piquant and herbal notes. I served this dessert with an Italian prosecco called Cantine Maschio Prosecco Brut (Italy), which can be purchased for about $11 a bottle. Light, refreshingly dry and fruit-forward with notes of white peach and orange blossoms, it was the perfect accompaniment to the fresh oranges. Serve this prosecco as is (thoroughly chilled, of course), or do as the Italians do and drop a sugar cube in the glass before filling it with the prosecco. I added blood orange bitters to the sugar cube as a complement to the orange dessert.
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth
1 oz. (or more) dry spumante
orange slices for garnish
Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add Campari, vermouth and spumante, in that order. Add orange slices for garnish and serve immediately. Makes one drink.
Warm Grilled Shrimp and Grapefruit Salad with Grapefruit Vinaigrette
First, make 1 1/2 batches of the grapefruit vinaigrette. Then section a grapefruit into wedges (skin on) and skewer with 4-6 shelled, deveined shrimp (I like to leave the tails on for posterity). Allow 2 skewers per person. This amounts to about 1 lb. of shrimp and 1 large grapefruit. Lay the skewers flat in a large pan or container and drizzle with half the vinaigrette. Allow shrimp and grapefruit to marinate for at least 4 and up to 8 hours. Grill or broil about 4 to 6 inches from heat source until shrimp are pink no longer translucent. Meanwhile, toss 1-2 cups greens per person in remaining vinaigrette and divide among individual plates. Place grilled skewers on top of salad and serve. Serves 8.
Spinach and Toasted Walnut Pesto
This recipe is the result of combining all the best elements of recipes I gathered from several sources. Although I can't remember where the recipes all came from, I give credit to those who helped with the final incarnation. I used the beautiful red walnuts you can sometimes find in better grocery stores and they yielded a soft, creamy and very buttery texture/flavor to the finished pesto. However, after finely chopping them, their beautiful color is lost, so feel free to use regular walnuts if you wish.
1 lb. baby spinach leaves, washed and spun dry
7 oz. walnut pieces, toasted
4 large cloves garlic
1/2 cup EVOO, plus additional if desired
2 Tbs. finely grated lemon zest
1 Tbs. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 lb. warm cooked pasta of your choice (reserve 2 cups pasta water and keep warm)
a generous hunk of Pecorino Romano for grating on top of pasta
1. Put spinach and 1 Tbs. water in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
2. Cook, tossing constantly, until spinach is wilted, about 2 minutes.
3. In a food processor, combine wilted spinach and its cooking liquid, walnuts, garlic, EVOO and lemon zest.
4. Process until mixture is smooth, scraping down bowl as needed.
5. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired; blend well.
6. Add more EVOO while processor is running if you prefer more of a mayonnaise texture. Set aside about 1/2 cup pesto at this point if you plan to serve the meatballs in pesto cream sauce (recipe follows).
7. Stir or toss warm pasta with as much pesto as desired until pasta is well coated. Add some reserved warm pasta water if you want a sauce-like texture.
8. Divide among 6 plates and garnish generously with freshly grated Pecorino.
Pork, Veal and Mortadella Meatballs with Pesto Cream Sauce
Rich, unctuous and lick-your-plate deliciousness. You can make the meatballs ahead of time and freeze them if you wish. Again, this recipe is the result of many I have collected over the years, so thanks to all who contributed.
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. mortadella, in 1/4" dice
1 1/2 Tbs. lemon zest
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 cup white bread crumbs
2 to 4 Tbs. milk
3 eggs, beaten
3 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley
2 Tbs. finely chopped or crushed pistachios
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl with your hands, using the larger quantity of milk if your bread crumbs are dry. Do not compact or overmix.
2. Form into golf ball size meatballs and place on foil lined baking sheets.
3. Bake at 375 degrees for about 22 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Keep warm or chill/freeze for later use. Makes about 3 dozen.
Pesto Cream Sauce: Use pesto that was set aside from earlier (see recipe for Spinach and Toasted Walnut Pesto, above). Stir in about 1/2 cup heavy cream, 1 Tbs. thinly sliced basil leaves, 1/2 tsp. lemon zest and a little salt. Blend well and heat gently. Put a pool of pesto cream on the plate and place the meatballs on top (next to the pasta and roasted tomatoes).
Macerated Oranges with Red Moro Medallions and Basil Syrup
This recipe is basically from Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book, except I couldn't leave it alone. I had some beautifully sweet Texas oranges, but I also had Red Moro oranges, a blood orange cultivar with intense orange and raspberry flavors, which make a gorgeous visual counterpoint. Basil syrup and fresh basil puts this light, refreshing dessert over the top.
4 large navel oranges or 6 medium Texas oranges
1/4 cup sugar
grated peel of one medium lemon
juice of 1/2 medium lemon
4 Red Moro oranges (you can substitute blood oranges if you wish; they will be more sour)
Basil Syrup (recipe follows)
fresh basil leaves for garnish
1. Peel the navel oranges with a knife, removing all the white pith and make orange supremes, allowing all the juices to drip into a bowl and dropping the supremes into the bowl as they're freed from their membrane. Take care to remove any seeds.
2. Add the sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest.
3. Toss the orange supremes lightly in the macerating liquid, cover and chill for at least 4 hours or as long as over night to allow flavors to blend and soften.
4. Peel the Red Moro oranges with a knife, removing all white pith.
5. Slice Red Moro oranges crosswise to display sections and the beautiful varigated flesh.
6. Store Red Moro orange slices in a separate covered container and chill until ready to use. Can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead.
7. Make Basil Syrup by combining 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water and a handful of basil leaves. Bring to boil over medium heat, then turn off heat, cover and let steep until mixture cools to room temperature. Strain and chill until ready to use.
To assemble dessert: Divide navel oranges and some of the macerating liquid between 4 chilled dessert dishes. Divide Red Moro oranges amongst dishes, laying the slices on top. Drizzle each dish with a generous spoonful of basil syrup, garnish with basil leaves and serve immediately. Serves 4.