Thursday, January 3, 2013

Impress your guests

Earlier this week, I hosted my second annual New Year's Day Open House as a way of thanking friends and guests of The Voluptuous Table for their support over the past year.  The menu was long and varied (which you can see here on my Facebook timeline) and one of the desserts, a Cherries Jubilee Diablo, was THE BOMB!  I'm so glad my flambe skills are adequate enough to avoid burning my house down, but I was most grateful for my assistant and friend, Bill the Wine Guy, who made the flame travel repeatedly up and down the spiral of clove-studded orange peel using just a small glass cream pitcher full of ignited brandy and kirsch.

Alcohol-fueled fire doesn't translate well on camera, but it's there.

In fact, it was so much fun, we wanted to do it again right away.  Just to practice, you know, because flambe is a lot of fun if you know what you're doing.  But next time, we'll need a longer handle on the vessel that holds the flaming liqueur.  So sorry about those knuckles, Bill.

There is nothing like a flaming dessert to end a meal.  If you've offered your guests enough alcohol, they're easily impressed with seeing fire in a pan right in front of them and they'll lean right in and utter plenty of oohs and ahhs.  But this is not always a good idea if someone is wearing a polyester tie or scarf and gets too close so that their clothes catch on fire, or if someone is wearing a lot of hairspray and hair starts burning, or if someone has had too much to drink and their balance is off and both fire and dessert go flying.  I say these things as warnings because they have happened to me or to people I know.  In order to protect privacy, I cannot tell you specifics, but I have witnessed these mishaps and remember them vividly.

We are wise when we flambe to remember the words of George Santayana: "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."  Well, it's safe to say that I don't remember history very well because I like to flambe so much.

A flaming dessert is like a meteor--all flash in the pan and suddenly bright, and then it's over.  You get only one shot at it to make it happen.  If you fail at flambe, you fail miserably.  And there are a lot of variables to contend with.  Such as: not enough alcohol, alcohol not sufficiently vaporized, too much alcohol overly vaporized, not using long matches instead of lighters, being startled by the ignition process and dropping something in the food that is not edible or onto someplace flammable, not giving the flame enough space and most importantly, trying to flambe for the first time in or near an alcove.  Again, due to privacy issues, I can't tell the whole sadly hilarious story but let's just say that there was a duck, a bottle of Grand Marnier, a chafing dish, a lit match and an inexperienced waitress in front of an alcove banquette containing six restaurant patrons.

Dinner for six, including two bottles of champagne and a fairly hefty bar bill, was comped that night.  The waitress, although she should have been fired, was given a scourging lecture by a very irate, red-faced chef.  The lecture was in French, but there was no doubt about the fact that the waitress had royally screwed up.

But she still plays with fire.

So that is why it is always a safe and good thing to have a fall back at your parties to impress your guests.  The real star of any party is what I call a "workhorse" dish.  It's the kind of dish that is offered in quantity, it's substantive, comforting, grabs your taste buds immediately, pleases pretty much everyone, and is the recipe everyone requests.  My workhorse dish was a special New Year's Day soup.  And no, I did not flambe it.

It's traditional to serve black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for luck.  Add some collard greens to that and the belief is that you'll have more money in the coming year.  Eat some pork and you'll be moving forward (pigs root in a forward direction, but you shouldn't eat chicken or turkey because they scratch backward--get it?).  I love all of these foods--and the superstitions that go with them--and wanted to have them come together in a delicious way.  So I went on a recipe hunt and found this one from Homesick Texan.

I made a few modifications because I had pork shoulder not ham (so I added some much-maligned Liquid Smoke).  I also reduced the amount of chipotles and added some extra chicken broth to make the soup go a little further.  I sauteed the collard greens in the olive oil that I substituted for the bacon grease to bring out their sweetness.  I made this hearty soup the day before serving it, so it had the benefit of being seasoned through well by the time it was served.  And it was so popular with my guests, I am lucky that I got some of it myself before it disappeared.

And that is why there is no picture of this insanely good soup.  But do try it.  It's an easy recipe and you can double it for a crowd.  If you didn't get your black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, you still have time before the week is out to get some into you.  But don't stop there.  It's always the right time for black-eyed peas.

If you're adventurous and like to make impressive party desserts, let me know and I'll send along the recipe for Cherries Jubilee Diablo.  Like I said, it's the bomb.

Good Fortune Soup (adapted from Homesick Texan and an original recipe from Gourmet Magazine, December 1998)

I don't think of myself as superstitious, but just in case, you've got the three essential ingredients for good luck in the new year, all in one pot.  The chipotles bring a pleasant warmth.

3 Tbs. olive oil (or substitute bacon grease)
1/2 lb. collard greens, stems removed and chopped
1/2 lb. pork shoulder, diced (or substitute ham and omit Liquid Smoke)
2 15 oz. cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained (you can use fresh or frozen as well)
1 small onion, diced
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large carrot, diced
3 chipotle chiles chopped finely
1 can of Ro-Tel tomatoes
1 tsp. thyme
6 cups chicken broth
2 tsp. Liquid Smoke
2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
pinch of sugar
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1.)  In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until rippling and saute the diced pork until no longer pink, stirring frequently.
2.)  Add the onion and carrot to the pot and continue to cook for 10 minutes or until onions start to turn transparent.
3.)  Add the garlic and cook for three more minutes.
4.)  Add the collard greens and continue to cook for about 7 minutes, covering the pot with a lid to help them shrink down.  Stir the greens well from time to time so that they are covered in the oil and cooking juices.
5.)  Add the vinegar, sugar, chicken stock, chipotles, Ro-Tel tomatoes and thyme.
6.)  Bring pot to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally.
7.)  Take one can of black-eyed peas and roughly mash with a fork.
8.)  Add mashed black-eyed peas and also the remainder of the whole black-eyed peas to the pot.
9.)  Continue to simmer soup for another 45 minutes.  Serves 6-8


  1. Flames - what fun! I have never tried to flambe anything, and fortunately, I don't wear polyester, but good tips to keep in mind! ;)

  2. Flambe is a lot of fun. I'd be happy to show you how...