29 November 2005

The Dining Diva: Autumn on a Plate

The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin to those of a successful tightrope walker:
an abiding passion for the task,
courage to go out on a limb,
and an impeccable sense of balance.
~ Bryan Miller

*I wrote this little tidbit about a month ago, and sent it out via email to a few friends. Thought new visitors might like to read it.*

12 October 2005
Having weathered the storms of falling fabric and elastic twisters, I made it home at 4:10. Thankfully, the night before, I had enough energy to stuff and wrap 20 to 30 dates with an excellent manchego cheese and bacon and cut up thick slices of prosciutto for the appetizers. They were ready to pop in the oven 10 minutes before my guests arrived. Now all I had to do was start the pumpkin soup, make the salad and figure out how to cook the pork tenderloin.

All my housemates were out for the evening and while I was alone in throwing together a six course dinner for ten, I was glad for the peace and quiet to get things started. I began by melting butter and heating up olive oil in my blue stock pot. Quickly, I chopped up 1 medium onion and 2 celery stalks (with leaves attached). I added this to the melted butter and olive oil and while that was sautéing, I began setting the table with my damask plum tablecloth and gold damask napkins. I became so enthralled with the artistic arrangement of china, crystal; and alas! mismatched silverware ~ it took me awhile to notice an odd, acrid smell issuing from the kitchen. Hmmm ~ maybe burnt celery and onions will add a smoky, autumn taste to the soup!

I went ahead and added the flour and poultry seasoning and then almost panicked when I realized I needed 6 cups of chicken broth and doubt and fear seized me did I even have 6 cups of broth!? A quick look in the pantry lowered my blood pressure and I resolved to stock up on, ahem, stock in the future.

Once I added the broth, I left it alone to come to a boil and proceeded to slice up the pork tenderloin. The recipe said to place it between plastic wrap and pound the heck out of it. But I felt this was unjust to such already tender meat, and anyway, there were four gentlemen in the dinner party ~ all with hearty appetites ~ and serving them thin slices of meat seemed like a dirty trick.

After I had sliced up the pork, I checked on the soup, adding pumpkin puree spoonful by spoonful, whisking it into the broth, and then adding the heavy cream and nutmeg at the end. By this time, it was already 5:30. As some guests have a knack for showing up early, I placed the soup on very low on the back burner and sprinted for the shower.

True to form, I was standing in my bedroom not quite ready to be seen in public and the doorbell rang. “Well, it's six o'clock, not six-thirty,” I rationalized “and so I'm not going to panic and risk tearing my stockings ~ whoever it is will just have to wait.” By the time I was completely put back together, I opened the door ~ and no one was there! So I left the door open in case they were hanging around the corner and finished setting the table.

Six-ten. I began to panic ~ just enough to make things feel normal. I still had to make the salad and sauté the pork. And all of a sudden my brain turned to mush ~ I didn't know what to do next. Then the doorbell rang again and Julie and Stephen and Christopher came in. Their beautiful gift of wine pushed a new panic button ~ I had been so focused on the food, I had completely forgotten what I was going to serve my guests to drink! Elisabeth was bringing good, imported beer that was not "the "lite" rice water which passes for beer in the major\US breweries" as Dom Capisco put it. Mental note to self: do not forget the beverages!

I had been very smug with myself the night before when I printed out the menu cards and place cards ~ now to my horror, I realized I still needed to print out yet another page of them. The printer seeming to take an hour to print out one page. The table was now complete. I went back to the stove, turned on the oven and stuck the dates and prosciutto in the oven and began melting butter for the pork.

Dom Capisco came in with exquisite Spanish wines as I was pulling out the dates and flipping them over ~ he was duly impressed ~ with both the idea and the amount of work it had taken to do them up. I love it when I find a recipe that looks and tastes wonderful and people think you really did a lot of work to make it that way! The prosciutto was another story. It quickly became a pain in my pork. Thankfully, Kristy and Jeffrey showed up and Kristy soon became the prosciutto/pancetta crisp extraordinaire. Meanwhile, I began browning apples in the melted butter and sugar.

I had two to three different things going on the kitchen by this point ~ Elisabeth had come, bringing the promised non-lite rice water beer and two scrumptious desserts ~ a delectable flan (which we discovered is Jeffrey's favorite dish ever) and apple tartlets. She was pressed into service to make the arugula, pear and manchego salad, while Marie, who had also magically appeared, was given a knife, onions and apples and set to work making the cran-apple relish for the soup. Note to guests: if you ask to help, you will!

A word to foodies - wise, otherwise and stupid (me being in the latter category): read the recipe at least a week beforehand. A) you make sure to have all the right ingredients; B) nothing comes as surprise when you're actually in the middle of cooking. The recipe said I needed to set the apples aside and start cooking the pork in a separate dish. Thinking that I was going to be putting everything in one pan, I had used the biggest one I had for the apples. After a few minutes of staring blankly at the pan with the offending apples in it, I finally plated them, washed out the pan and melted more butter for the pork.

Meanwhile, we had cleared the kitchen of men and sent them with the appetizers into the living room ~ although a couple of them continued to lounge in the doorway to the kitchen. I don't know what it is about that doorway ~ every party I've hosted, it always gets clogged. Perhaps it is the comforting warmth of made-from-scratch food and the craziness and laughter that draws them in and keeps them there.

Surprisingly, it didn't take long to cook the pork ~ although it took longer than the required two minutes ~ I didn't want my guests to eat at my house and then die afterwards! Making the sauce for the pork was another matter. I had to melt more butter (anything less than the real thing is just wrong!) and chop more onions (green ones this time) and then came the moment I had been waiting for all evening ~ the Calvados ~ apple brandy. I didn't even look at the recipe by this time ~ I just poured. And then poured some more. It smelled absolutely divine! But it also took forever to thicken up. So, I decided to start the dinner ~ I was doing it in courses anyway. Dom Capisco blessed the food, cook and eaters (in Latin of course) and Elisabeth and Jeffrey helped me serve the soup. After all that, we almost forgot the relish! And that would have been a tragedy ~ it added a wonderful texture and flavor to the soup.

I kept an eye on the sauce but was still able to enjoy the pumpkin soup ~ which was such a hit, most everyone asked for seconds! Definitely a keeper! While, serving more soup, I checked on the sauce, stirring in heavy cream and nutmeg and setting it on low. Then we served the salad ~ to which Elisabeth again came to the rescue, helping me to plate it and serve it. Again, another keeper ~ the texture and dryness of the arugula went perfectly with the Spanish wines.

Then it was time to plate the pork. Alas, the chef had gotten tired of waiting for the pork to cook, and so had stopped short of cooking all the slices. This is not a good idea. Mental note number 2 ~ next time,. cook the pork the night before and then you just have to heat it up. All the gentlemen had two slices and most of the ladies had one. Ah well, you live and learn! It was worth the wait ~ the sauce was even more divine ~ is that possible? ~ than the soup. But hey ~ it had alcohol in it ~ so it had to be!

The flan was smooth, creamy and like a feather on the lips. And to top it off, my first attempt at Brandy Alexanders was worthy of Waugh and Antoine! And this without the crème de cacao ~ instead, we substituted Hershey's chocolate syrup! Yes, I know. Don't say it. They were good none the less. I didn't have four ~ but the two I did have went merrily down the little red lane!

This morning, as I sit here writing and sipping my Earl Grey, with a pile of china, crystal and silverware waiting to be washed, I am pleased with how everything turned out in the end ~ craziness and all. What's a dinner party without a little bit of panic mixed with a dash of forgetfulness and by-the-seat-of-your-pants substitutions? And I realize that I'm never more happy and fulfilled as when I'm feeding those I love.

Until the next dinner party, bon appetit!

The Menu
Parmesan-Stuffed Dates wrapped in Bacon (I substituted manchego for the parm)
Pancetta Crisps with Goat Cheese and Pear
Pumpkin Soup with Chili-Cran Relish
ArulaArugula Salad with Chanterelles, Pears, Parmesan and Cider Vinaigrette (again, I substituted manchego for the parmesan)
Pork Tenderloin with Apples, Calvados and Apple Cider
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