The First Fire in Early Spring

There’s something magical about lighting a chimney full of charcoal for the first time in the spring, where the dusk temperatures still dive down low enough to warrant standing closer to the grill to warm up.  After a winter that saw the accumulation of over 40 inches of snow over the span of four days, the onset of afternoons filled with bright sunlight and daylight that lingers ever longer into the dinner hour brings a sense of hope and renewal.

Grilling is almost a natural reaction to those times when I don’t feel like cooking.  When the kitchen is clean, and I don’t want to disturb its serenity by breaking out all manner of pots, pans, and plates, I grill.  Likewise, when the kitchen is dirty or cluttered – again, with those pots, pans, and plates that were all called into the service of some multifaceted meal, I grill.  For me, grilling distills cooking down to its primal elements – meat and fire.  Really, what else do you need?

On the occasion of discovering perhaps the most perfect butcher shop in all of Chester County, we came home that day with a perfect Delmonico steak – well marbled throughout with streaks of fat.  The shop in question, Country Butcher in Kennett Square, sells USDA Prime cuts that are locally sourced and grass-fed, along with a good selection of cheeses, oils, and other food items.  Out of respect for this grand specimen of beef, I treated it simply – a little bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper, and a rubdown with a cut garlic clove.  Having never tried a steak from Country Butcher, I avoided masking the true flavor of the beef with overly aggressive sauces and seasonings.

Having had grass-fed beef in restaurants, I was already familiar with how outstanding a good steak can become if treated well.  But I had always attributed a greater portion of the responsibility to the chef than to the farmer that raised the cow and the butcher that sourced it and sold it to the restaurant.  As it turns out, the steak was one of the best home-prepared dinners that we’ve ever had.  I can’t take any credit for it – all I did was throw it onto the grill, stand there for five minutes, and flip it onto the other side.  More tender than any other home-cooked Delmonico, with an unexpected depth of flavor, it rivaled the quality of some of the top-dollar, triple-digit dinners that we’ve had in downtown Philadelphia.  It was that good.

April 22, 2010   Comments

The Main Event – A Springtime Dinner Party in Three Courses

Man, I’m a little tired.  But it’s a good kind of tired.  Three courses, ten people, and everything turned out alright.  I have to apologize for not having more pictures – I was too busy running around the kitchen and forgot to grab the camera until, as you can see, the aftermath.

I spent part of Thursday and all day Friday putting together as many things as I could ahead of time.  On Thursday, I made the duck ragu and a batch of chicken stock.  On Friday morning, I made a chocolate pot de creme, stuck that in the refrigerator, and spent some time chopping the asparagus and mushrooms for the soup.

That being said, we were still a little late getting dinner rolling, but that turned out fine because we had the most compatible group of guests that I think we’ve ever had for a party.  The very best parties are the ones where you can disappear from the conversation into the kitchen and the guests carry on for themselves.

The culprit in my tardiness turned out to be the pasta.  I had forgotten that, despite the fact that the dough is really easy to put together, the rolling and cutting of the pasta sheets by hand takes a bit of time.  I had gotten through three-quarters of the mound of dough when I realized that I only had a half hour before go time – so we decided not to roll and cut the last bit of dough.  I took a few minutes to get some cheese out, prepared the one “made” appetizer – goat cheese marinated in olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper, parsley, and chive – and cut the last sheet of pasta into ribbons before running upstairs into the shower.

Guests started arriving at around 7:15, and between the beer, wine, the conversation and the appetizers, we all found a sweet spot where time just slowed down.  I had the asparagus soup ready by around 8pm, and we ushered everyone into the dining room, which my wife had bedecked with a lovely centerpiece of candles and glasses.  I ran out of soup and tried to extend it with some stock – so, for a fact, I know that three of us had overly thin asparagus soup.  I motored through my bowl and headed back into the kitchen for the pasta course.

Having set a pot of water to boil well beforehand, the pasta course was the easiest of the three to prepare.  The duck ragu, having been made earlier, needed only to be heated, and the ribbons of pasta had had a good long time to dry a bit in a colander, which contributed considerably to their texture in the final dish.  One minute and thirty seconds after entering the kitchen, the second course was ready to send out.

This is the point in the evening where I was entering unknown territory.  The one dish that I had not had time to do a dry run for – grilled shrimp over risotto – was going to take a bit more time to prepare.  I had peeled the shrimp when guests first started arriving, and thrown them into a ziploc bag with some white wine, garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.  As I started the risotto, we drafted one of our guests to skewer the shrimp for us, which was a real timesaver.  I started a chimney of charcoal on the grill and came back to the risotto.

Here’s the thing about risotto – it takes 18 minutes.  No more, and no less.  But it also requires constant attention, stirring and adding stock constantly for nearly all of those 18 minutes.  The great thing is, hearing the conversation carry itself in the next room, I was actually quite fine with standing at the stove.

The risotto deserves its own entry, but I’ll summarize here now:

Roasted Tomato Risotto

6 C chicken stock, simmering
1.5 C arborio rice
1/2 onion, chopped

A few roasted tomatoes (I need to tell you about these later, too)
Shallot, chopped
White wine
Saffron, pinch
1/4 C light cream

In one saucepan, combine chopped roasted tomatoes, the shallot, about 1/2 C white wine, and the saffron and bring to a hard simmer.  When that’s reduced by about half, stir in the light cream, bring back to a simmer for about five minutes, and turn off the heat.  You’re done with that for now and can back-burner it.

Take a pot with high sides and melt some butter in it.  When it’s good and hot, toss in your chopped onion and saute that for a couple of minutes, then add your rice, stirring that up to coat all of the grains with butter.  Add 1/2 C of white wine and stir it in, letting the grains of rice absorb it, and then start adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb each 1/2 cup before adding more.  At around 15 minutes, bite into a grain to check for doneness.  It should be ready at 18 minutes.  Turn off the heat and stir the tomato cream mixture into it, and add salt to taste.

Grilling the shrimp took no time at all.  I dumped the coals into my grill, set the skewers of shrimp on, and grilled them for about five or six minutes per side.  There was enough risotto to grant everyone a fairly large serving, with four shrimp each.

I’ll talk about dessert in the next episode.  Everyone had a wonderful time, and that’s not even mentioning the beer-fueled Rock Band extravaganza that lasted until 2:45am, which certainly had a lot to do with it.

April 29, 2008   Comments

The Dry Run – Asparagus Soup with Mushroom Custard

After deciding that I wanted to serve a soup course, I went through a number of my cookbooks with the general theme of “Spring” in mind. Whatever recipe I ended up with, I wanted it to be a celebration of spring and something light to usher in the evening. I gravitated towards green soups, so peas and spinach and a number of other vegetable soups were considered. In the end, I decided on this recipe for asparagus soup that appears in Tom Colicchio’s book Think Like a Chef.

The prospect of combining two hallmarks of spring, asparagus and mushrooms, appealed to me, and the soup is very straightforward, which would allow me the time to get on with preparing the rest of the meal. The custard seemed to be a nice touch, as it’s something that you don’t see in home cooking too often, but it seemed easy enough to do.

When we went shopping for ingredients, I noticed that 1) I don’t have access to fresh morels, and 2) dried morels are super expensive (around $8.99 for two ounces). I settled on shittake mushrooms instead, which were available fresh – if you were to make this dish, you could probably substitute any mix of mushrooms that are available to you and discover new combinations fairly easily. Also, Colicchio’s original recipe calls for ramps, which are wild onions, and which also weren’t available, so I substituted scallions instead. That’s the great thing about soup – you can always play around with the ingredients quite a bit and still come out looking good.

I won’t list the straight recipe here, since you can find it in the cookbook (and also you can just Google it), but you take 2.5 pounds (or so) of asparagus, chop them in half, and simmer the chopped stems in 2.25 C chicken stock, and reserve the chopped upper halves (the part with the pointy bits). As the stock simmers, gathering asparagus flavor from the stems, you saute the chopped upper halves with some shallot, salt, pepper, and ramps or scallions. Strain the stock, throw away the stems, and pour the stock into your sauteed mix, simmering for five minutes more. Dump the whole thing into a blender and puree. Soup’s done, unless you’re a stickler for running it through a sieve.

As for the custard, set aside about 45 minutes for it. Chop up the mushrooms (1/4 pound), and saute them (along with some scallion or ramps) in a little bit of oil for about five minutes. Throw in a cup of heavy cream, bring to a simmer, turn off the heat, and let that mushroomy goodness steep throughout the cream for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, or whenever you get around to it again. Strain the mix (keep the mushrooms, keep the cream), let the cream cool a little, and then whisk in one egg + one yolk. Divide among eight three ounce ramekins (buttered or spritzed with Pam), stir a little of your mushroom mush into each, and bake in a water bath at 325 degrees for 25 minutes. When they are done, take them out and let them cool on the counter a bit.

When you are ready to assemble, run a knife around the edge of each custard and invert into your serving bowl. If your butter/Pam karma is good, they should just plop out. If not, you may be screwed.

Ladle a little bit of the hot soup around the custard, tilting the bowl to fill in any spaces, and serve. Well, taste for salt first (it will probably need some), and then serve.

April 26, 2008   Comments