Dinner 12-17-2011

I think this may be the last dinner before the new year.  We had another old friend visiting and the wife decided to invite some people over.  So I was cooking for 6 guests plus myself. One was the former head of her department at the college, now retired, and his wife.  The other is a current professor in the same department, and his wife.  Both couples are experienced travelers and eaters in Europe.  I know they've been to some fine restaurants there, and here in the U.S.  It would be fun to cook for them.

I decided to go with a little tour of French cookery.  Mostly to get their impressions given I have no reference point for what most things ought to be like.  (Impressions were favorable...whew!)

First  up was a little charcuterie plate with cornichons and dijon mustard.  I served fennel salami, smoked prosciutto, and rabbit pâté.  The only part of this I made was the pâté.   Lacking a meat grinder, I put the meat and fat through a food processor several times.   This was a fun one to make.  After cutting up the carcass of the rabbit, I deboned it and let it marinade with thyme, salt, bay leaf.  Then this is ground up with some pork fat back and pieces of bread soaked in milk.  The last touch before cooking is the addition of some mustard with cognac.   This is wrapped in bacon and then baked.  Once cooled, it is compressed with weights and left to chill, sliced, and served.

With the charcuterie I served two breads that I've made before: a sourdough baguette and brioche.  I need to work on my shaping skills....I'm masterful at making exploding baguette, which is caused by the loaf splitting at invisible seams in the dough rather than the scores I make.   The brioche was probably the best I've made so far.  This is Keller's recipe in Bouchon.

For a first course, I decided to do a "fruits de mer" platter.  I like this because the food is cooked simply, with finesse, and presented in a way that signals abundance and festiveness.

A few of the items are poached in court bouillon.  This poaching liquid consists of water, veggies (leeks, onions, carrots), herbs and spices (bouquet garni), dry white wine, lemon, and vinegar.  The lobster, crab, and shrimp are all poached for a few minutes in the liquid before being chilled.  The PEI mussels are cooked simply in a thin layer of boiling water before also being chilled.

I had fun with the oysters and clams, having never shucked either before.  It turns out to be pretty easy, and there's something gratifying when you feel the shell first pop loose.   These were served raw with three sauces.

 Starting at the top image, a cocktail sauce (easy: ketchup, worcestershire, mustard, horseradish), a mignonette (red wine vinegar, shallot, black pepper), and dijon mustard mayo (egg yolk, oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, mustard)

The next course was a meat.  I love duck so much that I made it yet again.  I switched up the spicing and used finely ground coffee, salt, and pepper.  I made the port wine-sherry beurre monte again to sauce the meat.  This time served with sauteed spinach.    The other side with this was a red rice cooked in chicken stock with chestnuts and garnished with thinly sliced burgundy truffles.   This clearly isn't presentation for haute cuisine, but my oh my did the red rice-truffle-chestnut combo work, especially with the duck and the sauce.

Dessert came in two stages.  Again, not winning any awards for presentation, but still...so delicious.  First was a plate with baked balls of pate a choux, a pastry dough that we've seen before in the form of gougeres and eclairs.  This time is a form of 'profiterole' where vanilla ice cream is sandwiched between the two halves of the hollow ball of dough.  Topping this, admittedly somewhat haphazardly, was a simple chocolate sauce.  

On the side of the dish were poached prunes.  These were so so flavorful, and sweet, so meltingly tender, that I am sure to do this again with other fruits.  The prunes are left to marinate in red wine (cabernet sauvignon), with cinnamon sticks, star anise, and honey.  I added thai long peppercorns and some nutmeg, which I think are complementary flavors.  After sitting in this mixture overnight, the prunes and liquid are brought to a simmer only briefly to soften them, and  then left to sit and chill at least for a day. 

After dessert, we had some digestifs.  Available were cognac, scotch.  We also had some coffee.  Along with these, I made a strawberry-rhubarb tart and a cocoa flavored cookie topped with chopped walnuts.

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