Very Special Menu
Entertaining is not always your dear old friends or family. How do you reciprocate when you’ve been wined and dined by people you don't know very well?
We had a lovely day in the country this summer with some old friends and new acquaintances exploring the Woodinville tasting rooms that have developed around the intersection of what was once just the option to go left to Chateau Ste Michelle, or straight ahead to the warehouse district. Now it is a destination with many wineries and restaurants where you can park your car once and walk to any venue of interest. Afterwards we went to the home of the new acquaintances, which was hidden in the forest, rural and remote from our urban point of view. There was no bus stop for miles.
Unexpected entertainment included a walk through the woods to relax above a waterfall and river, and hearing about recent bear cub sightings. I hate it when they say, “No, we didn’t see the mother bear, but you know she’s there.”
Wild salmon caught by the host in Alaska and sous vide steaks were the centerpiece of an impressive spread, with some dishes brought by the guests. Equal to the food was the wine selection from the cellar and from the afternoon’s wine tour. All together a memorable day made even more exciting by meeting kindred spirits who are interested in what I am interested in. Can we talk about cooking, restaurants and reading? Yes!
Spontaneously after dinner, with the rosy glow of indulgence, without consulting my spouse (a major breech of good behavior), I invited everyone at the table to our house in the fall. Gulp! I began contemplating menus the next day. The menu needed to be welcoming, generous, and exhibit fresh ideas. We counted so many restaurants and cookbooks in common, they would get all my references.
The goal in this situation is to amuse and please, but not be over-the-top or ostentatious. My menu needed to be reciprocal. So, in the end after lots of ideas about ingredients and culinary feats, I put beer cooler sous vide and my beloved Richard Olney's sea bass in aspic back on the shelf and leaned on the best recipe writers I know these days, David Lebovitz and Yotam Ottolenghi. I trust them totally to deliver recipes that work the first time and excite the palate with spices and textures. They are both eclectic and feature international recipes from travels or friends. It is not necessary for me to test these recipes to see if I like them or not. I always do and I don’t hesitate to serve them to anyone even if I haven’t made them before. In this case, it was the third time I had made the lamb tagine and the spreads with Soca. They are so good I can't resist serving them and the reaction is always the same, "This is really good hummus, not from Costco." All the other recipes were the first time ever and I was very happy about all of them.
Lebovitz’s savory recipes are found on his web site, or in his books, Living the Sweet Life in Paris and My Paris Kitchen (MPK), sometimes updated versions from his web site. He also has famous sweet recipes in other books like The Perfect Scoop. Ottolenghi’s recipes are easily found online, on his web site, from the archives of the Guardian newspaper and in his books, Ottolenghi:The Cookbook, Jerusalem, Plenty and Plenty More.
Offering two proteins is a smart choice to cover a wide range of preferences. I love lamb, but not everybody does. Hearty side dishes will keep vegetarians from feeling forgotten. Two desserts are necessary of course, because that's just being a good host.
Liberties I Took with the Recipes Even Though It Makes the Creators Cringe
My crowd had several gluten free eaters so I chose the Soca made with chickpea flour over other typical choices for hummus and substituted rice for the couscous. The doubled Soca recipe was cooked in three different size cast iron skillets, as I had nothing else that could endure the broiler step. I didn’t to cut them to serving size. People ate the small and medium ones whole and tore the largest in pieces to suit themselves. These flatbread pancakes didn’t appear to suffer from the holding time in the warming drawer.
I skipped the salsa intended to be served on the Sea Bass because the marinade was bold enough and colorful on its own. My cilantro turned out to be parsley so I substituted ground coriander for that family of flavor, so the chermoula wasn't green. Baking fish when you already have a hot oven, instead of lighting a charcoal grill is a smart move.
I prefer the Lamb Tagine recipe in the MPK book, because of a spice rub applied a day or two before cooking, which I think deepens the flavors and the final sauce in this version features apricots and raisins.
The Bittersweet Salad was chosen for its beauty and truly looked like a flower arrangement even though I couldn’t come up with many of the red suggestions from the book Plenty. I took color as my guide in selecting ingredients and as you can see by my photo, it was a red salad.
No matter what the recipe says about serving right away, it can usually be done ahead. I frequently make David’s hummus and eat it for breakfast every day on toast for a week. It only gets better.
Three days before the party I picked up lamb shoulder from the butcher cut up in stew size pieces, rubbed it and refrigerated for 24 hours. I also made the tapenade and hummus.
Two days before I cooked the tagine at 325 degrees and temporarily reduced the temperature to 300 when I was ready to bake the cookies for about 12 minutes.
One day before the party I made the pots de crème and washed the salad ingredients and parsley for garnish so they would be very dry for handling the next day. I chopped the preserved lemon and dried fruit for the couscous.
On the day of I had fun setting the table in the morning and later in the day assembled the salad, cooked the dressing to set aside until serving, and made the Soca batter, which needs to sit out several hours. My helpful spouse picked up the sea bass from the fish monger who had cut two large Chilean sea bass steaks into pieces that made decent serving portions and quick, even cooking. One hour before the guests arrived I marinated the sea bass; turned on the rice cooker; started making the Soca and storing it on a half sheet pan in a warming drawer while the tagine was reheating in a 350 degree oven. The last hour was busy but doable and a store bought chip could make it easier, but not better.
The company arrived to enjoy a cocktail or wine and the popular hot Soca with spreads for an hour. Just before serving dinner the tagine was pulled out of the oven and the temperature was increased to 425 to cook the fish for about 10 minutes.
Everyone served themselves from the pots on the stove and rice cooker. Several different red and white wines were opened and put on the table so everyone could taste everything they wanted.
The crowd was enthusiastic about the food, even requesting recipes. Everyone enjoyed themselves. One farewell comment that sailed to the top of this host's all time compliments received was, "We should make getting together a tradition." Reciprocating is one step toward making new friends.
Lamb Tagine (MPK)
Lemon - Pistachio Israeli Couscous (or Rice) (MPK)
Bittersweet Salad (Plenty)
Almond and Orange Florentines (Ottolenghi:The Cookbook)
Almond-Orange Florentines are made of egg whites, almonds, sugar and orange zest, so are gluten free and very easy to make.