Saturday night, my friend Nat and I hosted a lavish dinner, some ten courses for a dozen or so guests, held at his house. The preparations took twelve hours and we were assisted by six staff members. In the end, despite “small” courses that filled diners so much that we skipped the cheese course, and despite having to scrap the cranberry souffles because a sous chef mistook the base for a sauce and boiled it to death, things turned out nicely and a good time was had by all.
On the grand scale of cooking styles, with “tedious planner” at one extreme and “wing-and-a-prayer” at the other, I’m more towards the later than the former. In my kitchen, recipes are suggestions and usually are more of a starting point rather than scriptures to be followed. However, it is safe to say that Nat is even further to the “free-form” end of the scale. Our brief email exchanges in the days leading up to the dinner are the full extent to which we planned in advance.
Instead, I showed up at his house at shortly after 8:00 Saturday morning. We discussed a menu and then headed to the market relying on nothing more than our collective minds in lieu of a shopping list.
While we were working from a wee bit of a plan, there was a lot of improvisation based on what we saw at the market. “These look good, let’s use them as a sauce!” We returned home and started preparations, talking through the schedule of what should happen over the next several hours before guests arrived.
We were working from this rough plan: an amuse bouche (appetizer) of a Thai-style tuna poke; a lemongrass flavored Vichysoisse (potato and leek soup), served hot; a tomato-beet soup, served cold; pumpkin tortelloni served on a roasted red bell pepper sauce; smoked salmon and shiso leaves on focaccia bread; a lime sorbet as a palette cleanser; chicken breast stuffed with pork and shrimp, cooked sous-vide and served with a mango and avocado salsa; a salad of plain greens; a pork loin simply seasoned and cooked sous-vide, served with pureed carrots, curried cauliflower, and creamed broccoli; a selection of four cheeses served with dried fruit; individual cranberry souffles served with rosemary ice cream; and tea/coffee/digestifs served with petit fours.
Thankfully, Nat has a household staff, three of whom have worked as sous chefs in professional kitchens. Let me strongly recommend that if you are going to have a dinner party, you get yourself a kitchen staff. It greatly reduces the workload! (Yes, I realize that most of us, myself included, don’t have that luxury on a regular basis.)
All joking aside, having a competent staff really did make a huge difference. While Nat and I were both hands-on, it was helpful to have people to wash, cut, pound, etc. The meat dishes were the first ones we prepared, since they were going to be cooked “sous- vide” or in a vacuum. I’ll explain that in a moment. First step was to pound the chicken breasts and then arrange them so they made a rectangle.
The chicken breasts were topped with a blended mixture of pork and shrimp, seasoned with soy sauce. This mixture is very similar to the filling used for wontons. Nat then rolled the whole thing into a log so that, once served, a slice would have a pleasing spiral shape.
The stuffed chicken breasts were then cut into three sections, each of which was tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and then placed in a vacuum bag and sealed.
The pork loin, covered with a spice rub, is sealed in a plastic bag by a vacuum sealer. Our cooking method for the chicken and pork was to use “sous-vide” – French for “under vacuum” – a technique in which food is cooked in a sealed bag that has the air removed from it, and then the bag is placed in a water bath and cooked at a low temperature for a very long time. In this case, the pork was cooked for 8 hours in a 147 F water bath.
The benefits of this technique include that none of the moisture and flavor are lost in the process, since they remain sealed in the bag. Additionally, the low and slow cooking ensures that the meat is cooked to the desired level of doneness without overcooking. There are some other benefits that occur at a molecular level – cell walls do not burst, connective tissues gelatinize without the proteins tightening, etc. More about that in the Wikipedia article here. This was my first time cooking with this technique and I’d like to try more of it.
To accompany the chicken, we combined white onion, mango, and avocados to form a salsa that was seasoned with fish sauce.
The end result was very tasty, although upon retrospect I wish we had not mixed the avocados in until the last minute as the end result was creamier and less distinct than I had envisioned.
The souffle base was made from cranberries, a decision we arrived at based on what berries were in Nat’s freezer. After thawing them, the berries were run through a food mill to extract all the pulp but leave behind the tough skins.
The resulting cranberry pulp was then cooked into a souffle base and allowed to cool. Since souffles have to be made just before cooking and serving them, the whipped egg whites would be added during the dinner.
Carrots are cooked, to be pureed into the base for the pork loin. Broccoli florets will be steamed and then tossed in a light cream sauce just before serving.
In the late afternoon, after the majority of the team cooking is done, Nat briefs the staff on the order of the meal, how things will be plated and served, etc. The woman with the long hair, who seemed to be the de facto chief of the kitchen staff, took meticulous notes, longer than what Nat and I were working with. The staff then had a few hours’ break before returning for final preparations.
Another dish that I worked on earlier in the day (we’re jumping around, time-wise) was the amuse bouche. When Tawn and I were in Kauai in March, we enjoyed eating poke (pronounced “pok-eh”), a Hawaiian dish made of sushi-grade seafood (usually tuna), mixed with soy sauce, chili, sesame oil, and a variety of other ingredients to make a salad. While there, we talked about the idea of making poke with a Thai flavor profile. First step was to buy some yellow fin tuna and dice it.
One of the staff, an older lady who was very precise with her knife, chopped lemongrass, mint, and kaffir lime skin.
The mixture was pounded with a mortar and pestle to release the oils, then mixed into the tuna. I added prodigious amounts of nam prik pao, a very thick chili paste.
The Thai poke after a few hours in the refrigerator. Closer to serving, I doctored it with some lime juice and tamarind paste, which greatly improved the flavor. Nonetheless, I have some thoughts about how this needs to be made differently, based on a dish I had for lunch Sunday afternoon at a Thai restaurant.
For the pasta, we steamed Japanese pumpkins, scraped out the flesh, then pureed it with a few eggs and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
Making the pasta dough became a bit of an adventure because Nat’s pasta rolling attachment, in its debut use, was acting up. One of the rollers kept freezing, which resulted in the dough being stretched and torn, rather than just rolled out. I eventually resorted to the old-fashioned way of doing things: a rolling pin. In this case, a very cool silicone rolling pin to which the dough did not stick, even when I didn’t use flour.
We were originally going to make tortelloni, which are large tortellini, serving a single one per guest. But neither of us were sure how exactly to fold the the pasta. We decided to instead make ravioli, something less complicated, and the results were good. This reminds me that I really should make fresh pasta more often. It is very easy – especially with the Thomas Keller recipe for pasta dough which includes just a little bit of milk – and tastes so much better than dried pasta.
The tomato and beet soup. This was a recipe that kept evolving, trying to get the right flavor profile. The big mistake we made was using canned beets, which turned out to be pickled. The soup then had a very vinegary flavor. More tomato puree corrected this and eventually we ended up with something with a nice flavor of herbs de Provence.
We wanted to serve a cold soup immediately following the hot one, an opportunity to have contrasting flavors as well as temperatures. To do this, Nat actually placed the tomato-beet soup in the ice cream maker and started freezing it. It was served icy.
The other soup, served hot, was a Vichysoisse, a classic potato-leek soup. This was flavored with lemongrass for a few hours, which was then removed before the soup was pureed. Interestingly, the lemongrass gave the soup a light brown color as it steeped.
A picture of the dining table with the kitchen in the background. Notice all the glasses on the counter, which were used to serve various courses.
Nat’s focaccia bread, which was divine, topped with shiso leaves. These leaves, also known as perilla, are common in Japanese cooking but I’ve never really been properly introduced to them. When you eat them on their own, they have a pleasant citrusy flavor. I’m going to have to play around with these as an ingredient.
The staff helps prepare the salmon on focaccia bread while the mango and avocado salsa comes up to room temperature for serving.
The staff, now back from their break and attired in service uniforms, listen as I explain how we are going to plate the poke appetizer. They were enormously patient with my Thai.
My instructions must have been clear enough, as they did a good job plating. All I had to do was wipe the plates before they headed out.
Tawn and a few guests arrived early, so we opened a few bottles of sparkling wine and visited as Nat, his staff, and I put the final touches on the dinner. One thing that was nice about having the staff was that we were able to be at the table most of the time and the staff finished plating and bringing things out at the right time. That said, I think we could have modified the menu a bit so that even less time could have been spent in the kitchen during the dinner service.
Some twelve hours after the day started, our guests had arrived and we finally sat down for dinner. The finished products will appear in the next entry. Stay tuned!