January 24, 2013

The Reluctant Gourmet Rides Again




Just over a year has passed since our foodie group first gathered at the home of two of our members. Marilee, a music teacher and something of a bon vivant, and Stefan, a professional chef, invited five couples plus one special out-of-town guest to their home for a New Year's Eve six course meal. Each couple was responsible for a course, so our hosts specifically invited those of their friends they knew may be up to the challenge of producing a course worthy of any gourmand. I was exceedingly nervous at the prospect, so went the safer route and signed up to bring the soup. In my everyday life I create a lot of soup.

I had made my carrot ginger soup many times, but I laboured over the pot during every step, as if my future life in this town depended on its success. After the soup was pureed and I had added the sherry but omitted the cream, wrongly believing that a vegan soup would somehow impress this crowd, I took a final taste and pronounced it good.

Off we went with our soup and wine, my husband and I, dressed elegantly but comfortably enough to sit through six courses of food and drink. Concerned that my soup would become cold I put it on the burner of our hosts' stove top where over the course of the next hour and a half - some of the guests were late in arriving, particularly the ones responsible for the appetizer - my soup simmered away, awaiting consumption. When my course was up, my husband and I served the soup and I waited in grave anticipation for the reactions of the seasoned guests, one of whom had recently flown from London to Copenhagen just to eat at a particular restaurant due to its reputation. Although everyone said the soup was good 'and just the sort of thing we should have had on the ferry today coming back from Victoria to the Mainland in the freezing damp', as one guest declared, I knew after one taste that the hour and a half of simmering had done it no good and had made it slightly bitter. 'Oh well,' I said to myself, 'Live and learn.'

After our New Year's Eve dinner party the idea of a seasonal supper club was born, and since then, most of us have gathered three more times, taking turns making different courses and hosting the event at our homes. I have made dessert and salad, and my results have been mildly successful but improving each time. As the least experienced, albeit passionate foodie, the gourmet learning curve has been somewhat vertically inclined. At least my husband has taken it upon himself to research and take care of the wine pairings, which has taken the pressure off me a bit. I believe that Julia Child's husband Paul took that task upon himself most willingly as well, not that I am putting us in that same category. I have no interest in deboning a duck or of making anything with the word 'aspic' in it, however much I respect the great Julia.

This past Saturday it was our turn to host, and therefore, to make the main course. After several emailed communications, our eight guests all signed up for their particular course, and I began to prepare mentally and physically for the big event. A week before I had woken up in a cold sweat, having dreamed that four of our guests had not bothered to show up, and in being kept waiting too long for my entree, Tim had lowered his head onto the table and moaned to his wife, Sue, "I want to go home!" In retrospect, I am grateful for that dream because it woke me up quite literally to the fact that stressing over hosting a dinner party was not only silly, it was downright counterproductive. The idea was to have fun and learn something in the process, so I pulled up my socks and spent the week working hard to enjoy the upcoming event to the fullest.

Not all of our members are still with us, so our table, which with the added leaf sits ten adults fairly comfortably, would do. Having recently inherited a good number of elegant dishes and linens from both sides of my parents' families, I decided that our table would be a thing of beauty. My eldest daughter was eager to help with the setting and design of the table, and my younger daughter got busy on the internet looking up a variety of ways to set the table depending on the number of courses and the available cutlery. We found one that suited both our meal and our stock of tableware and she copied the diagram onto a post-it-note. Elder daughter found our collection of seashells and with four glass candle holders, made a lovely still life centerpiece that ran the length of the table. With my Granny's damask napkins and a mix of old and new wine and water glasses, we finished the settings and were satisfied.

At 6:30 our guests began to arrive, and my husband served them my favourite cocktail, the fruity and delicious Pomegranate Martini. Our first course was an appetizer, a tart made in a crispy shell of filo pastry containing thin slices of pear, pecans and the chef's own Castle Blue cheese, which she sells to cheese lovers near and far: delicious and not too filling. Next came the soup, a hearty, rich and deeply flavoured oxtail soup with orzo. Next came a beautiful and unusual palate cleansing salad made from tender butter lettuce with slices of tart green apple, roasted walnuts, and the chef's own homemade pink saurkraut, tangy but gently flavoured, offering just the right amount of acidity to complement the rich olive oil dressing.

I had planned for months to make a delicious and satisfying entree enticingly called Chicken Asiago, but by Saturday morning was still unsure as to how to plate it, and with what on the side? The recipe suggested serving the dish with pasta and sprinkling everything with fresh basil, so I decided on spaghettini. With no fresh basil to be found anywhere, I remembered my stash of homemade pesto in the freezer and knew what I would do. Each half breast of chicken, coated in asiago cheese, breadcrumbs and finely chopped Italian parsley, and then browned in olive oil, was dressed with my homemade tomato sauce enhanced with the fresh Rosemary from the plant still thriving under the eaves on our sundeck. Slices of fresh mozzarella were then placed on top and the chicken finished its cooking in the oven. I had learned from an Italian friend that the best way to cook a lot of pasta was to pre-cook it, then just before serving, flash boil it again and drain. I did so, and found the pasta much less starchy the second time, and easy to mix with the pesto and a bit of extra olive oil. We plated the wonderfully aromatic chicken with a lovely little twist of pesto spaghettini and placed a garnish of Italian parsley on top. (I had been able to practice plating my course for my kids, who had eaten earlier.) As we served our course, and poured glasses of Italian Merlot, we heard encouraging exclamations from our guests, and Stefan, who sat beside me said quietly after he was finished eating my entree, "That was very good".

After a slight delay due to my daughter coming into the kitchen and turning off the oven - ack! - Stefan presented the most amazing and beautiful dessert: ricotta souffles and blood orange salad with triangles of vanilla semifreddo drizzled in crisp dark chocolate and garnished with a half moon of dragon fruit and served atop swirls of fruit and white dessert sauces. The perfect combination of textures, colours and flavours, and the lightness of the dessert proved, once again, what it takes to make a professional chef.

And then there was the cheese course which made use of the wonderful baguettes from our new local Magpie's Bakery, which we had forgotten to serve with my course. "We didn't need the bread," said our local cheesemaker, Debra. "Bread is for mopping up the sauce when there is too much of it. You had just the right amount of sauce on your chicken." I do not think I could have been any happier at that moment. "I'm learning," I said. Four types of Debra's wonderful cheese, honey from her own hives and rose jelly made from her roses, were handed around the table along with another glass each of Marsala. The clock read 11:45.

Along with course after course of  food and wine went laughter and discussions on subjects ranging from 'Vancouver restaurants, eat your heart out!' to Lance Armstrong and the definition of 'hero'. In one of several group emails the next day, Marilee summed up the evening nicely: "Thank you to (my husband and I) for hosting and to the social gods for making it all come together with laughter and good stories. These kind of evenings cannot be really anticipated...sometimes all the best intentions still don't produce the momentum of fun and camaraderie that we were blessed with last nite."

Still basking in the glow of my first attempt at hosting our foodie group, I have taken a precious organic chicken out of the freezer and plan to make my family a special meal this weekend. We might even use the good dishes again. I hope my grandmothers would approve.

The photo above was taken just before the guests arrived. Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

P.S. We have a new post up at Stella's. Something hearty and healthy for this time of year.

13 comments:

  1. You do have a love affair with food, don't you. :) (Me, too. I just don't cook much.) Congratulations in pulling together all the right components to have such a wonderful dinner party. I'm glad you're learning more and more each time you take on the task of entertaining, and that you realize that it's supposed to be fun!

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    1. Yes, I do have a love affair with food. I might as well, because I spend so much time in the kitchen :)

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  2. The soup must have burned on the bottom of the pan. There isn't anything in it that would get bitter on its own. But a bit of burning could turn it downright nasty.

    It wasn't really a winter meal. It was quite light, but for the cheese. I would have liked it a few years ago but now the cheese would grip my chest in a vice. I think I'd have gone with an Australian rosé. Fairly dry. I certainly wouldn't have gone with an oaky white or a heavy red. There are some Moselle's and Rhineish whites that would fit. It would be tempting to go red to help with the cheese.
    Had you the sprogs at the table too, or had you got them working.

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    1. I think it must have scorched a little, but only a little.
      I don't think there's anything light about six courses of food and drink, no matter the season, but yes, none of us was very full until after the cheese. We had sparkling rose for the first course, then Marsala, then Merlot, then back to Marsala with the dessert because the dessert wine had gone off. There was sherry for the cheese, but no one seemed to need anymore alcohol by that point :)
      The kids were watching movies, but the older ones came in for the cheese course - the youngest was fast asleep by then. They do love cheese.

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    2. As in 'gone bad, started turning to vinegar, etc.'

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  3. Sometimes there is nothing better then breaking out the good dishes with friends :) Sounds like a fabulous evening!

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    1. It was! And I do love using the pretty dishes, too.

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  4. I am a tad envious of your cooking and dinner party arrangements! I am such a disorganised person, I would find that tremendously difficult! I don't even have a complete matching delph set! I had a 'good' set but its a bit chipped now. Our house is very old too and needs renovation so I don't feel like buying new dishes just yet!

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    1. Except my set is for 8. My husband and I got the everyday chipped dishes :)

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  6. smiles...you remind me of my wife...she loves food...being an ex ballet dancer she can...and not gain an inch...but she likes experimenting with it as well and finding new things...that is very cool...

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I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!