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Saucy (a.k.a. The Hostess Project)

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2005

The Hostess Project #5: North African Feast

I was intending to take it easy this month. I promised myself something simple, like pasta and a salad. Of course my imagination ran away from me and kept going and going, like that little pink Energizer bunny.

It all started with my main dish. I really wanted another roast leg of lamb—it’s just so easy and impressive. This time I found a beautiful, Moroccan Spice-Rubbed Leg of Lamb recipe on Epicurious. When an Epicurious recipe has that many glowing reviews, I feel confident that the recipe will turn out well. So completely ignoring my first rule of thumb for dinner parties, I proceeded with an untested recipe. Now one untested recipe is usually okay, but since I’ve had zero experience cooking Moroccan cuisine, I ended up with an entire menu of untested recipes. Typically this turns out one of two ways: a complete and total disaster or, much less often, amazing.

With a Moroccan theme nailed down, it was an easy leap to couscous for a side dish. Of course I didn’t want to make just any couscous; I wanted to make proper couscous. One that’s been steamed multiple times, with each grain lovingly separated by hand. I found the perfect thrice-steamed couscous recipe in the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. Even though the recipe sounded elaborate and time consuming, it didn’t send out any alert bells because everything I’ve made from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook has been exquisitely delicious.

For the veggie I wanted something colorful (since everything thus far was brown). Moroccan carrot salads kept popping up in my research and I narrowed it down to one. The winning recipe was chosen because of its use of asafetida. Asafetida (a.k.a. “Devil’s Dung”) is known for its pungent, rotting smell. I’ve had a jar of asafetida languishing in the cabinet for a few months now and every time I open the door, the smell knocks me down and assertively reminds me that I need to cook with it. (In case you’re keeping track: new recipe #3).

The typical Moroccan appetizer is Bastilla, which is a savory-sweet phyllo concoction, but it looked too time consuming. Nothing else caught my eye until I started looking at Egyptian dips and spreads, which changed my dinner theme from Moroccan to North African. Du’a (or Dukka) is an intriguing mixture of ground nuts and spices that is used like a dip for bread (new recipe #4) and for my second appetizer I chose an Egyptian Fava Bean Dip (Foul Mudammes) solely because I’ve been obsessed with fava beans lately.

Some of the more traditional Moroccan desserts seemed difficult to make and most of them were deep fried (and couldn’t be made ahead of time). I started thinking about phyllo dough and the nutty, sweet, layers of baklava, and as if to reinforce this choice a few people had randomly told me that it’s quite easy to make. I did more research and discovered that there is an Egyptian version of Baklava, which is similar to the Greek except for the omission of honey and the addition of orange blossom water (new, and final, recipe #6).

Two nights before the party, I’m dripping with melted butter and swearing at the phyllo sheets that refuse to come apart, trying to remember who it was that told me making baklava was easy. I have little patience (or skill) when it comes to making desserts, so choosing to make baklava was a little like playing Russian roulette. After more than three hours of assembly and baking, I pulled the baklava out of the oven. On a whim, I had doubled the amount of nut filling so they were chock-full, but they were gorgeous! In fact, so gorgeous that I didn’t automatically swear off making them ever again, like I usually do.

The night before the party I picked up a beautiful five pound leg of boneless lamb from A&J Meats, which went straight into a Ziploc with the so-simple-to-prepare-I-wonder-if-it’s-any-good marinade. I also assembled the carrot salad so that it could marinate overnight. I wanted to give the salad a face lift, so I hand shredded raw carrots into long strands on my Japanese benriner; they were infinitely prettier than uneven hunks of carrot. I also made quick work of the two dips in my food processor. The Du’a nut mixture was driving me crazy (in a good way) because it was so fragrant while toasting and the fava bean dip barely made it to the party; I couldn’t stop eating it. It was creamy and luscious from the combination of fava beans and olive oil, and the curry tomato flavor was undeniably addictive.

This left the roasting of the lamb and couscous preparation for the day of the party. Unfortunately, the couscous was decidedly more complicated than I ever could have imagined. This was mostly because I don’t own a couscous steamer (a.k.a. a couscousiere) and had to assemble a makeshift one. And by makeshift, I mean really makeshift. The idea is to steam the couscous over flavored water three times, fluffing and separating the grains between each steaming. In order to steam properly, you need a tight seal between your water source and your couscous holder. I took a large pot and fit my largest colander inside. It was a perfect fit, except the colander touched the bottom of the pot. Excellent for boiling, not so good for steaming.

I tried a variety of items to lift up the colander and finally settled on a large biscuit cutter, but this left a huge gap at the top. I had read the proper way to create an airtight seal is to take a tea towel, soak it in a flour and water paste and mold it into place; I did the best I could with foil. This may seem like common sense, but I would like to point out that it’s important to watch the water and make sure it doesn’t boil over. I ended up with a bottom layer of gummy couscous and a stove stained bright yellow from turmeric. Luckily the ruined part of the couscous congealed into a solid mass so it was fairly easy to remove and discard.

The party started off great with the guests bringing a surprising array of cocktails from all around the globe. We had a wonderful twist on a Caipirinha (Brazilian), which was made with cachaça and a mint infused simple syrup. We then moved on to the all-American fuzzy navel. The best cocktail of the night (and maybe closest to being Moroccan) was a concoction of strong brewed mint tea, pomegranate juice, mint simple syrup and vodka. It was incredibly refreshing and the perfect summer drink.

The appetizers were a huge hit—despite the fact that my stove top went out and I couldn’t fry the pita breads. Oddly enough, this was a blessing in disguise because as I waited impatiently for the burner to heat up I realized that the pita breads I had bought the day before were moldy! I happened to have also purchased Lavash flat breads so no one was the wiser.

After cocktail hour we sat down to dinner. The broiled lamb was cooked perfectly and sported a nice brown crust. The lamb was juicy and tender and the flavor was outstanding. None of the marinade ingredients stood out on their own, but blended together they were complex and complimented the lamb. Despite the pains I went through for the couscous, I have to say it was worth it. Steamed couscous is an entirely different animal than boiled couscous. It’s light and fluffy with fully separated grains perfumed with the barest hint of turmeric and coriander. The cold carrot salad had a great crunch and a wonderfully exotic flavor (luckily asafetida tastes much better than it smells). Dessert was easy and delicious, albeit a bit messy. The baklava were flaky, sticky, sweet and fragrant with orange blossoms.

So six for six. Never before have I been able to successfully turn out that many new, untested recipes in one night. And not only did each recipe turn out well individually, but as a whole, the meal came together beautifully. The colors, textures and flavors were well balanced and had enough of a similar thread to tie them all together—and at the same time were unique enough to not be boring. I seem to be saying this after every Hostess Project party, but… this really was the best one yet. Either I’m getting better and better at this Hostess Project thing, or I’m damned lucky. I like to think it’s a little of both.

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

The Hostess Project #4: Garden Party

One of the most difficult tasks of entertaining is figuring out where to put all the guests. This can be especially daunting when you have a small apartment and a kitchen nook the size of a breadbox. Over the years, I’ve learned to be creative and started asking friends to host shared parties—I do all the cooking, they provide the venue and we split the guest list and food costs. It’s not only a great way to have a change of scenery, but it also results in meeting quite a few new people, which is excellent for my pyramid dining scheme master plan.

My friends Glenn Withey and Charles Price are the curators of the Dunn Gardens located in North Seattle. They live in a converted carriage house situated in a historic, residential Olmsted garden. I love co-hosting parties with them not only because it’s such an idyllic setting, but also because I get to meet their interesting friends. The only downside is that Charles is a demi-vegetarian and doesn’t do garlic. This can make menu planning a bit of a challenge.

My parties at Glenn and Charles’ place always revolve around seafood. Recently, I had been craving Halibut Cheeks with Tarragon Beurre Blanc, which calls for garlic but I figured it would be okay to omit it. I had also been seeing a lot of pea-shoots on seasonal menus around town and thought they would be a perfect accompaniment, if I could find them. I also decided to make my mother’s delicious Zucchini Bisque, which is elegant and easy to make.

I noticed a green/herb motif starting to emerge, so I continued the theme into the appetizers—although my theme could just as easily have been butter, as almost every recipe contained copious amounts. Case in point: Smoked Trout Rillettes, made with smoked trout and lots of butter. It wasn’t green or herby, but I figured I could add some chopped watercress for color. For the second appetizer, Glenn and Charles had been given three pounds of flash frozen spot prawns from Alaska and asked me to use them. This was the hardest recipe to pin down because prawns and garlic have a natural affinity for each other, but I concocted a decent sounding Shrimp Salad in Endive recipe from a few different sources. For dessert I wanted something I could make entirely ahead, so I picked a Marionberry Semifreddo Torte, which is very refreshing and delicious. After looking over the whole menu, I was concerned that it would be a little light and added in a cheese course between the entrée and dessert.

The morning of the party I headed down to the Pike Place Market to pick up ingredients. I started at Pure Food Fish Market to get my halibut cheeks, but was told that no one had halibut cheeks this week. Saddened, I begrudgingly bought orange roughy and hoped that nothing else would go wrong. I stopped at Sosio’s (my favorite produce stand) and they told me that they didn’t sell pea-shoots. The woman saw the look of panic creeping across my face and quickly pointed across the way, saying "Mr. Lee will have pea-shoots". I scurried across and sure enough, Mr. Lee had lots of pea-shoots. I told him I needed enough for twelve people and he suggested I get six bundles. They were giant, whole-head-of-lettuce-sized bundles and I protested that it was too much, but he adamantly told me I needed that many. I acquiesced and headed towards DeLaurenti lugging what felt like eight pounds of greens.

As I passed by Pike Place Fish Market I saw that they had an entire case filled with halibut cheeks! Usually I’m timid when it comes to stuff like this, but I was determined to have perfection and I went back to Pure Food Fish to try and return my fish. I asked one of the guys standing out in front and, avoiding all eye contact, he told me there was no way I could return the $60 worth of fish I just purchased. Frustrated, I walked past him and up to the counter and spoke to the guy who told me there were no halibut cheeks in the market. When I told him Pike Place Fish had lots of cheeks, he rolled his eyes at me. Undaunted, I asked again if I could return the roughy but he refused to answer me. I kept asking and finally he slammed my money down on the counter and I gave him back the fish. I figured he wanted me to feel guilty, but I was just relieved that I could get the ingredients I really wanted.

Normally I avoid Pike Place Fish like the plague, as I’m not a tourist and am not thrilled about having the fish I plan to eat hurled through the air, manhandled and bruised. I had to push through the circle of onlookers that always surround the perimeter of the store and it felt like I was walking up on stage. I asked for six pounds of halibut cheeks. Next thing I know the guy’s yelling "BUTT CHEEKS FOR THE LADY," and then I hear it being echoed from all corners of the store as each employee yells out "BUTT CHEEKS". I’m shrinking away from the counter, feeling like every tourist has their camcorder pointed at me, whispering lewd comments about butt cheeks into their microphones. Sensing my embarrassment, the man at the counter gently handed me my package of halibut, thankfully relieving me from another round of yelling and the tossing of my cheeks from employee to employee, like a dreaded game of keep-away.

My final stop was DeLaurenti where I sampled a few cheeses for my cheese plate and settled on a creamy French Comte, a tangy Mirableu blue cheese and an earthy Brie de Meaux. I also picked up a loaf of Macrina walnut herb bread and a package of Gerard & Dominique smoked trout.

When I got to the Dunn Gardens a few hours later, Glenn handed me a simple white box containing the defrosted prawns. I opened it up and nearly cried because they were so beautiful. The prawns were a perfect pink color and were very plump—the kind of plump that comes from high quality, not preservatives. I poached the prawns in a rich broth made from the shells and created a salad that was spooned into the end of the endive leaves. The prawns were sweet and briny and by far the best I’ve ever eaten.

Around 5pm, the guests started showing up with wine and cocktails. It was starting to rain, but we pretended it was warm and sunny and made gin & tonics using the Hendricks’s Gin that J brought. After a few drinks we decided to go on a garden tour, even though by now it was pouring down rain. Luckily, the Dunn Gardens are equipped with a selection of umbrellas for such occasions. The walk through the garden was stunningly beautiful and the greens were bursting with color. When we got back we sat in the "sun" room for appetizers and more cocktails. The rillettes was the perfect temperature—still cold, but soft enough to spread on the accompanying nutty Ak-Mak crackers. The shrimp salad in endive was gorgeous and tasted heavenly with the sweet shrimp contrasting nicely with the light artichoke-like flavor of the endive.

My original (sunny day) plan had been to serve the zucchini bisque cold like a vichyssoise, but the nice thing about this soup is that it’s equally good served hot. I heated it up, added the final touch of cream and a pinch of truffle salt and served it in warmed, shallow bowls. Everyone (including myself) was stunned that vegetarian zucchini soup could taste that good—it was creamy and rich without being heavy and the onion and zucchini flavors shone through.

Halfway through the soup course, I excused myself to start on the fish. Earlier in the night a guest had commented on how brave I was to be serving fish since it’s so hard to cook perfectly. This made me a little bit nervous—in addition to the little bit tipsy I already felt after all the gin and tonics, but it seemed hard to screw up halibut cheeks, as they are somewhat forgiving and their natural stringy texture can obscure small missteps in cooking. As I was cooking the fish, I also started sautéing the pea-shoots. I laughed as I watched them shrink from a pile of leaves spilling out of the top of my largest stock-pot to about three inches of greens. I silently said a thank you to Mr. Lee for his sage advice.

I plated the fish, which looked gorgeous perched atop the bright green pea-shoots on Glenn and Charles’ lovely blue stoneware. It wasn’t until I started eating that I realized I had forgotten to salt the pea-shoots. They were still good, but not nearly as good as they would have been with a sprinkle of salt (or cooked in chicken broth!). The halibut was thinly breaded and perfectly cooked and the buttery tarragon sauce was an amazing pairing. Even J, who swears she hates tarragon, was raving about the dish.

My friend R is a wine enthusiast, so I had asked him to bring some wines that would pair well with halibut… and tarragon—a little tricky since tarragon is such a strong and distinct flavor. R said he simply went to, typed in tarragon and got a recommendation for Viognier. R picked out a "New World" Viu Manet Secreto 2003 Viognier from Chile and an "Old World" 2003 Texier Côtes du Rhone Viognier from Esquin Wines, which were both fantastic with the fish and sauce.

After dinner we retired to the sun room where I served the cheese course. I had let the cheeses sit out for about an hour and a half so they were the perfect temperature. I’ve always been a huge fan of Brie de Meaux so I eat a lot of it. I think this was what made me feel like it was a bit of a boring and mundane choice—even though it was delicious and mushroom-y. My favorite was the French Comte which was unbelievably rich and complex. My least favorite was the Mirableu, but only because it seemed a tad too overpowering with the rest of the selection.

Last came the Marionberry Semifreddo Torte. Once it was served there was silence and all I could hear was the scraping of forks against plates. The semi-frozen marionberry custard was creamy, yet light in texture and was divine with the rich and buttery shortbread crust. I had made a 9 inch tart, which seemed like enough for 12 people, but we seriously could have gone through an entire second one; there were fights over who got the last piece.

I was exhausted and had to say my goodbyes shortly after dessert, but even still, I felt that this was one of the most successful parties yet. Almost everything was made ahead of time, so I got to spend a lot of time with the guests and all the courses were delicious and went extremely well with one another. There were many raves and exclamations over the food, so I’m hoping this means there will be return dinner invites extended soon.

Friday, May 20th, 2005

The Hostess Project #3: Hot Tamales

I’m only two months into my dinner-party-a-month pyramid scheme and I’m realizing it’s actually quite a bit of work. On any given week I’m either planning, cooking, cleaning or writing about a dinner party. This has led me to two conclusions: one, I need to plan easier, lower-key parties and two, I need to buy a dishwasher.

For my third event I wanted to make everything ahead of time and also have the guests help out. A tamale making party fit the bill perfectly so I started researching recipes. I already had a favorite Pork Adobado recipe that I knew would make a fantastic filling, and I easily found a beef recipe. For a modern twist, I came across a recipe for duck confit tamales with cinnamon and anise. The recipe sounded amazing and it also gave me the opportunity to prepare duck confit, which has been on my must-try-making list for a few years now. To take a break from all the meat and round out the menu, I went with a vegetarian option for the final filling.

Once I had the tamale recipes picked out, I started looking at sauces. I know tamales aren’t typically served with sauce, but I wanted to have a backup in case the tamales turned out to be dry or bland. Mole has also been on my must-make list, but I discovered it takes a laundry list of ingredients—and that didn’t fit into my easy party plan. I then came across prepared Mole Mayordomo from Melissa Guerra. The Food & Wine product endorsement won me over and I placed an order for a jar of Mole Rojo and a jar of Mole Negro.

In my tamale research, I came across a great site that has many tamale making tips, which is where I got the idea to dye cornhusk strips and use them as tamale ties to differentiate between the four fillings. The only problem was that the cornhusks seemed a tad waxy and didn’t soak up much color, so I ended up using almost straight food coloring. They were brilliant and beautiful, but I wasn’t quite sure how they’d hold up to steaming.

I decided to make and freeze the pork and beef fillings in advance, so three weeks before the party I went down to the market to pick up ingredients. My first stop was El Mercado Latino, where I purchased Maseca Masa Harina, dried cornhusks, and ancho, pasilla and New Mexico dried chilies. Then I paid a visit to Don & Joe’s Meats and picked out a beautiful pork shoulder roast and a beef shoulder roast. I also pre-ordered the duck and duck fat I needed for the confit. They tried to convince me to buy their pre-made confit, but I wasn’t biting. It’s more expensive to make it yourself, but I’ve always been disappointed with packaged confit and find it to be dry and leathery with a strong, disturbing liver taste.

The following weekend, I went back down to Don & Joe’s to pick up my duck and duck by-products. The duck legs turned out to be from Hudson Valley Foie Gras and were gorgeous. When I got home I spent a few minutes just looking at them with giddy lust. As I started the confit recipe, I kept thinking that it called for a lot of salt, but I figured it was one of those dishes that slowly cooked in a crust of salt. When the duck came out of the oven, it was glistening with duck fat and perfectly golden. I sliced off a still hot chunk and popped it in my mouth. I promptly spit it back out and ran to the faucet for water. It was disgustingly salty. I opened my Bouchon Cookbook and pawed through the pages until I got to the confit recipe, which clearly stated that it’s very important not to oversalt the duck (Keller even weighs the legs to assure a proper salt-to-meat ratio). My heart sank as I realized that Keller’s confit recipe called for less than one tablespoon of salt per leg, whereas I had used more like a quarter cup. After a few hours of cursing and pouting, I returned to the kitchen to taste the confit again, this time taking a chunk from the middle of the thigh; it was slightly better. I spent the next hour begrudgingly scraping off the ruined outer layer of meat from each leg.

For the vegetarian filling, I had chosen huitlacoche—a type of corn fungus that is considered a delicacy in Mexico. A few years ago huitlacoche was all the rage in Seattle and I was intrigued by this so-called "Mexican Truffle". But a week before the party I ran across a post that made huitlacoche sound less than appetizing (okay, downright disgusting). I did more research and found an article on Gourmet Sleuth, which said, "The Aztec named this dark growth found on corn, huitlacoche which translates (rather bluntly and literally) to ‘ravens excrement’". Hmmmm. I pride myself on being a good hostess, and in part, that means not subjecting dinner guests to something I’m not even sure even I would eat. I decided to skip the huitlacoche and replaced it with a tamer Oaxacan tamale with pumpkin, chili and black bean recipe.

The day of the party, I made a roasted tomato salsa and a wonderful tomatillo and avocado sauce. I also prepared the mole by mixing it with tomato puree and a little bit of chicken stock—it tasted surprisingly good considering it came from a jar. For the masa I had read that using lard is key for proper-textured tamales, but I also found that using a KitchenAid really helped whip up light and airy batches of masa.

Zach came over early and made Queso Fundido con Chorizo—an easy and thoroughly addictive appetizer of melted cheese eaten with fresh flour tortillas. Zach also wanted to make horchata, which is a non-alcoholic drink made from water and rice. Zach liked the horchata, but I suspect he was the only one. Horchata is something of an acquired taste/texture/sight and not many people were adventurous enough to try it; and those who did stopped after one glass. By the end of the night, the pitcher was not only still full, but also congealed into a solid, glutinous mass.

J brought a beautiful and refreshing salad with jicama, oranges, watercress, strawberry and cilantro. K brought a sangria that was packed with fruit, but low on sugar, which I loved because sugared sangrias leave me with screaming hangovers. B brought rum and coke, which I found hilarious, because I haven’t drank those since high school. But then I discovered they are really delicious if you use a conservative hand with the rum (something I never did in high school).

I only had enough room in my kitchen for four people at a time, so guests took turns assembling the tamales. There were arguments over how to stuff them properly and my tamales were bursting at the seams, but in the end they all looked gorgeous. I was really glad I had made the colorful ties, but the downside was that they stained everyone’s fingers a brilliant blue. (I thought this was funny, but some guests were not so amused.)

After we had assembled a batch of tamales, I started the steamer and cooked them for an hour. When they were done, I noticed the ties had bled through the cornhusks and had colored the tamale dough. Luckily it looked pretty and festive. Surprisingly, my absolute favorite turned out to be the duck. Once combined with the masa, the confit didn’t seem as salty and had a great, pure duck flavor. I also liked the texture of the confit, which was more solid and substantial than the shredded fillings. Almost everyone else liked the pork adobabo best. The meat was incredibly tender and had a wonderful, light, spicy-sweet chili flavor. A few people swore by the vegetarian ones because the pumpkin changed the texture of the masa and made it incredibly soft and delicate—not to mention an absolutely beautiful color. We all decided that the best combo would have been the pumpkin tamale dough with the pork filling. The beef tamales were good, but the others were so outstanding that the beef got left in the dust.

We ended the night with Dulce de Leche topped with whipped cream and toasted walnuts. Zach and I first had this dessert at The Pink Door about a year ago. Zach is a huge caramel fan so I asked the waitress how it was made and she sheepishly told us it was condensed milk boiled in a can. I did some research and found that this is a favorite dessert among campers and girl scouts; it’s really as simple as boiling an unopened can of condensed milk in water for about 5 hours. The perfect dessert for my easier-the-better theme.

All in all it was a successful night; everyone had a good time and the food was delicious. But somehow these "easy" parties leave me yearning for the seven-course, wow-the-pants-off-your-guests dinner parties I used to throw two or three times a year. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of hosting a dinner party once a month, I’m just saying that it’s an ambitious goal and there are trade-offs. If I’m to maintain my sanity for the next year, I have to stick with the easier and make-ahead menus.

Lastly, I have to admit that on the whole, this pyramid dinning scheme hasn’t been very successful. I’ve only received one return dinner invitation so far. And come to think of it, I actually ended up bringing all the food. I’m starting to think that this scheme has a very long gestation period. Good thing it’s a labor of love.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

The Hostess Project #2: Pizza Party

I may have overcommitted myself. I’m trying to make up for it by combining as many events and obligations as possible. I asked Zach if he’d mind having his birthday double as The Hostess Project monthly dinner party article. I’m lucky he’s such a good sport.

I asked him what his favorite food was, fully expecting to hear "sushi" and already planning a Japanese / sushi rolling party in my head. When he said "cheese" I was thrown off guard. Cheese? Whose favorite food is simply "cheese"? I quickly regrouped and started planning a meal where every course included cheese. Maybe cheese flans from The French Laundry Cookbook for an appetizer, Fontina ravioli with porcini sauce for a first course, steaks with Cabrales butter for the main course and a mascarpone cheesecake for dessert. At some point I realized that I was planning this party for myself. I asked Zach what he wanted and it was quite the opposite—something casual, fun and for a large group of people. I nixed the menu and rethought the party.

Zach and I had recently made mozzarella, which seemed like the perfect party activity. I thought about what I could make with mozzarella and then it hit me: pizza! It would be easy, fun AND take care of those pesky vegetarians. The best part was that I could make almost everything ahead of time.

Gathering the list of pizza toppings was easy: sautéed shrimp, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, roasted garlic, oven roasted tomatoes (the best thing you could ever hope to do with anemic, store-bought tomatoes), Italian sausage, chorizo, pancetta, prosciutto, pepperoni, olives, artichoke hearts, capers, pineapple slices, gorgonzola, goat cheese, parmesan, red onions, basil, arugula, chili pepper flakes, anchovies and sweet fried peppers.

I made a double batch of my favorite pizza sauce recipe two weeks before the party and tossed it in the freezer. Then I started on crust research. It seemed that most recipes were fairly similar: flour, yeast, honey, and water, with just slight differences in measurements and technique. When I need a tried-and-true recipe and don’t have time to experiment on my own I always turn to Cook’s Illustrated. I buy online access to their recipe database and at $24.95 per year it has more than paid for itself in usefulness. Cook’s Illustrated had three pages of pizza dough recipes, but I was instantly drawn to the “Crisp Thin-Crust” recipe. It is made entirely in the food processor and then goes into the fridge to rise overnight.

My next step was obtaining a pizza stone as they are key to getting a crisp crust. The more I read about pizza stones, the more I realized that some are better than others (who knew?). Reviewers were raving about the Pampered Chef baking stones, but it looked like they were only sold through a "Kitchen Consultant," which to me sounded like "Amway"… I went to eBay instead and got a Pampered Chef 13" round for $15. When it arrived it turned out to be brand new!

I decided to elaborate on the kid’s party theme and make a piñata and a fancy cake. I briefly thought about constructing an elaborate octopus cake (Zach loves octopi), but quickly came to my senses. I’m a horrible baker and have no patience when it comes to cakes. I needed something that was simple yet clever. Zach loves doing the crossword every Sunday, so I decided to make him a crossword cake. And by "make" I mean ask J to bake and frost one of her amazing carrot cakes and then I’d decorate it.

For the piñata I went all out and made an octopus, since balloons can be found in roughly octopus-part-like shapes. It was fun sitting at my kitchen table getting all gooey and wet with flour and water paste. I didn’t start early enough on the piñata, so the night before the party I was trying to attach all the still wet parts with masking tape. Not an easy task. It crumpled in on itself, but once I covered it with purple tissue paper it still kind of looked like an octopus.

The day of the party, all that was left to do was cook the toppings and decorate the cake. I put off decorating the cake until last because I had no idea how I was going to do it. I knew I was going to make the puzzle lines with chocolate, but I have a hard time drawing a straight line on paper, let alone on a cake. J suggested we press the line pattern into the frosting with long, straight skewers, which worked great. I melted the chocolate and put it into a pastry bag fitted with a fine tip. I think this might have worked out had the chocolate not been old and slightly grainy; the tip kept getting plugged and every inch I’d have to stop and poke a toothpick inside to free it up. I gave up after the first line and just used a Ziploc with the corner snipped off. This worked much better but produced thicker lines.

Next I needed something to fill in the blank squares. I was reaching for the red sugar sprinkles when J spotted black poppy-seeds in the back of the drawer. Perfect! After a debate on how to get the poppy seeds into the squares, I picked up a small funnel, touched it to the cake and filled it with a small amount of seeds. I held my breath and lifted. The seeds spilled out and magically filled the square, perfectly. I like to indulge in moments like this, when a sense of utter competency overcomes me. I awoke from my reverie to J screaming for me to stop because I was filling in the wrong square, but it turned out she was just looking at the pattern upside-down. Whew. A quick and heart-stopping snap back to reality.

After the cake was done, I had a drink and started mingling with the guests. K and B brought the drinks. I’m not sure what they’re even called, but K first had them in Venice and has been serving them ever since she got back. It’s a combination of Prosecco, club soda and Aperol (a bitter, sweet orange aperitif) garnished with a green olive. K brought three bottles of Prosecco, but the drink was so popular that all three were gone in the first half hour. Luckily, J likes Prosecco as much as I do and had stocked an extra case.

Once all the guests arrived we started making the mozzarella. Zach measured out all the enzymes that came in my Leeners mozzarella cheese kit. We processed a gallon of milk at a time, adding the enzymes and watching the milk curdle and separate from the pale green whey.

There’s something strangely fascinating and beautiful about the process. After twenty minutes, the cheese was ready for stretching and I had two (eager) volunteers don yellow plastic dishwashing gloves. The cheese needs to be ridiculously hot to stretch properly and the gloves help out with the heat a bit. It’s really odd and wonderful to see full-grown adults playing like kids and there’s something about cheese-pulling that promotes this.

When the first batch of mozzarella was formed I sliced it into thick slabs and served it with olive oil, Casina Rossa truffle salt, roasted tomatoes, basil, and paper-thin slices of prosciutto. The cheese was amazing—smooth and dense but not rubbery. It tasted like the freshest of milk. I loved eating the cheese while still hot, with steam rising off its surface. I found it to be perfect with just a touch of olive oil and a sprinkle of the truffle salt.

As the day went on and more balls of mozzarella were turned out, we fine-tuned our technique and learned a few things:

  • A stainless steel pot gives the cheese a better consistency than an enamel coated iron one.
  • The regular, cheap whole milk that comes in the plastic gallon jugs made better tasting cheese than the fancy, expensive, organic milk.
  • The first heating of the cheese is essential and needs to be really hot; this gave the cheese a better mouth feel and aided in the stretching.

When people were ready for dinner, I had L & B roll the refrigerated pizza dough onto sheets of parchment paper, per the instructions in the crust recipe. The parchment paper was a lifesaver and made working with the dough a breeze. We slid the parchment-bottomed dough rounds onto plates which guests could then take to the topping table. Once each pizza was topped it was slid, parchment and all, directly onto the hot pizza stone. The pizzas took twelve minutes to bake and then they slid out of the oven and onto wire racks to crisp and cool. I was stunned by how beautiful they all were, like edible works of art.

The pizzas tasted even better than they looked. The crust was perfect and shatteringly crisp. It was so good that you actually wanted to eat the crust, as opposed to hiding it under your napkin and sneaking it into the trash. The parchment paper eliminated the need for flour or cornmeal, so the crusts didn’t get gritty or dusty tasting which is something I normally hate about homemade pizza crusts. The sauce was a perfect and light base which showcased the toppings—especially the fresh mozzarella. It was great having so many different kinds of toppings, as each pizza turned out unique. My favorite was the prosciutto, Gorgonzola and arugula combination that Zach made. Every pizza that had pancetta on it was a close second.

After dinner, I brought in the cake. I handed Zach a tube of red cake decorating gel and the clue sheet. The clues all pertained to him so he had the puzzle finished in about five minutes, so we didn’t have to wait too long to eat the cake. It was incredibly moist and delicious. I loved the crunch of the almonds in the cake and the sweet, luscious cream cheese frosting.

Once the cake was served, the pressure was off and there was nothing left for me to do but entertain. And entertain I did. I caught up with the other guests in the drink department (easy to do because the drinks were so good). To carry on with the kid’s party theme, we played "Who Am I" and I instigated a dancing-for-clues rule. Yes, I ended up break-dancing in the middle of my mom’s living room floor with a scrap of paper reading "Julia Child" taped to my forehead.

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

The Hostess Project #1: Roast Lamb Dinner Party

A few weeks ago I read an article about pyramid scheme dinner parties and decided that I was going to try hosting one dinner every month. So when Jessa contacted me about writing a dinner party column for Saucy Magazine, I thought "How perfect!" and immediately signed on. Now that the initial excitement has worn off, I realize just how much work this is going to be.

This was my first "Saucy" dinner party and I was nervous. I wanted a simple menu so that I wouldn’t be too exhausted or busy to enjoy the party, but I also wanted it to be fancy enough to be worthy of The First Dinner Party title. I was craving lamb and decided on a roast, since it would be easy to make and wouldn’t require much attention during the party. I searched around and found a recipe for lamb shoulder stuffed with cognac prunes. I really love the sweetness of dried fruit with roasted meats, so this was definitely a recipe I wanted to try. For a side, I figured that a white bean dish would be a good and traditional accompaniment for the lamb. I found a simple and flavorful sounding recipe in The Herb Farm Cookbook for slowly cooked white beans mixed with an onion and garlic marmalade and lots of fresh savory and rosemary. For greens I wanted something easy and pretty, so I choose asparagus. When I was a kid, my mom would put a dollop of mayonnaise on my asparagus so that I would eat them; it was so good. I wanted a more elegant variation of this, so I decided to serve the asparagus with an herbed mayonnaise.

With the main meal set, I turned to appetizer planning. I really love appetizers and would make a meal of them if they weren’t so time consuming to make and assemble. Since the meal was somewhat heavy with the beans and lamb, I wanted something much lighter for an appetizer. A while back I had made these wonderful wild rice cakes topped with crème fraîche and caviar. I didn’t want to splurge on caviar, but I thought that lox would be a delicious substitute. As a second appetizer I chose a simple smoked trout & arugula recipe that is quick to assemble and tasty.

Now for dessert. I wanted something chocolate and fell back on my standard individual molten chocolate cakes, because they can be made ahead and it only takes 15 minutes to bake them. Plus there’s something luxurious about eating a dessert that’s still warm from the oven and I figured this would be a good way to end the evening.

I’m not a wine connoisseur and neither are my friends, but luckily there are enough wine stores in Seattle that make good recommendations. So I sent the menu to all my guests with instructions to find a good red that goes with lamb. My boyfriend, Zach, wanted to get a nice port to go with our chocolate dessert, so I told him about Pete’s—a tiny little mom and pop store that devotes more that 50% of their shelf space to wines. You can go there and pick up Cheez Whiz, cat litter and a $350 bottle of champagne. Odd, but that’s what I like about it.

A few days before the party we went to Pete’s and I was happy to see that Joel was working. Joel has, without exception, given me wonderful and perfect wine pairings throughout the years. I just tell him what I’m serving and my price range and he races off through the skinny aisles looking for the perfect bottle. On this visit, the store was unusually busy and Joel was in high demand. After about 15 minutes Joel was finally free and I sidled up next to him, "What do you suggest to serve with chocolate cake?" Joel took off so fast that at first I thought he went to help someone else. He came back with bottle in hand and a grin on his face, "This is what you want." It was $27 bottle of 2003 Domaine de la Rectorie Banyuls "Cuvee Leon Parce". It was a little more expensive than I was expecting, but Zach said he had to get it after such an absolute recommendation; Joel didn’t even offer a fallback suggestion like he normally does.

I was trying to be conservative on the money end of things, so I got most of the basics at the local store, but I wanted high-quality lamb. When I want the best quality meat that I can find in Seattle, I go to A&J Meats and Seafood. I pre-ordered the lamb a few days before the party, requesting a three-pound, butterflied lamb shoulder roast. When I went to pick it up I was a little worried because it didn’t seem like a lot of meat, but I figured with everything else, I could get away with it. (I have this hang up, which I inherited from my family, that the biggest failure a hostess can suffer is not having enough food for her guests.) The woman helping me commented that lamb shoulder was a slightly unusual request. I said that it seemed like it would be a more flavorful cut than the leg and she wholeheartedly agreed, so we were both left a little baffled as to why the shoulder cut isn’t more popular.

The night before the party I was madly cleaning—deciding that my apartment not only needed vacuuming and dusting but a thorough spring-cleaning in order to be Saucy-ready. I had planned to make most of the meal the night before, but after all the cleaning I was exhausted and had managed to only make the bean dish. It seemed reasonable to think I could easily finish the rest of the meal the next day, but from past experiences, I’ve learned not to trust that false sense of security, because it’s always down to the wire. I printed out all my recipes for the dinner and then collapsed into bed.

The next morning I woke up early and started cooking. My first task was to make the stuffing because I knew it needed to cool to room temperature before going into the lamb. Normally, smelling alcohol first thing in the morning makes me nauseous, but the smell of prunes simmering in cognac was fantastic and I was getting excited about the lamb. After finishing the stuffing, I tasted it. It was so good. It buoyed my confidence that this was going to be a great dinner party.

I then decided to blanch the asparagus and make the accompanying mayonnaise. Only fat asparagus were available, which I prefer, but I like to peel the stems to make the stalks tender. I have a trick of using brown sugar and lots of salt in the water when boiling green vegetables. I’ve never heard people mention this before, so I don’t know if it’s common knowledge, but it should be. The brown sugar makes greens shockingly green. I had to smile when I plunged the cooked asparagus into ice water to stop them from cooking and to set the color. The tips were a deep, beautiful green that gradually turned into a brilliant chartreuse at the stalk—the colors of a perfectly ripe avocado.

I hit my first snag while making the dessert; the chocolate in my cupboard had gone gray. I know that it’s okay to still use it in this condition, but when I couldn’t remember when I purchased it, I decided I’d be better off with fresh chocolate. Plus I wanted dessert to be exceptional to go with the wine Zach bought. So off I went to the store to get more chocolate. When I got back it was almost 5pm and guests were due at 7pm, so I was starting to feel rushed. I quickly made the chocolate cakes, but made sure to whip the eggs and sugar extra long so that the cakes would be fluffy.

Then I stuffed the lamb so I could get it into the oven by 6pm. It was at this point that I realized why most people purchase leg of lamb. The shoulder cut was very uneven and had holes in some places. I was too hurried to care, so I just stuffed it with as much filling as I could and rolled it up. (I ended up making almost double the stuffing recipe because it was so good, so I really packed a lot in.) The roast suddenly tripled in size and I was no longer worried about having enough food. Now I have seen many PBS cooking shows about how to tie a roast and have studied the Cooks Illustrated diagrams, but I think tying a roast is something of an art. I managed to tie it, but I was struggling with the roast the whole time, wishing I had a second pair of hands. In my defense, I think it was extra difficult because there were so many holes in the meat that stuffing was tumbling out of them. By the time I had it all tied up I had lost half the stuffing, so I pushed it back into the crevices and plugged up the large holes with prunes. I was very proud when I finished. It almost looked like the picture.

At this point I would like to discuss the importance of oven thermometers. It’s just a basic fact that oven temps vary widely—and usually the older the stove, the more off it is. I rent and therefore have an oven that’s probably older than I am. It’s also about half the size of a normal oven, so most of my roasting pans won’t even fit into it. After many burnt dishes, I finally got an over thermometer and discovered something interesting. My oven is off by about 50 degrees up until about 375 degrees. Once you turn the dial to anything higher than that, the oven goes berserk and doesn’t stop increasing in temperature. Luckily, this evening I had my wits about me and realized 30 minutes into cooking that something was burning. I looked into the oven, and sure enough the temperature was over 550 degrees. Needless to say, the outside of the roast was done. I covered it with foil and then lowered the temp to about 325 degrees to finish cooking.

Then I started assembling the smoked trout and arugula toasts. Part of the reason why this appetizer is so good is because of the peppery arugula. Unfortunately, Washington-grown arugula is in a sad state this year. I had been to several stores before I even found arugula and when I did it was wilted and old looking, but I snapped it up anyway. So even though I started with a giant bundle of arugula, I was barely able to pull off enough good leaves for 20 toasts. The first guest arrived just as I finished assembling the toasts and I popped a bottle of much needed prosecco and finally started relaxing. By the time the last guest arrived, I had finished assembling the rice cakes and was in the living room enjoying the party.

The smoked trout and arugula toasts were my favorite of the two appetizers. The toast was cut thin so it was crisp, and then slathered with butter which melted into the trout and the arugula added a hint of spice. The rice cakes with lox were also good, but I found them a bit bland. I think I pre-cooked the rice a bit too long because they weren’t as crunchy as last time. Also, I impatiently put the crème fraîche on some of the rice cakes while still warm and the heat melted the crème into a soggy puddle. The lox was great and the chive garnish was pretty, but it was missing bite. Next time I think I’ll add a sprinkle of chopped red onion.

The favorite prosecco of the night was a $9 bottle I happened to pick up when I went to get chocolate. It was a Rive Della Chiesa Prosecco Brut, which was really light and dry. By the time we opened the second bottle, a few of us were a little tipsy and were calling it the J-Lo prosecco, but it was actually a Jeio Bisol Prosecco Brut. It was sweeter than the Rive Della Chiesa, but still very good.

When dinner was ready, I had Zach gather everyone into my tiny kitchen nook at my overly large kitchen table. We squeezed in and had to pull the table partially into the kitchen in order to fit everyone around. This ended up trapping me in the kitchen area, but that worked out perfectly for serving. After carving the roast I was ready to plate, but had forgotten to warm the dishes. Thanks to a handy tip from my mom, I put them all in the microwave and they were hot in about two minutes. Everyone was served and eager to eat, but they patiently waited while I took pictures of everything.

The lamb was perfect. It was perfectly cooked inside, perfectly browned on the outside and each slice had a nice ratio of meat to stuffing. The stuffing was even more delicious when mixed with the lamb juices and I will definitely be adding this dish to my recipe file. The beans complemented the lamb nicely and were a bit plain, but I was hoping for that, since I really wanted the lamb to steal the show. What I didn’t expect was that the asparagus would steal the show. I mean, it’s asparagus. Actually the asparagus wasn’t the best thing on the plate (the lamb was), but I think the guests were so shocked that the asparagus was good that they couldn’t help but say something. My guess is that it was the mayonnaise. While herb mayonnaise is a grown up version of a dollop of mayo, it still resulted in the same child-like response: Asparagus is good with mayo!

For an accompanying wine, I opened the bottle that G & T brought: a Christian Moueix 2001 Merlot and a Zardetto Prosecco. It’s good, not very expensive and you can find it almost anywhere. I serve it at almost every party I throw. I made G read the back of the bottle. Then I told the story I always tell, that no one believes: One time I had a bottle of Zardetto and was reading the back label. Instead of the normal story about the history of Prosecco, there was a story about a gnome; A gnome who went into the woods and found a pot of bubbly brew. The gnome fell into the pot and then there was some sort of moral to the story. It’s a bit hazy because I was drinking at the time. I know that J read the story too, but she swears up and down that she doesn’t remember, but I think she had more to drink than I did that night.

When we were ready for dessert, I put the cakes in the oven and in about 15 minutes we moved back into the kitchen for our last course. I think the cakes were a little too molten (i.e. not quite done), but I was hesitant to stick them back in the oven because the cakes aren’t good when they’re overcooked. I topped each cake with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream and served them. There were groans all the way around the table, "This is too much", "This dessert is huge", "I’m too full", but the groans quickly turned ecstatic.

We served the wine that Joel recommended with the cakes. It was amazing. Like port but not as sweet and cloying. It was uncanny how well it went with the chocolate. Everyone agreed that it was the best wine pairing of the night (and they were all pretty fantastic). The cake was definitely the hit of the night and I noted that everyone practically licked their plates clean. Half the guests sheepishly requested more. I had made a double batch of cakes and there were several extras in the fridge so, ever the perfect hostess, I tossed the rest of the cakes into the oven with a smile.

Monday, March 7th, 2005

National Procrastination Week

I thought it was fitting when I found out that this week is National Procrastination Week. Today was my deadline for The Hostess Project article I was writing for Saucy and of course I was still proofing and rewriting it this afternoon. I just sent it off though and it feels good to have it complete. Whew! I was going to spend this week catching up on last weeks posts, but now I’m thinking I should get in the holiday spirit and put it off until next week.

Someone who didn’t procrastinate is Jessa at Saucy. Her new food site was launched today, on time and as promised! Check it out and add it to your favorites: