Dinner I: COMFORT
My first dinner was set for mid-week with my best friend. Two eccentric ladies and copious amounts of wine begs for some hearty fare to soak up the inevitable mess. I tossed around several ideas for a menu as the day drew near, the only consistent threads were rich and comforting, and something...poultry. Aleks is a carnivore. At first I thought of doing a roast chicken with oranges, carrots and onions, served up with a celeriac puree and some sort of salad starter. That meal idea was mostly inspired by my brother-in-law. I am frequently invited over to my sister's place for Sunday roast, something her husband has perfected and does up every week (he's British, so I won't hold it against him). But the more I mused on that idea, the less I was excited by it. I wanted jus, or gravy...something...sexy.
I settled on a reinvented comfort meal. I went in with the prayer that it would all somehow meld into harmony.
I made a light and flavorful starter.
It was a veritable rainbow on a plate to contrast the dreary whiteout of the street that night. A green salad with onions and carrots roasted in the juice of a clementine, topped off with wee fried quail's eggs and shaved parmeggiano in a dijon vinaigrette. The quail's eggs were very cute perched on top of the greens and veg. Aleks simply described the salad as "so fresh."
Next up, the comforting main. I decided to make very rich turkey meatballs in a deep red wine ragu. This turned out better than expected. The meatballs came out not distinctly poultry, but instead meaty and moist. My sauce was TOTALLY from scratch. I used olive oil, red and orange bell peppers, carrots, celery, white onions and sweet onions, and garlic as the base. I deglazed the sauteed veg with a nice Pinot Noir. Then tomato Passata was added instead of a pre-made tomato sauce. The sauce was sweetened with some organic dark brown sugar to add a nice sweet and sour dimension. I finished it with some dried basil and parsley. I let the ragu simmer for about an hour to really develop the flavors. The sauce would make a nice vegetarian ragu for pasta if you leave out the meatballs.
When I was satisfied with the deep flavor, I incorporated the meatballs, which I had prepared and fried separately (ground dark and white meat with caramelized onions, egg, and sauteed red and orange pepper pieces), so that they really soaked up the sauce's flavors, imparting some of their own while breaking down slightly. Aleks approved.
My twist on the classic meatball main came with the accompaniment. Rather than a heavy pasta, I chose a side I rarely use -- spaghetti squash. I have cooked with it but have been moderately unsatisfied by it as a pasta substitute. This time I managed to cook it properly, following the recommended instructions on its label, I baked the squash split open, skin on, flesh down, skin rubbed with olive oil, until tender in a 350 degree oven. It came out perfectly...all four full serving dishes of it -- I greatly overestimated how much I needed, but was pleasantly surprised that it reheats incredibly well. For anyone unfamiliar with it, this bright yellow oval squash is low in carbohydrates and calories and interestingly cooks in a way that allows its insides to be scraped out in spaghetti like strands. It is much more flavorful (sweet but not too sweet and a little nutty) than I remembered. It worked perfectly alongside the sauce.
With my buckets of leftovers I created a go to vegetarian pasta alternative for my busy week. I simply re-baked the squash at a high temperature in a shallow dish drizzled in a little olive oil, salt and pepper. In a saucepan I sauteed some red onion and garlic finely chopped, tossed in a large chopped tomato and let it come to a low boil. Then I added a little white wine and let the alcohol cook off for a few minutes. Then I enriched the sauce with a little milk and some dollops of soft goat's cheese and let it just amalgamate into a smooth sauce. Next I grated some fresh parmeggiano (cow's milk) and pecorino romano (sheep's milk) cheese in, stirring to incorporate them. Lastly, I tossed in a little fresh arugula. My third time around I decided to leave the nearly complete sauce over the low heat, without stirring it in, I then piled on the spaghetti squash fresh from the hot oven, drizzled it with a little more olive oil, and cracked pepper, then a little more of the grated cheese. I let it sit in the pan just long enough to let the cheese on top of the squash melt. I then gave the whole thing one swift light stir and emptied it out into a deep bowl to eat. Wonderful. It was so nice and comforting on a cold night after a long day. And by not fully stirring the two components, I created a nice duo of flavors so that each bite was a little unique. I normally don't eat a lot of pasta because I find it heavy, so the squash was a nice alternative.
Dinner II: WHIMSY
My next meal involved two of my best pals, Ilana and Sara. I have known these girls since highschool. Ilana is a vegetarian so I catered to that entirely. Since I had thoroughly enjoyed the spaghetti squash the other night and had several quail's eggs leftover, I created a new dish to feature the two ingredients. I started the meal with a similar salad to what I had made for Aleks, only this one had roasted candy cane beets, blueberries, goat's cheese and avocado instead of quail's eggs on top.
|SALAD STARTER: ROASTED CANDY CANE BEETS WITH AVOCADO, GOAT'S CHEESE, GREENS AND BERRIES|
For my main I ended up with something truly mad but delicious. I put a lot of thought into the meal. As a rule of thumb, when faced with an obstacle in a meal plan (such as no meat) I overcompensate for the loss with presentation, color and bold flavor. I started thinking about how to highlight the star ingredients, and how to create a meal full of contrasting flavors. I decided to construct a tower of tastes that were all bold but complimentary. I presented this tower as a nest, the star quail's eggs cradled by the straw like squash strands.
|THE MAIN: BIRD'S NEST|
I started by roasting the squash the same way I had for my meal with Alex. Next I roasted some vegetables for a sauce -- zucchini and orange bell peppers. I roasted the veg drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper, on tinfoil on baking sheets in a fairly hot oven. When they were tender I reserved the peppers, peeling and discarding their blistered skins. I took the zucchini which I chopped down a bit and tossed it into a blender, juices and all. I pureed it down with some e.v.o.o., freshly grated lemon zest, raw garlic, red onion and fresh basil. I then added some milk to the mix. Then in a large stir fry pan I sauteed some chopped garlic and red onion in olive oil. Once they went translucent I raised the heat a little and threw in some zucchini slices and colored them. Next I added a splash of a nice Pinot Grigio and let the alcohol burn off via a low boil. Then I emptied the mix into a saucepan, gently heating it over medium high heat. I finished the sauce with some soft goat's cheese, letting it incorporate smoothly over the heat, then a lot of cracked black pepper, more olive oil, and some freshly grated parmeggiano and pecorino romano cheese. I then took a medium sized mixing bowl, added some nice olive oil, cracked black pepper, a little chopped garlic, a squeeze of lemon, a touch of coarse sea salt and mixed it all thoroughly with a few handfuls of fresh baby arugula. To finish the dish I fried three quail's eggs per person sunny side up in olive oil with a little salt and fresh pepper. I plated the dish in layers. I started with large white plates. Onto my blank canvas I ladled a generous amount of the green sauce. Next I made a nest out of the spaghetti squash in the middle, with a dollop of sauce at its centre. Then a little nest of arugula on top of the nest of squash. Then a large roasted orange pepper strip, and finally the fried eggs were placed on top, finished simply with a drizzle of olive oil, shaved pecorino and some fresh pepper.
It worked far better as a combination than I anticipated. The sweetness of the peppers and squash paired well with the bitter arugula, and the slightly bitter and creamy zucchini sauce.
|BIRD'S EYE VIEW OF SPECTACULAR BIRD'S NEST|
Ilana also dislikes chocolate for desert so I decided to make one of my favorite deserts -- crumble. I have recently fallen in love with a frozen fruit brand, Stalbush Organic. The organic fruit is very high quality and comes in uncommon varieties like black raspberries, boysenberries and marion blackberries. I made a black raspberry, wild blueberry, and marion blackberry crumble, sweetened with 1/4 cup of organic dark brown sugar, a little natural vanilla and some lemon zest. The crumble combined organic flour, rolled oats, brown sugar, butter, cinammon, and lemon zest. I served the piping hot florescent red dessert in deep bowls with a little scoop of Kawartha's French Vanilla ice cream.
|DESSERT: BLACK RASPBERRY, WILD BLUEBERRY AND MARION BLACKBERRY CRUMBLE|
The perfect vibrant finish.
Dinner III: FAMILY AFFAIR
|THE MAIN: ROAST CHICKEN AND VEG|
My last dinner was pulled off with a lot less charm. I had invited my sister Anna, her husband Tim, and my coworker and family friend, Gail. Tim and Gail really like their meat. I have been mostly vegetarian for years now so sometimes accommodating this is a little foreign to me. I decided to get the best bang for my buck and roast my first whole chicken. I picked one up from Rowe Farms who label themselves as purveyors of ethically raised meat. A bit more expensive but worth the investment for someone like me.
I started by confusing myself altogether by asking too many different people for advice, resulting in countless conflicting suggestions. As a result, I cooked the chicken with a combination of them, ending up with guests in my apartment and one large, undercooked bird. I won't give my exact techniques here, even though the end result was perfect, because it was a very illogical last hour of cooking, involving random blasts of heat and uncovering and covering the bird...What I will share is how I prepped the bird. It was a clementine and lemon-roasted chicken. I started by rubbing olive oil and butter all over it. Then salt and pepper. I mixed up onions, garlic and clementines and stuffed the chicken's cavity with them. I pierced the bird all over stuffing lemon and butter under its skin to make it extra crispy and delicious. I baked it in a roasting tray on top of wedges of kabocha squash, rainbow carrots, onions, garlic, lemon and clementines.
I also prepared some vegetables separately -- roasted rainbow carrots, sweet potatoes and onions.
|THE MAIN: ROAST CHICKEN AND VEG|
While it was in the oven, I gave my guests grapes, a baguette, some butter and a Quebec favorite cheese of mine -- Grey Owl ash-rind goat's cheese, to nibble on. In the meantime I made my appetizer in a harried rush. I wanted to use the quail's eggs in a way that really highlighted their cuteness. I located some very tiny fresh bagels and decided to make a mini brunch. I wanted a meat like element but no meat. Inspiration struck...carrot "BACON"! I made this meat-lover's atrocity in advance. I bought some deep purple carrots, sliced them thinly, and cut the slices into shorter pieces. I caramelized them in the oven in a dressing made with olive oil, white wine vinegar, a little clementine juice, maple syrup, sea salt and fresh pepper. You could use smoked salt and paprika if you want to highlight a bacon-esque flavor. I served these little babies family-style in a mini le creuset pot. You can find the recipe on Amanda Hesser's new site Food52.com, where it made Editor's pick for a carrot recipe contest. The rest of the brunch involved greens in a nice vinaigrette, quail's eggs scrambled with cream and chives, and the mini-bagels toasted with a good quality cream cheese I made a spread out of. I made the cream cheese spread a few hours before with pepper, dill, chives and lemon juice.
|MINI BRUNCH APPETIZER: MINI BAGELS WITH HERB CREAM CHEESE, SALAD, SCRAMBLED QUAIL'S EGGS, CARROT "BACON"|
The meal took forever, I believe the carved chicken hit the table by 11pm. The flavor and moistness of the bird was well worth it, and I had a lot of vegetables and meat for leftovers.
Next time I will make pasta.