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This was an elegant celebration to mark a special occasion, yet it was pulled together rather quickly. What were we celebrating? Well, there are a ton of good excuses: birthday, going away, coming home, book publication, successful completion of a project. In this case, it was the launch of a collection of china I had designed.
I think for most people the thought of planning a dinner party for six at short notice is daunting. In fact, they might prefer to skip the whole ordeal. Here's a way to pull it off, mark the occasion with an exclamation mark, and still enjoy your own party.
When I first moved into my New York apartment and had the walls painted with liquid copper leaf, I got the notion to create a collection of china inspired by the color scheme, and soon I had the opportunity to do so, for Lenox: a five-piece place-setting I titled Insignia. All the plates are different; they can stand alone or work in pairs, in trios, or all together. As the dinner progresses, each one tells a story, yet it also works in concert with all the components. The idea was to provide total versatility: With one set of china, we'd offer multiple options for people who like to entertain regularly. As soon as the collection was completed, Lenox shipped me a full set along with my new gold flatware. I was so excited opening the boxes that I immediately picked up the phone and started to invite a few friends for dinner that evening.
For the table arrangement, the goal was simple elegance. I avoided the standard solution-fresh-cut flowers-which would also have cost extra time and money. For the centerpiece, I brought a 1930s terra-cotta sculpture of apanther by André Vincent Becquerel down from the mantelpiece, framed it at either end with a pair of gilded porcelain obelisks, and flanked it with a wall of fire in the form of gold-leaf votive cups. I gathered these objects from around the house. The end result, albeit unintentional, was a somewhat formal presentation, with perhaps an Ancient Egyptian or Napoleonic theme. The obelisks lend the sculpture a ceremonious air; the votive candles give it dramatically flattering under-illumination. Instead of using placemats, runners, or a tablecloth, I anchored the place settings with big black chargers-part of my Insignia collection-that can also be used as dinner plates or serving plates (again, versatility being the key). The glasses and flatware were also my design from a previous collection and worked wonderfully.
Since it was winter, we lit a fire and made the best of the warm, cozy atmosphere. It pays off to inject a touch of life into the room with some greenery-especially in the colder months. In this instance, I made a dramatic statement with some oversize monstera leaves, which are relatively inexpensive and last a long time. I really love the way they catch the light to warm the room.
On the table, I used amber water glasses, which I designed to reflect the silhouette of the wineglasses. Typically, I'll buy an antique set or choose a classic shape, updated. Then I'll acquire several more pieces to reflect that first shape, but with color or size variations. This way, with just two or three sets of glasses, you can easily create chich and elegant and soignée table settings.
The Menu: Supper for Six
Flower of Endive Salad
Pot-Roasted Loin of Veal with Artichokes and Mushrooms
Confit of Vanilla-Infused Pineapple with Vanilla Ice Cream
Cocktail du nuit: Classic Vodka Martini
Wine: A Chateauneuf-du-Pape such as Chateau Beaucastel or some other fine Rhone-style blend provides the medium richness, earthiness, and firm finish to pair with the veal, artichokes, and mushrooms.
TIMING: The salad can be assembled in advance, then dressed immediately prior to serving. While we were enjoying the salad course, the pot-roasted veal-prepped and put in the oven before the guests arrived-was just finishing in the oven. The pineapple can be prepared a day in advance, stored in the fridge, and warmed prior to serving.
There are three principal types of endive, all members of the Cichorium family: Belgian endive, curly endive, and escarole. Belgian endive is the familiar, whitish oval-shaped leaf with pointed ends. Curly endive is its cousin, although it's often mislabeled chicory. Escarole is another form of curly endive. Belgian endive is grown in the dark so its leaves don't turn green. It's best served fresh but can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days wrapped in paper towel inside a sealed plastic bag. Chicory is a relative of endive; both frisée and radicchio are members of the chicory family. Classic Vodka Martini
Invest in a Salad Spinner
If you don't have one, run out and buy one immediately! It is really a must in terms of basic kitchen equipment, the only way to wash and dry your lettuces without brusing them. Otherwise, they stay wet, turn soggy, and dilute your dressing. Among kitchen implements, there is really no higher return on investment than the relatively small amount of money you'll spend on a good, reliable salad spinner.
Our celebration started with a classic martini, the definitive cocktail-shaken, of course, not stirred. I like my martinis shaken hard at least 20 times so that the vodka gets very cold and you have little slivers of ice floating in the drink. This takes the sting out of it, making it go down more smoothly. The glasses should be chilled in advance by filling them with ice and cold water, which you pour out just before straining the vodka mixture into them; as an easier alternative, you can simply leave the glasses in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. The vodka is stored in the freezer. Everything about this drink is frosty, ice-cold, and sleek. As for garnishes, the classic martini takes a cocktail olive, either pitted and plain or pimiento-stuffed, depending on your preference. (The pimiento-stuffed have a bit sharper flavor.) There are also many types of gourmet olives; you can find them stuffed with chilis, almonds, garlic, and anchovies. Or you might choose cocktail onions or pickled tomatillos for your garnish. In any case, you must rinse the olives, onions, or any other pickled garnish well; otherwise, their pickling brine will float unattractively on the surface of the martinis.
12 ounces top-quality vodka (or gin)
1 1/2-2 ounces dry vermouth (or less if you prefer it "very dry")
Olives or lemon peel, for garnish
1. Chill 6 martini glasses (see page 181).
2. Fill a shaker full of ice. Add the vodka (or gin) and vermouth. Shake well and strain into the glasses. Serve with olives or a twist.
FLOWER OF ENDIVE SALAD
This first course is a foolproof salad I've served many times and it has never let me down. I love it because it has an aura of sensuality: In a dramatic moment at the table, you and your guests snip open up the endive flower to reveal the springy salad within. The recipe asks you to take a little extra time to arrange the presentation, but the payoff is tremendous. I'm always thoroughly in favor of any dish that looks as good as it tastes.
for the salad
1/2 leek, washed thoroughly and cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch ribbons
1 bunch of watercress, trimmed, washed, and dried
2 heads of baby frisÃ©e lettuce, trimmed, washed, and dried
2 ounces crumbled blue cheese (or goat cheese)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (see Note), chopped
4 large endives, washed (30 leaves)
1/2 bunch of chives, finely chopped, for garnish for the vinaigrette
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
3/4 cup grapeseed oil
1/4 cup walnut oil
1. Blanch the leek in a pot of boiling salted water for 1 minute (see Note). Plunge it into ice-cold water to stop the cooking. Cut into ribbons, lengthwise, and set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the watercress, baby frisée, cheese, and all but 1 tablespoon of the pine nuts.
3. To assemble each serving, select 6 endive leaves and place them upright in a tea cup, forming an open "flower" arrangement. Fill the inside of the flower with the salad mixture. Close the leaves together in the original shape of the endive and secure with a blanched leek ribbon. Trim the base of each flower so it can stand on its own. Repeat the process for each of the remaining five portions. Set the salads aside (laying the flowers on their sides in a shallow dish) until you are ready to dress and serve them. They can be refrigerated for up to 2 hours. Cover with a damp paper towel and plastic wrap until ready to serve.
4. To make the vinaigrette, combine the mustards, vinegar, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl. While whisking, slowly drizzle in the oils. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Set aside at room temperature for up to 30 minutes, or refrigerate if preparing well in advance.
5. To serve, place a single endive flower upright in the middle of each plate, inject a small amount of the vinaigrette into each of the flowers with a squeeze bottle and drizzle some vinaigrette around the plate. Alternatively, you can serve the dressing in a gravy boat, pass it around, and let everyone dress his or her own salad. Garnish with the reserved tablespoon of chopped pine nuts and the chopped chives.
Note If you are working on your own, a loose rubber band can act as a second set of hands.
Note To toast pine nuts, simply place them in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, shaking and turning them once or twice, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Alternatively, place them in a toaster oven, set to medium, and toast just until fragrant.
PAN-ROASTED LOIN OF VEAL WITH ARTICHOKES AND MUSHROOMS
The main course is a classic one-pot meal: a boneless veal roast that features easy one-step preparation and doesn't require two or three hours of cooking. The veal loin is tender, elegant, and juicy, and is done in around an hour. In butcher's parlance, the cut of meat is a boned rack of veal. The same cut, with the bones left attached then separated in a cross section, yields six veal chops. There's no need to reduce the sauce in this dish. It' s roasted covered, so as the meat cooks it steams and creates a delicious, savory juice. The pot vegetables-artichokes and mushrooms-form the side dish.
Roasted whole, on the bone, this cut is called rack of veal. Another good option is rack of lamb, which cooks in about 20 minutes instead of 40 to 45, depending on the size and the desired degree of doneness. (An internal temperature of 130° to 140°F. equals medium-rare for lamb.) Pork is another tasty option; it is a smaller cut as well, and it roasts in about 15 minutes after browning on the outside (internal temperature should be 145° to 150°F.).
6 large artichokes, outer leaves removed, tips cut and chokes removed
Juice of 1 lemon
6 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 4-pound veal loin, deboned and tied (have your butcher do this)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
24 pearl onions
1/2 pound each of portobello and shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and coarsely sliced
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 bunch (12 to 18 leaves) of fresh sage,
1 tablespoon chopped, balance reserved whole
2 cups Veal Stock (page 000)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Cut off the top two thirds of the artichokes and then cut them into quarters. Using a paring knife, trim off the hard, stringy outer parts. Trim the stems to a length of 1 inch. Separate the leaves and, using a teaspoon, scoop out the choke. Place the trimmed artichoke quarters and the lemon juice in a 1- to 2-quart mixing bowl full of water. Set aside.
3. Place 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Season the veal all over with 1 tablespoon each of the salt and pepper. Place in the pot and cook, turning, until brown all over, about 2 minutes per side. Remove the veal and set aside. Remove the excess fat from the pot. Drain the water from the bowl of artichokes, add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the remaining 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and toss well.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to the pot, then add the artichokes, onions, and mushrooms and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the chopped garlic, chopped sage, and stock. Return the veal to the pot, cover, and place it in the oven to roast for 1 hour, or until tender. (It takes about 10 minutes per pound for medium-rare; the internal temperature should be 125°F. for medium-rare to 140°F. for medium.)
5. Remove the artichokes, mushrooms, and veal from the pot and arrange on a large serving dish or platter. Allow the roast to stand for 15 to 20 minutes before slicing and serving. Skim the excess fat from the pot with a wide spoon or soup ladle, and serve the cooking juices along with the meat and vegetables.
6. While the roast is resting, prepare the crispy fried-sage garnish (see Note): Heat the 1/2 cup of vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, place the reserved whole sage in the skillet in a single layer and fry briefly until crispy, about 10 seconds. (Make sure you fry it in light oil that is very hot. If not, the sage will just soak up the oil and get soggy. To test whether the oil is ready for frying, drop a small torn-off piece of sage leaf into it; if the leaf sizzles, the oil is ready.) Drain the fried sage on a paper towel. Arrange the sage on top of the roast, sprinkle chopped parsley around the platter, and serve.
Note: The versatile fried-sage garnish can also be used with a grilled or pan-seared steak.
CONFIT OF VANILLA-INFUSED PINEAPPLE WITH VANILLA ICE CREAM
It's quite a fancy-sounding dish and fairly spectacular to serve, but it's really quite simple to prepare. I often collaborate with Martin Herold, a friend and gifted chef from Alsace who now lives in the United States. It's infrequent that you encounter vanilla and pineapple in the same equation; it was Martin's idea to combine this tropical fruit (pineapple) with this tropical pod (the vanilla bean) so uniquely. The finished recipe provides a delightful element of contrast between the warmth of the pineapple and the coolness of the vanilla ice cream.
The best pineapples in my opinion are the Del Monte Golds. Their interiors should be a warm yellowish-gold color. Any pineapple that is whitish on the interior is going to be too sour.
1 ripe pineapple, tough outer skin cut off with a sharp knife
4 vanilla beans, cut in half along the horizontal axis and then cut in half along the vertical (16 pieces total)
4 cups brown sugar
2 cups dark rum
1 pint vanilla ice cream
1. Use a wooden skewer or large toothpick to poke holes from the exterior toward the center of the pineapple. Insert the slivers of vanilla beans into the holes.
2. Place the pineapple in a deep roasting pan and add 8 cups of water or enough to completely cover the fruit. Add the sugar and rum, and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer for 1 hour. The recipe can be prepared to this point in advance; in that case, the pineapple should be placed in a container or bowl, covered with its juice, and then refrigerated until ready to be served, either warmed up or at room temperature.
3. To serve, remove the pot from the stove and allow the pineapple to cool in its own syrup. Slice and serve while still slightly warm, drizzled with syrup and with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.
A traditional confit is the ancient specialty of Gascogne (or Gascogny) and surrounding areas of southwestern France. Meats such as goose, duck, pork, or turkey are preserved by salting them, slowly cooking them in their own fat, and then packing them in the fat to be stored away. A similar method is applied here to the pineapple, which cooks slowly in the sugar syrup, infusing it with tropical flavor.
If you don't have the time to prepare the pineapple from scratch, fry or sauté slices of pineapple in a pan with butter, brown sugar, and a dash of vanilla extract. Deglaze the pan with rum and serve with a scoop of ice cream.
A Lighter Touch
The summer option, to make the dish even more tropical, is to substitute mango or passion-fruit sorbet for the vanilla ice cream.
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