That’s More Like It

A dear friend’s impending birthday gave me an excuse to spend an afternoon cooking, so after I ran a bunch of errands (including picking up 12 lbs. of pork belly for bacon) I got down to business in the kitchen. In the five hours between my return home and the arrival of the guests, I made a few dishes that turned out pretty well, and one that was damn good. And the wine, courtesy of John, was a beautifully curated study in Bordeaux-type wines vinified in places that (mostly) were not Bordeaux.

For starters, I made little cubes of foie gras seared and served in my ceramic spoons with a grape jelly-wine reduction and powdered peanut butter. You can see a picture of these in the Thanksgiving post from last year. John opened the 1988 Rieussec he brought, and we drank the rest of it with the little tartes tatin that we had at the end, right before the birthday cake. You can see those tartes in the Thanksgiving post as well. To follow, something fun. I had some leftovers from last week’s photoshoot here for the offal article, so a few days later I used them to make a terrine of pig ear, cow tongue, and chanterelle, binding it all together with the gelatinous goodness that was a byproduct of confiting the ears and tails.

Here’s the gelled cylinder of porktacular unctuosity from the mason jar (to which I added some sherry) melting fast into a terrine glue of surpassing stickiness:

I layered the components–tongue pastrami, pig ear, sautéed mushrooms–adding spoonfuls of glaze between each level.

Once finished, because the little loaf pan is hard to weigh down, I vacuum-sealed it. So all it needed was unmolding and slicing when the guests arrived.

I served it with nasturtium seed “mustard” that I also made for Thanksgiving. It keeps a long time, because there’s lots of vinegar in it.

A couple of chewy, earthy, meaty bites with a sharp condiment and a glass of 1996 Kalin Semillon is not the worst way to begin a fancy meal. Next up, a very cleansing salad of fennel and celery that I mandolined, kneaded with salt, rinsed, and dressed with the last of the pear butter-miso mixture I made a while back. With the addition of some olive oil and homemade cider vinegar, the result was light and yet complex, with the fruit as an overtone rather than an ingredient (I tend to hate fruit in salads).

Then, soup: puréed celery root and burdock in chicken stock strained through a tamis and finished with a little heavy cream.

For the salad and this we had moved on to the 1993 Fiorano, also a Semillon. The story of this wine is pretty interesting, and at his age it does things that most other whites can’t even fantasize about. The end of the Fiorano signaled the beginning of the reds. It’s a tough act to follow. I made paella risotto: arborio cooked with chicken stock, red pepper, peas, saffron, and pimentón. I topped each serving with a couple of seared scallops that had been marinated in olive oil, saffron, and pimentón, and made a little sherry-vinegar deglazement pan sauce to drool over the top. We opened a 1999 Oliver Conti Empordà-Costa Brava, which is a Cab-Merlot blend that is drinking like panties of Spanish leather.

Somewhere during the rice John also began pouring a 1999 Félix Lavaque San Rafael Malbec that was a thing of dusty beauty, tasting both Spanish and French at the same time. And then came the lamb.

This took two forms: a slow-cooked Moroccan shank stew and chopsicles. The stew had preserved lemon, olives, cumin, cinnamon, clove, and star anise in it along with the usual aromatics, wine, and chicken stock. After they were falling-apart tender, I discarded all the tough bits and fat, and added the pretty amazing stew liquid back into the shredded meat, adding a little chicken broth to lube it. I caramelized cubes of turnips and tossed them in a little vanilla and salt, and steamed parsnips, puréeing them with yogurt and olive oil. And chopsicles? What are those? You can read about their first iteration here.

This time around they weren’t too far off: a rack, separated and trimmed of every bit of fat and membrane. There’s not a picture of the finished products before bagging, but they were just bones with beautiful red loins attached. Nothing else; those triangles of fat, the silverskin around the loin? Gone. I browned them and sealed them up in a bag with rosemary and a bit of salt and pepper, and then put them in the water bath at 52˚C for a couple of hours.

The browning beforehand allows the maillard flavors to cook into the chops along with the herbs. They came out still a bright fuchsia in the middle. After wiping off the herbs, I put a spoon of sharp tapenade (olives, garlic, parsley, mustard oil, yogurt) on each chop and wrapped each one in an egg roll wrapper. Once the oil was hot, I dunked the bones in first to cook them a bit and seal up the wrapped end of the skins, then stuck in the good parts, letting them cook about a minute until the skins were brown and wicked crisp.

So each bowl got parsnips with stew on top, turnips on the side, a chop pop stuck in the middle, and scallions and pea shoots for garnish. These were well-received, I must say. Fried lamb pudding on a stick is unsurprisingly popular. Here’s John adding pea shoots before taking them over to the table. In addition to bringing almost all the wine, he did a ton of dishes while I got stuff finished and plated.

And the finished lamb:

In a perfect world, there would also be some grilled leg in the dish, too, and each cut would be plated together but spaced apart on a large plate. That will have to happen when it’s above zero outside; Al Gore has been really fat these last few days. We finished the Lavaque, and then got busy with the 1996 Remírez de Ganuza Rioja Reserva. This wine is like Latour, but 1/4 the price. Just beautiful, and it did all kinds of sexy Spanish things that liased the French and North African flavors into one lambtastic orgy of meaty decadence.

We finished the bottle with the cheese, which was two local standouts (Barat from Sprout Creek and Kunik from Nettle Meadow) and a sourdough boule I baked earlier. Then I brought out the tartes tatin and we finished the Sauternes, and  last a chocolate cake from the bakery in town, for which John thoughtfully brought a bottle of 1996 Chapoutier Banyuls. This is the best wine in the world to match with chocolate, and it even picked up the raspberry filling and ran with it. Crack a bottle of this on Valentine’s day and you will get laid.

It’s so much fun to cook like this, keeping it casual but refined. It’s something I couldn’t have pulled off anywhere near as well a few years ago, especially in a few hours, without getting pretty stressed. This was pure fun. Individual dishes could have been better, but I long ago abandoned any hope of being both host and cook and having the food be perfect. It’s much better to have a good time, and to celebrate friends with abundant pleasure. Especially when friends show up with a lineup like this–except the Conti, which was ours–it was a perfectly selected trajectory of pairings that also formed an interesting study, drawing a line through some excellent wines from the late nineties.

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  1. January 24

    Fun! I love how you said you’re lots less stressed: this looks like it really came together well.

    And I love the fact you only do small portions on small plates with good design. Your Thanksgiving was that way too and it made me happy: too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

  2. January 25

    i am torn between complimenting you and telling you what an asshole you are for not inviting us.

  3. January 25

    PB&J foie gras? Oh come on, everyone does that. But neat idea to wontonify a lamb chop.

  4. Peter
    January 25

    El: It’s all about the portion size. All this food would have fit on one plate.

    Claudia: Why not do both?

    Blanche: In my defense, the first time I did it was quite a long time ago. And this lamb was the SHIT.

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