Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dinner with the Big Boss (and not a single drop of JD)

Last night was one of my most momentous and most nerve-wracking dinner parties. Kevin and I had the "Big Boss" and the rest of the senior staff from his company over for dinner.

We've been to BB's home for dinner in the past. That's one of the reasons I wanted to have him over. I like to reciprocate other people's hospitality. What makes it so scary (besides wanting to make a good impression on the company's head honcho) is that these folks live on a completely different plane than us (or at least it feels that way). Let's just say we live in radically different income brackets. You know how apartments in Manhattan are all supposed to be the size of shoeboxes (if you're lucky)? Well, I would say at least three of my suburban condo could fit inside their Central Park West diggs. It's immaculate to boot. I took extra time off from work cleaning and tidying up and fixing every little crack and every little error because we wanted so badly to make a good impression.

Of course what matters most is the food. One can hope that if the food is delicious, that no one will care about anything else. Kevin and I are old hands at entertaining these days, right? The key is to treat the party like any other.

As always, there were food obstacles. I had two non-cheese-eaters (plus Kevin). I had one vegetarain. I had Kevin, the non-red-meat eater. That made it hard to come up with a universal crowd pleaser. BB told Kevin how much he loves pasta and garlic bread. (I think he's had spaghetti and meatballs on the brain every since Kevin told him I made that for Kevin's birthday dinner.) My issue with that is that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to boil a box of spaghetti. I like to make things that are a little more special when people come over for dinner. I don't want them eating things they could easily eat at home. I opted to make homemade spinach gnocchi. Rather than make meatballs, I decided on a nice, hearty bolognese sauce alongside a marinara sauce for the non-meat eaters.

My gnocchi are not pretty. Rolling and cutting these grew rather tedious after the first ball or so of gnocchi dough. I cut them bigger and bigger as time went on. I certainly wasn't going to mess with making cute little fork marks in them. They were tasty and light though, so there were no complaints about the size and shape.

Everyone arrived and we had some nibbles. There were nuts, Terra chips, olives, bocconcini, and garlic-sherry mushrooms. Everything was purchased but the 'shrooms, which I made using the same recipe I used for my Crostini Duo except that I cut the mushrooms into chunks instead of grinding them into little bits.

Dinner started with a salad. No recipe needed for this. It's arugula, orange sections (I used the oranges for it), thinly sliced fennel, and toasted pine nuts. The dressing is olive oil with equal parts orange juice and red wine vinegar and some chopped shallot.

Here are my sauces. The bolognese was a variation on the classic Marcella Hazan recipe and was the best bolognese I ever made. I don't know why I never made a recipe like this before. Wowsers was it good! A few of the guests were eager to try both sauces. I received plenty of compliments on all of it. It certainly eased my nerves and Kevin's to hear people were enjoying the dinner.

Then came dessert. Dessert was special. Dessert was a crowning achievement for me.

You see, Tartlette is not a blog to be trifled with IMO. It is a wonderful blog in terms of the writing, the gentle humor, and the wonderful stories. However, when it comes right down to the nitty gritty, it's pure dessert porn for me. I drool over the photos and recipes. I have always considered it to be a blog on a higher plane, one whose recipes I can dream of making, but I rarely feel that I can aspire to such creations with my meager talents. It's a blog sweet dreams are made of.

But one day I saw the Transatlantic Squares and something just clicked in me. Maybe it was because the base was just an easy, good old fashioned brownie. Maybe it was because I entered the "Name the Dessert" contest. Maybe it was just because it looked so darned delicious. I don't know. I just knew when I saw it that it was going to be the dessert at my next dinner party, even if it did mean doing risky (for me) things like making caramel.

It didn't get to an auspicious start. I made the brownie layer with no problem, but I hit a roadblock with the caramel mousse. I'm not sure what I did wrong. I think I probably overcooked the caramel or simply didn't let it cool enough, or didn't let the chocolate cool enough. I also think I overheated the cream that is added to the caramel. All I know is that when I blended the caramel with the chocolate, I got a clumpy, greasy mess. I decided to go ahead and fold the whipped cream into it anyway. Nothing integrated well. I had these gummy lumps of caramel inside whipped cream. Discouraged I threw the whole thing out.

I had a choice at this point. I had enough sugar, chocolate, cream, and butter to start over. I could also just say, "Screw it," and try to find time to make some ice cream to go with the already-made brownies instead. (Ice cream I know I can do pretty well.) I decided to give it one more try.

I was very careful about how much I cooked the caramel. I decided that there were different degrees of "dark brown". I also made sure the cream I stirred into it wasn't so warm that it formed a skin. My caramel was a different consistency this time around. I let it cool a good long time and did the same with the melted chocolate. When I blended them together, the consistency seemed a little grainy, but there were no gummy lumps. Cautiously I folded in the whipped cream. The texture still seemed slightly grainy, but it wasn't lumpy and it all blended consistently. The mixture seemed loose, but I took my chances, spread it over the brownie, and put it in the fridge. To my pleasant surprise, it was quite firm in a couple of hours and ready for the ganache. I received many kudos for this, including from one of the guests who is a professional pastry chef.

I successfully made the squares. I was a klutz at cutting them. This photo unfortunately doesn't do the taste justice. Getting my desserts to look pretty has never been my strong point.

Then again, I have to say this whole meal tasted much better than these photos look!

After all of the fears and dread, it was a great party. I tried some new recipes, took some risks, and had fun with some important people. I have leftover bolognese sauce that I hope to turn into a butt-kicking lasagne dish at some point.

Spinach and Potato Gnocchi

2 10 oz packages frozen spinach
2 pounds potatoes (I used Yukon Gold)
1.5 - 2 cup all-purpose flour
2 egg s
1tsp salt

Defrost spinach and squeeze out excess liquid. Even though it's chopped, chop it up a bit more.

Peel and cut the potatoes. Steam them until tender. Mash with a food mill, a ricer, or if you have neither of those things, a masher.

Make a well in the center of your mashed potatoes and put in the eggs, salt, flour, and spinach. Knead together. If you want nice gnocchi, get your hands dirty.

Roll the dough into 1-inch thick ropes and cut into 1-inch long pieces. If you aren' t using them right away, put them on a floured tray and cover with plastic wrap.

Drop gnocchi in boiling water. They are ready when they float to the top.

Roasted Garlic Bread

1 head garlic,
1/2 cup grated parmesan
2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsely
1-2 tsp salt
¼ cup olive oil
1 loaf hearty Italian bread

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cut the top off a head of garlic. Loosely wrap in foil and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for about an hour.

Mash garlic to a paste with all ingredients expect bread.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Split bread in half. Spread garlic paste evenly over bread.

Toast until crispy.

Marinara Sauce - My Way

2 Tbl olive oil
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
Handful of chopped fresh basil leaves
1 cup of white wine

Heat olive oil and add crushed red pepper flakes and mix around a bit. Add garlic and heat until fragrant.

Add tomatoes and cook at least a half an hour. Add wine and basil and cook a few minutes more.

For a smooth consistency, blend with an immersion blender. Leave it chunky if you prefer.

Bolognese Alla Breve Cuoco Di (dis)Ordine

1 Tbl olive oil
2 Tbl butter
1 onion, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 diced celery stalk
1.5 pound ground chuck
1 cup milk
1 cup red wine
Few grates fresh nutmeg
1 28-oz can diced tomates
2 bay leaves

Cook onion until translucent. Add carrot and celery and cook for about two minutes until well coated.

Add the meat to the pan. Break it up and brown it. Add a little salt and pepper.

Add the milk and simmer until it is bubbled away. Grate in some nutmeg. Add the wine and simmer till that evaporates too.

Add the tomatoes and bay leaf and bring to a low simmer. Simmer at least 3 hours.


noble pig said...

Wow, what a meal you pulled off. That dessert alone would have been enough for me! I'm sure everyone was very impressed with your efforts...I was.

Theresa said...

Well from the looks of things I say that was well pulled off. Who cares if there were no fork marks in the gnocchi's! Everything looks great.

Heather said...

Aw, gnocchi aren't supposed to be pretty. They look delicious, and that's all that matters.

Bellini Valli said...

Everything on the menu was sure to impress!!

Complaint Department Manager said...

NON-CHEESE EATERS??? BLASPHEMY!!! I don't trust people who don't eat cheese, it's just so...wrong.

cook eat FRET said...

i am truly applauding this amazing meal
great work
i hope you guys high fived each other when BB left

gnocchi is fine w/o the fork marks as you now know...

Anonymous said...

That's a big feat! The gnocchi look just great. They are delish no matter what!

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Cathy - I would have gladly skipped to dessert too. Pasta is all well and good, but chocolate trumps everythig.

Theresa - I've been reminded that even the hottie-tottie Italian restaurants dont' always fork-mark their gnocchi, so I like to think I have something in common with them. ;-)

Heather - Thanks. If they're not supposed to be pretty, then I am a tremendous success. :-D

Val - Thanks. I certainly hope it was.

CDM - I know. Some people are just insane. I also feel that way about people who don't eat chocolate (although saying that gets the non-chocolate-eaters' panties in a twist).

Claudia- I'd have high-fived him, but I think he was in a state of shock. "It's over. What happened? Were they really here enjoying our food? Are you sure?"

Peter M said...

From reading your recipes and the circumstances you cooked (picky-pants and the BB) you did splendidly.

The reciprocation is something I try and do as well.

Stacey Snacks said...

I can't believe you made gnocchi. You must love your boss....and forgot to tell you I like the new look on your blog!

Sue said...

What a lovely dinner! What a lucky husband. You were brave to make gnocchi and try the caramel a second time. It all sounds so yummy.