Sunday, March 13, 2005

Dinner for Five

After a long hiatus from dinner parties, during which time I was "low-carbing" so my doctor wouldn't put me on statin drugs (yeah I know, over sharing), friends were finally coming for dinner in a few days. I delved into my library of cookbooks, recipes, and the Internet for a menu to prepare that would satisfy starch lovers and keep my cholesterol in check.
When dieting, (I simply cannot call it an 'eating lifestyle'!) I tend to stick to simple foods and not get into complicated preparations. Mostly because I'm so ravenously hungry at mealtimes I'm liable to grab the first high-carb thing I can stuff into my mouth.
I found inspiration for the evening on the NapaStyle Web site, Michael Chiarello's mouth-watering recipes for Slow-Roasted Halibut with Salsa Genovese and a lovely spring salad with a Port Vinaigrette, brought images to mind of my guests savoring each bite, swooning over flavors and textures. This is the defining moment to which I aspire: the look of surprise, wonder, awe and delight on the faces of my friends and family as we dig in.
Appetizer board:
  • whole wheat-walnut sour dough bread
  • a dipping oil of balsamic & black fig vinegar in extra virgin olive oil with a few sprigs of rosemary
  • parmesan reggiano cubes & quince paste (membrillo) cubes on picks (Clay's idea!)
  • pitted kalamata olives
  • oil cured greek olives
  • cornichons
While company was enjoying a glass of wine, talking with Clay, & munching on appetizers, I had Yukon gold potatoes, cut into small wedges, and baby carrots roasting in an oven. These had been drizzled with olive oil, fresh minced garlic, fresh rosemary, sea salt and lots of freshly ground tellicherry pepper. When the root veggies had about 20 minutes to go, into another oven went fresh-caught halibut steaks, rubbed with a little olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and pepper. A bit of white wine, I think I used a Pinot Grigio, was drizzled around the steaks and then they were put into a 300 oven for about 20 minutes. Earlier in the day I had prepared the green olive pesto which was on the counter coming to room temperature.
As soon as the fish was done it was removed from the oven which was then cranked up to 500. Asparagus, trimmed and stem ends peeled (use a vegetable peeler), were placed on a large parchment lined cookie sheet, drizzled with a bit of olive oil & sea salt and popped into the oven for about 6 minutes. Meanwhile, juices from the fish pan were whisked into the olive pesto. Yum! The roasted asparagus was sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and some lemon zest.
Halibut steak with a generous dollop of olive pesto on top, root veggies and roasted asparagus went on each plate. A chardonnay was on the table ready to pour.
Next came a salad, served on individual small plates
  • mixed spring greens
  • sliced red pear
  • a sprinkle of spiced walnuts & pecans
  • a drizzle of port vinaigrette
  • a shaving of frozen blue cheese.

The port dressing was particularly spectacular and will become one of my often prepared dressings. You need to reduce a cup of port down to about 1/4, so I suggest that this be done when you have the time to reduce a lot of port, then bottle it and stick it in the fridge.

For dessert, no fat, no sugar vanilla bean custards were served, chilled, in their ramekins with a dollop of whipped cream & a few fresh raspberries. We served demitasse decaf espresso (it was getting late!) and tiny glasses of Italian Limoncello.
The next morning I realized that we hadn't served the almond cookies with dessert. All things considered, I think it would have been over the top.

No Fat/No Sugar Vanilla Bean Custards
4 1/4 cups Land O Lakes Fat Free 1/2 & 1/2
1 pint egg substitute such as Kirkland Egg Starts from Costco. (Egg Beaters has too much sodium.)
3/4 cup Splenda (From the large bag used for baking. The small packets are too sweet.)
1 whole vanilla bean

Set oven temp at 300 with rack placed in the middle.

Whisk the egg substitute with the Splenda in a glass or stainless steel bowl large enough to later hold the 1/2 & 1/2.
Scald the 1/2 & 1/2 with the vanilla bean over medium heat just until small bubbles form all around the edge of the saucepan. Do not let boil. Remove from heat. Remove the vanilla bean, score it length-wise with a sharp knife, open the bean and scrape the tiny seeds (looks like a very dark paste) into the cream mixture.
Slowly whisk the cream mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly so as not to curdle the egg stuff.
Pour all of this through a strainer into a clean bowl and allow to cool slightly.
Place 8 - 3/4 cup ramekins in a large roasting pan. Pour the custard base into the ramekins, dividing equally.
Place pan in the oven then pour hot water into the pan to come about halfway up the ramekins. Bake for about 1 hour. I start checking after 1 hour of baking time. The custards should be rather firm except for a small spot in the middle (about the size of a quarter) which should move when jiggled. Remove from water bath and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: I developed this recipe and have made it 3 or 4 times. One time I forgot and left the custards in the oven for over 2 hours. The tops had developed a skin that was really rubbery (which I actually like!), but after they were in the fridge overnight, the custard inside was smooth and creamy. Very forgiving of them.

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