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Posts Tagged ‘Al Fresco dining’


Jon Troutman

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Posted: April 27th, 2010

Spring is very much here. April showers are almost totally behind us and May flowers are blooming. Guys, you know what that means…besides the fact that you have to change all the window screens.

We’re firing up the grill!
With barbecue ribs, kabobs, sunshine and teeny-weeny bikinis, comes the opportunity for some fun, synergistic food and wine pairings that will knock your guest’s socks off…and maybe even their tops. No longer will Budweiser and Wine Coolers satiate your company’s thirst. Your friends deserve better than cheap domestic brew and foofy-foofy, sugarfied malt beverages. We’ve got just the wine prescription to solve…

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A couple of years ago my wife Karen and I  were with some friends talking about food and wine when the idea was put forth to do our own tasting dinner. I would cook and everyone would split the expenses for the dinner including kitchen help. My first task was to create the menu and recipes, and  my friends Alex, Pearl, Natalie and Serge agreed to do the wine pairings.”

On the  night of the dinner I was nervous because one of the guests was a chef who had cooked for presidents and celebrities.  What would he think of my food?  Would I be able to live up to his standards?  Well, in the end the dinner went very well and everyone had a great time, including the chef, who was more than appreciative of  my efforts and loved the food.

In fact, the event was so successful that we decided to do another dinner.  Coordinating the schedules of 16 people was a bit of a chore but luckily I had help from Pearl and Alex who are very good at organizing events and staying on top of the details.  Between the three of us we were able to coordinate the scheduling and rescheduling of the dinner which happened on June 20th.  Alex, who helped coordinate the dinner and Brad are two wine enthusiasts who took charge of the wine pairings for the evening.  Each couple brought 2 to 3 bottles of their choice of wine to pair with a specific course.  Since there were 8 courses, we decided to go with light pours.

In the weeks before the event I spent a bit of time working on the menu.  Some of the proteins I pretty much had already decided on early such as a pork belly dish and Korean style ribeye. I also new that I wanted to do a lobster dish.  The rest was up in the air.  I thought about different proteins, including sweetbreads, thai snapper and quail.  Then there was a matter of the budget: since everyone was chipping in for the dinner expenses I wanted to keep the costs reasonable and at the same time create a great dining experience.

Another ingredient that went into the mix was the location.

Pearl setting table - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Pearl setting table - Photo Alex Kaliakin

We had a beautiful al fresco dining experience on a patio overlooking a dry creek bed nestled under a canopy of oak trees.  One long table and a string of lights overhead and the setting was complete.  Like being in Tuscany, enjoying a feast for the senses.

I began prepping for the meal on Friday Morning a little after 9:00 am when Elio. my sous chef. showed up.  I had done most of my shopping the previous day and had enough to work on.–8 live lobsters, a 6-pound section of rib eye roast, 4 pounds of pork belly, and black mussels. along with many of the items used to make the braising liquid, sauces, purees, etc… Elio began work on the poached pears and I on the lobster stock, needing it for the pana cotta and at that time lobster gelee.  The lobster stock was made using the bodies from the lobsters along with mirepoix (onion, carrot & celery), some brandy and aromatics.  I broke up the bodies in the food processor to extract the maximum flavor, then put them in a hot stock pot with oil and sauteed them till fragrant, deglazed with brandy, added mirepoix, aromatics and cold water, and let it do its thing for a couple of hours.  Next was a court boullion for the lobster claws and tails.  We tied the tails to wooden spoons to prevent them from curling up and cooked them in two batches in the court boullion till done.  Next, in went the claws.  They were set aside to cool before we took them out of the shells.  During this time I seared off the pork belly and made a braising liquid out of chicken stock(made the previous week and frozen for the dinner), star anise, ancho chili, cocoa powder, cinnamon, mirepoix, cloves, garlic, tomato paste, red wine and aromatics. Into the 275-degree oven it went for about 6 hours.

Next was the Korean marinade for the ribeye, ade from asian pears, soy sauce, green onion, brown sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, mirin, rice vinegar, chili flakes, Sprite soda and salt & pepper, then whisked together.  I portioned out the ribeyes into steaks a bit over an inch thick, dunked them in the marinade, placed them in ziploc bags filled with the marinade, and into the fridge they went to marinate for about 36 hours.

The cauliflower, curry saffron puree was next. I had Elio cut the cauliflower into small pieces roughly the same size, for even cooking, then placed them in salted water to simmer until tender. I made a curry saffron cream and reduced it. Once the cauliflower was finished I mixed it in a food processor adding the curry saffron cream, then passed it through a tamis to give it an extra smooth finish.

We spent the rest of the day prepping the  porcini mushrooms for the risotto, cutting the yukon gold potatoes for the pommes fondant and working on the lobster dish and pear dessert. I had to make a run to the Saddle Peak Lodge to pick up the mussels and some other items that needed to be prepped. Elio worked on making pear chips, which were having some difficulty.  Fruit chips can be very temperamental regarding the heat of the oven etc. Usually it is best to leave them in an oven with just the pilot light on overnight, which dries them out, giving them a nice crispness and keeps the color light.  My oven has an electric pilot light, so there went that idea.  We managed to produce a batch that were good, but the color was too dark.  Time to shelve it till the morning.

Meanwhile, the original lobster dish was to be composed of a lobster gelee encased in a lobster chive panna cotta.  Once my lobster stock had finally cooled I worked on clarifying the stock using a raft method (composed of eggwhites, carrots, tomato, parsley etc…).  The clarification process took a little over an hour.  We removed the stock from the pot being careful not to damage the raft. We ended up with a stock that was still a bit cloudy and not well clarified enough for a lobster gelee.  So now it was time for PlanB.  This is always a good thing to have.  One thing I have learned over the years is that sometimes because of time constraints and the fact that the human body does need sleep to function, we need to be flexible enough to change things midstream. It would take too long to try to clarify the stock to the point that I would be happy with it, so we decided to make a lobster panna cotta with a lobster meat center. Redesign the plate and make it work and move on.  So we made the panna cottas, one layer at a time, allowing each layer to set in the fridge before going on to the next.  It was getting late: 10:00pm turned into 11pm, then midnight.  We used the time to solve the panna cotta issue, prep the sardines and other miscellaneous things, and make a plan for the next day.

The next morning saw me going to Trader Joe’s to pick up some miscellaneous items and back by 10:00 to continue to prep. The pear poaching liquid was reducing and I was making the Moules marinier essentially to get the broth.  Once the mussels were done I removed them from the shells and gave them to my daughter Olivia to enjoy.  We tried to make the pear chips again on a lower temperature while we continued to prep. While I made the risotto, using a porcini mushroom stock that I had made the previous week and frozen. I had Elio begin organizing each element of each course to take to the location where the dinner was being held.  The risotto was finished to 80% donness, spread out on a sheet tray and put in the fridge to cool.  I assisted Elio to get everything together for the event.

Rico starting to get things going - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Rico starting to get things going - Photo Alex Kaliakin

After a quick shower I helped Elio load up the cars to get to the location.  We left a bit after 2:00pm.  I had to make 3 stops on the way, one to get cigars for the evening and the other to pick up the caviar. The final stop was to pick up the soft shell crab and New Zealand Green mussels from the Saddle Peak Lodge.  Elio went ahead to the location to unload and get everything ready to finish the prep.  I arrived about 3:30 and began by getting the braising liquid reducing and making the dressing for the lobster dish.  Brad, one of the hosts who loves to cook, finished up what he was doing and came in to help with the final prep.  I had him pick watercress, dill, and mache leaves.  Pearl arrived with our dishwasher assistant, Adela, a bit after 4:00 pm. Adela helped with the prep and clean up to keep things clean while we cooked.  Prep was going well, sauces were being finished and every detail of each dish was being completed one at a time.  Alex walked in shortly after 5:00pm in a very excited mood.  Things were coming together  and the energy level was rising.  Alex –assembled everything  for the cocktails, which were manhattans and cosmopolitans.

Champagne for the first course - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Champagne for the first course - Photo Alex Kaliakin

I had some leftover duck paté, made by John Stewart, who is a master salumist of Zazu and Bovolo fame, which I had brought back from an event in No Cal 2 days before.  I made some quick canapés with it and continued to prepare the first course.  My wife, Karen, was the last to show up, since she had come directily from work. When she arrived at the door she looked stunning.

It was about 7:15pm when we sent out the first course.
I am always a bit anxious before I start serving. (Will they like it? I shoulda done… the finish on… could’ve been better etc.)..  In addition this time I had let my daughters taste the panna cotta at home and neither one liked it.  They are pretty tough critics, and yet I had tried it and thought the flavors were wonderful.  I also know that the texture may have thrown them off.  So of course this made me a bit more nervous than usual.

Lobster Panna Cotta

Lobster Panna Cotta - Photo Rico Mandel

First Course – Lobster Panna Cotta with American Caviar and Herb Mustard Vinaigrette

We began plating the panna cottas and the dish was looking very elegant.  Now I was getting excited at how my vision was coming together. The colors on the plate were wonderful and the lobster layer showed through beautifully. It was truly an elegant dish.  We served it to the table with Elio and Brad’s help.  As the plates went down I started to feel some releif, at least for the first course.  This was paired with a Moët Chandon Champagne Imperial or White Star that went perfectly with the dish. Once the eating commenced and the compliments started I felt at ease.

Second Course – Moules Marinier Redux

Moules Marinier Redux - Photo Rico Mandel

Moules Marinier Redux - Photo Rico Mandel

This dish got its inspiration from a discussion I was having with my friend Chef Adam Horton. He was telling me how much he loved Moules Marinier, but since he was going for a Michelin star,he couldn’t put it on the menu.  We talked about ways to possibly turn it into a fine dining menu item.  Well this set up a challenge for me.

Elio Plating Mussels - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Elio Plating Mussels - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Adam was supposed to be at the dinner but unfortunately he was sick and couldn’t make it.  This dish was in his honor.  The broth made earlier that morning from black mussels was reducing on the stove and keeping warm. I got up from eating the first course and put the green mussels,in the shell, on the grill to cook. I removed them being careful not to lose the liquor from the inside of the shell. Elio brought me the bread to be grilled while I finished cooking the mussels.

A toast to mussels and great beer

A toast to mussels and great beer - Photo Rico Mandel

I brought them inside where I cut the bread while the mussels were being removed from their shells.  The bowls were out and waiting.  We stacked 4 mussels in the center of each dish and I poured the hot broth over the mussels and topped them with flying-fish roe and a chiffonade of mint along with some chopped chives to garnish the broth.  We whisked the dish out and it was served with Estrella Damm Inedit, the beer made by Fernan Adria of El Bulli fame.  The beer was silky smooth with a wonderful complex yet refreshing flavor that complemented the mussels wonderfully.

Third course – Grilled Sardines on a Zucchini & Black Pig Bacon Gallette with an Avocado Mousse and Heirloom Tomato, Avocado and Cantaloupe Relish finished with Curry Oil

Sardines - Photo Rico Mandel

Sardines - Photo Rico Mandel

The inspiration for this dish came from chef Zoi Antonitsas, the Chef de Cuisine at Zazu, in Santa Rosa, California.  I love sardines and when I was up working for a day in the kitchen at Zazu I saw a grilled sardine dish they had that was served with chunks of avocado on grilled bread with a potpourri of greens from their garden. It looked wonderful. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to taste it because they sold the last 2 orders before service was over.

Plating Sardines - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Plating Sardines - Photo Alex Kaliakin

While I was finishing the second course Elio was finishing up the zucchini & black pig bacon gallettes.  I got up and made sure that everything was going well in the kitchen.  Plates in the oven to warm up, the relish ready to mix with lemon and olive oil.  We brushed the sardines with olive oil and placed them on a wire rack on the grill. Once they were done, plating began. Plates down, gallettes on each plate, the mousse was pipped out of a piping bag onto each gallette and sardines placed on top, relish down and a zigzag of curry oil over the sardine. Out the plates went and it was served with a Kenwood Reserve sauvignon blanc.

Fourth Course – Softshell Crab with a Cauliflower Saffron Curry Puree and a Noissette Sauce

Soft Shell Crab - Photo Rico Mandel

Soft Shell Crab - Photo Rico Mandel

I love softshell crab and since they are in season it was a perfect time to put them on the menu. I wanted to keep the dish simple and make the crabs without a heavy batter.  I like to see the crab when I’m eating it.  The puree had been heating and was ready the only thing to do was to fry the crabs and make the noissette.

Rico about to document the dish - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Rico about to document the dish - Photo Alex Kaliakin

We dredged the crabs in seasoned flour and fried them to perfection 3 at a time.  About half way through the process I made the noissette sauce, which is essentially a brown butter sauce with capers, parsley and lemon.  The plates came out of the oven and we put the puree down as a comet streak with a salad of pea and radish sprouts with lemon and olive oil and the noissette over that. We served it to the table and it was paired with an Italian white:  2008 La Soraia, Gavi, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy.

Fifth course – Braised Pork Belly with Porcini Mushroom Risotto

Braised Pork Belly W/Porcini Mushroom Risotto - Photo Rico Mandel

Braised Pork Belly W/Porcini Mushroom Risotto - Photo Rico Mandel

What’s not to like about this dish? Pork belly, one of those wonderful cuts of meat that has a lot of flavor and braises to a melt-in-your-mouth goodness.  Take this and deep fry it to crisp up the outside, and that is heaven on a plate.

Rico & Elio - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Rico & Elio finishing pork belly & sauce - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Once I had finished the last course I went in to finish the risotto.  I had sauteed the porcinis earlier and already had the mushroom stock heated.  I put some butter in the pot,  added my parcooked risotto, and began adding stock to finish it.  While stirring constantly I added butter and ladle after ladle of stock until it had a rich creamy texture. A few minutes before it was done I added the mushrooms and parmesan cheese and adjusted the seasoning. Meanwhile Elio was frying the pork belly and heating the bowls.  We put down the bowls and spooned out the risotto.  For this dish I reduced the braising liquid to a glaze. I dipped the top of each piece of pork belly into the glaze and set it on top of the risotto. I placed some nice full slices of porcini mushroom that I had baked earlier and reheated on top of the risotto. A thyme sprig garnish was placed on top of the pork belly and the plates were served. For this course Alex and Brad decided to have a wine duel, so first Brad Served a 2000 Barolo, Falletto Di Bruno Giacosa as a short pour then it was followed up with Alex’s 2000 Spanish wine, Castillo Ygay Rioja, gran Reserva Especial Cosecha 2000.  Both were excellent and went well with the pork belly.

Sixth course – Korean Style Ribeye with Pommes Fondant and Asian Slaw

Grilled Korean Style Ribeye - Photo Rico Mandel

Grilled Korean Style Ribeye - Photo Rico Mandel

Have I told you that ribeye is one of my favorite cuts of beef?  In addition I love Korean short ribs. I like the combination of sweet, soy and a bit of heat that goes into the marinade. So why not combine this wonderful cut of meat with one of my favorite marinades? I did this entree for a wedding several years ago and I liked the way it turned out so I made some modifications to make it work for this tasting menu.  The pommes fondant is a variation of Chef Ludovic Lefebvre recipe from his book Crave.

Elio Basting Potatoes - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Elio Basting Potatoes - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Earlier I took the steaks out of the fridge to allow them to come up to room temperature.  This makes the cooking more even and shortens the cooking time.  I grilled the steaks on high heat to a medium rare and set them aside to rest for about 5 minutes.  Everything was ready to go once I got into the kitchen.  We dressed the slaw with an Asian dressing I had made earlier.

Old Sparkey with Spanish wine for pork belly - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Old Sparkey with Spanish wine for pork belly - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Rico Grilling - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Rico Grilling - Photo Alex Kaliakin

The slaw had red cabbage, fennel, cucumbers, red onion and almonds in it. I had Elio cut them on the mandoline to give a nice thin elegant appearance when served.

Earlier I had strained the marinade and reduced it to use  as the sauce. The meat was cut and the elements placed as we served the 6th course around midnight.  This was served with a 2006 Schrader, “Old Sparky” Cabernet Sauvignon which got a 100pt rating by Robert Parker in the Wine Advocate.

Seventh course – Cheese Plate with Fumaison, Two Sisters Gouda and Bohemian Creamery Capriago Cheese

Cheese Plate - Photo Rico mandel

Cheese Plate - Photo Rico mandel

On a recent trip to Healdsburg with my mother,  I went into the Healdsburg Cheese Shop and we discovered a cornucopia of wonderful cheeses. It was like being a kid in a candy store: Where to start? What looks good? What do I want to try first? The woman behind the counter was a big help, we asked about certain cheeses that caught our eye and tasted a large variety of cheeses.  Mom bought several to take back to my brother’s house while I was concentrating on the upcoming dinner and what interesting cheeses I could serve.  I chose a French smoked sheep’s milk cheese called Fumaison, which had a rich smooth texture with a hint of smokiness at the finish. Next I settled on a younger cow’s milk gouda called Two Sisters, which is aged 2 years. It has a semi hard texture with a creamy finish with a pastoral essence.  The last cheese was a northern California goat’s milk cheese called Capriago made by Bohemian Creamery in Sebastapol.  It was a semi hard cheese with a milky white color and a smooth, complex flavor. Elio arranged the cheese plates beautifully with orange supremes, grapes, hazelnut bread, and Marcona almonds. It was a beautiful sight. The photo speaks for itself. It was served with a Baumard Carte D’Or 2004 Coteaux Du Layon Chenin Blanc to go with it that was wonderfully light.

The Eighth course – Wine & Cardamom Poached Pears Dipped in Chocolate with Vanilla Ice Cream

Chocolate Dipped Poached Pear - Photo Rico Mandel

Chocolate Dipped Poached Pear - Photo Rico Mandel

I was looking for a light dessert to finish off this wonderful meal,  thinking about a fruit dessert that would be elegant yet light on the palate.  I like wine-poached pears; the wine gives the fruit a rich flavor and deep red color.  Elio had made poached pears for a wine tasting dinner when he was working at the Saddle Peak Lodge. The poaching liquid consisted of red wine, dried apricots and cherries, orange slices, star anise, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom.

Sous Chef Elio Serving Dessert - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Sous Chef Elio Serving Dessert - Photo Alex Kaliakin

We poached the pears and let them cool overnight in the poaching liquid to give them a rich red color and allow the poaching process to finish.  We strained the liquid and reduced it to a syrupy consistency.  Next Elio separated some of the dried fruit to be used both as a garnish and also to make a puree for the plate.  We dipped the pears in chocolate on-site  and let them cool. Elio plated the dessert and we served it to our anxiously awaiting guests.  The chocolate was a great complement to the soft poached pear. It was served with a 2006 Ben Ryé (Ben Ree-ā), a Sicillian wine fron the Island of Pantellaria.

Elio, Rico, Donna, Tony and Lisa enjoying the fire after the meal - Photo Alex Kaliakin

Elio, Rico, Donna, Tony and Lisa enjoying the fire after the meal - Photo Alex Kaliakin

The evening turned out to be a great success.  A wonderful group of friends, great food, fabulous wines brought by the guests, a dreamlike setting, and, for those of us who partake, a good cigar to cap off the evening. We started at 7:15pm and ended with the final course around 1:00am. A leisurely, decadent feast for all who came.

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