Tonight's dinner party was originally conceived to be a tribute to the wonderful Broadway musical [title of show] and its brilliant cast and creative team, but turns out several of them were unavailable, so it became a general tribute to fun people of the theatre world.
On the guest list: [title of show]'s brilliant lady star, Heidi, its brilliant director, Michael, Broadway (and Running Charades) diva, Celia, Heidi and Celia's uber-talented beaux: Ed and John, and everybody's favorite ex-actor/ESL teacher and dinner party regular, Ryan.
This was one of those crazy hodgepodge meals, i.e. Which dishes haven't I done yet that I can throw together into one barely cohesive but hopefully edible meal? Thankfully, I had an incredibly easygoing crowd that went with the lack of flow. Gotta love theatre people!
Chicken Consommé (p. 72)
You can't believe how much time, effort, and how many ingredients it takes to make this absolutely clear, simple broth.
The best thing I can say about this recipe is that everything is coarsely chopped - there's no 1/4 inch dice or julienne cutting, which is always a time-sucker, esp. for me with my crappy knives and lack of technique.
The first thing you do here is make the "clarification mixture," which is chopped onion, carrot, and celery, mixed with ground chicken and egg whites. This chills in the refrigerator, while you char an onion and chop it and a tomato. Then it all gets whisked into chicken stock and brought to a boil.
Eventually a "raft" forms, basically a giant floating chopped meat and veggie lifesaver, which pulls all the impurities out of the soup, leaving a super-clear and intensely-flavored broth, i.e. consommé. I have to confess I've never done or even seen anything like this, which I always appreciate. That said, it seems like a lot of effort for clear broth.
Next, the liquid is strained through a cheesecloth-lined sieve and then a second time through a coffee filter. (Really?) The sieve part went fine, but when I tried to use a cone filter for part two, the first one tore and the second one allowed through roughly one tablespoon per hour. Eventually, I gave up on that and used a paper towel, which worked perfectly. This seemed like an acceptable alternative considering that the next thing I was supposed to do was to sweep a paper towel over the soup to remove the fat on top. By the time I put it through the paper towel filter, the soup had cooled off, and the fat was left just sitting on the paper towel, so I think I killed two birds with one paper towel.
Martha indicates that the soup should be garnished, but she doesn't specify anything in particular, so I trolled around the web for ideas. I eventually settled on blanched julienned carrots and green bean rounds.
I must confess my big mistake. I should have doubled (or at least 150%'ed) this recipe. As written, it serves only 4-6 people, and we were seven. So yes, the portions were incredibly small. But hey, this is a very refined dish. If you pretend you're at Le Bernardin, a tiny portion seems entirely acceptable.
When I tasted the soup near the end of the "raft" stage, it had that magical soup sparkle, very delicious and fresh and flavorful. But I think it lost something in the reheating of it. By the time it was served, it tasted very much like a garden-variety chicken broth. Tasty, absolutely, but nothing I'd repeat, given the journey to get there.
Jeff: A- (for not serving big enough portions)
Martha: A- (for a very low effort-to-payoff ratio)
Pork Shoulder Braised in Hard Cider (p. 183)
This was one I was really looking forward to, being that it has two of my favorite things in the title alone: Pork and Hard Cider. I'm not a big drinker, but the one alcoholic beverage that I find irresistible is hard cider, so I was very excited to cook my favorite meat, pork, in it!
No easy coarse chopping in this dish! This one requires lots of 1/2 inch dicing, mincing, and fine chopping. Leeks, garlic, parsnips, and celery root are the aromatic components, along with some fresh herbs in a cheesecloth sachet. This dish starts on the stove for the browning of the pork shoulder and the softening of the aromatics. Then the pork and liquids are added, brought to a boil, and ultimately it goes in the oven for the bulk of the cooking time.
Similarly to the rabbit recipe, the amount of liquid suggested in the recipe was not enough to come "halfway up the sides of the pork," so I ended up adding more cider, stock, and even some water to bring up the level of the liquid. (Martha says to add more stock if this comes up, but I didn't have enough extra on hand. If you make this, you will definitely want to plan on having a nice amount of extra stock around.)
As with the chicken soup recipe, when this dish nears completion, you get rid of all the vegetables that have been cooking and flavoring the stock and you replace them with new versions of the same vegetables, in this case, sliced leeks, parsnips, and celery root, which go back in the liquid and get cooked until tender.
Once the new vegetables are done, then so is the meat, and they both get put aside, covered, while the sauce is prepared. I was supposed to reduce two cups of cooking liquid down to one cup, but there was closer to four cups in there! I turned the heat up really high, trying to reduce it as quickly as possible, which would have gone faster if I were going from two cups to one, but I wanted all that flavor so I used all four cups and just waited it out.
Martha had me make a beurre manié for this sauce, i.e. mix together a tablespoon each of flour and butter with my fingers. I'd never seen this before, the finger mixing, that is. It's a very effective, though messy, way of creating a smooth gravy starter. Eventually, the sauce thickened up nicely, and I finished it with cream and grainy mustard.
Surprisingly, after all that time sitting covered, the meat had stayed quite hot on the bone, so after shredding it onto the platter, it was still warm by the time it hit the table. The vegetables, though, had seriously cooled.
Martha says this dish serves eight, but I bought a slightly larger piece of meat (she says 3 lbs, and my pork shoulder was roughly 3.3 lbs) and I think we just barely had enough meat. I'd suggest serving this portion to 6 people or getting for a larger shoulder. The vegetables, on the other hand, were plentiful.
As much as I love pork, I wasn't blown away by the flavor or texture of this meat. It was tender enough, and it tasted fine, albeit somewhat bland. The vegetables were more interesting to me, flavor-wise, though visually, they were all a pasty beige, much like the meat, so this isn't a particularly attractive dish to look at.
The real star here is that sauce, full of flavor: sweet, salty, creamy, sharp, delicious, magically elevating the rest of the ingredients and giving the dish lift-off. Definitely do not skip this very important component.
Creamed Spinach (p. 297)
This recipe, I remembered to double. Unfortunately, that meant washing and trimming five pounds of spinach. Do you realize how time-consuming it is to wash five pounds of spinach? Also, the day I shopped for this meal, the spinach at Fairway was the fine leaf kind, not the heartier kind. Ugh. After spending 45 minutes washing and trimming the first three pounds, I had to quit, just to get some snacks out before my guests arrived.
And there I was, with guests and two pounds of dirty spinach. Enter my savior, Heidi (pictured here), who stepped in as sous chef and finished cleaning the spinach.
My only previous experience of creamed spinach was my mother's version, which was 100% from canned ingredients. Canned spinach, canned mushrooms, and canned cream of mushroom soup. Tonight's version, of course, is in another galaxy completely.
As I've come to expect, Martha's timing for thickening the béchamel is way off. She says two minutes, mine went for more like ten. (It may have been even longer. I felt like I was keeping my guests waiting forever... At one point I was stirring the béchamel and the pork sauce with one hand each. Now that's coordination!) Admittedly, my creamed spinach looked a lot thicker and creamier than the spinach pictured in the book, but I think that's a good thing.
Needless to say, it was fabulous. Fresh and green (unlike my mother's brown version) and heavy and light at the same time. A hint of nutmeg and a nice amount of salt sealed the deal. Now, if I could find prewashed spinach, I might consider doing this again!
Martha: A- (I don't think two minutes of thickening is even remotely realistic)
Warning: Both the spinach and the pork dish will keep you busy right up until serving time, which makes them terrible choices for dinner parties. Doing them together was a near-fiasco, as I was very distracted bouncing back and forth from one to the other. I kept my guests waiting a ridiculous amount of time before the main course was served. And this, after feeding them merely a tablespoon each of consommé. Eek! Note to self: must plan better next time....
Lovebirds Celia and John, with their thimbles of consommé.
Real men eat pork! (from l to r: Ryan, Michael and Ed)