This week’s dinner party took place last Saturday, on the last evening of winter. It was certainly wintery outside, with sleety snow and big Chicago winds. And we had a wintery dinner inside too, making the most of the last of the season’s bounty. Our dinner guests were Ben’s boss Chris and his wife Melece. Yep, we performed that age old ritual of having the boss for dinner. Under normal circumstances, this sort of to-do has all the makings for being a bit stressful. But this was the eleventh dinner party we’ve thrown in as many weeks - We were all around cool as can be. Still though, I was aiming this week for a particularly extraordinary menu, one that was perhaps a bit more exceptional than the norm, one sure to delight and impress. And I do believe I achieved it.
We started out with an hors d’oeuvre that is nothing short of spectacular – stuffed mushrooms. My Uncle David (an awesome cook, and my earliest inspiration) first made these for a family party about ten or so years ago. They immediately achieved family favorite status. Literally. If you took a poll of everyone in our family, I am certain these would come in first place among favorite family dishes. I think Uncle Dave first got the recipe from some magazine or other, but as far as any of us are concerned, they’re an original family heirloom. They’re so incredibly delicious, and such a staple at family events, we can’t help but fancy them as our very own, passed down from great, great ancestors.
As an aside, I’ll admit upfront that these are not gourmet by any stretch. With ingredients like cream cheese and breakfast sausage and garlic salt, they seem downright unsophisticated. But it’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I’d gladly sacrifice every last ounce of my epicurean pride for these amazing mushrooms. And also, they are not very pretty. They’re absolutely homely actually – little, brown, ugly lumps that are anything but photogenic. (Hence the the blatant lack of pictures.) But my goodness, one bite and you’ll swear they’re the most beautiful things in the world. And anyways, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, a taste is worth a trillion.
Our salad took a place at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, thanks in no small part to its complete span of the color spectrum. With its pastel hues and bright flavors, this collection of thinly shaven raw root vegetables was a spring-like spin on a cold weather staple, a perfectly suited dish for the night day of winter. I gathered a pretty assortment of root vegetables from the fruit market – turnips, carrots, rutabagas, parsnips, celery root, radishes and golden beets. Sliced paper-thin then simply dressed in a creamy vinaigrette of buttermilk and fresh herbs, these pretty ribbons of root vegetables are a perfect basis for a fresh and delicious salad. Crisp yet delicate, they act like leaves themselves, and easily stand in place for typical salad greens.
Looking through the lists of Scrumptious Company menus I’ve served so far, I realized it was high time we did something with salmon. Rich and fatty, with a succulent flavor unique to all other fish, and a lovely pinkish-orange flesh of such a gorgeous tone, it’s an official color itself. What could be better than salmon, really? I just love the stuff.
Alongside pan-seared fillets of this beautiful fish, I served braised mustard greens and oven-roasted Peruvian purple potatoes. The potatoes were wonderfully aromatic, with tender insides of bright purple, and crispy skins of a deeper purple tinged with golden brown. Roasted with pink slivers of shallots, minced garlic and a generous dose of fresh thyme, and dressed with a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil, they were a vibrant accompaniment, in both color and taste, to the robust flavors and texture of the salmon.
Mustard greens are, in one word, bitter. But as with such favorites as dark chocolate and coffee and beer, the bitterness of mustard greens is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it’s an all around noble attribute. Bitterness, an oft overlooked taste, is indeed worthy of its own celebration from time to time. And tonight, mustard greens were the belle of the ball. Cloaked in sauce of butter and garlic, and spiked with a bright dash of sherry vinegar, these tenderly braised greens were creamy and smooth, a delicious reminder of how sweet a bit of bitterness can be.
And to bring everything together, a brown butter sauce with bicolor speckles of capers and currants that echoed the earthy greens and purples of the rustic sides. Fragrant and savory, this rich and vibrant sauce rounded out the bitter greens, earthy potatoes and buttery salmon. Its combination of flavors – salty pickled capers, fruity currants, mellow garlic and vivid lemon – made it a fitting complement and wonderful addition to the entire dish.
To make this week’s dessert, we again happily dug into our generous supply of surprise hazelnuts. This time round, they took their place, and were an all-around smashing success, in a hazelnut-maple pie. Along the same lines as pecan pie, this handsome dessert could be considered by some (including my handsome husband), even better than the pecan version. With a golden, flaky crust, and a sticky filling of gooey maple custard studded with toasted hazelnuts, this pie was a real treat. And with a steaming cup of our favorite coffee, it was a perfect ending to not only the wonderful night, but also the winter.