We had quite the Easter feast this Sunday. We celebrated with Matt and Sara from downstairs, our go-to friends for just about any sort of celebration. I have to say, it sure is nice having these two around, for sampling experimental baked goods and helping eat leftovers, for their helpful feedback and conscientious food critiques, and for always being there when we find ourselves in a pinch and need last-minute dinner guests. I know it sounds like a rather pleasant undertaking on their part, but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for their help. So, a big Thank You to Matt & Sara, and a big Happy Easter to the rest of you!
As you can imagine, Scrumptious Company dinner parties can be a bit involved. (I’m not talking about the food, exactly – these recipes, for the most part, are pretty simple, and definitely doable for any of you non-professionals at home.) When I say involved, I’m referring first and mainly to the picture taking. As a novice photographer, I had no idea it could ever take so much time! Looking for the best lighting, switching up backdrops, playing with angles, adjusting the food, re-adjusting the food, etc… And trying to do all this before said food gets cold. It’s a bit of a challenge, especially as I’m simultaneously playing the role of hostess! What sets our dinner parties apart from the norm even more, and makes them even a bit more involved, is that we talk about the food. A lot. And in a critical way. As the chef, it can sometimes be difficult to tell how others will react to my food. I know what I like and don’t, but I’m often surprised by others’ reactions. So, for me to give you, my readers, all the best possible descriptions of my food, I need to hear what our dinner guests really think. I’m a real stickler for getting our friends’ true opinions. Constructive criticism is the name of the game.
So, you see, these aren’t your average laid-back dinner parties. But our guests, every last one of them, have been sensational - really getting into the action, helping enthusiastically with the photos and recipe critiques, and showing total support for the unique intricacies of this project. Picture taking, constructive criticism and all, it’s been so much fun, maybe even more fun than regular old dinner parties.
Critiquing the food with Matt and Sara (two scholars, through and through), we often find ourselves going by the academic letter-grading-scale, assigning A’s, B’s and so on. This week’s dinner aced the test. An occasional A, and the rest A+’s. There were even a few A+++’s! With a strong 4.0, this menu is definitely in the running for Scrumptious Company valedictorian!
The fava bean puree scored the first A+ of the night, for both taste and presentation. Served alongside crostini and fresh baby carrots, the creamy green dip was picture perfect. But the flavor, man oh man, the flavor! Smooth, buttery beans with a good dose of nutty parmesan, a splash of lemony brightness, overtones of fruity olive oil, and a subtle sparkle of fresh mint. I might have said this was the most delicious dish of the night, but that wouldn’t be exactly fair… Snacking on it while putting final touches on the rest of the meal, I got thoroughly carried away by its addictive deliciousness, and may have ruined my appetite just a bit for everything else!
While all the dishes were star students, the beet-dyed deviled eggs were certainly the teacher’s pet. These were so freaking cute, I had to call my mom (a woman rightfully renowned in Toledo for her delicious deviled eggs) to fill her in. An adult’s version of colored Easter eggs, these hard-boiled eggs took on a gorgeous deep pink hue from a long soak in a beet-dyed pickling solution. The soft yellow yolk filling, speckled with grainy dots of coarse-ground mustard and tiny flecks of green parsley, and swirled on top in a pretty spiral, was just as gorgeous as its pink counterpart. And like a lucky student with both brains and beauty, this adorable hors d’oeuvre was just as delicious as it looked. Deviled eggs, ordinary as they may seem, are one of my favorite treats of all time. And this gussied up version, a fancy twist on the humble original, sacrificed none of the original’s fundamental tastiness, for the sake of sophistication. With a mustardy, mayonnaisy, velvety filling, and just a slight insinuation of pickled beet flavor, these had all the humble goodness of the traditional deviled eggs I love.
The glazed ham and apricot-mustard sauce got another A+. In fact, I think that this is how I will always make Easter ham from now on. The simple sauce, made of just apricot preserves, apple cider vinegar and whole grain mustard, hit all the right flavor notes. Sweet and tart and a little bit spicy, rounded out by the earthy mustard and the fruity apricots. Slathered all over and rubbed into the nooks and crannies of the diamond-scored ham, it caramelized in the oven into a gorgeously sticky golden brown crust, more sweetly delicious even, than all the candy in your Easter basket. The ham itself was all around fantastic. But it’s ham after all, so of course it was. Ham could get straight A’s without even cracking a book.
Oooh, the potato-fennel gratin. For the sake of not sounding like a broken record, I won’t even tell you what grade this got ……..…. A+!!! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) Tender and creamy and utterly rich with smooth flavors of roasted fennel and parmesan cheese, and topped with a bubbling golden brown crust, this beautiful gratin deserved its high mark, through and through.
Now, I know some of you may be intimidated by fennel. Maybe you’ve never cooked with it before – I know I hadn’t until I started cooking professionally. But honestly, it’s no harder to prepare than an onion. And maybe you’re put off by its so-called licoricey taste – I know I was. That is, until I actually tried it. I hate that fennel has a flavor akin to licorice, not because it tastes bad, but because it scares people away. Myself, I am not a licorice lover. On my own personal candy spectrum, licorice lies towards the hate it end. But on my vegetable spectrum, fennel sits securely at the love it end. You see, as fennel cooks, the licorice flavor softens and metamorphoses into this sweet and mellow richness, and becomes something altogether different, and altogether charming. Combined with golden potatoes, heavy cream and parmesan, the subtle fennel flavors just melt into the lovely creaminess of this divine gratin.
The roasted asparagus was pretty much a gimme A. Like an easy class where attendance alone is enough to ensure top marks. So simple. But, sigh… so delicious. Simply dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then roasted until tender and slightly tinged with golden brown. A squeeze of lemon at the end, and they’re ready to be devoured.
If roasted asparagus is a gimme class, we all agreed that the dinner rolls were a college level AP course. But my dear husband always likes a challenge. Ben is the baker of the family, which works all too well for me. He rolls out the pizza dough while I prep the toppings. He cuts fresh pasta, as I whip up a sauce. If I have a pot of soup simmering on the stove, he’s most likely proofing the dough for a loaf of fresh-baked bread. We make a good team, don’t we?!
These dinner rolls were incredible, an A+ on a 5-point scale. The tender, buttery crusts were brushed with a light golden hue. Soft as your favorite pillow, the fluffy white insides had an all too earnest propensity to melt in your mouth, causing these glorious rolls to disappear way too quickly. Fresh out of the oven and slathered in butter, these were pure heaven. Sliced in half to sandwich a slice of ham and a drizzle of apricot-mustard sauce, they were pure delights.
And for dessert, a lemon and blueberry tart, one I’d made before, years ago for another Easter dinner. I remembered really liking it, but realized last Sunday that my memory hardly did it justice. On this Easter, this tart was even better than I’d recalled.
A basic lemon tart, only studded with fresh blueberries. Blueberries that burse and ooze as the tart bakes, creating swirls of sweet berry sauce among the tart lemon curd. The flavor is intense, on the edge of being a bit too powerful, a bit too fragrant. With forthright tones of floral perfume, it’s almost too much. Almost. It’s not a dessert I’d want every day, but that’s not to say it’s not delicious. The beauty of this tart lies in its intensity. Like a shot of hot sauce, or a chunk of pungent blue cheese, a glass of fine whisky, or a slice of honey-soaked baklava, the intense flavor of this tart is what makes it so sensational, so extraordinary. And it’s what earns it the last A+ of the night.