We had a hot, hot night on our hands, for this dinner party! It was that week – there’s one ever year – when the temperature suddenly goes strait from being a bit too cold to way too hot, with no sort of perfect in between. We’d been looking forward all spring to having our first outdoor Scrumptious Company dinner, out on our back deck. And for a while there, we were sure this would be our night. But the temperature kept rising, all Sunday long. And now, instead of rain or cold or crazy Chicago wind, it was the sun, still all too fierce at seven in the evening, that kept us indoors for dinner.
Undeniably summer in every sense, save for its place on the calendar, this too-hot day begged for summertime food. Nothing too heavy, nothing to hot. In weather like this, eating can seem like a chore! The last thing I wanted to do was make our dinner guests feel like I was putting them to work. After all, these were pretty special guests. Tonight I was cooking for two of my new catering clients, Eileen and Gerard. They hosted the big party I catered a while back, and this night’s dinner was a ‘thank you’ for the great opportunity and generous support they’d given to my fledgling company.
So, light and cool was the name of the game. A bright, crunchy slaw of fresh fennel, and a creamy, goat-cheese studded salad of tender lentils (conveniently cooked the day before and served at room temp) were cool counterpoints to juicy grilled pork chops and some quick-roasted green beans. And a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream atop the strawberry-rhubarb crisp chilled things down for dessert.
We started the night off with a summery hors d’oeuvre, a miniaturized spin on BLT’s. A recipe I’d been eyeing in one of my favorite cooking tomes, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I’d been wanting to give these a try for a while. Thick-cut, apple wood-smoked bacon, sweet and tangy quick-pickled yellow onions, peppery green arugula. These three inner elements certainly made for a good start. And yes, normally when it come to sandwiches, just like with people, it’s what’s inside that counts. But in this instance, it wasn’t just the filling that made these little bites extraordinary. It was the bread itself. Well not bread, per se, but gougères. Lovely French cheese puffs, full of nutty gruyere flavor, with tender, airy insides and crispy outsides of golden brown. Sliced in half like mini buns, these sublime little pastries made for some fabulously delicious tops and bottoms to these fancied-up bacon sandwiches.
Now, onto the main course. And forgive me as I skip the all too ordinary (albeit awfully tasty) pork chop and go straight to the sides. Because I was pretty thrilled with how these side dishes turned out. Plus, what’s there to say really about grilled pork chops? That they’re delicious? Sure, but you know that already. Plus, these side dishes had deliciousness going for them too, and in a major way.
Especially the lentil-goat cheese salad. This was a big hit with all of of us. French green lentils, gently simmered until tender and creamy, combined with an aromatic heaping of freshly chopped green herbs, sweetly pungent specks of minced shallots, and a crumbling of creamy white goat cheese. Folded together, these various ingredients join forces seamlessly, forming a velvety blend of earthy and vivid flavors, a delicious mixing of coolness and comfort.
So often it seems, the lentils we encounter come in warm, steaming bowls, served hot off the stove, all mushy and stew-like, the epitome of cold weather coziness. But this lentil dish is all together different. These lentils are more akin to a summery side dish, like a potato or pasta salad, than a wintery stew of hearty legumes. It’s a refreshingly refreshing twist for an ingredient that’s just too delicious to only be eaten in cold weather.
This crisp, cool fennel-red onion slaw seemed a naturally fitting cohort to the creamy lentil salad. Thinly sliced ribbons of licoricy, pale green fennel and sweetly spicy, pink-edged onion, delicately dressed in a light and citrusy vinaigrette. Each bite of this simple, rustic slaw yielded a punch of vibrant flavor, and a telltale crunch of undeniable freshness.
Like grilled pork chops, green beans seem like none too astonishing a dish. But roasted green beans, well that’s a dish worth dwelling on, at least for a little while. Quick-roasted in a searing hot oven, the green beans sizzle away, getting all blistery and browned, turning a shocking shade of vibrant green, and becoming both tender and crunchy, full of rich, caramelized flavor. Try them like this once, and you’ll never even think of merely boiling green beans again.
One last element of dinner I should mention – the orange-tarragon compound butter. If you’ve been following along with this blog, you’ll know I’m very fond of these flavored butter sauces, and that I’ve written about them a time or two before. I just can’t help but adore their convenience. Melting over anything hot, they create an instant sauce, and make for no last minute work whatsoever. And what more could you ask for, when throwing a dinner party!?
You’ll let me know when you get tired of strawberries or rhubarb, right? But I do hope your not tired of them yet, because I have a feeling I’m just getting warmed up when it comes to these pretty-in-pink springtime fruits. I just can’t seem to get enough. And this simple-as-can-be strawberry-rhubarb crisp was a natural outlet for this seasonal obsession of mine. Juicy, sweet strawberries and tart, tender rhubarb, slowly baked until syrupy and bubbling. On top of this, a golden, crunchy crust of oats and butter and brown sugar, so humble yet so rich, and so undeniably delicious. Combined with a melty scoop of vanilla ice cream, I can’t believe there could be a better way to eat either rhubarb or strawberries.