We had Jenn over again last Monday night, and she brought along her photographer friend Jason. It’s always such a treat, having a real photographer come to dinner – I pick up tips and learn new tricks, and get to relax a bit as I leave some of the photo responsibilities to our guest. (You’ll see one of Jason’s awesome pictures below. Thanks again, Jason!)
We started out the evening with some citrus cocktails. I’ve recently become absolutely enamored with specialty cocktails. And this is after thirty years of being completely oblivious. For the first three decades of my life, certain the alcohol taste would be much too strong, I stubbornly refused to try mixed drinks, just stuck with wine and the occasional beer. But a few weeks ago, I don’t know what got into me, but I tried a guava martini at Roy’s. It was absolutely sensational! And my self-imposed cocktail-ban was immediately lifted. Since that night, I’ve gotten into experimenting with all sorts of boozy concoctions. It’s a lot like cooking – mixing special ingredients and certain flavors to created something delicious. And it’s just so perfect, having these weekly dinner parties, because they give me the perfect chance to practice this new hobby!
This citrus-vodka cocktail was really lovely. It’s nothing more than freshly squeezed juice from oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes, mixed with vodka. The color is surprisingly beautiful, a soft blending of the pink, orange, green and yellow. Sugar lines the rim of the glass, and lends a perfect touch of sweetness to every sip.
With the cocktails I served an easy hors d’oeuvre, bite-sized toasted French bread crostini, each topped with a dollop of goat cheese and a spoonful of olive confit. For the confit, I sliced a few different varieties of green and purple cured olives – Kalamata, Arbequina, Picholine. To these various bright and briny flavors I added some lemon zest, capers, garlic, pink peppercorns, crushed red pepper, and a splash of fruity olive oil. The flavors are wonderful together, and made only more so when combined with the tangy goat cheese and buttery crostini. It’s an easy snack to whip up, but it doesn’t taste at all ordinary. The peppercorns, I think, particularly give this mixture a touch of something special, something everyone will notice. I love these little bites, and make them all the time. No matter what’s for dinner, they more often than not seem like a perfect way to start the meal.
Chicken can be a little boring. But not if your grilling it under a brick! I had fun experimenting with this unusual technique. First I prepared the chicken – With a few easy slices, I ‘butterflied’ the bird so it could lay flat over the grill, and then rubbed a fragrant mixture of garlic and herbs under the skin. I heated up the bricks along with the grill, then arranged the chicken over the cool side of the grill, with the hot bricks on top of the bird, pressing it flat over the hot grates and licking flames. A little under an hour later, the chicken was ready. And the results were fabulous. The garlic and herb flavors penetrated deep into the meat, filling each bite with savory complexity. The meat was cooked to perfection, tender and juicy, like the best roasted chicken. And the golden skin carried all the benefits of grilling, all crispy and browned, with smoky char-grilled flavor. Absolutely delicious - and anything but boring.
For a side dish - Asparagus Panzanella, a spring twist on an Italian bread salad. It’s one of my favorite dishes, and a great idea that I picked up from an old chef of mine. Cubes of crusty bread are tossed with red wine vinaigrette (which soaks through just a bit, making the bread the slightest bit soggy, saturating it with flavor) and finely grated parmesan (which sticks to the bread, coating the cubes with a dusty layer of cheese). These vinaigrette-soaked, parmesan-coated bread cubes are then baked in the oven, until they’re toasty, warm and golden, crispy and crunchy but still soft and chewy on the inside. To these delicious, golden cubes of toasted bread I add tender slices of roasted asparagus, a small handful of thinly sliced red onion, bite-sized bits of fresh mozzarella, and an extra dose of parmesan, for good measure. The combination is out of this world. It’s really one of my favorite side dishes ever. So much so, that sometimes it even surpasses it’s side-status, and I serve it all on its own, as the main course for a light dinner.
I made a second side dish that was really too simple, kind of ordinary even, but still delicious, and perfectly suited with the chicken and panzanella – a super quick and easy salad of bitter greens – arugula, radicchio and endive. I don’t think I need to say too much about it, really. I write about salads pretty similar to this all the time, nearly every week. This was just a subtle variation on a common theme.
Dessert though, this was worth going on about. Orange-flavored chocolate mousse. Now, chocolate is something that matches up sensationally with all kinds of other flavors – peanut butter, caramel, strawberries, coffee, etc… But my all-time favorite partner for chocolate has got to be oranges. Have you ever tried one of those chocolate oranges? Oh my goodness, I can never resist those! So when I found this recipe for orange-flavored chocolate mousse in one of my Ina Garten cookbooks, I couldn’t resist trying that out either. And am I ever glad I did. It turned out absolutely awesome. Let’s forget about the orange for a second, and look at this just as chocolate mousse. Just by chocolate mousse standards, this was absolute perfection – rich and creamy, intensely chocolaty, and utterly silky smooth. But with the addition of a bit of orange zest and a citrusy splash of Grand Marnier, it was over the top. Wow. That’s all I can really say about it – Wow! You’ve got to try this. And now!