My parents were in for a visit a few weekends ago. I always love cooking for them, and wish so much I could do it more often. Were Ben and I living in Toledo, I imagine myself cooking for the two of them all the time - having them over for weeknight dinners, bringing them samples of new recipes I’m experimenting with, or the left-overs from too-big-for-just-the-two-of-us desserts, and making for them all of the delicious things I can now only describe in our phone conversations. Ah well, someday maybe. But until that day, I’ll just have to keep on relishing their special visits, and keep on celebrating these visits with extra-special food.
And that reminds me of something else special – the two other guests we had over this night. Tim, a man whom my dad had recently met at a business seminar in Chicago, and his wife Maggie. Aside from Dad and Tim’s quick meeting and mutual agreement that they’d like to meet up again, Tim and Maggie were, on the whole, complete strangers to all of us. So when Dad had the idea to invite them over for dinner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous. Nervous to be cooking for people I didn’t yet know, and nervous too, that the night might turn out to be a total dud. This kind of stranger-filled situation could easily turn out to be a more than bit awkward. So, in the back of my mind, I was a bit afraid it wasn’t going to be all that fun of an evening. Needless to say, I was completely wrong. As soon as Tim and Maggie entered our apartment, all full of smiles and warmth and grace, I knew these were wonderful people, and that this was going to be a really wonderful night. And this time, I was completely right.
When designing the menu this week, I worked backwards, deciding on dessert first, then picking and choosing the entree, sides and appetizers to go along with it. So I think today, just to mix things up a bit, I’ll follow that pattern again, and we’ll have dessert first.
Earlier in the week, needing inspiration for this dinner party, I ended up turning to an old shoe box, sitting way up on the top shelf in our office closet, packed full of ripped-out recipes from old cooking magazines. In the midst of this unruly stash, I found a jagged patch of paper containing both a picture and recipe for the absolute most gorgeous cake I’d ever seen. I’d completely forgotten about this all-too-beautiful confection, with its three-layers of walnut-brown sugar cake, its topping of fresh blackberries, and its decadent brown sugar buttercream frosting. As soon as I stumbled upon this recipe, I knew beyond a doubt that I’d found this week’s dessert. And I could think of hardly anything else for the rest of the week.
Isn’t she a beauty?! It’s one of those cakes that’s just so pretty, it’s hard to imagine it tasting as good as it looks. But I’ll tell you honestly, that was not the case with this cake. Not the case at all. If anything, this cake tasted even better than it looked. Way better. In fact, flipping through the files of my memory, I do think this is the best cake I’ve ever made. It was incredibly, unbelievable delicious. First of all, the brown sugar buttercream frosting – rich and smooth and utterly luscious – was simply out of this world. And the cake itself was just incredible. Tender and unbelievably moist, with hints of orange lingering among the vanilla and brown sugar, each delicate layer with enclosed within a crackly crust of sugar and finely-ground walnuts. On top of the cake glistened lovely, fresh blackberries, coated in blackberry syrup. The sweet-tart berries were perfect companions for the sugary cake and rich, creamy frosting, making every last bite taste like pure heaven.
After deciding undoubtedly and all too easily on this fabulous dessert, it was a bit more difficult coming up with a fitting main course. Thinking and thinking about it for way too long, and talking and talking about it with my incredibly helpful and wonderfully creative friend Ralph, I finally settled on bacon-wrapped salmon with whole grain mustard. It turned out to be, just like the cake, absolutely delicious. As the salmon cooks to a perfect doneness, the bacon crisps beneath the oven broiler, and its melting fat bastes the fish. A light smear of whole grain mustard adds a spicy punch to the rich bacon-wrapped salmon, pleasantly taming its richness and toning down it’s decadence to the perfect level.
Alongside the salmon, wild rice risotto cakes. Chewy, nutty wild rice is folded into velvety smooth risotto, along with a gigantic handful of sliced scallions, and a more modest amount of parsley and parmesan cheese. Small scoops of this risotto batter are dropped in sizzling oil, then pan-fried to form crunchy, golden brown cakes with tender, creamy insides. The smooth insides and crispy outsides, with chewy specks of nutty brown rice and fresh green flecks of spicy scallions, combine to make every bite of these pretty cakes downright delicious.
To cut the creaminess of the risotto cakes and the impressive richness of the bacon-wrapped salmon, something tart and tangy was certainly called for. And that’s where this vinegary slaw came in to play. Sweet beets, bright crunchy red cabbage, crunchier carrots and a puckery vinegar dressing all came together to create the perfect foil to all that lavish richness. With its touch of mustard and bit of dill, this vibrant coleslaw would be delicious next to any rich dish. Or any poor one for that matter. Or even, all on its own.