Even though I’ve loved them all so far, I’m for some reason especially fond of this week’s dinner party, a little bit partial maybe. I can’t really put my finger on why – It’s just that this meal has felt like a special one from the very beginning. To start with, I was in a really great mood last week when I sat down to think up what to fix for dinner. It was one of those good, good days, and I was just loving life. All my happy feelings must have brought out the creativity, because the ideas came so easily and just seemed so absolutely right. I instantly fell in love with this late summer menu:
And then things kept getting better. The prep was a breeze, much easier than I expected, way simpler than the menu would let you believe, and loads quicker than nearly all the other dinner parties up here. Even better, every last bite turned out absolutely delicious. Absolutely, enormously delicious. But best of all were out guests, Downstairs Marty and his girlfriend Nichole. Marty’s just a floor below and right underneath us, in what’s a pretty small apartment building. But, sad to say it, aside from now and then passing him in the stairway, or hearing his muffled cheers through the floor during big games on TV, we’d hardly known Marty at all. He always seemed like a neat guy, but it turns out he’s on the really-neat side of neat. Nichole too is a cool, cool girl. Downstairs Jen and Ted and little Luca came up too, just in time for dessert & wine, and before you knew it, we were in the merry midst of a spontaneous apartment bash.
And now let’s get to that enormously delicious food I was talking about. First, the blue cheese stuffed figs, a savory treat I used to make all the time, only years and year ago, while I was cooking back in Ithaca. I haven’t made them in ages, and I’d all but forgotten about them, until I saw these lovely figs at the fruit market. And then it all came back to me… those fresh, lush figs, with smooth, deep purple skins and glowing pink, seedy insides. A quick roast in the oven brushes them a hue of light golden brown, turns them succulently tender, and concentrates their juices and sugars to a caramel-like syrup. Atop this goodness I dollop a spoonful (or if I’m feeling fancy, pipe a swirl) of intensely flavored blue cheese, whipped into a velvety mousse with nothing more than a touch of cream. The rich pungency of the blue cheese combined with the sugary tartness of the fig just sends me to the moon. I can’t believe I’d forgotten about these for so long.
And this flash from my past reminded me of another old favorite, and from the same place too, the sugar-spiced nuts from Just a Taste. A sensation among many a customer of this marvelous eatery, these sweet-salty-spicy nuts could always be found in a huge glass jar atop the Just a Taste bar. With their glistening crust of sugar, salt and a myriad spices, a handful of these addictive nuts makes for a perfect sweet treat and simultaneously salty snack. But they’re sensational too alongside fruits and cheeses and beer and wine. They seemed like just the thing to serve with the blue cheese figs and a glass of red. And they most definitely were.
And while at the market, I just couldn’t resist the concord grapes, those gorgeous clusters of dusty, deep purple orbs. Sweet, seed-studded juice capsules of the loveliest pale green, rolling within their tart, leathery skins - they’re like perfect packages of intoxicating flavor. And so these tasty little lovelies became hors d’oeuvres too.
And now let’s move onto the main course, and all its fabulous sides. I’m just so excited about these sides, I’m almost tempted to skip the fish and delve into descriptions of these sensational dishes. But I really should tell you at least a bit about this sea bass. Perhaps a bit boring next to those gorgeous grains and stunning vegetables, but it deliciously deserves an equal amount of praise. This wonderful fish really hit the mark - moist and tender and immensely tasty, with huge, tender flakes of snow-white flesh atop a crispy, silvery skin, all wrapped in a wide ribbon of pink prosciutto. Truly, it was very much a worthy hero to it’s crew of delicious sidekicks.
I’m in love right now with this simple summer squash dish: Green and gold coins of sliced zucchini and yellow squash, gently sautéed to melting tenderness in a swig of extra-virgin olive oil and a pat of butter, then doused in a shower of emerald green herbs – bright parsley, floral marjoram, sweet basil and peppery thyme. It’s so, so simple, just a handful of fresh green confetti away from a nothing-but-typical vegetable dish. But confetti has always seemed kind of magical to me. Whether a shimmering cascade of colored specks of paper, twinkling through the air, or an herbal sprinkling over warm, buttery vegetables, confetti of any sort promises an enchanting effect. It certainly works it’s magic on this dish.
When it came to a starchy side, I couldn’t make up my mind between the nutty chew of wild rice or the warm, tender bite of French green lentils, and so I decided to mix them. When blended together, the attributes of both seemed to compound and augment, enhancing each other and creating a texture and flavor much enticing than either rice or lentil alone could achieve. Of course, the smoky bits of crispy pancetta, sweet specks of sautéed shallots, and bright scattering of fresh parsley didn’t hurt things a bit either.
And lastly, a vegetable dish I particularly adore, the braised radishes. If you’ve been a Scrumptious Company reader for a while now, you may remember this beautiful dish from a post back in February. I know I’ve been repeating recipes a bit lately, and really, I’m trying not to do that too much. But as soon as these radishes popped into my mind, I just couldn’t pop them back out of it. And why would I want to? They’re such a fabulous match for the sea bass and other sides, and they’re ridiculously, gorgeously delicious. Ever so slowly sautéed in butter, their spicy, biting radish flavors mellow out into creamy, earthy smoothness. And just as the flavor infuses throughout the tender spheres, the bright red color of the skins permeates through to the radishes’ centers, painting them a lovely watercolor pink.
It’s convenient that dessert comes so naturally, right after dinner. Because otherwise I’d have had an all too difficult time saving the best for last. And the best is exactly what this vanilla poppy seed cake is – my favorite part of one of my favorite dinner parties. Densely freckled with about a million minute poppy seeds, this beauty of a cake is a sight to behold. The crust is deeply golden brown, and just on the edge of crispy, while the inside is moist and delightfully spongy, with rich vanilla flavor and countless constellations of tiny, chewy poppy seeds weaving through its tender crumb. It was the first time I’d ever baked this cake, a recipe of Deborah Madison’s. But for sure, it was the the first time of many. I will make this cake for years and years. I will make this when I’m an old lady. And I’ll be known around my neighborhood as that little old lady who makes that fabulous poppy seed cake.
Along with this simple yet elegant cake, a pillowy dollop of fresh whipped cream and a generous spoonful of rosemary-scented roasted plums. We are right in the middle of plum season, and the stalls of my fruit market are piled with such a vivid array of different varieties and colors of plums – deep inky purple, pastel yellow, bright ruby red, and pale chartreuse with blushes of pink. I couldn’t resist on my last shopping trip, and grabbed a few of each. I sliced them into slender wedges, tossed them with a few rosemary springs and a drizzling of my cousin Ann’s homemade honey, topped them with a few pats of butter, then roasted them until achingly tender and surrounded in a thick, deep pink syrup.
Oh my lord, these roasted plums are pure heaven. Absolutely blissful alongside the poppy seed cake, and just as divine swirled into my steel-cut oatmeal the next morning. I can think of a hundred ways to use these sticky, rosy slices. And not just for dessert or breakfast. Served with a roast chicken or grilled pork chops, or with a rich wedge of fabulous blue cheese. Holy yum, I could eat them with anything! In fact, I’m grateful this post is drawing to a close, because now I’m off the the market again, to gather up another colorful collection of plums.