Last weekend we threw a mini family reunion of sorts, and had over for dinner the Chicago chapter of the Toledo-based Anderson clan. Our guests were my dad’s cousin Francie (my first-cousin-once-removed) and her husband Mike (my first-cousin-once-removed-in-law) who live up in Evanston, and their niece Maggie (my second cousin), who’s a sophomore at DePaul University. It had been a long, long time since I’d seen Francie, at least fifteen years. And even though I was still just a kid the last time I saw her, she was still exactly how I remember her, so warm and fun and just plain neat. We’d never met Mike, but within minutes we knew he was as fun and cool as his wife. As for Maggie, well, aside from a quick meet-up for lunch a few months ago, I hadn’t seen her in ages either, maybe not since she was say, eight or nine. And now she’s suddenly all grown up, and amazingly neat herself. And all I can say is, it’s so great having such sweet and smart and all around lovely cousins just neighborhoods away. And man oh man, it was so good sharing the night with all three of them. With such special family-filled evenings like this, Chicago is slowly but surely, really starting to feel like home.
But now, let’s get to the food. And let’s start with the hors d’oeuvres, which I admit were a bit of a cheat. No new recipe here, just some buttery French bread crostini, two wonderful cheeses, a sharp Gorgonzola and a sweet and mellow triple crème, some luscious slices of blushing Bartlett pears, and bicolor clusters of red and concord grapes. Perhaps I had a bit of menu-writers block, but I just couldn’t settle on an hors d’oeuvre. And then at the market, tempted by the gorgeous cheeses, and a little bit in love with the beautiful fall fruits, I finally made up my mind, and decided on this simple and simply delicious start for the evening.
The prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin was an elegant centerpiece to our main course. Scrolling through my 38 previous dinner party posts, I’m shocked that I haven’t yet served pork tenderloin. Hugely flavorful and amazingly tender, this sensational cut of meat is an all-around knock-out choice for dinner, any night of the week. Whether roasted or grilled, marinated or rubbed with spices and herbs, pork tenderloin has all the potential to be truly sensational. Tonight I added a fancy twist, and wrapped the pork in paper-thin slices of salty, pink prosciutto. A quick roast in a hot oven produced succulent slices of juicy pork enclosed in rosy rings of a crackly prosciutto crust. It looked really lovely, and tasted even better.
Risotto, no matter what kind really, is always a dish that’s sure to delight just about anyone. And tonight was no different – Each of us fell head over heals for this delicious rendition of the creamy classic. Pretty incredible to begin with, these million tender specks of short-grained rice bathing in a creamy wave of buttery sauce, rich with golden chicken stock, earthy thyme and salty Parmesan, made bright with a pleasant splash of dry white wine. And then, brought completely over the top, as a giant heap of slowly caramelized onion and fennel is folded in, weaving through in golden goodness. Warm and sweet and mellow, these caramel hued and flavored vegetables were a divine addition to this heavenly pot of velvety, luxurious rice.
Golden brown and a bit caramelized themselves, the oven-roasted figs leant a fruity touch of sweetness to the richness of the risotto. With nothing more than a sprinkling of salt and pepper, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a quick roast in a hot oven, the bright, clean freshness of these immensely beautiful and all-too-charming figs still lingered. The simple roasting just served to enhance the tenderness, boost the inherent sweetness and add an extra dimension of flavor to these wonderful autumnal fruits.
And then of course, my favorite staple, a simple salad of bitter greens. I hate to keep relying on this somewhat humdrum side, but it always seems to hit that needed note. A touch of sharp bitterness, a bright bit of cool freshness, a subtle crispness. More often than not, and especially alongside warm, rich dishes such as the one tonight, it tends to perfectly fit the bill, and flawlessly finish a plate.
Finally, dessert. And finally, old-fashioned gingerbread cake. Finally, because Ben and I have been waiting all summer for it. No matter how much we craved it, I just couldn’t bring myself to make this undeniably cold weather dessert until we were at least a few good weeks into fall. It just wouldn’t have been decent. But now that the air is undoubtedly cool and the leaves on the trees are anything but green, I took the very first chance I got to make this warm and cozy dessert. Moist and buttery, this luscious cake is just absolutely full of intense flavor from the rich, dark molasses, the warm spices of cinnamon and cloves, the citrusy shreds of orange zest, the sweet and plump golden raisins, and the spicy specks of sugared ginger. And as a perfect finish to this fall dessert, the pure white glaze of orange-flavored sugar tops the deep brown brown cake, coating the warm, spicy confection with a cool and pleasing sweetness. And now, I’m glad for our patience, because this wonderful dessert was well worth the long wait.