Last Sunday, on the last evening of our long and lazy Thanksgiving weekend, we held another mini celebration with our friends Edgar and Bill, in honor of another November holiday, Beaujolais. An easy, relaxed night with our neat, new friends – not nearly the to-do of Turkey Day. And admittedly we celebrated belatedly by about a week and a half. For Beaujolais Day, a French harvest celebration marking the early release of Beaujolais wine, comes every year on the third Thursday in November.
While sharing an afternoon coffee with Edgar a couple weeks ago in their wonderful, beautiful antique shop, musing with him over what type of food I’d prepare and what sort of wine they’d bring for our up-coming dinner party together, Edgar had the brilliant idea of making it a Beaujolais night. I jumped at the notion right away. I’ve always been fond of this other November foodie night, always loved the indulgent idea of a second celebratory dinner of wonderful wine and gorgeous food in the middle of harvest season.
Beaujolais Nouveau, from the Beaujolais region of Burgundy, France, is a young, light and fruity red wine, made from the Gamay grape. None too complex or ever expensive, but certainly tasty and rather refreshing, it’s best paired with simple, rustic fare. Chicken and goat cheese are two especially regarded cohorts. And so, our Beaujolais menu:
While uncorking the bottles of wine, and putting the finishing touches on dinner, we snacked on these crispy French bread crostini, topped with dollops of creamy, whipped goat cheese and a savory compote of dried Black Mission figs. With aromatic fresh thyme, sweet shallots melted in butter, and a thick reduction of ruby red Port, the fig compote was wonderfully well- balanced in flavors - lightly sweet, but deep with an earthy richness. And perfectly paired with the light, tangy goat cheese and crisp, buttery crostini. A great start to our Beaujolais feast!
Chicken Thighs Braised in Red Wine Vinegar Sauce. I truly don’t know how appealing this dish sounds to most people. With its chief components being the most boring of birds and the most ordinary of vinegars, it could very well sound way too dull to be delicious. But to me, it has always sounded utterly marvelous. I’ve happened upon various Vinegar Chicken recipes in several different cookbooks, magazines and websites over the years. And these encounters always gave me a little thrill, set my mouth watering and my imagination rushing. Something about these all-too simple ingredients, coaxed and charmed into something else entirely, something with all the promise of being altogether different, anything but mundane, and wholly extraordinary. It’s a wonder to me, that up until now, I’d never in reality gotten past the imagination stage, and actually into the kitchen to cook some up for real.
After the obvious foreshadowing of the prior paragraph, laden with its musings of marvelous hypothetical results, is it a surprise at all when I tell you that this dish did indeed turn out stupendously? Tender, slowly braised chicken thighs, swathed in a velvety sauce – rich and smooth with a finishing of cream, subtly tart with a hint of honey sweetness, with buttery speckles of sweet shallots and mellow garlic, and an intoxicating essence of fresh tarragon. This dish, with such humble ingredients, was anything but humble itself!
Our sides too were at once simple and fabulous. The wild rice I prepared just as I do for any (nearly every) rice dish in my repertoire – with sautéed shallots, chicken stock, a bay leaf and a sprig of fresh thyme. As simple as can be, and then bejeweled with plump dried cranberries. It’s a lovely little dish, with it’s deep brown earthiness, delightfully chewy bite, and hidden gems of dazzling, tart, sweet cranberries. And quite another thing altogether, from regular old white rice.
As I learned long ago from a very wise woman (my first chef and teacher, Jen, from Just a Taste in Ithaca), nothing (and I mean absolutely nothing) goes quite as well with Brussels sprouts (or most anything, for that matter) as browned butter. Browned butter is just that – butter, slowly simmered until it turns a gorgeous golden brown. As the butter deepens in color, its aroma deepens too, transforming into the most amazing scent imaginable – rich, toasty, nutty, warm – fully, utterly intoxicating. One of my most favorite ingredients, browned butter truly holds the power to enhance just about any dish, sweet or savory.
I riffed on Jen’s famous recipe, of brown butter-sautéed sprouts with garlic, pecans, lemon and Romano cheese, and came up with a quick version of my own - keeping the garlic, and of course the browned butter, saving the pecans and cheese for another special night, and switching out lemon juice for red wine vinegar, to echo our chicken dish. The sprouts I changed a bit too. Rather than just slicing them into halves, I carefully peeled back their coiled layers, separating these dense orbs into delicate, pale green curls. A quick flip in hot sauté pan, with the rich, full flavor of the caramelized butter and a bright hit of vinegar, and these lovely leaves took on crisp, golden brown edges, and a wonderfully warm tenderness.
And for dessert, another humble dish that works magic with some of fall’s most wonderful bounty – Persimmon bread pudding. You’ll probably have noticed some persimmons in your local fruit markets this time of year, shyly peeking around the more popular apples and pears. At first glance, they look a bit like tomatoes. But something about their stout shape, curled leaves and rosy orange glow, may have clued you in to the truth that they taste nothing like tomatoes at all. Immensely delicate in flavor, lightly sweet with rounded corners of tartness and just a suggestion of bitter, reminiscent of any number of fruits (peaches, pears, apples) but at the same time none at all. They’re really quite charming, persimmons. And fun to experiment with too.
My latest persimmon experiment evolved quite nicely into a warm and gooey bread pudding. Into a simple custard of eggs, sugar and cream, I folded a smooth puree of fresh, ripe persimmons, along with a warm dose of cinnamon and nutmeg. This silky, pale orange sauce soaked indulgently into all the tender nooks and airy pockets of some soft golden cubes of plush Challah bread. Baked in the oven, it emerged steaming and fragrant, deliciously golden brown on top, densely sticky inside. With a cool, lightly sweetened dollop of whipped cream, it was near perfect. And a delicate garnish of paper-thin, oven-dried persimmon slices made it just that. The wispy orange circles further served as a clue to this dessert’s main ingredient, a nod to to the mysterious and subtle persimmon flavor coyly lurking within.