Last Friday night we had two families over for dinner. The families originally met through work so we were hoping to provide a relaxing comfortable environment for the spouses and children to enjoy a home-cooked meal and get acquainted.
Our menu took inspiration from the windy, crisp days of fall but also the rich cultural traditions of our household as well as the families joining us. Our own home merges religions and diverse cultures including Christianity, Judaism, and a combination of Polish, Russian, Korean, and Hawaiian heritage. Add to that mix our guests whose roots were in Vietnam as well as the South of France and Norway.
The final menu choices also took into consideration the number of people we were feeding (11) and the diversity of ages from 11 to much older than 11 (was that tactful enough?). Dormant chef and I wanted to be able to prepare most of the courses ahead and offer flavors that any age group could appreciate. Luckily, we also knew the kids in this crowd had sophisticated palates.
We picked the main course first and created the menu around it. Our final choice was from Dorie Greenspan's most recent cookbook, Around My French Table. The book's title is perhaps a little deceptive if you are expecting it to be full of just traditional French recipes. Instead, it is a compilation of many wonderful recipes she has enjoyed with her friends in Paris influenced by cuisines from all around the world. We settled on her short ribs in port and red wine sauce because of the use of some unexpected fusion ingredients and also the techniques and method for cooking.
First of all, Dorie recommends preparing the short ribs ahead of time – as much as 2 or 3 days. Perfect for our situation. As someone who loves slow-cooking and braising, I know how much better food usually tastes a day or two after cooking when the flavors have really melded and merged into the food. We knew the combination of red wine and port would be fantastic, based on our experience with other sauces. But the wild card was the use of star anise and ginger – two Asian flavors along with parsnip, an often overlooked root vegetable that adds subtle wonderful flavors to soups as well. The recipe also calls for broiling the ribs at the beginning instead of pan-browning and repeating that method at the end to glaze them with the sauce. Here is a visual summary of the cooking process:
Dorie recommends serving the short ribs over mashed potatoes, rice, noodles, or celery root puree. Dormant Chef suggested polenta. Why not add a little Italian influence to the mix especially since it's easy to prepare and added nice color on the plate. For the vegetable, we kept it simple and chose from what looked fresh at the store that day – haricots verts – the tiny little green beans. We blanched them ahead and just did a quick sauté to warm them with olive oil and salt and pepper.
For the first course, we chose a fall salad influenced by a recipe from Tyler Florence’s new cookbook Tyler Florence Family Meal. We changed the lettuces from the slightly bitter endive and less kid-friendly frisee to a mix of baby lettuces and used blue cheese instead of parmesan, serving the cheese as an optional add-on. It called for glazed pecans which were easy to make in a pan with brown sugar and butter but I chose to also put them in a low temperature 250 degree convection oven for about 20 minutes to really bring out the nutty flavor and crisp them up. The dressing combined balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, shallots, olive oil and the surprise was sweetness from maple syrup. I used slightly less than it called for, prepared it a day ahead and the flavors were wonderful by Friday night. The salad was a big hit.
To accompany the salad and main course, we chose challah, a traditional braided egg bread eaten on Friday evenings at most Jewish tables as part of the Shabbat (Sabbath) celebration. It looks pretty on the plate and is soft and perfect for soaking up leftover sauce when licking your plate with your tongue or fingers is just not appropriate.
Appetizers, Drinks, Dessert
For appetizers, we prepared a cheese plate with a brie from Australia, an aged gouda, a sheep's milk manchego, and a drunken goat cheese. We also scattered dried apricots, cranberries, and cherries on the platter.
For drinks, one family brought a wonderful champagne-like beverage from Southwestern France called Blanquette de Limoux. The Limoux region is said to be where the first bubbly spirits were actually produced, rather than in the now famous region of France called Champagne. The method is known as methode ancestrale and involved allowing the fermentation to finish in the bottle, which they say used to result in sedimentation in the final product. This modern version is still fermented in the bottle using three white grape varietals – Mauzac, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc and there was no evidence of sedimentation at all. It has a wonderfully smooth finish and was so easy to drink. What is astonishing is the value – it is easily one-third the price of a similar tasting traditional champagne. We are converts and will be purchasing the Limoux whenever we can find it.
The other family brought desserts from a local pastry shop owned by a French-trained pastry chef -- a lovely way to end the meal.
So did the dinner qualify for an OMG! Yummy? My husband and I tasted the sauce and ribs earlier in the day and quite frankly, knew they were fabulous. But we really felt vindicated when one of our guests of Vietnamese origin said she smelled the essence of Pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) from the short ribs and the guest of Southwestern France descent said the flavors reminded him of the traditional French dish beef bourguignon. That the meal evoked the taste memories of two different countries’ most wonderful comfort food, was really all we needed to hear.
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Sitting around our multi-cultural table, I was so glad that Dorie Greenspan shared her recipes from around her French table. Her short rib recipe was a perfect blend of flavors to use as a centerpiece for a wonderful blend of friends, food, and conversation.
(Photos courtesy of Dormant Chef Photography - All Rights Reserved)