Friday, February 15, 2013

Third Annual Valentine's Dinner

It Doesn't Really, Does it?
For the third year running, we've had our Valentine's Dinner for friends on the Sunday before Valentine's Day so that we can celebrate. In the restaurant business, Valentine's Day and the days of intense preparation leading up to it constitute one of the busiest times of our year. And because I am always working, celebrating on Valentine's Day itself is never possible.

Last year, we did a more elaborate dinner with cocktails and appetizers and it was just too much for me on top of my insanely busy workload at the restaurant. I really like the simplicity of this year's menu and the fact that with some advanced planning, Ann and I putzed around in the kitchen for only about 90 minutes pulling everything together. And that wasn't 90 minutes of solid work either; we might have opened the Prosecco before the other guests arrived and had a little whistle-wetter while putzing about the kitchen.

Ann Always Sets a Beautiful Table

We Started with Virginia Sewansecott Oysters
Ann had wanted Wellfleet oysters to start off the dinner, but with the blizzard in New England, that wasn't happening. We "settled" for Sewansecotts from H. M. Terry over on the Eastern Shore opposite the mouth of the Rappahannock River. I love the briny flavor of Eastern Shore oysters, but the shells are so soft that they are a pain to shuck cleanly.

The First of Many Bottles
We opened a lot of bottles of wine with our dinner, our friends not lacking in thirst! For sparkling wines with our oysters, we had Prosecco, a Loire rosé, Roederer Champagne, and a couple of other bottles that I didn't really get a look at because I was busy shucking oysters. With dinner, we had a delicious Rioja that Dimitri brought along, a California Syrah and a Washington State Bordeaux blend from our cellar, and Mike and Dennis brought along two local wines: Jim Dolphin's Cab Franc and this Otium Dornfelder from nearby Loudoun County. I don't know Otium Cellars and Dornfelder is not a grape that I have tasted before and as much as I like to support our own Virginia wine industry, this was not a good wine. To quote Ann, "This tastes like ass!" Indeed. I'd be lying if I said anything flattering about this wine.

Mike Forgot his Camera; I Gave him Mine!

Dennis and Dimitri. Where is Mark? He Seems to be Camera Shy.

Dennis and the Girls

After the oysters, we had dinner proper: braised duck, truffled mac and cheese, braised turnips, and sautéed brussels sprouts. It worked out well (and created a lot fewer dishes) to have everyone serve himself from the cooking vessels arrayed on the counter in the kitchen, rather than to platter everything up and take it to the dining room. Thanks to Ann for coming up with the menu so that all I had to do was execute it. And it was fun working with her in the kitchen finishing it up. We make a good team in the kitchen!

Moulard Duck Legs Starting Their Three-Hour Braise

The Finished Product
The day before the party, I braised the duck legs with white wine, veal stock, parsley stems, and thyme. And twenty minutes before taking the duck off the heat, I added peeled and quartered turnips. I let everything chill out together in the rondeau overnight in the cooler. On Sunday, I reheated the congealed mass to the point where I could separate the liquids from the solid duck and turnips. The duck went onto a sheet tray to reheat in the oven at the same time as the mac and cheese was baking and the liquids went into the big blender, first to be defatted and then to be whirred into a smooth sauce that was further reduced on a tiny flame on the stove.

Orecchiette with Four Cheeses and Black Truffles
Next up was the truffled mac and cheese. Ann and I apparently have different ideas of what mac and cheese is. I make classic American (see Fannie Farmer) mac and cheese, slightly overcooked pasta bathed in Sauce Mornay and baked. What Ann describes is more like pasta mixed with straight cheese, something I've never seen before. Good no doubt, but I know it not. My Mornay contains a mixture of young Manchego, Goot Essa Alpenkäse, Carr Valley Marisa, and commercial mozzarella in roughly equal parts. And a good healthy dose of black truffles. I generally would use a hollow pasta such as cavatappi (corkscrews) but Ann seemed to want a more substantial pasta, so I used that Pugliese specialty, orecchiette (little ears). Needless to say, there were no leftovers.

Speaking of cheese, Goot Essa has no web site but if you chance upon some of John Esh's cheese, by all means, give it a try. John is a plain dairy farmer, some would say Amish, from Pennsylvania and he makes great cheese. He popped into the restaurant some years ago with samples and I have been hooked on his Alpenkäse every since.

Artful Shot of Shallots for the Brussels Sprouts

Sprouts, One of the Few Late Winter Green Vegetables

Turnips, Braised along with the Duck

Ann's Red Wine Chocolate Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Ann made this delicious not-too-sweet red wine chocolate cake for dessert. We passed a decanter of Warre's 1977 Port along with dessert.

Who Needs Plates?

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