Buenos Aires – Monday afternoon I got a call from a friend who needed a little help that’s right up my alley. His girlfriend had had a recent operation and wasn’t yet able to cook for a dinner party last night that they’d planned, and he wanted to know if I’d come over and play private chef. He made it an enticing offer, I’d be part of the dinner party, just doing the cooking as well, and a chance to meet some folk who hopefully will become future Casa guests. Why not? I’m still at that “spreading the word” phase (does one ever stop that) about what we’re up to. Besides, I had nothing else planned for Tuesday. Rather than start completely from scratch, given the last minute timing, I decided to play with some things I’ve recently been trying out at some of our Casa dinners.
One of the things I know about putting together a last minute dinner is that you don’t have time to make sure you have every little item you might need. So the best thing to do, is see what you already have on hand, get those all lined up, and then just run out and shop for the, hopefully, few things that you don’t. I’m a big fan of risottos and pastas, and so is my friend. Initially I was thinking about making the risotto cakes that I made for our Italian dinner, but those take a significant amount of time to prepare, plus we wanted a lighter dinner, so I eliminated the frying and went with just making a risotto on site. That meant prepping everything in advance so that all that was left was the half hour or so to cook the risotto just before dinner. As luck would have it, I was cooking chicken for dinner Monday, and I’d already tossed the carcass into a pot with some vegetables to make chicken stock; I had picked up a bag of shiitake mushrooms in chinatown over the weekend; I had a bag of radish greens left from making radish soup on Friday; and I had a box of Arborio rice. Shiitake and radish greens risotto was, well, obvious!
We’d decided on a fish main course. At many dinner parties a risky proposition, it’s amazing how many folk out there aren’t big fish fans. And here Buenos Aires, even more so – there’s a cultural bias against fish that goes back to some unknown time (there was a recent article exploring this issue in El Gourmet magazine) – however, only two of the people to be at the dinner were Argentine, and one was the hostess. Sure enough, however, the other porteña who came turned out to be a non-fish eater. Also non-cheesecake (when we got to dessert), basically explaining that if it wasn’t beef and/or a dish she was familiar with, she doesn’t eat it. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this here. Thankfully she’d had risotto before, so she didn’t go away completely hungry. One of my favorite fish to use here is gatuzo, a type of small shark that feeds on crustaceans and has a firm, slightly sweet flesh. I picked up three decent sized fish and portioned them out, planning to saute them up.
It’s interesting how sometimes you get an inspiration from an unexpected source. I had everything packed up and ready to go early, so I sat down to catch up on some downloaded episodes of Iron Chef America, just for the comedy (and the occasional idea). In one of the episodes, Bobby Flay did an en papillote dish, and I suddenly thought – aha! Rather than having to deal with multiple saute pans in a kitchen that I had no idea what equipment I’d have available to me, and given that we wanted something light, why not bake the fish in a wrap – which would also allow me to relax a bit and enjoy the first course with the guests. So, three small fillets were lined up in foil with some olive oil, sea salt, ground coriander, and cracked green peppercorns, then wrapped up in their individual envelopes. I was able to use a baking pan with all the envelopes laid out, put it in the oven at low heat and just more or less forget about them for awhile. They steamed up and cooked through beautifully.
The other night at our vegetarian dinner, I’d been playing with a couple of sauces that I really liked. I had the sense that they’d go very well together and decided to make a fresh batch of each and figure out some sort of plating that used both. So I mixed up a batch of the Japanese egg yolk sauce, though I’d noted the other night that olive oil gave it a fairly pungent taste, which worked well on the mushroom dish, but probably wouldn’t on the fish, so I used a light sunflower oil instead; and I also pureed up a batch of the tomato-orange liqueur sauce. In the end, I simply coated the fish fillets with the egg yolk sauce and then kind of roughly spooned some of the second one around the edges. I served the fish with a simple succotash – sauteed lima beans, corn, leeks, tomatoes, and parsley, just seasoned with salt and pepper (no peppers, usually I used some bell pepper in succotash, but I already knew one of the guests was allergic). It all worked well, and other than the above noted guest, the fish and succotash disappeared quickly.
Word seems to be getting around about my cheesecake, and I do think I make a pretty darned good one. It’s also something I can make “by heart”, and all I needed was the cream cheese to get it going. What I decided to do differently this time was the sauce. I recently was reading about a “roasted strawberry cheesecake pie” on a website I check out regularly, and liked the sound of it. I just took the idea and went about it differently. I tossed a bunch of strawberries into a small sautepan and threw them in the oven at the same time as the cheesecake, so they got the exact same baking time. They came out all rich and mushy and dark red, and I simply pureed them using the hand blender with some brown sugar and a little lemon juice. The sauce was poured on the plate and then the slices of cheesecake set on top.
Overall, I think a quite successful last minute dinner party!