A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Buenos Aires – Before there was Casa SaltShaker, there was the S4 – the Second Sunday Supper Circle (okay, it’s 3s’s, but the alliteration was there). May 28, 1994 was the date, the invitees were a few friends – Patty, Eileen, hmmm… I don’t remember who else. It was a simple three course dinner, and it was a Saturday, not a Sunday, but it launched a series of dinners that continued roughly once a month, until I moved to Buenos Aires. It wasn’t long before there was a core group of folk dining – Frank, Bob, and whomever I was dating at the moment, along with two others, various friends, on a rotating basis. We settled in on the second Sunday of the month, the dinners expanded to sometimes as many as seven courses, the wines flowed – it was a chance for me to experiment with my cooking with an appreciative but also willingly critical audience – how better to improve? That first menu:
1990 Codorníu Brut Clasico
Salmon in Saffron Sauce
Morels and Fiddleheads
1989 Lar de Barros Tinto Reserva
Amaretto Parfait with Honey Figs
E. Lustau Solera Reserva “San Emilio”
I was looking through my first book of menus – yes, I have a copy of every menu for every dinner party over the years – I’d had a call from a woman earlier in the week hoping to book nine spots at one of our dinners this week – already being fully booked that was out, and we’ve also stopped taking large parties for the regular dinners – it takes away from the whole communal table experience, and the individuals and couples end up feeling like they’ve been tacked on to someone else’s dinner – so, with rare exceptions, no more groups larger than 4-5 (private dinners instead). I offered the idea of a private evening, she was game, and other than a request for no seafood, the menu was left in my hands. I was looking for something that I vaguely remembered from an early menu, and suddenly, while flipping pages, thought – why not pull out five dishes from those first dinners, and make them as I’d make them today? Combine that with what was available in the market, and I quickly had a menu planned.
December 10, 1995, “a Dinner in Honor of the 45th Anniversary of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights Day” – see, I was already doing themes. First course – Serrano Ham with Fresh Marjoram, Rose Petals, Cracked Peppercorns, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar – I was in that phase of listing every ingredient, it was all the thing in New York at the time. There wasn’t alot to change, I actually love jamón serrano served up this way and have prepared it many times. I vaguely recall that the idea came from some article about a Spanish chef and a creative presentation he was doing with different Spanish hams or cured meats. I used to just sort of drizzle and sprinkle the ingredients all separately, and it was very pretty, but it had each bite being not quite harmonious – one bite with just vinegar, another with just oil, etc. So I made a vinaigrette of some good olive oil (Spanish arbequina olives), balsamic vinegar, finely chopped rose petals, crushed green peppercorns, and salt. Then for presentation I added a scattering of various colored chopped rose petal “confetti”, along with some lemon thyme leaves – no marjoram available this week, but some wonderfully fragrant lemon thyme – which, by pure chance turns out to be an even better flavor with the ham.
24 September 1994, “A Tale of Two Cuisines (or more)” – Chapter First – The Stilton, Leek and Roasted Garlic Tart – In which we are introduced to the tart in question; examine its French origins; drink a bottle of dry Tokaji from the Hungarian provinces; and generally relax into the evening. A simple dish, but really tasty – a filling made of a mix of roasted garlic, caramelized leeks, and, were it available here, Stilton. I had to improvise with a locally made cow’s milk blue cheese – Stilton would have been better, but this worked. A little shredded parmesan atop, and a bit of white pepper in the filling. Dusted around the tart, a bit of herb salt – just some coarse salt and a mix of dried herbs – basil, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, and parsley – then all ground together in a mortar – on the warm plates it releases a really nice fragrance, and you can dip bites of the tart into it.
Back to the first evening, and the third course for both evenings – “Sweet Potato & Shiitake Ravioli in a Pool of White Truffle and Chive Cream” – I remember very clearly where this came from, I had a friend, Darrin, who was working as the wine director at the short-lived CT restaurant in New York, CT being Claude Troigrois. He, my friend, not CT, treated me to dinner there, and this was my attempt to recreate a dish I’d had at the restaurant – the original version being a single very large ravioli of some sort, swimming in a bowl of this rich cream. I think I made something a bit more reasonable in size, and used white truffle oil rather than fresh white truffles – my budget didn’t quite stretch that far (I think I was probably spending around $300 per dinner out of my own pocket every month to put these together, including wine). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any white truffle oil here when I went looking for it, I know I’ve seen it on occasion in specialty shops, but no one seemed to have any this week – and, given its import costs, it’s probably prohibitively expensive to buy here. I decided to lighten up the ravioli and make them into potstickers, filled with a puree of yams, chopped shiitakes, and a bit of spice from some shichimi powder. Rather than swimming in cream, I pureed chives into some heavy cream, seasoned with mushroom salt, and then whipped until relatively stiff – more or less mousse-like.
10 November, 1996 – Diary from the Orient Express – …reached Vienna we were ready for some good old red meat. A few slices of beef served with a dried strawberry sauce and flamed in cognac was just the ticket. A simple but rich 1993 Blauburgunder from Umathum was a perfect foil to the rare meat… This dish was a disappointment for me last night. Nothing wrong with the flavors, but after that delightful roast beef that I picked up for our Mother Goose New Year’s Dinner, the quality of this roast, well, to be kind, sucked. When sliced it turned out to have a fair amount of fat and gristle inside, really surprising, since I bought it from the same carnicería, and he’s usually quite good – this was almost like he was hiding away some inferior meat by wrapping it up as a roast. Still, the flavors, as I said, worked – I’d coated the meat in a mixture of salt, sweet paprika, ají amarillo, and chipotle pepper powders and then roasted it. The sauce – well, no dried strawberries available, so I roasted some fresh ones until they were deep and dark in color, then pureed them with some rosé wine and beef stock. Other than, perhaps the sauce making it look like the meat was too rare (that’s the sauce atop the meat and on the plate, not meat juices), it worked.
And from the same dinner – …for a brief stop in Bucharest before we board our ship across the Black Sea. Gave us time to sample the local poppyseed torte with Slivovitz cream… This is a personal favorite dessert – it’s a layered poppyseed cake, filled with a vanilla walnut cream – if I recall correctly, I copied it down from a recipe book that a step-aunt had – she had been a intrepid world traveler at one point in her life, and traveled throughout Eastern Europe collecting pastry recipes – I now have a couple of her cookbooks, mostly written in difficult to ready handscrawl in a strange mix of English, German, and French. I decided to make these into individual cakes, and then, purely because they’re in season, add in a puree of fresh persimmons – a little Chemistry 101 – the fruit gelled rather than staying sauce-like, which made the presentation less attractive, but the flavors still worked brilliantly. The puree is literally just a cooked down mash of persimmons, pears, and the spice mix we used for our Pakistani dinner – cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, laurel.
1/3 cup poppyseeds
¾ cup milk
¾ cup butter
1½ cup sugar
1½ teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cake flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
4 stiffly beaten egg whites
Soak poppyseeds in milk for one hour. Cream butter, add sugar. Stir in vanillla, milk, and poppyseeds. Sift together the dry ingredients and stir into mixture. Fold in egg whltes. Pour into two greased, lightly floured 8″ round cake pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 375°F. Cool ten minutes and remove from pans.
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1½ cup milk
4 slightly beaten egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup chopped walnuts
Mix sugar and cornstarch. Mix milk and egg yolks. Combine together slowly and thoroughly. Cook and stir until thick and starts to boil – continue to cook for another minute. Cool slightly, add vanilla and walnuts.
Split each cake layer into two layers. Spread filling between all layers, stacking them up four high. Chill for 2-3 hours. Sift powdered sugar over the top and serve.