A Gem of a Dinner

2007.Nov.12 Monday · 12 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

“Study a lifetime and you see different colors from the same jewel. The same questions, asked again, bring you just the answers you need just the minute you need them.”

– Richard Bach, Author

Buenos Aires – A century ago, the largest uncut gem-quality diamond ever found… was found. Known as the Cullinan Diamond after Sir Thomas Cullinan, owner of the mine where it was discovered, it weighed in at over 3,100 carats, or roughly 22 ounces. It was presented, a hundred years ago this past weekend, to King Edward VII, and soon thereafter cut and polished into several smaller jewels, including the famed Star of Africa. Now, a century later, it seemed to my mind one morning a month or so ago, that the mystery and glamor that surrounds such a stone, and others, would make an amusing inspiration for one of our Casa SaltShaker dinners. Little did I know that, like many gems, it would come accompanied by various mischiefs… not the least of which was the request from a television program called Ultra Eye based out of New York to fly down and film the whole process – more details when I have them, but as of now, it’ll probably be something that will air in February.

Among the mischiefs that accompanied the taping process – delayed flights (by a couple of days) that caused them to miss preplanned tapings of various events (we weren’t the only thing they were down here filming), bad weather that delayed outdoor shots, timing issues – when it became clear they couldn’t be here until around 6 in the evening on the day of the first dinner, I had to go ahead and spend the afternoon cooking without them – and then we squeezed in some faked prep shots during the time between their arrival and the dinner itself – which weren’t entirely fake, it was just prepping stuff for the second night in advance, and, of course, coordinating that everyone coming to the dinner knew about this and was okay with it. In the end, it went fairly well I think – they were more obtrusive than I expected, but far less than they might have been, and were delightful people to have around, which smoothed out any potential rough spots. And…we still have a sitdown interview to do this week. On to the food…

How, exactly, might gemstones inspire a dinner? At the time I decided to do this, I hadn’t really thought it through. But something, I knew, was bound to come to me… and soon enough, it did – first, I had to go beyond diamonds… some of it simply based on the names of things – it turns out very easy to find cocktails that are named after varied and sundry gems, but not quite so easy when it comes to foodstuffs…

Salmon and Sole Terrine with Emerald SauceThe Emerald, which is one of my favorite gemstones, leading off with the much acclaimed, in some circles anyway, Emerald Sauce, which as best I can find seems to have, perhaps, originated in Ireland, the Emerald Isle, as an herb sauce for corned beef. It’s been adapated for many uses, and seems to have no fixed recipe, pretty much just being any sauce made from shocked and blanched green leafy things pureed together so that you end up with a vivid green sauce. So, I blanched and shocked some watercress and spinach, and then simply pureed them with just enough stock to get a relatively smooth puree. I’d decided to use it on a terrine – mostly because I spotted a writeup for a salmon and sole dish with emerald sauce from Good Housekeeping magazine, circa 1954. It sounded a good combination, though their “cups” or mini-terrines, sounded a bit much, as well as some of the pre-prepared ingredients, but it was the ’50s… I used a recipe I’ve done before to make leek and smoked trout moussellines… and got hit with more mischief. Salmon and Sole Terrine with Emerald SauceOn the first night, having made a layer of sole mousselline (same recipe, substituting shallots and poached sole for the leeks and smoked trout), and waiting for it to set before ladling over the salmon, leek, and cayenne (just a touch) version of the same, it didn’t. Set. Hours into refrigeration, it was still nearly liquid. I threw it in the freezer, then the salmon atop, let it freeze to semi-solid, thinking I could then either slice it and serve it like a savory semi-freddo, or, at worst, scoop it out and serve it in cups as…something. And then, suddenly, it all began to gel. By the time it was time to actually serve it, it was sliceable, though still a bit too soft, and came out raggedy as you can see in the first photo. The second night, I very carefully followed my recipe again – I know this one works, I’ve made it many times, and it gelled just right – I must have done something wrong the first day, I just don’t know what! A shame, though, because what was captured on film the first day wasn’t near as pretty as the second, which was still slightly softer than I wanted, but held together when sliced… and, I changed the plating a little, laying the sauce on a diagonal across the sliced terrine.

Tomato Sapphire SoupOn to our soup course, and it came down to The Sapphire… which of course led me to think of Bombay Sapphire, and what I might make using gin. A simple tomato and gin soup seemed a delicious approach, and since I was on a roll with a recipe from Good Housekeeping, and their rivals over at Better Homes and Gardens were offering up a recipe, I figured, why not? A bit of alteration – I mean, I’m using a gin made with infused fresh botanicals, I certainly wasn’t going to use dried basil leaves and canned tomatoes – first off, I sauteed a couple of sliced white onions in a little olive oil until they were soft. Then I added the base liquid – which, since as you’ll see, our dessert course required cream cheese – I had a pot full of whey from making the cheese – and that became the base – you could use a simple vegetable or chicken stock as well. Into that I put about a dozen coarsely chopped plum tomatoes, a peeled and diced potato (for some body), and let it all simmer until the vegetables were soft. Then into the blender along with a handful of fresh basil leaves, pureed until very fine, and then strained through a medium fine strainer to remove seeds and bits of skin that were still left. To that, a couple of spoonfuls of brown sugar, a cup and a half of heavy cream, and about ½ cup of the gin. Let it all infuse together for a bit, keeping it warm but not simmering (I wanted that little touch of alcohol still in there, plus avoiding having the cream curdle), and then season with salt and black pepper to taste. This is what tomato soup should be… always.

Opal Basil

EndoraThis is Opal Basil… and our next gemstone. Gorgeous, no? Sometimes called purple basil, or other various names – here it’s albahaca morada, or sort of purplish-red basil, morada being the same word to describe the color on the purple corn that we use for various Peruvian dishes. It’s got a less pronounced flavor than the more common green Italian basil, but it really is pretty… when in whole leaves. Here’s the problem… anyone live through the ’60s? Remember when kitchens done up in purple and green were all the rage and you just looked at your parents in disbelief that they could actually think those two colors went together? Remember Endora?

Pearl Pasta with Opal Basil PestoTry mixing purple and green together… add to that the sort of greyish color of sunflower seeds – because I’d decided to make an Opal Basil Pesto… You end up with something that looks like modeling clay – slightly green tinged with the occasional streak of purple. Not pretty. Not at all. And, of course, the whole process of making it captured on video for high defnition broadcast one day down the line. The flavor was there – it was, after all, a paste made from garlic, salt, nutritional yeast (an idea I got from a vegan site as a substitute for grated cheese to give it a tangy flavor, and it works great), sunflower seeds, and the basil – and it was less noticeably… concrete-ish, when mixed with little Pearl shaped pasta (municiones they’re called here – Pearl Pasta with Opal Basil Pestoand getting in another gem while we’re at it). Really, it was tasty. It just wasn’t attractive to look at. And next day, when looking at this bowl of greyish paste that I had leftover, I simply chucked it and started over. Instead of pureeing it at all, I simply sauteed the garlic, sunflower seeds, and yeast in good olive oil, with a little salt and crushed mixed peppercorns, until nice and hot and the garlic just starting to turn golden, then added several handfuls of the Opal Basil leaves to the pot and cooked them until they wilted. Mix that with the pasta and it tastes just as good and looks far nicer! Not actually a pesto, since there’s no pounding or pureeing or turning into a paste, but it works for me.

Black Diamond ChickenI’m not sure, at all, where the original idea for “Black Diamond Marinade” came from – there seems to be some connection to some sort of chain restaurant in the past, and perhaps someone out there knows where it started. Either way, it’s a great steak marinade, but when I looked at the ingredients that go into it, I thought – that’ll work on chicken just as well if not better. The marinade is easy – a little oil, some soy, honey, brown sugar, vinegar, and ginger – I used fresh rather than the usually called for powdered dry ginger. I marinated chicken breasts that had been pounded flat and then rolled around a mixture of sauteed green onions and brazil nuts – a personal favorite filling – and then simply pan-roasted them after a few hours in the marinade, along with more marinade to reduce and caramelize (add a splash of water to the pan if need be). Trimmed the ends, sliced on the diagonal, and served with some fresh asparagus that was blanched and shocked and then sauteed in butter with some ginger added (our butter for the evening, to accompany rolls that used our basic recipe with a touch of malt flour added).

Ruby Grapefruit CheesecakeAnd, the finishing touch – which was actually the first dish I planned out – a Ruby Grapefruit Cheesecake – my standard recipe just substituting Campari (a great match with grapefruit) for vanilla, and grapefruit peel and juice for lemon juice. I decided to make it a crustless cheesecake, just as an experiment – it works… though, hmm… I think I like having a crust on my cheesecake, so I’d probably make it with one if I make this again in the future. It’s topped with some chopped ruby grapefruit segments that have been warmed in honey and another splash of Campari. I liked the play of the sourness of the grapefruit against the sweetness of the cheesecake. I’m not sure that everyone who attended agreed, but a good number did and ate it with gusto, a few seemed to sort of push it away after a bite or two. Ah well, not everything will please everyone.

Looking over the photos from the last week or two, I think I’m going back to using a flash. It may over-emphasize some of the colors, but I think in the end, at least given the lighting in my kitchen, the dishes look better. No room to setup something like a light box, and really no time to start shooting photos on that level during the dinners anyway.


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