So this week began my little experiment with an occasional casual night. The idea grew out of some of the evening classes with students where we would cook and then sit around eating what we made and chatting. Since many a night I experiment with ideas for upcoming dishes, and often they’re only tasted by me and sometimes Henry, I thought, why not offer up a sort of guinea pig or R&D night, keeping it casual and inexpensive, and have other folk come. As I played with the idea I took into account that one of the things I hear from people time and again is that they wish we were at the table during the dinners – something that’s just not logistically possible for our regular weekend dinners given what it takes to cook, plate and serve them – with a more abbreviated menu, and with less worry about the plating, it might just be do-able.
And so, I created R&D nights. And no one signed up, only one person, a regular student, even asked about them. And two days beforehand I thought, it might be that the whole R&D Night thing sounds a bit stand-off-ish, and I changed the name and called it Casual Night, and within 24 hours we’d filled the table. Go figure. The idea being that it would be 3 or 4 plates of things I’m working on, I’d be at the table (Henry too, perhaps, except he’s in Peru for a few weeks), and part of the whole thing would be a discussion of the dishes and feedback, as well as people understanding that there might not be an overly logical progression, nor connecting thread, between the dishes.
I think it went well. It was fun to get to spend some more time getting to talk with everyone. I still had to get up and go back and forth quite a few times to make sure things didn’t burn and such, but overall was able to be at the table the majority of the dinner. People were amenable to the whole feedback thing and a couple of people came up with ideas there at the table to improve two of the three dishes I served, and then later I got more thoughts via email as things occurred to them. At the same time I got the feeling that for a couple of the people at the table they just hadn’t gotten that concept and seemed uncomfortable with the idea – it may be because they were part of a foursome and perhaps the person who reserved hadn’t explained it to his companions well.
This one was more about plating than anything else, though I threw in a couple of new ideas. I know I can make semolina gnocchi (though potato gnocchi here are giving me great pains I’ve found – something I used to make with no problem – I’m beginning to think it has something to do with the type of potatoes or flour and that I’m going to have to do a lot more experimenting with proportions to get them to turn out right) – here, rather than form small rounds I cut the chilled semolina dough into strips and then brushed them with butter and broiled them. The accompaniments – smoked portobello mushrooms, sauteed cauliflower and broccoli, oven-roasted tomato slices, fried artichoke hearts, and a salsa verde. All around this dish got the most positive feedback on both flavor and plating.
I know the puree looks a bit stodgy – it didn’t actually when I served it, but I forgot to take a picture and then had to go back and throw together a plate with the leftover bit in the pan which had, simply, dried out a bit. So imagine it a little smoother and a nice oval puddle – it’s a white bean and chickpea puree, topped with a fillet of pollack – the thing I was trying out though was an idea for an artichoke heart caponata – essentially my traditional caponata recipe but with artichoke hearts filling in for the eggplant, and everything cut a little smaller to be more of a sauce than a side dish. I think everyone loved the flavor, though overall the plating was a bit, well, orange. Something to consider – when I made the caponata there was still a nice green to it from the celery, olives and artichoke hearts, but by the time they’d sat and muddled about in the other ingredients for a couple of hours, they’d gone orange from the vinegar, tomato, etc. – so the dish needs some refining in terms of both color and plating, no question.
Heading off in a complete tangent from the other two courses, which have at least some Italian connection, I’ve been working on a new recipe for cinnamon rolls, but, chocolate ones, and with a mix of spices rather than just cinnamon. These got away from me a little and got really big – which probably would be great at brunch or in a cafe, and I suppose that’s actually more the setting I’d serve them in. If I was going to serve them at a regular dinner I’d make mini ones and combine them with other elements – which is also the feedback I got – something like ice cream or fruit or a mix. I think they also need a crunchy texture, so much like many classic cinnamon rolls, adding in some pecans or other nuts. But taste-wise, they’re pretty much where I want them and the guests wolfed them down.
So, all in all, a success. Interestingly, everyone said they were completely full with just three courses. I do know that at our regular five course dinners sometimes it’s a bit much food for people and not everyone finishes everything. It’s got me thinking that maybe we should cut from five to four courses – because let’s face it, I’m just not ever going to be the type of chef who cooks delicate little tasting bites that, perhaps, are more typical of tasting menus. It would also mean a reduction in my time spent in the kitchen and I’d be able to, while not join the table to eat, at least spend more time out with guests. Regulars – what do you think?