2008.May.14 Wednesday · 3 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

 There is an element of truth in every idea that lasts long enough to be called corny.”

– Irving Berlin, Composer

Buenos Aires – One of the things I get asked about most with Casa SaltShaker is “do dishes ever just turn out terrible?” or something similiar to that. After all, often, especially when I’m in the kitchen playing around with a cuisine I don’t know well, it’s total experimentation. To a certain extent that may be mitigated by using traditional recipes, but then there are those weekends of whimsical themes, like this last one, where we celebrated the 120th birthday of the famous composer Irving Berlin. I hadn’t stopped to think about it when picking the theme, sort of building on our past Carmen Miranda, Bette Davis, Anna Magnani birthday dinners, but they have recognizable personalities and something that could be played on for a dinner theme. Good old Irving was more of a behind the scenes guy, even if well known. It was his work, not his personality that shone through.

My first thought was to look through many of his lyrics and come up with a dinner theme from that, and indeed he mentions many thing in various songs… but it just didn’t feel like it was coming together. In the end, I decided to look back at the year of his birth, 1888, where I was able to find inspiration in the “new foods” that were introduced in the U.S. that year: tomatoes, grapefruits, Thomas’ English Muffins, Log Cabin syrup, canned pineapple, canned corned beef, Cream of Wheat, Fig Newtons, Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, and Oysters Rockefeller. I didn’t use all of them, but picked out a few that led to ideas for a dinner, which was, overall successful, but at least from my perspective in the kitchen, left more room for improvement than what I’m happy with. So, away we go…

We started off dinner with a classic martini – gin and vermouth, though not that whisper of vermouth that these days passes for the cocktail – a properly made traditional martini, depending on who you ask, has somewhere between a 7:1 and 3:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, and mine fall somewhere in between. A twist of fresh lemon peel as a garnish, get everyone’s appetite whetted, and we were on to the first course. Oysters Rockefeller, a now classic dish from Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans, is one of those secrets that has never been revealed. Lots of folk have come up with guesses as to what constitutes the classic, but they’re all just imitations of the original. Mine, perhaps even more so. Instead of oysters on the half-shell, which are, strangely, hard to find here (all the seafood markets seem to have this penchant for removing the oysters from their shells and packaging them in small bags, I went with oysters that were poached in their own liquid in the oven until just set, and then served with a puree, almost like a pesto, of roughly equal parts of watercress (not spinach!), celery leaves, tarragon and parsley, some green onions, a fresh chili, salt, pepper, butter, a splash of anise liqueur, and just enough cream to smooth it out. It wasn’t the bubbling, broiled version, but tasty in its own right. Still, the presentation lacks alot over the original.

On to a soup, inspired by Cream of Wheat, canned corned beef, and tomatoes (which were not really a new food stuff, but amazingly, were not introduced as a consumable fruit/vegetable until just 120 years ago in the States). The base of the soup was simply chopped onions and celery, and some finely diced pastrami (no corned beef available here) from a nearby butcher shop. I cooked those in a little bit of butter until soft, and then added in wheatberries (without the husk), cooked for a few more minutes, than topped it up with a couple of pureed tomatoes and enough water to fill the pot. I left that to cook over low heat until the wheat was cooked through and had absorbed most of the liquid – added a little more water to give it a soup-like consistency, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and that was that. Really quite good, and one of the two dishes that I thought were quite successful for the evening.

Next up, my least favorite dish. Based on one I’d made before where it was far more successful – my “oyster mushroom mcmuffins“, but this time, no oyster mushrooms available in the market. I decided on pine mushrooms, and rather than cooking them the same way, cooked them with chilies and molasses, as I’d done for our Pi dinner using a mix of mushrooms. Somehow, they just didn’t turn out right – they stayed very wet, and started to fall apart when cooked. Also, I couldn’t find my old recipe for homemade english muffins, and resorted at last minute to Alton Brown’s recipe that I pulled off the net. Those didn’t turn out right either – very dense. The sauce was fine, but as a whole, the dish was one of my least favorite dishes I think I’ve made for Casa S during our two year history…

Seared duck breast with fig newton

Thankfully, the main course made up for it – at least for me. I found a source of nice, plump duck breasts – really quite expensive, coming in at 64 pesos a kilo, each breast was huge, however, and ran at about 375 grams (13 ounces) – enough to make two portions. I pan seared them and then finished them in the oven to somewhere between rare and medium rare – truly the perfect temperature for good quality duck breast – and all but two of our guests went with that, it was easy enough to quickly cook the other two’s portions a bit more in a skillet. To go with them, and the inspiration for the dish, a reinterpreted Fig Newton – phyllo dough wraps filled with a cooked down mixture of preserved figs, onions, garlic, thyme, and red wine. For the sauce, some reduced chicken stock (duck would have been better, but I didn’t have any on hand, ya know?) infused with a bit of the same mixture and some fig coffee (a coffee substitute made from roasted and dried figs). Yum.

Finally, my normally quite successful cheesecake. This time flavored with pink grapefruit juice and a splash of campari and topped with a sweetened, reduced syrup from the liqueur Punt e Mes. Good, but not one of my best cheesecakes. Everyone seemed to enjoy it immensely, maybe I was just feeling a bit off with two courses that I already wasn’t happy with… hmmm…


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

The TriniGourmet May 14, 2008 at 15:07

Happens to the best of us πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚ I know it makes me feel more human πŸ˜€ LOL πŸ™‚ I’m sure your guests had a blast!

Ken Sternberg May 15, 2008 at 09:20

I’ll be happy to eat a “terrible” dish you prepare any day of the week.

dan May 16, 2008 at 08:49

I guess I know where to send the dishes that don’t work out!

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