Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Dinner No. 2

This year introduced a great tradition of Sunday night dinners with our friends Tripp, Luci, Stuart and Lee. We probably average about one Sunday dinner gathering per month which is actually quite impressive considering we're juggling the schedules of three third year medical students. So it was only fitting that we reconvened once more in 2009 for a Sunday Christmas Dinner.
The afternoon started out with an absolutely delightful surprise. The Nelsons and Saunders (and John) presented me with a gift upon arrival. I was quite skeptical, I figured it had to be a joke of some kind, everyone was staring at me rather intently while I opened the box... I was absolutely TICKLED to find...a chef's my size...that read "Maggie Lacy, Accidental Syrup"!!!!!! I all but squealed with excitement, it was easily the most thoughtful gift I've received in a long time. I may only be called a "chef" in my own kitchen, but now I look official!
*Picture with Stuart and Luci in my new jacket!
We immediately kicked off the festivities with a Holiday inspired cocktail-recipe courtesy of Dave Lieberman (used to be on food tv) I essentially followed his outline...
Ginger-Cranberry Cocktail
*1 cup ginger infused simple syrup
*2 cups vodka
*2 cups cranberry juice (100% juice preferable)
*1/2 cup fresh lime juice
*1/3 cup fresh whole cranberries
Ginger Infused simple syrup:
*1 1/2 cups water
*1/2 cup sugar
*5 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into coins
Bring to a boil and simmer until the sugar dissolves and ginger flavor infuses the syrup (about 20 minutes) Let sit for a couple of hours and then strain. I actually made this the day before and left it covered in the fridge.
I had everything mixed together in a pitcher ahead of time. The fresh cranberries were just for garnish. As my guests arrived I poured the yummy concoction over a rocks glass full of ice and topped with a little bit of soda. The drink was very festive looking and quite delicious- similar to a cosmopolitan but the ginger added a litle spicy kick. I actually wish the ginger flavor was a bit stronger, perhaps next time I'd add more fresh ginger to the simple syrup.
We started early (about 3pm) so I had some store bought snacks for nibbling. Manchego cheese and sliced sweet sopressata, shrimp cocktail, and a couple of dips. We had four additional guests of the canine variety (3 adorable labs and a sweetly spunky weimaraner) so we bundled up to enjoy afternoon cocktails on the back porch to watch them romp around the yard together.
Around 5:30pm, I served the first course. Ina Garten's Tomato and Goat Cheese Tarts. I've been dying to try these from her latest Back to Basics Cookbook. They are like little mini puff pastry pizzas really. I actually decided to prepare the onion mixture for these- as well as the onion/fennel mixture for the Potato Fennel Gratin that I was serving with the main course- the day before. While I love the smell of onions as you're preparing a meal, the smell tends to linger and it wasn't exactly the ideal backdrop for a Holiday dinner party. This drastically cut back my day-of-prep-time too. I assembled and baked the tarts before my guests arrived. I then popped them back into the oven to rewarm before serving. YUMMMMY. I could make a meal of these alongside a green salad or cup of soup.

**You may notice that the pictures in this particular post are light years better than what you're used to here on A.S. That is because I had a guest food photographer, Doctor Lee Saunders, for the evening! Really amazing...

Ina cuts four circles out of the dough for round tarts and then discards the puff pastry scraps. I hated the idea of wasting delicious puff pastry so instead I cut each of the sheets into four squares. I had more than enough of the onion mixture to make eight tarts. Also, I used Roma tomatoes because they tend to have far less water to them. I didn't want them to be soggy. Next time I would put two tomato slices on each one- I went with a single slice for fear of making the filling too heavy for the pastry to carry without breaking. I think it was sturdier than I gave it credit for... I cut each one in half with a pizza roller so that they could be picked up and eaten by hand. I would say they were a hit.

For the main course I served:
*Steamed Haricot Verts with Garlic
I first made this lamb recipe for John a few year's back on Valentine's day- lamb is probably his absolute favorite. Rack of lamb always seems appropriate for a special meal and makes for a beautiful presentation- yet the cook time is only a fraction of that for a rib roast, pork roast, etc. I prepared the shallot and thyme crust and coated the lamb earlier that morning (also wanted the vinegar smell to disipate before my guests arrived.) I tripled the the recipe as I had three racks to serve eight people (3 ribs per person). I ended up with far more crumb mixture than necessary-doubling it probably would have been perfect. Note: I set the lamb out of the fridge about an hour before I intended to roast it so that it would cook evenly through.
I chose the Gratin recipe based on a recommendation from my friend Liz in D.C. She said that she made this dish for a dinner party and the guests all but licked the baking dish clean. Yowsa was it AMAZING. Again I made the onion/fennel mixture the day prior so the assembly was really quick, I actually did it with my friends there. Stuart peeled potatoes for me while I sliced them- we gave everything a quick toss together with the cream and Gruyere and into the oven it went. (It bakes for 1/5 hrs though). As soon as the gratin was finished (it was toasty brown, bubbly and smelled like HEAVEN) I put the lamb into the same hot oven.
While the lamb was roasting, I quickly steamed some haricot verts. I started with a generous swirl of extra virgin olive oil in a dutch oven over med/med-high heat. I then pressed 5 cloves of garlic into the pan. I gave it a quick stir and then almost immediately tossed in my beans. I seasoned with salt and pepper and continued to toss everything together until the beans started to turn bright green. I then added a few tablespoons of water to the pan and covered it with a lid to steam for 3 or 4 minutes. As soon as they were tender but still crisp, I transferred them to a serving plate and tented with foil.
The lamb reached 140 degrees after approx 25 minutes. I set it on a cutting board covered loosely with foil to rest for 10 minutes. I turned the oven down to 250 and put my gratin and beans back in to warm. The lamb was perfectly medium-rare and the side dishes made a fantastic combination of decadent and fresh. Even my pickiest of eater-friends enjoyed the meal. It was classic but still had a layer of originality with the additions of the fennel in the gratin and the unique crust on the lamb.
Throughout the evening we enjoyed "three" AMAZING bottles of wine. The first was a magnum of a California Sangiovese from Muscardini Cellars that Tripp and Luci brought back from a recent trip to Napa-Sonoma. It was absolutely perfect with the tomato and goat cheese tarts AND the lamb. The spiciness worked nicely to cut through the richness of the gratin too. The second bottle was a Chateau Damase Bordeaux that Tripp and Luci received as a gift from Tripp's parents- also spectacular. Thirdly, we opened a 2005 Sonoma-Loeb Cab that Stuart and Lee had given John for his birthday a few weeks back...Needless to say there was much Holiday cheer shared by all.
Last but not least we made room for dessert- Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake. My Mom has been making this cheesecake for years. We often make one for Thanksgiving. It always reminds me of the Holidays and it easily serves a crowd. I actually made the cheesecake two days earlier as it keeps very nicely in the fridge.
After 7 hours of eating, drinking and being merry, our guests (furry and otherwise) were headed home with full bellies. Merry Christmas Friends! Love you guys and can't wait to ring in the New Year with you next week... Lots to celebrate in 2010!

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