Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Last Shall Be First

Now that our long national culinary nightmare is over, and the grape leaves recipe (hooray!) is finally up over at the blog that shall remain nameless, I can safely report that last night's dinner party was a complete success. There were seven of us in all (if you are not gay or are not very familiar with the customs of the gays, you will not understand how much of a moving target the number of guests at a dinner party can be; it can be difficult to get a firm commitment as to whether someone's going to show up, but in general, you take each person who's said that he's coming, and you figure what the odds are that he will not cancel on the day of the party, and you add up all those probabilities and come up with an estimate; over time, of course, if people prove to be highly unreliable, you stop inviting them, so we were pretty confident that five of the six guests who had accepted an invitation would show up, and they did; in any case, of course, I made extra food, so an eighth person [or even a ninth, though that would have entailed a flatware incident and a more obvious stoneware incident] would not have been a problem), and when people left, a bit after midnight, they were all happy and well fed, and they had all had sufficient time to be able to drive safely.

As you might have guessed, I rather enjoy cooking for a crowd of people, so while I didn't want to be doing a lot of fussing in the kitchen while the guests were there, neither did I shrink from doing a fair amount of preparation before they arrived. As it happened, I ended up picking up three guests from the Metro station, about five miles from our home, and by the time I got home, the other guests had arrived, and V. had been too intimidated by the earlier flurry of activity in the kitchen to set out the hors d'oeuvres, so I walked in to find a small group of people wondering where the food was. I was, however, very well prepared, so I had the nibbles out and the sangria finished within three minutes, and it was smooth sailing from there on.

The first thing that I made (on Friday night) was the dessert. I think that there are few desserts as good for a summer dinner as poached pears. They are very tasty, very good cold, and, done right, very attractive. The recipe I used was one inspired by the Poires en Vin Rouge recipe from The Cuisine of the Sun, an excellent book on Provencal cooking. Although I had had the book in my hot little hands as recently as two weeks ago, I could not locate it this weekend, so I had to make the recipe more or less from memory. That was fine, especially because I had already decided to do it differently. The original recipe called for cutting the pears in half and then removing the cores and the peel. I very much wanted to serve whole pears, with the stems on. I also wanted more and somewhat different spices in my poaching liquid, and I wanted a lower proportion of sugar. (The recipe, however, while nearly free of fat, is still plenty sweet.)

Pears Poached in Red Wine

4 cups red wine1
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 orange
4 pods green cardomom
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick2
10 cloves3

10 pears4

1 cup seedless red raspberry preserves

1 cup low-fat ricotta5
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
2 Tablespoons dried currants

Thin biscotti6

In your stock pot, combine the red wine, the water, and the sugar. Put over a medium-high flame. Cover and stir once in a while.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove strips of zest from the orange and add them to the poaching liquid. Juice the orange and reserve the juice for later in the recipe. Lightly crush the cardomom pods and the star anise and add them to the poaching liquid. Add the cinnamon stick.

While the poaching liquid is getting hot, start on your pears. You don't want them to turn brown, so once you start on one pear, don't go to the next pear until the first one is complete and safely bathing in the poaching liquid. It will take the liquid a while to reach a low boil, so the pears will still cook evenly.

Get out your chef's knife and cut a thin slice off the bottom of the pear so that it will stand up without any assistance. Reach for your melon baller. Fail to find it. Remember that it probably got put in the basement along with all the other kitchen equipment that your partner thought was invading his kitchen. Go down to the basement, root around in boxes, find the melon baller, congratulate yourself, come back upstairs. Using the smaller end of the melon baller, scoop out a bit from the center bottom of the pear and continue scooping until you have removed the core. Using the great new vegetable peeler that your partner just bought -- apparently to make up for hiding the melon baller -- peel the pears from the bottom up, leaving a tiny amount of peel (let's call it a circle with a quarter inch radius) right around the stem. Slip the first pear into the poaching liquid, and move on to the second. Repeat the entire process three times, so that you have four pears in the liquid.

Notice that your melon baller, which, after all, is relatively ancient, is starting to break so that the wooden handle no longer keeps the scoop from rotating when you try to take out some of the pear flesh and core. Wonder how it is that you ended up with a man who doesn't have his own melon baller as a spare for you to fall back on. Pull yourself together and improvise using another sort of corer that is not really right for the job. Work all the way through to the tenth pear; pat yourself on the back for your ingenuity and persistence. If, at this point, the pears are not nearly submerged in the poaching liquid, add some more water to the poaching liquid.

Bring the poaching liquid to the boil, then reduce to the simmer, covering the pot. Simmer, turning the pears once or twice, for thirty to forty minutes, or until the tip of a sharp knife easily penetrates the flesh of the pear. The exact amount of time will depend on the ripeness and variety of the pear. They need to be tender, but they must not be mushy. Turn off the flame. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pears to a bowl to cool.

Strain the poaching liquid, then return it to the pot. Bring back to the boil, then whisk in the raspberry preserves. Reduce the liquid until there is about four cups of it. It should have the consistency of a thin syrup7. Taste it carefully (isn't it delicious?). If it seems too sweet, or not lively enough, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Let the syrup cool, then put it in a jar or jars and refrigerate. Cover the pears with plastic wrap (or put them in a ziplock bag), and refrigerate them.

A few hours before you're going to serve the pears, mix the ricotta, the sugar, the extracts, and the currants in a small bowl. Add about two tablespoons of the reserved orange juice. You want the mixture to be thin enough to be spooned into the pears but not too runny. Refrigerate the ricotta mixture.

When the main course has been eaten and everyone is chatting amiably, and you've just started the coffee and/or tea, get out your stack of dessert bowls (which may be your soup bowls, if you didn't serve soup), your pears, your ricotta mixture, and your syrup. Grab a pear and hold it bottom up. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the cavity to fill it. Then turn the dessert bowl over on top of bottom of the pear, then turn the whole assembly back over so that you have a pear standing up in a dessert bowl. Do this until each of your dessert bowls has a pear standing up in it. Then pour two or three tablespoons of syrup into each bowl so that the pear is surrounded by a little moat of syrup. Place three thin biscotti, so that one end of each is in the syrup, in each bowl. Serve.

1You can use some pretty cheap wine for this. I know that generally you're not supposed to use wine that you'd hesitate to drink, but I used Franzia Chillable Red, a wine that you would not drink straight from the box because it's just too sweet. It is fine, however, for both poaching pears and for making sangria.

2If you watch Alton Brown's Good Eats, you may be aware that what we think of as a cinnamon stick is really something else entirely and that a real cinnamon stick is both nearly impossible to come by and huge. Just use what they call cinnamon sticks at the supermarket.

3I did not really count the cloves, but if you use ten, you won't go far wrong.

4I only poached nine pears, but do you really expect me to write a recipe for nine pears? You can poach up to twelve pears with this recipe, though you may need a larger pot and/or more water added to the poaching liquid. If you have to add more than two cups of water in all, add another cup of wine. You will still have to reduce the syrup down to the same amount later, but the amount of syrup I made was enough for eight pears, with half of it still left over for another use. It's really great syrup, though, so you will easily find a use for it.

5There is nothing sacred about the low-fat ricotta here; I just happened to have some because I'd used part of a package in one of the hors d'oeuvres. You could easily use mascarpone or some nice yogurt that you had drained; you could also use softened vanilla ice cream. The ricotta is a touch grainy, but you don't really notice that when you're eating the pears, though you do notice it when you're mixing it up and when you're stuffing the pears.

6I discussed my basic biscotti recipe here and the modifications I made for these particular biscotti here. You can do without the biscotti if you like, or substitute something else, but they do go very well with the poached pears, and people can also dip them in their coffee.

7You could take half of the syrup and reduce it further to a glaze, which you could spoon over the pears at the end of the preparation. But they really don't need it.


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