Monday, August 08, 2005

Who's on First?

Sometimes I think that I spend entirely too much time thinking about appetizers. (Other times I obsess about repeating the same word or part of a word within a single sentence, which, it must be noted, is often a thornier issue for me than it would be for a less generous [generous is the new verbose] writer since my sentences do tend to stretch out a mite wee smidge of an iota.) When it comes right down to it (and I almost wrote "when the whisk meets the egg white" as a riff on "when the rubber meets the road" there, but I decided that even I am not that far gone [yet]), it's not clear that my guests are really happier with a well-constructed, labor intensive starter than they would have been with a big bowl of onion dip. But then I come to my senses, of course. Some of my guests really will appreciate (or at least pretend to appreciate in a manner convincing enough that I'm fooled) the difference, and in any case, I will have had a lot of fun making something good.

Even if no one eats it. Or if people eat bits of it and enjoy it but then, for some mysterious reason, stop. I can make what I consider a relatively modest spread of snacks, and it seems that almost none of it gets eaten, no matter how good it is. I could always make less, surely, but the recipes often come scaled to a larger size, and a vegetable (low-fat, even) paté that just fit nicely in a 9x5 loaf pan doesn't really seem like all that much for seven people until the party's over and 85 percent of it is still sitting there on the table.

And it's perfectly good vegetable paté (one might, indeed, rightfully say that it is far tastier than a vegetable paté has any right to expect to be), so I should probably just make myself some vegetable paté sandwiches and think, "More for me." And I reckon I would, except that V. and I are leaving on Friday evening for a just-over-one-week vacation to England, and I suspect that upon hauling my ass home from Dulles late on a Monday evening, knowing that I have to go to work the next morning, the last thing I'll want to have to deal with is two pounds of mold. The tapenade, by contrast, will probably keep for a very long time indeed, and I only made a relatively small amount of the tomato bruschetta topping to start with, and I can probably pile that on top of some of the leftover couscous for dinner tonight. (By the way, if you go to Trader Joe's, and you buy the deceptively small package of whole wheat couscous and you see on the label that it contains eight servings, remind yourself that it's a big, fat lie. I had seven guests, so I made the entire package, and less than half of it got eaten, even though everyone took what looked like a healthy portion. Maybe it's eight servings for a Moroccan. Maybe the chick peas that I added multiplied while I wasn't watching them. I don't know.)

I did everything possible to promote appetizer consumption. (If you ever find yourself bored in a hotel room, get out the phone book and call a stranger at random and start by saying, "Good afternoon sir [or madam]. I'm calling from the Society for the Promotion of Appetizer Consumption. We here at SPAC believe that appetizers set the tone for the entire meal, and that a good appetizer can make the difference between civilized dining and unpalatable anarchy. Right now we're sponsoring some very important pro-appetizer legislation, and we'd like your help with ..." and see how far you get before sir or madam hangs up on you. Don't try this at home, though. Caller ID, you know.) I warned my guests not to eat for twenty-four hours before arriving. (I reckon they think I'm joking because they never seem to follow that advice.) I made a main course that had to go from the refrigerator to the oven and cook for at least forty-five minutes after I preheated the oven so that there would be lots of time to stand around and natter and nosh. I plied my guests with cheap (but good) sangria to loosen their inhibitions. I suppose what I really should have done was to have another seven people over and tell them they were only allowed to eat the hors d'oeuvres, but that seemed a bit drastic. (It seems a bit less drastic now that I've got all these leftovers, though.)

Anyway. What I mean to say is that my appetizers were all very good, though if you're going to make them, consider either scaling them back or perhaps making them for a non-dinner party with a lot of people rather than for a dinner party with fewer people.

The starter I started first, and which takes the most time, was a vegetable paté, originally from Bon Appetit. A word to the wise: whenever you get a recipe from, read the comments and make adjustments accordingly. In this case (though I only read some of the comments), I could tell that I'd need more garlic, and that I'd have to be careful to make sure that all of the layers were thick enough to maintain structural integrity. The real problem here is that the bean layer should end up on the bottom, but it would be difficult to spread on top of the other two, so it starts on the bottom but gets upended when you unmold it. For the bean layer, in addition to doubling the garlic and perhaps adding a bit more lemon juice and olive oil, make sure that you salt adequately, and add half a teaspoon of ground cumin, and you'll be much happier.

There is no getting around the fact that the red pepper layer has a tendency to be runny, no matter how thoroughly you drain your red peppers. I actually used a jar of red and yellow peppers, which tasted just great but which needed the addition of some bread crumbs and some cream cheese to be thick enough. When you've got it in the food processor, pinch off a teaspoon or so of cream cheese at a time, and process until it's thick enough. Keep in mind that it will get somewhat thicker upon refrigeration, but it won't get a whole lot thicker.

Inexplicably, the recipe has a pesto layer with neither salt nor parmesan cheese in the pesto. This is a clear error. I had some pecorino romano, so I added that. I also subbed in walnuts for the pine nuts because my pine nuts had inexplicably vanished into some sort of time-space distortion. Either that or V. threw them out, but even though he thinks that I occasionally go on too much of a pine nut spree, it is probably more likely that some sort of damage in the fabric of time and space is responsible for the missing pine nuts. They will likely show up next Tuesday.

The paté is certainly very festive, and it tastes great. And it's fairly brimming with health. I served this, and all of the starters, on some slices of baguette that I had prepared as I do when I'm making tapenade, which, of course, I also made on Saturday.

The tomato bruschetta is very easy to make. You'll want

3 ripe, medium-sized beefsteak type tomatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
2 Tablespoons basil, cut into chiffonade
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Remove the cores from the tomatoes, and drop them for fifteen seconds or so into a pot of boiling water. Fish them out, let them cool for a moment, then remove the skins. Cut them in quarters, squeeze out the juice and seeds, and cut into rough dice. Mix them with a half teaspoon or so of salt and let them drain in a colander. Squeeze out as much liquid as you can.

Put the tomatoes in a bowl, then add the garlic, cilantro, and basil. Mix well, while adding the olive oil. Refrigerate until you're ready to serve (but don't make it more than a few hours before you're going to serve it), then stir again and add salt and pepper to taste. You may want to add another clove of minced garlic. Really, this recipe wants more garlic than you probably want to give it.

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but you don't want to bother with the tomato bruschetta unless you can get some lovely, ripe tomatoes. Lovely, ripe tomatoes are, of course, easy to find at this time of the year, even if the deer and the bunnies have used a high-low strategy to decimate the tomato plants in your yard. The deer will still have their revenge, though, because when you're out stalking the not-so-elusive tomato, you will come across all sorts of other offerings that you just can't live without. I went shopping Friday night for Saturday's dinner, and all of my vegetable side dish plans went out the window when I came across some nice looking beats and some considerably nicer looking bulbs of fennel. I figured that I could roast the beets and slice and braise the fennel and marinate overnight and have a nice red salad.

Sadly, I did not execute the salad as well as I should have. Perhaps I should have sought a recipe, but, well, really. The beets were slightly underroasted, thanks mainly to an oven that is never as hot as it claims to be, and I believe that I rushed the braising of the fennel. Through the judicious application of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, and Maldon salt, I managed to make something that was pretty good, but it was clearly not everything that it might have been, and while my guests were none the wiser, I will not post a recipe unless and until I get it just right.


Anonymous lindy said...

Have a great time in England. I suggest a visit to a Sainsbury's or other nice supermarket; they have very cool stuff, and it's fun to see what's different and what's the same.
In my family it is considered selfish to go to the UK and fail to return with smoked salmon for everyone.(We don't include the vegetarians, because, as they will tell you, a fish is not a vegetable.) You do this by buying it in a sealed vacuum pack and freezing it before you leave. It always makes it home fine, sometimes still frozen, in a plastic bag in the suitcase. It is yummy.
You can buy vacuum bags of salmon at the airport, but it is cheaper, if you have freezer access, to get it at the fancy supermarket, so you can afford more.
I'm sure you'll have a fine time. Get ready to get freaked out by cost of everything, the exchange rate's been really horrible. It's worth it, though.

1:54 AM  

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