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Monday, December 14, 2009

Soup's On: Simple and Easy Entertaining

It's time for our quarterly dinner party extravaganza again. My cooking-mate, YT and I decided to do something with seasonal vegetables, themed around harvest. We leafed through vegetarian (I know!) cookbooks and many others and the results were an eclectic mix of healthy dishes that brought out the best of the ingredients' flavors and textures.

It being cold outside, I decided to do a soup sampler and we altogether made four soups, including mint pea, roasted red pepper, red onion and corn with chipotle. Yes, I did color-coordinate it somewhat, but flavors ruled.

Before I go into the meal, let me tell you about the appetizers we served: bresaola with persimmons and fennel, cheese puffs and dried apricots stuffed with a goat cheese and mango chutney mixture, each topped with a single jewel of pomegranate seed.

The beauty of these dishes is that they were so simple to make. It was just a matter of finding the right combination of ingredients to create magic. The saltiness of the thinly sliced, air-dried beef went so well with the sweetness of the persimmons (I used ripe fuyu) and licorice taste of fennel as well as its crunchiness. Just drizzled some olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the layering and voila. It looked and tasted like a million dollars. The cheese puffs were soft, warm and cheesy -- what's not to like? I had to stop myself from consuming one too many to save room for what was to come.

The apricot and goat cheese appetizer was good but not fantastic. There was definitely a novelty factor but not sure I'd make it again.

Let's get into the soups and main dishes. The soups were all excellent. I had always fantasized about serving the soups in small shots like they do in restaurants so it was nice being able to do that, in various colors to boot.

It's hard to come up with a favorite soup as they were all delish.

Sampling the soups was like a wine tasting -- there seemed to be a proper order depending on the intensity of the flavors.

I slurped the corn soup first and savored with delight the concentrated corn flavor spiked up with roasted chipotle peppers. This recipe came from the Greens cookbook. I only added a touch of cream so it wasn't too heavy. Even though corn isn't in season, it was a wonderfully comforting soup. As was the mint pea soup topped with smoked salmon and creme fraiche. This soup is versatile because frozen peas are always "in season" and the bright green lights up the table. The mint and pea combination is a classic one, of course, and it was nice complementing it with the saltiness of the salmon and the creme, which is always welcome as long as it doesn't overwhelm. The roasted red pepper soup, given a slightly Indian take with cumin and cilantro, was an unusual combination that worked very well (the lovely orange hue further brightened the table). The recipe from Food & Wine Magazine (one of my favorite recipe sources) called for seared scallops on top that I skipped. I had the red onion soup last because it was the heartiest. It also had the most texture with chunky onion strips that were sweet from caramelization and floating in this delectable deep red concoction. This recipe was from the Greens cookbook as well.

For salads, we had a cornucopia of winter vegetables that included leeks, cauliflower, squash, baby carrots and turnips to name a few, with a garlicky parsley dressing that added just the right amount of flavor and color to the winter veggies.

We also had an arugula and serrano ham salad with slivers of shaved ricotta salata topped with pomegranate seeds. This salad is one of my favorite salads, not only because it looks beautiful but also tastes so good.

Ok, it's not exactly guilt-free because of the ham but it's only dotted with ham, not overwhelmed by it. And the pomegranate salsa using pomegranate molasses is the perfect dressing for this salty, crunchy and slightly sweet salad. It's so easy to make, looks gorgeous on the table and tastes great -- a surefire winner at dinner parties! You'll notice I've made this for a Spanish fiesta before to much raves.

I also made a dish with brussels sprouts, my current obsession. I had cooked with them before but had never roasted them. David Chang was famously quoted as saying that "you can't f**k them up" and true to this statement, his rendition of brussels sprouts became the most popular item in his restaurants.

I was given a cool-sounding recipe from GQ's blog and first tried the one in italics on the bottom of the entry. The healthier version was out of this world, so I had to try the spicy one using Sriracha sauce Chang had.

OMG. The thick-cut bacon bits cooked to crunchy perfection certainly helped and squirted with some "death ketchup," Sriracha sauce, it doesn't get any better. The version using olive oil, lemon juice and almond slivers was just as delicious, if not as decadent.

I highly recommend anyone try this recipe immediately. If it conjured up some bad dinner table memories associated with brussels sprouts, this may just be the opportunity for you to rid yourself of this once and for all. It's a nutritious, readily available vegetable that's very versatile, after all. Ok, I need to stop raving about this. Focus on the entire meal.

For the two main meat dishes, we had a wonderful leg of lamb stuffed with bacon and sage -- the perfect winter dish -- and cornish hen roasted with whole garlic bulbs, shallots and grapes.

This recipe came from one of my favorite cookbooks, Great Food Fast, but most of the recipes are available online because they were featured on the PBS show, Everyday Food. I don't watch that show as much but love its simple and easy recipes. The hens were moist and juicy and the grapes imparted a great sweetness to the whole dish. Some of my guests simply took a whole roasted garlic bulb, scooped out the caramelized garlic and consumed them solo -- like morsels of garlic candy.

I made good use of the carcasses to make yummy broth with some veggies and ginger for aroma.

We also had a side dish of potato provencal with tomato and red onions but I didn't care much for this dish. It didn't toast easily on top despite spreading some butter on and it was on the bland side. I probably wouldn't make it again. I have a good potato gratin dish that's a bit less healthy but a lot more flavorful.

If you have a lot of strong-flavored dishes, like very spicy items, this potato dish may temper those flavors because it is mildly flavored.

It just wasn't anything special.

We also had a celery root puree as another starch that was good.

For dessert, YT made an amazingly good pear tart in a cast iron pan. The crust was perfectly crunchy and crumbly at the same time, much like puff pastry but less buttery than that.

All in all a successful dinner party. A big shoutout to our resident mixologist who made the best pomegranate margaritas, complete with salt-rimmed glasses and jewels of pomegranate seeds floating in the glasses.

YT and I used to make it a point to make the most elaborate things but now with a few dinner parties under our belts, we're veering toward simple, hassle-free cooking that is all about the flavor that leaves enough time to enjoy the company of our guests. Not that we hadn't done this before but you know what I mean.

We also used the Zuni Cafe cookbook for some of the recipes.

Happy eating!

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