Birthday Dinner 2018

For my birthday this year, rather than going out for a meal, I decided to cook a really fancy dinner for a few friends. Unfortunately, I was constrained by the size of Safetyfourth’s table to just a few friends, but the meal turned out excellent. I served a cheese board with assorted cheeses and crackers prior to dinner, mushroom and pea risotto, grilled asparagus, and grilled salmon for the main course, and crêpes suzette for dessert. I also served everything on my brand-new dishes (thanks mom and dad!).

I saw this article about dinner parties a while ago, and it struck a chord. I really enjoy the calm, relaxed, yet refined atmosphere of a dinner party. It feels adult, which I guess I would characterize by doing things intentionally. That’s actually a topic that I feel like I have enough feelings on for a whole blog post, but suffice to say that the reward for intending to do something and then following through with it is very strong. Anyway, dinner parties are one manifestation of that - an intentional act of refinement, a practicing of expertise to prepare the meal, and even a bit of problem-solving ability required to figure out how to make everything ahead of time, but not too far ahead of time - how to keep things warm and juggle resources.




So, I like dinner parties, and decided to throw one.

Order of Operations

First, I prepared invites. These started the theme of “fancy” with a custom emboss (yet another project that deserves its own blog post). They were physically printed on cardstock and hand-delivered or mailed to each of my guests.

Next, I wanted to upgrade Safetyfourth’s dinnerware situation - what Safetyfourth has is a bunch of mismatched plates of different sizes, colors, and materials. It’s good enough for day-to-day use, but would be a noticeable detraction from a fancy dinner of the kind I wanted to serve (not to mention, I needed dinnerware for my apartment in NYC in a couple months anyway, and Palantir is handling my move). So, I looked around at dinnerware sets. I eventually settled on Roulette Blue Band Dinnerware from Crate & Barrel, along with York Mirror flatware, Otis Highball glasses, and Oregon white wine glasses (mostly listing them out for my own future reference in case I need replacements). It makes a very handsome set, all told. It’s also pretty similar in design to the set that I used growing up.

For the actual food prep, I started early in the morning with the dough for the brioche dinner rolls, and also got the salmon marinating. In the early afternoon, I finished baking the rolls before starting on the risotto, the longest dish to make, and one that required near-constant attention. I started by chopping up the mushrooms and onions before cooking for the next hour. Honestly, it wasn’t my best risotto - I had to split it into two pans to try to get the volume to surface area ratio correct for the correct speed of water evaporation that would result in the right consistency for the risotto. It was pretty challenging to handle two pans at once, especially since they had different surface areas.

After the risotto was done, I put it in a large pot to mix in the peas and parmesan, before putting it on the back burner to keep warm until dinner. At that point, there was about 30 minutes til guests were going to arrive, so I was pretty on-schedule. I quickly prepped the asparagus and tossed it in the oven. Luckily, the asparagus is a nearly zero-prep component of the meal - preheat the oven and toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt, and pepper before baking. After the asparagus went in the oven, I set the table quickly before starting on the salmon, handling 3 pieces at a time (out of 6 total). I had two pans going - one for the bottom of the fillets, and one for searing the top of the fillets with a grill pattern and finishing the cooking. By batching them and pipelining, I was able to get total cooking time down to about 20 minutes, so I was pulling the second round of salmon off the grill right as guests were arriving. The asparagus also finished up while the salmon was going, so I turned the oven down and put the rolls back in to heat up before dinner.

Guests arrived around 5:30, so as I tidied up the kitchen, we also snacked on the cheese and crackers that I’d set out. After snacking for a while and after the salmon had rested enough, dinner was served.

After a delicious and relaxed dinner, I prepped the crêpe batter for crêpes suzette before diving into the orange glaze. I managed to flambé very successfully this time! My crêpe batter wound up a bit lumpy - I might be adding the ingredients in the wrong order, or the cold milk might be causing the butter to chill and harden, so I still have a bit of room for improvement there. You couldn’t really tell in the final product though, which turned out beautiful, with a quenelle of vanilla ice cream on top.

Now, on to the specific recipes!

Brioche Bread

(makes about 1 loaf, or 14 dinner rolls)

Ingredients:

Directions:

  1. Proof the active dry yeast in the warm water by dissolving it and letting it bubble.
  2. Mix the ingredients in, in order, using a stand mixer with a dough hook. Continue kneading at low speed until a sticky dough forms, about 3 minutes total.
  3. Cover the mixing bowl and proof for a bit over 2 hours in a warm place. I use the oven with the light on, which works pretty well and is out of the way.
  4. Remove the dough, which should have doubled in size, and preheat the oven to 400 °F.
  5. For a loaf, flour the countertop and separate the dough into 3 equal logs, about 40 cm long and 5 cm in diameter, braid together, and put in a loaf pan. For dinner rolls, work dough into golf ball sized balls, pinching the dough to ensure one side is smooth. Put that side on top, and fill a muffin tin.
  6. Cover, proof for an additional 20 minutes, and brush with the egg wash. Bake loaf for about 25 minutes and rolls for about 12 minutes.

This recipe I got from Alex French Guy on youtube, and was inspired to try it after watching my roommate bake sourdough bread on a weekly basis. It was surprisingly difficult to form the dinner roll shape, since the dough was very sticky. I find that the loaf produces about 10 solid slices of bread, and I tend to enjoy them best when toasted lightly. The dinner rolls are best fresh - I overcooked them a bit when keeping them warm, which made them a bit drier and a bit harder, instead of soft and fluffy as they were fresh out of the oven. They don’t really need additional butter.

Mushroom and Pea Risotto

(makes about 4 servings)

Ingredients:

Directions:

  1. Sautee the onion and mushrooms in oil and butter in a large skillet or small wok on medium heat.
  2. Add rice, and cook until edges are translucent. Stir in 1/2 cup chicken broth and cook for an additional 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until broth is absorbed.
  3. Stir in broth, 1 cup at a time, cooking for 5-8 minutes between additions until the broth is mostly absorbed. Stir frequently throughout the process. This is the tricky part - the heat, stirring, and rate of liquid addition need to be balanced well for the dish to result in the proper risotto texture. Luckily, even if it’s a bit wrong, it’s not too far off.
  4. Stir in the cheese and peas at the end. If using frozen peas, you’ll want to start the peas in the microwave around the time of the last liquid addition to the skillet.

This recipe can be tricky to get the perfect texture out of - sometimes I’m very successful, sometimes I’m less successful. As I mentioned though, even if it’s wrong, it’s not too far off, and is certainly still a tasty meal. Instead of mushrooms, shrimp can be stirred in at the end for shrimp and pea risotto. This was adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook.

Grilled Asparagus

(Makes about 4 small servings)

Ingredients:

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 °F. Arrange asparagus on a baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  2. Bake for about 12 minutes.

This was a recipe my mom used to make every now and then, and is very similar to this recipe on allrecipes. It’s a super easy way to prepare asparagus. The only annoying thing is that the oven is then too hot to keep the rest of the dishes warm right before dinner. I can see why people like having 2 ovens now - one to cook in, the other to just keep things warm.

Grilled Salmon

(Makes about 4 servings)

Ingredients:

Directions:

  1. Rub salmon with lemon pepper, garlic powder, and salt to taste.
  2. Combine soy sauce, brown sugar, water, and vegetable oil. Whisk to combine. Put into a plastic bag with the salmon to marinate for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator.
  3. Pan fry the salmon on medium-high heat in a healthy skillet of vegetable oil for about 6-8 minutes per side. The skin side of the salmon will char, but that’s fine. For bonus presentation points, grill the top of the salmon fillet in a ribbed cast iron pan. This will also prevent excessive char flavor.

I used to make a salmon recipe from my mom, which was just salmon, slathered with italian dressing and broiled for about a half hour, which was very tasty. However, I needed the oven for other things and wanted to branch out a bit, so I found this recipe online from allrecipes. In principle, the flavors are very similar to the italian dressing recipe I made, but the method of prep encourages a more intense char and crisps the salmon more. The brown sugar helps add some nice caramelization and color.

Crêpes Suzette

(makes about 2 servings)

Ingredients:

Crêpes:

Glaze:

Directions:

  1. Combine the crêpe ingredients. I combine them in that order, but it’s resulted in lumpy batter, so there might be a particular order that works best. Warming the milk before adding it might also help to keep the butter melted. That completes the crêpe batter, but we’ll prep the glaze before making the crêpes.
  2. In an 8” skillet, melt butter and sugar.
  3. In a small cup or wine glass, combine Grand Marnier and Cointreau. Heat slightly and light with a long-necked lighter. Ensure the flame is steady, remove the skillet from the stove, turn off the lights, and pour into the skillet to flambé. Make sure to do this in front of guests - it’s a showy technique, which is the whole point.
  4. After the fire has extinguished and the alcohol has boiled off, return the skillet to the stove and add the orange juice. Lower the heat to leave the mixture on a low simmer.
  5. Returning to the crêpes, heat another skillet over medium with a small amount of vegetable oil. Cook crêpes one at a time, making sure to get them nice and round. After each crêpe is complete, fold it in half and transfer to the simmering glaze.
  6. After simmering briefly in the glaze, fold the crêpe again to form quarters and plate with a bit of extra glaze and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.

I found this recipe from Jun’s Kitchen, though he shows a slightly fancier version of the recipe. I had a lot of trouble getting the flambé to work the first couple of times I tried the recipe - I accidentally added the orange juice first one time, and tried to flambé on the plate the second time, which also failed. I also managed to get it to mostly work once, but the flame isn’t very bright, so it’s not very pretty when the lights are on. For the dinner party though, it went perfectly. The quenelle of ice cream really finishes the presentation.

Overall, the dinner was a huge success! Thanks for reading :)

Tags: #recipes