Sunday, November 20, 2011

More soup, more soup

So two weeks ago angel-headed hipster Sufjan Stevens came to town to perform at this little shindig just four doors down from our apartment. Using the internet, I discovered that a couple of my friends from around the Bay Area were going to be in attendance, so I offered to host a casual dinner for all of them before we headed the show. What to cook? At first, I was thinking about making a few dishes based on Sufjan Stevens songs, such as Casimir Pulaski Dayboat Scallops, The Age of Adzuki Beans, or Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza (Which toppings do you use? "All things go." What if you mess up? "I made a lot of mistakes.").

In the end I decided to favor expediency over thematic unity; after all, the show was sold out, so I figured that it wouldn't hurt for us to show up a little early to score some decent seats. Guests at 5:30, dinner at 5:45, dessert at 6:15, leave at 6:45, doors at 6:46, sitting down by 6:49. Those are also the lyrics to the bridge of Rebecca Black's new single. In this picture you can see how fast everybody is rushing to make this dinner party a success. Not surprisingly, we kept perfectly on schedule and scored six seats together near the front, stage left. Sufjan was stage right, but, you know, the theater was dark anyway.

Soup and salad is my go-to menu for a quick, painless dinner party. Consider: what kind of person have I become that I just identified a dinner party menu as "painless?" As opposed to painful? Anyway, soup and salad: comforting, unpretentious, and no problem to make ahead and then assemble in a few minutes when people start arriving. Once you've got everything set up and ready to go, you can focus on more important things, like making an indie rock dinner party playlist, cutting flowers, or matching your six different-colored bowls to your set of six non-matching plates. You can also spare a few minutes to make Magic Bread, which is bread drizzled with Magic Sauce and then placed under the broiler until doves start flying out of the oven.

The salad was one of the better ones I've made in recent memory: arugula and spinach tossed with some pickled nectarines, pickled red onions, pomegranate seeds, and toasted walnuts, then bound with a Lillet vinaigrette. Pickled salads are really good for Indian Summer, because they balance so carefully on the precipice between raw and cooked, between the sparkling produce of bright summer and the concentrated, preserved flavors of bleak midwinter. Pickled salads also good when you need to make room for Thanksgiving in your refrigerator and you have seven jars of pickles taking up space on the top shelf. Not that this happens very often.

I served the salad alongside a fantastic yellow eye bean soup, which I've made three or four times this year and even blogged about previously. I'll make it again and I'll blog about it again; it's that good. One of the tricks is to cut the vegetables so you get just the right array of textures in every bite: big crisp wings of fennel, tender carrots, crunchy little bits of celery, short noodly strands of leek, and creamy beans. Then, when you're ready to add the broth, add it cold so the vegetables stop cooking. Shut off the heat. Let the sit on the stove for a few hours so the flavors mingle and develop, and then bring it just to a simmer when the guests arrive. No fuss, no timing issues, everything is cooked just right but also suffused with the broth.

And then there's broth. Somehow assertive does not seem to be a strong enough word for this broth. This broth is bossy. This broth is not apologizing for it. This broth is ENTJ. Rosemary, chili, and two full heads of garlic. Not three flavors I would have put together off the top of my head, but after a few sips they make perfect sense, all three delivering the same sort of a kick, just to different parts of the brain. Yeah, that's right, this broth is like three kicks to the brain.

For dessert I just reached into the freezer and took out a few quarts of ice cream that Jeff and I had made earlier in the week (in other news, Jeff and I each weigh 475 pounds now). I was pretty proud of us for managing to serve four different ice cream flavors, none of which paired at all with any of the other three--coffee, ginger, pear-pecorino, and maple-rosemary. Just take my word for it; don't think about any particular combination too long or you might hurl. There had also been some cookies 'n' creme fraiche ice cream (pictured above, at left) hanging out in the freezer, but we finished that up earlier in the afternoon, mostly because it would have paired too well with the coffee. Yeah, that's the ticket.

I realized that I written very much about this dinner party but I have not identified any of the people in attendance--shout out to Elsa, Jeff, Jeff, Ian, and Peter. Thank you all for being a friend and making this evening with soup and Sufjan such a resounding success. Well, I never said this was a people blog.


Recipe roundup...

Pickled red onions possibly based on this recipe? Honestly, I'm at a point where I just pour pickle brine over things and hope for the best.

Pickled nectarines from this recipe, which I think calls for a little too much star anise.

I always use this technique for getting the seeds out of pomegranates. It is unbeatable and you don't look like a serial killer.

To make the Lillet vinaigrette, I mixed two tablespoons of Lillet with a teaspoon of mustard and a pinch of salt, then added a quarter cup of canola oil and hit it with an immersion blender until it was smooth, about two seconds (you could also drizzle in the canola oil slowly while whisking, or shake it in a bottle). I then whisked in a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, added black pepper, and adjusted the acidity with a few drops of rice vinegar.

Rustic Rancho Gordo Yellow Eye Bean Soup recipe from Ubuntu in Napa, as published in the New York Times. I followed the recipe pretty closely, but I added fennel to the mix of root vegetables, and instead of the floating garlic toast, I made garlic croutons.

I make garlic croutons by mixing together 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil with 1 tablespoon of garlic oil (to make garlic oil, slice open a head of garlic, place it in a saucepan, cover it in olive oil, and cook over low heat for about half an hour). I cut about half a loaf of ciabatta into one-inch cubes, toss them with the oil mixture, and toast in a 350-degree oven until golden, maybe 20 minutes.

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