Summer Entertaining

I love having dinner parties, but they can get hectic and overwhelming.  Especially when the Bob is busy with work, it’s about one trillion degrees outside, and I am faced with preparing a dinner for eight in two hours. My usual go-to for a big group is beef tenderloin or leg of lamb because the presentation is festive and fancy and because they can serve a crowd. This time though, we were faced with non-red-meat-eaters (I know, I know!). They key was keeping the house cool and managing a good deal of the prep before guests arrived so I wouldn’t keep them waiting for ages in between courses (usually I don’t mind a 6 hour party with flowing booze but the aforementioned working Bob and a guest that had to be at the airport at 4:00 am made that option untenable this time).

I decided to start with this make ahead watermelon and tomato gazpacho from Mark Bittman: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/21/magazine/watermelon-recipes.html?ref=magazine#Gazpacho.  I think my substitution of sherry vinegar for the lemon juice added depth and my “specks of green be damned” decision to toss in some basil leaves was a good one too. I’m sure this soup or the other options he presents in the same article will be my go-to warm-weather starters for many years to come. Watermelon is beautiful, refreshing, and screams summer, plus it isn’t too filling which is good in the crazy heat we have been having.

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For the main I ran across some Copper River Salmon so my decision was made. I had planned on salmon en papillote, but frankly ran out of time to make the packages so had to roast it instead. I started preheating the oven to 350 when we sat down for the first course and also started a pot of little potatoes boiling. When we were done I slathered the salmon fillets in good butter and tossed them on a baking pan with some herbs and lemon slices. Ten minutes later the main course was done. I had taken that time to dress some previously blanched green beans in a warm walnut and Pecorino vinaigrette and toss the now cooked warm potatoes with the dressing featured here: https://gigglinggourmand.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/grilled-salads/. A meat and two veg just can’t go wrong for a proper seeming meal, especially if you cook that meat in butter :). To end I made strawberry shortcakes.  All the prep was done beforehand so only assembly was required: slicing and heating the biscuits, whipping some cream and scooping some ice cream.  All in all dinner ran smoothly* AND I actually got to spend time with my guests which is a huge plus.

ImageI think the take away here for me is that I can actually serve a three-course meal at a normal pace if I prepare enough food in advance and don’t get too fancy. Not that the six-hour dinner party is a thing of the past, but it’s nice I don’t have to hold guests captive that long to give them a decent meal. I also can’t stress enough to keep the table setting and flowers simple. I love fancy arrangements, but not on days when you’re short on time.  Stick with one kind of flower that can form a big poofy arrangement . It still looks festive, but won’t take hours. Image

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* well mostly- I will tell you about the homemade butter I ended up with while not paying attention to the cream some other time.

James Beard Tasting Menu at J&G DC

The space is beautiful and the food is usually good. When it first opened I loved eating at J&G.  But, it just isn’t that exciting to me these days because it’s simply an amalgamation of what you get at so many other W Hotel restaurants to which Jean-Georges Vongerichten has sold his name (why can’t we have a Spice Market instead Jean?). I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but there are many more interesting places to try in D.C. these days, so I don’t go that often.  But when Gilt City was offering a five course tasting for two including a bottle of wine for 100 bucks, who could say no?*

The results were mixed.  For the price we paid, it’s difficult to complain about anything, but  I offer some thoughts nonetheless. The first course of Shaved Tuna with Chili Tapioca, Asian Pear and Lime was very good, though the tuna wasn’t super flavorful.  I think poached scallop, or lobster or shrimp would have worked better in the chilled broth that was strongly redolent of coconut and lemongrass. The second course of Crispy Poached Egg, Caviar and Crème Fraiche could have been delicious.  Everything was perfectly executed, but the caviar was mushy and fishy. It was a bad ingredient that was so key to an otherwise perfectly executed dish and it ruined the whole thing. Next came the terror of all terrors: Grilled Black Pepper Octopus, Sweet Onion and Lime.  I’m not sure what professional kitchen would let this dish into their dining room.  It was terrible.  The octopus was over cooked and mealy. There was certainly Szechuan black pepper as the dish advertised; it was all I could taste. The garnish was a pile of raw shaved onions. I’m not really sure what I was supposed to do with them but eating them certainly wasn’t an appetizing option. It’s too bad because a good grilled octopus is a thing of beauty. This is also a good time to mention that the service at J&G is has usually been a bit amateurish in my experience. Waiters talk as though you’re at Per Se, but unlike at the aforementioned establishment, mistakes are made: glasses remain unfilled, nobody asks why you only ate one bite of a certain course, and frankly it’s a little snobby in a “talk down to our customers” sort of way. I know we paid a pretty cheap price, but it was one the restaurant chose to offer.  So seating us in the back of the restaurant (when it wasn’t full) where we had to watch the servers and bussers run by was annoying (especially since the restaurant is composed of large tables so parties of two sit on the same side of a banquette and face out).

Luckily at this point the dinner took a turn for the better. Rack of Lamb Jardinière was a single lamb chop served with spring vegetables. I wish we could have gone from the tuna straight to this and added another chop. It was perfectly seasoned and cooked and served atop some really beautiful garden vegetables with a smear of thyme scented pea puree underneath. We also ordered a side of the delicious mashed potatoes that seem to be a staple in JGV restaurants. If you’re ever at one don’t miss them.  I once read that restaurant mashed potatoes are 40% potato and 60% butter and cream. I can easily believe it of these, so share the goodness. The dinner ended with a Chocolate Stout Sundae with Pretzel Streusel. I wasn’t exited about the description but that ice cream turned out to be fabulously creamy while still maintaining a certain “stouty” complexity.  If I’d paid full fare for this meal I would have been disappointed. Luckily I didn’t and there were a few highlights. Next time though, I will stick with my regular choices of tuna tartare, slowly cooked salmon, or any other Asian inspired fish dish on the menu. That or some lamb.

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* The menu is $68 per person and the Sancerre, Les Chailloux ‘Cuvée Vieilles Vignes’ 2011 that was offered as the white wine choice is listed at $68 per bottle on their wine list. We also added a side and some red wine for the meat course.

Grilled Salads

A thing I love about summer is grilled meat.  But in an effort not to fall dead of  heart attacks at 40 we have been trying to limit our animal consumption. One great way to do this – grill vegetables: you get all that charcoal flavor but none of the artery clogging fat. After a few rounds though, the usual grill friendly sorts (looking at you squash and eggplant) get a bit played out.  Enter lettuce. Yes, lettuce.  A grilled salad never gets old since the variations on toppings are endless. Just split a head of romaine in half, brush with oil, and throw it on the grill until it’s charred.  It still stays cool and crunchy but packs serious charred flavor.  You can chop it up or serve the halves topped with dressing and other vegetables.

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Another dish that’s been appearing regularly  is grilled potato salad.  Not the healthiest, but still lighter on the mayonnaise than a regular potato salad. Just buy the smallest, prettiest potatoes you can find, parboil them, toss with oil and throw them in a grilling basket on top of some hot coals.  When they come off have a dressing made of mayonnaise, lemon zest, thyme, chives and garlic waiting to toss them in while they are still hot. You won’t be sad.  I promise.

Last note: both of these make great sides with a lovely rib-eye.  Just saying.

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Kimchi Fried Rice

I have a list of staples that I always try to keep on hand in the kitchen. And kimchi is seriously high on that list. I love rice so usually we have some leftover in the fridge but you could use other left over grains like quinoa or farro too, just make sure they are a little dried out. This isn’t one of those impress last minute dinner guests meals, it’s just great, easy, and really fast comfort food. And as long as you have kimchi and some old grains and soy sauce the possibilities are endless.

Simply sauté chopped kimchi with butter, or bacon, or sesame oil, or a combination. After about two minutes crumble in the old rice, hit it with some magi or soy sauce, crack and egg in there and scramble it, and you’ve got a totally passable, and frankly delicious, meal. Or a base for something more. If you have any of the following lying around toss them in, they are excellent additions: steak, corn, green onions, peas, garlic, chives, chopped up hot dogs, tofu, or the real winner: cheddar cheese (seriously it sounds bizarre but it’s amazing).

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Deep Fried Pork Belly?

Oh yes.  It’s a thing. An incredible thing. Filipinos call it Lechon Kawali. To make it we pretty much followed the recipe from the Jun-Blog (http://blog.junbelen.com/2010/03/03/how-to-make-lechon-kawali-deep-fried-pork-belly-at-home/) except that I used a deep fryer.  I boiled and fried the whole slab and then cut it into bits and re-fried as the recipe suggested.  It took less time than predicted in the fryer so I would just eye it and pull it out when it looks crispy, golden, and ready.  We served it with kimchi, rice, a green salad and nuoc cham – so it wasn’t an authentic Filipino meal at all, but it was delicious.  Seriously, deep fried pork belly in nuoc cham is heavenly.  There are a couple things I might do differently though.  First, I would fry the bits in batches throughout the meal to keep the crackling super fresh and crispy.  Second, I would consider brining and par roasting for additional flavor and tenderness in the meat – plus I think some of the fat under the crackling could have been rendered with no ill effects. I am sure I will want to try those modifications ASAP but I think I have to limit myself to making this dish twice a year to prevent serious health effects! 

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