Dinner parties. Dime a dozen. Appies. Salad. Entree. Dessert. Lots of wine. Yawn.
There’s nothing wrong with the workaday dinner party — heaven knows we’ve thrown hundreds of them — but sometimes we like to zest things up a bit. Break away from the confines of our Eurocentric upbringing. Dabble in the dark arts of spicecraft. And when we do want to do so, we focus our eye squarely on the Middle East and North Africa.
So we were watching the always alluring and seductive Nigella Lawson on her new US TV show, Nigella Feasts. We’ve loved Nigella for years, her carefree approach to cooking, the sloppy measuring, the flirty bedroom eyes and, most importantly, the interesting cultural influences she brings to the table. On a recent episode she covered a couple of lovely Mediterranean dips, a spicy fattoush and some miniature lamb meatballs. Like a genie from a lamp, our menu began to manifest. A pan-Islamic menu anchored in Persia but borrowing heavily from the Mediterranean.
We liked what Nigella was offering, but wanted to develop the menu beyond a sampling of finger foods into a more substantial sit-down meal. We also wanted to have certain repeating themes and flavors that would echo through the evening. Saffron. Cinnamon. Mint. Rose water. Gorgeousness.
Taste for yourself after the jump. (Sorry, only one dish photographed — we were busy entertaining rather than taking pictures.)
La Vie en Rose
A drop of homemade grenadine and a faint drizzle of rose water, pour champagne over. Worked better in the champagne saucers than flutes, as it lent a paler pink hue and a gentler rosy aroma. But we don’t have enough of either glass to match all the way around. How gauche!
Homemade pita chips
Red kidney bean dip
Pistachios (from Malik Farms)
The dips were excellent, and refreshingly different from each other. I hate when there’s baba ghannouj side-by-side with hummous and you can’t tell the difference between them. There was no mistaking that the badenjan was eggplant, and the other bean.
I did as Nigella did, and roasted the eggplants whole in a hot oven until the skins were blistered and the insides soft. Once they cooled sufficiently, I scooped out their gushy innards and pressed them in a strainer to extract the excess liquid. And quite a lot of it there was! I must have squeezed two cups of oily liquid out of the little buggers. Perhaps most remarkable, though, was the aroma. It had never occurred to me before how much the scent of freshly roasted eggplant resembles that of strong black tea. It was beautifully perfumed.
I gave the eggplant guts a whir in the Cuisinart as it was still rather fibrous, and I didn’t want any stringy bits dangling from peoples’ chips. Not pretty. The newly smooth goo went in with some sauteed onion and garlic and some saffron that had bloomed in a little dish of hot water. Once that cooled again, in went some Straus nonfat yogurt, seasoning to taste and into the fridge to blend.
Much to my surprise, the saffron asserted itself much more than I anticipated, kind of trampling on the delicate tea-like aroma of the eggplant. I’ll pull that back into balance next time around. I noticed today, two days afterwards, that it had mellowed considerably. It made a lovely lunch.
The bean dip is significantly easier, and actually better received. Again with the onion and garlic, in go the beans with some spices (I pulled back to 1/4 tsp on the cinnamon and instead added 1/4 tsp of turmeric to accentuate the color and give more depth of flavor. I stand by my choice.) A quick blast in the Cuisinart (which got a LOT of use that day), a squeeze of lime, and it’s good to go. This will surely be in our regular rotation of party dips.
As long as you’ve got all those lovely crisped up pitas, might as well make the most of them. Loosely following Nigella’s lead again, I stuck to a green palate on this dish, with plain cos lettuce, parsley and mint, and avocado. Rather than snip raw chiles directly into the salad, I roasted two jalapenos while I was doing the eggplant, then added the puree of their flesh to the vinaigrette. All I can say is, I’m glad our guests that night like spicy food. Cuz I didn’t ask. I, however, loved it.
Red onion salad
Kofta is one of our fallback recipes, one we trot out pretty frequently for guests. It’s easy, it’s aromatic and it presents beautifully on a large platter with the rice, onions and pita. Party food.
Both the kofta and Persian rice recipes are adapted from a British TV show and book called, simply, The Best. In it, three young chefs compete by concocting something in a given category, like savory rice dish, or summer lamb dish, which is in turn served anonymously through a portal to three tasters in an adjacent room, who in turn submit their judgment back to the chefs via text message. Tres Euro. Anyway, it’s a cute show and the book is a decent reference. I won’t regurgitate the recipes here. Just buy the book and see for yourself. (Sadly, the show does not appear to be available on DVD or VHS.)
The lamb was redolent with marjoram. Oh, marjoram, why have I ignored you all these years? Perhaps I always looked upon you as oregano’s little sister, overlooking your own distinct charms. It won’t happen again.
Persian rice, layered with squash and potato and flavored with saffron, is a nice counterpart. Thinly sliced red onions, seasoned with coarse salt, cumin and coriander, round out the palate and lend crunch. A drizzle of raita, all cucumbery and minty and yogurty, cools the palate from the warm spicy flavors at play.
Continuing our theme, we served the entree on our black cockerel brunch plates, filling the tea cups with rose water and petals, for a scented fingerbowl. The room smelled wonderfully of roses all night, awakened the palate.
Apician spiced dates with mascarpone (pictured, above)
I decided to reprise this dessert that I ripped off from Mario Batali’s Lupa in New York earlier this year, figuring the warm spices would be a nice continuation of the exotic treats. I didn’t do the housemade ricotta this time (it was already a rather labor-intensive meal), instead opting to do little quenelles of mascarpone to complement the stewed dates. The best part about this dish are the almonds stuffed inside the dates, which are invariably mistaken for pits. The look of surprise and awe when you tell them they can eat them is always rewarding.
Good food, good company and a bowl of rose water and petals that continued to perfume our home for another two days. A sensory trip to Persia and back in a single evening.