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Dinner with Marcella

Dinner with Marcella

It's entirely possible that, unless you are as obsessed with food, and in particular Italian food, as I, that you may never have heard the name Marcella Hazan. Even more ironically, her name is unfamiliar in her own hometown of Cesenatico, Romagna, on the Adriatic coast. Yet Marcella will be remembered forever as one of the most lasting influences on the American palate for her writings on true, regional, authentic Italian food. And sadly, she passed away at the end of September at 89 years of age. 

The food world reeled, and Cathy Barrow, community leader extraordinaire, proposed an event, an evening where folks all around the country, indeed the world, would host a dinner party in her honor, cooking from her books and sharing pictures and stories with the #dinnerwithmarcella hashtag. And so it was that we eschewed a couple Halloween parties (we had no inspiration for costumes anyway) and constructed a menu. 

However, because we're terrible at coloring within the lines, we went off script. 

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Coppa-wrapped persimmon

Coppa-wrapped persimmons
Prosciutto and melon is one of the greatest hits in Italian appetizers, and with good reason. In two simple ingredients you get a masterful array of sensual contrasts: Earthy and fruity, salty and sweet, tough and tender. We've gone on to wrap plenty of other fruits in prosciutto; figs are a winning choice, for example. But when we wrapped crisp fuyu persimmons in prosciutto, the combination was less than stellar. The meat overpowered the delicately cinnamony sweetness of the fruit. I just love the sweet coppa at Lucca, so I thought I'd give that a whirl. What an improvement! The coppa has a fine crust of spices around the edges that played very nicely with the persimmons.

In his zeal preparing the salad for the party, DPaul diced up all the persimmons I had set out, intending a few of them to be cut into wedges for the appie. He recovered it by intertwining the coppa with dice of persimmons on a skewer. It's not just a clever save; it worked out to be an improvement on presentation and eatability. Then again, I'll eat almost anything at the end of a pick.

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No matter how highfalutin you want to make your party, you have to have a cheese ball, don't you? It's the sine qua non of holiday entertaining.

But while cheese balls are beloved by all, they are not especially fancy (though some may disagree). That is, if you're envisioning the store-bought, fist-sized ball of dubiously bright orange cheese rolled in chunky bits of rancid pecan. So DPaul was inspired to raise the humble cheese ball to new heights. By using only white cheeses, chopping the pecans very finely and rolling them into individual bites, the humble cheese ball became a dainty and elegant hors d'oeuvre.

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A holiday dinner fête

Gluttons for punishment that we are, DPaul and I embarked upon another of our madcap dinner party concepts. We entertain relatively frequently, but maybe once a year we go balls-out and conspire to make something a little extra over-the-top. Last year, we did a big Iberian-themed fiesta; the year before, we celebrated the holidays with a carnilicious crown roast of pork. This year, we took the inadvertent pork theme to a whole new level.

The two of us are (luckily!) similarly wired. We have aligned sensibilities around the arc of a meal, and enjoy throwing ourselves into the creative process of planning events. We love devising menus, dreaming up table decorations, and taking a project manager's mind to the tasks that must be achieved leading up to the party. In this post, I'll give you a little visibility into the special madness that is our method to entertaining.

I present to you the menu: 

House-cured olives
Coppa-wrapped persimmons

Porcini gelée, brussels sprout, chestnut purée

Pomegranate borscht

Roast leg of boar (feral swine)
Butternut squash risotto

Dandelion greens, persimmon, hoshigaki, pomegranate, pecan

Mission Pie apple-cranberry
Mitchell's egg nog ice cream

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Carne de porco com amêijoas à alentejana

No Iberian meal is complete without pork. The importance and prevalence of the meat in the national cuisines of Spain and Portugal cannot be overstated. In fact, had I not already been weaning myself off my fishetarian ways, I would surely have starved to death during our month-long sojourn in Spain.

But that’s okay, for the pork in Iberia is exceptional. There are of course the cured hams, such as the famous jamòn serrano and jamòn iberico, the latter of which comes from pigs that dine exclusively on the acorns of black oak trees in central Spain. Iberico in its uncured state is succulent and tender, and unlike anything we have here in the states. The meat itself is darker, with a strong nutty flavor.

I knew the main course of the dinner had to be pork, but sought inspiration. I turned to the trusty Time-Life Foods of the World series, expecting to find a Spanish recipe that would transport me back to our trip. In fact, the recipe that spoke to me was Portuguese.

Pork and clams: What a delightful turn on the classic surf and turf. It sounds incongruous at first, but the two proteins have a strange affinity, as if they were long-lost cousins, star-crossed lovers from different worlds. Only in the sweet afterlife, and on the dinner table, could they be united.

A sidenote about Spain v. Portugal. Despite their tightly linked heritages, there is a clear tension between the two cultures. Whilst in Granada, enjoying a sherry at a local restaurant, we were entranced by the music. The bartender informed us it was a Portuguese group, Madredeus. We loved the soulful, fado-inflected songs. Later, in Madrid, we were perusing a record store, looking for a few choice items to bring home; Madredeus was at the top of our list. We searched through pop, to no avail. Asking one clerk after another, we ended up working our way through several sections, down floor after floor, until we finally found them in the “World” section, alongside tribal drumming and chanting. Keep in mind we are talking about a contemporary popular group from a country that shares the same peninsula.

Intra-Iberian politics aside, this dish is a keeper, though I cannot help but feel like it constitutes a culinary “screw you” to the Jews and Moors so maligned in Iberian history. I mean, pork and clams? Why not throw some milk in for good measure? Gentile that I am, I take no exception.

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Pimientos piquillos rellenos de bacalao en salmorejo

All right, kids, I’m gonna finish this dinner party if it kills me.

During our month in Spain, despite traversing many regions with distinct culinary and linguistic dialects, a few dishes were constant. Tapas were of course an everyday occurrence, and we easily fell into a routine of a handful of favorites: croquetas, tortilla español and above all else pimientos rellenos. I’m a big fan of bacalao, the salt-cured cod, under any circumstances, but mixed into a creamy filling inside a sweet red pepper is perhaps the most enjoyable application. I knew I wanted to reproduce this for the party.

A couple weeks beforehand, I was thrilled to see muy autentico piquillo peppers appear in their explosively colorful glory at the Happy Quail Farms booth at the farmers market. I had assumed I would end up resorting to either tinned piquillos or roasted bell peppers. Eagerly, I asked how long they would have them on hand, and was assured they’d be appearing in abundance for weeks if not months. The Spanish sun was shining on my dinner plans.

I roasted the peppers, blackening the skin under the broiler for easy removal. This is my normal method of roasting peppers; in this case, however, the thin-skinned piquillos might perhaps have benefitted from blanching instead of roasting, as the flesh of the peppers became too fragile and lost their shape. Live and learn.

Salmorejo was another regular item on our table in Spain. This emulsion of tomato, bread and olive oil appears as many things — sauce, dip, soup. I figured it would make a pleasant counterpart both in flavor and texture to the pepper.

The recipes I used as foundation came from a tourist-grade cookbook we bought in Spain called, simply, Classic Tapas. We were assured by a friend in Marbella that the recipes in the book were in fact quite authentic, and indeed we saw many dishes that we had enjoyed throughout our journey. But by virtue perhaps of poor translation, many of the recipes lack precision or even omit key steps, so it is at best a guide and not a bible. Fortunately, I am comfortable enough with basic techniques, like making a béchamel, that I was able to navigate successfully.

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Wine country picnic

Summertime, and the living is easy …

What a crock. The living’s no easier in the summer. Work goes on every day as normal, tourists flood the farmer’s market and a thick blanket of fog ensures that I lose my hard-earned trucker tan. Summer, feh.

But it is easy to get a small taste of the simple life, to bask in a carefree afternoon of food, friends and frivolity under a balmy summer sun. Certainly chief among the reasons we love living in San Francisco is fast and easy access to the wine country.

DPaul and I make excursions pretty frequently; in fact, we explicitly joined a few wineries’ clubs just to have the excuse to get out of town once in a while. We’ve long been big fans of the Dry Creek Valley area in Sonoma County, but for the last year and change we’ve been enamored with Carneros, the region alongside the north side of San Francisco Bay that straddles the southern ends of both Sonoma and Napa counties. And even more specifically, we’re best buds with Bouchaine.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Bouchaine rocks. I won’t pretend to be any kind of wine expert, and certainly cannot rank their wines against comparable quaff from more esteemed producers (though their rosé of syrah got good marks in our taste-off). All I know is that I enjoy their wines immensely. But what Bouchaine does excellently, better than most, is deliver a flawlessly enjoyable wine country experience. No tour buses and limos, no snotty bling-laden tourists and harried winery staff. Just a sun-dappled back deck overlooking vineyards and serenity interrupted only by a cooling bay breeze.

Bouchaine is an ideal spot for a picnic, and so for DPaul’s birthday last week, that’s precisely what we did. Ten of us met to enjoy a flight of tastings alongside some tasty treats. Bouchaine does offer a picnic program, where you can purchase baskets of meats, cheeses and other goodies, and that’s all well and good. But I thought it would be fun to bring our own picnic of wine-friendly foods to enjoy.

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Crowning achievement


Just as you must kiss many frogs before finding your Prince Charming, you must stumble your way through many awkward, mistimed or outright embarassing dinner parties before you reach entertaining nirvana. But then, sometimes the stars align and everything goes exactly according to plan. We had one of those nights. And it was magical.

We had been planning this dinner party for weeks, debating menus, negotiating dishes, drafting timelines. This is the sort of thing we love to do. Our typical approach is to shoot for the moon up front, devise a menu that is impossible by mere mortals and their terrestrial kitchens, then tweak and scale it until we have something achievable yet still remarkable. We like to try new things, and to do new things with old ideas. We have fun in the kitchen.

A holiday meal needs a masterful centerpiece, and we were inspired by Gourmet magazine to do a crown roast of pork. Not only is it elegant and impressive, it is also charmingly old-school, like something from a Norman Rockwell painting.

The art of entertaining involves knowing your boundaries, and delegation is key. Initially we had planned to do everything, including wine pairings. It’s always lovely when guests bring wine, but then you end up with mismatched bottles that have little relevance to what you’re serving. This time, we delegated the pairings, asking each couple to bring wine appropriate to a single course. Each couple knew the course they were pairing, but none knew the entire evening’s menu until they arrived.

Courses (all five of them) and wine flowed seamlessly, and we started early enough to allow for time to hang around afterwards, digest, play parlor games and still be in bed at an almost-reasonable hour for a school night. Almost.

Lots of clean plates, and precious few leftovers — except, that is, for the pork. This week, it’s all about the pork as we repurpose a mountain of porcine protein into new dishes: Curries, pastas, what have you. I am not complaining.

Horn-tooting details and luscious photographs after the jump!

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