Monday, August 29, 2011

Mystery Basket Dinner

This past Sunday we held a Mystery Basket dinner at our house for some of our customers as a way of thanking them for their business. We drew names from all those who had entered at the restaurant and each winner brought three ingredients that were unknown to me. When everyone arrived and had a glass of wine, we unveiled all the ingredients. And here is the sum of what everyone brought; I contributed the hickory bark syrup just for grins.

pom pom mushrooms
bison sausage
Walla Walla onions
haloumi cheese
red peppers
barilotti pasta
baby bok choy
pink lady apples
hickory bark syrup
puff pastry
Dubliner cheese
Italian sausage

As you can see from this list of ingredients, we had quite a crazy melange of foodstuffs from which to concoct a menu. As we were unveiling the ingredients, I was already triaging the foods in my mind, trying to figure out what went where. The quantities of some foods dictated how we would have to use them. The little block of haloumi wasn't going to go too far.

The bulgur suggested a tabouleh, the puff pastry a pizza, and the barilotti a pasta, naturally. That left the sweetbreads and the haloumi for appetizers. The menu we ended up with was:

Saganaki: Pan-Seared Haloumi with Sautéed Garlic and Lemon Juice. This is a simple dish to make. Slice the haloumi and place in a hot frying pan with a touch of olive oil. Brown on both sides and remove to a plate. Add chopped garlic to the pan and brown slightly. Deglaze with the juice of a lemon and pour over the cheese.

Sweetbreads with Pom Pom Mushrooms and Baby Bok Choy. Sweetbreads are delicious and pretty easy to prepare. I showed everyone how to poach them, then how to remove the membranes and veins. Once they were cooled, we tossed them in seasoned Wondra and seared them well in a skillet. Then we slabbed the pom pom mushrooms and seared them and after that, we wilted the baby bok choy in a good quantity of olive oil and garlic. We arranged all these goodies on a platter and dug in. I had never worked with farmed pom pom mushrooms before, only the wild form that I have known as lion's mane. The mushrooms had a slight crab-like flavor, very mild and subtle. Image courtesy of Mike Hoffmaster.

Tabouleh with Pomegranates, Pink Lady Apples, Beets, and Rhubarb. This was the sleeper dish of the evening and my catch-all for all the red-colored ingredients for which we had no other use and it was the one dish that I cooked myself. I don't think anybody didn't have seconds of this tabouleh: it was that good. I started by cooking the bulgur, some fancy organic long-cooking kind that took a lot of persuasion in the microwave to get cooked, and by roasting the beets in foil in the oven, the single best way to handle beets that I know.

Everyone got a kick out of my beating the hell out of the pomegranate with a wooden spoon to get the seeds out; the whole thing was seeded and ready to eat in 30 seconds. I marinated raw rhubarb in a lot of hickory bark syrup to tame its rampant acidity, then threw it in with the pomegranate seeds, diced apples, and diced beets, to which I added a lot of lemon juice, chopped Italian parsley from my garden, minced garlic, and extra virgin olive oil. I mixed it all and the whole thing turned scarlet and after correcting the seasoning, it was truly delicious.

Do note that rhubarb contains oxalic acid, which in large quantities can be toxic. Most of the oxalic acid is confined to the leaves, which is why they are not eaten. Cooking neutralizes the oxalic acid and many texts suggest to always cook rhubarb, but it can be quite delicious when eaten raw.

Puff Pastry Pizza with Buffalo Sausage, Caramelized Onions, Cherry Tomatoes, and Dubliner Cheese. Everybody was in a pizza kind of mood, so I rolled out the puff pastry on a sheet tray, built a rim around it with a second layer of puff, docked the bottom, and pre-baked it to about half done. Next it got a good layer of caramelized onions, buffalo sausage, halved tiny tomatoes, and a topping of Dubliner cheese for good measure. What's not to like?

Barilotti with Spicy Italian Sausage, Onions, Tomatoes, Red Peppers, and Basil. I'd never seen this cut before, barilotti, little barrels, but I like it. I'm a big fan of short pasta cuts and this reminds me of cavatelli, also a very favorite cut. These little barrels are the perfect shape for a sausage pasta because they have the perfect nooks in which sausage bits can hide. All the ingredients were sautéed in turn with copious amounts of garlic and fresh basil, then tossed with the hot pasta, some pasta cooking water, and a big handful of grated pecorino romano. Awesome!


Cleaning sweetbreads.*

Chef Mike tackles a mound of onions.*

Jimmy, zesting lemons.*

Was it my imagination or were the women outside kibbitzing while the guys did all the work?*

To be fair, Julie helped EJ a lot and Jen had a broken wrist. What about Ann? She was social directing!*

Grayce, the canine vacuum cleaner.*

And Dewi, the human vacuum cleaner.

The crew.

*Image courtesy of Mike Hoffmaster/Dennis Trimarchi.

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