First of all: Happy 2011 to all of you dear readers out there in the blogosphere!
This New Year’s was a pretty special one to me in many ways. For starters, it was to be a much smaller, yet more intimate party than those of the last many years. Secondly it was to be much more sophisticated and much less about getting drunk off one’s ass (thought that sorta eventually happened as well). Thirdly, it was (at least for me) going to be much more about the food and the dinner and the decadence than it had been in previous years.. Why, pray tell? Because this year I had been hired as executive chef four our three course New Year’s Dinner – at the whopping price of one beer!
Yes, I realize I may have to clarify that a little. The thing is, I was contacted one November afternoon by our hostess, Louise, and explained that they wanted a New Year’s dinner that was on the cheap side, but still good, and they’d gotten the impression that I was sorta skilled in a kitchen and really enjoyed playing around with food.. And, well, they wanted to ask if I’d be up for the task of preparing New Year’s dinner for all 8-10 guests. I love a challenge, me, and she did catch me pretty off guard so my immediate response, without really giving any thought to the magnitude of the project was to answer with a resounding “sure, I’ll do it!”
And so it all began. The next month was spent sorta pondering the whole situation and coming up with suggestions for dishes. I thought it would all be a pretty simple process, yet ended up spending a little more time thinking that I had initially intended. Combining my own desire to do something flashy with a group of people who are more used to traditional cooking (and I in no way intend that to be an insult!) as well as a strong desire by all to keep things on the cheap side.. Turned out to be, well, not quite so easy.. Eventually, a decision was made in my head to do some rather traditional dishes but with more attention to detail, time and effort, and to cook them up using the best selected ingredients I could possibly get within the price range we had all settled on.
I ended up with a menu that looked pretty simple on paper:
Starter: Roast chicken and asparagus in chickeny cream sauce, served on crisp puff pastry (that’s “tarteletter” to you Danes out there).
Main: Prime rib of beef cooked medium-rare served with potatoes au gratin, braised root vegetables and a sauce bordelaise like concoction.
Dessert: Fancy white chocolate mousse.
Sounds simple and easy enough, right? Yeah, umm, well, it took me about three days to put it all together, and that’s not counting the hours spent shopping for the right ingredients and what have you.. But you know, that’s the way that I roll.. Good food takes time, love, dedication and the best ingredients you can possibly get your hands on.. Which is why I don’t regret blowing almost half of the total food budget on a lovely, lovely piece of prime rib which I left to age for four days in the fridge, tending over it daily like a baby to make sure we got the best of it..
And neither do I regret buying these three liters of cream that along with a few sticks of butter went into the various dishes.. I said I wanted to make good food, I never said I was planning to do it very healthy like.
After most of the ingredients had been procured, it dawned to me that I had one hell of a great task in front of me. Now, I had been smart and enlisted the help of my ever so beautiful assistant, Tina, who, on top of her dashing good looks, great mood and humor, has started developing a strong interest for the culinary world and has one of the most precise and developed palates I’ve come across. So I knew she’d be not only good company, but also a great help.. Wait, make that an invaluable resource as she actually agreed, with nothing but a smile on her lips, to peel a total of 10 pounds of potatoes. A chore that I absolutely despise! And I hear she got even got a blister on her little finger in the process. I really owe you one, babe, behind every great male chef there’s a strong and determined woman who doesn’t shy away from peeling ten pounds of potatoes. The thing about Tina, though, is that she’s a very popular young lady so I only had her for the 30th to help and it pretty soon dawned on me that if I were to stage this dinner without any stress or hurried decisions.. Well, then I was have to use a little more than one day.
So, instead of mucking about, I (rather appropriately) got started on the starters on the morning of the 29th. Chicken and asparagus can be a painfully simple dish: make a roux of butter and flour, add chicken stock or bouillon cubes, dump in boiled chicken and asparagus and stir a few times.. Or if you’re me, it can be a borderline painfully complicated dish. For starters, I insisted on creating my own chicken stock for the occasion – I just plain don’t trust store bought any more. So I got around to boiling a tired old hen with plenty of veggies for a few hours, straining the solids out and then carefully, carefully, carefully reducing the stock for a few hours until it was about as meaty and flavorful as any stock would get without the addition of dodgy chemicals.
While the stock was simmering away, I grabbed another chicken (a young on this time, old hens make for great soups but not great eats!) and brined it for some 6 hours in an 8% salt solution before washing it out and soaking it a bit, scolding it twice and leaving it in the fridge to dry out for another six hours. Then, come midnight, I turned the oven on to 65 degrees centigrade and popped the bird in, then went to bed with the entire house smelling of chicken. Seven hours later, I got up, checked on the bird which had now reached an internal temperature of 65 degrees, made sure it stayed there for a full 15 minutes and then evacuated the thing.. Success!
Now, I get a lot of questions about this way of preparing poultry, one being “won’t eating a bird cooked to 65C kill you, or at the very least make you sick?” and the other “Why on earth would you invest THAT much time on cooking a chicken?”
Well, first things first, if properly handled, there’s absolutely no risk involved in eating a bird that has been cooked to 65 degrees. Plenty of articles have been published on the subject and I won’t get into that, I’ll just say that the only people that got sick the day after eating the bird were those that drank too much after consuming it! Secondly, after having once tried a slow roasted chicken, I see absolutely no reason NOT to do it: it simply produces the moistest, most succulent and tasty chicken you’ll ever eat.. Why would you NOT want that?
After an 8 AM breakfast/chicken carving session, I got started on chopping the huge load of onions, shallots and such that would be needed for the rest of the day’s dinner preparations. Also, I started eagerly awaiting the arrival of Tina who in predictable Tina fashion (bless her!) had overslept on her day off but, to her credit, hurried in a way that no other woman had ever hurried in the history of womanhood and shocked the living daylights out of me by crashing in the door at 9:15 AM, only 15 minutes late. When she did, we were finally ready to get cracking.. Or, well, that is to say, we were finally ready to get our morning coffee.. Because while a lot of good things can be said about my little friend, she’s just plain NOT a good morning person, so if you want the best of out her in the morning, you gotta know how to rub her the right way and not expect too much out of her before her morning coffee.. Which, thankfully, is one of the things you learn after almost seven years of friendship.
So we got some coffee into Tina and got her started on her main responsibility of the day, peeling vegetables. Now, despite tiredness, everything went pretty well on her part for a full two minutes..
After which her pretty white hoodie got sprayed a stray splattering of beet root juice.. Fast forward a few minutes over an interesting scene in which I’m meticulously inspecting the front and chest of my best friend while spraying down every little red dot with bleach while hoping that no one walks past the window because I’m really not sure how to finish a sentence that begins with “It’s really not what it looks like, I’m merely helping her inspect every inch and soak her white blouse..” – I swear to God, having female best friends gets you in the weirdest situations sometimes.. But I digress, the fact of the matter is that we got Tina out of her white hoodie and into my blue while hers went into the washer and she got back to work.. Now looking all cute like in my ridiculously oversized hoodie.
Which actually turned out pretty handy, we later found out as it served a nice double purpose when we couldn’t locate the oven mittens as we were trying to evacuate the potatoes from the oven
Speaking of potatoes au gratin, we sadly (queue sarcastic awws!) ran out of cream in the process of creating these, meaning that after a quick lunch of smoked salmon and extra virgin olive oil on bread, we had to dash to the store for another half liter of cream for the dessert.. Oh what a shame! While we did this, we had the potatoes cooking away in the oven and the sauce (which started with 3 liters of beef stock, a bottle of red wine and some shallots, thyme and bacon) reducing down to about a liter of concentrated goodness, so we had ample time for fighting through the crowd at the store and even saying hi to my mother who we just happened to run into on the way.
As we got back, we had another sip of beer as our cooking things together tradition dictates.
We then finished up some more steps towards the final result. We braised a whole bunch of root vegetables along with some red onions in a bit of red wine and thyme, then added honey and sherry vinegar for a bit of extra flavor. We also made a roux of plain flour, chicken infused butter and chicken fat skimmed off the chicken broth (essentially extracting as much flavor as we possibly could from the chickens that had laid down their lives to feed us this New Year’s)
into which we dumped about as much chicken stock as the roux would take, then added the cooled, roasted bits of chicken that I’d prepared earlier that morning along with some quality asparagus and a bit of cream. Creating a simple, yet still rather confusingly elaborate starter. As we got things finished one by one, we took advantage of the -7C temperatures outside and used my outside stairway as a blast chiller to get things cooled down before elaborately stacking them in the fridge, fighting hard to make room for every little box or pan..
After a long trip through the savory parts of the kitchen, we got started on dessert which was to be a white chocolate mousse with lemon and licorice and a topping of crushed pistachios balsamic vinegar reduction. Which turned into a lot of fun with nearly catastrophic results. That is to say, it all started out rather civilized and nicely, Tina melted the chocolate in a double boiler while I beat egg yolks with sugar and whipped some cream. We then carefully and meticulously mixed things together and set out to pour the mix into little individual muffin cups. This posed a little problem as we had a lot of mix and a lot of little cups, but no space left on the counter which sorta looked as if a bomb had gone off earlier the day. Tina applied her adorably simple mindset to the problem at hand and went “I know, we’ll just use the floor as a countertop!” – Falling instantly in love with the idea, I agreed, on the condition that we didn’t tell anyone before they’d eaten their dessert. So, sorry guys, but this is how it went down:
As for the nearly catastrophic result.. Well, before this whole discussion and before we both got cozy and giggly on the floor, fighting over portion size and what have you, I had instructed Tina to start the balsamic reduction on the stovetop, and well, it all went fine and well, until I sat down with her on the floor and started working and laughing away, forgetting everything about the reduction, which I didn’t remember until I started smelling caramelized sugar, at which point I jumped off, knocked the spoon and whisk into the pot of chocolate mousse mix and barely pulled the reduction off the heat before it reached a caramel-like state.. Whew! Damn women and their great ideas and distracting ways.
Now, the good news is that this was the only nearly disastrous result of the day and that it was actually the last bit of preparation of the day. Once the balsamic reduction syrup had cooled down and the rest of the muffin cups had been filled, the dessert joined the chicken, potatoes, root vegetables and other misenplace in the fridge and basically everything save the prime rib was now ready for the big day tomorrow.
We celebrated this success with another beer and a great movie, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” which was absolutely magnificent albeit a bit short. We then sent Tina off to join a belated Xmas party she had to tend to that night, leaving me to clear out the mess that had once been my kitchen and get the last few things packed and ready for the big day, December 31st, where the last few preparations as well as the serving of our efforts were to take place.
More to follow..