Sunday, February 18, 2007

Carnevale '07

I'm so glad it's Sunday. I am sorely in need of a day of rest and will not be getting out of my jammies. The glorious madness of non-stop parties is over, leaving me a happy little puddle of weariness.But enough about me. Let's talk about the Carnevale feast, shall we?

Ah, Carnevale! One of the most favorite of all our feasts, the time when no regard is given to calories, carbs, grams of fat or any of that other nonesense. Time to eat large, drink plenty and generally indulge; it's one last fling with the table before the fast of Lent begins.

The party began my signature apertif snacky thing of orange olives and champagne (or sparkly juice for those either under age or pregnant). Beads were donned.

The first course was a little wedge of paté with cornichon and crackers. One of these days I'll get around to trying my hand at my own country-style pate, lovingly cooked in the proper little paté terrine that Nicole gave me long ago. (I also used to make cornichon from itty bitty French cucumbers that I grew myself. Note to self: find some seed again this year because that was just plain fun).

We have the same salad each year for Carnevale, a very simple toss of chopped celery and shaved Parmesan in a lemon juice/olive oil dressing. It is a surprising combination of refreshing crunchiness. Ancient Romans would secure celery leaves around their heads as a preventative against hang-overs.

Then came the main course, which is always lamb, but this year involved the discovery of something called ras el-hanout, which is Moroccan for "superfantastic and gorgeously aromatic powder of heaven". There wasn't time this week to go to the souk in the Public Market, which would no doubt have had many variations on the theme so I had to make my own. Never having used the stuff before nor having any idea what it is supposed to taste like, some research was involved.

Ras el-hanout is like curry powder in that there are common ingredients to all the recipes but personal twists are given the concoction from region to region, cook to cook. Some of the recipes read like something you'd find in the notebook of a white witch and there wasn't time to search the city for many things unpronouncable. I finally struck on an accessible combination of cinnamon sticks, cloves, fenugreek and the seeds of mustard, coriander, cumin and fennel. One of the common ingredients to the mix, however, is rose petals. The co-op only had rosebuds for craft use and I didn't know if my Valentine roses were free of pesticides or whatever so I threw a pinch or so of rosehips into the mix.

All these lovely things were slowly warmed in a heavy pan until little seeds started popping and incense-like fragrance began wafting through the house. Then everything was whizzed through the spice grinder until reduced to a sneeze-inducing powder.

Instead of leg o', this year we did racks o' lamb. The Spouse rubbed the racks with the gorgeous ras el-hanout, then seared the lamb and tossed it in the oven to roast. The roasting pan was deglazed with shiraz and honey was added to the wine. I added a few tablespoons of rosewater to the honey, to help make up for the absence of roses in the spice rub. The sauce cooked down to a silky little pot of yum. I have a bit of a thing for a good sauce and this one is now on my list of "Top 10 Most Delicious Sauces Ever Eaten".

The lamb, which I can really only refer to now as My Favorite Lamb Dish of All Time, was accompanied by the following:

Bleu Cheese Potatoes (involving quantities of butter and cream plus some emmantaler that was lying around; because you can't have too much cheesey goodness).

Artichoke Heart Gratin, which was stupid simple. The original recipe called for cooking the artichokes in Italian dressing but that just seemed fussy. I used marinated artichokes to begin with. These were cooked by themselves for about 10 minutes, then mozzerella cheese was sprinkled over it all and baked some more, then the dish was sprinkled with french-fried onions and warmed for 1 more minute. It was, um, really yummy.

Green beans tossed with toasted hazelnuts (that ReeRee whacked into little bits for me) and lemon zest, olive oil, salt and pepper completed the plate.

Between dinner and dessert we have a pre-Lenten conversation wherein everyone shares his or her intentions for the coming fast. We draw names for our secret prayer buddy, who we will keep in our prayers during Lent. (In Holy Week we send out what The Child calls "love letters", revealing ourselves). After the sharing and a sung Our Father and the Sanctus (in Latin), it's time to get back to the table.

This year we had 2 desserts. The Neighbor, who came very very late because she was singing in a concert, procured for us a King Cake, baked fresh yesterday morning by a gentleman who is originally from New Orleans. It was very good, with lots of crunchy sugar on the top but as good as it was last night, it was even more spectacular this morning with coffee. King Cake, which actually has it's roots in Epiphany, has a little surprise baked into it and the person who gets the prize has the honor of procurring next year's cake. That would be Jerry.

But the essential tradition of this Carnevale feast is that dessert must be rich and decadent. This year's choice was tiramisu, from Dariush's recipe. Let's just call it what it really is, shall we? Coronary in a Trifle Bowl. But what a way to go.

Layers of ladyfingers soaked in coffee and marsala (because I was too lazy to get amaretto-and frankly, I think I liked it even better that way) between which lurked cups and cups of luscious filling (marscapone cheese combined with a whipped egg yolk/sugar thing combined with thick cream). For a little extra Carnevale glam, I also sprinkled grated chocolate between the filling and ladyfingers. Just before serving it got a nice sprinking of unsweeted cocoa. (I doubled the recipe, Dariush. It turned out really well. Thanks again). It was the best tiramisu I've ever and flavorful but with a good balance between all the elements, which is usually where tiramisu fails, imho.

And then there was the post-prandial indulgence of Scotch or a last glass of wine. The Neighbor arrived just as everyone else was preparing to take their sated selves away so she got to give out hugs and then The Spouse and I sat with her while she ate the plate of food we'd kept warm for her. And then we took our tired selves to bed and I didn't even care that there were still dishes to do. Someone will get around to them eventually.

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