Monday, June 25, 2007

Summer Solstice Feast 07

The first day of summer is June 21 but the season begins for us officially when we gather the usual suspects for our Summer Solstice feast (always held as close to the 21st as possible).

Summer bounty is not yet at its peak in June but the menu always revolves around a light entree (it's been chicken 7 out of 10 times) and simple preparations that allow the ingredients to shine. ChouChou and John are in charge of the dinner wine, The Boys always provide the "pudding" and we do the rest.

This year we began with a classic aperitif of olives and salted peanuts, accompanied by what I called a Clafoutis Cocktail. I used the reserved juice from the clafoutis I'd made the night before and mixed a tablespoon of juice in a glass of champagne. It was a brilliant garnet color and very delicious.

Then we sat down to the amuse bouche, wild mushroom dumplings in a gorgeous tomato sauce.

Won Ton and Wild Mushroom Amuse Bouche
12 won ton wrappers
1/2 c. dried wild mushrooms, rehydrated
2 T. butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. dry Vermouth
1 T. fresh thyme leaves
1 shallot, finely chopped
½ c. heavy cream
3 t. tomato paste
fresh thyme sprigs for garnish

Rehydrate the mushrooms in a bowl of warm water. When mushrooms have plumped up, remove and gently squeeze out the excess water. Reserve the "mushroom juice" and rough chop the mushrooms.

In a skillet over medium high heat, sauté the mushrooms and 3 garlic cloves in 1 T. butter; add 1 T. of the Vermouth and continue cooking until all the liquid is absorbed. Add the thyme and 1 T. or so of the mushroom juice and gently cook until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat.

Place approximately 1 t. mushroom mixture in the center of each won ton. With your finger, moisten edges of wonton wrapper and gather together to form a purse. Seal the edges.

To make the sauce, melt remaining 1 T. butter in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallot and 1 garlic clove and sauté until translucent. Add the Vermouth, whipping cream and tomato paste. Continue cooking until cream coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

Just before serving, bring a large pan of water to the boil and pop wonton purses into rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and drain won tons. Place a dollop of sauce on serving plate, put a single wonton on plate, garnish with sprigs of fresh thyme and serve.

Because the meal in general was going to be very light, I actually served 2 won tons per person.

I love using wonton wrappers because they aren't fussy things like, say, phyllo dough. They are already a manageable size, you don't have to keep them covered while you're trying to work with them, they seal easily and they are super inexpensive. Plus, they keep forever in the freezer. Love. Them.

It also doesn't take a lick of culinary skill to make the cute little purses. See?

Put the filling on the wrappers.

Seal the edges with a little water.

Pull the edges together, first into a triangle

and then bring up the outside corners and press together.

You can make these ahead and keep them covered with plastic wrap until you're ready to cook.

This is what the plate looked like. Don't worry, I wiped off the sauce splashes. The sauce was so delicious that everyone spooned it up when the wontons were gone. You could easily increase the amounts to make a superfantastic sauce for pasta.

Then we had my signature salad, because as often as I've made it, it had never been served to this particular bunch of guests. The recipe varies a little, sometimes I make it with spinach, sometimes I add bleu cheese. But this time it was just romaine, mandarin oranges and candied pecans.

Lorraine's Signature Salad
1 head romaine lettuce, cut into strips (or use a bunch of spinach)
1 tin mandarin oranges, drained and juice reserved
1 c. pecan halves
2 T. butter
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. crumbled bleu cheese (optional)

Prepare the pecans. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat and saute the pecans for a moment or two. Add in the brown sugar and stir until it combines with the butter to form caramel. Stir constantly, taking care not to let the sauce brown and until pecans are well coated. Pour out on a piece of parchment paper and allow to cool.

Make the dressing:
1/3 c. reserved juice from mandarins
2 T. rice wine vinegar (or to taste)
approx. 1/3 c. mandarin orange olive oil (or regular olive oil)
1 t. Dijon mustard

Whisk together the juice, vinegar and mustard. Taste and adjust with a little more vinegar or mustard if needed. Whisk in the olive oil until it emulsifies.

To make the salad toss the greens, oranges and cheese (if using). Toss with some of the dressing. Add pecans and toss again.

The Spouse was in charge of the entree, which was Chicken Piccata. I'll try to snag the recipe from him later. Suffice to say that it was perfect. He put the lemon in its place, it wasn't tart but just offered up all its sunny essence. This was accompanied by a summer squash gratin and a fun twist on a caprese salad. Instead of slabs of tomato and mozzarella, I diced the tomatoes, cut the basil into a chiffonade and tossed them with little pearl sized mozzarella balls in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. I served it in egg cups so the dressing wouldn't interfere with the piccata sauce. It was a cute presentation and everyone was absolutely delighted by the tiny balls of mozzarella.

The original squash recipe called for a pound of zucchini and was made in a large gratin dish. I made a smaller amount and served it in individual gratin dishes.

Summer Squash Gratin
2 T. olive oil
1 medium zucchini
1 medium yellow summer squash
1/2 c. pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 c. whipping cream
salt & pepper to taste
1/4 c. freshly grated Gruyere cheese

Preheat the broiler.

Trim the ends of the squashes, cut into round slices and then quarter the rounds, to make largish chunks.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add garlic, squash and pine nuts. Cook for about 5 minutes until squash begins to brown. Lower heat, cover dish and cook until soft, about 10 minutes.

Divide the squash among gratin dishes. Drizzle each with cream. Sprinkle to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle cheese over the squash. Place under the broiler until the cheese melts and turns golden and the cream is bubbly, about 3 minutes.

We drank chardonnay with the amuse bouche (3 Buck Chuck...why not?) and with dinner we had a nice Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon (2004) and a delightful Bordeaux style "claret" from Robert Karl, a 2004 from the Columbia Valley.

The Boys provided a delicious tart for the pudding course, made with chocolate, orange and pine nuts. It was beautiful to look at and a sheer blessing to eat. They brought along some 2005 Essensia, an orange muscat, which was of course, a perfect complement.
The meal was spectacular but one of the best moments for me was when The Spouse and I were in the kitchen, him finishing up the chicken and me broiling the gratin and helping with the plating. Very happy conversation was floating in from the dining room, The Child and guests engaging in comfortable, flowing talk. It was so lovely, as the hostess, to be away from the table and know that we weren't required to keep things going. But then, I shouldn't have been surprised. We realized mid-way through dinner that this is the 10th Solstice Feast we've celebrated together. I suppose people know each other pretty well by now.

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