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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In Praise of Excellent Dinner Guests

So, after going on here about not using the oven very often in the summer…a couple of deliciously cool days swept into the city and inspired me to fire up my Hummer of a range for a small dinner with two dear friends, Michael and Didier.

Planning a dinner menu for these two is a delight and it got me to thinking about how there’s an extra joy in cooking for a certain type of dinner guest. It’s been said before, but bears repeating. Cooking for people is giving a gift. No doubt about it, to put together a multi-course meal is no small endeavor, but when the friends you’ve invited are charming, great conversationalists and exuberant gourmands all the preparation becomes worth it. The gift they bring us is a genuine sense of appreciation and joyfulness in getting together to share a meal.

Now, about the menu! First, there would be zucchini – a batch of handsome, compact summer squash had arrived as part of our weekly CSA box. Vichysoisse was also on my mind since I’m a fan of cold soups, and a perfect marriage of the two caught my eye as I leafed through a pile of cookbooks last week. Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris had a tempting recipe for Zucchini Vichysoisse. (I’m a sucker for a gorgeous photograph.)

At the fish market that morning, I’d boldly bypassed the halibut fillets, and the fancy King Salmon in favor of two gorgeous red snappers. Yes, everyone. Whole Fish. Yikes! Roasting whole fish has always been on my list of “things to do” yet, I find the idea intimidating for some reason. Yet the snapper was speaking to me, so I figured why not give it a try? (That’s the other beautiful thing about Excellent Dinner Guests. They are enthusiastic and supportive when presented with culinary experiments, which goes a long way in bolstering a cook’s confidence.)

For dessert on this, as it turned out, Bastille Day I decided on a tried-and-true favorite: a fruit galette. It’s one of many stellar recipes in Baking with Julia. This time of year you can’t go wrong with most fruit and I get giddy when contemplating the possibilities. The farmers market tables were laden with pints of ripe, fragrant raspberries and juicy blueberries. Perfect.

Sigh. I love when a menu falls together and has a kind of harmony.

The results? The soup was as tasty as it was refined. Ladled into chilled white soup bowls garnished with snipped chives, it was stunning. A sophisticated, elegant light green color with flecks of vegetables, perfumed by leeks… this was exactly what I wanted to eat on a summer evening. And, did I say it was a snap to make? I kept asking myself, “why don’t I make cold soup more often?”

The fish was quite dramatic. That afternoon I frantically flipped through cookbooks, and surfed Epicurious and Food Network, trying to figure out how to cook the fish. Wish I had seen Bea’s post on whole fish! The snapper was so beautiful, I wanted to do it justice. Ended up pulling different elements from an Epicurious recipe and The Zuni Café Cookbook. I roasted it in a super-hot oven, on a bed of Vidalia onions with handfuls of yellow and red grape tomatoes, all tossed with olive oil and chopped parsley. It was moist and bursting with flavor, and the veg turned into a languid, meltingly flavorful confit. I’d say it definitely had a Provencal quality.

And the galette? Well, not a single crumb was left when the four of us were finished with it. The crust is a cinch in the food processor – and actually makes enough for two galettes. I’ve saved the second bit to use in a savory version…maybe topped with some tomatoes and cheese.

A lovely dinner, if I do say so myself. Toasts were made, conversation sparkled and everyone was effusive about the food. (My tail wagged.) Cheers to excellent dinner guests!

Zucchini Vichysoisse
adapted from Barefoot in Paris
Note: I tweaked the quantities a tiny bit because I wanted the soup a little less thick.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts (wash them well!!)
4 cups chopped red boiling potatoes
3 cups chopped zucchini
1 3/4 quarts chicken broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream
snipped fresh chives for garnish

Heat butter and oil in a large stockpot, add the leeks, and saute over medium-low for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, zucchini, chicken stock, salt and pepper; bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Cool the liquid for 15 minutes or more before processing in a blender. (A food mill can also be used, but I don't have one.)
Add cream and season to taste. (This is SO important with cold soups!) Refrigerate for at least two hours.
Garnish with chopped chives, or zested ribbons of zucchini.

Roasted Whole Snapper
inspired by The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
for 2 servings

2 cups sliced Vidalia (or other super sweet variety) onions
About 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 whole red snapper (or, sea bream or black sea bass, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds
1 1/2 cups (or couple handfuls) of red and yellow grape or cherry tomatoes (if larger, sliced in half)
About 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 lemon, sliced
1 clove of garlic, sliced thinly
several branches of fresh thyme

Several hours in advance, season the onions and the fish:

Combine the onions with a few pinches of salt, enough olive oil to coat, and most of the parsley. Knead and toss until the onions begin to soften. Set aside at room termperature to continue softening.
(Attention: this mixture will make your mouth water, it is SO zesty and fragrant!!)

Rinse the fish under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. If your fish guy has not already done so, make several parallel slashes on the thickest section of each side of the fish -- about halfway down to the bone. Sprinkle some kosher salt in the cavity and all over the outside of the fish, making sure to rub some salt in the slashes. Stuff the cavity with some lemon slices, the garlic and bunches of fresh thyme. Cover loosely and refrigerate until needed.

Cooking the fish:

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, or as close as your oven can get.

Spreak the onion mixture in the gratin dish or ovenproof skillet you will use to roast the fish. Scatter the tomatoes over the onion mixture, reserving some to put on the fish.

Rub the fish thoroughly with a few spoonfuls of the olive oil and nestle it in the onions. Arrange some of the tomatoes on top of the fish, pressing them so they stick and release some juice. Season lightly with salt, and drizzle with more olive oil.

Place in the center of the oven and roast until just cooked through. Should take about 20 minutes, but this all depends on your oven, and your roasting pan, so keep an eye on it. The edges of the tomatoes and tips of the onions should brown.

While the fish is cooking, stire together about 1/4 cup olive oil, with the vinegar and the rest of the parsley. Salt to taste.

I served the fish on a platter, surrounded by the lovely roasted onion-tomato mixture. It was a little messy trying to slide a knife down along the bone, but I just did what I've seen waiters do so many times and the top fillet lifted up. Then I removed the exposed central bone out and served the two fillets below.

Spoon some onion mixture with each serving and top with spoonful of remaining vinaigrette.

Berry Galette
from Baking with Julia
serves four

The Dough:
3 tablespoons sour cream (or yogurt or buttermilk)
1/3 cup ice water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

To make the dough in a food processor, stire the sourc cream and 1/3 cup ice water together in a small bowl; set aside.
Put the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in the processor work bowl, fitted with the metal blade; pulse to combine. Drop the butter pieces into the bowl and pulse 8 to 10 times, or until the mixture is speckled with pieces of butter that vary in size from bread crumbs to peas. With the machine running, add the sour cream mixture and process just until the dough forms soft, moist curds.

Chill the Dough:
Remove the dough from the processor, divide it in half, and press each hafl into a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours.
(Storing: The dough can be kept in the refrigerator for a day or two, or it can be wrapped airtight and forzen for a month. Thaw, still wrapped, in the refrigerator. It is convenient to roll the dough into rounds, place parchment between each round, and freeze them wrappped in plastic; this way, you'll need only about 20 minutes to defrost a round of dough at room temperature before it can be filled, folded into a galette and baked.)

The Filling:
1 1/2 cups mixed fresh berries
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter

Position a rack in the lower thrid of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll it into an 11-inch circle that's about 1/8 inch thick. Since the dough is soft, you'll need to lift it now and then and toss some more flour under it and over the top. Roll up the dough around your rolling pin and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Spread the berries over the dough, leavin a 2- to 3-inch border. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar over the fruit and drizzle with honey. Cut the butter into slivers and scatter it on top of th fruit. Fold the uncovered border of dough up over the filling, allowing the dough to pleat as you lift it up and work your way around the galette. Becasue you're folding a wide edge of dough onto a smaller part of the circle, it will pleat naturally--just go with it.) Dip a pastry brush in water, give the edge of the crust a liht coating, and then sprinkle the crust with the remaining teaspoon of sugar.

Baking the Galette
Bake the galette for 35-40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and crisp. Transfer baking sheet to a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Remove galette to cooling rack and serve warm or at room temperature, cuttin gthe tart with a pizza wheel or sharp knife.

Best eaten the day it is made.

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