Monday, October 18, 2004

We had a dinner party Saturday- smoked trout mousse with water crackers; butternut squash soup with chipotle and garlic; and then fall-apart lamb shanks with chocolate almond picada, spinach braised in stock, and rolls; and finally a lemon-pie-cake-tart thing.

The smoked trout mousse (smoked trout, shallot, cream cheese, lime juice, horseradish, and creme fraiche, all food processed up) was super easy and delicious. The only complaint I would make is that Whole Foods is the only nearby store that carries smoked trout. How can Ralphs carry 57 varieties of smoked salmon, yet no smoked trout?

The soup (from A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen) was also incredible (and spicy!) and incredibly easy, except for the cutting up and peeling of the butternut squash. However, if you've got a big knife and a good vegetable peeler (ah, Oxo!) that part isn't too bad. The whole wheat croutons dusted with sweet paprika and brown sugar were a great touch. I made the soup and croutons in advance, refrigerated the soup, and poured it right back into the dutch oven just before we expected our guests. As soon as they arrived, I just turned on the heat.

The lamb shanks- well, first I had to go to Jons, a supermarket I have never set foot in before, to find lamb shanks. And y'all? Jons has lamb shanks, lamb hearts, lamb kidneys... every part of the lamb. Up next to every part of the pig and every part of the cow. They also have an actual butcher counter, unlike Ralphs. The butcher and I had quite the discussion about the lamb shanks. And also? The produce at Jons? Is pretty much free, it's so cheap. (Now, of course, I am going to continue to buy the majority of my produce at the Farmer's Market. But if it's the middle of the week and I need an onion- I'm going to Jons.) Apparently, though, this only applies at the Fountain/LaBrea Jons. Other Jons stores also have nearly free produce, but the produce is also in very poor condition.

The lamb shanks were also, by far, the biggest pain, as far as the meal is concerned. A LOT of wine reduction went into that recipe. It was a never ending ordeal. First you reduce the wine. Then you add a whole ton of vegetables. Then you marinate the shanks overnight- and I had to marinate them in three separate bowls, having no bowl large enough to fit them all. Then! You brown the lamb shanks. And strain the wine, and brown the vegetables. Then you scrape up all the vegetable/lamb fond with some water, reduce, and then some more water. Somehow you fit all the lamb and vegetables and the water in your crockpot and then, oh yeah, you simmer the wine some more and add that.

Then you do nothing for five hours. Then you take out the lamb shanks, strain out the cooking juices, and reduce them some more. You make a picada with cocoa and almonds and garlic and toast and then you add that into the juices. And maybe reduce it some more.

But then, you just put the shanks on a (rimmed) baking sheet and spread the sauce over them and bake them at 250 for 30 minutes. I did this an hour before hand and didn't turn the oven on until the guests arrived, but I bet you can also bake them for more than 30 minutes. Regardless, in this respect, they fit in well with my plan for the evening, which was to have everything prepared and ready to go in advance. (The most work I did once the guests arrived was to put the rolls into the oven- everything else was already in place and just took heating.) And they came out really, really well. I thought they were not tender enough and had to get a steak knife, as did my husband, but no one else wanted a steak knife. At the time I thought maybe ours came out less tender due to their crockpot position (usually when cooking ribs or things in the crockpot, I rearrange them periodically, but the lamb was so jampacked in there I feared getting it all back in if I tried). Then I realized all of our guests were using our new flatware and Jeff and I had my old Martha Stewart Everyday flatware- the problem wasn't the lamb, but our incredibly dull old knives.

The spinach also worked nicely in that respect- just make it early, add a little more stock, and I turned the heat on under it when we sat down for the soup.

The lemon tart was from a recent NYT magazine article. It was a very sweet, crumbly pie crust (which I think could have used some more butter), an almond cakey frangipani thing, and a glazed lemon confit on top. Y'all, I wasn't about to go buy a $16 vanilla bean, so I used TJ's vanilla bean paste for the confit, and I wonder if that was the problem. Because the confit was so, so, so bitter. Being resourceful, I added some salt and that made it much less bitter, but I was worried it would be inedible. Fortunately, the crust and frangipani saved the tart, but I don't think I'll make it again (though I gladly had the next slice for breakfast the next day).

And everyone ate it, and everyone enjoyed the meal, and we had a really good time. I think, too, with the tart I learned one of the most basic rules of entertaining- even if it isn't perfect, even if it isn't good (and the tart, to be fair, was good- but I have served some appallingly poor desserts in my day)- your guests will just love that it is. That you took the time to do something. That you wanted to open up your home and your dining room to them.