Last Saturday, the 12th of September, I was asked to prepare the birthday dinner for a friend of mine, Alexander. The location was the same as the last times and only one of the guests was new to me. This time I felt the menu preparation a bit differently, probably for laziness I pushed it almost to the last minute. That did not feel right while cooking at all... Still having doubts about the interplay of the different dishes featured in the dinner can feel like a weight and impede you in the movements. Anyhow, I managed to deliver the dinner and the guests seemed pleased with the food, which is what counts.
As inspiration this time, I opted for going in Asia and be influenced by the Chinese culture. In my usual potpourri, I even added a Mexican and Italian touch to some dishes. Long story short, the menu read like this:
• Spicy pineapple salsa over whole-grain crackers;
• Warm salad of Shiitake mushrooms and endive with pink pepper over arugula and citrus fruit supremes;
• Chicken stir-fry Chinese style with roasted peppers spaghetti;
• Napoleon of honey mango and orange curd on liquorice pastry bottom and spicy cocoa crisps over a raspberry coulis.
The preparation started as usual by emptying my backpack from all the tools I brought with me, finally yet importantly my apron and baseball cap. While toasting to my friend with a glass of Champagne, I scanned the ingredients displayed over the counter realising that I had wrongly translated spring-onions with Schnittlauch. What’s the difference? Well, Schnittlauch are chives… Thankfully, there are a couple of markets closeby and a friend very kindly went down to fetch some spring onions. The prep started by soaking the Shiitake in warm water, roast the peppers, cut and marinate the chicken breasts and make the pastry dough.
Time to start putting together the appetizer.
The salsa was at the same time spicy (because of the green chilli and shallot in it) and refreshing (because of the pineapple, tomato and basil chiffonade). Its dressing was simply derived by the sieved gel enrobing the seeds and a bit of fish sauce. Worthless to say that it took quite some time to seed and dice the tomato, peel and cut the pineapple, brunoise the shallots and the chilli. The basil chiffonade was the fastest step. Once I was at it, I thought of decorating the bowl with a vegetable rose made with the tomato, the top of the chilli and the basil leaves; it was the first time I attempted such a decoration. The tomato peel came out a bit thick but it made the job. Once ready, I sent it to the table with some Wasa crackers.
Let’s start the real cooking!
I kept the Asian touch and the citrusy freshness in the salad served as appetizer by featuring in it orange and lemon supremes. The previously soaked mushrooms were quartered and sauté in oil, garlic, honey, and a bit of soy sauce. Brought at cooking with some of their soaking water (sieved), I added then to the pan the chopped endive just to wilt it a bit. To give a bit of extra crispiness I added to the warm vegetable mix, few thin and small square slices of celery root. The whole was then spooned over the arugula previously dressed with a bit of lemon juice and sprinkled with pink pepper seeds to finish the dish. The citrus supremes were arranged all around on the rim of the plate.
First warm plate gone, it was time to start taking care of the main course.
For it, I used a family recipe that my mother uses to do with roasted red peppers. It is very simple since in its basic form consists of dressing the pasta with the roasted peppers fillets, capers and some olive oil; once served, a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs is added on top. In my case, I was asked not to use capers so I opted for a few chopped black olives. The pasta was designed to compliment the stir-fried chicken. To make the latter, I marinated the chicken with soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and some cornstarch; cooked it in oil, where I had sweated the Chinese “trinity” (garlic, ginger and chilli), seasoning it with extra Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and a dollop of honey. Toward the end, I added a couple of spring onions chopped in 2inches long chunks and julienned citrus zests; for extra crunchiness, I stirred in a handful of toasted almonds.
Everything got quite hectic, I had forgotten to peel and fillet the peppers; thankfully, a friend of mine helped me with the olives. So, boil the water, toast the almonds and the breadcrumbs, chop the Chinese trinity, sweat it in the oil, add chicken etc etc. Gosh, the kitchen was a mess but I managed to make enough space for the plates.
Pffiu, the entrée is done.
OMG I had totally forgotten of the dessert! I only managed to make the crisps by now. So many other items to prepare, for my great fortune the guests were quite full from the aperitif so I had some time.
The dessert was the more European of the courses in inspiration. As mentioned, I wanted to attempt doing a Napoleon featuring honey-mango (typical of Pakistan), cayenne and bitter cocoa for the crisps of phillo-dough. In my plan, I wanted to glue together three layers of dough painted with cocoa and butter but they separated in the oven since I did not have anything at hand to weight them down while cooking.
This was actually a luck, since I do not seem to get the right phillo pastry and mine usually gets very cohesive and crisp so that one layer is more than enough for a crisp shard. The nice unexpected touch was that, thanks to the not high enough temperature in the oven, the sugar I had sprinkled on top of each layer did not caramelize leaving them nice and sparkling in the light; very pretty indeed.
So I had the bitter component, to balance the sweetness of the mango, I coupled it with some tart orange curd and a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.
To give my guests a little treat toward the end of the eating, I chose as bottom layer a disk of pastry dough dispersed with liquorice candy bits.
Here we go hectic again!
Clean, throw away, make space, juice the oranges and lemons, beat the egg yolks with sugar and cornstarch, warm the juice. All of a sudden, all went quiet…. My friend even came by checking on me, he thought I had fainted or so since no more sounds were coming to the dining room. No way, I was just whisking the curd. Gosh, it took a whole lot of time to thicken it. The worst part was trying to cool it down (it melted all the ice I had at my disposal). I wanted it to be quite stiff but naturally, I did not have enough time (one of the napoleons started sliding down immediately sigh…). So, while the curd was cooling down, I could prep the mangoes and whip the cream. Ahh I forgot, I had already backed the bottom layer of pastry dough.
To give an extra dimension of fruitiness and tartness to the dish, I decided to serve the Napoleon with a simple raspberry coulis that was cooking on the stove beside the curd.
Ok, let’s hope for the best and assemble the towering dessert.
First the disk of liquorice-pastry dough then some orange curd, one quarter of the mango fanned and a dollop of cream, a choco shard went on top and then again curd, mango, cream and shard. Few teaspoons of the (strained) raspberry coulis went around the base and some mint leaves decorated the dish.
Pfiu.. done! Time to clean up all that mess and sit down a bit.