Friday, November 18, 2005

Dinner Party Post-Mortem

Okay, take two.

The overall dinner party situation:
Myself, my boyfriend, two of my co-workers and respective significant other/spouse, a high-school friend of mine, a grade school friend of my boyfriend, two Siamese cats and not nearly enough chairs. The kitchen table smooshed up against my painting table, both of which had been dragged into the center of the living room, which had been emptied of whatever furniture I could push into the alcove. I dream of a dining room like some people dream of yachts. I’ve even picked out the paint and had prints framed for this non-existent dining room. I’m not kidding.

The menu:
Caraway and coriander-flavored vodkas (homemade)
Purchased pate and salmon spread, with crackers
Marinated mushrooms

Meatballs in pomegranate sauce

Green salad with mustard vinaigrette

2 roasted chickens rubbed with smoked paprika and caraway seeds
Sauerkraut/cabbage/prune dressing
Roasted potatoes
Red peppers paprikash
Cranberry-horseradish relish

Cheese/sour cherry strudel
Nuts, cheese, pomegranates

The planning:
Vodkas, mushrooms, relish made early in the week. Here’s a picture of the coriander vodka, doing its thing:

The meatballs were mixed and rolled but not cooked the day before. (And a good thing, too – the leftovers were good, but s little squishy.) The dressing was made the day before and just needed cooking off. The red peppers were made the day before and just required heating up. The potatoes were boiled the day before and roasted that day. The strudel was baked the afternoon of the party. The chicken was roasted just before dinner.

The results:
The big winners were the mushrooms, the meatballs and the strudel.

The chickens were good, but I think could have been a bit better. I brined the birds on Thursday, and I think the brining did help keep the flesh moist and flavorful. But I think some of the salt wasn’t properly dissolved, because the tips of the breasts, which were sitting at the bottom of the brining bowl, were too salty. They must have sat in a pool of salt. The rest of the meat was fine, so no worries, just need to make sure all the salt is dissolved next time.

After 24 hours in the salt brine, I rinse and towel-dried the birds, and then I did something I had never done before: I air-dried them. Just put them on a rack in the fridge for 36, bare naked. This was supposed to give a particularly crisp skin, and the skin was very good, but when it came time to rub the chickens with the spices, the spices wouldn’t stick to the dry skin. Which is perfectly logical and follows the basic rules of nature, but never occurred to me. Do people spice first? Or do they just do what I did and cheat with a little oil? At any rate, I got the spices on there: 1 teaspoon of smoked Spanish paprika from Penzey’s, 1 teaspoon of Hungarian sweet paprika, and 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds per bird. The spice coating didn’t look as uniform as it normally would on a moist-skinned chicken. But I was serving the birds carved, so that wasn’t much of an issue. I roasted at 425. I would love to roast at 475 or 500 like all the in-crowd cooks do these days, but that would require a better oven, an exhaust fan that worked, and/or a smoke alarm that didn’t go off even when the air is not smoky. 425 did the job. Overall, I would say that the meat was very good, but I would have liked a touch more heat in the spice rub. Maybe hot paprika instead of sweet.

The red peppers paprikash were solidly good and a nice color. This is an easy recipe that really doesn’t require a recipe – just cook some onions until translucent, add paprika, add red peppers in strips, cook a little more, then add some chicken stock and chopped tomato, maybe a little tomato paste, and cook until tender. Very nice.

The dressing is one that I love. People weren’t talking about it, but there wasn’t much left, so that’s good. Essentially, you cook shredded cabbage and onions in a bit of oil, add sauerkraut, chopped prunes, chopped apples, a bit of chicken stock, and you’re good. Bake in the bird or out.

Oh, I actually have a picture of the dressing cooking:

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I frankly forgot all about picture-taking in the fun and the talk and the wine. This is a general problem between me and the camera.

Okay, the roasted potatoes. I’ve never managed to get my potatoes the way I want them. One pan came out nice and dark on the bottom, but even though they cooked just as long after I turned them, they never browned the same way on the other side. The other pan never really browned properly at all. What am I doing wrong? The outsides were fairly crispy, the interiors were nice, and the flavor was good (I used beef fat), but why can’t I get them to brown? Do I need that exhaust fan?

Finally, the strudel, which I really liked. What’s not to like? Essentially, we’re talking about a cheesecake wrapped in phyllo. Plus sour cherries that I had soaked in Amaretto. (Amaretto also found its way into my after-dinner coffee.)

I think only one or two people actually ate the cranberry relish. It was okay, but just got lost on the table. I suppose I could use the leftovers at Thanksgiving, except that I’m pretty sure no one in my family would eat horseradish.

Oh, and no one ate the afterdinner nuts or pomegranate or cheese or candied ginger. I guess there are people out there who actually stop eating when they get full, which seems mighty strange to me.

Fortunately, the nuts came in handy for tomfoolery.

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mzn said...

This all sounds very delicious and impressive. I don't think I have answers to your questions, but I'll speculate.

I don't think it's necessary to get your oven hotter than 425 to brown potatoes. Could it be the pan? I have an old hand-me-down cookie sheet that's nicely seasoned and black around the edges but clean and shiny in the center and potatoes brown much better on the black parts.

As for the birds, I always rub spices into chicken skin in combination with olive oil. The oil functions to heat the bird up faster as well as making the spices adhere. Since oil isn't "wet" it doesn't keep the skin from browning and becoming crisp. But I'm temped to try the dry skin method and leave the spices off. One of these days.

Can I get another word or two about the meatballs?

smokey said...

Hmmm, potatoes. Are you stirring them too much? I think they only want to be tossed once or twice. Otherwise, I don't think they crispen.

sour cherry/farmer's cheese strudel sounds wonderful! Thanks for posting on it.

Walter Jeffries said...

My, but you appear to have lost a bit of weight... Was the party that stressful?!? Down to skin and bones...