Luxury menu challenge: a Festive Fiesta Fiest
'Back in the day' I took a few modeling classes. I don't remember much (though a video clip of this retired basketball player learning to walk the catwalk in 4 inch heels WOULD be great fodder for U-tube). Oddly, the one thing I do remember is the insistence that every piece of flare makes a statement. You don't just throw something on to 'match' or fill-in your ensemble. You make a statement with each accessory.
Luxurious, not-your-every-day food, calls for something special: for each little touch to count, for each piece of 'food flare' to make a statement. It reminds me of one of my fave 'Chefs' from culinary school; he regularly scoffed at the notion of inedible garnishes... what is the point? Garnishes aren't just about pretty, they round out a dish, add the flare, insert layers of food that make everything else pop.... so we never just tossed on a sprig of parsley. Who would eat that? A useless piece of flare? Instead we would finely chop parsley for all of its color and elevate-the-dish flavor. We wouldn't just serve tortilla soup: we would julienne tortillas then quickly deep-fry them for a fancy tortilla-strip garnish. Toast some pepitas, add a red pepper coulis or basil infused oil...
A luxurious menu to me means you go above and beyond---pull out all the stops---putting thought into each component, per entree and as an entire menu. You don't just serve roasted potatoes: you serve potato fennel gratin. You don't just toss some bread on the table with oil; instead you take time to add a dip or make a roasted garlic and white bean spread to accompany this otherwise 'daily bread.'
Foodbuzz is putting on a challenge; I have made it to the third round. It has been a fantastic exercise to meet these challenges---each one forcing me to grow, learn and master even more in my kitchen. This challenge was to create a Luxury Menu for guests. You can vote for me, find out more and check out other participants at Foodbuzz.
Luxury to me isn't just straight dollars; its attention to detail, having options (a selection of cheeses for you madame?) and experiencing something both high quality and novel. If I have been in a limousine hundreds of times---it doesn't feel like a luxury. But consuming your favorite Aunt's made-from-scratch pecan pie with just whipped cinnamon ice cream? THAT is special.
Luxury for me---as the chef---is threefold: 1. knowing I am about to spoil---and surprise---the taste buds of my guests, 2. being so well planned, so well prepared that most of my food is already finished---my kitchen cleaned---and I get to kick back and enjoy the conversation, and 3. cooking what I love: inserting a few proven favorites and trying all sorts of new foods/recipes. For this challenge I decided to cook a Mexican inspired menu (thanks to how much we loved my Ancho-Seared Swordfish), from soup to nuts. (well, actually SALAD not soup and no nuts since one of the guests was allergic... I digress). More like 'from chorizo poppers to pepper-laced chocolate cake.'
Proven faves included: chorizo empanadillas, chocolate cake, guacamole. mojitoes and Italian sodas. Everything else was new!
For this meal I didn't cut corners: I made salsas and guacamole from scratch, roasted peppers for the rice and verde sauces, made specialty cocktails for kids and adults alike (top shelf margaritas, mojitos with homemade mint simply syrup, kids' mint-or-orange Italian sodas), and offered a selection of sides (jicima salad, drunken beans...) and entrees. As always, when forging through a new pile of recipes or specialty cuisine, I discovered a thing or two along the way. Which... I love to talk about. In hopes that while you were not able to drink cocktails and party fiesta-style WITH me... you could at least gain good recipes and some extra kitchen savvy:
- This is an inadvertent plug for the book Mod Mex---this book has been a good introduction to the tastes and traditions of Mexican food. Actually, Mod Mex has been living on my shelf far too long; finally it has a chipolte smell, pepper smears and salsa drippings on certain pages. Add in requisite dog-eared pages and novel [to me] ingredients... perhaps the best part of this whole challenge was finding a new hole-in-the wall Mexican grocers (SOOOoooo happy!).
- My kids love it when I make simple syrup; and when guests visit and I have made a special drink---Italian sodas---for the kids? Who doesn't feel special? Its easy: 1 cup sugar and 1 1/2 cups water, bring to simmer to dissolve sugar. Then off heat and toss in 'the flavoring' to steep while it cools. Flavorings: a vanilla bean cut and seeds scraped and tossed in, fresh sprigs of mint, slices of raw ginger, orange or lemon peelings (no pith), cinnamon sticks...
- Simple syrup is fantastic for kid's sodas and adult cocktails; I made mint simple syrup for the mojitos. MOJITOS: mint simple syrup, light rum (I like Cruzan), fresh squeezed lime, club soda.
- The pico de gallo was SO easy to make and guests raved... makes me think I might not be so quick to buy salsa again. I am finding time and again: homemade and 'from scratch' is simply better. That recipe in another post or two.
- Jicima Slaw: new vegetable, and in the dressing a bit of honey. Fun fact: the honey in this dressing was SO LOCAL it was from my neighbor. A few houses down, we have a bee-keeper on our block (in urban Seattle!). Each family on the block is allowed to buy 2 humble jars. This very special honey made a small appearance in this jicima slaw.
- Just make my guacamole; its just TOO good, I would insert it right into this post... but since I cannot. Promise you will make it? RECIPE HERE.
- Green rice, good but will try a different rice the next time. The Drunken Beans were fantastic and quite easy to make. Recipe in next post or two.
- THE RIBS ROCKED. Falling off the bone. I actually made chicken enchiladas AND Chipolte BBQ ribs for the entrees; the enchiladas were inhaled and the pork ribs barely touched their plates... the pork ribs are on the fast track to 'family favorite' (aka default dinner). Rib recipe in next post or two.
- The Chorizo empanadillas: hit, hit, hit. Make these ahead of time, literally TWO ingredients and everybody loves them. Perfect for Mexican meals, along hearty fall soups, for game day. I used uncooked chorizo, so I first sauteed it then used it to fill puff pastry pockets. I didn't make enough...
- Mexican chocolate cake. Actually, I had other, bigger plans for dessert but ran out of time. So I subbed in this easy-to-make-from-scratch little winner. Always at the ready: this cake dresses for any occasion.