Monday, January 23, 2006

Great Chow and 2 Chihuahuas


My friend, Sheri, is about as crazy as I am when it comes to planning ambitious menus. It was my pleasure on Saturday night to be the guest (along with our friend, Doug) and occasional sous chef (oyster shucking, chocolate shaving, champage pouring) as Sheri and her friend Linda did all the heavy lifting. When I walked in the door, I knew these guys had already been working for hours in the kichen. Been there. Done that. What had they been doing? Rolling out homemade gnocchi, icing up the espresso granita, preparing the topping for the baked oysters. These things take time. And unless you want to serve dinner at midnight, they must be done ahead of time. Sheri's 2 chihuahuas, Mia and Guappy and Linda's border collie, Connor, were at their feet to catch the occasional crumbs that made it to the kitchen floor.

The sign of an excellent host is when they offer you a beverage first thing and, of course, Sheri never disappoints. Linda poured me a glass of wine which I sipped between death defying oyster shucking acts. By the way, I don't care what anyone says. Those expensive oyster shucking knives and metal gloves suck. Go with an inexpensive OXO Good Grips knife (about $7.00 on Amazon) and grab the thickest pot holder you can find - use that to battle off potential knife slips. And then, just jimmy that knife into the corner until you pop that sucker open. There's no easy way. It just takes some muscle to open oysters (no pun intended).

The ladies truly went out. Here is the menu they served:
Baked oysters with bacon and leeks appetizer
• Shrimp with champagne beurre blanc sauce
Arugula salad with ricotta salada and fennel
• Homemade Gnocchi with pancetta and chicken livers
Espresso granita with sambuca whipped cream and shaved chocolate

The oyster appetizer was a-ma-zing. Sheri actually got the recipe from me which I of course stole from Bon Appetit (and is available on Epicurious.com). The topping can be made a day ahead of time and the oysters prepped a few hours ahead which makes it easier to tend to your other courses (or just to clean up the kitchen a bit before guests arrive). Sheri prepared this a little differently than I did which enabled diners to have 3 oysters at once instead of my measley one (I put them in the oyster shells). She put 3 oysters each in a ramekin, layered over the leek mixture then topped them with bread crumbs. I can't say one preparation is better than the other. Both equally heavenly.

The shrimp with champange beurre blanc sauce was something I probably wouldn't attempt. Using champagne to marinate shrimp? I think it's too precious to not just drink it. But power to you, Sheri. It was lovely.

I had never had ricotta salada until tonight. Didn't even know what it was actually. Ricotta salada is ricotta cheese that is more of a feta cheese consistency, much harder than the traditional cheese I know of which is usually in lasagne and stuff like that. It was excellent in the salad, a course that I can honestly say is one of my weakest. The fennel added a nice added texture and flavor. I'm often weary of using fennel because I think the anise/licorice flavor it gives off will be too strong but Sheri has just changed my view on this. It's not strong at all. Just a nice punch.

The gnocchi was LOVELY. I've been lucky enough to have eaten two great versions of gnocchi in the past couple of weeks (other was at Rendezvous) especially since gnocchi can often come out gummy or too dense or just blah. These came out perfectly. And the pancetta and chicken liver sauce was wonderful, very woodsy and hearty. Sheri felt she would have liked to cook with the chicken liver and then taken it out of the pan before serving but I think it was perfect the way it was. The pieces of liver were small enough so you weren't freaked out by the consistency.

Believe it or not, there was dessert still on the way. And THIS recipe was a keeper. Espresso granita with sambuca whipped cream and chocolate. Light, flavorful, perfect ending to a multi-course meal. The sambuca in the whipped cream was an added treat that I just loved. I will get the recipe from Sheri for this and post it for you all. She said it's easy so we should all be able to make it ourselves and enjoy it.

I realize all the work that goes into pulling off a 5-course meal. And to do it as well as Sheri did takes more than sheer will and mise-en-place prowess. It takes talent, the love of cooking and the entertaining, and the ability to stay awake when you've been away working long hours in scenic Detroit all week. Much appreciated, Sheri!!

After dinner, we retired to the living room where Doug proceeded to CRUSH us in "Scene It," a DVD/board game about movies. Doug is the idiot savant (sorry doug but it's true) of the film industry. NOTE to the Museum of Television and Radio: "HIRE this man!"

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