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An Elegant and Easy Winter Dinner

All dishes 3 - 5 ingredients, exclusive of salt and pepper


By Luci


Appetizers

Prince La Fontaine Triple Cream and Grand Noir Cheeses

Mushroom and Bacon Pâté in Phyllo Cups

Pear with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

Soup

Tomato/Tarragon


Main

Cornish Game Hens

Grand Marnier Sauce

Roasted Cauliflower

Wild Rice with Dried Fuji Apples and Walnuts


Salad

Arugula, Pear and Cranberries, Pear Balsamic Vinaigrette


Desserts

Dorie Greenspan’s Plain and Simple Almond Cake

Dried Apricot and Candied Ginger in Amaretto Whipped Cream


December is party month. And hectic month. When it’s your turn to entertain, you will want to do a great job but avoid exhaustion. If it’s a dinner party, here’s your answer.


An elegant dinner is visually beautiful with dishes of sophisticated and delicious taste. Color is key to visual charm. Especially in winter with its bare trees and gray skies, we delight in the bright - red and green, blue and gold, colors that enhance each other - and sparkle, glitter and glitz! The table is set with a captivating centerpiece. The dishes served are colorful with fetching forms.


For sophisticated and delicious taste, the key is the uncommon. For the most part, use ingredients that are at least somewhat unusual or common ingredients used in uncommon ways. For example, one appetizer is a round piece of pear, crowned with an exquisite (and, yes, expensive) drop or two of aged balsamic vinegar, and speared with an unusually pretty pick. The soup is tomato, transformed with a not so common herb, tarragon. The main course features Cornish game hen, very fancy but infrequently gracing our dinner tables. The sides, salad and desserts follow the same rules.


Easy means few ingredients and simple preparation. Enough said!


APPETIZERS

Cheese

Nothing beats elegant and easy like a fine cheese served with a crispy crusted baguette. For a dinner party, serve two cheeses differing in taste and appearance. One of my favorites is Humboldt Fog, an American goat’s milk cheese with a line of ash that cuts through the cheese. It’s beautiful. However, the cheese expert at Pastosa on Forest Ave. suggested I try a new one, Prince La Fontaine, a cow’s milk triple cream. The name is certainly elegant and triple cream spells opulence. Sold! Wonderfully creamy, definitely delicious! For the second cheese, I chose Grand Noir, a German blue cheese that is wonderful with honey. Present the cheeses along with some grapes or other fruit.


Mushroom and Bacon Pâté in Phyllo Cups

Earthy mushrooms are a must for a winter dinner and a mushroom pâté is the perfect appetizer. Choose several varieties for rich flavor. Here, I used chanterelles, baby Bellas and shiitake.


Preparation. Sauté chopped mushrooms with bacon and shallots, add white wine, sour cream and s&p to taste for a superbly tasty pâté. For that elegant touch, place a generous tablespoon of the mushroom mixture into crispy phyllo cups.

Do ahead. Prepare 1-2 days in advance, freezable.


Pear with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar















So simple! So elegant! A bite-size orb of lush pear enhanced with a drop or two of an aged balsamic vinegar. It is important that the vinegar be an excellent one. Traditional balsamic vinegar is made only in Reggio Emilia and Modena, in Italy, recognized by the wax seal on the bottle. Its preparation is quite complex and the vinegar may be aged for 12 years. That said, of course it will be expensive but its superb taste makes it absolutely worthwhile. Dispense it with an eye dropper: one or two drops on ripe pear (as here) or on a chunk of Parmigianno Reggiano for an appetizer, one or two drops on desserts of vanilla ice cream, panna cotta, strawberries or other fruit.


Preparation. Peel ripe Bosc pears. With a melon baller, scoop out balls of pear. Top with a drop or two of traditional balsamic vinegar. Allow three balls for each guest.

Do ahead. Several hours ahead, you may scoop out the balls, place in a plastic bag and refrigerate until ready to serve.


SOUP

Tomato/Tarragon

Tomato soups are always welcome in winter. They have a fresh taste and are light yet have a dense mouth feel along with comforting warmth. The red color and contrasting green garnish are the perfect colors for the season. The licorice taste of tarragon makes a congenial companion for that of tomatoes, providing a welcome distinctiveness compared to the usual basil in a tomato soup. Fire-roasted tomatoes also provide a bit of difference while heavy cream contributes velvety sumptuousness. Its colorful appearance, uncommon but delicious taste and ease of preparation qualify this soup for our elegant and easy dinner.


6 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

3 15-ounce cans Heinz diced fire-roasted tomatoes with garlic

3/4 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons chopped tarragon leaves or 1 tablespoons dried tarragon + small sprigs for garnish

S&p to taste


Preparation

  1. Heat olive oil in a large pot and sauté the onion until soft, about 5 minutes,

  2. Add the tomatoes, their liquid, S&P to taste and simmer for 15 minutes.

  3. Puree soup. Return soup to pot under low heat. Whisk in the heavy cream and tarragon.

  4. Garnish each serving with a small sprig of tarragon.

Do ahead. Prepare through Step 3 one day ahead or freeze.


MAIN

Cornish Game Hen

The epitome of easy elegance and opulence. It’s special - the whole bird, beautifully browned, gracing the plate. Served with a classic Grand Marnier sauce, utterly sumptuous.


Do you know what a Cornish game hen is? Not what its name suggests. According to Wikipedia, these birds are a cross between two chicken breeds, Cornish and White Plymouth Rock. So these birds are domestic, not game. The cross results in a bird that quickly develops a large breast that is succulent and tender. The adults of both breeds are of normal size for broiler chickens. It follows that what we call the Cornish game hen is just a baby bird that meets its fate between 4-6 weeks of age. There is no gender discrimination; both males and females are sold as hens.


While the name, Cornish Game Hen, is deceptive, its taste is authentically delicious.


Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 450F. Rinse birds under cold water. Wipe dry.

  2. For each bird, rub olive oil mixed with s&p all over the outside and inside cavity. Place 1/4 of an orange and 1 garlic clove, smashed, into the cavity.

  3. With birds at room temperature, place on racks over a baking sheet and roast at 450F for 25 minutes. Reduce heat to 350F and roast for about another 25 minutes. Birds are done when the internal temperature is 165F. Remove orange and garlic from the cavity before serving.

Do ahead. You may prepare the birds for roasting as much as a day before. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before roasting.


Grand Marnier Sauce

Grand Marnier is an orange-flavored cognac with complex flavors and generally conceded to be the most delicious (and expensive) of orange liqueurs.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons sugar

2 cups fresh orange juice

3 tablespoons orange zest

1 cup Grand Marnier liqueur

4 ounces butter


Preparation

Combine sugar, orange juice, orange zest, and half of the Grand Marnier in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the liquid is reduced by two thirds. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter, a few pieces at a time. Then whisk in the remaining Grand Marnier.


Roasted Cauliflower

By Michele

A quick and easy delicious side dish for a weekday dinner or a special occasion. Cauliflower florets are bathed in butter and oil, forming a base for seasoning. The end result delivers tender and crisp caramelized bites of cauliflower. Once out of the oven, there are many toppings to further complement the roasted florets.

6 servings

Ingredients

1 medium head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets

3 tablespoons melted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon paprika

S&p to taste

Optional toppings: Toasted pine nuts, grated Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, red pepper flakes


Preparation

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Spread florets on sheet and drizzle on melted butter and oil. Toss to mix well.

3. In a small dish mix dry spices and sprinkle over florets. Toss until well coated. Make sure

not to crowd florets on baking sheet giving them room to roast rather than steam.

4. Bake for eight minutes, flip over, and bake for another eight minutes or until fork tender.

Do ahead. Prepare several hours in advance. Reheat or serve at room temperature.


Wild Rice with Dried Fuji Apples and Walnuts

Wild rice is authentically North American. Originally native to the Connecticut River basin, this semi-aquatic grass now grows along waterways throughout the lower 48. Its grains are shaped like rice, but its color is dark brown/black. When cooked, the grains split open to reveal a strip of white. The texture is firm, quite unlike soft white rice. It’s rich and nutty and much more flavorful than white rice. Its full, earthy flavor is just right for winter. Indeed, wild rice takes well to wintery things like dried fruit and nuts. Such additions raise the taste score of the dish, although unadorned wild rice is quite tasty.


An interesting coincidence: When the Three Fare Ladies host a dinner for each other, we ask the guests to bring one dish that fits the theme. Both Billa and I found dried Fuji apples attractive for a winter dinner but we used them in very different ways. I paired them with a side dish, Billa made the most of them in a dessert.


Serves 6

Ingredients

1 3-ounce package of wild rice

2 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup walnut pieces

3/4 cup dried Fuji apple, in small pieces

S&p to taste


Preparation.

  1. Prepare rice according to package directions.

  2. Melt the butter in a medium pan. Over medium heat, cook the walnut pieces until soft. Add the rice and apple pieces. Stir together.


SALAD

Arugula, Pear and Cranberries, Pear Balsamic Vinaigrette

Pears are so delightfully delicious that I love using them in a variety of ways. In this dinner they appeared as an appetizer and showed up in the salad, too. Note also that pear was paired with balsamic vinegar in both dishes - that’s no accident. The two love each other. The salad is a symphony of flavors. The arugula is bitter, the pear sweet, the cranberries tart, the vinegar sour and all play grace notes of nuance. The color is winter perfect - white, red and green - and makes as pretty a salad as one could wish for.


Ingredients

Olive oil

Pear balsamic vinegar

Baby arugula

Ripe pear, your choice of variety

Dried cranberries

S&p


Preparation

  1. Make the vinaigrette. Combine the olive oil, pear balsamic vinegar and s&p.

  2. Peel the pears. Cut horizontal slices from the bottom. With a melon baller, remove the center of each slice.

  3. Put a layer of arugula on a salad plate. Arrange the pear slices in the center of the plate. Fill the hollow center with dried cranberries. Drizzle the dressing over all.


DESSERTS

Dorie Greenspan’s Plain and Simple Almond Cake

By Billa

Although it is plain and simple, it is also a light and flavorful cake. To add a little dazzle, Billa decorated it with oven-dried apple rings and sugared, caramelized almonds. The recipe for the apple rings is here: https://www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-dry-apples-in-the-oven-4775098.

For the sugared almonds, sauté 1/2 cup sliced almonds with a tablespoon of sugar over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. When caramelized, let cool on aluminum foil-lined baking pan.


Ingredients

5 large eggs, separated

1 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons (Billa reduced amount to 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups almond flour

Dried apple rings and sugared, caramelized almonds as an optional topping

Ice cream as an optional accompaniment


Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350.

  2. Grease a 9” springform pan. Line with parchment paper and sprinkle with some almond flour.

  3. In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and all but 2 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk until yolks become pale and thick, about 1 minute. Whisk in vanilla and salt, and set aside.

  4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites medium speed until they become opaque, about 1 minute.

  5. Sprinkle in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, and continue to beat until the egg whites hold medium peaks.

  6. With a rubber spatula, stir 1/4 of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Scrape the remaining egg whites over the yolks and add half the almond flour. Gently fold into the yolks, but only partially. (Some white streaks will remain)

  7. Add the remaining almond flour and gently fold in until homogeneous.

  8. Pour into prepared pan, shaking it slightly to make it level. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the top is golden brown and springy. Let cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then run a butter knife along the edges of the cake pan.

  9. Invert the cake onto a rack, remove sides and bottom, and peel parchment. Turn cake right side up and allow to cool completely. Garnish, if desired.


Dried Apricot and Candied Ginger in Amaretto Whipped Cream

Whipped cream is always opulent and especially luxurious flavored with a liqueur. Add sweet/tart apricot and candied ginger for a dessert that ends the meal with POW!


Serves 8

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons Amaretto di Saranno

Sugar - 0, 1 or 2 tablespoons, depending on taste

1/2 cup dried apricots, in small pieces

1/2 cup candied ginger, in small pieces


Preparation

  1. Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Add the Amaretto and sugar, if using. Continue whipping until stiff.

  2. Stir in the dried apricots and candied ginger.


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I had the pleasure to have attended. There was good company, lively conversation, and an extraordinary dinner in flavor, texture, color, and variety, with one pleasant surprise after another. My personal favorite, the dried apricot and candied ginger in Amaretto whipped cream. The perfect ending to the perfect dinner.

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