Now that I've gotten over the misery of defeat, I thought I'd blog a bit about the dinner party I put together for Challenge #3. I revisited a few of my old standbys: fig and blue cheese bruschetta, brown butter brussels sprouts, and shaved baby artichoke salad with lemon-truffle vinaigrette, and then tried out a few new recipes to keep things interesting. In general, I find this to be the best formula for throwing a dinner party without losing your mind: Serve a few familiar dishes that you know will turn out well, but don't be afraid to get a little experimental with your
My two new dishes were not 100% successful. Funnily enough, the cold soup that I served was a hit with everyone except me and my husband. I started with this as my base, minus the buttermilk, then spent the better part of half an hour doctoring it with lime juice and greek yogurt. It was perfectly edible, but it just didn't have any zing. Figuring presentation might save the dish, I served it in little pre-chilled shotglasses garnished with creme fraiche and chives, and everyone went back for seconds.
Cuteness saves the day
I also made a version of risotto with wild mushrooms and pancetta. It's a great idea to have a basic risotto recipe in your arsenal. You can change it up with just about any combination of ingredients that comes to mind: asparagus and lemon zest, shrimp, mint, and peas, spinach and goat cheese. In this version, the mushroom soaking liquid gets incorporated into the rice, which I thought would lend an amazing umami depth, but the whole thing turned out a bit bland, I thought. My husband, however, loved it. Which brings me to my number one tip for throwing a great dinner party: Invite unpicky eaters.
Basic Risotto Recipe (Inspired by Jamie Oliver)
After much experimentation, I have settled on a version that veers slightly from the original by adding fennel and pancetta to my base, and swapping out the arborio for carnaroli when I can find it. The key to making super-creamy risotto is to add the liquid very slowly, which is the reason risotto has a reputation for being difficult to make. Anyone who thinks that stirring a pan of rice occasionally for 30-40 minutes is off-putting should clearly never attempt to make biryani.
1 box of low-sodium chicken broth
3 shallots or 1 yellow onion, diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
Fist-sized piece of pancetta, diced (probably a smidge over ½ cup)
1½ cups of rice (arborio or carnaroli)
Generous slug of vermouth or glass of dry white wine
Sea salt and black pepper
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
Small pat of butter (optional)
1. Heat the chicken broth in a small saucepan until it comes to a boil, then lower the heat and keep it simmering while you make the risotto.
2. In a large pan (I use my wok), heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat, add the pancetta, and let the fat cook out a bit. Then add the vegetables (onion, fennel) and let them soften (about 3-4 minutes).
3. Throw in your rice and let it toast for about 3-4 minutes. You will see the grains turn from solid white to slightly transluscent. The Italians, naturally, have a poetic way of describing the perfect moment to add the wine: wait until the grains of rice seem to be crying out for liquid, and when you finally add a splash to the pan, it will let out a sospiro or "little sigh." Along with the wine or vermouth, add your first ladleful of hot broth (or mushroom soaking liquid if making the variation described below). Turn the heat down to medium low.
4. Over the course of the next 30-40 minutes, add the hot broth, one ladleful at a time. Allow each ladleful of broth to be completely absorbed by the rice before adding the next. Stir gently to massage the starch out of the rice. This starch creates the luxuriously creamy texture that binds the risotto together. Generally, if I am adding ingredients such as vegetables or cheese other than parmesan, I add them at some point during this 40 minute process...very near the end if it cooks quickly (goat cheese or spinach) and near the beginning if it takes a little longer (asparagus, green beans). Make sure any vegetables are chopped into smallish, evenly-sized pieces.
5. If you find that you have run out of broth and the rice is still too hard, you can add a little hot water in place of the broth. You want the rice to retain a slight bite, so around the half hour mark, start testing a grain or two until you have reached the perfect consistency.
6. Turn off the heat and stir in a generous handful of parmesan (or two, if your cheese-fiending husband is hovering), season with salt and pepper, and add the butter (if using).
Wild Mushroom Risotto (Inspired by Jamie Oliver)
This is a variation on the basic risotto recipe (above). You will need to add the mushroom soaking liquid at the end of step 3, so plan accordingly.
1 basic risotto (see above)
4 large handfuls of mixed mushrooms (I used portabello, crimini, and chanterelle). Remember that mushrooms shrink down considerably in size when cooked
1 large handful of dried porcini
Large handful of chopped flat leaf parsley
Juice of one lemon
Salt to taste
Good quality olive oil for drizzling
1. Soak the porcini in a bowl of hot stock or water (just enough to cover) for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, clean and chop the mixed mushrooms into evenly sized pieces. When the porcini have softened, fish them out and cut them into small pieces, reserving the soaking liquid.
2. Add the mushroom soaking liquid in place of the first ladleful of broth when making the risotto. Continue making the rest of the risotto as usual.
3. In a dry grill pan, grill the wild mushrooms. Do this in batches to prevent steaming. Add the cooked mushrooms to a bowl and season with parsley, salt, and lemon juice.
4. Once risotto is cooked, serve each person with a dollop of risotto, a portion of the grilled mushroom mixture, and a drizzle of olive oil over the top. Serve with freshly grated parmesan for people to sprinkle on if they wish.