Sun 17 Apr 2011
I’m always up for a challenge, especially when it comes to cooking a meal. But when I received all my guests’ dietary likes/dislikes before a recent dinner party, even I found it a bit daunting.
Sinead and Aoife don’t like shellfish; Sinead also dislikes anything with too many spices and has a relatively severe dislike of mushrooms; Aoife also doesn’t like “fishy fish” and lamb; Ciara has a “thing” with chicken and happens to be pregnant, so no unpasteurized cheese or rare anything. Grainne, on the other hand, will eat anything but considering all the other girls’ fickle palates it was neither here nor there.
So what’s a cook to do? I went for something quite Irish in that I decided on meat (steak) and potatoes for the main – easy enough. But I wanted to do something special as well…I think those of us who love to cook always want to put out something impressive for our dinner guests, and steak and potatoes while simple and good are not difficult to prepare. Therefore I decided to do an appetizer with a high “wow” factor, plus put in a little extra effort on my salad and dessert.
For the starter, which I laid out on the coffee table just before the girls arrived, I made two types of crostini: Spring Pea & Ricotta with Lemon, and Ricotta with Tomato Jam and Toasted Pine nuts (I bought the tomato jam so for this crostini simply spread on ricotta, top with the jam and pine nuts!). I had made the ricotta myself the day before; it was my first time making the soft, Italian cheese and I can say with absolute certainty that I will never serve store-bought ricotta again. Homemade ricotta is smooth, creamy and almost slightly sweet, nothing like that grainy sour stuff in the shops. I will reveal the recipe and how-to on my next blog post, as it really deserves its own post.
I love serving crostini because it’s nice to have something for guests as soon as they arrive and it doesn’t require them to pull up at the dining room table to eat. I simply placed the crostini on a couple of bamboo boards and placed on the sitting room table with a few cocktail napkins; that way people can help themselves and enjoy with a glass of wine while having a nice, casual chat.
For the side salad, I slow-roasted some grape tomatoes earlier in the day. Simply slice in half, drizzle with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Place in a 100 degree oven for 2.5 hours. They become a little wrinkly on the outside but still retain a good amount of moisture on the inside and the flavour is gorgeous. I tossed them into a simple salad of rocket with a few garlic leaves and some buffalo mozzarella and dressed with a mix of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard and salt/pepper.
The steak, which I baked in the oven so I wouldn’t be a slave to the stove/grill, had been marinating for 24 hours in a mix of olive oil, young garlic, peppercorns and fresh herbs. For the potatoes, I simply placed unpeeled baby new potatoes in a large pot with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and some chopped fresh rosemary and cooked, covered, over a low heat for an hour. Every once in a while I’d shake the pot to move the potatoes around but otherwise it pretty much takes care of itself!
My friends all enjoyed the food – can’t go wrong with steak and potatoes for meat-eating Irish folk! For dessert I made a rustic fruit tart with plums and blueberries. Simply use whatever pastry recipe you like, roll out into a large rectangle and top with fruit. I sprinkled the fruit with some brown sugar, folded the edges of the pastry in and used a fork to create the ridges on the edge. It was simple but delicious and looks quite impressive – perfect for a dinner party!
Despite the dietary challenges, I managed to rustle up a dinner that suited everyone’s tastes. The best part? I chose dishes that I could at least prep beforehand if not make ahead of time so that I could enjoy the process of cooking instead of running around the kitchen like a maniac. I even had a couple of hours to relax and listen to music while the tomatoes roasted. All in all, a great day and an even better night!
Spring Pea & Ricotta with Lemon
1 cup fresh ricotta (recipe to come in next blog post!)
1/3 cup thawed peas plus 1/4 cup for garnish
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
Chives for garnish
18-20 toasted baguette slices
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and whiz until smooth. Place in refrigerator and let sit for at least an hour so the flavours meld. Spread the mixture on the baguette slices and top with peas and chives. Serve immediately.