Sunday, November 21, 2010

Do-Ahead Dinner for Casual Company

I have a lot more time to cook and bake than I used to, but even when you have all day, it is always crunch-time when your guests are at the table and dinner hasn't quite finished cooking. I love menus that benefit from my ability to organize and plan ahead, so that I'm not fussing with food prep instead of friends.

Soups and stews are great for just this reason; many taste even better when they've been made in advance and have time for flavors to meld. Of course, not all dinner parties are going to be an appropriate venue for soup as the main course, but for having friends over on a chilly fall evening after work, a hearty bowl of steaming soup can be the perfect centerpiece for conviviality!

This menu was made all-the-better because not only did I prepare the soup the day before, but the salad also suggests making-ahead for maximum flavor-melding. The cookie dough I made two days ahead, and refrigerated in a log; then removed from fridge when we sat down to eat, and sliced and baked after dinner so that fresh, crispy cookies from the oven coincided exactly with the time we were ready for a little dessert.

My selections were Red Lentil Soup, Curried Cauliflower Salad, and Black Pepper Cookies. Since my guest asked what she could bring, I ask for bread and a beverage, and she brought a delicious loaf of Grand Central Baking Company Como.

The Red Lentil soup is from Greg and Lucy Malouf's Turquoise cookbook, which my dad bought as a gift for my mom shortly after they returned from a trip to Turkey. I've oft heard Malouf speak on the radio, and his recipes have appeared in some of my other favorite sources, so I trusted his expertise. Plus, the photos are rich, and even the surrounding story-telling is above-par for what I might expect from a cookbook cum travel-log.

This is the recipe as printed:

Red Lentil 'peasant' soup with sizzling mint butter
2 T olive oil
1 large onion
1 carrot, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 t ground cumin
1 t hot paprika
1 t sweet paprika
1 T tomato paste
7 oz red lentils
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1/4 cup fine bulger
1 vine-ripened tomato, cut into quarter and seeded
salt and pepper

2 oz unsalted butter
1/2 t dried mint
1/2 t sweet paprika
lemon wedges
Heat oil over low heat in large heavy saucepan. Stir in onion, carrot, and garlic, then add cumin, hot paprkia, and 1 t sweet paprika and saute 5-8 minutes, until vegetables soften.
Stir in tomato paste, and cook for a minute. Add lentils and stock, and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium for 20 minutes, stirring periodically.
Stir in bulgur. Dice tomato, then add to pan, season with salt and pepper, and simmer 10 minutes.

When ready to serve, ladle into warmed serving bowls. Quickly heat the butter in a  small frying pan until it foams, then add remaining paprika and mint. Swirl the sizzling butter into each bowl of soup and serve with wedges of lemon.

Notes: I only had one type of paprika, so substituted it for all that was called for in the recipe. I added one cubed baking potato at the same time as the bulger; this was unnecessary, and untraditional, but I had it on-hand, and knew it wouldn't have any adverse effects. I don't think it added anything, but carbs and calories. I didn't bother with the fresh tomato, since they're typically not very good this time of year anyway. I made the mint-butter, but I don't think it added much either. Will disagrees: he thought it was both attractive and sophisticated. I didn't notice it visually, and the flavors were lost to me given the other yumminess of the soup.

Finally, I made this a day before up until stirring in the bulger. At that point, I removed it from the heat, and refrigerated. Byt the time the soup had sat overnight, then reheated to boiling and 10 minutes of simmer just before dinner the next day, it was delicious and lovely. A wedge of lemon with serving would have been really perky, but I forgot that part.

Curried Cauliflower Salad
I loved this salad. I think it's beautiful from all the colors and textures, and seasonal for both summer and winter meals. When I make it next time, I will make the cauliflower florets a little smaller, and the bell pepper pieces bigger. The peas, apricots, and cashews will still be tiny bursts of flavor, but it was hard to get a mouthful of multiple ingredients with the cauliflower pieces as big as I left them (I thought they would be more attractive if larger, but the smaller ingredients fell to the bottom of the bowl.) Otherwise, the only thing I did differently from the recipe was to grate the ginger instead of matchsticks. I did use about half of the "finishing glaze" called for, but I think it's probably unnecessary.

Black Pepper Cookies
From Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts (Knopf, 1965)
These are a bit of a cross between a buttery-sugar cookie and a ginger snap. The flavor is spiced, but different from other spice cookies, and the texture is much lighter and more delicate. I found the dough easy to work with, both when I rolled it, and when I simply sliced it. Plus, the fact that they can be baked right away without chilling the dough first is a bonus. These are a great all-purpose cookie with a perfect texture that would go well with many ice creams and sorbets.

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup butter
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 egg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Sift together flour, baking powder, peppers, and spices.

Cream together butter and sugar. Beat in the egg. Then mix in dry ingredients on low, until evenly incorporated. Divide dough into three pieces and roll out to 1/8" thick and cut with cookie cutters, or roll into a log and slice into 1/8" thick slices. (Use dough at room temperature, not chilled.)
Place 3/4" apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Baking 10 minutes until lightly browned, and cool on racks.

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