I really love our little apartment, especially the kitchen which is small but perfectly formed. It opens into our living/dining space and looks out over our green back garden. I love the convivial feel of the room even when I’m home alone and listening to news updates on the BBC, but it’s when we entertain that I’m most pleased with the set up. Last week we were due to have a gaggle of girls over for dinner, friends from far and wide gathering at our farmhouse table, and when I was planning the menu I wanted to use our space to its best advantage. You’ll remember, last time we had people over for dinner it was a bit of a debacle. And even though I’ve regularly cooked for clients since then, I very much needed to redeem myself for my own satisfaction and pride. With all of this at the forefront of my mind, I got to work crafting the menu.
Snacks to start with:
Smitten Kitchen’s Candied Spicy Peanuts
Chacuterie Selection from Queen’s Park Farmers’ Market
Blue Cheese and Fig Crackers
Tempura Squash Blossoms
Marinated Skirt Steak with Red Wine Sauce
Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding
Little Gems, Citrus, Herbs, and Walnut Salad
Olive Oil and Ricotta Cake with Lemon Syrup
Instead of making a first course, I wanted to have everyone sit at our dining room table and nibble on snacks I’d made ahead, drink wine, and catch up. This was designed to be leisurely, wine-fuelled, relaxed and something I could participate in while still keeping an eye on things in the kitchen. The only thing I had to cook once they’d arrived were some tempura fried squash blossoms which I’d seen at the farmers’ market and compulsively needed to buy (you can read more about my squash blossom obsession here and here). These weren’t stuffed with anything, just battered and quickly fried with a good scattering of fleur de sel to finish them off. But, my favorite little treat on the table had to be the blue cheese and fig crackers I made into little flower shapes. I’m not sure where I first got the recipe, I’d bet it was good old Martha Stewart, but then again, it’s so simple I somehow doubt it! Obviously, you don’t have to use a flower shaped cookie cutter, but it was so cute I just couldn’t help myself. They are like eating the perfect cheese course in one little, crunchy morsel.
The main course was again simple and mostly prepared ahead. I made a marinated skirt steak recipe from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc cookbook. I’m sharing the recipe as I get so many requests for it and think it’s a truly genius and divinely delicious dish. It’s incredibly simple to make and yet you get to feel cheffy while you cook it as you get to do that wonderful butter and herb basting in the pan technique that chefs love to use (with good reason). I also took the time to make a proper beef stock from scratch (something I haven’t done since culinary school), using bones I got from the butcher, roasted along with vegetables and then boiled for hours on the stove. This was then heavily reduced to thicken and intensify it before adding some good red wine and finally a little butter. My husband said it was the best sauce he’d ever had.
Originally I had wanted to make the butternut squash and blue cheese bread pudding that I wrote about two years ago (has it really been that long???), but figured with the blue cheese crackers to start it might all be a bit much. All you need to do to switch to the wild mushroom version is sautee mushrooms and substitute thyme for the sage and parmesan for the blue cheese. The basic blueprint is in the recipe link above. What a nice change from the humdrum potato or rice or pasta side!
It was lovely catching up from my friends from here there and everywhere! The food was exactly what I’d hoped it would be and, while this was all delicious, the piece de resistance might have been the dessert (but that will be covered in my next blog post later this week). I hope maybe this has given you some ideas for casual entertaining at home when you want to show your guests just how much they mean to you, taking time for little extras here and there, but enjoying yourself at the same time. These are recipes that allow the host to shine!
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces pungent, sharp blue cheese, at room temperature
1 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line your baking sheets with parchment paper. In the bowl of your food processor pulse together the flour, butter, blue cheese and black pepper. Once it starts to come together turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead lightly, just to bring it all together. Roll the dough out to about 1/8 inch thickness and cut out into desired shape. Place the crackers on the baking sheets and using your finger make the slightest depression in the middle of each cracker. Into the depression place a small amount of the fig jam. Bake for 12-14 minutes, until golden brown and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes so the jam sets.
for the marinade:
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 long sprig of fresh rosemary
2 fresh bay leaves
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
3 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
for the steaks:
6 four ounce skirt steaks
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons butter
6 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on
To make the marinade, combine the thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, peppercorns, 3 garlic cloves, and olive oil in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and let the marinade cool to room temperature. Place skirt steaks in a large, shallow dish (or zip lock bag) and cover with the marinade. Cover the dish and marinate for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator (or up to 1 day). Turn the steaks in the marinade half way through the waiting time.
Thirty minutes before you are ready to cook the steaks, remove the meat from the marinade and let sit at room temperature. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Discard the marinade. Preheat oven to 350°F and get out a sheet tray. Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over high heat. When the oil shimmers, add half the meat and quickly brown the first side. Turn the meat and, working quickly, add 1 tablespoon of butter, 3 thyme sprigs, and 2 garlic cloves, and brown the meat on the second side, basting constantly by spooning the butter and herbs over the steaks; the entire cooking process should only take about 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer the meat to the roasting rack and spoon the butter, garlic, and thyme over the top. Wipe the pan, and repeat with the remaining steaks. Place the baking sheet into the oven and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (depending on how done you like your steaks). Remove from the oven and let the steaks rest for about 10 minutes in a warm spot.