Black Box Dinner #2 – December 7, 2009

Last night was the 2nd in our series of black box dinners where the guests provide the food (for the most part, pantry items are available to me) and we provide the setting and beverages.

Our guests last night were Dean (of VarmintBites fame) and his wife Cella.  Going into the dinner I was aware that Cella doesn’t eat red meat, so was largely expecting seafood to be provided. 

And for our part, due to the public outcry over his post regarding purchasing wine at Trader Joe’s, I decided to go to the Wine Authorities in Durham.  I explained to them the premise of the dinner and who our guests were to be, then asked them to pick some very reasonably priced wines.  I think they did a good job (especially considering they didn’t know what the ingredients were as well), and we never even touched the bubbly stuff.

The ingredients

The ingredients

Starting in the upper right, there was yellow cauliflower, some type of apples more suited to baking, thyme, lima beans, poulet rouge (of which there were 2), littleneck clams, red beets, radish and Meyer lemons.

I have to say that I was instantly thrown off by the chickens.  Many people are probably aware (and many probably aren’t so much) that there are two ingredients universally seen (and even feared by some) as a true test of a cook’s ability.  Chicken is one of those while the egg is the other.  You might be thinking, “Oh come on, that’s some basic shit”, but that’s precisely the problem – chicken and eggs are two of the easiest things to fuck up.  And additionally, how a cook approaches cooking them signifies what type of cook he is. 

The process

So decisions had to be made.  The clams were easy as I’d been expecting those. 

The beets posed little problem as well, except for their size (as soon as I saw them I cranked the oven to 400), then quartered them; and they still took well over an hour to cook. 

For the cauliflower I got a blanch pot working so it could be cooked then pureed, which I’d then serve with the chickens.

Initially the radish was going to be used with the beets for a salad, but my thinking changed to cooking them to have with the chicken.  I also planned on cooking the lima beans in some chicken stock that I had in the freezer, and then serve those with the radish and some leek to have with the chickens.

I know the apples were brought with dessert in mind, but here I was already leaning to including them with the beets for a warm/room temp salad, with which I’d wilt the beet greens.

I’d never worked with Meyer lemons before, but planned on using them with the clams which would also feature Spanish chorizo, fennel and pine nuts.

And as for those chickens, I quartered them, roasted the bones and added that to some brown turkey stock I had hanging around, to which I simmered in order to make a jus.

The dishes

Roasted beets with apple, wilted beet greens, toasted walnuts and tarragon/thyme vinaigrette

This salad kind of just came together.  Not having any other greens in the house, I decided to wilt the beet greens with some olive oil.  I added the walnuts to the pan which crisped them up nicely.  The vinaigrette I used was basic – 1 part tarragon vinegar, some chopped thyme, a little honey and 3 parts vegetable oil.  I drizzled the vinaigrette over the beets and apples and then tossed some with the beet greens to heat it up.

I was pretty happy with this dish.  As clichéd as it is, a blue cheese would have worked, but it wouldn’t be essential; I don’t think it was missed by anyone.

Littleneck clams with Spanish chorizo, fennel, pine nuts and Meyer lemon

This dish suffered by the fact that I sliced the lemons thin and tossed them in with the rind (you learn as you go), which provided a little too much bitterness to the dish.  All the components were there to be a really good dish, but the bitterness was just too strong.  Which isn’t to say that the course was inedible.

To cook, I heated some olive oil with the diced chorizo (to draw out the paprika), then added the fennel, then clams then pine nuts.  Cella had the same dish sans chorizo, which I tasted and was really a completely different dish to what the three of us with the chorizo had.

I like this dish alot and will no doubt tinker with it in the future.  I like how the meatiness of clams is contrasted with their delicate flavor, and I really liked the balance of acidity to the earthiness of the chorizo, along with the texture and flavor that the pine nuts brought.

Roasted poulet rouge, with lima beans, radish and leeks, yellow cauliflower puree and jus

Fuck modesty – this dish is one of the best I’ve ever cooked.  It was so simple and so delicious.  And I’m now a convert to poulet rouge.  There was no need to enhance or dick with the flavor of this chicken (like with brining).

So what I did was quarter the chicken, then brown the pieces in a cast iron skillet before transferring to a sheet tray to roast at 400.  The legs and thighs took considerably longer than the breasts, which were small when compared to the genetically modified chickens we’re all used to.

For the cauliflower puree, I overcooked the cauliflower before putting it in a blender with some water and cream.  There was no need to strain it.  The texture wasn’t too far off that of a really soft polenta and would even be a nice addition to either polenta or risotto.

While the chicken was cooking, I sweated the leeks and the radish with an ample amount of butter, then added the already cooked lima beans to heat them through.

As for the jus, I simply thickened what had been simmering away with a buerre manie (a mixture of butter and flour).

And that was that.

I’d like to thank Dean and Cella for getting away for an evening and for providing some wonderful ingredients.  And thanks to Dean for the help and companionship in the kitchen.  Hopefully you’re both not too tired today.


4 thoughts on “Black Box Dinner #2 – December 7, 2009

  1. Oh, we’re fine, thank you very much, and still not hungry.

    This was a blast, and I’m pleased that the chicken wasn’t as boring as you thought it might be. Frankly, it was kick-ass.

    So now we have to reverse the roles, with y’all coming to our house with the ingredients. Of course, I get to obtain professional advice from you!

  2. Goes to prove that it is all about (1) being knowledgeable about the ingredients and their possibilities as well as (2) having a mastery of technique … that makes a chef!

  3. Alan ended up making me polenta combined with the cauliflower puree. Delicious! Thanks for bringing such beautiful ingredients, Dean!

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