It’s a fickle time of year. I started this post on Memorial Day weekend when summer was just beginning to be possible, when the first real flush of spring greens was filling the market, when we wanted tastes that were light but still a little bit warming in the cool night air. I wanted to write about these two meals because they fit nicely in this cusp period as we teeter on the edge of summer, and because I’ve gotten very interested in the notion of the menu lately, in the careful composition of flavors and colors, in assembling culinary elements into an experience at once varied and integrated. And so I started this post. And then I got distracted. And now it’s 90 friggin’ degrees and only the early evening rains are saving us from despair.
Nevertheless, I stand by these two menus and even believe it’s possible that you would want to cook them sometime in the next couple of weeks. Perhaps on the weekend when the forecast tells me the temperature will hang around at a moderate eighty degrees.
This first menu was for a relatively simple Saturday night supper at home. It’s pretty self-explanatory, with a few source notes for the locals.
Smoked duck breast with a few olives, cornichons and dijon mustard
The duck was from Tracklements and was especially lovely. We were advised to freeze the breast slightly and then slice it on the mandoline. Tricky. Perfect.
Grilled brook trout with a homemade tartar sauce
One trout fed two nicely; not huge portions, but satisfying. Monahan’s prepped it really well. Not a pin bone to be found. The homemade tartar sauce (see below) was a revelation for this girl who’s always turned her nose up at that gloppy white stuff that comes with a fish fry. I kept coming back for more.
I’m not sure how we came to Potatoes Anna, but I know the process ended up with a spate of research on what puts the Anna in Potatoes. The Joy of Cooking tells me that true Potatoes Anna can only be made in a Potatoes Anna chafing dish. We didn’t have one on hand, so ours were not true, but they were a very nice side dish.
Spinach salad with roasted red peppers and goat cheese
Some of that great spinach that’s in season now, a little red onion, a little roasted red pepper, a generous addition of goat cheese. A nice way to finish a meal that feels like a meal but sits with you fairly lightly.
This second menu was composed in honor of Shana’s birthday. Mostly when the G3 eat together, we all chip in, but I had the day off and I wanted to put together a bit of a feast. I wanted the meal to be homey — a Tuesday night, just a few friends getting together — but have a touch of elegance in honor of the occasion.
Of course. How could there not be asparagus at this time of year? This version, boiled for just a few minutes, rolled in a sherry vinaigrette and cooled to room temperature, dressed with a very finely minced hard boiled egg.
Lavender and thyme roasted chicken.
I had been reading Laurie Colwin that week, and she is a big advocate of the slow-roasted chicken as, it turns out, is Bob Sparrow, our star local butcher. So I abandoned my usual high-heat-fast-cooking-time method and put it in a 325 oven for a couple of hours. I think it was a little too long but the guests seemed happy enough (of course we’d already gone through a really great bottle of Sandpiper sparkling wine from northern Michigan so that may have raised the level of tolerance for dry chicken. ) Before cooking, I mixed together some butter, thyme and culinary lavender and smeared it under the skin. The plan was to make a pan sauce from the drippings by deglazing the pan with some white wine, but somehow I got daunted by the amount of fat and the pace of the meal, and I bailed on the sauce. Late that night, while cleaning up, I indulged in the solitary decadence of mopping up some of the pan juices with a piece of left-over baguette. Oh my god. I should not have bailed on the pan sauce. Rich and redolent of the herbs. Be brave. Make that sauce.
Also on the advise of Laurie Colwin who says scalloped potatoes always make people feel special. Potatoes, butter and ton of cream. What’s not to love? See below.
A salad of bitter greens with fennel and radishes.
Mustard greens and arugula from the Farmer’s market. Quite a bit of lemon in the sherry vinaigrette. I pleased myself by using the mandoline for the second and third time in the prep process (the first time on the potatoes). A nice bit of astringency after the artery-clogging amount of cream in the potatoes. Which cleared the way for . . .
From a recipe at Orangette. Listen to her when she says to search out the two kinds of fancy sugar. I made this once before and went with all turbinado and it was good. With demera and muscavado, oh my . . . (Here in Ann Arbor, I’ve found Plum Market to be the best source for fancy sugar in terms of both selection and price).
There was, I must admit, a second dessert, brought by one of the guests, a blueberry buckle sort of cake, light and moist and somehow just right at the end.
(Photo used under a CC by attribution license, courtesy of Iakobos)
Two Recipes that are a great return on relatively little labor:
Homemade Tartar Sauce for Two
Half a cup of good jarred mayonnaise
Juice of half a lemon
1 T of prepared horseradish. More or less to taste.
1 T chopped capers
2 dashes of hot sauce.
Thin the mayonnaise by beating the lemon juice with a fork. Fold in remaining ingredients. Allow an hour or two to chill and for the ingredients to meld together.
3/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3 lb russet potatoes
3 tablespoons butter, cut into small cubes
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in upper third. Generously butter a 2 1/2-quart baking dish (I used my large souffle dish).
Stir together nutmeg, 2 teaspoons salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper.
Peel and thinly slice potatoes (again, the mandoline was my friend). Layer potatoes in baking dish, overlapping slightly and sprinkling each layer with some of salt mixture and some of butter. Pour cream and milk over potatoes, pressing down gently to submerge potatoes in liquid.
Cover with foil and bake until potatoes are tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
Remove gratin from oven and discard foil. Turn broiler on and broil gratin 2 to 3 inches from heat until top is browned in spots, 3 to 5 minutes.
Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Serves somewhere between four and six depending on level of greed.