Monday, June 21, 2010

Celebrating Five Years with Five Courses: Anniversary Dinner at Chateau Papillon

The Summer Solstice brought an important anniversary to Chateau Papillon: five years of marriage to my sweet Kookikins, Beth.  We've enjoyed some great anniversary dinners in the past, at restaurants like 2941 (our favorite) and Hook (a sustainable-seafood place in Georgetown where I had barracuda), but this year, we decided to eat in with a five-course home-cooked meal in honor of our five years of marriage.

We pulled out a dozen or so cookbooks in planning dinner, though I can honestly say no recipe outside the bread--a walnut-onion loaf from my much-used copy of The Professional Pastry Chef--was "by the book"; instead, I used the dishes we perused as inspiration to design several very different courses which would nonetheless work fairly well together.  After checking off the ingredients we had on hand, it was off to Costco and Whole Foods to collect the rest.

To start, I prepared an Emerald Soup of watercress, spinach, onion, and pear, which I served at room temperature in wine stems.  The watercress really balanced the pear, resulting in a smooth, savory blend.  Soups can be all-day affairs in their preparation, or fairly quick courses; this one was the latter, requiring simply chopping the ingredients, sweating the onion, boiling in some stock, and cooking until everything was soft--finished with the immersion blender.  I'd meant to serve smaller portions of the soup as an amuse-buchee, but it was too tasty for that--and the wine glasses I used larger than I thought, too.  As I'd cooked so many different soups for Beth when we first dated that she suggested I start a soup restaurant one day, this course was a necessity with dinner tonight!

For an appetizer course, I sautéed shrimp and served them chilled with grill-roasted fresh corn and red peppers, dusted with coconut and lime juice.  Avocado tossed in a garlic oil and coconut vinegar dressing made for a fresh take on insalate tricolore, which featured three basils from our garden.  As our own tomatoes aren't quite ripe just yet (give them a month or so more), these were vine-ripened chunks from Costco, along with the Bufala Mozzarella cheese from Italy by way of our favorite warehouse store.

The main course I adapted from a recipe in Fast Fish.      The original called for black cod; I opted for Chilean Sea Bass (yes, yes; I'm evil--but I did go with MSC-certified fish which is supposedly sustainably-caught). With a title including vanilla, walnut, and butter, you can't go wrong!  To prepare, I skinned and de-boned the sea bass fillet (incidentally, this was the boniest cut of fish I've ever gotten from Whole Foods--boo to the fishmonger on that, and boo to me for being too distracted to check it more closely while at the store), then rubbed it with a paste I mixed up from pure vanilla extract and the seeds scraped from a vanilla bean.  A few grinds of pepper and a dash of salt, and into the oven the fish went for about 15 minutes, surrounded by a generous helping of butter.  The toasted chopped walnuts went on once the fish was cooked, and I ladled on a bit more melted butter for tasty goodness.

Sides included a sweet potato gnocchi served with a garlic-sage butter reduction (using sage from the garden) and an ouzo dish with fresh mint (yes, from the garden), basil, red onion, feta, and grape tomato halves.  Going with all of this was fresh baked bread, which I'd started and let rise twice during the rest of dinner prep.  I have to say that aside from the fish, the fresh bread--a walnut-onion loaf--was the biggest hit of the night.  Next time I make that particular bread, I do think I'll go with a bit more onion (I already had exceeded the recipe's called-for quantity by 25%) for an even more intense flavor.  The bread came out a bit like pain de campagne, thick and dense and oh so hearty.

Dessert made use of the dozen nectarines I picked up from Costco last week; after parboiling and skinning them a few days ago, I reserved the nectarine pieces in the fridge, then today pureed them with a bit of lime juice.  This mixture went into a standard cream and egg custard mix, albeit one I made with vanilla sugar for the extra flavor (we've never a shortage of used vanilla bean husks with which to infuse a bit of sugar around Chateau Papillon).  I actually started this dish earlier than anything else on the menu, given that after cooking the custard had to chill first in an ice bath for a couple of hours and then in the ice cream maker before finishing up in the freezer proper.  Getting the custard properly chilled before putting it into the ice cream maker is a critical step; ideally, the fridge or even freezer assists with that intermediate step, but an ice bath (ice cubes + kosher salt) works nearly as well in a fraction of the time.  Unfortunately, the ice cream machine is on its last legs and froze up (or, disregarding the prior pun, burned up) during the process--maybe it's time for a unit with an integrated refrigerator instead of the pre-frozen churning tubs?  Anyway, to accompany the nectarine ice cream, I roasted a pineapple on the grill alongside some peach poaching sauce left over (and frozen) from my birthday dinner--mmm!

When Beth and I were first dating, I prepared several dinners which included printed menus, a tradition I returned to in preparing our dinner.  Having a printed menu took a lot of extra work, but it helped me keep straight the dishes--without it, I'd have left something out at least twice during the five hours I spent in the kitchen!--and made for a really nice touch accompanying the meal.

If it hadn't been pushing 11:00pm when we finished up in the kitchen, I'd have spent a bit more time choosing the wines, with a separate wine per course.  As it was, I went with a Washington State white for the amuse-bouchee and appetizer courses in the 2008 Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay, followed by a real treat in the 2005 Penfolds RWT Shiraz.  Australia's Barossa Valley is really Beth's and my favorite wine region in the world, and the RWT is one of the best out of Penfolds, second only to their Grange.  A splurge ($68) to be sure even purchased at Costco, but not only was this a special occasion, but that $68 would have hardly bought better than a grocery store red at many restaurants (for example, I saw a $20 retail Thorn-Clarke Shiraz at 2941 being sold for $60/half bottle--a 600% markup over retail and probably well over 1000% over the restaurant's wholesale cost!).

Overall, despite spending all evening in the kitchen--we had to defer opening our anniversary gifts!--this made for a fantastic dinner experience at Chateau Papillon.  Unfortunately, I've created a monster: Beth said we should frame the menu "every year" for comparison, implying that I'll be on the hook for topping the meals of the past each anniversary!  I think I managed to convince her that we can still eat out on the solstice sometimes; in fact, I wouldn't mind trekking over to the UK and going all Druidic one anniversary with a visit to Stonehenge.  There is, after all, an Indian restaurant in nearby Salisbury which to this date is one of the best values and best meals I've eaten...

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