Saturday, February 16, 2013

Unofficial Downton Abbey Recipes Are Officially Delicious

Valentine's Day provided the perfect opportunity to try out a few recipes from The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, and I am pleased to say the experience brought a few new additions to my last-minute dinner party repertoire... as well as a healthy respect for the Crawleys who purportedly ate this way every night.

To start, we sampled Lady Mary's Crab Canapés -- unlikely to win the prize for "most authentic" due to the Old Bay Seasoning, cream cheese, Tabasco, and Parmesan involved, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.

Crabby Lady Mary's namesake hors d'oeuvres.

Just like the Crawley sisters, these were as
gooey and cheesy as they looked.
We also amused the bouches with The Crawley Sisters' Stuffed Mushrooms, an spicy little number calling for more cream cheese and Parmesan to fill the gaps left by the destemming of the shrooms. They also worked in some garlic and oh-so-British Worcestershire sauce.

Because we 21st Century humans have fewer stomachs than the upper-class British employing Service à la Russe in the 1920s, we skipped the soup course and jumped straight to fish as our main meal -- omitting the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Courses of Joints, Steaks, and Roasts that were traditionally to follow the fish.

Daisy's Mustard Salmon with Lentils was my favorite dish of the night, thanks to its impressive resplendence of flavor and quick and easy style.  It actually could pass for healthy, too, if you don't use the entire half cup of butter that is supposed to go in.  The show-stopping mustard "sauce" consists of softened butter, chopped chives, chopped tarragon (this MADE the dish), Dijon mustard, lemon juice, a touch of sugar, salt and fresh ground pepper mixed together, then dolloped into the cooked French lentils and on top of the salmon just when you're ready to serve.  Tremendous! 

Daisy's tarragon-scented salmon and lentils stole my heart.
And most of my stomach capacity.

We paired our wild Coho salmon and lentils with a 2002 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Damodes" Burgundy by Philippe and Vincent Lécheneaut, because that's what Carson and His Lordship would have chosen.  This lovely silken delight of a wine even survived our side order of Baked and Buttery Balsamic Asparagus with Sea Salt, another butter-happy gift to humanity.  This simplissimo concept is essentially just roasted asparagus in a brown butter sauce that's jazzed up by the addition of a bit of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar.  Delectable.  No weirdness from the soy sauce addition at all, despite my misgivings.

Balsamic-spiked butter sauce, garnished with fresh vegetables.

After all that delicious butter, we had decided to forgo the uber-rich Creamy Chocolate Mousses and Mrs. Patmore's Extravagant Parisian Eclairs in favor of a light dessert like, say, two pints of Three Twins Ice Cream and a half dozen bignés from Ca'Momi.  This was our inspired Napa variation on the cookbook's Vanilla Wafers With Double Chocolate Ice Cream recipe, which included a helpful prefatory note: "With the advent of Service à la Russe, ice cream and wafers became the standard nonfruit dessert."  Reading a bit further, we learn that this standard dessert was actually the standard SECOND dessert, served after a first sweet course of something hot.  Maybe next time.  

And there will be a next time.  How else to sample the other four courses we skipped over?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Dinner At Downton Abbey

My mother's ability to choose wildly undesirable gifts for her family is notorious and unsurpassed.  So when I received an unexpected bubble-pack envelope from her a few weeks ago, I chortled with the anticipation of finding another French-language cookbook of Hungarian goulash recipes, or a pair of hand-made plastic beaded earrings from one of her Southwestern crafting friends, or the pamphlet from the last museum audio tour she's taken on her travels, or maybe just her latest clothing contribution that she was too lazy to drive past the post office to Goodwill's drop box (all of which I have, in fact, received from her in past years).  

Imagine my surprise when I opened the package and discovered a copy of The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook!  Actually something I might voluntarily select for myself?? I could hear my inner Dowager Countess: "Well, now I've seen ev'rything." 

The author of this shockingly desirable gift, Emily Ansara Baines, also wrote The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, which was the focus of a fabulous dinner party last year.  Ms. Baines' latest contribution to the unauthorized cookbook scene takes on both the Crawleys' refined francophile cuisine in Downton's upstairs dining room (including recipes for each of the 8-13 courses that were de rigueur for a proper meal with service à la Russe, as well as a selection of classic teatime favorites), and the hearty British workingman's fare dished out below-stairs in the servants' hall.   Interspersed with the recipes are snippets of etiquette advice, and historical curiosities related to the recipes and the show's plot lines.  (Disappointingly, there is no recipe for Turkish Delight.)

I foresee at least one Unofficial Downton Dinner Party in my future, though... and Valentine's Day might be just the right occasion to break out some Crawley-style decadence.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Plenty Good For 2013

One of my best friends gave me a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty for Christmas this past year -- the gorgeous, soft-padded-hardcover cookbook of vegetarian recipes culled from Ottolenghi's veg-head columns in the UK's Guardian.  Neither the author, the gift-giver, nor I am a vegetarian, but that has absolutely no impact on the appeal of this book.  Browsing through these lusciously photographed recipes will inspire even the most die-hard carnivore.

Most of the recipes in this collection tend to riff on classic Mediterranean spices and combinations, but the nuanced, creative layering of texture and flavor really sets the collection apart.  Beet, orange and black olive salad, for example, sounds fairly common and familiar until the orange blossom water and chopped parsley hit your sensory receptors.  Subtle tweaks and additions like these make all the difference in the world, and are what really make this book unique.

The single best thing I've cooked in 2013 so far was the caramelized garlic and goat cheese tart from page 38 of Plenty -- a recipe that I plan to replicate at every opportunity. 

Three heads of garlic sounds like an overwhelming sulphurous miasma, but the cooking technique (blanch, drain, then simmer to a syrup with a touch of vinegar, sugar, and fresh rosemary and thyme) produced an elegant, sophisticated, and tender result.  Filling the tart with both fresh chevre and aged goat gouda (I used Midnight Moon from Cypress Grove) added depth, nuttiness, tang, and texture that counterbalanced the delicate earthy sweetness of the garlic.  And the pure butter puff pastry tart shell... well, we all know how delicious that is when done well.  I leave such pastry details to the pros, and bought a package of Dufour from the frozen section of Whole Foods.

The rest of the filling for this quiche-like recipe was hardly a dieter's dream -- eggs, cream and crème fraîche -- but we found that we didn't even need to use all of this lipidinous liquid to fill up the shallow tarte once all the cheese and garlic was nestled in there.  Thanks to the Provençal herbs in there (and, probably, the fabulous 2009 Girard Old Vine Zinfandel we paired with it), the richness does not overwhelm.  This would be a perfect vegetarian main course for any season, any meal, and any gathering. 

The introductory quote for this dish from the author's recipe tester Claudine really says it all: "I think this is the most delicious recipe in the world!"  Bold words, but remarkably hard to dispute.