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Dinner Party Menu: February

After being away from this site for way too long, I am finally back to writing with a new plan for 2016. Actually it’s a project with a process that I intend to develop and explore together with my friend, the incredibly talented cook and entrepreneur Julie Marr. Sharing recipes and ideas is a huge part of my cooking life and I have found that it is in the conversations about food that the inspiration to cook and new ideas to test come about. Julie and I delight in these conversations and share similar approaches to cooking. We will be collaborating on this monthly menu project from its design and testing, to writing about our experiences on our blogs.

One of the things I love to do is to entertain at home. Planning the menu, shopping, staging the preparation and envisioning the presentation are all elements I enjoy. I hear from many friends and readers that while they too like to cook and to entertain, they seldom do so because they simply cannot find the time in their busy lives or feel that they do not have the expertise to pull it off.

As our project evolves, Julie and I will to try to demystify the hosting experience by providing step-by-step guides to hosting dinner parties for every month of the year, using ingredients that are at their best in Vancouver markets each month. Included here will be what might be considered when designing the menu, shopping lists, how to prepare elements in advance and photographs which illustrate the process and final presentation. Please stay tuned as each month rolls out and we add these elements to the menus.

A few weeks ago Julie and I met to plan this month’s menu. Ingredients were chosen according to what is available and at its best in Vancouver markets in February, and the kinds of food that people generally feel like eating in a winter month on the west coast. Another consideration when planning a dinner party menu is how much of it can be prepared in advance so that hosts can relax and enjoy themselves. The recipes will include instructions for this.

In what can be a rainy and dark month here in Vancouver in February, it helps to inject vibrant colours and flavours into our cooking. Tastebuds are enlivened by the taste of citrus and because these fruits are at their best this month, they make their way into the salad, the vegetable and the dessert in the following menu.

Appetizer Tray: Barbecued Salmon, cheese, rice crackers, olives
Avocado, Beet & Crab Salad with Lime and Crème Fraîche
Easy Duck Confit
Roasted Fennel with Orange and Pepper Flakes
Pears Poached in Red Wine with Mascarpone Cream and Pistachios
Florentines

When planning the main course for this menu, we discussed leaving out a carb as the duck and fennel stand alone very well. However, when we tried out the menu we ended up making our own additions. I made popovers seasoned with black pepper and roasted ground fennel seeds and Julie made the classic French dish, potatoes cooked in duck fat.

A note about appetizers: My preferred approach to appetizers is to consider ingredients that are already in the refrigerator, or ones that I know we will enjoy as leftovers, and arrange them on one large platter for guests to help themselves. This is such an easy way to cover this part of the menu as it does not require much preparation – just assembling a few ingredients. It also accommodates all types of eaters, ones who eat lightly and those with larger appetites.

Photographs: I am grateful that Julie is a much more able photographer than I am and I have included some of her photographs here with acknowledgement.

Avocado, Beet & Crab Salad with Lime and Crème Fraîche
Recipe adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin

3 bunches medium beets
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
½ lemon
¼ cup finely diced shallots
3 tablespoons seeded, diced jalapeños
⅓ cup lime juice
2 large avocados
6 small handfuls of arugula leaves
¾ lb (454 g) cooked Dungeness crab meat that has been carefully picked for stray bits of shell (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
½ cup crème fraîche
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Trim the beets of their roots and stems and wash them well. Toss the beets with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle with some salt and then wrap them in aluminum foil and place on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and roast for 40 to 50 minutes until they are easily pierced with a sharp knife.

When the beets are done remove from the oven and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle peel the beets by slipping off the skins with your fingers and then slice in 1/2 inch wedges. Place them in a medium bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, a generous squeeze of lemon juice and some salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside.

While the beets are roasting, combine the shallots, jalapeños, lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl and let sit for 5 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 a cup plus 2 tablespoons of olive oil and then taste for balance and seasoning.

Cut the avocados in half lengthwise, remove the pit and peel. Cut into 1/4 inch slices and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Fan the avocado slices on one side of six individual plates. Place the beets on the other side and arrange the arugula in the middle.

Toss the crab gently with two-thirds of the jalapeño lime vinaigrette, the parsley and the cilantro in a medium bowl. Taste the crab and season with some salt and/or lime juice if you like. Pile the crab on the arugula and top with the crème fraîche and a few grinds of black pepper. Drizzle a bit more of the vinaigrette over the avocado.
Serves 6.

In advance: the beets can be roasted and the vinaigrette can be mixed several days ahead and kept covered and refrigerated until ready to assemble the salad. As noted, the crab is optional as the salad works well without it too.

Avocado & Beet Salad
Easy Duck Confit
Recipe adapted from Bromberg Bros. Blue Ribbon Cookbook by Bruce Bromberg, Eric Bromberg and Melissa Clark.
Melissa Clark wrote about the development of this contemporary version of the classic French duck confit in 2010 in The New York Times. This recipe makes cooking your own confit at home easy and Julie and I have found that it works well when cooked in advance, so instructions are given for this. We have adjusted the roasting times given in the original recipe according to our experience with the average size of duck legs purchased here in Vancouver.

3 teaspoons Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 fresh bay leaves torn
6 duck legs, rinsed and patted dry but not trimmed

Place the duck legs in a shallow dish and season with the salt and pepper. Strip the leaves of thyme from the sprigs and scatter on top of the seasoned legs and add in the torn pieces of bay leaf.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.

The next day, heat the oven to 325ºF. Allow duck legs to come to room temperature. Place the duck legs, fat side down, in a large ovenproof frying pan with the legs fitting snugly in a single layer. You may have to use two pans or cook them in batches. Heat the duck legs over medium heat until the fat starts to render. When there is about ¼ inch of rendered fat in the pan, about 20 minutes, flip the duck legs over and cover the pan with foil or a lid. If you have used two pans, transfer duck and fat to a roasting pan. Place in the preheated oven.

Roast the legs for about 1½ hours, or until the meat is very tender, falling away from the bone and the duck is golden brown. Remove duck from the pan and keep covered lightly with foil on the counter if serving within the next 2 hours, or cover and refrigerate until ready to finish. Reserve duck fat for reheating the duck later.

To Finish: Heat some of the duck fat over medium-high heat in a large frying pan (or two) and reheat the legs, skin side up and covered with the lid or foil, about 5 minutes. Remove the lid, turn the duck over, and sear until the skin is dark brown and crispy. Serve immediately with the roasted fennel.
Serves 6

Roasted Fennel with Orange and Pepper Flakes
Oranges
Julie Marr Photo 

Recipe adapted from Gjelina by Travis Lett
Photographs of Oranges and Plated Dish, courtesy of Julie Marr
3 fennel bulbs
3 cara cara, blood oranges or mandarins
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
¾ cup fresh orange juice
6 tablespoons dry white wine
6 tablespoons stock (vegetable or chicken)
pinch of red pepper flakes
freshly-ground black pepper
pinch fennel pollen (optional)

Cut the fennel bulb into wedges. Cut the stems into thin slices, reserving the fronds. Set aside. Remove the peel from the oranges: Cut off both ends, place the orange on one of the cut ends, and using a paring knife, slice away the skin and white pith. (See Julie’s photograph above.)

Carefully slice between the flesh and the membrane to cut out orange sections and set aside.

In a large frying pan over high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the fennel wedges, cut side down in the pan. Cook until the fennel is caramelized, about 3 minutes. Flip, lower heat to medium-high, and cook on the other side until caramelized, about 3 more minutes. Season with salt, add fennel stems and continue to cook until the stems are well-browned, another 2 minutes. Add the orange juice, wine and stock and reduce the until the sauce is thickened and the fennel is deeply seared and starting to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper.

Place on warm dinner plates, garnish with fennel fronds, orange segments and fennel pollen, if using.
Serves 6

In Advance: This dish can be made a few hours ahead and served at room temperature. Julie served this menu family-style, a nice way to make the meal less formal and relaxed. Do whatever works best in your life and your kitchen.

FennelJulie Marr Photo 

Pears Poached in Red Wine with Mascarpone Cream and Pistachios
3 ripe but firm large pears (Bartlett, Anjou or Bosc)
3 cups red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot)
½ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
1 cinnamon stick
peel of 1 orange
peel of 1 lemon
4 whole cloves
2 star anise
1 bay leaf

½ cup mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons chopped toasted unsalted pistachio nuts, for garnish
mint, for garnish

Peel the pears, cut them in half, and scoop out the core with a melon baller and trim the stem end. Place in a saucepan that is large enough to hold the pears in one layer. Add the rest of the ingredients and just enough water to cover the pears.

Set the saucepan over high heat and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the point of a knife easily pierces the pears, about 15 minutes. (This may take longer, depending on how large and how ripe the pears are.) Remove the pan from the heat and allow the pears to cool in the liquid.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a plate and strain the cooking liquid over a bowl. Discard the solids and return the liquid to the saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and cook until the liquid is reduced to a light syrup, about 30 minutes. Let cool and pour over the pears. Store in the refrigerator in a covered container until ready to serve. Can be made 2-3 days before serving.

Mix the Mascarpone Cream: this can be done one day ahead.
In a small bowl, whisk the cheese with the sugar and lemon zest.  Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Toast the pistachio nuts: To toast this small amount of nuts, it is easiest to do in a small frying pan over medium-high heat on the stove. Watch carefully and shake the pan often to allow the nuts to toast evenly. Remove from the heat, chop and cool completely before storing in a covered jar until ready to use.

To Serve: Remove pears from the refrigerator and place one on each of 8 shallow soup plates. Using a piping bag, or small spoon, pipe about 1 T. of mascarpone cream in the cored space of each pear. Spoon some of the reduced poaching liquid around each pear. Garnish with toasted pistachio nuts and mint. Serve with florentines, if desired.
Serves 6

Pears & Red Wine


Chocolate-Dipped Florentines
recipe courtesy of Julie Marr

1 large egg white, room temperature
⅓ cup icing sugar
1¾ cup blanched sliced almonds
pinch of flaky sea salt
grated zest of half an orange
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Preheat the oven to 300ºF.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly brush the paper with vegetable oil. In a bowl, mix together the egg white, icing sugar, sliced almonds, salt and orange zest. Fill a small bowl with cold water and place it along with a fork next to your lined tray and the bowl with the almond mixture. Dip your hand in the cold water before lifting a tablespoon-sized portion of the almond mixture and place on prepared baking sheet. Continue placing tablespoon size portions of the almond mixture, evenly spacing them on the sheet.Dip the fork in the cold water and flatten the mounds of almond mixture as much as possible. Try to avoid having gaps between the almonds.Bake in the preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes until the cookies are evenly golden brown. The time will depend on how large the cookies are.Let the cookies cool and then lift with a spatula and place them on a cooling rack. Continue baking all the cookies in batches.

Once the cookies are cool, melt the chocolate in a clean dry bowl either in the microwave or over a pot of simmering water. Spread the underside of the florentines with the chocolate and place upside down on a parchment-lined tray. Let cool until the chocolate firms up. Serve or store in an airtight container at room temperature until ready to eat.
Makes 20 – 25 cookies.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kathleen Keating #

    Hurray!! She’s back!!

    Congratulations, my friend.

    >

    February 16, 2016
  2. Barbara Shumiatcher #

    How elegant! Many thanks, dear Diane.

    Your Dinner parties for each month – what a neat idea.

    This one is enticing –

    I very much appreciate the make-ahead feature.

    Makes it possible to have fresh Barbara as hostess.

    Another trick of mine lately:

    I make the main dish, cooked vegs & appetizer and ask one guest to bring a salad and another to bring a dessert.(their choice)

    Not nearly as elegant as your plan which

    Of course follows one aroma/taste/texture/colour mixture with the next

    In such a lovely progression.

    I love the way the pear in wine sauce echoes the beet salad!!!!

    Oyeh! Oyeh!

    xxxxb

    _____

    February 16, 2016
  3. S LAURIE #

    Omg!! Looks DELICIOUS !!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    February 16, 2016
  4. Sidney Williams #

    Wow! This is amazing! I will study it more closely after MW. oxs

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    February 17, 2016
  5. Daphne SPENCER #

    Hi Lovely …. This is coming to you from Mexico!! Loved that I received this! One comment….I think in the pear recipe you might add the danger of leaving the poaching liquid unattended when the clean up husband is attending dutifully to his tasks!! You are amazing to save us all in this way!! Peter and I will try it! D

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    February 17, 2016
  6. So looking forward to working on this project together. March menu, here we come! xo J

    February 18, 2016
  7. Bobbie Farquhar #

    This is a wonderful and practical idea, Diane. I’m looking forward to trying the duck confit as you’ve tapped into what I do best – cooking ahead so that I can enjoy the dinner party. Bobbie >

    February 18, 2016
  8. Hola from Mexico City Diane, Can’t wait to try these gorgeous recipes when I get back to town! Let’s get together soon!!

    February 22, 2016
  9. Hello from the Carolinas, the land of collards, shrimp and grits. As I read your heavenly inspired menu, while awaiting the election of Donald Trump as the next president, I feel somewhat tempted to drown myself in the red wine sauce. However, I’d miss the March menu if I did so and there’s no reading I enjoy more than the inspiring ‘Nourishing Vancouver’.
    Lisa Birnie K.

    March 3, 2016

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