Normally I stick to a ratio of one recipe per blog post, but looking through the photos of a recent dinner party I thought I might create a post about the series of recipes I put together for the occasion.
This is in part because I think it was a nice sequence of dishes that came together and partially, I must admit, because I am not sure there was a single dish that I actually photographed from start to finish (my apartment was such a mess that I had to clean while cooking, so the camera was a bit of an afterthought this time round). So I’ll just have to present the meal as a whole and charge you to use your imagination.
For the details (including a few recipes) about a six-course trip around the world (yes I realize this makes me sound like a latter-day Betty Draper. No apologies) featuring tidbits like eggplant bruschetta, a hot & cold soup course, reimagined manicotti, couscous served in acorn squash and a dessert salad (among other things), read on…
First course: Mediterranean Mezze, Writ Large
Starting from the premise that at one point those living around the Mediterranean had more in common than they had differences, and that things might be better if we re-envisioned our views of what it means to be Levantine (thank you Ammiel Alcalay), I prepared a mezze starter course filled with food from all around the Mediterranean. This included fresh goat cheese, aged goat cheese, Greek & Turkish olives, bread with oil from both Spain and Morocco, hummus, and eggplant bruschetta, which I didn’t photograph (?!?) but adapted from a recipe from smittenkitchen who photographed it much more beautifully than I would have anyway.
Second Course: Soup Two Ways, Poles to Equator
I knew I wanted to mix things up a bit with the soup course and serve two soups that offered not only different textures and flavors, but varied temperatures as well. This gave me the chance to throw in some visual variation too – as my genius chef and godmother taught me, varying the level of food on a plate or items on a table adds a new dimension to the presentation that actually makes the food taste better (maybe this hasn’t been proven but I have no doubt it could be).
The first soup contains the ingredients you see above, plus some sauteed onions and garlic and some yellow squash from the summer that I’d sliced and frozen. I baked some acorn squash and potatoes (keeping the skins on = more nutrients) at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes then blended it all together with the onions, garlic, and some homemade veggie stock and seasoned with salt & pepper for a textured but simple hearty winter bisque type concoction. The key was small servings in little short ramekins with a dot of harissa sauce and a swirl of harissa oil.
For the second soup, I wanted something tropically inspired, smooth and fresh to contrast with the squash & potato soup and prepare the way for the following course. So I pieced together several melon soup recipes from around the internet to come up with my own, with pieces of an entire melon, about half a cucumber (peeled) and a generous portion of mint. I added these to honey, orange juice, and water, eyeing the amounts and blending till the consistency seemed about right (thicker than a juice but thinner than the hot soup). I served this soup as high as I served the previous soup low, pouring it into champagne flutes and serving with plain yogurt, a drizzle of honey and a mint leaf.
Third Course: Orange Couscous in Acorn Squash Bowls
The narrative behind this one was food from indigenous cultures, since acorn squash was a food native to North America and couscous is traditionally considered an Amazigh/Berber food in North Africa. I cobbled the recipe together from a few different sources – Martha Stewart Living ran a recipe that used Acorn Squash this way in 2009, and Southern Living recently featured an “Orange-Scented Couscous” upon which the filling is based.
Aside: I could probably write a whole essay (and if I ever finish my reading and my laundry, maybe I will) about the fact that Martha Stewart Living and Southern Living both featured “Moroccan” recipes whose Moroccan-ness could be pretty thoroughly questioned. I’m normally no cheerleader for authenticity when it comes to recipes (or much of anything, really) but I do find it fascinating that Moroccan food’s popularity is such at this point that all these very broadly interpreted iterations of Moroccan recipes wind up all over the place.
To make the couscous filling: prepare half a box of couscous per the directions on the box (if you really have a lot of time, by all means make couscous Moroccan-style, but if you have an apartment to clean, carry on) but using water that has been steeped with several orange tea bags (brilliant, right? Thank you Southern Living. As difficult as it would be to find these tea bags in Morocco. Although maybe orange blossom water would be a useful substitute?). Mix with cilantro, orange rind, orange juice, honey, olive oil, salt & pepper and spices (the recipe recommends cardamom but I used ginger and cinnamon). Mix in some toasted almonds and golden raisins.
As for the presentation, I borrowed the squash idea from the Martha Stewart recipe but switched out her filling for the couscous above. You take acorn squashes and slice in half, scoop out the seeds (which by the way are great for salting and toasting and snacking) and bake, face-down, in a casserole dish (see the first photo on this post) and bake for 40 minutes at 400 degrees.
Then you scoop out just a little more of the squash flesh (or the squesh as I like to call it) – and blend it into any squash based soups you might have lying around – and fill each squash half with the couscous. Here I also drizzled some olive oil and honey on top for good measure. Then return to the oven for about 12 more minutes.
Fourth Course: Reimagined Manicotti
So the next recipe is the first of a series I am envisioning. Not sure quite what to call it yet: maybe “Occupy Recipes” or “Postcolonial Reimaginings” – but this dish was inspired by my favorite new recipes: my grandmother’s manicotti and Eritrean spinach. Seeing these together on my blog I thought, hmm, interesting, because you know the Italians have quite a history in East Africa.
I knew I wanted to experiment with the manicotti form a bit and it struck me that the spinach would make the perfect filling (stuffing pasta with spinach isn’t exactly revolutionary but with spicy Eritrean spinach? Never heard of that one).
Of course having undertaken one innovation I felt compelled to cast about for another, and I realized that I had a new tomato sauce recipe I’d wanted to try – based on the recipe of none other than Lady Gaga – with rosemary, fennel, oregano and leeks. Since I am American, why not throw an Italian-American element into the mix here?
All this added up to a manicotti dish in which an Eritrean/Ethiopian recipe actually occupied an Italian one – like a symbolic re-imagining/reversal of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia and present-day Eritrea (#youknowyoureingradschoolwhen…). Cloaked in Italian-American pop star tomato sauce. For what? A touch of ambivalence? A touch of flash? Postmodern ambiguity? Postcolonial globalization? Who even knows but it was delicious.
Fifth Course: Dessert Salad with Chocolate & Espresso
Things were winding down and I wanted something light and crisp to follow the progressively heavy dishes above. So I served a simple dessert salad with mixed greens tossed in a mix of dressings (some simple vinaigrette, a touch of raspberry vinaigrette, some olive oil and some red basil vinegar) and piled it with Clementine orange wedges and walnuts. Then I drizzled the plates with some dark chocolate and espresso balsamic vinaigrettes (get your own here and you won’t regret it. Seriously. They don’t pay me to say this, I just really love the stuff that much). I was going to top it with dark chocolate shavings but somehow I was distracted and forgot.
Sixth Course: Plumcake with Lemon-Honey Glaze
This one is in honor of a line uttered by Maggie Smith’s character on Downton Abbey in which she implies that if her granddaughter’s reputation is too sullied as a result of a romp with a Turkish paramour, they will just have to find her a fiance from the Continent: “In these moments, you can normally find an Italian who isn’t too picky.” I made an English plumcake and drizzled it liberally with an Italian honey cream sauce, which you can find here. I have no pictures to document this one, so if you by some miracle are still reading this post, I hope you don’t mind.
This was a fun one, this dinner party, and even though I almost killed my guests with too much food, I was happy to be able to say that the entire thing was vegetarian and actually wouldn’t have to be altered too much to make it entirely vegan – and yet it still managed to be hearty and filling. Key elements to achieving this, I think, were a wide variety of flavors and textures, plus substantial meat substitutes like the eggplant, the crepes of the manicotti, and the acorn squash that kept popping up all over the place…