Sunday, October 3, 2010

PFB2010 Challenge #3: Luxury Dinner Party

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The challenge:

Celebrate! You've made it this far, and the next challenge is to hold a party for your friends and family (at least four guests, you can include yourself in the 4 person count). Whether you're an experienced host or an entertaining newbie, get creative and host a luxurious dinner party where your guests will discover new tastes and exotic flavors. Share your hosting secrets with readers, like how to cook for a crowd, plan a menu, or involve guests in the prep.

As I considered this challenge, I gave a good long thought about what luxury is these days, to me. The definition of luxury is elusive because it really is something different to different people, and even to one person luxury can inhabit many categories.  A 16-course 35th birthday party meal at Joël Robuchon's The Mansion followed by a ride in a limousine and a snifter of cognac is certainly one unsurprisingly standard definition. However, it also feels incredibly luxurious to live within walking distance of one of LA's best taco trucks, the infamous blue corn quesadilla lady on Echo Park Boulevard, and the exotic and surprisingly comprehensive A-1 Grocery Warehouse down the hill that offers everything anyone cooking Southeast Asian cuisine could want from the giant fresh durian fruit to chicken feet packaged by the dozen.  Always plentiful fresh produce to cook with is luxurious, the ever present sunshine of Southern California is part of my bounty, and certainly all the good friends we share our lives with is just about the best example of luxury I can think of. And as I consider what luxury might be to someone else, simply arising daily knowing I will never go hungry should be acknowledged.


Before our guests arrived D and I started with the obligatory martini.

Helpful hint #1: Lubricate yourself enough to enjoy the cooking process and the company of your guests.


I want to thank dearly everyone, readers, family and friends alike who voted for me to advance to this round of  Project Food Blog.  Tenterhooks!  Tenterhooks bookended my very long week of work and travel. In my head I was prepared for the party. Menu planned, a grocery list listed and Silverlake Wine partnered with me to create wine pairings for every course. I checked my email obsessively for verification of advancement or disappointment Friday morning. Food Buzz posted advancement on the contest page long before they send out the emails. I could access emails when I was out with my client, but not the web site.  A dear friend let me know she could see my picture on the contest page with a second little trophy!  Time to shift internal planning into high gear. Unfortunately, my body was mentally and emotionally exhausted. I later found myself at the downtown Ralph's sucking hard at a caffeine IV (soda fountain Diet Coke) trying to summon the energy and good humor to pull this off.

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As I walked in my charming little house (a house well equipped for some serious partying but not necessarily for a sit-down dinner) spent a few moments with my sous chef and arranged my produce on the big wooden bar, the week's cares fell away.

Sous Chef

I happily shook up those martinis and began to cook.

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Oven Warmed Olives, Paprika, Fennel Seed, Lemon Rind

Awaiting Claudia & David, I prepped the first course. A simple trick taught to me at a home cooking party with the Pink Sparrows; warm olives with paprika, fennel and citrus rind.  Lay mixed olives on aluminum foil, sprinkle with paprika and fennel seed, garnish with a couple long strips of citrus rind (in this case, lemon from my own prolific tree), fold into a metal envelope and warm at 325 for 15 minutes or so.  Couldn't be easier and has a surprising wow effect.  I placed a few ramekins of these on the bar to assuage appetites as I got the cooking under way.

Helpful Hint #2: Have a nibble waiting for your guests on arrival. Over the river, through the woods perhaps all while battling traffic should be rewarded.

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Sweet Potato Latke, Green Onion Creme Fraiche, Fried Quail Egg

My first cooking mentor was my mom, natch. I thank her for this deeply as an adult on a very regular basis. One of the things hammered into my head as a child was about wasting food and ingredients, more accurately the not wasting of.  This may look familiar if you followed me through the last challenge. The quail egg is the only common ingredient actually, the act of stacking the ingredients into an almost mini-slider shape is somewhat similar but so appealing I couldn't resist. Starting the the upper left, moving clockwise: pureeing green onion into creme fraiche, layering, frying latke mixture, left over and now unwasted quail eggs, prepping, pile o' latkes.


No real recipe, per se. I make sweet potato latkes at Thanksgiving time for D's family and they gobble them up while we are chatting in the living room waiting for the main event. This application is very breakfastlike, sweet little hash browns with a perfectly fried tiny egg on top.


Claudia & David pop the cork, pour the fizz.

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When considering luxurious food early on in the week, my mind wandered to Jenny's 35th birthday at The Mansion referenced above.  I scoured the internet in search of Robuchon recipes and came across this one for lettuce soup with onion custard. Having made lettuce soup before, I had a feeling this would be good. From top left going clockwise: gently and quickly boiling heads of butter lettuce, pureeing in my ancient and much used Braun food processor, simmering the puree with butter and a little stock for smoothness of texture and flavor.


Individual onion custards steam in a saute pan. I did amend Robuchon's recipe. Cooking somewhat instinctively, I felt the custard mixture was too milky to set properly so I added another egg.


I also left out the bacon from the recipe for my lacto-ovo-pesce vegetarian friend, and it wasn't missed even a little bit. I wonder if the bacon would have overpowered the delicate flavors of the lettuce & custard? I never need to know.

Helpful Hint #3: Cook to please the dining preferences of your guests. Vegetarianism, lactose intolerance, celiac disease...there are so many wonderful things to cook pleasing everyone should never hinder your creativity.


The turn out. The custards turned out perfectly, but did not turn out perfectly. That is, the flavor and texture were wonderful, but they didn't turn out of the ramekins 100% perfectly. Still, this dish was my favorite of the evening and it is going into the book. Mom, you know what book I am talking about.


David watches. When I wrote that my house is set up well for serious partying but not a sit down dinner, see the bar above. Our good friend Jib made this bar by hand for us. He also revealed the wood under the posts at either end of the bar and stained it all to match. One day, driving down Sunset Boulevard past The Den of Antiquity in Silverlake, Mom and I spied some amazing looking somewhat decrepit tall armed bar chairs on the sidewalk. Turns out they are the original tall Cal Arts & Crafts style chairs from the now defunked Hollywood Athletic Club.  These allow one to belly right up to the deep, thick bar and watch what is happening in the kitchen very comfortable for hours on end. This is my dining room. Light some candles, pop a couple corks and you've got a party.


Tools of the trade, my knives are shamefully dull.

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A quick veggie course. I tossed haricot verts and Japanese mushrooms with sea salt and white truffle oil to round out our plates.


David treated us to this wonderful bottle of red, 2007 Alto Moncayo. I took a pause in my cooking to sit and enjoy this treat with my friends. Luxury, indeed.

Helpful Hint #4: Always offer to open whatever your guests bring. It might be intended as a gift, but it might be intended to share in the moment.


Chilean sea bass.  I have a little something to admit here regarding the main course. I test ran a second Joël Robuchon recipe, Sauteed Bass with Lemongrass. It was lackluster, in my opinion, so I changed it up more than a bit for this post. It's hard to go wrong with sea bass, although I rarely cook with it.  For the first run of this recipe, sea bass was selling for $30 per pound at my local U.S supermarket.  I opted for Dover sole.  For the change up, A-1 was selling sea bass for $12 a pound, a price which made me gasp with pleasure.  I know most likely this was frozen at some point. It wasn't sold to me frozen, however, and the texture was beautifully firm. It didn't have that weird sort of deterioration or loss of structural integrity some frozen fish gets over time. It was fishy perfection.

Anyway, with regard to the Robuchon recipe, if you read the recipe, you will see parallel ingredients and technique....mine turned out better, for me anyway.


Nothing sears like a sea bass. Seared in lemongrass infused oil made during the first attempt, I got a beautiful slightly browned crust on both sides of my thick gorgeous filets.

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Sauce.  Above, quartered tomatoes tossed in olive oil with thyme, garlic and green onions in different stages of roasting and then into the Braun.

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I have stated in prior posts that I sometimes actually revel in my mistakes in the kitchen, being that there is always something to be learned.  I can admit here with only a little sheepishness that I was trying to make melted leeks. I left them on the stove top a little too long and we ended up with caramelized leeks. I am owning it!

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Chilean Sea Bass, Roasted Tomato Thyme Puree, Caramelized Leeks

The caramelized leeks turned out beautifully, and so did the fish. To caramelize leeks, use this recipe for melted leeks and leave them on the stove top until brown.

Helpful Hint #5: Don't be afraid to alter the game plan.

Chocolate Souffle, Chile Sugar

This recipe for chocolate souffle comes straight from our friend Epicurious, published previously in the pages of Gourmet magazine circa 2002.  My souffle had issues. It could be because I might have been tipsy at this point, or it might have been the size of the ramekins. The recipe asks for 5.5-6 cup ramekins for a souffle to share which translates to a 44-48 ounce ramekin.  However Surfas only had 20 ounce ramekins in stock, we bought two.  In my right mind I would have made extra batter and I can assure you that at approximately 10:30 PM-ish on the night in question my alibi for sobriety is not solid. Nevertheless, YUM!  It didn't rise quite right, but the inside was perfectly light, fluffy, chocolatey. On top, I sprinkled chillied sugar crystals from Spice Station for a little edge.

Helpful Hint #6: Don't get so lubricated you eff up the dessert.

Midnight found me curled up on my couch under a fuzzy blanket, half a glass of red wine precariously balanced in one hand with my sous chef on the floor beneath me and my husband on the couch next to me manning the remote. Stops and starts, trials and culinary tribulations, wine and food and friends.

As an aside, I want to publicly welcome Lily Claire who entered this world Saturday October 2nd. Congratulations, Kristine, David & Lily. I hope you're all resting well today.

Front Porch with Cigar


It's With A K said...

Your menu had some of my most favorite ingredients in the universe...olives, mushrooms, onions, chilean sea bass (omg, most favorite!), prosecco, wine, chocolate, and loved ones (although not on the nommable menu). Drooling just writing this comment. Being able enjoy such fine fair in one's own home with the company of dear friends and loved ones is truly luxurious in these busy times.

I love that you admit your booboos, too. Makes your blog more authentic, imho.

Amelia PS said...

yes, excellent ingredients!

(see my entry here:

Whitney said...

your latkes look amazeballs. sweet potato and quail egg. yes please!!


We Are Not Martha said...

Omg that sweet potato latke with quail egg is to die for!! It looks absolutely incredible! Really, all of the food does, but that especially had me drooling :) Awesome take on luxury!!


Jennifer said...

Well, as always, your photography is stunning, and your food equally so.

Second, I CAN'T STAND HOW CUTE YOUR "SOUS CHEF" IS!!! What a precious looking pup.

You've got my vote. Good luck!

jen cheung said...

VOTEDDDDDDD! Good luck! Wish you all the best!

jen @

Anna said...

You dinner party looks great,Loved the Latke with the eggs on top,very pretty.

Jean said...

What a beautiful party (and menu of course) you put together. How could I miss the best tip of all? Your first one? I certainly follow it. Wonderful job--I would have loved to be your guest. :-) Voted.

Natty said...

Oooh, thanks for an idea for how to use the 6 quail eggs I have left over! I love your tip about lubricating yourself before guests arrive. Absolutely essential!

Stay-At-Home-Chef said...

Great post full of lots of helpful tips. I especially like helpful hint #1!

Food, she thought. said...

@K Thank you for being my most loyal follower. May I feed you often!

@Amelia TY! I reciprocated!

@Whitney & Martha, you both got my vote as well! So nice to have lots of votes when there are so many great blogs!

@jennifer ty! he is the best company.

@Anna & Jean thank you so much for stopping by!

Ed said...

Quail eggs? Yummy! I am a fan of yours. Vote is yours

Jessica said...

Love your menu! Looks like it was a fabulous dinner party! Hope we both make it to the next round! :-) You have my vote!

fromBAtoParis said...

You did a great job here !!! Everything is perfectly balanced AND tasty !!!

Anonymous said...

Your food looked wonderful. Love your first tip - I follow the same routine!

Anonymous said...

An excellent menu! I love the idea of green chile sugar!

Jacob's Kitchen said...

Great post! I made chocolate souffles for my party too. =) Your photos are gorgeous, and it sounds like a really fun night. Nicely done. I voted for you!

Good luck! Fingers crossed that we both make it through to the next round! =)

Unknown said...

Your food looks delicious and I would love to taste that menu. Great post and you got my vote. Good luck!

Amy (Shiny Cooking) said...

Damn, I want to go to everyone's dinner party. Yours looks like great fun, nice casual grownup time. And lots of wine, yay! Got my vote. :)

Julie @ Willow Bird Baking said...

Those potato latke appetizers are drivin' me nuts!! Want one!!

Anonymous said...

Everything sounds delicious... and I love your adorable sous chef ;) I want to climb through the computer and try those sweet potato latkes... great job with this challenge!

Amanda (The Culinary Passport) said...

Everything looks wonderful :) Great pics! You get me vote

Unknown said...

This was one of my favorite reads, yet.
The crisp you got on that fish is killing me!
Aaaahh, and the lettuce soup...I've had two renditions of lettuce-related items from The Mansion and can only imagine how amazing yours were.
The BUBBLY, the potatos, the quail favorite.
Thank you for some beautiful Sunday morning food porn
: )