Christmas Eve 2008
Christmas Eve dinner is a special event for me. Every year, I cook a four-course themed dinner for my family. One year the theme was "wrapped" foods, one year the theme was red and green, that sort of thing. Since I only go to this extreme once a year, I like to go all out and push what I've learned about cooking. Over the years, I've seen some good improvement in my cooking techniques, but also in my meal planning as these dinners have been for as many as eighteen guests. This year was a first in a few ways. My brother, who is an excellent dessert guy, developed the dessert course in harmony with the earlier courses, and he also gave me a lot of help as my "sous" this year. Previously, I've done the entire meal on my own, which can be limiting. Also, this was the first year in which I asked my guests to pick a theme ingredient, Iron Chef style. In years past, I would surprise my guests with the theme -- this year the surprise would be on me. I did ask for a week notice, but I also had to come up with the courses, shop, prep, pre-cook, and cook for fourteen adult guests.
After Thanksgiving, the guests emailed back and forth and compiled a possible list of ingredients on which to vote: Agar gum, liquid nitrogen, miso, the whole goat, goat dairy, filo dough, bacon, rosemary, chili pepper, green chilis, orange, pomegranate, cocoa, rum, bourbon, avocado, sugar, cheese kids like, tomato, cilantro, hazelnuts, pistachio, nuts in general, coffee, beer, deep-fried everything, bread, rice
The semifinals simmered down to coffee and avocado, with a tie-breaking vote creating another tie. So, a coin was flipped, and coffee won the spot of honor.
I created an amuse bouche and three courses of dishes using coffee, and my brother came up with a final dessert (I don't know what he would have done with avocado).
I asked Christey if she wouldn't mind printing a tasting menu, just a 1/2 sheet with some different fonts. Of course, she came back with a two-piece vellum and card-stock menu, tied with a coffee-colored bow. It blew me away as well as our guests.
The courses were as follows: Amuse Mini Eggs Benedict Toasted English muffin, prosciutto, poached quail egg, hollandaise
First Coffee Infused Mushroom Soup Mushroom variety in vegetable stock, coffee, cream, bacon garnish
Second Glazed King Clip Coffee, honey, New Mexico red chile glazed fish. Served with coffee slaw and grilled pineapple slice.
Main Coffee Braised Buffalo Tortelloni Braised buffalo short ribs with a coffee cream sauce. Tortelloni filled with braised buffalo, roasted garlic, and parmesan reggiano.
Dessert Mocha Mallow Mousse Coffee, marshmallow, Oreo cookies, chocolate, whipped cream
For the amuse, I decided coffee is the start of the day for many people, so I would do a high-end breakfast. Eggs benedict is classic, of course, but with the typical bite-sized tradition of the amuse bouche, I decided to make a mini eggs benedict with a poached quail egg, prosciutto instead of the Canadian bacon, and a mini toasted muffin.
I was originally intending to make coffee-infused homemade english muffins, but a couple attempts made me quickly punt and go to plan B. I am not a baker, and I didn't have time to tinker in the next few days. So, instead, I bought regular english muffins, and cut out small rounds (using the plastic top of a spice jar -- garlic salt, I believe), then toasted them under the broiler. I made a coffee glaze with coffee, honey, lemon, and just a bit of corn starch, and kept it warm for later.
Poaching the quail eggs was an experience because the eggs are so very tiny, and the shells are quite thick. A sharp steak knife was able to cut the tops off the eggs just wider than the yolk, then I could just tip them into simmering water (with some champagne vinegar added for taste, and to help the whites harden). Sixty seconds of simmer, and they were perfect.
The hollandaise was pretty classic -- for 14 mini-servings: the juice of a whole lemon, 4 (chicken) egg yolks, a splash of champagne vinegar, whisked. Then, over a simmering water bath, I whisked the eggs until they turned pale and got about as thick as heavy cream. I had a stick and a half of butter cubed into tablespoons, and I added a few at a time to the eggs and stirred until melted and incorporated. A bit of kosher salt, and it was ready.
I poured the coffee glaze over the toasted muffin. I put a couple transparent-thin layers of prosciutto over the muffin/coffee, then placed the poached egg over that, then poured the hollandaise over in a generous portion. Some chopped chives were sprinkled over the top for a garnish.
For the first course, I made a cream of mushroom soup using "exotic" mushrooms -- chantarelles, shiitake, woodear, porcini. I used the dried, because I wanted the mushroom stock. I boiled two cups of water, took it off the heat, then soaked the dried mushrooms for 15 minutes. I removed the mushrooms and placed them in two cups of coffee, and put mushrooms and coffee in the fridge for about six hours, to put in a bit of coffee flavor. I strained the mushroom water through a coffee filter (which was some unintended synchronicity), and saved the mushroom stock.
Meanwhile, I made a mirepoix of carrots, shallots, leeks, and parsnips. I browned them nicely in some olive oil, then threw them in a pot with a few quarts of water and simmered gently for an hour or so, skimming off some skim and fat. I was left with an extremely flavorful vegetable stock, almost a court-bullion.
I strained out the vegetables, brought the stock to a simmer again, added the mushroom stock, added 1/2 cup of strong coffee, and some heavy cream. I sliced the mushrooms, added them to the soup, and simmered for hours.
Before serving, I added a bunch of roux to thicken the soup a bit, then served in individual coffee mugs, with some chopped chives over the top and some bacon tossed in for...well, it was bacon. That's enough of an excuse.
I was planning on using local grouper for the fish course, but when shopping for other ingredients, the store had a special on king clip. King clip is an exceptionally ugly cold water fish which nevertheless tastes amazingly tender and flaky. The taste is similar to hake, or triggerfish. It's one of my favorites, and it's kind of rare to find it outside of a restaurant (especially in warm-water Florida).
The king clip was dusted with flour, kosher salt, and a bit of pepper, then seared in olive oil, flipped, and tossed into a pre-heated 400F degree oven. About 10 minutes per inch, and it was taken out and left to rest for about 5 minutes to continue cooking inside.
I made a glaze by using some dried New Mexico red chiles softened in boiling water, processed and strained, some coffee, honey, and lemon juice. I added a bit of white wine and a touch of corn starch to thicken it a bit.
I sliced two pineapples and removed the cores, and grilled them on the grill to get some good caramalization.
I also sliced some cabbage thinly and made a slaw sauce with coffee, champagne vinegar, olive oil, mustard, water, and some kosher salt. About five minutes before serving, I tossed the cabbage with the slaw sauce and let it soak it in just enough to give flavor without un-crunching the cabbage.
Plating was grilled pineapple slice, king clip over the top, and slaw on the side. The coffee glaze was drizzled over the fish and the pineapple.
For the main course, I wanted to do a coffee braise of buffalo short ribs, with pasta, similar to the Braised Lamb Shank Tortelloni we featured a couple weeks ago. With a week to go before Christmas Eve, I tried to find buffalo on the internet, but every site had already shipped their Christmas shipments, and there was no way I would get meat in time (not to mention the shipping costs). Luckily, I found a local buffalo ranch, Gap Creek Buffalo Ranch, in Bradenton Florida, that actually raises organic, hormone-free, local buffalo, 30 minutes from where I was serving dinner. Pure fate!
The day before Christmas eve, I first seared the buffalo in olive oil with some salt and pepper, then seared carrots, parsnips, leeks, and shallots. I braised the buffalo and vegetables in red wine, beef stock, coffee, and red wine vinegar, with cherry peppers, for about three hours, turning every now and then. I cooled the ribs and veggies to room temperature and cooled in the fridge overnight.
For the pasta, I roasted some garlic, grated some parmesan reggiano, and minced a couple spare ribs. I mixed and put a teaspoon of each in some round pasta dough, folded over, then made tortelloni. I floured lightly, then kept in the fridge until dinner.
For the sauce, I strained the vegetables out of the braising sauce (and discarded), put the liquid in a saucepan, added some cream and a cup of coffee, and reduced on a light simmer. I chopped the rest of the short ribs into bite-sized pieces, sauteed some crimini mushrooms, and added both to the sauce. Serving was in a shallow bowl with tortelloni, mushrooms, buffalo, and sauce:
Dessert was created by my brother -- a light mousse made with chocolate, melted marshmallows, and coffee, with a crushed oreo crust. A single marshmallow garnished the dish with some crushed oreos to top.
Cooking: Simmering the buffalo sauce:
Chopping herbs for garnish:
Plating the fish with sauce (my sister helped serve the guests):
Working on plating:
The heat of the kitchen!
Deconstruction: This was probably my best Christmas Eve dinner. The help of my brother and sister (and Christey's help, menu and documentation) was no small contribution -- I couldn't have pulled this off on my own.
The amuse was almost perfect. I think the poached quail eggs got a little cool by the time they were served, though no one complained.
The soup was very tasty, yet the coffee-infused mushrooms and bacon instantly sank into the soup, which made it hard to photograph. Maybe a little thicker next time?
The fish was the surprise star of the evening. I put the fish before the pasta as I believed the pasta dish, with the buffalo meat, would be heavier, and more suitable for a main. However, the fish with its three parts (fish, pineapple, slaw), and the really excellent taste and the way it cooked up so tenderly, actually blew everything else away. If I had known it would turn out that good, I would have swapped the pasta and the fish.
The buffalo pasta was not bad, however. It was my personal favorite, but after tasting the fish, I could understand why it came in almost second fiddle.
As far as the coffee theme, due to the inherent bitterness of coffee, I tried to keep the coffee taste subtle. I think I succeeded, but perhaps too well. The amuse had a nice coffee bite, but also the breakfast theme worked in a symbolic way. The soup had a faint coffee taste, the mushrooms themselves did have more of a coffee flavor when chewed. The fish had a great coffee glaze, softened with the citrus and honey. The buffalo were braised and sauced with coffee, but after the rest of the dishes, the coffee wasn't as noticeable as I would have liked. The dessert was great, but coffee and chocolate are made for each other.
Overall, I think it was a great meal, and I was very glad (after two and a half days of cooking) that it was over!