Before I review the minutes of the very first meeting of “The Mutual Admiration Society”, I’ll do my best to make it relevant to my situation. Many people would ask “Why in THE HELL would someone who can’t eat 90% of the food at their own dinner party take all of the time to plan and execute such an enviable event?”. Well, the answers are pretty simple actually… #1- Pure ego and the need to impress others, and #2- To feed the monster. The monster…that compulsion over food that drives someone like me to the point where the only way they’ll make it past 40 or 45 is to have someone reconfigure their insides. Yes, after surgery you do find other things to spend your time on…school, singing, exercise, blogging, etc. However, there is still a connection to food that is rooted so deeply that it has to come out in some way. The study of technique, seasonality, experimentation, playing host….just because you can’t eat all of the stuff anymore doesn’t mean that shit just disappears. So I spent the past several weeks dreaming up the menu, sourcing ingredients, practicing on pastas, homemade sausage, etc. I wouldn’t do it if it caused me angst, I really wouldn’t. I can honestly say that the entire time I was doing all of this it just felt so fun. For the first time in my life I was able to put a laser-focus onto my cooking without the compulsion to hurry up and get it done so that I could gorge on it (or spend so much money on my daily intake that I could never afford to throw a dinner party). I can’t really describe that paradigm shift effectively enough, and if at some point it all backfires on me I’ll cross that bridge then. For right now though, the fascination with cooking is coupled with what seems like endless patience in regard to the execution, because the creativity and preparation are both feeding the monster. In all seriousness, last night I had one bite of a rice ball, about three bites of lasagne, one bite of dessert and one big glass of wine. Leftovers either went out the door with my guests or will soon be at a family member’s house. Not because I’m afraid of the food (like I would be if I were on a diet), but because I’m more connected to making it now than I am with eating it……if that can even possibly make any sense to anyone but me. If I keep the food, it’s going to get thrown away because I just won’t eat it. I get bored so easily with any food that my attention span will make it totally uninteresting, or I know that starches and sugars aren’t worth the possible uncomfortable side effects. I am experiencing a freedom that I guess most “normal” people take for granted, and for the sake of the newly founded Mutual Admiration Society, I hope it lasts.
Anyway, enough of the existential mumbo jumbo……on to the food. In order to get some practice when it comes to feeding more than two people at a time, I picked some great friends and what sounded like a fun dinner party theme…… with (almost) all recipes coming straight from The Sopranos Cookbook. The thought was that I’d cut my teeth on this party, and then take it to seasonal or thematic extremes like an all-offal dinner later on. When the farmer’s markets start rolling, I will see my enemies driven before me and hear the lamentation of their women…I will conquer.
I went super-homemade with everything….from the pesto to the pasta, the ground beef to the sausage, and I trekked about town to get exactly the right and the BEST ingredients (for example, Carollo’s for the San Marzano tomatoes and prosciutto). In keeping with the spirit of the food of the Sopranos, I thought this was the only way to go. Do it right and do it big.
I just came up with this little bite of food so that I had an excuse to say “amuse bouche”…it’s just a grape tomato, cube of fresh mozzarella, slice of fresh basil and good prosciutto, finished with a couple of drops of quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Unfortunately, we’re as far away from tomato season as we can get and I had to actually BUY the damn basil, but it was a nice start to the meal.
Mushroom Soup with Ceci Bruschetta
This course had absolutely NOTHING to do with the Sopranos cookbook…I just felt like adding it into the lineup. The soup is a recipe from Top Chef Season 2, and it is one of the easiest and greatest things I like to make. You basically simmer a pound of mushrooms in a cream/broth mixture, strain out the mushrooms and then add freshly sauteed mushrooms before serving. It is a winner of a dish, and got the first “oh wow’s” of the evening. The Ceci Bruschetta is from the Babbo Cookbook. The chickpea/olive paste/olive oil/basil/red pepper flake/garlic mixture is something I’ll keep onhand just to have as a handy little protein source when I’m not in the mood for meat.
Second round of “oh wow’s” went to these little fried rice balls….and I’m glad because they were a pain in the ass to make. Something needs to be adjusted in the recipe in order for the arborio rice mixture to be thick enough to shape around the filling. It’s basically just a simple risotto….cooked arborio rice finished with butter, pecorino and parmesan cheeses, then filled with a mixture of chuck steak that I ground fresh, chopped tomatoes, garlic and peas. Once you manage to successfully form a ball, it’s dredged in flour, egg white, bread crumbs, and deep fried. To provide a nice counterpoint to the richness I put them on a bed of mixed greens dressed with simple Italian dressing and red onion, then finished it all with freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano. This dish was a huge hit. Even I had to take a bite of one, and I will tell you they were not the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. How can you go wrong with stuffed and deep fried risotto?
Fettucine Aglio e Olio “Deconstructed Pesto”
I thought this simple dish would be a relatively “light” pasta course to include between two heavy hitters. Plus, it would highlight my ability (or inability) to successfully make homemade pasta. I started with the basic preparation…olive oil, garlic and fettucine, but then added my own “deconstructed pesto” addition by throwing in toasted pine nuts, chopped basil and a ton of Parmesano Reggiano. The Sopranos cookbook is great and everything, but I’m big on artistic license. Everyone dug it, I think it provided the intended intermezzo moment between two killer courses.
Lasagne made with “Sunday Gravy”
I can’t really say this got the third rousing round of “oh wow’s”…..the reaction was much more primordial than that. It was more like a “silently chewing with head back and eyes closed, tapping both feet on the floor and one fist on the table” phenomenon. I ate about 1/4 of a piece myself, and I will say….son-of-a-BITCH this was some good lasagne. The ONLY issue was the structural integrity…once the first piece came out of the pot, many of the surrounding pieces deflated and pooled. But this isn’t something you want to let cool long enough to come out in a solid square…it’s all about the ooozy goodness. I will say the preparation, if you do it like I did, is not something to go into lightly. With the exception of canned tomatoes (good, imported San Marzanos), this was as homemade as it gets….freshly made pasta, a pound and a half of meatballs made with fresh ground beef, a pound of homemade Italian sausage, a pound and a half of whole milk ricotta, tons of freshly grated pecorino and parmesano. And of course, the “Sunday Gravy” which served as the base was made prior to that…slow cooked with pork neckbones and the sausage for a few hours. I played with the recipe a bit, boosting up the amount of ingredients, so I guess it’s my own fault that it was still too big to fit ALL of the layers the recipe called for into my extra-deep cast iron Mario Batali pan (the whole thing weighed 23 pounds total). I filled that thing to the top and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight to get everything melded together. THIS DISH was absolutely stellar….with doggie bags and dreams both sufficiently filled. I put some in the freezer to take over to my family later, even though I was rarely tempted while cooking and serving, this stuff has “danger” written all over it. It’s TOO good.
Carmela’s Ricotta Pie
I was going to make my famous signature dessert, “Satan’s Glorious Victory” (several rings of flourless chocolate torte and Nutella HELL), but opted for something “light”…relatively speaking of course. This is an easy dessert to make, even easier than the soup, but one adjustment to the recipe was a longer cooking time to get it to really set up. It reminds me of a good version of one of those frozen Sara Lee desserts. I think everyone took a good 45 minute break after the behemoth lasagne, but they all came back to the table and wolfed it down. Happy eating by one and all.
Biscotti Regina and Sumatra Lintong
In order to REALLY go above and beyond, I baked up the Biscotti Regina recipe…a tender, almost cake-y biscotti rolled in unhulled sesame seeds. Then I home roasted some good Sumatra Lintong beans. I made a nice little to-go gift bag (a la Gary Danko) for everyone to take with them and have for breakfast the next morning. It’s those little touches that make me “the coolest”. At least that’s what I hear.
My Cool Friends and a Tired Chef (and yeah, I hate the stemless wine glasses too)
So in the end…….bada-BING that fuckin’ Soprano’s Dinner was a bigger and better hit than when Pussy took all of that lead to the chest in the “Funhouse” season two ending (“do I get to keep my eyes Tony, can you give me that?”). Seriously, this was one hell of a good time, especially for me. I got to feel like a chef…timing the courses, cooking on all burners, and happily listening to the oohs and aaahs from my spot in the kitchen. The company was 100% pure A-List, and from the reactions the food was top shelf. With the evening’s soundtrack including the band X, Las Vegas Grind and Gnarls Barkley, it was a full sensory experience. There were a few smoke breaks, time to stretch the legs, but everyone made it through like a trooper. I must say that the Mutual Admiration Society is off to a rollicking start.
As I close out this epic tribute to “some friends of ours” from The Boot, I should of course throw in a gratuitous sex reference. Not really THAT gratuitous, I’m no Paulie Walnuts, it just dawned on me the other night as I was contemplating the emotional connection to food. When you manage to illicit an “oh my GOD” response, whether it is during sex or during a meal, it is impossible to keep from smiling. At some point you have crossed over into some beautiful chemical and neural mystery. In regard to food, I realize I have very rarely, if ever, been able to truly experience an “oh my GOD” moment for myself…because up until now everything has been about consumption and thinking about the NEXT meal even during an event like a magical 24 course tasting menu at Manresa. Connecting with the pure enjoyment has escaped me for the most part. Most people can’t understand that disconnect. So I guess I’m just happy now to be a cook who can get that response from people at my dinner table, and I’m even happier to be able to SLOW DOWN enough to focus on the execution and then go back to my meager daily intake without the anxiety. Unfortunately, some of us have to take extreme measures to reign in the monster. But once he’s got a leash on him, then the orchestration and the appreciation can begin.