Well, first of all, Happy Valentine’s Day. I’m celebrating this evening by eating the last slice of birthday cake (see photo above) from a fabo dinner party that Jon cooked up for me this past Saturday.
“Where’s Jon tonight on this most important of Hallmark holidays,” you might ask?
He’s at the Brit Awards, of course. I’m not exactly sure what the Brit Awards are, but Jon claims it’s the British version of the Grammys. He was invited because he’s such a famous musician (if by “famous musician” you mean the event is sponsored by MasterCard so credit card industry types get invited along on a junket). Depending on his experience there tonight, maybe I’ll allow him to guest post!
So anyway, this past weekend, we celebrated the birthday of yours truly by inviting a few friends over for a Saturday night repast. It was an Italian-themed dinner, and the menu for the evening of course included aperitifs with snacks, a pasta course, meat course, and the Cake.
I can’t believe I failed to take photos of the food! Think about all those other moments I bust out my camera under inhospitable circumstances (e.g., Hakkasan), and here in the comfort of my own home, I totally flaked. I have only a “before” photo taken of our table (see left) and an “after” one included towards the bottom of this post.
Nonetheless, here’s my inadequate substitute for photos (“I’m painting a verbal picture!”):
Aperitifs and snacks:
Bellinis – Peach juice and prosecco. Juicy and bubbly. Whiffs of la dolce vita. What’s there not to like? And yet, finding peach juice was not the breeze we expected it to be. The supermarket aisles included dozens of beverages with peach as an ingredient, but peach on its own? No can do. In desperation, I almost bought something called “Robinson’s Peach Barley Water.” It looked like peach juice in a glass bottle. And there were lots of other flavors of this “barley water” on the shelf, so I thought maybe barley water was just a fancy British way of saying “juice.” But it turns out barley water is soda made with barley (like, the wheat-y plant)! Our friend Emmet informed us that barley water has a long-standing association with Wimbledon, but of course Gatorade is coming on as a strong challenger. Rehydrating salty beverage vs. Wheat-y-tasting-soda . . . who will win? [We ultimately found peach juice at our local Italian deli, Monte’s, so it turns out there was no need to search far and wide for it!]
Nibbles – Jon fried up a dozen arancini (fried risotto balls filled with mozzarella) which were crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. You’ll be glad to know they really do look like golden oranges as the name suggests in Italian. (It turns out there’s a good reason why I have always been confused between ordering these fried goodies and aranciata, San Pellegrino version of the incomparable Orangina. If you click on the links in the preceding sentence, be sure to turn up the sound on your computer. It’s hilarious).
Charcuterie included fresh pecorino and assorted goats cheeses, red-wine salami and fennel salami, and then of course we needed crostini with roasted eggplant tapenade or olive tapenade. We threw in some rosemary bread (baked using that amazing and much-discussed Mark Bittman-publicized “No-Knead Bread Recipe”) for those looking for bread that wasn’t first brushed with olive oil and baked to a crisp.
Jon spent days before the dinner picking up specialty items all over London, and particularly intense was his quest for ingredients used in the pasta course. I’d been having cravings for bottarga (aka mullet or tuna roe that’s cured in salt) since eating at Olivo’s a few weeks ago to celebrate Cathy’s birthday. For those of you dying to know, we found our bottarga at Gastronomica in Borough Market. If you want to buy it pre-grated and in a small jar, the Sardinian cheese seller with a stall close to Southwark Cathedral in Borough Market is your woman, but if you think buying blocks of it is expensive, on a per-gram basis, the jar is ridiculous!
Anyway, spaghetti alla bottarga is exactly as it sounds. You cook the spaghetti and then you mix in some butter and grated and/or sliced bottarga. The result is salty, creamy and fishy. YUM.
Jon’s specialty over the past few months has been a braised short rib recipe he’s gaga over in Mario Batali’s Babbo cookbook. For my birthday dinner, Jon cooked this short rib recipe for 12. He preordered the short ribs from E. Wood, our local butcher, which required Jon to print off photos of the short rib from the Internet because our English butcher had no idea what a short rib was. Take note, in England, this bit of cow is called fore rib.
Standard procedure for a braise is that you sear the meat first and then bake it in liquid (tomatoes, chicken broth) for ten thousand gazillion hours with tons of herbs and vegetables. Our UK-standard-sized oven, unfortunately, makes baking all those short ribs quite a challenge, but undaunted, Jon did it in batches until it all reduced enough to fit in a single French Oven. He’s a patient guy, I’m telling you.
The ribs were falling off the bone (i.e., perfect). I love how the bits of fat soak up all that braising liquid flavor. A little onion here, some red wine there, thyme and rosemary popping in for a visit. Cheers to the braise on a wet, winter night.
My one contribution of the evening was to bake my own birthday cake. Jon was planning to order a cake (baking is not his thing), but I insisted. There’s a yellow cake (“1-2-3-4 cake”) recipe that I love from The Perfect Cake, by Susan Purdy. So hey, it’s the least I can do to contribute to the evening, right?
Thanks to the brilliance of springform pans, my four-layer cake came out of the oven perfectly flat and even. I whipped up some buttercream (and next time, I’m using less confectioner’s sugar and more valrhona chocolate), and voila, a cake with a crumb and sweetness to my taste.
And that’s the dinner Jon cooked for me for my birthday. I overindulged in fabo Italian vino, and our home was a total disaster for days afterwards, but I figure there’s no more gratifying a sign of a fun party than a hangover and detritus as far as the eye can see.
Thank you to everyone who came to dinner, called or wrote on my birthday, and/or shared a funny-touching-thoughtful birthday video. I am one super-lucky girl, sans doute.