Recently I did something different with my cooking students. Normally when we cook, we focus on one or two items, exploring different aspects of a single ingredient or technique. But, one of my students was hosting a dinner party in a week, was afraid to cook an entire meal for ten people by herself, and was looking for some advice. Never being one to shy away from a challenge (or to throw my students directly in to the deep end of the pool), I decided that we would plan and execute the entire menu as a “test run”, then invite the student’s husbands to dinner to critique the work. After some initial trepidation, the ladies agreed and even became excited about the idea of taking on a project so large.
The day’s menu included: Thai Hot and Sour Chicken Soup (Tom Yum), Beet and Goat Cheese Salad, Coq au Riesling with roasted vegetables, and a Chocolate Beet Cake with Yogurt/Crème Anglais sauce. For the most part, they went off without a hitch. The soup was a little spicy for one of the students, but everyone really seemed to enjoy themselves. Moreover, each student learned that even though it looks like an ambitious menu, it really isn’t that difficult at all, just taking time and patience. But most of the time is spent simply being patient, without having a lot more to do than sit around and drink wine or coffee and talk to your friends. It is the perfect meal to prepare for a dinner party, especially if you have a lot you need to do other than cook dinner for the party, such as cleaning your house.
One of the beauties of this meal is the fact that it features flavors that repeat from course to course, creating a sense of continuity out of dishes that you might not think to pair together. For example we started the meal with the Thai inspired soup, rich with the flavors of chicken, ginger, lime, and coriander. You might not think of going from this soup to the next course – a salad with bitter greens, roasted beets, and goat cheese, but the salad is dressed with a citrus vinaigrette which ties nicely back to the lime taste in the soup. Moving on to the third course, the Coq au Riesling (chicken braised in white wine, chicken stock, and herbs) mirrored but took in a different direction the savory notes of the chicken soup. The final course, a chocolate cake featuring the unusual and delightful addition of roasted beets, ties perfectly back to the beet salad.
So when it was all said and done, a beautiful meal was made out of dishes from different parts of the world, from completely different culinary traditions, with completely different inspirations, and somehow they all fit nicely together.
The menu turned out to be an interesting parallel to the people who were attending the dinner party. While we didn’t have any Thai/French couples, we did have a very eclectic mix of people. We had southern transplants from Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia, and we had people who’ve never left Alaska their whole lives. Religiously we had agnostics, Southern Baptists, Catholics, and a female Jewish Torah teacher who’s working on becoming a Rabbi. Politically we ranged from liberals to libertarians. By age we had 30 years between the youngest (me) and the oldest (who would beat me if I told her age). And somehow, this eclectic mix just worked too. We started off as strangers or having just met a few times, and left the table very well fed and contented friends.
Let this be a lesson to you. Feel free to take inspiration from food around the world. While I’m fond of saying that if it grows together it goes together, use that as a guide and not a limit. If you know that two ingredients just naturally pair together try using them as the basis for separate dishes in a complicated menu so that the dishes are harmonious with one another, even if they’re from opposite ends of the world. And, now that I stop to think about it, the same rules work for dinner guests too.
This is why I cook. I love food, I love new flavors and new flavor combinations, and I love testing my skill. But the main reason that I cook is to show people love by doing something special for them. In this case it just turns out that special is also easy.
But we won’t tell if you won’t.