Recently, I read an satirical piece in The Onion entitled “Bard College Named Nation’s Number One Dinner Party School.” It’s funny because it’s true. Or close enough to true, anyway. Back in my day, college parties revolved around kegs and Doritos, not magnums of mass-produced Shiraz and butternut squash soup. But it’s possible that liberal arts colleges on the east coast always have been more sophisticated than giant land-grant state universities in the midwest. And it wouldn’t surprise me if college kids today have dinner parties featuring varying degrees of culinary pretention. Either way, hats off to evolution.
During my last undergraduate summer in Madison, I took an apartment over the Kollege Klub on State Street, where I’d spent a lot of time standing in line at the crowded bar over the previous few years. Unlike my last apartment, this one had a real kitchen – if a small one – with a range and a refrigerator capable of holding more than a six pack and a jar of mustard. I’d spent the past couple of years perfecting the craft of cooking Maruchan ramen from the Walgreen’s in a hotpot, doctoring Kraft dinner with hot sauce and/or ketchup, and eating pineapple and Spaghetti-Os straight from the can, so having a real stove presented an almost terrifying vista of possibilities. That was the summer I decided to learn to cook. It also was the summer I threw my first dinner party, if you can call sitting around a Formica table with three other people drinking tequila and gnawing on burnt pork chops a “dinner party.”
In law school a year later, I became friends with Jenneane “Girlfriend” Jansen, who stood out as a grownup among kids because, unlike the rest of us, she actually owned a house. A real house with hardwood floors, a lawn and vegetable garden, and a giant picture window in south Minneapolis, right along the flight path to MSP. That, and the fact that she sported a Sinead O’Connor-like buzz, scoffed at idiots, and took absolutely no shit, made her something of a fearsome character to many of our classmates. I liked her immediately. Jenneane had an amazing kitchen, with white tiled counters and a Chez Panisse poster on the wall, and was the first person I’d ever met who really could cook. Our third year in school, I moved in, taking the place of a hastily-departed housemate. And we threw dinner parties.
The crowd was always pretty much the same – a dozen or so friends, all good eaters and fun people, at least by law school standards. Looking back, the food wasn’t all that good and may even have bordered on horrible. I had a limited repertoire at the time – mostly variations on braised chicken in white wine sauce, with some green vegetable and wild rice on the side – so the dinners probably had a certain sameness, beginning with the supermarket Brie and Carr’s water crackers, and ending in a boozy haze of port and the dregs of whatever wine we’d consumed with the meal. I don’t recall ever serving dessert. Speaking of wine, we all were beyond the sad white zinfandel phase of introductory wine drinking, but the random combination of bottles we consumed often ended in especially cruel hangovers. I invariably left a giant mess in the kitchen and I think I might have taken out Jenneane’s garbage disposal at least once by cramming too many potato peels and snow pea trimmings down the drain. Still, those were good times. And they were great practice for the dinner parties of adulthood.
Recently, a couple we know invited us to join their supper club. We’ve really been enjoying the dinners – the first we attended was inspired by Rene Redzepi‘s iconic cuisine at Noma, and the second by the fatty joys of duck and foie. The wine selections actually pair with the food, and the courses aren’t served on cracked, mismatched hand me down plates. One of the supper club members uses a Thermomix! Being invited to join was the equivalent of being called up to the majors. The most recent dinner, themed in anticipation of our hosts’ upcoming trip to Morocco, featured the tastes of chermoula and harissa, kibbeh nayyeh and couscous, lentils and roasted fish. We brought the hors d’oeuvres and bread, as follows.
Roasted dates, mascarpone
I’d love to take credit for this pairing but I can’t. Here’s the definition of a memorable dish: something you only tasted in one bite, at a restaurant you visited just once, but that left an indelible impression. A couple of years ago, we had dinner at Komi, Johnny Monis’s exceptional DC restaurant. A series of a dozen or so mezzethakia, each just one bite, preceded the main event, a slow roasted suckling pig with a crispy, crackling skin. We had turbot crudo, a Maine shrimp tartare in something like a chilled bonito broth, cheese-flavored animal crackers, Monis’s fried caesar salad (a crisp, deep fried shell of Parmigiano-flavored breadcrumbs encasing a hot liquid interior), among others. And then there was the Medjool date, filled with mascarpone, roasted, and garnished with fleur de sel and olive oil, which was all at once sweet, tangy, salty, and savory, with just a hint of bitterness from the oil. And I only had the one bite.
A couple of weeks later, preparing for a dinner party and thinking about hors d’oeuvres, I remembered the dates. I filled a pastry bag with mascarpone and piped it into dates, slid the tray into a hot oven, and waited a few minutes. The dates emerged with a glossy sheen, but wholly emptied of cheese. It had melted everywhere, collapsed around the dates into pools of butter barely capped with curdled white hints of cream. I dispensed with the olive oil and sprinkled flor de sal on top, and although they were tasty, they were nothing like the tangy, cream-filled bites from Komi.
I gave the matter no more thought for two more years until we received the 1001 Nights-themed invitation from our supper club. We were to bring hors d’oeuvres and breads, and the dates came back to mind. In an instant, I understood what had gone wrong when I tried to replicate Monis’s dish before. A simple cheese – made by curdling cream with tartaric acid – mascarpone is not heat-stable and separates, first melting into something resembling cream, and then further into butterfat and water. But adding methylcellulose, a water-soluble fiber that becomes solid at high temperatures and back to liquid on cooling, would enable me to roast the mascarpone while ensuring that it wouldn’t turn into a plug of cheese-flavored rubber. This should have occurred to me earlier, since it seemed obvious at the time that Monis uses methylcellulose for the fried caesar salad, but it didn’t.
No methylcellulose? You can try to achieve the same results by freezing the stuffed dates before blasting in a superhot oven, but I don’t know if that’ll work. If you try it, let me know.
two dozen Medjool dates, pitted
100g mascarpone cheese (about half a standard store-bought container)
2.5g methylcellulose F50 (use 50% more if using Metíl)
a grassy, bitter olive oil
fleur de sel or similar coarse-grained finishing sea salt
Heat the water in a very small saucepan (the smallest you can manage) until about 85C. Disperse by vigorously whisking together the hot water and methylcellulose until completely incorporated. The mixture will appear slightly viscous and bubbly, and not really clear. Transfer to a small lidded container and chill immediately in the refrigerator. Leave overnight for best hydration, although you should be able to use it within a few hours if necessary. Agitate once or twice while hydrating since the methylcellulose tends to sink to the bottom of the container. When ready to use, the hydrated methylcellulose should be crystal-clear and thick.
Combine the hydrated methylcellulose and mascarpone. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Meanwhile, using a chopstick or similar, ensure that each date has a hole extending from one end to the other to facilitate piping. Fit a pastry bag with the smallest possible plain tip or cut a small hole ( not more than about 1/8″) in a plastic bag. Fill the bag with the mascarpone mixture. Alternatively, fill a syringe with the mixture.
Piping filling with syringe
Pipe the filling into each date and place dates on a baking sheet lined with silpat. Add a dab of butter to each if you like.
Ready to roast.
Bake the dates for about 6 minutes, until hot. Remove from the oven and plate, garnished with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of fleur de sel.
Sausage, sumac onions
The combination of lamb and beef is one of the most delicious, producing a juicy and not greasy sausage with the tastes of cumin, coriander, and Aleppo pepper. Apart from a few days in Tunisia, I’ve never been to the Middle East, but I like to think this is how it tastes. To keep matters simple, you can form these into oblong or round patties (ooh, burger); if you like, though, stuff the mixture into casings. A small diameter casing is typical for merguez (mirqas). For the supper club, I formed the sausage around bamboo cocktail skewers in half-ounce portions.
1 lb beef chuck
1 lb lamb shoulder or leg
1/2 medium onion, diced
12 cloves garlic confit
3 cloves fresh garlic
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp Aleppo pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne (more if you like it spicy)
1 tsp ground black pepper, smoked peppercorn if you have it
2 tsp minced thyme
Grind the meats, salt, onion, and garlics together. Combine the spices and thyme, and toss well with the cold ground meat. Cover tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight to marinate.
Shape the meat into patties or oblong discs – you can form the meat around a skewer if you wish to make something like a kebab – or stuff into small-diameter casings.
Fry over medium heat until crisp and brown on both sides and just cooked through in the center.
Sausage, pomegranate molasses.
By the way, these make great burgers. Form into patties, fry until cooked through, serve with sumac onions and harissa mayonnaise. You also can make them into meatballs and serve with pasta, tossed with yoghurt and crème fraîche, and slivers of mint.
large red onion, peeled and sliced thinly pole-to-pole
juice of one large lemon
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground sumac
Rinse the onion in cold water for a few minutes; drain in a colander.
Combine all ingredients; cover and marinate for an hour or more in the refrigerator.
When you buy mass-produced pita bread in the store, what do you usually get? Flat and slightly leaden discs, a little stale, am I right? Make it yourself. It takes just over two hours and could not be easier. Once you’ve learned to make pita, you’ll never buy from the store again. These loaves puff like footballs in the oven and emerge with a good wheaty flavor from the spelt flour. Vital wheat gluten makes the loaves lighter and more apt to puff; you can dispense with it and still achieve a good result, but if you value reliability, use the vital wheat gluten.
This recipe makes six pita loaves. I strongly recommend weighing everything and not relying on dry measure. The final rise, after rolling out the dough, is crucial if you want your pita to puff up properly. If they don’t puff, don’t feel bad – they’ll still taste great (and the puffed loaves will deflate eventually anyway).
250g unbleached white all purpose flour (about 1 1/2 c)
65g spelt flour (about 1/2 c)
10g vital wheat gluten (about 2 tsp)
6g salt (just barely over 1 tsp)
6g active dry yeast (about 1 3/4 tsp), proofed in about 3 tbsp 110F water (best in a small ceramic ramekin that holds the heat)
1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra
200 ml water, scant 1 cup, about 105F
1 tbsp honey (hard to measure by weight; you can eyeball it)
500F oven with baking stone. If you have no baking stone, use an upturned cast iron pan. Heat for at least 90 minutes before baking.
Whisk together the flours, vital wheat gluten, and salt. Once the yeast has proofed, add one drop of honey and stir; when the yeast foams vigorously, pour it into the dry ingredients with the oil. Stir the honey and the warm water together and add to the other ingredients. Combine with a wooden spoon until everything holds together in a ragged ball. If the ball seems super dry, add a little (a few ml) water; if too wet, add a little more flour, perhaps a tablespoon or so at first.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead until smooth and not sticky, about 10 minutes. Alternatively, knead for 10 minutes in a stand mixer on the slowest speed using a dough hook. Check about halfway through to make sure the dough is not very sticky/tacky; if so, add a little more flour.
Dough after kneading.
Drizzle a little oil (about 1 tsp) into a large mixing bowl. Place the dough ball into the oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover the bowl tightly with clingfilm and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 90 minutes. If your dough doubles well before that time, place the whole thing in the refrigerator to retard until the elapsed 90 minutes have passed; you also can leave the dough in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours for really great flavor development).
It Is Risen.
Punch down the dough. Divide into six balls (smaller if you want rather small pitas). Place the balls on a cutting board or similar and cover lightly with clingfilm. Rise another 20 minutes or so, until increased in volume by about 50% or more.
Lightly flour a board with semolina. Roll out the balls, a couple at a time if you can, around 3/16″ thick, and cover lightly with clingfilm to rise once rolled out, for about 10 minutes. It is important to roll evenly and not to leave thin spots. Load into the oven (using a semolina-dusted baking peel).
Bake about 3-4 minutes, until puffed and just golden at the edges. Remove to a rack and continue until all the bread is baked. Serve with labneh, olive oil, za’atar.
Watch it go.
Pita, puffed like footballs.
Any unflavored yoghurt will do, although I usually make my own. If you have butter muslin, use it; otherwise, fold a piece of that stuff that stores like to pass off as “cheesecloth” into a triple thickness.
2 c unsweetened yoghurt
1/4 tsp salt
Combine the yoghurt and the salt. Pour into the center of a square of butter muslin or cheesecloth and twist the top. TIe shut and rest in a conical or small round strainer set over a bowl. Drain overnight if possible (but at least 6 hours).
Turn the drained labneh out into a small plate. Garnish with generous glugs of olive oil and, if you like, a little Aleppo pepper. If your labneh is exceptionally thick, you can roll it into balls and store in oil in the refrigerator; in this form, it makes a great snack or even a filling for pita sandwiches with vegetables.