Project Food Blog 2010, Round 3: Harvest Dinner, Napa Valley, Autumn 2010

Blackened Halibut

The Main Event: Blackened Pacific Halibut with Crispy Pancetta New Potatoes, smothered in Sauce Anthony.

Here in the Napa Valley, hosting a dinner party this time of year can be a mighty tall order. The problem is finding enough guests with free time, since so many folks in the valley remain hopelessly preoccupied during harvest and crush. Among most of the people I know, they’re either working long days in the cellar, or they’re working long nights in the kitchen (tourism in the Napa Valley also hits its peak this same time of year). No doubt, as September yields to October, the typical Monday-through-Friday work schedule is a distant pipe dream for many, while eight-hour work days are also few and far between. However, in the spirit of Project Food Blog, I can definitely whip up some dinner-party-sized portions for my would-be dinner party. At worst, I can stuff myself silly, and still have a few left-overs for the week. I’ve provided the menu for the dinner further below, although I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself at this point. However, I should mention that the photo above is the main course for the dinner: Pan-Seared Halibut with Sauce Anthony, plated over Crispy Pancetta New Potatoes. You were expecting a pork chop, perhaps? Well, allow me to explain.

• • •

Some of the featured players in tonight's drama: (A) Soon-to-be butternut squash soup; (B) Pancetta and new potatoes; (C) Soon-to-be curried sweet corn; (D) Heirloom apples and tomatoes.

With fall having arrived just a few days ago, my inspiration for a dinner menu was to offer the last vestiges of summer alongside an early prelude to autumn. Sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes and peaches are fast moving out of season, while heirloom apples, new potatoes, and butternut squash are just arriving. It’s one of the best times of the year to produce really top-level, ingredient-driven cuisine. In fact, many of these ingredients can easily take care of themselves with very little culinary intervention, which allows for many different flavors, yet requires remarkably little effort during the dinner itself. The tomatoes, for instance, only need to be sliced and dressed for the panzanella salad, and this task can be accomplished the night before (simply add the bread component just prior to serving). The Waldorf salad can also be assembled ahead of time, and the peaches require only a few quick slices, followed by a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

• • •

Pure as the driven snow.

Although this season’s produce served as the basis for many of the dishes that I’d planned, I still had to consider the protein. What would be the main event of the evening? Although my gut and my intuition would usually point me towards something more terrestrial, such as pork or beef, I actually prefer halibut for dinner parties, and I’ve compiled five good reasons to argue in favor of fish: (1) Halibut is delicious, and it’s one of the most approachable fish out there; (2) halibut boasts a wonderful texture, a vibrant snow-white color, and it’s not overly delicate in the pan; (3) a fish entree helps to significantly lighten a multi-course meal, especially when served in lieu of pork or beef; (4) there’s no “temperature requests” (medium, medium-rare, etc.) with fish, as there might be with pork or beef; (5) fish is lean, meaning that it cooks quickly.

• • •

The first rule of hosting a dinner party is that is has to look easy. Otherwise, your guests will be offering to help, rather than just relaxing for the evening. Worse than that, if you leave yourself too much to do on the night of the dinner, you’ll be scrambling to get warm food on the table, rather than enjoying your own shindig. With that in mind, I recommend a menu of quick-cooking dishes, a few cold dishes, and a couple of dishes that can be prepared a couple days in advance. I’m all about putting in the time and effort, just not so much during the dinner itself. In terms of my own menu, my quick-cooking dishes include the halibut, the curried sweet corn, and the pancetta new potatoes, while the cold dishes include the Waldorf salad, the heirloom tomato panzanella, and the balsamic peaches. The butternut squash soup and the praline crème brûlée both require the most prep time, but each dish can be prepared a few days prior to the dinner. I’ve posted my dinner menu below, followed by a few tips and observations.

• • •

• WINE PAIRING TIPS •

As crazy as it may seem, I’ve actually geared this menu towards white and sparkling wines, with the possibility of pairing rosé with the halibut course. It may be a sin not to serve Napa Cabernet at a harvest dinner, but the heavy reds will have their time in the winter; I drink white wines almost exclusively during the summer, so this dinner would present a terrific opportunity to sip some whites while the weather remains warm. If I could name some specific current releases for each course, I would pair a bottle of Roederer Extra Dry with the Waldorf salad, a Toulouse Vineyards Gewurztraminer with the butternut squash soup, an Unti Vineyards Rosé with the halibut, and a small glass of Dolce Late Harvest with the praline crème brûlée. As more of a nod to Napa Valley, I might also consider a Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay with either of the first two courses. The possibilities are endless. Drink what you like.

• SOUP & SALAD •

Waldorf salad

Killer Apps: Waldorf Salad with Heirloom Apples.

The Waldorf salad is an American classic, and a wonderful way to showcase Sonoma and Mendocino’s emerging heirloom apple season. Rather than dress the salad with mayonnaise, I opted for a dressing of Greek yogurt and some local Napa blackberry-blossom honey. A sweet start helps to rekindle the waning days of summer.

Butternut Squash Soup with Amorelli Croutons.

For me, butternut squash soup remains one of the quintessential dishes of autumn, and as this soup percolates on the stove top, it provides a fantastic aroma as the guests arrive. Even better, it allows for the second course to hit the table with very little effort. Of course, most of the effort in making this soup occurs earlier in the week. I like to slow-roast the squash as I make the chicken stock for the soup. Since it requires at least fours hours for a proper batch of chicken stock, I roast the squash at 200ºF for the same amount of time, allowing the squash to assume a rich, mahogany color. The amorelli “croutons” are small Italian cookies, feather-light and almond-flavored. They complement the flavors of the soup, and they also float nicely.

• THE ENTREE & SIDE DISHES •


Click the image for Thirsty Reader HD.

Getting the soup and the salad to the table is relatively painless, and the real challenge of the dinner is to deliver the halibut and the sides at the same time. Much like the Waldorf salad, the heirloom panzanella can actually be prepared a couple hours ahead of time, minus the bread component. As a chilled dish, the panzanella can sit quietly in the refrigerator until it’s needed, so it doesn’t really require any attention during pick-up. On the other hand, the curried sweet corn, the pancetta potatoes, and the halibut need to be prepared simultaneously. As the simplest dish of the three, I began with the sweet corn, which only needs to be heated through after the curry powder and the pecans have had a chance to toast in the melted butter.

Curried Sweet Corn with Pecans and Dried Cranberries.

Once the curried sweet corn had finished cooking, I held the dish over low heat, and turned my attention toward the pancetta potatoes and the blackened halibut. Since the pancetta would need some time to render its fat, I began this process in a cold pan while I sliced the new potatoes and dusted the halibut with a little Paul Prudhomme Seafood Magic. In order to decrease the cooking time of the potatoes, I had already par-cooked them earlier in the week, slow-roasting them whole alongside the butternut squash. This par-cooking technique also helps to eliminate the possibility of serving under-cooked potatoes, which is reason enough to adopt this approach. As I browned the sliced potatoes in the rendered pork fat, I blackened the halibut in a separate skillet, then focused my efforts on the Sauce Anthony. One of my secret culinary weapons from New Orleans, Sauce Anthony is a simple heavy-cream reduction with accents of lemon, shallot, capers, Cajun spice, and sun-dried tomatoes. I learned this pan sauce when I was cooking at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen several years ago, and it has remained in my arsenal ever since.

• INTERMEZZO & DESSERT •

Sometimes, two ingredients is all that's necessary.

I included balsamic-drizzled peaches as an intermezzo because I’ve been eating peaches this way all summer long. Served chilled, these peaches feature a refreshing sweetness and a palate-cleansing acidity that provides an apt segue to dessert. In fact, some might even call this dessert, but I wouldn’t want to be accused of half-stepping.

Grand Finale: Crème Brûlée with Pralines (lurking at the bottom).

Crème brûlée is a crowd-pleasing dessert that can be almost fully prepared a few days in advance. The burning of the sugar is the only step that cannot be executed ahead of time, but it only takes a couple moments to complete. I like to sneak a couple pralines into the bottom of each ramekin before baking. When your guests discover this little addition, it may just provide the final “ah-ha” moment that slays them at the very end.

6 comments to Project Food Blog 2010, Round 3: Harvest Dinner, Napa Valley, Autumn 2010

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