My friend Paul has been a frequent presence on this blog, if not so much for his comments than his participation in many of the "guys' night" dinners where the two of us knock back a few pounds of good beef and better wine. His girlfriend was celebrating her birthday this past weekend, and in lieu of a gift I offered to cook for her birthday party. She graciously accepted, or rather, that appeared to be her plan all along. After giving her the option of cooking the menu of her dreams, she left it in my hands, so I went Italian.
Although in Italy the salad often comes between the secondo piatto and the dessert, I decided to stick it in the American position. This is an assortment of baby greens with slivered almonds, crumbled goat cheese, and a fresh vinaigrette made from a Meyer lemon juice reduction, olive oil, homegrown oregano, and a few other seasonings. And I made some croutons from stale bread I had lying around. Not entirely Italian, but delicious.
For the primo piatto, I decided to build my own version of pasta e fagiole, the venerable dish of pasta and beans that has a thousand incarnations both in Italy and America, and is frequently referred to by its Sicilian nickname as "Pasta Fazool". (For the sake of Italian teachers worldwide, please avoid any Sicilian pronunciation, which goes for pretty much any mob movie or Sopranos episode you've ever seen. It's capicola, not gabagool.) Here I used borlotti, or cranberry beans soaked overnight and simmered in some homemade turkey stock. Combined with a few sprigs of homegrown rosemary and a necessary quarter cup of diced pork belly, the beans cooked for almost three hours before being combined with a batch of foglie d'autunno, or "autumn leaves" pasta. Quite lovely in the bowl and savory on the tongue.
The wine selected to go with the first course was provided by Paul: the 2005 Principessa Gavi. Light but citric and slightly bitter, definitely refreshing and a good counterpoint to the savory dish.
The secondo piatto follows the rustic appearance. I did a sort of chicken cacciatore, using cremini mushrooms and onions to accompany the chicken thighs. The chicken, though not a high dollar or obscure ingredient, was definitely one of the hits of the night (fried in olive oil then baked in the sauce for an hour). For the contorno, I made Mario Batali's carciofi alla romana, which was frankly disappointing. Even after an hour of simmering, the artichoke hearts were still tough and the mint pesto I'd painstakingly ground in a mortar and pestle had mostly disappeared in the wine and water mixture. Still, I'm happy to report that on this as every other occasion on which I've been in charge of cooking, nobody went home with a hollow belly.
For the main course, we had another wine provided by Paul, the 2004 Banfi Centine, a great bargain Super Tuscan that tastes much better than its price tag would suggest. Full fruit flavors, light tannins, and a smooth finish.
Finally, and I'm sorry I don't have pictures, but the lovely Grace, guest of honor, made creme brulée for dessert. It was creamy and luscious as always.
Happy birthday, Grace! Thanks for letting me play around in the kitchen for your special night.