18 September 2009

Birthday Dinner Party Part II

A Caesar salad is not Italian per se... It's the creation of an Italian chef working in Tijuana during Prohibition. I haven't had a good one in a long time, and even the last time I tried it the whole thing fell apart from residual water on the romaine (I used pre-washed organic this time). You've got to have raw egg yolks and lots of anchovies and quality wine vinegar, plus all the other ingredients. Made by hand right before serving, it's a whole different experience than the fast food versions we see today. Inspired by the Surreal Gourmet (I saw him make this salad during a book signing in the 90s) and with the confidence that my salad-fu is strong these days, I made an incredible dish. I think a few might have even licked their plates.

Why not an Italian wine with the Mexican salad? I opened the 2006 Campogrande Orvieto Classico from Umbria in central Italy. 40% Procanico, 40% Grechetto, 15% Verdello, 5% Drupeggio and Malvasia. For a $10 table wine, this was delicious. Aroma of Meyer lemon with floral touches, full bodied with bright acidity and just a hint of a honey flavor.

Finally, the main course! I've spoken many times about trying recipes from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. I've had pretty good results, but one recipe kept staring at me: gigot de sept heures, or a leg of lamb cooked for seven hours--seven hours of not peeking or using the oven for anything else. Lots of garlic (24 cloves!), some onions and carrots, and a bouquet garni, sealed up in a Dutch oven for the long haul. Also known as spoon lamb due to the tenderness (and a favorite of James Beard), this looks a lot like beef stew, and is similar in appearance and texture. But the garlic and lamb combine to create their own unique flavor, and folks liked it. On the side I've got braised radicchio and endive, sweetened up a bit at the last minute with a honey-balsamic vinaigrette. Not the prettiest plating, but very succulent.

In the opposite of the pasta course, Italian wines with French food... I had the opportunity to serve two wines from the same vintage, producer, and grape composition. First is the 2005 Masi Valpolicella Bonacosta. 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara, from the Valpolicella region near Verona in northern Italy. Bright cherry, lovely garnet color, rich fig flavors with a touch of tartness and brambles. Fascinating wine.

After everyone had a pour of the straight Valpolicella, I served the 2005 Masi Campofiorin. This is basically the exact same wine but passed over the leftover skins from Amarone production to boost the flavor, a process called ripasso. There's a slight bitter edge that went great with the chicory vegetables, and the wine is similar to the first but with a fuller body, a deeper mouthfeel, and a new flavor of stewed plums. Definitely more complex, but I can't say one was better than the other. Mostly it was fun to try them back and forth over a half hour.

It should be clear by now that I'm not a dessert person, and generally don't feel like making another course after several hours of cooking, eating, and entertaining. So I typically pass off the duty to a guest, and leave it totally up to them. Laura M. surprised me with homemade tiramisù, by far my favorite. I think it's the mascarpone and coffee that make it less dessert-like for me, and she did an amazing job.

Paul added to the festivities with a bottle of the 20 Year Tawny Port from Taylor Fladgate, not pictured. My tasting notes descended into mere scribbles by this point, but you can't go wrong with a well-aged fortified wine from an established producer.

As always I thank Paul for the gracious use of his house for these gatherings, as well as for the snifters of Glengoyne 17 Year Single Malt with which we toasted before the guests arrived.

* * *

Aside from the ego boost of a successful dinner party and the relief of being able to finally open a half dozen bottles I'd been waiting to try, the friends at the table were what made this evening special and fun. A couple of the guests stuck around for a few hours and the conversation lingered on until nearly two in the morning. I spent the next day exhausted and full, but immensely happy.


Kristin Runnels said...

most excellent :-D

Benito said...

Kristin, I hope it was worth the 24 hour wait for you. :)

Big Mike said...

Wow what a spread! But I can't think of a more deserving fellow. Thanks for sharing your good time..

Benito said...


Thanks, it was a lot of fun. A bit of a gamble to stake your main course on something you haven't looked at for seven hours, but hey, it worked.


Jennifer said...

It was a fabulous dinner with wonderful people. Thanks again, and thanks to Paul for opening his home!

Benito said...


So glad you and Brett were able to join us. I'll have to cook a proper rack of lamb for you at some point.


fredric koeppel said...

what a great birthday dinner, and what a mighty effort to share with friends. you deserve that feeling of happiness.

The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

Wow! I'm hungry. Did not know about the history of Cesar salad. Great stuff.

I love a good Valpolicella and I've not had one in a while.

Benito said...


Surprisingly, it was one of the easiest dinner parties I've ever made. I've learned my lesson on certain things, like trying to make a hollandaise sauce from memory after five glasses of wine.


There's a bit of argument on the Caesar salad thing, but the most plausible explanation is the one I mentioned. You ought to be able to find the second Valpolicella (the Campofiorin Ripasso) fairly easily; the other one was a gift from someone who used to live in Italy.