It had been a while since I'd held a dinner party, and I figured that a gathering on December 30 was a good choice. It avoids the craziness of the main night, and it's easier for people to attend.
With the first two courses, and because of the holiday, I popped open a bottle of the NV Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs, with the option of crème de cassis for those who wanted a little kir pétillant. It's an old favorite, and some places around town had it for as low as $11, making it a great bargain while still being serious enough for a wine lover to enjoy.
First Course: Tomato Soup
Tomato soup is ridiculously easy, but people are always amazed by it. A few cans of tomatoes, some chicken broth, butter and onions, toss in some wine or white vermouth, season to taste. Hit with an immersion blender to get it smoother. Towards the end I added in some half and half, and then did a decoration with Salvadoran-style crema. (Some of the last minute ingredients and Mexican direction had to do with a visit to the International Market with Paul's sister Alaina. As I ran about gathering certain products, she was entranced by the piñatas, knockoff perfumes, and live tilapia. She wasn't as excited when I showed her the frozen aisle of offal.)
Second Course: Shrimp & Salad
Nothing terribly surprising with the salad here, just mixed greens and shredded broccoli stalks with yellow tomatoes and a red wine vinaigrette. However, I used part of the vinaigrette (along with some fresh lime juice) to marinate the shrimp for about 15 minutes. Right before serving, I quickly sautéed the shrimp in olive oil over high heat, had Paul dim the lights, and then I splashed in vodka and set the whole thing on fire. Flames went up a good three feet in the air, and I did not lose my eyebrows. The shrimp emerged perfect: cooked just right, plump and juicy, and slightly sweet from the quick caramelization.
I know this looks like more of a summer dish, but bear in mind that Memphis that day hit 18°C/65°F. We could have had an outdoor cookout if it hadn't been raining.
Third Course: Pork Tenderloin with Mole
Easy part out the way: the asparagus was just blanched and quickly grilled, and the pork tenderloins were butterflied, smeared with sage pesto, trussed up, and roasted. But what's that on top of the pork?
I had never made a mole sauce before this dinner, but I was familiar with the theory. There's no one established recipe--dozens of variations exist in print and likely thousands are made in the homes and restaurants of Puebla. With the theory in mind I just winged it. I took four dried ancho chiles, toasted and reconstituted them in chicken broth, and began building the sauce. I added in some of the leftover tomato soup, garlic, and three little pie wedges of Abuelita chocolate. I blended everything and let the sauce simmer for an hour, and then I added in a bunch of walnuts. Another go-round with the immersion blender, and I had a fairly thick sauce. (In the future, I'll add fewer nuts, but this worked out well.) I was concerned that the sauce was a little too hot for my guests, but as it simmered the flavors blended and mellowed out.
The end result was incredible, and people were licking their plates and going back for seconds. I was quite happy with the way it turned out, but I want to explore some other variations involving different chiles, pumpkinseeds, and dried fruits like prunes or raisins. Traditional moles can have upwards of 30 ingredients, and I'm barely topping 10 here.
We had two red wines with the savory, flavorful main course. Both were gifts from Dave and Mike Rickert, friends of mine that generously passed these bottles along during Paul's recent visit with them. The 2008 Schug Pinot Noir is from the Sonoma Coast and clocks in at 13.5% abv. It has a dusty strawberry profile, nonexistent tannins, and a very mild finish. Extremely light and restrained.
The bigger hit was the 2008 Saint Cosme Côtes du Rhône. A pure Syrah at 14% abv., this was nutty with a lovely black cherry profile, well-balanced tannins, and a finish of tart raspberry and raspberry seeds. This one matched particularly well with the mole sauce.
Capping off the evening, Grace made her famous crème brûlée and we settled back with Australian Port and other libations... Groans were heard around the living room as people settled in to digest the big meal (even all four dogs were worn out), and one by one people headed home or nodded off. Big thanks as always to Paul for providing the hosting location, and I'm looking forward to more fun in the kitchen in 2011.