01 October 2006

30th Birthday Party

I actually turned thirty back on September 13, but that week wasn't conducive to celebrations as some of my closest friends were out of town. And while minor parties occurred throughout the month, I was saving up for a big dinner party at the end when everyone could be there. I did all the cooking, friends and family provided the wine and dessert, and we all had a grand time. I know that it's in bad taste to throw a birthday party for yourself, but honestly, I didn't want any presents, I didn't want to go out and eat... I just wanted to spend some time with those closest to me and cook a bunch of dishes that I'd been dying to try out.

Before I go any further, I have to give full credit to Paul for hosting, as well as joining my father and my brother John, all three of whom spent half the evening washing dishes. Couldn't have done it without y'all.

Once everyone arrived, we started out with a toast, basically thanking Paul for hosting and thanking my parents for giving birth to me 30 years ago. We toasted with the Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs, a non-vintage sparkler from California. I'd been holding on to this bottle for a few months and wasn't disappointed. It had a heady, vegetal aroma, but a cool and crisp mouth feel to it. I found myself sipping it throughout the evening as a palate cleanser. Some of my guests elected to toast with the Fetzer Riesling, a light and sweet wine. My roommate, a devout non-drinker, toasted with the 2006 Diet Coke.

Oh, the photo... Instead of a bank of appetizers, I elected to provide an amuse bouche, French for an entertainment of the mouth. The idea is to provide the diner with a free sample of the chef's intent, but not necessarily anything related to the dinner to follow. In this case, I prepared a trio of richly flavored items. First off, a purée of peas courtesy of Jacques Pépin. Slightly cooked peas blended with some mint and jalapeños from my garden, plus some Italian parsley and the other items in the recipe linked above. Served in a shot glass for the purposes of just tasting the sauce. Then there's a few of my late harvest yellow cherry tomatoes, topped with the diner's choice of Kosher salt or French grey sea salt. Finally, there's some honey roasted chestnuts. I roasted the chestnuts whole for a half hour, then shelled and sliced them before sautéeing in a pan with butter, honey, and brown sugar. My dining companions found all of this a little odd but ultimately delicious.

For the soup course, I made a "14 Carrot Soup". Pardon the pun... There were only about ten carrots in there, three parsnips, a good chunk of diced ginger, several cloves of garlic, and two leeks. I really didn't have to season the soup, which was fortified by a half gallon of chicken stock and half a bottle of wine. Root vegetables can have some incredible flavors on their own, if you cook them properly. For serving, I made a little vine design using some sour cream piped through a bag. Then I dragged a knife through the lines to produce the vine. (I picked this up as a decorating tip from a pumpkin soup recipe about 15 years ago.) A little dusting of freshly ground nutmeg and we're ready to go.

For wine, we drank the 2005 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige region of Italy, though I was still finishing off some of the sparkling wine. The pinot grigio was tart, lemony, and quite refreshing. Brought by my sister-in-law. (I put an odd rule in the invitation: all men had to bring red wines, all the ladies had to bring white wines, though no one would be turned away for breaking the rule. Though perhaps chauvanist, it's really not a bad way of achieving a balance of wines, is it?)

Throughout the evening, we sipped on my brother's red wine, the 2001 Chateau Potelle Zinfandel from Paso Robles in California. A dark and jammy Zin with hints of plum and black cherry. Typically I follow the Soup-Fish-Meat-Dessert paradigm, but I mixed it up a little this time and did a more Italian primo piatti dish with a Southern flair. What you see before you is spinach and cheese tortelli, topped with crawfish tails and a light cream sauce. A little grated Romano cheese and Italian parsley to top it off. This was a big hit of the evening, and while I was concerned that it might fill everyone up too fast, there was enough time before the secondo piatti for everyones stomachs to settle.

The wine I recommended for this course was provided by my mother.
2004 Lockwood Chardonnay
from Monterey, California. A delightful little wine, whose French oak aging really matched well with the rich crawfish and cream sauce.

Between the pasta and meat courses, I poured the 2002 Shelton Vineyards Cabernet Franc, a bottle I picked up after a recent tasting. This is an incredible wine, and everyone was shocked when I told them that it came from North Carolina and was very affordable. For the main course, I cooked a whole beef tenderloin (coated in a horseradish-mustard sauce with fresh rosemary and black pepper), served with a savory mushroom sauce and some grilled radicchio. The radicchio were made more or less in the style of chef Michael Chiarello, including the use of anchovies to spice up the vinaigrette. I didn't tell anybody beforehand about the anchovies, and nobody complained after the disclosure. The beef was really good. Several diners gorged themselves to excess. The primary wine for this course was provided by Dad, the 2004 Pilgrim Vineyard Zinfandel from V. Sattui's Lodi Vineyard.

Dessert was a key lime pie provided by my parents, accompanied by some vino brulé that I made according to an old Italian recipe. It was deep and hearty, but didn't discourage us from enjoying snifters of Paul's favorite Port, the Penfolds Grandfather. A perfect way to end a delightful evening.

I'd like to thank all of my friends and family that were able to attend, as well as thanking them for putting up with my various culinary experiments over the years. Several of those in attendance said, "But we should be taking you out for your birthday." Honestly, there's no other way that I would have wanted to celebrate this particular milestone.


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday! Sounds like a great event....

Anonymous said...

What a feast! I want to be invited to your next dinner party!

p.s. Happy birthday!

Matthew Hunt said...

Happy birthday, Benito!

I also turned 30 in the last couple of weeks. We had another couple over for dinner, on a smaller scale than your feast! The highlight was a 1976 Ridge York Creek Cabernet Sauvignon which was drinking wonderfully, and was a steal at $50. Wish I could get more. Three other inexpensive '76s were a bust.

The next night, we had the tasting menu with wine pairings at Spago Beverly Hills, which was rather better than my cooking!

Many happy returns.

Allen said...

The dinner was one of the best I have had this year.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I know you have many qualities but you sure could run one fine restaurant!

Anonymous said...


It looks like a wonderful event. You must be quite an accomplished chef! - Patrick Metcalf

stevenjared0853 said...

Hey!! Your 30th birthday seems quite interesting. I really liked these arrangements. Want to arrange my husband’s birthday party at one of event space NYC. Want to make best and wonderful arrangements for his special day.