Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Progressive Dinner Menu with Giada D.L.

Last week, Chef Reiton emailed that he'd gotten a new cookbook, Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes by Giada de Laurentiis. In it he had found a recipe for one of his favorite dishes in Italy, spaghetti alle vongole, and he wanted to make it with me. We decided that Saturday night would be all Italian, and the menu was set: caprese salad for the antipasto, spaghetti alle vongole for the primo, grilled lamb chops for the secundo, and tiramisu for the dolce.

Chef R did some research online to find a fish market very close to home that sold fresh Manila clams. Saturday afternoon after he arrived with the cookbook, we made our list and hit the stores. Items to buy? Well, besides fresh clams—lamb chops. Fresh mozzarella. Fresh basil, rosemary, thyme and parsley. Mascarpone. Cream, wine and lady fingers. (Just writing the ingredients again is making my mouth water.)

We came home, cracked a bottle of Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel,

and started preparing for the evening.

First we prepped for the tiramisu and made the cream filling. I could have eaten the entire bowl of it just as it was. Amazing what chocolate, cream, and mascarpone can become when blended together. Chef R made several pots of espresso, and we finished building dessert.

Next we worked on the marinade for the lamb chops: a blend of olive oil, fresh rosemary, garlic, and sea salt. We rubbed the chops well, then stuck them in the fridge to marinate while we took a nap. Dinner was going to be late, and we wanted to enjoy every moment of it.

When we got up, it was time to start the quicker elements of dinner. First task? Scrub the clams. We soon got a system down. I'd take a Scotchbrite pad to the poor fellas (they're still alive at this point), then he would take a veggie brush and get in the buggers' grooves. Soon the poor guys were beautifully clean—for our bellies.

Here's a look at them before the fire started:

Next Chef R started the dressing for the caprese salad. It was so simple: olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, and fresh pepper. He sliced some Roma tomatoes, slivered the basil, and created a gorgeous dish.

At this point we put the spaghetti on to boil and started steaming the clams. Within minutes you could smell them as they simmered in the wine. I have never been much of seafood person, but I've been trying to alter my mindset about foods, as I've discussed before (thank you, Julissa), and I was rather excited about trying this dish. I was happy to notice that the aroma of it wasn't fishy; it smelled deep, actually, and full of earth. A peek under the lid showed the shells opened, and the dish was ready to be finished. Chef R drained the spaghetti, tossed it with the clams and the sauce, poured it all into the serving dish, and we garnished it with lemon zest and more parsley. Beautiful.

Now, begin eating! We sat down to our caprese salad and spaghetti alle vongole, as well as a bottle of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau. Chef R had been looking to find a wine that was like the local table wines of Europe—nothing deep and complex, just a simple fruity wine that paired with a simple Italian meal. This is what we picked:

To say simply, as I took my first bites, our antipasto and primo blew me away. I knew I'd love the caprese, but I wasn't sure about the clams. But I can honestly say that I would make it again in a heartbeat. I loved what the lemon and wine did together, and again, the deep but not overpowering flavor of the clams. Nothing was too intense. Each taste—the lemon, garlic, wine, clams—when you thought about them individually, could be detected, but yet each bite melded the flavors together to create a very light but satisfying mouthful.

We did discover upon eating that the recipe made a TON. We had cut the recipe in half, and we still threw out enough to feed at least another person, if not two. So if you make this recipe, be prepared for a lot.

After our primo course, it was time to cook the secundo. I had pulled the chops out of the fridge while we made the clams, so they were pretty much
to room temperature. We heated the grill pan on the stove to "almost smoking," and Chef R threw the chops on to sear. The amazing smells that arose from that pan made me marvel at how people don't cook. You don't have to go out to eat like a king! And lots of times the food you make at home is BETTER than what you would pay for in a restaurant! (Oh, the joys of cooking!)

In short time, the secundo was done, and we sat down to taste the first lamb chops either of us had ever made:

OH MY GOD. Perfectly grilled. Perfectly seasoned. Perfectly sized. (Yes, Giada, we did evenly divide the chops among the two plates.)

As the last bite of chop was devoured, we both sighed. Everything had been so good, and we weren't even done. Next, the sweet end: homemade tiramisu.

We had questioned some of Giada's directions in the making of the dessert. She says to dip the lady fingers in the espresso, but what exactly is the timing of a dip? If I take a dip in a pool, I take that to mean a good 30 minutes, at least. My mom's dip is about 5. So when you dip a cookie, is it a 1-second dip, or is it a 1-2-3-4 dip? Chef R and I decided to experiment. Layer 1 was a 1-second dip. Layers 2 and 3 were 1-2-3-4 dips. Layer 4 was a mix of both. When we cut it we would see the results.

Well, it was time. We inverted the cake and sprinkled it with cocoa powder, and I handed Chef R the knife. He made the cut.

What wonders were beheld. Even layers. Espresso-soaked cookies. A rich, chocolatey cream to mellow the intensity of the coffee. My mouth couldn't wait. I put the camera down and took a bite.

About the hundredth sigh escaped my lips that evening. My taste buds were silently screaming with pleasure. And I kept thinking, "But it was so easy!"

(Afterwards, the two of us did decide that a 1-second dip was the best way to go. The cookies that went for a longer swim were a bit strong and wet; we determined that the cream would sufficiently soak into the lady fingers as it rested in the fridge, creating a nicely moist, but not wet, cake. I'm so willing to test the revised method very soon. I'm sensing a dinner party coming on...)

As the last bite of dinner settled, Chef R and I sat and stared at our empty dessert plates, then reached for our wine glasses and, for the fifth time that night, toasted each other. "You rock, Chef Reiton," I said.

And he did what I love to hear: he laughed. "Thanks," he said. And, bellies full and happy, we both smiled.

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