Dinner Diary April 26, 1986
Croutons? Free standing Croutons? I honestly don’t know what the croutons are doing there but the rest of the meal is good. “I. F. C.” is Casale’s Italian Family Cooking – great cookbook, we’ve discussed it before. The Frog/Commissary recipe, “Chocolate Mousse Cake with Grand Marnier Custard Sauce” is so good that it will, “make women moan with pleasure and desire and men happy and able to oblige them – or visa versa.” That quote is attributable to me.
As I’ve previously written, I had the pleasure of living in Philadelphia in the late 1970’s. Yes, it was a little rough around the edges those days in comparison to today. But the restaurant renaissance had begun. So many good restaurants, soft shell crab sandwiches for lunch in Rittenhouse Square and produce and flower stands that seemed to be located on every corner. Day old flowers cheap and dinner veggies on the walk home from work. Among the many wonderful restaurants springing up during that time was The Frog (upscale) and The Commissary (ah um – commissary/cafeteria with wonderful food not a cafeteria by a million miles). Both of these birthed by the legendary Steven Poses. The Frog served food the likes of which I had never had before: crab and Brie in Phyllo, chicken in romaine with lime hot sauce, roast duck breasts with raspberry vinegar sauce and mango. The Commissary was a cafeteria unlike any other: caviar, sushi and the best carrot cake in the entire universe. I ate at The Commissary much more often than The Frog, but that was not a hardship. What I remember forever from these hallowed culinary halls is THE CAKE – CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CAKE WITH GRAND MARNIER CUSTARD SAUCE. They both served THE CAKE. To make this cake is to take on a PROJECT. To serve this cake is to become a LEGEND. Sometimes you get lucky. The cookbook, ‘The Frog, Commissary Cookbook’, with the cake recipe, is still in print.
The cake consists of a small (way too rich tasting for big) springform pan lined with a genoise (eggy cake), filled with a Grand Marnier flavored chocolate mousse, glazed with a Grand Marnier dark chocolate frosting and served in a creamy, luminous, pool of Grand Marnier custard sauce. There is no adequate way to describe this in its full glory. Think of oranges and chocolate presented in a variety of flavor nuances and a gamut of textures. Served, it looks like a glistening wedge of midnight lying in the melted summer moon. You have to make this at least once in your life. It’s sooooo gooood that you’ll want to roll in it like an animal and, as she says, “It’s A Good Thing”.
A word about our dinner guests; they were good friends of ours before this dinner and are to this day. That consistency is appreciated.
Dinner Diary October 26, 1986
This Dinner Diary entry is special in that it introduces Barry, an honest to goodness executive chef in a very well regarded restaurant – AND HE ACTUALLY LIKES MY COOKING! It also introduces his wife, Debbie, and her daughter Sarah. All, important friends in my small world of friends. But let’s talk about the menu. The appetizers are a little much, but I recall that I kept the quantities to a minimum – just a taste. I honestly hope that the (basil) pesto stuffed mushrooms had more cheese than usual. The shrooms stuffed with brie and topped with (I hope crumbled) bacon sound good enough to make again, if a little commonplace. Are two mushroom appetizers too many? Perhaps the soup’s a little heavy (don’t chop too fine?), could have been wild mushroom in a consommé, a little lighter. Look David, yes you the writer – ease up on the plethora of mushrooms here. Perhaps the salad didn’t neeeeeed the salmon. “Need” is truly an ambiguous word. The pear sorbet is a nice palette cleanser and terrifically seasonal. The venison was great, given to me by a hunter friend. Sarah was of the age that Barry and Debby asked me to refer to it as “meat” rather than venison, deer or Bambi (Barry threatened to smack me if I called it Bambi). Maybe next time a veggie rather than BOTH squash and wild rice. And we all know about THE CAKE.
I hope that I waited a good long while before I served THE CAKE, thus allowing all to find the room in our overstuffed tummies to enjoy it.
Barry came to us through our friend Debbie – high school sweethearts though they didn’t get together until well after. Ah, and Debbie’s daughter Sarah. A child prodigy who, under Barry and Debby’s tutelage, was eating artichoke leaves dipped in melted butter and lemon juice at the age of FOUR. A red haired wonder of a child who would deport herself with the elegance of a queen – as compared to the usual run of mewling brats. A child who knows the rules of fine dining in upscale restaurants.
I am fortunate to find that there are those people in my life that I always, I mean always, manage to have a good time with. Barry and Debbie are two, there are a few more but not many; actually, more than I realized when I first considered it. People with whom the conversation is good, you laugh a lot (but not always) and you can talk about where your life is hard right now, where you need help or encouragement or commiseration and get a response that will help you carry on or see things from the proper perspective. I am one damn lucky guy. May all of you have this kind of luck.
Dessert: Sea Urchins and Baby Octopus
I am blessed to have an absolutely wonderful seafood store near me, Nassau Street Seafood in Princeton. It’s a narrow little space with the seafood case on one wall; produce on the opposite wall and in baskets on the floor and a wood floored aisle between the two that is barely wide enough for two people abreast. They’ve been in business for 27 years and I’ve availed myself of their offerings and been thankful that they’ve been there for all of those years. When Bonnie and I lived in Princeton Borough they were a short walk from our house.
They have consistently carried the freshest seafood that I’ve found unless I’ve been dockside. Not only is the seafood fresh, but I can count on them being to obtain, in season such delicacies as: the best shad fillets and roes (I know that you can get these in some supermarkets, but believe me the freshness doesn’t compare), the likes of sea urchins, baby and adult octopus, a variety of oysters and clams and the likes of blood oranges and Meyer’s Lemons. It is one stop shopping. The only thing that I haven’t seen them offer is free lobster bodies.
A recent visit to the shop presented me with, among the usual fare, sea urchins and baby octopus. How can anyone resist that combo?!?!?!
Sea Urchins and Baby Octopus
I had to take some home. I would have taken a lot more if I could have afforded it, but this was good. Bonnie loves this combo as much as I do so I knew that it would be a great dinner appreciated by the both of us.
The edible part of the sea urchin is the roe, uni when you’re ordering sushi. This roe is actually the ovaries of the sea urchin. Hmmm. Anyway. The roe would be our dinner appetizer. Cut off the bottom of the urchin with kitchen shears and scoop the roe out, sprinkle with a little lemon juice and enjoy. The taste of the roe is both delicate and unique. A taste of brine and tides, the sea given substance, buttery-creamy. Sometimes I’ve saved the liquid in the urchins, strained it and used it to finish cooking off pasta, as I did this evening. The main course this evening was the octopus in a red sauce seasoned with smoky paprika and served over squid ink pasta.
Baby Octopus in Tomato Sauce over Squid Ink Pasta
The sauce was on the light side; tomatoes of course, a bit of sautéed garlic and shallots, salt and the smoked paprika (I love the subtle heat). The baby octopus were cleaned (the beak is pretty awesome) with the bodies sliced into strips and the tentacles preserved whole. Poached in salted water with a bay leaf and black pepper corns until tender (about 40 minutes or so) and added to the sauce. As I mentioned, the pasta was cooked off with the strained sea urchin liquor. This was an ‘A’ rated dinner.
Next Week: Dinner Diaries from 1986 and 1987 and the Mother of All Paella Pans