On the day of a big event, there is always something that goes wrong. No matter how well things are planned in advance, and even if you make room for error and mishaps, something always happens which throws everyone for a loop. I’m very meticulous and detail oriented almost to a fault, and I thought that I had planned my birthday dinner party perfectly. However, without fail, something happened. I got a call from my chef friend Haru the night before.
“Um…..how big is your oven?”
The roast suckling pig that we ordered had just arrived, and it wasn’t the petite piglet that I had envisioned. I wanted to roast a small piglet whole, maybe even stick an apple in its mouth, and present this majestic plate to my dinner guests. Instead, a humongous 3 foot long pig arrived at his doorsteps, and I shook my head in disbelief as I tried to figure out whether to laugh or feel stressed. Thanks to my generous and experienced friend who broke down the large animal and prepped the individual pieces, the whole process went smoothly and we were back on schedule.
I was really excited for this birthday dinner party. For some, the ultimate birthday fantasy may be dining at a 3 Michelin star restaurant, or a romantic getaway to the Bahamas, or a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley, or a spa day with girlfriends. For me, it’s inviting close friends over to my home and cooking for them. It entails a tremendous amount of work, from shopping to cooking, cleaning my house to setting the table, from being hostess to sommelier, server to busboy, and let’s not forget what a chore it is to clean up the day after. But I love every minute of it, and I’m truly happiest working in and around the kitchen. Plus, dining at somebody’s home beats dining at a restaurant any day. You know that the chef is cooking for you and only you, the seats are more comfortable and there’s more room to relax and hang out, you can play your choice of music at whatever volume you want, it’s private dining at the chef’s table, and hypothetically this ‘restaurant’ is open for as long as you’re there. If you’ve had too much to drink, you can even spend the night there!
Farmers’ Market strawberries with sugar and freshly ground black peppercorns…
As my friends arrived with wonderful bottles of champagne and wine in hand, I greeted them a glass of chilled champagne and steered them over to the do-it-yourself station of succulent strawberries, sugar and freshly ground black peppercorns. You dip the flatly cut end of the strawberry into sugar first, and then the black pepper. Pop it in your mouth, savor the wonderful combination of flavors for a while, then follow it with a swig of champagne. The spicy kick of the black pepper surprisingly doesn’t overwhelm the strawberries at all, but instead enhances the sweetness of the fruit.
Kumamoto and Fanny Bay Oysters…
A big thank you to my friend Haru who patiently shucked all of the oysters for the party and helped with the cooking. I learned how to shuck these bivalves in culinary school, but I knew that the seasoned veteran could do a better and faster job. The crisp and clean flavored Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia were perfect on their own, so they were offered with a choice of lemon wedges or shallot vinaigrette.
The Kumamoto oysters from Humbolt Bay in California were also delicious. We decided to experiment with these oysters that had a more milky and mellow flavor. Some were served with ponzu and chopped scallions. Others were consumed with the shallot vinaigrette. We also tried drizzling some argan oil over both the ponzu and the vinaigrette combinations. All were equally delicious, but my favorite combo was the shallot vinaigrette with argan oil.
Fairytale and Petch Siam Eggplants with Purple Ruffles Basil…
The miniature eggplants that I found at the farmers’ market were kept in their original cute form and prepared in a simple pan roast with caramelized onions and a balsamic vinegar glaze. The purple ruffles basil gave the dish a spruced up appearance and a nice tart finish.
Yellow Wax Beans, Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes, Burrata, Jamon Serrano, Argan Oil dressing…
I got inspired by a fabulous dish that I had at The Tasting Kitchen in Venice, and I made a hazelnut, walnut and argan oil dressing to go with the beautiful salad. The deep nutty flavors of the argan oil, along with the grounded hazelnuts and walnuts, complemented the beans and tomatoes. Toasted cumin seeds were sprinkled on top to add an aromatic layer to this dish that was delicious with the fresh burrata and jamon serrano.
Seared Foie Gras, Mission Figs, Port Wine Reduction…
The whole lobe of Rougié foie gras was pan fried whole to give it an exquisite sear. The oil that came out of the foie gras as it seared in the pan gave a nice sizzle as the pungent aromas attracted a crowd into the kitchen. Figs were prepared two ways to accompany these chunks of fatty heaven. Half of the figs were quickly marinated in olive oil, salt and black pepper. After the foie gras was removed from the pan, the other figs were placed cut side down on the pan to give it a nice caramelized glaze.
15 year Tawny Port was used to make a sweet and luscious port wine reduction sauce. The plates were garnished with a bit of purslane, and it didn’t take long for everybody to pounce on these plates. From the oohs and aahs emerging from the dinner table, and the feedback that I got from my friends, this was clearly the best dish of the evening. I’ve had opportunities to share foie gras dishes with some of my guests at other restaurants in Tokyo and Los Angeles after this birthday dinner, but each time they told me that nothing would ever compare to this foie gras dish that they had at my party.
Yuzu and Rosemary Granité…
After the decadent foie gras dish, and before the roasted pork entrée, I served a yuzu and rosemary granité palate cleanser. The distinct citrus taste of yuzu with subtle rosemary finish in these ice cold granité shavings was refreshing and invigorating.
Roasted Suckling Pig with Pee Wee Potatoes, Nante Carrots, Baby Spring Onions and Purslane…
As mentioned previously, this gigantic ‘piglet’ had to be broken down into separate parts and prepared individually, as there was no way that the 3 foot long beast would fit into my oven. The legs and belly were rolled and tied, and stuffed with a chopped mushroom and herb mixture that Haru made. These were roasted in the oven until the skin was crispy and brown.
The riblets were also pan fried with rosemary twigs, then transferred to the oven for roasting.
My favorite part was the pig’s head, boiled for hours until the loose collagen in the skin became soft and wiggly, and the meat fell apart effortlessly. The head was chopped into small bits and served on the plate with the other parts of the pig. The gelatinous bits of the skin and ears, and the tender cuts of tongue had an amazing texture and flavor. Fortunately there were left overs from the feast, and for a couple of days after the feast I simply piled it on top of some warm white rice for a comforting rice bowl dish.
The pee wee potatoes, nante carrots and baby spring onions were roasted in the dutch oven with garlic and rosemary. These farmers’ market vegetables were amazingly sweet and delightful.
Each plate was also garnished with purslane that was tossed in a light vinaigrette, to temper the heartiness of the dish. The different cuts of meat were all finished with an earthy flavorful sauce made from pork jus and white wine.
Passion fruit and Madagascar vanilla bean Crème Brûlée…
As predicted, by this stage of the meal, I was quite drunk. My friends brought over an amazing selection of champagnes and wines, and we managed to go through all 14 of them. All were absolutely delicious and went perfectly with the entire meal. I practically stumbled to the kitchen to start preparing the dessert. After coating the crème brûlée ramekins with brown demerara sugar, I leaned against the countertop to try to keep myself from falling over as I burned these custards with my butane torch.
I kept the passion fruit seeds to use them for garnishing the crème brûlée dish. I was so proud that these babies came out perfectly.
French cheese plate with Quince paste, Jujubes, grapes and white truffle honey…
A few days before the dinner party, I went to Epicure Imports in North Hollywood to stock up on gourmet import items. They offer a wonderful selection of French cheeses and numerous other delicacies. I chose an Epoisse, Valencay goat cheese with ash, Camembert, and a Brillat-Savarin. At Epicure, I also purchased quince paste and Sabatino Tartufi white truffle honey to pair with the cheeses. The intensely aromatic white truffle honey went brilliantly with the goat cheese, and it was my favorite pairing. Sliced fresh jujubes from the farmer’s market also went surprisingly well with all of the cheeses.
I bought a lot of interesting flavored chocolates from Bovetti and Vosges to try that evening. Since we were all completely stuffed from the feast,we only tried 3 chocolates from my new collection for the chocolate tasting. The dark chocolate with Szechuan peppers had a noticeable kick at the end that almost stung my tastebuds. The dark chocolate with blue mint had a cooling effect on my tongue. The Vosges chocolate called Black Pearl Bar, which had wasabi, ginger and black sesame seeds, was really interesting. At first I could taste the ginger, but towards the end the wasabi undertones sneaked in to dominate the finale. The chocolates were paired with an amazing dessert wine- Chateau Bernadou, Muscat de Frontignan from France.
It was a magical evening of good food, good wine and good company. There was singing, dancing, guitar strumming and a lot of laughing. Old friends reunited and new friendships were being made. It was amazing to see all of these people from different walks of life come together on this one evening to gather around the table to share a special meal with me. I can easily say that this was the best birthday that I have ever had, and it’ll be pretty tough to top this one.
Random trivia: Did you know that the passion fruit was given the name ‘passion’ by Catholic missionaries in South America who thought that certain parts of the fruit bore religious connections to the Crucifixion? The corona threads of the flower symbolized the crown of thorns, the 5 stamens the 5 wounds, the 3 stigmas for the 3 nails on the cross, and the 5 petals and 5 sepals as the 10 apostles (excluding Judas and Peter).