A Smokin’ Hot birthday feast

What’s a party without a theme?  Little girls delight in princess-themed tea parties and Hello Kitty fetes.  Boys go crazy acting out pirates and cowboys.  Adolescents cast spells with a flick of their wand while pretending to battle the dark lord with Harry Potter.  College coeds rage at toga parties and Hawaiian luaus to spice up the social scene.  No matter what age, themed parties are always fun and set the backdrop for an entertaining and memorable time with friends and family.  For my birthday this year, a few of my very close friends threw a dinner party for me.  I knew that they had been planning, shopping, prepping and cooking for many days to pamper me with a spectacular feast, but I didn’t know until that evening that there was a surprise twist to it all-  a Smokin’ Hot theme.  Why?  Because at my age, I am still, supposedly, smokin’ hot.  (As Bernard Meltzer said, ‘A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.’)

The two chefs for the evening revealed that the entire menu was constructed around this smokin’ hot theme, incorporating smoked items and spicy hot condiments.  Every dish was well thought out to reflect the theme, taste amazing and still maintain a cohesive flow with the rest of the menu.  I was already touched that they took time out of their busy lives to create this themed dinner for me, and I wasn’t prepared for the delicious 7 course meal that was about to blow me away.  The evening officially commenced when somebody popped the cork of a bottle of Piper Heidsieck champagne, donned in a red hot label.

Octopus legs were boiled with a wine cork, in Mario Batali style, to tenderize the meat before charring it in the broiler.  (Of note, after much research, I have found no scientific evidence or studies out there to prove or disprove this method of tenderizing cork- only that Mario Batali swears by it, and when a jolly orange croc-wearing Iron Chef says so, who can argue?)  The resulting octopus was mixed with fingerling potatoes, sliced red onions, parsley and dill, and tossed together in a garlic infused olive oil sauce made with smoked paprika powder.

For the second course, Chef Emi made an ancho chile paste by rehydrating dried ancho chiles, carefully seeding and peeling them, and finally blending it all with butter.

Tossed together with boiled then pan seared brussels sprouts, this made for a delicious vegetable starter with a mild but very much present hot ancho chile kick.

A most delightful ceviche was made with tender morsels of bay scallops, tuna and shrimp, in a quick marinade of chopped tomatoes, red onions, garlic, fresh orange juice, lime juice and cilantro.  The secret ingredient in the seafood cocktail was Emi’s father’s homemade bombero chile sauce, a fiery hot liquid made with tender love and care from chiles in their backyard garden.

There’s a lot of work that goes into broiling eggplants over an open hot flame to a smokey char and peeling off the skin to make a savory homemade baba ghanoush with tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt, and with that extra accent of smoked paprika powder, it was worth every bite.  Smokey, creamy, rich and simply delicious, the chefs created a perfect dish.

Thick cuts of applewood smoked bacon from the Curious Palate were wrapped around goat cheese and cashew stuffed dates, and baked in the oven for tantalizing bites of porcine delight.  Warm liquid pork fat mixed with melting cheese, encased in a rich pillowcase of sweetness and a finish of subtle crunchy texture- these perfectly packaged skewers from Chef Hana were the ultimate complement to her refreshing homemade red sangria.

Green, red and yellow bell peppers were charred over a hot open flame and carefully peeled in preparation for the main course, a paella.

An impressive seafood paella made with littleneck clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and Santa Barbara spot prawns was served piping hot in a large wide paellera.  Saffron infused bomba rice was perfectly al dente, and with just a sprinkling of garlic and hot chile infused olive oil that the chef made, this final smokin’ hot savory dish was the catalyst that really brought everybody’s hearts together that evening.

The climax of the evening, as with any birthday feast, was the birthday cake presented with a birthday song.

Chef Emi made the most wonderful, beautiful and delicious caramel cake with vanilla bean crème fraîche frosting and poached quince.  Crème fraîche was made from scratch with buttermilk, and fresh farmers market quince was poached for hours and hours to render it sweet and tender.  With a sprinkling of fleur de sel to season, this caramel cake was one of the best desserts that I have ever tasted, not only for its genuinely professional execution, but also for the intense amount of love that I could taste in each mouthwatering bite.

The smokin’ hot-themed birthday feast was more than I could have asked for- surrounded by loved ones, eating to our heart’s content, toasting to our futures and laughing together.  Every part of the feast and every minute of that precious evening was memorable for me, and more valuable than any restaurant experience that I could ever imagine.  What was more smokin’ hot that night?  The crackling fireplace that set the mood, the hot spiciness of the food, or the warm fuzzy feeling that I got in my heart?  The answer was in my smile.

Random trivia:  Did you know that eggplants are called ‘aubergine’ in many countries outside of the US?  Aubergine derives from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to cure wind-disorder’, since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence.

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Birthday Dinner Party- Part 1, Prep

“Which restaurant do you want to go to for your birthday celebration this year?”

Many of my close friends started asking me this question weeks before my birthday.  My friends know me well, and they knew that my ideal birthday celebration would be all about good food…but they didn’t know me well enough to figure out that I had better plans for my special day.  I couldn’t think of any restaurant in LA that would quite cut it, and I cringed at the thought of making my friends pay a lot of money for an extravagant meal in a stuffy environment.  I’m extremely blessed to have wonderful and caring friends who have been by my side through my ups and downs, and I wanted to spend my birthday with them in a special and meaningful way.  I love going out to restaurants for fine dining, but what I love more is cooking at home with friends and for friends.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than cooking in the kitchen and sharing a nice meal with people I love.  So I sent out an invitation to 12 of my closest friends in LA, and started brainstorming on ideas for my ultimate fantasy birthday menu.  No gifts please, I instructed my friends, but instead bring your appetite, good spirits, and lots of champagne and wine!

My brain exploded with a multitude of fabulous culinary ideas, and I had a lot of fun writing and sketching my ideas down.  For the whole entire week leading up to the big party, my hands were practically shaking from all of the excitement.  I knew that there were a few basic dishes that I had to have, and I consulted my chef friend Haru about ordering these items from the best suppliers.  I wanted to have an oyster bar that served two of my favorite types: Fanny Bay and Kumamoto.  I wanted a seared foie gras dish, as I had a whole lobe of Rougié foie gras from Epicure Imports that was patiently waiting in the freezer.  For the main entrée, I fluctuated between choices like lamb saddle, veal chop and flat iron steak, but in the end I decided to go grand and opted for a whole suckling pig.  The rest depended on what I found at the Santa Monica Farmer’s market.

Going to the Wednesday morning SM Farmer’s market is one of my favorite Los Angeles activities.  There are rows of food stalls with fresh seasonal produce and lots of specialty food items that cannot be found elsewhere.  I found vibrant Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes and yellow wax beans, which inspired me to make a salad dish with burrata cheese and slices of jamon serrano.

One of my favorite vegetable stands, run by a Japanese farmer, was offering some adorable miniature eggplants.  Small round green Petch Siam eggplants, frequently used in Thai cuisine, were calling out to me.  In the box adjacent to them were even cuter small purple eggplants called Fairytale eggplants which I had never used before, but I had to get anyway.

Although I had many ideas about how to serve them, in the end I envisioned a simple appetizer of pan roasted eggplants with a balsamic sauce.  I found some interesting Purple Ruffles Basil at the market to liven up the plating of this dish.

Beautiful purple Mission Figs were at the height of their season, and I found an abundance of them at the Farmer’s Market.  Ah, they would go perfectly with the whole lobe of foie gras!  Coupled with a port wine reduction, this would make for a decadent and delicious plate.

The seared foie gras dish would go perfectly after the salad and before the main course, but since the main course was going to be a whole roasted suckling pig, I realized that there needed to be a palate cleanser between the two dishes.  I had a jar of wonderful yuzu purée that was just waiting to be consumed, so I decided to make a yuzu and rosemary granité.  The bite of rosemary herb coupled with the citrus tang of yuzu was sure to cleanse any palate and refresh any taste bud!

I melted the yuzu purée in sugar and water in a pot and brought it to a boil, and just after taking it off the heat, I threw in a tea bag of freshly chopped rosemary leaves to let it steep in the mixture.  This way the granité would have just enough of a hint of rosemary finish instead of an overpowering flavor.  I saved some rosemary twigs for garnishing.  This dish was prepared the night before to save some time on the busy big day.

I found a ton of beautiful vegetables to accompany the roasted pig.  Small bright orange Nante carrots were super sweet when I sampled them at the stall.  Small pee wee potatoes came in purple, red and yellow, and I bought a bunch of these for roasting.  Beautiful baby spring onions came attached to their stalks and still covered in dirt, just picked fresh that morning. Purslane was at the end of their season, and I bought these as well, thinking that its distinct fresh citrus flavor would complement the heartiness of the main course.

Now what to do for dessert?  I wanted to do a dessert that could be prepared the night before, to save time in the kitchen during the actual party.  I figured that by the end of the meal, I would be quite tired and potentially quite drunk as well.  Cake?  Too boring.  Cupcakes?  Even more boring.  Tiramisu?  I already did that for a previous dinner.  I found beautiful and plump strawberries at the market, and started getting excited about them.  And then I ran into these tropical delights, and my heart skipped a beat.  Passion fruit- perfect!

Passion fruit zabaglione, parfait, mousse, ice cream, cheesecake…I considered many options, but when I rummaged through my kitchen that evening, I came across an old friend that I hadn’t seen in a while, and he whispered to me very softly, “Use me…”  My butane torch was calling out to me, and I knew then that the dessert for my birthday bash would be crème brûlée.  It’s easily prepared the night before, and people get excited when they see it torched.  I incorporated Madagascar vanilla beans into my  passion fruit crème brûlée mixture, and prepared these in the oven the night before.  After cooling them on a rack, they went into the fridge and waited until their grand debut.

For the strawberries that I bought, I opted to use them for a mini appetizer in the very beginning of the meal with the champagne toast.  Strawberries dipped in sugar and freshly ground black peppercorns is absolutely delicious, and it goes extremely well with champagne.

For the end of the meal, I planned to do a cheese plate.  I bought a bunch of beautiful cheeses at Epicure Imports, as well as some accompaniments for these cheeses.  I also found some fresh jujubes at the farmer’s market, and decided to pair these with the cheeses as well.  Finally, for the many chocolate lovers in the attending party, I bought an assortment of unusual flavored chocolates at Epicure Imports to do a chocolate tasting with a delicious dessert wine that I also bought there.

After a lot of tweaking and rearranging, the final birthday dinner menu was officially made on the morning of the party.  The menus were printed, the wine and champagne glasses were cleaned, the silverware was polished, the dishes were stacked, the music CD’s were chosen, and I was ready to go.

Here’s the final menu:

1    Strawberries with sugar and black peppercorn

2    Kumamoto & Fanny Bay Oysters

3    Fairytale & Petch Siam Eggplants with Purple Ruffles Basil

4    Yellow Wax Beans, Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes, Burrata, Jamon Serrano, Argan Oil dressing

5    Seared Foie Gras with Mission Figs and Port Wine reduction

6    Yuzu & Rosemary Granité

7    Roasted Suckling Pig with Pee Wee Potatoes, Nante Carrots, Baby Spring Onions, Purslane

8    Passion Fruit & Madagascar Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée

9    French Cheese Plate with Quince Paste, White Truffle Honey, Jujubes, Grapes

10    Chocolate tasting

The next blog entry will feature photos and details of the actual feast!

Random trivia: Did you know that jujubes have a sweet smell that is said to make teenagers fall in love?  In the Himalayas, men carry jujube flower stems with them or put them in their hats to attract women.