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.