Birthday Dinner Party- Part 2, Feast

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… 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!

Menu for the 10 course meal

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.

Chocolate tasting…

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).


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.