Alex’s Birthday Dinner

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You may recall that the worst meal I’ve ever cooked for people in my life was the meal I cooked for my friends Alex and Raife in March of 2007 (see here). Rereading that post, I don’t think it was as awful as I remember it being; but the pressure was high because Alex, one of my closest friends from college, had never experienced my cooking (she’d only seen me defrost California Pizza Kitchen pizzas when we lived together) and I wanted to impress her. Well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

Luckily, Alex has a birthday. And now she lives in New York and so does our friend Raife who was also there at that disastrous dinner. So to celebrate Alex’s birthday, which was in October, I invited them both over for a gigantic do-over. How did I fare?

I fared well!

The secret? I cooked all my standard dishes, the dishes I cook during the week when Craig and I are glued to Project Runway or American Idol. I started with a Caesar salad that I’ve developed by mixing various techniques–the Pearl Oyster Bar technique of adding the anchovies at the end; the Adam Roberts technique of emulsifying the Caesar dressing by slowly whisking in the olive oil to a mixture of chopped garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, and a dash of mustard with some salt and pepper. I pull the outer leaves off the Romaine, cut it into big pieces, and toss with the dressing and the chopped anchovies. I grate fresh Parmesan all over the bowl, toss it all together and serve. People love it: Alex and Raife were no exception.

Then, for the entree, I made the roast chicken that makes life worth living. It’s the Chez Panisse recipe and you can watch that video of me demonstrating it here. The only quandary on this night was: I wanted to roast TWO chickens for the four of us, but didn’t want to put two chickens in the roasting pan with the potatoes because I was scared too much fat would come out and boil the potatoes instead of letting them fry to a golden brown on the bottom of the pan.

I came up with the solution: cook one chicken with the potatoes like I normally do, and cook the other chicken in a cast iron skillet.

People.

You know how chefs and food writers are always telling you to buy a cast iron skillet? The following picture should convince you that this is, indeed, a very good idea:

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I mean, come on people. Come on! Tell me you don’t want to leap through your computer screen right now and make love to that chicken? It’s a masterpiece! If I didn’t love the potatoes cooked in the chicken fat when I roast the chicken and potatoes in the roasting pan so much, I’d cook all my chickens in a cast iron skillet. Just place in the skillet, put in a 425 oven, and take it out one hour later. No special techniques required.

For dessert, I made one of my all time favorites, and the best thing you can possibly make in fall. No, not apple pie. Apple cobbler!

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I am definitely much more of a cobbler person than a pie person. I love the crunchy, butter topping and the oozing, appley interior. The recipe comes from Saveur Magazine (an old, old issue) but you can read all the details on this old post that features a very young Diana complaining about “Crash” winning the Best Picture Oscar.

The key to any good apple dessert, I’ve discovered, is using a wide variety of baking apples. I made Craig walk with me to the Park Slope farmer’s market before this dinner (it was a blustery, rainy day) but the nice variety of local, non-industrialized apples we chose (Jonagold, Empire, Macoun) made all the difference in the end result. If you’ve ever made an apple pie or cobbler and didn’t love the way it tasted, it’s because you probably didn’t use a good mixture of apples.

So, to recap: Caesar salad, roast chicken, and apple cobbler. That’s a formula for a happy birthday dinner, don’t you think? Serve the cobbler with vanilla ice cream and it gets even happier.

Alas, I am relieved of my shame when it comes to cooking for Alex: she was impressed! It teaches a good lesson; when cooking for those you love, cook what YOU love and they’ll love it too.

So thanks, Alex, for a chance to learn a valuable lesson and for giving me a second chance. Hope you had a happy birthday!

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