A few months ago–what seems like an eternity ago–Craig’s mom, Julee, asked if I’d be willing to donate a cookbook dinner for a charity auction to benefit the Whatcom Center for Early Learning in Bellingham, Washington, where she and Craig’s dad, Steve, live. I said, “Sure” and didn’t think twice about it. Of course I’d be happy to cook a dinner for charity, no biggie. Then I forgot all about it. Months passed and then Julee reached back out: the auction item was a big hit. Two couples had paid money (real money) for a meal that would be cooked by yours truly for them and four other people (they could each bring two more people) based on recipes from my cookbook SECRETS OF THE BEST CHEFS. This was really happening. Holy crap, what was I going to cook?
That question had to be answered early as Julee and Steve needed me to send them a menu. I plowed through the pages of my book and considered various approaches. “Do I do some of the more exotic food from the book? Kimchi rice grits?” I asked myself while listening to EVITA (original cast, no Madonna). “Or do I keep it very seasonal and do an Alice Waters salad and a Daniel Patterson foraged something or other?”
But, no, that wouldn’t do. These people paid big money for this dinner and I wanted to give them something fancy! So I picked the fanciest things I could out of the book. Here’s the menu I came up with (designed and printed by Steve and Julee):
Craig and I flew up on Thursday the 18th and on Friday, I got to work cooking. I chose some dishes that I could easily make a day ahead: chicken liver mousse in Cognac soaked prunes (which Sara Moulton taught me how to make) and Rebecca Charles’s outrageously decadent and delicious scallop chowder.
Work began with the chicken liver mousse. Many onions were sautéed in a large skillet:
Then livers were added. These livers were cleaned by Julee and she did a very good job and wasn’t squeamish at all (she actually likes liver):
Once browned but still pink on the inside, the livers were removed and Port was added to deglaze the pan. We hit a road bump with the food processor, which was too small, but Julee’s friend Cheryl saved the day with hers. I processed the livers and the onions and the Port then pressed it through a sieve into a bowl, stirring in some softened butter and refrigerating until it firmed up.
Meanwhile, I got started on the scallop chowder. Scallops were cut into pieces:
Onions (more onions!) were cooked in a large stock pot, but not browned. That’s wrong for scallop chowder. Potatoes were added:
Then the scallops and cream. Lots of cream. You don’t want to know how much cream (but that’s why it tastes so good). At the end, once the cream reduces, you add Pernod which gives everything a mysterious, alluring Anise flavor. It’s terrif. (We refrigerated the chowder to cure for the next day. The word “cure” is the word Rebecca Charles used when she talked about this soup so I’m not making that up.)
Final step: soak prunes in Cognac. I brought Cognac to a boil, turned off the heat and added a bunch of dried prunes.
I put the lid on and stepped away from everything. We ate dinner and watched a screener of Craig’s new movie which everyone loved, of course. Afterwards, I snuck upstairs and checked out the prunes which had absorbed a lot of liquid and the mousse which had really firmed up.
Now I just had to get the mousse into the prunes. Easier said than done. After a few missteps, I perfected my technique: I hollowed out a space in a prune with a spoon and then using two smaller spoons, I scooped up some mousse and guided it in. At the end, I had two Tupperware containers full of mousse-stuffed prunes (and I may have eaten 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 in the process):
Serious business began the next morning, Saturday, the day of the dinner party.
Steve really saved my hide in several ways. Way #1: he helped me roll out the pastry dough for Gary Danko’s blueberry crostada.
As much as I say in the book I can do it now, I can’t do it under pressure. But Steve has the magic touch (and also a heavy marble rolling pin). See?
We filled the crostada with local blueberries mixed with sugar and corn starch:
Those went in oven and came out looking beautiful.
Actually, that’s a lie. They came out a bit messy…
But the trick is when they cool, you flip them upside down on to the back of a cookie sheet and peel away the parchment and all that gunky, leaky blueberry stuff goes with it. Trust me.
After the crostadas, it was time for more serious business, the most serious business of all: the meat. (Which is the #2 way that Steve saved my hide.)
Check out this TEN POUND rib roast!
Based on a recipe Naomi Pomeroy taught me (and I’d also be making her incredible lentils which I love) we coated the rib roast in porcini powder (which we made ourselves by grinding up dried porcinis in a spice grinder), salt and pepper.
Then we seared in a large roasting pan that we had to borrow and rested it on a rack:
Steve helped me maneuver that monster of a rib roast and I’m not sure I could’ve seared it and lifted it without his steady hands. So yes, he saved my hide TWICE.
We decided to use Steve’s favorite technique for cooking Prime Rib: 200 degrees for many hours until it reaches the perfect temperature (was it 135? I forget. I’ll get back to you with that number in the comments if you beg me.)
While this was happening, Julee set the table beautifully:
And I made the lentils (I forgot to take pictures but they have amazing things in them like pancetta, anchovies, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes. Really, buy the book!)
Before we knew it, dinner time was upon us. Steve and Julee’s friends Sandy and Glen came over to help in the kitchen. Sandy has a knack for plating food. Here’s her plated version of the mousse-stuffed prunes:
And here she is with Julee showing it off:
Craig was enlisted to make drinks: French 75s. Here he is with Glen getting things ready.
Meanwhile, I heated up the soup and Craig tasted to make sure it was good. “Mmmm,” he said, which means it was.
Guests arrived! Here’s Steve greeting two of our guests, Sandi and Robin.
After milling around for a while eating the prunes and sipping the French 75s, the guests were seated and the first course was plated. Props to Julee for mincing the chives extra fine. Here’s the Scallop Chowder garnished expertly:
Everyone loved it (how could they not with all of that cream and Pernod?) and then it was time for the main event. Here’s Steve showing off the rib roast hot out of the oven:
And here’s the kitchen team plating the entree, with Steve and Glenn carving and Julee and Sandy handling lentils.
Sandy gave me an intervention when I wanted to just scoop the lentils on to the plate willy nilly. “No!” she said which was surprising because she’s so soft-spoken and sweet. “That looks terrible!”
She used an ice cream scoop to make a pretty lentil mound which, indeed, looked much better. Behold the finished plate:
Drizzled on top is demi-glace flavored with balsamic and truffle salt, just like Naomi Pomeroy taught me.
Well, not to toot our horns too much, but everyone loved this food. Guests couldn’t have been happier. Here’s Craig entertaining the crowd:
Dessert put a smile on everyone’s face:
Then there was music because some of the guests brought a keyboard for me to play and Steve brought his drums up from upstairs and let’s just say Bellingham hasn’t heard a rendition of “Louie Louie” that rousing since Connie Francis came through on her world tour.
All in all, it was a bit stressful cooking a dinner for people who paid real money for it but the guests couldn’t have been more gracious and at the end of the night I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and relief. Thanks, Julee and Steve, for all your help organizing, shopping, prepping and cooking; and thanks Glen and Sandy for all of your help in the kitchen too.
Everyone else, don’t start making your reservations: I think I need a year off before I do a dinner like this again. Chefs, I don’t know how you do it.