Said the Muffin Man, when I asked him what his favorite dish was from the night’s dinner.
We had a couple of friends over for dinner on a Saturday night, and I had greatly looked forward to an evening filled with good company and of course, good food. As you may or may not know, I happily spend copious hours daydreaming about dinner menus, luxuriating in the permutations and variations possible when planning an assemblage of foods. However, you can never be too sure how it’ll all turn out until the dishes are lined up on the table.
Limitation often begets creativity, and the only confinement to the menu was the vegetarian inclinations of our guests. (However, they did eat seafood. Land animals were off the menu).
After some deliberation and list-making, I settled on this menu of vegetarian tapas to be served all at once in the middle of the table, which guests could pick at to their liking:
1. Cool raw ribbons of zucchini with grated bits of carrot, golden raisins and sesame seeds, in a sesame oil-rice vinegar dressing with the smallest pinch of sugar added.
2. A slightly warm salad of boiled red and golden beets, walnuts and feta, lightly moistened with rice vinegar and sesame oil, garnished with nigella seeds.
3. Homemade baba ghanoush served with whole wheat pita bread cut into wedges.
4. Warm chickpeas with finely diced celery, made even warmer with the addition of cumin, fennel, black mustard seeds, and garam masala.
5. Vegetarian poutine: roasted baby red potatoes and fresh cheese curds smothered in a miso gravy.
6. Seared scallops on a bed of wilted kale tossed in a brown butter sauce.
Just as sunshine is better appreciated when there are gray days before it, food requires juxtaposition to properly illustrate its spectrum of qualities. As such, successful menu planning is based on the dichotomies of gastronomic encounters: hot/cold, heavy/light, chunky/smooth, raw/cooked, sweet/spicy…the list goes on. If the Muffin Man’s opinion is any proof, this meal’s contrasts were balanced enough to bring it all together, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating it all.
I think my favorite item was the vegetarian poutine, because I have been dreaming about making poutine at home for ages. Most people’s ideas about poutine is that it is a soggy, heavy mess of greasy fries underneath a stodgy gravy that is meant to spackle the insides of your intestines for 6-12 months, usually eaten at a strip mall alongside teenagers playing hooky. Well, about five years ago I had a poutine that changed all the poutines thereafter: at a light-filled restaurant with my high school art teacher in the heart of a major urban center, I had a lunch of poutine made with tiny locally grown new potatoes, lightly covered in a thin beef brisket jus, and crystals of locally made cheese, the exact type of which I can no longer remember. The potatoes were loving and happy, the gravy was gentle and inclusive, and the cheese was a little sharp, making exclamation notes on my tongue.
It was a happy occurrence that the vegetarian poutine I made was an acceptable rendition of the classic. The miso gravy was incredibly easy, and inspired by a recipe from a vegetarian website that I cannot recall:
Miso gravy for poutine (and other things, perhaps)
Whisk together about 2 cups water, 1 giant tablespoon of brown miso paste, 1 heaping tablespoon of all-purpose flour, a small splash of sesame oil, and a few streaks of soy sauce. Heat gently in a small saucepan, whisking occasionally until it boils and thickens.
In my books a successful dinner party is not complete until I have overfed my guests, and that includes dessert. To finish, we had a deconstructed cheesecake: I served the traditional graham cracker crust as crumbs underneath a spoonful of soft cheesecake filling. I enjoyed the democracy of the experience: each diner could choose the ratio of granular crumbliness to smooth milky sweetness in each spoonful according to their tastes.
Once in a while, serendipity nods her head my way, reinstating my dedication to looking for joy in all places, in the kitchen and otherwise.
(All photos were courtesy of the Muffin Man when his mouth wasn’t full).