Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Around the Table : August : Italian

Well here we are again. Another 'Around the Table' dinner post. Considering our dinners are a month apart, shouldn't the posts have something between them? To be honest, I do have a few non-dinner-club posts up my sleeve, however, those pictures I love, the pictures I'm about to present to you, I don't. I've said it before, I'll say it again, my little point and shoot just can't handle low light. And this dinner was all low light. As lovely as it is, and as much as I prefer soft candlelight dinners, it spells disaster for photo's. I believe the reason I can't stand bad photographs of food, these incredible dinners in particular, is because they do not, in any fashion, do the delectable experience that are our dinners justice.

This dinner was slightly bittersweet. At the July barbecue we said goodbye to Laura. In August we helped Rachelle say farewell to her lovely little apartment. It was her last dinner, and the night before her final evening in a place she spent the last few years. Where she and her husband settled as newlyweds, and the place I first realized she and I were kindred spirits. As you can see she dolled it up beautifully, with sparkling mercury votives, giant lacy pink and green roses, and an italian inspired place setting. It couldn't have been a prettier setting for both a lovely dinner and an au revoir fete.

Our dear Ashley was saddled with drinks. Little did I know it, but Ashley had never made a mixed drink. Can you imagine it? To be fair, she does not drink. I think she's probably only had one semi-drunken night in her past, if I recall, it was her bachelorette party. This dinner is intended to break us out of shells, experience new cuisine, and conceptualize and create dishes that are completely foreign or new to us. Ashley found an Italian Mojito recipe that was quite delicious, strong for girl who doesn't drink, half of one had me on my lips a bit, but quite good. An Italian Mojito has most of the same ingredients as a regular mojito, the lime, the mint, and the silver rum, with the addition of a sprinkle of brown sugar. The club soda or sparkling water is replaced with a splash of Prosecco, which is a delicious, light italian brut champagne. Sweet, citrusy, and light, the perfect last cocktail of summer (and the perfect compliment to Alexis' homemade mozzarella bruschetta).

Alexis has been on quite the cheese kick as of late. If you recall (all you need to do is look one post below) she presented us with homemade mascarpone on grilled peaches last month. This month, it was homemade braided mozzarella, with smaller balls mixed with basil. She placed chunks of her cheese on fresh rounds of baguette with thick chunks of baby heirlooms that were so sweet and juicy they tasted of tomato candy. To top it off, she drizzled the whole shabang with a bit of aged balsamic.

I'm not sure I can explain this next dish to you in a way that will properly illustrate just how mind blowing it truly was. What made this dish so tantalizing? It was perfectly seasoned. I'm beginning to understand the indelible importance of well seasoning a dish. There is a trick to it, seasoning doesn't mean salting the hell out of it, or peppering it up so that it's offensive the nose. No. Sure, those two things are important, but seasoning is so much more than that. Laurel dressed this salad perfectly. A simple mix of red and yellow cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, fresh rounds of mozzarella, chunks of crustless artisan bread, fresh basil, and a sprig of lemon thyme to dress it. Laurel worked on the dressing, bits of salt, pepper, balsamic and oil until the flavor was perfection. No oil or vinegar mess on the plate, it had all soaked into and permeated the ingredients. Simply perfection.

I knew about Rachelle's dish days, if not weeks before the dinner. I think it was the dish I was most looking forward to. I would say, aside from cake, my biggest culinary addiction is pasta. Well, that's not fair, I have many a gourmet loves, but pasta is definitely in the top three. Rachelle used a recipe she saw whipped up on the Martha Stewart show a while back. This ravioli is a three in one. One long sheet of freshly made pasta, three pillows of filling stuffed between the sheets. On one end, a blend of spinach, garlic, and cheeses. In the middle, a simple egg yolk. And finally, on the other end, a lemon ricotta blend. This show stopping ravioli was topped off with a drizzle of browned sage butter and uber crunchy breadcrumbs. Rachelle, like myself, is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to her food, she had issues with the pasta, for her, it didn't turn out exactly how she imagined it would. However, the rest of us really enjoyed this dish. Rachelle will have a post up soon at Use the Good China. For the recipe check out Martha Stewart.

Often with these dinners we try ingredients or entire dishes that we may have never tasted, or believe we don't like. Case in point, fennel pork tenderloin. It's not the tenderloin I had an issue with, while I might not induldge too often, I like pork. Fennel on the other hand, I was under the impression that I despised that particular ingredient. This surely is not a recipe I would have read and picked out myself. In fact, it wouldn't have appealed to me in the least. In her research Laurel discovered that fennel and pork are traditionally very popular, and common, in Italian cuisine. I didn't know that, did you? I think we get so used to the americanized versions of world cuisine, that we don't step outside of the box and really get down to the cultural roots of cuisine. The pork was braised, and roasted with simple seasonings. The tenderloin was perfectly cooked, just slightly rare, buttery, and oh-so moist. It was served on top of an incredible sauce, which, unfortunately, I have no idea what was in it (what is with me, the group, and mystery sauces and dressings?) and braised fennel bulb. Sitting atop the pork was a sprig of fresh fennel. For a girl who loves pork, and thought she hated fennel, this dish was 'clean your plate and lick it' worthy.

Okay. Onto my dessert. Correction, desserts. I simply couldn't choose. I love dessert, I love making desserts, thus, a slew of desserts for the italian dinner. In my opinion some worked, and some failed. Let's try to quickly review shall we?

Baci brownies. Baci means kisses in italian. Cute, right? I'm not sure why these were dubbed 'kisses' brownies. Perhaps because the texture, and chocolate hit you in the mouth and it's quite crave worthy, much like a good, if not surprising, kiss. For me, the brownies were a bit on the dense side. Not cakey enough, more fudge-like than gooey chocolate cake. For some, that dense texture is far more appealing than my preference for gooey cake brownies. A basic brownie mixture is whipped up, placed in a baking pan, and laced with swirls of nutella. All of this chocolatey nutella goodness is finished off with a handful of roughly chopped pan toasted hazlenuts and baked in the oven. Since this recipe is from a cookie book by Lisa Zwirn, and I do not have the rights to republish the recipe, I will direct you to another food blog that does (which is also a great site) Christie's Corner.

This was my very least favorite of the desserts. Both in looks, and in flavor. Sounds like a winning combo that is not. Essentially it's an affogato which is topped with homemade lady fingers whipped cream and chocolate shavings. The ladyfingers were the best part of the whole dish. The process was unlike any other 'cookie' method I've ever baked. Therefore, I will be posting the recipe for them on their own. They deserve it, and can be used for a variety of applications that far exceed this affogato dessert. If you'd like the recipe head over to Epicurious.

Around the Table : August : Italian, originally uploaded by miss.mallory.

Our final dish of the night was the crown of the desserts. It was quite literally, the perfect end to an all around incredible meal. Honey and vanilla bean panna cotta topped with fresh strawberries macerated in reduced balsamic. Swoon. The panna cotta was so creamy, with just the right soft yet set texture. The honey and vanilla bean complemented each other well, and the honey imparted just the right sweetness without overpowering the lightness of the creamy base. The balsamic simply made the strawberries juicier, and sweeter. Don't be afraid of the balsamic, once reduced it no longer has a strong vinegar flavor, it becomes sweet, and it doesn't come through much once it's been drizzled and sat on the strawberries overnight. Of all the desserts I've mad in the last couple of months, this is one of my favorites, I plan to keep this at the top of my list for when I need a simple, scrumptious, beautiful dessert.

Honey & Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Reduced Balsamic Strawberries

Panna Cotta:


1 cup of whole milk

3 cups heavy whipping cream with one vanilla bean scraped into it

1 packet (one Tablespoon) powdered gelatin

1/3 honey (you could also use an infused honey like lemon, lavender etc.)

pinch of salt


1. Put the whole milk in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top allowing it to soak up the milk and soften, approximately 5 minutes.

2. Pour the milk and gelatin mixture into a heavy saucepan on medium heat, let the milk heat but not boil for another 5 minutes.

3. After the milk has heated pour in the honey, whipped cream, and pinch of salt. Continue to heat, but not boil, on medium heat for another seven minutes.

4. Remove from heat and allow to cool just a bit, 5 minutes tops (hot liquid + glasses can sometimes = broken glasses).

5. Ladel equal amount of liquid into six glasses

Reduced Balsamic Strawberries


1 lb of quartered strawberries

3 Tablespoons reduced balsamic (recipe below)

Reduced Balsamic:

1 cup aged balsamic


1. Place balsamic in a saucepan on low-medium/low heat, reduce until thick and syrupy, whisking occasionally. This will take about 20 to 30 minutes if not a little longer. There's not particular science to this, just reduce and reduce until your balsamic is reduced to about 1/4 of what it used to be, and it's nice and syrupy. Pour into an airtight jar. Will keep for up to two weeks.

For Strawberries:

Drizzle three to four Tablespoons of cooled reduced balsamic vinegar over one pound of quartered strawberries. Mix well. Allow to sit for a couple of hours, or overnight.