Follow me on Pintrest

Follow Me on Pinterest

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mother's Day

Mother's Day Dinner

This past weekend I was hired to prepare a private dinner for a young woman’s first Mother’s Day. I was contacted by a new father and eager husband who wanted to do something special for his wife, but was somewhat stymied in traditional brunch or dining options due to the care needs of their very young daughter. He explained his desire to hit the ball out of the park for this inaugural event and had idea the to hire a private chef in order to do so. Ideally, this would allow his wife and baby to remain in the comfort of home yet enjoy the luxury and indulgence of a meal out. Add to the equation the presence of his wife’s parents, who were in town for their daughter’s day, I was immediately on board. As excited as I was to be ask to execute this feat, all this sentimentality brought a lot of pressure. I felt like it was imperative to deliver a superlative experience  - And so I began the process with all the feelings and all the anxiety…


I worked with the husband to plan the menu according to his wife’s preferences. What started out as “isn’t very picky and likes a lot of things” took a more complicated turn when white meats, healthy components , no fried, thick or creamy components, and a sensitivity to spice were added to the requirements. If you are at all familiar with my blog you’ll know that fat  = flavor and nothing can ever be too spicy in my book. I would baste cheese in hot sauce and butter if I could… Immediately I knew this meal was going to be a bit of a departure, but would be a great opportunity to challenge my style and abilities. To be honest, while I was initially averse to the “nothing unhealthy” notion, I quickly grew to enjoy the challenge when thinking about various dishes to interpret or adapt in healthy ways.

Dinner was three courses, two savory and dessert. As the farmer’s market is finally starting to show signs of life with the best of the spring vegetables starting to appear, I figured a composed and substantial salad would be the perfect opening note for a meal with an eye to health. As far as the main course goes, the mention of white meat immediately brought to mind chicken and the subsequent eye roll. Chicken as a main course is something I would never order out, and rarely, and I mean rarely rarely, prepare at home. With most of my favorite pork preparations on the richer side or at least requiring some kind of spice, the other white meat was definitely out of the question. So I reluctantly started to think about birds again. I love duck, and love to cook duck, but talk about fatty, sadly, a no go. Turkey is nearly as bad as chicken, when it comes to flavorless misery, shudder. Then I thought of Cornish Game Hens. Small, cute, great vehicles for a baste or spice rub, the hens would be a richer, and slightly nuttier nod to characteristics of chicken, but with much more pleasing aesthetics and flavors. I was inspired!

Dessert, a word that strikes fear in my heart. It's arguably my Achilles heel. The reason being, I almost never measure when I cook, and almost all desserts, whether its cookies, cakes, pies, tarts, meringue etc, ALL require measurement and adherence to a recipe. The rigidity in preparation is in direct juxtaposition with my style and what I love about being creative in cooking. Perhaps one day I will enhance my skills to the point I can be both creative and successful in the endeavor, but until then, I will maintain my aversion to dessert.

That all said, I have enjoyed some considerable successes in the sweet course. One of my favorites was a salted caramel custard I prepared for a holiday party. While moderately complex in preparation, I managed to successfully produce it several times one winter season, and it has remained in my repertoire since then. When thinking about dessert for this dinner, I decided that it needed to be something small, due to the naturally rich and unhealthy nature of the course. Additionally, I wanted it to be something I could prepare in advance, that way it would be immediately ready after the main course and allow me time to clean up while the client finished out their meal. This would custard fit the bill perfectly.

With that, the menu, or at least the skeleton, was made. I sent my ideas to the client and quickly got approval, I was off!


As I said, I wanted to prepare the dessert ahead of time. Since, I was also most nervous about the success of this course I decided to make it early in the day the Saturday prior to dinner, just in case it failed and I needed to re-plan. I found my old recipe, as well as some others and decided to try a hybrid. I also wanted to work in some deeper flavors and added some bourbon to the caramel base as I prepared. I almost ruined the custard when, in a panic during the thickening stage, I impulsively added a bit of cornstarch at a stage that in hindsight was far too late. Fortunately, a quick pass through a strainer solved the lumpy issue, and moments later my custard was complete. My taste test confirmed it was delicious and I was about to pat myself on the back until I started to pour it into the serving dishes. To my horror, what had been loosely a recipe for 4, didn’t even come close to filling the 4 white soufflé cups I had chosen. I nearly melted down, as the image of a disappointed look and ruined Mother’s Day dinner filled my head, but then I got a grip. I remembered my trip to the farmers market the previous Sunday, where I had seen beautiful local strawberries. Problem solved! I would hit the market the next morning for my other ingredients, and pick up some strawberries. I would cook the strawberries down with sugar, a vanilla bean and some homemade vanilla extract, almost making a preserve, though when chilled not quite so chunky. I’d layer it on top of the insufficient custard, filling the cup and offering a nice sweet juxtaposition to the savory custard notes. Top it all off with some fresh white chocolate whipped cream (made by dissolving white hot chocolate mix in the cream before whipping) and finish with some black sea salt (just for contrast) and I had the perfect, self-contained, make ahead dessert displaying the best of the season and a delicious sweet and savory, decadent yet fruity, juxtaposition. Slowly, but surely I will get good at dessert.

Sunday morning arrived and I was at the farmers market by 8, partially out of nerves and partially because I fell asleep at 9 the night before. The sun was finally shining after a week of rain, and the hoards had yet to arrive, it was perfect. I figured I would let the market tell me what was going to be in the salad. I found beets, and immediately thought, when roasted, they would be the ideal base, sliced thin and laid out on a chilled plate. I would smear a dollop of goat cheese on top to add a bit of restrained richness. Its nearly the end of asparagus season, but there was still some beautiful options, so I decided I would shave the bases, blanch the stalks and lay a few across the top of the beets and goat cheese to create a hearty foundation for the greens to come. I had decision anxiety when it came to greens. I wanted something pretty and delicate, but something with large leaves like butter or bibb would totally overwhelm the composed foundation components in scale. I couldn’t let bright red beets and glowing green asparagus get covered. Ultimately I stumbled across some local arugula. This would work well, I would bruise it slightly to make it malleable, and when dressed, able to be formed into an appropriately scaled nest of greens that played well with the other ingredients. I thought I was done, but when I pictured the plate in my head, it just seemed underwhelming and incomplete. Radishes are very “spring” and they do add a nice color aspect, but I am very over radishes by the time may rolls around, so that was out. I had almost given up when I spotted some brilliant yellow kale flowers. They look a bit like forsythias, long plumes of tiny yellow flowers, and can be enjoyed roasted with a bit of garlic and olive oil. I did not want to cook them, I decided I wanted the fresh flowers for the pop of color they would add as a final garnish to the plate. Luckily, the farmer was kind enough to give me a single frond for free rather than purchasing a whole bunch, so I didn’t have to munch on flowers for the week to come.  With my components decided, and plating planned, I turned to the dressing. Mark recently shared what looked to be a delicious lemon poppy seed dressing recipe. From the ingredients it looks a little strong and savory for the dish I was hoping to prepare. Mark also recently gave me a jar of honey from his school’s apiary. So I decided to combine the two sources of inspiration. I made a sherry, lemon, honey and poppy seed vinaigrette. It had just the right amount of tempered sweetness, bite of citrus, and subtly nutty yet fruity notes of poppy seeds. I outdid myself on that one,  if I am being honest.

For the main course, the Cornish game hens, I spent considerable time researching various preparations from cuisines around the world, finding it rather difficult to complete avoid spice or fat, my newly forbidden ingredients. Ultimately I decided to go a more traditional route. I would focus on herbs, specifically thyme, something I grow in my garden and one of my favorites with poultry, as the prominent flavoring agent. I conceded I would have to incorporate a little butter, mainly to deliver the flavor of the herbs and to achieve the crispy skin necessary for a successful hen. Despite being a step up from chicken on the complexity and fat content scale, Cornish hens can still often be bland and are easy to dry out. To avoid this, and elevate my herb flavors further, I decided to brine the birds in an herb base. I made the brine in the morning, incorporating thyme, tarragon, lavender, fennel seeds and garlic powder, and let the hens bath in it for two hours prior to being rinsed, dried, and packed for transport. While the birds brined, I made a compound butter with thyme and garlic that I would use to brush on the hens as they roasted, bringing out the desired golden hue and crispy texture. I took a few fresh sprigs with me, which I ultimately place on top of each hen half way through cooking, to serve as a rustic and perfumed garnish. To accompany the hens, I picked up some local rainbow carrots, Peruvian purple potatoes, and adorable cipollini onions, which I would roast simply and use round out the plating with their deep colors and gorgeous char.

I did most of my prep ahead, and having devised specific plating already, I arrived to the client’s home feeling quite well prepared. The entire family couldn’t have been nicer and we had some nice small talk about my passion for food and my current private catering endeavor. Their genuine interest and clear appreciation for food, had me overflowing with anticipation and a desire to succeed by the time I started cooking, a wonderful feeling to have.

Execution went off without a hitch, I even managed to time the somewhat dicey process of roasting game hens perfectly for the last bites of first course. Speaking of, the salad was a huge hit, the dressing itself eliciting repeated praise from the guest of honor.

The hens cooked up brilliantly and down to the garnish the plate looked Ina Garten chic, I was beside myself with pleasure and relief. Looks aside, the flavor was great (I had an extra hen as a doneness guide, taste test subject, and bonus Monday lunch for Mom), and when the clients cut into the meat, they all sung it’s juicy tender praises. Again, the mother of honor made specific mention that it was a juiciest poultry she had ever had (I thanked my instinct to brine).

Dessert brought a familiar feeling of tribulation, but I was confident in my planning. Plating was a cinch, and they hit the table perfectly following the main course. Rave reviews ensued. I think the custard, composition and combination of flavors were new to them, but this worked wonderfully in my favor. Who knew I was do good at dessert?!

In the end I could tell everyone was sated and happy, compliments aside, this was the greatest reward. I was so honored to have been able to provide this new mother, and her family, such a satisfying meal and pleasing experience, on what really was a rather landmark day in their lives. I was thanked profusely, though I could have done without, it was a truly fulfilling experience, menu challenges and all.

I could have left, written this post, and never heard from them again and still been just as satisfied. But, I got the ultimate stamp of approval this afternoon, when Mark, who knows the Mom from past jobs, ran into her and she told him it was “one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever had.” What else could I want? With that success in the bag, I am looking forward to the next one.

The Recipes

First Course: Local Arugula Salad, Roasted Beet Carpaccio, Goat Cheese, Blanched Asparagus with Lemon-Honey-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette
  • Ingredients:
  • 12 Thick Stalks Asparagus
  • 6 Large Beets (washed)
  • 8oz Goat Cheese (room temperature, not crumbles)
  • 1lb Fresh Arugula
  • 1 Tablespoon Poppy Seeds

2 tablespoons each:
  • EVOO
  • White Vinegar
  • Sherry
  • Honey


Roast beets, skin on, in 400F oven for about an hour or until tender when poked with a fork, then chill (this can be done the day before). Bring a bot of water to a boil and prepare another pot with ice water. While water heats, shave the tough skin off the base of the asparagus stalks and trim to uniform length. The stalks should be only tips, tender green skin, then have the white interior exposed. Once water is at a rolling boil, drop stalks in and cook for 3 minutes. Remove and immediately place in ice bath. Leave in ice bath 5-10 minutes, then remove and pat dry before plating. In a small bowl add poppy seeds, honey, evoo, sherry and half the vinegar and whisk until emulsified. Taste and add additional vinegar to your preference.
When ready to plate: In a large bowl, use your hands to lightly massage the arugula so it becomes “bruised”. Toss it with the dressing and ensure it can be formed into compact nests roughly the size of your fist. Slice beets very thin (you can use a mandolin) and place on chilled plate carpaccio style in a single layer. Spoon 2 oz of the smooth, room temp goat cheese onto the center. Place 3 asparagus stalks diagonally across the cheese and beets. Carefully place a nest of argula on the center, allowing the beets and asparagus to be visible from the top. Garnish with a nasturtium or kale flowers like I used. Serve immediately.

Main Course: Thyme Butter Roasted Cornish Game Hens with Roasted Carrots and Potatoes

  • 4 Cornish Game Hens (giblets removed)
  • 3 large yellow onions (peeled and quartered)
  • ½ pound cipollini onions (skins removed)
  • 2 lbs whole carrots (tops trimmed)
  • 1 lbs purple Peruvian or fingerling potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • ¼ cup EVOO
  • Brine:
  • 2 quarts cold water
  • ½ cup table salt
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • A few good pinches of dried: Thyme, Tarragon, Lavender, and fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Thyme Butter:
  • 1 stick of salted butter (melted)
  • Handful of fresh thyme or thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder


Brine: Add salt, sugar, and herbs to water in a large pot. Bring to a boil and allow to steep for 5 minutes covered so as not to lose the water as steam. Allow to return to room temperature. Place hens in a large freezer bag , pour brine in and seal. Allow to brine in fridge for two hours. Remove from brine, rinse, and pat dry (important if you want the skin to crisp).  Do not over brine or you will have a salt bomb of a bird.

Compound Butter: Combine melted butter with thyme and garlic and chill until solid.

Carrots/Potatoes: Preheat oven to 450. Toss carrots and potatoes in evoo and garlic powder. Place on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan with cipollini and roast for 40 minutes or until the carrots and potatoes are tender, and everything in the pan has a nice golden char. At this heat, be careful not to burn. Ideally this would be done at a lower temp, but at 450 you can do the hens in the same oven at the same time.


In a large roasting pan, pull apart yellow onions and cover the bottom of the pan creating a bed for hens. This will flavor the meat as it cooks and help with sticking to the pan. Insert a quarter of the reserved onion into each hen’s cavity, again this will perfume the meat while it cooks. Take a spoon of compound butter and slather over skin of the hen, leaving a larger piece on the top of the breasts so it will melt as it cooks. Roast for 45 minutes at 450F. Every so often, brush or spoon on more of the compound butter onto the hens so the skin crisps and gets golden brown. When there are 15 minutes left, place a single sprig of fresh thyme on the top-center of each hen. This will crisp up nicely and perfume the dish for plating. Hens are done when the temperature is 170F at thickest parts, and the juices run clear when you pierce a thigh.


Place carrots cross hatch or log cabin style in center of place. Place a few potatoes and cipollini outside. Place hen in the center of the plate on top of the carrots but ensure that the slender tips are visible from above. Garnish with a grind of fresh pepper and a pinch of sea salt serve immediately.

Dessert: Bourbon-Salted Caramel & Strawberry Trifle with White Chocolate Whipped Cream

  • 4 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1 1/2  cup sugar (1 cup and ½ cup divided)
  • 1 + 1 pint cup heavy cream (divided)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ½ cup bourbon
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • Sea salt
  • ½ pound strawberries
  • Vanilla bean (seeded)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ Cup white chocolate powder (hot chocolate mix works)
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • Black sea salt for garnish


Custard: In a nonreactive sauce pan (stainless steel) cook sugar until completely dissolved, golden brown and begins to smell like burnt marshmallows. Add the bourbon and butter and mix until melted, reduce heat to low. Slowly add the cream, caramel will seize and bubble and become lumpy. Cook with heat low stirring until the lumps dissolve, remove from heat. Stir in the milk and a pinch of sea salt and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks together. Add about a cup of the caramel mixture and mix well. Add the remaining caramel mixture whisking until blended. Put back on medium heat and cook, whisking constantly until it thickens. It is done when it coats the back of a spoon and the spoon leaves a trail (this can take a while be prepared). Pour until 4 ramekins and cover with plastic wrap, pressing directly onto the surface to prevent it from forming a skin. Chill overnight.

Strawberries and Whipped Cream: In a sauce pan, combine strawberries, ½ cup sugar, vanilla bean and vanilla extract and cook until strawberries are falling apart. Place in a glassbowl and chill. For whipped cream, place 1 pint cream in bowl and combine with white chocolate powder and powdered sugar until dry ingredients are dissolved. Using a hand mixer, whip until soft peaks form, chill.

When ready to serve. Remove plastic from custard, spoon in strawberries until ramekins are full. Place a quenelle or pipe on whipped cream and finish with a pinch of black sea salt for color contrast. Enjoy!

No comments:

Post a Comment