A game night menu
August 22, 2004
If you know anything at all about me, you know that "game night" doesn't refer to Monday Night Football. I'm not talking about baseball or soccer or any other (in)activity that involves watching people on television kick or throw a ball back and forth and beat each other senseless. I'm talking about participating in a contest of minds. Not mano a mano, but tete-a-tete. And if we still occasionally beat each other senseless, well, that's our business.
One unfortunate similarity between our game nights and the other, duller kind is the cuisine. Somewhere along the way in board game history, someone decided that all food served must be finger food: pizza, hamburgers, chips, etc. This is probably because participants often don't want to take a break for dinner between games, so you need food you can eat while you play rather than food that requires a full place setting. And if you're hosting the game night, you probably want to actually play some games rather than be stuck in the kitchen cooking a five-course meal while everyone else is having fun. Besides, to serve gourmet food and play board games at the same event is to risk accusations of being two different types of dweeb at once.
Well, we're not afraid of that in my household. (At least, on my side of the bed we're not.) Besides, if you love your games -- or even if you just spent a bunch of money on them -- the last thing you want is for some hamhanded neanderthal with pizza-greased extremities thrusting his dirty fist into the bag of Carcassonne tiles.
I decided this time that everyone would be issued a bowl. Every course would be eaten out of that one bowl. This way, people could still eat and play, since a bowl doesn't take up too much room. Even if space is at a premium, guests can hold the bowl in their hands or laps and keep playing. I limited the meal to three courses in order to curtail my time in the kitchen, and tried to make dishes that I could prepare substantially in advance. Here's what we wound up with:
There is little that is actually Thai about this salad. The meat is a Cuban-influenced braised pork butt with lime juice and tomatillos. Strangely, it also includes figs. Beneath this are rice noodles, supported by lettuce and various vegetables.
The dressing tastes somewhat asian as it includes lime, ginger, cilantro, and coconut milk, but the cashew butter was less analogous to peanut butter than I'd hoped and the result didn't feel particularly Thai-like.
It was good, though I thought it needed a bit of a kick; the lime juice didn't provide a strong enough kick to balance the coconut milk and cashew butter. Perhaps some good sherry vinegar or rice vinegar would be in order.
I didn't have any of the dressing left when I ate leftovers the next night. Instead I pureed some of the figs and tomatillos from the pork dish with some of the braising liquid and balsamic vinegar. This was also a very good idea. I don't think I'd take this approach with guests; it just modifies and deepens existing flavors, where the "thai" dressing adds an array of new, contrasting flavors to the dish. But it was certainly suitable for weeknight dinner. It might make a great dressing for a different salad.
This dish needs a better name. The sauce is dark, deep, tangy, and very rich. It has a character all its own, which won't make you think of tamarind or tomatoes in particular (though it owes more to tamarind than tomato).
I've made this for people before. In fact, as Sushil, one of the friends that I'd invited over, pointed out, I made it the last time I had him over for dinner. Oops.
Well, he should be grateful, because it was even better than last time. I made a few small improvements this time, including:
- More tamarind is better. At least, more than I used the first time.
- A handful of fresh tarragon thrown in near the end does wonders for this dish. It's very transformative. This is in the original recipe, but I ignored it or forgot about it last time. That was a mistake. I may go back and perform some of the other steps that I ignored last time as well! Imagine it --me actually following a recipe!
I don't have much practice making desserts. On the rare occasion when I do make one, if it is successful, I eat far too much than is good for me. It's no surprise, then, that I don't make them very often.
I have, for instance, never made a cheesecake. I've been considering the idea ever since having a stupendous goat cheese cheesecake at Hawthorne Place in San Francisco three or four years ago. When I looked around on the web at the time, there weren't many recipes available. (I didn't realize that goat cheese cheesecakes aren't substantially different from regular cheesecake.) Now a search for "goat cheese cheesecake" recipe turns up 141 results, which is enough to work with.
I didn't have time to bake and cool a whole cheesecake, so I decided to make individual portions in ramekins. I found a recipe that did just this and used a cookie for the crust.
In my version, The cheesecake mixture included papaya puree, purple basil, and coconut milk along with goat cheese and cream cheese. Interestingly, although the batter tasted strongly of papaya, the
end product did not. Which was fine, but I'd like to consider ways to bring the papaya flavor forward a little more.
I learned a lot making this. I hadn't realized, for instance, that cheesecakes rise and fall like souffles, and that they only gain cheesecake-like texture after subsequent refrigeration; before that, they seem more like a custard. (At least, this is the way mine worked; I'm assuming my experience is somewhat typical.) And they are not very difficult to make, although achieving the refinement of a high-quality cheesecake is probably somewhat more difficult. Mine was a little bit grainy, though not unpleasant, and this texture could simply be a result of using goat cheese in the first place.