On Christmas Eve at the abode of Emma n' the Engineer and with many friends in attendance, a festivus was had and, yay verily yay, it was good. This was the first Big Production meal I have ever prepared, and I was a bit nervous. We're talking appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, vegetarian dishes, drinks, and (of course) dessert. With the day itself looming on the horizon, I suddenly realized that pulling this whole thing off was going to require some Planning and Preparation. My list-making, organization-obsessed, multi-tasking little heart was filled with glee. Keep in mind that this is the same little heart that spent whole afternoons as a child organizing and then reorganizing the desk in her room, and who looked forward to buying school supplies every Fall nearly as much as she looked forward to Christmas.
My good friend R. and I had a grand time coming up with the menu. After much trolling of the Internet and a smattering of ideas thrown back and forth, we decided on a Cross-Atlantic Portuguese-Brazilian Dinner. Here was our final menu (click on the name of the dish to link to the recipe):
- Green Beans with Coriander and Garlic
- Empanadas-- vegetarian (with hearts of palm)--I came up with my own recipe for this, loosely based on THIS recipe and also THIS one, and THIS dough recipe. I'll do a separate post about the empanadas cuz they were quite an...adventure to make, shall we say.
- Broa (Portuguese Cornmeal Farm Bread)
- Portuguese Potato Dumpling Soup (with Kale)-- vegetarian
- Portuguese Style Poached Chicken (with Lime, Chili, and other South o' the Border Seasonings)--loosely based on THIS recipe.
Drinks: The caipirinhas were FIERCE. Wowzas, did they knock your socks off. It wasn't until R. was actually preparing them that we fully realized that the drink is essentially all cachaca, a Brazilian brandy made from sugar cane, with a little sugar and lime thrown in there to take the edge off. Barely. We ended up adding a good dose of Fresca (classy!) to the drinks to make them a bit more drinkable. Even so, we all agreed that caipirinhas brought back ever-so-fond memories of Spring Break beach parties.
We had the quentaos after dinner as we reclined around the living room in various states of comatose. This is a drink that I would definitely have again--the spices are very similar to mulled wine (red wine is actually an ingredient in some variations) with some of that lovely cachaca. Also like mulled wine, it's served warm and would be quite nice for a cozy winter afternoon on the couch. I imagine a mug of this would also be an excellent antidote to insomnia, or at the very least you wouldn't mind being awake at 2:00 in the morning as much after you've had a few healthy gulps.
Ironically, we ended up drinking a South African wine with dinner--Mountain River 2003 Pinotage/Shiraz, a whooping $7.99 at Trader Joe's. While I was looking for Portuguese wines, I overheard another customer asking the wine steward for recommendations for a dinner of enchiladas and other South American dishes. The wine steward recommended this wine with such a glowing review that I had to try it. The wine was a deep red and very full-bodied. It had a deep, mellow flavor with just a touch of spice that really did pair well with all the flavors in the meal, but also didn't overshadow the food. I did find one bottle of a Portuguese wine, but we didn't end up opening it at the party--did I mention that the capirinhas were FIERCE?
Starters/Sides: The green beans were nothing super special. Blanched green beans drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with garlic and coriander. The recipe says to serve these cold or room temperature after having marinated for a day, but I didn't get my act together in time and also for some reason the idea of cold green beans with this particular meal didn't feel right to me, so I served them warm. (By the way, coriander was the surprise spice of the meal for me. I've never really cooked with coriander, but really liked it in the empanadas and the soup.)
The empanadas were a big hit. I'll do a separate post on them in another day or so and describe the whole preparation process. They're essentially little pasties or turnovers--a savory filling in a pie crust. I made them the week before the party, froze them, and then baked them right before dinner. The picture here is of an empanada right before I baked them. I really wish I'd remembered to take a picture after they came out of the oven--they were all crisp and golden, the kind of food that makes your mouth water just looking at them. The crust turned out well--nice and flaky, buttery and crisp. For the filling, I used onion, plum tomatoes, hearts of palm, corn, tomato paste, and spices (cayenne, chili powder, cumin, coriander, salt). The prep work is a lot of trouble, but it was really worth it. I think my guests and I would have been happy with just a plateful of these little empanadas!
The broa was kind of a disappointment for me, I have to admit. It's a cornmeal bread, so I knew it would be pretty dense and probably wouldn't rise like a regular wheat loaf, but I imagined the bread to be moist, crumbly, and springy like southern-style cornbread. Instead the loaf was more like a hockey puck--dry and dense. Sliced thin and spread with butter, the bread was decent, but I was still let down. I'm not sure if I didn't something wrong or if this is just the way the bread was supposed to be. I did a lot of searching on the Internet and found lots of recipes but few descriptions of how the final loaf was supposed to look, feel, and taste. From the pictures I found, I think the loaf is supposed to be rather flat (like mine turned out) but not quite as dense. More like a country hearth loaf than corn bread. I could probably figure out a better loaf if I had the urge, but I'm not a huge fan of cornmeal, so this will probably remain an unsolved baking mystery. By the way, I have an entire loaf and a half frozen in my freezer, so if you're still curious to try this bread despite my description, let me know and the loafs are yours!
Main: Poaching chicken is my new favorite thing. I do it in my slow cooker and it comes out perfect every time. (OK, it's come out perfectly all two times that I've done it.) The meat is moist, flavored throughout, and literally falls off the bone. For this chicken, I prepared a marinade using THIS recipe from the Boston restaurant Chez Henri, only substituting 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 1 teaspoon of garam masala, and 1/4 tsp of cayenne in place of the achiote powder. (Achiote powder is a kind of sweet South American spice similar to chili powder--I couldn't find it in bulk at our co-op and didn't want to cough up the dough to buy a whole jar at the grocery store.) Instead of roasting the chicken as in the recipe, I poached it in the slow cooker with about a half cup of chicken broth, a few shots of soy sauce, lime juice, several whole quarters of limes, and a head of garlic with the cloves separated. Mmm, mmm, good. (P.S. I'm also planning another post on poaching whole chickens, but let me know if you want more detailed instructions before then.)
The only error in my otherwise well-timed meal prep was the time I allotted for preparing the potato dumplings for the potato dumpling soup. I plum forgot how gosh-darn long it takes for large potatoes to cook through when you're boiling them. (The thirty minutes suggested in the recipe was NOT enough for my potatoes, by the by. I probably would have been better boiling them for 45 minutes or so.) By this point in the evening, our friends were starting to arrive and I was feeling a bit frazzled. I thought I could make do with slightly undercooked potatoes, but it turns out that undercooked potatoes don't mash very well or even take very kindly to being mashed at all. Ah, well. So we ended up having Portuguese Half-Pureed, Half-Chunky Potato Soup instead. And it was delicious. The broth was light, pleasantly starchy, and well-flavored with garlic, salt, and coriander. I'm used to loading my soups up with all the veggies in my fridge, so I had to really exercise restraint on this one. I stuck with my recipe and only used onions, green onions, and kale...oh, and the potatoes, of course. I've never cooked with kale before and was at first a bit intimidated by the mounds of leafy greenness taking up half my counter space. Like spinach, I stripped the leaves from the woody stalks, rolled them lengthwise a handful at a time into a long cigar-shape, and cut cross sections about an inch thick. This gives you ribbons of kale about the length of your hand and as wide as a finger. It looks like a LOT of leafy greenness, but once you submerge it in the broth, the greens wilt down into a more reasonably-sized state. I thought the kale was a bit rubbery, like seaweed, but this was not unpleasant. It was actually very satisfying to have something with a bit of chew in every bite. The bitterness of the kale also balanced well with the relative sweetness of the broth and the onions, and the whole soup was warm and filling. (In retrospect, I think I would have cut the kale into smaller, postage-stamp-sized pieces instead of the ribbons. Pieces this size would be less cumbersome when spooning the soup into your mouth.)
Dessert: And last but not least, the custard cups. These were so good that a lot of us burned our mouths rather than wait for them to cool completely. The puff pastry made a crisp and buttery cup for the custard. (FYI, I decided to leave-off making my own puff pastry for another dining adventure, so I got a little help from my friends at Pepperidge Farm for this one.) The custard was smooth and creamy, flavored with vanilla and a hint of lemon. This was my first time making custard, and I definitely recommend THIS recipe for anyone else out there looking for something new to serve. You can also caramelize the tops under the broiler or with a brulee torch for an added bit of elegance.
Since the Engineer and I were leaving for holidays in Minnesota the day after our party, our lovely friends reaped the reward of what leftovers there were. To everyone that came to the party, we were so happy to see you and spend time with you during the holidays. And to everyone else near and far, if you ever find yourself in Boston on Christmas Eve, feel free to stop by--we'll be here cooking up something fabulous!