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A Lesson Learned
Food writers, in particular those who actually spend time in the kitchen
themselves, seldom tell their readers about the inevitable failures. As
though Barbara Kafka had never overcooked a roast, nor had David
Rosengarten chosen an inappropriate wine. Cooks, however, can profit as
much from other's mistakes as from their triumphs. That is why I'm
sharing my latest little disaster with you.
Recently, I hosted a cocktail party for fifteen people. While thinking
about plans for the buffet, the idea came to substitute a cheese fondue for
the trite (so I thought) cold cheese dishes I usually prepare. Checking
several cookbooks for ideas, I quickly learned that a cheese fondue is
basically a Mornay sauce, with white wine substituting for stock, and
cornstarch (most of the time) for the roux. None of the recipes, however,
provided the information that would have helped me avoid problems with
serving this dish to a roomful of guests.
Blame, however, for the events that followed, is mostly mine, not the
cookbooks'. For one thing, I broke a cardinal rule in selecting
ingredients. Cutting corners, I chose an American made "Swiss" instead of
the imported Gruyere, Appenzeller and Emmenthaler that kept cropping up in
the traditional recipes.
Second, I failed to realize that the classic fondue is not party
food, despite the fact that this is the use to which it has most frequently
been placed in the American home since the Fifties. In reality, this dish
is family food, to be enjoyed by folks gathered around the dinner table.
How did I arrive at this conclusion? In the family dinner scenario, the
cook can keep an eye on what's going on above the Sterno®, such careful
attention being essential, in my view, for success with this dish.
What went wrong with my fondue? First, the processed cheese, rather than
remaining evenly and smoothly blended into the sauce, soon coalesced into a
lump. This led one of my guests, an experienced cook, to inquire about the
"dumpling" in the fondue. At least this person had the tact to pretend it
was supposed to be there.
The other problem had to do with the lack of attention the fondue received
from me during the course of the evening. Cooking over Sterno® is a lot
like cooking over an open fire. One must constantly evaluate the situation
a make adjustments, or the food is likely to suffer. Since I was
preoccupied with my guests, the fondue dumpling had the opportunity to form
a thick, brown crust on the bottom of the pot. One of my cookbooks reports
that Swiss children often argue over who gets to eat the cheese crust that
is supposed to form, apparently, in a traditional fondue. If this be the
case, these kids should be studied to determine how their teeth can cope.
For that matter, the cheese crust that formed in my fondue should be
studied by NASA. I have never encountered anything that was so difficult
to remove from the cookware, like a combination of concrete, epoxy and
For the next party, I plan to keep the fondue pot in the cupboard. Instead
of recipe research, I shall read up on cheese. Then I'm going shopping,
searching for the most delectable varieties to include on the menu. I
plan to enjoy the next party.
Another "trite" cocktail party perennial is the crudite platter. A variety
of fresh vegetables with a dip of some sort. It is worth remembering that
one reason this and other dishes are old standards is that they are
virtually always successful.
John's Easy Cocktail Party Menu
1. Crudite Platter with Garlic Dill Dip
I created this dip for vegetables to satisfy both the vegetarians and the
weight watchers among my guests.
Combine in a storage container 2 cups fat-free sour cream, 1/2 cup soy
mayonaise, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill,
salt and a few grinds of white pepper. Mix well and allow to stand,
covered and refrigerated, overnight.
Serve this dip with an assortment of vegetables. Crudites will keep best,
in many cases, if the vegetables are lightly blanched. I prefer to blanch
cauliflower, broccoli, snow peas, snap peas, green beans, artichokes,
asparagus tips and carrots. Cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, bak choy, napa,
cucumbers, summer squash, celery sticks, mushrooms and radishes are best
without blanching. Look for various colors and shapes of cherry tomatoes.
Baby vegetables lend themselves especially well to the crudite platter, or
larger specimens can be carved into shapes to add interest. Experienced
cooks will also appreciate that having an assortment of prepared vegetables
in the refrigerator means that the party leftovers can be used up over the
following few days. Vegetables for crudites can be prepared the day
before the party and stored individually in plastic containers in the
refrigerator. Store cherry tomatoes, however, uncovered at room
temperature after washing and carefully drying them. With a stock of
vegetables ready in the fridge, one can set out two trays for serving.
When the first tray begins to look bedraggled, replace it with the second
tray. Rrefurbish the first tray with veggies and repeat the process as
2. Goat Cheese With Tomato Preserves
One of my favorite cheeses, fresh goat cheese or "chevre," can be dressed
up for a party, provided you plan well ahead. This recipe's sweet
component pairs well with the crudites and the Brie dish described next.
Currant or Cherry Tomato Preserves
The rarer, sweeter currant tomatoes make the best preserves. If they are
unavailable, select the smallest cherry tomatoes you can find. Weigh the
tomatoes. With a fork or skewer, prick individually the skins of all the
tomatoes in a basket or two, transferring them to a bowl. Add an amount of
sugar equivalent by weight to the amount of tomatoes you have prepared.
Combine by tossing gently, and place the tomatoes in the refrigerator
Transfer the contents of the bowl to a large saucepan and bring to a boil,
stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved in the
tomato juice. Cook uncovered at a brisk simmer, without stirring, for 15
While the preserves are cooking, sterilize clean half pint canning jars and
lids according to the manufacturer's directions.
Remove the preserves from the heat and transfer to jars. Seal, and process
10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
To serve, place a 6 - 8 ounce log of fresh goat cheese on a platter. Top
with a half pint of preserves. Accompany the dish with crackers or toasts.
3. Brie with Sun Dried Tomatoes
The ubiquitous Brie gets an unusual treatment in this recipe, which has
been a hit with my guests for years.
From a wedge of Brie the size of a slice of pizza (about 1 pound), remove
the top layer of rind. This will be easier if the cheese is chilled.
Combine in a bowl 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, 2 tablespoons
freshly grated Parmgiano-Reggiano, 4 oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, well
drained and minced, 1 tablespoon of the oil from the tomatoes, 6 cloves
garlic, minced, and 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil. Cover and refrigerate
separately if making ahead. Bring to room temperature about an hour before
serving. Spread the tomato mixture evenly over the top of the Brie.
Garnish with a few springs of fresh herbs and a tomato skin rose or two.
Don't know how to make a tomato rose? Simple. Peel a tomato as if it were
an apple, using a very sharp paring knife. With practice, you can easily
remove the peel in a single long strip. Roll this up, skin side in, to
produce a quite acceptable faux rose.
These three simple but elegant dishes combine subtle flavor notes that go
well with drinks. They are also united by the flavor of tomatoes in
varied forms. For the host or hostess, they offer multiple attractions.
Not only is prior preparation simple, these dishes also hold up well on
the buffet table at room temperature. And each has homemade touches to
make them a special treat for your special guests.
John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to
develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local
market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he
holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. Now a
full-time freelance writer and author of six books, Tullock also co-owns
"Gardener and Gourmet," a retail business that specializes in rare plants
and fine food products.
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