This Old Table.

I’ve got a hand-me-down dining room table in my living room that goes unused about 360 days a year. Shoved in the window, behind the couch, the table holds a plant and is the official location for my household’s Thrift Store Pile. I frequently try to envision the room without the table and its accompanying hutch and credenza that my family dumped into my house days after I signed the mortgage papers. In my imagination, the space is airy and brighter. It’s lovely. For ages, I couldn’t emotionally part with the set; it was Granny’s. It keeps me close to her. But in the past few years, I’ve realized that it’s not actually my Great Grandmother, it’s just her stuff. It’s not going to make her come alive in my house; in reality, I can’t even remember the pieces in her house. (I do, however, remember a doll toilet paper cover in her powder room quite vividly.) These days, it’s not a faux connection with the dead that keeps the dining room set in my house. Instead, it’s the idea of no giant table at all. With three leaves, the table can hold close to 14 people. And there may be nothing I love more than shoving one-too-many people in my living room for cozy dinner parties. While these gatherings are few and far between, they’re frequent enough to keep the table.

In what’s becoming something of a November tradition, I threw a soiree shortly after Thanksgiving. Borrowing from a friend of Maya’s, I loosely termed it “Friendsgiving.” I’d cook a turkey dinner that would be outside of the constraints of family Thanksgiving. My inspiration with a list of recipes compiled by Saveur.  As is my habit when cooking for large parties, I made sure that each menu item was something I’d never made before and that I’d employ at least one or two new techniques. Just to add a little pressure to the event. (Why make it easy?)

The menu consisted of cheese puffs and olive and anchovy tarts for appetizers, oysters in Champagne sauce, roasted radishes, potato gratin, turkey confit, and a fennel and apple salad. The whole oysters-in-the-shell thing paired with the confit process scared me enough to abandon all the listed desserts and breads, as well as ask for help on the green beans, roasted squash and cranberry sauce. Even then, the meal was an undertaking.

Some things, such as blanching the spinach, were simple.

But the oyster process involved additional tools and an outside expert. My roommate, Laddan, is queen of the bivalves, and after patiently showing me how to shuck two or three of the thirty I brought home with me, she finished off the batch using a pair of rubber gloves meant for people with two left hands.

In the process, she discovered a tiny crab. And another. And another. She unearthed a total of eight live crabs while I did the same with a New York Times article from 1913 declaring the specimen an “Epicure’s Delight.” Ever the hayseed, I tossed the delicacies in the trash and held on to the experience as an after-dinner story for my guests.

While the end result was lovely, the process (which involved making the sauce twice after scrambling the eggs the first time) was way too detailed for a repeat performance. Next time, I’ll eat ’em plain.

Happily, the vegetable dishes were simple, as they should be. I’ve begun to appreciate the vegetable side dish’s role on a dinner party menu. Not only are they inexpensive and low maintenance, but they cut through the fat of my omnivorous dishes, creating a more balanced menu.

This salad, laden with fennel and apples, was amazing and will have a recurring place in my winter diet. (I substituted water chestnuts for the hard-to-find sun choke in this version. Next time, I’ll just omit it completely.)

The most difficult part of any dinner party is managing the oven time, and this is what killed my main couse, the turkey confit. I generally sit down and time out all of my dishes early in the day, working backwards from my A.S.T. (Approximate Serving Time). Because I needed my oven to bake off my hors d’oeuvres as the guests arrived, I decided to use my cast iron on the stove top to crisp up the duck-fat enveloped turkey parts, rather than stick them under the broiler. This decision resulted in less-than-crispy poultry. Had I actually practiced the technique in advance, I would have found a different solution. But practice before the main event? Moi? Never!

My anchovy, onion and olive tarts were nice (and, happily, simple), but late out of the oven.

The winner of the evening (with the exception of that salad) were the cheese puffs. I’d totally make them again. And again. And again. The comments on the recipes page indicate that it’s absolutely necessary to follow each and every step, and I cannot agree more. My first set came out flat (because I’d temporarily removed them from the oven); the second set, perfect.

We strayed from Saveur’s menu for dessert, as I was absolutely terrified to attempt this. Instead, we chowed down on a homemade pumpkin pie, a lemon tart from Pistacia Vera (as French as you’ll get in Columbus, Ohio) and these port-soaked grapes recommended by a customer. The recipe was simple: poke toothpick-sized holes in grapes, soak them in port for a few hours and roll them in raw brown sugar.

The table was filled edge to edge with endless dishes that night. And as I struggled to try just a bite or two of every dish, I was grateful, both for the family who equipped me with the surface to eat upon and the friends who helped to provide the food, narrative and laughter to bring my sometimes-table to life.

Onion and Anchovy Tarts
from Saveur, Issue #134

Makes 32 mini tarts

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
2 large red onions, halved length-wise and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
10 salt-cured black olives, pitted and minced (I used a Mediterranean mix)
2 9″ x 11″ sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed
8 oil-packed anchovy filets, drained, cut into 4 slivers each
Minced chives or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

1. Heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. Add thyme and onions and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until very soft, 30 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high, add sugar and vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until caramelized, 12–15 minutes. Stir in olives, remove from heat, and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, heat oven to 400°. Roll out puff pastry to 1/8″ thickness. Using a 2 1/2″ cookie cutter, cut out 16 circles from each sheet. Transfer pastry circles to 2 parchment paper—lined baking sheets and prick each circle all over with tines of a fork. Cover circles with a sheet of parchment and another baking sheet; bake until light golden brown, 15–18 minutes. Uncover and bake until golden brown, 2–3 minutes more. Transfer circles to a large serving platter, spoon about 1 tsp. onion mixture over each, and top with a sliver of anchovy. Garnish with chives.

French Cheese Puffs
from Saveur, Issue #30

Makes 3 dozen

8 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup milk
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 cup flour
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups grated comté or gruyère cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Combine butter, 1/2 cup milk, and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Season generously with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; when butter has melted, remove pan from heat. Add flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture forms a thick dough and pulls away from the sides of the pan, 1–2 minutes. Return pan to heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.

2. Let dough cool to room temperature, then beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure each egg is completely incorporated into mixture and dough is smooth after each addition. Dough should be thick, shiny, and smooth. Add 1 cup of the cheese and beat in until well combined.

3. Spoon tablespoon-size mounds of dough on nonstick baking sheets, leaving about 1” between each. Brush tops with remaining 1/4 cup milk, then sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Working in batches, bake in lower third of oven until doubled in size and golden, 20–25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Oysters in Champagne Sauce
from Saveur, Issue #12

Serves 4-6

3/4 lb. fresh spinach
24 large oysters (about 3”) such as bluepoint
Rock salt
3/4 cup champagne (or white wine)
3/4 cup fish stock
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

1. Trim, wash, and blanch spinach. Squeeze dry; set aside. Shuck oysters, then place in a medium saucepan with oyster liquor, cover, and simmer over medium-low heat until oysters are opaque and slightly firm, 1–3 minutes. Remove oysters with a slotted spoon. Strain liquor through a fine sieve, return to pan, and set aside.

2. Wash and dry half the shells; discard the rest. Pour about 1/2” rock salt onto 4 or 6 ovenproof plates; divide shells between plates, arranging them in a circle in the salt on each plate.

3. Bring champagne to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until reduced by half, 8–10 minutes, then set aside to cool.

4. Add fish stock to oyster liquor. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cook until almost syrupy, 12–15 minutes, then add cream and cook, stirring, until reduced by two-thirds, 10–12 minutes.

5. Transfer reduced champagne to the top of a double boiler over simmering water over medium-low heat. Whisk in egg yolks and cook until thick and shiny, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and fold in stock mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

6. Preheat broiler. Spread a thin layer of spinach in each shell and top with 1 oyster and 1–2 tbsp. sauce. Broil for 3–5 minutes. Serve hot.

Roasted Radishes
from Saveur, Issue #126

Serves 2-4

3 bunches assorted radishes (about 1 1⁄2 lbs.)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Heat oven to 425˚. Trim radish greens; reserve for another use. Wash radishes, pat dry, and transfer to a large bowl with oil and thyme. Toss to combine; season with salt and pepper.
2. Put radishes into a shallow baking dish and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown and a small knife slides easily into radishes, 40–50 minutes.

Potato Gratin
from Saveur, Issue #98

Serves 6

5 tbsp. butter
2 garlic cloves
6 large waxy potatoes (about 2 1⁄2 pounds), such as red bliss, peeled and sliced about 1⁄8″ thick
2 cups half-and-half
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh nutmeg
1 cup grated gruyère

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Rub the inside of an 8″ × 8″ baking dish with 1 tbsp. of the butter. Smash garlic with the side of a knife and sprinkle generously with salt. Chop and scrape the garlic into a mushy paste.

2. Combine garlic paste, potatoes, half-and-half, and remaining 4 tbsp. butter (cut into 1⁄2″ pieces) in a pot; stir. Season with salt and pepper and taste the creamy liquid—it should be seasoned generously. Grate in a hint of nutmeg. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat while stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon. After 8–10 minutes the potatoes will be a little tender, and their starch will have thickened the liquid considerably.

3. Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish; smooth the top as much as possible. Cover the gratin with gruyère and bake until deeply golden brown, about 20–30 minutes. Let gratin cool and set a little before serving.

Turkey Confit
from Saveur, Issue #115

Serves 4-6

Legs and wings of a 12-lb. turkey
1 teaspoon rubbed sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 dried bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 quarts rendered duck fat

1. Pat dry the legs and wings of the turkey. Transfer turkey to a baking sheet.

2. In a spice grinder, finely grind sage, thyme, and bay leaves. Rub turkey with herbs and sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper; chill overnight, uncovered.

3. Heat oven to 325°. Heat duck fat in a 6-qt. pot over low heat. Transfer turkey to a 13″ x 16″ x 3″ roasting pan; pour fat over turkey. Cover pan with foil; bake until very tender, about 3 hours. Let cool; refrigerate for up to 1 week.

4. When ready to serve, place pan of confit in a 500° oven and bake until fat is just liquefied. Remove from oven and transfer turkey parts (without fat) to a baking pan, skin side up. Roast until browned and crisp, about 20 minutes. (Reserve fat for another use.)

Fennel and Apple Salad
adapted from Saveur, #110

1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons. chopped fennel fronds
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper  to taste
8 radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced
6 sunchokes, peeled and very thinly sliced (optional)
2 gala or fuji apples, cored and very thinly sliced
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, cored, and very thinly sliced

1. In a bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, lemon juice, chives, and fennel fronds to make a smooth vinaigrette. Season vinaigrette with salt and pepper to taste.

2. Add radishes, sunchokes, apples, and fennel. Toss well, cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day, to allow the flavors to come together. Season with salt and pepper before serving.

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2 thoughts on “This Old Table.

  1. Jane says:

    The old lady in me is glad you didn’t make the puff pastry circles and waste the pastry. They look equally lovely in squares :)

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