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December 21, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Eat, Drink & Make Merry


More than any other time of year the holidays provide the occasion for getting together with friends and family, and the requisite party food. For one reason or another we had a convergence of dinner party invitations this past weekend and gathered with friends and neighbors every night from Thursday through Sunday.

It began with the annual Journal Christmas party, which, as has become a tradition, was held at the Fieldbrook Winery. As you no doubt know by now, it's the boss' place. It's a great spot for a party too, what with the dual kitchens (one in the house, one in the tasting room) and a seemingly endless supply of wine made by Judy's vintner husband Bob.

Actually this year not so much of Bob's fine wine was consumed. It seemed Bob had just discovered the joys of the Cosmopolitan, the slightly sweet, slightly tart variation on the vodka martini that came into vogue a few years back. I started drinking them in bars, disregarding the sense that they're not exactly manly, only to learn from my friend Katie that the drink became seriously popular because the ladies on Sex and the City drink them. That put me off, but only for about one round of drinks, then I figured who cares? They taste good, and go down easy, in fact maybe too easy.

Here's a recipe:


Big splash of vodka (I prefer Stoli, but any will do)

Small splash of cranberry juice

Just a little Triple Sec (or Cointreau if you're a high roller)

Squeeze of fresh lime juice or just a touch of Rose's Lime (Bob subbed lemon juice and it was just fine.)

Shake all together with ice, strain into a big martini glass.

Try not to drink too many.

photo of cooked shrimpDesignate a driver just in case.

The food? Well, we typically get a big pile of crab from Cap'n Zach, but for the second year running, between the haggling over a fair price and the weather, there was no crab come party-time. Judy agreed to my suggestion for a replacement, a mess of shrimp.

The plan was to fire up the barbecue on the porch of the tasting room and grill them with lemon, garlic and pepper. Again the weather was not cooperative -- it was raining -- so we went with Plan B: your basic scampi.

Judy had picked up a bunch of prawns at Costco, eight pounds to be exact (more than we needed) and as per my directions had bought raw, peeled de-veined prawns (21-25, which denotes average per pound). She'd also thawed them out so they were ready to go. I chopped up a bunch of fresh garlic, put a heavy sauté pan on the range, added a splash of olive oil, threw in the garlic, then the prawns (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan without stacking), flipped them over when they started to turn pink, and added a big hunk of salted butter, a splash of lemon juice (conveniently pre-squeezed for Bob's Cosmos) and a spoonful of something Judy identified as shallot butter, basically just superfine chopped shallots and butter. After a couple of turns from the pepper mill that was it. I slid the shrimp onto a platter and in about as much time as it took to cook them they were consumed. I repeated the procedure a couple of times, but there were still plenty of uncooked prawns left.

In the meantime I had fired up a mini-fryer to cook a few batches of taquitos, another item Judy had picked up at Costco, which I must say were surprisingly good, especially as a scoop for mass quantities of Judy's excellent homemade guacamole.

(A side note regarding the global food system: Does anyone else find it strange that avocados are at their lowest price in the middle of winter, when by all rights they should be completely out of season? Why is it you can buy them two for a dollar photo of lemon barwhen they come all the way from Chile? Actually I can guess why, but it makes me feel politically incorrect to admit that I have some ripening in my fruit bowl right now.)

While I'd spent a good part of the party working in the kitchen (something I still love to do) with Bob refilling my cocktail glass a few times, I figured it was time to mingle and eat. Of course there was a lot of other food: perfectly blanched green beans, edamame, an assortment of crudités that included those little lathe-turned "baby" carrots and a bunch of slightly scary looking hot peppers that no one seemed to be interested in.

And let's not neglect dessert. I had momentarily considered getting a few dozen cookies from former Journal theater columnist Barry Blake, who, in retirement, has established a business he calls Barry's Theatre Cookies. I get one every time I go to the movies now (I prefer the macaroons with orange, dipped in chocolate if available), but that's a story for another day. I had forgotten how much Judy likes making cookies, and really good ones at that.

My favorite: her lemon bars. Since I neglected to get the recipe before she left on vacation, I called her this morning and got the message machine for her cell. She called from the top of some Oregon mountain where she was skiing and told me to look online at the Food Network site for Sarah Moulton's version. (Judy's is a variation.)

Lemon Bars

(Recipe courtesy Sarah Moulton and Gourmet Magazine, as seen on "Cooking Live".)

Shortbread base:

3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)

2 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cut butter into 1/2-inch pieces. Combine all ingredients in a food processor until mixture begins to form small lumps. Sprinkle mixture into a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan, press evenly onto bottom. Bake shortbread in middle of 350-degree oven until golden, about 20 minutes. While baking, prepare topping.

For lemon topping combine:

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3/4 c. fresh lemon juice (Judy prefers Meyer lemons if available)

1/3 c. all-purpose flour

(Judy also suggests adding lemon zest to make them zestier.)

Whisk together eggs and sugar, stir in lemon juice and flour. Pour lemon mixture over hot shortbread. Reduce oven temperature to 300. Bake in middle of oven until set, about 30 minutes. Cool completely in pan and cut into bars. Sift confectioners' sugar over bars before serving.

Yum. I was glad she made a lot because that meant there were some leftover to take home. We also had a lot of uncooked prawns left and since they were thawed and Judy and Bob were heading off to see grandkids, etc., she insisted I take a bag home.

This fit perfectly with plans for Saturday. We'd been invited to a small dinner party by our friends Margann and Paul. (Margann wrote the recent Talk of the Table column on wine for Thanksgiving.) We'd said we'd bring some sort of appetizer and prawns seemed appropriate.

photo of bottle of wineI decided to try something different, an experiment. I began by poaching the prawns in beer, well, actually a can of crappy beer (I think my brother-in-law left it behind) and a bottle of good local pale ale, since that was what I had in the fridge. I brought the beer/ale to a boil, added a few whole peppercorns and garlic cloves and cooked the prawns briefly in batches. When they just start to curl they're done.

I put them in the fridge to cool while I made a variation on an orange ginger glaze, replacing the orange juice with the juice from eight to 10 Satsuma mandarins, one of my favorite foods. (See Talk of the Table Dec. 15, 2005, "Satsumas from Orland".) When I say eight to 10, I have to admit, that's a guess. I should have kept count and taken notes but I didn't. I got about a cup and a half of pulpy juice, and put it in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of fresh grated ginger and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I boiled the mixture until it started to reduce, then strained out the Satsuma/ginger pulp and ginger, returning the liquid to the saucepan to reduce further, until it was syrupy.

As I said this was an experiment, and at this point I think I made a mistake. I let the Satsuma syrup cool just a bit, then tossed the prawns with it coating them, before returning them to the fridge. We still had hours to go before the party -- in retrospect I think I should have waited to coat the prawns. The prawns were done just right, but the acid from the glaze continued the cooking process. Not that anyone complained -- they still tasted good -- but I noticed a subtle texture difference. Live and learn.

Flawed or not, the prawns were a hit at the gathering up in Redwood Valley, the perfect thing to go with Cosmos that kicked off the party (with Satsuma juice supplementing the Triple Sec). After that we moved on to clams steamed in wine, garlic and lemon and an amazingly buttery 2002 Dehlinger Chardonnay Darius brought. As Margann explained, this is wine you can't buy unless you've been a Dehlinger subscriber for years. (Darius went to school with the vintner.)

Dinner proper included Peggy's fine green salad, roasted winter root vegetables and a perfectly done pork tenderloin roasted with a hint of garlic and rosemary and topped with Margann's red pepper jam glaze. Yes, there was more good wine, and the sort of conversation that goes with it.

And dessert? Oh yes. Diane made the most glorious yule log and surrounded it with perfect little meringue mushrooms. As we sat around the table sipping some delightful dessert wine whose name and vintage I've forgotten, I looked out the window. Snow!

It made Amy nervous since she was the designated driver, but it seemed the perfect ending for the evening. It may sound sappy, but I love the holidays and the sort of wintry fellowship that comes with them. Here's hoping yours are warm, safe and wonderful.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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