I have had a lot of fun over the last few weekends cooking for friends. This started with a gathering of University friends at Steve and Judith's place in London. It was during my birthday meal at Hibiscus last year that I suggested to Steve that I come down and cook for everyone at their place, and Judith worked her magic to get us all together last month. There were plenty of volunteers to help in the kitchen, so I had a chance to relax and chat to everyone; I even got a ride in Steve's Lotus while Judith saw to the baking of the biscotti.
We started the meal with a simple asparagus soup garnished with asparagus tips and parmesan shavings, along with Ruhlman's buttermilk dinner rolls. For the main course, we had roasted rack of lamb with a herb and mustard crust (pepperonata tart and poached egg for Henry, the lone vegetarian). This was served with new potatoes cooked en papillote, glazed carrots, and purple sprouting broccoli. Next came the cheeses I picked up at the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink and a delicious, ripe, brie that threatened to run over the side of the cheese board. Finally dessert, a rhubarb fool sweetened with honey and served with toasted almond and orange biscotti. Steve provided wine, which flowed freely throughout the meal, and port afterwards.
Judith took this shot of me and John serving up the soup; you can see the lamb ready for the oven in the foreground:
The following weekend I invited my colleague Sébastien and his wife Laurène, who was visiting from Paris, to dinner. Sébastien has been in Cambridge for almost a year and had yet to try roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The French call us "les rosbifs"; I hate to spoil a good stereotype, so I served up a roasted sirloin joint with roast potatoes, roast parsnips, carrots, purple sprouting broccoli, and a simple gravy made by deglazing the roasting tin with a glass of red wine - and, of course, Yorkshire pudding.
For dessert, we had poached rhubarb with buttermilk pannacotta. This is made just like a vanilla pannacotta, but replacing half of the cream with buttermilk. This gives it a slightly acidic edge, and makes it a great accompaniment for fruit like rhubarb or gooseberries.
Then last weekend I visited Sébastien and Laurène in Paris. We ate out a couple of times, but they had invited some friends around to their flat for dinner on Sunday. Sébastien and I were in charge of the kitchen. Seb made a great starter of goat's cheese wrapped in a filo parcel and baked in the oven, which we served with a green salad. For the main course, we made pan-roasted duck breasts with a sauce suggested by Laurène's mum: while the meat rests, deglaze the pan with white wine, add a handful of wine-soaked raisins, a couple of spoons of honey, and the resting juices from the meat. Simple, but delicious. We served this with new potatoes (cooked en papillote again) and French beans (what else?). For dessert I made a crumble with rhubarb poached in vanilla syrup and some strawberries we picked up at the market. Much to my embarrassment, I made a terrible mess of the crème Anglaise (aka "custard"), which at first refused to thicken then, after adding flour in desperation, thickened too much. Still, the meal was a success and everyone enjoyed themselves.
Tomorrow I'm cooking with Seb again: braised shoulder of lamb, gratin Dauphinois, purple sprouting broccoli, then a steamed rhubarb pudding and - not to be defeated by a basic preparation - crème Anglaise. Laurène is back in Cambridge next week for her final visit before Sébastien returns to France for good, so we are planning another meal together on Thursday.
I wasn't sure whether to title this post "Cooking for friends" or "Cooking with friends". I love cooking and sharing food with friends, but it's especially satisfying to cook together and learn from each other. Good food, good wine, and good friends: it's the simple things that make life worthwhile.
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