Saturday, February 21, 2015

Multi-course birthday dinner

Happy belated birthday to me!

Last Saturday was my thirty-fifth birthday. I decided to spell out 'thirty fifth' because for some reason it doesn't look quite as bad spelled out versus in numerical form. (35!!!!)

Though I've had some pretty awesome birthdays over the years, I'll be blunt: sharing your birthday with Valentine's day sucks. When I was in my teens and twenties it was a constant reminder that I was perpetually single. I'm now in a relationship, but then the one thing I'd love to splurge on for my birthday (going to a really nice dinner) gets hijacked by couples looking for "romance" on this cheesy Hallmark holiday (which is about 492,340,039 times worse when Valentine's day falls on a Saturday). Ugh.

So we decided to postpone our nice dinner at Herb and planned a fancy 4-course dinner at home instead.  (Menu generated from this site!)

This meal was perfect for so many reasons, but the main one was that there is very little active time to prepare each of the courses. All the work was either on the front end (french-onion soup, crème brûlée) or required a relatively fast cooking time (scallops, lamb). It was also nice preparing each course individually, and you didn't have to worry about timing multiple courses such that everything would be magically ready at the same time. Stress-free cooking and eating fabulously fancy food--exactly what you want on your birthday.

First course: French-onion soup

Who doesn't love the salty and savory French-onion soup topped with copious amounts of cheese?! Normally this soup is pretty labor intensive, but I found a fabulous recipe that cooks the soup entirely in the slow cooker.

YES! You heard me. Slow cooker. Just make sure you start this at least a day in advance, because the onions need to first caramelize in the slow cooker 1 day (or night) and the soup simmers the next day. But once it's done you just pop in an oven-safe bowl, throw a slice or 2 of bread on top, and cover with some grated gruyere.

It just needs about 30 minutes in the oven to get the cheese and bubbly and melty. Soooo goood!

Second Course: Seared scallops with brown butter and lemon

I'm a purist when it comes to scallops. No cream or herbs or crazy flavors for me. Just sear them and throw a bit of melted butter on top and I'm in food heaven. But then I came across this twist: serve the scallops with browned butter. Genius! The recipe also called for some fresh lemon zest in the butter which did wonders in brightening up the flavor of the dish. Definitely a great twist on one of my favorite meals.

Third Course: Grilled lamb loin chops with rosemary and garlic

So remember how I told you that a Valentine's birthday messes with my plans to go out to eat every year? Well, turns out it can also mess with your plans to make your own fancy dinner! Originally this course was supposed to be a lamb chop (you know, the kind with the fancy bone), but of course the grocery store was completely sold out. Luckily though they had lamb loin chops, which were incredible. I was able to use the same recipe I'd planned on, but instead of pan searing the rib chops, the butcher recommended grilling the loin chops.

Oh. My. Goodness. I can't even describe how good this meal was. The lamb was so flavorful, tender, and melt-in-your mouth delicious that I think it may have even surpassed my love of rib eye!

Third Course: Lavender crème brûlée

If you've followed this blog for a while you'll know that I have an unhealthy love of lavender in my desserts. Particularly creamy ones (ie, chiffon cake with lavender creme, lavender cookies, and lavender ice cream). So when I decided to make crème brûlée (and 'treat yo-self' to a kitchen torch for my birthday) I knew I had to put lavender in it. Best. Decision. Ever.

We probably had a bit too much to eat on my birthday dinner (we could have made our 2nd and 3rd course portions a tad smaller), but everything we had was perfect, so it's hard to complain. Though it was probably the most expensive meal we've cooked ourselves at home (~$40 for all the food in total), it's still a ton cheaper than getting all this incredible food out at a restaurant. So you can call it a budget-friendly option for a splurge meal.

Buen Provecho,

Recipes for each course are below, in order of appearance:

Slow-cooker french-onion soup, adapted from the Kitchen

3 pounds yellow onions, peeled, sliced, and cut into quarter-moons
2 TBSP unsalted butter, melted
2 TBSP olive oil
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
8 - 10 cups beef broth (I like the Better than Bouillon concentrated broth)
3 TBSP brandy, optional

To serve
baguette slices, toasted, for each bowl
Gruyere cheese, grated (1/3 - 1/2 cup per bowl)
Chopped shallot or fresh onion, optional

  1. Caramelize the onions: Place the onion slices in a 5-quart (or larger) slow cooker. Stir in the butter, olive oil, salt, and black pepper to taste. Cover and cook on LOW for 12 hours. After cooking the onions should be dark golden brown and soft. (Note: Since my slow cooker is quite good at retaining liquid/steam, the next morning I felt like the onions were still a tad watery and I wanted to caramelize them more. So I removed the lid from the onions and left them in the slow cooker for another hour or so, stirring regularly to make sure they didn't char. Not sure if this made a big difference, but wanted to note what I did...)
  2. Cook the soup: Stir in the balsamic vinegar and up to 10 cups of beef broth. Cover and continue cooking on LOW for at least 6 to 8 hours. (Notes: I only added 8 cups of broth because my slow cooker retains quite a bit of liquid and I didn't want it to be too watery. Adjust as needed for your slow cooker and to taste. You can also cook your soup for longer, as long as there is enough liquid in your slow cooker.
  3. Finish the soup: Once you're done cooking the soup, taste and season with more salt and pepper if desired, and stir in the brandy if using. Adjust the oven rack to the upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Ladle the soup into oven-safe bowls and place the bowls on a baking sheet. Top each bowl with a slice of toast and a generous quantity of shredded Gruyere cheese. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the cheese is completely melted. If you'd like to broil the cheese, turn the oven to broil and broil the soup for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and browned. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes, then serve with chopped fresh onion on the side, optional. 
Seared scallops with brown butter and lemon, adapted from Simply Recipes
Serves 2

* When cooking scallops make sure to sear them quickly to avoid overcooking. I have had issues with the scallop sticking to the pan in the past, so I cannot claim to be an expert on how to avoid that problem. I like using a stainless steel pan to get a solid crust on the scallops, but they have a tendency to stick to that type of pan, so make sure to use an oil with a high smoke point and a metal spatula to "scrape" the scallops off the pan (without messing up that gorgeous crust). Luckily only 1 of my 6 scallops stuck to the pan and lost its gorgeous sear in the cooking process, so I'm slowly getting better in my scallop technique!

* The original recipe called for capers, which I did not use, as I wanted my scallops more mild in flavor. But I've included them below if you'd like to try the recipe with capers.

2 - 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1-2 Tbsp canola oil, rice bran oil, or other high smoke point oil
6 sea scallops (ours were 0.9 pounds for 6 pieces, which were quite large scallops!)
1/3 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
1 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbsp capers, drained (optional)

  1. Brown the butter: Place butter in a light-colored saucepan and melt on medium heat. The butter will first foam, then recede. At this point do not walk away, as the butter will brown (and then burn!) relatively quickly quickly. After a few minutes, the milk solids will brown slightly and sink to the bottom. Once they are deeply caramel-colored (but not a burnt brown), remove the pan from the heat and pour immediately into a separate bowl to stop the cooking process. Set aside. 
  2. Pat the scallops dry. Heat the oil in a sauté pan on high heat until the oil is shimmering. (If the oil gets so hot that it begins to smoke, remove the pan from the heat, and turn down the heat a notch before returning the pan to the burner.) When the oil is shimmery hot place the scallops in the pan, flat side down.  Do not touch the scallops once they are in the pan so that they can get a nice sear. After about 3 - 4 minutes the edges of the scallops should be getting quite brown. Use tongs (or spatula if they stick a bit) to flip the the scallops. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, until nicely seared. Once both sides are browned, remove the scallops to a warm plate, and turn off the burner. 
  3. Pour any remaining oil from the pan, leaving any browned bits in the pan. Add the white wine to the pan and return the pan to the burner on high heat. Let the wine boil and reduce until you have ~1 tablespoon of liquid left in the pan. Turn off the heat, add the browned butter, lemon zest, and capers (if using) to the pan. Swirl to combine. 
  4. Place scallops on serving plates and pour sauce over them. Serve immediately. 
Grilled lamb loin chops with rosemary and garlic, adapted from Simply Recipes

* For directions on how to cook lamb rib chops, check out the post from Simply Recipes. She has great step-by-step directions for rib chops that are both 1 or 2 bones thick. I used her recipe for the rosemary rub, but we grilled our loin chops instead of pan searing them. 

* I'd recommend cooking your lamb on the medium rare side for the most tender chops (~130 degrees). Decrease by up to 5 degrees for rare.

* These chops were a tad on the salty side (but so good!) Feel free to cut down by 1/2 tsp if you're really sensitive to saltier food.

4 pieces lamb lamb loin chops, thick cut (1 1/4" - 1 1/2"; these ended up being over a pound for us)
2 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary (or 1-2 tsp dried rosemary if you don't have fresh)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil, divided

  1. In a small bowl, mix the rosemary, salt, pepper, garlic, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil together. Coat the lamb chops with the mixture, massaging it into the meat with your fingers. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes. 
  2. Preheat your grill to high with the lid down. Once the grill is heated, oil the grates. Sear the lamb chops for 3 minutes per side (open lid), or until the chops reach 130 degrees for medium rare. Remove chop from the grill, loosely tent with foil, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. 
Lavender crème brûlée, adapted from Shutterbean (via the girl and the fig cookbook)

* This crème brûlée recipe was a touch on the soft side. It still held together very well, but if you like your custard to be more firm I'd assume that a recipe with a higher eggs-to-liquid ratio would be your preference. For example, this recipe is 2.6 yolks:1 cup cream + milk whereas Cooks Illustrated has a recipe that is 3 yolks:1 cup cream. I'll have to try that recipe soon and see which I prefer!

* I cut the recipe down in half (hence the odd liquid measurements) and it was still enough for 4 - 6 people! 

1 cup + 2 TBSP heavy cream
1/3 cup milk
3/4 TBSP dried lavender, plus more for garnish if you'd like
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 TBSP honey
turbinado sugar or Demerara sugar, for the sugar topping (you'll need ~1 tsp or a bit more per ramekin, depending on the diameter of your ramekin)

  1. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan and add the lavender. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the lavender steep for at least 15 minutes (I went a full 30 to enhance the lavender flavor).
  2. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and honey in a separate bowl until smooth. Slowly whisk into the lavender-cream mixture. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and skim off any foam. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. 
  3. Preheat oven to 350F and bring a kettle or large saucepan of water to boil over high heat.
  4. Pour the mixture into ramekins. Set the ramekins in a deep baking pan and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking pan with foil and place in the oven. 
  5. Bake for 30 - 40 minutes or until set. (Note: Cooking time may be shorter for the wide and shallow brûlée ramekins. When the custard is done it will be set on the sides while still a little jiggly, but not wet, in the center. If you have a digital instant-read thermometer, the temperature in the center should register 170 to 175 degrees F.)  
  6. Remove the baking pan from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Transfer ramekins to wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Set ramekins on rimmed baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 4 days.
  7. When you are ready to serve the custard, remove ramekins from refrigerator and uncover. If condensation has collected place paper towel on surface to soak up moisture. Sprinkle each with about 1 teaspoon turbinado sugar (1 1/2 teaspoons for shallow fluted dishes); tilt and tap ramekin for even coverage. Ignite torch and caramelize sugar. To set the sugar and re-chill the custard, refrigerate ramekins uncovered for 15 to 30 minutes (no longer than 45 minutes).
  8. Serve with a mini spoon and crack away!


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