February 10, 2008
A fondue and stew
There is something about the common dipping into one bowl that is so primordial and elemental. When a party calls for a first course that is eaten standing around the kitchen while the cook tends to the main course, there is nothing better than fondue! I received a little "valentine" in the mail the other day from my dad-- a little 2-and-a-half quart bright orange Le Creuset cast iron pot (what a great dad!). As I don't own a fondue pot anymore, this would be the perfect substitue.
I used a recipe for "Classic Fondue" that I saw recently in the NYTimes. There has been a resurgence of fondue parties according to the food press lately. Food and Wine did a spread on a New Year's Eve party in Aspen (Richard Betts of Betts and Scholl's Wine) and that sparked my interest in gathering friends around the pot of cheese on a winter evening. Fondue is astonishingly easy to make. Daniel prepped the cheese (mostly gruyere but with scraps of leftover cheese from our fridge thrown in) while I did other things.
Then, just as our guests arrived, I started simmering a cup of white wine (a Tocai from Friuli) in my new pot on the stove. I had rubbed the pot with a garlic clove cut in half. As soon as the wine was simmering, I threw in the cheese, combined with a tablesp. of cornstarch, a handful at a time while stirring the creamy white cheese until it bubbled lightly and all was incorporated. Yum!!! I had cut up some raw veggies earlier in the day: radishes, fennel sticks, carrots and cauliflower, threw in some apple and pear slices, and some squares of crusty bread, and voilà! Everybody loved it and the pot was wiped clean before I could get the camera out to take a photo!
Our main course was Tuscan Bean Stew made with imported dried cannellini beans that I had brined overnight - almost 24 hours. I had read in Cook's Illustrated about cooking the stew in the oven on a low temp. instead of on the stovetop in order to acheive a perfectly cooked, intact bean, instead of the mushy or broken beans that can result when the soup cooks over a flame too high or for too long. This method proved to be exactly right. What a revelation!
The soup starts with oil and pancetta, then the carrots, celery and onion and is cooked on medium until the aromatics are browned and softened, then add the rinsed beans, the stock and some water, a bay leaf and cover the pot before going into the 250 degree oven. After about an hour, I added the kale and one can of diced tomatoes and back in the oven for another 45 min. This was the first time I had ever made a soup in which each element's integrity, shape and flavor remained separate and the consistency was like a melding of different elements, each with its own character to contribute. It was *not* a mushy or blended soup at all, but hearty and flavorful and so satisfying. I served each bowl with a long slice of toasted Tuscan bread rubbed with garlic.
And, for dessert: my first try at meringue cookies. How fun and gratifying to beat egg whites, sugar, vanilla and corn starch and to end up with these angelic little sweet puffs of air! I made half of them white, and the other half with bits of semi-sweet chocolate. I liked the classic ones best but they both received rave reviews. I served them with little glasses of homemade vin santo that I had brought home from a friend's farm in Italy last time I was there. A perfect combination.
It was really nice to serve a dinner that was simple to make, easy to serve, but that looked rather impressive. Our friends, the Forsythes (Daniel's boss, his wife and daughter) are food people - great cooks and very knowledgeable about food-- and I believe they were happy and pleasantly surprised. I went to bed with a big smile on my face...