Kammie Dritschilo photo
Mushroom tartelettes plated alongside baby spinach-bosc pear salad. The additional element livens up the appearance of the salad plate.
When I make an anniversary dinner, I want my wife to be every bit as stunned by what I put on the table as I am by the fact the she has managed to tolerate me for yet another year.
As time goes on, this is only going to get harder, but I know a few tricks that will serve me well, and I know what not to try when the pressure is on.
First off, an anniversary calls for a marquee cut of meat that can be used with an idiot-proof preparation. What I love about braising isn’t just that it produces tender, rich bites of meat, but also that it is so forgiving. You don’t ruin a braise by leaving it in the oven for too long.
Second, you need an impressive-sounding salad. The great advantage of salad is that you can throw four or five ingredients on a plate and produce a side-dish that sounds like a lot more effort went into it than actually did.
Third, you need a little something extra, an appetizer or a side whose presence will elevate what you have arranged from memorable to unforgettable.
You will also, in all likeliness, need a good hunk of bread, a good bottle of wine and something chocolate for dessert. I would buy these, though. Don’t make more work for yourself than you have to.
Now, I’m going to let you folks in on the key ingredient to elevating dishes in the eyes of those you are serving them to: adjectives. The longer the name for a dish, the more impressive it sounds, so think about each element you can add to a dish and how to play those elements up.
For example, I set out to make osso bucco. That sounds good as it is, but do you know what’s more special than osso bucco? Champagne-braised osso bucco.
Osso bucco, for those who don’t know, is a shank, usually of veal, usually slow-cooked in wine or stock. The meat gets meltingly tender while the connective tissue gives the liquid a meaty flavor and silky texture. The center of the bone holds marrow, which, if you scoop it out and spread it on bread toward the end of the meal, tastes like meaty butter.
Now, I wouldn’t want to open a bottle of champagne just for a dish like this, but, fortunately, I only needed half of it. We drank the other half.
You will almost always want some sort of onion in the pot with a dish like this, and I opted for leeks. Leeks are wonderful in stews and have the benefit of sounding just a little bit fancier than “onions.”
I have taken to using whole cloves of garlic in long-cooking dishes. The garlic flavor has plenty of time to work its way around the dish and the clove gets soft, mellows and absorbs flavor from the other ingredients. My dinner guests have been known to fight over who gets the last clove of garlic, and yours will, too, if you adopt this technique.
Now we just needed a little starch, and timing worked out perfectly in my favor. Diane Heleba arrived at the farmer’s market that morning with a basket full of lovely, golfball-sized potatoes that she said were just picked and would hold up well under a long boiling.
So, now we have champagne-braised osso bucco with leeks and new potatoes.
On to the salad. I have a formula for salad: baby spinach leaves, sliced shallots, some kind of fruit, whether dried or fresh, and dressing. A bosc pear was bought to serve as the fruit and the dressing was made with balsamic vinegar and a fancy lemon-infused olive oil I keep in the back of the cupboard.
I needed one more element. I had, earlier in the week, come across a muffin tin with two-inch holes that looked perfect for making mini-pies. I came up with a mushroom tartelette when my wife told me I was catering a get-together she had planned with some friends, and when the get-together was cancelled I still wanted to make the tartelettes.
Make them I did, plating them along with the salad.
With a hunk of bread, a bottle of wine (the other half of the champagne was an appetizer) and a baby sitter, everything was in place.
Champagne-braised osso bucco with leeks and new potatoes
2 large veal shanks
3 large leeks, white and tender green part only, roughly chopped
12 ounces (give or take) new potatoes
About half a bottle of champagne
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 large sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
Pat the veal shanks dry with paper towels, season and brown in the butter.
Set aside the meat and sweat the leeks, seasoning with salt and pepper. Pour in a splash of the champagne, using a wooden spoon to scrape any brown crust bits from the bottom. Add the garlic cloves, bay leaf and two of the sprigs of thyme and cook, stirring, for another minute or two.
Return the shanks to the pot with the potatoes and add enough champagne to come about halfway up the sides of the shanks. Bring to a boil, then cover, drop to a simmer and cook, covered, for two hours.
Serve the shanks covered in leeks and cooking liquid, surrounded by the potatoes, flanked with the garlic cloves and garnished with leaves from the remaining sprig of thyme.
Baby spinach and bosc pear salad
2 large handfuls of baby spinach (I like to snap off the larger stems — that’s up to you)
one-quarter of a cored bosc pear, sliced
2 shallots, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
lemon-infused olive oil (substitute whatever fruit infusion you prefer or regular extra-vigin)
Assemble and toss together the spinach, pear slices and shallots. Place on plates and drizzle, first with the olive oil and then with the vinegar.
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 ounce dried chanterelle mushrooms
4 large shallots, peeled and minced
2 sprigs thyme
salt and pepper
pie dough (see below)
Reconstitute and mince the mushrooms.
Cook the shallots in the butter until they begin to turn translucent, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Strip the thyme leaves from the stems and stir them in, then add the mushrooms and cook for another three or four minutes, stirring.
Add a generous splash of Madeira and a much lighter one of balsamic vinegar and continue to cook until the liquid is gone. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 425.
Roll out the pie dough and use a coffee mug to cut six circles out to serve as crusts. Press the circles into the muffin tin, making sure to press the dough into the corners and to press down around the edges to make a lip. Spoon the filling into the shells and put in the oven.
I took these out after 12 minutes, but the bottoms weren’t quite done. They were close enough, though, and 15 minutes will probably close the gap next time.
I found I had just enough filling and dough left over to make a pie pocket. My wife enjoyed that for lunch the next day.
1 stick (8 ounces) cold butter, cut into one-inch cubes
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cold water
1 pinch fine salt
Mix the flour, salt and butter. I like to use a hand blender at first and then my Kitchenaid mixer with a paddle attachment, but you can also do it by hand or with a food processor. You want some tiny chunks of butter to remain in the flour, which will help make for a flaky crust.
Add the water and form a dough roll without working it too much. Let it rest in the refrigerator for at least two hours. This can also be frozen.
When you are ready to use the dough, roll it out to about an eighth of an inch and cut or form into desired shape.MORE IN Food & Dining
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