Friday, June 20, 2008

dinner, minus the Post-Its

I like thinking about menus as much as I like cooking. Sitting on the train, or during a lull at work, I'll daydream about dinners I haven't even invited people to, or parties that are weeks away. Skimming produce at the farmer's market triggers all sorts of half-baked ideas. Wouldn't it be great to serve a big bowl of fresh corn salad? But with what? Fish tacos? Shrimp skewers? And more importantly, serve it to whom? Luckily there's always someone to cook for, always some new occasion, or excuse-for-an-occasion party to throw.

But when I have spur-of-the-moment dinner plans that don't involve choosing a restaurant (which can also lead to a deliciously endless decision-making process) it's actually kind of refreshing to choose a few dishes, stick to them, and not sweat the details. All dinner parties require a little amount of planning, but sometimes it's easy to get way too wrapped up in it. Like second-guessing whether people will like something and making fretful last-minute changes. Or meticulously writing out each course on multiple Post-Its, in a very O.C.D. fashion. Yeah, I do this.

On Tuesday, Dan and I made plans with our friend Julie to have dinner at our place Thursday night. Instead of over-thinking (It's just three friends having dinner in the living room, Lisa.) I came up with this menu on my walk home from work. Feeling summery, I decided to make a big panzanella with fresh herbs and tomatoes, and serve it with grilled lamb sausages. Dessert would be Key lime pie. Nothing groundbreaking. No Post-Its were involved. Just a few simple, tasty dishes that could be thrown together as you change out of your work clothes and pour yourself a glass of wine.

Weeknight dinner with Julie:
Prosciutto, three types of cheese (kindly brought by Julie), and cherries
Grilled lamb sausages
Key lime pie

A tweaked version of Ina Garten's recipe for Italian bread salad.
(Serves 6-8 people, or 3 with leftovers)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 baguette cut into 1-inch cubes (about 6 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
2 large, ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut 1/2-inch thick slices
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 shallot thinly sliced
A handful of basil leaves, chopped
A handful of parsley, chopped
3 tablespoons capers, drained

For the vinaigrette:
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp. Champagne vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Toss the bread cubes with the olive oil in a large bowl, then spread them out on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes at 300 degrees, or until golden.

For the vinaigrette, whisk all the ingredients together.

In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, yellow pepper, shallots, herbs, and capers. Add the bread cubes and toss with the vinaigrette. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Serve, or allow the salad to sit for about half an hour for the flavors to blend.

Key Lime Pie
This is one of my favorite desserts. And being a Florida girl, I am ultra-picky about it. In my opinion, the best ones have a soft, slightly custardy texture, a graham cracker crust, and are made with real Key limes so they have a pale yellow color (not green). I almost bought a delicious Steve's Key lime pie, but decided against it when I saw that a tiny mini pie was $5. And I like my recipe anyway.
(Serves 6-8 people)

For the crust:
1 1/2 cups crushed graham cracker or ginger snap crumbs (about 6 oz. of cookies)
6 Tbsp. melted butter
3 Tbsp. sugar

Process the cookies in a food processor until finely ground. In a bowl, combine cookie crumbs, melted butter, and sugar. Stir until combined, then press into a 9-inch pie pan. Set aside.

For the filling:
1 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
4 oz. Key lime juice (I like Manhattan brand if you can't find Key limes)

In a bowl, combine the egg yolks and condensed milk and stir until smooth. Gradually pour in the key lime juice, stirring until combined. Pour the filling into the pie crust and bake for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees. Once the pie comes to room temperature, chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving. Serve with whipped cream, if desired. I like my key lime pie straight up--or with a meringue topping.


Anonymous said...

When I meditate and try to watch my thoughts, I find most of them are menu plans.
Once, my mother-in-law brought us 10 lbs. of smoked meat from Montreal. I was so obsessed with how to use it that I woke up in the middle of the night screaming "cold meat".

Very impressed by made-from-scratch graham cracker crust. That must make the pie a lot tastier.

Lisa said...

Ha! That's really hilarious.

I totally agree, though, thinking about menus is very meditative. Especially when you should be thinking of something else.

Daniel said...

Ah, the "cold meat" incident. Really brings me back to those carefree days of childhood.

Anybody know where to get a good smoked meat Stateside?

Vanessa said...

My friend Nikki's dad makes delicious "deer sticks" in the winter. He lives in North Dakota. Other than that, I don't know of other smoked meat sources, but I sure would like to!

Jennifer Henry said...

Lisa, I LOVE this key lime pie recipe. It is a fantastic color and has SUCH a limey taste, it's always a hit with dinner guests.


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