Last Friday was Daniel's birthday. And all last week, I asked him what he wanted me to make for his birthday dinner. He told me he wanted lobster thermidor, his silly, pat response any time I ask him what he wants to eat and he doesn't have any ideas. "You don't even know what that is!" I said. "No, but it sounds fancy," he said, running into the other room before I could ask him again.
Dan doesn't like to be the center of attention, even if it's just a birthday dinner involving four close friends in our living room. So the idea of a menu specifically designed in his honor made him a little uncomfortable. But if you can't eat what you want on your birthday, then what's the point, really? (Although, technically, we had a really nice dinner out at Kefi on his actual birthday. This was a day-after-party.)
After much prodding and gentle nagging (he acted as if I was trying to plan his last meal), he threw me a few bones. They were slightly vague bones, but whatever. He wanted chicken liver pâté, some sort of cheese, short ribs with a mashed vegetable other than potatoes, and a dessert that involved coffee, hazelnuts, and whipped cream. "I know you don't like whipped cream, but I like whipped cream," he said, somewhat apologetically. Darling, it's your birthday. I just thanked him and reached for my cookbooks.
A birthday dinner for Daniel
Rosemary-lemon soda (and vodka gimlets)
Chicken liver pâté
Cheese and crackers
Salad a la Julie Bissell
Short ribs with dijon mustard
Celery root puree
Torta alla gianduia (chocolate hazelnut cake)
It ended up being a really fun night. One that made me wake up smiling the next day, even though there was a scary amount of dirty dishes piled up everywhere. We consumed an impressive amount of drinks, laughed so loudly that I am sure the neighbors were annoyed, Colin P. Delaney regaled us with his salty jokes and tales of workplace harassment, Kanye West performed on Storytellers in the background, a friend from far away called with birthday greetings and good news (it's a girl!), and we ate. A lot. Without even giving it much thought, Dan managed to put together a pretty great menu.
After one more bottle of wine, car services were called, coats were put back on, and Dan and I were left alone, once again wishing that we could somehow mandate that our friends always live in the same city as us, wherever that may be in the not-so-distant future. Because the end of birthdays celebrated like this is almost impossible to imagine.
Salad a la Julie Bissell
I didn't get a chance to ask Julie for this recipe, but it had dandelion greens, watercress, cherry tomatoes, fennel, red onion, and a snappy vinaigrette. It was so pretty I had to show you.
Braised short ribs with dijon mustard
Looking for a short rib recipe is like looking for a chicken recipe. There are thousands, and most sound pretty much the same. My goal was to find a recipe that didn't have a grocery list of ingredients and didn't need to cook all day long--although a long, slow cooking time is the key to good short ribs. This recipe, from Gourmet, required about three hours of cooking time, which seemed ideal. I got everything in the oven before our friends arrived, and the meat simmered as we ate snacks and hung out. But what this mindless simmering produced...wow. The combination of red wine, mustard, tomatoes is way more than the sum of its parts. The sauce was rich and wine-y, cut with a little bit of acidity from the mustard. I can't believe I made something this good on the first try.
(Serves about 6 people)
1 bottle dry red wine (I used Merlot)
5 lbs. beef short ribs (also called flanken)
10 shallots, trimmed, halved if large
3 Tbsp. coarse-grain Dijon mustard, or to taste (I used non-grainy dijon)
1 can whole plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp. chopped rosemary
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
Boil wine in a 2-quart heavy saucepan until reduced to about 1 cup. While the wine is reducing, pat ribs dry and cut crosswise into 1-rib pieces (each about 2 1/2 inches long). Season well with salt and pepper.
Heat a dry 5-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot, then brown ribs well in 3 batches on all sides, about 8 minutes for each batch. Transfer browned ribs with tongs to a bowl.
Reduce heat to moderate. Coat the bottom of the pot with a thin layer of olive oil. Add the shallots and brown them well in fat remaining in pot, stirring. Transfer with a slotted spoon to another bowl.
Stir wine and mustard into the juices in the pot. Add ribs and simmer, covered, about 1 3/4 hours.
Gently stir in shallots and tomatoes and continue to simmer, covered, without stirring, until meat is very tender, about 40 minutes. Carefully transfer ribs, shallots, and tomatoes to a platter and skim off any fat from cooking season sauce with salt, pepper, and mustard to taste and pour over ribs.Celery root puree
This was not only my first time cooking short ribs, it was my first time working with celery roots. They are kind of a shabby, bland-looking vegetable on the outside, but when peeled, cubed, and simmered in a warm bath of milk, as in this recipe by Dorie Greenspan, they take on a luxuriously silky texture and delicate celery flavor. I think they were the sleeper hit of the night.
(Serves about 6 people)
3 cups whole milk
3 cups water
1 Tbsp. salt
2 large celery roots (about 2 1/2 lbs. total), peeled, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 small onion, peeled, quartered
5 Tbsp. butter, cut into 5 pieces
Ground white pepper
Bring milk, water, and salt just to boil in heavy large saucepan over high heat. Add celery root cubes, potato cubes, and onion quarters; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, discarding cooking liquid.
Combine vegetables and butter in processor and puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Transfer celery root puree to bowl. (The celery root puree can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm in the microwave or oven before serving.)