Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Family Dinner

I love family dinners. When everyone has such busy and hectic lives, it is nice to slow things down every now and again with a nice meal, some nice vino, and share some stories. Obviously, the holidays lend themselves to family time and, as such, family dinners. I was already looking forward to that bit. But we tried to take things a bit further this time and we collaborated to create a family dinner that really became a family feast, with everyone taking on a bit of the responsibility for the menu and creating something that was truly special.

After a brainstorming session, we shirked the traditional ham or turkey. While we all loved the thought of either, we wanted to push ourselves outside of tradition and really challenge ourselves... thus landing on duck as our protein. Needing some sort of unifying flavour or attribute, we thought to link our various courses and components through the orange, as it would lend well to sweet or savoury application. 

Family Dinner

Beet and Goat Cheese Napoleon with Toasted Walnuts and Orange
Paired with *The Pinot Project* Pinot Noir (California)

Asparagus with Walnuts, Cranberries, Ginger and Orange Zest
Homemade Gnocchi with Arugula Almond Pesto
Duck Breast with Orange Pan Sauce
Citrus Salt
Paired with Noble Tree Blend (California)

Chocolate Cloud Cake with Unsweetened Whipped Cream

Alan and Kate took on the napoleon and our wine pairings. Bob and Jocelyne contributed the prosecco (plus some very healthy pours of wine) and asparagus. Doug and I made the gnocchi, duck breast, and chocolate cake.

In advance and at your leisure - Make the gnocchi, flavoured salt (should you choose), and arugula almond pesto.
Morning of the dinner - Make the chocolate cake. Roast your beets and make your salad reduction. Marinate your duck.
Dinner party time - Cook your duck. Assemble napoleon. Saute asparagus. Make pan sauce. Boil gnocchi. Mix, mix. Serve.

A few days before, I made the gnocchi. Easy peasy. I followed the previous ratios for the batch made with eggs. Four medium sized russet potatoes yielded roughly 4 cups of cooked and grated potato. To this, I added two cups of flour, two lightly beaten eggs, and -for added bonus- about 1/3 cup fresh grated parmesan. Salt and pepper. Mix. Roll. Cut. Roll with fork. 

My technique for scoring the gnocchi changed slightly with this batch and I'm happy with the result. Instead of running the fork against the outside of the cut gnocchi, I ran it against the cut side. Since that side was more tender and wet (having not been exposed to the air and flour in rolling it out), it yielded a more narrow long gnocchi but took the creasing well.

I placed the gnocchi on parchment lined baking sheets, covered them with plastic wrap, and put them in the freezer to firm up. The next morning, I transferred the frozen gnocchi into a freezer bag. Gnocchi, check.

Citrus Salt
The citrus salt was also made in advance... again, easy peasy.

Chocolate Cloud Cake
The morning of the dinner, I made the cake. This cake has been in dinner party rotation for years now. Always a hit. I added one ounce of Grand Marnier and the zest of one orange to the wet ingredients in order to bring it in synch with the rest of our dinner. Plus, chocolate and orange... tasty.

Arugula Almond Pesto
While the cake was baking, I made the pesto.

4 cups arugula (EDIT: I really packed the cup with arugula... these were ample cupfuls.)
1-2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
1/2 cup almond (ideally raw but definitely unsalted)
Juice of one lemon
~1/2 cup olive oil

Set a pot of water to boil on the stove. Set some paper towel on a plate for your blanched arugula. Now, quickly, submerge your arugula in the water. You'll see it get that beautiful bright green that marks it being cooked through (it only needs to be in there for ~30 seconds). Remove using a slotted spoon and place on the ready paper towel. I did this in roughly one cup portions, as it was easier to manage but also remove the arugula before it was really overcooked. You can also blanch the garlic while you are at it.

Put the blanched arugula, garlic, almonds, lemon juice (I think this helps the arugula keep its bright green colour... plus adds its own bright flavour), and parmesan to your food processor or blender.

Mix to combine.

While the processor is running, pour in your olive oil in a slow and steady stream. You might reach your ideal consistency without using all of the oil. Start and stop, taste and test. Once you have your ideal consistency, taste for salt and pepper and add accordingly.

Duck Breast
For six adults and one child, we had four large duck breasts. You don't need one each with these, especially when you are slicing and plating them to be served family-style at the table. We procured these from the delightful Greens Eggs and Ham, a great farmer in Leduc whose beautiful products can be found in Edmonton and Calgary quite easily.

Marinade Ingredients:
Zest of one orange
Juice from one orange
Roughly one tablespoon of grated fresh ginger
3-4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil

I put the duck breasts in the marinade about three hours before the dinner. Add all of the above ingredients to a plastic bag. Check your duck breasts thoroughly for any remaining feathers or stubs, then place them in the bags with the marinade. Seal and smush. Place in the fridge until about thirty minutes before you plan to cook (to let the meat come to room temperature).

Heat your pan to a medium / medium-high heat. When it comes to cooking the duck breast, score the skin side of the breast. Again, check for any errant feathers and stubs... they are pesky and you certainly don't want to miss any. Pat the breasts dry, then place skin side down in the pans. Don't crowd your pans! If you are cooking four breasts, opt for two pans or two batches, depending on your equipment and time.

You want a bit of sizzle but don't want your pan too hot. You certainly don't want a high high heat! If your pan is too hot, then the skin will crisp and burn before the fat below has had its chance to melt and render. What a waste that is! So let it sizzle... just gently.

The breasts should take about 15 minutes to cook, about 8-10 minutes on the breast side, then 5-7 on the meat side. You'll know that it is time to flip the duck when the skin stops sticking to the surface of the pan. It will release and let you know it is time. Flip. Cook. You can test for doneness by touch - springy and still tender. Or you can opt for the meat thermometer. It's important to consider the size of the breast in terms of cooking time. We had three breasts that were similar in size and done within 15 minutes but one was significantly larger and required an extra 5+ minutes to finish cooking.

Remove the breasts from the pan, place on a plate, and cover with foil or leave in a warm place to rest.

While the duck rests, start your pan sauce. As I removed the duck, Alan began to assemble his napoleon and Jocelyne worked her asparagus.

Beet and Goat Cheese Napoleon with Toasted Walnuts and Orange
Alan's napoleon was inspired by a lovely recipe on

Some beautiful honey, roasted beets, toasted walnuts in the goat cheese filling, and some pea shoots on top made for a sweet and refreshing start to our dinner. I loved how the red and yellow beets were mimicked in colour by the blood and regular oranges. Yikes - we've really peaked some culinary competitiveness here! :)

Asparagus with Walnuts, Cranberries, Ginger and Orange Zest
Jocelyne's asparagus came together beautifully (cooked about 90% of the way through while we were cooking the duck and assembling the napoleon, then finished and kept warm while we finished up the rest of the main course components).

A saute of walnuts, dried cranberries, sliced fresh ginger, and a whole pile of asparagus was all that it took to bring together these fresh and bright flavours. Coincidentally, the walnuts in Jocelyne's asparagus echoed Alan's walnuts in his goat cheese filling. And, of course, the asparagus was finished with a grating of fresh orange zest to compliment the rest of the meal. Just superb.

Pan Sauce
Drain the majority of the fat from the pan and admire all the crispy dark bits left on the surface. Say hello to the beginnings of an amazing sauce.

One shallot
Two cloves of garlic
Three thick slices of ginger
Four cloves
Zest of one orange
Juice of one orange
3+ cups of chicken stock
A big pat of butter

Chop your shallot and garlic. Zest your orange. Cut your orange in half and squeeze the juice into the pan. Set the pan back on the heat to deglaze. Using a wooden spoon, scrape those crispy dark bits off of the pan. Add your garlic and shallots. Let them cook a minute or two to soften. Add your chunks of ginger and cloves, then top up with stock. Set this to simmer and reduce by half to three quarters (enough time to eat and enjoy your salad!).

Quickly, before you sit down to your salad, fill a large pot with water and set it to boil.

Finishing the Mains...
Clear those salad plates and toss your gnocchi (directly from the freezer) into your rapidly boiling water. The gnocchi will rise to the surface when they are done but give them an extra minute or two once they get there to ensure that the egg is cooked through. This only takes about five minutes.

Drain, then return to the pot and stir in your pesto (the pesto doesn't have to be warm... room temperature is fine and the hot gnocchi will heat it further). Transfer to your serving bowl and top with a grating of parmesan.

At this point your pan sauce should have reduced nicely. Remove the ginger for those last few minutes.  Try to fish out the cloves (or warn people if you couldn't find them). Taste for salt and pepper and add accordingly. (You don't want to add salt before reducing as it will only reduce and intensify with the sauce itself... best to do this bit of seasoning at the end.)

Slice your duck and arrange on your serving plate. Top with your pan sauce.

Triumphantly present your duck breast, gnocchi, and asparagus to the happy family.

Finish with that decadent chocolate cake... and maybe a little liqueur?? :)

A note on our wine pairings from Alan...

Pairing the wine with the duck was a fun challenge. The earthy fattiness makes duck acceptable for a range of reds. We tried two wines from California - a pinot and a southern Rhone granache-based blend. Everyone favoured the blend and I think that is because the rich fruit flavours stood up to the richness of the duck, and there were enough savoury flavours in the granache that it didn't conflict, but complemented the duck. 

Can't wait for the next family dinner!

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