Is it just me, or has planning the menu for a dinner party become more complicated than coordinating colors and patterns for a crazy quilt?
In the 20th century, creating the menu for a dinner part was as simple as choosing a main dish, usually meat or chicken; a vegetable, anything green; something to pour sauce or gravy on, either potatoes, rice or noodles; and, something sweet to finish – a pie, a cake or something chocolate. Alas, those days are gone. We are in the era of gluten free and lactose intolerant diners. Circles of friends may include vegetarians, and vegans or people on the Atkins, Southbeach or Zone diets. There are folks who eat only whole grains and others who cannot tolerate whole grains. Arrrg!
Last Saturday’s dinner party brought this into focus for me. Our guests included a pescetarian, a pollo-vegetarian, a “unique vegetarian” (that’s a vegetarian who eats meat – sometimes), a fussy eater, a picky eater, two bold carnivores, one person on a gluten free diet and another on a specific carbohydrate diet. I wandered the aisles of the grocery store in a fog. Products in the gluten free section contained whole grains and there was nothing for a vegetarian in the butchers’ section. Potatoes, dried beans and cheeses are not permitted on the specific carbohydrate and pasta contains either gluten or whole grains.
Inspiration finally struck as I wandered past the fish counter. I decided on the menu as the clerk wrapped the hook caught haddock. (Did I mention that there were three diners who are committed to eat locally grown and sustainably harvested food?) We would have haddock en papillotte, that translates as cooked in paper, plantains instead of potatoes, sauteed red grapes, organic of course, and a salad made with organic greens locally grown, by one of our guests. The gluten free guest was bringing brownies for dessert.
Re-reading what I have written, I realize that I may have misled you. Although there were many dietary restrictions and diets at our table, there were only five diners and that includes Charles and me. Here’s how I made dinner:
Haddock en Papillotte
- 1 medium onion, julienned
- 1 1/2 cups blanched green beans
- 2 medium carrots, julienned
- 1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
- 1 1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1 orange, zested then peeled and sliced
- 1 teaspoon dry thyme
- 5 (8-ounce) haddock fillets
- 1 lemon, thinly sliced
- 5 teaspoons unsalted butter
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Parchment paper or aluminum foil
I combined the onion, green beans, carrots, ginger, olive oil, white wine, orange zest and thyme in a medium bowl and set it aside. I made a rectangle of parchment paper, about sixteen inches on the long side, folded it in half, cut the paper to make a heart and opened it up. I put a fifth of each of the ingredients in the center of the parchment heart and began to fold it.
Then the fun began. Remember Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory? I tried to fold and seal the parchment as I had seen Julia Child do it. Perhaps, if I had six hands, I might have been successful. But after three attempts, the parchment was soggy, the liquid was leaking and the edges wouldn’t stay together even when I resorted to using a stapler.
Replacing parchment paper with aluminum foil was the answer. I made five large rectangles, distributed the vegetable mixture evenly, added a fillet, with the thin end tucked underneath, to each one, then topped each fillet with two lemon slices, one orange slice, a teaspoon of butter, a tablespoon of the liquid from the vegetables, a sprinkle of salt and a grind of pepper. I folded the foil to make puffy rectangles, with the edges tightly folded to keep the steam in and with space for the steam to expand. I baked the packets, in a single layer on a baking sheet, for twenty minutes in an oven that had been pre-heated to 375º. I cut open the packets, lifted the vegetables and fillets with a spatula to plate and poured the juice from the packet onto the fish.
I fried the plantains while the fish baked.
Twice Fried Plantains
- 3 green plantains
- vegetable oil, enough to fill a medium frying pan to a depth of 1/2 an inch
- coarse salt
To peel plantains, I cut off the ends, made three lengthwise slits in the peel of each plantain, pried the peel loose at the slit and pulled it off before cutting the plantain into one inch slices. I heated the oil to 375º, or until a piece of plantain began to sizzle, and stood the plantain chunks on end in the hot oil. After frying for three minutes, the plantain began to soften and were lightly golden. I turned the chunks over and fried them for two more minutes and removed them from the pan. When they were cool enough to handle, I put them on a cutting board and used the bottom of a small saucer to smash each chunk into a patty, a quarter of an inch thick. I fried the patties a second time until they were crisp and golden brown, it took three minutes. I drained them on a paper towel, sprinkled them with salt and served them.
Fried Red Grapes
- 2 cups seedless red grapes
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
I heated the butter until it began to foam, added the grapes and cooked them for three minutes and tipped them into a bowl to stop them from over-cooking.
The ingredients and quantities in these recipes are flexible, perhaps more flexible than the dietary requirements of friends on restrictive diets. Any firm white fish like cod, flounder or tilapia can be used in this recipe. Green beans can be replaced with blanched asparagus or sugar snap peas, raw zucchini, raw spinach, or frozen peas. Try adding a bit of soy sauce and a teaspoon of sesame oil to the vegetable mixture for an Asian inspired meal. Using foil rather than parchment means that the packets can be assembled early in the day and chilled in the fridge until you’re ready to bake them. The fish can wait for up to ten minutes before being served because steam inside the packet will keep it hot and moist without overcooking it. The plantains should be cooked in batches in order to maintain the proper temperature of the oil. Resist the urge to overcook the grapes, they should be warm but not soft.