Our Dinner Gang with friends Kathryn & David and Neal & Jim is in its fifth or sixth month now. Once a month, one of the three of us hosts, there’s a theme, and we cook. Simple as that. The first few times we started with the hosts cooking everything, but have now changed the model so that the hosts guide the meal, making the main course themselves, and suggesting or assigning other dishes for the others to bring.
This month was our turn to host. We decided to build the theme around Syrah, which conveniently has three major styles from around the world: French, Australian, and American. We took the American and the main course (and dessert), gave Kathryn & David Aussie Shiraz and the first course, and Neal & Jim took French with the second course. The idea was to make foods that bring out the character of the particular wine. Everyone did a great job.
One other thing we changed this time was to start earlier. We convened at three in the afternoon. We knew we were going to go quite a few hours, figuring that ending earlier in the evening is better for the folks who have to drive.
Venison “Chili” Pot Pie and Australian Shiraz
An excellent way to get the meal started, the deer meat and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, among others) combined with cranberry beans created a dark, piquant, and slightly sweet dish that paired perfectly with the dark ripeness of the Shiraz. Served in individual ramekins, topped with a deliciously light pie crust, it was the perfect size for course number one.
The wine was 2009 Henry’s Drive Shiraz “Dead Letter Office.” It had the extracted fruit that you want out of an Aussie Shiraz without being over-oaked, which is one of the reasons Kathryn said that they chose it. Great pairing.
Grilled Steak Four-Leaf Salad and French Syrah
Neal and Jim put together a beautiful and creative dish that they said was pretty simple. They grilled some steak and a little red onion then put it on a bed of butter leaf, radicchio, red-leaf, and romaine, wild mushrooms (chantrelles and buttons) in a honey, truffle oil, and balsamic dressing. They sliced the steak thin and lightly-dressed the salad, choices we all approved of. The dressing accented the flavors of the salad instead of disguising them.
The wine was the delicious Bernard Magrez Mon Seul Rêve 2009 Côtes Du Roussillon. My only dream indeed. It had greatly funky nose with a hint of Band-Aid on it. The fruit was beautiful, dark, rich, and while certainly not sweet by any measure, sweeter than I had expected from the French style. That sweetness paired wonderfully with the salad dressing, while the wine’s barnyard undercurrent when awesomely with the earthy elements of the salad. Another triumph.
Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast and American Syrah
Since this was our contribution, I can tell you a little more about it. It started with fresh cherries. Gretchyn had gotten a couple of bags of them and wanted to do something other than just eat them. During some research on how to make good, homemade maraschinos, she came across the idea of a cherry compote. Knowing that we were doing the main course for the Syrah dinner, an idea was born. The entire time we were thinking about this, I had visions of pork tenderloin in my head, the great pairing of roast pork and dark fruit echoing through my brain. Gretchyn and Kathryn both don’t eat pork, so I wanted something that seemed pork loin-like. At first, I thought of a turkey roulade, but the last time we did that we weren’t happy with the way the meat turned out. I decided to simply crust it with herbs and roast it using butter as the fat.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and tied (about 4 pounds)
1 ½ sticks of butter (12 tablespoons)
2 tbl sage
2 tbl ground black pepper
2 tbl fresh thyme, chopped fine
2 tbl fresh chives, chopped fine
2 tbl marjoram
1 tbl salt
I simply melted the butter, then added the spices. I brought it to a quick boil then set it aside to cool. When it did (roughly a half hour later), I put the breasts on a rack in the roasting pan. I brushed them with the mixture, liberally applying the herbs. I rotated the breasts and continued until they were completely coated. I left a few tablespoons of it out for basting later.
It took about 1 hour 45 minutes to get to 165F. I basted it, first with the mixture I had set aside, then later with its own juices, five times in total. I let it rest while we put together the rest of the dish.
Our idea for sides included Chioggia beets and the sautéed beet greens, a contorno after the Italian fashion, not a huge side dish. Unfortunately, the beet tops didn’t look all that healthy. We got the beautiful beets then picked up some Swiss chard for the greens, crumbling some goat cheese on top.
Earlier in the day, we roasted the beets, skin on, oiled and seasoned with salt and pepper (a little more pepper than we’d normally use because we wanted to pick up the peppery nature of the Syrah) at 425 for just over an hour. When they were cool enough to pick up, we sloughed off the skin then sliced them, wrapping them in foil and leaving them in a warm oven.
The cherry compote was as simple as pitting a dozen or so cherries, adding a tablespoon of water, and a tablespoon of sugar, then cooking it down on a very low temperature for two hours, occasionally mashing the cherries a bit.
We were both extremely happy with the way this dish turned out. It evoked the feel that we wanted and paired well with the 2007 Martinelli Syrah Zio Tony Ranch that we poured with it. It had a great nose of black fruit, spice, and sizzling bacon and a peppery palate of stewed blueberries. Low tannins, great length. Fantastic food wine.
Dark Chocolate Dipped Amaretto Cherries and Shortbread Cookie
We soaked a dozen pitted cherries in Di Saronno for a day, then dried them before dipping them. Gretchyn made a quick batch of dark chocolate to dip them in. Toothpicks standing straight up, she put them on wax paper on a plate in the fridge overnight. One fell over at some point before the chocolate hardened, sitting at a 45 degree angle, and I think presentation-wise that was the interesting one. We’ll try to recreate it at some point.
She made a batch of shortbread cookies from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook to go with the cherries. Like most things Thomas Keller, they were rich and buttery. We served it with half a cordial glass (barely an ounce) of Amaretto. The cherries were outstanding. I think we got it right on the amount of time we soaked the cherries. If you do this once yourself, you’ll never buy store-bought cherry cordials again.
We had three cheeses and some homemade crostini (thin slices of a baguette brushed with olive oil, lightly salted) with the last half of the second bottle of Mon Seul Rêve: Five-year aged Gouda, Mahon, and Seaside Smoked Cheddar, hitting three radically different cheese styles. Coffee and tea finished up the evening on the right note—some six hours after we had started.
Thematically, this was the best Dinner Gang event we’ve done. The idea of tying all the food to different versions of the same grape gave the meal both a flow and a cohesion that were amazing. Obviously, doing it with great friends was a big part of the enjoyment. I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do next month.