Preparations for this episode began a few weeks before when we heard that friends Nate and Mary, who had moved away more than a year ago, would be visiting. Since they were part of our old crowd, it seemed natural to invite them along. Knowing that they were traveling, we didn’t want them to have to cook, but Nate (who happens to be a world-class bartender) said they’d bring a special cocktail.
Since it was October, hosts Jim and Neal chose the theme “Fall Flavors.” We knew exactly what we wanted to make. We put Ina Garten’s bleu cheese and walnut crackers alongside a variation on a gorgonzola-stuff endive dish that we’ve had great success with. We wanted to capture the depth of fall flavors with sautéed pears, adding the crunch and smokiness of toasted pecans—and ended up finding a recipe on Food Network. Figuring that gorgonzola (or Stilton as this one called for) might be too over the top, we used Danish bleu instead.
Bleu Cheese and Sautéed Pear-Stuffed Endive with Toasted Pecans
Our biggest debate wasn’t over what to make, but what to pair with it. Our first idea was a sparkler, but we discarded that because we didn’t want to simply default to Champagne for a first course pairing. We ended up stuck between the residual sweetness of Riesling and a nice, brambly Zinfandel, so we did what any reasonable people would: we brought both (2011 Ch. Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen Riesling “Eroica” and 2011 Bedrock Old Vine Zinfandel. The crowd was divided 4-4 on which was the better pairing, although we all agreed that they were both good in different ways.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised any more when the endive goes. The bitterness is something that I think will turn people off, but they scarf it all up. We made more than I expected than we’d eat. I was wrong. Somehow both bottles of wine disappeared, too.
Pan-Seared Scallops on Celery Root and Potato Puree
David and Kathryn found a slice of heaven in the simplicity of this dish. I absolutely cannot describe its perfection. The celery root and potato puree was a cloud that would have floated away without the scallops to hold it down. David seared the scallops to exactly the right temperature and consistency, no easy feat considering that you want the right crispiness on the outside and just enough doneness inside (and no one wants a gelatinous scallop). The crusting was so good that I wandered what they seasoned with. The answer was simply salt, pepper, and olive oil.
Their wine pairing also struck the right chord. 2012 Loveblock Vintners Sauvignon Blanc was just crisp enough and had the right hint of citrus to compliment the dish without dominating it. A virtuoso performance all around.
Prosciutto-Baked Halibut with Butter Sauce and Fall Vegetables
The scallops were a tough act to follow. Jim and Neal rose to the challenge. The smoky saltiness of the prosciutto melted right into the slightly browned butter sauce, providing a dark contrast to the light flavor and firm tenderness of the fish. Parsnips, carrots, and potatoes wrapped the whole thing up in a neat fall-inspired package.
A rich, buttery Chardonnay would have been the obvious pairing, and I was happy that they avoided it (although I wouldn’t have said no to some crazy good White Burgundy). Even my current Pinot Noir heater aside, 2009 Maison Champy Savigny-lès-Beaune Aux Fourches put a bow on this present. Burgundian Pinot has an austerity to it that was just right for the dish. Too much fruit, like in the Californian instantiation, would have knocked the whole thing off balance. An inspired pairing.
Steamed Pumpkin Pudding with Tennessee Rum Hard Sauce and Pumpkin-Seed Brittle
I’m not sure what kind of rum they make in Tennessee, but I sure liked it. I’m not much on desserts in general because I think they tend to be too heavy, but this was airy while still being rich, slightly sweet, and powerfully savory. Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Port added a toffee-and-caramel exclamation point. Of all the amazing dishes in the meal, this one best captured the theme with its warm and heady fall spice aroma and flavor.
Classic Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
Nate chose the Pimm’s Cup as the finisher because it’s a great digestive. Low in alcohol and high in flavor, it was a refreshing departure from something heavier, like Cognac. Based on gin and thoroughly spiced, Pimm’s is reminiscent of the English countryside–where it’s always autumn.
Pro tip from a pro mixologist: when a recipe calls for a lemon-lime soda, use 7-Up and nothing else (not even 7-Up knockoffs). Its lower sugar and higher carbonation make for a better drink. You heard it here first.