I thought to myself, You can do this!'. After being married for almost 4 years, I had decided it was time to invite Sven's family over for dinner (See: From Borneo To Oslo). Four hours left before the guests arriving, my husband brought home the scallops I needed. I thought they would come neatly trimmed as I usually bought them but this time they only had live ones with shells. So that left me with a problem, I had never opened a live one before and as I prided and prodded the shells to no avail for a good 15 minutes, I started to feel like choking.
A week before that, like a lot of decisions we made, we made this one spontaneously too. We were at a birthday party where we met almost everyone in the family. I felt brave and told Sven that we should invite them over for dinner the next week. Since we had a small apartment we decided to invite them by batches. In the end even with such short notice, all four from the first batch (stepbrother and stepsister and spouses) that we had invited agreed to come to dinner on Saturday the next week. That would leave the in-laws to be scheduled for February, which is great because that would give me plenty of time to be inspired.
"Being inspired" to me is this: I am at that level where I soak in inspirations, ideas and knowledge of cooking like sponge. Most of the times I take it as it is and follow the recipes. But as time goes by I start making some little adjustments to anything that I love to eat to my own tastes and usually after that I move on to the next inspiration or mentor (usually in the form of a book). Every little idea excites me, every little tip makes me feel grateful and this I can find in every little nook and crook of a book. But I think one of the best things about knowing some basics in cooking is you learn not to waste a lot of leftovers in the fridge, you subconsciously become more creative.
Planning the menu was agony. I didn't want to overdo things; I wanted things to be simple and achievable, yet the best I could do under my circumstances. Being a self-taught cook and having only books as my mentor, I couldn't help but feeling a little shaky.
I decided on a seafood starter, something that can settle anyone's wild buds and that means something that is flavourful. I didn't want some delicate salad, that would be too risky.
I first tasted this combination at a dinner hosted by our friends, Mats and Ingeborg. Ingeborg was a cool cook; she was not so much into details and the kind of person that just produced good dinner by the end of the day without making much of a fuss, unlike many of us! But Mats was another type, there was a quiet passion that you could see in him, from the way he talked about food and wine, from his curiosity of details and from the kind of surprises that he could whip up for you. He was one of the few people that inspired me in real life.
Anyway, one day we were having dinner at their place and Mats was cooking and I could see he was sautéing some prawn's shells to help flavour his sauce, putting in veg and white wine and was chatting away. The result was this delicious sauce for the scallops and I was totally inspired. Later on I also read some recipes about scallops and spinach combination and decided to do it myself.
I like to sear the scallops on a griddle pan, then adding some butter for that nutty flavour as it browns on one side, season and just sear the other side lightly for a few seconds and it's done. I like assembling a pile of flavours and textures in a round mould in the middle of the plate and surround it sauce. So using creamy mashed potatoes as a bottom base, I pile some spinach leaves (steamed lightly in its own juice with some butter, folding lightly some double cream and drizzled with some freshly grated nutmeg), this is topped with the scallops and garnished with some baked julienned leeks (it's the only garnish I know at the moment!).
The lobster sauce was inspired by many French cookery books that I read. In my own adaptation, since I have some lobster and langoustines shells in the freezer, I used these by sautéing them in a pan to release the flavour, and then I just sautéed some root veg like onions, carrots and celery. Then I deglazed the pan with some dry vermouth, I let this reduce and then added some flour and scrape. After that it was just about adding some fish stocks, tomatoes and bouquet garni, reducing again, and lastly adding some double cream and seasonings. I usually taste as the sauce reduces in the end and the crucial part is to stop the reduction when the taste is right for me.
I wanted to do this as a main because it was easy yet delicious. This honey and orange marmalade glazed duck breasts is served with some rosemary infused red wine sauce, some sautéed Savoy cabbage on the side and also served with the same mashed potatoes (ideally, I should cook the potatoes different way, but this is one detail I sacrificed so as not to stress myself too much).
I mix equal amounts of some good quality honey and Seville orange marmalade, warm them up in the microwave to melt, brush it on the scored duck breasts, season, and put the breasts in the oven preheated at 220°C for 20 minutes. After resting the breasts I sliced the meat and put it in a long dish so that everyone could help himself or herself.
My husband feigned horror when I mentioned the Armagnac part, but he knew my experimental streak pretty well. He knew there was a chance that I would pour his precious port wine into my latest cooking practice or experiment and broke grim news to him later.
Anyway, I have to say this was totally inspired by Delia Smith (Sunken Chocolate Soufflè with Armagnac Prunes). The only thing that I had adjusted to my taste is to use only plain whipped double cream flavoured with pure vanilla, instead of prunes and cr�me fra�che, I thought the chocolate soufflè was rich enough as it was!
I made my fish stocks on Monday. It was my first time making one, I usually buy a good homemade one from a good food store, but I was stubborn about having all full flavour in the starter, it was a risk I was willing to take. It was a pain trying to 'beg' for some fish bones and heads, and I didn't really find what I wanted. I had not scouted around Oslo for a good fishmonger yet and most big food store chains make their own fast food thus use the bones for their own stocks. I didn't have the time to look further, so I just took whatever bones and fish trimmings I could find. By evening the stocks were made and stored in the freezer.
The prunes needed to be soaked overnight with Armagnac and I preferred to make this soufflè two days before serving because I thought it tasted best that way. Dinner would be Saturday evening and I started shopping for the dry ingredients on Wednesday. I planned to soak the prunes that (Wednesday) night and bake it on Thursday.
By Thursday everything started to fall apart. I was supposed to do some beef stocks by Wednesday, but after work and the shopping, I was just so pooped. And to make it worse, after I baked the soufflè, it was already 11 at night. But I made the stocks anyway, skimming the broth and reducing, finally finishing well into dawn. Needless to say, working the next day was a nightmare, I was reduced to zombie.
I thought the worst was over but on 'the big day' itself, my husband came home with some live scallops. Like I said, I really felt like choking. But slowly when I found the better knife for it, I just eased it in and cut the mussels along the flat side. Once I did that, all that was left to do was for me to trim the undesirable bits and muscles. By the time I finished the last shell, excuse the pun but I was almost "shell-shocked" because it was easy! I totally believe in getting the most fresh and best quality produce and ingredients when it comes to good flavour. But my inexperience had often hindered me a lot in that department; books don't help a lot when it comes to complicated illustrations, so you can say that I learnt things the hard way the day!
When everyone arrived, I was actually quite relaxed. The dessert had been chilled for 2 days, the potatoes mashed and warming. The only thing left to do was to cook the spinach leaves and sear the scallops on the griddle pan. The duck breasts were resting in the warmer and it would only take some minutes to sauté the Savoy cabbage.
The whole dinner went great, it took more time than I thought to serve the main dish, but everyone was so preoccupied with their conversations that no one seemed to notice when I slipped in and out of the kitchen. The scallops were the best part; they were sweet and succulent (no more trimmed scallops for me, if I can help it!), I was complimented on the mashed potatoes, the duck breasts tasted good and the company was even better. It was a fantastic evening and one that I will not forget for a long time. As we closed the door to our departing guests, it really felt good knowing everyone laughed, enjoyed the food and had a good time.
It was a tiring week and there were mistakes and small horrors in my planning, but I honestly wouldn't have it any other way. I realized then that there was a reward in all the things that I was trying to do and learn. Before, I was only familiar with anxiety when it came to entertaining so the satisfaction that came with the success of that dinner was indeed such a pleasure.