On Saturday morning we got a surprise call from some relatives we really like and wanted to see. They were in town unexpectedly, and only for a short time, and wanted to take Mr. Smith, myself, and Baby Smith (Chowpup, or "Chowhound Junior Size", as he wants his rap handle to be, or so he tells me:) out to lunch. We really like these people, and they have been exceedingly kind to us over the years. We didn't want to pass up seeing them.
The problems were three -- it was raining, and we had a basketball game to coach in the afternoon, and Chowpup is now at the age where fine dining is not his thing. He's far too apt to disrupt other diners, and I'd rather avoid the stress to myself and others and, most importantly, the baby, and restrict ourself to family-dining establishments for the next few months or so. Also, there was very little time for us to get to a restaurant, have lunch, and get home in time for the game. So, boldly, holding my 6-month on my hip, I told my husband: "OH, it's only 9am, tell them I'll make them lunch".
Mr. Smith goggled a bit, but then quickly recovered, and told the beloved relatives to arrive at noon. We sprang into action. We wanted to put on a somewhat-nice lunch for these people (not only are they much-beloved by us, but they are gourmets and love good food), but had little time. Mr. and Baby went to play in the back, I ran to the market for supplies, and quickly formulated a menu in my head.
There were some late season organice strawberries, perfectly red and ripe and quite small, so I grabbed these. Cruising by the dairy case in this (admittedly Italian-specialty) grocery store I grabbed some marscapone. Zooming by my favorite butcher counter I asked Paul to cut me about a half a pound of flank steak. Some spring mix, a red onion, a good bottled vinaigrette, some cheese, and some pugliese completed my market basket.
At home, I tried to think quickly and devise something that was casual but not plain, and easily done. I knew I wanted to make a simple cake for dessert, and the "Fine Cooking" magazine's holiday baking issue had arrived a couple of days ago. Their cocoa-coffee snack cake (one 9x9 square layer, made in my Magic Line removable bottom square pan) was quickly mixed -- no mixer required. Just some high quality cocoa powder, about a cup and a half of cooled brewed coffe, and staple cake ingredients (flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, salt) and a whisk and it was in the oven. I hoped it would be good, but it was a first try. These relatives are forgiving, so I wasn't too worried if it flopped.
Next I marinated the flank steak in my mother's old old old old old (like from the 1950s) "Flank Steak Marinade or Marinade for any other Red Meat" recipe. Chop up a bunch of green onions, add 2 tablespoons oil (I use evoo, but any oil is fine) 1.5 tablspoons soy sauce, juice of 1 lemon, some Tabasco. Marinate in a glass dish in the refigerator 1-2 hours but no longer. Yum-my.
I took a wedge of St Andre (a French double-creme brie-like cheese) and cut off the rind. Normally I like the rind, but not for this recipe. I but the rindless lump in a ramekin and let it soften near the stove for about ten minutes. Then I cut thick slices of the pugliese, and spread a layer of the St Andre over them. During all this, I was carmelizing the sliced red onion on the back of the stove in a regular (not non-stick) small skillet. When they were good and brown, with some tiny dark edges, I poured them out on the cutting board and chopped them fine. I then spread them over the St Andre on the bread.
I took the flank steak from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. When the cake was out of the oven, I turned it up to broil. I broiled the steak about 5 minutes a side, to medium rare. I let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
While this was going on I washed, dried, and picked over the small strawberries. I tasted a few and they were pleasantly sweet-tart (not supersweet like the best early summer berries, but still strongly flavored). I left the hulls and stems on and piled them in a silver dish. I put a set of ice tongs (small tongs with small serated edges for picking up ice cubes) in the dish for serving. I mixed up the marscapone, diluted with a small amount of half-and-half, in my Braun hand mixer, with some Baker's sugar (which is superfine) and a few drops of rosewater.
I hadn't gotten any flowers, so I used the strawberries as the centerpiece. I got two sets of dessert dishes together, set the coffemaker up, and got two big skillets ready on the stove. I sliced the flank steak thinly (across the grain, on the angle), and covered one half of the bread slices with the meat.
I spooned the marscapone into a pastry bag, fitted with a large plain round tip. I washed and dried the spring mix, put it in a salad bowl, and put the "Le Martinique" brand vinaigrette (a good bottled vinaigrette if you don't have time to make your own) near it.
When the guests arrived, I heated about 2 tablespoons oil in each skillet. I closed up the sandwiches, grilled them on each side, pressing them briefly with a smaller heavy cast-iron skillet) while they cooked. I got them just hot enough to make the outside of the sandwiches toasty golden brown, and the cheese to melt inside. I cut them into thirds, and put two to three on each plate, tossed the salad, and put that on the side. After this course, we had warm snack cake, dusted with powdered sugar, and cut into plain squares. On a small dessert plate, a dark chocolate cube of warm cake, with a dusting of powdered sugar, looks very pretty. As a last course, I piped the marcapone onto the plates in a central mound, put and put small "fruit" knives and forks on the plates. The guests passed the strawberries, and ate them with knives and forks and the cheese on their individual plates. This was the post-dessert fruit and cheese course.
Baby note: the chowpup enjoyed sweet potato puree after the guests left. During the lunch he sat on laps and behaved beautifully :)
While a bit unusual, this lunch menu went over well. I'd recommend that cocoa-coffee snack cake to anyone -- it's easy to make and quickly done, perfect for last minute guests (as the article says), and is rich and moist enough to be served without any icing (a big time-saver). One note -- it's not as good the second day -- still good, but not nearly as good as the day it's baked.
This experience just reminds me that I don't always need to rely on a set of recipes and a set menu to make a good meal. I tend to plan meals a lot, but since there wasn't much time for advance planning I just had to run with what was available and what was in my head. I need to cook like this more often....
Please share any of your "I had guests coming so this is what I threw together" stories. I'd love to hear them!