We are thrilled to announce that arielleclementine's will be our first Big Feast! We'll be rolling out posts from her smashing party all week long. Arielleclementine, if you don't know her, is an excellent blogger, and always a cheerleader for her fellow home cooks on FOOD52. And sometimes, when we are very lucky, she treats us to photos of her adorable baby Henry, melting our hearts into puddly nothings every single time. Like this:
And now, without further ado, welcome to Big Feast! Take it away, Arielle.
Arielle's Big Feast
As a teenage girl, I could usually be found in one of two places. When I wasn't sprawled out at my best friend Molly's eating Nutty Bars and watching Ricki Lake, I was poring over cookbooks and studying all things Martha Stewart (there's not a lot to do in rural Buda, Texas). Even though in those days I dreamed of being a high-powered bureaucrat working in the Office of Management and Budget (I don't know why I was so specific about that), I also aspired to be the sort of über-hostess who greets her guests at the door with a shiny platter of warm gougères. Now I'm 28. I worked in politics fresh out of college and absolutely hated it, but my love of entertaining has remained. I never gave up my Martha addiction, and have used every birthday and gift-giving holiday to stockpile white platters and pieces of cooking equipment. Thus, I have a reputation amongst my friends as the person you go to for help with party planning. So when Molly -- still a best friend -- asked for my help planning a surprise 30th birthday party for her boyfriend, I was thrilled to have a big event to daydream about.
The birthday boy, Dustin, loves so many geeky-cool things that we initially struggled to pick a theme: Star Wars? Comics? Video Games? Lord of the Rings? I spent several nights brainstorming, but I just wasn't feeling inspired. Much to my husband's dismay, I'm not a Star Wars fan. The only food-related thing I could remember from the movies was a blue milk-type drink, which is possibly the least appetizing thing ever. Lord of the Rings has rich food-pairing potential, but lately we've been gathering together on Sunday nights for a pre-Downton Abbey English-themed meal, so I'd used up most of my Tolkien-esque material. Then, finally, inspiration struck...
(Some inspiring petri dishes!)
Dustin, a biotechnologist, loves all things science. He routinely posts links to various bits of science-geekery on Facebook: pictures of Earth from space, nanotechnology for waterproofing sneakers, etc. What if we made a Science!-themed party? Molecular gastronomy techniques, food in petri dishes, drinks in test tubes -- the works?! Yes! We were off and running. Let the brainstorming begin! I remembered that I'd seen an episode of Made in Spain that featured some very science-y dishes from José Andrés' DC restaurant, Minibar. One in particular stuck with me -- a caprese "skewer" where the skewer was actually a pipette filled with a mozzarella cream that you squeezed into your mouth as you nibbled at the tomato and basil. Reading about temples of molecular gastronomy like Alinea and El Bulli, I became enthralled with the idea of a meal that could so surprise and delight you. Yes, I love simple food, deliciously prepared with the finest ingredients. But there's something magical about biting into something you think is an olive, only to have it be a spherical packet of intensely-flavored olive juice. I haven't had the chance to eat at any of these restaurants, but thanks to the internet, the chemicals and recipes needed to create these experiences at home are just a few clicks away! I was thrilled at the prospect of trying my hand at molecular gastronomy, and even more excited to do it with my closest friends!
To begin planning the menu, I thought back to the dishes I'd read about or seen on television. We would definitely have a course where a pipette was used as a skewer. And fortuitously, just before we started planning the party, an episode of Top Chef aired with a quickfire challenge involving Nathan Myhrvold's mammoth Modernist Cuisine book. I remembered three dishes in particular that I thought I could emulate: a dish with powdered olive oil, another with a dill "caviar" (involving a technique called spherification), and a Miracle Berry tasting plate (though it sounds like something you'd take at a rave, Miracle Berry is a totally legit pill that makes everything taste sweet for an hour or two). I had ideas for four courses already! Through random googling, I came across an idea for serving jello shots in petri dishes. But this was a gougères-on-shiny-platters-kind of party, so I would fill my petri dishes with a savory gelée instead, inspired by an item on the Uchi menu. So I had five courses all sorted out. Petri dishes and pipettes! This was really starting to sound science-y.
Little by little, the menu began to take shape. A Food52 article on Super Bowl fare reminded me of Oui, Chef's ridiculously delicious herbed beef skewers -- sublime party fare that, along with the horseradish cream, lent themselves perfectly to the pipette course. Along the way, I discovered a very helpful site that yielded ideas for a cheese course that would be a natural place to feature powdered olive oil and spherified honey, in addition to grapes that had been carbonated with dry ice. Amanda's mention of popped sorghum on the FOOD52 "52" got me thinking about a plate of miniaturized fair foods. And when I was ready to purchase the chemicals for the faux caviar and the powdered olive oil, I made a last-minute impulse purchase of some unflavored pop rocks to incorporate into another savory course. Top it off with KelseyTheNaptimeChef's chocolate cake decorated to look like the periodic table, and we had ourselves the start of a seven-course feast!
After much, much more tinkering, I finally had a working menu. To help plan, I typed up the menu with links to recipes I'd be using that I hadn't made before. I wrote up a shopping list for items I would need, with sections for the farmers' market and grocery store, including when the items would need to be purchased (for example, the meat I used was purchased at the farmers' market the week before the party because it is sold frozen, so I needed lead time to defrost it). I sketched (and my sister Helenthenanny resketched -- she's a much tidier artist than me!) pictures of what the courses would look like, so I could get a sense of what equipment I would need to plate each dish, and so I could make sure I had enough serving pieces to make every course look the way I envisioned it. Lastly, I made up a to-do list for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (the day of the party), with the bullets listing everything that needed to be done in the order I would need to do it.
I know it sounds like a lot, but all this planning really helped me keep cool and stay on task during the hours of prep work. Planning the party was such fun -- I can't wait to show you how it turned out!
Stay tuned for future posts about my first attempts to powder-ize and sphere-ify things, all leading up to the Big Feast itself.
Le Creuset has generously offered to reward our Big Feasters for all their hard work, and as our first Big Feast, Arielle will win, in the color of her choice (flame, cherry, fennel, or cassis): a 4 1/2-quart round French oven, a 10 1/4-inch iron handle skillet, and a 2 3/4-quart precision pour pan. Pitch us your Big Feast at email@example.com for a chance to win $500 in Le Creuset booty.
Inspired to play with molecular gastronomy at home? Check out a very cool Molecular Gastronomy kit from Molecule-R, available in the shop now!