I turned 42 on Lundi Gras. As birthdays go, 42 is not particularly memorable. 18 was an event. When I turned 21, I believe I celebrated mightily, though the details are lost to me. 30 was a milestone, but 42?
Ordinarily I celebrate my birthday at a restaurant. But ordinarily my birthday doesn’t fall on a Monday – and particularly not the Monday before Mardi Gras. My girlfriend and I decided we would cook dinner instead of eating out. I believe the original plan was for Eve to cook everything, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that on my birthday, I ought to do what I love.
And what I love is cooking.
Over the years I’ve learned that when I plan elaborate menus for dinner parties, the results are disappointing. It’s not that I’m incapable of preparing elaborate meals; it’s that I’m a home cook, not a chef. I’m not trained to cook with rapidity. I’m a good cook, but I’m under no illusions. I can pull off a multi-course meal if I have to, but it’s always a source of tremendous stress, and that’s not something I wanted on my birthday.
With one exception, I went with recipes that I’ve made many times before and that I knew would work well in the setting. I picked up some 6-ounces filets from Rare Cuts, and Sunday night (post-Bacchus) I started making veal stock for the sauce I planned to serve. That night I also began roasting tomatoes with garlic and a jalapeno pepper, which I later strained and also used for the sauce.
I also picked up a couple of bunches of lacinato kale, a bunch of beets with the greens attached, some arugula, a few crook-neck squash and a couple of zucchini.
We started with a raw salad made by cutting the squash and zucchini into matchsticks and then adding the sliced beet greens and arugula, along with a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette and some crumbled feta from the farmers market. I’m more familiar with greens that have been cooked slowly and with a generous amount of pork, but a few months ago I had a salad at Le Meritage that incorporated raw mustard greens, and it was a bit of a revelation. It’s a simple salad to make, and it’s definitely going into my repertoire.
For the rest of the meal, I cooked the kale with a bit of onion, garlic, dried chile and orange juice because I needed something to cut the richness of the steaks and the potato gratin I served alongside.
The gratin is a dish that is almost idiot-proof, something I demonstrated on Monday night. The recipe is simple: Layer thinly sliced potatoes in a buttered baking dish, seasoning with salt and pepper every few layers. Add enough cream to almost cover the potatoes and then top with grated cheese. Cover with foil, and bake at around 350 degrees for 45 minutes, and then remove the foil, and cook for another 15 minutes to let the cheese brown. It’s not complicated, but it does require you to actually turn on the oven – or in this case not turn the oven off after your girlfriend bakes a cake. Which is what I did. There was some residual heat in the oven when I turned it off, so the potatoes did actually cook in a fairly reasonable amount of time, but realizing what I’d done just before my guests arrived was a pain in the ass.
The steaks I bought from Rare Cuts were as good as you’d expect, and I just seasoned them with salt and pepper, seared them and then finished them in the oven. I served them with a sauce made from veal stock, shallot, red wine and the aforementioned tomato sauce; reduced, strained and then mounted with butter, it was a thing of beauty.
Eve baked a kickass birthday cake made with semolina flour, orange zest, ground almonds and Greek yogurt, moistened with an orange-infused simple syrup. I am not a fan of frosting, so she piped my name onto the cake with some of the leftover Greek yogurt. It was the perfect end to a very good meal.
Next year I may very well celebrate my birthday at a restaurant, and although the food might be better, I can’t imagine having a better time.