This year, on Craig’s birthday, I had a revelation. My usual instinct to take him out to a fancy dinner on the big day (a tradition that began with an epic meal at Per Se back in 2008) really has nothing to do with Craig’s interests or wants and everything to do with my own. Who likes fancy dinners? I do, not Craig. So this year I asked him point blank if he wanted to go out for a fancy dinner on the occasion and he said he’d actually like it better if I made the dinner here at home. I have to admit, that was pretty flattering–given the option of Thomas Keller food or Adam Roberts food, Craig picked the latter. I knew I had to make this dinner special.
Funny enough, inspiration struck at the gym. I try to time my gym-going so I can watch The Barefoot Contessa, who comes on at 4 (though most of the time I get there too early and have to watch Giada; I usually give up and switch to Sex and the City or, if I can stomach it, Bravo; though a recent session with the Millionaire Matchmaker, where she made fun of a Pilates instructor for being fat, made me want to hurl). Anyway, Ina was talking about how the French serve a cheese plate after the entree before dessert. That sounded very Craig and so I decided to build a meal around that idea.
My journey began at The Cheese Store of Silverlake where a nice cheesemonger helped me pick a good selection of cheeses, ranging from the white-chocolatey Midnight Moon Organic Goat, St. Agur from France (a salty blue), and–the stinkiest of them all (the store almost cleared when they opened this one up)–Winnamere Cow from Vermont. I also bought a slate cheese board because I didn’t own a cheese board and I figured the time had come.
The rest of the menu came from a variety of sources. The first source was a used cookbook that I bought at Counterpoint Records and Books in Franklin Village: Alfred Portale’s Simple Pleasures. Portale is the celebrated chef of New York City’s Gotham restaurant and this book is such a gem, I can’t believe more people don’t talk about it as an essential chef cookbook. The recipe that spoke to me the most for this dinner was his Celery Root and Caramelized Pear Soup.
To use a phrase from Food52, this is totally a genius recipe. The thing that really got me about it was how resourceful it was; you peel the pears and don’t throw those peels away. You cook them along with the chunks of celery root in chicken stock:
Meanwhile, the pear gets caramelized in honey with rosemary:
And then deglazed with balsamic vinegar. Then the soup gets pureed:
The pears get spooned into bowls:
And the soup gets ladled on top, with some more honey/balsamic drizzled over it.
Man oh man was this good. Seriously, people at the table were having convulsions they were so happy. It is, without question, the best soup I’ve ever made. In fact, Craig just came in as I was writing this and he asked, “Is there any left?” and seemed very disappointed when I said “no.” What’s so winning about it is you get this deep, earthy flavor from the celery root that’s balanced by the sweet tartness of the pear/honey/vinegar mixture. Try it and you’ll see what I’m talking about (I’ll type out the recipe below).
As for the entree, I chose one I could make earlier in the day and reheat later: Coq au Vin. (Click that link for the recipe.) Served on egg noodles tossed with butter and parsley, it’s hard to deny the majesty of this dish:
We ate this with a special bottle of wine, given to us by our filmmaker friend Matt Morris. It’s a wine he bottled himself at H Street Cellars in Napa after doing some work there with the winemakers. He calls the wine Albatross (from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner):
It had that amazing deep flavor you find with really good wine; worthy of its poetic name. Thanks for the gift, Matt!
Here you’ll see our fellow revelers, Mark and Diana, toasting Craig’s old age before digging into their Coq:
It was after this that I brought out the cheese. You’d think after such a rich soup and such a hearty entree that big wedges of cheese would be unwelcome. You would be wrong.
Here’s the birthday boy with his cheese plate dessert:
We all dug into this cheese voraciously; turns out the French know what they’re doing when it comes to food. Unlike a buttery, over-sugared dessert, cheese offers a decadent end to the meal without forcing you to leave the world of savory delights. Ok, that last sentence makes it seem like I’d personally choose cheese over cake. I wouldn’t but I’ll put it like this: I had sorbet in the freezer for after the cheese and nobody wanted it.
And thus ended Craig’s birthday feast; a meal built around cheese with a surprising star-turn from a celery root soup. Next year, I have a feeling I’ll be asked to recreate something like this to celebrate the big day. Thomas Keller, eat your heart out.
Recipe: Celery Root and Caramelized Pear Soup
Summary: The best soup I’ve ever made from Alfred Portale’s Simple Pleasures.
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1 cup sliced onion
- 1/4 cup sliced celery
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced leek, white part only, green top reserved for bouquet garni (make sure to wash your leek well; they can often be sandy–slice it vertically first and run under the faucet)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 1/2 cups chopped celery root (from 3 small celery roots)
- 1/2 cup chopped Idaho potato
- 3 Bosc pears, peeled, cored, and cut into medium dice (about 1 cup diced), scraps reserved
- 4 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1 bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, 5 sprigs parsley, and 2 sprigs thyme, wrapped together with the leek top and tied with kitchen string)
- Coarse salt
- Freshly ground white pepper
- 2 tablespoons honey (I used more here and more vinegar; just eyeballed it)
- 1 rosemary sprig
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- [Note: the recipe has you do the pear/honey thing at the end, but I recommend doing it at the beginning because once you peel those pears–and you’ll be using the peels in the soup–they’ll start to brown.]
- Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, and leeks, and sauté until softened but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the celery root, potatoes, pear scraps, chicken stock, and bouquet garni. Raise the heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil. Season with salt and pepper, stir, reduce the heat, and cover. Cook at a simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. (You should be able to smash a piece of celery root easily against the side of the pot.)
- Strain the soup through a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl, reserving the solids and liquid separately. Working in batches if necessary, put the solids in a blender or food processor and puree, adding some of the liquid until the mixture takes on a uniformly thick, smooth consistency. Transfer the puree to a bowl.
- Slowly stir in any remaining stock until the soup attain a thick, creamy consistency. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. You should have about 6 cups of soup. Season it with salt and pepper and set aside, covered, to keep warm.
- Pour the honey into a sauté pan and warm it over medium-high heat until it bubbles and turns amber-colored, about 5 minutes. Add the diced pears and the rosemary sprig. Cook, tossing, until the pears are slightly softened and richly glazed. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook, tossing or stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, transfer the pears and sauce to a bowl, and set aside, covered, to keep warm. Discard the rosemary sprig.
- To serve, place a spoonful of pear in the center of each of six warmed soup plates. Ladle the soup around the pears, and drizzle the surface of each serving with the balsamic sauce.
Preparation time: 30 minute(s)
Cooking time: 45 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 6