A Milestone and Roasted Figs with Basil Whipped Cream
This month my new business Conscious Crumbs turned a year old. Arguably it’s time to stop using the preface “my new business”, yet it still feels new to me. Each client, every party and event is different from the next. There are food allergies, intolerances, and sometimes mysterious aversions to work around: “I don’t eat wheat. We can’t eat dairy. Shiny foods scare me.” There are attitudes to adjust: “I can’t cook unless I have a recipe to follow. I don’t have time to cook. My kids will never eat vegetables.”
Logistics provide additional challenges. Have you ever taught a buzzing group of teenage girls the art of French pastries in a small galley kitchen dominated by a worm composter? (That was actually one of my favorite lessons, watching their eyes widen when they got their first taste of homespun lemon curd.)
I catered a grand opening celebration for a local business and assembled the dishes in an adjacent unfinished warehouse populated with old mattresses and dusty, long-since forgotten furniture. I set up my folding table in the middle of the vast room and lit it with a forty watt bulb in a shade-less eighties floor lamp that my husband Greg found sandwiched between two worn mattresses. The bare bulb cast a dim glow over my portable oven, both of which were powered by a daisy chain of extension cords reminiscent of Clark Griswold’s holiday lights in Christmas Vacation.
Planning for each lesson or event is nearly as satisfying as the execution. Discovering what foods people gravitate towards and why is endlessly fascinating. I’m not fond of recycling menus. Crafting a unique menu rife with the foods and flavors my clients enjoy most is more gratifying. I nudge them ever so slightly from their comfort zones (Okay, so you hate tomatoes, but have you ever tried them roasted?) yet keep the foods familiar and accessible. Grandma’s 80th birthday celebration is no time to break out the quail egg ravioli.
In turn my clients nudge me as well. And last month I got my biggest nudge yet: a 15-course gourmet dinner for eight people–five passed hors d’oeuvres on the patio and ten courses served in the formal dining room. Once the menu (pictured below) was finalized I spent two weeks testing and refining my recipes. Greg relished the experiments and almost got used to having multi-course dinners every night. My friends were equally happy to sit through my iterations of cauliflower puree (cream or no cream?), roasted figs (whipped cream on top or bottom?) and duck confit salad (crispy potatoes, yes, capers, no).
Scaling down the portions for the dining room courses proved to be the biggest challenge. My goal was three-five satisfying bites per course. Each dish was comprised of four-ten elements assembled on a six-inch plate. Too little or too much of any single element can drastically alter the flavor of any dish, but the effect is magnified for small servings.
When I entertain at home I seldom plate food for my guests even though I admire and appreciate an artfully constructed plate. I prefer the feeling of community when food is served family style–the passing of bowls, the warm, light touch of another’s hand grazing yours. It’s fun to watch what dishes guests are drawn to. Besides, I don’t want them to feel pressured to eat what’s on their plate. I prefer instead that they select what appeals to them. So no steaming pan of mushroom lasagna at center stage on the table flanked with a salad and crusty loaf of bread would do here.
And then there was the daunting matter of the wow factor. For me pretty usually takes a back seat to flavor when it comes to food, but these plates needed to look as good as they tasted. It was time to break out the tweezers. I wrestled with the colors, shapes, and textures arranged on the plates first making sketches, then bringing them to life for Greg’s dinner, all in the name of a perfect first bite. By the time the actual event arrived I’d sunk more hours than I could count into all the above, my hourly wage dropping into the single digits. But when the night was over, the last tiny plate washed, and eight sated and elated guests waved us goodbye, the check in my back pocket felt like a bonus. One year in and I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love.
Roasted Figs with Basil Whipped Cream and Balsamic Glaze
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
12 large basil leaves
6-8 fresh figs
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
flaky sea salt, preferably Maldon
1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted
- Bring balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer until it’s the consistency of very thin maple syrup, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Blanch the basil leaves for 20 seconds in boiling water and drain. (This step is optional, but it keeps the whipped cream from turning a dull green color.) When cool gently squeeze the leaves to remove excess water. Combine the basil leaves with the heavy cream and a pinch of salt in a blender or food processor. Puree until the mixture thickens to the consistency of whipped cream.
- Trim the stems off the figs and slice each in half lengthwise. Place them cut side up in a baking dish. Roast for about 15 minutes, until the figs are tender and glossy with their own juice, but not too soft–you need to be able to pick them up with your fingers.
- Place a dollop of basil whipped cream on each plate. Top with three or four roasted figs. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the plate and finish with a light sprinkle of sea salt and a few toasted pine nuts, if using. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 starter courses.