Yesterday four friends came round for dinner and at the end of the evening one of them thanked me for a "stonkingly good dinner". What a lovely word. And yes, it was a pretty good dinner.
The friends were two couples who hadn't met before, but they are the only friends currently on my eating together list who will eat - and enjoy - any kind of food at all. My other friends range between only needing to avoid one or two things they don't like to one who is a gluten-free vegetarian, with various levels of 'can't eat, won't eat' in between. In the event, the dinner I cooked would probably have been eaten happily by at least one other friend, but when I was planning the meal I enjoyed having total freedom in what to cook.
We began with a bottle of cheapo French supermarket sparkling white. I still have half a dozen bottles, although I will no longer be able to obtain them once they run out. It currently costs about £1 a bottle, but is so drinkable. I will miss it when I no longer have access to it. My guests had finished theirs by the time I served the starter.
The starter was individual salmon and asparagus tarts served with a garnish of asparagus spears and buttery fried breadcrumbs. I finished my white fizz while others had a little white wine (brought by one of the guests) and one started on the red. I avoided soggy bottoms in my tarts by brushing the blind baked tart bases with a little beaten egg before pouring in the filling to bake.
The main course was duck breasts with a red wine jus, served with small roast potatoes, braised red cabbage and French beans. I'd never cooked duck breasts correctly before, since when I have cooked them, there have usually been people there who would not like them left correctly pink. Would I be able to pull it off this time, with no experience? I think they're one of those things where you have to just trust the instructions and cook for the length of time stated, so I put the duck breasts skin side down in the pan and went back to the dining table, ignoring the increasingly loud sounds of spitting fat coming from the kitchen for 7 minutes. Success. Perfectly crispy skins. Into the oven for 8 minutes, rest for 5 and slice .... to reveal slightly pink. The cabbage was delicious, in spite of my trepidation at using a whole tablespoon of fennel seeds and the jus was a triumph. I adapted the recipe, having found some actual home-made duck stock in the freezer and using lots of juniper berries and redcurrant jelly as well. Most of us drank red (again, brought by guests) while one prefers white with everything.
I love a good dessert wine. A search in the less-used wine rack in the larder, right under the stairs, revealed a bottle of 2002 Sauternes. I know very little about wine, not least how long a dessert wine is likely to remain good in the bottle. It went in the fridge for a few days. When I brought it out, my guests, at least two of whom know a bit about wine, were suitably impressed. I noticed (from a secret code written on the label) that it was the most expensive wine I have ever bought, costing about ten euros about 7 years ago. In the UK, of course, it would be a lot more expensive. To go with the wine we had individual brown sugar pavlovas and little chocolate pots.
For once, my cheesboard did not hold any cheddar. Instead I chose goats' cheese, blue Stilton and a cheese I had not heard of before. To my surprise none of my guests had heard of it either; one friend I think of as knowing most of what there is to know about food and two of the others have a house in France. Still, none of us had heard of Vallage, from the Champagne region of France. It's a soft cheese which tastes like butter. Doesn't sound appealling? The taste is so much better than the description and I noticed that it was the one people kept picking at after they were full.
Three coffees, two teas, and the evening was over. As I expected, everyone got on well and there was plenty of interesting conversation. And a stonkingly good dinner.