28 December 2008

Progresso Pronto

With the holidays just around the corner, we had to act fast to organize the neighborhood progressive dinner before Thanksgiving.  The e-vites went out on Sunday for dinner the following Saturday.  We decided to make it a 4- or 5-course meal, depending on how many neighbors were able to participate on such short notice.  Response was incredible, and by 
Wednesday we had 14 confirmed participants.

We settled on these courses:  appetizer, salad, soup, main, and dessert.  My next-door neighbor, Susan, and I volunteered to team up for the main course.  Other neighbors quickly volunteered for the other four courses.

Most people, self included, do not have a dinner table that seats 14 comfortably, so we had to improvise.  We removed the side chairs and coffee table from the living room, set up two 3-by-6-foot folding tables, and combined our dining chairs with Susan's to make it look presentable.  In fact, with the table cloths, colorful place settings, and Tom's impromptu holly centerpieces, it looked pretty darn elegant!

The evening started at 6:30 with cocktails and appetizers across the street at Dave and Erin's.  They served a nice variety of finger foods that were perfect to get the palate and conversations started.  We all sipped and snacked in the kitchen and adjoining breakfast area until it was time to move on.  Their island kitchen layout is ideal for this kind of entertaining -- everyone has something to lean on and a place to set their drinks while perusing the platters.

The next stop was at John and Debbie's for salad.  Debbie prepared a picture-perfect pile of fresh greens with just enough accessories to make it interesting.  Salad is more conducive to sitting, so our hosts set places at the formal dining table, the breakfast table, and the bar that separates the kitchen and breakfast area.

Next up was soup at Paul's house.  Paul is known as The Master of Soups on the block, so he was a shoe-in to host this course.  He served creamy mushroom soup in brown espresso cups -- a clever, yet functional, presentation and another good stand-up course for our small homes.

Then it was time to move back down the block to our house for the main course, beef Burgundy with garlic mashed potatoes and oven-roasted haricot verts.  Beef Burgundy is a decadent stew of beef (of course) and 3 different wines.  I adapted the recipe (see below) from The Artist in the Kitchen, the cookbook of the St. Louis Art Museum.  Our friend, Jacque, made the potatoes, and the oven-roasted green beans is one of my favorite quick-and-easy go-to side dishes.  All you do is blanch the beans, spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined half-sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with chopped garlic, and bake at 400 for 5-10 minutes until they start to brown.

The evening ended down the block with dessert at Erin's house.  (Appetizer Erin and dessert Erin are different people.)  Erin served a delicious flan.  It may not have plated perfectly, but the flavor was fantastic.

Everyone agreed that the event was great, and the next one is already planned to coincide with Mardi Gras.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Beef Burgundy

This takes a while and involves a lot of steps, but each step is pretty simple and the finished product is MUCH more than the sum of its parts.

6- or 8-quart Dutch over or other oven-proof pan with lid
large holding bowl
medium holding bowl
small saucepan
cigarette lighter or match

8 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 pounds beef chuck or sirloin cubed into 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup brandy

12-15 small white onions, peeled (see note below)
1 pound mushrooms halved

4-6 tablespoons flour
2 beef bouillon cubes
2 teaspoons water
2 tablespoons tomato paste (see note below)

1 1/2 cups Burgundy
1/2 cup dry sherry
3/4 cup port
1 1/4 cups beef broth

salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf

NOTES:  To peel the little onions, score the bottom of each with a knife, making a small X.  Pour boiling water over the onions and let stand for 1 minute.  Immediately remove onions from the water so they do not get soggy or start to cook.  Once they are cool enough to touch, the outer skin will peel off easily.
You can buy tomato paste in a tube instead of the little can.  Then, you just squirt out however much you need and store the tube in the refrigerator until you need it again.

Heat oven to 350F.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the Dutch oven and brown the beef in batches, adding more butter as needed between batches.  Put the browned batches into the large holding bowl.  Return all browned beef to the Dutch oven.
(This step is the most fun.)  In the small saucepan, heat the brandy.  Ignite it and pour it over the beef while it is still flaming.  When the flames die, remove the beef and its juices to the large holding bowl.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the Dutch oven.  Add the onions and mushrooms, cover, and cook over low heat until onions are light brown.  Remove the onions and mushrooms to the medium holding bowl.
Mash the bouillon cubes into the 2 teaspoons of water, making a paste.  In the Dutch oven, add the bouillon paste, tomato paste, and flour, stirring until well blended.  Stir in the Burgundy, sherry, port, and beef broth.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat.
Add the beef, pepper, and bay leaf.  Mix well.  Cover and bake for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Add the onions and mushrooms, stir, and bake for 30 minutes more.

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