layered strawberry and lemon curd pots
It was our first dinner party in Quito. In fact, we had the dinner as a way of thanking the family who had found us the apartment. We had been so caught up in the madness of getting a visa that we hadn’t had time to properly thank them.
I was a bit rusty and it took me some time to come up with a menu I was happy with. I wanted to keep things simple but focused on good food. There would be soup, obviously. A shredded pork and corn salad. At the last moment I threw in a Trou Normand, because I just couldn’t help myself. Following that would be a main of roasted potatoes, blanched and buttered green beans and steak. We would finish with some kind of dessert incorporating the lemon curd, because it was just so tasty! Now doesn’t that sound like a lovely, foolproof dinner party menu?
Allow me to get real with you. I made this soup and I was really happy with it. Even toasted those seeds and had them standing by. But I topped the soup with them way before people were ready to sit down and eat, and they kind of …softened in an unpleasant way. So rather than crisp pops of nutty texture, my guests were just eating seeds. Like birds. As we pecked at the soup I held back the “Thank you!” speech. Next course.
I had high hopes for the salad. Wedges of roasted corn, some mixed greens, cherry tomatoes and of course, the pork. Here’s the thing with that. I had cooked the pork and rather abusively ‘shredded’ it, which it clearly did not want to submit to, and then kept it warm in the oven. And by ‘kept it warm’, I mean totally forgot about it until it had begun to shrivel from being dried out. This is where a savvy cook would say, “Toss the pork! The dish will stand better without it. It’s a failure of execution!” (I could practically hear a baffled Tom Colicchio before me at judges table. “What I don’t get is, why would you leave on the dried pork?!) I ignored him insolently. “I stand by my dish!” I doused it in some oil and served. Chew chew chew. Yeah, not the time for the speech.
I hoped the Trou Normand would turn things around. It’s always a fun surprise to have a palate cleanser and while I didn’t have access to Calvados, I thought sorbet and a splash of vodka would be a nice touch! How could I go wrong? Here’s how… see I actually couldn’t find sorbet or anything like it, so I settled on some kind of fruit ice cream. (I know, I know, anything that starts with an unidentifiable ingredient is probably not a good idea.) But darn it, I had the idea in mind so I forged ahead! (I am a stubborn soul.) In the back of my mind was a voice (Tom’s?) shouting “Don’t do it! It’s a mistake!” But the voice served only to spur me on, daring me to prove it wrong. Alas, the voice was right. Not only was the ice cream neon pink, but I had misjudged the size of the shooter glasses in relation to the spoons, so people were actually forced to have a milky sweet vodka “shot”. Thank you speech?? …Nah.
At this point bringing out the main was like adding insult to injury. The beans were fine and the potatoes scrumptious, but if I don’t know how to cook a potato, growing up in the Maritimes did nothing for me. The meat was my enemy on the plate. I am still getting used to the cuts of meat here and of course I bought an extra tough cut and then attempted to grill it. Worst of all, …I under-seasoned. (Tom just asked me to pack my knives and go. “Just…go.”) And one of the guests requested salt. Is there any worse feeling when throwing a dinner party than someone asking for salt? Bringing her the giant glass jar I keep the salt in probably seemed mean-spirited, but it’s just where I keep the salt. I should have thought of putting it in a cute little dish, but I was too bruised and frankly, I was still mad at Tom Colicchio. Speech? What speech?
It would soon be over. I had only to serve dessert. I had prepped them the day before and just needed to whip the cream to top them off. I brought them out to the guests. I heard gentle oohs and appreciative ahhs. Did someone even clap their hands together? I may have imagined that. They dug in. I held my breath. There was nothing to be heard other than “mmmmm!” I was waiting for the judgment. I was feeling defensive and ready to shout, “What? Does it need more SALT?” Then I realized I should just try it.
If there is such a thing as a dish of redemption, people, this was it. And I had pretty much resolved by that point to shut down tastes good to me! and rely on a daily diet of instant ramen noodles with those flavor packets. But this dessert right here? This was good. I knew it was good! And the most flattering confirmation came through the words of the head of the family in English: “It is a symphony of flavors.”
This was it. The absolute perfectly appropriate moment. “We really wanted to have this dinner party to thank you…” And with that, the speech was delivered after all.
1 quantity of homemade lemon curd
400g strawberries, hulled and sliced
1/3 cup cranberry juice
1/4 cup red wine (I used an Ecuadorian Cabernet)
juice and zest of one orange (amounts to 1/4 cup juice)
1 tbs sugar
a handful of fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1 tbs orange liqueur
1/2 tsp sugar
I am not good at measuring. But I really tried to keep track of all my adjustments as I went along to give you a, (dare I say it?) foolproof recipe. I was reluctant to call it a trifle, because obviously there is no sponge cake. But whatever you choose to call it, it will be delicious!
So those lovely lovely strawberries. We put them in a small pot with the cranberry juice, wine, orange juice and zest and sugar. Bring to a quick boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes or until reduced a bit and very fragrant. Stir in the basil and cook for another minute. Remove from heat.
For the whipped topping, Just combine your cream, orange liqueur and sugar in a deep bowl and whisk the daylights out of it. When thickened to your likeness, stop. And set aside.
You can use whatever vessel you want. I used short water glasses which yielded 6 generous portions with some leftovers. But obviously depending on what you go with, there could be more or less than that. So we grab our lemon curd and spoon some into the bottom. Then we spoon in some of the stewed strawberries with the juices. Again with the curd, again with the berries and sauce. Then we spoon on a heaping dollop of the whipped cream, and garnish with some orange rind and basil. Poof! Done.
The great thing is that you can slap some plastic wrap on it and make them the day before. No fuss. Only flavor.
Perhaps my perceived flaws were not so grandiose as I had thought them to be. (I have been told I have an active imagination…) Then again perhaps they were. But I kept in mind the following words:
“I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make… Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is vile,…then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile- and learn from her mistakes.” – Julia Child
Good thing, because one delicious dessert wiped the slate clean, and the dinner party was deemed a success. All was right again in my culinary bubble. Tom, I forgive you.