In this semi-regular feature, SFist Associate Editor Andrew Dalton attempts to combine figure skating lore and self-improvement by cooking his way through Brian Boitano's delightfully self-aware new cookbook: What Would Brian Boitano Make? This week, three courses plus a cocktail. What could possibly go wrong?
With one recipe down and 82 more to go in this project, it is pretty obvious that I'm going to have to pick up the pace if I want to finish it before the next Winter Olympics. (Not that I really set any sort of timeframe for this thing, but let's be honest, there are only so many Boitano jokes one can make.) Luckily, the "what would Brian Boitano do?" mantra never fails and Brian has a plan for that.
In the back of WWBBM? the titular chef/figure skating champion has helpfully drawn up a few pre-set menus, pairing a couple dishes together to make a homey three-course meal. Add in one of the cocktail recipes from the beverages section and I figured I could knock out four recipes in one night. One of the "Elegant Comfort"-themed menus seemed classy enough for a dinner party without being showy or a complete pain in the ass to cook. I went with a menu of: White bean, caramelized onion, and artichoke bruschetta to start, a main course of shrimp and polenta, with a chocolate almond panna cotta for dessert.
What could possibly go wrong while making a meal that basically consists of: toast, shrimp grits and pudding? A lot, probably. So, I invited 10 or so friends over to an incredibly gracious friend's 1-bedroom junior apartment to find out. (Thanks, Maggie!)
Cocktail Pairing: The Marky DV
Listed under the "Superchic Cocktails" section, the Marky DV is a Manhattan-y kind of thing with bourbon and pear brandy instead of sweet vermouth. If you're wondering where one of the most beloved celebrity athletes of the mid-80s likes to get cocktails, it's the Top of the Mark in the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill; a bar that boasts a 100-martini cocktail list, truckloads of history, one hell of a view of the city, and a stunning cross section of middle America.
The Marky DV has nothing to do with the Top of the Mark though — I'm told it is named for a bartender at Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem on Mission Street. A bar that is known for: A) buffalo wings that you have to sign a waiver to eat and B) being named after a character from the Muppets. Not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find pear brandy really*, and it turns out pear brandy is pain in the ass to find. Our local, well-curated grocery store only had apple brandy, so we went with that instead. Which actually worked out well because a raid of our eternally kind hostess' home bar turned up a bottle of apple bitters.
In honor of said hostess, I'm renaming the cocktail the "Maggie EG" and it is now made with Bulleit bourbon**, apple brandy and apple bitters. If you're the sort of person who needs exact measurements to make a cocktail, then I'm guessing you are pretty obsessive about cocktails and you can figure those out on your own. For everyone else, make this cocktail by pouring a healthy slug of bourbon into a cocktail shaker (a pint glass with ice in it will do in a pinch), slightly less than half that amount of apple brandy and a little shake of the bitters. If it sucks, add in some simple syrup and you'll have what is basically a juicebox for bourbon drinkers. Stir and strain into whatever fancy glassware is available, because this is a dinner party, dammit.
Starter: White Bean, Caramelized Onion, and Artichoke Bruschetta
This recipe comes from the "Tempting Tapas" section of the book, because Brian Boitano lives in a world where small plates will never go out of style. "Classic bruschetta," he says "is an Italian favorite dating back centuries." I'm not going to bother trying to verify the origins of bruschetta, it could date all the way back to the founding of Olive Garden for all I know, but Brian's recipe turns all that on its head by being completely unrecognizable as what most would call bruschetta. It's really more like a pita chip with some hummus. In that way it only dates back to the last time you were feeling peckish at a wine bar.
Your author decided a "chips and dip" presentation would better suit Brian's take on bruschetta. (Photo: Wes Rowe)
Not that it was bad. It was pretty good, actually. It could maybe use a kick of Sriracha or something to spice it up, but it works better as a dip rather than a passed app. All you have to do is toast pita slices coated with olive oil on a cookie sheet and throw some canned artichoke hearts in the food processor (also, heads up: you're gonna need a food processor) with a can of cannellini beans, some lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper and let it rip. Save a little bit of the beans and artichoke hearts to top the pita chips (so your guests know what they're eating? I guess?) and then make a cute little pile to dip into. If you're older than 25 you should probably know how make a homemade dip by this point in your life.
Lazy people will note that pita chips also come pre-made and in relatively hassle-free packaging, but if you truly appreciate the company of your guests, then you will suffer for your pita chips. (And by suffer, I mean, keep obsessively checking the oven to make sure you haven't burned them yet.)
Main Course: Shrimp and Polenta
In the Seafood section, this recipe is filed under (sic) "Marvelish Shellfish." Hopefully you started peeling the shrimp around the same time you started making the bruschetta, because holy shit is peeling shrimp a pain in the ass. Peel a bunch by yourself until one of your dinner guests grows concerned that dinner is going to take longer than you said it would. At that point sit them down with a glass of wine and make them go to town on shelling and de-veining shrimp.
This is important because nowhere in the recipe does Brian mention that deveining shrimp actually involves you scooping shrimp shit out of two pounds of shrimp. (Four pounds in this case, since it was a double recipe.) This is a necessary evil and you can't just get pre-shelled shrimp because you need to boil the shells in 12 cups of water to make shrimp stock that will leave your apartment undoubtedly smelling like seafood for days.
Once the shrimp water has simmered for 10 minutes or so, it will get a wharf-scented, pink seafoam floating on top. Strain out the shells, boil the shrimp water again and add three cups of polenta while whisking constantly. Start on your second cocktail because you're pretty sure you could be doing this drunk at this point.
While you're waiting for the polenta to thicken up, use the hand that is not holding your cocktail to cook half a pound of diced bacon. (In this case, Brian's recipe calls for pancetta again, but after last week's sweatlodge smell, I opted for the smokier bacon.) Remove the bacon and cook the now shell-free two pounds of shrimp until they get a little crispy on the edges. Take out the shrimp and sauté two chopped onions. Panic for a moment as you wonder what you're supposed to be doing with the polenta and then take a sip of your cocktail and remember it is time to add a cup of cream to the mixture, because cream is proof that God loves us and wants us to enjoy dairy.
(Photo: Wes Rowe)
In the sauté pan: add garlic, red pepper, a cup of dry white wine and two pints of sliced grape tomatoes to the onions. Cook everything until the tomatoes start to get that shriveled look, but don't quite look gross yet. Add in parsley, four tablespoons of butter, the shrimp and the bacon and mix until everything is heated. Just put everything in one big bowl and let your guests go to town on the polenta and shrimp mixtures, family-style.
(Photo: Wes Rowe)
Dessert: Chocolate Almond Panna Cotta
Roughly five hours prior to serving the main course, you should be making dessert. Such is the paradox of the home-cooked dessert. You have to inception yourself hours ahead of time to get everything timed right.
In this case, five hours seemed like plenty of time to make glorified chocolate pudding out of heavy cream-based chocolate milk. The whole recipe is just: heavy cream, almond milk, sugar, a huge bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, amaretto and vanilla extract, all mixed with powdered gelatin and stuck in the fridge to set. What you really need to know for this recipe, besides the various forms of animal cruelty involved in it, is that it is: A) already a tiny bit alcoholic, thanks to the amaretto and vanilla extract and B) It will not set. Like ever. So you should probably just do what we did and drink your dessert instead.
Fast forward five hours to the end of dinner, when all guests are stuffed on shrimp and tippled on bourbon cocktails and glasses of wine. The Panna Cotta, poured cutely into teacups, is still in its liquid form and taking up far too much space in the fridge. Your guests are demanding something sweet to counteract all the smokey shrimpiness of the polenta. Do what any reasonable human being would do and use the rest of the bottle of Amaretto to make chocolate-almond panna cotta shots. A "panna shotta," if you will. Drink as many of these as your lactose sensitivity will allow while drunkenly trying to clean up your friend's kitchen and apologizing for shrimpy smell.
The "panna shotta," a much more efficient dessert than actual panna cotta. (Photo: Wes Rowe)
As it turns out, cooking a dinner that involves more than one pan takes a lot more discipline, timing and precision than I can muster on a random Monday. There's a great deal of pressure to not only perform technically well, by which I mean make food that doesn't suck, but also to entertain your audience. Thankfully, my spectators were not only supportive, but immensely helpful. "I would like to personally thank everyone who peeled shrimp for helping me get to where I am today," I would tell Scott Hamilton after leaving the ice. Of course, it doesn't hurt if your audience is easily entertained by an overabundance of alcohol.
Next time: A Brian Boitano-themed Pride Weekend panini pop-up. There will be sausages and grilled sandwiches. Stay tuned for details.
*I always assumed the decor inside Mayhem was a sort of post-Bowie Glam Rock kind of thing, but now that I think about it, those could outfits could easily be figure skating costumes.
**Bulleit also seemed appropriate here because one time I was scheduled to do a lunch interview with Tom Bulleit of the Kentucky Bulleits at the Top of the Mark. (Tie-in!) When I showed up, he was being interviewed by another freelancer. A contributor to one of those little booklet magazines they used to put in the back of cabs. Tom Bulleit's handler told me to have a seat, order some lunch and, of course, a Bulleit cocktail. I ordered one on the rocks and a charcuterie plate. By the time Tom got there, I was on my third bourbon. We talked and drank for an hour while I tried to scribble things in a notebook and then Tom Bulleit left to go to Whiskeys of the World and stuck me with the tab. Anyway, that's my Tom Bulleit story.The newly christened "Maggie EG" (Photo: Wes Rowe)