Mixing New Friends, Recipes With Familiar Flavors

Posted: March 26, 2000

Spring was on the doorstep the night of Judith Stein's dinner party. But while the markers of winter's end were evident - early daffodils were rearing their starry heads, and two 70-degree days had offered a teasing preview of imminent warmth - it felt more like November than March.

Shad and asparagus were already showing up in the markets, but Stein, who planned her menu at the last minute, decided the weather called for braised lamb shanks.

The dinner - planned for 11 guests, plus Stein and her husband, attorney Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services - could not be a difficult one because of Judith's professional commitments. An art critic and independent curator, she was shuttling between here and New York as she readied an exhibition for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, a series of portraits of hypermuscular and physically strong women titled "Picturing the Modern Amazon," scheduled to open March 31.

She had also been commissioned to write an essay on the folk artist Grandma Moses from a feminist viewpoint for a traveling exhibition of that artist's work. The day before the dinner party, there was a luncheon to attend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After the luncheon, Stein headed for the Reading Terminal Market, where she knew she could find everything she needed in one place.

She and Jonathan, both 56, decided to entertain more often after a top-to-bottom renovation two years ago of their Fitler Square home. When they do, new friends and new recipes usually combine with familiar faces and favorite foods. Their circle of acquaintances is diverse; their guests at this dinner party would include a dance critic, a theater director, a sculptor, a lawyer, a children's book writer, a science writer, and a Philadelphia School District administrator. A house guest of the Steins, who would miss the dinner party because she was appearing at the Painted Bride Art Center that night, planned to join them after her multimedia performance, along with her filmmaker husband.

"I think there are three ingredients for a great party: good people, good food and good music," Judith Stein said. Husband Jonathan, whose vast collection of vinyl albums and CDs fills one living room wall, manages the music.

"We've been married 35 years," Judith said, "and in all that time, we have never agreed on how loud the music should be. He turns it up, and I turn it down. He turns it up again, I turn it down again. He has broad, catholic tastes in music. . . . If someone just mentions an enthusiasm, chances are he has something in that line."

The collection is an eclectic one, taking in Dwight Yoakam, the Stylistics, Richie Valens, Count Basie, Stan Getz, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as rappers LL Cool J and Public Enemy.

"When we were in college" - he at Columbia, she at Barnard - "he was features editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator," Judith explained. Free review copies of record albums and concert tickets were among the editor's fringe benefits. "He courted me with culture," she said.

Stein planned to start the dinner with a salad she'd made before, a combination of frisee and mesclun greens with a Cranberry Shrub Vinaigrette recipe that appeared in Eating Well magazine in 1996 as part of a feature on Philadelphia restaurants. Although the magazine no longer exists, the vinaigrette is still served at City Tavern in Society Hill, where the recipe originated.

For main-course ideas, Judith searched her own files as well as Web site http://www.epicurious.com which incorporates recipes from Gourmet magazine and Bon Appetit. That's where she found the recipe for braised lamb shanks. She would serve them with kasha, "one of my favorite carbohydrates," made according to the recipe on the box, in a 35-year-old Farberware electric skillet that was a wedding gift from Judith's mother.

As a side dish, she planned to bake and season two large winter squash that had been a decorative item on her kitchen windowsill.

In the past, Stein had found that making dessert "taxed my time, so I assigned the dessert to one of the guests." Germaine Ingram, chief of staff to Philadelphia Schools Superintendent David Hornbeck and a sophisticated home cook, agreed to bring something, but didn't hint what it would be.

Most of the work was done on the day of the party. The lamb shanks, placed in their marinade the night before, was the only item that needed advance preparation. The dining table, extended with leaves, was set up in the living room adjacent to the kitchen.

The contemporary art collection and kilim rugs displayed throughout the first floor seemed to set the tone for the colorful, casual table. Running down the center, over a buttercup-yellow tablecloth, was a still life Judith assembled of red and orange habanero chiles the size of cherries and comma-shaped green serrano chiles interspersed with tangerines, lemons, and daffodils. Purple and red anemones were gathered in a turquoise vase, which picked up the red, purple and turquoise colors of the plaid napkins. Plain white plates handed down from her mother were set on hammered copper chargers from Mexico.

Over by the sofa, a single, stunning branch of celadon-hued orchid blooms bought by her husband made an elegant statement. A bouquet of daffodils graced the kitchen table where the hors d'oeuvres were set out.

Stein, wearing a black velvet dress and a necklace of handblown green Venetian glass, was whisking the sauce for the lamb when the guests began arriving, umbrellas in hand.

"This is the only thing I'm insecure about," she said, worrying about flour lumps. The lamb shanks had needed a full three hours, instead of two, to reach satisfactory tenderness, but they were done. For the red currant jelly specified in the recipe, Stein substituted some peach jalapeno marmalade. The squash, baked and pureed, got a fusion-y seasoning treatment with minced fresh rosemary, Goya brand adobo all-purpose seasoning, and a bit of tapenade.

"I trust that it always falls together at the end," Judith said. "I'm not a formal person. If people come while it's in progress, so what?"

Dessert came without its maker. Ingram had sent baby plum cakes, hazelnut praline topping, and homemade buttermilk ice cream with an envoy because she was not feeling well. Her enclosed note relayed her regrets, along with her reasons for making this particular dessert. She said she had wanted to "devise something comforting and homey, but somewhat complex in its flavors and textures - tart, tangy, sweet, tender, crunchy, toothsome, silky, warm and chilly."

BRAISED LAMB SHANKS

For the Topping:

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon green peppercorns in brine, drained and chopped

For the Lamb:

1 can (14.5 ounces) low-salt chicken broth

1 can (14.5 ounces) beef broth

1/2 cup, plus 1/3 cup, dry red wine

2/3 cup red currant jelly

2 teaspoons herbes de Provence

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

3 garlic cloves, minced

6 lamb shanks, about 1 pound each

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound plum tomatoes, quartered and seeded

2 large turnips, peeled, cut into 3/4-inch-thick wedges

2 large fennel bulbs, each cut into 4 wedges

3 large carrots, peeled, cut diagonally into 3/4-inch-thick slices

1 cup chopped leek (white and pale-green parts only)

1/2 stick butter

1/3 cup all purpose flour

1 tablespoon tomato paste

To make the topping: Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl to blend. (Can be prepared up to 8 hours ahead.) Cover and refrigerate.

To make the lamb: In a glass or ceramic baking dish large enough to hold all the lamb shanks, whisk together chicken broth, beef broth, 1/2 cup wine, 1/3 cup jelly, herbes de Provence, vinegar and garlic. Add lamb shanks; turn to coat. Cover and chill overnight, turning occasionally.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove lamb from marinade; reserve marinade. Pat lamb dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in large, heavy skillet over high heat. Add the lamb, working in batches. Cook shanks until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer lamb and all the vegetables to a large roasting pan.

Pour reserved marinade into same skillet used to brown lamb. Bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits. Pour over lamb and vegetables. Cover and bake about 2 hours, or longer if necessary, until lamb and vegetables are very tender. Turn occasionally during cooking.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer lamb and vegetables to a large serving bowl. Tent with foil. Spoon fat off top of cooking liquid.

Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour and stir until golden, about 5 minutes. Whisk in cooking liquid. Add remaining wine and jelly, and tomato paste. Boil until sauce thickens enough to coat spoon, whisking occasionally, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon sauce, then topping, over lamb and vegetables. Makes six servings.

- From Bon Appetit (March 1998)

Wine recommendation: Syrah, Pinot Noir, or Merlot.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 1,957; protein, 14 grams; carbohydrates, 407 grams; fat, 40 grams; cholesterol, 21 milligrams; sodium, 594 milligrams.

BABY PLUM CAKES

WITH HAZELNUT

GINGER-PRALINE TOPPING

Melted butter for coating custard or mini souffle cups

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 cup buttermilk

4 large ripe plums, halved and pitted (see note)

Position rack in middle of oven. Preheat to 350 degrees.

Coat 8 custard cups with melted butter and set them on a jelly-roll pan. (The size of the cups will determine how much of the plum halves are exposed after baking. With standard 6-ounce custard cup, the cake will almost entirely enclose the plum halves. To expose more of the fruit, use an 8-ounce cup.)

Using a standing or hand-held electric mixer, cream the butter, 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar, and all the granulated sugar at medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape down sides of the bowl and continue to beat about 3 more minutes, or until sugar is dissolved.

Add 1 egg, increase mixer speed to high, and beat 30 seconds. Add other egg and vanilla; beat an additional 30 seconds.

In separate mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and ginger. Add to mixture while beating at low speed for just 15 seconds. Pour in the buttermilk and mix 30 seconds more. If necessary, finish blending with a rubber spatula.

Divide batter among the custard or souffle cups. Place a half plum, cut side up, into each cup. Sprinkle an equal amount of remaining brown sugar over cut surface of each of the plums.

Place baking pan with the filled cups on center rack of oven and bake about 25 minutes, or until golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the cake part of the dessert comes out clean.

Remove pan from the oven and allow cakes to cool in their cups for 10 minutes minute before unmolding. (Alternatively, serve the warm cakes in their cups.) Unmold by running a blunt knife around edge of cakes. If necessary, work it under the cakes to release the bottoms. Lift cakes out with the knife and place them right side up on dessert plates. Serve with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, or buttermilk ice cream, and hazelnut ginger praline topping (recipes follow). Makes eight servings.

Note: If plums are not quite ripe, spoon a little balsamic vinegar over the halves and marinate 1/2 hour or longer.

- Adapted from "Baking with Julia" (A La Carte Communications Inc., 1996)

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 321; protein, 4 grams; carbohydrates, 46 grams; fat, 14 grams; cholesterol, 88 milligrams; sodium, 166 milligrams.

HAZELNUT GINGER-PRALINE TOPPING

1 cup roasted hazelnuts

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons light corn syrup

3 tablespoons water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/3 cup diced candied ginger

Lightly butter a cookie sheet. Spread roasted hazelnuts on it and place in a 250-degree oven; leave in for 10 minutes, shaking pan once or twice. Turn off oven, open door, and leave pan inside.

Combine sugar, corn syrup and water in small, heavy saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil over high heat. After boiling starts, wipe down any sugar crystals on side of the pan with a wet pastry brush. Boil syrup until it begins to turn a light caramel color; it will register between 320 and 340 degrees on a candy/jelly thermometer.

Remove saucepan from heat and quickly add warmed nuts, salt and candied ginger. Stir mixture quickly - it hardens fast - then pour it onto the buttered cookie sheet that held the nuts. Spread it out with a wooden spoon or spatula. Cool the brittle completely, then break it into small pieces. Working in batches, grind it into a fine powder in a food processor or blender. Sprinkle praline powder over warm plum cakes and serve with buttermilk ice cream (recipe follows). Makes about two cups.

Nutritional data per quarter cup: Calories, 216; protein, 2 grams; carbohydrates, 32 grams; fat, 11 grams; cholesterol, none; sodium, 76 milligrams.

BUTTERMILK ICE CREAM

3 eggs

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 cup heavy cream

3 cups buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, strained

Beat eggs until creamy and yellow. Whisk in sugar. Whisk in heavy cream, buttermilk, lemon juice and vanilla. Cover and chill for about 5 hours, or until mixture is very cold.

Churn mixture in an ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer's directions. Makes 1 1/2 quarts.

Nutritional data per half cup: Calories, 195; protein, 4 grams; carbohydrates, 25 grams; fat, 9 grams; cholesterol, 83 milligrams; sodium, 88 milligrams.

Having a dinner party? Maria Gallagher's e-mail address is mgall@philly.infi.net

MENU

Hors d'oeuvres: Thick whole-grain flatbreads, Montrachet, salmon-dill cream cheese spread

Baby Greens with Grapefruit Slices, Cranberry Shrub Vinaigrette

Braised Lamb Shanks with Fennel, Tomatoes, Turnips and Carrots

Kasha

Roasted Winter Squash with Fresh Rosemary, Adobo and Tapenade

Baby Plum Cakes with Hazelnut-Ginger Praline Topping, Homemade Buttermilk Ice Cream

Wine: Brolio Chianti Classico 1996

Single-malt scotches: Laphroaig, Glenmorangie

TIMELINE

One day before

Lamb shanks marinated overnight.

Day of party, 3 p.m.

Jonathan peels and preps vegetables for braise.

3:30 p.m.

Lamb shanks go into oven.

4 to 6 p.m.

Judith makes salad dressing.

Table set and decorated.

Flowers arranged.

Hors d'oeuvres set out.

Squash baked, seasoned.

Kasha prepared.

6:30 p.m.

Lamb is done. Judith makes sauce.

7 p.m.

Guests arrive. Dessert arrives.

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