A Black Box Dinner

My friend Alan is a culinary school grad who has put the world of professional kitchens behind him (at least for now) and is staying at home with his cute, young son.  He and his wife started a tradition a few months ago where they would invite a couple who would bring the ingredients and he would turn them into a meal.  The catch is that these were mystery ingredients, only to be revealed when the guests arrived.  And all the ingredients must be used, but you can supplement with anything in the house.

My wife and I went to Alan’s and Erin’s house some time ago, and he expected me to bring something exotic.  Instead I brought chicken.  Sure, it was really good poulet rouge chicken, but it was still just chicken.  I also brought yellow cauliflower, Arkansas black apples, thyme, lima beans, littleneck clams, red beets, radishes and Meyer lemons.  Alan did a great job, making 3 savory dishes: (1) Roasted beets with apple, wilted beet greens, toasted walnuts and tarragon/thyme vinaigrette; (2) Littleneck clams with Spanish chorizo, fennel, pine nuts and Meyer lemon; and (3) Roasted poulet rouge, with lima beans, radish and leeks, yellow cauliflower puree and jus.

This past Saturday, Alan turned it around, and he and Erin brought the ingredients.

These included farm fresh eggs, bay scallops, blood oranges, fiddleheads, key limes, golden raisins, Israeli couscous, arugula, green garlic, radishes, rainbow chard, and a fucking duck.  No, I’ve never cooked a whole duck before.  No, I’ve never broken down a duck before.  And no, I still really haven’t done either now.  That’s what my sous chef, Alan, was for.

Anyhow, I didn’t want to do three savory courses, as I really like dessert.  And with the citrus elements, and the eggs, I knew I could pull off something decent.  So I went to work on a key lime pound cake.  Very simple, but tasty.  I also knew that I had some dulce de leche in the refrigerator, so I reduced some blood orange juice and added that to the caramel along with golden raisins that had been plumped up in white wine and black pepper.  Finally, I made some blood orange ice cream.  The dish itself looked terrible — brown on brown, with the caramel seizing up a bit, but it tasted pretty good.  I needed some contrast with the flavors, too, I suspect, but it wasn’t a bad effort.

I then decided to make a ceviche with the scallops, using key lime juice and zest, along with shallots, salt, and pepper.  We blanched the fiddleheads, pickled the radishes in key lime juice and salt, and made a very light lemon/olive oil dressing for the arugula.  I added some pistachios I had on hand, and ended up with a simple, refreshing scallop ceviche salad.

Now for the duck.  The goddamn duck.  I knew that if I took the time to break it down, removing all the fat, that I would take forever.  Therefore, I completely figured out the dish on my own, but I was going to have Alan do most of the work on the duck.  So he broke it down, reserving the fat which we rendered out.  I cooked the Israeli couscous in a risotto style, starting with a soffrito of shallot, garlic, and chard stems, adding the couscous, and slowly adding chicken stock to bring out the starch.  I braised the rest of the chard with duck fat and chicken stock.  The duck legs and breasts were seared and popped into the oven to finish.  As we were plating, I gently fried the eggs and served them atop the chard.  And yes, I added just a touch of truffle oil to the eggs, which actually worked quite well.

In the end, I didn’t embarrass myself.  I thought the duck dish really worked well, but I didn’t do much work with the duck itself.  The weakest dish was the one in which I was most confident: dessert — my cake was dry and the caramel was gloppy (is that really a word?).  It tasted fine, but I just didn’t execute it very well.  We did have some issues with the oven while it was baking, but I don’t think that’s the reason the cake didn’t turn out better.

Anyhow, it was a lot of fun, and this is a fun way to spend an evening if you like to cook and don’t need to rely on recipes.  Give it a try!


5 Responses to A Black Box Dinner

  1. Erin says:

    You did an awesome job, Dean! It was delicious! I can’t wait for the next one, whoever the chef may be.

  2. Johnny Snack says:

    If the whole lawyerin’ thing falls apart, there’s a job waiting for you down south…

  3. Varmint says:

    Hmmm, Snack, twice the hours for less than one-tenth the pay. Sounds enticing.

  4. PTuorto says:

    That’s a great concept for a group dinner, stoked to read the next one!

  5. The Gourmez says:

    glop, with gloppy as the adjective form: a thick semiliquid food or mixture of foods that is usually unappetizing in appearance b : a thick sticky liquid. In other words, yes, it is a word.

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