Birthday dinners are supposed to be luxurious, joyous and even a little decadent. And a birthday dinner for two can be very cozy, intimate and make the two diners feel a little closer and a little more magic for the day. That sounds great 'n lovely if you HAVE a significant other, but what's the single girl supposed to do? Find another single girl to have birthday dinner with.
So, as the most recent Fourth of July weekend was coming to a close, I discovered that I had NOT made it to several of my weekend obligations and thus had some fantastic Vanilla Bean Cupcakes with Blackberry Cream Cheese Frosting left over which needed to be consumed. My dear friend Kristina P. from grad school - another absolutely fabulous single girlfriend - was having a birthday celebration on her birthday that Tuesday. I had other obligations Tuesday (which included me, The Fillmore, and Duran Duran) and so, it seemed a small personal celebration the Monday prior was in order. So, I offered to come over and make her a birthday dinner, complete with cupcakes.
Now, mind you, I have certain menus that I make for "date" night, or for bribing what I call the rent-a-boyfriends (male friends who come over and do "man-things" around the house - usually involving power tools, or IT things that I lack the skill in) to do things. And I like my menus to make an impression. But, single-girl birthdays also involve decadent treats. So, I thought that this dinner deserved a date-night menu.
Now, for all the non-meat eaters, you can skip the following paragraph as it goes into the beauty of pork. And, I've done the vegetarian route. And I've done the decidedly NON-vegetarian route. And I have to say that of all the flesh I have put in my mouth, pork is one of my all-time favorites. Now, I also remember the days of my gramma's pork chops - back when pork had to be super well-done in order to be "safe". (*Spoiler - this is the sustainability lesson coming up*) This had to do with farming practices that included a sub-par diet and stressful living conditions, producing meat that was often flavorless, at times acrid, and needed to be cooked until bone dry to reduce the risk of ingesting transferable parasites. While current farming practices have started to improve the feed, reducing instances of trichinosis, meaning pork may now be cooked with a little tenderness and flavor left, the return to more sustainable farming practices has put the flavor back into the nobel swine. Further, my local butcher shop carries Marin Sun Farms pork chops which are spectacular. That said, I picked up some gorgeous, pink pork chops. I didn't feel the need to brine them as they were fresh, and I had planned on using an instant-read meat thermometer to make sure I got them cooked perfectly.
Now, when I first made this recipe, I had found a suggestion for a treatment of pork chops on the Food Discussion Forum of Craigslist.com involving fresh figs, onions and balsamic vinegar. I spring-boarded off this treatment for what is now my final recipe. In my recipe, I use dried figs that have been reconstituted with boiling water and brandy. I also use a custom seasoning rub of herbs, salt, pepper, olive oil. This combined with the sweetness of the fruit, sweet and acid of the balsamic vinegar, and savory from the spices and onion create a crazy explosion of flavor in your mouth. The best I can describe it goes as follows: you cut a bite of pork off the chop, and pick up a bit of fig and onion so that everything hits your mouth simultaneously. The pork itself has been cooked so that when you bite into the flesh, it's firm, but tender without being dry or too chewy. The juice from the bite of pork mingles in your mouth with the soft, dense figs, ripe and sweet, sugars concentrated from the drying process, but the water and brandy plumping out the fruit. The sharp, tart, onion flavor lends it's own sweetness and complexity to the seemingly simple bite in your mouth. This, layered on top of smoky, caramely flavor of the balsamic, the freshness of the herbs, the salty and peppery flavor all makes you pause to savor and enjoy this bite. All conversation stops as your eyes close and notice the synergy and symphony happening with every bite - the complimenting flavors and sensations. It deserves a moment of quiet meditation as your senses are all at once stimulated and toyed with. Ahhh... as that bite diminishes and slides down and starts to dissipate, it's time to look at the plate for what's next.
VEGETARIANS - you can come back now. Okay, so the next dish were the pan-roasted new potatoes with rosemary. What I meant to make was a wonderful recipe from Jacques Pepin. What I made, was good, but not quite the result I wanted. What I wanted was potatoes that had a crispy outer texture and a creamy inside with a lot of flavor, enhanced with a little fat, salt, pepper and rosemary. I tried to make it off the top of my head - by memory of when I'd made it before, but the key here is just how much exposure the potatoes have to the heat, how much water is used and how it's absorbed all add to achieving the right texture. While what we ate was nice, it didn't have quite the texture I wanted. So, the recipe included below will be exactly from Jacques Pepin as I can't improve on his perfection.
Green salad -- pretty simple, yes? Well, yes, but there are a few things that take it from nice to spectacular. Here are my tips: FRESH lettuce. The crisper and fresher the better. But, even if your lettuce is a little less than super fresh from that day, there are a few things that can make it alive. One is fresh herbs. Stuff like fresh parsley, thyme (or even a pre-made "fresh herb" mix if you are short on time) helps to brighten your greens. Local veggies in season. While that may seem to be obvious, the less food has to travel, and the riper it’s picked, means the most nutrition and flavor. This means, local and in season. It’s summer – tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, etc. are a good addition. Lemon zest. O. M. G. Lemon zest is my secret ingredient in SOOOO many things. Add a bit of fresh lemon zest and juice will brighten up almost anything. Fresh dressing. Yes - my lemon vinaigrette will be included below. Taking a few minutes to make a fresh dressing with make a huge difference. Fresh ingredients - very few, without added chemicals and stabilizers is the best flavor you can add. And cheese. Yep, just a little crumbled cheese makes it from being just another vegetable side, to being that much closer to decadence.
Now, the story behind this is the love and bonding time in the kitchen with two good friends. Date night, or two good friends preparing food together, the it’s the love that will come through and shared. Kristina and I shared a nice bottle of wine, over wonderful conversation, laughs, and food that brightened our souls. Something that two fabulous girls deserve – not just on birthdays, but makes a damned fine excuse.
Pork Chops in with Balsamic Figs and Onions
(Please note, that these measurements are approximate. For the spice rub, I kinda go until it ‘looks right’, which is hard to translate into exact measurements. The important thing is to adjust to how powerful a punch you want.)
Serving Size: 2 generous portions
2 bone-in pork chops
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary chopped finely
2 tsp dried thyme (or a Tbsp chopped fresh thyme)
1 tsp kosher or coarse sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
1-2 cloves of garlic made into a paste (you want the garlic flavor, but you don’t want it to burn in the rub while the chops are cooking)
1-2 Tbsp Olive Oil (or just enough to make a nice paste)
7 oz. dried figs – chopped into quarters
½ cup (or so) boiling water
¼ cup brandy
1 white or yellow onion coarsely chopped
½ cup balsamic vinegar
Preheat heavy bottomed, oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. (I use a cast-iron frying pan.) Combine the rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper and garlic paste in a small bowl. Add enough olive oil to make a medium thick paste. Brush paste onto both sides of chops. Sear chops on med high for about 2-3 minutes on each side until you get a nice golden color.
In the meantime coarsely chop one onion. Reconstitute the dried figs in boiling water and brandy. Then add the figs (after draining them from the water) and the onion to the chops in the pan and put in a 450 degree oven for about 10 minutes until an instant read thermometer read 150. (You may have to adjust the cook time, depending on how thick the chops are, but go be temperature). Take out the chops, place on a separate plate and cover with foil. Put the figs and onion back on the stove top, add 1/2 cup of balsamic vinegar and reduce it down until thick. Plate chops and pour sauce over it. The sauce marries nicely with the little bit of spices left in the pan from the spice rub.
Skillet-Roasted Potatoes with Rosemary
(This recipe comes from: Jacques Pepin, “Cuisine Economique.” William Morrow and Company, New York, New York, 1992. Pg. 20.)
Serving Size: 6 side portions (My own note: Makes FANTASTIC leftovers for breakfast the next day – pan fry it up with some scrambled eggs – PERFECT hangover food!)
2 pounds small new potatoes (about 24), thoroughly washed and any damaged spots removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup water
¼ tsp salt
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary
- Place potatoes in one layer in a large saucepan and add the oil, butter, water and salt. Bring to a boil, cover and cook over high heat for about 8 minutes, until the water has evaporated. Reduce the heat and continue cooking, covered, over low heat for about 10 minutes. Add the rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes longer.
- Serve warm.
1 lemon zested and juiced
1/3 cup olive oil
2-3 cloves of garlic minced
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp pepper
- Whisk all ingredients together until well-blended. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not over-dress salad. Excess dressing will keep in the fridge up to about a week.