Fit for A Dinner Party: Kasha with Preserved Lemons
I know some people who are perfectly confident in most areas of their lives—and perfectly capable in the kitchen—who become paralyzed at the idea of throwing a dinner party. The thing I’ve learned is that dinner parties aren’t necessarily any more work than a non-party dinner. As long as you choose your recipes carefully, set your table and shower long before the guests’ arrival, not much can go wrong. But choosing recipes carefully—that can be the rub. I’m notorious in my home (meaning with my husband) for trying out new recipes for dinner parties. He hates that I do this, though, as I often point out, everything always tastes pretty good. (There was once a butterscotch pudding that failed to thicken, and turned out more like a caramel sauce, but layered with whipped cream and raspberries for a parfait, it was perfectly fine. If I hadn’t shared the error with my guests, I’m not sure they would have suspected.)
This Saturday, I’m entertaining an unknown group of guests as part of an annual fundraiser for the Spencertown Academy. For the “Revels”, as the event is called, friends of the Academy open their homes and prepare a dinner for a mystery set of six to eight guests. Everyone gathers first at the Academy for cocktails before receiving their dinner assignments. It’s a lovely tradition, and one I eagerly participated in for the first time last winter. This year, I received a “heads up” that at least two of my guests were vegetarians—could I accommodate that? Of course—in fact, it made my life easier. I was planning a braised short rib menu, but knowing I could switch to fish cut my prep time by about 75%. But what kind of fish? I like Pacific halibut, because it’s always wild caught (and receives a “best choice” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program‘s guide to sustainable and healthy seafood.) The flavor is mild, so it doesn’t make the less fish-friendly nervous, and it’s a good foil for many different side dishes. My foolproof way to fix it is to bake it in parchment.
What to serve alongside? In the summer, I love halibut with salsa verde, so why not try last week’s recipe, the rapini pesto, as a winter replacement? This is how menus come together for me, starting at the center, with the protein or main dish, and then working out from there to find complimentary flavors, textures and colors. I knew I wanted a second vegetable, not green, and firmer in texture since the rapini is puréed. Last year, in a favorite cookbook (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison) I discovered a fantastic carrot recipe: braised carrots with mint. Perfect. And last but not least, every dinner (at least as far as my husband is concerned) needs a starch—he’s a carb-lover of the highest order. I thought about a scalloped potato dish, but it seemed too heavy alongside the delicate fish. Rice seemed too mundane for this special dinner. And then, I remembered the box of Birkett Mills kasha that Noah Sheetz, executive chef at the New York Governor’s Mansion, insisted I try after I interviewed him last year. This grain, grown and distributed locally, is organic, gluten free, and incredibly good for you. I’d made some into a delicious tabouli-style salad, but I wanted a warm side for dinner, and one with flavors that would play nicely with the rapini and carrots. Buckwheat already has an assertive, earthy taste, so whatever you put with it has to hold its own.
This is what I came up with: Kasha with Preserved Lemons. I tested the recipe with small quantities so I could get the flavors just right without much waste—another good planning tip if you’re trying something new. And the best strategy (one I ignored that fateful night of the runny butterscotch pudding)? Be sure to make (or buy) a dessert you’re absolutely positive will please. A meal that ends on a sweet note is likely to be viewed as an all-round success. I make a mean tarte tatin, and that’s what we’ll be enjoying on Saturday night. Wish me luck!
Kasha with Preserved Lemons
The preserved lemons called for in this recipe are a traditional north African condiment: whole lemons submerged in salt, lemon juice, seasonings and a bit of olive oil until they become soft, slippery and briny, like an Indian pickle. To make your own is easy, but takes at least a month’s soaking time. The Bella Cucina brand is available online and Roland preserved lemons from Morocco are sold at Guido’s. The flavor is extremely strong, so use sparingly.
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups kasha (roasted buckwheat groats)
1/2 cup dried currants
1/4 of a preserved lemon, peel only, cut into 1/4 inch or slightly smaller dice
1/2 cup pine nuts
Toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 3 or 4 minutes. Watch them so they don’t burn—slight browning is fine. Reserve to a small bowl.
Heat the stock or water, butter, olive oil and salt in a saucepan until boiling.
While the liquid heats, toast the kasha in a large skillet over high heat for 2-3 minutes.
Add the liquid to the skillet and reduce heat to low. Add the lemon peel, currants and pine nuts and stir gently once or twice.
Cover the pan tightly and simmer over low to medium heat 10-12 minutes until the kasha is tender and all the liquid is absorbed.
Serve hot or warm, drizzled with a bit more extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt.