Dennis writes: I had this idea of starting up a dinner party club with 4 other couples. Each of us will host and prepare a meal: appetizer, main, dessert, and wine. Everyone has signed on and now my wife and I are going first. I want to make something different, challenge myself. I’m thinking something bird-ish for the main course – maybe quail? Any thoughts for this and for the rest of the meal? Thanks!
Tony’s take: Dennis, love the idea. Dinner parties are good living: get out, be with friends, eat luxuriously; and all of it more intimate (and affordable) than a restaurant. I dig your ambition regarding the menu, but as a guy who has smoked out many a houseguest, I’d offer a note of caution. When you throw a dinner party, you become the culinary equivalent of an Olympic skater: yes, you could try a quadruple-triple-lutz (say, sous-vide lamb with basil foam and some unnecessary gastrique), but nobody’ll be impressed unless you stick the landing (or the lamb, as it were). Your idea for something bird-ish is a good one. Quail may not be a triple lutz, but it can be complicated (small, easy to overcook, hard to eat). That said, I think you’re better off with Cornish hens; they’re larger (each will feed 1 person), easier to prepare, and easier to source. And they’ll still feel plenty special (especially if, as suggested below, you stuff them artfully). Start this late winter meal with a wild mushroom soup – light, simple, warming – and finish it with one of my favorites, molten chocolate cakes. Each of these dishes can be prepared ahead; more importantly, along with the roast birds, they should score well with the dinner party crew. So rev up the oven and get ready to impress.
The menu: It’s a tough time of year, seasonally speaking. Spring vegetables (like asparagus and artichokes) haven’t really sprung, but most of us can’t possibly stomach one more root vegetable. So this menu should give a nod towards the better (warmer) days to come without full-on jumping the season. I like grains with Cornish hens; wheatberries, to be more specific. I’ll admit, I’m not some great devotee (I rarely make wheatberries), but I like how they interact with a roasting bird (soaking up all of the juices and fat during cooking). Turn the wheatberries into a stuffing by tossing with diced carrot, spring onion (yep, they’re available now, larger than scallions, sweeter than a basic onion) as well as some prosciutto and parm for richness. Prep and stuff all of the birds up to 1 day ahead and then pop them in the oven just before guests arrive. For your crowd, that would mean 10 Cornish hens, though you could always go with halved chickens instead (I tested them as well; just lay the split birds skin side up, over the wheatberry stuffing). To start the meal, I suggest a wild mushroom soup, a recipe I recently developed for Fine Cooking, one that feels quite elegant, but is really easy. And the molten chocolate cakes will be all that they remember anyway, so get those right and everything will be cool.
The recipe (serves 8 to 10)
1. Cook the wheatberries: You’ll find some instructions that advise soaking wheatberries overnight; not necessary. Boiling them gently for 1 hr. will do the trick. To do so, heat about 3 qt. water in a large pot. Add 2 cups wheatberries and a generous sprinkling of kosher salt (about 1 Tbs.) and bring to a boil. Lower to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the kernels soften and become tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Drain well.
2. Prepare the birds and organize the stuffing: Transfer the drained wheatberries to a large bowl and toss with 1 Tbs. olive oil, 2 spring onions (cut in 1/2-inch dice; or 6 scallions), 1 carrot (finely diced), 1 cup grated Parmigiano, some sliced strips of prosciutto (from about 4 oz.), 1/2 lemon (cut in small slices), and 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Meanwhile, prepare the birds (or chicken if you’re going that route; 1 hen/person or one 4-lb chicken for 3 guests). Rinse under cold running water and then pat completely dry with paper towel (the latter is important; removing excess moisture ensures the skin will crisp and brown properly). Sprinkle all over with kosher salt (about 1 tsp. per bird or 2 tsp. per chicken), rub with olive oil, and sprinkle with fresh thyme. Spoon the wheatberry stuffing into the birds’ cavities. Transfer the stuffed birds to lightly greased rimmed baking sheets or a couple of large roasting pans (make sure they birds are evenly spaced so they can properly brown around the sides). Scatter some sliced sweet potato around the baking dish if you like.
3. Roast: Heat the oven to 425F. If you’ve stuffed the birds ahead of time, remove from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes while the oven heats. Roast, rotating the baking sheets or roasting pan front to back, until the hens (or chicken) brown evenly and register 165F when temped with an instant-read thermometer, about 25 minutes; or just use a paring knife to make a nick into a thicker part. Note: check that the stuffing also comes to temperature; it’s loosely packed so it should heat at the same rate as the bird.
4. Serve: Of course, you could make a pan sauce here, though there’s plenty already going on with this dish (and an involved sauce would only pull you away from your guests for longer). I served the hens with a squirt of lemon juice and a light drizzle of good olive oil and it was good; try the same.