Lunches at home offer a respite from daily activities, and whether it is to work or just for fun, making it simple, easy and comfortable is my aim. I adore lunches, and normally plan a one-course meal with a green salad as an accompaniment, an easy to make dessert and pitchers of iced tea with orange juice and mint. I do find that lunch parties, however informal they might be, require different needs than an evening party, I can’t hide imperfections by lowering the lights and placing lots of candles; the rooms are sunnier and the table brighter (I even notice dust is places I didn’t know existed). But all my friends and yours will soon forgive these housekeeping flaws, when a delicious lunch is served.
For this ladies lunch, I am setting the table in the den; we have work to do and I want everyone as comfortable as possible. As the centerpiece, and in addition to flowers, I am placing mint julep cups with sharpened pencils and a stack of pads, so that even during lunch we can concentrate on what we have to accomplish. And by making the seating really comfortable, the ladies will stay and finish the project. Once we have finished eating and the plates are cleared, we can all grab a pad and pencil form the table and start to work.
It seems to me that the concept of the formal dinning room is over. The houses that are being built today have eating areas, dining spaces and eat in kitchens. And even in apartment living, the dinning room has become the library, the playroom or the home office. This trend is not because we don’t eat at home, but rather because eating in has become so much part of our lives that is no longer delegated to one room. I find it inspiring to set the table in the library, festive to entertain in the living room, comfortable to eat in the kitchen and sexy to have dinner for two in the bedroom. With a little imagination and a movable table, any room can be transformed into a delightful dining spot. And even the entrance way can be transformed into a cozy grotto when space is at a premium.
It is fun to eat in different rooms in your house: on a small table by the fire place, next to that sunny window, in your favorite corner of the living room or under a tree in the garden. The only must is comfort for you and your guests. Set a side table near by, so that, if the spot you pick is far away from the kitchen, you don’t have to trek through the house holding a pippin hot bowl of tomato soup, and place glasses, drinks and dessert plates on it. If your sofa becomes the place to sit, raise the bottom cushions with foam cut to measure (perhaps the swimming pool raft will work) and place a long caterer’s table in front, cover it with a beautiful tablecloth and you will have the most comfortable meal you can imagine. (I did this when I was very pregnant, and I promise, it works). And think of a menu that doesn’t consist of many dishes with lots of different sauces to limit spillage.
I am making goat cheese soufflé served with mustard sauce and a warm green salad with sautéed mushrooms and bacon. For dessert I am serving cream puffs (available frozen in the supermarket) with home made chocolate sauce.
Soufflés are really not hard to make, and the most common mistake is baking them in a soufflé dish that is either too big or too little. An eight by four inch round dish should be perfect for this recipe and for a group of 6 you will have to make two if you serve the soufflé as the main course. Think about it: if there are six of you, and calculating 2 eggs per person, make two soufflés of 7 eggs each (2 eggs per person, one for the pot). And to make sure it rises properly, add two extra egg whites to each dish.
I make a light béchamel sauce, the consistency of custard, with one and a half cups of milk and a tablespoon of flour. Then add goat and Parmesan cheese, season with salt, pepper and a tablespoon of mustard. When it has cooled a little bit, incorporate the egg yolks. Gently fold it with the whipped egg whites and bake in a 375-degree oven for 40 minutes. Don’t even think of opening the oven during this time, as the change of temperature will make the eggs fall. And don’t fret, if it falls for what ever reason, turn it into another baking dish, pour some heavy cream, sprinkle Parmesan on top and return it to the oven for ten minutes. It will miraculously rise again for a delicious twice baked soufflé. This method works so well, that I have often made sure the soufflé does fall so I can bake it twice. I serve the soufflé with a lemon mustard sauce, made by combining Dijon mustard, olive oil and lemon juice for a tangy sauce, delicious with the cheese soufflé.
The salad is made with sautéed mushrooms and crispy bits of bacon, mixed with baby spinach and arugula. The heat of the mushrooms will wilt the spinach slightly and the flavors of the bacon wrap it all with a wonderful smoky taste. Toss with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a delicious flavor.
Dessert couldn’t be simpler. After the nervousness of the soufflé, I don’t think I can handle more stress in the kitchen. Store bought cream puffs, thawed and served with hot chocolate sauce ends this lunch with an easy and elegant note. To make the cream puffs even more impressive, make a pyramid on the tray and pour the chocolate sauce on top. If the chocolate sauce is a no-no, gently heat a jar of seedless strawberry or raspberry jam and pour over the cream puffs for a less caloric substitution.
Working lunches have to run like clockwork: one hour to eat, one hour to work. Everyone has afternoon engagements; and for us, the ladies that work, it is just as important a board meeting as it is the weekly appointment in the beauty parlor.
Recipes for six.
Goat Cheese Soufflé
Goat cheese can be substituted for blue saga, Emmental or gruyere
2 tablespoons butter, more for coating the dish
1 and half cup milk
half cup grated parmesan
half lb. goat cheese, crumbled
7 eggs separated
2 egg whites
pinch of nutmeg
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
Turn the oven to 400 degrees and then lower it to 375 degrees. Generously butter an eight-inch soufflé dish and sprinkle half the Parmesan cheese to coat well; place in the fridge until ready to use. Make the béchamel by heating two tablespoons of butter over medium heat, add the flour and stir until light brown but not burnt. Add the milk and simmer, stirring, until it thickens. Remove from the heat. Add a pinch of nutmeg, mustard, salt and pepper. Add the cheeses, stirring until all combined and melted and incorporate the seven egg yolks, one at a time stirring well between each addition. In a separate bowl, and using an electric mixer, whip the 9 egg whites until stiff, soft peaks form and if you tilt the bowl, the eggs don’t fall. Using a spatula, incorporate a dollop of the egg whites into the béchamel (this tempers the eggs) and then pour it all back to the egg whites. Fold until all is combined and it is an even color. Pour into the prepared dish and, using your finger or the handle of a spoon, trace the inside edge of the soufflé dish to make a ridge. Bake in the oven for 35- 40 minutes, until risen and golden. Serve immediately.
Lemon Mustard Sauce
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
In a bowl, mix the mustard with olive oil. Incorporate the lemon juice, stirring to combine well.
Warm Mushroom and Bacon Salad
1 lb. bacon rashes, diced
1 lb. sliced mushrooms
1 lb. baby spinach, washed and dried
1 lb. baby arugula, washed and dried
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
In a sauté pan, cook the bacon bits until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. In the same pan, over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms until all their liquid evaporates. Return the bacon bits to the pan and give it a stir to re-heat. In a salad bowl, place the spinach and arugula and toss with the warm mushrooms. To make the vinaigrette, whisk the olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper; pour over the salad and toss to combine well. Serve warm.
Hot chocolate sauce
6 oz. dark chocolate
half-cup heavy cream
Break the chocolate into chunks. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate and cream, stirring to combine well. Serve hot. ■