Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Birthday Dinner: A Vegetarian Three-Course Menu for Rajini

A group of G+ friends scattered all over the world virtually got together to send a superb bottle of Pinot Noir as a birthday gift to Rajini Rao--a passionate G+ science curator/professor of biochemistry at Hopkins and a general-all-around sweetheart. Our mutual friend, the ever gallant William McGarvey, then suggested I make up a menu to go with this versatile wine. After some research, I created some comestibles while being robustly vegetarian would marry satisfactorily with it.

The Menu
(serves four)

Confit of Roasted Cauliflower Marinated in Sherry Vinegar & Thyme.

Lentil, Porcini, Cashew/Yogurt Cream Ragout & Sauteed Polenta

Individual Top-Crust Strawberry Pies With Dark Chocolate Ganache & Candied Violets.

Several changes from the original menu given to Rajini were necessary, and some of them involved the dessert. Since finger food is fun, I thought strawberry hand-pies half-dipped in ganache would be a comely dessert. After two separate attempts, the strawberry filling kept on bubbling right out through the pastry envelope. Don't worry, no hand pie was neglected. The warm ones duly were put into ramekins, well dusted with powdered sugar, and eaten. With a spoon. When cold, they could be eaten by hand, just not dipped neatly into ganache.

The Calm One and I enjoyed these near hits!

If you are planning to have a formal dinner for guests instead of just making one of the courses or having a come-what-may informal dinner for friends/family, I would suggest the following work-flow:

1)  The day before make everything that can be made in advance:  marinating the cauliflower, the ragout, the polenta loaf, the cashew/yogurt cream, the completed strawberry pies minus the candied violets' topping which can be done just before serving.  If you want the ganache to be more 'melty' than not, it is best to make it close to presenting the dessert to your guests.

2)  The day of the dinner, take the pies and cashew/yogurt cream out of the fridge to come to room temperature several hours before dinner will be served.  You can give an apéritif to your guests while you roast the cauliflower, saute the polenta slices (keep warm in a low oven), and reheat gently the ragout.  Serve the cauliflower confit as soon as it comes out of the oven (once it is garnished).

3)  Assemble the entree after the first course is finished, either on a serving platter or on individual plates.

4)   Garnish the pies with the violets after the entree is finished and serve the dessert.

5)  Voila!

First course:


  • Cauliflower, whole head, medium-sized
  • olive oil, 200 ml
  • Salt, 1/4 tsp
  • Sherry vinegar, 100 ml
  • Thyme, dried, 1 tsp
  • Olives, pimento stuffed, jumbo, about 20
  • Fleur de sel, for sprinkling on the finished dish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Remove leaves and slice off stalk--if necessary you may dig in a little deeper to get any woody stalk/buried leaves, but be careful not to cut off any connecting network for the florets or it will be difficult to get whole slices.  Rinse and dry the head. Slice from top to bottom with a sharp knife--ceramic would be ideal--about 1/4 inch thick. It's OK if some slices crumble into small pieces, but try to get two whole slices for each serving. If you can't, tant pis.

Sherry/Xérès vinegar is a wonderful condiment as it brightens up food while having a 'friendly' acidity.

In a large, shallow, non-reactive dish--ceramic, glass, stainless steel--whisk the vinegar, olive oil, thyme, and salt together. Place the cauliflower in a single layer and spoon the marinade over them.  Depending on how much cauliflower there is, you may need to make more marinade--the marinade should come half way up the thickness of the slices to get a confit effect, less will result in more of a pickled result. Marinate covered overnight.

Line a shallow baking tray with parchment paper. Lifting the slices with a slotted spatula when transferring from the marinade to the baking tray will help to drain the cauliflower of excess liquid. Make sure you use a baking tray with sides because the olive oil will ooze out during baking. This style of cooking is more a mix of braising and roasting.

Roast on the middle rack for about 20 minutes or till nicely browned and tender, turning the slices half way through. Be sure to test the solid central parts with a knife's tip for tenderness. Be careful not to go overboard and char them.

While the cauliflower is baking, thinly cut the olives into circular slices, reserving a few whole ones for halving.  Arrange decoratively the cauliflower and olives on either a serving platter or individual plates. If you find the cauliflower a little too dripping with marinade, blot them. Best served hot, when cooler the cauliflower wrinkles and gets soggy a bit, though I certainly would not refuse to eat them coldBefore serving, sprinkle with fleur de sel.

The first course turned out well--lusciously permeated with olive oil while boasting depth of flavour and brightness of taste thanks to the Xeres/thyme/fleur de sel making me look forward to the rest of the dinner which is what a worthy appetiser does.  If one is not fond of pimento-stuffed olives as a garnish, try substituting marinated artichoke hearts or capers or black olives.

Entree/Main Course: 


  • Lentils, brown, rinsed and picked over for stones, 1 cup*/220 grams
  • Olive oil, 2 T
  • Salt, 1/4 tsp
  • Porcini, dried, two small handfuls and their liquor, 4 cups*/1 liter (add water to the porcini liquor if necessary to get the recommended amount of total liquid)
  • red pepper flakes, 1/4 tsp or more per preference
  • Ginger, frozen or fresh, chopped, 1 T
  • Garlic, frozen or fresh, chopped, 1 T
  • Cashew butter, 2 rounded tablespoons
  • Yogurt, whole milk, 125 ml/4 oz
  • Tomato paste, 4 T
  • Polenta, 180 grams/1 cup* (add 3/4 liter/3 cups* of water)
  • Butter, as needed to sauteed the polenta slices
* American measure, that is, 8 oz cups.

Prepare dried porcini/ceps, reserving the liquid.  Chop them coarsely. Saute garlic and ginger in two tablespoons of olive oil for a minute. Add the lentils and stir for another minute. Add the chopped porcini and their liquid, red pepper flakes, salt, and tomato paste.

Simmer, covered, for about a hour until lentils are soft and most of the liquid is gone--the consistency needs to be thick but still very moist. Add some water if necessary.  When finished, season to taste with additional salt if desired.

While lentils are simmering, make the polentaUsing a medium size saucepan, stir polenta into the water. While stirring, bring to a boil and then simmer, stirring frequently, for about ten minutes.  

Oil a small loaf pan and fill with the polenta and reserve in the fridge. 

While the polenta is solidifying and the lentils are simmering make the cashew/yogurt cream.  Put the cashew butter in a small mixing bowl along with the yogurt.

Cashew butter resembles coffee ice cream but I think it's more delicious!

Beat smooth with a stick mixer.  A fork and/or a balloon whisk can be used instead but it will take much longer.

Un-mold the polenta and slice it about a quarter inch thick. Saute on each side for several minutes in a couple of tablespoons of butter in a large skillet until warm and a little browned on their edges. If your pan is not big enough to accommodate all the slices, keep the sauteed ones in a warm oven until all are done. Arrange the slices attractively on a plate (cut 2 slices in half diagonally to get the 4 centre pieces).

Spoon ragout on all the slices.  Top each slice with yogurt/cashew cream. Serve immediately.  

I really liked the entree--it's hearty, comforting, and yet elegant.  The lentil ragout also tastes very good cold as is and probably could be blended to make a dip/spread. Any leftover polenta can be sauteed in butter and topped with warm jam or maple syrup and yogurt making a lovely breakfast like I have done with left-over oatmeal.



  • Strawberries, fresh or frozen in light syrup, 480 grams/2 cups*
  • Flour, 1 T
  • Sugar, 4 T if not using berries frozen in syrup, 
  • Basic short pastry (substitute butter for the lard), or prepared vegetarian pastry enough for a 9 inch top pie crust
  • Chocolate, dark, over 64% or higher cacao content, 115 grams/4 oz, broken in pieces.
  • Cream, heavy, 1/2 cup*/120 ml/
  • Butter, 14 grams/1 T
  • Candied violets, 4 tsp, finely chopped while reserving 4 whole.
*American measure, that is, 8 oz cups

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Wash, hull, and chop strawberries.  If frozen in a light syrup as I did with my garden berries, then no added sugar is necessary. If using raw, add the sugar. Add the flour and stir well.  Fill each ramekin about one inch from the top.

Roll out the pastry and using a 3-inch ramekin as a template, cut around it leaving an extra inch.  Make four rounds.

Lift the rounds with a thin spatula and place on the ramekins. Crimp the edges and make a few slashes.  There will be left over pastry which can be frozen for future pies--gather the scraps into a ball--or you make more than four pies (you will need more filling of course) or you could roll out the remaining in a rectangle, sprinkle it with cinnamon, roll up tightly length-wise, slice, and arrange them on a baking sheet.  Bake at 425 degrees F.  Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Place the pies on parchment-lined baking trays and put them in oven.  Bake about 15 minutes until golden brown.

While the pies are baking, make the ganache.  Directions are here.  Chop up the candied violets, reserving 4 whole ones.  As the pies cool, gently press down the inner circle of pastry, excluding the crust to create a cavity for the ganache.  Spread the ganache up to the crimped edges. Work quickly spreading the ganache as it loses its liquidity fairly fast.

As it gets thicker, finish off the topping with a 3 petal pattern--ease dollops off a small spoon onto the centres. If needs be, the ganache can be gently re-heated to get it liquid again. Then sprinkle each with the chopped, candied violets, placing a whole one smack in the middle.  Best served tepid.  Any left-over (ha!) ganache can be put in the fridge until solid, then made into small balls and rolled in crushed nuts or cocoa.

These were gorgeous in taste and looks.  Also the juices did not run down my arm. Take that, strawberry hand pie!

Bon appétit and à la prochaine!