I cooked for a bunch of people last weekend. And a bunch of people cooked for me.
On Saturday afternoon I dropped off dinner for 12 at my friend Jill’s house. For the last few years, Jill and her husband, Rudy, and several other couples have been the winning bidders on a series of Big Night In-themed dinners to raise money for our kids’ school.
The menu was simple but substantial, in keeping with the book’s theme of convivial entertaining: 3 pounds of fresh maccheroni alla chitarra, with Abruzzese-style ragù; beef tenderloin with salsa verde and salsa bianca; truffled mushrooms; mixed salad with citrus-honey dressing; and, for dessert, panna cotta with rhubarb compote (which actually comes from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian).
On Saturday evening, my husband and I were, coincidentally, guests at another Big Night In dinner, hosted by my friend Carolyn and her husband, Paul. They belong to a wine club, and members were tasked with making a recipe from the book and pairing it with wine.
It was a big party. Among the dishes folks made from the book: pear and pecorino salad with chestnut honey; bruschetta with roasted cherry tomatoes; seafood risotto with prosecco; double carbonara; a riff on arrosticini made with lollipop lamb chops; beef tenderloin (this time with salsa bianca and salsa rosa); roast pork loin with carrots, fennel and onions; and maple-roasted squash. I’m sure there was more. Carolyn made the sour cherry gelato with bittersweet chocolate-cherry sauce, and since I was already making one large batch of panna cotta for the other party, I went ahead and made a second for this one.
I’ve been writing books and doing events for awhile now (closing in on 10 years), but still it’s kind of awesome, and a bit nerve-wracking, to be the guest at a dinner starring your own recipes. Wine helps. There were a couple of dishes ~ pear and pecorino salad and double carbonara ~ that I had not made in years (one of the few downsides to cookbook writing is that you’re often too busy developing new recipes to revisit the old ones). I don’t mind telling you that I was a little surprised at how good they were (self-doubter here).
It turns out that the sleeper hit of both dinners was the simplest thing on the menu ~ the panna cotta (though I personally would have to go with the sour cherry gelato). Several people said it was the best dessert they’d ever had so I was happy to inform them that it’s also the easiest dessert in the world to make, because what is panna cotta, really, but Jell-O made with cream ~ and a bit of vanilla bean or other flavoring tossed in?
I managed to make it even easier, too. Instead of chilling the cream in individual molds, which would have meant having to un-mold and plate each one at serving time (we are not a restaurant), I poured the warm cream into a large decorative serving dish so that portions could be easily spooned into cups or bowls. Garnish with a dollop of roasted rhubarb compote and voila, dessert is served.
There was one more Big Night In-related coincidence over the weekend. On Friday, as I was prepping the dinner to bring to Jill’s ~ stirring sauce, tying and seasoning the beef, slicing and sautéing mushrooms ~ and wondering just what I was going to feed my own family that night, I got a call from my neighbor Meredith inviting us to an impromptu dinner. She had made, of all possible things, beef tenderloin and sautéed mushrooms from Big Night In.
Unfortunately, both dishes of panna cotta chilling in my fridge were already spoken for. Luckily, my husband had picked up a bottle of wine.
Sometimes ~ not always, but sometimes ~ things fall into place quite nicely.
(Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian)
Since panna cotta has so few ingredients, be sure they are the best: good cream and real vanilla bean rather than vanilla extract. The panna cotta needs to chill, so make it the day before you plan to serve it. There are plenty of ways to garnish panna cotta, but probably none as pretty as sliced strawberries and a dollop of ruby rhubarb compote, which, in addition to color, provides a nice, tart contrast to the creamy pudding.
- For the panna cotta:
- 6 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- 1 1/2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
- For the rhubarb compote:
- 1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and sliced crosswise
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 vanilla bean
To make the panna cotta, in a large saucepan, combine the cream and sugar. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean half into the cream mixture and toss in the pod. Cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is almost at a simmer, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 20 minutes.
Pour 3 tablespoons water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand 5 minutes.
Uncover the cream and bring it just to a simmer over medium heat. Gently whisk in the gelatin mixture until dissolved, then remove from the heat. Discard the vanilla bean pod. Pour the panna cotta into a 2-quart baking dish, bowl or soufflé dish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely set, at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
Meanwhile, make the rhubarb compote: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, combine the rhubarb and sugar. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean half into the dish and toss in the pod. Fold everything together gently. Transfer the rhubarb mixture to a baking dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake until the rhubarb is very tender, about 45 minutes. Let cool slightly. Discard the vanilla bean.
To serve, spoon panna cotta into individual bowls or cups and top with the compote.