Starters and Finishers
November 18, 2004 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Another AskCookingFilter…

I’ve basically got to cook an absolutely sock-blowing meal for two. What’re your tips for really impressive starters and puddings? [mi]

So yeah; I’m looking for the holy grail of something that looks and tastes great, is not too difficult to cook and where all the ingredients will be available from a big supermarket. For the pudding, something that could be made beforehand (chocolate mousse?) would be ideal.

[As a guide, my main course will probably be Filet Mignon With Truffled Mushroom Ragout and Potatoes Roasted With Rosemary And Sea Salt (unless anybody has any other suggestions) ]

Seriously, this meal needs to be gobsmackingly great.
posted by Hartster to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How about creme brulee for afters? It's not hard to make at all, just takes a bit of time, and gives you an excuse to go out and buy a blowtorch!
posted by briank at 7:10 AM on November 18, 2004

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Simple to make, and hands down, the best pudding I have ever had.
posted by remlapm at 7:10 AM on November 18, 2004

Can't go wrong with fresh fruit salad in chilled white wine as a desert, with a glass of champagne. or for maximum wow effect, try your hand at Thai fruit carving.

Hot date, eh? Good luck!
posted by Pericles at 7:18 AM on November 18, 2004

Mini tostadas with grilled cod and corn slaw.

Make the chips yourself by quartering tortillas and frying them in peanut oil. The corn slaw is just fresh corn and cabbage tossed with sugar and cider vinegar. For the cod - Marinate 30 minutes in olive oil, garlic powder, salt, and ancho chili powder. Grill over hot coals until just barely done and build as shown.
posted by y6y6y6 at 7:24 AM on November 18, 2004

If you're already going for a pretty complex meal, I'd dial back on the complexity of the starters. It's always nice to book-end a high-production meal with some very simple, very good plates.

With a rich meal like you've got, it might be overkill to follow up afterwards with something rich like cheese, so that might be a good idea for starters, when you're picking and choosing a bit. Maybe try a couple of really good cheeses and some good charcuterie with a nice crisp white wine.

Afterwards, before your dessert, maybe bring out some pieces of really, really good fruit--just sliced, or maybe in white wine like Pericles said, but that's it.

To finish up, the creme brulee sounds like a great idea, since it's also got a bit of production value to it with the blowtorch and all.
posted by LairBob at 7:29 AM on November 18, 2004

I find Pears Poached in Wine, Cardamom and Orange to be spectacular and easy to make. You must use the right amount of sugar, though, or the sauce will never get "sticky", which is a big part of the charm. Its lightness is perfect after a heavy meal. No need to serve with ice cream or anything.
posted by hazyjane at 7:53 AM on November 18, 2004

gives you an excuse to go out and buy a blowtorch

I am the proud owner of a blowtorch in just this way. Funny, how if a job around the house (including cooking) involves a new tool or gadget it seems to rise in preference above the others. Crème brulee is impressive and easy too. Dessert soufflés are also fun. Chocolate soufflés have become common. Grand Marnier soufflés are great fun. If you really want to impress you might start with a cheese soufflé course. It is something you can not really find in restaurants anymore.

So Hartster, what is the occasion?
posted by caddis at 8:00 AM on November 18, 2004

My big starter hit is wild mushroom strudel. This follows my general rule of "if you're trying to impress, use phyllo dough or puff pastry, because people who haven't worked with it think it's hard and it's not".

The basic strudel is really easy - saute a handful of shallots and a chopped garlic clove in 2 tbsp butter until they turn clear. Add 1 cup chopped mixed mushrooms* and 3 tbsp white wine. Cook until they're cooked through - 8-10 minutes. Cool. Mix 1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese and whatever fresh chopped herbs you have on hand (I like parsley**). This is your filling. Thaw phyllo dough according to the directions on the package (it comes frozen). You'll need 3 sheets. Lay out 1 sheet, brush with melted butter. Lay another sheet on top of it, and brush with melted butter. Repeat with the third sheet. (So now you have a stack of three sheets, with melted butter on each layer). Put the filling in the middle, and roll it up like a burrito. Brush the entire outside, top and bottom, with melted butter. Lay it seam side down on a pan or baking sheet with sides (not a perfectly flat sheet), seam down. Cut a diamond pattern into the top with parallel diagonal cuts (use a sharp knife, otherwise you'll tear the dough). Bake at 400 for 20 minutes or so, until golden brown. Slice and serve.

* Whatever mushrooms you can find. Definitely choose cremini over white button. Shitake adds some nice chewy texture.

** Parsley is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS flat Italian parsley, not the crinkly stuff.
posted by Caviar at 8:11 AM on November 18, 2004

Wild Salmon Tartare is a fantastically elegant starter, tastes great and can be made in advance. It takes a little bit of finickity French presentation to really look it's best though. I have a great Raymond Blanc recipe in a book, but can't find the same one online. It's a pretty common preparation though, and the principles are simple, so if you search you'll find a good recipe I think.
posted by bifter at 8:52 AM on November 18, 2004

I'm going to cast a vote against crème brulée. Done well, it's superb, but if you haven't made it a ton of times, it's easy to muck up (bland, overcooked, undercooked), and it's not really a dessert you can "fix".

It's hard to go wrong with mousse.

For a starter, you've got a heavy main, so I'd suggest a light starter. Get (or make) some good chicken stock, and make a carrot or pumpkin soup with it, adding a little curry and red pepper. Then, when you're done cooking it, strain it through as fine a mesh as you have- you want as close to a broth as you can get. Garnish it with something light, like pea shoots, and a single crouton. The curry adds a nice flavor depth, and the capsaicin in the pepper wakes the appetite and stimulates conversation (really!).

Oh, and a glass of champagne is always a nice start. Prosecco is a very nice alternative- don't let the low price fool you.
posted by mkultra at 9:15 AM on November 18, 2004

mmmmmmm.... prosecco.
posted by zpousman at 9:28 AM on November 18, 2004

This always get raves when I bring them to parties, and make great nibbles before a big meal:
Roasted Hazelnuts (aka Filberts) with fresh rosemary:
Entirely too simple to make: Rub about a half pound of shelled hazelnuts with some olive oil, spread the nuts on a jelly roll pan (a cookie sheet with rim on it). Strip the leaves from a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary and crush them in your hands as you sprinkle them on the nuts. Broil them in the oven while watching like a hawk. They're done when they are nice and toasty looking. This typically takes about 5-8 minutes. You may want to stir them once during the process. Let the nuts cool on the pan - make sure they are fully cooled before storing in a paper bag (otherwise they'll get soggy, at least in Seattle). Serve in an attractive bowl with an adult cocktail (a Manhattan or Martini) and watch 'em disappear.
posted by dbmcd at 9:31 AM on November 18, 2004

Following on from zpousman's comment, I just want to point out that cooking ANY recipe for the first time for an important occasion is a risk. Even if you get everything right, for some magical reason (at least with me) a dish almost never turns out as good the first time as it does on subsequent cookings. If it's that important of an occasion, and if you have time to practice the food you're going to make even once before the event, your results will probably be a lot better for it.
posted by hazyjane at 9:46 AM on November 18, 2004

Oops, meant to say mkultra's comment - the crème brulée part.
posted by hazyjane at 9:47 AM on November 18, 2004

For desert, consider a tart. I got this one out of Saveur magazine awhile back, and it's nearly foolproof, as long as you keep the dough cold. Use whatever fruit or jam you'd like -- I've had great success with fresh apricots and peaches, softened with a little lemon juice and sugar.
posted by me3dia at 9:49 AM on November 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

(Er, dessert. Whoops.)
posted by me3dia at 9:49 AM on November 18, 2004

So I clicked through to the Filet Mignon Recipe, and because I had my browser kinda skinny it read as Filet Mignon with Truffled Mush... mmmmmm mush :)
posted by zeoslap at 10:29 AM on November 18, 2004

Dessert wine. Sauternes, whatever, as long as the quality is good. A small glass at the end of the meal, and she/he is yours.

mkultra is right. See, *any* meal you prepare, if done well, will impress. But no dish however fancy will impress if you fuck it up. So go for simple, manageable, and really good ingredients (fresh, tasty, and sadly, expensive). Also, if you're going to impress, you need to get the dishes out quickly, be chatty and around, and not stress too much - again, simple food that doesn't need much prep is the key. (Or dishes where most of the work is earlier on).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:36 AM on November 18, 2004

Mmmm. Re-reading your post, I'm getting the impression, perhaps wrongly, that this is a Seduction Meal. If you are expecting action afterwards, consider something lighter. Don't fill up the object of your desire with rich heavy food, the risk is too high that said person will be too sleepy and full to reward your efforts with more than a belch and a doze on the sofa. Think light, think crispy paired with creamy, and smaller portions.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:47 AM on November 18, 2004

... and on the Seduction Meal tip... make whipped cream to accompany whatever dessert you make. Make extra whipped cream. You know why, you sly dog, you.
posted by mkultra at 12:50 PM on November 18, 2004

Tip: Wrap it in bacon.

When I'm trying to blow someone away with my cooking, this is the trick I use. I don't want them to know how cholesterol-laden the food is, though, so I unwrap it in the kitchen before it gets to the table.

Seriously, 'wrap it in bacon' is the only cooking advice you ever need.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:29 PM on November 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

Seriously, 'wrap it in bacon' is the only cooking advice you ever need.

Unless you're making creme brulee.
posted by briank at 1:48 PM on November 18, 2004

I did oft-boiled quail eggs with truffle mayonnaise recently, and it went down well. Quite unusual, easy to make, and can be done in advance -- a neat little starter.
posted by chrismear at 2:56 PM on November 18, 2004

Erm, whoops, actually the eggs should be boiled so that they are soft, rather than boiled frequently.
posted by chrismear at 2:57 PM on November 18, 2004

Thai Fruit n' Shrimp Salad.

Mind-blowingly good, even if I say so myself. ;)
posted by madman at 3:44 PM on November 18, 2004

ikkyu2, if it doesn't taste good after being cooked in bacon grease, it's just not edible.

MetaFilter: Wrap it in bacon! Hehehe.
posted by fenriq at 3:46 PM on November 18, 2004

A great book full of easy and delicious deserts is Jacques Pepin's Sweet Simplicity. Most of the deserts involve taking fresh fruit and making only minimal changes, which is great in terms of saving you time--although it also means you need a farmers' market or other source of really good fresh fruit.

Another fast recipe (which doesn't require a farmer's market) is an apple tart recipe from Nick Stellino's Cucina Amore. (Don't be put off by the book's cheesy name, or the fact that it comes with a CD of music to cook by. It's actually a great book.) basically, you take frozen puff pastry dough, then core and slice three apples, and arrange them on the pastry. Then you sprinkle it with 3 tablespoons sugar, 3 tablespoons butter (sliced up thinly) and cook it for 10-15 minutes at 475. If the apples are a little tart you can sprinkle it with some powdered sugar when it's done.

If this is a seduction meal, try "Eggplant to A Sheik's Taste" from Isabel Allende's Aphrodite as a started.

If you want a not-too-hard recipe that can be made a day in advance, these Giant Toffee Cookies are pretty good the day you make them, but if you let them sit for a day or two, they become stunning. (I'm guessing from your use of "pudding" that you're British. Ironically, you probably won't find "English toffee bars" in the UK, but you can substitute Dime bars, which are the same.)

The most impressive recipe I've ever made is this Pumpkin Spice Cake With Chocolate Leaves. It can be made a day ahead, but realistically, it's not exactly easy to make. But you can always skip the pumpkin cake part and just make the chocolate leaves, which are pretty straightforward if you're willing to be patient about melting the chocolate. They can be made up to two days in advance, and they look REALLY impressive. So, even if you make some other pudding, consider making a few chocolate leaves as a garnish for it.
posted by yankeefog at 2:59 AM on November 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody for the cool suggestions. I think LairBob is right about the need to keep things simple. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to go with for the pudding, but I reckon Crème Brulee if I get chance to practice or Chocolate Mousse with Sesame Snaps if I don’t. Starter I’m not sure about yet, but small, simple and stylish will be my watchwords. Those and “cover it in bacon”.

(And several of the other recipes recommended are definitely getting made at some point, especially those Giant Toffe Cookies, the Pears Poached in Wine, Cardamom and Orange and the Mini tostadas with grilled cod and corn slaw)

(And to those of you curious as to the back story: it’s not so much a hot date as, like, our first time while properly together. As she’s had to go through a lot to get there, both geographically (she lives a good coupla 100 miles away) and emotionally (ex-boyfriends can, apparently, be immensely tedious), I figure I owe a decent meal. Oh, and I might, just possibly, maybe have claimed to be an absolutely brilliant cook when I put my mind to it)

(One thing I am good at, however, is mixing a mean cocktail, so I’ve made sure I’ve got a fully stocked cocktail cabinet. Strength will therefore be in inverse proportion to how well the food’s going)
posted by Hartster at 6:52 AM on November 19, 2004

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