In the same way that I promised myself last fall that this would not become a "cooking at school" blog, I'm also dead set that, for the next couple of months, it will not become a "wedding" blog. Although it must be said that cooking at school is probably a damn sight more interesting than anyone's wedding, which tend to be rather boring affairs. This is true even in our case, which is more a series of unweddings than anything else. Bear with me here as I write a wedding-related post, at least somewhat in the service of giving you a recipe at the end.
We're actually having three events, which, considering that G is party-phobic, is a lot. There's the actual ceremony, which will be performed at my dad's apartment for immediate family. I was actually planning to cook dinner myself for the ten people involved in that evening, but my in-laws have graciously offered to host a dinner in a lovely local restaurant instead.
Then there's what we're calling "the New York party", which will take place a day after the ceremony. This is a cocktail reception hosted by my sister-in-law and my brother, mainly for friends and colleagues.
Three weeks after that, our relatives from various parts of the country will gather at the home of family friends in Connecticut for cocktails, champagne, hors d'oeuvre, and a light but hopefully lavish supper, ending in the somewhat-hackneyed-but-still-fun cupcake tower. That's the only event which we really have to coordinate in a big way. Now, it's quite possible that various relatives on either side are going to hoist a number of eyebrows at the way we're doing things, but oh well. Trust me, the informality of cupcakes is the least of it. You foodie-types would be surprised at just how many people have NEVER heard of having a cupcake tower for their wedding party. We're going to be considered quite outré, I think. But we sort of like that. Really, we just want everyone to have an excellent time, not break our bank, and dispense with as many formalities as possible.
So we're doing it our way. This signifies that we don't have a professional caterer, florist, photographer, or anything even resembling any of those things. A friend/colleague of mine who went to culinary school is catering, along with some pals of hers. Another friend who's an artist and landscape designer is going to help me design invitations as well as making some flowers happen. A friend who's a champion party-giver in her own right has offered all of her party stuff to us (this is a woman with 72 champagne flutes). And I called in a marker. Years ago, I wrote a business plan for a rather chic fashion designer who now has her own shop in Nolita. She's making me a dress -- not a "wedding gown", heaven forbid, but a party dress.
What this all means is that quite a lot of this event is going to be "do-it-ourselves". One arena that G felt we could definitely handle was the liquor. We will have a bartender, and servers, but we're going to be purchasing wines and liquor ourselves. This entails finding wines and particularly a champagne that we want to serve. Now we get to the fun part.
How would we find the hootch that we want to serve at our event? Well, I guess we had no choice but to break down and taste it. Not being big drinkers at all, we tend to be of the "I don't know much, but I know what I like" school of wine-tasting. We do have a red that we discovered in California last year that we like a lot, works well with all kinds of food and is widely available. But what to do about white and champagne? We enlisted the help of some friends who were happy to assist, since like us they're pretty avid for any sort of socializing that involves food and drink. Our friends Bonnie and Barry helped us taste white wines a few weeks ago, and we've settled on a very nice Sauvignon Blanc that's very much like a Sancerre, being that it's actually grown in a town that's just outside the official appellation of Sancerre, so there you go.
But then it came to the matter of champagne. Ever since we became engaged, we've been having a lot of champagne -- at least for us. On the day of our engagement, our dear cousins opened some Veuve Clicquot. A week or so later, another cousin took us out to dinner, and upon hearing our announcement, ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon. We're actually very fond of champagne, but don't know what to buy, particularly when it comes to ordering it by the case. So we invited Nathalie and Josh for dinner a few weeks ago, and I posited this champagne problem to Josh. He took it quite seriously. "Leave it to me," he said. "We'll do a blind tasting. You just make dinner." So I did, with one caveat. I told him that he had to bring some champagne that we wouldn't mind using for cooking, since I was going to make a dish that required champagne. "No problem," he said.
The evening arrived, and the hors d'oeuvre were set out -- all champagne-friendly things, like toasted Marcona almonds and hot crisp cheese biscuits and apricots with fresh mozzarella, wrapped in prosciutto. Josh threw us all out of the living room so he could set up the blind tasting environment, which involved cups labeled in secret code. Well, okay, it was A, B, C, D and E, but only Josh knew which champagnes were coded to which cup. We began our tasting, starting the letters backward. E seemed somewhat acerbic and bitter. D was better -- a little lighter. C -- now that was nice. We all liked it. B tasted like musty rotgut. A was a little better. But the winner was C. We all agreed -- C had a freshness to it that we all enjoyed above any of the others.
It was no surprise that the rotgut we liked least was the little yellow screw-top bottle called "Heidsick and Company". What was surprising was that the reputable French champagnes that we've enjoyed under many other circumstances -- Veuve Clicquot, Perrier, and Mumm -- all lost out to a California champagne-type sparkling wine, Piper Sonoma. Yes, it was the Piper Sonoma that had that crisp, delicate quality we all quaffed with glee. This may be proof of nothing more than our uneducated palates, but the only thing I can say in our defense is that even Nathalie, born and bred and raised in France, clearly preferred the California bubbly.
A splash from all the bottles combined to make our side dish, a champagne risotto which I've made many times before, but which was never as delicious as when made with five different champagnes. The risotto accompanied crisply grilled herbed lamb chops and salad with hearts of palm, and was then followed by crème renversée au caramel, raspberries and my newest (which is also my oldest, but more about that later) brownie recipe. By this time we were swilling the last of the champagne and groaning.
Bravely we forge ahead in this unknown arena of creating a not-so-formal formal event. We don't know how many eyebrows this will raise at our family soirée, but we're going with the domestic champers. Oh, and I lied before. There are actually five events at last count -- I think. My dearest cousin is hosting a brunch the day after the family party, and friends are throwing me a shower next weekend. Fortunately G doesn't have to attend that last one, although Josh has threatened to show up in drag.
This is very good made with one kind of champagne, too. Like most risotti, it's also a very flexible recipe, in which you might substitute shallots for leeks, for example, depending upon what you have on hand.
2 cups carnaroli or other risotto rice
2 cups champagne (either the remains of a tasting, or just what's left of a bottle, should you have anything left)
4 cups good chicken or vegetable broth, standing at a simmer
2 fat leeks, cleaned and chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup cream or crème fraîche
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a heavy 2 1/2 or 3 quart pot, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and celery and cook until translucent. Add the rice, stirring to coat each grain. Cook, stirring, for five minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups of champagne and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed. Start adding simmering stock, a ladleful at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before you add the next one. As you add ladles of stock, occasionally taste a grain of rice for doneness. You're looking for rice that is toothsome but neither chalky at the center, nor overly mushy. If you run out of stock, use boiling water in small increments. When almost-but-not-quite done, add the rest of the champagne. Stir until absorbed and rice is just-cooked. Stir in the cream or crème fraîche and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Add freshly ground pepper to taste, and salt if needed. Serve immediately. Serves four generously, with leftovers -- which make fantastic crisply-fried risotto cakes the next day.