leave your inhibitions at the door
There was a point this winter where I got fed up with the whole “nice dinner out” spend. I do love to get together with friends over food and wine at a nice restaurant on a Saturday night, especially in the doldrums of winter. But by the time we pay for the appetizers, entrees, wine, maybe split a dessert, and maybe an after-dinner drink (in hopes the kids are asleep by the time we get home), and then pay the sitter, we’ve gone through a silly amount of cash. What’s more, we could have cooked a meal at home that was just as good as fancy restaurant food (and in some instances better), even at Ann Arbor’s finest, for a fraction of the price. That money could’ve been a cute new pair of boots or a new outfit. Instead, it’s down the gullet in one night. There has to be a better solution.
There is—I call it ‘nestaurant’ night. (As in, “Let’s go out to eat in our nestaurant during our next staycation.” ) I phone another couple—who our friend and chief blogger on this site, the Hedonist, affectionately calls the Blood Sucking Lawyers—and laid out my plan. I would devise a menu and shopping list, and the four of us would go to Whole Foods Market on Eisenhower, buy our ingredients for our fancy dinner, and pick up a pizza for both couples’ kids. We’d quickly feed the kids, send them upstairs to play, then spend the next several hours making and eating our dinner. The Lawyers gamely agreed to the plan, including my control freakishness over completely planning out the menu and my occasional totalitarianism and bark-like sounds in the kitchen. They’re good friends.
One of the Lawyers, the pretty one, brought over a key lime pie she’d made earlier that day for dessert.
We then embarked to Whole Foods Market, and immediately headed to the wine bar. (A bar in a supermarket—brilliant—can’t believe no other chain thought of this first.) Fueled with a quick glass of wine and a little cheese, we shopped for our multi-course dinner. The total price, including a bottle of wine for each of the three savory courses, came to about $150 total, costing each couple $75. That is at least one-half the price of that amount of food and wine in a nice restaurant, and probably much less, considerably the high wine mark-ups in most restaurants. It was a really fun night cooking together. Here is what we made:
Blood orange, beet, a fennel salad. Very good dish, from the January 2012 issue of Bon Appétit. It was early March, so citrus was still in season, with plenty of blood oranges and cava cava oranges at the market. We enjoyed with a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, a region that consistently delivers Sauvignon Blanc grapes with a pronounced citrus component. Perfect.
Next up was my effort to replicate a dish I had recently at Bar Agricole in San Francisco, which I write about in this blog. (It had really no connection to the rest of the meal, lacking any citrus component, but it’s my nestaurant and I’ll do what I want to.) This bowl of earthy goodness included creamy polenta, roasted kale and mushrooms, fonduta, truffle oil, and a soft boiled egg. It was good, but I didn’t quite nail it. My fonduta set up a little too thickly, and I couldn’t find the exotic selection of mushrooms I needed to achieve those wondrously earthy notes—hedge hog, yellow tail, and the particularly heady black trumpet mushrooms—so had to settle for boring shitake and “brown mushrooms,” as described at Whole Foods. (And major bummer—I saw the black trumpets at the other Whole Foods on Washtenaw Ave. a week later.) We served this, family style, with Verdicchio, a white wine from Italy that dates back to the 14th century.
For our main course, we had a pan-roasted Icelandic salmon with pistachio blood orange vinaigrette. Excellente. This recipe at epicurious.com was the foundation for the vinaigrette, but I used a different fish because the arctic char at Whole Foods was too thin for my liking. I also pan roasted the salmon (searing on the stove in a heavy skillet and finishing in the oven), which produces a deeper flavor, than the broiling called for in the recipe. Highly recommend this prep for salmon or any other rich fish, and I’ll also be using this vinaigrette for grilled fish this summer. We served this with a recipe for blistered snap peas with lemon and mint I found in Food and Wine magazine. It’s a great side dish and I’ve made it several times since that night (and love the discovery of the “lemon oil” called for in this dish, which I have also since used for sautéed green beans and roasted Brussels sprouts). We enjoyed this dish with a lovely pinot noir from Oregon.
We finished the meal with the Lawyer’s delicious key lime pie, a perfect ending to a perfect nestaurant night in, where much good food and wine was consumed for about $37 a person and with no kid-sitter fee. I’ll definitely be planning another nestaurant night out during my next staycation.