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Critique My Menu? 5-6 Courses, French

Hors d'oeuvre: Choux three ways: cheese, filled with crab, and filled with duxelles

Salad with warm chevre

Pissalidiere Nicoise and/or Tomato Tart

Roasted Carrots

Individual Spinach Souffles

Cheese (exact varieties and accompaniments pending a conversation with my cheesemonger)

Three-layer Chocolate Mousse Cake

So I'm already up against a problem from the start: at least two of my guests are vegetarians. While having a majority of vegetarian friends has been occasionally trying having an avowed carnivore trying to plan a dinner party without even the barest hint of animal flesh has proven problematic. I mean, at least pescetarians would give me something to work with. Overall I'm planning on about 10-12 diners give or take.

Giving a critical eye to what I already have I've hit upon a number of potential issues:

- Too much cheese.

I have four dishes total that include it and of those three are using gruyere! The obvious first cut is the cheese course and that itself is a late addition. My thought was to limit myself to cow's milk cheeses. The goat cheese should be distinct enough to work, the puffs have a variety of flavorings and occur early enough not to get in the way, and the souffle should be enriched by the cheese, but it's not the dominant flavor.

- Salad as a first course

Reading over other threads opinion varies slightly on this. I could certainly hold it back to the cheese course, but I'd prefer to present that with pears, fruit, and perhaps a shallot confit depending on the cheeses I eventually select.

- Which tart to choose, how to serve, and where to place within the menu

The tomato tart itself sort of began life because one of my guests is allergic to onion (including leeks and all related Alliums) and I wanted to find an appropriate substitute for the pissalidiere. Spinach was already in the souffle and most other ideas quickly fell flat. Tomatoes, however, aren't exactly at the peak of season in the middle of November. Sure, I can still get them and probably even some decent ones, but when it's going to be so nakedly up front there it might not be the best idea. At the same time they complement each other rather well.

As well I still haven't decided whether to make two (or more) large tarts or serve them individually as tartelettes. On one hand it seems to suit them if I decide to make both (and lets me easily exclude anchovies from the vegetarians and double-size the onion-allergic), but on the other I'm already doing individual souffles and well... it just seems a bit twee to have too many miniature courses.

Finally I've started to vacillate on where I should place them within the menu. Both the tarts and the souffle can easily serve as entrees or mains. My thinking was that since the souffle is richer it would do better later into the menu and the progression would work better going from tarts to souffle than vice-versa. Especially with the carrots as a lead in... which brings us to.

-Ditch the carrots?

A simple dish, but I wanted to do a number of things 1) provide a nice lead-in both in flavor, texture, color, and contrast to the spinach souffle (I considered serving them, if not as a separate course, on the plate surrounding the souffle) 2) are quintessentially late fall/early winter... even here in seasonless San Francisco 3) buy me some time to get the souffles in and out of my overworked oven. The latter, however, is actually also the biggest part of the problem as the carrots take a solid 45 minutes in the oven at a temperature well above anything else so even if I had the space I can't double them up with something else. I've never actually tried to hold them for any period of time and I greatly suspect that if they aren't served immediately they'll just turn dry and leathery especially considering the number of dishes wanting a turn in the oven meaning they'd need to go in right after the choux come out and possibly holding everything else up in the process.

I've thought about a braise so I can move them up to the stove, but really it feels a bit bland compared to the simpler, but more intense flavor of the roasting. Another option was to go with a carrot soup instead, but then I have both a soup and a salad... not that wouldn't be a potential improvement, but I lose the buffer between the tarts and the souffle.

This isn't necessarily an exhaustive list and I certainly welcome whatever you can come up with, but these were, to me, the most glaring flaws when I sat down and tried to look at my own choices from an outside perspective.

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  1. You've given this a lot of thought and I'd be happy to be your guest!
    Some ideas to bump up the protein given your constraints:
    Quiche (served with the salad) vs. pissadiliere to add protein and a creamy element. Of course you have scads of filling choices. And, quiche is more forgiving than souffle and can hold a bit longer.
    I love the idea of a soup. Carrot is great. So easy and so many ways to vary it.
    Socca vs. tomato tart to bump up the protein with chick peas. You could serve it topped with tomato confit.

    1 Reply
    1. re: monavano

      I considered quiche, but dropped it from the running for a couple of reasons, most of them practical considerations. Essentially I just don't have the pans necessary to produce them in large enough quantities. I currently lake a proper tart pan (I'm making the tarts as free-form galettes) or straight-sided quiche ring so my only options would be a pie plate or the springform. The springform pan is going to be filled with the mousse cake and will be chilling from the day before so that's out and the pie plate's slanted sides aren't quite reliable enough when I need to make multiple partially-baked shells in advance and because I only have one plate can't serve them in it.

      It's simply much easier to buy some extra ramekins for a few dollars and make individual souffles. They also cook quickly enough due to their size that the time shouldn't be too much of a problem. Much less hassle than pre-baking several pastry shells one at a time.

      The socca is definitely an interesting idea. I'm not sure I'd want to replace the pissalidiere with it outright though and the tomato confit seems a bit off (shouldn't pepper be the only topping?), but it's certainly under consideration now.

    2. Why not a pasta? In Simply French by Patricia Wells she presents a number of dishes by Paul Robuchon that feature tagliatelle. What if you started with something like his Fricasee of Wild Mushrooms and then tossed it with pasta? He separates the varieties of mushrooms, cooks each one in olive oil and then combines at the end in a pan with butter, chives and flat leaf parsley. Chervil is optional and if shallots are not allowed, those are too. Make you own pasta and this is a very special dish--imagine if you made ravioli filled with a tomato concasse.

      1. Basically, I would substitute a carrot soup or butternut squash soup for the roasted carrots. The soups can be made ahead and rewarmed prior to serving. serve the soup prior to the salad.

        1 Reply
        1. re: igorm

          Agreed, and it seems a little strange to serve roasted carrots as their own course. Carrot soup would be fine, though.

        2. There can never be too much cheese in my opinion.

          This sounds like a lovely meal as it is. I also like monavano's suggestion of socca - a little different. For soup, what about a lovely vegetable with a swirl of pistou to rev it up? Quiche, too, a bakery near us makes one with roasted cherry tomatoes, which intensifies the flavors nicely. Quiche would of course remove the challenge of those souflees.

          One thought I had was how about some lentils? In Wells' Provence book I seem to recall a delicious lentil salad that involved walnut, mint, and walnut oil. Dorie Greenspan's French Table book has a great lentil salad with tuna and preserved lemons - you could easily leave out the tuna, and perhaps add some nuts or just nothing else. Lentils could work in place of salad to start and you could add the salad to the cheese course.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Splendid Spatula

            Yes, lentils sprang to mind immediately for me as well. I prefer mine with sausage (of course!) but an number of variations on the saucisson aux lentilles can be made without the sausage for a vegetarian course. If I were you, I would do a lentil course (either soup or a "salad") instead of the roasted carrots (but you could put roasted carrots in with the lentils, of course). I also agree that quiche is probably a better bet than a tomato tart, especially since the only protein on the menu is cheese (the lentils would help with this issue as well).

            If you dislike lentils, what about a bean dish - a vegetarian cassoulet, perhaps?

          2. That is a lot of cheese.

            Does your mousse cake have gelatin, and if so, are your veg friends OK with that?

            If you do a salad, wouldn't it be more French to serve it after the main?

            Have you considered crepes as an option to one of the tarts? Could be a little lighter, and easy to vary the fillings for veg and allergies. I was going to suggest wild mushroom crepes, but you have the duxelle in your hors d'ouvre. Are you doing gougeres for all flavors, or plain choux, some of them cheese-filled?

            I think having a roasted carrot course is a little odd. If it's moroccan spiced carrots with saffron couscous, lentils, and smoked tomato sauce, that seems like a course, but just roasted carrots? Hmm.

            Are you feeling limited by vegetables in the fall? Don't forget parsnips, celery root, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, endives & chicories.

            2 Replies
            1. re: babette feasts

              Maybe you could change the duxelle filling for the gougere and then you open yourself up to all sorts of possibilities with mushrooms--which are a very seasonal ingredient especially if you can find some wild ones.

              1. re: babette feasts

                No, only one set are gougeres. It's simple enough to divide up the pate choux and the rest don't really need the cheese.

                The crepes are out for practical reasons as I really don't have any non-stick pans remotely up to the task. I've also never really been much of a fan of them personally.

                I agree that the carrots as an entire course seems a tad odd. Soup would fit in wonderfully, but I feel like I'd want to drop the salad entirely in that case. On the same point if I do keep it and move it back I'd want to serve it alongside the cheese, but that would probably mean moving the goat cheese off the salad, out of the pan, and onto the cheese plate. Not a huge problem, but it made it onto the menu in the first place because it's one of those dishes that takes almost no time or effort and is always a crowd-pleaser. Likewise while salad with a cheese course is typical I prefer the cheese to be the focus of the course and feel that fruit, bread, and other accompaniments don't hog the spotlight in the same way. I've never heard of having a simple salad course (now without the chevre, of course) and then following it with the cheese separately, but I'd be open to that.

                As for feeling limited by vegetables, well... that's less about the fall and more about me. Basically, I hate vegetables. Especially mushrooms (pretty much the #1 thing I will not eat), squash, and cauliflower. As I said, carnivore.

              2. Here's my edits. I love, love, love the choux three ways. So innovative. Keep it. Because of the preponderance of cheese, ditch the chevre in the salad. I agree with the other posters to serve the carrots as a soup in a separate soup course. For the tart, I'd do a free form roasted fall vegetable tart - roast ahead the peppers, sliced butternut squash, and sliced crooknecks and layer in the galette and then bake. Serve with a small spinach souffle on the side. Better yet, ditch the souffle and serve with the salad. So my version of your meal would be:

                Hors d'oeuvre: Choux three ways: cheese, filled with crab, and filled with duxelles

                Carrot Soup

                Roasted vegetable galette with salad

                Cheese (exact varieties and accompaniments pending a conversation with my cheesemonger)

                Three-layer Chocolate Mousse Cake

                1. OK, so I've fiddled with things a bit and this is now the revised plan:

                  Hors d'oeuvre:

                  Choux three ways: gougeres, filled with crab, and filled with duxelles


                  Roasted Carrot Soup with Parsley Cream

                  Pissalidiere Nicoise and/or Tomato Tart (still undecided)

                  Individual Spinach Souffles

                  Green Salad with Cranberries and Walnuts

                  Cheese served with Pears and Shallot Confit

                  Three-layer Chocolate Mousse Cake

                  The idea of lentils is still something I keep thinking about, but as of yet I've been unable to find any recipes that really inspire me or a good place to put them into the menu. They feel like something just thrown in to add bulk and protein in place of meat... which is my general view of lentils to begin with.

                  The other problem is one that I've been putting off a bit: wine. This in and of itself is actually an astoundingly tricky problem as I don't drink and never have so I'm basically working blind here. My thought is that a light, presumably dry white would go best. I'm also looking to keep the expense down as we're all a bit budget conscious and under-employed and none of my guests are connoisseurs. Even better would be possible beer pairings as a number of my guests ARE craft beer enthusiasts and home brewers.

                  11 Replies
                  1. re: belgand

                    As a lover of French food, wine and craft beer I have no choice but to reply! Since the menu seems to be set (and it sounds amazing btw), I'll stick to the beverages. For wine, I'd go with a chablis (William Fevre is one of my favs), a rose, and a pinot to finish out the menu. For beer, you'll want to keep it crisp and easy-drinking, so maybe start with a farmhouse ale or saison, then something like Duvel for the Pissa. With desert, you could go with a stout, a port, or even back to white wine (which I love with chocolate). Hope that helps :)

                    1. re: freshnlow

                      Sounds great, especially the beer as I was worried about finding something appropriate. As for the wine what courses would I want to serve each with?

                      1. re: belgand

                        The chablis with the first courses would be optimal, then the pinot with the pissa and soup, and the rose for the last dishes. However, because these dishes are all on the liter side, the pinot and rose are almost interchangeable. As I said above, dessert would be nice with the white or rose, or pick up a bottle of sauternes or Fonseca port. I guess it just depends on your budget and number of bottles at this point.

                        Oh, for the dessert beer, a readily available, cheap and delicious stout is Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout from Rogue Brewing. It would go well with the chocolate.

                        1. re: freshnlow

                          Rogue is ridiculously easy to find out here, we even have one of their pubs in town.

                          Any suggestions on an acceptable rose at around the $10 mark? Yeah, it's cheap, but I'm working from a budget of about $10-15 person for the dinner and based on the RSVPs it looks like about 6-8 people will be showing up.

                          1. re: belgand

                            This is a great one (and easy to find) for right around $10 that we enjoy quite frequently: http://www.pfiwestern.com/images/prod...

                            1. re: freshnlow

                              Any vintage is good? Or do you have a favorite. (Maybe at this price it doesn't matter?)

                    2. re: belgand

                      I think the menu looks much better as you have it now, but I still question the Pissalidiere/tart course simply for the reasons you mentioned in your original post. As for the question of lentils, I used to feel as you do, that they were just a meat replacement - but I have really come to love them in the past few years and I feel that they can stand on their own quite nicely. Here's a recipe that is basically my riff on saucisson aux lentilles - you could leave out the sausage and the dish would still be perfectly satisfying on its own:

                      1 smallish butternut squash (about 1.5 lbs)
                      2-3 medium red onions
                      1 large or 2 small bulbs fennel
                      5-6 cloves garlic, chopped
                      2 sprigs fresh rosemary
                      20 stems thyme
                      a handful of fennel fronds (if your fennel bulb has them)
                      10 sage leaves
                      2 cups pardina lentils (if you can't find them use regular brown lentils)
                      1 bay leaf
                      2 lbs kielbasa
                      1/2 c. olive oil, divided
                      1/4 c. vinegar (mix of sherry, red wine, cider, etc.)
                      2 T. balsamic vinegar
                      salt and pepper

                      Cut the squash, onions and fennel (trimmed) into 1/2-1 inch cubes and toss with a generous amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread out on two rimmed baking sheets and roast at 400 degrees, stirring once or twice, until deeply caramelized in places, about 40 mins, adding the chopped garlic about halfway through. When the vegetables are about 10 mins from being done, I transfer all of them to one tray and use the emptied tray for the sausage.

                      Meanwhile, bring the lentils to a boil in plenty of salted water with the bay leaf and cook until tender, about 20-25 mins (regular brown lentils will take a bit longer than pardina lentils, but they tend to be mushier. Lentils du puy are a lot firmer and will take quite a bit longer. Whatever lentil you choose, just cook it to your taste - I prefer them a bit mushy for this but it does make the dish look a little less attractive.). Drain and keep warm.

                      Slice the sausage thinly on the bias and place on the emptied rimmed baking sheet and roast on the bottom rack of your oven (gets the bottom brown faster) along with the veg for the last 10 mins-ish of cooking. Once the sausage is rendering and the bottom side is brown, turn the oven to broil and broil the top side of the sausage slices to your taste (I like it almost burnt, the crispy edges are amazing!).

                      In a large bowl, combine the lentils, vegetables, sausages (including any rendered fat) and chopped herbs. Toss with the vinegars, oil, salt and pepper to taste (the vinegar blend I use really varies, but the dish does benefit from some sweetness, so balsamic is a must.). Be generous with the dressing, as the lentils tend to soak it up quickly.

                      If you wanted to incorporate this dish (or something similar), I would cut the tart and move the souffles back one course, and do the lentils just before the salad. Alternately, have you considered something like this Mushroom Bourguignonne?


                      It could easily be baked into a pie/tart or served over noodles - it just seems like it might be a little more seasonal and comforting than the tomato tart.

                      1. re: biondanonima

                        Delicious-looking recipe, I'm copying it down. Are there any good mass-produced/grocery store kielbasas? Aidell's? Otherwise, I'll try my farmer's market.

                        1. re: ChristinaMason

                          My favorite grocery store kielbasa is Eckrich, which I can't find in NYC - I grew up with it in MI, though, and I think it's available all over the midwest. Hillshire Farms, which is widely available here, is fine - nothing special, but fine. If you have any butcher shops or markets where they make their own, that would probably be preferable. You could really use any type of sausage, too, I just happen to like the flavor of kielbasa with the other elements in this dish.

                          ETA - I've made the lentils without sausage as a side dish for pork tenderloin (for someone on a lower fat/cholesterol diet) and it was a great combo.

                          1. re: ChristinaMason

                            Aidell's is great.......but if you can source some at the f/m I'd go with that. Also re: Aidell's, be sure to try the artichoke/jalapeno sausage sometime.......mixed into scrambled eggs and topped w/ cheese, an amazing breakfast burrito.

                            1. re: mamachef

                              Thumbs up for the Aidell's artichoke/jalapeno sausage. As some one that doesn't really like sausage, I flipped when my son brought these over for a bbq this summer. I just picked them up this week at Costco, they're excellent!