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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.