Charles Siskin: The Perfect Birthday Dinner

Saturday, January 31, 2015 - by Charles Siskin
Grilled Salmon topped with a tomato coulis on a bed of balsamic spinach
Grilled Salmon topped with a tomato coulis on a bed of balsamic spinach
- photo by Charles Siskin

There are so many family and friends birthdays in January that if it were not for Facebook I would be in Forgotten Birthday Hell.

There are nephews and great nephews and cousins and best friends and fellow employees. Its birthday cakes and birthday cupcakes and cards I’ve forgotten to buy or mail and phone calls I make several days late and sometimes cards and calls I actually make on time.

But it was the birthday dinner I made for a close friend recently that turned out best of all. When I was younger I remember we’d go up to Knoxville for the Tennessee football games and win or lose  (in those years we won a lot) we’d  wind up at someone’s home to celebrate for several hours before heading out for dinner which sometimes never happened before 10 p.m.

Now I’m usually in my pj’s by 9 p.m. and asleep by 10. So when my bride invited our friends over she reminded me that I could not be in my bed at the usual time because that would be in the middle of dinner. What! Don’t these people know about Early Bird Dinner? Aren’t they “Older Middle Aged” –you know the one about “Young Middle Age” and the “Middle Middle Age”.

I imagine when you reach your 90s, because people do live much longer; you fall into the “Finally doing what I want Old Age”.  That’s the one where Granny parachutes out of a plane and is committed by her children the next day.

Soldiering on, I agreed to the time because these are some of our closes and favorite friends.  Besides it gave me time to answer the final question on Jeopardy.

It turned out to be the perfect evening. An intimate dinner for four with candlelight, flowers and exceptional wine that I had brought from Sonoma. I think many of us have gotten away from the art of small dinners in favor of those wall-to-wall cocktail parties. The one where that great looking blond you were talking with for a while turned out to be the person who broke up your wife’s best friend’s marriage. Who knew?

So what do you serve to good friends that goes with exceptional wine from the vineyards of Sonoma County? It was a rosé, a wine I almost never buy but was so perfect with the seafood I prepared that I’m inclined to urge people to get over the Chardonnay and  the Pinot Grigio. Porter the name of the vineyard unfortunately is not available in this area. However it could be as good a reason as any to go out to California.  If not I’m certain there are several comparable vineyards whose wines are available here at home.

So I started the evening with cold chilled asparagus and a grainy Dijon dipping sauce. Please don’t make me look into the face of another platter of hummus and chips. Take it to lunch on a bagel if you must. The asparagus was a light offering and perfect because of the rich meal to follow.

Once at the table I began the meal with a warm bruschetta topped with a eggplant and a goat’s cheese mixture. It was a small appetizer or as the French call it, “amuse bouche”. I followed that with a curry cream of cauliflower soup with three pan sautéed scallops floating on top. While the guests rested-actually it would have been nap time for me- I fired up my “George Forman” which I’m still honeymooning with after all these years.

I grilled my salmon filets being careful to place them on heavy tin foil and covered the salmon in a light coating of really good olive oil. I purposely put down the heavy aluminum foil because I did not want to grill both sides at once which can be a real deal breaker if you forget that your beef or chicken or whatever is cooking on both sides at once.

I had prepared a diced of tomatoes cooked in a oil infused with Herbs d’Provence and lemon peel. It looked great going over the salmon which sat on a bed of fresh cooked spinach and raisins that I had tossed with a good splash of balsamic vinegar and some half and half. I finished the plate with some simple buttered new potatoes tossed in parsley.

At this point dessert became an afterthought and was in fact a fancy cupcake with one candle brought home from the local bakery. I realize the meal deserved better but let’s face it, it would have been more of a midnight snack than an actually dessert by the time we arrived at that part of the meal.

Did it take a lot of time to prepare? Sure but when you are doing it for special friends that’s not an issue. Actually I did much of the menu several days ahead and cooked the scallops and salmon just before serving. Besides when you fall into the age of the Early Bird, this one caught the brass ring.


Ingredients (serves 4)

1 cup diced onions

1-2 teaspoons curry powder (depends on how assertive you want the flavor to be)

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

 (I used a very mild curry powder but there are a number of others such as Madras that are stronger albeit spicy hot)

2 – 3 good size tablespoons of butter

1/2 of a large head of cauliflower blanched

4 cups of chicken broth

1 cup half and half (I prefer the non-fat variety but you could use traditional half and half or heavy cream to make it very rich)

Excellent coarse salt and ground pepper to taste

3 medium size scallops

2 tablespoons butter

Melt butter in pot that will be deep enough to hold liquid.

When foaming add onions, curry powder and garlic.

Cook until onions are translucent and the powder and garlic give off a nice fragrance.

Add chicken broth and bring mixture almost to a boil and set aside.

Put blanched cauliflower florets into a processor and pulse several times then carefully add soup mixture.

Puree the mixture then return to the pot and add the half and half if serving that same day (if making ahead by several days better to not add cream).

Sauté the scallops in the melted butter shaking the pan and watching not to overcook. Two to three minutes max is best then take off flame and float the scallops on top of each bowl of soup. The hot soup will continue to cook the scallops so keep that in mind when cooking them.

For a dash of color you could add a dice of parsley. Chef’s choice.

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