Dinner for Eight

…not to be confused with Dinner at Eight, my favorite Rufus Wainwright song.  You should listen to it.  Right now.  Before you go any further.  Go on; I’ll wait here.

Great!  Now, about this dinner.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not every day that I eat seven course dinners.  And it’s not every day you meet someone so talented in the kitchen that it makes you want to go play in traffic for the shame of it all.  Last night, those two things collided quite amazingly when we had dinner at Shannon‘s house.

Describing the Feta

Our gracious hostess, describing the process by which she debrines Bulgarian feta cheese.

Shannon, one of the newer (and younger!Houston Chowhound members and a recent transplant from St. Louis, kindly issued an invitation a few weeks ago for a dinner at her home.  We should have known what to expect when we received an elegantly printed menu in our email inboxes a few days prior to dinner: seven courses, all of which sounded magnificent and none of which were anything like you’d typically find in a restaurant, much less in someone’s home.

Place Setting
Place settings.

When we showed up yesterday evening — myself, Ruthie, Jenny, Joanne, Robert and his wife — we were all greeted by the intoxicating scent of freshly-baked brioche and another, less familiar aroma.  I soon discovered it was the first course: Ash-e Reshteh, Iranian bean and noodle soup.

First Course
Topped with crispy fried onions.

The soup was an immense hit right off the bat. None of us had ever had Iranian bean soup before. Except, of course, Shannon’s husband, who is Iranian and who serves as a huge inspiration for her cuisine. The soup — which normally has ground beef and is cooked with beef broth — was a vegetarian version of the traditional Iranian recipe made with kidney and garbanzo beans, which made it both immensely healthy and hearty. The copious amounts of dill and parsley managed to keep it from being too heavy, though, and lent a refreshing crispness to the soup.

Second Course
Like no quiche I’ve ever had.

Our second course was a kind of crustless quiche made with fresh herbs, walnuts and barberries, called Sabzi Kuku. Another Iranian dish, this — like the soup — was refreshing and light, especially when eaten with the accompanying yogurt. The yogurt reminded me keenly of a tzatziki-like dip I used to make in college and then slather on top of otherwise inedible dorm food (hey, you do what you have to…). Fresh cucumbers, walnuts and sweet sultanas (golden raisins) differentiated this yogurt from your average dip, however. But like the dip from my college days of yore, I could have put this on top of melted scrapyard tires and they would have tasted divine.

Third Course
Architecturally significant.

Unlike the first two courses, the third course wasn’t an Iranian dish. Instead, this was an original Shannon creation using a criminally underappreciated vegetable: the sunchoke. Also called a Jerusalem artichoke, the sunchoke is a rather ugly root vegetable that when cooked develops a sweet, nutty flavor. The pureed sunchoke served as a base for the pillowy sauteed scallop topped with fried carrots, and accompanied by a sweet curry orange sauce.  The pairing of all the items — which each had their own, quite subtle, underlying sweetness but with varying and complimentary textures — was genius.  The dish was by far the favorite of the night.

Fourth Course

I caught you a delicious bass.

The fourth course — sea bass with rice — had a similar theme to the third: subtly sweet flavors enhanced by nutty accompaniments.  The sweetness in this dish came from a deeply flavored saffron-sour orange sauce and a sweet Iranian rice called Shirin Polow.  The rice had slivers of almonds and pistachios that added that silky nuttiness, along with a crunch that nicely offset the downy sea bass.  The sea bass was perfectly cooked and — given enough of it — I would have eaten myself into a coma with this dish alone.  But there were still three courses to go!

Fifth Course
Dainty, delicate, delicious quail eggs.

For a refreshing break between the two fish courses, Shannon created a “wild card” that ended up being our fifth course: a room temperature salad that was a marked departure from the other courses.  Made with arugula and Brussels sprouts leaves, haricot verts and a variety of sauteed mushrooms (oyster, shitake and chanterelle) along with a single, gem-like quail egg in a savory vinaigrette, this salad was decidedly woodsy and earthy.  And although it didn’t necessarily “match” the other courses, it was — as I said — a refreshing break and a chance to explore a different side of Shannon’s cuisine.  Judging from the salad, I hope she, too, explores this side more often.

Sixth Course
Sake it to me.

For the sixth course, we were on to a meatier fish: fresh salmon in a soy-maple glaze, accompanied with wasabi mashed potatoes and sauteed carrots that had been soaked in sake.  The glaze was intensely flavored, with the sweetness of the maple strongly enhanced by the salty soy sauce.  I could have happily taken more of the glaze on my thick slice of salmon.  The wasabi potatoes and sake carrots were a clever addition to the salmon, making a pan-Japanese dish that could easily be put on a restaurant menu to rave reviews.

Seventh Course

The seventh and final course was dessert. We had come full circle, back to a traditional Iranian dessert that I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember: rice pudding with rose water. Rice pudding is one of those things that you either adore or feel very apathetic towards. Rose water, on the other hand, is one of those things that you either love or hate. It can tend towards an overly-fragrant, soapy taste — not something you aim for in a dish. But both the airy pudding and the very delicate touch of rose water — along with the sweet pistachios on top — were the perfect end to the meal.

Now, you may question why I’ve chosen to detail this meal in such painstaking detail — especially since it wasn’t in a restaurant or other public place.  The simple answer is that I don’t get to eat like this every day.  And when you get a meal like this — obviously prepared with so much care and effort — you cherish it.

I can only hope that Shannon takes her skills and applies them in a more public capacity some day.  The world could benefit from the unique culinary worldview that she possesses, not to mention her bountiful skills (who just whips up and serves seven course meals for their friends with such seeming ease?).  I’m imagining a restaurant that serves the unique combination of Iranian and American dishes that she seems to enjoy cooking.  In a market like Houston — that’s saturated with Middle Eastern expatriates as well as oil industry veterans who miss the cooking in Tehran — this concept would be particularly well-received.

As the meal closed last night — over many bottles of wine, fantastic conversation and our great compliments to the chef — the only thing I could think of was that if these poor fools (friends!  I mean friends!) ever get tricked into coming to my house for dinner, I sure hope they like cheese grits.  Talent like Shannon’s doesn’t come along very often; here’s hoping she continues to develop it and that it leads her down a path that makes her happy and fulfilled.


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