Truly, I never met an ingredient I didn’t like, except maybe sea slugs. But that omnivorous ardor doesn’t mean I don’t have favorites. When I’m planning a dinner party, I always mentally summon up my protein faves (unless my vegan daughter is attending!), and start the menu planning from there.
Here they are, in no particular order:
I am generally in LOVE with shellfish, and it’s oh so hard to pick a fave. But I think the sweet, rich, haunting meat of the crab has got to get my vote. To me, there’s nothing better than finding a way to use whole, live crabs from the Chesapeake Bay, the southeast coast, and the Gulf of Mexico. My idea of crab heaven, of course, is going to a crabhouse in Baltimore, and picking the hours away with a bushel or two of spice-packed, steamed crabs. But you can make ’em at home for your guests, too. I also like simply boiling live crabs (unspiced!) on Saturday, stacking them on platters overnight in the refigerator, then serving them cold as a Sunday afternoon feast. If I can’t do the whole-crab thing, my next-best crab ingredient is refrigerated lump crabmeat (over $20/lb), which I can handle in a million ways: crab cakes, crab salad, crab-stuffed deviled eggs, crab gratin, French crepes stuffed with creamy crab, Indian crab and shrimp sautés with curry leaf, crab lumps tossed with linguine and garlic, etc. etc.
Alright, alright…so I picked another shellfish item! (This list could well have had oysters and shrimp, too!) How does one decide? It is true that crabmeat causes fewer texture problems than lobster meat does…lobster can be stringy and tough…but the flavor of lobster, at its just-out-of-the-Maine-sea best, can be more intense than the flavor of crab. Purist that I am, I love nothing more, of course, than whole steamed lobsters (2-3 lbs. is my ideal weight), served only with melted butter, fresh coleslaw, and steaming ears of summer-sweet corn. Of course, I wouldn’t be adverse to adding a chilly mug of pilsener, or a super-cold bottle of dry German Riesling, preferably aged. But I love lobster meat as an ingredient, too, in-shell or out. I use lobster shells like crazy for pink French sauces. Lobster bisque. Lobster fra diavolo…wow! Lobster tacos! Lobster in a Cantonese or Sichuan stir-fry. Lobster with south Indian spices. Lobster forever!
3) Sea Urchin
I had compartmentalized this ingredient, for a while: uni is the ultimate bite at a sushi meal, the item to which all other items lead. The topper. (It’s true that not everyone feels this way…but an amazing percentage of sushi-lovers do!) And I stil look to uni as my Mariano Rivera at the sushi bar. Some years ago, the field expanded for me…to other sushi-bar uni applications, never forgetting the great deep-fried uni-and-shiso roll that Nobu Matsuhisu introduced in Beverly Hills. And I followed suit by going uni-crazy in my amuses selection at dinner parties: nothing ennobles your first glass of Champagne like a blob of sea urchin on some fish or other. (My latest triumph, combining two of my loves: uni on a warm bite of lobster on a spoon with a touch of soy sauce and a tangle of micro-greens on top.) But then the walls really came down. After I started eating raw sea urchin (which is not actually roe…but gonads!) all around the Mediterranean, I started incorporating those fluffy, creamy intimations of heaven into a million things. Sea urchin pasta (as they do in Mondello, Sicily, with just a little tomato and garlic). Sea urchin risotto. Any seafood sauce of any kind, knocked out of the park with a few tablespoons of sea urchin blended in (you don’t even have to tell!). It’s true I haven’t gone sea-urchin/Mexican yet…but I’m thinking about it!
4) Foie gras
Oy. There are more controversies here than you can shake a stick at. First things first: I do not support the banning of foie gras in California, or anywhere else. I have seen the actual duck/goose feeding multiple times in SW France (le gavage), and the animals are treated with love, vastly enjoying their super-sized corn meals. As Paula Wolfert once said, “All things considered, I’d rather be a duck in Gascony than a Tyson chicken.” Astonishing revelation: I do live with the uneasy sense that perhaps we are all mad for killing animals and eating them. But I see no reason to say “Hamburgers are fine while foie gras is immoral.” That said (or unsaid), let me move on to the gastronomic controversy: foie gras chaud, or foie gras terrine? And how does this affect your dinner party? Most Americans came to foie gras through seared slices of it at fancy restaurants, starting in America in the 1980s. I am bonkers for the alchemy of warm foie gras (meat turned into quivering custard), and I often buy a whole foie gras to sear some for a dinner party (try fat cubes of it, sprinkled with Wondra, seared in duck fat for a minute or so, tossed with a well-dressed salad!) But, like many in France, I am ultimately a terrine man; the length of that taste, as the cold terrine melts on your tongue, is unique in the world of fine dining. And for your dinner party, all you have to do is pick up the phone and order a terrine from D’artagnan. My advice: after you slice it, serve it simply. Don’t spoof it up with too many things. In other words, ignore the accompanying photo! Of course, if you really want to dazzle your gathering…buy raw liver instead, then give yourself over to the foie gras terrine recipe in the Robuchon book that was co-authored with Patricia Wells. Not too difficult…and positively wonderful! Just make sure there are no PETA people on your guest list!
Aha! So you thought that at my dinner parties the main course is based on venison, filet of beef, rack of lamb, roast duck, huh? Well, yeah, sometimes it is. However, I always give sausages (great sausages…the kind you buy by mail-order) a good conceptual shot before I make the final choice. For, truth be told, the joy of cutting into a popping squirting casing of beautifully chopped and seasoned meat , for me, is usually greater than the joy of cutting into something merely primal. Cured French garlic sausage…or the Italian equivalent…or fresh Italian sausages with fennel for grilling. Spanish and Portuguese sausages, led by chorizo, headed to the stewpot. The orange-scented loukaniko of Greece. The astonishing variety of central European sausages…from German wurst, to Polish kielbasa. You want to know my idea of a good time? Order in six different weenies from Central European butchers, prepare a French-accented mound of sauerkraut, pile on the wurst, and bring a steaming platter of choucroute happiness to your guests. Hell, I even get excited about ONE great sausage—like an artisanal kielbasa, from the East Village Meat Market in New York City—boiled up with some cabbage and potatoes!