A Halloween Celebration

Monday, November 2, 2009

One of the menus in our cookbook that I'm particularly proud of is the Samhain menu. Based off of the colors and flavors of autumn at its peak, this menu both warms and satisfies all of the senses. My friends were gracious enough to stop by for a tasting so I could try these recipes out on them and get some feedback on the recipes.

We'll start with the decorations. For a party, decorating is just as important if not more important than the food itself. It doesn't have to be a hugely elaborate thing; I've done a very simple table setting with a green table cloth and a tiny vase of 3 gardenias and some white votive candles that still is one of my all-time favorite table settings. But sometimes it is fun to go all-out and go-big. But that doesn't mean spending a lot of money!

For Halloween or Samhain, I wanted to strike a visual balance between living and dead things. As the holiday was originally celebrated, it is the time of year where the veil between this living world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. It is also a time of harvest and celebration and final nourishment for the harsh winter months to come.

I went to my local Trader Joe's and found these beautiful dark purple dahlias:

And I thought they'd play off perfectly with the bright orange of pumpkins. I bought some "sugar pie" pumpkins, which are larger than those little tiny pumpkins and much smaller and therefore more table-friendly than the big carving ones. And a bonus: I can roast them after the party for a hearty pumpkin soup! I also had some fall-colored leaves that were painted with gold glitter that I intertwined on the table. You can buy lots of these kinds of leaves in lots of different colors and themes from Michael's. And then I put the dahlias in clear tall vases to add height to the table, flanking a basket of apples. The interplay between the sticks in the basket and leaves and the "live" flowers and pumpkins and apples I thought balanced out the Halloween/Samhain theme well.

I liked the idea of having the dark wood on the table exposed. I grew up always having to have a tablecloth underneath. I think not! I love having chargers act like individual table cloths. So each place setting had a simple gold charger and silverware and beige cloth napkin. Using cloth napkins as opposed to paper ones (even if they are "themed"!) adds a sense of warmth to the table and the dining experience. I'm not opposed to using paper napkins on a daily basis, but I think using cloth ones make a dinner like this more special.
And don't forget to decorate around the table too! But keep it simple! We used our fireplace as part of the celebration by keeping a fire during the whole dinner. This was our "bonfire" like the ancient Celts used to have on this special day. And atop the fireplace was a simple garland of black leaves, glass pumpkins and votive candles. That's it. The focal point in the room was still the table, but by simply decorating the room around it also gives a feeling of warmth and celebration also.

And on to the FOOD!
We started off with a Pumpkin Soup. I devised a super-simple pumpkin soup recipe that can be whipped up in no time. And you can make it the day before too! Personally I'm not a fan of bland squash soups; I like to taste the butternut squash or pumpkin, but I do like some flavor in there too. This recipe borrows some Southwestern flavors to create a very warm soup that is sure to warm your bones on a cold Halloween night. For the tasting, not to overwhelm my guinea pigs, I served the soup in cappuccino cups. With a dollop of creme fraiche to cool off the slightly spicy soup and toasted pepitas, it was a big success:

Everyone got seconds.

Next course was an Autumn Salad. Arugula tossed with a fig-balsamic dressing, dried cranberries and topped with pine-nut crusted goat cheese balls. The salad was supposed to have sliced pears as well, but my nerves got the best of me and I forgot to include them!

There's a lesson in that. I totally didn't remember the pears until the next day. And no one noticed. Everyone loved the salad. The moral of the story is not to panic...things will happen no matter how prepared or experienced you are. All you can control is to just go with the flow.

The main course for this menu was a Pork Roulade stuffed with a pear, shallot and rosemary stuffing, drizzled with a Fig-Port Reduction, and served with Roasted Root Vegetables:

The veggies I used were carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes. The color combination was perfect for Halloween and fall, and when paired with the dark fig-port sauce, it was extremely pleasing to the eye and very indicative of the black/orange colors of Halloween. The sauce was extremely simple to make (only 5 ingredients!) and the pork was simple and can be prepared the night before and just roasted before guests arrive. This menu looks impressive, but in all seriousness takes no time to prepare! This was by far the most favorite part of the dinner across the board among my tasters. And the sauce could easily transfer to a roasted chicken or even a chicken-roulade with the same stuffing if pork is not your favorite. Everyone loved the roasted root vegetables too. And some people remarked how the loved parsnips, despite it being their first time trying it!

For dessert we had a traditional Bambrack, a spiced fruit cake. I updated the traditional Irish recipe by adding mixed dried fruits (a combination of dried cherries, cranberries, golden raisins, and blueberries) and steeping them in Indian black tea, dark brown sugar, and adding candied ginger for a nice background spice. Add 3 cups of flour and 2 eggs, some spices and then bake off! Bambrack was the original Halloween "candy" that was given out to children dressed up in costumes and masks who visited neighbors on All Hallow's Eve. Although fruit cake isn't anyone's favorite dessert, this was impressed some of the guests and "...is the only fruitcake I'll ever eat."
I also served a simple Apple Crostada:

Flaky buttery crust, apples tossed in brandy, orange zest and brown sugar with a touch of cinnamon, topped with crystallized sugar...what's not to love? I loved this. It was a perfect ending to a hearty fall meal. And served with mulled cider that got the house smelling nice of spice (which is a trick and much less expensive than investing in those expensive fragrant candles!)
All in all, I scored high marks from my friends on the taste scale and think with a slight tweak here and there (and not forgetting to include the pears in the salad!), this is a great menu. It's wonderful all together for a festive dinner party feast, or taken apart for week night meals. If you love the soup, make a big batch and serve it with fresh bread for a hearty, warm dinner on a cold night. Looking for a side dish for a roasted chicken or even grilled steak? Try the roasted root veggies! Want a salad for lunch or brunch? Make a bigger batch of the Autumn Salad and do our Butternut Squash Ravioli recipe from our Harvest Party menu. The point is you can take out and add in as you like to create your own culinary experience. These are just our suggestions and pairings for a full one dinner. And of course, add a bottle of syrah and it's a great way to stay in on a Saturday night for a romantic date night. (winks)

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