Winter solstice dinner 2012

Once again with their charm and hospitality our friends Alex and Sarah conjured light and warmth on the darkest day of the year.  We joined them and a small group of friends for dinner in their home in late December, on the night of the winter solstice.  It was an evening of outstanding food and captivating conversations.

Good tunes and a gingery punch served in an antique cut-glass punch bowl got the party started about an hour before dinner.  Crisp bread with pears and herbed cheese primed our palates.  The dinner included courses made by or contributed to by each of the guests.  Good wine, stories, and poems rounded out the festivities.

Our hosts encouraged us to bring Wyatt and we did.  Not knowing how the evening would go, we brought toys and books, and figured he would eat and play and then fall asleep early on.  Well, turns out the boy loves a good party.  He spent most of the night laughing and flirting and trying new foods.  About an hour and a half after his regular bed time, he fell asleep and I tucked him into our hosts' bed while we continued to enjoy the evening.

The delicious meal came in courses.  First the appetizers, which disappeared quickly: lightly toasted baguette arranged with pears poached in wine (1 cup of red and 1 cup of white) and cloves, and topped with Neufchatel cheese mixed with a tad of cream and chervil.

I had the privilege of making the soup course, and I made one of my winter favorites -- cauliflower cheese soup with scallions.  It's a smooth, comforting soup where the simple pureed base of potato, cauliflower, and carrot gets jazzed up with mustard, caraway, and a little cheddar.

Cauliflower Cheese Soup
adapted from the Moosewood Cookbook recipe

3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 cups cauliflower pieces
1 cup chopped carrot
3 cloves of garlic
1 cup onion, chopped
4 cups of water
2 tsp. kosher salt

Put the above ingredients into a tall soup pot and bring to a boil, cover, then simmer about 15 minutes until the potato and cauliflower are tender.

While the soup simmers, separately steam 1 1/2 cups additional caulifloweretes until tender.  Set aside.

When the soup is cooked, let it cool about 10 minutes. Then, using a hand-held immersion blender, carefully puree the mixture in the soup pot until smooth and creamy.  You can also use a blender and puree the mixture in batches if you prefer.

Next, heat the pureed soup on low heat while you whisk in:

3/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp dill weed (optional)
1/2 tsp caraway seed
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
black pepper
salt (if needed)
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

Just before serving, whisk in the steamed cauliflowerets and 3/4 cup buttermilk.  Don't let it reach a boil.  Adjust the salt.  Serve garnished with chopped scallion.

Serves 4-5 as a meal; more as a first course.

Good bread with roasted garlic (grown by one of the couples who attended) accompanied the soup.  As did a salad of mixed greens, peppers, and homemade croutons.  Then came the main course, an artichoke timbale, poached King salmon, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a tangy cabbage slaw.

Next came the cheeses, fruit, and flat breads.  The cheese board included choices by everyone -- St. Andre, manchego, Stilton, cheddar.  I think the party got louder at this point.  Perhaps it was the wine.  Who knows, but I recall a poem in Russian at this point, and then a few limericks . . . and lots of laughter. 

Apple tarte tatine brought the meal to a close. I ate mine before I thought to take a picture.  (Sorry.)  Around eleven we headed home, sleeping toddler in tow, hearts and stomachs filled. 

Such a tradition makes one look forward to the dark days.  Thank you, Sarah and Alex, for making room for us at your table this year.


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