Dining with the Stars

By Jim McCaffrey

When I was growing up, we moved from Cedar Rapids to a farm just outside of Decorah. It was a move from the bright city lights to dark country nights. And it was an absolute pleasure.

We had an outside yard light that could be turned off from the house. You’d shut it off and just step outside. On cloudless evenings, the heavens would open and reward you with a panorama of twinkling orbs – a treasure trove of dancing and glistening stars. My sister, Angie, and I got books on the various constellations and set out to memorize their locations. My favorites were Orion the Hunter and the Big and Little Dippers also known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Boy, did we know how to have a good time! Stargazing at its finest.

The other day I got reminiscent about those nights and my crazy, twisted, Irish mind formulated an idea: Why not create a menu that would serve well on a moonlit evening? My most recent evening outdoor parties have all been in southern Provence, France, at a couple of country estates where the sky was not infected by the glare of city lights. Five course meals were always on the agenda. And wine, of course. Dinner can last a couple hours or more, then a lot of twirling and dancing usually follows…sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. At one such party our French connection burst into their national anthem. Not to be outdone, the American contingent rose to the occasion with the Star Spangled Banner. What fun and camaraderie.

So the plan was to start with a Salad Niçoise that has its origination where else but in southern Provence. The classic French version consists of canned tuna, cherry tomatoes, Niçoise olives, and anchovies. The Americanized version includes cooked green beans and potatoes. We had our first taste of this delightful dish at some friends’ house in Cassis, France, while overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. For today’s version I substituted fresh sushi grade ahi tuna steaks for the canned. These can be seared to rare or medium rare for best results. I sort of followed a recipe of Food Network chef Tyler Florence, which included a wonderful vinaigrette with fresh tarragon. You can start salivating now or wait until we get to our main course…it follows directly.

I decided to go to another region of France for the next dish. Burgundy is well known for its great wines and probably its most famous dish is Boeuf Bourguignon, more commonly referred to as Burgundy Beef Stew in the US. A few years ago Brenda and I were in Paris and there was a small bistro – Cosmos – just down the street from where we were staying. The owner was a guy from Kentucky who had married a Parisian lady. Over the course of a few days we got acquainted and he brought over his version of this signature dish. Bistro food: Absolutely delightful. He shared with me and so now I’m sharing with you.

If you are not moonstruck by now you will be after you try our choice for dessert. A black forest tart is destined for the outdoor table. It’s a sensual combination of chocolate and cherries to tease your palate, and a little whipped cream to seal the deal. Warning: You will be hooked.

Now go to the garage and haul out those tiki torches that have been gathering dust for years. And maybe the candelabra that has been languishing in the attic. Gathering some wood for a campfire would be a nice touch as well. You can go casual or a bit more formal, but the important thing is finding a good place with an unobstructed view of the sky. It will probably help if you bone up on the constellations too. That way you can talk smart and really impress your guests. Outdoor evening dinners can be so magical. (Well, except the occasional mosquito… or swarm of them. Probably a good idea to have some repellant close by too!)

Our intrepid crew of taste testers, unfortunately, did not have the option of dining under the evening lights. Foxy Roxie, Aryn and Benji’s wonderful daughter, has an eight o’clock bedtime – and that’s still daylight. So we made it an early lunch date.

Our regular Inspire(d) lunch group consisting of Aryn Benji, Roxie, James Ronan, Fawn, Brenda, and I. We were joined by Shanon, and, at the last minute, Conor showed up with our grandson, Rowen. This truly was a fun lunch/dinner to put together. In fact, Shanon exclaimed, “This the best salad I’ve ever had in my life!” I think there was a lot of concurrence on that. A couple of notes: I made the tart up the day before and put it in the refrigerator to serve it cold. For the salad a symmetrical presentation (see picture) really kicks it up a notch. It is not necessary to use a wine from Burgundy to make the Boeuf Bourguignon. It is more important to follow the instructions for cooking and seasoning. It does not have to be an expensive red wine, just use one that doesn’t make you grimace when you drink it. So now, you are on your own. Enjoy the evening with friends and family under the Milky Way, dining with the stars.

Salad Nicoise
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3 tbl red wine vinegar
2 tsp lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
2 tbl flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbl fresh tarragon, minced
Salt and ground pepper to taste

1 pound small red potatoes
8 large hard boiled eggs
½ lb green beans
2 lbs fresh sushi grade tuna
2 tbl olive oil
Salt and ground pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes
16 anchovy fillets
Fresh chives cut in half to garnish
16 capers
1 cup Kalamata olives

Combine all vinaigrette ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until emulsified. Set aside.

Cook potatoes until tender. Cool and cut in half. Peel eggs and cut in half the long way. Place beans in a colander. Steam over boiling water for five minutes. Let cool. Sprinkle tuna with salt and pepper generously. Pan sear in olive oil over medium high heat for two minutes. Turn over and repeat. Slice into1/2 inch strips allowing 4 ounces per person. Place a few beans in the center of each plate. Lay salmon strips over the top. Place a half potato at the top of the plate and one at the bottom. Arrange a half egg on either side of the plate. Cut tomatoes in half and symmetrically place four halves on the plate. Add a couple olives, anchovies, and capers to each plate. Garnish tuna with chives. Drizzle each plate with vinaigrette.
(See picture for assembled dish.)  Serves 8.

Boeuf Bourguinon
6 slices bacon cut into one-inch pieces
2 lbs boneless beef sirloin or tenderloin cut in one-inch cubes
1/2 cup flour
2 cups red Burgundy or other dry red wine
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 lb fresh roasted asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
1 tsp beef bouillon
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp black pepper
4 medium onions, sliced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 tbl butter
Snipped parsley
1 lb egg noodles, cooked
French bread

Fry bacon in Dutch oven until crisp. Remove to paper towels. Coat beef with flour and fry in bacon grease until browned. Drain excess fat. Add wine and just enough water to cover beef. Stir in garlic, bay leaf, asparagus, salt, bouillon, thyme, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 1 ½ hours until beef is tender. Cook onion and mushrooms over medium heat until onions are tender. Add to stew and cook an additional 10 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Garnish with parsley and serve over noodles. Accompany with French bread. Serves 8.

Black Forest Tart
1 ¼ cups chocolate wafer crumbs
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup butter, melted

½ cup butter
6 – one-ounce squares semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
2/3 cup flour

1 – 21-ounce can cherry pie filling
2 – one-ounce squares semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 tbl heavy whipping cream

Combine wafer crumbs, sugar and butter. Stir. Lightly grease a 10-inch spring form pan. Press wafer mixture in to cover bottom. Bake 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees. Melt butter and chocolate and stir until smooth. Let cool 10 minutes. In a large bowl, beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt until slightly thickened, about four minutes. Add flour, mix well and pour over crust. Spread evenly and bake at 350 degrees 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean after being inserted in center. Cool completely. Spread pie filling over top. Microwave chocolate and cream 20-30 seconds and stir until smooth.
Cool five minutes and stir. Drizzle over tart. Chill completely.
Serves 12.


Jim McCaffrey is a chef, author, and co-owner with his family of McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita restaurant and Twin Springs Bakery just outside Decorah. He is author of humorous cookbooks “Midwest Cornfusion” and  “Mississippi Mirth.” He has been in the food industry in one way or another for more than 40 years.

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