We recently hosted a dinner party for two friends, a couple who run a small, faithfully authentic Italian restaurant in central Vermont. He’s the chef, and she’s the maître d’ and somm, and although we’d dined at their restaurant and attended large gatherings at their home, this would be their first time chez Maker.
If you want to host restaurateurs in your home, you’ll have to pick a night that they’re not hosting others. And so last week I spent a weekday cooking, and then we all spent a weeknight eating.
I chose a Provençal theme for the meal, mostly because that’s what my garden’s whispering about right now. First, there would be sundried tomato tapenade with crostini, plus a perfect French-style goat cheese from a nearby dairy. For the appetizer, I made a rustic leek tart with bacon and sweet corn (somewhat like this one, which I’ve made innumerable times and which is always reliable). Then a humble salad of wild arugula and tomatoes with Dijon vinaigrette. Finally, a main course of roasted herb-rubbed chicken, plus sautéed green beans and a gratin of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and fresh ricotta.
None of this would be edgy or groundbreaking. None of it would be elegant. I’m constitutionally incapable of making elegant food, because I don’t have the patience for it. But elegant and edgy wasn’t my goal anyway. I wanted simply to offer a meal that was essentially peasant food, but very fine and very fresh peasant food. I knew our friends would value this, and I knew I could pull it off.
And for dessert? Maybe here I could afford to experiment. It had recently occurred to me that a spiced wine reduction, which I sometimes make out of unremarkable bottles and use to glaze meats, might provide a good flavor base for gelato. I’ve never actually made gelato before—my husband’s the true ice cream maestro in the house—but after a brief discussion with him and a bit of web searching, I derived a formula I thought would probably work.
I wanted this gelato to be light—just milk, no eggs—and for the flavor of the wine to feel full and lush in the mouth even through the cold. I chose an inexpensive Zinfandel to use as the base wine, one I knew was fruit-driven and a bit spicy, with modest tannin. The reduction step would concentrate the wine’s flavors, and I didn’t want to end up with a woody syrup. (A young California Merlot or Syrah might work, too, but not, say, a Cabernet, because the result might be too astringent.) To the reduction I’d add just milk and sugar, skipping the customary vanilla extract, because the wine’s spices would do the job of adding that rounding note.
That morning, my husband gave me a few pointers about using his somewhat intimidating Italian ice cream machine, and about the importance of chilling the gelato mix down thoroughly before beginning the freezing step. I waved him off to work. What could possibly go wrong?
I cooked. Our friends arrived, the meal unfolded. There was wine, and more wine, and each course followed the next at a leisurely pace that let us enjoy each other’s stories. The food was good but not the centerpiece of the meal, which is always as it should be.
Dessert at last. I’d decided as a hedge to make lavender shortbread cookies, in case the gelato was a flop. Happily these weren’t necessary. The gelato was just as I’d hoped: luscious and not too sweet, with a haunting flavor that was like neither fruit, nor spice, nor wine, but like some exotic blend of these.
750 ml. Zinfandel (1 bottle)
4 or 5 star anise
1 Tbs. juniper berries
1½ cups whole milk
1 cup white sugar
Mix the Zinfandel and spices in a saucepan. Bring slowly to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until it has reduced to 1 cup. Pour the mixture into a non-reactive container, cover, and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to let the spices permeate the wine.
Meanwhile, warm the milk and sugar in a separate saucepan, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, place in a non-reactive bowl, cover, and refrigerate several hours until very cold.
When ready to make the gelato, first strain the wine, then combine it with the cold sweetened milk. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions. For the best texture, serve right away. Yield is a little over a pint.