What We’re Cooking Now: Surprise Dinner

A toast to the birthday girl

A few weeks ago I traveled to San Francisco to surprise my sister for her 40th birthday. 

Birthday night we feasted on sushi with family and prepared for the next night and what she thought was going to be a night out with her friends. 

She thought it would likely be at a place called Pican, as she had been talking about this place with bourbon tastings and a desire to have real Southern cooking on her birthday. 

Shrimp and grits, all I had heard for weeks was a desire to have shrimp and grits on her birthday. 

Pancetta Crisps

Little did she know her big birthday celebration was indeed with her friends, but instead of going out her birthday dinner was held at her sweetheart’s place, and cooked by me and surprise guest, Gary, with all the Southern flair we could muster. 

The morning of I claimed this trip was a working vacation and had a day of meetings scheduled in Napa.  Out the door and to the store, then to the BART to pick up Gary and on to cook.  5 hours, 10 people, 4 courses plus appetizers.  No problem.

As mentioned, my sister Daphne wanted a Southern flair – so we pulled out some of our favorite recipes, including a perfect beef tenderloin, rubbed with garlic, rosemary and cracked pepper, with bourbon-maple scallops, just like my bourbon-maple salmon but with beautiful scallops instead, for the main course; the truffle, mushroom, brie creation; pancetta crisps with fig jam, arugula and pomegranate seeds as appetizers; and, of course, the main course had to include Gary’s baked beans

In addition we did a roasted beet, fennel and arugula salad; truffle mashed potatoes and steamed green beans with the main course; and a starter of bacon-wrapped shrimp on super creamy, cheesy polenta.  Daph’s friends arrive well before the birthday girl, one with cake in hand so dessert wasn’t on our to do list, and lots of bubbly and wine to celebrate the birthday girl.

The birthday girl with Gary


7:30PM sharp Daph arrives with a scream of joy and intense laughter, and big hugs for her friends and my sweet Gary for a surprise 40 years in the making.

Cheers Daph, it was a night to remember and quite a celebration of a very deserving you! 

Follow the jump for recipes not included in the links above.


Pancetta Crisps
12 thin slices of pancetta, kept in rounds
12 whole arugula or spinach leaves
Fig jam
Fresh figs, sliced (if in season)
Dried figs or dired cherries, chopped
Fresh pomegranate seeds
Goat cheese
Cracked pepper
Balsamic vinegar

Spray a large baking dish with cooking spray and pre-heat oven to 400.  Lay out each pancetta round on the baking dish, making sure to keep it in a round.  Bake until crisp, about 10-15 minutes.  If they start curling up place another heavy baking dish on top of the pancetta to keep them pressed down.  Remove and let cool.  Once cooled spread about 1 teaspoon of fig jam on each round, top with an arugula or spinach leaf, top with a bit of crumbled goat cheese, 1 piece of sliced fresh fig, a few pieces of chopped dried fig or cherries and a few pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle with cracked pepper and a drizzle of balsamic. 

Bacon Wrapped Shrimp and Cheesy Polenta
You could of course use grits instead of polenta…one is white, the other yellow, texture and timing are pretty much the same.  This is really the easiest thing in the world to make, but you have to baby the polenta a bit and serve it pretty quickly after it is prepared so they don’t harden. 
For the Shrimp:
10 extra large shrimp, raw but peeled and vein removed
5 large strips of bacon, cut in half and some of the fat trimmed (you really just want the meaty part, but some of the fat is fine…it is bacon after all.)
2 garlic cloves, minced
zest of 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
For the Polenta:
2 cups of polenta
1 qt low sodium chicken stock
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 cup Manchego cheese
3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish

Pre-heat oven to broil.  Rub the shrimp with garlic and lemon zest and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Wrap each shrimp in one half of a piece of bacon, seam side down so you can sit the shrimp tail up on the bed of polenta.  Secure with a toothpick and place on a baking sheet.   Broil for 7-10 minutes until shrimp are cooked and bacon is crispy, turning over halfway through cooking.  Remove the toothpick prior to serving.  Meanwhile combine stock and milk in a large, heavy bottom pot with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper each over high heat.  When the stock mixture boils add polenta, stirring in with a wooden spoon.  Reduce heat to medium and stir continuously until the polenta thickens and begins to pull away from the pot.  Add butter and cheese and adjust any seasonings.  If the polenta is too thick add in a bit more stock or water to loosen.   Serve in a heaping spoonful topped with a shrimp, garnish with parsley if you like.

Roasted Beet, Fennel and Arugula Salad
2 large red beets, 1 golden beet – peeled and chopped (keep separate so the red doesn’t bleed into the golden)
1 large/2 small fennel bulbs – sliced into thin strips
2 large bunches arugula
Balsamic vinegar
Olive Oil
1/2 tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon minced shallot
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400.  Individually mix 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar with red beets, golden beet and fennel; place the beets separately on a lined baking sheet.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.  Roast for about 30-45 minutes until beets are tender.  Remove and allow to cool.  Roast the fennel on a separate baking sheet for about 10-15 minutes until tender.  Wash arugula and chop lightly.  Place in a large bowl and top with cooled beets, and cooled fennel.  Combine garlic, shallot, red pepper, Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper with 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar and 3 tablespoons olive oil in a jar with a tight lid and shake well to combine.  When ready to serve dress the salad with enough dressing to lightly coat the salad and toss well.  Season with salt and pepper if desired.


    • Food glorious food!! Friends…glorious friends! Hayley…glorious Hayley!! Love you…love it all!! Cheers! xo


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