So many things can determine the making of a menu: the weather, the season, the diners’ tastes and, of course, what looks good at the market. Or maybe it’s simply dictated by something you have been craving to cook and eat. Whim and whimsy (and changing your mind) can be part of the process, too.
Whether it’s a dinner party or a casual dinner, your goal should be a collection of cohesive elements. You want flavors that will complement one another and at least a loose plan for how it will all go together.
Will it be an orderly progression of single dishes — a first course, a main course and dessert? Or will it all go on the table at once, as with, say, pasta al forno and a gorgeous green salad? That’s the menu, and that’s the meal, and that’s fine.
At my house, we often start out in the kitchen with drinks and stand-up snacks, then move to the table for the main course. Other times, we may like to spend a little more time at the table.
For this meal, which is more of the latter, I built the menu around the main course — something cassouletish, without the bother of making a proper cassoulet, a project that can take several days.
With a little tweaking, I came up with a dish that had cassoulet elements (duck, beans), but with a lighter, and perhaps slightly Italianate feel. The result was slow-roasted duck legs with mashed white beans, with a savory topping of sizzled rosemary, sage and olives. Peppery arugula leaves dressed with lemon and salt paired well with the richness of the duck, though steamed broccoli rabe could be another choice.
Slow-roasting duck legs in the oven, uncovered, yields tender meat, similar to duck confit, as well as a lovely crispy skin. Look for large moulard legs, available at some butcher shops and online.
For a simple first course, I wanted something fishy, but easy: steamed clams with snail butter. No, not butter made from snails, but rather, the emerald-green garlic butter used for escargots. The ingredients are simple — just butter, parsley and garlic — but it tastes good on nearly everything, whether pan-seared steaks, grilled fish or pasta.
This is meant to be a small first course, just four or five clams per person, but feel free to increase the quantities for larger servings. Or, skip the buttery clams and serve raw oysters on the half-shell.
I often don’t want a fancy dessert, so for this menu, I chose one of the simplest and best desserts imaginable (also delicious for breakfast). Its inspiration is the Mediterranean treat of fresh ricotta drizzled with regional honey. The main challenge is to find good fresh ricotta. You want the kind that is delicate and custardlike, not the grainy-textured supermarket kind. Sometimes you can find fresh ricotta sold in little plastic basket molds. Unmolded on a plate, it makes a lovely presentation, cut into wedges. Instead of honey, I served it with a very refreshing rhubarb sauce punched up with ginger and cardamom — a nod to spring, for which rhubarb is a rosy harbinger.
The good news about this menu is that much of it can be prepared in advance. You can cook the beans up to two days ahead, and the same goes for the snail butter and rhubarb sauce. Then, put the dinner together leisurely as duck legs slowly roast.
And to Drink …
The white beans and olives in this dish suggest Tuscany, and the slow-roasted duck legs conjure up the southwest of France. Red wines from those regions could not be better matches. From Tuscany, Chianti Classico will go brilliantly with this dish, its flavors and acidity melding seamlessly with the richness of the duck and beans. You could also choose a Brunello di Montalcino if you like. From the southwest of France, the land of confit, you have a variety of delicious reds. The tannic tannats of Madiran might need to be decanted. Bergerac could provide a softer experience, while the wines of Cahors or Irouléguy would be superb. For a more luxurious experience, try a Pomerol from Bordeaux. From outside these areas, a pinot noir would be delicious as well. ERIC ASIMOV