Monday, March 15, 2010

My Semi-Private "Top Chef"

Two nights after throwing my first-ever dinner party, I was lucky enough to attend a dinner party at Park Slope’s Melt Restaurant.

Of course, I paid $50 for the privilege of attending this dinner party, but it was well worth the money. Hosted by, an organization that creates innovative events and programs for moms of all ages, the intimate evening began with an informal cooking class.

The event was billed as “How to Prepare a Restaurant-Class Dinner for Four for Under $20!” but the real draw was Melt’s executive chef, New Zealand born and bred celebrity “Top Chef” contender Mark Simmons, who is not only charming and informative (and talented), but also quite easy on the eyes. Simmons wasn't the only New Zealand import of the night. The wine of choice was Savee Sea Pinot Noir Marlborough from New Zealand (2008).

Once we had settled in at the bar with a glass of wine, Simmons wowed the group of eight moms with his recipe for Beer and Honey Braised Lamb Shank with truffled polenta and charred asparagus.

"It’s all about trying to create a meal for your friends and family without breaking the budget," said Simmons, who noted that the lamb shanks cost about $3.50/lb.

Simmons invited the ladies to join him in Melt’s cozy kitchen so he could show us how the pros work.

The secret to Simmons' recipe is the mix of fresh spices, including lavender flower which he grows in his backyard, green cardamon, coriander seed, cumin seed and white pepper corn.

“If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you should run out and get one,” said Simmons. “People say variety is the spice of life, but I say freshly roasted ground spices are the spice of life.”

His other tip: buy lamb and other meat products at Los Paisanos, a small butchery at 162 Smith Street.

After seasoning the shanks with the spice mix and salt, Simmons dusted them with flour and then braised them (for non-cooks: braising means cooking in liquid with a cover).

“I like braising a lot because it imparts flavor into meat,” said Simmons, who likened the dish to an orchestra. "The spices are the percussion."

Luckily for us, Simmons had prepped the meal in advance so we didn’t have to wait three hours for the lamb to be ready to eat.

We began the meal with a tantalizing "amuse bouche" of marinated baby beets with house made lavender-infused ricotta.

We oohed and ahhed at the delicately flavored grits and the tasty charred asparagus.

The lamb was so tender it fell easily off the bone. The group was collectively skeptical that we could pull off such a culinary masterpiece on our own at home.

“All my kids want to eat are frozen waffles,” said one mom.

“You should challenge yourself in the kitchen regularly,” said Simmons and we all nodded at the notion.

Of course, he's right, but it's easier said than done.

"No offense, Mark, but I will never be trying this at home," said one mom of two young tots.

To be honest, I don't think I'll be cooking up lamb shanks anytime soon either, but it's a nice idea.

“So what do you cook when you get home?” I asked him.

“Sometimes after I’ve been cooking all day, I want a break from the kitchen. My wife understands,” said Simmons.

"Any last questions for me?" he asked the group.

"Can we have your home phone number?" one mom asked and we all broke up laughing.

If you want to try some of Simmons’ cooking, keep in mind that Melt is participating in Brooklyn’s Restaurant Week a.k.a. “Dine in Brooklyn,” which starts today and runs through March 25. In fact, Melt is extending the $25.00 dinner prix fixe promotion til March 31st. The menu will change weekly, so if you want you can try something new each week.

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