Small-scale dinners are a joy for the cook


Nine out of 10 times when planning a dinner party, I create a menu to serve at least six and often eight, reasoning that cooking for more rather than a few makes sense. I tell myself that the house still needs to be cleaned, the table set and flowers arranged, regardless of the number of guests. I have been reminded recently, though, of the virtues of inviting just two or three for a small, intimate meal. During the past year, my husband and I spent several months working in Paris in an apartment with a very small kitchen. Since we both love to entertain, we frequently asked friends to come for dinner, but, limited by space, we typically had only four at our table.

After several of these small-scale gatherings -- these diners intimes -- I realized that cooking for a handful of people was far easier and less stressful. Another bonus was that dishes I would never dream of preparing for a large group were perfect choices for such meals. Risottos served as main courses, pan-sauteed lamb chops with a last-minute sauce or crispy breaded veal scallops became possibilities.

I was reminded of these menus a few nights ago when I prepared sauteed salmon fillets and spinach napped with a red wine butter sauce. Buttered baby red skins made a simple garnish for our plates. The minute I put down my fork, I knew that this would be a perfect meal to enjoy with another couple, and decided to telephone friends to come for dinner over the weekend.

The sauce called beurre rouge (red butter) is a French classic and is prepared by simmering minced shallots in red wine until the latter has almost evaporated. Then bits of softened butter are whisked in to form a delicious, smooth mixture. White wine is often used in this sauce, but the red holds up well to the assertive taste of the salmon. The beurre rouge can be assembled an hour ahead and reheated in a pan of simmering water. The salmon fillets need only a few minutes of saute time in a hot skillet, and after the fish is removed, the spinach can be wilted in the same skillet.

A cucumber and watercress salad as an opener, and a plate of cheeses served with bread and sliced apples and pears will complete my menu for this little diner intime.

Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.

Salmon on a Bed of Spinach With Beurre Rouge

Serves 4

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots (1 large shallot)

1/2 cup dry red wine

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

four 6- to 7-ounce salmon fillets, about 3/4 inch thick

kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper

olive oil

1 pound fresh spinach, stemmed, rinsed well and dried

2 tablespoons chopped flat- leaf parsley

Place shallots and wine in a heavy, medium-size nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. Cook, watching carefully, until all but about 2 tablespoons of the wine has evaporated, only a few minutes. Reduce heat to low, then, whisking constantly, add the butter a small piece (about 1/2 tablespoon) at a time. Sauce will start to thicken and become creamy and smooth as each addition of butter is whisked in. When all butter has been added, remove saucepan from heat and place it in a skillet of hot water to keep sauce warm.

Sauce can be prepared an hour in advance. If it cools too much, place skillet of water with saucepan in it over low heat and whisk until sauce is warm.

When ready to cook salmon and spinach, salt and pepper the fillets generously. Place a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add enough oil to coat the bottom. When oil is very hot, add salmon fillets, flesh side down, and cook until well browned and slightly crusty, only 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and cook on skin side, another 3 to 4 minutes until salmon is opaque and flakes easily when pierced with a small paring knife. Remove salmon to a platter and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.

Pour off any oil and liquids in the skillet and -- carefully, because the skillet will still be hot -- use several folded paper towels to wipe out the skillet.

Return pan to medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom generously. Add half the spinach and cook a minute or more, stirring constantly until it wilts. Then add the remaining spinach and continue to cook, stirring, a minute or two more until just wilted. Remove from heat and salt spinach to taste.

To serve, arrange a bed of spinach on each of 4 dinner plates. Top each with a salmon fillet. Then ladle about 2 tablespoons of the sauce over each portion of salmon. Sprinkle each serving with parsley. Serve immediately.

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