Orange salad with cilantro

Friday was Claudio’s birthday. And that meant a pull-out-the-stops dinner. As the sole chef on this one (Claudio was busy working in a tax office—part of our freelance shuffle), I got to choose the menu. With spring in the air, I wanted to get away from the heavy meat stews or braises we normally do—the perfect excuse for uncorking some big red wines, like the older Barbaresco cru and Barolos stashed in our basement (there’s a distinct advantage to having a Piemontese husband)—but now was not the time. So fish and chicken it was.

And boy, we had a feast. For our primo, I adapted a Wine Enthusiast recipe for Maryland Crab Cake with batons of zucchini & squash & toasted pine nuts. “This is the best crab cake I’ve ever had,” gushed Linda, our upstairs neighbor. And it was just right—crispy brown on the outside, with a crab interior that was tender and not too compact. (Somewhere I’d read that the trick is to not overwork the crab cakes when shaping them, and that proved right.)

The crab cakes were browned, baked, then served atop a bed of zucchini and squash batons. I added diced red peppers for festive color and topped them with a dollop of mayo with Old Bay seasoning (to spare myself the ordeal of citrus beurre blanc sauce), some argula, and a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts. Delish. The four of us devoured them lickity-split with a bottle of 2007 Chablis Grand Cru Les Close from 14th generation vignerons Jean-Paul & Benoir Droin, then uncorked a Gavi from Valditerra. Despite living one hill over from Gavi, I wasn’t acquainted with this estate (it’s closer to Novi Ligure, says Claudio, who visited once). But the wine was just lovely, with all the minerality and crystalline clarity that a good Gavi affords.

When I served the secondo, Andrea seemed surprised: “Two dinners!” But we had no problem polishing our plates. This was a lip-smacking Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Spiced Pine Nuts from Gourmet. Only...I forgot to add the pine nuts (the sorry consequence of two bottles of wine.) But it was fabulous anyway, with fresh ginger providing zip and blood-orange preserves adding a scrumptious sweetness that echoed the apricots. This got piled on couscous with more fruit—dried cranberries and prunes.

All that sweetness begged for a wine with ripe, succulent fruit, so a Chateauneuf-du-Pape was in order—a perennial favorite of Claudio’s. (I stayed loyal to the Gavi in my glass, however, which pairedC equally well.)

As a side dish, I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful late-winter citrus now in season.  So here’s my simple concoction, which not only goes great with tagine, but is as pretty as a bouquet of spring tulips.

Mixed oranges (e.g., Clementine; navel orange; cara cara, a grapefruit-orange hybrid)
Cilantro, finely chopped
Arugula (optional)

For vinaigrette:
2 tablespoon orange juice
2 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, ground

Cut oranges in thin horizontal slices. Top with minced cilantro and vinaigrette. Serve on argula leaves (optional).

This being a birthday dinner, the coup de grace was a 7-layer chocolate cake brought by Linda & Andrea. The perfect excuse for a Ruby Port from Quinta do Infantado.

Happy birthday, Claudio!