Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The State Dinner in Honor of India: The Menu, The Wine Pairings, The China And Flowers...

A sustainable, regional, mostly vegetable menu...a bridge of friendship between Indian and American cultures...
During the press preview event for tonight's State Dinner in honor of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, First Lady Michelle Obama discussed the importance of protocol and local foods. She welcomed the members of her new girls' Mentoring and Leadership program to the White House, and treated them to the desserts that will be served this evening. (Above: A pumpkin pie tart that will be served tonite)

Mrs. Obama was introduced by Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, and the event was a combination White House history lesson and unveiling of the much-anticipated menu, as well as the china patterns and place settings that will be used. White House Curator Bill Allman also addressed the girls.

The dinner is meant to continue Mrs. Obama's focus on fresh, sustainable, and regional foods, the best of American cuisine, with a green garden theme for the decor. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her remarks; Rogers and Allman look on)

Mrs. Obama told the girls and the media a little bit about the kitchen action, but focused more on events outside of the kitchen--protocol, diplomacy, why State Dinners are important for any White House, but particularly for the Obama White House, which is seeking to strengthen our global relationships, particularly with India, the world's other largest democracy. She emphasized that there are many traditions surrounding State Dinners and Official Visits, but forging friendships, exchanging knowledge, and "building bridges" is chief among these.

Guest Chef Marcus Samuelsson helped Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford create the menu--but he wasn't present at the preview event, nor was she. Nor were any of the dishes from the menu--save for a lone plate of Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses's desserts. (A place setting of Eisenhower china, above).

The menu blends American and Indian cuisine, and is something of a bridge between cultures. Mrs. Obama called Samuelsson "one of the finest chefs in the country," and noted that there had been a flurry of activity all over the White House to prepare for the evening

"It takes all the folks in the kitchen -- we have our incredible White House Chef Cris Comerford -- who some of you guys met -- and the rest of our kitchen staff," Mrs. Obama said. "It's going to showcase the best of American cooking. It's going to include the freshest ingredients from area farmers and purveyors."

The State Dinner Menu
in honor of
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Potato and Eggplant Salad
White House Arugula with Onion Seed Vinaigrette

Wine: 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Modus Operandi, Napa, California

Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Cheese

Wine: 2006 Riesling, Brooks "Ara," Willamette Valley, Oregon

Roasted Potato Dumplings
with Tomato Chutney
Chickpeas and Okra


Green Curry Prawns
Caramelized Salsify
with smoked Collard Greens
and Coconut Aged Basmati

Wine: 2007 Grenache, Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Ynez, CA

Pumpkin Pie Tart
Pear Tatin
Whipped Cream and Caramel Sauce

Wine: Sparkling Chardonnay, Thibaut-Janisson Brut, Monticello, Virginia

Petis Fours and Coffee
Cashew Brittle
Pecan Pralines
Passion Fruit and Vanilla Glacee
Chocolate-Dipped Fruit

*A number of items that were served at the State Dinner did not appear on the official menu; these are here.

The menu "honors the culinary excellence and flavors that are present in Indian cuisine," according to the White House. At the dinner this evening, guests will also be offered what amounts to a bread course, also a White House first. The selection includes cornbread, papadum (a thin Indian cracker-like bread), rice crackers and naan — to be dipped in quince chutney, raita (a yogurt sauce) and a tomatillo-avocado dip.

It's not a flashy or showy menu; it's about as humble as a State Dinner menu could be with the focus on vegetables--yet phenomenally creative and original. It's also something of an homage to the Immigrant Experience in America; each of the dishes combines ingredients that are representative of a food that's associated with the waves of populations that have created the glorious whole that is America. That's Samuelsson's specialty, and the subject of his just-published cookbook, New American Table. It's also something that has been much discussed in the last two days, as Prime Minister Singh has repeatedly noted that everyone in India now has a relative living in America.

Samuelsson is the first guest chef in White House history to be invited to cook during a State Dinner, and the menu is primarily vegetarian--also a first in White House history; there's never been a vegetarian option offered at a State Dinner before. It's a lovely menu, and does continue Mrs. Obama's focus on fresh, local/regional foods, especially because she's spent months encouraging America to eat its vegetables, and the menu is primarily vegetarian.

The pears for the dessert were poached in honey from the White House Beehive, and herbs and Arugula were harvested from the White House Kitchen Garden--as predicted. The herbs included pineapple sage, fresh dill, oregano and thyme. Desserts will be garnished with mint and verbena from the Kitchen Garden, too. (Above; A long view of one of the tables)

The wines, of course, are all American, as is standard White House practice. The inclusion of the wine from Monticello, Virginia, has special meaning: Monticello is where Thomas Jefferson's own historically preserved plantation home (also called Monticello) is located, and there's a special Jefferson Bed in the White House Kitchen Garden; seeds and starts were donated for the garden from Jefferson's garden at Monticello. (Above: Tables will seat ten)

China patterns, the place settings, the linens...
Mrs. Obama mixed her china patterns for this evening, and is using Eisenhower China and Clinton State China for the service plates, and George W. Bush State China for the dinner plates. (Above: A placesetting with Bush State China)

The china has meaning: President Eisenhower was the first president to visit India after it gained its independence. And both of the Clintons--Bill and Hillary--have been enormously useful to the Obamas and the administration. Their china is very special: It was created for the 200th anniversary of the White House, and depicts architectural endowments on the building, and has an unusual cream border.

President Bush fostered a close relationship with India, too: He held a State Dinner in Prime Minister Singh's honor in 2005. The Bush China, designed by First Lady Laura Bush, arrived just two weeks before the Bushes left the White House, and was only used once.

Table clothes are apple green, flatware is gold, as are the candle sticks, with gold-colored candles; tables in the dinner "tent"--er, bulletproof pavilion--will seat ten. The flowers, designed by new White House florist Laura Dowling, are purple in honor of India's state bird, the Indian Peacock. The centerpiece bouquets on the dining tables are also meant to be evocative of the classical American garden, and include sweet pea, garden roses, and hydrangea.

These will be "recycled" throughout the White House tomorrow, according to the press guidance. Magnolia branches, nandina, and ivy foliage--sustainably harvested--will be woven through the light fixtures and around the walls of the dinner tent, and this is also a nod to India; Magnolia is native to India, as well as America.

The stemware on the tables repeats the purple color scheme too--but it's rented, according to Deputy Press Secretary Semonti Stephens, as are the linens; in the past, these items were commissioned for White House State Dinners, and never used again. The White House rents equipment for events: The dinner "tent" was rented, too. It's actually a massive pavilion with bulletproof windows, a state-of-the-art sound system, and a carpeted floor.

*Mrs. Obama's full remarks are here. Download your own copy of the State Dinner Preview here [PDF].

*This was posted from the State Dining Room in the White House, during a break in the proceedings.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama