Uggghhhh errrrrrr duurrrr mmmmm nneeeeeeehhh
This meal may have actually rendered me speechless.
Okay. Here we go. My birthday, as you know, is mid-April. And as you know, this one was a rather big, entering a new decade one. The Mother had implored me to let her plan a family dinner to celebrate, but April and May were monumentally busy months, and June just slipped away too quickly. So we found ourselves in July, three months later, me one-quarter of the way to my next birthday, and you having one of your own! Mom wanted to take everyone out for a steak dinner in the city, but having just rented a place in the country for the summer, it seemed a waste to not take advantage. Here's where I hatched my plan. The Boyfriend and I had already talked with Chef Josh and Lady Kate about coming out to spend the weekend with us some time this summer, so why not kill two Cornish hens with one bushel of stone fruit, and ask Josh if he'd cook? The idea was pitched, the Mother was hooked, and Chef Josh agreed.
On Friday, the Chef picked us up with a trunk full of baby gear for his little lady, tucked between coolers containing a couple of pork butts soaking in a molasses brine. Somewhere between the off-roading detour for lobster rolls and the last minute jaunt for woodchips for smoking the pork, I began to catch a whiff of just how magical this weekend would be.
At around 8am Sunday morning, the day of the party, while the rest of us were still recovering from our dinner of pulled pork, mac and cheese, and grilled corn, the Chef went out shopping for dinner. Upon his return, bearing packages of all sizes, shapes, and colors, he set to work organizing the menu. It wasn't until I stole away to gawk at this scrap of paper that I realized what a treat we were in for. I mean, look at it. It's a thing of beauty.
"I'm thinking Mediterranean," Josh had said, as my head practically fell off my neck from all the vigorous nodding in agreement. Yes, please.
Let's take a visual tour.
The table. 'Scaped by none other than party-planner extraordinaire, Lady Kate, with hideous New Year's Millenium plates unearthed from the back of the cabinets and insisted-upon by the Boyfriend and Chef Josh.
Upon everyone's arrival, a meat and cheese platter was put out on the table in the living room, effectively drawing the crowds away from the kitchen, a feat hard to achieve with our family.
Next, cocktails stirred up by the Boyfriend, with a mix of watermelon, grapes, muddled mint, a healthy dose of Cachaça, a drop of simple syrup and a splash of soda. All topped off with lime. Everyone protested half-heartedly that they were too strong, before guzzling them happily.
When we sat down a few minutes later at the dining room table, bathed in the warm afternoon sunlight, giddy with anticipation and intoxicated by a mix of boozy watermelon slices and the incredible smells wafting from the stovetop nearby, we were met with our first courses: Marinated Beets with Burrata and Herbs, and Lamb Tartare with Oil-Cured Olives and Lemon Labna.
I ask you, how can something so simple taste so good? Or better yet, how can something so simple, that I could probably make myself (unlike most of the other dishes we ate that night), taste SO MUCH better when made by someone with actual skill? Well, I guess I just answered my own question. The beets were slick with oil, acidic from the vinegar, and in a pairing made in vegetable heaven, nestled under a cloud of creamy burrata, the soft curds mingling with a scattering of bright herbs. Even the Mother, who is a lifelong despiser of beets, had seconds, proclaiming she had never had a beet that tasted remotely like this. I like to think it was because of the superb job I did peeling them as Chef Josh's sous chef.
The lamb tartare. One of my favorites of the evening, and a dish that the cousins lovingly referred to simply as "the Labna", or "Lab". I haven't always been a fan of steak tartare, but this was a whole different animal (ahem)--rich and flavorful with olives (again, sliced by yours truly, which I think you'll agree made all the difference) and herbs, and topped with a generous dollop of labna, or yogurt cheese that Josh made--MADE--by draining yogurt through a coffee filter, and then mixing with lemon zest, salt, and olive oil (i think?). I could eat it by the bucket.
After everyone had seconds or thirds, against Josh's gentle warnings that there was much more to come, arrived the Tortino di Calimari.
Let's just say that our family, usually a generous bunch who would rather eat a spam sandwich than allow a guest to go hungry, gobbled every scrap of this dish up before the Chef himself could even have a proper taste. Sorry, Josh. It was just that good. Chock-full of artichokes and calamari, it's essentially a big pancake fried to a perfect golden crisp and garnished with a nice balance of shredded bitter raddiccio, and finely chopped fresh tomatoes mixed with garlic and olive oil. As the Mother said, it's hard to say which dish was my favorite since I said it pretty much every time a new plate arrived, but I think this might have taken the cake.
A few more sips of wine, a stretch, a giggle from one of the two adorable babies in attendance, later, and we were ushered to the buffet for the entree portion of the evening.
In no particular order:
Smoky Chickpeas with Pork. A Spanish-style dish with stewed chickpeas, smoky bacon, wine, and a hefty shot of smoked paprika. I could see this as my lunch or cocktail hour tapas snack for the rest of the summer (because yes, sometimes we do that here in the Mouse House). And yes, since you asked, I did chop the onions and slice the bacon. But let's not make a big thing out of it.
Spaghetti di Aragosta. Fresh pasta with lobster, corn, and tomatoes (sauteed in what I think was a reduced Lobster stock). Not even my unfortunate witnessing of the execution of the lobsters, could stop me from taking seconds. This pasta took my trifecta of favorite summer foods and transformed them into something new and utterly delicious--rich and light at the same time.
Seared Swordfish with Capers, Almonds, and Raisins. "How did you do the Swordfish?" Mom asked. "I love it but I can never quite get it right." "Oh, it's easy," Josh said. "You just throw it on the grill and don't overcook it." And therein lies the difference between a home cook and a really talented chef. Perspective. The fish was topped with a sort of Morrocan-esque mix of toasted almonds, raisins, capers and herbs (maybe there was lemon juice in there too?), an incredible mix of simple flavors that explode in such a vibrant way when put together.
Mushroom Risotto. Creamy, starchy, earthy, cheesy, heaven.
Roasted Cornish Hens. While it's kind of hilarious to watch a 6'2" tall man stuffing delicate individual sage leaves under the skin of tiny birds, there's nothing funny about how good this was. Or how much butter went into making it so tasty.
Seared Tri-Tip Steak. Look at that meat. Is that not the perfect color? Our uncle, the King of Gravy, and quite a discerning steak eater, pointed solemnly at the dish and said, "THAT was good." Oh yes it was.
As we cooed unabashedly over each bite, asking each other repeatedly, "But have you tasted THIS yet??" Josh brought to the table a platter of pristine, white filets of sea bass, barely touched with olive oil. It had been prepared whole, stuffed with herbs and lemon slices, and then caked in salt, a classic way of roasting whole fish to flavor it and lock in the moisture. Here it is, mummified:
And here it is, being readied to eat:
A study in the simplicity of preparation, quality of ingredients, and a skilled hand. The purest, unadorned mouthful was velvety soft, moist, and tasted of the sea. Almost a palate cleanser before the palate cleanser....
Palate Cleanser: Coconut-lime Sorbet with Sugared Cilantro. A refreshing and necessary transition before we undid our top button (okay, that happened after the appetizers) and moved onto dessert.
Peach Tart with Basil and Mint. The Boo's ideal summer dessert, wouldn't you say? A light, buttery pastry crust with just barely sweetened summer peaches, topped with fresh basil and mint. It was like a sweet pizza, with the peaches standing in for tomatoes. I'd eat it for breakfast, or serve it as an appetizer with some crumbled blue cheese on top. But with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or just plain, it made the perfect ending to a summer feast.
If only it was the end....
Chocolate Mousse. With whipped cream, Naturally.
Let it be known that Chef Josh had initially planned a third dessert, a plum crunch, which was wisely (if reluctantly) forsaken when he remembered that the Mother and the Aunt had baked a birthday cake for the occasion.
Coconut. Three layers. Bliss.
There it is, amid the destruction, flanked by our Aunt's absolutely perfect and totally excessive chocolate cookies, which you can find here.
I've had a lot of memorable meals in my life (probably 80% of them with you). Some are memorable for the food, some for the atmosphere, some for the occasion, some for the company. Others are memorable for the unexpected plot twist (remember that meal in Paris when I realized halfway through my entree that the "fish" I was eating was actually frog?), or, the sheer magnitude (my meal in Florence when I found myself doing the unthinkable--waving away a plate of pasta with a look of horror on my face). I think you'll agree we can add this meal to the list of unforgettable dinners. Getting to watch Chef Josh at work, absorbing tidbits here and there, proudly taking over the "zen jobs" of chopping and peeling and grating where I could, having our family around one table to share some incredible food--the whole process from start to finish, was a birthday gift I'll tuck away for years to come. What a great way to celebrate our 21st birthdays together. :) Let's do it again next year.
What do you say, Chefs?
I think they're up for it.