Wow! I knew I worked with a bunch of foodies, but I had no idea they were talented enough to open a restaurant. Seriously. I talked them out of it, though, believe me. The food at this little get together was some of the best I have had in a long time. If I would have known everyone was such good cooks I would have been crashing their family holiday get ages ago.
I don’t even know where to start. I guess with the reason for this gathering would be a good place. It was unfortunately a going away party for Jane Roberts of Sugarkist pie fame. She is hopping the pond and going to work on her British accent in London. Let’s hope she doesn’t start making steak and kidney pies instead of the tasty fruit pies she has made here for years and sold at the Logan Square Market. Leave it to me to start with dessert, but how can I not tell you about how incredible this mixed berry pie was that Jane baked for her party. You don’t think we would let the guest of honor get away with not baking a pie would you? Especially if it was going to be the last Sugarkist pie we were going to have for years! Rude and selfish, I know, especially since it was 95 degrees out and Jane doesn’t have an air conditioner. You better believe we savored every bite. Her crust is amazing. A nice dark golden brown. You know I love a well cooked pastry, one that is not afraid of the golden brown deliciousness that means flavor. Sugarkist pies are just that, too, kissed by sugar. Its lovely lips just grazing the plump ripe blackberries, strawberries and raspberries. I better stop that analogy now. This is a family blog!
Onto our most gracious hosts, Jeff and Erin, who held this fiesta in their lovely back yard, where Jeff had a charcoal grill, a smoker and a gas grill ready for action. This man is a grilling machine. Jeff had done all the cooking for Tracy’s birthday party/wedding about three months ago at Weegee’s. Tracy tricked him into it by saying it was her birthday party, whereas it really turned out to be a surprise wedding also! She’s so sneaky. Jeff would have probably freaked out if he knew he was catering her wedding! Well, I missed the food at that party, so I was looking forward to making up for it at this party.
First of all, Erin was the most amazing hostess I have ever encountered. She was clearing plates, making sure the next round of food was brought out, making coffee, setting up dessert, making Jeff plates of food while he was cooking. And she made it all look easy. I swear she was gliding, not spazzing out and tripping over herself, like I tend to do when I host a party. Now you know why I don’t host that many. It was very refreshing.
Booze, oh ya, there was lots of booze. That’s what’s so great about being at a party with friends who own a wine shop, good wine. I had to try all of it also, as I have to know the product I am selling. I took notes, too. NOT! You didn’t believe that for a second, did you? I would hope you know me better than that by now. Actually, we ran out of booze. Boys are we drinkers. Joe had to run back to the shop to get more. Oops! My favorites of the night were a Txocoli, a stone dry, yes stone dry, not bone dry, white from the Basque region of Spain. It literally tastes of the sea and wet stones. Perfect for the scorching hot night that it was. And a surprisingly light and refreshing sparkling Shiraz from Australia. I think Jeff said it was one of his favorites.
So, food. Let’s go. It all started with fifteen year old cheddar that I bought at Hooks Cheese in Mineral Point Wisconsin. I had never seen cheddar this old. They are not that common. I went up there a few months ago with my mom. She offered to buy me the cheese until she found out it was $50 a pound! But how could I not buy fifteen year old cheddar. I love Hooks cheese. We carry it at the shop. I asked Tracy if I could turn in my receipt for reimbursement. Hmmm…I don’t think I ever got an answer on that. I think she changed the subject. It was totally worth it and I was happy to share it with all my friends from the shop. I’m glad we all got to taste it. It was VERY sharp, but still fruity and starting to be a little crumbly. It was very distinct, that’s for sure. Right up my alley. I am not one for subtlety. The sharper, the more bitter, the better…baby!
Ok, onto dolmas by Nicole. Wow! These babies are a production. Nicole sent me the recipe with her notes and comments, always the fun part. I don’t think about the complexity of the dolma when I am eating it. I think grape leaf stuffed with tasty filling, yum. Let me pop three more in my mouth, dipping each end in the yogurt cucumber sauce, but this is not considered double dipping because I turned it around to the half I hadn’t taken a bite off of, because I just need more sauce, always more sauce. Oh, I confess, I am a double dipper, only among friends, though. For real. I am going to contradict myself here. It’s my blog, I can. I loved the subtle flavors of Nicole’s dolmas. I know I just said I don’t appreciate subtlety, but I lied. It is so nice to just eat something and all the flavors meld together seamlessly, nothing jarring, very enjoyable. That’s why I think I ate so many of the dolmas. They tasted effortless. The mark of a good cook. I can’t wait to try Nicole’s mother’s recipe. Well, not the recipe, the dolmas made by Nicole from her mother’s recipe. I am a bit lazy. You know that. I am going to have to finagle an invite when I know she is making them.
Cannot leave the pre appetizer portion of the party without mentioning Aaron’s cantaloupe wrapped in speck that he brushed with a lovely sweet balsamic and honey glaze. He served it with a salad of arugula and parmesan. This dish was very well rounded with the sweet cantaloupe, salty speck and bitter arugula. Aaron seems like a pretty balanced easy going guy. This dish proved my theory.
Boy, I am at 1075 words and Jeff hasn’t even fired up the grill yet! Uh oh. Go grab another glass of wine, run to the bathroom and settle in. We have to think of another name for these poppers because they can NOT share a name with that trashy deep fried TGI Fridays appetizer, which I do love! But these do not even compare. This is the first thing that graced the grill when Jeff had it all fired up.
Erin gets all the credit for these. You need to invite her to all your summer bbqs or holiday parties. I wonder if you can do them in the oven. Erin? Jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese, caramelized shallots and dehydrated tomatoes and wrapped in bacon and grilled by Bobby Flay’s replacement on the Food Network, Jeff Tabels. Yes, they were as good as they look. Mine was not that hot, but I saw others stick their scorched tongue in their glass of white wine to cool it down.
Earlier in the day Jeff had put that smoker to good use and smoked a piece of salmon. I don’t like salmon except when it is smoked. Back to that lack of subtlety. This was full of smoky goodness. Nothing subtle about it at all. Great a squeeze of lemon, capers, raw red onion and creamy goodness. It disappeared in a matter of minutes. We had to make sure he had a bite before we finished it off. Then, all manners aside, we were amongst friends here, we literally started picking the scraps off the skin!
Next up, Dietzler Farms rib eye steaks and filet mignon wrapped in , what else, bacon, courtesy of our fearless leaders Tracy and Joe. They brought them, Jeff grilled them to a perfect medium rare. This guy is gooooood.
There is nothing I hate more than an over cooked steak except overcooked scallops. Speaking of scallops, Jeff also grilled scallops, brushing them in a simple combo of Golden Vadouvan curry and room temperature butter. I will have to say these are the best scallops I have ever had. They were cooked PERFECTLY. Yes, I meant to shout that! Then Jeff goes and tells me this is the first time he ever cooked scallops and was nervous as hell. I don’t know how he did it because I have had many an overcooked scallop in many a high end restaurant. But he did and I was grateful. This proves my theory that scallops should be treated simply. Grilled and a simple sauce and you are done. Leave them alone. Step away from the scallops. You had to say that to me because I certainly wanted to eat more than my fair share.
But wait, back to the steaks which were perfect as is until I tasted them with David’s compound butter. Ok, David showed up late to the party, as he was working his other job. I do blame him though for my overeating. I gotta blame someone. So I am done eating, except for dessert, and in waltzes David with this unassuming deli container of brown speckled stuff that he says is for the steak. Well, the steak was right in front of me, so I grab the knife and cut off a slice and shmeared some of this grey butter on it. Ohhhhhhhhh…”What the hell is in that David?” I ask, as I reach for the knife cut off another piece of steak to shmear with more of this heaven. “It’s a classic beurre d’ escargot recipe that I have been wanting to make for years” he said. What that means is it is a compound butter with shallots, garlic, parsley, absinthe, salt and pepper. He modified it by adding celery salt and replacing the regular garlic with black garlic. The black garlic made it sweeter and gave it more complexity. You need to make this. You can find black garlic at the Spice House. It is just fermented garlic. I call it magic. Needless to say, that knife got a little more use from me.
I said I was done eating, but I lied again. I haven’t even told you about the side dishes. This is why I had to imbibe in a little alka selzer when I got home. I haven’t done that in ages. Let’s see, where to start. Mary made an amazing barley and cannellini bean salad. Boy was this salad a mélange of flavors and textures. (I just like that word “mélange” and it totally fit this salad.) Pearled barley, thinly sliced fennel, walnuts, Dijon and cannellini beans. Mary even made the beans from scratch instead of just opening a can. You could tell the difference. I told you these were a bunch of serious foodies.
Richard and Michael made a potato salad that was not your ordinary mayo drenched boring old potato salad. It blew mine away. I should have known not to bring the same thing, but I had already bought the potatoes and didn’t want them to rot away on my fridge. Richard said their potato salad was an homage to Michael’s father who was born in the Yucatan. He said he found the recipe years ago and modified this yummy mix of potatoes, poblano peppers, olives and eggs by using only very good olive oil, instead of the suggested vegetable oil, adding red peppers for sweetness and adding a bit of the Spice House’s Pilsen blend which has Mexican oregano and red pepper flakes in it. Flavorful and colorful, I am sure Michael’s father would be proud to have this tasty dish honoring him.
Richard and Michael are kale freaks just like me. They also simply tossed cleaned kale with a little olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice and let it sit covered on the counter for a few hours. This gently wilted the kale, making it edible raw. They served it with a great simple little cherry tomato salad and this amazing fresh Bulgarian Double Cream Feta. Oh this stuff was good. Sort of like a cross between cream cheese, brie and feta. A little salty and a whole lot creamy. This on a bagel would be heaven. They got it at Fresh Farms on Touhy and said it was only $4.99 a pound. Score!
I did bring a potato salad also, but that is all I am saying. It was good, but nothing close to as tasty as Richards. I also brought my new instant easy, told you I am lazy, favorite, buckwheat noodles with shiso pesto. I made the pesto awhile ago with shiso from the Bloomington farm. You can also get it at any Asian grocery store. I think it is called pink mint also. The buckwheat noodles are also sold at the Asian grocery store. They are just so delicate and flavorful, yet subtle, and cook in minutes. I just tossed the pesto, a little extra sesame oil, corn and green beans with the buckwheat noodle, garnish with scallions. Done.
Last but certainly not least is dessert. Yes, I was stuffed already. That extra steak put me over the edge, thanks David, but there were still three, yes, three, desserts to tackle. I already told you about Jane’s delicious mixed berry pie about 2200 words ago! It is the best pie I have ever had. Really. I cannot think of one thing that I would change, except that she not hop the pond J Good excuse as any to visit her in London. Mary also made a lovely rustic plum gallette. See, we are all over achievers here. Like the barley salad was not enough, she just whipped up a plum gallette also. This is a woman with two jobs, a husband and a teenage boy. Boy, I have no excuse to be lazy. She puts me to shame!
Then there was the Coconut Cake with Saffron Cream from the September issue of Food and Wine that David also brought. I told you I blame my overeating that night and my alka selzer cocktail on him. I don’t even like saffron. It tastes metallic to me, like a mixture of tin and blood. Don’t ask! This cake was so good though. The cream must have mellowed the saffron. Its flavor blended smoothly with the coconut.
This dessert didn’t even have chocolate in it and I had one and a half pieces at the party and took two pieces home! Oops. Now everyone knows where all that cake went. Shoot. One piece was for Laurent. I wanted my wonderful husband to know the bliss of this coconut saffron cream cake, and the other piece was for me. I even publically threatened to decapitate him if he ate the other piece! Yes, it was that good and I have been watching too much True Blood, hence the violence! I also brought him a piece of Jane’s perfect pie. I made him share it with me, though :) If I hadn’t brought it home, he would have never tasted it, hence the “commission” .
That my friends were one of the tastiest parties I have ever been too, not to mention the wonderful conversations among friends. It really reminded me of my most favorite day on the face of this earth, New Years Eve. You’ve heard about that foodie frenzy among friends that happens every year that I live for. This group of people is as special to me and as talented. I am so lucky to work with this amazing group of people. I vote to make this happen quarterly. Actually Mary and I decided these quarterly parties should be themed. Next quarter will be Spanish appetizers, paired with Spanish wine , of course. Sangria anyone? I might just have to kick it up a notch next time, now that I know what I am up against. Let the friendly competition begin!
Good Luck in London Jane. You and your pies will be missed dearly!