Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

Dinner: Apology

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Being friends means never having to say you’re sorry. Sorry as in “Hey I’m sorry I didn’t make it over for dinner as planned causing you to wait for hours while growing ever increasingly hungry before finally heading off to bed with no food whatsoever in your belly leading to a fitful night’s sleep as your blood sugar eventually bottomed out around 3am in the morning.” You know, that kind of sorry. But I’ve jumped ahead a bit too far in my story – let me back up a little first.

48 Hours Earlier (Saturday evening)

The night of the big dinner party has finally arrived – big as in highly anticipated. My townhouse can only accommodate so many people at one time, and tonight we’ll be pushing capacity as 8 adults and 3 kids are about to dive into dinner. The menu had been previously announced as “South American inspired”, leaving much detail to be decided as the date gradually grew closer. Anytime you throw a dinner party, unless you live in a virtual culinary horn of plenty, you are at least to a certain extent subject to the whims and seasons of your local market. Plan anything too exotic and, unless you’ve got your logistics perfected from years of experience, you are liable to wind up missing a crucial ingredient on the afternoon of the big day. For this reason, one of the last things I do when hosting friends for a meal is print the actual menu. Little details such as type of fish or selection of greens can vary wildly (especially during this time of the year). Summer is a little safer bet, but in mid March anything goes when it comes to ingredient availability – even with a selection of gourmet food shops, Whole Foods and The Fresh Market to supplement (and whenever I can afford it, supplant) the local grocery.

Tonight’s menu I was particularly proud of, having spent the better part of 6 weeks pulling it together and trying out the dishes I planned on preparing. Having guests over for dinner is, for me, an opportunity to try something new. Not on the guests mind you but in the weeks leading up to the dinner itself. For this menu, South American inspired certainly was not going to mean authentic South American. Having never traveled through the Southern Hemisphere, I felt I had no right to call anything I was preparing authentic. However, I believed I knew enough about what I was doing to leave it at “inspired”. A sumptuous Argentinean Malbec Rosé was the base of the sangria, fruity, infinitely quaffable and causing all of us to think of the warmer days to come. And for the featured cocktail, what would a South American inspired dinner be with the national drink of Brazil – the Caiprihina. While not going down quite as easily as the sangria, George and I were found enough of them. One advantage I quickly discovered of inviting George to dinner is he understands the number rule of any successful dinner party – keep a drink in the hand of the chef. At all times. George, it should be said, took this duty to the extreme. Moving on the appetizer course, drawing on the Italian influence and presence in the southern part of the continent, was an Argentinean Antipasto platter followed by a spicy Shrimp Seviche. Seviche, popular throughout South America but particularly well known in Peru, was something I had adopted and modified slightly from a Rick Bayless recipe. I always like to acknowledge my sources, not to brag “look what I can cook” but to be honest and give credit where credit is due (avoiding any charges of culinary plagiarism). It was a favorite dish of my neighbor and “friend” Eden – but more on her later. The salad course was lifted verbatim from Bobby Flay, if you can call 2 lbs of grilled quail on top of an equal weight of new potatoes served over a bed of baby arugula a salad. The arugula by rights should have been watercress, but then again this was mid March in Kentucky. I was just happy not to be reduced to serving it on iceburg lettuce.

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The main course would have made Sam Elliot proud. Meat was definitely what’s for dinner. Thick cut ribeye steaks and Spanish chorizo sausage were marinated in Chimichurri, a sauce recipe modified only slightly from one given to me by an acquaintance who in turn got it from an Argentinean orthopedic surgeon in Lexington. Apparently he serves his with goat. Not having time to cook Billy on the barbecue I stuck with the beef and pork. While on the grill the meat was kept moist by an occasional baste of chile water (dried and ground chipotle chile peppers, salt and water), a trick I picked up from the Internet and one I’m likely to use repeatedly in the future. The chile water imparted just enough heat to the meat to be noticeable, but not enough to scare anyone off. The seviche had already managed to do that. Dessert was another verbatim adoption, this time from Steve Raichlen. Pears were cored and stuffed with brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, lemon zest and rum, then smoked over applewood on the grill. To make the dish my own I topped it with a red wine glaze and little shredded Gruyere cheese. I love cheese and fruit for dessert, and the bite of the cheese cut through the sweet richness of the stuffed pears. The red wine glaze just helped pull it all together.

Suffice to say no one left hungry, and inevitably there was a little food left over. The leftovers were wrapped and set aside in the fridge, the dishes were put away and everyone said their goodnights. Five hours after it began, the house was empty, the kitchen clean (that in itself was remarkable), and I was off to bed.

The Next Day (Sunday morning)

I slept in. Despite my son’s best efforts to drag me out of bed at 7am, I managed to talk him in to laying down with me for a while (he’d had a late night too with the other kids), and together we slept until 10:30am. I had just stepped out of the shower when I heard the doorbell. Sunday’s are a day when we’re lucky to see another person – I take that whole day of rest thing seriously. But visitors are always welcome, especially when they are “friends”, as these were. It was my neighbor, co-chef and partner in all forms of culinary exploration, Eden. She had left a little earlier than the others last evening to put her own daughter to bed and popped over to see if anything was left to be done in terms of cleaning up from last night’s festivities. After perusing and indexing the leftovers in the fridge, she announced her intention to invite herself over for dinner tomorrow (Monday), giving us a good reason to consume the leftovers while watching our Monday night TV ritual, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. We could make taco’s she said, or quesadillas. It sounded like a good plan.

Monday

Work ends at five. As I drive home I’m really starting to get hungry. In addition to the leftovers from Saturday, at Eden’s request, I had thawed out some chicken to go with the rest of the evening’s repast. I arrive at home, shower, change, plop down on the sofa – and wait. Six o’clock arrives. I chat with a mutual acquaintance on the phone. “Getting ready to cook dinner” I tell her. “Just as soon as….”. Seven o’clock passes. Eight. Nine. At nine-thirty there’s a knock on my door, a lo and behold there’s my friend standing on front porch, holding a grocery bag containing a half empty bag of shredded cheese. Personally, I like a late dinner. I’d rather come home and relax a while before launching into cooking, and the show didn’t come on until 10pm anyway. Down the hallway into the kitchen we go and Eden tosses the cheese into the fridge without ever making reference to it or to dinner. We each grab a beer. Nothing like little libation before eating. Gets the appetite going. Another beer. The show starts. Eden pokes at the logs in the fireplace. It’s a repeat of the Indonesian episode we’ve seen a half dozen times. Still, it’s better than anything else on tonight. Another beer. “Next time on No Reservations…” the TV says. The clock chimes softly – eleven o’clock. Eden announces it’s her bedtime and begs her goodnight. I shut the door behind her and sit down in front of the fire, perplexed. And hungry. Strangely enough I don’t feel like cooking anymore. I head off to bed.

Epilogue

Thursday night my phone rings. It’s Eden, giggling (always a bad sign). “So, do you feel like cooking dinner tomorrow?” Sure I reply, and then tell I know where I can get my hands on some shredded cheese. More giggling. Plans are made, recipes are verified, grocery lists are made. She’s bringing a friend tomorrow for dinner and wine. That’s what great about friends who have a culinary bent. With a quick phone call dinner suddenly becomes more interesting. I never did eat those leftovers. However, there’s one thing Eden doesn’t know about tomorrow night – she’s the one doing the cooking. I’m not lifting a damn finger. Sorry if you were expecting help in the kitchen. But being friends means never having to say your sorry.

See you at six (or thereabouts).

click here to see the complete menu from the dinner party

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One response

  1. Natalie

    What can I say… It’s never a disapointing evening when you cook, Neil. The food and friends were a great mix. Send some pics when you get them loaded!
    Gracias!!!
    Natalie & Brian

    March 24, 2009 at 1:13 am

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