Monday, August 24, 2015

Now We're Cooking

Over the years I've done a fair amount of wilderness camping, much of it canoeing in central Canada. While we could always depend on catching fish for a certain number of meals (mainly northern pike and walleye), we were essentially packing in all our food and packing out all our inorganic waste.

While that's unquestionably the right thing to do ecologically, it was invariably a challenge physiologically, because you are necessarily most loaded at the front end of the trip, when your muscles are least accustomed to the workload. Every day, as we steadily worked our way through the food supplies with purpose and appetite, the packs got a little lighter—a phenomenon that we referred to as "eating our way to mobility." The more we consumed, the easier it was to load the canoes each morning and to portage the remains.

I tell you that story because Susan and I have been going through an analogous gauntlet of food management the last five days.

When I visited her in early July (during which time we successfully launched our young relationship between old friends), one of the many things we discussed was what we might do together on future visits. It didn't take us very long to settle on hosting dinner parties as a possibility: cooking is something we both enjoy and it would be a delightful way to include others (rather than holing up in her house playing doctor).

Dinner Party #1
Looking ahead to the visit I'm now enjoying, Susan's first thought was to organize a dinner party for eight, where three other couples who enjoy good food would be invited. While that sounded fine to me, it turned out that the dates didn't work for one of the couples, so she switched off to hosting a neighborhood party, taking advantage of her kids visiting at the same time I'd be there. She knew that many of the neighbors would appreciate catching up with Britta (33) and Jamie (31), and vice versa. Because my overlap with the kids was only a few days, we needed to schedule the party for the day after I arrived (Wed). Then, because it was hard to know where to draw the line on who to invite, dinner for eight mushroomed into a freewheeling affair for 19. Yeehah! 

Reasonably enough, Susan's ease in expanding the guest list was influenced by the likelihood of being able to accommodate the flow in the back yard as well as the living room and dining room (think end of the summer block party). Unfortunately it started raining Tuesday night and was wet and soggy all day Wed, with temperatures in the 50s. Oops. Time to switch to Plan B, where all the milling was confined indoors—with Jamie bravely manning the barbecue grill out back, dancing between rain squalls. Even though we didn't quite have enough seating for everyone, in the end only 17 showed up and it all worked fine. Britta and Jamie were game for helping out and the home team pulled it off without a glitch.

In addition to a few contributions from the guests (who were told that nothing was needed but brought favorite recipes anyway) we served up:
—Swedish cucumbers with sour cream
—Sri Wasano's Infamous Indonesian Rice Salad 
—Sliced fresh tomatoes, red onions, and shredded basil marinated in aioli
—Watermelon cubed and tossed with mint and feta
—Grilled bratwurst (both pork and tofu) and grass-fed hamburgers
—Peach cobbler
—Plenty of wine, beer, and soda

Did we have enough food? We didn't even bother to pull out the second dessert and we were giving away doggie bags to all comers by the end of the night.

Dinner Party #2
While the refrigerator was already stuffed with leftovers, we bravely turned around Thursday and began planning for the second dinner party that Susan had queued up—this one for her mah jongg group on Friday. Susan is a card-carrying member of a dedicated group of four women who meet monthly for schmoozing and game playing. While the males do not typically attend these gatherings this party would be an all-skate, with Susan and me cooking. (Thus, Susan managed to preserve our opportunity to cook for a party for eight.) Now all we needed was a menu.

Susan and I tossed around a number of ideas before settling on:
—Appetizer tray of assorted olives, assorted cheeses, peppadews, marcona almonds, and French bread
—Locally made linguine with fresh spinach, served with a sauce featuring onions, garlic, and crimini mushrooms, cooked in a red wine reduction, topped with fresh whole sage leaves fried in butter
—Pork tenderloin smothered in caramelized onions, served with sour cherry chutney
—Frenched green beans stir-fried with garlic chunks and turmeric
—Potatoes au gratin
—Dessert was a birthday cake for one of the guests, who's special day was coming up at the end of the month

This worked pretty good, and we even got in several hands of mah jongg, with two of the men playing for the first time.

As the evening wound down (circa 10 pm), we distributed another round of doggie bags to our happy guests and sent them off into the night. After corralling all the party detritus into the kitchen, Susan reloaded the dishwasher and somehow manged to find a home for all the leftovers, creatively manifesting holes in a refrigerator that appeared to be completely full when she began.

Dinner Party #3
Saturday morning we slept in. Jamie had departed Thursday (for a bachelor's party weekend with 10-12 guys at a cabin on Lake Vermillion), and Britta had left Friday morning, headed back to Denver, by way of Northfield MN, where she'd do a spot of alumni fundraising for Carleton College, from which all four of us had graduated.

After luxuriating in an unscheduled morning with no one else in the house, we prepared to head to Babbitt and a rendezvous with friends Jane & Mick at a cabin they had rented for three weeks on Birch Lake, very near Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 

Taking into account that Jane & Mick would be arriving from their home in the Twin Cities only scant hours before we got there, and that we didn't want to be ungracious guests for our overnight stay, Susan volunteered that we'd cook dinner. (Hell, we were on a roll, right?)

While we needed to be a bit more creative to accommodate their vegan diet, it wasn't hard to settle on a reprise of the previous night's pasta dish. We just made sure to bring eggless noodles and to use olive oil in place of butter in building the sauce. So we dropped the sage leaves and substituted a handful of minced green olives and a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. We also contributed some of the choice leftovers from Friday: antipasto, the frenched green beans, and a loaf of French bread to fill out the simple menu.

Dinner Party #4
Tonight is my last night in Duluth. Amazingly enough, Susan and I will be dining alone. (Notice the near perfect progression: 17 on Wednesday; 8 on Friday; 4 on Saturday; 2 on Monday. Looked at through a geometric lens it seems inevitable that I'll be on my own come Tuesday, and fasting by Wednesday.)

I brought with me a special bottle of Chardonnay Reserve from Chateau Morrisette that I picked up when I was in Floyd VA at the beginning of the month, and we'll start the evening with that, augmented by baked garlic, a wedge of champignon brie, and the ubiquitous loaf of warm French bread. From there we expect to make further inroads on the surfeit of delicious leftovers, coming to the rescue of our hardworking refrigerator.

In case you couldn't tell, one of my favorite things is to cook and eat (and drink) with friends. This week I got to indulge in all three to my heart's content.

No comments: