Sunday, June 03, 2007

Memorial Day Foodfest

We had a busy Memorial Day weekend, foodwise. I spent more time cooking over the weekend than I think I have in the last four years. And of course, I have some random observations based on my experiences.

On Saturday we attended the potluck 40th birthday party of a friend. This is not how I would choose to spend my 40th birthday (although to be perfectly fair, it wasn’t her actual birthday), but my friend loves potlucks. I do not love potlucks. Call me a food snob, but I don’t like the randomness of asking everyone to bring something. In the first place, you generally wind up with far too many pans of brownies, and in the second place, nothing ever goes.

At this particular event, the hosts provided hamburgers and hot dogs (and vegetarian burgers—we’re in the Pacific Northwest, after all). The guests were asked to bring the sides and desserts. The selection was predictably random. Peanut noodles (made with spaghetti—which I find unforgivable in a day and age when you can buy packages of real oriental noodles at any 7-11, practically), an orzo salad, a green salad, several pans of brownies (see?), a couple of boxes of cookies from Costco, and the birthday cake. Maybe I’m too much of a traditionalist, but if I’m forced to eat grilled food I’d prefer things like potato chips or potato salad or something like that. No, there is no pleasing me.

On Sunday we had my family over for lunch. Since I was cooking, everything “went.” Well, it did as far as I was concerned. We started with spiced pecans that I made. My husband had pooh-poohed these as a dumb idea, but I know my family. Sure, they wouldn’t necessarily be what I craved at lunchtime, but my family loves nuts (insert your own nut-as-synonym-for-insanity joke here). Sure enough, within ten minutes of their arrival, both my aunt and my grandmother had asked me for the recipe.

Then we had a fennel slaw, with shredded cabbage, shredded fennel, and shredded Granny Smith apple. Making this made me realize that I don’t like the bagged shredded cabbage as much as I like the consistency of what I shred myself in my food processor. The bagged stuff is too coarse. I can get it much finer with my food processor. I’ve now decided that if I’m in a hurry, I’ll use the bagged stuff, but that if I have the time, I will certainly shred my own. I actually used the grating disk, not the shredding disk, which is why it was so much finer.

Then I made a gougere pizza. This translates to a pizza made out of cream puff dough. Cream puff dough is butter, flour and egg. This dough also had Gruyere cheese and blue cheese stirred into it, and then blue cheese scattered over the top of it. It baked for about 45 minutes until it puffed up nicely. Originally this was intended as an appetizer, but it made a nice lunch, albeit a pretty rich one.

For dessert we had strawberry shortcakes, with chocolate biscuits. The biscuits were kind of a pain to make, because the directions called for whipping heavy cream to stiff peaks, then stirring it into the biscuit dry ingredients. It’s not easy to stir whipped cream into flour and cocoa powder. The strawberries had a little crème de cassis sprinkled over them, and there was more whipped cream on the side.

On Monday I let my husband do the cooking, although I picked the menu. We had a tomato pie I’ve had the recipe for forever and have always wanted to try but never made, grilled shrimp wrapped with bacon (a concession to my husband, who feels that summer holidays require something to be charred to oblivion on the grill), and for dessert, a cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

The tomato pie provided two lessons—first, anything made with tomatoes is just bound to be watery, no matter how long you let them drain, and second, it’s very hard to roll out short crust pastry without a rolling pin. The tomato pie was good, but the bottom crust got soggy, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s just how it is with tomato things. As for the lack of rolling pin, we moved and we’re keeping our unpacking to a bare minimum, since we’re going to be moving again by the end of the year. Apparently, the box with the rolling pin didn’t rate unpacking.

I had this difficulty brought home to me on Wednesday night when I tried to make a plum jam tart for a friend’s birthday (same friend whose potluck we went to, but this was for the actual day). I had to push the dough out with my fingers, which isn’t the best way to handle chilled short crust pastry. The tart turned out fine, but it spread out too far because the dough was too warm. Suffice to say I was the only person who realized this was the case.

Another thing I discovered is that when someone says “Really, don’t bring anything” they need to be taken at face value. I suppose that what I mean here is that anyone who offers to bring something to my house when I say not to bring anything needs to take me at face value. My family knows this, and when they offered to bring something and I said “Nothing, thanks—we’re fine” they listened and didn’t bring anything.

However, on Monday my friend did insist on bringing something, even when I assured her everything was planned. Whenever someone insists on bringing something, I always dread it because what they bring is always a strange addition to my menu, and this was no exception. She brought a macaroni and tuna salad. I was grateful for the gesture, but it was totally unnecessary, and was just plain weird with what we had provided. I guess it’s a fine line you walk with the bring something/don’t bring something dilemma. Some people say “Don’t bother bringing anything,” and what they mean is “You better not show up empty handed and leave all this work to me!” I say it and I mean it—don’t bring a thing because I have it all planned, and I want it all to be a certain way. Practically the whole container of the stuff went in the trash. Not in front of her, of course, but eventually. I guess I’m just more anal about my menu planning than most people, and there's the same issue I have with potlucks, where if there's a base menu and then people bring things, nothing seems to go together. The menu winds up being a mishmash of unrelated items that don't compliment each other and may actually clash.

The weekend cooking didn’t actually end on Monday, since, as I mentioned, Wednesday night I made what was supposed to be a blood plum jam tart for my friend. It turned out to be a regular plum jam tart, because I couldn’t find blood plum jam, and the recipe called for grappa, which I was also unable to find. I used kirsch instead. I don’t think anyone noticed. We had this for breakfast on Wednesday, which was a little disgusting, but everyone enjoyed it very much. I say it was disgusting, because what we were eating was about a pound of butter mixed with flour, almond meal, and heavy cream, at 7 a.m. We all take the ferry together, and I brought this on as a birthday surprise for the friend.

Anyway, I did a ton of cooking, and really enjoyed it, and am now trying to get back into the cooking groove. Today I made zucchini cupcakes (in an effort to trick my children into eating something mildly healthy in the form of their dessert), and tonight I’ll roast a chicken, and some plum tomatoes, and we’ll have salad with that for dinner. All next week I have things planned out to make for lunches to take to work, and for dinners to have at night. We’ll see if I’m able to actually execute against this plan—often my well-intentioned plans fall flat. It’s a case of having to make two meals (theirs and mine), plus putting my lunch together the evening before, and sometimes that’s just beyond me on a weeknight. At least if I do manage it, I know everything will go together.

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