Charles Siskin: Guests For Dinner

Sunday, January 22, 2017 - by Charles Siskin

You might have heard, if not, my bride has invented the perfect New Year’s recipe. You mix as many of your friends that are congenial enough to spend 4 days together in a beach house, add lots of food and have the friends bring their favorite beverages and then toss the whole thing together with the most outrageous week end of perfect weather you could possibly imagine.  Et voila mon cheri, you have the winning lottery ticket to the best house party for your contemporaries, ever!
   
After 50 years of marriage I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.
So when the light of my ever dimming light announced we’d be hooking up with a crowd of very close friends from “up north”, Chattanooga and Atlanta, I thought that sounded pretty cool. Oh, and yes, she went on, we’d be 10 for dinner for 4 nights. 

Really? 10?  I count myself lucky because it could have been 12 or 14. Actually we did have a 14 head count one evening. On that occasion we moved to one of our favorite Happy Hour restaurants and, let me assure you, it was a very happy for several hours before returning to our rented beach house for birthday cake and ice cream. Yes, we even threw in a birthday celebration for two of the ladies in our group.

I should note here that one very thoughtful husband brought the birthday cake from Chattanooga, intact I might add, for the celebration. However he stopped short of transporting the ice cream. I will bet, however, knowing this man for 40 + years, he considered it.

So what did I serve on those nights when we had our own happy hour at everyone’s home-away-from-home?  First night, with everyone arriving at different hours, I chose something simple, something traditional and something loaded with the best kind of calories, homemade lasagna. Also I could make it ahead by several days, freeze it then pop it in the oven for that first night. It went well with a big salad and lots of red wine to toast everyone arriving safely and getting an early start on toasting the coming New Year.

In the mornings we did a European style breakfast.  There were several kinds of cereal, several kinds of milk. Please note that there is no more Grade A delicious.  Now everyone has their favorite like Almond Milk, Lactose Free Milk, Fat Free Milk and Soy Milk.  That’s why I stand in front of the milk cooler at Publix transfixed on whether I’m suppose to get the blue or purple carton, if it is 100% or 80%, what about Fat Free and make sure it is Lactose free. It’s probably the most traumatic experience I encounter on my sojourn to the market.  It’s enough to make this little piggy cry “wah, wah, wah” all the way home.

There was also an assortment of cheeses, breads, bagels, English Muffins and a dynamite coffee cake.  Amazing jams from Blackberry Farms over in East Tennessee, gluten free granola and eggs for those who wish to prepare their own. Like Open Mike Night at the club, it was open kitchen day and night.

One week end day the guys piled into the hostess’s SUV and headed over to the Naval Air Station at Pensacola to one of the best museums in the country and certainly on par with the Smithsonian in its 300,000 square feet with superb depth of information and displays. Afterwards we made two very important stops in Pensacola. First off we visited my absolute favorite Greek Grocery Store, Shoreline.

At Shoreline you can buy olives from a display of various Greek olives, feta cheese stocked in a deli case, not pre-packaged, stuffed grape leaves too, first pressing Greek olive oil that you refill from the canister you bought there originally. There are bottles of Retsina the famous white wine that got me in big trouble on a visit to the Plaka in Athens many years ago and delicate Greek pastries too. Also bars of olive oil infused soaps which must be pretty good when you think of all those beautiful Greek goddesses. 

Many people think of Tarpon Springs which has a history of Greeks settling there in the late 1870’s, but Pensacola is also home to a large number of families of Greek heritage as well. One of the more famous is the Patti family and Joe Patti’s, which is the seventh wonder of retail fish markets.

Being New Year’s Eve there was barely an empty parking space in their very generous parking lot. Once inside you had to fight your way through literally hundreds of customers just to get a numbered ticket. It was like winning the lottery when Joe himself called your number. One of our group believes that over 200 numbers were called in the short time we were there.

Unfortunately you cannot drive that hour and a half in traffic every time you want jumbo peeled 8-10 count shrimp or incredibly large scallops or center cut salmon cut especially for you. Of course there is Florida’s number #1 fish, Grouper, thick white pieces begging to be grilled with just a light brushing of olive oil and a careful squeeze of lemon that are impossible to resist and we didn’t. 

Once we filled our Styrofoam containers we headed back to party central to find that the wives had brought home an amazing array of goodies from our newest kid on the supermarket block, Whole Foods.  There were empanadas filled with either pork or chicken and an array of veggies including green beans with caramelized garlic (the only way to handle those fragrant pods), broccoli studded with candied cashew crunch and, one of my new all-time favorites, cinnamon dusted butternut squash tossed with pecans and cranberries.

On New Year’s Eve the ball dropped early because many of in our party drooped early. No matter because we were all up early and hit the beach New Year’s morning for walking and talking on a beautiful warm and  cloudless day. Then it was back to Ground Zero to prepare for our Farewell Dinner.

In anticipation of our “blow out” finale, our guest had dressed for the dinner except the cook who looked like he knew something in his worn out jeans and an apron that was well seasoned.

I had chosen, with the help of the formagier (cheese dude at Whole Foods) three outstanding cheeses for the hors d’oeuvre start of our dinner. They included one of my favorites, a creamy Gouda from Holland with black truffles. Then there was a Taleggio Ca d’Ambros from Italy. It is a semi soft cow’s milk cheese with a washed rind. Lastly a Bellavitano  Herbs De Provence whose outer herb rind is as delicious as the crumbly cheese itself.  All are perfect with a glass of red wine and would be appropriate after dinner with the famous Fortt’s English Bath Biscuits, which are really a bland cracker, and slices of firm Bosc Pears.

There was a grilled leg-of-lamb served rosy pink with my secret cranberry chutney whose recipe I’ve shared in this paper in the past.  There was wild and regular rice mixed with cauliflower rice which is one of my favorite new veggie preparations. (You should be able to find it in the frozen food section if you choose not to rice the cauliflower yourself.) And to begin the formal part of the dinner there was a purée of black bean soup that I served with a garnish of sour cream and a dice of cilantro.

Did I mention the awesome assortment of cookies the ladies had also picked up the previous day at Whole Foods as well? So there were cookies of various sizes and shapes to go with the remaining ice cream for anyone who had room for dessert. And as a special after dinner treat there were lot of people telling great big fibs about starting their diet the next day or maybe the next week or maybe never?  Never sounding about right? 

There was a lot of toasting to the New Year at that dinner especially to the hostess who put the week end together. There were hugs all around and then early to bed because there were long drives back north.  

Footnote: Everyone agreed this was in the top 10 of Best New Year’s ever.

RECIPE FOR BLACK BEAN SOUP

There were so many varied meals served over the week end that it’s hard to choose which dish to highlight. The Vegetarian Black Bean Soup was a no brainer.

Whether you use a good brand of canned black beans, not an off brand, or the dried ones that you bring to a boil and soak for several hours to soften, make sure the can ones are rinsed well to reduce the sodium content then combine with diced carrots, 1 medium carrots scraped per 16 oz can and ½ cup diced sweet white onion which you cook first as follows.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in your soup pot along with the diced onion, 2 teaspoons each dried chili powder and cumin and cook on low heat until onions are translucent and the mixture is fragrant. Add you beans (16 ozs,) and 2 cups chicken broth and let the mixture cook on low slightly bubbling heat for at least one hour or until your beans are soft. Check your seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.

Off heat let mixture cool and then put in your food process and puree adding more chicken broth if needed. Hold back some of the beans to give your soup texture.

Make at least one or more days ahead and refrigerate. When serving take out of fridge and bring to room temp then heat slowly stirring to be sure mixture doesn’t stick to bottom of pot. Top each serving with shredded cheddar cheese and a garnish of diced fresh or pickled jalapenos, diced cilantro and sour cream.

If there are no vegetarians having your soup adding a meaty ham bone to your pot is a great addition when cooking.  Or better still sliced and browned chorizo in each bowl can make a light meal with the addition of a hearty salad with awesome ingredients like hearts of artichoke and palm, tomatoes and slices of avocado

Dos Equis Amber is my favorite drink for this one.



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