So, my boyfriend is an architecture professor at MIT, and his students had their final reviews a couple of weeks ago. Because their project was in Palermo, I got to know them all a bit when we all went over for the class field trip in January. I was therefore more excited than usual about having an end-of-the year party.
Typically when he's hosted parties for his students, Mike will just order a bunch of Chinese or Thai take-out, but this year I suggested something a little different. Although he has no desire to actually live there again, Mike is fairly proud of being a native Texan, and in particular is a huge fan - and promoter - of Texas barbecue. So I suggested we order up some real Texas BBQ from one of his favorite Austin (or outer-Austin) places, the Salt Lick. We've done this a couple times before; they ship the meat frozen in a styrofoam box, and it arrives usually still frozen or very cold. Give it a day or so to defrost, and either heat it in the oven or on a charcoal grill. Because the weather has finally gotten spring-like, we opted for the grill (the extra flavor is definitely worth the extra trouble). We ordered two racks of ribs, a brisket, and sausage. One of the fantastic things about Salt Lick BBQ is the sauce - it's somewhat Asian-inspired (ok, a slight departure from the traditional Texas formula, but tasty), and has a nice but unusual kick to it.
But of course you can't only serve meat at a party, so while we left the main course to the Salt Lick, Christie got to take control of the rest of the menu......and went a little bit overboard - not so much in terms of the quantity of food, but in regards to the quantity of work involved.
First off, we needed a non-meat main dish for the non-carnivores among us, so I made up and froze several veggie enchiladas. I got into making enchiladas when I bought a Cook's Illustrated the other week - an entire issue devoted to make-ahead food, including a recipe for chicken enchiladas. This inspired me to check out vegetarian-friendly options, and led me to this recipe for "Two Cheese Enchiladas" which in addition to the aforementioned cheeses include pinto beans, corn, and cilantro. I made the recipe pretty much according to directions, except substituting Cook's Illustrated's enchilada sauce (sorry no link - you have to subscribe to their webpage), and freezing according to CI's directions. It's an amazing system in that you cook the enchiladas directly from the freezer - no defrosting required (aside from the sauce) - and they turn out amazingly well.
So now we had a main course for both the vegetarians and the carnivores, now for some sides! First something starchy, this fabulous potato salad recipe from the My Recipes site: Potato Salad with Artichokes and Asparagus*. I've made this salad before with great success. This time, sadly, I had limited success - mainly because I underboiled the potatoes and stupidly didn't notice until I had mixed them up with the vegetables and dressing. Another issue was that I used spicy brown mustard instead of the coarse-grain mustard the recipe calls for. You wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but the dressing lacked the kick it normally has. This was a disappointment, but I could live with it. What I could not live with was undercooked-potato salad. I tried microwaving to remedy the problem, but this just seemed to make the vegetables blander, paler, and still (in the case of the potatoes) underdone. I ultimately decided to pour the whole thing into a baking pan and roast it in the oven just before dinnertime - about half an hour at 400, and then another hour at 200 (we had to turn the oven temp down so we could keep the brisket warm while the ribs were on the grill). This seemed to solve the problem, but I wouldn't say it was one of those great discoveries like penicillin or Reese's cups or something. Next time, I will check the potatoes (by taste, not just pricking them with a fork) before I mix up the salad - and preferably before I pour out the boiling water.
The second salad came out perfectly, as always. This is a fabulous Southern Living recipe that goes really well with barbecue or hamburgers or just about anything: Toasted Pecan and Broccoli Salad**. I have never served this salad without receiving rave reviews. It's simply delicious. A couple of notes, though. First, the recipe calls for only 1/3 cup of cranberries. I start with at least double that, and add more until I get a nice balance, visually. The other thing is to make extra dressing. I've doubled it in the past and had a lot leftover. This time I made an extra half recipe, and used most of it. I guess it's a matter of taste, but I don't like a dry salad. (Now that I've actually written this out, it occurs to me that perhaps the reason I always get rave reviews on this salad is because I double the tastiest ingredient and use lots of extra dressing. I guess that would yield rave reviews for just about any salad.)
I chose the recipe for salad number three to compliment the enchiladas, knowing it would also be a nice match for barbecue. I got this recipe from epicurious: Cucumber and Chayote Slaw. I first made this a few weeks back for Cinco de Mayo (paired with enchiladas, along with rice and beans). It's incredibly refreshing and tasty. To thin slices of cucumber and chayote, you add diced pineapple (in fact, I don't know why they don't call it "Cucumber, Chayote, and Pineapple Slaw", because the pineapple is just as important), and toss everything with a slightly spicy dressing. One nice thing about this recipe for my purposes is that it needs to sit for 8 hours or overnight - one less thing to do on party-day.
Finally for the "meal" portion of the party, we needed a bread. And what better bread to have with barbecue than cornbread? OK, some places in Texas just give you several slices of white sandwich bread, but what works in Lockhart, TX doesn't necessarily go over as well in Cambridge, MA. The last time we did barbecue I just made up a Jiffy cornbread mix, but I didn't think it had a great flavor. This time I wanted to make something "from scratch". I found this Golden Sweet Cornbread recipe at All Recipes.com, and poured the batter into mini muffin tins. It was a very easy recipe, but the quest for the perfect cornbread recipe continues. I just didn't think the flavor was all it could have been - certainly not as good as what I've had at barbecue joints.
If I had stopped at making the above, party-day would have been busy, but evenly paced. But once I start thinking about cooking, I have a hard time stopping myself. For one thing, we needed a dessert, and mid-May seemed to me a perfect time to bring back Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. I'll take just about any excuse to make this pie, it's so delicious, especially right out of the oven. Because we had about a dozen people coming I obviously had to make two pies. I briefly toyed with making a different second pie (leaning towards Key Lime), but we decided things were complicated enough as is. I've graduated to a better pie crust than the method I posted about last summer - Julia Child's Pâte Brisée. I don't really know why I said I "graduated" to this recipe because in fact it's very simple. It just feels more grown up, I guess, to do things Julia's way. The dough goes together very quickly - no food processor required - and after chilling, rolls out very nicely. This occasion was not, however, my finest attempt at this pie crust. The kitchen was warm, and because I had forgotten to buy shortening the day before, I didn't end up rolling out the dough and assembling the pies until 20 minutes to party time, so I was more rushed than I should have been. This meant I ended up leaving the bottom crust a little thicker than the desired 1/8", my top lattice was a little skimpy and messy, and the edges were dreadful-looking. The best moment, though, in making these pies was when I went to mix up the filling and discovered we were low on sugar. I had bought extra flour in anticipation of making the crust, but completely forgot about sugar! To make a double recipe I needed 2 cups of sugar. The sugar cannister contained about 1 1/2. Pondering whether there was time to run to the store, or whether we could get by with a tangier pie, I looked up and saw the Alessi sugar bowl that sits,unused, decoratively on the counter. I tentatively lifted the lid to - Hooray! - discover plenty of sugar for my final half cup, with plenty leftover for spinkling on top of my inferior lattice. The pies were trouble, and stressful, but they were also a huge hit. Authentic Texas BBQ and homemade Strawberry Rhubarb Pie? Killer party, every time.
Finally, I turned to a couple of what-have-come-to-be-standbys for pre-dinner snacks. First, the always-delicious, always easy Goat Cheese Stuffed Peppers, peppadew version. The self-contained nature of the peppadews is too good a bonus to ignore, so they've pretty much become my standard pepper of choice when it comes to goat cheese fill-ability. The only down-side of the peppadews is they tend to be a bit sticky to handle, due I suppose to the brine in which they're packed. This time I therefore drained the peppers into a collander, rinsed them thoroughly with water, and set them upside-down on a paper towel for about half-an-hour to dry. I bought and filled two jars of peppadews, and all but about 3 were eaten by the end of the evening. The pre-rinse seemed to take care of the stickiness factor.
The other standby for us is Ana Sortun's amazing Whipped Feta with Roasted Red Peppers. If you don't live in the Boston/Cambridge area, or if you do but have other things to think about than eastern-Mediterranean restaurants, Ana Sortun is the proprietor and chef at Oleana, an amazing Cambridge restaurant. (Watch out for that link - it comes with startling background music.) The Whipped Feta is one of the restaurant's pret à manger items, and it's incredible. The recipe is included in Sortun's cookbook Spice. Not sure what the protocol is on reprinting cookbook recipes, but since, by comparison to the Whipped Feta, all the other recipes I've tried from this book are extremely complicated, time-consuming, and failure-prone, I don't feel too bad giving out the ingredients for one little starter dish:
1 lb sheep's or goat's milk French feta, drained and broken into rough 1/2-inch pieces or crumbled
2 medium red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped, and drained of excess juice
2 tsp. Aleppo chilies plus a pinch for garnish
1 tsp. Urfa chilies plus a pinch for garnish
1/2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika plus a pinch for garnish
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
Place all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and combine so that the sweet and hot peppers coat the cheese.
Purée the mixture in a food processor for about 2 minutes, until very smooth and creamy. The mixture will be quite loose, but will set when chilled (at least 30 minutes).
Sprinkle with a pinch of all three chilies to garnish.
I've found that a half recipe is plenty for pre-party snacking. Although I've tried oven-roasting bell peppers, the only successful method I have found for roasting them - sufficient to allow for peeling off the skin - is to set them directly on a (gas) stovetop flame and allow them to char for several minutes on all sides. (This also makes your house smell very nice and spicy.) When blackened on all sides, place the pepper(s) in a bowl, cover with plastic, and allow to steam for about 5 minutes. Remove from bowl, and peel/rub off skin.
I lucked into a very good spice shop in Inman Square where I can usually find both Urfa and Aleppo chilies - not sure about their availability elsewhere. The feta has almost a pimento-cheese flavor about it, but it's so much more. It's deliciuos on bread, but can also be served with celery, endive, or fennel. (I've personally never tried the fennel and wonder if it mightn't be too strong - not sure.)
So, that's the story - that's our party. (Leaving out the customary olives, cheese, chips and salsa, etc.) Very good food - a little too much work to try to take on in one day, but each of the above recipes is perfectly doable on its own, delicious, and highly recommended. And don't forget Salt Lick next time you want a unique main dish for a big group.
#1 Better to have slightly overcooked potatoes than slightly undercooked - pretty much in all cases, but certainly for potato salad. Check the potatoes - with your teeth - before taking them off the stove.
#2 Less is probably more, but if you can't resist making up all your favorite recipes, at least plan ahead enough so that you can make, or start, a few things the night before.
#3 Always check your sugar - and flour - cannisters. Everyone thinks to buy strawberries, or apples, or what-have-you when making a pie, but when was the last time you checked your sugar supply?
*The recipe calls for bacon, but I substitued soy bacon to make it vegetarian-friendly. I'm sure it's better with real bacon, but oh well.
**I left the bacon out altogether for this one.