What better way to celebrate the birthdays of these special souls than with a festive dinner party! Alas, Lora had accepted an invitation to spend her birthday with family in Pittsburgh, and Jan's elderly aunts decided to host a spontaneous family reunion in her native South Carolina, so as it turned out, only two of the local birthday people could attend my party on May 4th, which was the only Saturday night I had available all month. But sometimes the smallest dinner parties are the most rewarding. And whether for fourteen or four, I would still cook a fabulous dinner for my guests.
What makes my May birthday dinner especially fun for me is that while the fancy dinners I host for Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day feature the same menu each year with a rotating cast of guests, the May birthday dinner highlights the same guests each year but leaves me free to vary the menu. I can choose whatever entree suits my taste and, indeed, my May birthday dinner guests are frequently "Guinea pigs" on whom I experiment with dishes I've never tried before.
So it was with this year's menu. A roast leg of lamb with a Middle-Eastern bent caught my fancy this time. Flavored with a custom sweet-spice mixture featuring ground cumin, cinnamon, coriander, allspice, clove, ginger and nutmeg, the boneless roast was butterflied, stuffed with fresh baby spinach and dried fruit, then rolled up and rubbed with the aromatic spices before roasting. An accompanying brown rice and lentil mixture, called mujadara, would receive similar sweet-spice flavorings -- with a twist: garlic and cilantro and a healthy scattering of caramelized onions, as well. I could hardly wait to try it.
|I "ixnayed" sauteed fiddlehead ferns|
for the dinner party vegetable and
went with an asparagus tart instead
With most of the menu decided upon, I cast around for birthday cake ideas. A baker, I am NOT, but I wanted to bake a cake for this dinner because, mainly, one of my guests, Paula Becker, is a baker extraordinaire and I wanted to earn her praise. Traditional cakes leave much to be desired, in my opinion. They're dry, cloyingly sweet, lack any distinctive flavor and are ultimately quite boring. Then, a recipe in Better Homes & Gardens magazine caught my eye. How about an apple-maple cake in a bundt pan which made use of the same spices (clove, nutmeg, cinnamon) that would figure prominently in the dinner? Jesse, who designs furniture for the hospitality industry, brought me a beautiful Art Deco-inspired bundt pan from a restaurant industry trade show in Chicago a few years back and I had yet to use it. Surely creating his birthday cake with the bundt pan he gave me would demonstrate my appreciation of his thoughtful gift.
As is my custom, I took the Friday before my party off from work in order to prepare as many dishes as I could in advance, and do the prep work (slicing and dicing, sifting and frying) ahead of time for the rest, so that on the day of the party I could relax and enjoy myself while putting the finishing touches on everything. That's worked out so well for me in the past that I now consider it a happy tradition.
|Lentils, left, brown rice, center, and caramelized onions, right,|
get tossed together in an aromatic side dish for roast lamb
I started with the mujadara, cooking vast quantities of rice in garlic, onion and the sweet spices, then simmering lentils with a cinnamon stick, ginger and more garlic, and then combining the two. While the rice was cooking, I caramelized a copious number of onions, this time by roasting them in the oven instead of slowly frying them on the stove. The technique worked beautifully, and seemed less labor-intensive than the frequent stirring recommended when using the stovetop method.
Once the rice dish was out of the way, I turned to the stuffing for the lamb. A heady combination of fresh baby spinach leaves and dried currants and apricots mixed with scallions, parsley and cilantro was diced and bagged for the next day.
To accompany the lamb, I thought a sensual chutney utilizing three different types of cherries in bourbon would elicit just the right counterpoint to the lamb. So I simmered dried tart cherries with frozen sweet dark cherries and tart cherry preserves until the chutney was thick and bubbly, then spilled in two tablespoons of whiskey. The result was wonderful.
Next, I baked the cake, utilizing maple syrup in a piquant combination of sweet spices, apples, butter, flour, sugar and eggs. It came out beautifully, and was immediately coated with a thick drizzle of maple syrup and diced apples. I was quite proud of my accomplishment and hoped Paula and Jesse would be, too.
On the morning of the party, I laid out the boneless leg of lamb, which the butcher at my local Wegman's Supermarket had butterflied for me. Unfortunately, in the process of butterflying the leg, he had created a tear in the meat, so when I rolled it up, the stuffing would surely fall through. I Googled how to repair a tear in a butterflied cut of meat but was surprised to find that the Internet Gods offered no remedy at all. And although I still possessed my mother's ancient metal chicken trusser, it wouldn't hold fast when I rolled up the lamb. What was I to do?
|I used a large needle and carpet thread|
to bind a tear in the lamb roast
Now I needed similar inspiration for the tear in my lamb -- and I needed it fast! I sought insight in my hobby room upstairs. And there was the answer, a large sewing needle and... carpet thread! I bound the tear together with a running blanket stitch, and voila! No more unsightly, stuffing-leaking rip.
After pounding the butterflied lamb into an evenly-flat slab, I layered the dried fruit filling and the spinach leaves on top. Holding the ends securely, I wrapped the meat up into a tight roll and secured it with kitchen twine. To my great delight, my makeshift repair held tight. Rubbed with the same sweet spice mixture used in the rice dish, I slipped the roast into a slow oven and moved on to my next task: setting the table.
I purposely chose to keep this dinner more casual and go with a woodsy, nature-loving theme. After all, there would be just four of us: Paula, the wildlife biologist, Jesse and me, and Laura Van Scoyoc, president of the nonprofit nature group I've volunteered with for more than a decade now. Wooden charger plates set the tone, on which I nestled floral dishes I've owned since the Carter Administration. My everyday flatware is molded from real twigs; I settled the apple-maple spice cake on a rustic wooden cake stand.
|The asparagus tart came out beautifully|
|Kalamata olives, lemon zest, scallions|
and goat cheese enhance the asparagus
in this savory puff pastry tart
|Homemade rosemary simple|
syrup, Aperol, blood orange
juice and Prosecco combine
to make a delightful spring
Finally, I prepared cocktails with fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, Aperol, homemade rosemary simple syrup, and added Prosecco just as my guests arrived. I adore blood oranges and have been enjoying them much later into spring than usual this year.
|My magnificent red oak was|
at least 300 to 400 years old
when it failed to leaf out
With fizzy cocktails in hand, the four of us ventured out into my yard so I could ask my expert guests their opinion on a number of garden issues. First of all, I was grieving the recent demise of one of my gigantic, historic oak trees. It had leafed out lushly last summer and dutifully lost its leaves in the fall. But my beautiful red oak had failed to sprout a single leaf this spring, while the two white oaks in my front yard had leafed out perfectly. Was it really, suddenly, dead, I asked? Yes, came the regrettable response from my knowledgeable friends. We raised a solemn toast to the old Ent, which I'd lovingly dubbed William almost two decades ago. William had been protective overseer of my swimming pool, offering shade to the water and to my nearby guest cottage. He had served as a veritable freeway for my squirrel population, and had been home to uncountable nests of birds and small animals for several hundred years. I was truly anguished that William's long life had expired on my watch. But there it was. An exceedingly wet 2018 contributing to internal rot and decline was likely the cause, yet of little consolation.
|The nesting material this Carolina|
wren used to line her nest included
bits of plastic wrap
Next we wandered to my potting bench, where I showed off the nest of a Carolina wren who had recently fledged three nestlings in one of my empty flower boxes. A sad testament to the perpetual pollution of our planet, she had lined her nest with pine needles and moss -- and bits of plastic wrap.
As the setting sun cast an alpenglow across my two acres, we traipsed across the yard and entered my fenced garden, where we poked around among the native flowers just beginning to rise up out of the soil, and eventually made our way back to the kitchen, where appetizers were waiting.
|Laura plays with my cell phone|
|I was afraid I'd left the lamb in the oven|
too long, but when I carved it, the meat
was perfectly cooked and smelled
We sat down to a robust meal. The lamb was tender and flavorful. The triple cherry-bourbon chutney proved to be a perfect foil for the tasty meat. The rice-lentil dish with caramelized onions was out of this world. Everyone loved the asparagus tart. Wine was poured and lively conversation ensued about all manner of subjects, most of them with a nature theme.
|This iridescent beetle|
unfolds into a
Eventually it was time to open gifts and serve the cake. We sang to the two birthday recipients and watched as they blew out tall, slender candles I found buried among my late mother's things when I cleaned out her northern California home to prepare it for sale back in 1999. I'd never seen candles anything like them before and kept them all this time because they are so novel.
|The apple-maple spice cake looked|
beautiful with its slender candles
Jesse and Paula opened their gifts from Laura and me. Jesse received a new wallet -- in orange to commemorate his favorite color, of course. Paula unwrapped a large, iridescent metal corkscrew in the shape of a beetle. Gift certificates, lottery tickets and fresh flowers rounded out the birthday gift offerings.
We dug into the cake. Paula proclaimed it very tasty and moist. Jesse marveled at how well the bundt pan had worked out for me. I was quite pleased with the intense maple flavor. The four of us laughed and chatted well into the night. I poured the last of a bottle of rare port with dessert, a 1997 Romariz Vintage Porto.
|From left: Laura, Jesse, Paula and me|
Nothing makes me happier than hosting a dinner party just like this one. It was a marvelous evening, intimate and relaxed. American journalist, television broadcaster and musician Mitch Albom once said, “You can’t substitute material things for love or ... a sense of comradeship.”
I can't think of a better way to ring in the month of May than among the camaraderie of longtime friends. Honoring the cherished memories of loved ones while celebrating dear friendships near and far is a joyous gift. We made the most of it.
A good friend is a connection to life: a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world. ~ Lois Wyse