I never know exactly how many cousins will attend my OkToblerfest in any given year. Tobler family members have come in years past from as far west as California, Wisconsin and Kentucky and as far north as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. But the Washington DC suburbs is where two of my cousins reside with their husbands and school-age children, which makes their annual excursion to my farmhouse in Baltimore County just an hour's drive through mostly picturesque countryside. So I can almost always count on the attendance of these Toblers even if the more remote relatives can't always make it.
|I designed the invitations and stamped|
envelopes with a hot wax seal
I prepared my invitations a month in advance, as I do every year. These are homemade invitations, on actual paper, slipped into an actual envelope, and then sealed with hot wax which is stamped with our family initial. Wouldn't you love to get an invitation like that? But how often does it happen? I'm guessing hardly ever. I love how the receipt of a mailed invitation becomes a special experience in its own right while also portending an unforgettable experience yet to come.
This year, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania couldn't attend, so there were just 12 around my OkToblerfest dinner table on Saturday night. I'd been terribly busy these last few weeks and had not yet decided on a main dish when Claudia's husband came up with another helpful suggestion: "have you considered making Rouladen?" Truth is I had never heard of Rouladen. My mother prided herself on having a vast collection of sometimes exotic, always elegant gourmet dishes in her repertoire, but for some reason Rouladen had never been among them. I Googled Rouladen. It sounded intriguing. But despite various recipes on the internet suggesting Rouladen would be "easy to make", it looked quite complicated and time consuming to me. Nevertheless, any beef recipe that incorporates mustard and pickle into the mix had to be good. And it could be made well ahead of time. My interest was piqued.
|I always decorate the front of my farmhouse in seasonal decor|
I emailed my best friend from high school in California, Becky. Her mother-in-law is an excellent cook who specializes in authentic dishes of her native Germany. Perhaps Gretel had a recipe for Rouladen that I could trust more than an internet version. But alas, Gretel was traveling far from home, visiting the hot-air balloon festival in New Mexico. And besides, Becky said, Gretel never wrote her recipes down. She always cooked from memory and taste, adding a dash of this and a smidgen of that. I needed something a bit more concrete to go by.
So then I emailed a dear friend here in Baltimore, Mary. Did her husband Klaus have a recipe for Rouladen? By the time Mary replied to tell me that Klaus never wrote anything down, either, I had searched the internet far and wide and had printed out two recipes for Rouladen that struck my fancy. I would take the main ingredients and instructions from the first one and incorporate ingredients for the accompanying gravy from the second.
|My OkToblerfest menu featured Swiss dishes|
I also planned to prepare two salads that intrigued me recently. I've been staying away from corn and its high sugar, high starch content, but September 22nd's edition of the Baltimore Sun's Sunday Parade magazine held an intriguing autumn recipe that immediately caught my attention: Alex Guarnaschelli, judge on Food Network’s Chopped, offered a "candied corn" salad, said to evoke the autumnal flavors of caramel and corn. Wouldn't my cousins' children love something like that? I made the candied corn salad a few weeks before my big event, and sure enough, it was fabulous, so it went on the menu. Another salad came to me on February 23rd by way of the Los Angeles Times. An article about how good turmeric is for one's health sparked my curiosity because increasing my turmeric intake has helped immensely with my psoriasis over the past few years. I made the turmeric salad for my friend, Jan, at her Easter celebration in March and have been making the recipe steadily since then. It's marvelous -- and the presentation is beautiful!
For dessert I decided to bake my mother's traditional persimmon pudding. Served warm, with a drizzle of thick cream, the cool-weather dessert would offer rustic coziness in Maryland's autumn chill. We would be dining alfresco, after all, as I have no room in my small dining room to seat twelve people.
|Everyone got to take a menu home with them as a memento|
of the evening.
Cousins Christine, daughter of my late Uncle John, and Claudia, granddaughter of my late Uncle Oscar, offered to bring sides. Claudia, who is eschewing meat, offered to bring an onion tart and a spinach quiche, both of which sounded divine. Christine offered to make homemade spaetzle, luscious egg noodles sauteed in butter, and rotkohl, a divine red cabbage dish cooked with cloves and brown sugar. My menu was complete.
Although it's always a spin on a roulette wheel whether there will be rain on the day I choose for my party, last year was the very first year that I had to host my OkToblerfest dinner indoors because rain actually occurred on the day of my gathering. Most years, the weather has been crisp, brisk and beautiful for dining outside on my lawn. This year the forecast predicted rain clear up to the day before my party. That was fine -- we sorely needed the moisture. But it meant I wouldn't be able to set anything up until the day of the party -- a definite cause for anxiety on my part, since I hate to wait until the last minute to do anything.
|A beef cutlet is slathered with stoneground mustard, sprinkled|
with dill pickle, sliced onion and bacon, then rolled up and
tied with twine. Repeat 24 times for a crowd of twelve!
The week of my party I got busy with food prep. One of the most appealing attributes of the Rouladen recipe is that it can be made well ahead of time and then just heated up before dinner. So on Thursday after work, I went to work spreading stoneground mustard across 24 thin cutlets of flank steak, topping them with bacon, sliced onion and dill pickle, and then rolling the cutlets up and tying them with cooking twine. After I browned the Rouladen in a skillet, I softened diced carrots, celery and onion in butter over low heat and nestled my beef rolls into the mirepoix inside a large dutch oven. I covered everything with red wine and beef broth and let the Rouladen braise on the stovetop for two hours over low heat.
|Mirepoix, added as the Rouladen braises for several hours in|
beef broth and red wine, form a luscious gravy
to pour over the beef rolls and sop up with hearty bread
When the Rouladen were falling-apart tender, I transferred them to a serving dish, carefully removed the strings from each, and then pureed the mirepoix-wine-broth in my food processor. That's what had intrigued me so much about the "gravy" part of the second Rouladen recipe I found. By using the pureed vegetables to thicken the sauce, I didn't need to add any cornstarch or cream or flour. My gravy had a lovely texture and an intense, provocative flavor without too many added calories. I'll be incorporating that little secret into future gravies!
Next I shucked kernels from ten ears of fresh corn and sauteed them in a bit of brown sugar and butter until almost all the liquid had evaporated. I made a vinaigrette of lemon juice and balsamic vinegar and stashed corn and dressing in the fridge separately to await last minute assembly with fresh arugula on the day of the party. The carrot-turmeric salad would also benefit from being made ahead of time, so I peeled and blanched two pounds of multicolored carrots sliced into coins and combined them with shredded red cabbage, chick peas, Bulgar wheat, parsley, scallions and crumbled feta. A heady dressing of lemon juice, toasted cumin seeds, ground turmeric, minced garlic and a little olive oil combined to impart their piquant flavor to the salad over the next 24 hours.
|Everyone got into carving faces into Granny Smith apples|
Finally, I peeled 30 granny smith apples and let them rest in a bath of water, salt and lemon juice overnight to help them retain their greenness while I set out potato peelers, serrated knives and printed instructions for carving faces into apple heads. I decorated gift bags for each child into which they could stash their carved apples for the journey home, where the contorted faces could be dried into shrunken apple heads in a slow oven. I created a pretty menu of all the items we'd be enjoying at dinner and printed one for each guest, rolled them into cylinders and tied them with ribbon fastened with a sunflower clip.
|An old wooden ping-pong table serves as a sturdy platform|
for alfresco dinners in my yard
On the day of the party, I pulled a heavy plastic tarp which had sheltered my patio chairs from the overnight rain and prepared to set the table, my favorite part of every party preparation. A heavy, old wooden ping-pong table, purchased 35 years ago for $10 from a junk dealer in Oakland, California, has been a mainstay through more than three decades of garden parties across the four states in which I've lived. Snugged up against a metal and glass patio table I bought on sale at Macy's ten years ago which happens to be the same height and width, I soon found I had plenty of room for seating up to twenty dinner guests. Add some plain brown, king-size bedsheets as tablecloths and, voila. My old wooden ping-pong table and its glass and metal counterpart combined to form a wide expanse of dining surface, ripe for embellishing with the accoutrements of the season. I could hardly wait to get started.
|Transformed by plain brown bedsheets serving |
as gigantic tablecloths, my patio tables became
one behemoth dining table fit for a crowd
A magazine article I'd happened upon last year featured Oriental bittersweet wrapped around white pumpkins. I loved the look. However, Oriental bittersweet is a terribly invasive plant which should never be purchased or planted in one's yard. Over the years I had (finally) successfully eradicated it from mine. With no Oriental bittersweet to be had on my two acres, I ventured to the craft stores for a reasonable facsimile. At JoAnn Fabrics, I found just what I wanted, a stylized version of the dreaded vine on bendable wire. With two shade structures erected over my table to hold rope lights and space heaters, I was ready to create my tablescape!
Burlap ribbon tied in festive bows around each chair created the perfect receptacle for stems of faux fall flowers stuck through the knots. I tossed walnuts and autumn leaves and other fall "scatter" across the broad expanse of tablecloth and positioned felt maple-leaf placemats from Pier One Imports at each place setting. Two straw squirrels that had belonged to my late sister formed the centerpiece, as small Swiss flags adorned ceramic pumpkin vases of fresh flowers to honor our family's heritage. Some pretty gourds and a few votive candles on mismatched saucers rounded out the motif. There was no need to be too precious.
|White pumpkins wrapped in faux Oriental bittersweet and|
fresh flowers adorned with Swiss flags formed the
centerpiece of my tableau
Slits carved into twelve mini-pumpkins held place cards with each guest's name. Rustic twig flatware, a splurge several years ago from VivaTerra.com, Mikasa Mayfair patterned stoneware plates I've had since 1976, and amber glassware I've had at least that long rounded out my eclectic tablescape. Once the table was set, I headed back into the kitchen. It was time to make the persimmon pudding, warm the Rouladen and the gravy, bake the appetizers, plate up the salads and assemble the punch. My guests would be arriving soon.
I climbed the stairs to my dressing room. What to wear? I hadn't even thought about my attire until that moment, I'd been so busy with party preparations. It would be unseasonably warm that evening and I would be very active. I decided to defy typical October fashion and opt for cropped trousers from Boston Proper and a matching sleeveless Liz Claiborne top with fringed suede Limelite sandals from Rack Room Shoes. Rounding out my ensemble with olive and brown pearls at my wrist, neck and ears from my friend Jan's Fire & Ice jewelers, I donned an apron and returned to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on everything.
|Straw squirrels that once adorned my late sister's dining table|
now have a place of honor at mine
Once my cousins arrived I was joyfully swept up into the merry frivolity of family members reuniting after a long absence, along with youngsters reacquainting themselves with their now slightly older cousins as they scrambled across my yard in pursuit of soccer balls and Frisbees. Goodness, my 15-year-old second cousin Kinga Nagy is taller than I am! When did that happen?
Happily, everyone got into the carving of apple heads as my guests helped themselves to chili-garlic-eggplant puffs, Mozzarella cups with pesto and roasted tomato, tortilla chips with homemade tomato salsa (the salsa a birthday gift from my neighbor's garden), and an assortment of cornichons, dolmades and stuffed olives. We quaffed punch and cider, autumnal beers and other beverages as we caught up on each other's lives.
|Tobler cousins gathered together for a wonderful autumn meal.|
From left to right: Anya, Akos, Christine, Kristof, Christian,
Zsolt, me, Phil, Claudia, Riehen and Kinga
When it was time for dinner, wine was poured and we sat down to a feast of flavorful dishes. Christine's homemade dumplings were to die for, and I absolutely loved her red cabbage. Claudia's onion tart and spinach quiche were outstanding, as was the sumptuous rye bread Zsolt brought from a local bakery. My rouladen was a big hit, as were the salads, and the persimmon pudding was devoured completely.
After dinner, the twelve of us took seats around my firepit. Two years ago we'd exchanged ghost stories around the post-meal bonfire which had frightened the younger children. This year those same children were the central storytellers, regaling us all with tales of mischief and mayhem as they toasted marshmallows and pressed them into S'mores.
|After dinner we toasted marshmallows and told ghost stories|
around a campfire in my meadow
Another two hours we spent, engaging in lively discourse around the campfire and enjoying one another's company immensely. Finally it was time to pack up the children and turn the family automobiles toward home. As I put food and decor away after my guests had departed, cleaned up the kitchen and eventually sat down with a cup of hot tea before bed, I thought about why I love putting on these dinners so very much: it's the deep sense of inclusion I derive from being surrounded by beloved family members. I don't get to feel that sense of belonging very often, as my only brother and his family are far away in California. I spend a lot of time alone in my life and that's fine. But that makes being enveloped by the love and affection of cousins a precious commodity that I cherish as much for its enthusiasm as for its scarcity. Even if they weren't my cousins I would adore them all. But the fact that they are my family makes them extra-special.
"Cousins are the people who make life beautiful. These are my people. This is my tribe." ~ Unknown