Monday, August 13, 2012

Cool Summer Supper -- Red Hot Look

The steamy, sultry August weather suddenly gave way yesterday to cool breezes, low humidity, a brilliant blue sky and puffy clouds. It was an ideal setting in which to host dear friends for a cool, no-meat supper to celebrate a perfect summer evening. Along with Jesse, who designs tables for the restaurant industry, my friend, Nick, and his adorable girlfriend, Jenny, are longtime veterans of the high-end hospitality business, so I wanted last night’s meal to be show-stoppingly memorable. Here is the menu I prepared.
In a supreme effort to impress my guests, I attempted a dish that stretched my culinary horizons significantly, crab-salad towers with ripe mango and creamy avocado. Each of the four layers of the tower had to be assembled separately and then pressed into ring molds and chilled until they held their shape. Trouble was, I couldn’t find three-inch diameter ring molds that were deep enough to hold all the layers, and the ones I did find came in sets of many sizes and cost a fortune. Since I don't expect to make a habit of creating towering columns of food, I was hesitant to buy a whole kit – and I would have to buy four, since there was only one size of each ring per set. Disheartened, I eventually found myself in the plumbing section of my local hardware store, where I happily discovered giant plumbing connectors made of smooth white PVC – they were the perfect size! I took them home for $1.53 each, ran them through the dishwasher and voila!  I had my ring molds.

Spring onions from the farmer's market...

...turn into grilled receptacles for baba ganouj

My complex menu came together surprisingly well, considering all but two of the dishes were recipes I had never attempted before, including the intimidating crab salad towers. I had spent almost all of Saturday cooking, and started Sunday at an early hour by charring dozens of spring onions, bought at Baltimore’s largest farmer’s market that morning, over a hot grill on my patio. The onions cooled in a closed paper sack all day and were then snipped and arranged around a bowl of baba ganouj I made from scratch with whole roasted eggplant, toasted pistachios, tahini paste, garlic and mint from my garden, a recipe I had clipped from the Baltimore Sun newspaper a few days earlier.
Watermelon-ricotta bites
Next up was an appetizer which caught my eye in Real Simple magazine’s "summer suggestions for watermelon". I cut ripe watermelon into bite-size squares and hollowed out the center of each with a melon-baller. In the wells I dolloped smooth ricotta cheese drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper and capped each one with a mint leaf. Very festive!
Flowers from my garden formed the arrangement in my living room
With a first course of bright red bell-pepper soup chilling in the fridge and fat beefsteak tomato halves stuffed with breadcrumbs and parsley pesto ready to go into the oven (the only warm dish I would be serving), I turned my attention to the daunting towers. Into the ring molds first went a base of crabmeat mixed with celery, chives, horseradish, Dijon mustard and mayonnaise.

Crab salad stacked with mango, avocado, mango salsa and wasabi caviar, topped with edible flowers
On top of that I placed slices of fresh mango, topped with a layer of ripe avocado pieces splashed with lemon juice. Once the stacks were thoroughly chilled in their molds, I turned them out onto soup plates and ladled around each tower a serving of cool, white gazpacho made from cucumbers, green grapes, nonfat Greek yogurt, crushed almonds, fresh dill weed and other herbs. Onto the top layer of each tower I placed a generous spoonful of fresh salsa composed of diced mango, red onion, bell pepper, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice, and on top of that went a dollop of bright green wasabi caviar and a garnish of edible marigolds and orchids. The result was as impressive as the photo I’d seen in the June edition of Traditional Home magazine. I hoped it would taste as good as it looked.

Stuffed tomato halves
Blueberry-cucumber salad with feta
To celebrate my exotic summer menu, I wanted to wear something that sizzled but would keep me cool and comfortable as I maneuvered through the hectic paces required to pull together such an over-the-top dinner for my guests. My outfit also had to be easy to slip on, since I would be working my regular Sunday shift as a docent for the Maryland Park Service prior to the dinner and would need to quickly trade my Volunteer Ranger uniform for the breezy fashion of a summer dinner party just before my friends arrived. So I chose one of my all-time summer favorites, a vintage cotton batiste maxi-dress with a plunging crossover neckline by Luna Luz Clothing (, whose collection is designed in Spain and made in the USA. I bought the dress, along with two others, in the early 1990s at a boutique in Dallas, Texas, which specialized in Native American apparel. After all these years, my three garment-dyed pieces (I also have a black jumpsuit and a blue dress) have worn fabulously well and look almost as fresh as the day I bought them.

I adorned my feet with a pair of comfortable gladiator sandals by Limited Collection which I purchased in Ireland in July and fastened a beaded cord necklace from Fire & Ice Jewelers of Baltimore ( around my neck. Adding only a pair of vintage drop earrings that I’ve owned since the 1970s and a simple bracelet of painted wooden disks, I dashed back into the kitchen to finish my preparations.
Just before my guests arrived, I whipped up a batch of fresh watermelon margaritas and garnished the glasses with sliced lime and mint sprigs. Nick and Jenny brought the finest champagne for the first course, and a fabulous Marsanne-Viognier blend for the entrée. They also bestowed upon me a basket of homegrown tomatoes and figs and the rootings of a Cinderella pumpkin plant from their garden, which I was thrilled to receive.
Jenny and Nick make a darling couple
As if the appetizers, soup, tomatoes and crab salad towers were not enough, I finished the meal by serving my guests incredibly decadent German chocolate cake sundaes – coconut gelato topped with toasted flaked coconut, crumbled chocolate wafers and roasted pecans, over which I drizzled a rich caramel sauce infused with vanilla, more pecans and a sprinkling of coarse salt.
There was no room in our bellies even for coffee when we were finally finished eating, but I received a unanimous thumbs-up for each dish, which was gratifying. And as my friends lingered after dinner, punctuating the evening air with laughter and eager conversation, I was reminded that this is what life is all about – good friends, good food, fine wine and a joyful countenance. It doesn’t get any better than that!

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