Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter At Jan's

A massive driftwood horse sculpture
adorns the garden at Jan's lovely home
The first dinner party to be held at the home of my dear friend since her husband of thirty years died in 2014 was to be a festive affair. Jan was finally ready to host a gathering for friends and family, and she asked me to help pull it all together. I was only too happy to oblige. I love entertaining at Jan's beautifully appointed home, whose dramatic dining room looks out, through an entire wall of glass, onto a lush, walled garden in the Roland Park section of Baltimore City.

A few weeks ago Jan came to dinner at my house so we could collaborate on an Easter menu, much like her late husband, Robert, and I used to do over more than a decade of holiday dinner-party planning. As Jan and I supped on beef brisket and spring asparagus in my dining room, we chose as our Easter entrĂ©es a leg of lamb, which I would prepare, and a spiral-cut ham, on which Jan would put the finishing touches. An herbed bleu-cheese terrine with spiced walnuts from my repertoire sounded like an enticing hors d'oeuvre, accompanied by classic deviled eggs, which Jan would make. Fancy mashed potatoes would add a luscious starch, and we'd round out the main course with a colorful carrot salad dressed in lemon-turmeric vinaigrette.

I got busy composing a pretty menu for Jan, printing several copies out on stiff card stock, which I rolled and tied with curling ribbon and adorned with fabric blossom hair-clips as party favors for her guests. Meanwhile, Jan ordered adorable marzipan bunny faces with which we would make place cards for each table setting.

Tiny marzipan bunnies added a fun
note to placecards
The day before Easter I got busy in my kitchen, first marinating a six-and-a-half pound leg of lamb by cutting slits all over the sirloin and tucking in slivers of fresh garlic, poking sprigs of rosemary from my garden deep into the meat, and then rubbing the whole leg with olive oil, salt and pepper. I sprinkled rosemary leaves over the roast and stuck it in the fridge to chill.

Next I whirled bleu cheese, cream cheese and goat cheese in a food processor with melted butter until the smooth mixture had taken on a pale blue-green tint from the Roquefort. I patted some of the cheese into the bottom of a vintage jello mold lined with plastic wrap and topped it with a layer of fresh herbs (minced parsley and chives) from my garden, followed by a coating of toasted, chopped walnuts spiced with cumin, cardamon and sugar. I kept layering cheese, herbs and nuts until the miniature bundt pan was full, then folded plastic wrap over the top and put it in the fridge to set.
The carrot salad was so colorful!

Next I set to work assembling a hearty salad of thinly-sliced, rainbow-hued carrots, shredded red cabbage, bulgar wheat, chickpeas, chopped parsley, crumbled feta and sliced scallions, which I tossed with a fragrant vinaigrette of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, toasted cumin seeds, salt and ground turmeric. The deep purple of the raw cabbage, combined with the red, orange, white and yellow carrots, the pale garbanzo beans and bulgar, the white feta and the brilliant yellow dressing (from the turmeric) made for a gloriously colorful presentation -- confetti in a bowl!

I snapped this photo early in the day --
before Murphy's Law began to wreak
 havoc at Jan's party
On Sunday morning, I boiled Yukon gold potatoes, put them through a ricer and then whipped heavy cream into stiff peaks. Folded into the minced tubers with milk, butter, white pepper and salt, the whipped cream gave the potatoes a luxurious, silken consistency. I patted the potatoes into an oven-proof casserole, drizzled on some more butter and sprinkled shredded Parmesan over top. Baked for 25 minutes and then crisped and browned beneath my broiler, the dish looked like Heaven in a bowl.
I filled the depression in the middle of
the ring with daisies and mums

I turned out the terrine from its copper mold onto a platter lined with mustard greens and sprinkled herbs all around the cheese. In the middle of the ring I tucked spring-hued daisies and chrysanthemums provided by my favorite florist, Marty Giles. It made quite a beautiful display.

This fun jumpsuit kept me cool
and comfy all day
Jan wanted the occasion to be chic but very casual, so I opted for springy and oh-so-comfortable blue cotton overalls with a pretty patchwork placket from the Pyramid Collection, which I paired with a vintage white Tee I've owned since the 1970s and white gladiator sandals from Nine West.

I cut branches from flowering plum, cherry, dogwood and redbud trees, arranging them in a giant vase for Jan, and then loaded up the car for the 20-minute drive to her home. Jan's dear friend, Irit, visiting from New York City, was busy pulling weeds and planting flowers when I arrived just before 2:00 p.m. Jan's brother, Robbie, would arrive at 4:00 with his wife, Ging and their children, Jimmy, 12, and Lookpat, 20. Jan's longtime friend and my former husband, Jesse, proceeded to uncork and decant rare, vintage wines chosen from Jan's wine cellar earlier in the week.

The ham and the lamb were perfect,
thankfully unaffected by the
"poltergeists" of the day
I set to work plating the carrot salad, roasting the lamb in Jan's oven and setting out the bleu cheese terrine with crackers for noshing. Jan had not yet assembled the deviled eggs, so I got busy mashing cooked yolks into stoneground and Dijon mustards, mayonnaise, horseradish, salt, cayenne pepper, curry powder, dill weed and minced celery, chives and garlic, spooning the filling into each boiled egg half and topping it with a chive garnish, while Jan lit candles all over the house. We toasted our good fortune and close friendship with bellinis: slender flutes of chilled champagne topped with a splash of peach schnapps.
Deviled eggs, stuffed olives and tiny
pickled onions rounded out the
appetizer selection

At 4:00 o'clock the lamb came out of the oven to rest for 45 minutes, while the potatoes and ham went into the warming drawer to heat up. That's when things began to go south. We couldn't understand why Jan's gigantic standard poodle, Toby, was licking his lips and looking for all the world like he'd found Nirvana. Now I saw the reason why: a third of the potatoes were missing from the ceramic dish we'd left sitting on the kitchen counter. We carefully cleaned out the contaminated portion and vowed to keep quiet about the canine incursion.

We proceeded to taste the decanted wine, now that it had been given a chance to breathe.  It was a rare and valuable 1995 Chateau Monbousquet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru -- two bottles. Both had spoiled. They were undrinkable.

And Robby and Ging and the children were now late. Very late. We tried to reach Jan's brother by cellphone but he had not turned his phone on. We called his wife's cell phone but none of us speak Thai and, although she's been in the U.S. for twelve years, Ging's English is not good enough to understand over the phone. We had established that they were okay, but could not determine when they would arrive or even if they were still coming. Half of our dinner party was missing in action.

Jan (in green) and Irit poured water
for the dinner table
Jan and Jesse headed back down to the wine cellar. This time they went deeper, bringing back a 1995 Chateauneuf du Pape and an 1988 Chateau Simard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. I didn't notice the bottles were two different kinds and inadvertently decanted them into the same pitcher -- an epic and embarrassing mistake which thankfully resulted in a surprisingly tasty blend. Still, I was mortified at my gaffe and could not be consoled.

Finally, at 6:00 p.m., we grew tired of waiting for the others, so the four of us sat down to eat. We served up the ham and the lamb, passed the salad and the (carefully trimmed) mashed potatoes, gave a cheery toast and had just taken our first bites when Robby and his entourage arrived.  Up once again from the table, we exchanged greetings and introductions (Irit had never met Jan's brother and his family) and then started to serve dinner to our newly seated guests.

Jan proved she was
every bit as good a host
as Robert had been 
By the time dessert was served, we were all having a jolly good time. Jan presented a beautiful confection from La Patisserie Poupon, a classic French bakery in Baltimore from which she had ordered a decadent coconut cake with lemon mousse and mango filling in the shape of an Easter egg. When the cake was sliced, the mango filling looked like a golden yolk. Paired with a fabulous dessert wine from Jan's cellar, the final serving of the meal was as sublime as the previous courses.
Every guest got to take a copy
of the menu home with them,
tied and secured with a
blossom hairclip

Murphy's Law dictates that "everything that can go wrong, will go wrong". That wasn't our experience, fortunately, for not everything went wrong, and the things that did go wrong were easily (and luckily) fixed. Perhaps Robert had been testing his widow's mettle from the great beyond. Maybe he was just having a little fun at our expense. Who's to say?

All I know is that Jan's first foray into entertaining since her husband's passing was a sweet success. We all had a merry time. And as we gently explained the history of Christianity and the meaning of Easter to the Buddhists at the table, I reflected upon what a wonderful world of inclusivity and acceptance I live in -- where even the most glaring oenophilic faux pas can be forgiven -- after another glass of wine.

“The chance of the bread falling with the buttered side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”  ~ Murphy's Law

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