July 7, 2008

Uncle Sam and Ma's Birthday Celebration

While most of the U.S. was busy celebrating its 232 birthday, my family got together to celebrate my ma. My sister and I had planned an "adventure" (my parents' term for the "get in the car and we'll tell you where we're going when we get there...and trust me, it'll be worth it" trips we used to take when we were vacationing on Cape Cod as kids) to Saratoga Lake. We had rented a boat for the day from Saratoga Boatworks and as we pulled into the marina, my parents' jaws hit the deck. Within 30 minutes, I was piloting the 24' pontoon boat south for a tour of the lake before we picked a spot to eat lunch and go for a swim. Needles to say, my 5-year old nephew Kyle had a blast.

My sister, Amy, had prepared a great spread for our aquatic-picnic. Not only was the food incredible, she brought the exact amount of grub we needed for the full day. She'd made two types of roasted vegetable wraps featuring a common base of onions, peppers and, if I'm not mistaken, summer squash and zucchini. She used two types of wraps - spinach and whole wheat - with balsamic vinegar in the former and hummus in the latter. For sides, she had cut fruit - cantaloupe and seedless red grapes - and a number of great Trader Joe buys including chips, salsa and 7-layer dip. For dessert, she'd coated strawberries with melted semi-sweet chocolate morsels (her absolute favorite treat to snag from my mom's baking cabinet when we were growing up). Somehow, they never melted. I'm not sure if that was because Brian, my brother-in-law, packed them so well or because we ate them so quickly.

Dinner that night was a tag team event. Amy came up with a recipe - seared scallops with a spicy chorizo sauce and asparagus - and I prepared the grub. The sauce for the scallops had too much heat but it didn't stop anyone from cleaning their plate. Plus, we were able to cool our mouths off with my mom's special birthday cake, a once-a-year treat we all look forward to. My dad had made an angel food cake the night before and he went to work preparing it. Aafter slicing the cake in half, chunks ice cream are placed in the middle along with sugared strawberries and blueberries. The entire cake is then coated in whipped cream and topped with fresh berries and sparklers.

The next day, my sister and I put together a 5-course meal (that turned into 2 smaller meals and a nap). We tried to stick with a Tuscan theme when we could. My parents have been talking about visiting Italy, specifically Tuscany, for years and we thought a meal that borrowed heavily from the region would be a nice touch. Hell, even our boat from the day before was named Tuscany. We also tried to make heart-healthy choices when possible; Mr. Russert's recent passing had a particularly profound impact on my family for several reasons. Here's what we served:

1st Course - Grilled Crostini

I served two different varieties: one with cubed fresh mozzarella and prosciutto and the other with a mix of kalamata olives, red onions, and roasted peppers. I used 2 somewhat fresh loaves of French bread (which Brian was kind enough to slice and coat with olive oil) and toasted them very quickly on a very hot grill. My dad's full-sized grill gave me some great lines. I coated the olive mix crostini as they came off the grill and moved the meat & cheese slices up to the top rack until the cheese had melted. As far as a 5-course meal for 6 adults was concerned, 2 loaves of bread was entirely too much food. On the other hand, we ate every piece so I think it was worth it.

2nd Course - Cannellini Soup

Cannellini's are a white bean used in a lot of Tuscan cooking. My sister prepared this dish, sweating out onions and garlic in a Le Creuset pot, adding the beans, tomatoes (?) and stock and finishing with some rosemary. We served this meal outside and part of the way through the course, we discovered that we'd been locked out of the house. I have no idea how the sliding glass door in the back of our house managed locked itself as someone closed the door but as soon as all realized what had happened, we knew we were screwed. See, my parents have this obsession with locking their doors. My sister and I weren't even allowed to keep copies of our house keys after we moved out of the house. When a situation arose where it was blatantly obvious how weird it was that we couldn't access our parents' house, we finally obtained a set of keys. Regardless, there was no way in the house...no way, that is, except for Brian to "borrow" our neighbor's ladder, climb onto the roof and dive head first into one of the front rooms. For the record, that wasn't until my father and I decided it would be much more fun to break the window on the door to our garage (although my dad gave it an initial punch, we realized the break would be worthless because the door to the house was also locked, no doubt).

3rd Course - Grilled Polenta

This was the third batch of grilled polenta I'd prepared in as many weeks. The first round, prepared for a number of guests, was decidedly bland and didn't look especially great. The second round was cut better, had better grill lines but still lacked i flavor. By this third attempt, I'd realized how to modify the packaged Bel Aria instant polenta: I added onions, garlic, shallots, salt, pepper and herbs upfront and then coated it with a mix of olive oil and Rao's Homemade Arrabiata Fra Diavolo Sauce before i threw it on the grill.

The real key was forming the polenta in the right dish and slicing it to the right width. Even though I managed that much, I made the mistake of serving two slices per person, twice as much as i should have and, combined with the crostini and soup (and 3+ bottles of wine), enough to send everyone to sleep for a couple of hours. On top of the polenta, i melted a little buffalo mozzarella (i searched for a decent soy replacement in the nearby Hannaford but no luck) and threw some red, yellow and orange peppers, along with some red onions, all mixed in with more of the Diavolo sauce (just enough to bind and flavor the onion/pepper mix).

4th Course - Cedar Planked Sea Bass with White Wine Sauce and Wilted Spinach

When I first considered the meal we were going to prepare for my parents, I went way over the top and thought about how we could do 7+ courses. One of my ideas was a beef and risotto dish. As we woke up from our meal and started talking about how many hours it would be before we'd all be hungry again, I realized how wise my sister was when she suggested a more reasonable number of courses. Beef and risotto? How could we possibly have handled that?

I have no idea if they use cedar planks to smoke/cook fish (let alone sea bass) in Tuscany but when Brian told me he had brought the planks, I went with the idea. After all, wood planking is the easiest way to cook fish on the grill without making a mess. Brian threw the wood in some water very early on in the afternoon, which was a great idea. He also had some bad advice - coat the wood in olive oil - which i proceeded to follow despite knowing better. Everyone but MB suffered a minor freak out when I poured water on the planks as the oil caught fire but i was able to keep the situation under control. I bet the steam actually helped the fish turn out nice and moist.

One the fish went on the grill, I put some left over prosciutto ends and fat in a skillet on the grill's side burner, added olive oil, onions, garlic, roasted peppers, and, at the last minute as I took the pan off the heat while rolling spinach through the mix for flavor. I poured the veggies into a bowl and had MB bring them inside to await plating. In the meantime, i put the skillet back on the burner, browned up some more prosciutto (forgot the shallots!), added butter, truffle oil, lemon juice and white wine, reduced by a little more than half and finished with a little more butter and some capers. Sure, the sauce wasn't exactly heart-healthy but i only poured a spoonful or two over each person's plate and, damn, was it good.

5th Course - Gelato Cannoli

I brought some Ferrara cannoli shells up to Albany from Little Italy as an insurance policy but when I saw fresh shells at Bella Napoli, I snagged them. My original concept was to make tri-colored canollis with pistachio, vanilla, and strawberry gelato. Unfortunately, while Hannaford had gelato, they didn't have the selection i was looking for so we decided to go with two kinds of cannoli - one with a chocolate filling and the other with tiramisu. MB and I tried to prep them early so they would re-form in the deep freeze but all we learned was that the deep freeze had been unplugged earlier in the day - a fortunate discover for my most of the freezer's contents but disastrous for the cannoli. Regardless, we managed to serve a tasty, albeit messy, dessert topped with cocoa powder, powdered sugar and fresh whipped cream.

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