It just dawned on me that I cooked an alphabetical dinner exactly one year ago in Italy. My sister Maristella and her husband Jacopo kindly let me and Eric mess up their kitchen in exchange for some Indonesian fare. And they still brag about how good it was.
This also means that it took 12 months to go through another 8 countries and I think this is actually not bad at all considering how much work they require. And talking about a lot of work, I think it was this year that I vowedd that despite the fact that my fabulous dinner table is for 10 people, it's better to have fewer people over as it's hard to converse with all them and way too many conversations go on at the same time. Well, that's true but it's also true that if the dinner becomes a dinner and a dancing party then one can have many conversations as one wants after dinner. I could say that it was in this spirit that I sent out an Evite to 11 people (+ me=12) for last night's dinner and I will spare you the explanations as to how when 3 people couldn't make it we ended up being 13! We are not too superstitious.... Eric was dismayed when I announced that "oops", we were a few too many but I promptly pulled out the extra table extension leaf, put 5 people on each of the long sides and 2 people on each of the short sides and pronto my seat10table became a squeeze14table (and thankfully Jeff brought three foldable chairs). Take one out due to unplanned stomach bug and you have 13 people for dinner (an Italian song comes to mind: "aggiungi un posto a tavola che c'e' un amico in piu', se sposti un po' la seggiola, stai comodo anche tu" or "add a seat at the table to accommodate one more friend, if you move your chair a bit you'll be be comfortable too" - hear it on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuK23O38REE&feature=related).
Ain't this a really nice picture! And we had barely started drinking...
It was probably the best dinner of the year. Perhaps not so much because of the food (I think I've got a couple of zeros...) but because we just had so much fun it was almost sad to call it a night at 2AM - I could have gone on dancingall night. Or maybe not considering that I passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow. I was tired to be honest since I had been cooking no-stop since noon but I was really happy - and more than a little drunk... I woke up this morning to a complete mess but I think I was still on a high from the great fun from the previous night and so even cleaning it all up didn't feel too bad.
I started the dinner with a sea moss punch. I had no idea what sea moss was until I looked it up on Google... you know when you're walking by the Ocean in the shallow water and there's this really yucky weed that you try to avoid? That's the sea moss. Turns out it's got quite a few uses and given that I was able to find some in a Caribbean grocery in Decatur, I decided to prepare the punch. You have to cook the moss in boiling water and when you do so your entire house smells like the sea. Nice. The recipe called for one tablespoon of rum but I put in a cup and then I put in quite a bit of milk and a cup of cream and then a lot of sugar. Thing is, the water in which you cook the moss is salty... I put in a bottle of some Asian strawberry concoction I found at the Buford Highway Farmers Market and then almost as an afterthought, a bottle of Cascal Light Red. The result was a bit controversial but not as bad as I thought. The texture is a bit gelatinous (if you leave the water to cool it will turn into jello) but not unpleasant to the palate. My friends had different reactions to it: some really liked it - I think Kiyomi and Floyd will go buy some and make their own concoction -, some didn't like it all, some liked the adventurous taste of it, Kako thought it tasted like toothpaste and Eric thinks it's a cure against heartburn.
My first starter was stuffed cucumbers and this was a winner. Perfect summer dish (OK, I know we're in winter in Atlanta but if you can get into the party mood given that the theme was "beach", then it was a perfectly fitting dish). Everyone really liked it and had ideas as to how to take it even to the next level (add some crab?). The filling is a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream and red onion and it really is a refreshing dish. I dusted it with sweet paprika to give it a little bit of spice (granted, this isn't exactly and Island flava...)
I also had another starter: Conch Souse. Conch is an interesting shell fish. It's tough and chewy if you don't cook it properly but I had recently read something about cooking octopus that came in handy and given that the texture of conch is rather similar, I decided to take a risk and cook it a really long time (meaning for more than 1 hour). I still was concerned it might have been too chewy but perhaps because of the lime juice I used in the pickle, it was surprisingly good. Another summery beach dish. The pickle itself was made with celery, onion, red pepper and parsley, the juice of 1.5 limes and salt and pepper.
I also made a vegetarian version of this salad with tofu (since Chris is vegetarian). He thought it was really a nice dish and it would be perfect for packed lunch at the office. I pretty much used the same seasoning except that I was out of red pepper and limes so I used lemon juice freshly squeezed from a Meyer lemon that Jan brought over from California.
As a main course I served what, according to various websites I visited, is the national dish of St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Roasted Breadfruit and Fried Jack Fish. I sincerely hope to have gotten the cooking wrong. The breadfruit was closed to inedible (I followed the directions and cooked it for 1.5 hours in the oven) but it was really though. I could cut it with my steak knife but you couldn't really work your way through it with a regular dinner knife... So, this dish didn't fare too well I'm afraid. The fried fish was ok but it would have been better with more sauce. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that Eric (who I enlisted at 8.15pm to help with the cooking that was falling behind) had left the fire under the sauce at simmer and so it cooked down to almost nothing. Sure, it was very flavorful but simply not enough. Nobody liked the breadfruit. Really. Surely I have done something wrong. It's a popular eat in the Caribbean and these many people can't be wrong. I also was worried that the fish bones would have been a real pain but in reality they weren't. I suppose jack fish isn't that bony (but it certainly is a cheap eat).
I was saved by the salad accompanying the main course: black eyed pea and mustard green salad. First of all, how appropriate! Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that black eyed peas are a propitious food when served on New Year's: they are a good luck food the same as lentils are a good year food in Italy. I wonder if somewhere there was an error in translation or if one of the 2 foods was just a substitute for the other... Whatever the reason, I hope they work and bring a lot of good health, wealth and happiness in 2012 to everyone that ate them!
The salad was rather good. The fact that it was dressed in a cup of olive oil and a bit of vinegar might have something to do with the goodness of flavor but it was also a really nice combination of ingredients: the peas, with mustard greens, sweet corn and red peppers, made for a really colorful ensemble.
The next dish ended up redeeming the breadfruit (that most of my friends had already written off and swore against trying it again): breadfruit cake. Since last year we missed an important birthday of our friend Jan, this cake was served with candles and we all sang happy birthday to a very happy looking Jan. And maybe the happiness in the room translated a bit to the palate. The cake was very well received by everyone. Even Eric thought it was surprisingly good. I think this would also make good breakfast bread (and talking about bread: my friend Jeff brought some freshly homemade bread that I had today and it was really really good. What was in it! I must get hold of the recipe). I have to say that I'm not sure this is truly a typical cake from the Caribbean. It has macadamia nuts in it but since it's made with breadfruit I figure it can't be that far off. And who knew that macadamia nuts are named after some Mr. Macadam? Just some factoid Karen mentioned last night at dinner.... I served it covered in whipping cream and with birthday candles... oohhh!
Since it was a special night and we could have just sat and ate for a long time and given that January with its New Year's Resolutions was just minutes away, I decided to serve 2 desserts: the second one was supposed to be representative of a special rum brewed in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Sunset rum. So I made Caribbean Sunset Rum Fruit cake. It looked lovely, smelled lovely, it had a lovely consistency and yet, Eric said that it was the first time that he had to spit out something I made. I honestly don't get it. There must have been something in there he really didn't like. But it didn't have any coconut (which Eric hates). To be a bit fancy I decided to cook it as a bundt cake and then fill the hole with mango sorbet. Except that I left the sorbet in the refrigerator and it was more like a juice by the time I put it in. After the first slice, the sorbet ran lava style all over the table! The rest of my friends really liked this cake. Some loved the nuttiness, some loved the rum, some loved the texture but it was really good. So, I'm not really sure what gene Eric has that prompted him to spit it out... And since there appear to have been another lot of birthdays shortly before or soon coming up after yesterday, I put in another set of candles and we sang another round of happy birthdays!
Midnight was approaching and we were all getting louder and drunker.... so as soon as the bell struck and the ball had dropped to the ground, we were all up, sharing kisses and new year's wishes and were ready to shake it! Armed with and ipad and iphone and my itune library, we moved the sofa and the coffee table in the living room out of the way and started to dance. Almost everyone joined in and it was just a lot of fun! I'm sure a lot of the embarrassing photos will show up in various facebook walls and I hope that there will be no videos posted on youtube. I know that today, as I watched some of the pictures that Eric took, I wondered why didn't anyone pointed out that my bra was showing? And I thought that he pulled out the beads because of Kako sexy dance moves! The atmosphere was so fun that I suppose nobody cared what we looked like or that we were all a bit too silly! Even the fact that we couldn't keep any song on for more than 30 seconds was a reason for laugh. I think the only one that made it through the end was "I've got a feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas (mmm, I wonder if we get an extra dose of good luck for this?).
The goody bags contained two treats from the Caribbeans: johnny cakes, which are fried breakfast bread and breadfruit puffs. I don't know what my friends thought of these fried little savory balls but Eric loved them. He had them for breakfast this morning. Additionally, I included a bag of lentils for a good dose of luck for the coming year Italian style!
Here are the dishes and the scores:
Sea Moss Punch: 4.9
Stuffed Cucumbers: 8.2
Conch Souse: 7.8
|Roasted Breadfruit & Fried Jack Fish: 3.7
I'm looking forward to another great year! Happy 2012 everyone!
Next, we're going to Africa: Tanzania.