(late june. number 50.)
The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June
- Edward Thomas, 'The Green Roads'
Knowing for months in advance that the 50th dinner would land in June, we contemplated what would make it extra special. Once the idea to serve 50 people crossed our minds, there was no going back.
We did things differently: we sold advanced tickets online (they sold out in 3 days!), set up wholesale accounts, bought a keg, planned a menu of room temperature food, kept a crazy running google doc of plans in minutia, and worked for 5 rather than 3 days in advance.
The dinner was originally scheduled to be on a concrete slab behind Sofie's house on the cusp of industrial southeast Portland, near the train tracks and several anonymous warehouses. The kitchen opens up onto it, and is close-enough to our usual kitchen at my house. We thought, with sarcasm, that we'd reach this nexus of "could it be Brooklyn?" cool by turning such a funny space into the setting for an elegant dinner. I mean, if they can all do it, so can we, right?
Well, thankfully the weather influenced a change in location which everyone involved agrees was "meant to be." The only predicted rain in a stretch of days was, of course, the day we'd booked an outdoor dinner for fifty. Sofie's mother, Mary Sherman, and her partner, Vern Nelson, have a beautiful house with extensive gardens in unincorporated Washington County, between Portland and Beaverton. They were swift to offer up their place as an alternative location, and we could not have been more blessed to have this opportunity.
When we arrived on the day of, Mary had already cleared the space and gotten out all her glasses and plates and left their exceptional commercial grade kitchen spotless for us to just swoop in and get started.
We sat 25 inside in the spacious living room, with their own beverage setup, to the left of the kitchen. To the right of the kitchen, down a tiny path, we sat another 25 on a covered patio. As it turned out, the day cleared up nicely, and everyone had the opportunity to explore the extensive gardens, drinks in hand. Vern is otherwise known as The Hungry Gardener, has been writing columns on gardening for The Oregonian and teaching extensive workshops on gardening for decades, and it shows on his home turf. Vern was also probably our #1 helper, taping a vinyl apron to himself and gutting fish, prepping loads of vegetables, moving things, digging out tools for us, making a beautiful window sign (unsolicited; he just did it!) and more.
The day is now a blur, but I know that shortly after the smoke had cleared from my grilling 22 lbs of fish, everyone was there, having their second drinks and eating their mezze plate.
Amusing "back stage" snapshots: our several helpers gathered around a table in Vern's office assembling the first course, then later gathered around another table set up in the garage assembling sandwiches, then later gathered around the ice cream makers bucket with spoons, crushing pavlova with our hands, dropping it in, throwing in raspberry dust, red currants and raspberries, then eating with spoons, spilling some on our aprons and shoes.
PROVISIONS CAME FROM:
The Commons Brewery– 'Fleur De Blanc'
A white farmhouse ale brewed with rose and elderflowers.
A uniformly crisp white wine, apricots, a few white nectarines, some ginger syrup, and assorted herbs.
Cold Brew El Salvador San Louis Coffee
A 5-gallon batch made for us specially by Aaron Baker at Water Avenue. See the info about the varietal/tasting notes on the card, pictured in the photo gallery.
We tried to make these dolmas extra garden-to-table by using the grape leaves from the vines at the Sherman/Nelson garden, but our attempt failed. Perhaps the long spells of dry heat toughened them in a way that never happens in the coastal regions they are known for being used in. We tried three or four recipes, and all of them left the leaves too salty, too coarse, too chewy to deal with.
So in the end, like all the dolmas you know and love, we used canned grapes leaves. To be more accurate, I should say that Lucas and Kaaren used canned grape leaves; and also Lucas's dad's recipe (the dolmas Lucas grew up eating frequently).
Turkish street food, existing in lots of other countries along the eastern mediterranean. We used a simple recipe with onions, garlic, red lentils, bulgar and harrissa. They were in little donut shapes with pools of grassy olive oil and flaky salt.
A result of debates and experiments around the "garlic sauce" in the deli case at Barbur World Foods. This sauce is white, creamy, and RIDICULOUSLY garlicky. It is good but perhaps too intense for a crowd about to eat lots of other food. We assumed it was merely raw garlic and labne, the middle eastern style yogurt cheese. I, in particular, have become a complete convert to labne as a grocery item; using it in (or as) sauce, spreading it on bread, etc. Once or twice I have made "garlic labne" with either fresh or roasted garlic. When Lucas did some shopping for this dinner at Barbur World Foods, he inquired about the sauce, and learned that it is what they call "garlic tomme," which is actually more of an aoli than anything else. It's just tons of oil, garlic, lemon, and salt. He bought a large tub of it. Meanwhile, Sofie had roasted multiple heads of garlic and we'd bought tons of Turkish labne. We combined tomme, plain labne, roasted garlic, and raw garlic until we reached the perfect (to our tastes) balance.
A great flat cracker recipe inspired by one in 'Home Made' by Yyvette Von Boven. Sofie went crazy with the toppings, making no cracker alike. They ranged from "pizza themed" (chili flakes and parmesan) to traditional (z'aatar) to experimental (caraway, nutritional yeast, and oregano).
In college I lived in a large group house which held communal dinners. This experience has long been cited as the original inspiration for Secret Restaurant Portland. In this house, we had chores like any house, but also had "house contributions." These were things like "I will empty the dish drainer every day, no matter what, because I just LOVE it" or "I will fix anyone's bikes, whenever, however." Most people volunteered these services. But it was voted, unanimously, that my house contribution should/HAD to be making hummus. Why? I made really fucking good hummus. It was the first thing I think I could confidently say "I make really fucking good ______ " about. Oddly, until this dinner, it had yet to be served at Secret Restaurant.
Appropriately, one of my best friends from college, Trevor Wilson, was visiting for three days leading up to this dinner, and was along for the ride with much of the preparations. Having someone who was actually there back in the old days when this hummus was an every week fact of life was a gift in the process of making it now, years of further cooking experience behind me.
I added a few small changes, intuited via those previously mentioned years of experience, but by and large it remained the same. It's all about the silly-but-significant details. A few pieces of kombu seaweed in with the garbanzos as they soak. Spent lemon skins tossed in with the beans as they cool after cooking. Heaps of lemon zest. Slicing the garlic, letting it sit, then chopping it. Adding the oil after the paste has already gotten smooth. Roasted tahini from one particular maker.
And it was really fucking good. Having Trevor to taste test and help chop garlic was incredibly valuable. Two of the friends who helped serve at the dinner, Lauren Harris and Emma Morehouse, were a part of my college days and ate this hummus frequently as well. Even with Trevor's approval confirmed, I was nervous for them to taste it, but they both deemed it better than ever.
Sofie works two days a week at Working Theory Farm. We traded the farmer, Justin, and his wife Kelty, tickets to the dinner in exchange for vegetables from the farm. These radishes were an unplanned last addition. Sofie roasted them, elegantly and simply. They were particularly good with the garlic sauce.
I harvested all of the beets I'd grown that spring in Secret Garden for this dish. It felt appropriate to be able to serve something entirely from S.G. produce. Kept it super simple in the preparation. A lovely contrast to the brinier items on the mezze plate.
There is this giant, beautiful jar of bright green Italian olives at Barbur World Foods for $40. Lucas had previously bought one and eaten the entire thing (god help him), so we knew they were exquisite and worth every penny. We marinated them with oranges and assorted herbs/trimmings of our whimsey. Probably not long enough for the flavor to be significantly impacted, but I like to think we kissed them on the cheek with extra flavor.
Roasted Carrot/Saffron Soup
We roasted probably 10 pounds of carrots with olive oil, salt, and pepper. First at slow, low heat. Then briefly, cranking the heat. We cooked several pounds of delicious onions. We rehydrated some mild mexican chili. Sofie's house has a continuous veggie-stock operation; she and her housemate Holly bust out great batches on the regular. We used one from the freezer and made another fresh for this large soup.
It was blitzed in the vitamix, with separate batch incorporating the saffron and added it late in the game.
It was served at colder room-temp, topped with a delicious tahini-yogurt dollop, some dry roasted garbanzo beans (side project from the hummus), and some extreme herb-oil (herbs, grassy olive oil, vitamin blitz).
Spigarello falls somewhere between dino kale and broccoli. It was a Working Theory speciality this late spring/early summer. It's leaves have more bite than any kale, yet better flavor than any broccoli leaf I've ever bitten into. Usually cooked, we elected to tenderize it for several hours in lemon baths.
They were dressed in a pistachio/herb/spice dressing. Deliciously fatty, sharp, and deeply savory all at the same time.
Pseudo Mediterranean Sandwiches
I dreamed up this sandwich after 1. Deciding that I would NOT bake bread for 50 people or make pasta for 50 people, though knowing how starchy elements of a main course are essential to our operation. 2. The idea of getting the fresh pita from Barbur World Foods, picked up an hour before serving, descended upon us as if from the heavens.
The freshest whole wheat pita was split in half and opened. Hummus was spread generously on one side. Several leaves of orach (mountain spinach) were pressed into the hummus. Fresh pickles of radishes and onions were added. On top of that, the argyle-grilled summer squash slices. Then, an entire grilled sardine. This was spread with salsa verde, which sort of melted from its paste form around the crisp skin of the fish in an oily/herby waterfall. We threw in some shreds and crumbles of myzithra cheese. Then finished by stuffing in some fancy sunflower sprouts.
I'd made this dish the previous week for the secret cookbook project (yes, that's the first mention of it in these pages & all yr getting for now!) and its inclusion in this meal felt necessary after the first bite.
My mother made tabbouleh for many outdoor summer meals when I was growing up. Long before I had a taste for any of this food, I was eating tabbouleh.
The cherries (S.G.) are pickled with cardamom and juniper berries, and they manage to replace the tomato in traditional tabbouleh perfectly. The vinegar has the acid usually supplied by the tomato, and the cherry itself holds the sweetness also usually supplied by the tomato. The spices lend a depth and exotic note.
Anna's World Tour 1923
Sofie made exceptional poppy seed pavlova. The dish was apparently created in Australia during Anna Pavlova (famous Russian ballet dancer) was there on tour in 1923. Sofie's excellent move, which I can at least lay claim to having influenced, was to put a hefty quantity of cream of tarter in the pavlova.
With the extra egg yokes, we made blood orange curd for the helpers of the meal.
Lucas made raspberry liquor ice cream with his new method of making 2-ingredient phenomenal ice creams. Heavy cream, raspberry liqueur.
Raspberries from our friend Lauren Harris's house (we ran out of time to pick our own, and are so grateful to her for the hook up). Red currants from a stand at the People's Co-Op Farmer's Market.
With sage (S.G.) dehydrated and blitzed in the Vitamix, we had: sage dust.
With raspberries (S.G.), we attempted to dehydrate (but failed) and bought freeze dried ones instead, then blitzed in the Vitamix as well and we had: raspberry dust. It all tasted exceptional with the cold brew coffee.
That was it, and that was all their needed to be.
OUR AMAZING HELPERS
Lastly, a special thank you to Sofie's family for their widely felt support and to my parents, Robert and Carrol Barton, who came up from Eugene to attend. Though I've tested many SR dishes on them when visiting home, this was their first time at the SR table. They are the people I learned to taste from.
Thanks Mom and Dad!