The Ardent Soil
(early may. number 49.)
A bush of May flowers with the bees about them;
Ah, sure no tasteful nook could be without them;
And let a lush laburnum oversweep them,
And let long grass grow round the roots to keep them
Moist, cool, and green; and shade the violets,
That they may bind the moss in leafy nets.
Open afresh your round of starry folds,
Ye ardent marigolds!
-John Keats, "I stood tip-toe upon a little hill" (1817)
Mentioned sometimes in these pages, but sparingly, is that I am not a professional cook. Neither are Lucas or Sofie or any of the other cooks we've ever had. I don't think we've ever had any "pros" grace the SR kitchen. By day, I am a preschool teacher.
Over the years, it has naturally fallen out that I will have an excellent rapport with parents whose parenting is likened most to my teaching. These are the parents whose kids are extremely genuine, sweet, spirited, intelligent, little ones with loads of personality. Naturally, these parents themselves are extremely genuine, sweet, spirited, intelligent, and have loads of personality. These parent/child combos also showcase other qualities like great taste in books and clothes and food. It's the same way adults in the everyday world make friends. You sort of start with shared interests, learn more about one another (do they have a sense of humor? okay, whew. good.), and eventually a friendship grows.
This all goes to say how, though my relationship with these people is professional, by the end of the two year stint their child is in preschool, we are real friends. Recently, many of these parents learned about this project and I felt that it was high time to host an event exclusively for them. One set of grandparents came. One family I have known through two generations came (preschool generations; one daughter 3-5, the next daughter 3-5). Kate Schweitzer, our frequent hand/table model + table arranger + cocktail maker + prep cook, used to teach with me at the preschool. She has a close relationship with many of the same families. Since she and Peter (her husband and our amazing photographer) are part of the Secret Restaurant crew, they helped to organize and orchestrate this one big-time.
Sofie was in New York doing a conference for her fellowship with the Real Food Challenge, so was unable to cook. By marvelous happenstance, Al Pomper, who attended our first 10 (at least) dinners before moving out of town, was going to be in town that weekend. He wrote asking if he could have a seat at the dinner. I said "No, but you can be our third cook and eat free!" He agreed heartily. We also had excellent last minute help, yet again, with table arranging to prepping to plating and everything in between from Kaaren Ponto. 20 guests + 4 in the kitchen is the largest group we've ever served at my house, so a special thanks goes out to all of these folks for helping us carry off the event.
The Radiant Hour
A cocktail vaguely inspired by 'Death In The Afternoon,' the famed Hemingway cocktail of absinthe and champagne, though ours featured neither. Since St. Germain made elderflower liqueur widely available in 2007, many bars have made knock offs with it instead of absinthe. I'm a Fitzgerald rather than a Hemingway fan, so this name comes from a section of The Beautiful and the Damned.
Cucumber vodka (some small classy producer, not a trashy flavored vodka!), St. Germain elderflower liqueur, a little sweet lime juice, sparkling Pino Grigio, and a few leaves of salad burnet (S.G.! salad burnet is a cucumber-leaning herb).
It was also enjoyed first thing, during the last hour of light. The radiant hour.
Wines of all kinds
Guests brought several bottles of wine. Due to their status as classy people over 30, the selections were of higher quality than usual. Thanks, folks!
Spring 'Down East' Chowdah
This is a recipe I created last summer, on the last night of a visit to see my friends in Maine, responding to a challenge to make "down east chowdah" before I left. I've since repeated the recipe 3 or 4 times, every time I feel like I can afford a quantity of seafood (alas, very rarely outside of this project; remember that part about being a poorly paid preschool teacher?). It had become, for me, a dish waiting to have its moment at the Secret Restaurant table.
It's a very simple approach, but with several precise moves that make it work. I was very likely inspired by recipes for oyster soup in MFK Fischer's 'Consider The Oyster,' which Sofie had gifted to me last spring.
In short, the onions (we used spring sweet onions from market) are cooked in a vast quantity of butter, salted generously. Meanwhile the potatoes (we used spring german butterball potatoes from Groundworks Organics) are boiled until not-quite-done. The clams are cooked with a splash of white wine, a knob of butter added to the shallow water. When they've opened, the clams are removed & set aside, the resulting jous added to the onions, the heat turned down. A jug of the highest quality milk obtainable (we used Gary's Meadow whole milk; in Maine it was some raw milk from farmer's we knew) is poured in and the heat raised once again. An entire head of parsley is chopped. The par-boiled potatoes are chopped in halves or quarters and added as the liquid heats. The fish (we used Oregon wild caught rockfish) is cut into bite sized pieces. When the liquid boils, the fish is dropped in, the heat turned off. After a minute or two for the fish on their own (it cooks to a delicate, perfect texture this way), the shelled clams and chopped parsley is added. The soup is covered and set aside for an hour or so. When ready to serve, the heat is turned on medium low until up to temp. For this batch, we repeated the clam process with mussels (all seafood came from Newman's Fish Market, as usual) and added them as well. We also stirred in a pint of cream at the end.
It was served with a slice of Emmer bread. Emmer is an ancient form of wheat, experiencing a revival by small growers and cooks looking for extraordinary flavor. Lonesome Whistle Farm in Eugene, an exceptional grower of heirloom grains and beans, was selling it the last time I visited my folks. The recipe and technique came from Tartine n.3. Having gone of sabbatical of sorts from bread-making for Secret Restaurant before 2014, I am glad to know that making exceptional hearth loaves at home is perhaps a bit like riding a bike.
Inspired by a recent seasonal 'Veggie Sando' at Sweedeedee, an astoundingly lovely neighborhood cafe.
The same Tartine-style bread made with Emmer, brushed with olive oil and grilled on the cast iron slammer. Spread with a pistachio paste, made with garlic, anchovies, chili flakes, pistachio oil, salt & pepper. Then topped with minor's lettuce (from The Hungry Gardener backyard farm stand) and lightly pickled, sherry soaked purple spring onions. On top of that, chalky goat cheese and smoking hot grilled asparagus (Veridian Farms).
Purple Carrot, Sylvetta Arugula, Sunflower Salad
We used this trendy-but-also-"As seen on TV'" style kitchen gadget that Lucas got called 'The Spiralizer' to make long shoestrings of purple haze carrots. We soaked them in my semi-signature bath of lemon juice, white wine vinegar, and salt for a softening/light pickling.
They were cut to a more reasonable eating size and then dressed with a sunflower seed goddess-style dressing. After being dressed a while, they were tossed with the arugula (S.G.) and then topped with arugula flowers (S.G.) and chive blossoms (S.G.) and purple mint (S.G.).
Corsican Pasta Parcels with Calamari, Spring Garlic Butter & a hot ramp or two
Whole Sugar Snap Peas with Balsamic Reduction
Lemon-thyme (S.G.) fresh pasta parcels filled with plain greek yogurt, sheep's milk feta, garlic, and more lemon thyme. Basted in melted butter and baked slow, emerging like potstickers for the stuff-white-People-like crowd.
These were then drowned in new spring garlic butter sauce which Calamari had been perfectly cooked (hats off, Lucas). There are two photos in the gallery of all the cooks in the kitchen with the pot of calamari + garlic butter after the dishes had been plated/delivered, eating it with ends of bread or serving spoons.
Dishes of sugar snap peas, open like a book, with a deep drizzle of balsamic reduction were set on every table.
After the plates were delivered, I came around passing out smoking hot grilled wild ramps (a kind of obscure-to-these-parts wild onion). The last two bundles at the market! As a former New England resident who never knew the pleasures of ramps while residing there (where they are much more common), I was thrilled to get my hands on these & serve them this way.
Elderflower/Elderberry Ice Cream Sandwiches
St. Germain ice cream, which Lucas made with a new ice cream maker (it has a slightly different mechanism than our other ice cream makers) using only heavy cream and St. Germain.
Buckwheat Sablé cookies, also inspired by a recipe in Tartine N.3. We used a mix of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts. Also, grapefruit rather than orange zest.
Elderberry compote made using elderberries wildcrafted and generously donated by Aria Mikkola-Sears. I cooked the frozen berries in sugar and lemon juice, until they started to burst. Strained the berries, then cooked down the liquid into a syrup. Kissed the syrup with some redcurrant jelly to brighten it up. When both had cooled, we mixed the smashed but just-cooked berries with the long-simmered thick syrup, creating a delightful, complex compote.