The call came in as we were on our way out the door to a soccer tournament. “Michael?” It was my mother’s voice. “Your dad and I have decided what we want to do for our 50th.”
The ideas we’d discussed about what to do to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the wedding of my parents, Wita and Edwin Gardiner (August 12, 2011), had been all over the map, ranging from a road trip to Chicago to a massive bash or a much smaller pilgrimage to Carmel (where they were married). Mom and dad had a different idea: “We want you and Jacqueline” – my sister – “to throw a party for us for our anniversary. We’ll give you a list of the guests we want. Seven or eight couples, or so.”
“What would you think about Waters Catering?” I asked.
“No, Michael. We want you guys to do it. And we want you to work together,” she said.
We were 20 miles up the I-15 before I heard those words again in my head: “And we want you to work together.” Work together? Co-exist? Absolutely. Enjoy each others’ company? Yes. But work together? We hadn’t done that in years. Had we ever, really? “Well,” I said to myself, “there’s always a first for everything.”
Then there was the minor matter of what we were going to have to work together to accomplish. So, we had to turn my parents house into a welcoming and celebratory space as well as design and execute a menu for up to twenty three (seven to eight couples plus the guests of honor plus ourselves, our spouses/significant others and offspring). And it had to be special. In short, we had to put together a one night Pop-Up Restaurant.
The first task was to figure out what we were going to do to make it special. It was Nancy, my wife who came up with the controlling image: five decades of marriage, five dishes. Each decade would have its corresponding dish. While this “controlling image” ended up as more of an “inspirational guideline,” this (minus the wine stain — and with all due apologies to Wylie Dufresne) is what we ended up with – and what greeted our guests as they arrived at their plates:
We decided to divide the primary responsibility with Jacqueline and her significant other, Mike, taking primary responsibility for the first dish and the dessert, and Nancy and I taking primary responsibility for the second, third and fourth courses. It was understood by all of us that things not only might, but would change.
The first dish was collaborative in conception but Jacqueline and Mike’s in execution. Jacqueline suggested that an excellent appetizer to symbolize the first decade of Wita and Ed’s marriage, the 60s, would be Fondue. I agreed, but offered that to lighten it up and modernize it, we might look to Asia, in general, and to Mongolian Hot Pot, in particular. Instead of cooking the meat in boiling oil, we would use a flavorful broth. From there, Jacqueline and Mike took over, creating a Gingered Chicken Broth and two dipping sauces: a Caramelized Onion Teriyaki and a Thai-style Sate.
Next up was our Crab Cake with Sweet Corn and Roasted Red Pepper Sauces. One of the dishes that both Jacqueline and I remember most fondly from our childhood (in the 70s) was Wita’s Creole-style Corn & Crab Soup. It was a fixture on our New Year’s Party menus and more than a few other lucky nights. Nancy and I took this dish, deconstructed it and reimagined it as a Crab Cake affair.
CRAB CAKES WITH SWEET CORN AND ROASTED RED PEPPER SAUCES
For the Sweet Corn Sauce:
- 1 ½ cups corn kernels (fresh corn kernels from 2 or 3 ears)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 shallot finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
- 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
For the Roasted Red Pepper Sauce:
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 red bell peppers, roasted, skinned, and seeded
For the Crab Cakes:
- 1 onion, finely diced
- ½ bulb fennel, finely diced
- 1 tablespoon curry powder
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1 one-pound can of crab meat (fresh)
- ½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
For the Tarragon Oil:
- 1 bunch tarragon leaves
- 1 bunch parsley
- ½ cup grapeseed oil
- Dash of salt
1. Make the red pepper sauce. Combine the shallots and stock in a sauce pan and reduce by half over moderate heat. Place the red peppers in the bowl of a high speed blender with the cayenne pepper and puree. With the blender running, add the reduced stock mixture in a slow and steady stream. Transfer the red pepper sauce back to the sauce pan and keep warm over very low heat.
2. Prepare the crab cakes. In a saute pan, saute the onions and fennel over medium heat until they are translucent. Add the curry powder and cook for 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until cool. When the vegetables are cool, add the egg white, 1 cup of the mayonnaise, and the crab meat and mix to combine. Add the breadcrumbs and mix thoroughly. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
3. Make the sweet corn sauce. Combine the shallots and corn in a sauce pan and sauté for several minutes over medium heat until the shallots begin to turn translucent. Add the chicken stock, cream and nutmeg to the pan and reduce by ¼. Transfer the sauce to the bowl of a high speed blender and process to a fine sauce consistency. Transfer the red pepper sauce back to the sauce pan and keep warm over very low heat.
4. Make the tarragon oil. Blanche the tarragon and parsley bunches in boiling water for 15 seconds. Shock in ice water and wring all water from the parsley. Place the parsley in the bowl of a food processor and add a dash of salt. With the processor running, add the oil in a slow and steady stream. Place the herb and oil mixture in a bowl and refrigerate until the rest of the dish is completed.
5. Cook the crab cakes. Form the crab mixture into equally-sized half-inch thick cakes. Place the cakes on an oiled hotel (or broiler) pan and roast them in the oven at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.
6. Plate the dish. Strain the tarragon oil through a fine mesh sieve. Spoon sweet corn sauce on the plate, top with the crab cakes and garnish with the red pepper sauce and tarragon oil.
Ed’s favorite cuisine is and always has been Italian – particularly the sort of “Northern Italian” style restaurants so popular in the 80s. A staple of these houses was always Linquine with Clam Sauce. We re-cast this dish as a scallop offering with fresh tomato, pancetta, basil and a drizzle of truffle oil. The original idea had been to use succulent and sweet bay scallops. However the larger sea scallops available to us seemed of significantly higher quality so we adapted the dish accordingly.
LINGUINE WITH BAY SCALLOPS AND PANCETTA
- 12 ounces fresh linguine
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 ounces finely minced pancetta
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup peeled, cored and finely chopped fresh plum tomatoes
- 1 pound bay scallops
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 1 bunch basil, cut in chiffonade
1. Start the Water. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the linguine. Salt and oil the water.
2. Begin Cooking the Toppings. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté for a few minutes, until it begins to brown. Stir in the garlic and sauté for a few moments more then add the tomatoes. Season the tomatoes with salt to pull out some of their sweetness. As the tomatoes release their liquid stir the pan to deglaze. Cook a few minutes, until the tomatoes start to thicken.
3. Finish the Toppings. Stir in scallops and cook till they start to show signs of cracking. Add salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
4. Finish the Dish. Add the linguine to the pot of boiling water and cook about three minutes. Drain thoroughly, then add the linguine to the sauté pan with the scallops. Add the basil and toss all of the ingredients together to thoroughly combine. Serve in individual bowls with grated parmesan and a teaspoon of truffle oil.
Perhaps the dish that underwent the most change was the second entrée, representing the 90s. Our original idea had been to do a take on the East-West Fusion cuisine that had been one of the great culinary movements of that decade. It also echoed several of our family’s long-time habits: Chinese food for Sunday night dinner (and, not infrequently, Christmas) as well as family sushi feeds, dim sum on the weekend and the like. The original idea for the dish had been a Beggar’s Purse of Rib-Eye Steak and Shiitake Mushroom Duxelles with Truffle Paste and a Sake-Mirin Reduction – essentially, an East-West Beef Wellington. It sounded better on paper than it worked out in our dry runs.
Around the same time, Nancy and I had been playing with fruit and red wine reduction sauces and that brought to mind that ever-so-90s near cliché: beef with fig reduction sauce. When Jacqueline and Mike suggested serving it with Brussels sprouts, leeks and mushrooms, we had our dish: Pan Roasted Rib-Eye Steak with Red Wine Fig Reduction, Brussels Sprouts, Leeks and Mushrooms garnished with dehydrated julienned Chioga Beets.
If that second entrée underwent a lot of change, the dessert was a close second – perhaps at least in part because none of us were anything remotely like pastry chefs. The pairing of strawberries with chocolate was about the only thing that everyone seemed excited about. My original idea had been to try to do something in the nature of the ingredient transformations so central to the Modernist Cuisine/Molecular Gastronomy movement. One concept had involved freezing strawberries with liquid nitrogen and powderizing them. Mike and I were hot on that one until practicalities got in the way. Next I wanted to dehydrate frozen yogurt – particularly chocolate yogurt (a favorite of Ed’s). A dry (pun intended) run on that yielded great results. While I am not quite certain why we did not end up going in that direction, a general lack of enthusiasm for the idea amongst my partners is probably not far from the mark.
We settled on a dish based on a fresh and tart strawberry sorbet. But even that had to change when the ice cream maker broke on Thursday night during the first production run. Even buying a new one would not have worked because we would not have the time to make enough sorbet. That forced another major rethink. With wonderful fruit available in the early summer’s local farmer’s markets there seemed little point in going further afield. We opted to serve that wonderful fruit with a freshly-made chocolate sauce and candied mint leaves.
By and large, the execution of the food was successful. Jacqueline’s work at the “front of the house” was nearly flawless. Even when problems cropped up, they were dealt with, we adapted and it went off largely without a hitch. We did our “Pop-Up” restaurant and it worked.
And yet this was not a pop up restaurant. It was not, much as this blog might seem to suggest, all about the food. Indeed this blog is about food AND travel. And this night was all about the latter. It was a trip back through time, through fifty years of marriage accompanied by the friends and family who had populated and helped animate that wonderful half century. Seeing all of these friends together in one place at one time, remembering times shared – from Lois and David Lilien (who were there at that wedding)…
… to the grand children (otherwise known on the evening as “wait staff”) …
… and so many other dear friends who have meant so much to me in my life, not to mention Wita and Ed.
Pop Up Restaurant? Not so much. Pop Up Time Travel Device? Perhaps. And it took working with my sister to make it happen.