25 July 2010

United Way Happy Hour on Big Island 2010

For the third year running, a co-worker and I auctioned an event for our company United Way campaign. We host a happy hour at her family’s cabin on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka. (Click here to read my post about last year’s event.) The event is getting a reputation, and bidding for this year’s happy hour was pretty intense. I think it was the second most expensive item in the auction.

We settled on a date in early June with the winning bidders. Here’s the menu:

Lydia made Gianni’s Grilled Shrimp Appetizer, grilled chicken skewers with peanut sauce, and guacamole with chips. Gianni’s is a steakhouse in Wayzata. Click here to read about it.

For my contributions, I prepared three celebrity chef items. From Giada De Laurentiis, I made Sweet Pea Crostini; the recipe is on the Food Network web site (click here). I really am a big fan of Giada’s recipes. My wife says it’s only because of the low-cut sweaters she wears on her cooking shows. But honestly, I never even noticed. (Giada, if you’re reading this, ‘Sorry.’)IMG_3695_1024

My second item was a Grilled Panzanella Salad. I adapted this from a Mark Bittmann recipe (New York Times food columnist). His recipe also is on the Food Network site (click here.) I modified his recipe quite a lot, however. Instead of chopping the tomatoes, I used whole grape tomatoes. I also added feta cheese and instead of basil and parsley, I used fresh oregano to give the recipe a Greek flavor.

My third item was the most challenging and also the most fun. It was from Jose Andres TV show Made in Spain. It’s a very entertaining show that’s a cross between travelogue and cooking show. It also has a great web site. The recipe is for Seared Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Roncal Cheese. You can watch Chef Andres prepare the recipe by clicking here. When I say this was a ‘challenging’ recipe, it’s not that it was so difficult. It’s actually quite easy. But it was a real challenge to find all the ingredients, especially the peppers. I found a source to order them online. But in the end, I found them at Trader Joe’s. Also, I couldn’t find Roncal cheese, which he describes as a creamy sheep cheese from Spain. So I used manchego, which is another Spanish sheep’s milk cheese and is more readily available (though not cheap). I also made this recipe for my family. We agreed that it would be good using mozzarella cheese. (Sorry, Jose.)

We also had a selection of cheese and crackers.

Following the tradition that we started last year at the United Way Happy Hour, we prepared a signature cocktail for our guests – a French 75. I had a page torn out of Bon Appetit from 2004 with the recipe, and finally tried it. (You can find the recipe on Epicurious, click here.) The only modification was instead of Champaign, we used prosecco. IMG_3705_1024

This was a happy hour, of course, so besides the cocktail, we also had beer, wine, sparkling water, and sodas. The group went through three bottles of pinot noir. We had a bottle of chardonnay open, but I don’t think we poured even one glass from it.

At the end of the evening, Lydia offered coffee and brought a dessert. As it got dark (under a cloudy sky that threatened rain), we boarded the boat back to shore.

So all told, I think it was another successful event, and best of all, it was for a good cause.

24 July 2010

A Group Dinner at Siroc, Washington, DC

As my Yelp review states, this was a fantastic dining experience. I was asked to find a restaurant for our group – 14 people. Oh, did I mention? I had only about an hour’s notice. We were at a reception on Capitol Hill. Our CEO thought it would be nice for everyone from our company to have dinner together.

I thought so too. But the pressure was on. Fortunately, I had my trusty iPhone with me. The battery was getting low. But between Open Table and the map app, I was able to locate a few possibilities in just a few minutes. Of course, for a group of 14, you can’t actually use Open Table at most restaurants. So I started calling.Siroc1_1024

I did actually call a couple of steak places first. I knew they would be reliably good. But neither of them could fit us in on such short notice. (That is to say, they offered us a table at 9:30, but that was too late by about two hours.)

When I called Siroc, they hesitated. They already had another group in the restaurant. But they’d see what they could do. They called back a few minutes later and said they could do it. OK! Now all we had to do was transport our group from Capitol Hill to downtown DC. We snared about four taxis in front of the Longworth Building, and away we went.

When we arrived, our table was ready and the maitre d’ greeted us as though the arrangements had been made weeks ago. I think he was the owner, but I’m not positive. So just to add one more challenge – I miscounted. We actually had one more than I said on the phone. It was my mistake, and we offered to squeeze the extra person in at the end of the table. But no, the maitre d’ brought over another table and added it to the end of our row. No muss, no fuss.Siroc2

What followed was a great meal and lots of pleasant conversation. Not only was everything that we ordered thoroughly delicious, the chef even sent out a little treat at the beginning of the meal – a gnocchi stuffed with morel mushrooms.

The wines we ordered were very good. I noted them on my iPhone. The white was Gavi di Gavi Marchesi di Barolo. The red was Belguardo, "Serrata" Maremma which was a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet grapes.

I will definitely be returning to Siroc on future trips to DC and would highly recommend it.

11 July 2010

United Way Seafood Dinner

For our Land O’Lakes United Way drive in 2009, we had an online auction. I ended up winning two of the items on the auction. One was a case of wine from one of our executive’s wine cellar. Truth is, the highest bid was less than the retail value of the wine, and I was just trying to get it up to the retail value. but I ended up getting the case.

The other item, I really wanted. It was a selection of fresh, West Coast seafood. It was offered by an exec whose home is in Washington state. (He also happens to be my boss, but that’s not why I bid. Really.)

When I won it, I envisioned hosting a dinner at our house with several co-workers. I wanted to have my boss, not only because it was his seafood, but also ... well, you get the picture. Um, well, we invited several co-workers who we knew would enjoy the food and have a good time. That was our goal.

We finally got it all organized for July 8. I took the day off to do the prep.

So in advance, I thought about the kinds of seafood that would be available and planned a few menu options. But I didn’t want to be so prescriptive to exclude something that would be freshly available when he went to the market.

The auction specified seafood for 4-6 people. We talked about getting salmon, some kind of white fish, shrimp, scallops, crab, and maybe mussels. So, I knew that with other items, like a salad and some side dishes, I’d be able to stretch it to feed 8 people. I invited 10, and lo and behold, they all accepted. It was tight around our table, but we made it work.

So here’s what he provided: a slab of Copper River Salmon, a slab of halibut, shrimp, king crab legs, a couple of Dungeness crabs, scallops, and mussels. Not only was it great plenty for the dinner, but we had leftovers for dinner on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Overall, here are my comments. First of all, I was over-ambitious. I tried to make too many signature dishes. Most of them turned out ok. But as I’ll detail below, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with some. Second, I didn’t plan the menu appropriately so that I could participate in the festivities. So when folks arrived at the appointed hour, I still had too much cooking to do. So my wife ended up doing most of the entertaining, while I was at the stove finishing some of the food.

The menu that I planned came from a variety of sources. So the rest of this post includes the full menu and the source of each recipe, with my comments.

UnitedWaySeafood 002 We started with tray of fresh seafood. My wife did a very attractive arrangement of shrimp and king crab legs. For dipping, I prepared a very simple mayonnaise mixed with Spanish smoked paprika. It was a little spicy but very good. The other sauce was a cocktail sauce from Bobby Flay. Click here for the recipe. It turned out very well. The tarragon added a nice anise flavor to the sauce.

In addition to the seafood tray, I adapted another Bobby Flay recipe for scallops. Click here for his recipe. Instead of skewering the scallops, I seared them on my grill pan. And for the dressing, I used fresh oregano from my garden instead of fennel greens.

The final appetizer was sweet pea crostini, a Giada De Laurentiis recipe. Click here for that one. This is a fantastic appetizer. My son-in-law made it for us when we visited them in Chicago last spring. My modification is that I don’t top it with the prosciutto as the recipe calls for. And for this menu, I didn’t toast the French bread.

The salad that we served was a modified Caprese salad. My wife assembled it. She started with a layer of iceberg lettuce and then added a layer of grape tomatoes and fresh mozzarella balls. I sprinkled some julienned basil over the salad. We dressed it with the same dressing from the scallops in the recipe above.

For the salmon, I modified a recipe from Bon App├ętit. Click here for the recipe. Instead of pan-searing the salmon, I grilled it. But everything else was pretty much the way the recipe specified.

For the UnitedWaySeafood 004halibut, I adapted another Giada De Laurentiis recipe for Ginger Sea Bass over Wilted Greens. Truth is - this is the recipe that turned me on to Giada. It is so simple and easy, and the results are delicious. Obviously, her recipe calls for sea bass, and I used halibut. But it turned out equally fantastic. Click here for her recipe.

The last recipe was another one from Giada - Fregola with Clams & Mussels. Click here for her original recipe. Her version says that it’s simple and quick. But I had numerous problems with it. First was my own timing. In order for this dish to be served fresh and hot, I had to be working on it while my guests were on the patio enjoying the appetizers. (Bad form.) Second, I was not happy with the way the mussels turned out. They smelled really funky. I did modify the recipe. Instead of clams, I mixed some crab meat from the Dungeness crabs. Also, I substituted Israeli couscous for the fregola pasta. But I don’t think that was the problem. In retrospect, I wished that I had gone with a simple couscous or pasta that could have been prepared in advance.

For dessert, I made ‘Torte di Mele’ or Lake Garda Apple Cake. The recipe is in Patricia Wells Trattoria cookbook. The recipe is posted on the Internet here. The cookbook (which I love and highly recommend) is available from Amazon here.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, I also bought a case of wine at the United Way auction. So I served some of it at our dinner. One was a Toasted Head chardonnay. The other was Fess Parker Syrah.

Anyway, even though I was probably over-ambitious with the menu, I had a lot of fun cooking, and I think everyone had a good time.