When I lost the James Beard Award to the crew at Sunset magazine’s One Block Diet this May, I found myself far less disappointed than I thought I would be: After all, their message is pretty similar to what I am trying to do. Besides, as we got our snark on during the insanely long awards ceremony, we found that we liked each other pretty well.
Sunset is based in the Bay Area, so I offered to have them over for dinner sometime. They accepted, and finally made it out to Casa de Hank and Holly yesterday — on what had been the hottest day of the year (It’s 108 degrees out now, which is even hotter than yesterday’s 106). We feared the Bay Area peeps would melt, but they proved plenty hardy.
Can I just say how fun it was to have an evening of food, wine (lots of wine) and conversation with a group of people equally excited about learning where their food comes from, and how to make good things from scratch? Holly and I are typically ”conversation pieces” among gatherings of the Normal – but with the Sunset Crew’s Margo, Peter, Alan, Sara, Julie, George and Amy, discussions on beekeeping or making your own wine or chicory coffee is normal conversation.
What’s more, we’re usually the ones bearing odd gifts, but this time Margo brought some vinegar and honey from their garden and Sara the Sunset Wine Guru brought us their homemade Syrah (I served my Rainy Sunday Sangiovese at the table, which Sara liked enough to have two glasses and called “well balanced.” In my world, hearing that from a Sunset wine editor is as good as it gets).
I had a feeling this would be a good night, so I wanted a feast fit for them. I knew it was going to be hot, so I went with cold salads, pickles, cured meats and some fresh grilled venison sausages.
Laying out the spread before everyone arrived sparked a little epiphany. If someone asked me what makes my food different from someone else’s, it distills down to this: My food is a juxtaposition of the cured and the fresh, laced with fresh herbs and grounded in wild game and fish. It’s not like I hadn’t realized this distinction before yesterday, but seeing the spread hammered it home.
First off was the pickle plate:
At the center are olives I’d been curing since November. Elise, Garrett and I gathered them, and I’d been storing the olives in a spicy brine since then. I wasn’t too sure they’d be OK, but after an hour’s soak in fresh water and a coating of olive oil, they were delicious: tangy, meaty and firm.
Even more tangy were the fermented carrots. These were also brine pickles, but the carrots had soaked up a good deal of the chile I included in the brine. Now datsa’ spicy carrot! The crew had to restrain themselves leave one last carrot for Margo and Peter, who got stuck in traffic and arrived late.
I also had beets from the garden pickled in balsamic vinegar, and the always-popular sweet-and-sour sunchoke pickles, which are spiced with chile and colored with turmeric.
On to the charcuterie plate. I pulled the wild boar lonzino I had been making, and it looked and tasted wonderful, although this batch was a little saltier than the last one I’d made.
I also put out some wild boar saucisson sec, which Margo and Peter pronounced excellent — high praise, as I suspect this is not the first such salami they’ve eaten.
I’d meant to slice some coppa di testa, but it fell apart when I tried to cut it. Lesson learned? The gelatin that helps a testa set doesn’t survive freezing. Now I know. We plan on using now-loose meat to make cabesas tacos. Mmmm!
Summer means fish to me, even on a cured meat platter. So I hauled out some Alaskan pink salmon a friend of mine had caught last season and gave it a cure with fennel seeds, fennel pollen and ouzo. I love this recipe.
I also decided to make something new: Smoked Shad Rillettes. I had all this shad that my Dad, brother and I had caught last week, and I’d heard of chefs making smoked trout pate and salmon rillettes, so why not?
Besides, as a by product of my recent pork fat orgy, I had tons of creamy lard kicking around. Spread on table water crackers, these rillettes were awesome: A little smoky, a little sagey, rich with a slight zing from lemon juice. I’ll make this again — and I bet it’d be just as good with smoked trout, mackerel or bluefish, too.
For the main course I made a big batch of the octopus a la Gallego with my homemade paprika and oregano from the yard, a barley salad with sage and sun-dried tomatoes, a fregola salad with bocconcini, lemon zest and lots of basil, and a beet salad with feta cheese and lovage.
I think I made a bit too much food, as I am pretty sure Amy came close to exploding by the time we hauled out the honey-lemon verbena ice cream to go with Margo’s peach and raspberry pies.
Just about the only thing to get us out of our collective food coma was a round of my homemade absinthe. Yep. Nothing like the Green Fairy to get the digestion going. And if you don’t like absinthe, you can always use it as lighter fluid.
At the end of the evening they all piled into their cars for the long trip back to the Bay Area. But before heading into the night, they invited us to their place for a shindig, Sunset style. We’re looking forward to Round II.
UPDATE: Here’s Margo’s account of the evening, complete with pictures of the tour I gave her of our “ancestral manse.”
SMOKED SHAD RILLETTES
This is something fun and refined to make with smoked shad. Rillettes are basically a rough pate — you spread it on crackers or toast. Pates tend to be smoother, and I like the texture of a rillette better.
This recipe takes a little work because you need to pick all the bones off the smoked shad fillets. But if you substitute in smoked trout, smoked mackerel or smoked bluefish, it’ll come together in a snap. The amounts of the ingredients here are approximate: You need to season and taste this as it comes together to get it to your liking.
Once made, these shad rillettes will keep for more than a month in the fridge if you pack them tightly and cover with a layer of lard.
Makes enough to serve 12-14.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
- 2 pounds smoked shad, smoked trout, mackerel or bluefish
- 5 tablespoons lard or butter
- Juice of a lemon
- 5 sage leaves, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Pull the skin off the fillets and break into flakes. Pick through shad to get out as many bones as you can. Put the fish in a food processor and buzz in pulses until the fish is pulverized, maybe 3-4 pulses – don’t buzz it into a paste!
- Put the fish to a large bowl and add the lard. If you cannot find fresh rendered lard (don’t use hydrogenated lard!), which is typically sold at Latino markets, use good unsalted butter.
- With a potato masher, pound the lard into the fish, mixing all the way. When it begins to come together, add the sage and half the salt. Pound and mix a bit more, then taste. Add more salt and sage if you want.
- If for some reason the mixture is looking flaky or dry, add some more lard. I found 4 tablespoons worked perfectly for 8 smoked shad fillets.
- Toward the end of the mixing and pound process, add the lemon juice to taste. You want it to just give the rillettes some sharpness, not be overly lemony.
- Serve with table water crackers, on toast, or as a stuffing for sole.