It’s All Relative

I use a phrase way too often (and openly admit it), but it’s true. The phrase is “It’s really easy for Eric Clapton to play Layla … because he wrote it and knows how to play it.” The idea of course is that it’s easy to do anything that you know how to do well. Great quarterbacks have no problem tossing an ungainly oval ball 50 yards down the field and hitting a scrambling human target. Major league baseball players routinely smack oncoming 100 MPH fastballs over the Green Monster that’s center field at Boston’s Fenway Park. James Patterson can probably bang out a cliff-hanger novel in a few days. And Eric can probably play Layla in his sleep.

The same is true for those of us who cook a significant amount, and attempt to entertain friends and family in the process. Obviously some do it better than others, with contributions from memory, family and friends, recipes, professional training, and as we get better at it, from the flow of creative juices.
An interesting thing has taken place over the last year, in my quest to put on meals for what seem to be appreciative guests. I find myself waking up in the morning with ideas for food combinations, spice applications, between-course palate cleansers, appetizers, and more and more, how everything looks. Everything from how things go together (colors and tastes), how things should be plated, and more and more, what I want the table settings to look like.

I still use recipes, and like most cooks have a ridiculous amount of cookbooks. The 72″ tall by 30″ wide oak bookshelf that I originally bought for CD’s, is now totally full of cookbooks, including a row of “too tall’s” on the top. I have specialty cookbooks for everything from appetizers to tamales, and everything Moroccan and Japanese. Merle Ellis’ incredible “Cutting Up In The Kitchen” shares shelf space with Kathleen Flinn’s signed copy of “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry” and MFK Fisher’s “How To Cook A Wolf.”  Julia Child’s “The Way To Cook,” Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry Cookbook”, and Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ classic “New Basics,” sit next to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible and Pastry Bible.   
But I’m convinced the trick to turning the corner and becoming a real cook, is the same in the kitchen as it is in the music world … do something original. 

M E A T F E S T ~ 12

And so it was, with this year’s big Memorial Day Barbeque … Meatfest 12. Friends and loyal followers of this blog will know the background, highs and lows, and the general ambience that prevails at the annual gathering of friends and family.  Very briefly (since I’ve done a whole article on it),  this is an event that began in 1998, the year we moved into the beautiful house in Gilroy.  What began as a small gathering, ended up blossoming the first year into a 30-person party, with several members of the bands I’d been playing in, neighbors, and lots of friends. The biggest one took place in San Jose, where we hosted 75 people in our small backyard, and all three of my current bands provided the entertainment.  I was just a tad busy at that one!
The move to Bend made for a very chilly Meatfest (Central Oregon weather is extremely unpredictable), and the next two would be held on Labor Day.  Our return to the Bay Area has once again allowed us to move it back to Memorial Day weekend, although this year was uncharacteristically chilly Sunday on the San Francisco Peninsula.  And Bend was in the high 70’s all weekend … go figure.  Global warming?  Not in the Bay Area!  
I do all the meats, poultry, fish, etc., and ask people to bring “something.”  Use your imagination … make something interesting, take a trip to Safeway or Trader Joe’s, whatever. Just make a contribution, and I’ll make sure you don’t go home hungry.  I try to switch up the protein selections every year, but at the same time I want to serve what people like and/or request.  This year’s selections featured some old favorites, and some new concoctions.   

The “meat” selection was BBQ’d tri-tips, which I think I’ve done every year, but by modifying my technique and marinades, it becomes new each time I do it, and I always get requests for it, and compliments on it.  
I started by trimming the excess fat, and tenderizing it with my Jaccard. This is the handy little gadget to the left, which is an absolutely indispensible tool (assuming you’re not a vegetarian – doesn’t do much for a zucchini or an eggplant!). I first saw this thing on an Emeril episode, and as he tends to use very few gadgets (as do I), I had to try one. I now use it on virtually every piece of meat that’s going to hit the BBQ, frying pan, or the oven. It really makes a difference, both in tenderizing the meat, and allowing any spices and marinades to penetrate and actually work some magic.

Then came a liberal dose of my Rubbit dry rub mixture. Be sure to use a “rub” the way it’s intended. It’s not the same as salting the outer surfaces, you actually need to rub it on and in to get the right effect. My rub consists of 1 part cayenne, 2 parts each of garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, Coleman’s mustard, coarse kosher salt, black pepper, and 3 parts paprika. Mix everything together, store it in something air tight, lasts for months.

The “mop” that I used on the BBQ consisted of 2 tablespoons of the Rubbit, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 1/2 a small can of tomato paste, a cup of apple cider, and about 3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer until it thickens some, brush on the tri-tip as it’s cooking.  The tri-tips would be served on a bed of lentils, with a mirepoix saute mixed in.  
The poultry selection was a tequila lime chicken over Spanish rice, with a fresh salsa topping. The chicken breasts were marinated for about 6 hours in gold tequila, lime and orange juices, New Mexico chili powder, garlic, jalapeno peppers, and salt and pepper.  The rice was Zatarain’s, which is always good (and much easier for a crowd of 35 people), and the salsa was a basic tomato, jalapeno, onion, garlic, cilantro mix, with a a couple tablespoons of tequila.  
For the fish, I used my friend Chris’ recipe, which is consistently a crowd pleaser.  Her recipe calls for a topping of lemon zest, brown sugar, cinnamon and cumin, and I add a tablespoon of paprika for color and a slight sweetness.  The fish is marinated for a couple hours in orange and lemon juice, the topping’s applied, and 35 minutes at 400 degrees always yields perfection.  
I also did a couple varieties of sausages from Aidell’s massive collection.  A chicken apple, and chicken and sundried tomato were both hits.  
Planning and assembling something like this, and timing it so everything’s ready to eat at the same time, is the trick.  
For me, it went like this: 
  • 2 weeks out – Rented tables, chairs, linens (delivered, and picked up)  
  • 1 week out – Created the menu, started the food and supply list
  • Tuesday – Picked up some bulk items at Smart and Final
  • Friday – Picked up the proteins, beverages, plates, plastic silverware, etc. at Costco
  • Saturday – Picked up all the fresh ingredients
  • Sunday (party day) – Eight bags of ice
Assembling / cooking:
  • Saturday night, marinated the tri-tips, wrapped and refrigerated overnight
  • Sunday morning, setup tables and chairs, table cloths, napkins, tableware
  • Made the salsa, “wet” marinade, mirepoix, measured and set aside all the other ingredients
  • Cooked and served the sausages first
  • Started the lentils and Spanish rice
  • Cooked the tri-tips on the BBQ, moved to the lower oven to keep them warm and finish cooking
  • Cooked the fish in the oven (40 minutes @ 400 for 3 large filets)
  • Cooked the chicken on the BBQ
  • Had guests bring all the “contributions” down and prepare set them out buffet-style, on the long serving table
  • Finished the tri-tips, sliced for serving
  • Chicken, Spanish rice and salsa in a chafing dish
  • Salmon with lemon slices in a chafing dish
  • Tri-tips over a bed of lentils in a mirepoix in a chafing dish
Everything’s ready to go, people are lined up to eat … time for me to take a break.  When I do events like this, I tend to eat between very little and nothing at all.  I’m prepping and cooking all day (or multiple days), and by the time everyone’s ready to sit and eat, I’m ready for a chair and a Bombay Sapphire “up” with a twist.  
My guests’ side dishes were a marvel of creativity; Cal’s jambalaya was amazing (and was my dinner last night as well), several people brought very interesting salads and vegetables, and desserts consisted of some great store-bought cakes and a couple pastry masterpieces from Nicole, who’s about half way through her professional training.  The pastry world has a rising star coming along very nicely!
Lots of new guests this year, as well as several who’ve been to every one, including the couple in Bend, which meant flying or driving 540 miles each way on a holiday weekend (people like this event, it seems!).  My friend Deborah who I’ve known since 4th grade, flew down from Seattle and I can’t express how wonderful it was to have her at our home.  Dave drove up from Morro Bay, our friends Bill and Mir and their three incredible boys were an absolute joy, and Bernie was jovial and a typically great addition to the party.  Cal and Pamela made it, as a result of canceling their own party this year, Angela, Nicole, John and Linda, Colleen and John, Marie and John, John and Kechun (geez, lots of Johns at this party!), Lisa and Paul, wonderful Celeste, Danny and Lisa, Pete and Sandy, and my good friend Larry and his lovely wife Patty … A great group of friends, some we’ve known for a few years, others for several decades.  I’ve known a few of these people since early grammar school, and we still get together a couple times a year.  
The weather was lousy, the food was first rate from every angle, but the “party” was due to the people.  All I do is cook, it’s everyone’s presence that makes it special.  
And it’s never too early to mark your calendars … May 30th 2010 will be

M E A T F E S T ~ 13

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