Tuesday, April 7, 2009

dinner for eight (on the road)

Our trip to Philly was so much fun. More fun than the usual giddy feeling you get from being on vacation—the thrill of a change of scenery, time off from work, the
yes-I'll-have-another-margarita-please, kind of feeling. It was even better because we went with our friends, Colin and Anne, whom are not only great travel companions, they also hooked us up with a place to stay at the home of Colin's cousin and his wife. A three-story row house, I might add. (Why are we still living in New York again?)

Anyway, Philly is a beautiful city and a really easy place to get around and eat well. Which we did: smoked salmon omelets at Honey's Sit & Eat, pistachio gelato at Capogiro, taco after taco and incredible ceviches at the funky Distrito, and a retro brunch complete with tater tots at Jones. But Friday night, after we got in, I did something I've never done before: cook dinner in a stranger's kitchen.

As a way to thank our hosts, Anne, nice person that she is, suggested that we cook dinner Friday night. And by we, I mean Colin and me. On the train ride to Philly we "brainstormed", i.e.: flipped through a copy of Food & Wine and ate gummy bears, until Colin and I decided to throw caution to the wind and just let Whole Foods be our inspiration.

Maybe I'm just used to crappy New York City grocery stores and bodegas, but I find Whole Foods to be gloriously overwhelming. Like a lot of shopping experiences that are better in the suburbs (Target, Forever 21), Whole Foods in New York is way too much of a zoo for anything other than quick run in, run out shopping. But in Philly, as in other places, it was a wonderland. Fully-stocked aisles! Friendly customers! Cara cara oranges! Shopping at 3 PM on a weekday doesn't hurt either. We mulled over menus as we pushed our shopping cart around and around. Ideas nixed: spaghetti and meatballs, lamb sausage sandwiches, fried fish sandwiches. Just as I was starting to get nervous and desperately throw things in the cart, we stopped before the seafood counter. I wanted to buy one of everything, which made me think about cioppino, Italian-style seafood stew. How about a big seafood stew, and a nice salad? Maybe some rice on the side? Everyone agreed. Dinner was decided. The guys retreated to the cheese counter.

We carried the groceries home and got caught in a spontaneous sun shower. As we rounded a corner and the rain trailed off, I noticed a crowd of people standing outside of a deli, looking up in the sky and taking photos with their camera phones. There was a double rainbow behind us, streaking across the grey sky. Everyone seemed so delighted by this that it warmed my heart. Sometimes I think New Yorkers wouldn't stop in their tracks for a dead body on the sidewalk, let alone a double rainbow.

Back at our cozy digs, we assessed the kitchen. I opened every drawer looking for a large spoon, which felt delightfully voyeuristic. There was olive oil, there was salt, and there was plenty of Le Cruset (score!). Cooking in foreign territory is kind of exciting, as long as you know you have enough basic stuff to work with. We unpacked the food and I found some wine glasses, so we opened a bottle of wine and ate some cheese. Eventually, Colin's cousin came home and we started making dinner. Colin mysteriously disappeared during most of the prep, but luckily, Dan was there to help out. I am so lucky to have a husband who doesn't mind chopping.

Did I worry about whether everyone would like what I was making? Yes, a little. I only knew three out of the six guests, which meant that I was unaware that Colin's brother doesn't eat seafood. Luckily, it all worked out. (Note to self: always make a big salad.) Everyone helped themselves to the stew and we ate and drank and some people drank and drank. Many toasts were made that evening: to pretty girls, and vacations, and being Irish, and more bizarrely, to Mao. There were so many toasts that Colin was completely out of commission the next day and missed all the good sightseeing. But even he would tell you the cioppino was a good idea. Much more so than all of those gin and tonics.

Philly dinner for eight
Cheese, muscat grapes, and crackers
Cioppino and rice
Butter lettuce with oranges, fennel, and black olives
Ice cream sandwiches

You can use any type of seafood that you'd like, but I recommend a combination of at least three different kinds of shellfish or fish.
(Serves 10 to 12 people)

Olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium-sized fennel bulb, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 28 oz. cans whole plum tomatoes
1 Tbsp. red pepper flakes
1 handful of oregano, torn off the stem (or 1 Tbsp. dried oregano)
2 cups dry white wine (I used pinot grigio)
1 lb. mussels, rinsed
1 lb. hake (or other firm, white fish), cut into 2-inch chunks
1 lb. bay scallops
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
salt and pepper

In a large stock pot, add a few glugs of olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Heat the pan over medium heat. Before the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion and fennel. Saute until the vegetables are soft, but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for about one minute. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, oregano, and wine. Bring to a boil, and break up the tomatoes with a long-handled spoon. Once the sauce is boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the mussels. Cover the pot with a lid. Let the mussels steam and open, about five minutes. Uncover the lid and add the fish and scallops, stirring to coat with sauce. Cover and let simmer for about ten minutes. Uncover and add the shrimp. Cover and simmer for about five minutes, or until all of the seafood is cooked through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with extra oregano and serve over steamed white rice or with a toasted baguette.

Butter lettuce with oranges, fennel, and olives
Whole Foods had Cara Cara oranges, large red-fleshed citrus fruits that taste like a cross between blood oranges and grapefruit. They were $1.99 each, but I was on vacation and into the cart they went. To give these beauties the attention they deserve, I tossed the oranges in a salad with some sliced fennel and calamata olives, and used the extra juice to make a citrusy vinaigrette. If you have parmesan on hand (we didn't), shave some on top.
(Serves 6 to 8 people as a side dish)

1 large head of butter lettuce
2 oranges (Cara Caras, or regular oranges), peeled, and cut into sections, reserve the peel, pulp, and pith
1 small fennel bulb, sliced thinly
1 handful pitted calamata olives
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/2 cup olive oil
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
salt and pepper

Place the lettuce, fennel, olives, and orange sections in a large bowl or platter. Squeeze any remaining juice from the peel, pulp, or any leftover orange bits into a small bowl. Whisk in the remaining three ingredients and add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat. Serve immediately.


Kristina Strain said...

I love this sort of impromptu cooking! It was a weekend for that sort of thing at my house, too:

Daniel said...

I don't think the gin-and-tonics were Colin's problem so much as the subsequent gin-and-no-tonics. Right, Heaves?

Colin P. Delaney said...

I prefer to be know as Colin "Cautionary Tale" Delaney.

Lisa said...

Kristina: Thanks! I can't get over your breakfast. I would not be so quick on my feet that early in the morning.

Daniel: Well put. A little more T was needed last weekend in those G&T's.

CTD: We still love you, Heaves.

larry said...

I wish I had friends in Philly

Judy said...

It's great when guests come to your house and cook. When we first moved to Florida, a chef we know from Montreal visited, offered to make dinner and came back from Publix with stone crabs. He knew they were a Florida treat but we didn't. We once had a French guest in Montreal, long ago, before Dan was born. He made sole with a fresh parsley sauce (remember parsley was gourmet back then) and cauliflower breaded in homemade crumbs and parmesan. I still make that, in fact I had it Sunday night. And best of all, a few years ago, Dan visited and made pork chops with pesto. Delicious. I'm sure your hosts with remember your meal forever too.

Lisa said...

What nice memories. All of those dinners sound so good, too. As much as I love to cook, there is something very special about being cooked for.

Nathan Hall said...

they call gin and tonics "mother's ruin" for a reason you know... thanks to john griffin (soa sculpture teacher, anyone?) for that tidbit of info.

Lisa said...

Docta: Somewhere John Griffin's Google Alert is going off...


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