Contributed by Hairee Lee
For this late February dinner party, we prepared a delicious meal featuring winter vegetables (read the recipes here) at our friends' Jim and Page's beautiful Cambridge home. See more pictures on our Flickr.
February is ghastly month. It’s cold without the heart-warming effect of Christmas. There’s the memory of January and the dread of March (and April, and probably May) ahead. There’s Valentine’s Day ((Rick, Jonathan’s father, thinks that Valentine’s Day is overrated because, he says, "Everyday is Valentine’s Day for me.")) that brings out the Vitamin E deprived anti-Hallmarkers. There’s the post January get-fit frenzy leaving off and the pounds from comfort food going back on. February is miserable. Or it can be miserable. For those gathered at Page and Jim’s, who live east of Harvard Square in a charming home with their beagles, Truman and Elvis ((Truman Capote or President Truman? Elvis Presley or Elvis Costello? Just Truman and hound dog Elvis.)) for another Dinner Series, February seemed kind of super. The cozy and well-upholstered furniture, the fragrant fire in the living room, the eclectic art collection, the interesting book collection all worked to create a highly stimulating atmosphere, encouraging our appetite for interesting conversation and great food. Not bad for a February day.
Dinner starts with a winter pear salad in a raspberry vinaigrette. It’s a layer salad served family style with a radicchio base, layered over with pear slivers, and topped with crumbled Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts served on a Jars Ceramics Tourron presentation plate.
I love Laura’s decision to serve the entire dinner family style, starting with the salad. It promotes a sense of togetherness, sharing, amity, the stuff I associate with family and friends and affectionate dogs. It made me think of December but without the holiday hassle.
While I pass my salad plate down the dining room table to Laura, I notice the details of the table setting that Melissa put together: the raffia ribbon tied around the brick Libeco Home Napoli Vintage napkins, the slate-colored oval Chilewich mini basketweave tablemats, the name tags placed in the slit of antique bishop chess pieces on loan from Reside , the Simon Pearce Belmont wine glasses and goblets, the faux-bamboo Sabre cutlery. Even the winter berry bouquet and the red taper candles that match the red of the leather-and-rivet chairs and the wood floor to ceiling wall panels, seem to have all been taken to consideration to tie the table theme seamlessly to the room theme, which is medieval. I can’t help feeling like I’m sitting at the head of a table in some fourteenth century dining room in my stone castle upon a heath of Scotland with my knights and fair maidens gathered round. I sort of feel like royalty.
The salad tastes as good as it looks. The sharp, pungent cheese and the bitterness of the radicchio pairs perfectly with the pear. The 2009 Chateau de Lavernette, Beaujolais-Leynes Le Clos (recommended by our friends at Formaggio Kitchen) is excellent with the salad. Its ruby color and light, juicy taste of wild cherries is what Beaujolais should be. The bottle is set on a Simon Pearce Hanover wine coaster. It’s a great idea because I’m always leaving wine rings on my table or loose papers or table clothes, whatever happens to be on the table when I’m drinking wine.
The main course is a sausage and chicken casserole, served with a warm fennel, carrots and corn salad, roasted acorn squash, and hunks of corn bread. Again, every dish is served family style from large glazed bowls, some with metal serving spoons and others with carved wooden spoons. As the platters and bowls get passed around the table, I notice for the first time the cracked glaze of the Simon Pearce Belmont dinnerware. From a distance it looks like an ordinary ivory-colored ceramic plate, but the glaze detail adds a wonderfully subtle point of interest to the table setting.
Laura—and I say this with the objectivity that my palette refuses to compromise because of my affection for her--is a cooking wonder. She’s been the cook and/or host to at least three of these Dinner Series dinners and I’ve not once been disappointed with her culinary skills. Each time she cooks one of these dinners, she sets the bar higher and firmer in place, but she always delivers.
And this February dinner is no exception. The fennel is fragrant, the chicken is juicy, the acorn squash (which I try for the first time tonight) is sweet and soft and everything is seasoned perfectly. I could have called it a day with just the corn bread and some butter, but in the company of all these other good things, I can only manage two squares of the homemade bread.
The Beaujolais is followed by a 2009 Occhipinti SP68, again from our friends at Formaggio Kitchen. An organic Sicilian half & half blend of blend of Frappato and Nero d'Avolablended red from Sicily, the wine is harvested early to avoid heaviness. It's fragrant and light on its toes, with the succulent flavor of bramble fruit. It's more robust than the Beaujolais and holds up well to the flavors of a comfort food inspired dinner.
As with all good dinners, this is around that time of the evening when people feel more at ease with the new dinner setting and the dinner mates. The wine starts to warm the blood and loosen tongues. The first faint symptoms of the food-coma makes diners sit deep into their chairs, plant elbows on the table to lean in close to catch every word of the conversation, and tuck in without reservations. This is when eating becomes dining. Not a refueling, but an experience.
This feeling is brought to further relief when Jim opens the door behind his chair that leads out to the back yard. Fresh snow blankets the ground and continues to float down in calm, windless paths to the ground. The picture framed by the doorway appears to be a portal to some other world. The chestnut wood panel walls the dining room, the fresh flowers, the warm air of shelter and congeniality scented with the aromas of dinner brings to greater relief the coziness of the indoors and the almost unreality, the fantastic nature of the outdoors of a February evening. There’s this sense of magic, as if I’m steps away from a castle dining room to a C.S. Lewis forest.
Fresh ginger cake with lemon zest whipped cream is served on indigo Jars Ceramics Tourron dessert plates. The cake is so dark, I think it’s chocolate fudge but it’s the molasses, Laura informs us, that gives the cake its color.
"It’s not what you’d think to reach for, ginger cake," says Jonathan, "But this is really amazing!" And I feel precisely the same. The fresh ginger packs a huge flavor punch and, like the scent of fresh ginger snaps baking in the oven during the holidays, it makes me feel good.
I don’t remember what we talked about. I just remember feeling sated and safe, slightly tipsy but engaged in conversation with intelligent, interesting people. I remember thinking how great it was to be able to enjoy all this good stuff while it was cold and wet and snowing in February. Have I mentioned that February is a fabulous month?