Written by Hairee Lee Oh say, can you see [Mama's house]?
For the Fourth of July weekend at a lovely home in Branford Conneticut, the Ragoneses and Wards gathered together to celebrate US’s 235th with the traditional New England clambake with a twist. ((The twist being lobster, no clams, and the traditional corn on the cob, pearl onions, and chorizo replaced with saffron risotto and spinach salad.))
For more pictures of the dinner go to our album on Flikr.
As we all discovered during the Bunker Hill Supper, Melissa Ragonese is not just Didriks' Visual Merchandising/Display Manager, but a damn good cook. She and her family hosted the 10th Dinner Series this past long weekend at Mama’s (Melissa’s grandmother's) home situated right by the water with the beach just steps away from her back yard in Connecticut.
Down the street from Mama’s is the home of DJ King. The front of the King home is decorated with numerous giant wooden lobster cutouts. In case you’re not sure what they’re catching. DJ catches the crustaceans right off his own deck. He’s got boat, a shed with a giant tank, a dock crowded with lobster traps and nets, and even a black lab that likes to jump off the pier every once in a while and swim around in the water to complete the picture. DJ and his wife, Sue, sell their catch to their neighbors, like Melissa, and retailers. The day Melissa walked over to the King’s, it was Sue who helped her, scooping out one lobster out at a time, eight in all.
"They were clawing at the net because," Melissa later explained to me, "they knew where they were going"—eyes wide with horror and amusement—"Grabbing to the net and not letting go. Kind of sad. But."
Kind of, being the operative phrase.
Through the perilous fight [of the lobster]
Back at home, Mama took over the lobsters. While she mercilessly boiled alive the hideous and delicious bottom feeders in a pot so huge it looked to Melissa as if it would fall off, Melissa prepared the rest of the meal with the help of her mother, Mrs. Ragonese ((Mrs. Ragonese is 53 years old. But you would be hard pressed or a numskull to guess correctly. It’s not hard to see where Melissa gets her fabulous genes. I suppose the person to really thank is Mama. She’s the lady with the flax colored sweater whom I immediately assumed was Melissa’s mother. Oh no. That’s her grandmother. Her Dad, Mr. Ragonese isn’t hard on the eyes either. )) and her aunt, Shelly. You can find all the recipes Melissa used here.
The meal began with some hors d'oeuvres, chosen, it seemed, for the purpose of cleaning and stimulating the the palate. Lemonade spritzer made of equal parts lemonade and sparkling wine or Prosecco was mixed in the Iittala Aino Aalto Pitcher with ice and stirred with the Sabre Basic Ice Tea Spoon. The cocktail was served in the Iittala Aino Aalto Small Tumbler in water green that reflect the water in the background.
This summery beverage accompanied the tomato and bacon salad in Bibb lettuce cups served on Iittala Teema Bread and Butter plates. The turquoise plates echoed the water green of the tumblers and set off the hors d'oeuvres to summery perfection. How did they taste? "Delicious," according to Melissa. ((I would contend that anything with bacon in it would probably be delicious. As an aside, I’ve had chocolate with bacon in it, and enjoyed it. Salty crunch surrounded by sweet, choc lately goodness. )) "And you can roll them up like a burrito to make them even easier to eat.”"
Along with the lettuce burritos were perfect cubes of watermelon filled with a balsamic vinegar reduction served on the Jars Vuelta serving trays. The deep grey of the tray’s glaze set off the dark pink color of the fruit beautifully.
I can’t think of a combination of flavors and colors that could have done summer more justice. A most pride worthy beginning.
So proudly we hailed [dinner]
The table was set beginning with the watery tone of teal Libeco Vence table runners. The centre pieces consisted of Match Pewter cylinder hurricane candle holders, and finished off with Melissa’s father’s own hydrangeas from his garden placed in the Simon Pearce Addison vase. All the dinnerware was by Heath Ceramics and the flatware by Sabre. For more details, scroll cursor over the picture below.
The color choices are clearly reflective of the seaside setting with the colors of water, sky, and sand: ((When asked how she came up with the table setting, Melissa said she always puts together a setting in the store. She doesn’t like to leave anything up to chance but simply visualizing one and hoping it’ll come together in actuality. She will realize it before any event to make sure it looks as good in front of her as it does in her head.)) Sabre Djembe five piece place setting in jungle echoed the color of the weeds and reeds near the water; the bread plate by Heath Ceramics in mist reminded me of the sky; the Libeco Napoli Vintage linen napkins in flax, reminiscent of sand.
As the first course is being put together by Melissa, the other members of her family and tonight’s dinner guests take their places. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Ragonese at one end of the table and Melissa and Pete on the other. Beside Melissa is her "littlest brother", Vincent, 10, who is "a real performer" according to Melissa, and beside him is Melissa’s other younger brother, Matt. ((Who is a "crazy piano player." Crazy as in crazy good, by Melissa's tone of admiration and a student at the University of Miami)) Across form Melissa is Pete, her long time boyfriend and law student. ((Pete also joined us for the last Dinner Series.)) Beside Pete is Mama ((the matriarch and creator of the famous Mama's Pepperoni Bread.)), and between Mama and Mr. Ragonese is Shelly Ward, Mama’s daughter-in-law. Aunt Shelly’s husband, Gregg, is the man behind the photographs for this dinner. ((Oddly to me, surprisingly to Melissa, and luckily for us both, Uncle Gregg does not like lobster! This was convenient since he was the one taking all the pictures. Trying to mine for lobster meat with both hands can be tricky when you have to take photographs with the same pair of hands.))
The first course was panko crusted crabcakes with roasted red pepper aioli served on Heath Ceramic coupe dinner plate in linen. This was accompanied by homemade butter biscuits—"So easy to make. I’m definitely making those again"—served in the gorgeous Spencer Peterman bowl. ((Each of these large serving bowls is carved from a single restored block of wood))
As per Rodrigo Lenzi's of Cambridge Wine & Spirits suggestion, the crab dish was served with a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. "These have grapefruit and passion fruit notes that are a great complement to the sea food. For more notes by Rod, wine consultant, on the wines featured in this dinner, go here. All the wines he suggested were left to chill in a wide mouthed bucket belonging to Mama and filled with ice. ((It later did double duty as a wide mouthed bucket for lobster shells.))
The [taste] bombs bursting
Mama placed the lobsters in a cooler, which is insulated and so kept the lobsters warm in the interim from the kitchen to the beach picnic table to the first course to its final dinner plate destination. The bright red lobsters were accompanied by a rich yellow saffron rice and baby spinach salad with mandarin oranges and pale pink rose served in Simon Pearce Essex wine glass.
The colors are absolutely marvelous. Melissa couldn’t have been happier with the vividness of the dish and the rest of the family couldn’t have been happier with the vividness of the flavors. "The saffron rice, which was more like a saffron risotto, was so so good!” ((Melissa used the Mauviel M’heritage cast iron curved splayed sauté pan and Jonathan’s Spootle Lazy Spoon. "The spoon’s got that little slit in the middle of it that lets you keep it resting on the rim of the pan. It came in really handy because risotto needs to be stirred and left to sit and stirred and left to sit and so on. So having the spoon right there was really helpful.))
Using the Sabre lobster forks, "which worked really well," dinner ended with empty lobster shells chucked onto the grass or the wine bucket which was emptied by then.
As bellies filled up and the main course came to a close, the Match Pewter cylinder hurricane candle holders illuminated the table and the family.
And the evidence of voracious appetites and meticulous lobster meat mining. Those lobsters didn’t stand a chance with this family. ((Actually, they weren’t the only ones with an insatiable appetite. "We’re looking like we’re having a great time," recounted Melissa as I gushed over the picture as we went through her uncle's album together. "But the bugs were going nuts on us! They were ruthless!" Apparently, Melissa’s family looks as good as the lobsters when they’re being eaten up. Have I mentioned the quality of the genes in Melissa’s family?))
Twilight's Last Gleaming
For the final course, dessert, the family went indoors. ((Recall bugs during the main course.)) The days might be warm, but true to New England form, nights get chilly around these parts. Melissa made her pound cake with fresh berry reduction and displayed it on the Simon Pearce Harland cake plate. Espresso in Heath ceramic espresso cup with saucer and coffee in Heath Certamic rim stack mugs were served with the dessert. Sabre granite cake fork and dessert knife in pearl finished off the dessert table setting.
All in all, this Fourth of July weekend dinner was a pop pop poppin’ ((My friend, Ginny, who is a pre-school teacher, has a foreign student who, I think, has a very descriptive euphemism for fire crackers. Ginny says, “He’s still learning English.”)) success. From the pictures and Melissa’s narration, it sounded like it was another fabulous dinner, one more than worthy of a place in the annals of the Dinner Series.
We at Didriks want to thank the Ragonese family and the Ward family for allowing us to join them for their family dinner and joining us for the 10th Dinner Series event. A special thanks to Mama for hosting, Melissa for the fabulous job she did planning and executing all things dinner related, and Gregg Ward for the amazing photographs.