Ten friends, some old and others new, came together with the promise of a fish fry. Crappie, bluegill, and perch, coated with egg, then dipped into my blend of flour and eight spices. Caught and fileted by my grandpa and I, then cooked by me. I love this idea, its a big reason I have a handful of my most used fresh herbs taking up all the windowsill space in my apartment, but that’s another post. Two groups of friends were brought together, joined in my belief of sharing meals with friends, a sensation described by Thomas Keller in his incredible cookbook Ad Hoc, “When we eat together, when we set out to do so deliberately, life is better, no matter your circumstances. Whether it’s a sad or difficult time, whether it’s an ordinary-seeming day, or whether it’s a time of celebration, our lives are enriched when we share meals together.” I bought this book a few months after I started doing these meals and it was a revelation to see one of the world’s best chefs describe the sentiment so perfectly. I knew what I was doing with these meals, but couldn’t put the words together. So much good comes out of sharing meals with friends. I write about food I cook and recipes I use, but its not my food that makes the night or meal significant, the real joy comes in laughing, sharing stories, and spending a couple hours away from our usual pace of life passing plates and wine, savoring a bite of food, and making a new memory to hold dear.
I was out of Etno by 415, not much time to shop, prep, cook, and serve at 8 for anywhere from 10-12 people. Not to mention vegetarian and lactose intolerant diets. Rather than make only dishes that fit the dietary restrictions, I wanted to make a fresh meal with many different flavors and, when necessary, two versions. Mushrooms could be a meat substitute, but the star of the meal would be the summer vegetable gratin, as aesthetically pleasing as flavorful. Herbs would be in most dishes, fresh thyme, mint, and oregano, because fresh is always better. Fresh fruits and fish, fish from Wisconsin and fruits at their much more reasonable summer prices would continue the theme of celebrating some seasonal favorites.
Quick note, thanks to my friend Kat for the action pics and making it a montage, good stuff, much appreciated.
The first course was something I’d made before, when I took the my best food pic, the avocado and grapefruit salad. This time around I felt it was too salty and the two grapefruits brought very different flavors, one very sweet and the other very sour. Still, I love the simplicity of this and it packs tons of flavor. My friends pretended like it was good, that’s how I know I have a good group here, ha.
5 tomatoes, 2 yellow squash, 3 zucchini, all sliced as close as possible to the same size, thickness and diameter. 1 eggplant, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced. 2 onions, large diced, and 4 cloves minced garlic are cooked on medium low heat. They should become transculent, not colored, in about 20 minutes. Halfway through add thyme leaves of 3 sprigs. In a bowl, combine parmesan, panko breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and some thyme leaves, if no dairy make it without cheese. Set aside. I had a 9×9 baking dish and a 9×13 dish, one with cheese one without. Pour onions on bottom and spread evenly. Before building your gratin, drizzle each type of veggie with olive oil, salt and pepper, and thyme leaves and toss. Layer each row of veggies in a single row, covering about 50% of the slice, my order went eggplants around the edge, yellow squash, zucchini, and toms in the middle. After each veggie layer sprinkle the veggies with breadcrumb mixture. Bake until veggies are all very tender on 375 for an hour to two hours, brown and color on the edges is a very good thing. There will not be any leftovers if done correctly, the flavors of everything comes together and is pretty much a perfect dish, if I do say so myself. On my short list of things I love that I cook. The best part might be scraping the carmelized leftovers on the bottom with some bread, a perfect bite of onion, juice, and the flavor of every ingredient reduced.
Bone-in chicken thighs, with a little olive oil, salt pepper and thyme rubbed in, on a bed of two sliced onions with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a few garlic cloves throughout. I squeezed a lemon over it all and cut the lemon into quarters to bake with the chicken. A few sprigs of thyme on top imparts the flavor and makes it easy to pick them out after it’s cooked. Bake on 375 for about 30-45 minutes, or until the juices are clear when the meat is cut. Yet another perfect thing to scrape up the remains with some bread. Delicious and so simple, good clean flavors make this dish.
I recently ate a mushroom dish that I liked, doesn’t seem like a big deal except it was the first time I’ve actually enjoyed mushrooms. So I got about 10 ounces sliced baby Bella mushrooms, baby arugula, shallot, and veggie stock to try to enjoy a mushroom dish again. On high heat I melted 2 tbsp butter and added 1 shallot and a couple minced garlic cloves, cooked until tender. I added the leaves from 4 thyme sprigs, the mushrooms, salt and pepper, and cooked for about 5 minutes, until the mushrooms were semi tender. From there, I added vegetable broth, about 1/4 cup and let it reduce. You can continue doing this and adding more broth and the flavor of the gravy will be that much better. I caught one of my friends sneaking into the kitchen to soak up the remains with bread, as I was about to do the same thing. When you’re about ready to serve, add some arugula, let it wilt, then savor every bite! Amazing, a mushroom dish that I enjoy!