Only You … Only Here

by Ann Summers | January 1, 2008 11:02 am

Getting together with friends and family? Good food and good company are reasons enough to celebrate; but whether it is a holiday, a big sporting event or just being together, do it in a way that only you can do, and make it special with ingredients you get here in Omaha. My family now has a reputation for starting time-honored, history-steeped traditions, handed down from as much as three minutes ago. And like all great traditions, food is always involved.

We are not Omaha natives, but we do all the cool, corny, seasonal fun stuff that comes around every year and we put ourselves into it with gusto. It’s winter now, and it’s time to play in the snow, to braise, and to bake. I am a cook. I love to feed people. But I am no Martha. I don’t do it just so. I think people might notice your placemats, but what they will really remember is the food.

I think there is no secret to great entertaining. If you focus on fresh, local ingredients, keep it seasonal and fresh, add your own tastes, and put your heart into it, no one can upstage you – not even your floral arrangement. Focus on quality, not quantity. And you don’t have to mill your own flour, but if you do start with delicious, fresh ingredients, you end up with something only you can do. The more pre-processed your food is to start, the less of a mark you can make on it. And don’t be afraid of food. Good recipes are simple. Skim your cook books, and if you don’t find a simple way to make your dish of choice, get on the internet and find one. If you can’t understand the recipe, find a simpler one – it’s probably the recipe, not you. And don’t be afraid to adopt new traditions. We are not Japanese, but sushi is comfort food for my children. We are not Italian, but we make killer fresh pasta. If there is something you love, adopt it, make it a tradition, invite your friends over, and as long as you do it with care they will love it.

Look for recipes that use what’s fresh and seasonal. Not that you can’t use oranges in winter, Florida and California farmers are happy when you do (and we don’t want anyone getting scurvy). Overall, base your menu on what’s here and what looks good. Just because you saw some guy on Food-cam making it in Sonoma County doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for you here, now, in the Midwest, in winter.

You can find good stuff. Swiss chard, carrots, fresh trout, grass-fed meats. And where are these marvelous things? Some of them are at the supermarkets, but the Nebraska Food Coop is a one-stop year-round market of local wonders, each one unique, produced with care, and fresher because they haven’t been shipped from across the country, or worse.

Make a peach tart from peaches you froze in the summer, and tell everyone about the guy who grew them and where his farm is. I guarantee your guests will feel the same as my kids do when getting free plums at his market – they will feel special. Local food is a connection to our land here in the Midwest, and the people who farm it. If we share it with our friends in the form of wonderful dishes and new traditions, we create memories.

Celebration menus should follow the seasons but they should also reflect you and your tastes. I like recipes that are versatile enough to add your own touches. Here are some ideas for entertaining that are simple, look like a million bucks, and don’t require an entire new battery of pans to cook them.

The first is meatballs. I know you can go to the freezer at Sam’s and get a bag of 400 for ten bucks and slop them into a dish with a packet of sauce, but what if you didn’t? What if you got some truly wonderful local ground lamb, or beef, or pork, or turkey, or all of the above, and added fresh bread crumbs (chop up some fresh bread) and herbs and milk and eggs and mixed it lightly until it resembled muffin batter, and then onto baking trays and browned them – even the day before. And then what if you put the meatballs into a big casserole or bowl and sauced them, or put out toothpicks and served some soy-mustard or dill-sour cream or tomato sauce on the side? If you did that, you’d have a delicious and memorable dish for any winter party or buffet. And you could make big batches of meatballs with only extra sheet pan or two.

Or what about potatoes? Winter is great for potatoes, the nice starchy kind, russets. Local is best if you can find them, or organic ones shipped in if you can’t. Do a twice-baked potato with some great local cheese. You can do this part ahead of time, on sheet pans. Serve these guys on a buffet with bowls of chopped chive (I grow my own and freeze them, but you can use dried), sour cream, bacon (mmm, bacon), steamed broccoli, capers, caviar (mmm caviar) and you have a great twice-baked potato bar. Everyone can do their own thing, to their own taste. Fabulous, and something you won’t see anywhere else.

For dessert, do something special. Something you don’t normally do, or even see. You can’t get this in a restaurant, and it takes a little time, but again, you can do it well and everyone will think you are a genius. Or at least a good cook. My grandmother called it a jelly roll, the French call it a buche de Noel (or Yule Log). I call it yummy. These are great for many reasons, not the least of which is that you can add whatever you like to flavor all the different parts. Like the meatball and the potatoes, you can make most of it ahead. You need a sponge cake, which practically anyone can make (again with the sheet pans) in whatever flavor you like. And you need some wonderful artisan farm-made fruit jam, to which you can add liqueur, and you need whipped cream, to which you can add more liqueur, and you need a chocolate ganache, to which you can add, well, liqueur. Refrigerate everything and assemble the day of your party.

Just remember to roll your sponge cake up in silicone parchment while it is still warm, or you will never get the thing to roll without breaking. Unroll the cake, layer on the jam, then the cream, roll it up again, and cover in ganache (melted chocolate with cream and butter – I said it was good, I didn’t say it was good for your diet – just don’t eat the whole thing). Whether you make little mushrooms to decorate it, or which liqueur you add, is up to you. Don’t like liqueur? Add grated lemon or orange rind to the ganache or cream, or both. Add super-ground espresso coffee to the chocolate. Call it a buche de noel, or use red raspberry jam with white chocolate and call it a Husker log. That’s up to you, too. Bon Apetit, as the French say, or dig in, as we say in Omaha.



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